By Jason Guriel
The band had yet to settle on a sound,
Never mind a name. The common ground
They shared was comically vast in terms of styles.
They could agree on Mozart, Dylan, Miles,
And Beatles, not to mention bass harmonica
Solos (see Pet Sounds); ’60s electronica
(The talk of vintage robots: blips and bloops);
Talking blues; Talking Heads; loops
Of samples softwared together; also, human
Beings together in one room, their acumen
Their only software as they improvise
Some standard. “That’s how jazzmen ionize,
You know,” said Jim. “They get a charge off each other.”
Stevens, poet, said that “Death is the mother
Of beauty.” Jim’s bandmates proved that insecurity
Is the mother of snooty—and proved their purity
By prizing the obscure, which signified
Authentic art. Thus minor men who died
Before their time lived on inside the minds
Inside Jim’s band. They loved James Booker, blind
In one eye, black, and gay—a man, the kids
Might say, who occupied a point on a grid
Where several different selves had intersected.
But one took spot-lit center stage: neglected
Piano genius. Booker, what he made,
It sounded like a concert being played
By several men at several sets of keys,
Each one, an Eastern god etched on a frieze
And armed with surplus arms. He was a star
In Europe; stateside, expired in an ER,
Wheelchaired, awaiting care for renal failure.
Side note: the French thought Welles was cinema’s savior.
But in the States, his voice supplied an earth-
Sized robot’s gravity. To know your worth
And yet to be condemned to cartoon voice
Work—or, in Booker’s case, your Sophie’s choice
Of closet-sized club to fade away in—is
An awful fate. “Do not be branded whiz
Kid or a wunderkind” appears to be
One lesson. Having peaked at poetry
In youth, and duly stranded on Parnassus,
Daryl Hine could only watch as asses
Like Allen Ginsberg stormed the world below,
While Hine, basecamped with gods, acquired snow.
Another lesson: don’t be loved in Paris
And not the States. Nothing can prepare us
For the moment—having crisscrossed nations,
Which equalizes, much the way equations
Do, two stages: stardom and the void
That follows—when our genius, unemployed,
Is plunged in shade. But fans who form a cult
Tend not to want a less romantic result
For those they covet. Ending on a high,
Well-loved, is no way for a man to die.
Welles knew this. “God, how they’ll love me when I’m dead,”
The author of Citizen Kane is said to have said.
Rehearsal talk would often turn to Blake,
Which meant, in Music Nerd, the late Nick Drake,
Who cut his starkest songs without his label,
Island, knowing. A figure out of fable
Appeared at Island’s front desk one afternoon
And left the master tape for one Pink Moon
(His masterpiece to be) with reception,
Then left—one part truth, one deception.
(Drake said yes to tea, resolved to stay
Awhile.) But yes, he left a tape that day
(That part was true), a work of art entrusted
To the girl who worked the phones and fussed with
The made-up face inside her compact. Maybe
Drake, a desperate parent, left his baby
Orphaned with this girl as if to sever
Himself from it. And maybe art is never
Finished, merely abandoned as the hard-
Hearted like to say. (A work is marred
By too much work.) Pink Moon was cut in two
Nights with a single engineer in lieu
Of well-stocked studio. Drake peeled the backing
Band clean off his songs, and none were lacking.
“That album only has his voice, guitar,
That’s it,” Lou marveled. “Plus a couple bars
Of piano,” added Jim.
It was dismissed.
“It could be that Nick Drake does not exist
At all,” wrote one reviewer (Melody Maker).
If sound could take a form, Drake’s voice, like vapor,
Would bloom, then fray and fractal into air.
He was, his critics felt, barely there.
(Sometimes a man can seem less whole, less definite,
Than he is. The moon, when full, looks desolate,
More hole than heavenly body, as if punched clean
Into the sky.) Amitriptyline,
The drug that Drake was given for depression,
Is what he filled his mouth with—his last expression—
In 1974. In time, of course,
A cult cohered, his name invoked with force
By men like Lou and Jim for whom “Nick Drake”
Had come to mean a more “authentic” ache.
“Snobby bandmates wanted,” the ad had sneered,
Its bottom scissored into fringe: a beard
Which each of them had plucked Jim’s landline from.
(He wanted peers with teeth; the ad was chum.)
“Maybe we should call ourselves ‘Snob,’”
Said Hal, half-crouched and futzing with a knob
On his amp with something like the fussy care
A burglar, stethoscoped, would bring to bear
On tricky combination locks. He played
The bass and really didn’t like to wade
Into debates; as one half of the rhythm
Section, he felt he shouldn’t widen schisms
By wedging his opinion in. Bedrock—
Unless, of course, the five-piece is in deadlock
And needs to break a tie—is what the guy
Who mans the bass should be. He was a shy
Man, monk-like source of learning—erudition—
On the matter of the shy musician,
The session man who plays on product fronted
By, e.g., some beehived singer. Shunted
To the shadows, which the glow of fame
Sharpens itself upon, this sort of name-
Less pro appealed to Hal.
He loved the genius
Of the system. Ford, say. Hawks. His thesis
Was about directors who’d resigned
Themselves to making pictures while confined
In studios. So-called “hacks,” these men had voices;
They shot long takes so that the studio’s choices
Were limited. Because an editor—
Picking over, like a predator,
The excess footage—just might splice together
Random frames, montaging something never
Intended, men like Ford and Hawks were sly
And filmed no more than needed. This is why
John Ford, deciding that he got the shot,
Would cup the lens—“That’s enough”—and blot
The world with one engorged Godzilla hand.
Such eclipses mean: no more was planned,
What you see is all I ever meant
To say. The studio, stymied, couldn’t dissent.
(It’s not like extra footage or a different
Thus Ford left his imprint,
And Westerns came to double as confessionals
Through which no-nonsense craftsmen—gruff professionals
For hire—disclosed the contents of their heart
By proxy. Similarly, pop songs—art
By other means—demanded artistry.
Those beehived girl group singers—“he kissed me”
Would be their major theme—were media
Through which producers channeled arias
For teens. In certain moods, Hal liked to state
That union men, like gold, were worth their weight
In scale. That image, from a poem he’d found
Online, summed up his thoughts: a holy sound,
An angel’s, can have impure origins.
Collection plates must coexist with hymns.