Ry Cooder in Oklahoma
dust bowl blues again, Karen
turning back pages of Kerouac and
kissing along Snake River,
– from ‘Karen & Ry Cooder’
The moment I encountered Jonah Raskin’s new poetry collection it took me back to Stephen Stills’ deliciously evocative ‘Rock & Roll Woman’, a song that graced the second Buffalo Springfield album in 1967. And Raskin, that most versatile of cultural historians whose American Scream is a key book on the myth of Allen Ginsberg and the rise of ‘Howl’, provides plenty more twinges to the musical memory in this slim but sharp volume.
Like me, this poet is a sucker for the ballsy beat of R&B or the potent pulse of raw rock and still eager, too, to imbibe the freewheeling spirit of the Beat writers, a clan he aspires to emulate – and admits as much – in his stand-up verse and stripped down stanzas.
If he’s on stage reading his stuff, he is often joined, a la Kerouac, by musical accompaniment; here, in his latest opus, he takes on the tropes of rock history and interweaves that thrillingly volatile narrative with the adventures of a gallery of women (friends? lovers? fictions? fantasies?) who have played out their own sparky lives with the radio on, the turntable spinning or the jagged edge of a Stratocaster sending its shockwaves across the shimmering sea of a live audience.
Are these fragments of the Raskin biography? Quite possibly. Yet it matters not that much, for the female gang who inhabit this world – one that stretches from Elvis’ curled quiff to Johnny Rotten’s rusting safety pin – are essentially autonomous, stand-alone types who live maverick existences to a highly-charged soundtrack and, perhaps in rock itself, see a means to escape the stultifying air of conformity.
The Beats didn’t let women carve out independent lives – they kept lovers, wives and muses suspended in a submissive domesticity. The women of whom Raskin writes, later daughters of the vinyl countdown, have broken out of that triangular trap of Kinder, Küche, Kirche and, amid moveable feasts of the heart, absorb the sounds of the Everlys and the Beatles, Janis Joplin and Tina Turner, Dylan, the Dead and the Floyd.
Perhaps though, this cycle of poems is less about girls digging the latest discs and more about singles and LPs and concerts providing the aspic of nostalgia for Raskin and, indeed, so very many of us. We probably recall the 45 as much as the kiss, the album as much as the sleepover, the gig as much as the furious row, the record sleeve as much as the eventual break-up.
Rock’n’Roll Women comprises a series of snapshots that set relationships against the pleasing perspective of the jukebox, even if all was not sweetness and light – even back then. The love affairs may have tarnished in time but the Beach Boys and Jimmy Cliff, Carole King and Otis Redding will eternally suggest the possibility of youthful optimism and Raskin distils something of that appealing spark in these brief cameos.
Note: Jonah Raskin’s Rock’n’Roll Women: Portraits of a Generation is published by McCaa Books of Santa Rosa, California