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They Were Called Records, Kids
by James Rodgers
121 poems/266 pages/$20.00
ISBN 978-1-936657-34-6
Publisher: MoonPath Press
To Purchase: MoonPath

Reviewed by Michael Escoubas

My first thought as I began my back-to-the-future adventure in James Rodgers’ new book: “I wonder if Roy Orbison is included in this showcase of Hall-of-Fame musicians?” Orbison, of course, was unique in voice, style and prestige during the “vinyl” period of American music. Not to disappoint, page 21, Like a Statue in Dark Sunglasses, delivered this reviewer’s Roy Orbison fix. From that poem forward, the poet transported me back in his time-capsule DeLorean, back to the auditoriums, state fairs and outdoor Rock ‘n Roll concerts of my youth.

If you enjoy music, music without borders, music that touches virtually every nook and cranny of life—YOU’RE GONNA LOVE THIS BOOK!

They Were Called Records, Kids, is arranged in a series of performance “sets” with haiku interludes between each set. Rodgers calls these “haikooky.” Read them for an instantaneous smile.

The number of poems in each segment ranges from eight to nineteen, just as one might expect in an evening-long musical performance where artists and bands rotate. A poignant two-poem encore signals “Show’s over, folks!”

Stylistically, Rogers writes in free verse. Like a skillful lead guitarist, his notes fit the melody perfectly. The poems give pleasure in terms of free-flowing, accessible diction. Best of all, Rodgers is a poet with heart. His love of music saturates his lines, gently drawing the reader into a world where life, music and poetry intersect.

The titles are musical intros in themselves. Try these: Still Spinning, Barracuda, Cinnamon Girl, Better Than a Mud Shark Three-way, The One More Pint Band, and Chili and the Crows.

Let’s begin with the title poem. I mentioned that Rodgers will draw you in. This is exactly what happened to me. I spun these records in my room until my parents held their ears!

They Were Called Records, Kids

Most folks say
I’m far too young
to remember
Bill Haley and the Comets,
Little Richard,
The Big Bopper,
The Marcels,
The Penguins,
those early progenitors
in the creation
of Rock and Roll,
and I will admit,
I was created
more than a decade later,
but I love
the sound,
the urgency,
the innocence,
the true glory
of doo-wop harmony,
or Buddy Holly’s guitar,
and I miss
the faraway look
in my mother’s eyes
when Ritchie Valens
sang in Spanish,
or Fats Domino crooned,
his piano
lilting like a scroll,
about finding his thrill.
That right there,
like a musical IV,
these songs,
help keep me young,
even if they do
call them oldies.

Most of the 19 poems in the opening set, provide interesting background from the poet’s childhood. Background that anchored him in music for the simple pleasures available therein. In the poem Simple Pleasures, Rodgers confides:

As a child,
wet tennis shoes
on a tile floor,
three o’clock,
comic books,
Chuck Berry Live
at the London Palladium

on eight track,
static electricity
a quarter on the sidewalk,
and orange Nehi,
were the things
that made me smile.

In this superbly organized work, each set features an identifiable theme. In Set 2, readers travel with the poet to Kathmandu, capital of Nepal; Lhasa, Tibet; the Antarctic Circle, New Zealand, Germany’s Octoberfest, Ireland and more. No passport needed! Set 3 reflects on the tragic pathos of the vinyl era and the lives of iconic artists like Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, and Kathleen Battle, whose sultry arrangement of Summertime, birthed this poem:

I’ve Always Like His Version Better

I heard Kathleen Battle
singing “Summertime,”
her alto
floating, falling
from an open window
Her voice
rose above
the traffic and chatter,
and followed me
to the end
of the block,
but as the music faded,
sliding back
into the sounds of life,
I heard Louis
in my head,
continuing the tune,
all gravel rasp
and sly grin,
letting me know
that all was well,
I was safe,
even though
no fish were jumping,
and it was actually Spring.

Set 4, showcases an entire repertoire of love poems. Here’s one to whet the appetite:

I’m No Angel

She had bought me
Madonna’s Like A Virgin
because she said
the song “Angel”
reminded her of me.
We only dated
for about 4 months,
and while I never
truly understood that she meant,
when I hear that song now,
almost two decades later,
it makes me smile
and think about
what might have been.

In Set 5, readers are permitted on stage through 8 poems about stage performances by artists and groups. Rodgers is particularly sensitive about the struggles and aspirations of musicians trying to “make it” in the not-so-friendly world of pop-music.

Set 6, opens a series of poems that intertwine music with life’s common things:

Sitting in the Car

On a Sunday without sun
rain lightly tapping
on the windshield,
I sit here waiting,
now 45 minutes in,
waiting for her
and her friends
to emerge,
so we can truly
start our day.

The poem continues expressing the poet’s hope, that “another great song” will play before his wife and her friends finally emerge.

It is exactly this real-life engagement that James Rodgers is so good at. With every new group of poems, I found myself saying, “Yes, I’ve lived that, I’ve been there, I know what this guy’s talking about.”

Having read this far, you won’t want to skip over Set 7. Here, the poet writes about musicians taken from us before the fading of stage lights, before the last encore.

Voice quality and stage presence take center stage in sets 8 and 9. Each set is devoted appropriately to female and male vocalists. Titles include, She Had a Growl, Hers was the Voice, Not Quite Dolly and Arlo, His Music is Still Timeless, We Can’t All Be Dylan.

As the concert ends and lights begin to dim, we encounter Music Lover, a poem I would point to as summing things up for this unique and memorable collection:

Music Lover

She said
she loved music.
She said
She owned lots of CDs
and still had
plenty of records.
Yet she didn’t know the difference
between Neil Diamond
and Neil Young,
Boston and Chicago
were strictly cities,
Moby Grape
was a fruit juice
for kids,
and Eminem
was just candy
that didn’t melt
in your hands.

James Rodgers is a poet who knows the difference, and, after savoring, They Were Records, Kids, I’m betting that you will too.


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