Roger Manning

SST CD press ('89)

The Austin Chronicle
The Ward Report by Ed Ward

It's sorta like 1962...
That phrase kept going through my mind on Mardi Gras evening, as I celebrated that most orgiastic if holidays pretty much by myself at the Cats Cafe. The attraction was Roger Manning, a young folksinger who's gone from the subways of New York to s record deal with SST-not the first label you think of when the subject is folk music. But Manning is folk music 1989, in a strangely pure sense: he knows traditional songs, he can do fancy picking when the occasion merits, and he writes plenty of his own material. From the sounds of things, he's part of a "folk scene" too, a bunch of people who do things acoustically. And behave pretty much like 1962.

Which is not to accuse anybody of being a retread of anything. A performer's only good if he or she reflects the here and now (or admittedly, evokes the past so scrupulously that it's scary, but that's another kind of art). In 1962,the folk scene was both a place of great excitement, something old before it's time. The thing was to be "authentic", the thing not to be was "commercial." This was the difference, for instance, between the New Lost City Ramblersand the Kingston Trio. Let's face it, the "authentics" were the hip ones.

Trouble was, they liked to sit around and be pseudoethnomusicological. Talk about banjo styles, regional blues types, compare vintage instruments. When they played they tried as much as possible to sound like an 80-year-old Appalachian man or an 80-year-oldblues singer, or a 35-year-old 78 rpm record of the same guy at 45 years of age. Not that they were't fun, from time to time. Alan Block'ssandal shop in the Village as a hotbed of string bands, and on Saturdays, if enough of the right people showed up, Block might abandon the custom orders he always had piling up and start picking, and these sessions could last well into the night. (I find it chastening to realize that his daughter, Rory , has on her latest album a song written in tribute to her son, who died at the age of 19 when he drove into a tree one night.)

Similar scenes were going on in Boston, I know because I used to read about them in the folk magazines. And what Roger Manning put me in touch with was the way things started to change back then. In Boston, it was people who'd wander into hoot night at the club, odd folk who'd been involved in the Leary-Meztner experiments at Harvard and were't the least "authentic." Or "commercial," for that matter. They polarized the audience right away. In New York, it was this guy who made the couch circuit, who'd wake up in the morning, and go out and buy the New York Times, read through it , and whip out his guitar and start to make songs about the stories he'd read. He also played "authentic," but he was a lousy instrumentalist, and could't sing very well. But he tried at least.

Most of the Boston crowd faded away; being musicians wasn't the central activity for most of them anywise, and the rest were more audacious than talented. The New York guy was in the right place at the right time, a trendsetter, and pocessed of an awe-inspiring amount of ambition. Thanks in large part to him, the times, as he was later to write, were a-changin'. As, I suspect, they are nowadays. And I further expect that performers like Manning are part of the change. Not to compare him to Bob Dylan - Manning himself, if nobody else, will happily disabuse you of that notion - but he's a symptom of the change at least, and possibly a part of the cause. Hearing him thrash his way through bluegrass standards in-between his own songs, which if you were inclined to dis them, you would say that they are tuneless, don't rhyme, and refer a little too often to his in-group or folk-scene buddies, it's impossible not to realize that the elements are being recombined yet again.

Oh sure: oldsters may say that it was different when we did it; it was new , it was exiting, it had never been done before. But that's just hot air. Anything's new if you've never done it before, and a significant number of the people who saw Manning hadn't even been born in 1962.

Quite frankly, I think things are pretty boring at the moment. It's not just boring here; it's everywhere. Where-ever we are, as Simon Frith argues cogently, at the end of the rock era, at the end of the moment where youth culture rallies around it's music, or is this just another period of quiet in the cycle I've seen come around three times before (which doesn't exactly negate Frith's argument, either, come to think of it), I don't know. It's just that, the other evening, I saw something that felt like I'd made contact again. It felt good.

Dallas Observer 9/89

Left ear open:

Say a musician was granted just one song a career, one 2.5 minute crack at laying it all on the line, and after that - pfffft! the dude had to become a mechanic or something and the song was left to stand, nakedly, on it's own merits. If that as the way of the world, Roger Manning would of been back on the chain gang by now. This beat poet and neo-traditionalist fragmented post-modern suterranean-homesick folkgrass thrash-flat-picker from New York's East Village pretty much sums it all up - eloquently, passionately, confessionally - with the song "The Lefty Rhetoric Blues" from his self titled SST debut:

Lefty folksinger rhetoric has such a boring ring
They make me sick
They oversimplify everything
But then on the other hand
They were right about Vietnam...
Ever since Vietnam, I keep my left ear open
Satire, spoof, autobiography, fable, storm warning - Manning's song hits all the high notes in the shortest time imaginable, perfectly etching the fate of a movement, and the fury of a backlash, with 86 spare words. This gentle scream in the dark, layered over the barrelhouse boom of his churning acoustic guitar, attest to the absolute power of the simple marriage of words to music. People have written socio- logical treatises on the subject of "The Lefty Rhetoric Blues", but Manning gives us something new and momentous in his min- imalist 2:19.

The busker from the subways of SoHo reads, in fact, like a good book. Manning -who, reasonably enough, defines folk as "music that serves a purpose" - is a story- teller in the vein of America's roaming, Depression-era voices of dissent; he's soul-mate to Cindy Lee Berryhill, cousin to the Michelle Shocked of The Texas Campfire Tapes, distant relation to The Clash of Sandanista and the Sex Pistols of Never Mind The Bollocks...

Lurking around every corner of every song, from "the #14 Blues" to "The Sicilian Train Blues", is a quiet revelation of spirit ("I wish I had some money so I could buy some time") or a clanging, head-on collision of anger and apathy ("Proud to be an American/Clinging to the suburban way/The I can't be bothered state/Who cares about others when you've got it made..."). The result is a ragged but richly realized panorama of ourselves and our times, from an artist who views the world with special eyes.

      -Clay McNear


sst album press - Rolling Stone, People