Carl Sandburg, once neck and neck with Hemingway as America’s most famous writer (while unequivocally winning the droopy unpaid laurel of “America’s Most Famous Living Poet,” Non-Academic Division), has long since been given the unceremonious heave-ho from any and all AmLit surveys, defenestrated from the Pantheon’s upper deck, his literary stock sent plummeting like a brawny-shouldered Illinois anvil shoved sidelong off the once-and-former Sears Tower skydeck. But Sandburg was back in those days considered — and especially on the Left — as America’s Poet, probably the most widely known American literary figure since Mark Twain.
Sandburg had lived the type of life that would later become a standard joke, the fabled Proletarian Novelist’s Pedigree, practically a literary genre all on its own. (And one which as much as anything was inspired and shaped by Sandburg’s chronicling of the Great Rail-Splitter’s own homespun linsey-woolsey checkered past.) Child of Swedish immigrants, an illiterate blacksmith father and a mother who loved books, he had been a porter, a shoeshine boy, a kid with a milk route, a short-order cook, a hobo who did ten days on vagrancy charges, a dishwasher, a harvest hand, a house painter, a volunteer in the Sixth Illinois Regiment of State Militia when the time came to drive the foul Spaniard from Guantanamo Bay, a Socialist labor organizer, a salesman, a newspaper reporter, a poet (whose hog-butchering poem “Chicago,” actually won a $200 prize in 1914, a mark that may not yet have been eclipsed when you consider what $200 bought then, and what poetry in print pays then or ever), a pro folksinger and published folk song collector, and finally, as he would be best known from 1925 on, as the biographer Abraham Lincoln might have wished upon himself.
But Sandburg was beyond all this, because like it or not, he was actually a poet, and a great one, though a great one of sorts. At his worst, he was too direct, too maudlin, and plainspoken to a severe fault. These were his strengths as well, because he was determined to speak directly, a reporter-poet ready to risk the emotion raised by the drama of daily life observed closely, and he was especially determined to talk in his poetry rather than declaim, to talk, to talk as an American, to risk missing the arch tone of the poet if he could achieve the poetry of a joke made at lunchbreak. A committed Socialist, he was determined to trouble the political waters, but he was at least as determined to locate poetry in the land he’d surveyed around him, the same land young Abe had surveyed as frontier. It’s a pretty tough row to hoe, this political poetry jazz, and he missed more often than he hit. It was a batting average to be proud of.
Sandburg’s Lincoln biography, begun as “a book for young people,” bloomed beyond that but maintaining a certain intended sweetness at heart, was in its day considered to be one of the great literary works of America. “A Lincoln whom no other man than Carl Sandburg could have given us,” said Mark Van Doren; “A monument that will stand forever,” wrote Robert E. Sherwood, and the New York Times reviewed it as, flatly, “...the best biography of our day.” The very few nay-sayers it ever gathered derided it as a hagiography but it was less A Life of the Saint than A Life of the Christ. The Prairie Years, published in two volumes in 1926, and originally titled simply “Abraham Lincoln,” had more of its juvenile origin in its genetic code, but after its great popular, critical, and financial and public success, Sandburg spent much of the next thirteen years working on the four volumes that would be The War Years, with their unavoidably darker vision. It was the Prairie Lincoln, though, — railsplitting rockabilly Abe, the Young Elvis, not the bearded Las Vegas President Lincoln — that was everywhere in the Popular Front years. Sherwood’s own play “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, and was dutifully turned into a dull Hollywood movie in 1940, lagging behind John Ford’s 1939 Young Mr. Lincoln.
The book that followed on the heels of The Prairie Years, was a pioneering collection of songs, The American Songbag. Sandburg had always closed his poetry readings and lectures on Socialism with a few songs played on guitar, and on some nights members of his audience taught him new ones before the evening was ended. He described his collection as “ 280 songs, ballads, ditties, brought together from all regions of America.” He went on to declare the songs’ sources, commencing with “That notable distinctive American institution, the black-face minstrel...” and he spoke of railroad, hobo, work-gang, steamboat songs. He mentioned Mexican border songs before he touched on the lumberjacks, loggers and shanty boys, and even before bringing up the ballads of the southern mountains or the Negro spiritual. He was on the seventh paragraph of his introduction before he mentioned something called “folk songs.”
There had been collections of American songs before this one, and he pointedly acknowledged a number of the most recent ones. He suggested the songs be sung any way you could manage, and — listen; take note; pay attention here and now — he didn’t end up owning any of the copyrights. He didn’t claim any of copyrights. He didn’t get into any of the legal squabbles that the other folksong collectors who followed did whenever some tune they knew got on the radio, and the pennies began to pile up in somebody else’s account, even though they all knew they hadn’t ever written it. He proved that it was possible to print a folk song collection and not gut the wallet of any folk too dumb or dead or poor or stupid to have heard what a lawyer might do.
(excerpt from a forthcoming work)
Sunday, April 5, 2009
Posted by Nasrudin at 6:24 PM
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Tom Waits saves cigarette coupons. Moths fly from his change purse. The keys fall off his piano. Welcome to Miss Keiko's Chi Chi Club. . . it's showtime!
by Bart Bull
(published in Spin)
Tosca, Tuesday, late, Columbus near Broadway, San Francisco.
This is a fine bar, a lovely bar, loud but not too loud. The jukebox plays scratchy opera music. Francis Coppola is in back where the tables and booths are. He's listening to Lauren Hutton tell a story and when he laughs, so does everybody else. Sam Shepard stands up from his stool at the bar to pay his tab. His MasterCard falls to the floor, unnoticed except by the redhead standing nearby. She puts her foot on top of it and carries on her conversation. Shepard leaves. Lauren Hutton leaves. Coppola and his people leave. Almost everybody leaves. The bartender works a rag across the bar, and in the doorway behind him we see someone who looks just like Tom Waits. He peers in, squints, rubbing his head. A cigarette butt, stepped on but still glowing, trails smoke across the floor, left to right. He steps through the smoke and goes to the jukebox, searches. He finds a quarter in his pants, punches buttons. A tenor yelps. It's "Nessum dorma," from Puccini's "Turandot."
A pink paper cocktail umbrella, the kind that sprouts at the rims of colorful tropical drinks, blows across the floor at the foot of the stage, left to right, pushed by an invisible wind.
Tom Waits wears black tie and tails, red socks, and railroad boots. A big barrel-bellied woman sits next to him, one leg draped over his knee. She's wearing a red flamenco dress and a black mantilla, and her name is Val Diamond. She has eyeballs painted on her eyelids. She can see you with her eyes open; she watches you with her eyes closed. Polaroids are scattered on the stage at their feet.
TOM: I don't understand golf.
VAL: (mutters sympathetically)
TOM: It needs to have more sex. (Gleaming lightbulb appears directly over
his head.) Night golf!
VAL: Somebody won a lot of money golfing recently.
TOM: They get more money than boxers.
VAL: That doesn't seem right.
TOM: It doesn't seem right. Somebody gets beat up for an hour and somebody else hits a ball into a hole. Doesn't seem right.
From the floor, the DIRECTOR watches them through a little black lens, through his director's viewfinder. He hands the viewfinder to his assistant and walks off. The assistant stares carefully through the lens. Tom's zipper is at half mast.
It's dawn. Bats are hurrying back to the belfry, and below, one hand on the rope that rings the bell, Ken Nordine waits. Nordine, the word-jazzed Voice Of God as heard on Levi's commercials, has something he wants to say. This time it's Tom Waits' words and Ken Nordine's voice; sometimes it's the other way around. Here's how to tell: Tom Waits' voice sounds like he gargles with gravel; Ken Nordine's sounds like he's selling three truckloads of soft margarine in handy re-usable plastic tubs. There is no Devil (for our purposes here, at least), just God when he's drunk. Ken Nordine, God as we understand Him (for our purposes here), is not inebriated in the least, but he's willing to act (for our purposes here). He has something he'd like to say.
KEN NORDINE: (gritty voice) It's like Jack Nicholson said to me one time - Continuity is for sissies.
We're in a nightclub, an empty nightclub. A nearly empty nightclub, with a camera crew setting up in the back. Ken Nordine's butter-flavored voice is the only light.
KEN NORDINE: For our purposes here, perhaps some explanation is in order. Perhaps not. Welcome, in any case, to Miss Keiko's Chi Chi Club.
We see the stage now, bulbs flashing in sequence across the proscenium.
KEN NORDINE: Proscenium. Butter-flavored proscenium.
We see Tom Waits in a tuxedo, slumped in a chair at the center of the stage.
KEN NORDINE: We have a purpose here. We are filming a video here, a video to accompany the tune "Blow Wind Blow," from Tom Waits' new album, Frank's Wild Years.
As Nordine speaks, we see Waits rise from his slump (as it were) and sit stiffly upright. His lips move precisely in time with Nordine's words, and his arms deliver florid gestures.
KEN NORDINE: But Frank's Wild Years is not merely an album. Frank's Wild Years is also a play, a stage production. Frank's Wild Years is two...
Val and Tom are holding breath mints in front of them. They click the packages together carefully.
KEN NORDINE: ...two mints in one. And the video from "Blow Wind Blow" is not merely a scene from the play, but an all-new and improved production. Tom is Frank, as it were, or perhaps he isn't, but in any case, he's a ventriloquist. He casts his voice into the rest of the cast. And the rest of the cast is ably portrayed by Val Diamond and a prosthetic leg.
Waits reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a pack of those personal details that reveal so much about a character's character. He smokes pre-war Lucky Strikes in the Raymond Loewy-designed green pack. Or Chesterfields, named after W.C. Fields' favorite son. In truth, they're Raleighs, and he takes a dramatic drag off the cigarette, makes nonchalant expressions as he holds it in, then looks off in another direction as Val, the ventriloquist's dummy, exhales a white cloud. Waits takes the pack, crumples it, flicks it into the wastebasket hidden in the wings. A pause, another pause, and then he leaps up, dumping Val to the floor, and we see him bent over the wastebasket, digging around for the cigarette pack. He finds it, tears a square off the back.
TOM: (turns to the camera) I save the coupons.
He sits back down. His lips keep moving.
KEN NORDINE: In truth, he doesn't smoke anymore. That would be too much like the old Tom Waits. And the old Tom Waits is over, done with, defunct, finito. Aesthetically, at least. He made his bed and he slept in it until it was past checkout time. Writing songs about dead-end kids on dead-end streets became a dead-end street. Damon Runyon demanded royalties.
Waits is making nonchalant expressions up on the stage. Val is staring baleful and blue-eyed, her eyelids clamped shut.
KEN NORDINE: And yet here we are in a nightclub, a nearly empty nightclub. Have you noticed the postage-stamp cocktail tables? The chains of garter snaps that decorate the walls? The black Naugahyde banquette booths? Once upon a time, this was Ann's 440 Club, where Lenny Bruce got that illustrious start of his. Ah, but that was along ago, and for more than 20 years this has been Miss Keiko's Chi Chi Club. Welcome. Have you met Miss Keiko yet?
A yellow spotlight comes on in the back of the club, illuminating a black and white photo. A signature in black felt-tip pen reads, "Miss Keiko - 1969." She stands forever on the toes of one foot, gazing over her shoulder, lifting her long dark hair above her bare back. Her costume is brief, her breasts are tassel-tipped projectiles. Tom Waits stands nearby, appraising the photograph.
TOM: (gravel-voiced) If I was a girl, I'd want to look like that.
Francis Coppola's sergeant-at-arms drops by to let Waits know that Francis is dining next door at Enrico's. He's willing to wait until the video crew takes a lunch break if Tom would care to come over and talk. There's a part for him in an upcoming project. Waits is sitting at the Chi Chi Club bar with a guy called Biff, waiting for the crew to set up the shot. Miss Keiko gazes down at them from over her shoulder.
TOM: Vegas. She worked the big rooms in Vegas. You know, I saw a guy go down with a heart attack at a crap table, and his wife was pounding on his chest, and the pit boss said, "New shooter coming up." I swear to God.
KEN NORDINE: (sounding godlike) Search me. Sounds like it could be true.
TOM: New dice, new shooter, keep it moving. Cold. Cold-blooded.
BIFF: How far away were you?
TOM: I was the new shooter.
BIFF: Were you wealthy when you left the table?
TOM: Nah. I gamble with scared money. I'm a tightwad. Moths in my change purse.
He gets up to get some cigarettes from the machine, although he doesn't smoke anymore. Moths burst forth from his change purse. He buys Raleighs. Doesn't smoke any.
TOM: So what do you think is suitable for manly footgear, Biff?
BIFF: Roman sandals. And beads to go with 'em.
TOM: I've been asking everyone I, uh, come into contact with, because I'm doin' a little survey. I'd say we're in a crisis in terms of American footgear.
BIFF: Slip-on loafers.
TOM: Nah, can't go that route. You can't go down that road, for down that road danger lies.
BIFF: How come?
TOM: I don't like the name. Loafers. For a guy that works as hard as you do, it's just not right.
BIFF: You could call 'em slip-ons, but...
TOM: That's even worse. That's worse than loafers. You wouldn't want me to call you a slip-on.
BIFF: You got a point there.
TOM: Points. I always gravitate toward points. Things are getting better - ten years ago, you couldn't find any points. Things are getting better, in shoes and music both.
Lunch comes, lunch goes. Coppola waits impatiently at Enrico's; Waits tells Biff of movie roles he's been offered. Coppola's fingers tap the tabletop.
TOM: Satanist cult leaders. The Iceman. I could've been the Iceman in 'Iceman'.
BIFF: You turned that down?
TOM: Yep. Big mistake. Look where the guy that took it is today. I could've been the hitcher in 'The Hitcher', too.
BIFF: Jesus Christ! You turned that down? You could've had a career. You could be Boris Karloff by now.
TOM: Yep. Big mistake.
Coppola, alfresco at Enrico's, fumes silently. Fumes loudly. Fumes. Vows revenge. One week later, Waits wakes up in bed next to the oil-splattered head of a 350 Chevy. He shrieks.
A small pile of pink confetti blows across the floor in front of the stage, left to right, blown by a hand-held fan.
Tom Waits wears black tie and tails, red socks, and railroad boots. His sideburns are going grey. Val Diamond wears a red flamenco dress. Her ginger hair is piled high in Spanish columns. Her left leg is draped over his right knee. Black fishnet stockings.
TOM: You know who Dick Shawn is? Was?
VAL: The World's Second-Greatest Entertainer? The guy who did that show called "The World's Second-Greatest Entertainer"?
Although he doesn't smoke, smoke rises from an invisible Raleigh between his fingers. He taps his ashes absentmindedly. They fall onto the brim of the top hat at his feet.
TOM: I did a little show with him, played the Wall Street Wino. It never aired. He had a dozen midgets on it. Thirteen.
TOM: He died onstage. His son was in the audience. He was in the middle of a bit about death, and he threw himself to the stage in a simulated heart attack. And it was real. And everybody in the audience was laughing. Not a bad thing to hear in your last moment.
More ashes, real as life, fall into the hat; real smoke rises from the invisible Raleigh.
TOM: Good way to go, I guess. Maybe now they'll air the show.
The Chi Chi Club is empty, near empty. One chair is at the center of the stage, one chair is set in the center of the floor below. From the chair on the floor, we hear the voice of Ken Nordine.
KEN NORDINE: Curious as it is that Tom Waits abandoned his signature style of writing, it's every bit as intriguing that he jettisoned the very sound of his established style at the same time. Once known as something of a jazzed-down beat generation throwback, as the romantic street poet of the least romantic of un-poetic streets, as a narrative storyteller of the most talented sort, as a truly gifted liar, he suddenly and abruptly ceased spinning yarns. And as he did, his music itself came unraveled. Or if not unraveled, then...
A long pause. Long.
KEN NORDINE: Perhaps someone else would be better qualified to discuss what happened to the music of Tom Waits. Perhaps it would pay to introduce Harry Partch.
A small spotlight illuminates the chair onstage.
KEN NORDINE: Harry Partch, sadly deceased, was an American original. An eccentric, that is; a tinkerer, a free spirit, an inventor of instruments and of himself. A nut, in other words. A Californian, like Tom Waits, and like Tom Waits, a man who lived the hobo's life long before he captured it in music. He invented his remarkable 43-tone musical scale, and he invented gorgeous and monumental instruments specifically for playing his odd and glorious music. You may have to grant him a certain grandiosity, a certain tendency toward the making of Major Pronouncements, a certain self-centeredness, a certain extreme certainty. Harry Partch received so little recognition during life, and he required so much of it. He called his musical scale "just intonation," and he felt entirely justified in doing so.
The voice that comes from the chair onstage is deep and rugged and rigorously resonant. It sounds much like John Huston's acceptance speech upon his being unanimously voted God.
HARRY PARTCH: As I understand it, this young Tom Waits fellow has had some small contact with members of the ensemble that serves the noble purpose of preserving my music and my instruments, the Mazda Marimba, the Marimba Eroica, the Cloud Chamber Bowls, and all the rest. This contact, however limited, can't have hurt him, although it's impossible to say how much it has helped since what I've heard of his stuff is not more than a literal-minded bastardization of the eternal principles behind my system of just intonation. He'd be best served to study a little closer if he cares to attempt any further homage. Still, there is some small sense of my own music's grandeur in the young fellow's stuff. Like me, he's interested in the largest and the smallest of sounds, and like me, he's heard the music of the highway and the resonant clang of the beer bottle tapped with a church key. IMAGINE the sound of a hundred Chinamen beating spikes into the ground with nine-pound sledgehammers, laying the rails of the transcontinental railway! And the scream of the steam whistle as a locomotive flies over those same spikes. Imagine the snores of hobos sleeping in the open boxcars. Imagine the contrapuntal snores of the conductor comfortably bunked up in the caboose. IMAGINE THE THUNDER, the mighty prairie thunder that wakes them all from their slumbers! And imagine the raw COURAGE a composer would need to even ATTEMPT to create such sounds! I wish the young fellow a great deal of luck. I admire his theatricality.
At the back of the club, at the bar, a light glows. Tom Waits and the guy called Biff are back there, a beer bottle in front of each of them. Tom is not smoking, yet smoke rises from between two of his fingers.
TOM: I traveled with a gas pump for years.
He tosses back a little beer.
TOM: I still have nightmare where the whole crowd is moving toward me and then the keys are falling off the piano and the curtain rips and my shoe comes off and I'm crawling toward the wings and the crowd is moving toward me, hurling insults at me. And car parts. I played cow palaces, rodeos, sports facilities, hockey arenas with the ice beneath the cardboard. It cools off the place. It's alright in August, but it's a bitch in February. But if you can appreciate the rich pageantry of it...
Biff tosses back a little beer.
TOM: Never have your wallet with you onstage. It's bad luck. You shouldn't play the piano with money in your pocket. Play like you need the money.
Tom tosses back a little beer.
TOM: I don't play the piano much anymore. I don't compose on it. It's hard. Because sometimes it feels like it's all made out of ice. It's cold. It's square, so much about it is square, you know, and music is round. And so sometimes I think it puts corners on your stuff.
Tom and Biff toss back a little beer. Behind them, we see a single chair and a single spotlight on the stage, and now we can hear that Harry Partch has never stopped talking.
HARRY PARTCH: (from afar) ...the wrongheadedness of the chromatic scale of the Western world and the deleterious effect it has had on untold generations of innocent ears...a gang of Irishmen headed due west with nine-pound sledgehammers of their own...
A pink balloon blows across the floor in front of the stage, left to right.
Tom Waits wears black tie and tails, red socks and railroad boots. Val Diamond wears a red dress and a black top hat. "Blow Wind Blow" is playing frantically in the background, sung by Alvin of the Chipmunks. When the soundman has re-cued it, the take begins.
A clapboard claps. A pink balloon blows across the floor, left to right.
TOM: Welcome to Miss Keiko's Chi Chi Club. It's showtime!
Two pump organs, an alto horn, a glockenspiel. A gravel voice grumbles, singing. The voice comes from Val's mouth, and her eyes, clamped closed, stare blue ahead. Tom Waits, ventriloquist, nonchalant, takes a deep, dramatic drag on his cigarette; a smoke puffs from Val's mouth. Her lips grumble his song. He unscrews her wooden leg, pulls a pint of liquor from within it, swigs. He caps the bottle, puts it back, screws her leg back on. His cigarette rests between her fingers, his song sings off her lips. He takes his hand out from behind her back to scratch his head, and she slumps, but he catches her before she falls. The song grumbles towards an end, and as it ends, she pulls a dry-cell battery out of his back. He slumps, slumps and flops. He twitches in rigor mortis. Confetti falls free from his hand, gathers in a little pile. A hand-held fan blows it, left to right.
Wrap. The crew ascends to the stage, leaves nothing behind but a steamer trunk and a sousaphone. Tom sits on the trunk; the sousaphone sits on its side. A member of the crew grabs it and leaves.
TOM: Aw, bring the sousaphone back.
It comes back. Waits climbs inside it, adjust the mouthpiece. It makes hideous bleats, like someone is forcing it to watch its mother being turned into a coffee table. Waits' cheeks puff out, his face turns red. He hoists it off like a weight lifter. He leaves the stage with it under his arm, his tuxedo tails flapping behind. He puts his little finger in his ear and wrings it vigorously.
TOM: What should I do with this thing?
No answer. "Nessun dorma," from Puccini's 'Turandot."