Dancing to the Words, or How We Quit Rehearsing and Learned to Love the Apocalypso Groove

My entire life has been about collaboration. If I had been a little girl, I’d have wanted “Collaborateur Barbie,” in sackcloth with shorn pate and the enmity of her French countrymen.

In 1991, at the apex of my newspapering career, I inherited a managerial position. As editor of a weekly section during the final year of the Knoxville Journal, I rode herd on a team of staff photographers and freelance writers. There were tender egos to be coddled or whittled down. I got people to do what was needed. I was good at it: I hired and fired as necessary and did the paperwork to get everyone paid.

A decade later, disabled and piddling at freelancing myself, I wanted to get back in the game. I needed a masterstroke to make up for 10 years in medical retirement limbo. I hit on the idea of writing a history of the original music springing up from the live venues and bars around the University of Tennessee. It would combine my love of music and writing—and my latent skills as a manager.

I quickly realized it would have to be an anthology. As a one-man job, it would have taken many years, and for a project that wasn’t going to make me any money, I simply couldn’t do it that way. I decided to call in every skilled observer and writer I could to chronicle the music scene in a big college town from the ‘60s to the present. Using my extensive networks of friends in both the journalistic and music communities, I worked up an “order of battle” (I’m a military history nut, by the way) in which appropriate people were tasked with covering a representative array of topics.

The result was Cumberland Avenue Revisited: Four Decades of Music from Knoxville, Tennessee (Cardinal Publishing 2003). Over one hundred contributors provided photographs, oral histories, essays, biographies and analyses for a book that I believe may be the only one of its kind, ever. Professional writers and amateur observers alike were marshaled into a common labor of love for us all—a family tree of Knoxville musicianship. Happily, it also returned me to the company of friends old and new.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, I had played in a couple of bands in the UT area bar scene. Significantly, I was the bass player. This suited me musically and psychologically. I liked being part of the engine in the background. It was also during the insanely creative artistic renaissance of the early ‘80s that a tradition of hit-and-run, guerrilla-style poetry readings and concerts was executed by our literary and musical crowd, a tradition continued well into the ’90s and morphed into a poetry slam scene that is still alive and kicking.

After the turn of the millennium, a few of us still celebrated our continuum with the Beat Generation. Although I wasn’t an original participant in the series, I was cast in the last several stagings of Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, a quixotic production of local actor Greg Congleton and musician-poet RB Morris. Some of Knoxville’s stellar musical community would pitch in to provide the soundtrack for all-afternoon-long readings of the book-length tale of drug-addled religiosity among Beats living in Mexico in the ‘50s. In 2005, Phil Pollard drummed for the “orchestra.” Congleton insisted I go hear Pollard’s own band, the zany ensemble known as Phil Pollard and his Band of Humans. Pollard had some mad ideas about infusing literature with progressive rock/jazz. The percussionist/vibraphonist offered to back me for a couple of my own small spoken word shows. Soon to follow were memorable performances with the whole band at one of downtown’s favorite live music bars, the Preservation Pub, as well as the apparently one-off Knoxville Poetry Festival.

Morris was appointed writer-in-residence at UT Libraries, and in 2006, he invited me to take part in the library’s lecture series. I decided to bring in some musicians. While I read an assortment of prose and poetry, Pollard beat bongos, Brandon Beavers sawed away elegaically on his cello and David Phillips tootled along merrily on his flute, every bit of it pure improv and unrehearsed. Allegedly, it was the first musical spoken word performance in the academic environs of the Lindsay Young Auditorium of John C. Hodges Library.

The positive effect of these cumulative experiences was creation of my own spoken word collective, the Apocalypso Quartet. I selected the name based on my desire to copyright such a devilishly clever portmanteau, marrying my smalltown Southern upbringing obsession with ‘End Times’ Christianity to my adoration of reggae from my bass-playing days.

Much as I enjoy hamming it up at the microphone reciting or reading some fomentously masturbatory frothings in verse or prose, I certainly never imagined being the front man. Yet by the mid-2000s, within just a couple of years of publishing the book, that is exactly what happened. Exorcizing my schizophrenia, perhaps?

The encouragement of so many—from Morris back in our wild young days to the present—and Pollard and a dozen other musicians—had everything to do with how I codified my concept of musical spoken word. I want my prose and poetry to be connected at the molecular level to the music. It just isn’t fun without them supplying energy and nailing down a beat while riffing contrapuntally around my words. Pollard and I did a few more shows, most notably at Carpe Librum Booksellers, with Band of Humans’ member Chris Zuhr on upright bass. Pollard’s life led him away from Knoxville, but not before he, Band of Humans keyboardist Geol Greenlee and I were invited by Todd Steed to make our first professional quality recordings. (Listen at http://web.mac.com/apeville/iWeb/Site/Podcast/Podcast.html)

My next “musical director” would be Knoxville’s hardest working, most prolific guitar-rocker, Tim Lee of the Tim Lee 3. “Smokin’” Dave Nichols of the Premo Dopes (a Todd Steed band) fame, not to mention his own Jazz Liberation Quartet and other groups, joined us on bass. We were at least a trio at this point. Dave, Tim and I began playing local bars like the Preservation Pub and the World Grotto. It was with this ensemble—including Nate Barrett on percussion—that the AQ became a true quartet and most notably played our first “Blue Plate Special” on WDVX. Over the ensuing years, we have played half a dozen April Fool’s and Halloween Blue Plate Specials for the listener-supported Americana station. Through the support of its director, Tony Lawson, one of our steadiest fans, we can claim to have played around the world via the station’s Internet stream.

Another milepost came in 2009 when I recorded a track for the Knoxville Jazz Society’s Donald Brown-produced album, “Tenors and Satin.” For “Divine Hammer,” which can be heard at my Reverbnation site, I partnered with Brown-protégée and exquisite soul, Emily Mathis, a 20-something jazz pianist-singer.

Last fall, I actualized a long-running desire to explore world music with oud-player Laith Keilany, late of the Jodie Manross band and Artvandelay (both also with drummer Nate Barrett). I had wanted to get on stage with Laith ever since witnessing him with the Humans, silencing the noisy Preservation Pub with his oud and Qawwali-style singing. Besides being music that gets under my skin, the Sufi inflections also serve as a provocative foil for my military and eschatological fascinations—and only the good goddess knows what kind of psychopathies are at work there—into something I like to think is artful.

A studio-only version of the AQ exists with me and Big Deuce bassist/audio engineer Adam Bucco. Bucco’s transformation of my “Things That Ain’t Funny” diatribe into a hip hop opera is a thing of majesty. We hope to create enough material for an album—notably, as a separate endeavor altogether from the live band. (Flattering article and free download at http://www.thedailytimes.com/attachments/2011/06/ThingsThatAintFunny.mp3)

Over the past couple of years, Greg Horne, a multi-instrumentalist of tremendous acclaim (and my bass instructor), has illumined many an AQ performance with his boundless musical vocabulary. The growing collective of the AQ includes another brilliant guitarist, Econopop and Stolen Sheep’s George Middlebrooks. I met George literally onstage the night he joined us for a show at the Pilot Light in Knoxville’s Old City club district (not the only time AQ members met onstage as a show began). That show was memorable for the powerhouse, 3-guitar attack of Lee, Horne and Middlebrooks, plus Nichols and Barrett in the rhythm section. Bob Deck, another veteran from Nancy Brennan Strange and Todd Steed’s musical families, has proved to be an unusually simpatico guitarist whose eccentric stylings wrap presciently around my lines. The AQ’s largest aggregation was a septet on Sept. 1 at the Preservation Pub’s gorgeous new upstairs listening lounge, the Speakeasy. Besides Barrett, Deck, Keilany and myself, it included our new bassist, Mike Murphy, 21-year-old cellist Cecilia Miller and Big Deuce vocalist Sonja Spell, each experienced in the local jazz, classical and funk communities.

The melding of music and words into performance takes place a variety of ways. Rehearsal is almost an after-thought, certainly a luxury, since most of my bandmates are pros and paying gigs get top billing.

When exigencies preclude conventional rehearsal, we get ready for shows with a variety of techniques. The cornerstone preparation is for me to meet with the “musical director” person—a floating title for sure—and block out major ideas. More often, we clamber onstage and I yell out, “play me some Creedence Clearwater Revival swamp rock!” or “deconstruct Howlin’ Wolf!” Or, “this needs a spaghetti Western soundtrack sound!” They all know by now that I like minor keys and don’t like speeds faster than mid-tempo. Sometimes, I’ll play a bass line myself to show a guitarist or bassist the general sound/mood I want. Lately, I’ve taken to trying to crack the band up onstage by requesting “gimme some hot porn groove!” or “how about some Weather Channel?” They always come up with something. It works, far more times than not.

A typical show starts with a piece designed to put the band, the audience and me in a groove together. This opening monolog serves not only as an introduction but to disabuse the crowd of any notions this will be like their schooldays memories of poetry readings or lectures.

As a journalist and performance artist now with decades of experience, I seem to have gained some cred. There’s the music book, work published in six consecutive Knoxville Writers’ Guild anthologies plus Knoxville Bound as well as first places for short fiction in the Leslie Garrett and Tennessee Mountain Writers’ Conference competitions. At this point in my life, I’m not going to complain about a fan base, deserved or not.

But part of me remains astonished that I’m asked to read at bookstores or events, purely literary endeavors. I do it, but if I can’t have the band with me, it’s not as much fun. I have been spoiled basking in the divine beauty of my brothers and sisters up there sharing the risk with me. They give me the confidence to take a chance on being foolish, doing this terribly odd thing that maintains the creative continuum that swept me up 40 years ago when I came to Knoxville as a young college boy idolizing Jack Kerouac.

Now let’s see if we can get them dancing to the words.

Postscript: RIP Phil Pollard, who died October 29, 2011 after suffering a series of strokes two days earlier on his 44th birthday.

Jack Rentfro (center) & The Apocalypso Quartet in performance as a septet at The Speakeasy. Photo by Stacy Miller