July 22, 2004
by BOB DORAN
THE BACK PATIO OF DR. DAVID GANS' SPACIOUS HOME above Jacoby Creek, with its wrought iron table surrounded by flowers that must have been chosen to attract butterflies, seems a far cry from the mean streets he often writes about in his poetry.
"Most of that stuff comes out of my personal experience," he explains. "I used to hang out on `tough' streets in Oakland and San Francisco in the '50s, but when I was growing up, if you knew how to behave on those streets, you were safe. Nowadays, it's a bit different. There are a lot of places in a lot of cities where I don't feel safe."
Born in the East Bay in 1939, Gans grew up in Berkeley and Oakland before moving to Los Angeles for his medical residency. "I sort of fell into L.A. -- it's like quicksand -- I got out of there in '94 and moved here," he notes, between sips of coffee laced with chicory.
Joining us at the table is another California native, Tim Randles, a keyboard player/composer who supplies the musical framework behind Gans' verses. Together, with a rhythm section and a backup singer, they form Speakeasy [photo above] , an Arcata group exploring "jazz/song/spoken lyric," as they put it.
By coincidence, Randles ended up in Humboldt County at around the same time as Gans. The doctor explained that the seed for their Speakeasy collaboration was a spoken word/jazz recording he made prior to moving here with L.A.-based musician Barry Dow. Gans played it for his friend John Holman, a radiologist, who in turn played it for drummer Danny Montgomery.
Montgomery, who currently resides in France, has been a mainstay of the Humboldt music scene for years, playing for a succession of bands. He was also an instigator in the local fusion of spoken word and jazz, most notably working with Manila's poet laureate Jerry Martien.
"When Danny heard my stuff, he got excited and said, `Let's do some spoken word,'" Gans recalls. "He recruited Tim, and we met. Then we did a show at Jambalaya before Danny boogied off to Europe or wherever."
The line-up changed over time: Mike LaBolle took over for Montgomery as drummer; bassist Geoff Daugherty left to be replaced by William Mitchell; the late Lisa Katani's tragic death left a hole filled by Shannon West. "Shannon is our battery," says Gans. "She's 20-something and we're all a bit older."
Asked about the original concept of the group, Gans quotes his friend Dow. "Barry says, `Poetry is black-and-white photography, and if you add music, it's like color photography.' Music is the emotional color.
"One of my favorite poets is William Blake -- I like rhyming poetry, Lorca, like that, and in some ways it's sort of hokey in that regard, but a lot of the time it seems more lyrical to me than most modern poetry.
"My idea of the great poets of the 20th century: Dylan, Leonard Cohen, people like that. Having said that, I don't really think of myself as a poet; that's too grandiose. I just write lyrics, spoken word.
"And I wanted to be able to make the words a part of a group -- I didn't want a bunch of musicians plinking in the corner with me standing over here doing my poetry, like Kerouac or something. I wanted to be a voice in the group, which to me was a great privilege. So I write the words -- I know nothing about music -- I give my words to Tim, and he composes the music. We come back together with the band, work it out, everyone offers their own contributions, then we go out and play them."
"The fact that he writes with a rhyme scheme is unusual for modern poets," says Randles. "It makes it accessible to writing songs and makes it easy to shift from speaking to singing."
The rhythms and rhymes of Gans' words do seem to suggest songs. In some cases he will apply a standard song form, the repeated refrains of the blues, for example.
"I love blues," says Gans, with discernible passion. "I can't play a note, sing a note, imagine a note, but I love music -- grew up with it as part of my life. Sometimes I'll say to Tim, `I hear a dance song, or I hear blues, or a melancholy song.' My input is usually less than informative," he contends. "I'll say something like `Minor key!' that's my idea of mystical, and Tim listens and is nice about it, then goes and writes what he wants, and it's even better than what was in my head."
"I just read the poem -- and something will click," Randles interjects. "I'll add chord changes that seem to fit the words. It's a lot like writing musicals, which I've done. You want to write something that emotes, that helps the words get across. You just experiment and find something that works."
The content of the poem/songs? "I just write about what I know," says Gans. "There are a few that are more about my time in the streets when I was growing up. There's the obligatory drug song -- one of my favorites on the [Word Arcata] album is `The Needle and the Vein.' I vary between angry, cynical social commentary and romance. I do really mushy romance songs, too. I could write stuff that's a lot darker, a lot angrier, but at the same time I think if you get too heavy, throwing horror in people's faces, it's not useful.
"When I write, what I'm really interested in is the content. I want to make a comment about something, or tell a story that makes a comment. I like art and music that serves some social purpose. So I want to tell a story -- the music and the band reinforce the story, add color and give my words a power that they might not have on their own."
Speakeasy's next performance is at 8 p.m. Friday, July 23, at Rumours Lounge, 326 5th St., Eureka. A double disc box set, Speakeasy Presents Word Arcata, is available at local music stores or at www.speakeasy-amc.com.
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.