Poet, Knows It

Spoken-word artist Beth Lisick found her calling in live poetry. With her jazz combo the Beth Lisick Ordeal, she found an audience.

Beth Lisick was an aimless storyteller until she encountered one of the Chameleon's infamous Monday-night poetry jams. "It was like a whack-ass circus," she recalls, "a crazy free-for-all where you could meet your pals, drink beer, read something for three minutes, and heckle people. It was so out of control that it wasn't intimidating; the writing didn't have to be perfect."

Up until that moment, Lisick's literary ambitions had been frustrated. She couldn't see the point in peddling manuscripts to literary magazines or highbrow journals, but she definitely had some things on her mind that needed to be said. So after the reading, she raced home and banged out "Skinny," a relentless rant on suburban tragedy -- a subject that's now a Beth Lisick hallmark -- about a "frosty hairdo-ed, glossy-lipped, mini-skirted, execu-tanned mall baby" who turns out to be an "insecure anorexic manipulator." When the fledgling performance writer grabbed her 180-second spotlight the following week, the drunks in the crowd howled in delight. She had found her forum.

Lisick spent the next couple of years making a name for herself at open mikes around town, then landed a second-stage slot on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour. She also took part in the '95 and '96 national poetry-slam competitions, but by then Lisick had begun to weary of spoken word's insular world. "Having been a veteran of the poetry scene in San Francisco and traveling around the country doing this, I was so tired of just reading my stories to other poets and other writers," she says. "It was great at first. That's totally how I got started writing. But after a while I just thought, 'The same 20 people at the Paradise Lounge on Sunday night ....' "

Ironically, writer Jennifer Joseph, who for more than a decade has run both the reading series at the Paradise and independent publishing house Manic D Press, revived Lisick's momentum by offering to print her work on the page. "Beth seemed to be very committed from the start," says Joseph. "She evolved really quickly, and the more she did, the more she got comfortable in her identity as a performance poet. ... And I think she's as good as any writer that's ever lived." (Lisick's essential debut collection of prose-poems, Monkey Girl, was issued in 1997 and is currently in its second print-run.)

Roughly around the same time, the Fillmore suggested that Lisick hook up with some musicians for a gig in the upstairs poster room. Having previously performed with a few Bay Area improvisers, she was psyched about getting a band together. She called her friend David Cooper, vibraphonist in Eskimo, one of the East Bay's longest-running out-rock groups. After two rehearsals they played the show. Today, Cooper remembers the event as "cliched, background, noodly, loungey, beatnik jazz." He recalls, "When it quickly became apparent that we were going to have to form a real band and write real songs if we were going to pull it off, there were all kinds of discussions, including me trying to discourage Beth from forming a band at all."

Cooper thought Lisick should go the traditional route and record a CD with a lot of hot guest artists to back her up. But she didn't want to be the holy poet-princess on a pedestal; she wanted to be part of a combo. And so the pair enlisted drummer Andrew Borger, who was then a "junior Eskimo" member, and bassist Vytas Nagisetty, who had been playing for years with Borger in the free-roaming jazz trio Fatty Boom Boom. As the newly christened Beth Lisick Ordeal, the group began by playing a few decent but barely rehearsed concerts. Then Nagisetty left for New York. "That was the discrete moment," remembers Borger, "when we said, 'Are we gonna fish or are we gonna cut bait?' And we all agreed that we should try to make it good, try to rehearse, and write some material." That was also when they called George Cremaschi, one of the improv scene's premier acoustic bassists, and the real band finally came together.

Today, on the eve of the Beth Lisick Ordeal's debut CD release, Pass, on local label Du Nord Recording, the foursome looks back on the overwhelming hometown props they've earned at all of the city's hippest venues, including the Warfield, the Fillmore, Great American Music Hall, and a second-stage slot at last year's Lilith Fair -- and hopes for more of the same when the album hits nationally. But with little precedent for their concept, the road to success in the Bay Area was not without its potholes (and sold-out arenas are not likely in the immediate future).

Unlike performances by spoken-word stars of the mid-'90s like Maggie Estep or Meryn Cadell, on whose albums the music was subordinate to the stories, the Beth Lisick Ordeal has always intertwined narrative and soundtrack as equal parts of a single entity. And unlike most pop bands, the group's lead "vocalist" rarely sings. Instead, she orates with rapid-fire eloquence, wrapping her wryly comic tales of gritty life in the scene-making city -- and wide-smiling denial in the neatly trimmed suburbs -- around Cooper, Borger, and Cremaschi's one-of-a-kind moodscapes. The addictive grooves, haunting melodies, and riveting instrumental interludes are rewarding in their own right: They not only heighten Lisick's dramatic phrasing, but also function as fully fleshed pieces of music, which defy pop, rock, or jazz pigeonholes.

Of course, this frightens less adventurous clubgoers. "When we first started doing the music thing," says Lisick, "inevitably there'd be people who would walk out as soon as they just heard me talk instead of sing. But I got turned on by the fact that people who would never go to a poetry reading -- ever -- were hearing it and saying, 'Ahhh ... I went to this poetry thing one night and didn't like it but this was great.' And that, for me, was great -- to realize that the audience is potentially bigger than the 25 people at the readings."

For Lisick's bandmates, sharing the stage with such a smart, charismatic frontperson is ideal. "She's got an incredible stage presence and dynamic delivery that would steal the show no matter what we played behind her," explains Cooper. "So that frees us up tremendously to compose whatever the hell we want." Cremaschi, who worked with spoken-word artists in New York's Rebel Poets for years, welcomes the way "she delivers [her words] more like a musician and not like a writer who feels like the writing is so precious that the music is only there to serve the writing."

While much of Lisick's material involves caustic, wisecracking character portraits lifted from her personal experiences and observations -- the bungee-jumping, SUV-cruising yuppie in "Weekend Warrior," the Mission vagrants in "Hit and Run," the spoiled coeds in "Devil's Vacation" -- she doesn't look down on these folks. Even though she pokes fun at what Cooper calls "the highly dubious moral decisions" of some of these individ-uals, she ultimately empathizes with them by "presenting [these situations] in a way where she's clearly advocating some redemption or some way of getting over it," which is a far cry from the arch cynicism of spoken-word celebs Lydia Lunch or Henry Rollins.

Cremaschi underscores the point: "I don't ever feel in these pieces that it's a satisfaction with people being fucked up." In fact, the pieces are more like a frank heart-to-heart between the writer and the band and you and me and the drunk in the corner -- the admission that we've all lain in the gutter at some time or other, and may as well push through the next "crackle of static," as Lisick puts it in "Bag of Bones." Which is precisely how this whole thing started.

The Beth Lisick Ordeal performs for free on Friday, Jan. 22, at 6 p.m. at Amoeba Music, 1855 Haight, S.F., call 831-1200; with the Double U on Saturday, Jan. 23, at 10 p.m. at Cafe Du Nord, 2170 Market ($5 admission), S.F., call 861-5016; and with Toychestra and special-guest trombonist Tom Yoder on Sunday, Jan. 24, at 8:30 p.m. at the Make-Out Room, 3225 22nd St. ($5 admission), S.F., call 647-2888.

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