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The Great Spoken Word Albums of the Nineties

In general, our first impressions are true ones . . . In early youth we read a poem, for instance, and are enraptured with it. At [adulthood] we are assured by our reason that we had no reason to be enraptured. But some years elapse, and we return to our primitive admiration, just as a matured judgement enables us precisely to see what and why we admired.” — Edgar Allan Poe.

The passing of legendary record producer Hal Willner last year has made me think about all the great spoken word projects he led with poets and writers like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. But it also made me think about the wider genre of spoken word recordings, which seemed to be really popular during my late teens and early twenties.

I didn’t really know who Hal Willner was at the time; but his name came up on some CDs that a friend and I were playing on a weekly radio show. There was a promo reel at our radio station of William S. Burrough’s Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales; a combo of Burroughs with easy listening hip-hop. But what I remember is the final track of a man introducing himself, “Hi, this is Hal Willner, and this is a project that . . . ” going on to describe the working conditions of producing the album. He had a very smooth and well-rounded voice, and my immediate assumption was that he must be a famous American broadcaster or television host.

But over the years his name kept popping up in conjunction with a number of interesting albums. The Carl Stalling Project was a re-recording of classic Warner Bros music, a surreal insight into how important music is to visual mediums. But also highly nostalgic for anyone who loved Looney Tunes as a kid!

And then there was his album with Allen Ginsberg, The Lion for Real, which another friend and I would drink beers, and laugh to the absurdly funny ‘Ballad of the Skeletons,’ which originally appeared in his Cosmopolitan Greetings book of poems.

Hal Willner seemed to be a trailblazer, with a special focus on recording unconventional, but highly interesting projects, with deep roots in American popular culture.

As I went through all of my spoken word CDs, gathering them up together, I began to notice that many of them were connected in a way that I hadn’t realized; either on the same label, or with similar people working on them. Another album that was a great influence on me was The United States of Poetry.

This was a CD compilation of poets from all around America, from the very famous (Robert Creely and Amiri Baraka) to poems by children and folk poems like skipping rhymes. But it was all set to music composed by someone called ‘tomandy’ (a duo I later found out!)

The CD was a companion to a PBS TV series of the same name, which I have never seen. But the CD introduced me to many more American poets and writers. It captured all the good things I had always liked about America; that strong tradition of the poetry of everyday life, connecting it up with images of the city and rural towns.

Both United States of Poetry and Lion for Real had been released on the same record label, Mouth Almighty, a subsidiary of Mercury Records, which also released many other great spoken records, including Closed on Account of Rabies: Poems and Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. The label was set up in 1995 by Bob Holman, Bill Adler, and Sekou Sundiata, who all had ties with the American poetry scene.

The other major spoken word series was ‘Rhino Word Beat‘ put out by Californian label Rhino Records. This seemed to start around 1990 and run until 2000. But my first run-in with that label was through The Beat Generation, a 3-CD boxed set given to me as a present by two close friends (one who I did the radio show with), and who knew that I was a beatnik-wannabe.

This collection was a real assortment of jazz music and spoken word, pulled from a variety of historic recordings and news programs. But beside the standard torch-bearers of the beat generation, it also had some amazing stuff by other creative outliers. One of my favourites turned out to be Ken Nordine, who had a professional background in doing voice-overs for commercials, but who also wrote and produced his own strange little stories, that you could only describe as unique and funny.

At the time when my friends gave me this present, I was living in a bedsit flat in the Inner-west of Sydney, a place that our older friend Chris nicknamed ‘The Beat Motel’ — which of course, appealed to me greatly! I was living by myself, my first year out of high-school, and believed that I was some kind of writer in the making.

Another album I was listening to was left behind by my friend Magi, and I would say that it fits on this list, even though it was released a decade earlier. Laurie Anderson is more of a performance artist, than a strict spoken work artist, but she meticulously blends melodies with spoken parts, and expresses the value of the word at a very deep level. This track ‘O Superman’ was a ground breaker when it was released in 1981, then featuring on her Big Science album the following year, which was overall quite haunting and lovely.

Another big conduit for spoken word recordings has always been the new-age scene. Here, lectures, talks and seminars are a time-honoured way of disseminating important spiritual and philosophical information. Last week I noticed that the recorded lectures of Alan Watts – which date back to the fifties and sixties – are still available, finding new audiences through platforms like Audible.

But back in the nineties, these new age areas of thought and philosophy, which had a distinctive life on the West Coast of America, collided with the emerging rave scene. Springing up in San Francisco, Silent Records was one of the labels that produced distinctive ambient music, the kind that floated over listeners bedded down on the plush cushions of chill-out rooms at raves.

One of Silent Records greatest releases was a double-CD in 1993 called 50 Years of Sunshine, a tribute to the discovery of LSD by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffmann. The tracks were a mixture of archival recordings, interviews with people like Timothy Leary, skillfully blended with electronic music.

But another CD that I remember from Silent Records, which I borrowed for our radio show, was E.C.C.O featuring John C. Lilly.

Lilly was a psychologist who made his name in the 1960s through his research into how dolphins communicate — before moving into a more experimental stage of his career testing out hallucinogenic drugs on himself while using a float tank, an enclosed capsule of high-density salt water, which you float in, designed to reduce external stimulation to your senses. He wrote a number books about his experiences including The Mind of the Dolphin and Centre of the Cyclone; and if you’ve ever seen the 1982 film Altered States, you will realize that it is loosely based on Lilly’s life.

Also, I didn’t know much about John Trudell during this time, but he was another poet with a background in community radio and political activism, who featured on the United States of Poetry compilation. I actually learnt more about him recently from the documentary Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, which looked at how he teamed up in the mid-eighties with guitarist Jesse Ed Davis to record AKA Graffiti Man. This was released in 1986 as a cassette, reissued in 1992 as a CD, and then in 2017 as an LP for World Record Store Day. John Trudell seemed to be a great human being who really went through a lot of suffering in his life. He passed away in 2015, but his voice and strong moral message is still with us in these recordings.

This might be a brief snapshot of nineties recorded spoken word, but it’s a form of poetry that I hope keeps burning into the future. Poetry is the most democratic of art forms, in that anyone can practice it – there is no huge financial cost involved, as we are all born with the power of speech. The artistry of the poet, however, is in their ability to play with language and re-invigorate old words through what Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer once described as ‘alchemy’ – when two familiar words are combined, sitting side-by-side for the first time, to create a completely new experience.

But adding to the power of poetry, is the fact that our own spoken voice is as unique as our fingerprint. Our speech patterns, with the slight imprint of how our parents spoke, as well as the generation we belong to, and the wider society in which we live – as well as the impression of our own physique as the words flow out of our mouths in the form of vibrating air – makes the sound of our voice, one of the most unique things about us. When you hear a friend’s voice call out in a crowd, you instantly know it is them.

So, the spoken word has a significant place in our lives, despite it often being undervalued as a creative option for communicating . . .

. . . but we always have it to fall back on.

Happy listening!


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