By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
"Song-poem music is just a constant source of exquisite wrongness," says Don Bolles, former drummer for the Germs and a song-poem obsessive. The word wrongness means something coming from Bolles: Today, in his trashed-out L.A. shack, Bolles is wearing a gray, velvet sheath dress and dirty socks, and has just lined his eyes with a Sharpie. He sits on his unhygienic bed/couch eating a PB&J, and graciously plays some of the gems of his song-poem record collection.
"This music has everything you want," he rhapsodizes. "There's a complete mismatch of intent on the part of its participants: You've got the naive, idealistic rube writing the thing. Then you've got the cynical bottom-line dude running the show, and then you've got the beleaguered session hack just trying to make a few non-union bucks on his days off. It's just so wrong. It's like that old poetry game — song-poems are essentially exquisite corpses."
To prove his point, Bolles plays some songs recorded by the Rave-Ons, a 1970s session band who were actually fired from one song-poem company. "That wasn't easy to do," Bolles says. "Our Natural Energy" is full of wacky '70s-style conservation tips like "take one car instead of two wherever you go" — and the singer keeps busting up. (She also sounds like she's got mild laryngitis.) In another song, the male singer loses track of the desultory melody and rhythm as he sings about six baby woodpeckers in the old elm tree. It's very David Lynch.
Over the years, these mutant 45s have found their way into the secondhand shops of America, along with the many LP compilations — with outstanding titles like "Now Sounds of Today" — that song-poem companies have released for decades. So it was only a matter of time before postmodern musical supergeeks discovered them. Thanks to collectors like Bolles, Tom Ardolino of NRBQ, John Zorn and others, a cozy cult has grown up around this music. New compilations have been released of the best/weirdest song-poems — including the latest, "The American Song-Poem Anthology: Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush?" (Bar/None). Off the Charts, a documentary about the song-poem phenomenon, will air in Los Angeles February 14 on PBS. An exhaustive Web site, the American Song-Poem Music Archives, offers MP3s and loads of history (aspma.com). And some song-poets have become minor celebrities of a sort.
Including Rodd Keith. In fact, within the surreal demimonde of song-poems, Rodd Keith has finally achieved the godlike status he always wanted.
The deeper you get into song-poems, the more you recognize the signs of mental illness and fragility all around: in the lyrics, in the music, in the fans.
Song-poet Gary Forney, 49, was a small-town factory worker in Iowa, just out of high school, when he had a breakdown of sorts. "I got really depressed . . . I used to go to bed for three, four days on end. They diagnosed me with chronic depression. I'm considered disabled for life. I was declared incapable of taking care of my own affairs, and they put my wife in charge of me."
Forney has mostly lived on disability ever since, except during the Reagan era, when his disability was cut, and his family didn't have enough money for heat or even firewood.
Years later, that experience inspired Forney's first song-poem, called "Caravan." He marks it as the beginning of his recovery.
"What was causing my depression was working at things that were against who I was. I'm a creative, artistic individual — and I have a genius-level IQ. Put me in a factory, it's a waste of time," Forney says.
He thinks that writing poetry and music actually prevented him from committing suicide: He says he hasn't had a depressive episode since he started song-poetry eight years ago. ("But don't tell the government!")
"There was one day a couple years ago when my wife turned to me and said, 'Are you happy?' For the first time in my life ever, I turned to her and I said, 'Yes.' I love my life anymore."
Forney has become a bit of a star in the song-poem world, and is prominently featured in the PBS documentary. "I've become a big name in this little shadow world. I'm a big fish in a weird, strange pond." But the best perk of his music is the groupies. (His wife shares them.) "I had sex with two women in a row named Twyla. I called it the Twyla Tour," he says, astonished.
Unlike many song-poets, Forney writes with a grasp of his kitschy medium: "'Aliens Stole My Dog' is a parody of other song-poems," he says. "Chicken Insurrection" and "Three-Eyed Boy" are also intentionally funny.
"I'm trying to bring a little Andy Warhol into it," he says.
Song-poet Van Garner, 59 (also featured in Off the Charts), says that writing saved his life too. After serving in Germany during the Korean War, Garner had a nervous breakdown in 1961, and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, what he calls "my nervous condition."
"I sort of blew my top. I wound up in a VA mental hospital for five years," he says on the phone from Tennessee. "I was extremely depressed. I didn't know what was going on around me or anything; I lived in my own world of thinking. Of course, I was having hallucinations too. I was at the point where I was afraid to speak a single word — I wanted to say something, but I didn't have the nerve to say it."