Perfect Sound Forever

Kenward Elmslie's poem songs

Crossing the Pacific In an Underwater Skylab
By W. C. Bamberger
(February 2009)

In the 1950's Kenward Elmslie was the protege of the well-known lyricist John Latouche, who had worked with Duke Ellington and many others. Elmslie, at times uncredited, helped Latouche with such chores as writing a lyric for Leonard Bernstein's theme to On the Waterfront, and songs for on and off-Broadway revues. Elmslie even had a jukebox hit (or, per Elmslie, "hitlet") in 1959: "Love-Wise," sung by Nat King Cole.1

Latouche threw penthouse parties that included guests ranging from Lena Horne (who drummed on a wastebasket and sang) to the pre-On the Road Jack Kerouac. On one occasion, the poets John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara and Barbara Guest came to read. Ashbery's poetry, smooth and sophisticated in unusual ways, in particular caught Elmslie's attention. Soon after this, Elmslie read a short play by another "New York School" poet, James Schuyler, and recognized in it a language much similar to what he had been trying to dig at as he wrote lyrics. Musical theatre productions move at a glacial pace, and Elmslie began to write poems to fill in his free time--and in a very short period of time, he became the most language-intense and interesting of the New York poets. For years, his desk was strictly segregated: lyrics for songs for musicals were kept in one drawer, poems in another. But in the end, this separation of powers broke down, resulting in a number of uniquely artful, beautifully loopy Poem Songs.

Elmslie's sensibility has always favored glittering mixtures of poetic language and an almost star-struck attitude toward galumphing human foolishness. From his first days as an apprentice in the lyric trade, Elmslie set about gathering in certain threads that have always been part of the Broadway tradition--comic absurdity, exaggeration for effect, social criticism, language plays--and braiding them ever more tightly together. For a never-produced musical of The Madwoman of Chaillot (written years before the popular Katharine Hepburn film), for example, Elmslie and composer Claibe Richardson wrote "They."2 In the lyric, a veneer of "pod creatures" sci-fi spookiness introduces a meditation on how humanity has mutated into more and more diverse and socially incompatible forms: "[One] day someone came towards me... I couldn't get past him. I looked at his face, and I didn't dare move. His whole manner was closed. I knew he'd disposed of one of our type--and taken his place."

And that's exactly the way the invasion began
Of the creatures who are liquidating man...

They stand by a movie house, stare at the line.
Tell me, who's ever seen them go in?
They don't eat, they don't drink, but they swallow tiny pellets.
They get nourishment through their skin.
    To look like one of the masses,
    At night they wear dark glasses.
    "They." They are known as "They."

Only a single Woody Allen-sized step beyond the usual Broadway lyric perhaps, but a definite step. And a much more succinct portrait than that of later novelists who took on the new Urban Crawler social types.

In the world of musical theatre, composers and lyricists often have to play selections for "backer's auditions."3 A demo of Elmslie singing "They" with Richardson on piano, recorded for audition purposes, was issued in 1968 on the LP record that was the 9th issue of the literary magazine Mother. This was the first album with Elmslie's singing voice to be issued, but he already sounds comfortable and assured.

Through the 1970's, Elmslie began adding more songs to his poetry readings. There was "Alaska Blues" (music by Lee Crabtree, an original member of the Fugs), "The Woolworth Song," and "Who'll Prop Me Up in the Rain" (the last two from his musical play City Junket), and a solo version of "Meat." Elmslie would often have a boom-box with a cassette recording of his accompaniments, and sing to those. Then, in 1982, he enlisted a number of his favorite Broadway, nightclub and opera singers to help him record Kenward Elmslie Visited.4 This album includes eight Broadway-style songs, two selections from Washington Square, his opera with Thomas Pasatieri, and four "Poem Songs." Elmslie limits himself to singing "They" yet again, this time with a full arrangement. To my ear, two of the Poem Songs are closer to conventional categories than "They." The first, "Who'll Prop Me Up in the Rain," here sung by Richard Thomas, is a sweet-natured lament about growing old, and wondering who will be there to take care of the singer "when the high times wane." The lyrics to the last of the four, "Adele the Vaudeville Martinet," are very much in the style of Elmslie's densest poetry--"Banjo expertise made whole beaches dream of wheat"--but the music (by John Gruen) is like a slightly dissonant classical lied, and the singer's diction is operatically correct. The heavy formality of the music weighs down the lift of the unique tangle of the words.

The second Poem Song, "Bang-Bang Tango," is sung by Estelle Parsons, a long-time theatre great (known to millions of TV watchers as Roseanne's mother). The lyrics are sex-driven (as are those of all the quartet except "Who'll Prop Me Up?"), if sex tilted to a fetishistic angle:

Me and my déjà vu
Of a fidgety midget delivery boy
Unzipping my lily-white chilly white shroud.
Sinking back with me in a horse-drawn hearse.

In the last of the quartet songs, Elmslie first presents the sound that will characterize the best of his Poem Songs. "Eggs," originally a poem titled "At the Controls," here is sung by Richard Thomas. The lyrics are a litany of how the eating of eggs is part of so many of life's adventures:

Oeuvres. Gallery eggs.
Bogota. Dried wartime eggs.
Car. Rented car.
Hotel eggs. Motel eggs.
Motel eggs. Hotel eggs.
Harlem. Boxcar.
Yachts riding out the storm.

The music has a shimmering nightclub surface, with spare piano, jazzy guitar and vibes sculpting out the chords. A few show tune turns are included--a full-stop for a percussion effect at "Eggs on the rocks. Crack"--but primarily the sound is jazzy, a more-intoxicating-than-any-cocktail music that highlights the words, sung in an everyday American accent.

Kenward Elmslie Visited was a sampler of Elmslie's range, and a valuable archiving of songs that otherwise might have disappeared into musical history. Perhaps even more important than the recording of the music however was that the production of the album prompted Elmslie to discuss his Poem Songs with a friend, poet Edwin Denby. As Elmslie tells it, Denby, "in his firm guru voice," told him he should sing the songs himself, that as the poet who had written them he would understand them best.5 This led to the recording of another Painted Smiles LP: Palais Bimbo Lounge Show, in 1985.6

Some time in the early 1980's, Elmslie met and began collaborating with guitarist/composer Steven Taylor. Taylor has played and toured with Allen Ginsberg, The Living Theatre, the Fugs and Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky, among others. Taylor created orchestrations for a number of the poem songs on this album, and wrote the music for "Girl Machine," which in a more musically wide-open world would have been a hit single.

An excerpt from "Girl Machine" was first published (in 1969, as "Time Step Ode") in Andy Warhol's Inter-view magazine in its early, pre-glam, literary-leaning days though Elmslie's poem is a literary evolution of the glamour of Busby Berkley-style dance numbers.7 This is echoed in both the words and the layout on the page:

what a life,     just falling in and out of
what a life,     just falling in and out of
swimming pools
zylophones     WANTED     zylophones
WANTED     female singer     WANTED
bigtime floorshow bigtime floorshow

Elmslie extensively rearranged the poem when he and Steven Taylor decided to turn it into a song. The symmetrical layout on the page is of course lost but Taylor created an arrangement of brass accents over two chord guitar-driven reggae. The repetitive off-beats are hypnotic and the use of both Elmslie's baritone and Taylor's tenor voices, with a touch of Carlsbad-Cavernous reverb here and there, come very close to matching the complexity of the poem on the page.

"Girl Machine" is followed by "Air," with Elmslie's voice floating high over ringing vibes as he sings "Sight / impinges / on air // divvying it up / (night sky) / into a cup..." The ethereal sound is interrupted in the middle, with a walking-style bass coming in for "just walking around / watching the cup / dump its load // right on my head..." then returns for the last gossamer high note of "air..." Next up is, "Who'll Prop Me Up in the Rain," with Elmslie singing to the same backing track as on Richard Thomass version. Elmslie's voice is much stronger; it doesn't quaver when holding the high notes, and introduces a great many touches of emphasis where Thomas sang the lyric straight (Edwin Denby was clearly correct). Elmslie's syllable-caressing vocal also raises "Eggs" a full notch higher than the rendition offered on the earlier LP.

"Bio," again extensively rearranged from the original poem, is absolutely unique--neither the words nor the angular, spare melody that carries them over the music with just the right touch of friction could have been written by anyone else. The instruments enter slowly, first piano, then bass and drums, and finally a swirling organ. The coming-of-age lyric skitters around narrative corners as unexpectedly as adolescent emotional life: "From crazy brat reading Krazy Kat / to Kafkaesque this Kafkaesque that// . . . Trek aids / sped up the decades..." Elmslie's voice is at its warmest here, even as he sings "Heliotrope / Dope // A whiff tease / From the Fifties..." Side One ends with "Meat," the album's Big Band number, complete with walking bass, comping guitar and high jazz trumpet solo. The lyric is a distant cousin to "They," a surrealistic fun-poking of modern urban life: "Our slum city's full of Hallucinatory Crap / Zircon mood rings are chucked off the chests of— / of of of of of of of of..."

Side Two includes opens and closes with the kind of poem songs I'm looking at here. The main body of the side is taken up with a long dramatic musical mini-drama about adventures in The Palais Bimbo Spa, a louche urban underworld of sex, drugs and impersonation--fodder for another essay. This is preceded by "Sin In the Hinterlands," its relentlessly bouncy music making the listener smile as Elmslie sings such word thickets as, "Climb into padded think trunk. / Wait for warble of ancestry: bio. Canned info bio. Canned bio logo / With Daffy Duck forefinger blur." The effect is relentlessly sunny as well as--and who could imagine saying this of modern poetry?--eminently danceable. At the far end of the side, closing out the album, is "Sneaky Pete." This Poem Song, once again driven by vibes, asks the musical question "Whatever happened to the poem as poem?" Among the answers offered is "It's crossing the Pacific in an underwater skylab / In a cute little butane box, in a gizmo way down there." Another answer, of course, is that it's become song in the hands of Elmslie.

These aren't the only Poem Songs Elmslie has created. Years ago, in a tiny room in his Vermont home, playing an ancient upright piano (over which hung White Owl, a multi-media collage by artist Joe Brainard), Elmslie treated me to an arrangement of his early poem "White Attic." He thought the music too close to that of another of his songs and so has chosen not to record it. I still mourn that decision.

The poem "Expert at Veneers," first published in 1962, was decades later recreated as a song with the title "And I was There." A cable documentary series Radio Thin Air taped Elmslie and Taylor singing this in 1990. A snippet of this can be seen at (a 60 minute DVD of Elmslie is available, but is very pricey).8

The above LP's aren't available on CD (although some of his operas and musical are), but Elmslie's Poem Songs can be sampled via the web. You Tube has a clip of Elmslie singing "Who'll Prop Me Up in the Rain" at a reading, and another (very blurry) one of him singing "Sneaky Pete." "Girl Machine" (with a slide show of drawings by Brainard, and even a red bouncing ball that leads you through the lyrics!) and other music from the Palais Bimbo album are available on his website The sections "Nite Palais" and "Back Room" are the areas to open.

Much has been made in recent years of "The Great American Songbook"--Gershwin, Porter, Carmichael, et al--generally spoken of with the falling inflection that suggests the golden age of song was choked off when the kudzu of rock, soul and other thornier strains of music overgrew it. Songs of syrupy gush, 2-D personality (crayon-bright "types"), overly-toothy sincerity, and rhythms in clown shoes have indeed largely been choked out, along with the Classic Broadway Musical form for which Elmslie once wrote (never to return...?). But the Poem Songs he has created out of much the same material--stripped down and divvied up differently--are, if we listen, Great American songs, full of word and rhythm play, melodic invention, and emotions as glinting and mysterious as the aforementioned mica in a cup. They only await being taken up by singers who are adventurous and literate.

And, of course, by listeners who share those same traits.


1 This was co-written with Marvin Fisher, composer of "When Sunny Gets Blue" and other pop songs. While researching a bibliography of Elmslie, I visited Fisher in his Broadway publishing office in 1990. He had the sheet music for some obscure Elvis Presley recordings, to which he owned the rights, framed on the wall of his cluttered and dilapidated office. He ate Cup-o-soup from a Styrofoam cup while we talked and looked over his publishing records, which were typed on 3 X 5 cards. Times Square was right outside his long-unwashed window. A real theatre man.

2 Had the production gone ahead, the song would have been sung by the legendary Lotte Lenya.

3 This was in fact the title of Elmslies first credited collaboration to be recorded and issued: "Backers Audition," with John Latouche and John Strauss. On Ben Bagleys The Littlest Review (Epic Records LN 3275), 1956.

4 Painted Smiles Records 1339 (1982). The text of the lyrics, notes on the works, and biographies are printed in an insert.

5 Interview with Kenward Elmslie by W. C. Bamberger, New American Writing #8/9 (Fall 1991).

6 Painted Smiles Stereo PS 1336 (1985). Lyrics, notes and biographies are printed in an insert.

7 At least this is what I think its about. For Daniel Tiffany, in his book Toy Medium: Materialism and Modern Lyric, "Girl Machine" is part of, "the chiasmic exchange between the automaton and the discourse of aesthetic pleasure." I believe this is indeed true, but not necessary to know to enjoy the musical experience.

8 The text of this poem is included in Elmslies collection Motor Disturbance (NY: Columbia University Press, 1971), p.2. It is also available in its lyric form (the first four lines of the original excised) in Routine Disruptions: Selected Poems and Lyrics (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1998. Ed: W. C. Bamberger), p.58. Most of the Poem Songs considered here are printed in this collection.

Also see Kenward Elmslie's website

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