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When bad poetry happens to good rockers

GREAT ROCK LYRICS, when we recall them, have the strength of folk memories. I think I'm gonna be sad/I think it's today (Lennon/McCartney) . . . God save the Queen/She ain't no human being (Johnny Rotten) . . . I found it hard, it's hard to find/Oh well, whatever, nevermind (Kurt Cobain). They are free-floating, autonomous, almost without meaning, and even at their most carefully worked they carry an element of unconsciousness with them, a spewed or slapdash quality that identifies them as authentic rock'n'roll utterance. I'm feeling supersonic/Give me gin and tonic (Oasis).

In the writing of a great lyric the intrusion of Mind is to be avoided: States of possession recommend themselves. Kurt Cobain wrote great lyrics because he was out on his feet, on the nod, mumbling and screaming in his sleep; Johnny Rotten because he was fizzing with blind, rodent-like fury; Lennon and McCartney because they liked to compose with the TV and radio on, mail being delivered, phones ringing, and all sorts of people dropping by -- a continuum of distraction they called The Random. Oasis, for the purpose of writing great rock lyrics, pretended they were stupid.

Then there are the rock poets: the conscious ones, addressing themselves to the ages. They do not regard their work as disposable. Lou Reed, who studied poetry under Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse, published his selected lyrics in 1991 under the deeply pretentious title "Between Thought And Expression." Patti Smith published a huge book called "Complete: Lyrics, Notes and Reflections" (1999). Now Jeff Tweedy, leader of the band Wilco, has become the latest rock notable to -- in the words of Dickens's Silas Wegg -- drop into poetry. Tweedy's collection "Adult Head" (Zoo Press) is your archetypal slim volume: 53 pages of slender verses (the lines barely make it across the page), many of which are reworkings of, or bear some verbal relation to, the lyrics on the wildly praised new Wilco CD "A Ghost Is Born."

Tweedy's publishers, evidently, are seeking a cultural promotion for their man, from songwriter to serious poet. The back cover of "Adult Head" is all about how seriously we must take him. First, there's the frictionless blurbing of the poet David St. John, much garlanded himself, who finds that Tweedy's verse "reminds us again of the quiet oscillations in every life between the willed courage of humor and the inevitable tides of sadness." Next, the assurance of Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore that Tweedy "has his heart inside the literature of poetry in all its straight-up and experimental lyrical historicity." (Wilco, Tweedy's bread-and-butter as well as the source of his fame, is creakily described in the author bio as a "popular music band.")

The gambit seems to be paying off. Seriousness attends Wilco like a headcold: October will see the publication of "The Wilco Book" (Picture Box/DAP), a lavish photo book described as the "visual equivalent of the band's music" and featuring contributions from writer Rick Moody, artist Fred Tomaselli and -- most remarkably -- Henry Miller, a posthumously enlisted Wilco fan.

. . .

In the big leagues of seriousness, however, there's only one champ: Bob Dylan. The qualities most prized in Dylan by his acolytes -- symbolism, gnomic ambiguity, a certain snooty misanthropy -- are all higher-brain attributes, and they attract the brainiest fans. Book after book is written about Dylan. The cold fish first captured in D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 documentary "Don't Look Back," cerebrating away behind his dark glasses, has become a sort of intellectual white whale, with piles of exegetical luggage dragging in his wake.

The latest is Christopher Ricks's "Dylan's Visions Of Sin" (Ecco), a 500-page tip-of-the-hat from an English don, recently named to the Poetry Chair at Oxford, who has written books on Milton and T.S. Eliot. And so the legend grows denser. From behind that pouchy, uncharitable, slightly dissolute face Dylan seems to emanate complexity. The moral of the story seems to be: Make it difficult, and they will write books about you.

The great clown-hero of rock poets, of course, is Jim Morrison of the Doors. If Christopher Ricks had written a long and loving study of the poetry of Jim Morrison, he would have been laughed out of his post as professor of humanities at Boston University. And yet no one tried harder than Morrison to bring poetry to bear on rock'n'roll. True, his shamanic ambitions got the better of him -- the half-baked acid bombast of Morrison's music-and-spoken-word album "American Prayer" (1970) leaves no doubt about that. But Morrison was a poet, capable on a good day of his own brand of lucidity. "When the still sea conspires an armor/And her sullen and aborted currents breed tiny monsters/True sailing is dead" ("Horse Latitudes"). He deserves better than the students smoking joints round his grave at Pere Lachaise.

So are the poems in Jeff Tweedy's "Adult Head" any good? They are, unsurprisingly, Wilco-esque, although the sludgy indirectness, crossed wires, dark hints, etc., that serve Wilco's music so well can look, when seen in black and white, like the caprices of a poor temper. "I want to begin/where the dilation charges/and juries weep/over half-opened wombs." Well, don't we all?

Tweedy understands one difference, at least, between a poem and a song lyric: A printed poem has a form on the page, a typographical impact, which the sprawl of a lyric cannot imitate. Thus the rhymed lyrics for "Muzzle Of Bees" ("when dogs laugh some say they're barking/I don't think they're mean/some people get so frightened/the fences in between") become, in the poem "Prayer #2":

when dogs laugh barking
    I say angry
  some say laughing
they don't stop and they smile

Better? Artier? More poetic? You tell me. Personally, I'll take the simmering, minutes-long drone of guitar feedback which ends "Less Than You Think," on "A Ghost is Born," over Tweedy's lyrics or his poems. Sometimes pure electric wordlessness is the sweetest sound there is.

James Parker, the author of "Turned On: A Biography of Henry Rollins," is a writer living in Brookline.

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