Rock Poems

Calling Out Around the World

plastic transistor, red & white
with a kickstand made of bent chrome wire
AM stations late at night
Gimme shelter, Light my fire
DJs lit my ragged dreams
with a kind of dim and holy light
that boiled my longing into steam
through a plastic transistor, red & white

A keyhole to a bigger world
a needle of light in my dark room
risk and motion, heat and girls
a carnival, a sonic boom
the power of a single song
a thunderclap, a tilt-a-whirl
I squinted through it all night long
that keyhole to a bigger world

people fought, people raced
people yearned and searched and kissed
people left familiar place
then sang about the place they missed
people danced out in the street
dreams created, dreams erased
love and loss – bittersweet,
people fought, and people raced

Plastic transistor, red & white
beams that blast through walls and doors
guitars and drums and dynamite
a place I’d never seen before
DJs lit my ragged dreams
with a kind of dim and holy light
that boiled my longing into steam
through a plastic transistor, red & white

(Brand New Day 2007)
A Poem is a Song You Write When the Band’s Gone Home

A poem is a song you
write when the band’s
gone home: an empty club with the
lights on, bartender preparing a bank
drop, waitress having one last
smoke before setting free the
babysitter; waiting for the van,
the pounding on the alley door, humping
the gear that gets
heavier every night, finally
home to a dark street, satisfaction and
loneliness, the list in your head of
things you could have done better,
falling asleep with ringing ears.

Poetry is the songs you write when
the band’s gone, and that’s fine;
see, now, the drummer’s not late, the singer’s not
drunk, no more painful shock from the microphone, or
broken strings, no asshole who
only wants to hear Zeppelin, no
bully bar owner, or drunks who
talk over love songs.

A poem is a song that
doesn’t need a band, but
here’s what I miss:
new strings
a dance floor
the punch and roll of a good drummer
cigarettes and Dewars
couples kissing in dark corners
a bartender who likes my songs and
pushes back my crumpled bills, the
feeling you carry unseen, like
shrapnel, that tonight
could be the
night.

(Sweet 2006)

get ready

Listen –
we’ve allowed ourselves to be
snake-charmed, lulled, we’ve
balanced the bowling ball of
our beliefs on the knitting needle tip of wishful thinking.
We are overdrawn, and
under-prepared, we’ve buttered our bread and
made our beds and the
Peterbuilt of Reckoning is
grinding up the far side of a
near hill.
The roller coaster car is
clack-clack-clacking to the
top of that first heart-stopping drop and
-by the way, they never finished
building the tracks.

What am I talking about?
I’ll tell you what I’m talking about.
An event is going to happen that will make
Revelations look like a
Disney movie, make the
Four Horsemen look like the
Three Amigos.

Someday
Keith Richards is
going to die, and when he does you’d
better be ready; you’d better pray to
your God or Higher Power that you rely on
because the transitory and impermanent nature
of Life will be revealed as the
sputtering birthday candle that
it is.
When Keef, our Dorian Gray, the
king of the un-dead becomes
un-un-dead, then we can count on
nothing.

Water will flow uphill,
ice will burn,
gravity will turn sideways,
cats will mate with dogs,
things will cost what they’re worth,
liars will not prosper,
fairness and common sense will be the
law of the land.

In short,
utter
madness.

(Brand New Day 207)

Woodshed

He’d been in bands where
his lightning
spider-walk
fretwork had
made the amphetamine crowd
howl.
They wanted speed and
electricity and
he gave it to them.

But one night
on the way home he
saw some of them transfixed
by a burning building, and
when the plate-glass exploded, they
howled
just like they did for his
lightning
spider-walk
fretwork.

So now he sits in
a dim small room
teaching himself to play that
one note, slowly, perfectly
over and over.

(Brand New Day)

On Hearing A Short Set by Danny Gatton at the Hard Rock Café NYC 1992

Every autumn WNEW brought
truckloads of gear in Anvil cases and
duffel bags to the restaurant where
I worked, for a live broadcast.
Listen – context is crucial – this is
when there were only five or six Hard Rocks,
this is when radio was almost done
being important, this was when promotions
people thought they were being clever to call it
Rocktober!

Things were changing. There was
more and more music that was
not made by musicians. There was more
money in ad placement than in
album sales. I’m trying not to say that
vast amounts of crap were washing
up with the tide, but
there you go.

Changes for me as well; I was a thirty-year old
busboy-soon-to-be-waiter, displaced from
my city to this bigger one to try to make
music without losing money, trying to hit
a homerun with a kielbasa and confused about
what was wrong with my swing. I drank
too much, slept badly, and hadn’t learned how
to talk to my wife. For someone with a
dented self-image and an unhealthy addiction
for pleasing people, I had taken the worst
possible kind of job;
working for tips.

Rocktober – good God. Every yahoo from
Queens and Jersey would come early and camp out
at a table all day. I’d be lucky to make subway
and scotch money. At least I had the illusion
that I desperately needed at the time – I was
where the action was.

Here’s an example of the kind of three-legged
dog that the industry geniuses were betting on –
a group called the Perfect Gentlemen, five
pre-pubescent pukes that lip-synched and did
community theater dance moves, a transparent
attempt at launching the next big Boy Band.
Their shtick was to be overly polite
(Why thank you so very much! After you! No, after you!)
I was horrified at this possible vision of the
future of the music business. I wanted to throw my own
shit at them. I wanted to kill them as a favor to
music-lovers. Instead I got someone to watch my
tables so I could go have a cigarette in the basement.

When I came back up Danny Gatton was
getting ready in the cramped stage area. I knew
of him from guitar magazines. He was a sort of
mirror-image of the rest of the acts; loaded with
real talent, and no one gave a shit. He stuck out like
a coyote at a dog show – old jacket, greaser DA,
built like a fire hydrant with fingers like sausages.
He looked like he should be standing under the
lift with a trouble light, pointing out the crack in
your transmission bell housing. Then he began
to play.

How do I say this – I couldn’t move. I
literally could not move, because if I did I might
miss something I might never see again.
I ignored my tables and watched this unlikely
alchemist with an attention I had for little
else. Because what he did defied everything
I knew about making music with a guitar.
And believe me, I knew plenty. I knew a guitar
like a captain knows every inch of his ship, I
had studied music like a priest studies the
Bible. I could watch Clapton, say, and while
I couldn’t do what he could do, I knew how
he did it.

But Danny Gatton, with his slicked back hair and
suspicious eyes and dock-worker hands was
working some dark magic on that small stage, while
competing with the beer-talk and plate-clatter. From
his battered telecaster and road-worn amp he
pulled out sounds that had no business being there:
banjos and saxophones and Hammond organ. He casually
played slide with the Heineken bottle that he drank from, and
an invisible string section entered the room.
He was the best I had ever seen. And even in
that crowded, rowdy room I wondered who heard
him? I wondered if his holy back-road voodoo was
like a ghost that was only visible to a certain few?

Then he was done, he was gone, and the DJ yakked
and the some young product got up to hype his
new single and irritated people waved their empty
glasses and orders came up.

Months later I heard on the radio that
Danny Gatton had, without warning or
explanation, walked into his barn in Maryland
with a shotgun and…

…and my sense of loss was shocking and
immediate and almost inappropriately
personal, a punch in the heart that has
never stopped aching. And all I know about
that heartbreaking event is that I don’t believe that
it was without warning, or explanation.

(Sliver 2008)

Serves You Right to Suffer
J. Geils Full House Live

The Cinderella Ballroom in Detroit
a rainy night in April ’72
a hive of restless mojo to exploit.

The band’s fueled by adrenaline and booze
they fan the burnt-out city into flame
with working-class white-boy blues.

Just listen to the singer – it’s no game
so shattered he’s afraid to sleep alone
burning up with fever, and with shame.

The blues harp player blows a desperate moan
there are no words for how low-down he feels
the numbing ache of an un-set broken bone.

(He drinks so much the doctor prescribes milk;
the band’s a rusty hammer wrapped in silk.)

(Sliver 2008)

Ninety Nine and One Half Days

This is one of those
poems that’s starts with a
title, and little else.

I say it –
I write it –
I feel its weight.

Ninety nine and one half days.
Some phrases appear as if
by magic, with no

connection to experience or
memory, as if created
that moment, and even if

it’s not true, even
if they are lodged beneath
memory like a seed under your

dentures, it still
feels powerful and
exotic – a new idea.

This phrase is not
new at all; I took it
from the Jimi Hendrix song

Red House, which I’m pretty sure
he took from somewhere else.
No matter. In Jimi’s case

he’s trying to find a
woman with whom he shares
some history, some mystery –

he goes to her red house and
while he’s approaching it he tells
us that he hasn’t seen his baby in

ninety nine and one half days, a
period of time that feels
somehow ominous; we don’t

know why they’ve been apart, who
left who, which one
pushed or ran or hid.

Whatever unfinished business
there is will stay that way, because
when he grasps the knob it will not

turn. He is locked out. She is
gone, either on purpose or through some
heart-numbing bad luck. Ninety nine and

one half days will stretch to one hundred,
one-twenty, three hundred and sixty four,
a forever’s worth of days, so many that

he may lose count, lose the image of her
face, the memory of her body in a
shared space, the archive of conversation,

her name even. He’s got a bad, bad
feeling, and even as he says that our scalps
crawl with the possibilities: the

truth we’ll never know, don’t want to
know; emptiness like a tunnel with no
end, a wound that won’t stop oozing, a

chill that never leaves. But here’s where
Jimi pulls out his talisman, works his own
magic –

“that’s all right,
I still got my guitar,
look out – ”

and the howl won’t heal the
scar, but it stops the
bleeding, lights a match

in a dark room. He doesn’t play
for us, he cannot make
us feel what he feels –

he plays to better understand
his relationship with pain,
with loss, with rage.

Because that’s what we do –
it’s not about describing, it’s
about illuminating.

Ninety nine and one half days – it’s
a long time to be trapped in the dark, and
a short time to have left.

(Lonely Life of Spies 2009)

Band

Whiskey + coke +
beer + smoke +
volume + girls +
your name on a
poster.
Duct tape.
Guest list.
Destroyed dressing room.
Load out.
One more cigarette, then
fall asleep with ringing
in your ears.
Do it again next week, but
first the day job, rehearsals,
almost broke.
Shabby Clark Kent.
Seeing nighttime people in
the daytime. Better to see
daytime people in the
nighttime, with whiskey +
coke + beer + smoke +
volume + girls +
your name on a
poster.

(Lonely Life of Spies 2009)

Near the End of His Career

He is guided backstage,
like an invalid, like
an old sick man.

He is astonishingly not
old at all, if one were
to consider his date of birth,

rather than his destroyed
face, his empty gaze.
In the claw of his

hand a crumpled plastic
cup half-full of gin that
he no longer tastes or feels,

he is mildly annoyed by
everything but powerless
to do anything about it.

He is an object of
wonder and ridicule;
this drunken fool wrote

those beautiful verses?
That inspired artist became
this drunken asshole?

How could someone treat
words with such love and
respect but hate his body so?

It’s a shame and a disgrace
when other people waste
their gifts.

(Lonely Life of spies 2009)

Layla

Summer is never the
way that it was.
Love is never the way
that it was, which is fine.
Whiskey is never the
way that it was, which
sometimes breaks my heart.
But then again, everything
breaks my heart, even
joy.
I was thinking about Layla,
and how that song can feel like
Shakespeare, or Greek mythology.
A ship is foundering, the sky
furious, the sea an indifferent hunter
and the lover has left with
the lamp. The wind lashes and
tangles the lines, the salt stings
and blinds, the wood groans and
splits and the sailor howls raw longing
for his lover and prepares to die in
the churning brine until…

That C chord on the piano,
that one sound is the half-
drowned sailor’s fingers touching
rock, touching earth, touching
land; whatever the storm has done
he won’t die and his fingertips are
the first to know because of that
C chord on the piano, and he
will crawl up on the warm sand
and see a gull sunning herself
on a piece of driftwood, a
piece of his shattered ship that
he mistook for solid ground,
and even with the loss of the
boat, the crew, the lover and the
lamp he is, for that moment,
alive
and safe and that is the kind of
joy that breaks your
heart.

(Lonley Life of Spies 2009)

The Dawgs at Grovers

A half-mile off the highway
At a blinking traffic light
On a Thursday or a Friday
Or even better, a Saturday night

At a blinking traffic light
Near freight tracks rarely used
On a loaded Saturday night
The sky looks lonely, bruised

Near freight tracks rarely used
Park the van, kill the lights
The sky looks lonely, bruised
Tonight could be the night

Park the van, kill the lights,
Hump the gear onto the stage
Tonight could be the night
We let the dogs out of the cage

Hump the gear onto the stage
Shed your skin, put down that weight
Let the dogs out of their cage
Tonight we’re going to stay out late

A half-mile off the highway
At a blinking traffic light
On a Thursday or a Friday
Or even better, a Saturday night.

(Lonley Life of Spies 2009)

Work Ethic, or
Why I Bloodied Myself at the Inn Square

The message was that
hard work makes your dreams come
true the message was that if you
weren’t succeeding you weren’t
pushing hard enough the message
was that John Henry killed himself
to beat the steam hammer the
message was about straining
towards perfection.

So when my words fell
short, when my voice
did not convince, I
tried to show my love
with sacrifice, I tried to
beat the elusive sound
out of my guitar with my
fists. I tried to believe that
each night each club each
audience represented the final
round in a knock-down drag-out
fight over what mattered, sometimes
not noticing when the fight was over
and the crowd gone home.

It started at Inn Square when I
tore off a fingernail on a guitar
string – the pain was a flashing
red light and my guitar became
slick and unplayable, I became
decorated in warpaint that no amount
of bar towels could absorb, I didn’t want
it to stop until every person in that bar
was painted with my blood, my love;
who worked harder than me?

I had martyred myself for
devotion and it became a ritual
I couldn’t stop, flaying the skin
off my knuckles night after night,
scars upon scars, stained shirts, if
I didn’t bleed then I wasn’t working
hard enough, I was cheating the
audience and betraying my
desperation, I deserved to
fail.

Finally I realized that it had
become an empty gesture like
the ones I railed against, one
more bit of stagecraft, no one
cared and soon I didn’t either,
I had bled myself dry and
grown tired of performing feats
of endurance for an audience
of one.

Now the message is be still and
listen now the message is raise your
sail raise your antenna raise your eyes
now the message is move through the
woods like a wolf not a high school
marching band, now the message is
that there may be nothing more powerful
than silence and mystery.

(SIX 2010)

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