Fernand Péna and Guy Pearson

Ode to William Blake. Fernand Péna. Lezarts, 2010. €15.00. lezarts.info.Glad Day. Guy Pearson. Issimo, 2010. £11.00. guypearson.com.

Fernand Péna, based in Paris, has been a rock musician since the 1970s, one who’s influences include Tom Waits, Neil Young, The Doors and Frank Zappa. His latest project, released in late 2010, is the result of several years’ labour to bring together these influences with another love of his life, Blake’s art and poetry, in the form of the album Ode to William Blake. Comprising sixteen tracks, with a very handsome illustrated booklet that includes Blake’s lyrics as well as short essays in French and English on Blake’s life and works.

Péna’s voice is somewhat reminiscent of Tom Waits (or indeed Tom Petty),  and Ode to William Blake is a determined rock record (indeed, the back cover describes it as “Rock Songs with Words from the Mind”). Péna is extremely faithful – indeed, literal – to Blake’s poetry, drawing primarily from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, with only two tracks drawn from elsewhere in Blake’s corpus. One of these, “Oh, I say you Joe”, shares its origins with the Songs insofar as it is located in An Island in the Moon (the original source of such Songs of Innocence as “Holy Thursday”), while the last track on the album, “William Bond”, is taken from The Pickering Manuscript, most famous for the poem “Auguries of Innocence”.

After a slightly disappointing start with “Songs of Innocence” (the “Introduction” to Blake’s own Innocence), Ode to William Blake quickly improves with two of my favourite tracks from the entire album: “The Little Vagabond” and “The Little Boy Lost/The Little Boy Found”. Actually, I have a personal block with more of less all versions of the first poem in Innocence, it being, for example, one of the weakest tracks for me on Jah Wobble’s  The Inspiration of William Blake. “The Little Vagabond”, by contrast, establishes very firmly Péna’s strong rock and blues style guitar, with a very mellow backing track. Very occasionally, his French pronunciation either jars or adds an additional exoticism to Blake’s lyrics, but in general his gravelly voice is rich and luxurious.

Throughout the album as a whole, what is most fascinating about Péna’s work is how successfully he transfers Blake’s lyricism into soft rock that is not simply professional in terms of its musical quality (entirely to be expected of Péna’s background), but rather natural. The virtue of Blake’s songs is that many of them may be transformed into rock ballads, though there remain – as is to be expected – a few surprises. The slightly unconventional metre of “The Little Black Boy” returns the listener to Blake’s words in new and fascinating ways,  while the acoustic accompanying guitar of “To Tirzah” throws the frankly bizarre lyrics into [new light?]

Many of the tracks, such as “A Poison Tree” or “William Bond”, are dominated by vibrant classic guitar licks (so much so that “William Bond” in particular struck me as something that could have been produced by a group such as Pink Floyd in the eighties or nineties). Not that the style is by any means monotonous, however: thus “Oh, I say you Joe” experiments with a  calypso feel, while “Holy Thursday” is mournful and thoughtful. Péna’s talent is to have transferred Blake’s poetry to a popular format with aplomb and very evident affection.

Guy Pearson’s Glad Day, also released in 2010, is in a very different style although it too also draws largely from Songs of Innocence and Experience. Classical piece, primarily for piano and voice, these draw on a different tradition of classical music (though one that, in a few cases, such as the introductory track, “Glad Day”, also echoes with filmic references). Pearson’s style works best when focussed on his own virtuoso piano playing in accompaniment to such singers as soprano Rachel Major or James Savage-Hanford’s delightful tenor voice.

Several of the tracks are direct translations of Blake’s lyrics, such as the delightful “A Dream” or “Ah! Sun-flower” (both sung by Major). Elsewhere, however, Pearson provides some extremely interesting interpretations designed to capture elements of Blake’s art or poetry. “An Island in the Moon”, for example, is a marvellous instrumental that captures the joie de vivre of Blake’s satire and something of its rumbustious, rococo style, while “Newton” offers echoes of Michael Nyman’s work in order to express the mechanical (yet also immensely elegant) world view of the scientist and philosopher. Ironically, perhaps, it is one of my favourite pieces on the album and puts me in mind of Blake’s ambivalence towards Newton in his famous large colour print from 1795 – the angelic spiritual form of one of England’s greatest mind’s as beautiful as Satan in his former glory.

Of the eighteen tracks, others that attracted my attention include “The Tyger” and “Lux Nova”. “The Tyger” actually begins with haunting whispered words from the opening lines of Auguries of Innocence, “To see a world in a grain of sand / And heaven in a wild flower”. The effect of this, particularly with Pearson’s minimalist introduction and – once more – Major’s wonderful soprano, is to focus the listener on the tiger as not merely an instrument of terror and the sublime but also return him or her to the beauty of this creature. “Lux Nova” does not draw directly from Blake’s own poetry, but this new light could clearly be one of Blake’s own innocent songs, or perhaps one of the those clear and lucid moments that emerge at the end of his grand prophecies such as The Four Zoas or Jerusalem, when the prophet Los emerges from the obscure and terrible darkness that has preceded. What is more, “Lux Nova” allows the listener to enjoy Pearson’s piano very simply.

How Much Did Jim Morrison Know about William Blake?

Everyone knows the Doors are named for the doors of perception – but that phrase comes from Aldous Huxley’s book on hallucinogens as well as from Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Morrison quotes ‘Auguries of Innocence’ in ‘End of the Night’ on the first Doors album: ‘Some are Born to sweet delight / Some are Born to sweet delight / Some are Born to Endless Night’. But that is the only direct Blake reference in Morrison’s recorded lyrics. Is that it? Did Morrison only do a little vague and random dipping into Blake? Or was Ray Manzarek right to think of him as an authority on the visionary poet? ‘I wonder what Blake said… Too bad Morrison‘s not here. Morrison would know’ (Manzarek, as recorded by Joan Didion in The White Album, passage reprinted in Rocco’s Doors Companion, p. 13).

In interviews, Blake seems to come readily to Morrison’s lips. He demonstrates a basic acquaintance with famous lines from Songs of Innocence and of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In a 1968 interview with John Carpenter for the Los Angeles Free Press, he remarks (without attribution), ‘Opposition is true friendship, ha!’ (in Hopkins, Lizard King, p. 205). Speaking with Lizze James in 1969, Morrison’s thoughts go to Blake when asked about the ‘apocalyptic vision’ of his work on the first Doors album (1966-7): ‘It used to seem possible to generate a movement… they’d all put their strength together to break what Blake calls “the mind-forged manacles” … The love-street times are dead’ (Lizard King p. 279). They also turn to Blake when the topic is erotic mysticism: ‘Blake said that the body was the soul’s prison unless the five senses are fully developed and open. He considered the senses the “windows of the soul”. When sex involves all the senses intensely, it can be like a mystical experience’ (p. 281). Though initially this seems not the most subtle reading of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell‘s cleansing of the doors of perception, it picks up on the implications of ‘sensual enjoyment’ (MHH 14) carried forward into Visions of the Daughters of Albion, and detects Blake’s odd slide from windows to doors as transparent inlets of perception. A fuller knowledge might underlie these fairly obvious quotations: Blake actually does call the senses ‘This Lifes dim Windows of the Soul’ in The Everlasting Gospel, just before the more widely known lines, ‘And leads you to Believe a Lie / When you see with not thro the Eye’.

Manzarek, in his autobiography Light My Fire: My Life with the Doors, recounts his memories of Jim Morrison’s book collection: ‘very eclectic, but also standard… we were all reading the same thing… Except Jim had more! A wall of books’ (p. 78-9). Though he doesn’t list Blake specifically, his omission from such an impressively full, typically bohemian bookshelf would be remarkable. Beyond his own collection, Morrison could also find Blake in the libraries of the colleges he attended. When Howard Smith asked him his opinion of the value of university, Morrison says, ‘If they have a good library, that’s about it… the main key to education is reading, basically. You could do the same thing on your own’ (in Lizard King p. 296). At UCLA, as well as having access as a student, he would have spent steady time in the stacks when he worked in the Powell Library from early 1964 until he was fired in August of the same year for lack of punctuality (as Davis narrates in his biography, p. 55). Unfortunately the library no longer has shelf lists to recreate the holdings from that time, but a look at the current collections shows that there may have been a good deal of Blake available: of pre-1964 editions, not only the Complete Writings edited by Geoffrey Keynes (1957), but also Poems of William Blake edited by W. B. Yeats (1938), Prophetic Writings of William Blake edited by Sloss and Wallis (1926), and further selections by Amelia H. Munson (1964), John Sampson (1960), Alfred Kazin (The Portable Blake, 1946), and Frederick E. Pierce (1915), plus in the way of criticism, The Divine Vision and Ruthven Todd’s Tracks in the Snow. The reference department at UCLA’s College Library were very kind in response to my queries, and shared the information that the Powell building housed the undergraduate College Library collection as well as the research collection while a new library was built for the latter (completed in 1964). My assumption, without being able to check acquisition dates, is that pre-1964 items in the College Library collection would have most likely been found in the Powell Library stacks where Morrison shelved books. (If the search is opened beyond the undergraduate to the research collection, there are of course many further possibilities; for instance, that is where Frye’s Fearful Symmetry is.)

Morrison may have done some purposeful Blake research in the library, since he wrote an essay on Blake for an English class in Romanticism. This was English 154, Spring Semester 1965. I am very grateful to the instructor, Fredrick Burwick, for sharing his memories of teaching Morrison. (And I want to credit and thank David Fallon for pointing out the connection.) Burwick recounts, ‘He showed me a paper on Hieronymus Bosch that he had written for a community college in Florida and wanted to know whether he might submit a similar paper on Blake. His Bosch paper focused on the visionary/hallucinatory experience of The Garden of Earthly Delights. I agreed that a similar approach to Blake’s illuminated works was possible. I remember that he wrote on MHH and referred to other Blake plates, but I can’t recall any details of the work he submitted’. One of Morrison’s main interests in Blake, then, was vision and intoxication: ‘Jim asked me if Blake did drugs. I told him that I didn’t think so’. (Burwick later wrote about Blake’s imagery of ergot poisoning from rotting grain – there is lysergic acid (LSD) in ergot fungus – in his book, Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination (1996), a fascinating and thoroughly researched account of Blake’s insight into the significance of this illness, and its dual potential of vision and suffering.)

It was in the previous summer, 1964, while Morrison was working in the library, that he began to write in his ‘Notes on Vision’ notebook that became The Lords, half of The Lords and The New Creatures, the one book of his poetry to be commercially published in his lifetime (by Simon & Schuster in 1969). Though it owes much to Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and Rimbaud’s principle of the derangement of the senses, there are specific Blakean echoes. It owes much to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. There are formal parallels: The Lords is a hybrid collection of verse and prose, veering among literary composition, philosophical musing, sensory exploration, and cultural commentary. Morrison’s ‘Cure blindness with a whore’s spittle’ (p. 37) sounds like it could be a Proverb of Hell. A description of a ‘happening… in which ether is introduced into a roomful of people through air vents’ breaks down the borders between audience and performer, while ‘the gas acts out poems of its own through the medium of the human body’ (p. 39), tempting comparison with Blake’s Illuminated Books as multimedia experiments in composite art, dominated by the expressive Human Form Divine (which sometimes inhabits the words themselves, especially in titles), and demanding active participation from their readers.

As the passage goes on, it becomes evident that not only form, but also concepts and vocabulary are shared with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Morrison writes,

The aim of the happening is to cure boredom, wash the eyes, make childlike reconnections with the stream of life. Its lowest, widest aim is for purgation of perception. The happening attempts to engage all the senses, the total organism, and achieve total response in the face of traditional arts which focus on narrower inlets of sensation. (p. 39)

In The Marriage (5), ‘that calld Body is a portion of Soul discernd by the five Senses. the chief inlets of Soul in this age’. The aims of Blake’s artistic project are also described in terms of washing, purging, and bringing about ‘an improvement of sensual enjoyment’:

This I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite. (MHH 14).

Morrison’s lines,

When men conceived buildings,
and closed themselves in chambers,
first trees and caves (p. 36)

are comparable to Blake’s lines following the cleansing of the doors of perception: ‘For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern’ (MHH 14).

As well as the resemblances to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a passage on shamanism in The Lords makes use of the phrase ‘mental travels’, suggesting Blake’s poem ‘The Mental Traveller’. There is also a distinctly Blakean physical and metamorphic version of expanded perception in The Lords.

The eye looks vulgar
Inside its ugly shell.
Come out in the open
In all of your Brilliance (p. 24)

recalls the ‘two little orbs… fixed in two little caves / Hiding carefully from the wind’ in Blake’s Book of Urizen (11:13-15; also see Milton 3:15-16, and Four Zoas Night IV 54:21-2), and the apocalyptic ‘Expanding Eyes of Man’ that ‘behold the depths of wondrous worlds’ in The Four Zoas (Night IX 138:25; also the ‘eyelids expansive as morning’, Four Zoas Night VI 73:36).

In the summer after working in the library and taking the Romanticism course, Morrison threw away all of his notebooks except for his recent work toward The Lords. The summer of 1965 was also the time when he lived on a roof in Venice, California, hardly ate but took plenty of acid, and began writing the songs that would be the spark of the Doors’ creation when he sang them to Ray Manzarek in their legendary encounter on the beach.

secondary sources:

Davis, Stephen. Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend. New York: Gotham, 2005.

Hopkins, Jerry. The Lizard King: The Essential Jim Morrison. Revised and Updated. London: Plexus, 2006.

Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009. First published 1954, 1956.

Manzarek, Ray. Light My Fire: My Life with The Doors. New York: Berkley Boulevard, 1999.

Rocco, John M. The Doors Companion: Four Decades of Commentary. London: Omnibus, 1997.