By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Garner's life took a turn when he joined the Hospitalized Veterans' Writing Project, and began writing about his illness. "I kind of wrote myself out of a hole. You have to know that you can do something that's worthwhile. I like to think I wrote myself out of the hospital."
Besides books of poetry and essays, Garner says he's written at least 60 song-poems. "Song-poems make you feel like you're somebody with a little value and purpose in life. Before, I didn't feel like I had any value or purpose in life."
Which doesn't mean Garner's songs are necessarily heavy. "Nighttime Whispers," featured in the PBS documentary, is a dreamy ballad song you could imagine Patsy Cline singing. It's a perfect little love song.
"The doctors said I had a slight touch of 'delusions of grandeur,'" Garner says. "I was sort of like someone who thought he was president, or someone important. I said, 'Well, I hope I can live up to that title someday.'"
Song-poems are a kind of perverse analog to legit music and pop culture: Listening to old comps, you get a funny, sad sense of what was happening in America at the time, both musically and socially. If Phil Milstein, founder of the American Song-Poem Music Archives, hadn't already done it, it's probable some curator at the Smithsonian would have eventually collected these recordings for posterity. They're akin to the WPA oral histories conducted during the Great Depression — with a mercenary, pop-cultural twist.
"We've got reality TV and American Idol— what's more real than song-poems?" Gary Forney asks. "To me, song-poems are the new folk music."
The earnestness of intent is what makes song-poems poignant and often funny. That's also why they're fascinating historical documents. Because people write about what really matters to them, song-poems have a much wider range of subject matter than "real" pop songs. In that sense, this is a genre Woody Guthrie could appreciate.
"Any time there's a catastrophe — earthquake, rocket explosion, sinking ship — people would write a lot of songs about those tragedies," Mary says. "Sometimes they didn't make sense, but were very sad. I remember one song about a man whose wife went on a diet — at the beginning it sounded like a real country song, but as it went on, the woman got thinner and thinner, and at the end you were singing about how she died."
Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet, "A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity." According to that definition, most song-poetry is fucking great.
"After Columbine, and after Oklahoma City, there's always a ton of songs that come in, people want to vent their spleen," says longtime session singer Gene Merlino (a.k.a. John Muir), the so-called king of the demo singers. "Like I'm sure right now people are writing about Iraq."
Merlino sang on thousands of demos, but is more or less retired today and lives in Camarillo. (He worked in TV and film a lot as well, and his music studio is lined with photos from his salad days on Sonny & Cher, The Smothers Brothers, etc.) Merlino saved the sheet music for some of the odder stuff he recorded. The lyrics often don't rhyme, but they're deadly sincere. As Merlino says, "Most of these are written from people's own experiences." For instance:
"The Pimple Song":
"I scrub my face until it's sore, I've tried each salve in the whole drugstore, and still I can't improve my darn complexion/I think I'll join a monastery, and never never ever marry, and live a lonely life without affection."
"The Miracle Pill":
"There are pills so you can have babies/And pills so you can't have babies/But where's the pill for the miracle of love?"
"I enjoyed doing demos," Merlino says. "I wasn't doing it for money. And besides, it really sharpened the reading skills. It was always a challenge — try to get through an entire session, three or four hours, without making one mistake. It was tough."
One song was particularly hard to finish. "It was maybe 1962 — I can even sing it right now. 'In a Chinese garden during the feast of lanterns . . . /someone offered a cup of tea . . . /My heart went thump-d-thump each time/She'd drop a lump . . .'
"When I got to that part about 'she'd drop a lump,' I gritted my teeth," Merlino says. "The woman who wrote the song was in the studio when we recorded it, but if she hadn't been, we all would have been on the floor.
"She said, 'My husband doesn't know I'm here and I took the money and I'm putting it into the song.' The song meant so much to her. That's when I felt bad."
"There's a tenderness to song-poems — it's pretty beautiful," says Jamie Meltzer, the San Francisco filmmaker who made the Off the Charts documentary. "To me, these people who write song-poems are like anyone who's creative — you have to believe in yourself and do it despite what other people think, or you'll never get anywhere. I really admire the bravery of doing something in the face of a world that doesn't give a shit about it. It actually became a metaphor for me as I worked on my film."
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