Four Albums for National Poetry Month

James Lepinsky

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The great philosopher by the name of Mac DeMarco once said in an interview, “being a musician is half being a poet.” And since April is officially National Poetry Month, I wanted to celebrate the albums and poet-sicians (you can use that free of charge, Merriam-Webster) that perfectly blended the art of music and the art of poetry in a seamless, coherent fashion. These four selections are on the later side of the time spectrum, most of them being released in the late 1960s to the 1970s, but are still relevant and still golden to this very day. Enjoy.

  1. Gil Scott-Heron – Pieces of a Man (1971)

Genre: Jazz poetry, soul

Verdict: Soothe my soul, Scotty.

In the song “Lady Day and John Coltrane,” Chicago-born poet Gil Scott-Heron mentions how when you’re having a bad day, you should let the music of both the late Billie Holliday and saxophonist John Coltrane “wash your troubles away.” Coincidentally, when I’m feeling a case of the blues, Scott-Heron’s breakthrough LP “Pieces of a Man” always brings a smile to my face. There’s a sense of euphoria and clarity in both the instrumentation and the words that Scott-Heron lays to tape. As one of the biggest influences of hip hop and jazz poetry, Scott-Heron’s 1971 album is an overlooked masterpiece.

The album starts with Scott-Heron’s most popular and politically shocking song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” whose namesake has been referenced from people like Kanye West to former president of Venezuela Hugo Chavez. The piece is as confrontational as it gets, tackling everything from consumerism, infotainment, to the Watts riots. However, after this piece, the album takes a completely different direction with happier and more optimistic tunes whilst still connecting to his vulnerability. I love how Scott-Heron can deliver a song like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and then offer achingly tender love songs like “When You Are Who You Are.” You can really feel Scott-Heron’s pain and heartbreak in songs like “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” which make these offerings all the more moving. Scott-Heron was a unique voice who had a talent to bring emotion and feeling to the forefront, above anything else. Despite his political nature, he presented this supposed revolution as a warning, and the revolution was more in his visceral writings than in violence or protest. No one else could make words shake and stun quite like Gil.

“Pieces of a Man” is a poignant statement of a boundary-pushing artist who called for revolution and called for self-love at the same time. What is even more interesting is that for Scott-Heron, in 1971, this was just the beginning. Rest in Power.

  1. Tom Waits – The Heart of Saturday Night (1974)

Genre: Jazz poetry, blues

Verdict: Soundtrack to Sunday morning’s hugs.

What happens if you put Fats Domino, Bob Dylan, beat writer Jack Kerouac, and Frank Sinatra in the same room? It would probably sound similar to the early Tom Waits albums. Before he became a bourbon-soaked screamer and avant-garde enthusiast, Waits spent the 1970s writing sentimental ballads with a literary flair that wasn’t too unlike his contemporaries (i.e. Steely Dan). But above all, Waits was a passionate poet and storyteller, and no one could convey emotion quite like him, especially on his 1970s output. And “The Heart of Saturday Night” is the pinnacle of this era in his songwriting career. By the time he released this album in 1974, Waits was already 25 years young, but you would most likely hear an old soul whose voice aged like fine wine on the strength of his songs alone.

Along with crafting words and stories, Waits also proves to be a decent piano player throughout the album. Musically, the album’s sound recalls jazz and blues, with some folky numbers like the title track. The instrumentation is classy and elegant, thanks to Waits’ backing band, but they only play as a stretched canvas to Waits’ poetic paintings. He shares stories of heartbreak in songs like “Please Call Me, Baby” and “Shiver Me Timbers,” as well as try and pursue a little bit of fun in songs like “New Coat of Paint.” As much as his cleverness and humor shines through, Waits’ ability to weave a compelling narrative with feeling is the most underrated quality of this album. “Please Call Me, Baby” and “Drunk on the Moon” are classic tearjerkers, but Waits plays the role of a stand-up comedian in “Diamonds On My Windshield.” My point is that Waits is a literary jack-of-all-trades, where he can make you laugh just as easy as he can make you cry.

  1. Leonard Cohen – Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)

Genre: Folk

Verdict: Finally! Music you can read!

It is well known that before Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen was an accomplished musician, Cohen was an accomplished writer and poet. He wrote his novel “Beautiful Losers” in 1966, and an poetry anthology entitled “Let Us Compare Mythologies” in 1956. By his resume alone, we already knew that Cohen was a mastered wordsmith, but his 1967 debut musical endeavor proved that Cohen found a perfect medium to present his solemn and inscrutable stories. Music is a quality that can convey emotion and truth that words sometimes cannot, and Cohen perfectly represented how music and poetry can come together like two partners equally in love.

In terms of instrumentation, a majority of the songs on this album are comprised of solo accompaniment: just Cohen on vocals and some light classical guitar fingerpicking. Every once in a while, Cohen will introduce a full backing band behind him, like on the song “So Long, Marianne” but the power of this album lies in its ability to manipulate space. This way, you will not be able to miss a single word that Cohen sings, or rather, speaks. Cohen shows a complexity not only in his careful arranging of the lyrics, but also in his guitarwork. There is a very stern tone throughout “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” but there is also a gentlessness and ease with the way Cohen weaves a story; there is tragedy in these songs, many of which address Cohen’s former relationships and affairs. What makes “Songs of Leonard Cohen” so compelling is that the words alone present tragedy, but Cohen’s delivery makes his words a matter of fact, a truth you must come to terms with. For an album so gentle, it demands your ears, head, and heart.

  1. Patti Smith – Horses (1975)

Genre: Proto-punk

Verdict: The original punk poet.

I don’t know who is counting, I know I’m not. But the history of punk rock can be divided into waves, much like feminism (first-wave, second-wave, third-wave, the list goes on). In my humble opinion, the first wave of punk rock started within the 1975-77 margin, where CBGB namesakes like the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads all employed the former New York nightclub as their stomping ground. This is also around the same time poet and spoken word artist Patti Smith achieved her way into punk-poetry stardom, and “Horses” is a perfect fusion of the two art forms in the realm of punk rock. Smith made punk rock an intellectual’s game, and let the art form be interpreted the way any work by Arthur Rimbaud or Allen Ginsburg would. Because of this, Smith not only transformed poetry in music, but also transformed punk rock for years to come.

“Horses” comes through a fiery energy and is an experimental deviation from the three-chord rock structure that bands like the Ramones perfected. Here, Smith was not trying to write crunchy pop songs like them, but wanted the music and lyrics to be equally compelling on their own. From the first track “Gloria” onwards, Smith’s confrontational yet subtle lyrics complement the band’s explosive punk attitude perfectly, with some deviations from the usual punk sound in songs like “Redondo Beach,” appropriate for a time when the worlds of punk and reggae would often collide. Off “Horses” alone, Smith showcases a level of artistic maturity and confidence not particularly found in artists’ debut albums. And in an era in punk where classics were released almost on a daily basis, “Horses” stands out as punk’s most forward-thinking work of all time.