by Harold Whit Williams

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The poems of Backmasking uncover secret messages of rock and roll in relation to religion, mostly in a loose sonnet form reminiscent of David Wojahn's classic, Mystery Train. Set mainly in the Muscle Shoals area of Alabama, these narrative poems, spun in reverse, detail a young man's ascent into the glittery world of guitar heroes, all the while singing out the day-to-day absurdities of the sacred and the profane.

Fame Studio Session

             Muscle Shoals, Alabama 1989

Its history in rock and roll was lost on me
The night that we snuck in. My buddy Jon
Had called a friend who'd let us tape for free.
The evening band had paid, was packed and gone
When we arrived with drums, guitars and Tom—
His blank cassettes would dub our only tune.
I can't recall who played the bass, or hum
The hooks and riffs we tracked. So, pretty soon
We called it quits, our demo done. I'd love
To say we felt Aretha's vibe, or heard
That Wilson Pickett preacher-scream above
Our own pathetic din. But clever words
And chords are not enough. Beside our cars
We lingered in the lot and spoke of stars.        

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781937875770
Publisher: Texas Review Press
Publication date: 03/15/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 48
File size: 663 KB

About the Author

HAROLD WHIT WILLIAMS, who lives in Austin, Texas, is guitarist for the critically acclaimed rock band Cotton Mather, whose album Kontiki has been rated at number 26 of the Top 200 Power Pop Albums of all time. Williams’ poems have appeared in Natural Bridge, Chattahoochee Review, Oxford American, Cold Mountain Review, Carolina Quarterly, Tulane Review.

Read an Excerpt


By Harold Whit Williams

Texas Review Press

Copyright © 2014 Harold Whit Williams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-937875-77-0


    Call to Prayer

    O heavenly make-believe father, hear thy doves
    Cooing on this ninety-degree winter day. See thy
    Early buds flash pink and purple for all those bees
    You did not create. Forgive me, thy doubting son,
    For this afternoon, as I almost spied your shadow
    Shadowing mine down a sunstricken sidestreet
    Behind that church I always pass, but someday
    Might enter. We all tell ourselves the craziest things.
    Like—forgive and forget, do unto others, love
    The one you're with, in-a-gadda-da-vida. And
    Just between the two of us, I'm not so sure
    You're even up there at all, nosy-neighboring,
    Peeking out behind silver cloud-curtains,
    Taking down tag numbers and calling the cops.
    But in case you are, thanks for the aroma of coffee,
    The slow striptease of sunset, for thunderstorms—
    So reassuring from a distance. Thanks for the way
    Women cross and uncross their legs, the way
    Live oak branches dip and sway in balmy breezes,
    Their greenfingers turning tiny pages of twilight,
    The way we dream you, then forget upon awakening.

    Tracking the New Record

    Hays County, Texas 2012

    Old J can fall asleep at will. He nods
    And droops as R begins to fuss with loony
    Machines and patching cords. We bow our heads
    When D intones a prayer to Bonham, Moonie,
    The like. I'm feeling peckish, dizzy, feeble.
    A cactus wren beyond the window flits
    And calls. I stomp my octave fuzz to tweedle
    Replies. A thunderclap, then intro beats
    To count the jangle in. As R recalls
    A joke into the microphone, he tunes,
    Then turns to hit record. The chiming bells
    Of Telecasters; blustery bass and drums.
    My godamighty! That'll cause a stir—
    Says R. I yawn and long to cut my hair.

    Liam Gallagher, Uninterpreted, Backstage

    Bataclan, Paris, France 2000

    Beside this millionaire, I stammer, cough
    And tell him I'm a fan. We spy a crowd
    Below who've Channel-hopped; these thugs with rough
    And tumble voices croaking English-proud
    Huzzahs and soccer chants. Someone is waving
    The Union Jack as Liam laughs and mutters
    Mancunian questions, alleyway threats. Swigging
    His pint, he waits for me to speak. I offer
    A shrug and mumble something Darwin wrote
    About the origin of species. Liam
    Adjusts his nuts and belches—fookin' great!
    The chanting volume swells. I think of home,
    Cicada droning summer heat. His grunts
    Give words I catch, like—Learjet, London, cunt.

    Road Show in Outer Banks

    Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina 1999

    That sunburnt fellow in a darkened corner yells
    Inside our setlist pauses—Tear it up!
    We shrug it off like pros. The drummer rolls
    His ride as I let my Gibson squeal, and pop
    Those strings too old to change. The singer calls
    An audible—we shift to a softer sound—
    A ballad, tenderhearted, slow. The balls
    It takes to do this go unnoticed. Sand
    From dunes beyond the door blow in to grit
    Our frets and teeth. That corner hick repeats—
    Now, tear it up! He's drunk or full of shit
    Or both. I turn my amp up full as seats
    Begin to clear. And later at the van
    We hear a voice—Y'all tore it up, man!

    New Year's Eve Christian Rock Show

    Limestone County, Alabama 1989

    The three of us ascend onto the stage
    To mild applause. Good evening, we're The Chord—
    Cries Jon. I plug my Peavey in. It's beige
    And black and hums like locusts. Darryl's head
    Bobs up and down, his bass kerthunks, his smile
    As wide as the Sea of Galilee. I plink
    Delayed arpeggios as Jon reveals
    His love of Christ through song. I blush and think
    This crowd can sense my disbelieving mind.
    We tag an end, then Darryl speaks of God
    And laughs and rubs his bouncing belly. My friends
    Are sitting back row, suppressing smirks. I've had
    About enough of this—I wheeze, but stoop
    To tune, then jangle what I hope is hip.

    Fame Studio Session

    Muscle Shoals, Alabama 1989

    Its history in rock and roll was lost on me
    The night that we snuck in. My buddy Jon
    Had called a friend who'd let us tape for free.
    The evening band had paid, was packed and gone
    When we arrived with drums, guitars and Tom—
    His blank cassettes would dub our only tune.
    I can't recall who played the bass, or hum
    The hooks and riffs we tracked. So, pretty soon
    We called it quits, our demo done. I'd love
    To say we felt Aretha's vibe, or heard
    That Wilson Pickett preacher-scream above
    Our own pathetic din. But clever words
    And chords are not enough. Beside our cars
    We lingered in the lot and spoke of stars.

    Performing "When a Man Loves a
    Woman" with Percy Sledge's Son, Flip

    Tuscumbia, Alabama 1989

    I barely know the song. My fingers feel
    Like fuzzy okra pods as Jon asserts
    His snare into the bridge. Then Flip reveals
    His family genes and belts aloud those notes.
    His daddy would be proud, or maybe not,
    What with the moldy carpet, busted speakers,
    The hangers-on of friends and girls, a lot
    Of empty bottles, two musician crackers
    That want to play a groove they'll never have.
    As Jon and Flipper take a break, I sit
    Beside my future wife to chat and give
    My plans away. She dons a funny hat
    And giggles when my amplifier dies.
    I hope to never sing those soulful lies.

    Last Day in the ICU

    Birmingham, Alabama 1987

    His scrawny fingers twitch the TV remote
    And switch the channels— weather, soaps, The Price
    Is Right. I stand beside his bed and note
    The tubes that worm from nostrils, wrists. His face
    Is paler, drawn into itself. Barker
    Announces prizes— trips to Acapulco,
    A new sedan—his skin has turned to leather
    Yet is shiny, vibrant. My friend speaks of the snow
    That trapped me at his house. We stayed up late
    With Motley Crue and Pong. It sounds as if
    His tongue is thick and dry from meds. I hate
    To think of leaving, so I stay and laugh
    Recalling silly pics we drew in Art.
    If there's a wreck—he says, I get the heart.

    To Someone Else's God

    First, the Big Bang, now all this.
    And between those stars sparkling
    To explode and all those cells mutating
    And splitting and dying, I can't seem to
    Get any work done around here.
    Those green mountains we hiked
    Years ago now sit tiny and faded inside
    Our desert motel room's painting.
    The bed is shaking though no quarters
    Have been inserted ... or is that just me?
    Someone might get hurt—you say—
    Looking out the filthy window,
    Across creosote-dotted flatlands.
    Way too late for that—I reply—
    Gazing at the television. Its weather
    Radar channel loops biblical rains
    That lash about the hinterlands, ponding
    Upon my little league baseball field,
    Filling buckets by the old tool shed,
    The one leaning towards our childhood
    Pet cemetery—Beau, Sugarfoot, Ajax.

    Villanelle For Bloodbait

    The stench rises to our sunburnt noses
    As daddy shouts out—my lord, that's loud—
    And once opened, the jar never closes.

    We slop it on hooks as granddaddy dozes
    Then wakes to say—them catfish ain't proud.
    The stench rises to our sunburnt noses

    To blot out odor from those knockout roses
    Blooming near the pond in a thorny crowd.
    And once opened, the jar never closes—

    A Pandora's box of stink; what decomposes
    To make this mess we all wonder aloud.
    The stench rises to our sunburnt noses

    To hang in the air as my cane-pole imposes
    Its weight on my thin boy-arms unendowed.
    And once opened, the jar never closes.

    A gullywasher'd be nice—daddy supposes
    To a white sky with no prayer of a cloud.
    The stench rises to our sunburnt noses
    And once opened, the jar never closes.

    My First Rally

    I'd like to say it was for peace
    Or raising workers' wages,
    Or that the next-door neighbors' boy
    Coerced me into going
    Instead of staying home to play
    With army men and Legos.
    But there I walked, quite willingly,
    Beside him among the pines.
    I'd like to think that all those faces
    Made a multiethnic rainbow,
    And not the storm of sunburnt scowls
    Twisted in a sweaty rage.
    We pushed up front to see, then waved
    For panning TV cameras.
    A red-robed man dripped through the mass
    Of white sheets and hoods
    Like a drop of blood from an open wound.
    He stooped to take a torch
    Then set fire to a plywood cross.
    The crowd cheered, and I recalled
    A National Geographic saying
    Jesus was African, ebony-skinned,
    Wiry-haired. I pictured Him
    Up there, roasting and shrieking.
    The red-robed man spoke. His voice,
    Raspy, punctuated by applause,
    Boomed from the stage's loudspeakers
    Like an old world truth. We left
    Before the crowd broke up, before
    The cross flamed out. And later,
    At home, daddy paddled me hard.
    Each whack upon my backside
    He said, was for all I'd seen and heard.
    He even gave a few extra licks
    For things burned in his memory
    That he'd long tried to forget.

    Playing along with "Are You Experienced," Backwards
    Guitar Solo

    Colbert County, Alabama 1987

    Just months before he passes, buddy Robbie
    Presents to me some Hendrix albums—Band
    Of Gypsys, others. Bless his sweet and tiny
    Deformed heart—my momma says. The end
    Guitar—If 6 Was 9, from Axis: Bold
    As Love
, reverberates inside my room,
    My ear canals. And then his debut record
    Distorts my Chinese speakers. Outside our home
    It's either day or night; it's hot or cold.
    This sound is prehistoric, avian. Birds
    Of old that died in pits of tar cried
    Like this. I fret and follow, moan the words
    And noodle out of tune. Then daddy knocks
    For dinnertime. Someday I'll get these licks.

    Three Dog Night Keyboardist Gives
    Anti-Drug Speech at Deshler High School

    Tuscumbia, Alabama 1986

    I didn't catch his name. He strolls the stage
    To talk of grass and uppers, acid, 'ludes
    And scoring naughty groupies, small and large.
    We vaguely know his songs. Our parents, prudes
    Or otherwise, will sing along with them
    In showers, cars. I'm sitting next to Hugh,
    My mullet friend who rocks the very same
    Guitar, a Flying V, from Motley Crue
    And Leppard vids. This man, he drones his drone
    Then slips and falls from stage. Into the pit
    He's gone as Hugh asides—wow, what a con!
    That dude is clearly tripping! Drunk as shit
    And preaching crap to us. Our whispered hum
    Declares him good and dead before his time.

    Backmasking Presentation,United Methodist Church Group

    Tuscumbia, Alabama 1985

    The basement reeks of tater tots. Our guts
    Are gurgling after Sunday dinner. Preacher
    Recalls the rock and roll and sinful glut
    Of youth—the Jethro Tull and Alice Cooper
    And Molly Hatchet shows; the grass and wine.
    He lays an album on the stereo's table
    And speaks of overdoses, doing lines
    Of coke and dust and smack. He drops the needle
    But spins the album in reverse. The sounds
    I dig are cymbals, fuzz guitar and bells
    That swell and moan like magick underground.
    This singer—preacher yells—is seeking hell
    And wants to place your soul in Satan's hands!
    I knew that night I'd have to join a band.

    Still Life with Methodist Youth Retreat and Tropical Depression

    Gulf Shores, Alabama 1984

    The Gulf is choppy meeting Mobile Bay
    And stippled with our bodies, pasty white
    And fattened up. We're tiger shark entrees!
    We're victims of the jellyfish! We fight
    As men for looks at sweet and pretty Alice.
    Her body's changed; her breasts came in this summer
    And seem to be more interesting than Jesus
    Or anything else that preacher says. A bummer
    Is the sermon after dinner. How could God
    Have made so many big mistakes, I wonder—
    Our science teacher's cancer in the head,
    Our neighbors taken in that crash. And thunder
    Is not an answer, but a question. The boy
    Beside my bed lets farts and laughs for joy.

    First Electric Guitar, Sears & Roebuck Special

    Florence, Alabama 1983

    My sister's steady rocks his Boston vinyl
    To air-guitar the power chords. His flat
    Is cramped with crates of records, amps. Aw, you'll
    Be sure to dig this one—he says—my Strat
    I sold the other day. The action's high;
    The color's green like momma's kitchen counter.
    I pick it up as sister rolls her eyes
    And checks her watch. We need to leave at quarter
    Of ten to get you home—she snaps. He plugs
    It in a Peavey set to fuzz. It growls
    And barks like Jack, our neighbor's mongrel. Gigs
    Won't come along for years, much less the halls
    And clubs. Applause erupts outside the door—
    I'm nailing Twenty-Five Or Six To Four.

    A Valdosta Family Tragedy

    Colbert County, Alabama 1982

    My neighbor up the street shows me some licks
    A year before I get my first guitar
    And in his room he plays along with Styx,
    Van Halen, Jimmy Buffet and The Cars.
    His sister also cranks this music loud
    On mornings off to school, her kids all smiles.
    They never hear the train and so it ploughs
    Into their Ford and spreads them half a mile.
    The city folks get out to clear the tracks
    As meadowlarks sit piping in the fields.
    Her parents weep and pray and dress in black
    To bury them up high on Baptist Hill.
    That Jesus picture sitting on their shelf
    Reminds me—prayer's just talking to yourself.


Excerpted from Backmasking by Harold Whit Williams. Copyright © 2014 Harold Whit Williams. Excerpted by permission of Texas Review Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Call to Prayer,
Tracking the New Record,
Liam Gallagher, Uninterpreted, Backstage,
Road Show in Outer Banks,
New Year's Eve Christian Rock Show,
Fame Studio Session,
Performing "When a Man Loves a Woman" with Percy Sledge's Son, Flip,
Last Day in the ICU,
To Someone Else's God,
Villanelle For Bloodbait,
My First Rally,
Playing along with "Are You Experienced," Backwards Guitar Solo,
Three Dog Night Keyboardist Gives Anti-Drug Speech at Deshler High School,
Backmasking Presentation, United Methodist Church Group,
Still Life with Methodist Youth Retreat and Tropical Depression,
First Electric Guitar, Sears & Roebuck Special,
A Valdosta Family Tragedy,
Discovering an Issue of Playboy In Tom's Attic,
Tent Revival on Hawk Pride Mountain,
To Dean Young's New Heart, Which I Can Hear Beating On The Eastside,
Pantoum from Wilson Pickett Interview,
April in Paris,
A Valdosta Pastoral,
A Valdosta Girlfriend,
Purchasing a First Album, Charlie Daniels Band, Saddle Tramp, Pegasus Records,
Oldtime Fiddler's Convention,
Watching a Saturday Matinee with Daddy and Granddaddy, John Wayne in Big Jake,
Billy Sherrill Borrows Granddaddy's Martin Acoustic,
Crazed Man Changes Weather,
A Few Lines Composed on Lunch Break,
Do this in Remembrance of Me,
Are You Washed In The Blood?,
The Happy Hitters Sing Songs of Praise at the Pisgah Baptist Church,
Old Union Baptist Church,
Mapmaking: The Early Years,
A Medium-Sized Theology,

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