It's a freezing winter evening, cold enough so that the streets of this Old Town Tempe neighborhood are devoid of activity. Even the usually omnipresent cats and dogs have either begged entry into living rooms or become icebound in their water dishes. But the musical sounds that are thumping and swinging out from under the door and windowsills of one tiny guest house sing of goings-on within that are hotter than any Thermos of hot chocolate.
You approach the house, and the sounds begin to take shape, and you get the feeling that something weird and wonderful is going on inside; it's music all right, but what kind? Each measure that meets your ear is like the piece of a bizarre jigsaw puzzle, at once familiar but somehow off-kilter, an acid-laced guitar riff here, a blast of big-band horns there, a swinging rhythm section that jumps into bop-thrash free improvisation and back again before you realize what is going on . . . and then there are the vocals.
Pressing your ear to the window, you strain to decipher what, underneath this Phil Spector hallucination, sounds like beat-era free verse on a bed of ensemble scat singing. "DO YOU STAND FOR ANYTHING, YOU LITTLE WORM?!" the speaker demands through the wall. By this time, your sensibilities have been rattled so that you really don't know anymore, except that you want to hear more, and so you shrug inhibition aside, open the doors and plunge yourself right into the middle of Poet's Corner.
POET'S CORNER, A NINE-PIECE amalgamation of musical/prosaic idiosyncracy, was birthed in a chance musical takeover of a 1981 poetry reading. But to really understand Poet's Corner requires setting the way-back machine to a few years earlier, back when Chimi's on Apache is the hippest open-mike in town, the drinking age is nineteen and the vestiges of Sixties flower power are in the air. The neighborhoods surrounding Arizona State University are full of music and art, the primordial soup from which the Eighties Valley Underground will soon be spawned.
Peter "Sugar Beet" Cannon, a history major at ASU, is there, taking it all in, working as a waiter at the North Bank, where he meets Tempe performing and recording guru Clarke Rigsby. Once in a while, when Rigsby is on break, Cannon will sneak up on-stage, grab a guitar, start acting like he's about to play something, and start rapping to the diners about Platonic dualism--much to Rigsby's delight and the management's dismay.
The young Cannon has been writing poetry all along, but when Rigsby talks him into reading his prose at Chimi's open-mike, the die is cast. Cannon soon becomes a fixture, reciting beat-rooted sociopolitical free verse whenever the opportunity arises. One fateful evening at Tony's New Yorker, it happens.
"I don't remember exactly what it was that I did that night," recalls Cannon. "I know that I read about five pieces, three of which were original, and a couple of covers, which is a rare occurrence. One was `The Charge of the Light Brigade,' which I memorized in sixth grade, and the other some Dylan Thomas thing. Anyway, I was reading, and there were all of these instruments up on the stage, and all of a sudden the musicians were there, and the audience was absolutely silent, except between the numbers, when there was this thunderous applause!
"The whole thing must have gone on for about twenty minutes, and when it was over, I walked out of the room thinking, `This is amazing. I need another fix of this.'"
It was only a short time later that the proto-Poet's Corner, boasting a full fourteen members with backgrounds as diverse as the Sun City Girls and a band led by ex-Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker, made its professional debut for one of local music mover-shaker Tony Victor's shows at the old Madison Square Garden wrestling arena in central Phoenix.
Poet's Corner's intellectual perspective would make this band a natural on the liberal-arts college circuit, where the offbeat is given due respect. But Phoenix, Arizona?
Around the time of the group's birth, it was well attended by young hippies and academic hangers-on, but that crowd was never really big enough to support it.
Cannon says Placebo Records is the "backbone" of Poet's Corner. That's especially true in Cannon's case: He lives with Placebo's founder, Tony Victor, and labelmate Dr. Michael Pemulis, and helps out with the company. It was Tony Victor who broke Poet's Corner into Phoenix's underground scene and used the group consistently after that first wrestling-rink gig, first as a supporting act and later as a headliner. The Placebo connection is hardly big business, but it does lend the band an identity that helps hold it together in the sometimes long stretches between appearances. Nearly eight years and four album projects later, Poet's Corner bears little resemblance to the group of 1981. Cannon, now 32, is the only original member, and he's backed up by an eight-piece band: keyboardist-percussionist and musical director Steve Botterweg; guitarist Jeff Icard; Daryl Icard on bass; Mark Perschbacher on trombone, percussion and keys; saxophonist Greg Lyko; trumpeters Rich Cross and Randy Rausch; and drummer John Vaccaro. Seeing the band is as much a surprise as hearing it; no single member looks like he would be caught dead in the same room with another. The band members' outside projects are as diverse, covering the local gamut from Major Lingo and Jodie Foster's Army through the ASU pep band.
Cannon is a big fan of Arlo Guthrie and the Grateful Dead. Jeff Icard, wearing a black matador hat, proudly self-described as the most GQ member of the band, cites Queen and Django Reinhardt.
Jaco Pastorius, Glenn Miller, Robert Fripp, Johnny Winter, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Weather Report are all influences, although in this band one man's hero often is another man's headache. All of these approaches remain identifiable in the arrangements and, amazingly, it almost always seems to work.
Cannon's lyrics are still semi-detached perspectives on the human condition, viewed through astigmatic lenses and presented in an upbeat manner. He's reporting; he's got no banners to burn or buildings to torch.
"This is the state of the world," he says. "We're not altruists. It's just fun. I don't think that you have to suffer to be creative." Life, Love and Laughter, the band's most recent Placebo release, touches on politics, sociology, apathy and a host of other topics--all put across with a wry and dry delivery that belies its seriousness.
Although the Corner has been a part of a number of local recording projects, Life, Love and Laughter is the first album that is the band's alone (recent releases have included a local compilation disc and a fifty-fifty split with Pemulis). And now that the record has made its way to radio stations across the country, the gig offers have started rolling in.
"Every cut on the album has been played by at least one commercial station," Cannon says. "There doesn't seem to be any real demographic pockets of acceptance. Response has been pretty evenly spread from Maine to San Diego." The album has made it onto about 35 station playlists, even breaking the Top 10 at KGNU public radio in Boulder, nestled between Michelle Shocked and Camper Van Beethoven. And while the roster of stations keeps growing, the band has its eye on the road.
What Cannon really wants is to get to Los Angeles. In the next couple of months the band will be making that first junket to L.A., appearing in the downtown area in March and in Hollywood in April.
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"Yes, I know, it's Sodom and Gomorrah, but we're rushing to embrace it," he says. "This stuff is kind of like a shark; if you don't keep moving, you're dead."
"Do you stand for anything, you little worm?!" the speaker demands through the wall.
"I don't think that you have to suffer to be creative."