An interview with C.R. Avery can be like getting lost in a maze with an avalanche of words descending on you.
Sentences meander off in unpredictable directions and often don’t actually end.
It feels, at times, that you’re listening to an ancient soul who witnessed the birth of the blues, and ‘n’ roll, and practically everything else from 1930 onward.
At other times, you know you’re in the hands of the savvy, cutting-edge “30-something” wordsmith at the core of Avery’s reality.
Avery (“Even my mother calls me C.R.”) is a beat-box poet, a harmonica wizard with 15 albums to his credit, an author, a raw-voiced singer and a punk piano player whose work has drawn plaudits from the like of Charlie Musselwhite and Tom Waits.
“I like singing and playing,” he says in the most concise answer in a half-hour phone conversation from Vancouver.
And he’s definitely a moving target.
You can practically hear the synapses sparking in his brain. If his tongue can’t always quite keep up – well, relax and enjoy the ride.
You’re going to hear about Muddy Waters (“kind of the turnstile for harp players”), and James Cotton, and Mojo Buford.
You’ll hear about Little Walter.
“Little Walter’s my guy. He could have been Chuck Berry, but he was just too much of a pool-hall punk. Too many knives, too many fights, too much of a hustler,” Avery says.
“But what he was doing in the studio, the music he was making, was rock ‘n’ roll. He was the greatest harp player. Him and Sonny Boy are my guys.”
You’ll hear about Carl Perkins, who wrote “Blue Suede Shoes” , describing rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry as “someone that knew the blues, for sure, but he knew the story from country music.
“And then Ray Charles took gospel songs and changed the words to, ‘Baby, I’m going to please you in the bedroom.'”
This is the ancient voice of C.R. Avery, explaining how “nobody really invented anything, they just combined things.”
A split second later, the younger Avery is riffing on hip hop and rap.
“You can say what you want about rap lyrics, but, you know, a song is a paragraph. A hip hop song is two pages. And so kids grew up with this long, storytelling thing, and there were a lot of kids that were starting to…”
Then the thought wanders off. But here’s the thing: there’s a story there. With Avery, the story is always there.
It may about the album Ani DiFranco produced by layering hip hop beats over a live recording of storyteller-musician Utah Phillips.
It may be about Tofu, or The Fugitives, or The Recipe. Or about the Diego Rivera character in the movie, Frida, talking about art on canvas as a dying, bourgeois thing, or how Avery considers “the graffiti kids with zero money” the greatest artists we have.
It may be about his belief that “Words are important, but I just don’t think you have to be a dude at a podium reading from your book,” or his contention that “The whole word ‘poet’ is just enough to make you want to stab yourself in the face.”
You’ll hear about Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, John Prine, Neil Young, Charles Bukowski, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin.
You’ll hear about Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator and Samuel Jackson’s soliloquy from Pulp Fiction as examples of great writing.
You’ll even hear how Avery spent three years touring with a string quartet as a backing band, and how he recorded an album with the Prague Symphony.
All this, remember, in just a half-hour phone call.
When Avery makes his third Yukon appearance this Friday at 8 p.m. at the Yukon Arts Centre, there’s bound to be much, much more.
That could include everything, he says, from “piano, organ, spoken word, to song, to dirty haiku in your ear.”
As for the man who will share the stage, slam poetry champion Zaccheus Jackson, Avery has this to say:
“He is a holy time-bomb with graffiti on it. He’s a great wordsmith. He’s got his style intact. He’s going to hold people’s attention. He’s funny, his content is great and his delivery is great.”