Poetry and pop? Beat and rock’n’roll? Over the last half-century, several generations of rockers and rappers, folkies and freaks, melodists and mavericks, balladeers and beat-boxers, have tried to distil the essence of the art of Kerouac and Ginsberg, Burroughs and Ferlinghetti, and embroider it, re-shape it, re-cast it, with the riffs and licks of popular music.
In fact, few of the true giants – from Dylan to Lennon, Waits to Strummer, Patti Smith to Kurt Cobain, Stipe to Bono – have been immune to the notion that those revolutionary Fifties wordsmiths had something quixotic, something energising, to add to rock music at its more radical edges.
Whether it has been Beat’s literary style – its rolling, insistent momentum or the jolt of its fragmented verse – or merely its clarion call to freedom and the open highway, the pulse of the prose, the spark of its language, has remained an ongoing inspiration to younger hordes wielding electric guitars and rebellious vim.
That enduring, picaresque spirit is a frequent presence on Bohemia, a new album by a band of salty survivors from England’s north who take pieces of that potent Beat narrative, insert iconic figures from the popular cultural landscape, spout urban legends and churn in ancient myths, and weave them all with craft and charm in a ten-track debut odyssey.
Heath Common and The Thin Man are the principal wizards behind this eccentric yet alluring project, joined by a gang of seasoned and adept troubadours who add their atmospheric flavours to a string of imaginative set-pieces: tales of the weird West and timeless Bible fables, incidents from downtown New York City and even inner city Manchester, all brought to impressionistic life by some eclectic, rootsy, bluesy, folksy tunescapes.
The soundtrack has hints of Cooder’s Buena Vista adventure, taints of another Ry work-out in Wenders’ Paris Texas, yet also the twinkle and tinkle of Tales from Europe and the dark melancholy of Yiddish klezmer with all the barbed wire embers that evokes. This is spoken word with a worldly-wise, even world-weary, eye, but its sage-like tones hint enticingly at the long, deep drift of an alternative history.
As for the Beat influence on the collection, Neal Cassady, the frenetic hero of On the Road, makes a cameo appearance in ‘A New Bohemian’, the words of poet Gary Snyder form a portion of ‘Why Truck Drivers Rise Earlier than the Students of Zen’, legendary street musician Moondog crops up in ‘The Angel of New York’, a Beat-linked comedian is at the heart of ‘I Don’t Want to Be Lenny Bruce Anymore’ and there are yet more subterranean nuggets to unpick in the folds of the text.
But if you’re looking for some rock gods in the pages of this Pynchon-esque fantasia, look no further than Lennon in the nostalgic, even valedictory, ‘Candlestick Park’ or Keith Richards in ‘Performance (The Toronto Bust in Waltz Time)’, who, to add another layer to this saga, was actually heading, as star guest, to the Nova Convention, a major Manhattan tribute to William Burroughs, when his notorious drug arrest occurred.
In short, Bohemia is an ambitious compendium of boho snapshots riddled with reference to the literary and the musical, offbeat monologues to be recited around campfires of the mind, dreams to be decoded by the light of a mandolin moon, fairy stories for a new millennium, twisted tales engagingly unwound to the twang and spittle of a Soho saloon.
Heath Common & The Thin Man’s Bohemia is released on Platform 54, Summer 2012. Visit: http://www.heathcommonandthethinman.com