Friday, April 9, 2010

When we were cool enough to follow Morphine

I was drinking beer in a buddy's garage when he excused himself to knock out a family appearance in the house before bedtime. Pawing through his CDs, I saw a compilation from 1995 my band Eleanor Roosevelt had contributed to, so I plucked it of the the pile and popped it in.

The compilation was Outstandingly Ignited: Lyrics by Ernest Noyes Brookings, Volume Four. It came out in a series on the ESD label out of Minneapolis, dedicated to songs settings of poetry penned by a retired M.I.T.-educated engineer.

Without question, this stuff is proto-Poetry Scores. We knew it as such from the get-go. Poetry Scores grew out of a mobile documentary collective, Hoobellatoo. On our early field recording journeys we would sprinkle in visits to those who had gone before us, the ancestors of our method and aesthetic. David B. Greenberger was one of the first.

David was the guy who curated and executive-produced the Ernest Noyes Brookings series. These songwriting compilations were one of many manifestations of David's Duplex Planet project. Named after one of the senior homes where Greenberger worked as a young arts school grad, Duplex Planet was a low-fi 'zine about the old folks from the seniors home, a weirdo but kindly representation of them, part down-homy documentary and part outsider artifact.

It all got started when an art school grad (David) landed a community job as activities director at the old folks' home. He started making the most of job by trying to get the residents preoccupied with something new, something outside their immediate condition. This took many forms. 

Our band enters the story with the surprising emergence of Ernest Noyes Brookings, nursing home poet. When asked to write a poem, Ernie blithely told David he would write a poem a day if provided with a title, and off they went.

Back to Volume Four. I met a sad-souled woman in Cape Cod one dark night on a rock band jaunt. In the morning she played me the first volume of the Lyrics by Ernest Noyes Brookings series and explained the concept. I loved the concept and the compilation. She knew David Greenberger well. She said, "I think David would like your band, send him your music."

We sent him the first Enormous Richard recordings, our 90-minute cassette Why It's Enormous Richard's Almanac, and David paid us a compliment that remains my single most prized quote about our music: "It has a naturalness you don't often hear."

He sent me a bunch of Ernie's poems. My songwriting partner Matt Fuller and I seized on one titled "February." We wrote a haunting little rock song to it. When I told David about "February," he had bad news for us.

The label had since sold him on saving all twelve month poems for a big, blockbuster fifth volume of Ernie songs that would cast light back on the whole series. David had been actuve in the New York music scene of a pretty fantastic era. As a result, Duplex Planet had a number of well known rock & roll readers; David could assemble a super-star cast of twelve to write songs to the twelve month poems. And so we reliquished "February" to the likes of Richard Thompson, David Byrne, and R.E.M.

David sent some more poems, to compensate, and Matt and I settled on one titled "Fifteen". We wrote and recorded the song - the band was now named Eleanor Roosevelt, rather than Enormous Richard; another "ER" - and mailed it to David in upstate New York, and he used it.

Here is what I liked listening to Outstandingly Ignited, the volume "Fifteen" finally appeared on, the other night. First of all, the music is really good and varied, better and more varied than my ears were in 1995, because it makes a lot more sense to me now.

I also like that David resisted sequencing "Fifteen" as track fifteen; it is track sixteen. Moreover, it comes after one of the marquee bands on the compilation, the mighty Morphine. I hadn't remembered we were ever that cool. It was really nice to be reminded.

Here is the three-song sequence around our song on the compilation. The song that comes after ours is pretty excellent, too; check it out.


From Outstandingly Ignited: Lyrics by Ernest Noyes Brookings: Volume Four

15. Morphine: "Mail"

16. Eleanor Roosevelt: "Fifteen"

17. Jordan Maul: "Eight Days a Week"

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