Alphabet Jazz: Poetry, Prose, Stories and Songs by Paul Metsa

Jason Scorich

It’s been a decade since I reviewed Paul Metsa’s memoir Blue Guitar Highway, published by the University of Minnesota Press (and getting a paperback re-release next year).

After seeing him last month at Sacred Heart Music Center’s Songwriters/Storytellers series, I knew I had to read his new book, Alphabet Jazz. Within a few pages, I felt myself relax. I was back in the hands of a master storyteller.

Paul is a Renaissance mind of 20th century American music and popular culture. Only he would have the audacity to put Jack Benny and a switchblade in the same sentence. Most writers toil their little monocultural vegetable patches. Metsa works gardens, orchards, even slaughterhouses – he’s seen many of life’s great sadnesses, and he’s still here, still hustling, still swinging, still full of gratitude.

Normally, a book called Alphabet Jazz would send me running like an arachnaphobic from Dylan’s Tarantula, but with Metsa you know that this is a different animal. Alphabet Jazz is subtitled Poetry, Prose, Stories and Songs, but, for my purposes, I’ll lump that into prose, poetry and song lyrics.

The prose

The prose consists of stories, essays, letters to the editor and heartfelt tributes to many friends and family members. As I read Alphabet Jazz, and Metsa’s many tributes to artist friends who have died, and whose memories so quickly slip beneath the addled surface of current public consciousness, the lines that kept running through my head were from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. It’s Willy Loman’s wife Linda, excoriating her sons into noticing what’s happening to their father: “But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”

Attention must be paid. Maybe that’s Metsa’s greatest gift. For musicians, sound engineers, poets and all-around “characters,” he’s a preservationist. And for down-and-out doggies, he’s a rescuer and a lifeline.

Paul, like others of us, has a love affair with places and people that are now only ghosts. He captures their stories, and stitches them into his own midnight quilt, and we are warmed by proxy. Many of his prose pieces are celebrations of the almost mystical power of friendship, and the ability of music to bridge those lonely distances between us. His essays stitch local Minnesota artists and those all-important bookers and supporters of the arts, many a degree or two removed from the “big time,” a little closer to the center of that crazy quilt of American music.

In a way, Metsa, like most writers, is writing to himself, as someone who has “never caught the brass ring, but I’ve glimpsed it a few times.”

The poems

Paul is the best kind of realist. The Romantic kind. Mythology, sentiment and the gritty dance cheek-by-jowl in moments like this describing his mother, Bess, in “Hey, Dad (Midnight Note From Blackie)”:

And your father went on to marry a Princess
After meeting her on a blind date in Duluth
Born in the shadow of the statue of Paul Bunyan and the Blue Ox in Bemidji, Minnesota
And her relationship with her own father was such
That she took a room in a graveyard hotel while in high school
And sang in the high school choir, and had the voice of an angel

Metsa knows that too much reality, and life ain’t worth living. We need the color of the imagination to give it all a little more meaning. And, who knows, in the end, it may be the truer view.

The poems in Alphabet Jazz are often more tentative. But shouldn’t they be? The songs are statements. Confident. The poems are a reaching out – for a lover, for clarity, for a feeling, for meaning. They’re a ginger foot testing winter ice, a core sample of some unknown ore. They’re an interlude of uncertainty and vulnerability, and a welcome contrast with Metsa’s otherwise confident control.

The Song Lyrics

And then there are the song lyrics – beat folk meditations, protest anthems and gut-bucket blues, all mingling together. Paul writes lyrics that still surprise decades after you first hear them. Seeing them here in black and white, it’s like seeing old friends in new clothes. Removed from strict time and melody, you see how strongly these songs are built. They have a sharpness, an unexpected sense of purpose. The lyrics take you back to the song playing in your head, but there’s another level here. They transport you past the finished recording, and back to whatever late-night lonely room Metsa was in with just guitar, pen, and paper. There’s an intimacy in seeing these lines on the page. They just hit harder. Who else, in a blues song, that genre known for male boasting more than sensitivity, would remind you:

Don’t forget your mother
She brought you into this world
You are the dream that she once had
Since she was just a little girl
Send her cards and flowers
Don’t step on the crack
When you’re whistling past the graveyard and
The graveyard whistles back.

Those third and fourth lines are killers. Moments like this will send you back to the companion CD (or digital download) to re-experience the songs anew.

My takeaways

One of the main impressions I came away with from Alphabet Jazz is a sense that this book has so much heart. For every epic retelling of a late-night escapade with too much Southern Comfort, or the celebration of a musical event miraculously pulled off, there is the heartrending death of a friend.
There’s also a sense of working-class pride, patriotism and love of family that doesn’t at all resemble the simplistic renditions of those sentiments that pass as platitudes from the lips of the willfully ignorant today.

Metsa is one of the last dreamers of the old DFL. From one Iron Ranger to another, I’d call him the Tom Rukavina of Minnesota artists. He knows everyone, and if he doesn’t know them, he knows someone who does. And, sure, it’s part political schmoozing and career hustling, but it’s also caring, it’s a recognition of the interconnectedness of us all, the whole great dysfunctional family of saints, ne’er-do-wells and everyone in between.

He came of age in a moment, as he beautifully describes in an essay on Dave Morton, when he could see and appreciate both the hippies and The Greatest Generation:

“I was a little too young to be a hippie, but was inspired by that movement, as well as the hard work American way – do the right thing, work your ass off, and achieve the American Dream like my father. I look back at both versions of the American Experience. They’ve both informed me. [….] I look back at both dad’s and Dave’s generations, at once at loggerheads, and wonder which generation won.

They made their mistakes, as I have mine. But at the end of this American day, I look at both of their generations as breaking stone cold even. Both journeys and paths worked. And that, my friends, is the beauty of America.”

And as moving as Metsa’s tributes to his fellow musicians are, it’s when he writes of his family in “Last Thanksgiving With Dad” and “Blackie and Paul – A Dog and His Man” that he wrings a well-won tear from any heartful reader. Most of us can only hope that, in our hour of need, we experience a fraction of the tenderness Metsa chronicles here. Excerpting it would dim its impact, so just read it. You won’t be sorry.

I wrote earlier of how Metsa’s lyrics on the page have the power to surprise. I don’t know, maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s the time of year, a time when out-siders of all stripes long for communion, but these lines from “Christmas at Molly’s” leveled me when I reread them:

“Sometimes you get lost just so you can be found
and return the kindness of strangers.”

That’s Paul Metsa: welding together the wisdom of William Blake and the deep sentiment of Frank Capra. It could be his epitaph, but I pray it won’t be. I enjoy his work too much.

Read this book, damnit. And read Blue Guitar Highway while you’re at it.

Jason Scorich is a Duluth-based writer, researcher and actor.