Poetry & Song: Rodger Evans on Jesus, Baby!
Miss Tits and the Voice that Made Her Melt or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ominous Marriage of Rhythm and Rhyme
The question of the relationship between poetry and rock ‘n’ roll would be of pensionable age were it not for the obtuse nature of our cultural interrogation and always a desire to see Burton and Taylor back on the set of Cleopatra.
Indeed, it was at a 1965 press conference that Bobby Zimmerman was asked whether he was a songwriter or poet. “I consider myself more as a song-and-dance man,” said he, doubtless with a chortle and a wink for the benefit of the pretty brunette in the third row.
Dylan was never going to fall for this, for he was an artist, and art scoffs at entertainment and diversion. Such is the theory but I was recently a witness to the thrashing of music and spoken word at the hands of Mistress Fashion.
Designer Pam Hogg had thrown an after-show do at Summerhall, and the Sexual Objects (fronted by Davy Henderson, more of whom later) and baby-faced poet Michael Pedersen (ditto) were providing the spectacle. But the preternaturally thin Lizzies didn’t much go for the versification or aesthetics of skronk. Not their cup of protein shake. They preferred to gas and later shake their diminished booties to the party-party sounds of Chic.
And so it goes. But, as I made my way from the scene of this un-happening in search of Barney’s Beer across the courtyard of the Royal Dick, I was ambushed by a surprisingly perky Pedersen. “Oh, yeah, that was shit,” he said, multiplying the syllables.
Best not dwell, eh. Instead, he showed me the offices of Neu! Reekie! – his partnership with Kevin Williamson (more of whom etc.) – a literary sweet shop cum bachelor bat-cave, and pressed into my paw a CD of that word-music-film-mischief outfit’s debut pop offering; consideration of which we shall return to in a Mo Farrah.
Jarvis Cocker wrote in his introduction to Mother, Brother, Lover, Selected Lyrics: “I have always had an extreme aversion to the way lyrics are often typeset to resemble poetry. Lyrics are not poetry: they are the words to a song.”
He did, however, suggest a list of exceptions, including Lou Reed, Scott Walker, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and Mark E Smith. Quite a roll call but what of Gil Scott-Heron, Alex Turner, Willie Nelson, Smokey Robinson, Chuck D and, oh, at least a dozen others. And I fear risking the displeasure of Minerva if we don’t mention the Slits, Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Jackie De Shannon, Roxanne Shante and Lily Allen.
Meanwhile, in poets’ corner, a dissenting voice from Ruth Padel: “In our environment, where words helter-skelter round airwaves and newsprint in promiscuous rhetoric, poetry is important in a different way. A poet’s business is to be careful with words; to mean them, even when it’s fashionable not to; to bring all a word’s meaning into play”.
She claimed Ian Dury, no less, rebuked the notion of his lyrics being poetry. On the other side of the fence, in 31 Songs, Nick Hornby recommended that one of the great man’s tunes be adopted as the new national anthem; the poet laureate commissioned to cough up a fresh verse every time the public ruled that a Chris Hoy or an Adele had provided reasons to be cheerful.
So much for the what-it-is/what-it-ain’t shtick. Today in a record shop I spy An Appointment With Mr Yeats by the Waterboys, and I read in the Guardian the words of Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer turned into verse. The idea that pop and poetry can’t be left un-chaperoned is snooty, may I say, and, much like the tea ladies at Ibrox, redundant.
What about that CD though? A thing of bosomy beauty, as you can hear for yourself here, and, sure as eggs is eggs, it brims with sunshiny yolk; soldiers of love dipping into the delicacy of the Velvet Underground’s Sunday Morning and saluting Robert Smith at his nursery rhyme best.
The vocal comes from Davy Henderson, earlier mentioned trash icon and self-styled sea with three stars, singing his Dada heart out and leaving you with the butterflies of a parachuted come-down after smoking the moon. This then must be the duende that Nick Cave talked about in his Lorca-inspired essay: The Secret Life Of The Love Song.
It’s a double A-side and, after Jesus, Baby! doing The Caterpillar Tango, Kevin Williamson intones In A Room Darkened to minimalist backing and sea shell echoes, while coughing up something darker even than Joan of Arc’s barbequed limbs or the shadow cast by God in which resides Ted Hughes’ Crow.
He’s a boy from the black stuff that Rebel Ink fella, dealing in the loneliness of atoms, republican libido/royal submission, free entry to Eva Braun’s corpse, and the nightmares of id and ego. Super. A witch’s brew.
Okay, yes, there are times when some may choose to call themselves bard, cowboy, actor, visionary, star, poet, fool or bum – with the jingle of Lee Hazlewood’s spurs audible still – but, if only to distill the thing, let me ask: are we not all funambulists? Lose balance and, well, failure is always an option.
Tom Waits said: “I don’t like the stigma that comes with being called a poet” but another songwriter, one of our ain, wouldn’t have wavered. “I see Burns as a Dylan figure or a punk poet, not from 200 years ago,” said Eddi Reader. “He ripped the shit out of people, but in a brilliant way. He’s not a quiet ghost…He’s always ready to get your knickers off”.
Which fumbling in the back row returns us to the most expensive film ever made, to ponder what Burton later wrote in his diaries of Taylor: “I might run from her for a thousand years and she is still my baby child. Our love is so furious that we burn each other out”.
Melt, my lover, melt.
Rodger Evans is a poet & former music critic. He read at the last TenRed in Edinburgh (curated by poet Kevin Cadwallender) and has been published by publications such as Gutter. Read his article on poetry for The Leither here.
Read more about the Neu! Reekie! Records project here.