If one were jotting down the emotional requirements for a tour manager, top on the list would be “surly.” It’s not that tour managers need to be bitter and misanthropic (although many are), but that, when your job routinely takes you into dives, roadhouses, truck stops and motels, you require the ability to summon various levels of surliness in order to to business. Whether it’s a promoter trying to pick your metaphorical pocket, a tipsy musician shouting at you to change their string or a stoned receptionist who’s entirely uninterested in the reservation that you made and which they cannot seem to find, you tend to get a lot done when you flash your surly side. But you’ve also go to be a people person; you need to have empathy with the world and especially with the musicians paying your salary. You should love music, of course, and it’s helpful if you like dogs. I mean, it’s just plain helpful for everybody to like dogs.
All this is to underscore why Danny Bland is both really good at his job and a much-beloved rock and roll icon. The longtime tour manager (Dave Alvin, the MC5, etc.), musician (Cat Butt, Dwarves, etc.) and author (In Case We Die, I Apologize In Advance For The Awful Things I’m Gonna Do), has woven these many sides of his life into the unlikely form for haiku. It’s as quirky as it sounds and astonishingly immersive. Those who follow him on social media are well aware of his daily writing ritual, which has inspired album-based series and even custom haiku fundraisers. Scanning through his hardcopy haiku collections, it’s impossible to not be drawn into this fringe realm of bad people trying to be good while making really bad decisions. Or good people trying to be bad. They’re all in there and, like those famed salty snacks, you can read all you want because he’ll make more.
Recently Danny released We Shouldn’t Be Doing This — his latest haiku collection. Like his previous one, it features a wide-ranging buffet of emotional vignettes, coupled with an evocative collection of photos submitted by friends and confederates. Taking a break from interviewing Norwegian black metallers and pissed-up German thrash drummers, I sat down with Danny to get the skinny on his new book.
JD: I’ve suckered you into this interview on the pretense that we’re going to talk about your new book, but I’ve got an axe to grind with you about your snide reactions to photos that I occasionally post on social media of five-string basses. What gives?
DB: Well, if you want to be a guitar player, then add an extra string. If you want to be a bass player, it’s four strings. I’m sorry, that’s just the way it is. Now, you could argue with me, but you’d be wrong all day long, so why would you want to do that?
So does that mean a three-string bass is more real than a four-string bass?
No, a three-string bass just means someone broke their string.
Touché. OK, for the uninitiated, what is a haiku?
A haiku is a traditional Japanese poem that consists of three lines. The first line contains five syllables, the second line contains seven syllables and the third line contains five syllables. Traditionally, they’re supposed to contain one word that conveys what season it is, or something about nature. I do not do that; I fall into the non-traditional mode. Sometimes I accidentally will write a traditional one if I mention the moon or say something about a season, but I don’t focus on that. Like, the Japanese masters would have my ass, because I don’t do it correctly. The funny thing is that I have this reading in Tucson in March, where I will be onstage with a Japanese haiku master and I don’t know if he’s been sent here from Japan to assassinate me or if we’re going to have a lot of arguments… Well, I’m not going to argue because, like you with the five-string bass, I should know when I’m wrong and I realize that I’m wrong as far as haiku stuff. But haiku is also supposed to be a form of poetry for the people – for the everyday man. And some of us everyday men just don’t give a crap about nature. Ha ha
You’ve been doing this a long time and you’ve probably given a thousand interviews on this subject but how did your fascination with this ancient art form evolve?
I don’t know if I can remember. I learned about it in school; they might take a half day of an entire English curriculum to talk about haiku – they should take more – but what I loved about it is the same thing that I love about the Ramones, which is that haiku is a very strict template in which can be contained anarchy. If you talk about the purest kind of Ramones song, you get two minutes and maybe two and a half, if you’re lucky, and you get three chords and you have the world to talk about. For some reason, the structured anarchy of it all appeals to me. I’m not sure what it is.
You’ve touched on this a bit, but artists of all modalities, whether sculptors, musicians, painters, etc., generally cite old school influences as shaping their style. In the haiku world, you’ve got guys modern guys like Richard Wright but then you’ve got the old Japanese masters, like Basho, and thousands of years of influences in between. Who influenced your haiku style?
Well, I really only own one haiku book, which is that Richard Wright volume that you mentioned, and which is fantastic. I’ve read the masters; I don’t really own them but I’ve read a bunch of them, but really, years ago, in 2000, my friend Steve Earle was talking about this writing project that he was doing with Michael Stipe, Patti Smith and I think Grant Lee Buffalo. A collection of musicians who challenged each other to write a haiku a day for a year, and they’d send them to each other. At the end of the year, a book of those haiku was compiled. Although I’d been writing haiku way before that project began, I found Patti Smith’s haiku to be quite influential. Hers would be more traditional than mine but I sort of ran with it; I started doing the haiku a day for a year when I finished writing my novel because I no longer had anything to write and I was going a little bit crazy. The defiant and sarcastic son of a bitch nature of myself, a lot of them were straight up making fun of the process and the art form, just so I could, you know? Not a lot of direct influences, though. Now I’m the king, so I’m pretty much the best there is. Ha ha…
There’s a grim fatality to all of your titles. In Case We Die, I Apologize In Advance For The Awful Things I’m Going To Do and We Shouldn’t Be Doing This. Each of these titles implies a heroic level of self-sabotage. The person knows they don’t have to do what they’re about to do and they know they’re going to create some regrets but they’re going to do it anyway. Tell me about that.
Very observant of you. I’m not speaking to the everyman, and by that I mean that I’m not speaking to all of mankind, so let’s include women in there. I’m speaking to a slice of the population who feel and who act out in that way. And so I speak for the low lifes, the confused and the reckless. I speak for the confused and the reckless.
I’d like to read one to you and ask you to tell me about the haiku: (p. 70)
A motel goodbye
Kiss, your half smile reminds me
That I’m hard to love
Well, that’s obviously part of the rigors of being on the road and a guy who travels. A guy who’s hardly a stable companion. It’s one of those things that’s not Bob Seger’s ‘Rambling, Gambling Man,’ that’s a sentiment of regret.
Are all of these spoken from your perspective or do you inhabit characters.
I often write them from someone else’s perspective. Sometimes I’ll do an album series, where I’ll take a record that I love – I think the very first one that I did was Exile On Main Street – and I’ll post a haiku numbered for each track, based on the first song, and then the next day the second song, etc. It might not refer to the lyrical content, necessarily; it might describe the way that song makes me feel. But occasionally I’ll look at the reason why the person wrote the song and sort of work from there. So I might relate to it personally but most of the time it’s character work. I’ve done a hundred of records by now.
Cracked, displaced headboard
Noise complaints, fettered heart
My job here is done
Well, that would be one of your sexy Teddy Pendergrass haiku, I guess. Not exactly romantic but that’s what I love about it. What that haiku conveys is something that I’d feel ridiculous saying out loud. You sprinkle in all of those elements in those seventeen syllables and I believe that you might come up with your idea of what those seventeen syllables mean and I believe that your idea and my idea might be very similar.
What do you personally get from writing these?
I’m a writer but even on my Facebook page, it says “Writer/Tour Manager (not necessarily in that order).” Because I’m a working stiff, first and foremost and occasionally I need to purge some artistic content. Occasionally I need to impress myself in that way and this practice lets that happen.
Haiku derive from Hoku, which were collaborative poems that followed the 5/7/5 rule. You’ve had a collaborative element in all of your books and you’ve continued that trend here.
Yeah, the one haiku book that I own is the one we discussed earlier. It’s a beautiful work but our 2020 mindsets, even a three line poem will need additional mental stimulation. And I like looking at good photography and I have some pretty talented friends who are photographers and musicians and so I asked a bunch of them to contribute. For Dave Alvin, I sent him three haiku and asked him to take a photo based on one of these or all of these or however they make you feel. So he did. There are a bunch of people in there. My friend Lance Mercer is a great photographer and he’s in there, and I have a lot of lesser-known talents who contributed photos as well and I think it turned out nicely.
Are you committed to haiku for the long haul?
If you, Joe Daly, were to sit down and write a haiku a day for a year, you really don’t look at things the same way anymore. It really changes the structure of your thinking. Almost everything I look at I mine for subject matter for a poem, so I think my brain has been changed, structurally. So I don’t think I could stop if I wanted to.
So we can expect another volume down the road?
Certainly, if I can get someone to put it out, but I’ve also got social media and I can post them there for nothing. Ha ha But if you want them all together in a really cool package with Tony Fitzpatrick art on the cover, then you’ve got to go to Revolution Art Shop.