April 2023: Carl Phillips’s “Blurry Finally in Too Soon Each of Us” & Judas Priest’s “One for the Road”

This month I want to discuss a poem by Carl Phillips—a poet whose work is still relatively new to me. I’ve known about Phillips since I was a grad student at the University of Houston. In February of 2020, I saw him give a reading in Houston at the Menil, and it was a really good reading. The poems he read were from Pale Colors in a Tall Field. It was the first book of his I read; I also reviewed it. The poem I’m going to discuss is from his newest collection Then the War, which is a new book of poems that also includes a selected poems. It’s a book I highly recommend for those who want to get into Phillips’s work and those who want to see what he’s been doing on a deeper poetic level for the last fifteen years. The book is still fresh in my mind; I recently reviewed it and I found all the poems to be incredibly deep and insightful. Carl Phillips is a meditative poet; I think that’s what I like the most about him, but he’s also good at fusing the primal self with the introspective self, and that’s what attracts me the most to his poetry. The poem I’ll be discussing appears later in the collection and it’s called “Blurry Finally in Too Soon Each of Us.” It’s a short poem and here it is in its entirety:

A water-meadow is not a flood-meadow.

A working meadow’s not a fallow field.

Heartbreak like a bloodhound better off abandoned because untamable.

There’s a slant of light I used to call Self-Portrait as a Lion, Bringing Down a Stag.

Phillips is one of those poets who’s really good at writing the short poem, which is not something that’s easy to do. To me, he feels like Robert Bly and James Wright in that sense; he’s able to create a scene, include powerful images, and leave the scene without further comment. In this poem, we have a couple of clear images: the meadow, a bloodhound, a lion, and a stag. In the first two lines, the speaker is making a clear distinction between what is natural and what is manmade. Historically, a water-meadow was allowed to flood for agricultural purposes. A flood-meadow is brought about by seasonal flooding—it’s created by nature. However, the speaker takes this distinction further in the second line by noting that “A working meadow’s not a fallow field.” This reads to me as a statement about economics: preindustrial versus industrial. A fallow field feels more like large-scale farming whereas the working meadow has more of a pastoral vibe to it; growing what one needs to survive and stay nourished. Then, the poem takes an interesting turn: “Heartbreak like a bloodhound better off abandoned because untamable.” The line does contribute to the previous lines; a bloodhound is an older breed of dog that was bred specifically for hunting. In this line, the bloodhound is left to its own devices because it is an untamable animal—even though it was already bred to perform a specific function: to hunt. So, there’s that tension between what is human-engineered and what can’t be controlled (animal nature). There’s also a lot of tension in this line that comes from the first word: “Heartbreak.” The line is actually a metaphor rather than a statement, which helps the poem shift emotionally and aesthetically, letting readers know the poem is about to become personal.

However, the last line of the poem is where most of the poetic weight is distributed because it includes an “I” and a “Self-Portrait.” It also includes “a slant of light” which is a less clear image, but still purposeful. The “slant of light” is what the speaker sees: “There’s a slant of light I used to call….” This implies the speaker spent a fair amount of time staring at that light, more than likely in contemplation. “Lion, Bringing Down a Stag” is the name of the self-portrait. This is how the speaker sees himself—as a beast taking down another beast. He sees himself as a conqueror and/or a dominant masculine creature. The poem ends in a very primal and violent way. Aside from the primal element, there is also a slight sexual undertone in the self-portrait that helps create movement within the poem. Previously, we only had still scenes: meadows, a field, and an untamable bloodhound. Now, we have what could be described as a violent image of one beast destroying another beast, but the image shifts to become a scene where one beast sexually dominates another beast. “Bringing Down” can lend itself to multiple meanings—literal destruction or sexual dominance.

This poem, although still and quiet and contemplative, escalates fairly quickly, and enters into the primal/sexual realm. This is what I like about Carl Phillips’s work. He does this in a good portion of his poems. He’s meditative and sexual; he’s contemplative and primal. He explores both territories with poetic power. This is not an easy feat to accomplish and this is also why I’ve come to regard him as an important poet. It’s not too difficult to stimulate contemplative epiphany within the reader in short poems, it’s what makes short poems worth reading. The payoff is always quick and enlightening. But here, with Phillips, he stimulates epiphany and arousal—in four lines. That’s masterful to me. So, once the poem ends, it’s less about what the poem means and more about what the poem evokes. And yet, there is meaning—it’s about how nature and civilization function and the tension that exists between them, but it’s also about the speaker grappling with his own bloodthirsty, sexual nature. And that particular poetic narrative thread isn’t available to us until the last line. As readers, we’ve been set up for contemplation, but leave the poem surprised by eroticism. I love it.

The song I want to discuss this month is by Judas Priest—an incredibly important band in the metal genre. In fact, they’re more than an important band. They’re a foundational band. I can say with full confidence that heavy metal wouldn’t exist without two bands: Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. I’ve always known about Judas Priest. Growing up in a household where heavy music was listened to, it was a band that I just knew about. But, in recent years, I’ve listened to them much more closely than I used to. I may have taken them for granted a bit when I was younger as a heavy band that just kicks ass—and they do. But, they were incredibly instrumental in how they shaped the metal genre. They influenced all the powerhouse metal bands—Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, Pantera—who went on to influence the metal bands that came after them. The song I’m going to discuss, though, might seem like an odd choice, but I have my reasons. I want to discuss “One for the Road” which is the first song off of their first album Rocka Rolla (1974). This is the beginning of Judas Priest. After doing a little light research, I found out that the album was produced by Rodger Bain, who produced Black Sabbath’s first three albums. So, it’s no surprise why Judas Priest, aside from their musical and lyrical sensibilities, are co-creators of the genre. They shared a producer with Black Sabbath. The reason I want to discuss this song in particular is because it shows the bluesier side of the band. “One for the Road” is a bluesy song, but it’s what I would classify more specifically as a heavy metal blues song. It’s more laid-back and mellow than other Judas Priest songs, but it’s still very powerful. It was written by Rob Halford and K.K. Downing and the song has three main elements to it that really stand out: intense, heavy bluesy guitars, Rob Halford’s singing style, and a seventies groove.

The song opens with an amazing killer repeating blues riff that sounds like it was recorded raw. What I also found out about Rocka Rolla is that the band recorded it live. This is what makes the song stand out, recording wise. Another element of the riff is that it isn’t just blues-sounding. It’s a metal-sounding blues riff. This is incredibly significant because there wasn’t really such a thing at the time. Except for Black Sabbath and a few other heavier bands like Deep Purple, there was no “metal sound.” Judas Priest literally created it and this song is a perfect example of the germination of that metal sound. As the riff repeats, the drums start to come in, and then another guitar and bass are added and the song takes off with a strong, cool groove. It’s all guitars and it’s brilliant. The guitars are heavy and clean and the rhythm is what I would classify retroactively as “seventies-style groove.” If you listen to the song, you’ll see what I mean. Another element to the song is Rob Halford’s singing, which begins after the riff and main rhythm of the song is established. Halford has a higher range to his singing, and as I’ve thought more about this, it’s for a good reason. The music is so heavy, it has to be cut with a higher vocal tone. But, this vocal element is what ends up defining metal: higher pitched singing against heavy guitars. I struggle to think of any other bands before Judas Priest that had a vocalist like Rob Halford (Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith come close). So, his singing is incredibly unique, even for the mid-seventies. The song structure is very simple: three verses with a chorus placed in between each verse. I want to show the verses all together, though. Here they are:

Where would you be without music?
You would be nowhere at all
We wouldn’t be here doing this now
If you weren’t having a ball

Can you imagine the silence?
Not even the pink or white noise
Well, thankfully we’ve got the license
To have us some fun with the boys

The melody line’s fascinating
The rhythm is something divine
It sends our adrenaline racing
To see you all moving so fine

What I like about looking at these three verses together is how they create an updated ballad feel. Each stanza is a quatrain that employs a basic rhyme scheme, but the subject isn’t romance per se, but rather, a love for music. Lyrically, this song is impressive in how closely it resembles an actual poem. However, what sets it over the top is Halford’s singing. He sings along with the groove, so that his voice echoes it, exaggerates it, and reinforces it. His vocals create another layer of texture to the song. And in his singing, listeners can see the beginnings of his vocal style. Because this song is still very bluesy, he’s not singing as aggressively. His voice is mellow; it’s going more with the flow rather than leading the song. Once Halford becomes more established as a vocalist, he does become more of a lyrical leader in the songs. But here, his voice coexists with the rhythm of the music.

The song only changes slightly when the chorus is sung, but it still maintains its blues-riff character. Here is the chorus: “One for the road / Sharing our load / Show us the way.” This is a very simple and memorable chorus and it helps give the song a melodic hook along with the heavy blues sound. Sidenote: the lyrical content of the song reminds me of Motörhead’s “We Are (The Road Crew)” (Ace of Spades, 1980) which honors the life of the roadie. I bring that up because Motörhead was also very influential in the metal genre and I can see how they were also influenced by Judas Priest musically and lyrically. Another reason I bring it up is because both songs are about living a life dedicated to music. Judas Priest was starting off their first album with this song, which expresses not only their love for music, but their right to bring music to those who love it as well. “Well, thankfully we’ve got the license / To have us some fun with the boys” suggests that they are qualified to bring rock and roll enjoyment to their crowd: “the boys.” “We Are (The Road Crew)” has a similar lyrical vibe. Music couldn’t be played without the road crew and the road crew is a dedicated group of men who help bring music to the crowds that love it. Another notable element of the song is the guitar solo. It’s a bluesy solo and it stays in character with the song. It’s a solo that almost camouflages itself; it’s part of the landscape, but it doesn’t come bursting into the foreground like most solos. It’s a melodic flourish that creates more texture. At the time, aside from Tony Iommi, there wasn’t such a thing as metal soloists, so the guitar work in this song relies on the blues groove even though it’s got a heavier sound. This is what makes it metal; its heavy tone. The song ends with the chorus and a minute of heavy blues grooving, seventies style—which also gives it that stoner vibe, something that existed musically in full force already, but not from a heavier tone. Black Sabbath was the only other band who had that heavy sound that appealed to weed smokers who wanted something more intense to listen to. Judas Priest became the next band to offer those kinds of listeners a heavier style of music to get stoned to. And “One for the Road” fits that bill perfectly.

When I first decided to talk about Carl Phillips and Judas Priest side by side, I knew it made sense for one reason: queerness. Carl Phillips is a queer poet; Rob Halford is a queer vocalist. However, when Halford was singing for Judas Priest in the seventies and eighties, he wasn’t out. He didn’t officially come out until 1998. But, it’s how I’ve always listened to Judas Priest, with the understanding that Rob Halford is gay. I’m a younger fan, and most of my time listening to Judas Priest has been through the lens of Halford’s queerness. I think it’s safe to say that the queer perspective can be retroactively applied to Judas Priest. Through my research, I found out that the reason Rob Halford didn’t come out until much later was because he didn’t feel safe to do so and when he finally did come out, he was concerned about losing his fanbase. So, I’d ask readers and listeners to take a look at Judas Priest with that perspective in mind: Halford as a queer vocalist creating the metal genre in the seventies. From what I know about Carl Phillips, he didn’t realize he was gay until he was a little older; he’d even been married to a woman. So, both the poet and the lyricist are good to examine as creative individuals who embraced their sexualities when they were older. I think that adds more power and complexity to their work. That being said, I wouldn’t only view the poet and the band from that perspective. Judas Priest is a primal band. Even though I’m exploring their bluesy beginnings in this essay, they did become more aggressive, grittier, and rawer. They became heavy metal. I consider Carl Phillips to be an innovative poet. He’s in touch with his primal nature and he fuses that element of his psyche along with his introspective/meditative side. He has shifted the poetry genre as a whole by bringing in eroticism and desire, especially into a specific area  of poetry (meditative poetry) that has a tendency to feel a bit ascetic. Carl Phillips and Judas Priest are excellent to read for those who want to see how queerness is expressed through poetry and music, but they are also essential to read for those who want to learn more about how to express primal nature/desire in poetic and musical art forms.

April 3, 2023