Last time, I said I planned to toot the horn of a new songwriter (relatively speaking), but I will toot my own—and that of my wife Andrea Carney—along the way.
I came to the music of Friendship relatively late, at the end of 2019 upon the release of their third full album, Dreamin’. But it was YouTube pushing a promo video from 2017’s Shock Out of Season that was my entrée—“If You See My Beloved”—which opens that latter album.
This promo is as prosaic as singer Dan Wriggins’s lyrics, which recall snatches of conversation. Spillway, driving under the El, then beneath it, drinking coffee. Sneaking in: “This Heart Is Safe for Valuables,” a building-side advert beside Philly’s 52nd Street Station, an intersection the PPD called the city’s deadliest. Wriggins continues to drive below the El while a coffee-sipping woman across from the station opts for the bus. Destination?
At least for Wriggins it’s a riparian park known as the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial that includes a beautifully graffitied sculpture by José de Creeft (1884–1982); out of the quartet of workers portrayed in the north terrace—Preacher, Scientist, Laborer—de Creeft’s Poet (1954) is non-binary in presentation, IDed by its 1959 installers for a twenty-first century sensibility.1
Wriggins is a self-described songwriter, musician—and poet. On his solo album Mr. Chill, he mentions Louise Bogan (1897–1970), who was from Livermore Falls, Maine, fifty-some miles due north of Wriggins’s harbor town of Yarmouth with its own waterfalls. Educated in Boston, Bogan moved to New York and became a writer, editor, and critic of poetry. One literary profile states that
her poetry is modern and emotive without being sentimental, and her language is immediate and contemporary. Bogan’s poetry contains a personal quality derived from personal experience, but it is not private or confessional.
This could describe the words-and-music of Dan Wriggins.
Bogan’s words changed my life. In about 1992 I attended a poetry reading by Charles Cameron at the Los Angeles studio and academy of Norwegian neofigurative artist (and gnostic reverend) Jan Sæther—the Bruchion Center of the Arts—named after the quarter that contained Alexandria’s legendary library. Charles read from a notebook of favorite poems. One, he read twice.
I burned my life, that I might find
A passion wholly of the mind,
Thought divorced from eye and bone,
Ecstasy come to breath alone.
I broke my life, to seek relief
From the flawed light of love and grief.
With mounting beat the utter fire
Charred existence and desire.
It died low, ceased its sudden thresh.
I had found unmysterious flesh—
Not the mind’s avid substance—still
Passionate beyond the will.
Spillway and funky foam give way to Rodin’s Adam and The Shade (the boundaries of being), a halo camera in the background, focus pulled. We’re at the maître’s museum, facing The Thinker. On a park bench shared by band member Mike Cormier, drumless, Chief King Van H Horton, Shamanic High Priest Elder of the universe Avatar 9, plays a left-handed Keith Urban guitar, right-handed.2
Wriggins approaches the museum’s closed gate and peers at the courtyard, like the tourist before him, seeing his doppelgänger in limestone, a fabuleux fountain spout above a scallop shell.
I recognized my double in Bogan’s verse, and asked Charles if I could apprentice with him. We worked together for about six years, the project I assisted with being mentioned by the Washington Post in 1996, Lewis Lapham in Harper’s in 1997, and in 1998, Erik Davis in Techgnosis and Merek Kohn in the Independent on Sunday.3
Despite the notoriety, I left, saying I wasn’t so much burnt out as burned up. Full circle: “I burned my life….”
Water. Chinatown. A bite at the Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House Inc. across the street from the Chung May grocery and its “Famous Tea Band.” We’re taken in the kitchen as the noodles are pulled and tossed in the roil. A drive back to the museum district and a carnival midway, a carousel with Federal appointments. Wriggins walks between lines of patrons and lines of flags on the Ben Franklin Parkway that mirror a tall man’s stars-n-stripes Bermudas. Past young lovers, east to the Delaware, Penn’s Landing, and the giant swan paddleboats, with band member Peter Gill, steel-less, standing in for the birds’ wrangler. Wriggins paddles into the blue.
In “If You See My Beloved”—the song—Wriggins recalls an afternoon with a friend. Such a recollection is as solitary as his wanderings in the video, echoed by the cover card of the first Friendship album, You’re Going to Have to Trust Me, featuring two rare figurative monotypes by Hungarian-turned-Mainer Miklos Pogany, of owls—not known to be particularly clubby. Wriggins’s songs are salted and peppered with more recollections that read and hear like letters and postcards if not diary entries. In a conversation posted this past spring, Wriggins and poet-musician Lou Turner discussed and recited Louise Bogan. When Turner asked if he had a favorite book or poem by Bogan, Wriggins replied:
My favorite book is Journey Around My Room, which is an “autobiography,” but also apparently a “mosaic,” and was compiled after her death by her executor, Ruth Limmer. It’s not chronological, it’s just these seasonal passages and memories with crazy titles. It rules.
I’ll curate a selection of Wriggins’s own tesserae, the tiles of his oeuvre. But don’t limit yourself to this sampling; you’d miss out on other beauties.
Two tracks into Friendship’s first physical release, 2015’s You’re Going to Have to Trust Me, I thought I’d stumbled upon the separated-at-birth twin of the Portland band Richmond Fontaine that folded in 2016. The latter’s lead singer Willy Vlautin is a novelist who crafts narratives in song, sometimes from the third person. Friendship’s “The New Normal” is an expression of solidarity for a friend who is getting clean for the umpth time, substance being the substance of several Vlautin tunes. “He Said ‘You Seemed so Much in Luv’” actually invokes the high tension wire transformer pictured on the cover of Richmond Fontaine’s debut album Safety. “Quick to Argue” is narrated à la Vlautin, flipping between third, second, and first person, and with a chilling conclusion worthy of Richmond Fontaine or, say, Paw before them. “Stick to the Plan” is the kind of brazen ballad at which Wriggins excels, and Vlautin evades. “I Already Paid” begins ballad-y but clobbers as a latter-day wail and warning in a way that “When You Put it That Way” only hints, with a wink—“operation marx and engels, operation how the hell is he still single”—and with a tasty Byrds Rickenbacker citation.
Two months after You’re Going to Have to Trust Me was released, Friendship teamed up with photographer and musician Abi Reimold whose impossibly fragile voice recalls Lucinda Williams (whom Wriggins tags on this year’s solo album). The result is a six-song session recorded for Fred Knittel’s Folkadelphia radio show on WXPN. Here are two songs from that session (originally appearing on YGTHTTM). And note: the session is downloadable from Bandcamp for free.
Fishing Vessel Hope
Record collectors are well aware of vinyl’s resurgence over the last couple of decades, but the lowly snap-crackle-pop-less audiocassette also is a favored physical format. F/V Hope is the name of Friendship’s 2017 five-song release, originally offered in a limited cassette edition in addition to digital.
Gratitude, a theme Wriggins weaves into many a song, is on display here in “Rich Man” (with harmony by Abi Reimold) and “Fine.” Wriggins owes a debt of gratitude to songwriter Kath Bloom—he writes about it here—and covers her “Bicycle” on this album. “HMU” expresses amenable ambivalence while “Seen But no Reply” expresses the dilemma of digital dialogue.
A Shock Out of Season
The liner notes to Shock Out of Season call it “a collection of songs about work, friends, love, and loneliness.” Well, let’s begin with a middle song “Workhorse,” source of the album’s title. Wriggins explains:
The title is kind of a bastardization of a line out of the bible. Job has had his life ruined and is complaining a lot, and he says something about feeling like a shock of corn pulled out of season I think.
The line issues not from Job, but from Eliphaz, who comforts him. Job does complain, a lot, asking:
4 20 Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul;
21 Which long for death, but it cometh not; and dig for it more than for hid treasures;
21 Which rejoice exceedingly, and are glad, when they can find the grave?
5 8 I would seek unto God, and unto God would I commit my cause:
9 Which doeth great things and unsearchable; marvellous things without number:
10 Who giveth rain upon the earth, and sendeth waters upon the fields:4
11 To set up on high those that be low; that those which mourn may be exalted to safety.
26 Thou shalt come to thy grave in a full age, like as a shock of corn cometh in in his season.
Wriggins, in the context of “Workhorse,” feels like a shock of corn cometh in out of season. Having no Temanite, like Eliphaz, to comfort him, Wriggins takes comfort nonetheless.
Earlier, but with a bit of distance, in “Sal,” Wriggins artfully provides a case study in Marx’s labor theory of value. (This is the Folkadelphia version.)
With work out of the way we turn to friends, love, and loneliness. “A Few Weeks” epitomizes the expression—lyrically, musically—of a new affair of the heart, hermetic in all respects. “Skip to the Good Part” epitomizes so much of Wriggins’s and Friendship’s allure: the “smoker’s catch” in his vocal leaps and lunges, the addition of Evangeline Krajewski’s synth and flute (listen to the heavenly mellotron-y sequences in “A Few Weeks”), the machine drums by Mike Cormier and Jon Samuels, Connor Stout’s Rhodes, the sum of which reveals Wriggins’s “oblique” mining of minimalists (cf. Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians),5 his inclusion in the lyrics (themselves buried in the Bandcamp track’s description) of a “friend of Dorothy” line, his insistence, his reticence.
Arrangement-wise, Dreamin’ returns to acoustic roots, as heard on “Dusky,” in which Wriggins lauds his listener’s keen ken for observation, before observing himself, “how can I trust me/ When I notice everything? [lyric sheet version].”
If the Duluth band Low had layered Leonard Cohen’s early Spanish-style finger-picking, you might have the accompaniment to “Low But On.”
When Wriggins workshopped a song with Friendship but it didn’t gel, he’d file it away for solo remodel-and-release consideration. Listeners can decide whether the seven songs thus issued were worth the effort. Thematically they are “more songs about buildings and food”—“about work, friends, love, and loneliness”—but arrangements are austere (e.g., no bass guitar): small sounds in a big room.
“Dent” was offered in January as the A-side of a two-song apéritif. Wriggins admits to being “the kid with the drum” in the paradisical parade we were led to march in, rank and file, in life and in love.
Mr. Chill is the solo five-song EP released in March. “Lucinda on June Bug” was alluded to above.
I came to the music of Utah Phillips relatively late.
Sometime after 1995 I first heard Phillips’s friend Rosalie Sorrels (1933–2017), probably on a folk show on KPFK in L.A. before we moved to Denver. The song was “Lonesome Georgia Brown,” written by Chris Smither from his 1972 album Don’t It Drag On, which features the singer-songwriter on the cover sitting naked with eyes closed, in what actually is the first in a photo sequence, Four Conditions of Man, by Pennsylvania native Duane Michals. Whereas Smither’s version is folk forward, Sorrels makes the song her own by slowing it down and couching it in a fussy arrangement that tends to sentimentalize the subject: tender for tenderness. What captured my attention was the maturity in Sorrels’s voice (she was 62 at the time), if not exactly the fragility mentioned above. Later, while browsing, I ran across Sorrels’s album with Utah Phillips, The Long Memory, in which they alternate telling stories and singing songs. Phillips himself could alternate labor standards (some self-composed) with love songs on his records.
In 2005, by chance my wife Andrea Carney and I got to see Phillips live in Chicago, three years before his death, at the centennial convention of the Industrial Workers of the World, long before we’d become members. As I’ve written here before, I called Andrea “the accidental Wobbly” because of her rank-and-file organizing; indeed this was recognized by Staughton and Alice Lynd, who collected her oral history in the late ‘90s6 and invited her to a panel on organizing in Chicago. Of course, in that convention concert Utah was preaching to the choir, but that body included Wobblies who were organizing fellow baristas in New York, and New Mexicans who’d come to the confab by riding the rails, just as he’d have done in earlier days.7
So I was delighted to find that in May, Dan Wriggins released a five-cut EP of Utah Phillips songs. These are from the same (bass-less) sessions as Mr. Chill and proceeds go to the People’s Fridge in West Philadelphia, part of a mutual aid movement.
It was while Wriggins was on the job that first he heard the “grouchy indignance” of Phillips’s heartbreaking “Enola Gay,” explained in his liner notes, which speak for themselves, as do his self-penned middle verses in Phllips’s “This Land is Not Our Land,” a posthumous, perpetual duet.
- Visitors to New York’s Central Park may have seen de Creeft’s bronze Alice in Wonderland (1959), which is derivative of John Tenniel’s illustrations, but happily de Creeft constructed it so that children could climb on it.
- See a page from Chief King Van H Horton’s manuscript, Cosmic Sexuality: Poetic and the Shadows of Light.
- The project was development of a playable electronic game inspired by Hermann Hesse’s Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game, 1943). Don Oldenburg, “Meeting of the Minds: Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game Hits the Net,” Washington Post, 27 Sep 1997, D5; Lewis Lapham, “Notebook: The Spanish Armadillo,” Harper’s, Apr 1997, 8, 10–11; Erik Davis, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information, New York: Harmony Books, 1998; Marek Kohn, “Technofile: Divine Marbles,” Independent on Sunday, 25 Jan 1998, 39.
- This, of course, strikes me as similar to our “quality of mercy” domain name, taken from Shakespeare.
- In his conversation with Lou Turner, Wriggins said “there’s a lot of stuff that would qualify as ‘experimental’ or stuff from decades ago that would be called ‘avante [sic] garde’ that I love, and that I suppose could have oblique influence. […] Like a lot of people, I love a lot of minimalist composers from the ’60s and ’70s like Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, La Monte Young.”
- Staughton Lynd and Alice Lynd, eds., The New Rank and File (Ithaca and London: Cornell/ILR Press, 2000, 210–220) and Rank and File, Updated Edition: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011, 379–390).
- Phillips devoted at least one album to the rails, Good Though! (Philo/Rounder, 1997).