Vanity Netherworld

Before 'American Idol,' there was the song-poem hustle.

Do you like music that's so amazingly bad, it's good? Intrigued by aural train-wrecks? If you fancy yourself a fan of outsider music, in the range of Harvey Sid Fisher and Ken Nordine, embrace the wonders of The American Song-Poem Anthology (Bar None), a primer for the bizarro blind-date musical coupling that is the world of song-poem music.

Rich with its own mythology mirroring the legit music business, this sub-genre is the inspiration for "Off The Charts," a recent hour-long documentary on PBS' Independent Lenses. It is also the subject of the compulsive and labyrinthine Website, lovingly maintained by song-poem expert Phil Milstein, who's responsible for compiling and producing this anthology. Here's the distilled version:

A song-poem is not a New-Age spoken-word piece with wind chimes and ocean sounds in the background. Song-poems are the result of a century-old swindle whose hook was baited in the back of comic books, music magazines and lowbrow tabloids like the Enquirer. Numerous companies, largely from the Los Angeles area, started placing ads as early as the turn of the 20th century. These ads, still running today, entice amateur songwriters to send in their poems or lyrics, because the industry needs new songwriting talent and--can you believe your luck?--you are it!

The ads manifest themselves in a nearly endless variety, but the goal is always the same: The companies want people's hard-earned money. Once the song-poem studio receives the lyrics (almost none are rejected for content), a pitch is sent to the fledgling writers that goes something like this: We understand how hard it is to get lyrics heard by industry pros, but we have contacts up the ying and also happen to have a vast cadre of talent waiting to crystallize your vision into a full-fledged song. For a nominal fee (today, somewhere around $300) we will put your inspired lyrics to music, in the style you prescribe, with male or female voice, even utilizing your choice of key, melody or sheet music. Once this mutually pleasing creative venture is complete, the song poet is told his work will be delivered to a range of music industry hotshots, DJs, producers, even celebrities.

In reality, once the song-poem company receives the money, the amateur's words get put through a songwriting mill, a high-stress factory environment where low-paid musicians often roll tape and let fly. The focus is unquestionably on quantity, with the high-pressure sessions sometimes producing up to 15 songs in an hour.

The end products--these low-budget songs--get made into short-run singles or compilations, nestled neatly next to contributions from other rubes. The companies only produce enough of a given compilation or single to send a few copies to the marks.

This industry, meant to be a private pleasure or horror for the song-poet, has slowly bled into the sub-culture, and the music is like nothing you have ever heard.

This anthology represents the "best" of this genre, the stuff that has surfaced at thrift stores, swap meets and record fairs. As a microcosm of the real music industry, song-poem music has heroes who are a part of what makes this music so great and complex as a genre.

Rodd Keith, a brilliant musician who found little success in popular music, gives his all on a few cuts, including the amazing "Beat of the Traps." Unintentionally bad lyrics rule the roost, but the very first ironic song-poem, a song in which the lyrics were made deliberately horrible in an attempt to get a rejection letter from the song mills, is "Blind Man's Penis."

Within the song-poem subculture, selections deemed collectable are largely culled from the industry's heyday, the 1960s and '70s, before the song mills could churn out soulless electronic backdrops to match the musing of the would-be songwriter.

The best songs--some valuable for their ironic worth, others as stand-alone great tunes--can hold up next to the weirdest of the weird. Take the song titles alone: "Human Breakdown of Absurdity," "I Like Yellow Things," "Listen Mister Hat." The music ranges from drunken cowboy crooners, late-night, last-session madness, completely uninspired lounge delivery singing about ultra-random nonsense, to incredible musical ingenuity in adverse conditions.

A few lyrical gems:

· From "All you need is a Fertile Mind": "Wow! Look at all that pornography, material waste of photography/ When all you need is a fertile mind to formulate pictures of any kind."

· From "I lost my girl to an Argentinian (sic) Cowboy": "I lost my girl to an Argentinian Cowboy/ A bronco bustin'/Cow punchin' Gay Boy."

· From "City's Hospital Patients," in the style of an up-tempo Mo-Town female vocal group: "Ambulance coming on a call, rushing you down the hall/ X-rays they do for your sake, to find out what makes you ache/ Diagnoses are the things that they must make, for the patient's life may be at stake/ In surgery the doctors are a team, and you're on your way to your dream."

· "From "How Long Are You Staying": "Disco disco disco I am going to Mt. Kisco. I am going to buy Crisco to bake a cake so I can disco disco disco. ... I mostly eat Marisco so I can disco disco disco."

Ah, yes. So bad, it's almost good.

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