Under the big brown blanket in the sky
Los Angeles really gets me high
Nothing that can change my mind
Los Angeles is very kind
I would never leave my town
Even with the sky so brown.
"The Smog Pocket," by Danielle Sybil, age 9 (From the record "Voices of the Angels")
From a whisper to a scream.
In post-rap 1985 there is a resurging interest in the F spoken word, particularly in the works of the Beats of the '50s, whose excessive and intense life styles and highly personal output -- equal parts self-indulgence, inspiration and entertainment -- seem an unconscious pattern for much of what's happening now in Los Angeles clubs.
Poets and rockers-who-would-be-poets are attracting crowds in nightspots such as McCabe's, the Lhasa Club and the Anti-Club, where young, hip audiences take their words straight or with music. And outside of the clubs, "the real L.A.," city of crazed angels, is crystallized in the grooves of three double-record sets of "spoken word" performances: "Voices of the Angels," "English as a Second Language," and the latest and most diversely colorful, "Neighborhood Rhythms."
L.A. -- the only place in the world where everybody you meet is on their way to become somebody else . . .
From "L.A.," by Velvert Turner
At the core of this new world of words is "event catalyst" Harvey Kubernik, whose drive and verbal verve have made it all possible. Kubernik arranges bookings for the poets, produces the records, even formed his own label -- Freeway Records -- to release the spoken word albums, his brainchildren.
"I've never really gone out of my way to call it 'poetry,' " Kubernik says by phone, which is where he seems to spend most of his time. His love of words is obvious. No questions are necessary when interviewing him, and trying to interrupt him in mid-thought is like trying to stop a speeding truck on a slippery slope. "I'm selling some pretty hard-core reality," he says. "If you listen, there are conversations, spontaneous and scripted exchanges. In the spoken-word world there aren't really any clear definitions. Someone once told me the combination -- rock and poetry -- was like Dylan going electric at Newport."
But "selling" is the key word where Kubernik is concerned. At 32, a quintessential product of L.A.'s sun-and-celebrity-saturated culture, he is one of the city's faster-talking pitchmen, albeit a sincere one. His own career in the pop business has spanned several eras -- from Beat to Beach Boys, Beatles to Black Flag -- with time spent as a music journalist and session percussionist and background singer for such legends as Phil Spector, Leonard Cohen, the Ramones. His friends are the has-beens and will-bes of rock and, as he puts it, "My Rolodex is the aorta for the scene."
I think art is like, a big waste of time. I mean, I just wanna dream all day when I drive my truck around/ Dreaming about livin' in Malibu and being bitchin' and getting a hair transplant, and, you know, really happening . . .
From "Goy Boy," by Scott Goddard
Kubernik says his interest in spoken words sprang from the Beat poets -- Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" was a staple of FM radio -- and "comedy albums. Allan Sherman, early Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce all made big impressions." In the early '60s he instigated "word parties" in living rooms and dormitories after trying, unsuccessfully, to get bookings for himself and his friends. "People weren't very friendly at the traditional poetry places," Kubernik says, still sounding soured on the rejection. But the literati and other ivory-tower types finally seem to be taking notice. "They may not like what they're hearing, but they're noticing."
Kubernik seldom tours with his poets, because "someone has to work the phones." They've been ringing often these days, ever since Black Flag's magnetic lead singer Henry Rollins read his menacing, autobiographical "Family Man" on MTV's "Cutting Edge" program -- a moment that Kubernik, without fear of hyperbole, calls "analogous to the Beatles' appearance on 'Ed Sullivan.' " Poets Wanda Coleman (winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship last year), Linda Albertano, and Exene Cervenka, lead singer for the seminal punk band X, just returned from the eighth annual World Poetry Festival in Amsterdam. And tomorrow UCLA's School of Performing Arts begins a week-long Freeway readings series.
We write poems that sound like they're winging it/ It is quite interesting what we are doing . . .
From "Seven Poets," by Dennis Cooper
Kubernik's records comprise a trilogy, the aural equivalent of a Robert Rauschenberg artwork, an unruly collage, an impressionistic antiglamor tour of Los Angeles in which listeners are whizzed at the speed of sound past the city's major and minor nontourist points of interest by a host of hosts, voices ranging in age and experience from seven to 77, from as many neighborhoods and backgrounds as L.A. has freeway off-ramps.
The multi-ethnic cast of hundreds includes rockers of local and international renown, established writers such as Charles Bukowski, friends and hangers-on, and some characters who must have been tapped on the street for their pungent and plangent observations on the human condition.
When that plutonium infernal blast down La Cienega melting parking meters and Mercedes & Beverly Center & leaves green hillsides dead quarter million years, I won't signal my turn at Pico! . . . I wanna be the first to go! Up in celluloid smoke with MGM/UA! No more "Rocky" sequels!
From "When They Nuke L.A.," by Ivan E. Roth
The records have provided an outlet -- and a job -- for many of Kubernik's friends, and have given Kubernik himself a chance to mix his rock 'n' roll fanaticism with his fondness for words. His first compilation, "Voices of the Angels," was financed with money from live performances, and consists of work gathered from 1975 to 1980.
All three records contain a dizzying array of voices and impressions and personalities, with quite a few jewels among the shiny garbage, and all are aging surprisingly well for necessarily timely artifacts documenting the rapid rush of fads and fancies -- including evidence of the "Valley Girl" syndrome, recorded years before the rest of us ever heard of it. Kubernik produced most of the cuts and provides a different aural ambience for each. "I like the aging factor," he says. "I like the youth and I like the damage."
Everybody knows this child/ It cries out "More money/ Faster, faster" in stereo/ We feed this greedy child/ With time, lives/ Endless amounts of pavement . . . / We wipe its dirty beautiful mouth . . .
From "We Are the Parents of L.A.," by Henry Rollins
"I don't know if I'm a brave person," says Kubernik, who has been the target of some hostility in his willingness to include the voices of all minority groups. "I mean, I'm not a freedom fighter or anything. But I notice no one else wants to do it." He is not entirely altruistic -- Kubernik hopes the records will help him land a contract for a movie about his environs. "I think the records provide a corrective to most of the televised nonsense about L.A. I mean, you watch 'CHiPs' and then listen to 'Voices' and you tell me which is the real L.A."
And there's an extra kick in it for Kubernik. He says he especially likes it when a stranger says, "We love your records. We don't quite know what they are . . ."
The three spoken word albums are available at some local record outlets, or for $12 each from Freeway Records, P.O. Box 7930, Los Angeles, Calif. 90067.