High Five: Richard Peabody

(In this issue's High Five, author and publisher Richard Peabody discusses five influential works.)

Jackie DeShannon, "When You Walk in the Room" (1964)

A big hit for the Searchers at the height of the British Invasion but written by DeShannon, an American. "Close my eyes for a second and pretend it's me you want/Meanwhile I try to act so nonchalant." Lord there's a rhyme. Has anybody ever attempted anything like that in a hit song? And then there’'s the jingle-jangle guitar riff oft-repeated (from The Byrds to Tom Petty to the Smiths) but created here by DeShannon and Jack Nitzsche, and to which any guitarists worth their salt owes everything.

You may only know DeShannon for "What the World Needs Now is Love Sweet Love," a song she didn't even write. She is arguably the first west coast woman singer/songwriter (with Carole King and Ellie Greenwich making up the NYC contingent. Yep, when she started there were only three women doing it at all. Everybody else follows in their footsteps). She has written hundreds of songs.

Sharon Lee Myers was born in Hazel, Kentucky, and began singing on radio at age six. She was touring by age 15. She went through name changes from Sherry Lee, to Jackie Dee, to Jacquie Shannon, Jackie Shannon, and finally as Jackie DeShannon.

Briefly touching on highlights of her career is rough. I want to write this woman's biography. She started out rockabilly and country, went girl group pop, then folk, then pop. She can mimic any style. Her gospel stuff is great. She's done two albums with jazzy standards. Dated Elvis. Eddie Cochran convinced her to move to LA not NY, (she later wrote songs with his girlfriend after his death). Performed on stage the night the music died (she was on the same tour with Buddy Holly et al.). Saw Dylan in 1962 and fought to get an album of Dylan covers released in 1963! Failed. (A few cuts did make it to vinyl. Jackie's version of "Don't Think Twice It's All Right" is wonderful.) Toured with the Beatles on their first US tour. (There are some great pix on the web of her playing Monopoly with George). Had an affair with Jimmy Page when, as a 17-year-old session musician, he played on her London sessions, she also wrote some songs with him. Used the Byrds as her backing band on a couple songs. Toured as a duet with Ry Cooder. Wrote songs with Randy Newman. Barry White was one of her backup singers and Dr. John played piano for her Laurel Canyon album. Van Morrison produced an album, which was shelved. Rhino Handmade has finally released those tracks as bonus cuts on a reissue of Jackie and they're incredible, particularly the two duets with Van (though the liner notes claim Van doesn’t appear on the disk.) Won a gold record for "Bette Davis Eyes" when Kim Carnes made it trendy. Tracey Ullman had a hit with her "Breakaway." Sang the definitive version of "Drift Away" and watched the suits put her version in the vaults and then hand it to Dobie Gray.

I could go on and on about this woman who never had total control over her own work until her most recent album, You Know Me (2000) and yet, despite the suits messing with everything, somehow wrote amazing songs you don't know about and have never heard: "Salinas," "West Virginia Mine," "Queen of the Rodeo," and on and on. Recently, after a 20-year hiatus, she’s back with a couple new releases and a tour of places like the Knitting Factory. A new CD is due in the next year or so.

Her official site
More about Jackie

Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds

"At Swim-Two-Birds" was a revelation. A story within a story within a story. Flann O'Brien (real name Brian O'Nolan) was a friend of James Joyce, a journalist, and a gifted wit. This book opened my mind in graduate school like nothing I'd ever encountered. It's a novel about a lazy college student who writes a novel about a writer writing a novel whose disgruntled characters rebel while he sleeps and rewrite everything. This book gives every budding experimentalist the permission to delve deeper, try more, and keep going in the face of all negative feedback. The book also features a wily Pooka (not unlike the shapeshifting Pooka/rabbit in the Jimmy Stewart movie Harvey). If you haven't read it, what are you waiting for? O'Brien also cunningly riffs on Irish history and myth. I recommend this one first before going on to his other delights like The Third Policeman and The Dalkey Archive (which features James Joyce as a non-writing character).

About Flann O'Brien; also see Wikipedia

Bill Knott, The Naomi Poems (Corpse and Beans, 1968)

Anybody I’ve ever met who knows Bill Knott claims the man's a mad genius. I was introduced to his whacked-out poems by DC poet Harrison Fisher. (Fisher's own poems examined the same absurdist/surreal turf.) This particular collection of Knott's work, his first book, released in the Spring of 1968 when he was 28, was published under the pseudonym of St. Geraud 1940-1966. Many of the poems in the book are Vietnam era poems and Knott used the dates to declare himself a victim of the war.

He says more in three lines than many poets say in 300 pages, such as:

The only response
to a child's grave is
to lie down before it and play dead
—"Poem"

or this:

Going to sleep, I cross my hands on my chest.
They will place my hands like this.
It will look as though I am flying into myself.
—"Death"

There have been many poems and books since this startling debut. He's been teaching at Emerson College for eons. He self-published a bunch of chapbooks in the 1990s when most of his work was o.p. and he was in danger of becoming (it seemed to me) a lost poet. Now, if you go to his website you can download almost every single poem he's ever written. He's spent years going his own unconventional way, neither beholden to the poetry world, literary reputation, critics, fans, even at times reinventing himself so much that he seems at times like a gunslinger raring to blow his own foot off. And for all of that if you take the time to explore his wordplay you'll discover a gentle soul, an incredible poetic knowledge, and ultimately one of the best poets we have. If you like Tom Lux, check out Knott and discover where Lux learned everything.

Knott's homepage
Richard Hell on Knott
Bookslut interview with Knott

Dennis Potter, The Singing Detective (1986)

Although I love both the British version of Pennies From Heaven with Bob Hoskins and Dreamchild, his paean to Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, those are like working sketches for what would become his finest work. It's here where Dennis Potter’s genius is fully launched at your corpus callosum. Potter layers a noir novel/1940s popular songs/hospital scenes/memory/hallucinations/the creative process/the imagination atop one another like various strata. It doesn't always work—the dreadful Track 29 should be a cautionary tale. But when it does this is sublime magic. The BBC version is six segments, clocking in at 300 minutes. This fragmented nonlinear approach interspersed with songs is the best thing I've ever seen on TV. It's commonplace now for characters to break into song—but Potter was experimenting with that idea back in 1978. Potter subverts and manipulates popular song for unprecedented dramatic effect. But there’s so much going on here that the recent Robert Downey Jr. version failed to capture. No, the BBC version is the one to watch. Catch Michael Gambon in full rant and rave, thrill to how scenery changes, or faces, as different variations of story and plot and flashback compete with each other for space in your own memory. But best of all soon after a wildly comic climax where the fictional characters have a gun battle in the very real hospital complete with casualties, Gambon finally gets what’s happened to him and why. This moment of epiphany—Who Dun it—explains all to the audience who finally grasp all of the layers Potter has been laying atop one another in this cinematic baklava, the art coming together to jerk what has been a switchback of a plotline into chronological order so perfectly that all becomes seamless. This my friends, is how our minds really work, how they attempt to make order out of the sensory input of the day. Nobody has ever come close to approaching this process in anything as remotely entertaining as this. Family Homepage; also see Wikipedia

Scott Walker, The Drift (2006)

Love it or hate it, you've never heard an album like this one. The deep baritone in The Walker Brothers (none of whom were named Walker, none of whom were brothers) who made it big in England (like Jimi Hendrix did as yanks in exile) in the aftermath of the British Invasion. You’re no doubt familiar with "Make it Easy on Yourself" and "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore." Walker went on to make a string of solo albums (the first time I bought some at the Woolworths at Montgomery Mall back in 1971 the sales clerk treated me like I was a sad case into Perry Como). His renditions of Jacques Brel songs "My Death," "Next," and "Jackie" surpass the originals. He reunited the Walker Brothers a few times and then disappeared. Music went through tons of changes and in 1978 they reunited and released Nite Flights. Buy it for Scott's four cuts. In "The Electrician" he sings from the point of view of a South American torturer: "If I jerk the handle you’ll die in your dreams/If I jerk the handle you’ll thrill me and thrill me and thrill me." It is as though he'd channeled Bruce Cockburn and taken things a bit more political, a little more drastic. His great anti-wall of sound is meant to be played LOUD. Even people who love "difficult music" will be startled.

Julian Cope rediscovered Walker in the 1980s while assembling the compilation Fire Escape in the Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker. And then Scott released the difficult Climate of Hunter in 1984. David Bowie, David Sylvian, Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, and Daniel Lanois all tried to work with him and Scott turned them all down. Sigh. He is a genius, he is also uncompromising. Another decade passed and he returned with Tilt, an even more difficult combo of fractured lyrics and aural assault. Now he turns up in the oddest places—on the Bond soundtrack to The World Is Not Enough, as host of the Meltdown Festival 2000 (London) where he programmed two weeks of musical acts, as producer of Pulp's We Love Life. Ute Lemper covered a couple of his songs on Punishing Kiss (although the 10-minute "Lullaby [By-by-by]" is only on the Japanese pressing and the themed 5-CD anthology Scott Walker in 5 Easy Pieces). Last year brought us The Drift, where songs include sounds like a man smacking a fist into a side of raw meat. A documentary on Walker’s career has just been released—Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. As far as an artist continuing to work in the face of total obscurity with nothing but a small cult following—Walker’s the one.

About the film
About Scott

Richard Peabody, a prolific poet, fiction writer and editor, is an experienced teacher and important activist in the Washington, DC community of letters. He is editor of Gargoyle Magazine (founded in 1976) and has published a novella, two books of short stories, six books of poems, plus an e-book, and edited (or co-edited) fourteen anthologies, including Mondo Barbie, Mondo Elvis, Conversations with Gore Vidal, A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation, and Alice Redux: New Stories of Alice, Lewis, and Wonderland. Peabody teaches fiction writing for the Johns Hopkins Advanced Studies Program. You can find out more about him at: www.wikipedia.com or www.gargoylemagazine.com.

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