In the height of this poetry moment,
Right people, right place, and right time,
The Universe stirs with chevrons of words
While the Zenith Cathedral bells chime.
In the heat of this poetry moment,
Hoist your grails to Beauty and Truth—
Through fire and smoke, wild not broke,
One more round from The Geyser of Youth.
In the heart of this poetry moment,
To your tempo, your rhythm, your flow—
With ink from my veins, Three Cheers! in quatrains
For the spirit you’ve brought to this show.
So let’s say, for example, that Mike Rinta, horn player, or Jim Kassis, drummer and fellowGreen Bay Packer fan, or bass player, Dan Robbins, or accordionist, Frank “The Great Morgani” Lima somehow manage to find their way, likely after a long night of gigging, to Highland Studios, so well-hidden in the labyrinthine hills outside of Los Gatos, CA that their GPS cyborgs need a drink after enduring such navigational rigors. They open the doors of their compact cars spilling with the tools of their trade loaded over, under, and between fast-food wrappers, plastic bottles, Styrofoam and waxed cups, CDs, CD cases, changes of wrinkled stage apparel, you name it. Maybe Mike Rinta has swaddled his beloved 1925 Martin Handcraft Tuba, Mildred, in an old quilt, because Her hard case would’ve prevented him from hauling more of his “menagerie” of brass, including his King Double Bell Euphonium, he so generously brought along to accommodate the wildest of producers’ whims for some odd-sounding “poetry project”?
What I witnessed all of these musicians bringing to the studio was a willingness, a veritable need, to play to a sober audience of several, as passionately as they would play to a lit audience of hundreds at some high- or low-browed incarnation of the Apollo Theater, some roadhouse or grange hall or symphony hall or…well, you get the picture. To put it more profoundly, they showed up, more or less on time, and they delivered—with or without charts—their grooves and riffs arising out of rugged lifetimes of playing, of “reaching” with their music. Yes, these cats applied enthusiastically their talents to a project involving poetic renderings celebrating moments in time and space so zany, so outrageous, so otherworldly exotic that the presence of The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling was likely sensed behind the scrim, in a corner shadow thrown by the grand piano’s lifted lid.
Whether we were talking putting music to a poem “about” hyperbolic / insane affection for pie, or about an all-night drinking binge “alone” with a stuffed mink, or about a master’s sentimental need to retrieve his dog’s favorite ball from the depths of a gopher hole, or about a cowboy poet’s performance failures in Vegas, where boobs trump literature always, or about a retired rodeo rider’s diminished skills applied to straddling an out-of-whack vintage Maytag washing machine, or to a couple of bardic jingles in tribute to two critical musician-n-poet-elixirs, top-shelf coffee and top-shelf bourbon, the musicians delivered their utmost. Or, whether we were talking a somewhat truthful yarn about a sozzled Casanova Aussie dog named Zeke, who gets embarrassingly bounced from a Montana bar, while reveling, nevertheless, to his favorite blues singer, Terrie Odabi, belting out from the juke box and car radio his favorite lyric, “You Ain’t nothin’ but a Hound Dog…;” or talking a fantasy about Beelzebub on a hot date gone wrong in a frigid town, or a tall tale about a poet’s countermeasures to the invasions of miller moths, or tumbleweeds, or, more tongue-in-cheek, to a loquacious potato-breeder seatmate on a late-night plane ride—or, more barbed-tongue-in-cheek, to a telemarketer intrusion—the musicians got into it and gave their all. Whether we were talking a factual poetic tale involving Charlie Parker’s close encounter of the musical kind with a roadside bovine, or whether we were talking about a perhaps more expected poetic subject matter, such as how an aging rodeo poet discovers a cosmic kinship with Bob Dylan, or how an aging man’s enduring love for his mother and father summons the reliving of poignant moments with them, the musicians, session after session, poured their souls into the producers’ creatively open-ended promptings. And from where I, The Zedman, was sitting, as I’ve always sat, in the back of the room, this phenomenon appeared beyond remarkable. I marveled at the tick-by-tick jeweled-watch movements, the synchronicity and syzygy alike, the virtually palpable, colossal love and trust and respect filling the two tiny studio rooms. All while I listened to ardent discussions about “the birth of cool,” or about how Rob McConnell & The Boss Brass “got a lot of color out of his voices,” or to subtle directing cues such as, “you are not so much grooving with the drummer as you are floating like ghosts over the substrate.” Yes, to my musically naïve ear, an extraterrestrial lingo, a patois, that left me awestruck in a wonderland I hated to leave at shift’s end.
And then, when they’d finished, I scribbled checks for what seemed pittances, and helped them reload their vehicles, and
watched them drive off waving and smiling. And I hoped that the money I paid them might go toward something more personally gratifying than covering the water bill—in California, no less. And I hoped that they might be going home, to a sanctuary of sorts, where someone loves them, and where they’d rest before the next gig. And, finally, I wondered if they wondered while disappearing into the hills if they’d ever again receive the slightest acknowledgment for their endeavors.
Which segues, I think, to the good, the bad, the ugly and the beatific power of such a multifaceted, multidimensional complex collaboration—18 months of dozens of us steering with our knees through the light, the dark, and through the shadows of both doubt and hope in between. As my musician and producer friend, David Wilkie, so aptly and succinctly describes his lifetime experiences with the recording studio, play-by-play, “I’m an effing genius, I’m an effing idiot, I’m an effing genius, I’m an effing idiot….” And this, mind you, is in reference to the more “common” challenge of marrying music with lyric—no question, the distinctions, and the diction, become far more “extreme” in the case of concocting a music-with-poetry, poetry-with-music, transmogrification. An oftentimes attempt at alchemy, let’s admit here aloud in print.
Therefore, along with the generous graces and gifts from primarily complete strangers coming and going from the studio, these recordings exist as a result of the keen expertise and deep dedication of producer friends and mentors, and talented musicians in their own right, Scott Sorkin, Lee Ray, and Gordon Stevens, as well as because of the collaborative energies of all members of Team Steering, as we dubbed ourselves, including Elizabeth Dear, Sande DeSalles, Glenna Branagan, Kitty Collins, and Larry Pirnie. And these recordings especially exist, thanks to our “Virtuoso Buddha,” to our Visionary, to one-time member of Moby Grape and current Conductor of our Knee-Steering Philharmonic Orchestra, Gordon Stevens. “How can I ever repay you,” I’d ask my friend again and again, to which he’d invariably reply, “give me a chicken.” Which I do, in fact, continue to send from time to time—a Montana Hutterite Colony six-pound chicken. Addressed to “Wish Bone Stevens,” in acknowledgment of Gordon being my T Bone Burnett, and then some.
I dedicate this project to Gordon and to The Team and to each and every other “music-maker” who so graciously gave of their hearts and minds. Their names are all listed, originally under the insipid heading, “Credits.” Screw “Credits.” I choose instead to set the record straight and in doing so, dear reader, I entreat you to go on-line, where you can engage the lives and careers and spirits of the leading-role stars. The humbling love and affection they brought to this project will for me forever shine bright, forever ring true, from each and every track.