Feb 062008

When do we explain this to the children?

Poets Who Rock should be known as poets first. Preferably, their works were published before they entered a recording studio and became attractive a Celebrity Poets. Shel Silverstein fits these criteria and may be poetry’s greatest rocker! Generations of future rockers have grown up on the man’s poetry and drawings only to discover, years into their Postgraduate Rock Nerd studies, that “Uncle Shelby” was the writer of Johnny Cash‘s “A Boy Named Sue” and Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show‘s “Cover of the Rolling Stone”, among other popular songs. Hard to believe, Harry!

The Beat Poets were natural crossovers for rock ‘n roll. Richard Hell even wrote a song inspired by the work of the Beats. We’ve touched on Ginsberg’s main contribution to rock, and I think we all agree that it’s best we move slowly away from the scene of the crime. But he’s not the only Beat Poet to have rocked out. William Burroughs did his share of recording with junkie/hepcat/boho rockers in the early ’80s. You know this guy! What cool cat hasn’t gone through a phase in his or her early 20s at least pretending to dig the cut-ups of Burroughs, toting around a battered copy of Naked Lunch that’s already been in and out of used book stores a half dozen times?

Laurie Anderson with William Burroughs, “Sharkey’s Night”

I was one of those guys who looked at the pages in Naked Lunch, barely comprehending what I was reading, until my tenacity lead me to some other Burroughs writings that I did comprehend and much preferred to his acknowledged classic. I did like the film made from that book, though, and I do like his work on Laurie Anderson‘s “Sharkey’s Night”. He’s no Shel Silverstein as a poet-rocker, but he’s cool enough for the task at hand.


  10 Responses to “Poets Who Rock”

  1. Steven Jesse Bernstein is my favorite. I first heard him on SUBPOP200 with “This Clouded Heart”.
    Below is a link to a fan video for it.
    He has a whole album called PRISON and it’s awesome!
    The poems were set to music by experimental producer, Steve Fisk, who was also the keyboard player of an awesome band called PELL MELL.
    Bernstein killed himself in the early 90s.

  2. BigSteve

    I like Ghetto Defendant. It sounds like a blueprint for The Good The Bad & The Queen. Ginsberg’s versions of the Blake poems are also really good, but his way of singing them is not for everybody.

    Burroughs was good with Laurie, but he also made an excellent album with Bill Laswell under the Material moniker called Seven Souls. On this album he reads later period Egyptian-themed prose, and Laswell conjures up some of his best trippy backing tracks.

    That Johnny Cash clip made me happy you usually didn’t have to hear Silverstein. What a powerfully offensive voice. On the other hand he wrote the sublime Ballad of Lucy Jordan made semi-famous by Marianne Faithfull.

    The only other ‘page’ poet who comes to mind is Bob Holman, author of the excellently titled book, The Collect Call of the Wild, among others, who did some work on David Thomas’ opera, Mirror Man.

    I think you could also shoehorn into this category Wilco’s and Billy Bragg’s setting of Woody Guthrie’s poems.

  3. The problem in the translation between poetry and rock is worth understanding. In poetry, the words themselves need to carry the whole sound and meaning; there are no other instruments, etc. In rock the words fit themselves/define themselves around the other sound elements and meaning is a function of the interaction of all those elements.

    Poetry itself usually makes for overly complicated or fussy rock, because the poet needs to do so much with the words, whereas rock lyrics without the other sound elements usually make for very silly poetry. Neither of these is always true, but mostly true.

    There are in-betweens: sound poetry with special effects and so forth and so on, but it’s still usually some aspect of this problem that’s at stake.

    For musicians, I think, hearing the sound of poetry out loud might make for a useful transition. Might.

  4. Pince nez:

    Ivor and Chris Cutler are not in any way related. That’s a common misapprehension.

  5. Mr. Moderator

    Thanks for pointing that out, Great One. The post has been corrected.

  6. Poets Who do NOT Rock:

    Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

    That fuckin Lords Prayer in THE LAST WALTZ is more pathetic and embarrassing than THE DIRTY MAC debacle, with Yoko and the violin player in ROCKnROLL CIRCUS

  7. Mr. Moderator

    Good one, Kilroy! I almost added something about him at the last moment, but decided against it because I didn’t feel like looking up the spelling of his name.

    Was John Cooper Clarke (or is it “Clark”?) a poet or rocker first? If he started as a poet, he may have been my greatest oversight.

  8. Is there any Jim Carroll rock? I feel like there is, although I’ve never heard it. If if does exist, it probably sucks, but I just thought I’d raise the question.

  9. Mr. Moderator

    Yes, Mwall. Check out the last page of this post. There I included Carroll’s little hit, “People Who Died”, a pretty decent slab of late-70s, Lou Reed-style rock, I think.

  10. You know, sometimes when I click on those page links, they don’t come up for me. But they came through fine just now–thanks.

    Yeah, I remember “People Who Died” now.

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