Graded on a Curve:
bill bissett &
Th Mandan Massacre,
Awake In Th Red Desert

Although it fits with the terminology, to consider the underground as an expansive basement only works so well. It’s perhaps more beneficial to describe the u-ground as a hulking, organically cultivated and mysteriously regenerative onion of uncommon deliciousness and diversity of flavors. As the layers get peeled away, the tastes frequently become more intense, initially intriguing and especially when historically situated, revelatory. Such is the case with Awake In Th Red Desert by Canadian poet bill bissett & the gang of Vancouver outsiders named Th Mandan Massacre. Not a lost record but surely too-little known, Feeding Tube’s first-time vinyl reissue in an edition of 500 should help change that.

If you think music holds vast stores of subterranean obscurity (hey, it does!), you should try literature on for size. Naturally, a high percentage of u-ground writing is located in the poetry section of the used bookstore, in part because the form frustrates the nagging belief that the essence of literature resides somewhere in the neighborhood of “a great story artfully told.” Additionally, poetry largely isn’t writing meant to be quickly grasped by the reader. Instead, it stymies the attempts to conquer its totality, or to employ a contemporary phrase, the need to “get it.”

And thus, bill bissett (deliberately lowercase, and we’ll get to that) remains largely unknown outside of hardcore poetry circles, even after being rated as a “great poet” by Jack Kerouac, a figure who still stands as one the kingpins of the whole grand countercultural experience, even if he’s currently somewhat out of vogue.

Part of the reason Kerouac’s praise hasn’t carried more weight might be due to its coming from deep in the man’s grumpy, boozy Florida-based late period as part of an interview conducted for The Paris Review by New York School poet Ted Berrigan. I do believe the occasion of this chat brought Kerouac exposure (courtesy of Berrigan) to the work of a young Jim Carroll, writing that Jack also praised, but I digress. Poetry’s good for sideroads of thought, y’know?

Another big reason for bissett’s lack of profile relates to his country of residence. Awake In Th Red Desert was originally released in 1968 as one of three LPs comprising the discography of See/Hear Productions, a label extension of poet Jim Brown’s Talon Books, and this reissue is the first entry in Feeding Tube’s Unknown Province series, an undertaking curated by Alex Moskos that’s intended to spotlight underheard corners of the Canadian underground.

A third reason for Awake In Th Red Desert’s relative obscurity (it was reissued on CD by Gear Fab back in 2001 and since then has existed on the internet, partly via blogs) comes down to its travels away from what regularly gets conjured up in folk’s imaginations when contemplating the late ’60s intersection of poetry and hippie-dom. That is, Th Mandan Massacre only momentarily engage with a sound categorizable as rock. Plus, bissett travels down avenues more in keeping with experimental poetry than standard post-Howl thought gush.

That’s not to suggest that bissett wasn’t influenced by Ginsberg (I’d venture to say that nearly all young countercultural poets during the era of this album’s making were in some way impacted by the mensch, even if it was to deliberately stand apart). In fact, there are spots on Awake In Th Red Desert that do remind me of Ginsberg’s own blending of poetics and music, but ultimately Feedings Tube’s mention of The Red Crayola (think the free-form freak-outs on The Parable of Arable Land) and The Fugs best hit the bullseye of similarity.

It’s important to emphasize that like Fugs Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg, bissett was something other than a rock singer who stumbled onto the Beats and then fancied himself an enlightened word-shaman. At the point of this album’s making, bissett was deep into exploring the potential of sound poetry, performance and an unconventional writing style that on the page cast aside rules of capitalization, spelling and punctuation. By extension, he attained figurehead status in the Vancouver scene of the period, in turn attracting the members of Th Mandan Massacre like a beautiful freak magnet.

Of the above two stated likenesses, it’s The Fugs who ring truest to me, though bissett isn’t as focused on blowing apart standards of decency, at least not here. Of course, playing this for a room full of squares in ’69 would doubtlessly have resulted in anger bordering on apoplexy and maybe even someone calling the cops. bissett eventually did suffer governmental heat for his supposedly filthy words and thoughts but Awake In Th Red Desert seems more concerned with attaining and documenting a higher level of consciousness.

A taste of this is delivered in the short opening snippet “Th Deacon Bros In Barcados.” From there the record is suffused with ranting (the title track), chanting (“O A B A”), clatter (mostly prevalent across side one) and moments of raga (“My Mouths On Fire” sweetly combines all these elements). Due to the presence of psych guitar, “Arbutus Garden Apartments 6 P M” is the nearest things get to tangible rock form, but by the end of the piece bissett is on an absolute tear of blasted poetics. It delivers one of the LP’s highpoints.

My tiptop moment is the ode to bissett’s Cleveland-based contemporary in concrete poetry d.a. levy (who also suffered persecution/ prosecution from the authorities for obscenity; he committed suicide in 1968), but with the introduction of Buchla box synthesizer on side two, the album redirects into a less wild but still rich mode that might remind some of Intersystems, a Canadian underground entity of the same period led by John Mills-Cockell.

It’s the bent raga-folk of “And the Green Wind” that drives home how Awake In Th Red Desert would’ve fit snuggly into the framework of ESP Disk’s non-jazz roster. Yes, that points again to The Fugs but also the Holy Modal Rounders, The Godz, Cromagnon, Erica Pomerance, and The Seventh Sons. It’s a scenario many will find confounding, but “Now According to Paragraph C” ties up the record’s threads quite well, two of which are the repetition and liberation of language and the admirable desire to reach a higher plane of there. It’s all far from the undisciplined mess some will dismiss it as.

Still, the whole does present a fly in the ointment to assigning recordings letter grades (or numerical/ star ratings). To be more specific, bissett and Th Mandan Massacre’s work subverts the awarding of top marks that will join with other highly ranked albums to present a coherent “core listening experience” that’s designed to better the lives of every music fan.

In other words, a canonical thing. Instead, Awake In Th Red Desert will likely either grab you or leave you cold (or to varying degrees frustrated). As the lack of historical profile supports, it’s the stuff of personal canons, which are the best canons of all. If it does grab you, the full intensity of bissett and Th Mandan Massacre’s embrace probably won’t occur instantaneously, as what’s here, as said, flies in the face of quickly “getting it” and then moving on to the next thing. It’s grabbed me good and hasn’t let go. In my estimation, that makes it a masterpiece.


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