Coming up Randolph Avenue I can feel my arms pulling from their sockets.
It's hot. There is sweat on my forehead. The Avenue seems so enormously
long. I'm taking my second aeon pages, printed in Cardiff, carried
on the 125 to Paddington, hauled through the Underground and now lugged
from the Maida Vale Tube to number 210, up the steps, through the
door, along the hall and then down into Bob's vast basement. 1500
sheets on yellow paper. My pages for ALP's annual catalogue, Bob's
co-operative answer to the unsolvable small press distribution problem.
It's the early seventies. He makes me sweet tea to aid recovery. We
sit amid the paper stacks, floor to ceiling packages, boxes of Gestetner
smears, unbound editions of Lee Harwood, Allen Ginsberg, Allen Fisher,
Micheline Wandor, Jiri Valloch, Neil Mills, Criton Tomazos, off-prints,
boxes of staples, cartons of ink, a z-bed, a broken tray, half a tea
maker, a crushed yin-yang cube. The phone goes and it's some contributor
to And, Bob's legendary magazine. At this time I've never seen
And, published as loose sheets in a plastic bag and distributed
among those who happen to be near when it actually appears. "Ah,
yes", says Bob, using that deep resonating voice of his, before
treating the caller to a fluid rejection of whatever has been sent.
Bob blames time, mail, quantity, printing difficulties, and his co-editor
John Rowan for not liking the stuff before swiftly hanging up. Ever
interested in the ways of publishers and editors I ask, "Does
John see all this material?" But Bob's gone upstairs again to
make another hot drink.
Bob Cobbing at
Cwmystwyth - 1973
We're at Cwmystwyth on the back road through the Elan Valley heading
for a reading organised by Mary Lloyd Jones at Aberaeron. I'm driving
a Hillman Avenger which is supposed to be a hot hatch but actually
overheats at the first opportunity and usually breaks down if you
drive it at over 40. Bob's never been to this part of Wales before.
The green desert. We stop at an abandoned lead mine where a vast slurry
of spoil sprawls down the hillside. The village is deserted, none
of the cottages have roofs and the machine used for pulling the ore
from the soil is either wrecked or gone. The wreckage is weathered.
Vegetation is beginning to grow back. I take a b&w out of focus
photo on my tiny instamatic, find a bolt from some ancient tram sleeper,
and a rock with a mark on it that could be a word. We clamber over
the sliding piles. Bob roars juka kuru roku juka kuru roku joku kuro
roko joko kuru roko, his Kerouac tribute, which echoes back at us
off the sky. Cymru. Poetry. Land of Bards. Jack Kerouac. French Canadian.
Breton. Almost Welsh. Of course.
In the back room at my house Bob sits before my BBC-B computer. It's
the early 80s and he's in Cardiff for a reading at the Oriel Bookshop.
I've programmed this weak-brained but so-simple machine to assemble
words from a common wordpool and make them into random sentences.
The poem streams up the screen like a demented Jackson Mac Low. There's
no printer attached, no storage device for the computer's output.
It creates into electronic space and then disappears into the void.
Bob is fascinated. "It plays little poetry films, doesn't it?
Can we get this to rearrange the letters that make up the name Edwin
Morgan?" We can. It's simple enough, written in BBC Basic the
new program takes about fifteen minutes. Bob is working on a poem
to celebrate the great Scots concretist. I save it onto cassette and
then load. The BBC-B begins to rearrange the letters of Edwin Morgan's
name at high speed: WNIDE GARNOM NAGNIRWDE OM DWRG ENIMONA. Bob sits
seemingly stunned and then begins to catch lines he likes and to scratch
them onto a pad he's pulled for his jacket pocket. The screen is a
blur of white. The endless permutational stream rolls towards infinity.
The poem is in Bob's collected works, somewhere. Edwin Morgan approved.
On the train back from Sunderland Bob has bought a whole crate of
Newcastle Amber Ale and sits with it between his legs. He's sockless
in sandals. I've never seen him any other way. We've been on the Cobbing/Finch/Rain-in-the-Face
northern tour playing in dark rooms above pubs and poorly attended
halls in Newcastle and in Whitley Bay. These are the places where
you worry if your jacket falls to the floor because it will be too
filthy to put on again when you pick it up. Rain In The Face, a duo
made up of Paul Burwell and David Toop, use guitars with errant tunings
and dementedly random percussion. Burwell is a master of new and rediscovered
musical instruments including the amazing wasp phone with its insect
driven membrane. The band use things you bang and things you hit.
Bob has flailed and roared through the set pulling the disparate elements
around him into one forward flowing drone. The evenings have been
brilliant creative successes even if the audiences have been small.
The train ride is long. I try to talk Rain In The Face into using
a piece of traditional rock and roll, unexpectedly, right in the middle
of their set. "Imagine the faces of the seriousos if you suddenly
broke into Whole Lot of Shakin." They smile and say they'll think
about it, but they don't, (although David Toop was heard later performing
a sort of slow falsetto rock song among his otherwise progressively
random set). Bob tells us that he once tried to use Chuck Berry lyrics
in one of his performances but they came out sounding like standard
Cobbing. Of course.
In Oxford in the nineties Bob and I are reading to the usual audience
mix of fans of the avant garde, small press publishers, literateurs,
fakes, academics and random passers-by. Bob's set uses no text whatsoever.
I've not seen him read for a few years and am amazed by the transformation.
There was a time when everything Bob did was connected with text of
some sort. Writers Forum publishing and his own performances were
indivisible. Now here was the great man, teeth less in number but
stature undiminished, rolling through an hour-long reading of standard
Cobbing greatest hits without a single piece of paper visible anywhere.
The poems - Are Your Children safe In the Sea¸ Tan Tandinanan,
Alphabet of Fishes, Soma Haoma, Kurrirrurriri mostly come from
the early period. They are as they were but they are changed. They
are extended, bent, turned, increased. Cobbing is now Bob Dylan, using
the old songs but changing the tunes. Retreading, remaking. The past
recycled but with all the power still in place. The audience, some
of whom have never encountered Cobbing before, love it. There is cheering.
People hang onto every roar. Towards the end, as if for a moment lost
for inspiration or forgetting the next item on the set list, Bob turns
towards a cheap print of the local landscape. It's framed on the wall
behind him. His eyes brighten. Back to his audience he stares straight
at it, his head no more than a foot away. "raar rop rill room
rut up up rut roop roop roop" His voice soars. The landscape
becomes poem. Cobbing's voice booms up to fill completely the excited
room. He's in his seventies and has been on his feet for at least
sixty minutes. He can't see to read properly, in this light, with
these glasses. Why slavishly follow the texts he's been using for
decades? Who needs them. Great applause breaks out around me. Bob's
finished. Best I've heard him in thirty years.
I guess the most important thing that Bob taught me was that the
voice could learn from the machine. Once you've heard voice treated
on tape, he explained, then you can make that sound yourself. He'd
play me a tape of voice slowed and then make the same deep rolling
sounds. Then we'd try it with a tape speeded up and with, maybe, the
middle section cut out and spliced back in upside down. The taped
sound would flicker and zip. Do it, he'd say. And we would. We don't
need machines to make work. They can show us new ways but once those
have been experienced then we are on our own.
Bob was the great centre of the left hand for the forty years between
1960 and 2000. Mention avant garde, alternative, innovative, concrete,
sound, textural, sonic, visual, experimental and Bob would have a
part in it. Official recognition didn't matter. He relished the bad
reviews he'd got and used them as part of his own self-promotion.
What was important was that the door be open and that the work carry
on. His creativity in both sound and vision was intimately linked
with small publishing. Big stuff, hard covers, and fine print were
all well and good but most of the time just not flexible enough or
fast enough for his needs. Bob would make a piece in a morning - a
smear from the back of a Gestetner stencil cut-up and rearranged -
and in the afternoon he'd publish it. Writers Forum, his curiously
old-fashioned sounding imprint, brought out more than a 1000 items
during his lifetime. The editions were small. But they were significant.
We're sitting the White House, the hotel bar next to the Poetry Society
in Earl's Court Square. Criton Tomazos is standing on the mantle piece
ripping bits out of a book and chanting. Bob has drunk almost half
a bottle of whiskey and is still standing, or leaning, at least. Jennifer
arrives in her small car to take us home. The vehicle is full of boxes,
papers and bits of equipment. We push Bob into the front seat but
there's no room for me in the back. I climb onto the roof rack. We
drive. Somehow we get back.
Are you a concrete poet or a sound poet, I once asked Bob. By concrete
I guess I meant visual. Bob's answer was immediate. There's no difference.
He showed me. Anything can be read he insisted. He took a set of visuals
from the book we were working on, Songsignals, and began to
roar them out. Impassioned, accurate, active, elemental, real. They
are the same thing, sound and vision. In Cobbing's hands they are.
Bob Cobbing - Such a life.
was buried under the trees at the City of London Cemetery, Manor Park
on 11th October, 2002
tributes visit Bill Griffiths' small press pages at Lollipop
for bob cobbing
corpuscular christigineous igneous conflation
creel cruel scrim cylindrical cricoid
crankshaft creosote crimson coronet
cormorant carboniferous cynical cystitis
capper cyncoed piepowder
criddle cree crip ip
dally rinkle stammen
damaged cantonment kings road rusted
deal dominion antique meal voucher
real attack rich managed aromament rings
sandwiched busted dole linoleum frantic
mile pouch racked itch sings minion
advantaged canton crapper pie-eyed
ethic ah yes
excited slight sweat
mighty right sweet breath death
fun was yellow flower is
word road eastender
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