The poetry of rock ‘n’ roll, from coastal Maine

Posted Feb. 27, 2011, at 6:53 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 27, 2011, at 9:40 p.m.
Dave Morrison
Dave Morrison

Dave Morrison was sipping coffee in his kitchen in Camden last Tuesday morning, and just before 9 a.m. flipped on MPBN to listen to “The Writer’s Almanac,” the daily broadcast made by Garrison Keillor.

Every day, Keillor’s program features the birthdays of writers and poets and accompanying biographical information, and a poem of the day. That day, Dave Morrison got to hear his poem, “The Guitar Player,” intoned by Keillor.

“It was a real trip,” said Morrison. “It feels like I made it, in a way. I’ve been swamped with messages since then. It felt affirming.”

The poem, plucked from Morrison’s latest book, “Clubland,” is a wistful, plain-spoken look into the life of a rock musician, embittered by years of slugging it out in the clubs. The book itself unfolds in equal parts like a memoir and a series of vignettes, telling the alternately sad and triumphant story of being in a band. It’s told from the point of view of a motley cast of characters, from the people onstage to the bar staff, the fans, the music industry and the hangers-on.

“I like to think of it as like ‘Spoon River Anthology,’ just in a dive bar instead of a cemetery,” he said.

Anyone who ever played in a band, or has gone to see live music, knows this world, and Dave Morrison knows it personally, as he was that guy for more than 20 years. The folks at “The Writer’s Almanac” must know that world too, because they picked another poem from “Clubland,” “The Club Manager,” to be read on the Saturday, Feb. 26, broadcast.

For the past six years, Morrison and his wife, Susan, have made their home in Camden, where Morrison is the technical director for the Camden Opera House. Before that, he was a rocker — though you could easily make the argument that he still is, just with words instead of guitars.

From 1978 to 1988, Morrison’s new wave/power pop band the Trademarks played all over the East Coast, from clubs in New York and Boston to smaller shows in Portland, Old Orchard Beach, Orono and, yes, Camden. They opened for everyone from Alice Cooper to Syl Sylvain, formerly of the New York Dolls. The band’s home base of Boston was a great place to be for a musician. Tens of thousands of college students were hungry to hear live music, and college radio broadcast local bands regularly, raising their profile.

After the Trademarks came another band, True Blue. Then Morrison met his wife, Susan, and the couple moved to New York City, where he played solo acoustic gigs and formed a new band, the Juke Savages. By the early 2000s, though, the rock n’ roll life began to lose its luster. And that’s about when Morrison started writing, and eventually moved to Maine.

“My wife came home from work and asked, ‘Ever been to Camden?’” said Morrison. “As it turned out, I’d played at this random place that used to be behind the Opera House called Mr. Kites. You’d play there, and then you could sleep in the attic. It kind of flashed on me this memory of this pretty little town. We moved here in 2005.”

Poetry and writing in general were something that always interested Morrison, but as a low priority, naturally, compared to rocking. He started out writing short stories, and even started on a novel, but poetry became his medium of choice upon moving to Camden.

“It was a nice, weird gift. It’s a continuation, in some ways, of what I was doing with music, just in a different medium,” he said. “I came to poetry through the people who were my poets, like Dylan and Pete Townshend and Bruce Springsteen and Richard Thompson. I never studied it at all. I never went to college. I never did an MFA. I just liked what I liked.”

In the past six years, Morrison has released five books of poetry, including “The Lonely Life of Spies,” “Sliver,” “Brand New Day,” “Sweet” and “Black Boat Black Water Black Sand.” Morrison’s rock star past haunts much of his writing, but his eye for detail and his razor-sharp sense of humor elevate his words into something much more than that — something visceral and anchored in the real world, whether it’s in the past or the present.

Between June and October 2010, he wrote the poems that comprised “Clubland,” which constituted a break for him stylistically, in that the poems are written in verse.

“This last book forced me to write in verse, and write in rhymes, and what I discovered was that it really was a lot like songwriting,” he said. “Song has a form, and it turned out to have this strange familiarity. The path your synapses are taking is recognizable. My brain knew what I was doing already.”

“Clubland” is a bit of a love song, in some ways, to believing in rock, and believing in a dream. Even if that dream of rock stardom never comes to fruition — even if the main goal is breaking even and still having beer money left over after the bills are paid. “Clubland” is for all those bands you’ve never heard of.

“There are all these books about U2 and Bruce Springsteen and bands that are huge,” said Morrison. “What about the other 99 percent of bands that don’t make it? That’s what I’m writing about. That’s who this is for.”

Dave Morrison will read with poet Dawn Potter on April 14, at Rockland Public Library, and on April 19 he will read “Clubland” in its entirety at Bangor Public Library. For information on Dave Morrison and his books, visit clublandpoems.wordpress.com/.

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