Interviewed by Ross Taylor
The Vulgar Boatmen in 1990; Robert Ray on right
ROBERT RAY is lead singer and one of two principal songwriters for the Vulgar Boatmen, whose record You and Your Sister recently came out on the Record Collect label (distributed by the Independent Label Association) to very positive press in Rolling Stone, Musician, and Spin. Ray has also published long poems in Poetry, The Antioch Review, and other literary magazines—which is why I decided to talk to him about poetry and songwriting. The Vulgar Boatmen are actually two bands operating out of Indianapolis and Gainesville, Florida, which get together in Gainesville to record. I spoke to Ray in February in Gainesville, where he teaches film at the University of Florida and lives with his wife and two children.
RT: I wanted to talk to you about poetry and songwriting because you’re substantially involved in both – you’ve published widely in literary magazines such as Poetry and The Antioch Review, and your poems are brainy and well crafted, often metrical or with regular numbers of stresses, and allusive. At the same time you’re in a rock band, the Vulgar Boatmen, and your recent independent record You and Your Sister got three and a half stars from Rolling Stone, and they aren’t always that kind to independents. I’m interested in any possible connections or similarities between poetry and songwriting, but obviously it’s also important how different these two things are.
RR: I think in fact the two things are more different than they are alike. Probably songwriting and poetry writing as different genres as drama and fiction. The first thing that strikes me about the difference between them is that if anything, poetry is the more flexible form and more can be done with it than with songwriting. When you’re writing a poem, almost no particular word that I can think of is unusable, but all sorts of words would difficult to use in a popular song without sounding pretentious or hokey. So in some ways, popular songwriting is a more restricted form, which doesn’t mean that there aren’t all sorts of emotional or intellectual possibilities in pop songs; but it’s restricted, like working in a sonnet form or something. The difference with pop lyrics is that as soon as people start treating them as poetry or as something other than pop songs, they’ve made a real mistake. If you print even superb pop lyrics on the page, say Bob Dylan’s at his peak in the mid ‘60s, they don’t look like very good poems; they look like bad poems, but they’re great songs. The two things are related, since they both use language, but they’re remarkably different.
RT: How far do you go back with pop music? What’s the first pop concert you went to?
RR: Elvis Presley, in about 1954-55, and when I was a little kid. In Memphis. And the second concert would have been Elvis too, in about 1956, next door to my father’s office in the baseball stadium in Memphis, which subsequently burned down. I was simultaneously enormously excited and terrified by what I was seeing, because I was very young, and I’d never been in a place where there was so much screaming. All the women were screaming. It was really frightening. That was the first thing I ever heard; I’m from Memphis and I grew up hearing that kind of stuff.
RT: Were you involved in rock or pop in the ‘60s?
RR: I never played an instrument at all until I got to college. I played in bands all four years in college. These bands were incredibly primitive. Then I quit playing. From 1965 to 1982 I didn’t play at all.
RT: How about poetry? Was that a late discovery, after college?
RR: In graduate school. I’d always been interested in poetry; I’m not really sure what got me started writing it. There were a few writers who suggested possibilities to me, made it seem as writing were possible. I’ve always thought the whole purpose of certain artists was to sponsor or promote other people’s work. Godard in film, for instance: if you see a Godard film you think, “I could do this,” and not only “I could do this” but “this looks interesting and I would want to do this.” If you see, let’s say, a Spielberg movie, regardless of how you feel about him, you don’t feel that, unless you happen to have on hand 60 or 70 million dollars. I also think that with pop music at major junctures – and I take these junctures to be 1954-1955 with Elvis, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, and then again in 1964-1965, with the Beatles and Rolling Stones and then again with punk, with the Sex Pistols – each of those spawned garage bands, a huge outpouring of amateur musicians. You see something like the Sex Pistols and you say “I could do this.” Whereas if you saw Genesis, Kansas, or Yes you wouldn’t say “I could do this,” nor would you think you even wanted to work in this medium. But I think with poetry, to certain writers encourage you to think “I could do this.” And for me, Apollinaire was really important. I would read him and say, “This is so matter-of-fact, so about everyday life, so colloquial; the vocabulary is so interesting and the choices of things to write about are so interesting” – that made a huge impression on me, and he remains someone I think about all the time. I also think Ashbery suggested all sorts of possibilities in writing, that curious mixture of an extremely abstract intellectual vocabulary with an absolutely colloquial vocabulary. I think some combination of those things got me interested.
RT: The credits on the album usually give your name and someone else’s name – is this head-to-head songwriting?
RR: The main person I’ve written songs with is someone I often refer to as my songwriting partner, Dale Lawrence. He was and undergraduate at Indiana when I was a graduate student there, and we remained friends. He’s been in bands since ’77 or ’78. He and I typically write songs through the mail. There are a few songs we’ve written in the same room, but that’s rare. Usually we send each other things back and forth. I’m not the only lyricist; sometimes he’s written the lyrics, sometimes I’ve written the lyrics.
RT: What sorts of things get you started? A musical phrase?
RR: I will say that as a rule the lyrics are never the first thing. There are occasions where the title comes first, but even that’s not very common. Usually the music comes first. In terms of musical phrases, I can’t say how he comes up with them. I think he is the more gifted melody writer. I know in my own case with melodies, I tend to hear things in my head; I don’t tend to work out things on the guitar. I hear them, then I will have to go to the instrument and try to find it, which seems to me much different from the way most people work. So the melody line is very important to us; in fact the melody line comes first.
RT: Do you work with the other people in the band?
RR: Well really there are two bands here, there are two Vulgar Boatmen. There’s the band here which plays very infrequently, maybe three or four times a year; this is mostly a recording band; then there is Dale’s band in Indianapolis which tours regularly, is playing around the country all the time – Chicago, Texas, so on – and some of them come down here to record. It’s an ideal situation for recording because we usually get together the two bands and find the people who can do this recording the best. Often the band will have worked up a different way of playing one thing and Dale’s band will have a better arrangement, or vice versa. So we have a lot of stuff to draw from. It gets confusing at times, too.
RT: I was thinking of Ashbery when you spoke of the importance of the musical phrase; so much of Ashbery will turn on that. In your songs there’ll be these little very plain phrases that will carry a sort of narrative that’s very open-ended – the first side of the album ends with the line “I need a decision” and the second ends with the line “who do you love?” I see some of the open-endedness of a lot of contemporary poetry in your songwriting, and even in the spirit of the music, the open chords where you can’t tell whether it’s the tonic or the dominant, whether it’s the E or the A.
RR: I’d never thought about this consciously in these terms but it’s very interesting to me, and we like chords that suggest the I and the IV simultaneously, let’s say a C chord with and F note added, but the E retained in the C, which would not be there in the F, so the resulting chord is suspended between the two. I also like songs that have two chords, that go back between the I and the IV, because I like gospel a lot, and always have. And by gospel I mean things like Same Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. And R. H. Harris, the guy who started the Soul Stirrers, the master of the incantatory form, of repeating, saying a phrase over and over, accompanied by two chords. I like that a lot. I lke Bo Diddley even better, since he only uses one chord [laughs]. That seems to be ideal. He’s one of my all-time heroes, as big a hero to me as Apollinare. Sometimes I would like to meet him just to tell him what a decisive impact he had on my life. When I was fifteen I snuck into a place in Memphis around the corner from my house in a armory where some big party was going and Bo Diddley was there with walls of amplifiers, all of which had tremolo pulsing. Yeah, I do like the everyday phrase. My idea of a really, really good lyricist, the best rock lyricist imaginable, is Chuck Berry. And his songs are all everyday phrases.
RT: I always thought of him as giving rock its narrative tendency – this is something I was always fascinated about with rock lyrics, the idea of dancing a story, where there’s a story asking for attention, yet the music makes people dance and think about each other – but at the same time, with him there is often a sort of a loose, open end somewhere in the story, it doesn’t have a happy ending, or it’s built around a “who do you love?” kind of emotion.
RR: Well the lyrics to “Let it Rock,” for instance, where you can’t quite specify what’s going to happen, but you know “an off-schedule train’s coming two miles out” and it has this absolutely casual off-handedness, but it’s perfect. To me those lyrics are just triumphs. On the other hand someone who’s enormously ambitious and wants to make rock lyrics “better” than that, and I would put “better” in quotation marks, because I think it’s a false ambition, would be someone like Sting. Here you’ve got a wonderfully gifted musician and singer who has no conception of what lyrics should be like, or he has a conception, but it’s all wrong in my opinion. He wants to make it poetry and it’s simply not poetry, so what comes out are middlebrow ideas and phrases trotted across the page. I do like songs like “Every Breath You Take” where you can’t quite tell what’s at stake, you don’t really know whether this a love song or an angry song and so on. Where this mode of indeterminacy is really prominent, and I never realized it until I had children, is children’s books. A lot of great children’s books are really open-ended and shaggy, probably to accommodate children’s needs to read these things over and over again. A person who’s very good at the unresolved narratives is Walter Salas-Humara of the Silos, who started the Vulgar Boatmen. He’s got a new record with songs that are wonderfully suggestive. One of them is called “Commodore Peter,” and you can hear that there’s a narrative here but the story is just barely withheld from you. You can’t quite tell what it is, so it’s available for several possible stories.
RT: Is he someone who’s involved in poetry, or someone who came straight to songwriting?
RR: His background is painting.
RT: Rock keeps getting involved with visual art …
RR: Well I think there are reasons for the connection, as Simon Frith wrote in Art Into Pop. He was trying to trace the connections between the British art school and British pop. And the connections are profound since every major British rock band of the last 20 or 30 years has had art school people in it. There are particular sociological reasons in England obviously, since certain kinds of disaffected but smart students won’t end up going to universities but will end up going to art schools, the designated home of the disaffected. We don’t have that in this country. But I think the connections between painting and pop are closer than those between poetry and pop. Recording is more like collage: you rarely record bands live, you don’t set up with everybody in the room; instead you construct from bits and pieces and put it together. Certain parts are recorded live but then other things are added on. Brian Eno was the one who talked about recording being like painting. But second, and maybe even more important, art schools in this country, or art departments or art students, are much more comfortable and used to thinking in terms of experiment, innovation and breaking with tradition than literature students are. If you think about it, fiction, for the most part, is still written in the mode of Jane Austen. The dominant forms are still realism, and the consecutive narrative; for 98 percent of the fiction that’s published, it’s as if Joyce never happened. So literature for some reason, and it would be very interesting to think about why, has been more resistant to change than the other forms. It may be that language itself, because it’s the repository of so many cultural values, is the most traditional element in this society, it’s what holds all of society together. Derrida once said “The institution can stand any kind of critique, but it cannot stand having its language touched.
RT: Talking about influences in rock is hard because it’s notoriously fragmented, the extreme factionalism is almost part of the show. Do you see any way that specific areas, like New York City or California or the South play into styles? There was the thing for a while of Southern bands like REM having a distinctive sound, though there were other periods before …
RR: Like Elvis. Or Little Richard or Otis Redding, all Southerners. Well, I don’t know, I never think about it. I’m from the South. I grew up in Memphis so I’ve heard a certain kind of music my whole life and that’s the music that’s influenced me. I remember in the late ‘60s in Memphis we were all listening to Otis Redding and Sam and Dave and Wilson Pickett and then Al Green after that, and we were just absolutely baffled by psychedelic music. We could not possibly understand why someone would want to listen to Moby Grape or Jefferson Airplane when you could to listen to Otis Redding. But when someone sits down and tries to deliberately write a Southern album, like Tom Petty with Southern Accents, the results seem labored and arch. In fact the people who’ve written the best “Southern albums” seem to be not Southerners at all, like John Fogarty. Those Credence albums seem very Southern and he’d never been to the South. The Band’s second album … Robbie Robertson’s a Canadian.
RT: I was wondering if you have any other favorites of current indie bands as far as songwriters go?
RR: The best record I’ve heard in the past two or three years is this Silos record, the one that’s coming out next week. I love the Feelies, especially the second album, The Good Earth. I like that sort of incantatory strumming they get into. I wish they sang a little better frankly. But I like them a lot. I love the first REM records. I actually like the songs more than the records, because I saw them several times around that period, ’82 or so, and they played the songs – they were absolutely fantastic. And talk about evocative – there seems to be a story to a song like “Pilgrimage,” but you can’t quite tell what it is, or “Boxcars” – and they played them – the records are just pale shadows of what they sounded like. Still that e.p. and the first two records are great.
RT: Do you like any British bands? Or do you tend to be more interested in American bands?
RR: Well I certainly don’t have any bias against British bands, I love the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and the Sex Pistols, three of the greatest bands of all time. I hate bands like The Cure, and The Fall, and Depeche Mode. I despise them. They’re just incredibly pretentious, unmelodic, and unrhythmical – guys in whiteface. I also dislike David Bowie. But I love Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry; I think he’s great. On the surface Bowie and Roxy Music are very similar. But for some reason Bryan Ferry seems to be, I don’t know, more rooted in rhythm and blues, and soul, and his stuff is sung more earnestly. I mean it’s very ironic, I know, but there’s something like his heart’s on his sleeve too – of course, that’s one of his song titles.
RT: Pop in the ‘60s tended toward “meaningful lyrics,” political messages, as opposed to the blankness of ‘80s pop. But has had this period of trying to make things happen, and as opposed to much contemporary poetry pop at least tries to make people dance, or rush the stage, or walk out or something.
RR: Poetry makes nothing happen, as Auden said? I don’t believe that. I don’t think he believed it either. My sense is that all cultural forms which circulate in a society – not a poem that you have written and put in your closet and no one sees – but all cultural forms which circulate and get reproduced, have some influence. That’s an easy statement. The hard thing is to measure exactly what influence, and how quickly, how soon. But I would say the opposite of what you said about the ‘80s being the blank decade, I would say that the ‘80s has been the period in which more political songs have been written than in any other period, more even than the ‘60s. But I also think more absolute crap has been written in the ‘80s masquerading as political songs than in any other period. In the ‘80s, if you were writing a political song, you were deemed to be a serious band with serious things to say, and most of the bands doing that were just nonsense, I’m not interested in hearing them talk about child molesting or what’s happing Central America. Bands like the Alarm, for instance. I mean these are bands that just latched onto things that The Clash started and then used it, the way people use electric guitars. Politics became just another instrument. My Argument has always been that the way rock works, both in terms of its emotional effectiveness but also in terms of its politics, is at the level of sound. No matter how powerful you think “Ohio” is, in terms of politics “Tutti Frutti” is more politically profound. The problem is, for politicians, or for musicians who have political intent, or want to seem significant, the change effected by sound seems too subtle, too hard to measure, too slow. But it’s profound. Coleridge once said that the way poetry, or art, can influence people is like the sap going through a leaf, and I think that’s the way it works, like ink in a blotter, until It’s gradually diffused into a whole culture’s way of thinking about itself and the world.
RT: In “The Meaning of Coincidence in the Old Stories: you say:
Why this obsession with repetition?
The distinction between the original
And the counterfeit depends on the coincidences
That appear when the various accounts
That seemed to say something to me about this kind of songwriting as well as a current style of poetry stemming from people like Ashbury or even from Beckett’s The Unnnameable, where there’s a voice that keeps going on saying essentially the same thing over and over again; it’s almost like people exhorting you to give money to public television, but somehow there’s some little kernel of mystery that the speaker is trying to get at.
RR: [laughs] I like repetition a lot, and the language you just quoted from that poem is really almost a paraphrase of Derrida – he’s the person who raised the question “is it possible to counterfeit one’s own signature?” because signatures always involve notions of repetition. But I like repetition a lot, not necessarily because of any carefully considered philosophical position, but in music and writing I respond to it. I like Andy Warhol, especially his serial paintings and his multiple images. And I like repetitive songs. My favorite Soul Stirrers song is “Be with me Jesus” where “Be with me Jesus” is chanted for about fifteen minutes, Sam Cooke vamps over it. I guess that Sam Cooke could vamp over anything and it would sound good – “contribute to public TV” – he could sing that over for fifteen minutes and you would contribute. I certainly would.
After the interview Ray said “You know Warhol, at the height of his fame, used to have clones of himself, guys in silver wigs or whatever, going around giving his lectures for him and collecting ridiculous fees from universities.” He added “you say about the repetition issue that’s it’s perfect for someone who likes repetition as much as I do to have two identical bands.”
You and Your Sister by the Vulgar Boatmen on Amazon: