Over the last couple months I've been working on a set of songs. The texts are borrowed from various Bukowski poems. I'm a big Bukowski fan (here and here). I recently encountered a poem of his that threatens to stop my song writing:
several months ago I was sent some tapes
by a musician who had put several of
my poems to music.
he professed much interest in my
I played the tapes on the way to the track
very classical (and I am a classical music
but the overall tone of the work was
tinged with intellectual
elitism—the pretentious soprano voices and the
I was both abashed and honored that
the composer had lent so much effort and
musical learning to my work.
at the same time I felt that the overall
effect was anti-life, anti-me, anti-the-
clarity of directly seeking joy, pain,
anything reasonable or
it was the same old con, the same old
snobbism, the same old murderous kiss
of death clothed in a creative
so I wrote the gentleman back, "you know,
I have certain problems, one of them
being with instruments.
some instruments which I dislike
are the piano, the violin and the soprano
voice, especially the latter.
the human voice besides being basically
ugly also reminds me of the human
and one of the last things I want to
think of and one of the first things I
want to get away from when I listen to
classical music is
(Sorry to quote at length, but it was worth it. The poem is "How to get rid of the purists" and the rest of it can be found on p. 195 of Bone Palace Ballet.)
I don't ever intend to publish my songs, so I've never once considered seeking the Bukowski estate's permission to use the texts. Now, however, I feel that I'll never have Bukowski's spiritual blessing–I know that what I do would displease him. I can't pretend that my songs are different–that he might have really liked them.
Why does that matter? The concept of non-legal, non-required permission is a tricky thing in both composition and musicology. What does it mean to have the "blessing" of an estate or subject? What des it mean to not?
Back in college, my musicological mentor Steve Swayne was working on his book How Sondheim Found His Sound. He joked that the best thing is to have one's subject alive and have his or her permission when you start a book, but then have them die the day one's work is published. But Sondheim, who had given Steve's book his blessing, lived through the book's printing. And, to Steve's relief, he very much likes the book.
I recently watched I Like Killing Flies, the documentary on Kenny Shopsin. He is the chef and owner of downtown NYC diner. He's an eccentric foul-mouthed cook who often waxes philosophical and regularly throws people out of his restaurant for not following the rules. He disdains publicity and only allowed a documentary crew into his kitchen as he was losing the lease on his restaurant and considering closing or moving–he wanted the death throes of the old place memorialized. Because of his dislike of the press, not much was written or made about Shopsin's before the documentary. One major article appeared in the New Yorker in 2002, in which author Calvin Triller confesses:
Anytime there seemed to be a threat of my becoming entangled in a piece of unauthorized publicity about Shopsin’s, I have resorted to rank cowardice, spooked by the fear of a lifetime banishment that might not even carry the possibility of parole . . . Yes, I’ve managed to write about Shopsin’s from time to time, always observing the prohibition against mentioning its name or location. That is one reason I’ve never been offended by Kenny’s refusal to recognize a reporter’s God-given right to turn absolutely everything into copy. In a piece about Greenwich Village a few years ago, for instance, I asked a restaurant proprietor “who tends not to be cordial to people wearing suits” what the difference was between the Village and uptown, and he said, “I don’t know. I’ve never been uptown.” Kenny has never objected to any of the mentions. He has always thought of us as being in similar fields, and, as someone who has to be prepared every day to turn out any one of nine hundred dishes a customer might ask for, he has a deep understanding of waste not, want not.
This article from which this quote is pulled earned Kenny's approval. And so did Steve's book. And never will my songs.
I'm going to keep writing them, though. I like them. Isn't that enough? Sorry, Bukowski.