Fer Elsie

One Friday Ludwig got a call
From his niece Elsie, down the hall.
She said, "I'd like to throw a bash
For all my friends, but I've no cash.
So if you'd kindly make a trip;
Pick up some chips and onion dip;
A fifth of schnapps, or maybe two;
A keg of beer, and that will do."
"Alas", he said, "despite my fame
I've not one pfenning to my name."
And Elsie said, "that's not so hard,
Just put it on your Maestrocard".

Poor Ludwig roamed the streets of Bonn,
But found that he was overdrawn.
He could not buy a single pint
Although he tried his best all night.
On his way home, to keep the peace
And to appease his thirsty niece
He wrote this tune, just "Fur Elise".

I play music with a group that includes a dulcimer player who has spent many years playing and teaching classical piano. And of course she's heard "Fur Elise" played, to put it kindly, "differently." Since Beethoven isn't around to defend himself, I wrote this bit so we could have some fun with the music. We play it as a fairly fast and driving piece, sort of like "classical bluegrass." Sometimes we start it with the first eight or so measures of the 5th; then we can call it "A Fifth Fer Elsie."

     Machine Dreams

Attractors rise, of chaos born
Deep in the foaming, fractal spiral;
Uncertainty prevails and time's great wheel
Lies shattered in the flux and flow.
And where is Yeats' rough beast
If not within the quantum path
Of cool, electron dreams?
The crystal heart knows not despair or joy
But only waits, with patience born of silicon,
Until the time comes 'round again.

Written in 1996, for an art show with the same title that I did at Indiana University.

     Reilly's Cat

Tim Reilly had a tomcat that weighed near thirty pounds,
And sure, it was an awful beast, the terror of the town.
It wouldn't eat a mouse or mole; it wouldn't catch a rat;
But policemen, dogs and children, too were prey for Reilly's cat.

And didn't it have yellow eyes, and teeth as big as that!
At night you could not see it, for 'twas black as satan's hat.
On Sunday at Our Lady, when the people came to pray,
the priest would say a special Mass to keep the cat away.

One Friday after work says Tim, "I think I'll hoist a few;
It's sure me cat would not say 'no' to a pint of stout or two."
He picked the cat up on his way, and so it came to pass;
Says Tim, "We're off to Murphy's pub to lend the place some class."

So down to Patrick Murphy's then did Tim and cat repair.
(I know the full, true story for me uncle Mick was there).
As they came in the barmaid screamed and let her pitcher fall,
"God save us, and it's Reilly's cat; he's come to kill us all."

Now, Murphy was a publican of no mean weight nor size;
His temper was most terrible; he had wicked, bloodshot eyes.
And many's the night at closing time, if a patron asked for more;
Why, Murphy'd seize him by the ears and fling him through the door.

Pat Murphy leaned upon his bar and he grinned his fearsome grin,
"Now, Tim I keeps a decent pub; we'll have no cats within.
For cat hairs in the whiskey and whiskers in the stout
Is not what I'll be having here, so get that bugger out."

Oh, there was silence in the pub as the patrons turned around
To see the cat there on the floor, staring Murphy down.
His claws shot out like razors, boys; he leaped upon the bar;
He flicked his tail in Murphy's face, and peed in the whiskey jar.

Pat Murphy turned as red as flame; his veins were like to burst;
He reached for his shillelagh, but the cat got to him first!
With many a dreadful scream and howl the air was filled with gore;
There was blood upon the ceiling, and guts upon the floor.

And when the dust had settled and 'twas quiet in the place,
Pat Murphy sure could not be found; of him there was no trace.
And the cat just cleaned his whisker as he turned his stool around
and sat there at the bar, boys, lapping porter down.

Tim Reilly stood there by the door, as quiet as could be,
And all throughout the donnybrook no move nor sound made he.
The patrons' eyes were on him as he looked them up and down;
"Me cat's right keen on fighting, lads, but he never buys a round."

Poor Patrick Murphy's pub is gone, 'tis now a grocery store;
But of Tim Reilly and his cat, I'll tell you one thing more.
Tim took a ship to New South Wales (or maybe old New York),
But the cat is with the devil, boys; he helps him wield his fork!

I wrote this around 1990, shortly after meeting the O'Neil brothers, a couple of musical lads with a fondness for the tunes from turn-of-the-century Dublin music halls. I like these too; supposedly James Joyce's novel Finnegan's Wake was inspired by the song of the same title. This was not set to music (feel free) but, with a shot or two of Bushmill's, works fairly well as a "recitation."

     Longtiene, 1969

The first day, I remember
Grey fog and wet, green karst;
With strangers' mail in two red sacks
Standing on a silent ramp.
And later, in a shadowed house
They talked, with fire and scotch
Of women, towns and battles I had never seen.
I flew with them;
And laughed and fought and feared
With men made quickly brothers
By a war we never thought to win
Fools and heros in that place,
But most were simply men
Whose names are gone from me
In smoke and flame,
Like fired rockets.

Written in 1974, not too long after I returned from Laos.

     The Wreck of the Constance Greene

Lew Martin was the captain of the skipjack Constance Greene;
the wildest skipper on the Bay, but the best I'd ever seen.
In bitter winter's weather, when the wind howled 'round the door
He's sail the Constance Green up north, for the rum in Baltimore.

For running rum and whiskey beats dredging any day;
You can keep your crabs and oysters, for the money that they pay.
And if the men in Washington make laws against strong drink,
Why, it's profit to a smuggler and more fools they, I think.

One wild December midnight when the snow was drifting 'round
the wind across Deal Island blew the channel markers down.
Lew Martin said he'd put to sea, and make the run once more,
For he'd sail through hell with devils as crew for the rum in Baltimore.

The crew then cast off bow and stern in the snow and blowing spray;
With frozen hands they hoisted sail, and headed for the Bay.
As they cleared the harbor buoy she began to pitch and roll,
But they swung her north and beat upwind for the bell on Sharkfin Shoal.

The sea broke over the starboard rail as they turned her for the strait,
And ice was building on the deck, like the heavy hand of Fate.
You never saw such wind nor sea; it howled to raise the dead!
And the gale was blowing at forty knots when they passed by Bishop's Head.

Lew Martin put the wheel hard down, and headed west away,
and the snow was even heavier at the entrance to the Bay.
With their lee rail buried under and the seas a-rolling o'er,
They barely cleared the shallow ground off Bloodsworth Island shore.

The snow was freezing to the sails as they tried to head her north,
and the jib was blown right off its stay; she wouldn't hold a course.
The sea poured in the forward hatch, and the crew began to bail,
Then a breaking wave swept the mate away as he clung to the windward rail.

Lew told his crew, "Boys, reef the main before the sail lets go!"
But the topping lift was frozen hard by the driving spray and snow.
The mast cracked like a cannon shot; they couldn't bring her 'round;
Was just off Hooper Island Light the Constance Greene went down.

We never found the Constance Greene; no bit of plank nor rope.
And after days, then weeks, went by the families gave up hope.
Lew Martin's empty grave is there, on the old Deal Island shore,
But I reckon he still sails in hell, for the rum in Baltimore.

The Constance Greene and her skipper are fiction, but the sailing course is accurate. I've sailed a bit on the Chesapeake Bay, but not in forty knots of wind in a gaff-rigged Skipjack. There are still a few of these beautiful boats on the Bay, and it's worth a trip to see them. Maybe someone with more talent than I have could set this to music...

     The Down-home, Dope-smokin', Baby-killin' Crazy Vietnam Veteran Blues
         (Written for Rod Kane)

Well, it's been thirty years, an' a few more, maybe
Since I last saw Vietnam.
But every now an' then when the moon gets full
I just gotta drop a napalm bomb.
I'd like to climb right into my ol' jet fighter
An' head 'er for the mall downtown.
With a load of twenty millimeter shells
I could mow them yuppies down.

I sure do miss the smell of high explosives
An' the thrill of them bullets flyin' by;
An' Saturday night just ain't Saturday night
Unless I'm watchin' some poor sucker die.
Guess I'd better pack up my automatic weapons
An' leave my happy home
For someplace where the folks appreciate
A little post-traumatic stress syndrome.

'Cause I'm just like the guys you seen in the movies;
Smokin' dope through my M-sixteen.
An' when I get me one of my flashbacks
I'm a regular killin' machine.
You better hide your daughter; hell, hide your grandma
An' call up the TV news:
I got them down-home, dope-smoking, baby-killin' crazy
Vietnam veteran blues.

Rod Kane was a friend; an Army Ranger in Vietnam and a writer. Joseph Heller called his book Veterans' Day "The finest war novel I've ever read". So I wrote this just for Rod; he was always accusing me of "bustin' his chops" and I wanted to keep the tradition alive: some things you can either laugh about or cry about, and for me at least, laughter and black humor works better. The tune here is (roughly) "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." Every time I sing it I think of Kane, and I sure do miss the guy.

     The Lottery

Hey, come an' bring yer money, boys; an' bring it all t' me;
yeah, I got just th' deal t'suck ya in.
I got them tricky numbers that ya don't quite unnerstan'
but like they say, "Ya gotta play t'win."

I'll see ya in th' tavern an' I'll see ya in th' store;
linin' up t'pitch yer dollars in;
I seen ten million fools like you; I'll see ten million more
who lose their cash on hopes so sweet an' thin.

Oh, sure I got m'winners; ya can see 'em on tee vee,
grinnin' 'til their jaws are like t'crack;
an' when my taxman's done with 'em, hell, they ain't got a dime;
tomorrow mornin' they'll be crawlin' back.

So bring me all yer paychecks, ya dumbass workin' jerks;
I'll eat your luck an' puke it up again.
Ya didn't pay attention when they taught ya math in school:
Not one o'you is ever gonna win!

In my view, lotteries are just government-run numbers rackets, a scam that politicians run on the public as a substitute for real economic opportunities that everyone should have in this country. Sure, there are people that can afford to play lotteries for fun, but an awful lot of Americans think that the only way to get rich is to win a lottery. In Indiana, your chance of winning the lottery is less than your chance of being struck by lightning. Mighty slim odds...

- Mike Byers