"In my darkest hours blues was a great friend. Blues is profound and spiritual, blues keeps you going when there’s nothing else."
Fred Voss: Walking With The Blues
Fred Voss is one of Long Beach's most respected and revered poets. Fred, a machinist for 32 years, has had three collections of poetry published by the U.K.’s Bloodaxe Books. His latest, HAMMERS AND HEARTS OF THE GODS, was selected a Book of the year 2009 by The Morning Star. He is regularly published in magazines such as Poetry Review (London), Ambit (London), Rising (London), The Shop (Ireland), Atlanta Review and Pearl, and has twice been the subject of feature programs about his poetry on National BBC Radio 4.
In 2012 he and his wife poet Joan Jobe Smith were featured at The Humber Mouth Literature Festival in Hull. In 2011 he was featured poet in a hardbound limited edition of DWANG (London), and his collection, TOOTH AND FANG AND MACHINE HANDLE was winner in The Nerve Cowboy 2013 Chapbook Contest. In 2014 World Parade Books published his first novel, MAKING AMERICA STRONG. The story takes place, in 1985 on a Saturday night in a Reagan-era aircraft factory where men make parts for nuclear bombers, drugs and alcohol and horseplay descend into racism, violence, and general pandemonium.
Fred talks about his wife the poet Joan Jobe Smith, Bukowski, Kerouac, Robert Johnson, Jim Morrison, Jack Micheline, Charles Mingus and the Blues, Jazz and Beat "gang". (Photo: Fred Voss by Joan Jobe Smith)
Photos Courtesy of Fred Voss Archice / All Rights Reserved
Was there something specific you experienced that made you first begin thinking about counterculture / outlaw forms, or was it more of a compilation of experiences?
I guess it starts in early 1968 with reading Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on the beach when I was 15, the
first thing I read that made me sit up and say “This is the way it really is!” Then there was hearing the long
version of Light My Fire on my car radio about the same time and buying the Doors first album and listening
to The End and getting kicked off the varsity basketball high school team for going to a Doors concert
instead of a game and then in high school reading Ionesco and Camus and Nietzsche and Rimbaud
and others the beats and hipsters liked. The A-bomb was ready to kick us all into Hell and Vietnam was raging
and there was Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction and Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall and then I read
Kerouac and Bukowski when I was 20 in college. Bukowski completely changed me and though I got into
Ph.D. school in English literature at U.C.L.A. I soon dropped out and though I wasn’t writing I was working
in a steel mill and drinking a lot and Watergate had happened and by then I was just very strongly on the side
of the counterculture. Then I began writing , first novels and then poetry, so naturally that counterculture
ethos went into the writing, and later married poet Joan Jobe Smith who has written a memoir, Tales of an
Ancient Go-Go Girl, recounting her counterculture life as a go-go girl in the 1960s-70s. We met on the pages
of Wormwood Review 105. Wormwood Review was that great long-running California small press literary
journal, Charles Bukowski’s favorite poetry magazine.
What were the reasons that made your generation to start the social, political, spiritual and literary researches and experiments?
After WW2 America was different, a world power, the beginning of the Military/Industrial complex
and empire and a conformity and fear gripped the nation as the House on Un-American Activities grilled
movie actors and writers about their past ties to communism and tried to ruin their careers if they didn’t inform
on each other.
The Beat writers forged an alternative of non-conformism, non materialism. Jack Kerouac had a vision of
an America seen from the window of a car speeding down highways, a Whitmanesque America of the
common man the pioneer irreverent non-conformist American man the wild black genius man Charlie
Parker and the sad ex-con beautiful loser intellectual man Neil Cassady looking for real spiritual meaning and
creativity in an America going corporate and empty and power-mad and in Howl Ginsberg protested against
a post-war America he saw as driving “the best minds of his generation” insane with its intolerance and
Later Charles Bukowski was like a later-day Thoreau dropping out of the American dream rat-race and writing
lyrical brilliant poems that were homages to the originals and beautiful losers and non-conforming misfits
and outsiders he thought were the real soul of America.
Today the battle goes on. Will we have pharmaceuticals instead of blues
computer apps instead of Van Goghs
virtual tigers instead of real tigers
likes instead of love?
What has been the most interesting period in your life?
The period 1979-1980. Not the most happy (I didn’t know my wife Joan yet) but the most interesting. I had just gone through 4 years of “hiding” in my apartment and working in factories and a steel mill after dropping out of the U.C.L.A. Ph.D. school in English literature. I was writing my first novel and bursting back out into the world (my first serious attempt at writing since writing long stories in High School) and it was a great time in Long Beach. In ’79 the punk rock scene had an incredible explosion in L.A. and a booker named Stephen Zepeda was bringing the bands straight from L.A. to a beer bar in Long Beach and every Friday night I’d get out of working the night shift at the steel mill and drive to the bar and down beer after beer as these great raw live bands churned and roared in front of me, the lead singers squirming and flailing at the mic like later-day Jim Morrison. The punk band “X” formed, produced by The Doors’ Ray Manzarek and I saw them live many times in L.A. and Long Beach and in my neighborhood there was a little cornucopia microcosm living in the apartments around me with later-day hippies and ex-felons trying to go straight or not trying to go straight and druggies and bikers and me the writer all digging the music and the times. And the first Long Beach Blues Festival happened, which was soon to bring John Lee Hooker and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee and Willie Dixon and Albert and B.B. King to Long Beach. I spent many nights staying up to 3 am playing the music and entertaining whatever wild-type bohemian counter-culture people walked through my door. I survived and never hid in my apartment again.
What was the relationship of blues to the poetry and lyrics of Jim Morrison? (Photo: Fred Voss & John Densmore of The Doors)
In that great moment in the middle section of “L.A. Woman” when Jim’s growling “Mr. Mojo Risin’, Risin’ Risin’ Risin’!!” I hear him channeling Robert Johnson, some real deep blues in the soul, no white man imitation, and I guess Morrison earned it being convicted of a felony charge in Miami for basically just being drunk and stoned and loud and trying to empower the audience. He’d always had the blues in his soul though, like his acid-animal version of Back Door Man on the first Doors album. I saw The Doors live with Albert King in Long Beach in Jan. 1970 and Morrison put many blues into songs like When the Music’s Over that night and King and The Doors really went together well. King played for 2 hours (doing “Born Under a Bad Sign” and all his others) and got 3 standing ovations and then The Doors played for 3 hours until 3 am when they did The End and Morrison had the audience out of their seats and rushing the stage under his magic spell.
Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues?
I played harmonica for 10 years (never well) and then gave it up when I started doing poetry readings. The thing about harmonica for the blues is how you can moan and wail and whistle through it so well, it’s very soulful and so much of the breath it just seems directly connected to the heart and to crying and waling You can do a great train imitation with it and trains were always integral to the blues as so many black men rode them (hanging onto the rods under boxcars, not riding on posh passenger cars). “Smokestack Lightening” by Howling Wolf. All the connotations of drifting from town to town and having to leave town and being on the run with a “Hellhound On My Trail” like Robert Johnson sang. That sound of the harmonica is somehow the soul of all this.
What are the lines that connect the legacy of blues and jazz to the beats, outlaw poetry and Bukowski?
The jazz connection with Kerouac is strong, his recordings with Zoot Sims et.al. were excellent and of course ON THE ROAD vividly conveys Jack’s excitement with the jazz of Charlie Parker and the early bebop energy and creativity in the nightclubs he and Neil Cassady went to. And Jack Micheline reading his poetry to the angry bass of Charlie Mingus has to be a classic. The Blues too. Surely the blues music is the definition of “beat”, it’s both profound and spiritual as was Kerouac in all the sadness of existence he describes. And I feel the blues is certainly present in Bukowski, even though he never wrote of the blues or listened to them as far as I know. But he was a loner, a loser who survived in tiny boarding house rooms and drank and walked the city and this surely goes with things like “Walking Blues” and “I Woke Up This Morning” blues and drifting from city to city and drunken hungover blues all the blues men sing of. Reading Bukowski makes me think of Lightening Hopkins alone in some cheap downtown hotel room drinking a bottle of whiskey and strumming out, “Hello Central” on his guitar and singing it with his raspy world-weary voice, or Robert Johnson singing “Walking Blues” and “It’s the worst old feeling I most ever had,” as Bukowski walks down some alley full of drunks on his way to the liquor store so he can go back to his tiny room and write poems..
"Surely the blues music is the definition of “beat”, it’s both profound and spiritual as was Kerouac in all the sadness of existence he describes." (Fred Voss reading Carnegie Hall with Tin Walls)
What does blues and jazz mean to you?
In my darkest hours blues was a great friend. Blues is profound and spiritual, blues keeps you going when there’s nothing else. “Woke up this morning, all I had was gone.” (WALKING BLUES). Blues can get you through loneliness, fear, desperation. Blues is a train to ride through the night when you don’t know what to do next. Blues is a friend talking to you over a bottle of whiskey when you’ve got nothing else. Blues is in the factory pushing the 50-pound rake into the lake of molten steel with you. Blues is the pillow you sleep on when no one cares about you. You hang onto the blues and maybe you make it through that long dark night of the soul to see some light.
And jazz is the piano of Thelonious Monk. No one else plays like him and the spirit of jazz in his piano sets me free, tells me a man alone with a vision should follow that vision wherever it leads, tells me there is always humor to be found in each day we live, and beauty in a man like Monk who looked in the face of racism and oppression and still managed to dance across a keyboard with his child-like fingers. Monk tells me I can never stop writing as long as I have one more thing to say.
What meetings have been the most important experiences for you?
First, when my wife the poet Joan Jobe Smith and I met on the pages of Wormwood Review 105 (Wormwood that famous magazine publishing Bukowski all those years, edited by the great Marvin Malone). I immediately loved her poems and she says she loved mine As it happened, she was restarting her magazine PEARL that year of 1987 and so we soon met in person and she published me and before long we were married as we knew we were made for each other having seen into each other’s souls in Wormwood Review. This without doubt the most important meeting of my life (she is still my editor as well as love of my life forever)
Second, when I met David James the instructor of a poetry workshop class at University of California Riverside, and he passed out a poem by Charles Bukowski. A new world opened! I read all Bukowski’s books available in 1973 and then Bukowski came to read at UCR and I was never the same. And by a happy coincidence my wife Joan loves Bukowski as much as I do and knew him personally. Bukowski inspired both of us to be writers and to be published in Wormwood where we met on the page. Destiny, I guess.
"I want to change the world, I want to strike the spark or kick the pebble that will start the fire or the avalanche that will change the world a little." (Fred & Joan Jobe Smith / Silver Birch, 2012)
What is the impact of counterculture literary tradition and Blues & Jazz music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?
Walt Whitman real American common man refuses to doff his hat to any European king
while The Blues are the “huddled masses” the Statue of Liberty lifts her torch for
and Emerson takes the spiritual torch from the Buddhists and passes it to Whitman
who tells us all is well even death and Charlie Parker sets it to music that laughs
in the face of dour American puritanism inspiring Jack Kerouac to blast across the face
of America in stolen car with ex-con holy fool Neil Cassady so Bukowski can be a holy
dropout man with his bottle and typewriter in his tiny boarding house room looking
for a new American dream as Jim Morrison asks “What have they done to the earth?”
and we look around in sick 21st century America at the rising seas and know it is time for a change.
How would you characterize the philosophy of Fred Voss’s poetry?
"The reality is that each poem starts out as work, but hopefully ends up as magic." (Fred & Joan)
What do you miss most nowadays from the USA of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
I miss most what has been lost in America in the last 40 years, the freedom of all people to be what they are
and be equally respected, poor people and odd
people and the losers as well as the winners the outcasts as well as the famous. Now it’s become all about
winning and money and fame and power. The deep wisdom of the scriptures (east and west) and the
literature and philosophies is being lost while we walk around blind with smart phones in our palms oblivious
to the earth as it dies. I remember my father, the grandson of 1881 homesteaders in Nebraska and a man
who rode the rails during the Depression and worked rough jobs and later in 1940s-50s-60s-70s worked in
offices but never lost that deep American
respect for everyman, the wisdom that led Whitman to say he would take off his hat to no man
because no man was his better.
Not until the black man can stand up and demand his due as an equal American and begin to get his equality
will America begin to truly grow toward its true potential. Not until we escape our past of slavery and
racism and abuse of the working man. What would Thelonious Monk or Charlie Parker or Miles Davis
do to heal America now?
Thelonious Monk as original as the big bang
Art Blakey as fearless as the rising sun
Miles Davis as beautiful as the cat walking down the midnight alley
Charlie Parker brilliant and limitless as The Milky Way
John Coltrane as unstoppable as the Mississippi River
Charles Mingus fierce as Spartacus leading the Roman slaves into revolt
Howling Wolf eerie and scary as smokestack lightning
Robert Johnson haunting as Orpheus singing to the dead in the underworld
Louis Armstrong joyful as a Van Gogh sunflower in a New Orleans cathouse
What would they do to take make America truly strong?
If you could change one thing in U.S (Making America Strong) and it would become a reality, what would that be? (Photo by C. Margrave)
I would like to change the world of working for a living.
When I was 8 years old my father took me to a bank and my teenage sister was working there as elevator
operator. I’d never been made aware of what a job was before, and it blew my mind seeing her so serious
and submissive and I thought what is this thing “job”?!! I NEVER wanted to ever have a job, it was like my
sister had been transformed into something else, like I didn’t know her and it seemed horrible.
Later I had many factory jobs and liked supporting myself and being independent but never felt good about
the work world. It wasn’t until I began writing about work that I began to feel good about working.
The thing I’d like to change is the way people are dehumanized at work, the way they give up their rights
to dignity and equality and happiness and sanity and power and think that’s the way it has to be. We
are still in the stone age at work, working next to people we don’t know and can’t stand and who make
us miserable and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Writing Making America Strong in 1985, my novella set entirely in a machine shop during one night of work,
I had an epiphany about America, how we think the corporation and capitalism is some kind of sacred
thing that we can’t question, assuming that Communism or socialism is 100% evil and we are 100% right
just because we are brought up from birth in this country where capitalism and corporations are
sacrosanct and we can’t see them for what they really are and their faults are invisible to us. And most
people spend most of their lives at work.
How would you spend a day with Jack Kerouac in a juke joint?
I’d say, “Jack, you’re the great romantic of our era in the tradition of Dostoevsky and Hugo and Neruda and Whitman –“He’d say, “Yeah, man, but let’s listen to some Parker on the jukebox!”
“Jack, you inspired generation after generation to question materialism and bourgeois success, you’re in the university canon now, they’ve even printed your piano scroll no-punctuation original manual typewriter manuscript of On the Road. Isn’t that great?!”
“Here, kid, mellow out and have some Spodiodi (port wine and whiskey) with me. I’m gonna live with my mother and drink myself to death under a crucifix on my wall. Do you think that’s great?”
“But how ‘bout all the Buddha nirvana stuff you had visions of up in the Sierra mountains with Gary Snyder? How ‘bout all that beatific ecstasy you sing about at the end of The Dharma Bums?”
“Sorry, kid. I’m gonna drink myself to death under a crucifix in my mother’s house. And I want nothin’ to do with the hippies. Let’s listen to Charlie Parker for a while and cool out on all the yakking.”
“O.K. Jack, but all the hippies and the generations after that and today’s generation of Occupiers and beat student-loan-owing young people love you and think you’re one of the great writers.”
“O.K., kid. Maybe you’re right. I hope you’re right but right now let’s get drunk of this Spodiodi….”
"If somehow some way I change the world a little bit, that would be great. But I know I’ve already found the real treasure on the page." (Mark Weber, Gerald Locklin, Ray Zepeda, D.H. Lloyd, Fred Voss, 1991. Photo by Joan Jobe Smith)
What would you ask Martin Luther King?
I’d ask him if he still thought the arc of the universe bends toward justice. I’d tell him America is no longer a place of opportunity and dreams but a place where the rich rule and everyone else is slowly being ground down into submission. How the liberal arts and journalism and the theaters and literature and music and cinema and psychology are neglected and coarsened and in decline because we are now ruled by money and commercialism and corporations
And hope he’d answer that yes he still believes the arc of the universe bends toward justice, that empires rise and fall and countries come and go but that ultimately, as Abraham Lincoln said, “Right makes might.”
What would you put in a time capsule?
A “Well, You Needn’t” single by Thelonious Monk
porkpie hat of Lester Young
drumstick Art Blakey Jr. used to hammer his drums ( I saw him at Birdland West in Long Beach Calif. in 1988 when he was 87 and he HAMMERED those drums)
sailboat sail of Eugene O’Neill
artist’s palette of Edward Hopper
wolfhead cane of a speed freak walking around the block singing “Jingle Bells” at 3 am
leather pants of Evil Knievel after he jumped The Grand Canyon on his motorcycle
Louis Armstrong’s trumpet
My father’s saw he let me saw wood with when I was 4
The leather hat Marlon Brando wore in The Wild One
White high heel shoes worn by Marilyn Monroe in The 7-Year Itch
The red-sequined and fringe bikini costume my wife the poet Joan Jobe Smith wore
when she was a go-go girl named Joanie Gentry in the late 60s dancing to The Doors
and Dick Dale’s surf guitar and Ike and Tina Turner
Bukowski’s radio playing Mahler as Bukowski drank and wrote poetry in a cheap
boarding house room knowing he was great even when no one knew who he was
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?
Okay. I’d really like to be in Paris on May 29th 1913 when Igor Stravinsky’s brand-new ballet
The Rite of Spring premiered.
Hear the orchestra play Stravinsky’s wild horns and booming kettle drums and savage rhythms and melodies
depicting new technological factories feeding workers to machines
as the virgin is sacrificed on stage and blood flows and a new barbarism is unleashed and the music explodes
in dissonant cacophony and the audience boos and stomps and howls in anger
and fear of this ballet that is turning everything upside-down
That night in Paris there was a riot and The Rite of Spring was a shot across the bow of Western civilization
and right around
the corner was WW1 a new madness and barbaric disaster tearing the old Victorian dreams of reason and
order to shreds
This night of opera turned to riot was a turning point and Stravinsky knew he was right
and soon shell-shocked WW1 veterans proved Freud right about the unconscious
and Hemingway and Joyce and Picasso and Dadaism and surrealism arrived
and art was important again as intuition and the unconscious were studied and respected
and the crazy dramas of Tennessee Williams and Ingmar Bergman soon raged across stage and screen
What have you learned about yourself from writing your poems?
I want to change the world, I want to strike the spark or kick the pebble that will start the fire or the avalanche that will change the world a little. But I have learned to accept that though this would be nice, the reality is that it’s wonderful enough to be a machinist poet.
The reality is that each poem starts out as work, but hopefully ends up as magic. Each Saturday and Sunday morning when I don’t have to work with hammer and wrench in the factory I sit down with a vague idea for a poem and write a few lines and wait for inspiration, and it seems to come sooner or later. It’s like I cast a spell on myself, and my unconscious kicks in and it becomes like I’m having a dream but it’s a dream I can control and with each poem I learn something. It’s like I go to this place where the gods or the muse send me stuff and I learn a bit more from them each time I write a poem, and over the years this knowledge, this skill builds on itself with each poem as I try to explore, go down new avenues in this big factory of poetry I’m creating. It’s enough to be a machinist poet, to not have gotten a Ph.D. in literature or put on a white shirt in an office but to follow a crazier, more inspired vision of my own. To become my real self, this machinist who hammers and cuts steel 48 hours a week and then sits at a table to make poetry like none other. If somehow some way I change the world a little bit, that would be great. But I know I’ve already found the real treasure on the page.
(Fred reading at the Hull Literature Festival in Hull, England 2012. Photo by Annerose Watts)
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