Saturday, January 30, 2010


I recently received in the mail some more examples of what I've written about often on this blog and elsewhere, creative projects by people you may not have heard of but whose work exemplifies the variety of voices and possibilities for originality available in the world today.

Chris Mason has been one of my favorite poets since I first encountered him and his work in the DC area back in the '70s. I've mentioned his early book POEMS OF A DOGGIE on this blog before.

But he's also been involved in music—writing and singing and playing with THE TINKLERS, and along with that proto-"alt-rock" band more recently he's responsible for a group called OLD SONGS, which sets to music Chris's translations of classic Greek poetry.

Chris sent me two CDs from each group not long ago. The newest were SLOWPOKE (The Tinklers) and BRIGHT LYRE FINDS A VOICE (Old Songs). The latter is a collection of Sappho poems translated by Chris with music by a bunch of folks, among them Liz Downing, whose vocals raise the homegrown sound of OLD SONGS to levels of lyrical finesse while her fellow bandmates contrast that with a fearless un-finesse that made me smile in appreciation.

There's a rawness to the music on these CDs. Not the kind of "rawness" critics used to accuse my poetry of having. Chris's is much more childlike and modest in its presentation, but nonetheless totally bold and in-your-face in terms of technique and subject matter and his treatment of it. If that makes sense.

What I mean is, for instance the Tinkler songs on SLOWPOKE evoke the kind of indie playfulness and simplicity of say the JUNO soundtrack with the rawness, or anti-slick approach to playing their instruments and singing, of early punk.

But what makes their songs totally unique above and beyond that rare combination is Chris's lyrics. They're not something you haven't maybe heard of or even thought of before, but never like this. E.g. here's the words to "Up From the Basement" in full:

I was playing with my Tinker Toys
My mother said
Better not make that noise
Your father might be out of sorts
I went and hid in my closet fort
He was in the basement
With bottles rattling
Someone's crying someone's tattling
Who's been bad while I've been gone
I'm gonna teach you right from wrong

I don't want him to come up
From the basement

We would find my father
Face down in the cellar
Most people thought
He was a pretty nice feller
He went to a couple of AA meetings
We never talked about the beatings
I have dreams about
Things with teeth
I have dreams about
Shapes that breathe
Terrible creatures under the water
I have dreams about my father

I don't want him to come up
From the basement

I got married and we had a kid
I would get frustrated
By the things that he did
Little toy trucks all over the floor
Sometimes he'd do it
Just to make me sore
I had to stop him
From making that sound
I had a couple drinks
To try to calm down
I don't want him growing up
Acting like a nut
Sometimes I gotta
Kick him in the butt
Sometimes I gotta
Kick him in the butt

I don't want to come up
From the basement

They're not all maudlin or dark the way this one might be perceived, some are even uplifting or simply playful and oddly jangling (inherently contradictory but not as in irony more as in real-world paradoxically) like this verse from "Mensa Maniacs":

Going to the 7-11
We don't even believe in Heaven
Waiting for the bus
You're dumber than us
We're the Mensa Maniacs!

But you can see that recent indie-folkie-we're-just-doing-this-for-our-own-fun kind of spirit in it, except that Chris was doing it long before the latest indie-alt-rock trends began. I'm happy to see he's still at it.

[You can see and hear him read some of his work at a recent event in Baltimore [woops, DC, see comments], where he still resides, at this link. You have to get through the introduction first.]


Anonymous said...

Dear M:

I agree with you about Chris's special genius. His work has always been compelling. In fact, I can't get "Chimpanzees Are Having a Party" out of my head. (That video clip, btw, is from a reading two weeks ago in DC, at DCAC. I know, because I was there.)

Anonymous said...

Michael, thank you for your kind words. I just want to add that my collaborator in The Tinklers is Charles Brohawn and my collaborators in Old Songs are Mark Jickling, who also translates and writes music, and Liz Downing, who also writes music. Thanks! Chris