Reviews

Drift: Poems by Kevin Connolly

Zachary Houle

What separates Connolly from the pack, however, is that the guy can also be very, very funny.


Drift

Publisher: House of Anansi Press
Length: 83
Subtitle: Poems
Price: $13.95 US
Author: Kevin Connolly
US publication date: 2005-04
Amazon

Without naming names, one of my big issues with Canadian poetry -- or modern poetry, perhaps, altogether -- is that it's too experimental, too gimmicky or just too darn concerned with form over fun. There are also only so many new poems I want to hear about, say, the beauty of a forest, since Walt Whitman, et al did that sort of thing better when there were actually nice forests to write about.

That's where a guy like Kevin Connolly walks in and blows the socks off every would-be poet in the room. This Torontonian can write a sonnet and follow all of the basic forms of metering -- if and when he wants to. (Sometimes, Connolly goes off into free-verse rambling, too, which sometimes works and sometimes not.) What separates him from the pack, however, is that the guy can also be very, very funny. There are very few poems that conjure up an image of the Easter Bunny drinking Old Speckled Hen, or -- in one from an earlier 1995 collection called Asphalt Cigar -- Madonna being awful in bed.

His fortitude at mixing surrealism with humor has earned Connolly at least one follower of note in the indie rock scene: Silver Jews' frontman David Berman, who also has published poetry in book form. On the back cover of this collection, Connolly's third in 10 years, Berman not only blurbs that this will be the only blurb he'll ever write -- we'll hold him to that promise -- but that the book is "fucking hilarious," which, incidentally, marks the second time in recent memory that I've seen the f-bomb used as an adjective in a blurb to promote a Canadian book. (The first being on the back-cover of Colin McAdam's Some Great Thing, though I suppose I'm digressing here.)

I wouldn't go so far as to call this book knee-slappingly funny, but there are quite a few cute bits that skewer pop culture. The poem "Deep Thoughts and Important Feelings" seemingly references the mock feel-good greeting card platitudes of faux Saturday Night Live personality Jack Handey:

If women gave birth through their noses there'd be
a lot more of those knife-happy pediatric surgeons a-
round, not to mention a healthy run on rhinoplastics

Somewhat disappointingly, though, this book seems a little like a collection of quickly thrown-together odds and sods: it lacks any of the distinctive flow. The reason is quite simple, actually. The poems here are collected and printed in an A to Z alphabetical running order. Thus, a (rather good) poem about Donald Rumsfeld trying to write a poem oddly precedes the now-obligatory 9/11 piece found much later in the book. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason for this, either. In fact, I'd say that Drift is an adequate title for the book since it's all over the map.

I also was a bit let down by Connolly's penchant to drift into stream-of-consciousness surrealism. Granted, this has always been something of a Connolly trademark, but he seems to be more cryptic than he was in his Asphalt Cigar days.

Buffering this theory, Drift ends with a piece entitled "Write What You Know," which is then followed by a blank page. While this can be taken as an invitation for the reader to participate in the process of creating Connolly's art, it also suggests -- if one can go by the lengthy acknowledgments noting where bits of other poets' work were "sampled" -- that he's not writing what he knows or has experienced. That he's now casting about into uncharted territory.

This comes as a bit of a double-edged sword. I'm not one to go against an artist out to try new things, but I liked Connolly a lot better when he wasn't letting his influences show as much. For instance, I think he relies on epigraphs perhaps once or two too often in Drift. To me, the epigraph is just a fancy way for a poet to say, "Here are my influences. Cool, eh?"

Still, that all said, I'd rather watch Connolly cast around a bit than read some of his more pretentious peers find their way into print. His work is usually hilarious, engaging and intelligent, despite some misfires, and should be read by anyone who thinks poetry is merely old and stodgy. Look past some of the shortcomings, and you'll find a poet who at least tries to captivate his audience without having to resort to strange guttural sounds and wounded coffeehouse poetry. That's a good thing, if you catch my drift.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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