Lew Welch's One-Man Plays

by Grover Sales?

[From San Francisco, January 1967]

Ordinarily, this column does not review poetry readings. I like much contemporary poetry, but not read aloud unless the reader knows what he's doing, like Dylan or e e cummings. Most of the poets I've heard in the Bay Area sound like Parson Weems intoning the Doxology. I've never understood why so many craftsmen who use the tools of meter and timbre seem tone deaf and nonswinging when reading aloud. For boredom that approaches stupefaction, not even bad modern dance can top a dull poetry reading.

It's a mistake to label Lew Welch's recent visitation at the San Francisco Museum of Art a "poetry reading" and thus be dissuaded from attending future performances of this remarkable artist-at-large. Welch subtitles his readings "One-Man Plays," an accurate way of describing a total theatrical experience. In addition to writing powerful and communicative verse, Welch is a musician with a remarkable ear. He composes tunes of disarming simplicity, has a resplendent singing voice well suited to the American ballad styles of Billy Eckstein and Herb Jeffries, both of whom he can imitate with uncanny precision. A superb mimic, his version of Eckstein singing Eliot's The Waste Land was one of many delights he held for the Museum audience, which seemed in a justifiable state of whooping hysteria much of the time. It is no exaggeration to say that Lew Welch is funnier by far than many of the comics who played the hungry i. He whistles, chants, improvises, weeps, croons — he is totally involved. Also, he is a very beautiful looking cat, well over six feet, sinewy-thin, with a shock of coppery hair matching the color of his enormous eyeballs.

As a performer, Welch has the extraordinary gift of being "On" with his audience, as authentic and relaxed as in his own living room, and considering he makes public appearances only a few times yearly, such ease of operation is all the more astonishing. Even more unusual, he knows when to get on and get off, something many professionals and practically no poets manage.

Much of Welch's poetry can be viewed as modern sermons, Bob Dylan for mature adults, songs of protest and love that incorporate the sounds, the vulgarisms and the music of our time. Few in the audience will forget the moving, impassioned reading of his "Chicago Poem."

I lived here nearly 5 years before I could
meet the middle western day with anything approaching
Dignity. It's a place that lets you
understand why the Bible is the way it is:
Proud people cannot live here.

This is not the Chicago of Sandberg but the Rome of Juvenal and the London of William Blake. "It/ Snuffles on the beach of its Great Lake like a/ blind, red, rhinoceros./ It's already running us down." And the awesome closing:

You can't fix it. You can't make it go away.
I don't know what you're going to do about it.
But I know what I'm going to do about it. I'm just
going to walk away from it. Maybe
A small part of it will die if I'm not around

feeding it anymore.

And Welch, who reads his lines with a hypnotic and single-minded intensity, means every mothering word of it.

What should be clear is that an evening with Lew Welch is a far more rewarding experience than most of the so-called "legitimate" entertainment in town and he should not be missed his next time around. If you have teenagers, take them — Welch turns them on! Finally, it is worth mentioning that the Museum audience for Welch's reading included Mr. and Mrs. Jack Morrison; any city that elects a Supervisor who will take his wife to a poetry reading can't be all bad.

Reprinted in: I Remain: The Letters of Lew Welch & The Correspondence of His Friends. Volume Two: 1960-1971