What's the Rackett?
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon rocks Belfast, writes Steven Rainey
Gripping his Fender Telecaster like a weapon, Paul Muldoon lifts the neck up high and brings it crashing down with clanging chord. Looking down at the audience, a sly smile spreads across his face before he leans into the microphone. 'Do any of you fancy a go? Now is the time if you fancy a little bop.'
Now really, is this appropriate behaviour for a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet?
Muldoon seems to be having the time of his life, rocking out with Rackett in Belfast's Crescent Arts Centre. Formed in 2004 in Princeton University, New Jersey, where Muldoon is a lecturer, Rackett are a band of academics and professional musicians doing it for the fun. With lyrics by Muldoon, their first album Resistance features ten cuts of rough and ready garage rock.
Rackett is no vanity project though, and you've got to hand it to Muldoon for returning to Belfast as a rocker rather than a poet. He was aware of the attention his show would generate, from adoring fans and the media alike. But then again, Muldoon has always walked his own path.
His first volume of poetry, New Weather, was published while he was still at Queen's University in 1973. Emerging from a thriving NI poetry scene in the early 1970s, with contemporaries like Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, Muldoon’s work combined a stylised sense of modernity with a love of the obscure and the archaic. His poems, often criticised for being difficult to grasp due to his virtuosic use of language, also display a profound love and understanding of 20th century pop culture.
In 2003, Muldoon was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for the collection Moy Sand and Gravel. His most recent volume, Horse Latitudes (2006), at times reflects his interest in rock and pop culture. ‘Sillyhow Stride’ is a tribute to the late Warren Zevon, the critically-acclaimed cult American singer/songwriter.
After entering into correspondence, Muldoon was invited by the terminally-ill Zevon to collaborate on a song entitled ‘My Ride’s Here’. The song was recorded by Bruce Springsteen on Zevon's posthumously released album of the same name, and awakened a desire within Muldoon to get more involved in music.
Raising the issue with fellow Princeton lecturer Nigel Smith, who also shared a love of rock 'n' roll, the two decided to form a band and began writing songs immediately. Muldoon supplied the lyrics while Smith worked on the music, and before long they had repertoire enough to play live. A project like this could easily have been disregarded - a cringeworthy collective midlife crisis - but the band's honesty and Muldoon’s witty, literate lyrics have silenced the naysayers.
In conversation, Muldoon is measured and calm, each word carefully chosen and considered. While this is in keeping with his status as a poet, it belies an inner exhibitionism and spontaneity familiar to all performers. On stage, Muldoon is animated and exuberant, prowling the lip of the stage with his guitar in the way only a rock 'n' roll performer can, living proof that it is an ageless art.
'Work that’s thoughtful,' says Muldoon of his activity, 'And at the risk of bringing the element of age into it, that’s age appropriate, means something to the people that grew up with it. A group of readers will grow up with a writer, and come along for the ride as it were. They’re making the laws.
'One can say whatever one wants about the Rolling Stones, but they still bring a tremendous energy and exuberance to their performance,' he declares after the band's sound check. 'The kind of energy that younger bands simply can’t match.'
Rackett do more than their fair share to encourage this kind of energy at the Crescent Arts Centre, prompting a large portion of the crowd to their feet, and even jumping off the stage mid-song to join in the revelry. Their set is long but they keep it tight, adeptly switching from melodic garage rock to brooding ballads, and even to up-tempo reggae. The audience, a motley crew of all ages, stretching from various Belfast literati to the simply curious, are all kept on board by the band’s… racket.