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
Some of the best recordings, especially those of Rodd Keith, manage to musically convey the eerie, off-kilter quality of their lyrics. Rodd often played a Chamberlin, which was a precursor to the Mellotron. The Chamberlin used analog tapes of recorded sounds, and though it was designed as a side-dish instrument, Keith sometimes played it as a one-man band — which produced a strange, distorted sound. Check out the ranting "Beat of the Traps," included on the new compilation. "It was recorded in '69, I think," says Rodd's adult son, Ellery Eskelin. "It's unbelievably far-out, total chaos — it almost had a very punk attitude, a complete onslaught of insanity."
Keith had always experimented. Even as a young man in Oklahoma, he got in trouble for playing weird jazz on the church piano. But as an adult, it seemed his wild creativity was only able to express itself when there was a limited task at hand and no pressure to be great — that is, when improvising on the piano, or recording other people's lyrics in obscurity, under pseudonyms, to pay the bills.
"Rodd would come over sometimes and sit down at the piano and improvise, and I used to love lying on the couch and just soaking in all those sounds — he was just brilliant," says Keith's brother Eskelin. "But he was such a perfectionist. You thought, sooner or later Rodd is going to write something he's proud of and he wants to record — never happened. Nothing was ever good enough for him to say, 'Okay, here's a completed composition.'"
For many amateur songwriters who send in their lyrics to song-sharks, it's just the opposite: Same desperate need to express themselves, but very little self-consciousness or even self-awareness. Maybe Rodd Keith found some inspiration in that. You could say he died because he couldn't create his own art. Then again, maybe the cover provided by song-poem work enabled him to play with his creativity in a way he desperately needed. Redemption songs: Gary Forney says song-poems saved his life.(Photo by Joshuah Forney/ITVS)
It's certainly helped his son, a highly respected avant-garde saxophonist in his own right. Ellery Eskelin's parents split up when he was a baby; growing up on the East Coast, he never met his father, or even knew much about his work. Nevertheless, he shared Keith's taste for the absurd, and discovered his father's musical alter-ego through the first song-poem compilation, The Beat of the Traps, released in the '90s.
"I had heard that people were collecting song-poems, and wondered if people knew about my dad's stuff — I thought, probably not. Then to my surprise, I found out that he's considered to be somebody pretty central."
Since then, he's become a Rodd Keith historian. "It's healing to see my father get some recognition, and for me to be able to share it. For a long time, it was something deeply private and very obscure, even to me. The few times I tried to tell people the little I knew about my dad — well, supposedly he was this great musician, and he did this strange work, and I never met him — it's hard to express the intensity of that to someone else. So, when I found that people had discovered Rodd without any help from me, I was quite astonished."
Discovering his father was also a musical revelation. "It's freed me up musically," Eskelin says. "I'm less worried about whether something is hip or corny or trite or deep, or any of that. Just follow the impulse out. Let it be real. Then go from there."