The Valley Advocate(MA)
The Things He Does
By Mark K. Anderson
Roger Manning shapes his words into lonesome tales
Contrary to popular belief, not all
songwriters write songs. Some haven't
gotten around to that yet. For some,
seeking out "word things attached to
music" is a more productive quest.
Meet the East Coast Roger Manning --
not to be confused with the Los Angeles
song-writer of the same name. The
Eastern Manning is a word thing man.
And the more lonesome the word thing the better.
Over the past decade and then some, Manning has toured and busked
his way around the country from sea to shining bus terminal. He's spent
more than a few weeks, as he puts it, "sleeping in the bushes and
laying in the streets in Amsterdam," too. And he's released his music
on an assortment of indie labels and in books from various
underground publishing houses.
The title of his most recent project, the book Fuck You Have a Nice
Day (Soft Skull Press), might make him an easy mark for the angry
punk-rocker-turned-poet -- à la Henry Rollins or Richard Hell. But
there's something much more playful at work in Manning's head than
rage, noise and uptempo bathos. He's in part provoking a response to
usher you in as much as to shoo you away
Looking over his albums, for instance, a casual observer could easily
suspect the guy was a Robert Johnson-era revivalist, since all his songs
have titles like "The #19 Blues" or "East 5th Street Blues" or "The
Hitchhiker Blues" or "The Explanation Blues."
But don't go opening up the roadhouse on his account; he's just funnin'.
"All of my song titles are 'blues,'" Manning noted. "That was just a
joke, like what if every one of my songs had the word 'blues' at the
end of it? Basically, it's a rock 'n' roll thing. A lot of rhythm, a lot of
riffs, a lot of words. ... It's almost like a little comedy show with rock
The naming convention for his albums is no more straight-faced."None
of my albums have titles," he said. "I don't like to put titles on them; it's
just a little fun thing that I do. People say, 'But what's your album
called?' And I say, 'Roger Manning. I have three different albums on
three different labels, and they're all called Roger Manning.'"
Writing a good word thing is not an easy thing. For Manning, the
process begins in the journal. He takes all his word things from
personal experience. Those ideas, thoughts and feelings that show
promise are asterisked and teased out further outside of the journal in
either poetry or prose. When they're ready to become material for
performance, Manning whittles them down to a size that can fit
comfortably within the confines of hip-hop.
He makes his unlikely genre choice since he finds pop songwriting
conventions -- allowing for a bridge, chorus and three or four verses at
most -- too restrictive. Instead, he tends to craft his words as if they
were destined to be performed with two turntables and a microphone.
"I don't do a good job of whittling down," he said. "That's why I have
wordy pieces that are more like a rap song than anything else."
And all this despite the fact that his instrument on the road is a lonely,
lonesome acoustic guitar.
Indeed, whatever his words -- and sometimes he writes music around
his words and then throws the words out entirely -- "lonesome" is his
essential ingredient. "Any good music has that lonesome side to it,"
Manning said. "It gets right to your core. Like bluegrass music. That's
where you get that expression from, the high lonesome sound. And
lonesome means good, like 'Man, that song was lonesome.'"
But lonesome does not mean depressed. "That's different," Manning
said. "Lonesome is where you feel your pain in there but you see life
around you and you're feeling it. Which isn't always easy to do when
you're with other people. But when you're with yourself, you're feeling
life running through you. And feeling a little bit of yearning. That can be
a good thing."
One particularly lonesome series, Manning finds, is the "Pearly Blues"
series. ("Pearly Blues" numbers one through 10 are reproduced in
Fuck You Have a Nice Day.) In those pieces, Manning drifts from
one town to the next, like a Kwai Chang Caine who only kicks his
guitar's ass. "People work hard and end up with nothing," he sings. "I
ain't got nothing either, but at least I didn't work hard for it."
These days, despite his prominence in the rock 'n' roll underground,
Manning still busks on the streets or in the subways of New York.
"You want to play where people are going to hang around," he said.
"My favorite place to play was in front of the Plaza Hotel on Central
Park South. There's a big fountain there. I'd set up my little amp there
and people could sit on the fountain like bleachers. And then, see, that
opens up the possibility to pass the hat. Because if you put the hat in
front of someone, then you're a lot more likely to get money out of
them than you would if the hat were just sitting there."
One gets the feeling from Manning that he's just as comfortable playing
on the sidewalk in Central Park as he is in CBGBs or The Paradise.
Likewise, his recordings appear to foster an equal-opportunity
performance ethic. Whatever gets his work out into the world is a
medium to be championed, no matter how unconventional.
Four years ago, when he was scheduled to release an album on a
large, New York-based independent label, he grew antsy with the
production schedule. He found a friend of his in Oregon -- who had
free access to the Xerox machines at her local Republican Party
Headquarters -- offered a better deal. So the political machine that
spawned Bob Packwood also unwittingly underwrote Roger
Manning's "album" Blues Words.
"I was sick of waiting for things to come out," Manning recalled. "So I
said, I'll just put out this album tomorrow. I took all the songs I had
ready for the album, put the words down and put them out in a book
and said, 'There you go. The album's out.'"
Roger Manning plays Fire & Water Cafe in Northampton on Tue.,
April 21 at 9 p.m.