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If I wrote a poem about Michael Bolton, would that make him cool?

January 25, 2012 \pm\31 10:04 pm

“(They Long to Be) Close to You,” the first Carpenters hit, arrived on New York’s WABC-AM (“Cousin Brucie! Cousin Brucie!”) when I was a high-school freshman. The single resided in the Top 40 alongside fare more to a 14 year-old’s taste, like Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)” and Santana’s “Evil Ways.”  To my ears, the song was the revenge of Aunt Norma’s music. Follow-up singles like “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” sounded as if they oozed from the same Dairy Queen soft-serve machine.  It was music for a prom in Des Moines.

But something curious happened a decade after Karen Carpenter’s 1983 death from anorexia. Sonic Youth, Shonen Knife, Matthew Sweet and other underground types recorded a tribute album to Carpenters (not The Carpenters, as everyone refers to them). The brother and sister with smiles borne of Trident sugarless gum were officially hip.

Karen and Richard crossed my mind as I read Chris McCreary’s enjoyable collection Undone: A Fakebook (Furniture Press Books, 2010), specifically the third of the book’s eight sections, “The Diamond Sutra.” The adjective “Diamond” refers not to Buddhist text, but to Neil. “The Diamond Sutra” comprises eight short poems, each of which is named for a Neil Diamond song.  I’ve always thought of Neil Diamond as two distinct individuals. First, there’s the Brill Building songwriter who hustled to pitch his tunes, the Brooklyn Jew who flavored his 60s recordings with a few tablespoons of gospel fervor (e.g., “Holly Holy,” “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show”). He’s the 10 p.m.-corned-beef-sandwich-at-the-Carnegie-Deli Neil Diamond. Then there’s the arena-scale entertainer who wears ruffled shirts, wouldn’t think of performing without a 50-piece orchestra and sang “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” with Barbra Streisand. He’s the $26.95-all-you-can-eat-buffet-at-Caesar’s-Palace Neil Diamond.

McCreary pays homage to both men in “The Diamond Sutra” by titling his poems after songs from either Diamond’s career.  The NY-streets Diamond (aka the Diamond I like) is represented by “Solitary Man” and “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” whose cool quotient was ratified when Uma Thurman danced to Urge Overkill’s cover in Pulp Fiction. The Vegas Diamond has “Longfellow Serenade” and “Song Sung Blue.”  McCreary doesn’t write about the songs overtly, though he does drop Urge Overkill’s name in “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.” Rather, he uses the titles as prompts. In “Song Sung Blue,” for example, he writes:

            The car alarm was not

            the ice-cream

 

            man was not the missing

            ATM pin & when

 

            the key broke off

            in the lock, I opened

 

 

                                    your diary

            using a rock …

 

The one “Song Sung Blue” inspired another, more doleful, song sung blue.  I will say I prefer McCreary’s “Song Sung Blue” and think the other is tepid schlock unworthy of the songwriter who bestowed on the Monkees and UB40 a pair of really good hit singles.

I’ve written and published poems about Nico, Edith Piaf and British guitar master Davy Graham, all artists whose hip credentials are incontestable. I have yet to come across, either in print or at readings, a poem about Seals and Crofts or America. Could that possibly mean they’re due for at least one haiku apiece?

Endnote, from the Great Minds Think Alike Department.

“The Great American Songbook” section immediately follows “The Diamond Sutra.” Here, McCreary proffers an appealing blend of prose poetry and rock criticism. In one piece, he posits two Rod Stewarts. The first is the one I’ll call Mod Stewart, the rock ‘n’ roll singer who knew John Lee Hooker’s records. I’ll call the second one Sod Stewart, the old guy who decided he’d like to be Perry Como.  McCreary’s assessment is that the two Stewarts are not the same person. I have to agree.

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One Comment
  1. January 26, 2012 \pm\31 8:48 pm 8:48 pm

    Indeed if you were to write a poem about Michael Bolton, it would not make him cool; anymore than trashing Miles Davis, for a multitude of reasons, makes Miles Davis uncool. What is interesting, however, is that younger generations like to reinvent, or perhaps rediscover things. It’s natural. Ultimately it is nothing more than a yard sale. Most people will overlook most of the items on the table. But then, every once in a while a talented, dumpster diver will come up with something used but a treasure neverthess.

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