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​Turning Music into Poems into Music into Art

This week, VICE premiered "This Charming Man," a meta music video from James Franco's band, Daddy, which is based off of a poem cycle inspired by the Smiths. Here are a few words about the project from James, as well as a few original poems.

by James Franco
Nov 14 2014, 9:36pm

This week, VICE premiered ​"This Charming ​Man," a meta music video from James Franco's band, Daddy, which is based off of a poem cycle inspired by the Smiths. Here are a few words about the project from James, as well as a few original poems.

I was at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, one of the best—if not the best—writing programs in the county. It's a low residency program: Teachers and students go twice a year for ten days for intense lectures and workshops, and then they spend the rest of the semester corresponding through email and snail mail.

Because there is a short campus time commitment, the program can attract the best writers from around the country to teach without interrupting their lives, work, or other teaching commitments. I had Tony Hoagland, James Longenbach, Rick Barot, Alan Williamson, Ellen Bryant Voigt, and Alan Shapiro as poetry teachers, in that order. Ellen Voigt was particularly helpful with the series of poems inspired by the Smiths.

I had been writing poems inspired by filmmaking—poems that used filmmaking as a metaphor for life and other things. I wanted to write a series of poems that used music in the same way, even though music is intrinsically closer to poetry than film. The Smiths were the perfect point of inspiration, because they speak of the darkness of youth and love.

I used their hits as leaping points for tone, style, character, and rhythm, but made the subjects of my poem all my own. The Smiths pointed the way to a poem series about high school students (loosely inspired by people I knew in the mid 90s when I was in high school in Palo Alto, California).

Once the poems were written, my art school buddy Tim O'Keefe put them to music for our band, Daddy. Tim met Andy Rourke, formerly of the actual Smiths, and he played on the album. The great Monika Heideman, formerly of the band Xylos, sang on it with us too.

Poems on a page need to carry music within them because they are read, not heard. But when they're put to music, a new level of significance is added. That is why pop songs can get away with cheesy lyrics and still be profound. I recently watched Annie Hall for the hundredth time and noticed a scene where Woody rolls his eyes as Shelly Duval recites Bob Dylan lyrics with dreamy admiration: "And she aches just like a woman/And she wakes just like a woman/Yeah but she breaks just like a little girl."

It's so easy to make song lyrics seems shallow, but that's because half of the meaning is in the music—in how they are sung. I remember reading Great Jones Street in a seminar at Columbia. It's a Don DeLillo novel that uses a Dylan-esque character and quotes some of his lyrics. People in class quickly ripped the songs apart. But that's like criticizing a movie based on a shot list—a movie isn't a movie until it is shot and edited and a song isn't a song until its sung.

Later, my mother's teenage students directed short films based on these poems. Tim and I used their short films to make David Lynchian music videos for all the songs. The last step was showing these videos at Palo Alto High School with the paintings featured in the videos. Everything came full circle. 

"There Is a Light That Never Goes Out"

I waited in the shadow of my stupid house.
​ The Mustang rolled up in the low black water,
​ Growling softly, then it stopped and purred.
​ Dark green paint like a deep flavor,
​ Like hard, sour-apple candy catching in my throat.

​A hint of his blond swoop, the red button of his cigarette.
​ ​Smoke out the window. Sterling:
​ ​His name like a sword reflecting light in a dark room.
​ ​I'm the sword swallower.
​ ​And the grass licked my shoes.

"Please, Please, Please"

Now the picture had him in it
​ Up the red path
​ To my house
​ In his coal tux
​ Slicked like a wet cat.
​ I did my best in a lime-green dress.

All his gang from school:
​ Inside they each had some from his flask;
​ And Sterling smiled a toothy smile, yellow and sharp.

​And then we danced.
​ Not to one song, but ten songs.
​ It was the scene where the audience came over to my side,
​ Because I got what I wanted.

I was in love with a cliché.

Boys his age have bodies like knives.
​ I was holding one by the blade.

"Girlfriend in a Coma"

Megan McKenna had a skinhead boyfriend,
​ He crashed his car into a pole.
​ The paramedics lifted her out of the crumpled car,
​ And laid her on the cement. They cut away her jeans.

​Sterling and I fought all the time,
​ Driving around in his rotten green Mustang.
​ I was the sweetest sixteen,
​ And when we hit the other car
​ Darkness met me at the windshield.

My father kept Sterling from the room.
​ I was plastered and sutured and puffed up.

When I go to heaven,
​ I'll think of Sterling.
​ I'll think that I loved him.
​ I'll think that he was human.
​ That he was a poor little brain in a dangerous body.