Paul Muldoon Goes Rogue
Paul Muldoon is a Pulitzer-Prize winning poet, formerly the Oxford Professor of Poetry, and also poetry editor of The New Yorker. Born in 1951 in Portadown, Northern Ireland, Muldoon lived for many years in Belfast, first as a student at Queen’s University and then as a producer for the BBC. Since 1987, Muldoon has been based at Princeton University, where he holds a chair in the humanities and is an immensely popular creative writing professor.
He is also a lifelong student, fan, and increasingly a creator of songs. Steeped in lyric Irish greats like Thomas Moore (1779-1852) and W.B. Yeats (1865-1939), Muldoon grew up in Northern Ireland when Elvis and The Beatles held sway. By the time he was a young man, Northern soul, psychedelia, and the wild vitality of punk had taken hold. Belfast was not only a city at war in the 1970s, but a city where young people were generating almighty energy in response.
Stiff Little Fingers, “Alternative Ulster,” from Shellshock Rock (1979)
Newly based in New Jersey in the 1980s, Muldoon continued to publish acclaimed poems in The New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, and other prestigious places. One thing for which his art was regularly commended was his mastery of the unconventional, the unexpected rhyme. Rhymes are internal and subtle, pulling one’s ear almost after the fact. Images clash and smash in Muldoon’s poems; the expected noun rarely follows what you’d think a logical adjective modifier. “Meeting the British” (1987) is a personal favorite of mine; the word “smallpox” doesn’t just resonate, it detonates, at the end of this poem.
The lyric poems he’d learned as a boy and the songs he’d danced to as a young man marinated in Muldoon’s mind as time passed. He continued to listen, learn, hone. I was a graduate student at Princeton in the 1990s, and remember well the Bob Dylan concert at Dillon Gym that Muldoon also attended and memorialized in “Bob Dylan At Princeton, November 2000.” One day, Muldoon sat down and wrote a fan letter to Warren Zevon. One day, Zevon replied. The result is in Zevon’s final album, My Ride’s Here (2003). He and Muldoon collaborated on the title track (performed here as an elegy for Zevon by Bruce Springsteen).
I was staying at the Marriott
With Jesus and John Wayne
I was waiting for a chariot
They were waiting for a train
The sky was full of carrion
“I’ll take the mazuma”
Said Jesus to Marion
“That’s the 3:10 to Yuma
My ride’s here … “
Another song Muldoon wrote with Zevon, “Macgillicuddy’s Reeks,” revels in using traditional instruments on a song set, titularly at least, in one of the most beautiful landscapes of County Kerry, Ireland.
The Reeks, photograph via Grant Dixon
Writing songs and writing poems are not the same thing. Muldoon has been specific about the difference, and since 2003 (at the latest) he has continued simultaneous work on both. Muldoon’s own “three-car garage band,” Rackett, ensued after this collaboration with Zevon. Named for a Renaissance musical instrument (more about the rackett here), the band’s members were Muldoon, English professor Nigel Smith, Stephen Allen, and lead singer and musicologist Lee Matthew. Smith told an Irish newspaper how the band came to be: “‘When I came to Princeton, Paul looked after me and took me out to dinner occasionally, and I realized he was a rock fiend. We started writing to each other in the personae of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.’ In January 2004, Muldoon sent Smith a commanding email: ‘We’re having a band. Set this attached song to music.'” As Rackett branched out of its inital stealth gigs in Princeton to play in Manhattan venues like Joe’s Pub, buzz about them spread. The author Jean Hanff Korelitz, Muldoon’s wife, wrote a very funny take on her new role for a New York Times “Modern Love” column.
Rackett gave way to The Wayside Shrines by 2010. Billed as “a collective” of Princeton-based musicians, the Shrines boasted Chris Harford as their frontman. Harford, a guitarist, composer, artist, and singer with a rich, husky, pleasant voice, maintained his own Band of Changes project while writing music for Muldoon’s lyrics and performing with the Shrines. They have not officially played any recent dates, but their Word On The Street CD is still for sale, and the performance idiom of the Shrines — a mix of music and spoken word, special guests, and gleeful audience participation — paved the way for Muldoon’s current band and the pattern of its shows.
In 2014, Muldoon began hosting a revue called Muldoon’s Picnic at the Irish Arts Center in New York. Named for a wacky, vaudevillian entertainment popular in the city in the 1800s, the Picnic has included a vast selection of musical and literary guests, including Salman Rushdie and Laurie Anderson. The house band for the Picnic rejoices in the name Rogue Oliphant, and it is anchored these days by Muldoon and Harford, in the regular company of David Mansfield and Cait O’Riordan. Some of the spirit of one of Mansfield’s earliest gigs, Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue — Mansfield was just 18 when he joined that tour — has clearly rubbed off on the way Rogue Oliphant performs.
Recently, Rogue Oliphant have recorded a CD, I Gave The Pope A Rhino (2016), and they’ve been taking it to the road. One of their most recent venues was the long barn at Hancock Shaker Village, outside Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The autumn leaves and rain held sway outside, while, in the barn, a mostly local crowd sat on hard pews and hay bales while Mansfield’s magical fiddle was the only instrument that the barn’s builders would have recognized. Furious Fenders and powerful amps rocked out punk beats with a force that made you have to listen hard for Muldoon’s lyrics. The gentle “Wanted” (2016) was the favorite song of the evening for most of the other audience members I polled after the show. Have a listen, and hear not only a host of influences, but something new for the old trope of lovelorn petition.