Perils along the culture trail. Keeping your cool while drifting 12 degrees off true north

IT'S not safe to go out anymore. I speak here, of venturing out for some cultural foraging; the old hunting and gathering instinct that sends us forth to hear poetry readings, folk singers, or worse, leads us unsuspectingly to places where someone is playing New Age music. For all our goodwill toward the ``arts,'' we encounter performances like these: The Poet

We have barely positioned ourselves in the folding chairs when the poet introduces his first poem - and he really introduces it. They'll be no missing his meaning:

``This is a po-em [that's how they say it at these gatherings: a po-Em] I wrote when I was sitting 12 degrees off true north on my porch looking towards the Charles River, with a glass of lemonade at my side and an Irish Wolfhound named Hildegard.

``There are several other things you should know. In the po-em, I mention Kilimanjaro, Denali, and K-2. These cannot be seen from my porch. But their presence is felt.

``Also, there are two mentions of a `cow' - c-o-w. This is a large, milk-giving mammal that used to be prevalent in New England. The second mention of cow is strictly a symbolist usage, nothing pejorative is intended.

``Also, the po-em mentions Bob Allen, and Jo Allen - these are our plumbers; and Betty Lou Sue and Bett Sue Lou - I have no idea who these people are, unless they are the muse herself.

``But on to my po-em, titled:

``Twelve degrees off true north with Hildegard at my side, dreaming of Kilimanjaro, as the Allens pump my septic tank.''

He adds that the septic is a ``symbolic commingling of humanity and the earth.'' (As if we didn't know.) And launches, at last, into his 12-line poem. But it's a long 12 lines. You can feel yourself pushing back into the hard metal chair; any distance at all is an improvement. You inventory the varieties of discomfort you are experiencing, and think of the refrain of ``The Open Boat''; to have come this far in search of poetry, only to drown so close to shore.

The Folk Singer

Same hard metal chairs, but they are gathered around tables with candles. The folk singer comes forth. And sure enough he feels called upon to deliver the State of the Union message:

``I wrote this song after I heard my first Bob Dylan song - last week. And it has its roots in realigning my laser tracking device in the CD player. Anyway, the woman named Mary in the song is my wife, Mary, not my sister, Mary, or my mother, Mary Rose. That's another song.''

(He starts to strum.)

``One more thing I should say, I wrote this while I was 12 degrees off true north.'' (Scraping sounds as audience checks their compass bearings and realigns chairs.) He laughs, after checking his own compass, and says with a shrug, ``Ain't that life.''

And he's off, singing the generic folk song. He's walking down dusty roads, he's keenly observing the passing seasons, he regrets what he said and didn't say to Mary. He puts in a word for the oppressed:

I've seen this dusty road before.

(It turns out to be Interstate 95, but never mind.)

This highway is my banjo.

And I should have said,

What I should have said.

Um, I guess ... ya' know?

Now, the cabbage lies molting in the meadows.

(This is the keenly observed nature stuff.)

And our poor brothers break their backs.

Picking it, picking it, for nasty people.

(Social commentary.)

But this dusty road is my fate.

Thinking of you, thinking of you,

till the cabbages come home,

and workers everywhere are free,

and living 12 degrees off true north,

and living 12 degrees off true north.

Next he'll want you to sing ``Kumbaya'' or join in a fig-bar boycott. Time to leave.

New Age Music

There is only one thing worse than an evening of earnest poets or folk singers, that's an evening where someone is playing New Age music. You have heard it - music that is so mellow, it sounds like the musicians are afraid to touch their instruments.

Anyone can make New Age music. Let your cat run across an autoharp, leave a flute out in a strong breeze and wait for squeaky sounds. The music will be so natural, so - how are they always saying - so honest. Call the music Flutebreeze.

That's how these things are titled, as if they were perfume. Read a list of these titles and it sounds like a New Age Avon catalog for room fresheners. This is aerosol music (or Muzak). The musical equivalent of Pine-sol for the sensitive set.

These are actual album titles: ``Sea Peace,'' ``Fresh Impressions,'' ``Light Magic,'' ``Dolphin Smiles,'' ``Dusk,'' ``New Morning,'' ``Woodland,'' ``Desert Dreams,'' ``Amber.''

You get the picture. The song titles are no better: ``Heartsong,'' ``Elfin Territory,'' ``Rainfall.''

It's easy, following this formula, to come up with new songs: ``Dolphin Smiles''? How about ``Cat Burp''? ``Sardine Breath''? ``Heartsong''? Everyone writes about the heart; what about other organs? ``Stomachsong''? Or ``Sunwreck,'' ``Seasludge''? No matter, the music all sounds the same.

With this invigorating music as a backdrop, you might think you are in a mortuary. An hour of this and you'd better check your pulse. Next someone in the room will be saying: ``I'm really centered, the energy is good. I have had my life-force refluxed, and I'm no longer flummoxed. It's all crystal energy....''

Only one thing to do. Tell them you have to hit the dusty road. Say what a man has to say. The highway is a banjo. And boy is it rough on the tires.

Howard Mansfield is a free-lance writer in Hancock, N.H.

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