Saturday, April 30, 2016

Oíche Bhealtaine / May-Day Eve

Hawthorn in bloom (via
I don’t think I’m especially insightful in noting that holidays are culturally constructed, that there is nothing inherently holy about one day as opposed to another.  Solstices and equinoxes do mark significant turning points in the cycle of the year, and are thus worth observing.  The four primary Celtic holidays, however, fall between the solstices and equinoxes, and tonight/tomorrow is one of them: Bealtaine.

In Gaelic and other Celtic cultures, Bealtaine is essentially the first day of summer, the brighter part of the year.  Though I’m not going to be driving my cattle (or even my cat) between any purifying bonfires, I choose to notice the day that’s in it.  Holidays can be nice, and maybe even more so when you decide for yourself which ones you like. Oíche Bhealtaine shona dhaoibh go léir.

A Scottish Bealtaine festival, a few years back (via

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Review in Poetry Ireland's Trumpet

My review of recent books by three Irish poets — Trevor Joyce, Christodoulos Makris, and Peter O’Neill — appears in the new issue (5) of Trumpet, Poetry Ireland’s critical review.  The publication is available in hard copy up until a new issue comes out, at which time it becomes downloadable as a PDF.

Poetry Ireland describes the magazine like this: “Reviews, opinions and essays on poetry and the arts in a bite sized literary pamphlet.”

Here are some snippets from my essay.  The whole piece runs to 1735 words, so these are just teasers:

Trevor Joyce’s booklet Rome’s Wreck is a translation of Edmund Spenser’s sonnet sequence Ruines of Rome (1591), which itself is a translation of Joachim du Bellay’s Les Antiquités de Rome (1558). . . .

Where Joyce’s primary formal restriction is his use of iambic tetrameter, Christodoulos Makris, in his second collection, The Architecture of Chance, employs all manner of controlling devices. . . .

In contrast to the ironic humour that Makris deploys, Peter O’Neill in his third collection, The Dark Pool, is nothing if not serious. . . .

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Review of Iggy Pop, Post-Pop Depression

Iggy Pop, almost out of the blue, announced just a couple months ago that a new album was on the way, Post-Pop Depression.  Having worked with the re-formed Stooges for a number of years, then with the second version of a re-re-formed Stooges with James Williamson (after the death of original guitarist Ron Asheton) — now, with the death of drummer Scott Asheton and some apparent dissension between Pop and Williamson at the time of the latter’s Re-Licked album (2014) — it appears that the Stooges and the Stooges-related part of Iggy’s career, sadly, is over.  If they wanted, in order to continue the revisiting of these various permutations of the Stooges, Pop and Williamson could perhaps still do some kind of follow-on from their Kill City album (1975/1977), mimicking the trajectory of Stooges → Iggy and the Stooges → Iggy Pop & James Williamson.  But, again, it seems most unlikely.  Instead, Iggy has for now found a new guitarist and collaborator, Josh Homme, and we have Post-Pop Depression.  But this also is a very good thing.

Much has already been said about the resemblance between this album’s sound and Iggy’s first two immediate post-post-Stooges albums The Idiot and Lust for Life (both 1977).  It is true that there is a kind of self-conscious hieing to that musical period for him here, but it’s also different and its own thing.  Homme’s guitar is just a little heavier, and while the decadent mood of those albums is present, there is also a truer sense of impending death.  It’s easy to muse about death when you’re still a young man or woman; it is different when you are older or old and it’s that much closer.  Here, Iggy is wrestling with mortality and perceived failure (e.g. “if I have outlived my use,” in “American Valhalla”).  The kind of feelings that he locates on this album — in, for example, and especially, “Gardenia,” “American Valhalla,” and “Chocolate Drops” — are poignant, the sort of feelings any artist who is lucky enough to get this far must ineluctably wrestle with.

What is this Post-Pop Depression?  The title works in different ways.  It is “post-pop” in the sense of being past the time of widespread success in a popular sense.  Thus, this album is made without much hope for mainstream rewards (indeed, it is released independently, apparently self-funded, on the Loma Vista and Rekords Rekords labels). But since Iggy is Pop, there’s also a sense of losing oneself, or at least of shedding one’s public image, and trying for some sort of “real” connection, despite the near futility of it.  Or, thinking of death, it might even mean contemplating losing one’s self, full stop.  A feeling of depression might indeed result from any of these.

The lead-off track is “Break into Your Heart,” a mid-tempo tune that vaguely recalls both Iggy’s Berlin albums and Bowie’s Scary Monsters sound. Lyrically, it is about breaking down interpersonal barriers and the possibility of intimacy (or lack thereof). Yet, the other person seems always out of reach, buried under “Mountains capped with snow.”  As the phrase “break in” implies, the attempt at closeness seems not to be reciprocated, and the theme of alienation and estrangement is foregrounded.  On most of the album, this alienation is from mainstream society at large, but here and in the next song, it is expressed in regard to personal relationships.

“Gardenia,” the first “single” from the album (are there such things as singles anymore? I guess in download or YouTube form now?), reads as a tribute to Billie Holiday.  The title itself is a dead giveaway (along with the line “A gardenia in your hair”), but there are further clues: “Black Goddess in a shabby raincoat”; “I saw a dangerous habit / When she turned the lights on”; etc.  Other lines, however, suggest a more personal relationship than the Iggy-speaker could ever really have with such a long-dead muse: “Much taller and stronger than me” (perhaps indicating Pop’s real-life wife); “We lay in the darkness”; “America’s greatest living poet / Was ogling you all night.”  Here Pop himself is surely, in the song anyway, “America’s greatest living poet.” It’s a boast perhaps, but song lyrics aside, Iggy has written and published poetry per se, some being included in his 1982 autobiography, I Need More. Ultimately, “Gardenia” is an ambiguous figure, an amalgam of Holiday and others, or perhaps as Iggy sings, “A forbidden dream.”  Musically, the song epitomizes the angular, funky, post-punk sound of the album, with Homme’s guitar emphasizing the backbeat in the verses and adding layers in a higher register in the bridge.  Iggy’s singing on the chorus (“All I wanna do is tell / Gardenia what to do tonight”) is both subtle and lush at the same time, and, speaking subjectively, the song is real catchy.

The album’s theme of mortality might best be summed up in “American Valhalla.”  “Where is American Valhalla? / Death is the pill that’s hard to swallow,” Iggy avers, after stating that his life hasn’t been easy and many of his accomplishments have seemingly gone unnoticed.  Surely there must be some reward, somewhere?  Not for him a Christian Heaven, but an American Valhalla, abode of mythic heroes, among whom Iggy Pop surely deserves a place after death?

The subject matter of “In the Lobby” reminds me a bit of “Some Weird Sin” (from Lust for Life), the attraction to deviant or dangerous experience (both songs refer to being on “the edge”).  In the earlier song, the danger or deviance was needed “Just to relax me,” but here it is accompanied by fear and anxiety instead: “An ocean of bodies / And then there’s me / And I hope I’m not losing my life tonight.”  A further difference is that in “Some Weird Sin” the weird sin was something actively sought, whereas now it is more of an involuntary compulsion: “I followed my shadow and it led me here.”  The backing track is often heavily syncopated in its rhythm, bass-driven, and in the third verse Iggy erupts into a wonderful scream, reminiscent of the vocal punctuations on “Run Like a Villain” from the 1982 Zombie Birdhouse album, and many other Iggy performances.

One of the best tracks here, in my opinion, is “Sunday,” another funky number, accompanied by some steady, loping tom-tom playing by the drummer, Matt Helders. At times, I hear shades of early Talking Heads in this, or in a broader sense Bowie’s band on the “Fame” single.  The theme is nothing new — the rat race of work and job — but Iggy’s lyrical treatment brings to it a sense of psychic exhaustion, turning it into an affect-centered meditation (“I’m a wreck / What did you expect?”; “I crawl for Sunday / When I don’t have to move”) rather than a polemic. The backing vocals, which repeat the mantra “Always ready, always steady,” are a great finishing touch.  But then there’s another finishing touch, a long orchestral fadeout, heavy on the strings, tugging at the heart-strings.

“Vulture” is a mostly acoustic interlude, a departure from the sound of the rest of the album, but still enervated, and following on from “Sunday,” a further attack on capitalism.  It doesn’t quite have the same appeal as the rest of the album, but it does have a pleasantly harsh electric guitar solo by Homme and a loud, ringing chorus—there are bells (or at least, chimes).  It grows on you with repeated listenings, and Iggy’s Eastern-inflected vocal flourish at the end is interesting.

“German Days” quickly gets us back on track.  It is perhaps the song that in places sounds most like Homme’s own band (Queens of the Stone Age) and, appropriately given its title, like decadent operatic-cum-cabaret 1920s German music, Kurt Weill perhaps, or even recent Scott Walker (who I know is not German).  Jon Pareles in the New York Times recently suggested that “German Days” references Iggy’s time in Berlin with Bowie, and perhaps it does, but it seems to me, even more so, that it’s going for that Weimar thing.  Yeah, it mentions Berlin, but really nothing particular to that city in the 70s—it’s more about a broader mood than any specific autobiographical detail.

“Chocolate Drops” is a stand-out, piano- and chime-driven and lyrically raw and open.  “When it’s painful to express the things you feel / It hurts to share because they’re bare and real,” sings Iggy.  Homme’s primary guitar on this one is the lap steel.  I would almost say it’s a nice song, but the mood is tinged with melancholy, nice in a bittersweet way.

“Paraguay” encapsulates that desire to leave, to disappear to somewhere beyond the American . . . greed? shallowness? competition?  But it is also in conjunction with a kind of self-effacement, even self-pity (“I’m going where sore losers go”), which we’ve all felt at some time or another.  All this is further juxtaposed (both musically and lyrically) with the heavy, deliberately plodding guitar riff that comes in toward the end, over which Iggy lets loose a rant about the straitjacket that for him is contemporary Western capitalist society, its soul-destroying emptiness, its paranoia, its neuroses — “. . .take your motherfucking laptop / And just shove it into your goddam foul mouth / . . . . And I hope you shit it out. . .”  It’s a great moment.

I think that as an album Post-Pop Depression is important for a number of reasons.  First of all, it is the best Iggy solo album in a number of years, and in some ways, for me anyway, even more compelling than the last Stooges album (Ready to Die [2013]) — and I say this not altogether comfortably as a Stooges fan.  While that album had many great, signature James Williamson licks, the presence of Scott Asheton on drums, Steve Mackay on tenor sax, and some really good songs, in places Iggy was lost lyrically speaking (e.g. “DD’s”).  Iggy’s recent French albums have some very nice stuff on them (in a vastly different way, obviously), and his voice is just always great to hear.  But musically, lyrically, and ineffably, Post-Pop Depression just has “it.”

Iggy here has been able to recapture something, something in which everything comes together for him, where he is in the zeitgeist so to speak without necessarily trying, where there’s a poetry, a musical quality, and an attitude that just works, essentially all the time throughout.  As he has queried/screamed in many of his performances, especially going back to the Stooges days, “Can you feel it?”  And though the Post-Pop Depression album title and even often the tone of the songs emphasizes depression and impending death (though when is death ever not impending, aside from when you’re a baby or young child?), there is still an uplifting feeling, the vibe of an artistic high note.  With any artist, that feeling waxes and wanes.  Here it waxes big-time.  Without being hyperbolic, again, this really is one of Iggy’s best albums.  Let’s hope, despite his pronouncements, he has a few more in him.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Even the Daybreak: 35 Years of Salmon Poetry

Salmon Poetry’s new anthology, Even the Daybreak: 35 Years of Salmon Poetry, is now out, and it looks great. Edited by Jessie Lendennie and with a cover design by Siobhán Hutson, the collection chronicles the history of this vital Irish press. Over the last three-and-a-half decades, they have published many amazing poets, Irish, American, and European. I’m grateful to be among them (Salmon has published two of my collections, Ancestor Worship and Future Blues).

Order the book here:

My poem in this anthology is “Homage to Séamus Ennis,” my lyrical-polemical response to the music of the great uilleann pipes player (for me something like an Irish John Coltrane, in a way). Here is Ennis playing “The Fox Chase”:

Thursday, February 18, 2016

New Chapbook, Coming This May

The Muddy Banks cover (art by John Menesini)
My new chapbook, The Muddy Banks, will be published this May by Ghost City Press. Though it is not yet out, it does already have a page on the site of the press:

Here is a description:

The Muddy Banks is a series of interconnected poems engaging the city of Pittsburgh as a postindustrial landscape, simultaneously having one foot in its rather strange and unique past and the other in a contemporary space, both physical and psychic, where gentrification and decay coexist. Taking a cue from the now-obscure modernist-era poet Haniel Long’s Pittsburgh Memoranda, The Muddy Banks mixes forms and modes. It is at once regionalist and continental, micro and macro, lyric and narrative, documentary and dada, living inscape and necropastoral — an homage to a city’s ghosts, who haunt hotel rooms, empty flats, bridges, banks, riverbanks, stadiums, and straggly streets.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Louisville Conference 2016

Ill be giving a poetry reading on a creative panel at this year’s Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900, on Friday, February 19th. If you’re going to the conference, come along and see.

Here’s the panel so far:

F- 12  Creative Panel
Friday 3:15 PM – 4:45 PM    Room: Humanities [room?]

Christina Veladota, Washington State Community College
“A Selection of Prose Poems”
Cassandra Daugette, Southeast Missouri State University
“Assorted Flash Fiction”
Mark Fitzgerald, University of Maryland
“Vanishing Point and other poems”
Ted Morrissey, University of Illinois - Springfield
Michael S. Begnal, Ball State University
“A Colony of Ticks”

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Begnal Interview by rob mclennan

Photo that accompanies the interview
The Canadian poet rob mclennan interviewed me this past November on the subject of poetry.  The discussion now appears on his blogsite, here:

Monday, January 25, 2016

Che Elias, A Pervasive Solace

Che Elias’s new poetry collection, A Pervasive Solace, is out from Six Gallery Press.  I won’t review it per se, since I was closely involved in the book project, doing both the text and cover layouts, contributing my photographs to the cover, and being close friends.  But I will say, completely subjectively, that it is some of his best work. Che is a total literary original; his diction is unique.  I can’t think of anyone else who writes like him.  Sometimes he is intense in his sincerity about writing about extreme situations or trauma; at other times his turn of thought or sudden observation is incredibly funny. Highly recommended.
...Everything freed
Removed he was on his own now
He is the dark where you are free too
Or could be if you join him there?
       — Elias, from “Pervasive Solace”

Monday, December 28, 2015

On Fred Moten on Marjorie Perloff

Fred Moten (photo from the Poetry Foundation site)
Today, almost immediately after I tweeted the link to Fred Moten’s opinion piece in ENTROPY titled “On Marjorie Perloff,” a parody Perloff account began “following” me on Twitter.  I had introduced the link with the words “Fred Moten on the awful Perloff/Goldsmith, at @EntropyMag:” — and so I suddenly felt bad.  For a moment, I must admit, I thought it was her real account, and so it made me feel uneasy to think that she herself had read my not-very-pleasant remark calling her “awful.”  I probably should have written instead, and what I really meant was, that Perloff and Goldsmith have been awful in regard to the issue of race and their treatment of the murdered Michael Brown (in Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance piece and Perloff’s subsequent public comments) — but still, far be it from me, of course, to judge them unequivocally “awful” as people, without even having met either (even if said parody account probably wants to twist in the knife).

As I write all this, though, I am also aware that Moten isn’t quibbling about any of it (e.g. “I like some poetry that Marjorie Perloff likes.  At the same time, we don’t like one another, even though we don’t know one another; at the same time, even though I don’t know her, I know a lot about her.  As a matter of fact, I know a lot more about her than she knows about either me or herself.  That’s a function of our education.  I had to learn about her and many of the things that have gone and continue to go into the making of her.  She has never been so obligated, a condition that induces not only ignorance but also cold-heartedness”), and so neither can I fault him for that.  I suppose I am prone to ambivalence over (possibly) hurt feelings.  I used to be so much more of a harsh critic, but I guess I’ve mellowed somewhat over the years?  Perhaps I should just say that Perloff and Goldsmith have made their own beds.

In any case, I, like many, have been disgusted by things that have been said in defense of Goldsmith, and Perloff’s comments reported by Jen Hofer are quite revealing.  (Read them here.)  In a subsequent Facebook statement on the Moten piece (possibly deleted, but making the rounds as a screen capture), Perloff claimed her comments were taken out of context, but it seems pretty clear what she means when she says, “And so, I think the romanticization, where everybody kept calling him the poor child Michael Brown, and they constantly showed photographs of him in the media when he had been about 12 years old.  That’s what they do.  Many of the pictures you saw, he looks like a little kid; he was a 300-pound huge man.  Scary.  He was scary, I’m just saying, that way.”

The real point, which apparently needs to be made over and over, is not whether Brown was a “scary” guy, or that it was obviously wrong to steal cigars from a convenience store, but that NONE OF THESE THINGS WHATSOEVER MEAN THAT HE DESERVED TO BE SUMMARILY EXECUTED.  And so Perloff’s pleas about how “complicated” the situation supposedly was, or her assertion that “the reaction to [the Goldsmith piece] is even much worse” than the piece itself, understandably leave most of her audience skeptical, to say the least.  That Perloff completely misses these points is what, it seems to me, rightly angers Moten.

Of course I believe in having a civil discourse and that we should avoid the temptation, all too common on social media, to vilify others (which, I guess, I have been guilty of).  And of course things are complicated; they always are.  But people have a right to be angry — about what is happening in American society today, and about the thoughtless responses to it by certain critics and performance artists.  Perloff, however, seems more concerned with internet etiquette and with being piqued about the supposed “romanticization” of police murder victim Michael Brown, than she is with the wider pattern of injustice that underlies this whole conversation.  And that is why I posted the link to Moten’s article.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Pushcart Prize Nomination

Following on the heels of its publication in The Pickled Body (see previous post), I am happy to announce that my poem “Paris of Appalachia” has been nominated by said journal for a 2016 Pushcart Prize.  Many thanks.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Three Poems in The Pickled Body

The Pickled Body 2.2, cover art by Padhraig Nolan
I have three poems in the new issue (2.2) of the Irish journal The Pickled Body.  They are titled “Paris of Appalachia,” “For Joyce Mansour,” and “Spectric Poem.”

Take a look, here:

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

James Liddy, review at RTÉ

Liddy in the film documentary, Patrick Kavanagh: No Man’s Fool

A very nice review of James Liddy’s poetic (and autobiographical) work appears from Paddy Kehoe on the website of RTÉ (Ireland’s state broadcaster).  It’s been seven years since Liddy’s death, but his work lives on as strongly as ever, as do my own memories of James the man.

Read the review here:

Friday, November 20, 2015

Wasted Talent article in the CDT

The local State College, PA, newspaper, the Centre Daily Times, did an article on my old band Wasted Talent, with the anthology album Ready To Riot recently out from Going Underground Records.  Read the article here:

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Gearóid Mac Lochlainn

[A couple of years ago, this encyclopaedia-like piece was commissioned, and subsequently rejected for unknown reasons, by Poetry International. I’m posting it now because I think Mac Lochlainn’s work is engaging, important, and indeed joyful.]

Gearóid Mac Lochlainn
(Ireland, 1966)  

Gearóid Mac Lochlainn was born in Belfast in 1966 and thus is of the generation in the Six Counties which has grown up with the Troubles. Mac Lochlainn’s gritty urban outlook is in marked contrast to most of the previous generation of Northern poets. An Irish-speaker from West Belfast, he was steeped in the atmosphere of the armed struggle and is overtly aware of the disjunctions which stem from being bilingual in such a highly-politicised society, a part of Ireland where national sovereignty is still contested. Thus, Mac Lochlainn cannot help but be confronted by questions of cultural and linguistic identity, and this is reflected in his work. The poem ‘Teacht i Méadaíocht’ (translated as ‘Rite of Passage’) describes the first time its speaker is stopped by a British army patrol: ‘– Keep yer fucking ’ands on the wall, Paddy! // I heard my details passed over the radio / to another stranger at base, / my Irish name now unrecognisable, / carved up by the crackling blades of English and static.’  The British army occupation of the North is here analogous to the often antagonistic relationship between the two languages, the indigenous Irish and the colonising English. 

Mac Lochlainn’s first two collections, Babylon Gaeilgeoir (An Clochán, 1997) and Na Scéalaithe (Coiscéim, 1999), dealt with such issues through the medium of the Irish language only. However, his breakthrough collection, Sruth Teangacha / Stream of Tongues (Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 2002), is bilingual and includes translations of some of his earlier poems. It could be argued that it is in the interplay between the different versions of Mac Lochlainn that he becomes especially interesting. As he writes in the notes to Sruth Teangacha, ‘In the original poems sound shaped syntax to a large extent and for this reason I believe it is impossible to really “translate” Irish poetry’. Mac Lochlainn (with his co-translators) often departs from his own original versions, sometimes significantly. There is a destabilising effect in regard to language, and the author himself speaks of ‘a playful jibe thrown out at the monoglot who seeks truth in translation’. Sruth Teangacha in this way is a type of meta-work, composed not just of Irish poems and English translations, but of the interaction between the two.

The result of this, though, is that neither the originals nor the translations can necessarily be considered authoritative in their own right. While each comments on its counterpart, it also undermines any claim that the other might have to being the ‘real’ poem. Certainly this is what Mac Lochlainn intends in regard to the translations; he is cognisant of the danger of allowing the English versions to ‘gain an autonomy of their own and eclipse the Irish’. What is more problematic is the effect on the original poems. The fact that a parallel version exists destabilises the authority of the original just as much as vice versa. However, given that only a small percentage of people will be able to read the originals, the troubling contradictions inherent in Mac Lochlainn’s work could be lost on many. It is likely that certain of his readers do not fully grasp the deeper implications being made about language, both as a cultural manifestation and as an entity unto itself, and instead take him as an energetic, Beat-influenced performance poet. Well, that is fine too.

A handful of poems in Sruth Teangacha are centred around the character of ‘Mo Chara’, a dishevelled busker who is ‘in a bad way’, and these form the basis for Mac Lochlainn’s next book, Criss-Cross / Mo Chara (Cló Iar-Chonnacht, 2011). Where the previous collection included Irish-language poems and their translations on facing pages, Criss-Cross / Mo Chara mixes things up both in regard to translation and to literary form. A number of poems are translated (again, usually in significantly different renditions), but many are not. Irish and English often intermix to create, as Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill has blurbed the book, ‘a creole or macaronic language which closely embodies the experience of many on this island of being literate (and sometimes illiterate) in two languages at the same time’. Further, given the sustained focus on the character (who is at times cynical, even about the Irish language itself, but who always maintains the characteristic Belfast irony), the poems in this volume have to be read as linked. A narrative develops, and so Criss-Cross / Mo Chara becomes a sort of novel-in-verse.

Mac Lochlainn has held writer-in-residence posts at Queen’s University, Belfast, and at the University of Ulster, and was a fellow at the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He has performed his work at numerous festivals and readings and is also a musician. Indeed, his two volumes with Cló Iar-Chonnacht are accompanied by CDs that combine poetry and music, adding a further layer to his challenging and original project.

– Michael S. Begnal

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Tribute to Steve Mackay

Steve Mackay (with Ron Asheton in the background), 1970
Many years ago, long before the transformation of the Stooges’ reputation and their election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Stooges fans were rarities.  Aside from those with specialist knowledge of music history, or perhaps someone aware of the Stooges as one of the progenitors of punk, few people had heard of them.  You’d have to first determine whether a person had at least heard of Iggy Pop, and then explain that the Stooges were his band before he went solo.  So when you did meet a Stooges fan, there was a kind of immediate camaraderie, a mutual recognition of something important.

I remember in the 1990s, in San Francisco, there was this guy I worked with, a bit older than me.  I got to talking to him about music, and he told me this story about how, once, when he had this job working second shift at a factory or a warehouse or something, he’d get off of work late, after a long, tough night, get a six-pack of beer, go home, and put on the Stooges’ Fun House album.  Now, as many will agree, this album is the greatest rock album ever recorded, when all is said and done.  But it wasn’t simply the fact that it’s a great album and the Stooges were a great band — it was side two that this guy was really waiting for.  Because, halfway through the first song on side two (“1970”) is when Steve Mackay appears, blowing his tenor sax with the heaviest, most brilliant tone you could imagine.

Mackay plays out the album from there, on three tracks total.  “1970” is a hard-driving, up-tempo song of desperation, exhibiting the Stooges’ proto-punk qualities.  Mackay’s tenor comes in at the 3:30 mark, with a blistering solo riding over Ron Asheton’s expansive bar chords.  The album’s title track, “Fun House,” a groove based primarily on the rhythm section of Dave Alexander and Scott Asheton, has Mackay soloing throughout, to the frequent cries of Iggy Pop: “Blow, Steve!”  The last track is “L.A. Blues,” in which the band eschews linear time and Mackay’s presence further pushes their sound into the realm of free jazz.

“That squawk!” I remember my former co-worker practically shouting to me, and I of course was equally as enthusiastic about Steve Mackay, because that moment when his horn appears on Fun House is one of the best moments in musical history, on the greatest rock’n’roll album of all time.  And it never lets up.  I remember also telling him, “If you like Mackay’s playing, you should also check out John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp. . . .”  And certainly it is from these heavyweights of the free-jazz movement that Mackay must have gotten his sound.  How a young guy working in the Detroit rock scene in 1970 could produce a performance up there with these aforementioned jazz innovators, I don’t know.  But he did.

Mackay’s playing on Fun House is both brutal and magnificent, and added something to the Stooges that they would never be able to duplicate without him (though he did later appear on the more recent albums The Weirdness and Ready To Die by the re-formed band).  Mackay also played with a lot of other groups and put out his own material, which I certainly don’t wish to minimize, but for me his playing on Fun House is the equivalent of a “master work.”  And if any artist — a musician, painter, poet, or what have you — can create even one work as great as this, then, wow, he/she has in some way got it made.

Mackay’s work on these Stooges songs can be further heard on 1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions and Have Some Fun: Live At Ungano’s.

R.I.P. Steve Mackay, who died 10/10/15.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Review of 'Salad Days' documentary

The latest hardcore documentary (now out on DVD) is Salad Days (2014), subtitled A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-90), directed by Scott Crawford and photographed by Jim Saah.  The hardcore documentary film has become something of its own subgenre at this point, and perhaps it’s even now a bit formulaic — interview snippets, cut to old live footage of a band, cut to photograph, cut to the next interview snippet, etc.  (What else could it be?  I don’t know.)  Occasionally there is text here to give the viewer some of the basic history not filled in by the interviewees.  Salad Days, however, distinguishes itself both on the material that it presents (J Mascis says at one point that while Boston bands had some good drummers, for him, it was the D.C. bands that had the best songs) and by the more probing, at times even critical point of view the director takes.  Thus, the film is not merely a celebration of the extreme outpouring of creativity that the D.C. scene was, but also an exploration of its limitations (necessitating, within the 11-year period the film takes up, numerous changes in form and attitude).

When most people think of D.C. hardcore, of course it’s the Dischord bands that immediately spring to mind: Minor Threat, Government Issue, S.O.A., The Faith, Iron Cross, etc.; they represent the classic period and are covered relatively well.  Ian MacKaye is featured prominently, and it would not be the same film without him.  Ian is fairly ubiquitous in these things, but he brings an important and often challenging perspective and is clearly not content to rest on his reputation as “leader” of the D.C. scene.  He speaks dismissively of getting crank calls from kids haranguing him about straight-edge, a “movement” he clearly no longer cares about in the slightest, if he ever really did.  In answer to charges that Dischord somehow alienated certain bands who were not part of their coterie, MacKaye simply notes that he never stopped anyone from forming their own label.  Still, it’s interesting that, as one commentator points out, regarding the formation of Fugazi, of course everyone was waiting to see what Ian would do next (and, humorously, that despite their demands that their shows remain all-ages and cheaply priced, Fugazi with their big hooks were in a sense the ultimate arena-rock band).

I personally would have liked to see more on the band Void, and Salad Days might have benefited from a more in-depth focus on other individual bands.  Void, one of the era’s best in my opinion, gets only a 10-second or so live clip and a very brief interview segment with guitarist Bubba Dupree.  There’s also only brief mention of the Flex Your Head compilation (1982), which is maybe more than any other record responsible for putting D.C. “on the map” nationwide.  The film rightly begins with the Bad Brains and their overwhelming influence, inspiring the formation of the likes of the Teen Idles, and from there Minor Threat, and, well, most of us probably know the rest of the early Dischord story.  Henry Rollins does an effective job painting a picture of the danger of the early days, of uber-macho assholes looking for punk kids to beat up, something one might remember, if indeed one was a punk kid in the early 80s.

Void, Wilson Center, 1983. Photo by Jim Saah /

One thing I liked about this documentary was that it and many of its interview subjects are intent on pointing out that there were other aspects to D.C., that the scene was not monolithic, and so Black Market Baby gets some coverage, for example, and later the political turn of the Positive Force shows.  Salad Days also devotes a significant amount of time to gender dynamics (something largely absent, for example, in another recent hardcore doc, xxx ALL AGES xxx: The Boston Hardcore Film [2012]) and presents a number of women saying frankly that they often felt marginalized.  Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins both admit that, at least early on, it was a scene dominated by adolescent boys, and so a lot of stupid things were prone to occur.  Rollins claims that once people started to “get laid” or have healthy sexual relationships, the scene got better (Thurston Moore gives his analysis on the subject as well).  It does not appear that most female commentators here would agree, however.  To the credit of writer/director Crawford, this difference in point of view is clearly drawn, not papered-over or obfuscated.

It’s also interesting that the film gets into class issues, at least briefly.  Most D.C. punks, we’re told, were middle- and upper-middle-class kids, coming from well-educated, mostly supportive families.  This seems to be in stark contrast to many in the Boston scene or the figures inhabiting the recent Tony Rettman book on the New York scene, NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980–1990 (2014) (there is also an NYHC documentary in the works from Drew Stone, who directed the Boston one), who are often more working-class or, in the case of New York, sometimes lived on the streets.  Though Salad Days doesn’t state this specifically, it could be argued that these differences at least partly account for the divergence in musical styles as well as attitude, with D.C. bands becoming more introspective and musically searching, while Boston and NYHC bands sometimes tended toward a rigid militancy.  (This of course is a broad generalization, and certainly counter-examples can be cited.)  On the flipside, these class differences could also have something to do with the accusation that D.C. punks were even spoiled or privileged, which is momentarily raised here but not examined very deeply.

Salad Days also engages with race, illustrating significant contributions from African American and Asian American participants.  Further, it briefly explores the intersections between the D.C. hardcore and go-go music scenes (Minor Threat shared a bill with Trouble Funk, for example), among other things.  However, Beefeater guitarist Fred Smith appears on a special-features interview segment discussing the fact that sound technicians at the band’s shows often assumed he was the bass player, simply because he was African American.  It might also have been interesting to analyze the meaning behind the Minor Threat song “Guilty of Being White,” but then it’s something that Ian MacKaye has already discussed at length in the 2006 film American Hardcore.

One minor revelation in Salad Days, for me anyway, is the extent of the split between the “Revolution Summer” bands circa 1985, such as Embrace (MacKaye’s first post-Minor Threat band), Rites of Spring, Fire Party, and Beefeater, and bands like Marginal Man and Scream, whose members suggest they became disaffected by the political emphasis of the former.  Back then, the latter bands seemed to me to be more representative of the ongoing D.C. hardcore sound, since Marginal Man and Scream (along with G.I.) were the ones who were still touring to other cities, whereas “Revolution Summer” was strictly a D.C.-based thing, and the bands associated with it were short-lived.  However, the film goes into some detail about the “Revolution Summer” departure, ascribing to it a much greater importance than many outside of D.C. might heretofore have realized.

The late-80s Dischord bands mostly lost my attention at the time, but Salad Days gives them their just due.  At least the likes of Fugazi, Ignition, and Holy Rollers broadened their styles out from the basic hardcore template that many of the bands in the New York of that period (for example) continued to assert.  Whether one direction is better than the other is a question for another time — my point here is simply that there’s something to be said for trying new things, which appears to be the hallmark of the D.C. scene.  (No doubt Stone’s upcoming NYHC film will have its own point of view on the continuance of the strict hardcore form in New York, after it was essentially over elsewhere).  It’s no accident, then, that Scott Crawford’s title refers to the Minor Threat song “Salad Days,” in which Ian MacKaye, as far back as 1983 (!), depicts hardcore itself as limited and limiting, as having “gotten soft.”  In any case, Salad Days the film manages to transcend the pitfalls inherent in the hardcore-documentary genre and provides a fresh look at one of the most important periods (and places) in American musical history.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Wasted Talent anthology album

A long time ago, in the early 1980s, when I was a teenager, I was in a hardcore/punk band called Wasted Talent.  Though never as well-known as the classic hardcore bands like Minor Threat, SSD, or Black Flag, we managed to play a few key gigs and also ended up on a celebrated compilation album, The Master Tape, Vol. 2 (Affirmation Records, 1983).  Additionally, we are mentioned in what is still the definitive hardcore history book, American Hardcore: A Tribal History, by Steven Blush (2001), and our bass player was interviewed in the American Hardcore documentary film (2006).

Now, a label called Going Underground Records has put out an anthology of almost all of our material, on vinyl, titled Ready To Riot.  Details are here:

The first pressing is a total of 500 copies, 100 of which are white vinyl.

Further, I was recently interviewed about the history of the band and the new record, here:

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Review of Maurice Scully, Several Dances

The latest collection from the Irish poet Maurice Scully is Several Dances (Shearsman Books, 2014). Scully’s writing, in the big picture, is just that: big. It is essentially an ongoing epic poem or chronicle of the “things that happen” (to quote the title of his major work, which this new book follows on from), in the line of Zukofsky’s ‘A’, William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, and Ezra Pound’s Cantos (thankfully without the kind of crackpot ramblings we sometimes find in Pound; Scully is anything but a fascist and has no time for paranoia about such notions as “USURA”).

Rendered correctly, these long, life-work poems do more than simply record the poet’s thoughts and observations; they encapsulate an argument, a philosophy. In his writing, Scully explores the way(s) in which language and physics (particularly light-waves) influence human perception of the world. Laden into this sort of thinking, or rather existing simultaneously in Scully’s work, are the emotions and details of human life in the day-to-day world, with these latter tending to be the key or gateway for illuminating the former.

A reading of the first piece in the book, “On a Light Ground: Eye Dance,” gives a sense of both Scully’s poetics and the kind of thinking that goes into his writing. First, there is an image: “Dapple of mother-spider / at the centre of its wet / web. . .” Then the speaker enters the poem, but obliquely, as the second-person “you.” In the third stanza come the lines,

I-me-myself are moving

to that left behind, through
air, to that placed shimmer
There is a sense of the multiplicity of the self, or perhaps rather the lack of a stable self. Even when the pronoun moves from second person to first, the first person exists in triplicate. Similarly, “forward” and “behind” and “ahead” are essentially one and the same.

Then, the mode switches back to second-person —

Are you ready? What? To cross

which pattern a/pattern a/
[black] ripple of leaf-shadow
over those books there
— which suggests the interconnectedness of the speaker (or even the reader, maybe also a “you”) with the patterns and shadows the world produces, and perhaps even with the poetry that limns such things (as “books” implies). However, even the things we see are never their “true” essences, Scully argues, but a simulacrum produced by the interplay of light waves and human perception:
smooth fluid undulations
that move across a vase
sketched in to burn care-
fully across representations

On the next page of the same poem, Scully further clarifies that what he is getting at are “Meshes of energies / made visible.” He goes on to revise and reiterate the setting “a calm autumn morning” (in different versions each time), graphing three different successive possibilities for the phrase, further highlighting the sense of the mutability of both language and that which it describes.

Toward the end of the poem, Scully connects “small paint-marks on my palm” and giant stars, conflating the large and the small, the individual and the universal, before finally asserting that “I // think I’ll live here for a bit / not across no but along.” This implies both a sense of ephemerality and the desire to be a part of a greater whole, to, in a sense, “go with the flow” of the universe.

Now, I don’t mean to make Scully sound overly or self- serious. There is plenty of humor here as well, from his riffs on Williams’s “This Is Just to Say” to his wry jabs at the arts industry and literary prize factory; from his short section of poems in greyed-out font (which incidentally come at the end of the book, after the bio note, when you think it’s over) and other typographical play to his use of the mysterious acronym “ELIGP” in the poem “Ground”: “this was at the ELIGP” — huh? Helpfully, the phrase is glossed in the Notes as “Eternal Learning Institute of the Gaelic Phantasm.” Oh, right, I should’ve known!

Actually, though, it’s a brilliant phrase that both subtly parodies and in Scully’s own way affirms the oft-overlooked or dismissed Gaelic backdrop in Irish culture. Since the Celtic Twilight period, there has been a tendency to romanticize this, but Scully, a fluent Irish-speaker, himself often intersperses phrases of the language throughout his work in a manner that both highlights Ireland’s Gaelic history and the part that that heritage and language plays on a day-to-day basis in the present. “The Gaelic Phantasm,” though on one level tongue-in-cheek, is a concept rife with possibility.

And now, I leave it up to other readers to analyze the poems in Several Dances that might speak to them, to indulge in the myriad other Scully phrases and lines here that are also rife with possibility and meaning.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Duquesne University Library, Pittsburgh Poets Database

The Point Bridge, c. 1900
Duquesne University’s Gumberg Library has created a database of Pittsburgh poets (in which I am listed). See it here:

Friday, May 29, 2015

Podcast Interview, May 28, 2015

There really was a microphone that looked like this.
I was interviewed yesterday (May 28, 2015) about poetry, artistic evolution, punk rock, Irish culture, American culture, and various other assorted topics, by Matt Ussia of the podcast radio series “We’re All Gonna Die.” Somewhere in there, I actually read a couple of poems.

Here is the link: