The Argotist Online
1940. Ejected from school at 17, various menial jobs. Began writing poetry at
14. Published in Evergreen Review at 17, a big career boost. Met Michael Horovitz
in '60, joined New Departures group. Poetry sometimes with jazz. Abandoned other
means of support. Did Albert Hall show in ‘65 with Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti,
Burroughs and Co. Began to make a living. Asked to write lyrics for Cream in
‘66, vast hit songs affording somewhere to live. In ‘68 began singing,
formed own band Battered Ornaments, signed to EMI, was then on the road for
nearly 10 years with various bands. When punk appeared, left music disgusted and
began writing film scripts. Gradually back in music as producer and
sideman/percussionist. Meanwhile had worked with Jack Bruce on all his solo
records since Cream. Also long-term partnership with Phil Ryan (ex-Man) on and
off since 1970, then permanent since '78. Three records so far, including
latest, Road of Cobras, 2010. Halfway through new one, should appear
March 2012. Autobiography, White Rooms and Imaginary Westerns, published
you think of your lyrics as poetry?
A: I don't usually think of my lyrics as poetry, but having said that some have more "poetic" content than others. You have to bear in mind that I came from poetry initially. The earlier lyrics thus had more residue from that. As a progressed, I found that working in more day-to-day language suited me better, except in certain instances when I wrote for other people who wanted the other thing. Having said that, I also had a huge influence from films and the more surrealist of painters, which led to a certain flavour of imagery which some thought "poetic", whereas I mainly didn't think of it as that.
Do you think it is important that songs rhyme and if so why?
A: Rhymes in songs really depend on the content and shape. Sometimes it's great to maintain a certain amount of tension then hit with a good rhyme. On the other hand, the looser stuff can be just as effective, as can songs where you build up to what everyone thinks is going to be a rhyme and then don't deliver it. Some of this also depends on the humour content.
Do you think song lyrics must conform to recognised song structures such as
clear rhyming schemes, choruses, refrains, hooks and bridges or that songs can
also be like free verse?
A: Once again, it depends on what you are trying to achieve. It's great to make your own shapes as soon as you are familiar with the traditional forms, i.e. folk and blues, and then it's also good to be aware of the Standard Repertoire, i.e. classic popular songs and show tunes. Then you can begin to experiment both with self-made structures and with freer forms, both of which I work with. Once again, some songs need repetitious devices such as hooks, choruses, motifs or refrains while others need the tension of bridges or buildups, depending on what you are trying to do.
When you read poetry in school or elsewhere did you recognize any connection to
the music you enjoyed?
A: The poetry I read at school was far from what I was listening to musically. Wordsworth and Wynonie Harris are basically incompatible. Of course Byron and Burns are song-related but I didn't really study them at the time. At school I got into Dylan Thomas and then Lorca and then the US Beats. Perhaps there is a relationship between Lorca and Sleepy John Estes, but I loved both and didn’t really see it at the time. The jazz I loved also had some fine lyrics, both of the New Orleans variety (related to blues and ragtime) and also Bebop. I enjoyed some of the "vocalese" attempts to put lyrics to jazz solos, by people like Eddie Jefferson (‘Workshop’) Annie Ross (‘Twisted’) and King Pleasure (‘Parkeer's Mood’).
Was there anything about poetry in books that influenced your songwriting?
A: As in the previous question, Lorca (especially ‘Poet in New York’), Kenneth Patchen, some of the Beats especially Creeley, Langston Hughes' ‘Weary Blues’ all had an effect, plus perhaps Gerard Manley Hopkins fascinated me technically and no doubt some of what I gleaned from him got into all aspects of my writing.
Why do you think songs are more popular with people than poetry is?
A: Mostly songs are more popular because there is a heightened element of drama via performance. Songs are often considerably more appealing due to the presence and support of good musicians. It's only in relatively recent times in the West that poets have consistently performed their work,. but due to their often more subversive nature and lifestyles (until rock and roll) they were less popular both due to lack of investment both from the private and the public sector. Poets also, until Horovitz, Mitchell and myself came along, did not have a sense of reliability and professionalism as performers. They were more like mad painters. Because I wanted to be a musician anyway my eventual professionalism was a step towards that. Of course, there is also relatively no business structure to accommodate poetry, and there probably never will be despite some poets having been flirted with by major record labels at times. The answer to the problem has unfortunately been Rap, which tends to employ the same boring structures and attitudes all the time, but does somehow connect to a lot of people. I did a gig the other day along with some young poets, and nearly all of them were using basic rap ideas, very formulaic and not much life in them. There is more to it than that.