‘Complicated, but it’s all right’

I thought securing publishing permission was hard. Chicago’s Poi Dog Pondering gets creative coping with post-COVID music scene.

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Frank Orrall, lead singer of Chicago band Poi Dog Pondering, in 2007.

Frank Orrall, lead singer of Chicago band Poi Dog Pondering, in 2007. During COVID he has had to work construction and live with a friend.

Sun-Times file

There is no First Amendment when it comes to poetry. You can print almost any sentiment that originates in the smithy of your own soul. But if you want to adorn your work with, say, a few lines of Mary Oliver’s about wild geese, you have to track her down — or her estate, now — get permission, and pay.

I knew this intellectually, the way you know that falling down a rocky embankment would hurt. But I didn’t really grasp the reality until I found myself tumbling along, working on my last book, which uses literature to explain addiction and recovery. Securing the rights from nearly 80 poets and novelists took over two years — longer than writing the book itself.

Song lyrics were the worst. I found myself conducting negotiations in French, tracking down three different people who got together and wrote a song 30 years ago.

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Some cut a hard bargain — I haggled with the John Lennon estate over 13 lines of “Cold Turkey.” Poi Dog Pondering, a sprawling multi-ethnic party band, is rooted in Chicago, and so at first seemed getting rights from them might be easy. I called Frank Orrall, who wrote “Complicated,” and asked for permission to quote from it, beginning “Sorrow is an angel, that comes to you in blue light, and shows you what is wrong, just to see if you’ll set it right...”

“Sure,” he said, or words to that effect.

But oral permission from Orrall (sorry, couldn’t resist) wasn’t enough. “He said I could, your honor, over the phone...” wouldn’t cut it in court.

“Frank,” I said, “I need written permission.”

“Sure,” he said, or words to that effect.

Musicians are not famous for their attention to legal detail. Though I stalked him via letter and email, written confirmation was not forthcoming. The book’s due date neared.

Then I noticed that a few members of Poi Dog were providing musical backing to Tony Fitzpatrick reading at the Poetry Foundation. I typed up a letter, and hurried over. At intermission, I made a beeline to Orrall.

“Hi Frank I’m Neil Steinberg we talked on the phone, but I need you to actually sign this...” I said, spreading the letter out on an amp and thrusting a pen at him, feeling very much like that sharpie who got a young Bruce Springsteen to sign his life away.

Orrall signed.

So I could use “Complicated,” a song I love, though I’ve never heard it played, live. “Complicated” means more to me than merely its relevance to life and rehab. A highly danceable version was included on one of those great WXRT “Live from the Archives” collections, and when my older boy was small, he used to love to dance to it. As soon as he could walk, he’d totter over, demand “Complicated” in whatever pre-articulate garble he could muster, and I’d put it on, scoop him up, and we’d dance.

So while I generally avoid concerts (crowds, noise, expense) when I saw that Poi Dog was playing at SPACE in Evanston for a few days around New Year’s Eve, I began hinting to my wife that maybe we should uncurl from our protective fetal ball, rise up, step out and go enjoy some music. She was leery about jamming into SPACE, and the performances got canceled anyway as omicron raged across the world.

Poi Dog is trying again at SPACE, March 14, 15 and 16 as the group struggles to keep afloat.

“COVID came along and everything went out the window,” said Orrall, 61. “It was definitely hard. I had to sell my place in Chicago and stayed with a friend of mine. I did construction work, as a handyman.”

The group is also getting creative, offering the “Poi Dog Pondering / Private Concert Series,” where you can hire anything from just Orrall and his guitar ($950), to the full 13-member band, plus dancers and lights and a sound system ($22,000) for a no-holds barred backyard blowout.

“Poi Dog has done house parties before, and I felt I needed to get creative so we can get out there until things open up again,” Orrall said. “People are still nervous to be in a room with strangers. But having friends and families in the backyard is easier. We’ve been trying to find ways we can still play and do shows. We love to dance, and get the crowd moving.”

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