Photo by Debbie Davies/ITVS
Nobody knows how Rodd Keith wound up standing on Santa Monica Boulevard at 5 a.m., 10 days before Christmas, looking down at the Hollywood Freeway. Nobody knows if he was alone, or what the hell even happened.
Earlier that night, Rodd Keith had called his brother, Gerald Eskelin. "He was living in a sort of loft above a recording studio on Sunset, around Highland, and he wanted me to come down and have a drink with him," Eskelin recalls. "I could tell on the phone he was blazingly out of it, and I said, 'Rodd, let's get together tomorrow.'"
By this point, in 1974, Rodd Keith's drug problem (he used LSD, PCP and heroin, according to his friends) had taken over his life, and his personal manner had become pretty unbearable. Looking back, Eskelin believes Keith was suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia. "He began freaking people out, developing his own cute little language," Eskelin remembers. "He loved using words that sound similar 'cheese sauce' was Jesus. He called himself 'Shom Howe' show 'em how. Combining all that with the angel dust and other drugs he got into, sometimes it was impossible to sit down and discuss anything with him." Keith refused to get help, though. "He used to say, 'I can pull the wool over those guys' eyes,'" Eskelin says.
It's not that Rodd Keith was an asshole he was a sweet, lovable guy. But, as Eskelin explains it, "He wasn't hooked into reality. He had such a sense of being bigger than everyone else. He used to say he spelled his name with two D's because God only used one." The son remains the same: Song-poem legacy Ellery Eskelin. (Photo by Van Natta/ITVS)
According to everyone who knew him, Keith was a musical genius the type who can pick up any instrument and play it, create melodies on the spot, improvise on piano for hours, write gorgeous arrangements and compose in any genre. He had the talent to go as far as he wanted. Somehow, though, he could never quite get it together.
"Rodd used to come over and we'd crack a bottle of wine and cry about the 'legitimate' music business," says his old friend and colleague Dick Castle. "That's really what we were all after. I think the last time I saw him, he was sitting here crying in his beer, calling himself a prostitute. He said, 'I'm prostituting music I'm literally going out and selling myself to the highest bidder.'"
Still, Gerald Eskelin never thought his brother was suicidal. In fact, nobody's certain whether Rodd jumped or was so high he thought he could fly, or maybe walk the railing like a tightrope.
"Part of me feels like, gee, I wonder if things would have been different if I'd gone down there that night," Eskelin says. "Who knows? Maybe it would have saved him for another week or month. Or he might have gotten into more trouble and ended up in an institution.
"I have to look at it like, that's it, that's what happened."
Rodd and Dick, with those porn-star names, were working in the dingiest outpost of the record industry: the "song-poem," or "demo" business. "Song-sharking" may be its most accurate label. You know, those outfits that advertise in the backs of tabloids: "Poems Wanted for Recording Consideration," "Earn royalties!" "Poems Wanted for Songs & Records!"
Naive would-be poets sent in their lyrics and a fee (nowadays around $100 to $400), expecting entrée to the music business, maybe even a hit song. What they got, instead, was a cheap-ass recording of their words set to music usually recorded in four or five minutes. One take.
If they were very lucky, Rodd Keith, who worked for several song-poem companies in the '60s and '70s, had composed the accompanying melody and arrangement. In his hands, leaden, awkward poetry sometimes achieved a kind of transcendence; he could actually extract the original intent of the writer, it seemed or else make something far more interesting, at risk of offending the customer. On "I'm Just the Other Woman," Keith sang in a woman's falsetto over a piano recording played backward. The lyricist demanded a new version. The singer is the song: Gene Merlino in action(Photo by Lyle Gamm/ITVS)
In the pre-digital heyday of song-poetry (the '50s through the '70s), song-sharks employed full bands to record demos. And while Keith was the best, the song-poem netherworld was full of talented musicians, usually working under pseudonyms, trying to supplement their legit gigs. The hackish circumstances required unusual skill. "You really had to be a fabulous reader to sing demos," says Castle.
"You'd go through 12 songs in an hour," says "Mary," who sang demos for 20 years. "It was a challenge. Though the songs were not songs, you had to make them into songs. It made me a better musician, and you got to work with really good musicians."
If the singer flubbed a line, he or she tried to fudge it. Laughter was a distinct hazard. "I used to force myself to think of something sad," Mary says. "Something horrible." You'd have to. Just consider a few song titles: "I Am a Ginseng Digger," "Song of the Burmese Land," "Listen Mr. Hat," "Non-Violent Taikwondo Troopers."
"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."
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."
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)
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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."