Selected Poems by Indie Rock Stars
Yellow Bird Project
When it comes to the academia of the pop world, “indie rock star” is a classification that has long tuned up images of hipsters, witty, self-aware and literate lyrics, and music (just slightly to the left of a number of mainstream styles) swaggered through in fashionably dumpy campus bars. Even today, when “alternative music” has long been regarded a contemporary pop norm, the indie rock sub-bullet retains some outsider cred; though we are talking less about the anarchic self-destructive tendencies of G.G. Allin and more about the cheeky tattoos-and-bowtie ensembles of Dallas Green. Sure, your parents, or even grandparents, might not fear and loathe the stuff, but they won’t go out of their way to download it, either.
That said, there has never been high demand to hear, say, Stephen Malkmus recite his lyrics in a cafe. Paired with the post-post-punk of Pavement, or slanted pop of his more recent work with The Jicks, Malkmus’ ideas and phrasing come across as clever and compelling. Acapella, they would lack that extra instrumental wit. Still, because of his creative and intellectual pedigree, one could imagine that, challenged to work with bare essentials and come up with some proper literature, he would kick up an interesting and cool strategy to get past the lack of a guitar to scrape his muse against.
Such is the impetus behind Selected Poems from Indie Rock Stars. They might not be “selected” due to the existence of several milkcrates worth of manuscripts for the publishers to throw themselves at so much as, maybe, the need to weed through the mass of budding Baudelaires who suffer day jobs hawking t-shirts and coloured vinyl collectibles while literary immortality beckons. Take a bunch of musicians from the vicinity of the cutting edge of contemporary hip and see what they can fashion with the tools of Cool past. The question is, what will the hybrid bring? Will you get Leonard Cohen (see: Spicebox of Earth) or Billy Corgan (see: Blinking with Fists)?
The successful poems here are crafted by the authors who take the same wit, daring and effort to the pen (or keypad) as they do to their day instrument. Dan Mangan’s “A Haiku” jumbles a slacker’s zen musings with a rudimentary sketch and other notebook jottings to create a playful little concrete poem-type work; one that keeps with the general character of the free-spirited singer/songwriter. Folkish artist Emmy the Great shapes up a found poem in “What Happened” from an email that seems just tweaked enough to deliver the appropriate degree of understated drama. While not echoing her musical aesthetic, it certainly reflects an artistic mind aware of, and willing and able to bend, convention. “An Excerpt from ‘You Can Dress Me Up, But You Cant Take Me Out'” by Micah P. Hinson is prose poetry that trods a Beat/Bukowski strip but with enough street smarts of its own to never get lost in the shadows.
Many of the poems, though, lazily fall back to default sing-song Classic Book of Nursery Rhymes verse schemes or obvious, Slam Poet cadences. Sometimes it does work, as with Robyn Hitchcock’s dreamy “Lost Cat” that weaves the reader through a slightly surrealistic scene where “As dawn melts shapes from nightcap/As daylight melts the dark/We loom between two silent worlds/The houses and the park”. The mode matches the man matches the material in a charming piece about lost innocence. But Hitchock is the wise, older, slightly-skewed sage of the intellectual musical clique, so this type of practiced playfulness and child-like charm from him is to be expected. However, the slavish dedication to rote forms displayed elsewhere shatters the delicate conceptual frame, reminding you that these are voices more used to accenting words with sounds from other tools and not nearly so experienced with the vast possibilities, musical and otherwise, inherent in the words themselves.
But even these less creative efforts are still evidence of the artistic mind at work. The could-be poets have all certainly tried to structure a bit of artifice atop their ideas, showing more rigour than, say, the afore-mentioned Corgan, whose Blinking with Fists was a rush of spontaneous meanderings – kind of like Monty Python’s 100 Yard Dash for People With No Sense of Direction – and flush with a church bazaar’s worth of imagery and phrases.
“We’re talking about musicians here,” Greg Kihn wrote in his introduction to the 2003 collection Carved in Rock: Short Stories by Musicians, “people who express themselves in a completely different way from ordinary writers. The creative process, however, is more or less the same. Just as the same three chords of life resonate through rock, blues, country, jazz, reggae, rhythm and blues, classical, and every other form of music, so do they resonate through the printed word. Three chords on paper.” It’s a quaint notion, catchy as a power pop hook, but about as substantial as Howard Jones. Whereas music is, at base, about emotions, literature and words reside in the mind. The twain certainly can and do meet, but they aren’t interchangeable. Of course, we often see the reverse, where writers drop the pen for the guitar (although the success rate is unfairly tipped in their balance thanks to Jim Carroll’s unassailable “People Who Died”).
Weighty notions aside, this type of popified literature is all just a bit of fun. We don’t necessarily need the Collected Works of Indie Rockers, but a selection can provide a little entertainment and diversion, like an old school compilation of ‘B’ side curiosities.
Drop the stylus at Yellow Bird.