Roger Manning

The Valley Advocate(MA)


The Things He Does
Roger Manning shapes his words into lonesome tales
By Mark K. Anderson

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 'n' roll."

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.