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David Kirby

BPR 48 | 2021


Hell isn’t endless suffering, says French philosopher
                  and political activist Simone Weil, it’s endless monotony,
the same thing over and over again. Think Liverpool, think 1963,
         and there you are: you married too young and you have too many
                  kids and either a dead-end job or no job and an ocean of beer
to drown it all in, and suddenly four guys from your neighborhood—

your neighborhood!—shout “Please Please Me” and “Love
                  Me Do” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and like that,
you’re free: sure, the bills and backaches will still be there
         in the morning, but you’re free for two minutes and change,
                  and if you can be not simply your own person but something
like a god on this earth for these two minutes now, then why not

tomorrow, the next day, the day after that? Just because an
                  artwork is fun doesn’t mean that it can’t be serious: the Beatles
are still calling themselves the Quarrymen when Little Richard
         records “Tutti Frutti” (it’s 1955 now) in New Orleans,
                  and a year later, Allen Ginsberg writes “America” in Berkeley,
and if that “queer Jewish commie anarchist dope fiend can refuse

the internal exile his country has offered him,” as cultural critic
                  Greil Marcus says of Ginsberg in his book Mystery Train,
then the gay black crippled anarchist dope fiend can do the same,
         only with a drum kit and saxophones. Everything that Marcus says
                  about Ginsberg’s poem can be said about Little Richard’s song:
each “can be read alongside the Declaration of Independence”

because each is “a declaration that each American must
                  in one way or another declare independence from America . . .
before he or she can fully and freely join it.” Okay, now imagine
         a portrait of Jefferson and Franklin and all the other signers
                  of the Declaration, including the John Hancock whose name
is evoked daily as millions of patriotic Americans jack up

the gross national product by signing contracts, loan agreements,
                  and credit card slips for everything from a pack of cigarettes
to a new automobile, only this time Little Richard and Allen
         Ginsberg are in the picture with their crazy hair and loopy
                  facial expressions, Richard with his arm around the shoulders
of a startled Button Gwinnett and Allen about to pinch

the bottom of Francis Lightfoot Lee, whose name, like
                  Gwinnett’s, is itself the essence of both poetry and rock ’n’ roll
and who has no idea what’s about to happen. Ah, uncertainty!
         How we fear and need you. Historian Michael Beschloss
                  imagines the signers nervously fingering their quill pens
as they wonder whether or not to sign a document that

will “change their world and might change the whole
                  world” as well as one that bolstered the citizens and soldiers
to whom it was read aloud, just as “Tutti Frutti” bolstered us
         teenagers as we tried to figure out what we were doing, where
                  we were going, whom we loved, who loved us. Younger reader,
that is, any reader of this poem who is younger than me, which,

come to think of it, is likely to be almost every reader, have I lost you
                  already? Your music and my music are not the same music.
My music is the artists and groups I have already named as well as
         a thousand others—Jackie Wilson, the Clash, Otis, Etta,
                  Aretha, all doowop, most early rap/grunge/punk/psychobilly,
and, hovering over them all, beautiful, doomed Marvin Gaye—

whereas yours consists of musicians I won’t even try to name
                  because (a) I’ll pick the wrong ones and (b) I’m certain that,
if what I’ve written here is read a month or a year or ten years from now,
         the wheel will have turned by then, the seasons changed,
                  the sun risen and sunk and been unhorsed by the moon
and risen again, and musical tastes, too, will have evolved

so radically that what your children listen to will be as different
                  from your music as yours is from mine. Whoever your favorites
are, just promise me you’ll listen to them in your car. Young people’s
         music was meant to be listened to on Sunset Strip, Route 66,
                  the New Jersey Turnpike, A1A all the way from Jacksonville
to the Keys, and the best songs all have cars in them,

from Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” to Chuck Berry’s
                  “Maybellene” to Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz and Tracy
Chapman and pretty much everything by Springsteen and the Beach Boys.
         But say you don’t have a car or don’t have a car that works
                  or do have a car but someone else has borrowed/stolen/wrecked it:
you can still stick out your thumb and get picked up by some stranger

who will take you where you want to go or, if you’re really lucky,
                  to someplace you’ve never heard of but that’s better than where
you were going in the first place. Of course, that same person
         may saw your head off and leave it by the side of the road
                  and the rest of you in a dumpster behind the Waffle House in
the next town, because that kind of thing does happen from time to time,

but it happens a lot less often than the other thing, and besides,
                  you’re not looking for something anymore but someone and not just
anyone, either, you’re looking for the one who will do for you
         what a great song or a great poem does and free you, turn you
                  into a god, take you off your feet and away from home, then lead you
back, and not just for the time it takes you to listen or read but forever,

and besides, a car has just pulled over, and the engine’s idling,
                  and you look through the window, and the driver has a half-smile
and is chewing on a toothpick or a stick of gum or maybe
         a sliver of his last passenger’s soul, and you think I’m going
                  to do this and then I’d have to be crazy to do this and then I’ve got
to find that girl if I have to hitchhike around the world.