American Omen
Poetry, rock 'n' roll and inspiration

by David Luhrssen

November 30, 2006
The poet must die, the artist surrender.

That’s one thought, resigned and almost despondent, echoing through the new CD by Milwaukee poet, educator and rock ’n’ roller Martin Jack Rosenblum. Recorded mostly in single takes, Omen Dirt was performed by a band deliberately deprived of hearing the music until the moment the record button was pressed. The mood of the session crackled with moments of macabre anxiety. Band member Kiran Vedula placed a drawing of Rosenblum, neck in a noose, on his piano in lieu of sheet music for the recording of the album’s magnum opus, “Standing on the Gallows.”

Omen Dirt’s process of let-the-notes-fall-where-they-may is an effort by a literary and musical veteran to construct a space where fresh winds of inspiration can stir. Yet experience is inescapable from an artist as deeply grounded as Rosenblum in sources as diverse as Gene Vincent, Robert Johnson and William Carlos Williams.

Rosenblum played rock ’n’ roll during the 1950s as a high school student in Appleton and switched to folk music in the ’60s, before becoming an accomplished poet by the ’70s. His concentrated intensity of language found expression in a series of well-regarded poetry books and LPs. A collection of poems, The Holy Ranger (1989), expressing a mythopoetic vision of American heroism astride a Harley-Davidson, brought him to the attention of the Milwaukee-based motorcycle company. Eventually Harley hired him as company historian, a post he holds today. Meanwhile, Rosenblum launched a belated recording career with a series of CDs that infused poetic metaphor into American roots rock, and began teaching rock ’n’ roll, not as music instruction but as cultural history, at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and, for the past five years, UW-Milwaukee.

For Rosenblum, Omen Dirt is both a departure and a continuation. “The musicians had to respond in the moment to the songs,” he explains. “I don’t call it improvisation—I was the structure and the musicians responded to me.” The session was produced by a man with one of Milwaukee’s finest set of ears, Mike Hoffmann. According to Rosenblum, “Mike said, ‘This is an album where the production has to match the content. I’m not going to go back and clean up the sound.’”

Hoffmann preserved the session’s texture, sandpapery as a worn-out 78, allowing Omen Dirt to sound like field recordings from the shadow side of America. The disc opens with “No Talk,” its campfire guitar and mouth organ humming like a lonesome locomotive coming around the bend, continues with the Appalachian drone of “What She Never Says,” digresses for a poem recited against a rock band, “Unless I Say So,” before resuming the mood with “Brilliant Stalker,” a song rooted in stark mountain music. With the exception of “Unless I Say So,” which breaks the flow, the roughly joined songs with their hammered banjo and sawing fiddle form a gradual ascent, a series of foothills building toward the album’s peak and finale, “Standing on the Gallows.”

Executioner’s Song

“Gallows” begins with a crackling electric guitar, a riff from Neil Young’s book, but the song that follows is unlike anything else. The elliptical narrative of a man condemned to die for obscure reasons includes reflections on the rope, the trapdoor operated by a tattooed youth, the last meal, flashes of the trial, intimations of deals rejected, plots, disillusionment. The condemned man’s many thoughts as the door opens below his feet bring to mind Ambrose Bierce’s classic story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” about the execution of a Confederate sympathizer during the Civil War. It also recalls Nathaniel Hawthorne in its accursed and morally bleak landscape, references William Carlos Williams and even a snatch of Marlon Brando from On the Waterfront (“I really hate the country,” a phrase with multiple meanings in this context).

Why is the man being hung? It probably has to do with Mary Sue, who previously appears as the narrator’s probable lover in “What She Never Says,” or may concern his refusal to compromise artistically with a bankrupt culture, or may echo the anxious zeitgeist of a world at war with shadows. The songs’ memorable gibes suggest a story reminiscent of Mark Twain’s bitterest tale, “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg.”

The full lyric for “Gallows” is much longer than the version on Omen Dirt. During the recording, Rosenblum dashed from music stand to music stand, “finding the narrative line,” singing some verses while skipping others. Rosenblum was determined to keep his musicians, the Last Canyon Band, on edge. He also wanted to share their sense of surprise as he searched for flashes of epiphany.

The tireless Rosenblum is already mapping out his next CD, a live album of new songs with his band, Tone Mountain. And he continues to work with Scott Emmons of UWM’s music department to shape a vision for a rock ’n’ roll certificate program, a program of study that would “legitimize the idiom of rock ’n’ roll as an extremely important American art form worthy of serious academic study,” Rosenblum says. At the moment, however, Omen Dirt is still preoccupying his thoughts. “It’s a virus I’d like to put out into the world to make people sick with the desire to create,” he says. “I want it to be an inspiration. People my age don’t hear it and don’t understand why there is all that hissing and popping. But young people love it!”

Omen Dirt is available through CD Baby and Atomic Records.

David Luhrssen is Arts & Entertainment Editor of the Shepherd Express, co-founder of the Milwaukee International Film Festival and co-author of A Time of Paradox: America Since 1890.