No one can dispute Asheville’s remarkable association with influential writers. Even if the the string had ended with F. Scott Fitzgerald or Mr. Wolfe, we’d still enjoy some bragging rights in the world of words.
But Asheville’s enigmatic power to attract the literati persists.
“I’m an old Baby Beat, I don’t play by the rules,” claims 51-year-old poet/musician Thomas Rain Crowe. He’s referring to his role in San Francisco’s second, late-’60s wave of Beat poets.
Crowe is a former editor of Beatitude, a magazine that first published the likes of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Richard Brautigan and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. So it was only natural that, when he moved back to Western North Carolina in 1979 (he was raised in Graham County), Crowe wound up editing both the Katuah Journal: A Bioregional Journal for the Southern Appalachians and the Asheville Poetry Magazine before eventually setting up his own New Native Press and Fern Hill Records.
Soon, Crowe was experimenting with combining spoken-word lyrics with music. The result was The Boatrockers, who’ll play selections from their ambitiously titled CD The Perfect Work (Omega Records, 1999) at an upcoming Karmasonics show.
The five-year-old band boasts a seasoned line-up: Keyboardist Nan Watkins sharpened her chops as a classical pianist, guitarist Sal D’Angio practices medicine in his spare time, and well-known local singer/songwriter Chris Rosser is a student of Eastern instruments, namely the sarod and tabla.
“I’m lucky to work with musicians who can improvise on a deep level and can create music that is appropriate to each piece,” says Crowe. The CD features his translations of poems by the 14th-century Sufi poet Hafiz.
“I started working with putting poetry to music because I thought music was an obvious vehicle to get poetry into mainstream culture,” Crowe explains, giving the nod to the national popularity of poetry slams and the continued appeal of performers such as ‘X-er spoken-word fave Henry Rollins.
But for his part, Crowe had to dredge up the verbal bones of an ancient seer to meet his expectations.
“Back in the ’70s, I was introduced to Persian poetry by Robert Bly, and it knocked me out. While doing some research four years ago, I ran into Hafiz. Sufis called him the greatest poet of all time. In the Islamic world, they use his work as an oracle process. Hafiz was so controversial that he became a legend in his own lifetime.”
And even 700 years later, Hafiz’s timeless sentiments will grab music lovers’ attention:
“These days the only friend that is faultless / is a bottle of red wine and a book of poems / wherever you are going, go alone / for the road to enlightenment is very narrow and full of curves,” Crowe translates.
Who could argue with that?
The Cullowhee-based poet’s marriage of music and lyrics is impeccably timed; the song plays to a track that immediately evokes The Doors’ famous psychedelic dirge “The End.” Crowe admits that Jim Morrison is a big influence on The Boatrockers.
But The Perfect Work has proved innovative enough to spark attention from no less an eminence than legendary rock guitarist Pete Townsend, a Sufi fan whose glowing recommendation appears on the CD’s back cover.
Even highly accomplished artists are occasionally cowed by their coups, which is what happened when Crowe’s collected papers were recently purchased by Duke University’s Special Collections Library.
“The Crowe Collection includes the author’s books, drafts, notebooks, photographs and letters,” explains Tim West, director of collection development at Duke. “Crowe is important because he was among the San Francisco ‘Baby Beats,’ and also because he is a great example of someone who grew up in the ’60s and maintained his ideals.”
For more than a century, Duke’s Special Collections Library has archived everything from ancient papyruses to records of modern advertising, and Crowe considers it an honor to be in such good company. Another reason West wanted Crowe’s portfolio is that it includes the Celtic anthology Crowe edited, Writing the Wind: A Celtic Resurgence — the only collection of living Celtic authors writing in their native language.
“The international literary canon has overlooked this entire area,” notes Crowe. “West liked that.”