[Ticket Stubs & Liner Notes (winner of the 2018 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award) gathers poems that focus on American music and musicians, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s. The companion website, partly developed but with more entries to come, offers contextualizing commentary along with audio and visual clips related to the music engaged in the poems.]
We tend to know the past through iconic tags, often drawn from pop culture. The Fifties is the Fonz, or maybe the young Elvis in black leather. The Sixties is Woodstock. Or Altamont if one’s inclined to the dark side. And these moments and figures (whether real, fiction, or fictionalized real) become a vocabulary we can use to imagine a past we may not have known and to talk about it as if we had. But even if The Summer of Love” was a kind of war on Containment Culture (driven in part by young people rejecting that actual war in Southeast Asia), these things seemed at the time less abstract and monolithic than this—messier, erratic, confused, contradictory. The way we experience things as we live them, as opposed to the way history constructs them, can be like that.
For those of us who were (white) children of the 1950s and came of age during the later 1960s, music was a refuge from a world of bland conformity with its Hydrogen-Bomb-Two-Step of nuclear deterrence, its racial injustice glimpsed on the TV news as if it were really somewhere else, and the jungles of Vietnam waiting on the horizon. And in this refuge we tried to imagine what we might be allowed to be. The poems in this collection revisit this soundtrack. They are a mix of ticket stubs, liner notes, and re-castings of things registered, often without being noticed, at the time. Some pieces draw on things I happened to experience as a boy and teen growing up in several small towns north of San Francisco: the Fillmore the night that Cream, some new, relatively unknown group from England, opened for The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker were still riding the thrill of exploring their collective possibilities, while Butterfield’s band had recently lost its guitar god, the too little remembered Michael Bloomfield. And later that night I did stand in line at the Doggie Diner on Van Ness behind a dejected Paul Butterfield (ask Pat, he was with me).
Some pieces are, I confess, fully invention. I was a few years too young to have been at Oberlin for that Mississippi John Hurt concert (though I later had the LP), but I knew very well that The Lovin’ Spoonful had taken their name from a line of one of his songs. And, too, I should probably admit I wasn’t thinking about race as I listened to Jimmie Reed that night he and John Lee Hooker opened for the Jefferson Airplane, though race was an aspect of how I listened, as it was for any white kid in the Sixties who sought out Black music or thrashed through “Big Boss Man” or “Boom Boom” or Howlin’ Wolf’s “Back Door Man” in some suburban garage (and that includes you, too, Jim Morrison, and Janis, and all of us who turned to the sounds and textures of the Blues, Rhythm and Blues, and Soul in our need for something beyond Guy Lombardo and Sing Along with Mitch Miller & the Gang). And, finally, some pieces adapt the experiences of others I knew as we grew up in that strange limbo of Sebastopol and Calistoga, where the Fifties lingered on even as the Summer of Love was a pulsating glow of psychedelic light across The Golden Gate in that magical place we called “The City,” whispering the name so our parents wouldn’t hear and worry that we wanted, as they once had, something more than we were told we should want.
For those of us who grew up listening to disc jockeys spinning 45s on AM radio and the weekly countdown of the Top 40, the performers, songs, and music scenes in these pieces will be mostly familiar. If this is the case for you, I hope these poems will offer not simply a chance to remember but also occasions for hearing something new in these perhaps shared experiences of something old. For those of you who have, instead, come of aural age in this era of iTunes, ringtones, and mashups, I hope you’ll consider these poems as invitations to sample, as it were, things that might be added to your cultural playlist. And while it’s true that I am a child of Chuck Berry and you are not, it’s also true that you are a grandchild of that master of ironic innocence and innuendo, that magician of turning black into white, white into black, and back again until the masking and unmasking are so fused they can’t be told apart, any more than (as Yeats would have it) the dancer and the dance. And if that doesn’t play your guitar just like ringing a bell, well, who better than Chuck to school you in the possible pleasures of your ding-a-ling.