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Poetry in motion

They’re ersatz and unwieldy, a bit cynical, sort of a scam. And they’re terrific. They’re song-poems — mismatched marriages of lyrics thunk up by Joe Q. Public to music churned out by studio pros — and they represent the gleefully gawky collision between commerce and the creativity of common folk, tapping into that great triumvirate of American yearnings: self-expression, fame, and a quick buck. In Jamie Meltzer’s documentary Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story, which screens next Thursday at the Milky Way in Jamaica Plain (followed by live renderings of songs from the film by the Weisstronauts and Snoozer), these stupendously silly songs and the winsomely weird folks who wrote them spring to vibrant life.

You’ve seen the ads, tucked in the back pages of mags and rags and comic books: SONGS WANTED FOR POEMS AND RECORDS or YOUR SONGS OR POEMS MAY EARN MONEY FOR YOU. It’s guestimated that since 1900, more than 200,000 song-poems have been recorded in hundreds of small studios across the country, from the old Five Star Music Masters on Tremont Street, to Columbine Records in Hollywood. These places were (and are) as much assembly lines as dens of creativity. In the film, we meet mercurial Gene Merlino, "King of the Demo Singers," who’s been banging ’em out since the late ’50s. He once recorded 82 songs in four hours.

Some ads promised returns of up to $50,000 in royalties per song. But unsurprisingly, not a single song-poem ever charted. It’s easy to see why, watching producer Art Kaufman peruse the lyrics, scrawled on yellow legal paper, of "The Thing," a shambling manifesto about a monster who likes to boogie. How to make it sing? Some thoughtful hums and a few desultory pokes at a keyboard, and Kaufman is off. Time elapsed from first read to finished product: 48 minutes.

If the session men are a tad jaded, the songwriters themselves are disarmingly eccentric, quintessentially American specimens. Take prolific song-poem scribbler Caglar Juan Singletary, a virginal nerd who sits smiling next to his grandmother as he enumerates his lyrical preoccupations. "The subjects I write about are martial arts ... the ladies ... and religion. And science fiction, too." These find glorious voice in a song like "Non-Violent Taekwondo Troopers" (which also throws in a nod to his beloved bike, Angelaria). "Angelariaaaaa! Show me yourself," croons mail-order maestro David Fox over a throbbing pre-fab synth score. "Come in the spirit of Jesus Christ. Thank Jehovah for kung fu bicycles and Priscilla Presley."

Sometimes the song-poem process was used for less than pure expression. In the mid ’70s, John Trubee mischievously scribbled the most obnoxious and nonsensical lyrics he could think of and mailed them off, expecting nothing more than a letter of admonishment. But sure enough his song arrived, with session pro Ramsey Kearney singing his song, "Blind Man’s Penis," in a dulcet country twang over martial drum rolls and weeping pedal steel: "I got high last night on LSD. My mind was beautiful, and I was free. Warts loved my nipples, because they are pink. Vomit on me baby, yeah yeah yeah. A blind man’s penis is erect because he’s blind."

But most often, song-poems represent Americans’ straight-faced concerns, dressed up in an era’s pop-music idioms. And like America itself, they’re bipartisan. An anonymous songster’s "Richard Nixon" is a panegyric to Tricky Dick that lays down a stirring patriotic hymn, in the vein of "Ballad of the Green Berets," as Rod Keith — "the greatest song-poem interpreter of all time" — intones that "God, in his infinite wisdom, put Richard Nixon on this earth. To bring to us his heritage, one of priceless worth." On "Jimmy Carter Says Yes!", by Waskey Elwood Walls, interpreter Gene Marshall re-imagines the humble peanut farmer as an ersatz Isaac Hayes. Over bombastic bass lines and blaxploitation brass, he talk-sings that "as your president, I, Jimmy Carter, know it is possible to run a government efficiently, without sin or any corruption. I will do my level best to run the government decently, without any state of eruption."

It’s these earnest and endearing songwriters that make Off the Charts so affecting — people such as Tennessee’s Van Garner, who’s been writing song-poems since the ’40s in emulation of his hero Roy Acuff, or the guileless and gangly Gary Forney, who sets out with his son Josh to sing songs like "Chicken Insurrection" and "Three-Eyed Boy" to handfuls of bemused onlookers on their grandly named Iowa Mountain Tour. (Never mind that it’s only one stop. And that "there are no mountains in Iowa ... unless you count a few hills and quarries.")

Just as comics writer Harvey Pekar was undeterred by his poor draftsmanship, simply enlisting others to draw his American Splendor strips for him, these people aren’t afraid to contract out in order to hear their musical visions realized. And just as Pekar’s comic book — and the critically acclaimed film it’s spawned — finds beauty and resonance in the quotidian, so do the peculiar musical musings of these folks. "People are wild," says NRBQ drummer Tom Ardolino, one of America’s premier song-poem connoisseurs. "[The songs are about] whatever comes to their minds. Y’don’t know what it’s gonna be!"

Jamie Meltzer’s Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story screens Thursday, September 4 at the Milky Way Lounge and Lanes, 403-405 Centre Street, in Jamaica Plain. Tickets are $5; call (617) 524-3740. For more song-poems, check out Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush: The American Song-Poem Anthology (Bar/None).

Issue Date: August 29 - September 4, 2003
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