I was recently sent a poem I’ve been looking for since hearing it years ago and wanted to pass it along.
Its author, Jack McCarthy, is one of a handful of performance poets I’d recommend people check out. There’s a lot I could say about Jack, but suffice it to say that he’s the reason I kept coming back to the Providence open mic, and ultimately started writing performance poetry years ago.
Coincidentally, he’s about to tour the Northeast. I will certainly attend at least one of these shows… don’t sleep on one of the true originals.
Here’s the poem:
End of the Road
The kids cannot conceive what it was like.
Music hadn’t sorted itself into categories yet.
We didn’t know Carl Perkins didn’t belong with the Cadillacs;
it was just all The New Music, and it was uncontestably ours.
I never heard as much excitement from a radio
as the day a teenage engineer named Arnie Ginsberg
came running into the WORL studio
delivering the new Pat Boone cover
of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.”
O the times; O the way of doing things.
The hottest DJ in Boston was a young guy named Joe Smith,
who called himself Jose, and never mentioned that he’d gone to Yale.
Now he’s head of MGM or RCA or one of them.
He favored rhythm and blues, but he’d play anything—
one night this new record Crazy Arms,
unlike anything any of us had ever heard,
with these weird piano runs,
and this unknown singer with a terrible obsession
for filling up the spaces between phrases and lines—
“Well my yearnin heart keeps sayin
you’re not mine, not mine, not mine, not mine.”
Jose hated it; he said,
“If this makes the top ten tomorrow night, I’ll eat the record.”
Tuesday night it came in eight or nine, and he said,
“I didn’t mean the top ten, I meant the top three,”
and Wednesday it was three and he said,
“I didn’t mean I’d eat the record, nobody can eat a record,
but I’m a man of my word and I’ll eat the next best thing, my hat.”
And we heard eating noise, right on the air!
Sounded a lot like pizza.
The kid that sang Crazy Arms billed himself as
Jerry Lee Lewis and His Pumping Piano.
This was before it was even clear
what the instrument of rock’n’roll would be—
Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Little Richard all played piano;
it would be a few weeks yet before the guitar took charge.
I loved Crazy Arms;
but I liked the other side even better, End of the Road:
“Well the way is dark, the night is cold…”
It’s not even two minutes long. In it you can hear
the opening chords of Whole Lotta Shakin,
that a few months later made Jerry Lee a rock’n’roll hero—
until he married his thirteen-year-old-cousin;
and the night he showed up at Graceland, waving a pistol.
I never thought he wanted to hurt Elvis;
I think he wanted to put a bullet through that goddam guitar.
Even that wasn’t the end of his road;
now Elvis is dead—arguably—
but Jerry Lee is still out there singing great country,
billing himself not as the King, but as the Killer—
and indeed, some of his wives have died curious deaths.
But, ah, the song.
A while back I saw Moms Mabley on TV,
and for her finish that great old black woman said,
“I’m’a do a song I wrote a lotta years ago.”
And a barrelhouse piano kicked in.
And her hips started to rock like she was twenty-three again.
And she sang, “The way is dark, the night is cold,”
and I went looking for my old yellow-label Sun 45.
When I found it, the name on it wasn’t Mabley.
But that doesn’t mean she didn’t write it;
New York and Philly are filled with aging white gangsters still raking in royalties from
songs sold to them by black artists in the fifties for a hundred bucks,
because the way is dark;
and the night is
When I sent Sage this poem, he was reminded of another piece from one of the greats. A guy named Kwesi Davis who I’m not sure is even performing anymore. Everything this guy did onstage was crushing, and he remains a major inspiration even though I haven’t seen or heard his work in years.
Check this out:
“Poached” by Kwesi Davis:
Click here to listen.
And, if you’re still in a listening mood, Jerry Lee Lewis performing “End of the Road”