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Ellery Eskelin's Interview About Rodd Keith

This American Life, a weekly one-hour radio program syndicated on National Public Radio, ran an excellent 17-minute interview with Ellery Eskelin as part of their "Blame It On Art" episode, first broadcast August 15, 1997. The thrust of the interview features Ellery explaining how his understanding of his late father, Rodd Keith, blossomed via his discovery of Rodd's song-poem recordings.

The segment is still available, in several different formats: a transcription of the interview, transcribed by ace AS/PMA field rep Mark Bell, begins just below; the audio feed of the episode is available on-line in RealAudio format; and a cassette of the episode is available by mail from the producers of This American Life. If you're running the RealAudio file, you can either listen to the program from the beginning or you can drag the slider bar to a little past the halfway point, where Ellery's segment begins. Details on how to order the the cassette can be found at This American Life's website.

Nancy Updike, the segment producer and conductor of the interview with Ellery, reveals a native understanding of the song-poem form and its strange appeal, and came up with some insightful questions and observations. Her blind-date metaphor and her comparison of Rodd's career to Phillip K. Dick's were particularly on the mark. Ellery, as always, was candid and articulate on some extremely personal topics. There is one unnecessarily maudlin volley that veers into Barbara Walters territory, but the rest of the interview is easily strong enough to redeem that brief glitch. This program is very highly recommended, with fresh thoughts on song-poem music, and can serve as a fine introduction for the beginner.

Ira Glass: Today's program: "Blame It On Art" -- stories about the difficulties and pettiness in artists' lives. We've arrived at Act Three of our program. Ellery Eskelin never met his father. Never even talked to him. But he always heard that he was a genius all during his childhood. And especially after he started playing sax when he was ten years old, he heard stories about his dad. He heard that his dad could play any instrument that he picked up. That he wrote music fast, like it was nothing. That he could never understand why other musicians got frustrated when he handed out brand-new arrangements right before a gig. He could always play it right off the page; why couldn't they? Finally, Ellery got to hear his father's music for the first time. What's happened since is a story about what it means to be a nobody artist. And what it means to be called a genius. This American Life producer Nancy Updike tells the story.

Nancy Updike: When Ellery first heard his father's music, it was 1976, two years after his dad was killed. His father, Rodd Keith, fell or jumped from an overpass onto a California highway at five in the morning. Ellery was 17 when he first heard the tape. A talented and earnest jazz saxophone player who was living with his mother, who was also a musician.

Ellery Eskelin: I think we were just sitting in the living room of my mother's house in Baltimore, and we just popped this cassette in. (music plays)

Updike: And, perhaps not surprisingly, when Ellery first heard this recording, he was really disappointed. He hadn't known what to expect when his grandparents sent the tape. But after all the build-up, he just couldn't believe that this was going to be it from his father, the genius -- one crappy tape that he couldn't stand listening to. And that was the last of his father's music that he heard for the next fifteen years.

Eskelin: Um ... (fumbling with stereo) ... let's play ... I'll just play this and we'll talk about it. This is called "Hippie Happy Land." (music plays)

Updike: (after first verse) Now, is this your dad singing?

Eskelin: Yeah.

(second verse begins)

Updike: (voiceover) This is a song-poem. Song-poems are songs built around lyrics that people send in to companies that advertise in the back of some magazines. You're supposed to "Send In Your Lyrics!" and then they'll write a song for you, record it, and send it out to record companies so you can break into "the biz." Needless to say, the song-poem industry is about half a promise short of a swindle, and is not a forum that has launched any musicians that you or I could name. Except, interestingly enough, Hootie, of Hootie and the Blowfish. (pause) Just kidding!

("Hippy Happy Land" swells, fades)

Updike: So it's fifteen years since Ellery's first heard that tape of his dad, and he's thumbing through this music catalogue, and he sees this CD compilation of song-poems, including ones by Rodd Keith, his father. He was stunned. He immediately got the CD, and started finding out everything he could about other song-poems his dad wrote. It turns out he wrote hundreds and hundreds of them. Now Ellery has a whole shelf of 45s with song-poems by his dad.

Eskelin: This music has everything in the world going against it. It's completely artificial, it's a scam, it's ... you know, I could probably list fifteen different reasons why it shouldn't work. But, for some reason, something comes through all this stuff. And I think that's part of the charm and attractiveness that it has.

(music swells -- the song's wacky bridge -- then fades)

Eskelin: The combination of the sentiment of the lyrics, and the tune, being so absurd ... coupled with Rodd's delivery -- which is actually like he's going for it! It's a fine line between the fact that he knows that this is kind of a joke, but he's really trying to put something in it. And a lot of this stuff is right on that line. And I think that that's almost an uncomfortable place to be, but it's really fascinating and attractive. You want to cringe, but you're laughing. But you're attracted to it all at the same time.

(music swells again, Rodd's amazing, earnest, vocals -- then fades)

Updike: Ellery loves that rawness and confusion of song-poems. And not in a theoretical, "oh, isn't that kitschy" way. He likes listening to them. He says he'll put on a song-poem CD just to listen to around the apartment, the same as any other CD. Which may sound unimaginable and breathtaking, but here's the thing: When you're listen to one song-poem after another, you realize song-poems are like a blind date you start out thinking you're gonna hate. And  then by the end of dinner and a movie, you've found several things you really dig about this person. And even if you're not going to marry them, they're definitely not like anyone you've ever dated before.

(music: Rodd singing that "firefly" song)

Updike: (quoting the verse just sung) "And so it is with fleeting loves, they sparkle for a while. But all too soon, they leave you on your senses to beguile." As we listened, it occurred to me that I had never heard a firefly used as a metaphor for love before.

Eskelin: Well, that's the great thing about the song-poem. Every metaphor, every mixed metaphor that you could imagine is in there. And the topics are great: there's like politics, love songs, hippies, dance crazes -- "Do the Pig," "Do the Turkey," space travel ...

Updike: "The Pig" is not a dance that really made it big. (laughing)

Eskelin: It should have! Check it out! (loads song) It would have, if this had gotten any airplay.

("Do the Pig" plays briefly, fades)

Updike: The stylistic range of the songs Ellery's father wrote is dizzying. It's ten years of work from someone who is very, very productive. Of course, he wasn't always working, because sometimes he was busy doing things like taking LSD and going out on Sunset Boulevard wearing only a raincoat, and then accidentally catching the raincoat on fire when he tried to light a cigarette, and then taking the raincoat off and being arrested for public nudity. But when he was working, he would record say, thirty songs a day. One right after another, no rehearsals, no second takes. So Rodd would record, maybe, some James Bond-theme-sounding song (exemplary burst of music), then a dance song (exemplary burst), then some psychedelic number (exemplary burst), and then something that sounded like the early Beatles or Ray Davies (exemplary burst).

Eskelin: At first, when I was first listening to these records, I would hear things and not be sure if it was him even if it had his name on the label. It took me a while. Now I can tell it's him no matter what he's doing. I can tell whatever that grain -- you know, whatever that is in his voice that makes it him, I can tell.

Updike: What an amazing way to know your father! That you have this sort of musical intimacy with him, yet you never saw him face-to-face.

Eskelin: Yeah, that's true. I can almost tell the songs that he wrote, too. Just by the devices that he used in the chord changes, or small little things ...

(Ellery's own music plays, fades)

Updike: (voiceover) That's Ellery on the sax. It's from his first album, a collection of jazz standards. With his father on the other side of the country, that's the music Ellery grew up listening to and liking.

Eskelin: I used to be ... not a snob about it, because I've always had very broad tastes in music. But I definitely was brought up feeling that there was good music and there was bad music. I mean, I grew up not liking rock and roll, which is really strange for somebody my age. Every kid in the first grade was talking about the Beatles and trying to get their hair to grow long. And I'm thinking about Stan Getz or John Coltrane, something like that.

Updike: By the time Ellery heard his father's music the second time, when he was in his early thirties, his musical tastes had already changed and broadened. But the song-poems were just a different world altogether. They were so unfettered by any pretensions of the art world or the world of serious music. It was inspiring. Ellery says in the last few years, since finding his father's music and discovering song-poems, he's been having a ball buying music he never liked or never heard as a kid, and discovering he loves it -- Iggy Pop, Yoko Ono, the "white" album. And Ellery's own music is changing. Frankly, it's getting weirder. Much less like jazz standards and much more like ... song-poems! They have this experimental "hey, let's see how this sounds" feel. It's making him a jazz outcast these days, which is fine with him. When a reviewer sniffed that a section of his latest record sounded like "the buzzing of a thousand demented insects," his reaction was "Yeah ... and?"


Updike: Was it a disappointment? Something that you had to sort of go through and get over? Did you think "my father is not the Mozart of jazz," "Dammit, I'm not related to a Coltrane, I'm related to ... " I don't know, I can't think of ...

Eskelin: But I think I am related to one. I mean, the music didn't change that. People have told me-they use exactly those words: "yeah, he was like a Mozart, he could write this, he could do that." All the cliches. But when people tell them, I can tell that they're really heartfelt. So my estimation of my father has never wavered. I've never been disappointed in him. I've only been disappointed in the fact that I've never been able to find more of what he was able to do. Not that I'm disappointed with song-poem music at all, I'm thrilled to have it. I just know that there was more to his life. And the fact that I never met him, I'm hungry for anything I can get.

(music plays -- Ellery again)

Eskelin: I started out with almost nothing to go on. That one cassette and two pictures. That was all.

Updike: I mean, if you could have a conversation with him now, what would you say?

Eskelin: Hmm. Wow. (pause) Obviously, there's a million things that I'd want to know. I just think that it would be being with him that would be the whole thing. Not unlike these dreams in which he's here, we're together, and we're doing normal kind of stuff. We're going to go out and hang out and we're gonna do this and do that, and we're not gonna call a huge amount of attention to the fact that there's this profound, enormous thing going on. We're not gonna address that so much as we're just gonna live. (pause)

Updike: Would you want to play music with him?

Eskelin: Sure. (pause)

Updike: This is the one time in the interview you've cried. Why?

Eskelin: (pause) 'Cause I guess up to now, we've just talked in terms of second-hand stories and things that I'd thought a lot of, that I'm able to recite. That I've said many times before, that I've thought about a lot, that I'm familiar with. I've been able to regulate my degree of emotion to that. But when you ask me to indulge in a fantasy of something like that, that's very direct.

Updike: (voiceover) He never met his father. It's not just that he died. Ellery never met him. Ellery says losing his father has only gotten harder as he's gotten older. When we talked, he'd just passed the age that his father was when he died, 37. Ellery's father appears on Ellery's new album, "Green Bermudas." About half the songs sample song-poems written by his father. And some other song-poems too.

(music: "Green Bermudas.")

Updike: Ellery's father reminded me of this writer, Philip K. Dick, who spent years doing this very intricate science-fiction writing that he thought of as just the easy stuff he did to make money. What he really wanted was to write a great novel. He died young, known only to sci-fi buffs. After he died, three of his short stories were turned into movies. One of them was "Blade Runner," the paradigmatic modern sci-fi movie. A modern classic. I think most of us are like that. Like Philip Dick, or Ellery's father. Most of us are toiling away at daily work which doesn't seem as important as the ambitious dreams that we have for ourselves. We're convinced that we're not living up to our potential. That there's a better part of ourselves that just hasn't expressed itself yet. Until the day that our lives are over, and what's left is that daily work, whatever it is. Whatever we gave it.

(closing music -- Rodd again)

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