Perfect Sound Forever

From Song-Poems to Home Taping

Top 40 Tourism by Barry Stoller
(May 2006)

Imagine a musical universe in which Smiley Smile, not Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Band, is the triple-platinum apotheosis of pop art. If such a proposition is possible, then Rodd Keith and Jay Ducharme make perfect sense. They are the gatekeepers to an inverted AM radio universe in which Elvis impersonators out-chart Elvis and Frank Sinatra is but a footnote in his daughter's illustrious career.

For the uninitiated, Rodd Keith (born Rodney Eskelin) is considered the Mozart of the song-poem, a genre in which home-grown poems are transformed into demo recordings in the manner of jingles. ("Poems Needed For Hit Songs – Free Examination.") Chart-topping wannabes would submit invariably accepted lyrics for budget studio sessions in which burned-out quasi-professional musicians slapped together enough pop clichés to produce a crude two-minute vanity 45 — for a fee, advertising for potential clients in teen pulp publications (i.e. comic books, gossip mags).

As David Greenberger writes (in the liner notes to the song-poem compilation CD, The Human Breakdown Of Absurdity):

Whether the writers thought of themselves as misunderstood poets or hamstrung sages, they were making a living doing something else, something far less magical. And who was bringing their vision to full flower? A studio full of musicians in drudge situations not that different from their own: players locked in windowless studios for hours at a stretch, cranking out as many as a dozen songs for each of those hours while wondering how much longer it would be before this foot-in-the-door turned into something more meaningful.
The decidedly off-kilter aesthetic of song-poems found favor with postmodern hipsters in the neo-DIY 1990's, reaching its "so bad it's great" peak along with Daniel Johnston, Neil Hamburger, and (for mom and pop) Waiting For Guffman. With the song-poem, there is a delicious dialectical collision as the unpolished sincerity of the Gong Show contestant is propped up by the polished insincerity of the wedding band. No big surprise Sonny Bono did a little "song sharking" (soliciting song-poems from amateurs) prior to meeting Cher.

The cheese factor of song-poem coolness is made ambiguous by the conspicuous brilliance of Rodd Keith, who cosmically deconstructed the very templates (Halloween novelties, exotica vamps, C&W screeds, Brill Building tearjerkers, and Tin Pan Alley ditties) he wrung dry.

The "poems" Keith received documented the quotidian concerns of the vast silent majority and his musical interpretation chronicled the expanse of the twentieth-century hit parade (B-sides included). Within Keith's immense catalog (numbering thousands of 45s), the banalities of entry-level Rod McKuens are mercilessly commingled with the discombobulated homage of Cruisin' With Ruben & The Jets. A facile multi-instrumentalist (using of an obscure proto-Mellotron keyboard sampler called the Chamberlin) Keith displays, in his lo-fi milieu, the playful pop smarts of Todd Rundgren or Beck.

Unlike his smooth-crooning contemporaries, Rodd Keith's singing is often marginal, which lends a post-punk "folk implosion" vulnerability to the words he delivers. On Keith's mid-‘60s material, rife with surfy garage riffs and beatnik jazz licks, new wave is ever implicit. His tracks--"I Died Today," "My Pipe Yellow Dream," "I Dreamed Too Long, Woke Up Too Late," and "Ecstasy To Frenzy"--easily transcend their cult-classic status. Part of their strength lies in the drop-dead effectiveness of the lyrics. One sample from "Ecstasy To Frenzy": "Perhaps the world's a cube, or a tunnel or a tube / That's why I'm searching / I'm searching for the truth."

Sealing the deal on his underground cred, Keith was a psychologically troubled dude who consumed hallucinogenic drugs to excess and died (of unnatural causes) long before his recognition.

Rodd Keith (and general song-poem) anthologies, culling the most faddish and improbable numbers (from a galaxy of the mundane), are packaged as implicit sideshow curiosities. They are presently available through Amazon and other commercial outlets—a presumably bittersweet happenstance for any show-biz ambitions tendered by the "poet customers" so many decades ago. (The American Song-Poem Anthology liner notes claim, "The original recordings were paid for by the songwriters. As it is impossible to track them all down a quarter of a century later, The American Song-Poem Music Archives have agreed to serve as trustee for royalties on these recordings.")

The interest in song-poems peaked in 2003 with Off The Charts, a widely publicized PBS special on the topic accompanying the release of The American Song-Poem Anthology CD on Bar/None Records.

Big media couldn't resist the populist oddball hook. Jon Pareles wrote in the Sunday New York Times: "Like other amateur and outsider art that has lately been reclaimed—from thrift-shop paintings to ditties by schizophrenics—[song-poems] can make observers think twice about what, if anything, separates naïveté and ineptitude from inspiration."

The image of the song-poem industry as Diane Arbus audio followed the press releases issued from the authoritative, encyclopedic American Song-Poem Music Archives site (curated by Phil Milstein):

Song-poem music is a scam in which innocent people are deceived into paying to have a poem or song lyric they've written set to a tune and recorded. Although the song-poem company suggests in its promotional literature that it will support the finished recording, and that it therefore has a chance to become a smash hit, in reality once the record is completed and returned to the customer it is quickly forgotten about, in favor of the location and seduction of new victims.
Gene Merlino (a veteran backing vocalist who recorded countless song-poems under the aliases John Muir and Gene Marshall) refutes that view. In 2003, he told NPR's All Things Considered, "We actually did our very best to make these things sound good and I think we gave them a real good product. They were getting their money's worth and I never felt guilty at all in doing these things--ever."

Jay Ducharme, a prolific home tapist songwriter-musician, concurs:

There was a company called Columbine Records in the late ‘70s. I got a mailer from them telling me to send in a poem or lyric and they would evaluate it. If they liked it, they'd set it to music.

Well naturally it was just a vanity publisher, but I was naïve. I had written lots of instrumental piano stuff at that point. I had a few terrible poems. I picked a song I had written for a never-finished musical.

It was called "Lily's Song," and it was god-awful. I mean, just terrible. But it was the only "song" I had ever written—so I sent it off to them. I wrote the right-hand piano part in the tenor clef; that pretty much guaranteed that no one would be able to play it.

About a month went by and I heard back they really liked my song. They lined up a singer to record it. To offset their production costs, I would have to pay just $350. I would even get a complementary copy of the recording. That was a princely sum of money for me, but I saved my pennies and eventually sent them a check.

Months went by, and I completely forgot about the recording. Then one day a thin package arrived in the mail from Columbine Records. I tore into it. There it was, the most expensive LP I ever purchased: The Now Sounds of Today.

The cover showed a field with a tree standing in it. On the back of the jacket were the two performing artists. One was a woman whose name I can't remember. The other was a guy who looked to be in his late 40s wearing what appeared to be a bad toupee. It was this man, John Muir, who was tasked with singing "Lily's Song."

I eagerly placed the needle down on the track. The sound of a cheesy jazz guitar emanated from the speakers. Muir's silky-smooth voice crooned, "All I want is someone to love..." I listened in shock. It was my song all right, but it had been turned into…a song!

It turned out to be the best $350 I spent.

I discovered why my original sucked as a pop song. It had no hook. It had a really lumbering chord progression. The uncredited arranger at Columbine must have gotten my sheet music and screamed, "Not another piece of crap!" But with skillful editing and orchestration, my miserable dirge had been transformed into a miserable cheesy lounge number.

The rest of the songs on the album were no better. I can't imaging what it must have been like for the artists working at Columbine, to have to take dregs and attempt to turn them into fine wine day in and day out. I guess it was a steady gig, as it must have been for Rodd Keith.

Fortunately, it would be almost a decade before I attempted to write another song.

Ducharme persevered.

By the late 1980's, technology empowered him to pursue his own pop recording adventures. He proceeded to sing and play on twelve home-recorded cassette albums, many of which feature self-penned material. Ducharme's primary instruments were a Yamaha PSR-27 keyboard (with stock drum machine), a Seagull 12-string guitar, a Radio Shack microphone and a Casio SK-1 sampler - "which offered a stunning 1.3 seconds of sampling at telephone quality," as Ducharme relates.

He continues:

All that was run through a Tascam Porta-5 cassette four-track. It cost me $450 new, which was just $100 more than what it cost me to get "Lily's Song" recorded. I used the Porta-5 to record twelve albums, so I certainly got a good value for my investment.
He adds:
I'm sure there are a lot of people who don't have the technical savvy to engineer their own recordings, so song-poem publishers will probably always be around. And they'll probably be more profitable, because those with the know-how can produce, arrange and orchestrate the whole thing in their basements with a relatively low-cost computer. The software on the market now can realistically replicate any type of musician playing any style of music.

Computers still can't sing, though. John Muir can breathe easy; he isn't out of a job... yet.

Ducharme's music doesn't have the sci-fi edge of Rodd Keith's but, for someone operating in the ‘80s, his skewed AM pop sensibility veers close. With loopy sing-a-longs ("Vegetable Girl"), heartstring-tuggers ("I'm Your Daddy Now"), folkie spoofs ("President's Hop") and grand-slam operatics (his English translation and performance of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana), Ducharme, as his hometown newspaper put it, is "topical, cerebral and sometimes deliberately nutty in the manner of those who don't seriously expect to become famous but would sort of like to be famous anyway."

Ducharme put a lot of time and travail into crafting his cassette albums but never matched the effort pursuing fame and fortune. Modest and low-key, Ducharme is the quintessential home tapist – driven, serious and protective of his muse. The commercial environment in which Rodd Keith thrived would most likely be Jay Ducharme's idea of hell.

Listening to Rodd Keith, Ducharme comments:

Not much separates Keith from Strawberry Alarm Clock or 1910 Fruitgum Company. He didn't get airplay, yet the two other groups saturated the radio. Why? Keith's songs fascinate me more because of how they were crafted. He was like a welder taking scrap metal and making a beautiful piece of furniture out of it. Whereas groups like SAC and 1910 started off with a store-bought kit and couldn't quite put it together correctly.
However amazing the results, Rodd Keith denigrated his song-poem career, referring to it as base prostitution. How could submitting to the vagaries of an audience and the exigencies of market forces be anything else? Rodd Keith was accountable to the same cruel forces that confront Bob Dylan and Mariah Carey. The primary difference is the song-poem gig operates on the molecular level--one audience member per performance.

Jay Ducharme is content to leave the dues-paying, starfucking, and backstabbing to those more qualified to conduct such business. Now a Professor of Electronic Media at Holyoke Community College (in Massachusetts), he is "passing along what I've learned to a new generation of creative souls." The lesson is DIY–and do it for yourself. Sharing his song-poem "roots" (and the track itself), he has furthered his admirable goal.

The popularity of song-poems, as I interpret it, owes to the continuing, perhaps quixotic, quest for rock & roll legitimacy amongst listeners (often musicians) too passionate and too experienced to buy the mainstream party line. Almost since its emergence, there has arisen a need for rock & roll reinvention, a liberation from its inevitable corporate cooptation and an invigorating return to the scruffy disreputableness—and secrecy—that spawned it. Now that everyone "gets" William Shatner's Transformed Man, Ozzie Osbourne is a sitcom star and John Q Public is invited to remix or mashup arena rockers' megahits, the "underground" becomes more elusive.

Cassette home songs precariously stamped upon magnetic ribbons of disintegrating oxide particles, the most singular and perishable of all recording media, may well be the next stop for rock & roll redemption.

"Lily's Song" can be heard here

Jay Ducharme's music is featured on Karen & Jay's Official Homepage. Also see Ellery Eskelin's Rodd Keith site

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER