In Ann Charters’ Portable Sixties Reader there are appearances from many of the expected literary stars of the period. Everyone from Susan Sontag to Timothy Leary, Diane di Prima to Charles Bukowski and Gary Snyder to Norman Mailer. In addition there are contributions from a few singer songwriters, notably Country Joe McDonald and Bob Dylan. All too often such songwriters have been excluded from similar compilations on the grounds that they are inappropriate and somehow unliterary or, more likely, because the copyright holders of their music simply want to charge too much. Seeing Dylan in here, a man who you’d imagine certainly might want to charge given his universal fame, fills me with hope. It’s in such marked contrast, for example, to Rita Dove’s exclusions for copyright fee reasons of several greats from her Penguin Anthology of American verse.
The singer songwriter back in the sixties was the harbinger of song writing’s rehabilitation. Suddenly we wanted to listen to what music was telling us again. Leonard Cohen, Ray Davies, Phil Ochs, Fred Neil, Marc Cohn and many others became as much a part of the literary backdrop as WH Auden, Allen Ginsberg, RS Thomas and Sylvia Plath once had been. I seem to remember the Merthyr poet Mike Jenkins quoting Captain Beef heart as one of his main literary influences. That’s the kind of thing that would have had earlier generations spinning. Stuff no longer entirely in its box. Music and writing on the merge.
It’s a tradition that has stuck. We’ve a load of great contemporary examples writing out there. Have a look at the work of Mark E Smith for a start. The tradition is just as strong in Wales. Gorky’s set it flowing. Richard James, Gwyneth Glyn, Euros Childs, Gruff Rhys and others carry it on.
My early attempts to join in were singularly unsuccessful. First up I began writing blues lyrics. I’d heard Bob Dylan but not really understood what he was attempting. Things that began “Woke up this morning” seemed much easier. I typed mine up on small bits of paper and usually carried a bunch of them around with me in my inside pocket. When I made it in the mid-sixties to Bristol’s Colston Hall to hear the great American Folk Blues tour featuring Howlin Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Sleepy John Estes I found myself hovering around the stage door. Willie Dixon, bass player and record producer, emerged, cigar in hand. Mr Dixon, I shouted, chancing my arm, have a look at these songs I’ve written. I shoved a few woke up this mornings and big legged mama’s into his pudgy hands. He smiled, grunted, folded the papers without looking at them into a pocket of his saggy suit, said something that sounded like thank you boy and then went back inside. I never heard from him again.
Down at the Greyhound, the scrumpy pub for down and outs and winos, on Cardiff’s Bridge Street, I was the resident singer. This was my decision, I had not been invited. Hell, in that place no one would. I sat there in the corner with bottle caps clasped to my shoes with rubber bands, a guitar on my lap, capo in place, and a harmonica harness holding a Horner Super Vamper in C and a kazoo round my neck. I played the one twelve bar thing I knew how to, mumbled a few lyrics into the space in front of me and then blew a few bits on the kazoo. The can’t play his instruments one man band. Voice so out of tune the windows rattled. What was I doing?
I got requests. Play Nellie Deane. I don’t know it. Bloody useless you are. Can you play anything else? No. Sod off then. After a few more desultory wails on the harmonica I decided that maybe I wasn’t the new south Wales Dylan after all and left.
I’ve no idea what happened to the guitar after that but the harmonica and the kazoo are still in a box up in the loft. I found my blues lyrics file the other day, too, a book into which I’d pasted hundreds of the things. At its end is an entry which reads “No more book but I’m not stopping”. God, the things you write when you are young.