American Poet Vachel Lindsay was set apart right from the beginning. For good or ill. Growning up the son of a prominent doctor in Springfield, Illinois USA in the 1880s, the young Lindsay was afforded many unique opportunities and persectives because of his families position in the community. For example, Lindsey grew up living directly across the street from the Illinois Governor’s Mansion during the governorship of John Peter Altgeld. A political figure who would play a profond role in Lindsay‘s development as a poet. Governor Altgeld was an important leader of the American Populist/Progressive Movement sweeping across the country in the 1890s. Altgeld built a reputation as a fighter for racial equality and worker’s rights. Not always popular issues with the electorate at the time. But Lindsay admired Governor‘s willingness to fight for unpopular issues. An important message for an idealistic (and privileged) young man looking for his future.
“I had very little response anywhere and very little understanding. No one cared for my pictures, no one cared for my verse, and I turned beggar in sheer desperation. Many people try to gloss this over now and make out it was a merry little spring excursion… They are dead wrong. It was a life and death struggle, nothing less. I was entirely prepared to die for my work, if necessary, by the side of the road, and was almost at the point of it at times …”
After attending Ohio’s Hiram College to study medicine, Vachel Lindsay made a decision that changed the trajectory of his life. Informing Hiram College of his intention to leave his studies and using his natural intelligence and literary knowledge to seek the life of a poet. A significant disappointment to his very conservative and fundimentialist parents. Although, it is said that his disapproving parents eventually supported their son’s endeavors. Lindsey leaving home and finding his first outside encouragement within New York‘s growing artistic community. Self-publishing his first book of poems, Rhymes To Be Traded For Bread in 1905. More importantly, Lindsay was learning to use his poetry to confronted important and controversial issues of the day. Often attempting to focus his verse on exposing the long-term effects of racism and industrialization.
As an poet, Vachel Lindsay believed in the power-of-the-spoken–word as a kind of performance art. Crafting a unique style of public reading that delivered his verse as a “aural and temporal experience…meant…to be chanted, whispered, belted out, sung, amplified by gesticulation and movement, and punctuated by shouts and whoops“. Eventually, Lindsay took to performing poetry on the road. Becoming a seeker or “traveling bard” on his quest across the United States. Bring his poetic message by walking from town to town with his self-proclamed “Higher Vaudeville” act. Philosophically, Lindsay indulged in a form of primitivism; a general rejection of the society all around him. And while he may have been “well intentioned” in his attempt to providing a voice to the black population of the country, Lindsay was extremely misguided and he had little real understanding of racism. His attempts to channel the voices of American blacks was clumsy and insensitive at best. And overtly (and stupidly) racist at worse. Nevertheless, Vachel Lindsay was a artist that kept alive a type of performance art that is too often overlooked. And his belief in the power-of-performance would influence a new generation in ways he could have never imagined.
When asked what she wanted to accomplish by mixing her poetry with music, Detroit’s own Patti Smith stated, “My goal was not to simply do well or hold my own. I did it for Poetry. I wanted to infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll”.
We could view Pere Ubu‘s 1979 album, New Picnic Time as that difficult third album. The usual creative struggle to both remain focused and move the music forward. A difficult balancing act that has been the death of so many follow-up albums. And certainly New Picnic Time could fit that criteria with a recording session said to be tense, angry and difficult for everyone involced. In fact, the entire band decided to disband after the tour for the album concluded. (Only to reform within a few month without founding guitarist Tom Herman. And without Herman’s raw but artfully textured guitar playing, the band would face additional challenges moving forward. But that’s another story). In truth, New Picnic Time is more than just a difficult third album for the band. The stress and contentiousness of the recording process only tells us part of the story. Vocalist and band leader, Dave Thomas had the band’s aspirations set far beyond a decent follow-up album. The time and difficulty spent producing the record was more then a rock-star indulgence. This was a band defining the language of the music. Moving beyond the post-punk moniker. The entire recording process is informed with the band’s unique power-of-performance and aggression. The same attributes that Patti Smith had hoped to invoke for her writing. New Picnic Time is the sound of a band leaving the glories of their first two albums behind. The album bursting at the seams with a savage sense of adventure and a willingness to explore the possiblities of the studio without losing the humanity of their music in the final execution. The sound is “Avant-Garage” perfection. And Pere Ubu is demanding much from us, the dear listener. The band pushing their audience further into dangerous waters. Developing a new literary form and sound of music unlike any of their contemporary.
The opening track, Have Shoes Will Walk, is the album at it’s most accessible. Again, the performance is immediately High Vaudeville. Thomas bouncing-of-the-walls vocally as Tom Herman‘s impossibly catchy guitar-riff cuts across the soundstage. An amazing racket to be sure. Only the rest of the band seems to have a plan of their own; gleefully pulling at the song’s foundation. Savaging and subverting the structure with a pulsating beat and whiplash rhythm. All these elements of the track coming together into a sophisticated groove of overlaping sounds. The organic timing of the band is simply impecable. And there is an amazing disipline to the band’s artful nihilism. Thomas shouts over the top of the band like a carnival barker. His lyric a telling statement of purpose; “It’s me again. Hey. It’s me again. He whistled in the dark and hummed a zombie tune”. The song is both playful and mischievous but only to further the point. Thomas hitting hard with a final, “My life depends on this“, as the track breaks. And it’s no joke. The Individual songs can hit you hard, like a storm of unsettled emotions. Thomas using his written lyric to spice and punuate the musical atmosphere. Using the same chants, whispers, gestures and shouts that Lindsay called for nearly a centruy earlier.
Toward the end of side two, Pere Ubu give full voice to Vachel Lindsay‘s through his poem, Voice OfThe Sand; “This is the voice of Sand. The sailors understand. There is far more sea than sand. There is far more sea than land”. It’s a remarkable moment as the album is ending. A nocturnal sense of abandment and loneliness. A literate and often confrontation intelligence that the artist has knowingly rejected the status quo in his quest. And a willingness to accept the vast singuarlity and harshness of a world that must be endured.