In 1992 R.E.M. released Automatic for the People. The lead-off single was “Drive,” a half-spoken/half-sung tune. That song told me that my life was on the right track, that my ambitions were not futile, that they were even reasonable.
In 1992 I considered myself a poet. I put all my writing energy into poetry. My first chapbook had been published. I attended poetry readings almost every free night I had, sometimes three or four in a week. I was heavily involved in the SoCal poetry scene, which was thriving, at least as much as a poetry scene can thrive.
In fact, poetry seemed poised to do more than thrive. It felt like it was about to explode, to become the next big thing in popular culture. Even if it had to be relabelled as “spoken word” to achieve that. This was the time of the great coffeehouse boom (before Starbucks took over); new coffeehouses opened on seemingly every corner, and every one of them hosted an open mic, usually focusing on poetry. Zines were also booming, and usually included at least a few poems. Poetry slams were gaining national attention.
And here was R.E.M., one of the biggest bands at the time, putting out a song which was essentially spoken word. Every time it came on the radio, it seemed to confirm all my hopes and beliefs for the art form.
It wasn't alone, either. Spoken songs were all over the radio in the early 90s. “Numb” by U2, “Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm” by Crash Test Dummies, “Screenwriter Blues” by Soul Coughing, “88 Lines about 44 Women” by Nails. Plus more obscure tunes like “Pepper” by Butthole Surfers, “Popular” by Nada Surf, and “The Sweater” by Meryn Caddell. Then there was “Detachable Penis” by King Missile; the first time I heard it on the radio, I nearly swerved off the freeway, it was so obviously a poem, just like other poems I had heard that night (I was returning from some poetry reading somewhere). Every new song I heard further confirmed my notions of what was happening, what was about to happen. Meanwhile, punk rock stars like Henry Rollins, Exene Cervenka, and Lydia Lunch were performing and recording spoken word.
Of course, the wall between poetry and rock has always been thin and porous. From Bob Dylan to Jim Morrison, Patti Smith to Jim Carroll, Jewel to Billy Corgan, there have always been poets who aspired to be rock stars, and rock stars who aspired to be poets. In my early teens I had a book called The Poetry of Rock, which presented rock lyrics as if they were poems, along with commentary to justify this presentation.
But this felt qualitatively different. Major, and minor, rock acts were releasing songs which not only had poetic lyrics, but which were spoken rather than sung. And the poets around me were doing something really similar.
Since I was attending so many poetry readings, my concert attendance dropped off significantly. For most of the decade, the only concerts I went to had some connection to poetry. Although there were more of those than you might expect.
The last concert I went to as a concert was U2 in the fall of 1992. But I still went with poet friends, and even though “Numb” wouldn't come out until the next year, we sensed that U2 had some connection to poetry. The live version of “Bullet the Blue Sky” (on Rattle and Hum) had a great spoken word section.
Also, Public Enemy opened for them. Public Enemy was one of the few rap groups I liked. I admired their political stands, and enjoyed their wall of sound production. Unluckily, the sound mix at the show was so poor, we could barely understand their lyrics. What we could make out was political posturing. We had hoped for something like a poetry reading, instead we got a political rally.
(Obviously, the connection between rap and poetry is even stronger than with rock music. Rap is poetry put to music. In many ways, the existence of rap helped lay a foundation for the spoken word scene. Still, if rock music in the 90s showed the influence of the spoken word scene, with rap the influence mostly flowed the other way. That is, poetry in the 90s was heavily influenced by rap. Many poems I heard were essentially raps without the music. This influence only grew through the decade, especially in the slam scene.
However, for a variety of reasons, I never got into rap. Perhaps I never gave it the attention it deserved. Maybe I'm just too hard wired for screaming guitars. So, in my personal history here, rap plays a very minor role.)
In the spring of 1993 I saw King Missile at the Coach House (San Juan Capistrano). The opening act was a local band called Shrinky Dinx, who certainly put on a memorable performance. The lead singer ran all over the room, eventually trying to literally climb the walls up to the balcony, all dressed in just a speedo. Musically they weren't impressive at all, but they did have a huge following, which packed the place. A year or two later, they changed their name to Sugar Ray and achieved a solid, if brief, celebrity.
Sadly, when they were done, their fans all left, leaving King Missile to play to a nearly empty house. They still managed to impress me with their combination of spoken word and shredding hard rock, but the energy had completely gone out of the room, and I could tell they felt it.
A year later, MTV put on a “Spoken Wurd Tour,” with John S. Hall, the leader and poet of King Missile, on the bill. Also included were Maggie Estep, Reg. E. Gaines, and Gil Scott-Heron. It played at the Troubadour in L.A. This was, obviously, further sign that spoken word was gaining currency in popular culture. MTV had played the occasional poetry video over the past year, and now they had thrown their support behind a national tour of poets. Maggie Estep and Reg E. Gaines had both come out of the NY slam scene. Both performed with musicians, Estep with hard rock, Gaines with hip-hop. Interestingly, Hall, the one who had an active band chose to perform by himself. (When it came time to perform “Detachable Penis,” Hall recruited an audience member to read the actual piece, while he prowled the stage repeating “Detachable penis.”) Gil Scott-Heron was a soul/blues singer best known for “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a semi-hit from the mid-70s. He seemed out of place in the show, a different generation and a very different style from everyone else on the stage. Perhaps he was there to attract an older crowd, and/or to lend a sense of legitimacy to the event.
I enjoyed the show, though it was notable more for the strength of its production than of its poets. I heard work just as good, or even better, regularly at readings around town. But these poets performed on a major stage, one of L.A.'s most notable nightclubs. That in itself was significant.
About this time, I started publishing Next..., a monthly newsmagazine about the SoCal poetry scene. Part of my motivation was the notion that poetry was exploding, and that explosion would need a magazine chronicling it. Being a magazine publisher gave me entry to a number of cool events.
The 1994 Lollapalooza tour (headlined by Smashing Pumpkins and Beastie Boys) included a spoken word tent. I attended two shows, one in San Diego on a press pass, and one in L.A. as a performer (I had won the spot through a local slam). Both days I spent the majority of my time in the poetry tent; I had to do a write-up on it after all. In San Diego, I did sneak away to watch Shonen Knife, the all-woman Japanese punk band who understood punk, despite its reputation, was really happy music, so they sang about bicycles and candy.
The San Diego poetry tent closed early enough to catch the Beastie Boys, who impressed me much more than I expected, though more for the music than the words. On the other hand, Smashing Pumpkins disappointed. I watched about half of their set that night, and then headed out to the parking lot to beat the crush. In L.A. I thought I'd give them a second chance, but when they played the exact same set, I left at exactly the same point (just after they played “Disarm,” a song I did like).
In 1995, Long Beach (my new hometown) held When Words Collide, a spoken word festival, which played a lot with the crossover between rock music and spoken word. Among the performers were Patti Smith, Dave Alvin, and Ed Sanders, all delivering poetry rather than music. It was great to see Patti Smith deliver a full set of poetry (very transcendent poetry at that); she did close with a couple of songs, including “Dancing Barefoot.” Ed Sanders opened for her; he was one of the founding members of The Fugs. The Fugs were, to greatly simplify, an East Coast folkie version of the Mothers of Invention. They also pushed their musical forms to their weirdest edges, while engaging in cutting lyrical satire. Sanders did have some musical backing, both prerecorded and of his own making, but his performance was also primarily words.
Another night I caught Dave Alvin, G. Love, and The Watts Prophets. The Watts Prophets rose out of the 1965 riots, and presented a combination of music and poetry which was often cited as an inspiration for rap. They reunited in the aftermath of the 1992 riots, to a new found popularity. G. Love performed a solo set of folk-rap. Dave Alvin, founding member of roots rockers The Blasters, and occasional member of X, told stories of poverty in suburban Downey, with no music at all.
The intersection of poetry and music dominated my listening over the next few years. This was largely the result of my deep involvement in the poetry scene, both through my own writing and performances, plus the needs of my magazine. But the connections were readily available; I didn't have to look too far to find shows which included both, together and separately.
At the 1996 Taos Poetry Circus, Ray Manzarek backed up Michael McClure with some very Doors-like piano playing, which fit perfectly with McClure's spaced out, meditative poetry.
Later that year I attended/covered an event called The Ringling Sisters Fun Raiser in Hollywood, which included a mixed bill of poetry and music. Henry Rollins headlined with a spoken word performance, which was basically an extended rant. The other spoken word act was the Ringling Sisters themselves, three well-known members of the L.A. poetry scene – Pleasant Gehman, Iris Berry, and Annette Zalinskas – who presented a sort of girl-group version of poetry. The rest of the bill was filled with local, but well known, musicians: Mike Watt with Nels Cline, Flea, Possum Dixon and Phranc. While many of them didn't make a huge impression on me, standouts were Phranc, who described herself as “just your average Jewish lesbian folk singer,” and Mike Watt, who turned in a truly explosive set.
The highlight of this period for me was discovering John Sinclair. Actually, I was already well aware of Sinclair. He was a true 60s counter-cultural icon. He managed the MC5, founded the White Panther Party, and got thrown in jail for possession of two joints. John Lennon even wrote a song about him (“Free John Sinclair” off the Sometime in New York City album). But now he had a new incarnation – a blues historian.
Sinclair delivered spoken word pieces about old blues masters over appropriate blues riffs, courtesy of his Blues Scholars. The Blues Scholars were actually a rather amorphous group of musicians, depending on which city he visited, and what musicians he knew there. The L.A. version included Wayne Kramer, one of the guitarists from the MC5, so they delivered a particularly hard rocking version of the blues. I caught three different shows by them over the course of a year or so. Two were in clubs (House of Blues Hollywood and Fais Do-Do), but the third was, memorably, in a Borders Bookstore. They did not tone things down for the bookstore, so it made for an exciting show.
I interviewed Sinclair for Next... (in the Borders before the show, in fact). It was a fascinating interview, although he refused to discuss any of his work in the past, caring only to focus on what he was doing at the time. In the most memorable part of the interview, he discussed what he called “the world of 2000,” by which he meant artists who could sell 2000 copies of whatever they put out (book, album, etc.), enough to live on, but not enough to have any real impact on the culture at large. A world which includes even the most successful poets, as well as most musicians making any sort of living off their art.
I also caught a number of local bands in connection with poetry readings, sometimes as part of the show, sometimes because they played the same venues. There are too many to list here, and since none of them broke big, the names will mean nothing to you anyway. There were several bands fronted by poets. Most notable were two bands fronted by poet/singer Matthew Niblock (now known as Matthew Mars), The Clear and Superman Loses the Girl, either of which should have been huge.
Partially because of poetry becoming my primary interest, and how much attention I paid to its intersections with rock music, I stopped paying much attention to what was popular in music. But it's also true that I simply didn't find much on the radio to interest me. Rock music post-Nirvana just didn't seem to have much to offer me. There were exceptions, of course, but I certainly didn't follow it like I once had generate some attention to, and respect for, it in the general culture, but never enough to be huge. And not enough to sustain my magazine, which folded in 1998. Freeing me to go back to attending concerts, if I could only find something worth the price.