A Menis on the Screen: Playing a Bard During a Plague Part II

Homer, Iliad 18.22

“So he spoke, and a dark cloud of grief covered Achilles.”

 ῝Ως φάτο, τὸν δ’ ἄχεος νεφέλη ἐκάλυψε μέλαινα·

I don’t know why I’m surprised that I find it hard to write about the Iliad. Or rather, why I find it so much harder to write about the Iliad than I do to write about the Odyssey.

Everything around the Iliad has always been harder and heavier for me as a classicist and a modern bard. And as a human being. 

From the first time I read it as an undergrad studying Classics at UW-Madison, I’ve felt that the Iliad punishes the reader in a way that the Odyssey (which to be sure, itself has plenty of punishment) doesn’t. 

So… I shouldn’t have been surprised when this piece, ostensibly a follow up to my post entitled “A Penis on the Screen: Playing a Bard During a Plague,” felt as heavy and unwieldy as Ajax’s towering shield. 

To be sure, the context in which I’m writing about performing my Homer-inspired musical works has changed. “A Penis on the Screen” was written at the beginning of the first full escalation of the pandemic, more than nine months and three hundred thousand US deaths ago.  

It was also written after only a single virtual performance of my one-man musical Odyssey, and before any virtual performances of my one-man musical Iliad, “The Blues of Achilles. Since that initial phallus-inscribed voyage I have completed fourteen virtual Odysseys and eleven virtual Blues of Achilles shows.

In a way these two blogs mirror how the creation of my two epic works unfolded. I wrote “Joe’s Odyssey” in the naive afterglow of my undergraduate studies when I didn’t know any better, when I was too young to understand how audacious it was to create a thirty-five minute non-narrative modern folk opera telling of the Odyssey, let alone to ask folks to sit still for it. That actually worked in my favor, as youthful ignorance sometimes does. I wrote a prompt in my songwriting book that read “create a one-man 24 song folk opera retelling of Homer’s Odyssey” and three months later I premiered it in my parents’ living room, with a full performance for a group of students less than two months after that.

Black-figure pottery - Wikipedia
Heracles and Geryon on an Attic black-figured amphora with a thick layer of transparent gloss, c. 540 BC, now in the Munich State Collection of Antiquities.

By contrast, sixteen years later when I decided to take on the Iliad, I spent almost a full year reading, researching, even interviewing veterans, before I wrote a single song. Once I composed the songs that comprise “The Blues of Achilles,” I played small samplings of them in modest workshop scenarios for another year before I finally debuted the full cycle in San Francisco in early March just as the pandemic took hold (a selection of songs from that performance can be viewed here on YouTube).

All of this is to say that these two pieces came from and were in two wildly different places in March as I started to consider how I would continue to perform them in a streaming environment: on the one hand, I had 300 plus Odyssey shows under my belt, on the other I had the Blues of Achilles with… one single show (and one in which I performed with an ensemble). 

In reading my initial impressions of performing virtually as detailed in the Penis on the Screen blog, I have to give myself a little credit: almost all of what I wrote there about the Zoom performance environment bore itself out as correct over the course of repeated performances of my Odyssey

(NB: I am so infrequently right about things I have to make a big deal of times when I am. For instance, as she will vouch for, I saw where the pandemic was going early on and told my wife to stock up on canned goods and alcohol for quarantine in early-February.  I also correctly predicted that Dwyane Wade would be an NBA Hall-of-Famer after watching the 2003 NCAA tournament. Take that, Calchas).

But while my routines around my virtual Odyssey shows were immediately informed by the hundreds of previous live shows and discussions, The Blues of Achilles was a blank slate. Would I perform all the songs without stopping? Would I work in spoken narrative passages as I did in the public debut in San Francisco? Would I talk about all the works that informed my songs ahead of the performance, or let the audience lead me to such considerations in a discussion? 

My Odyssey performance had years and years to develop organically along with my abilities, going from a living room to high school classrooms to university settings over the course of more than a decade. In contrast, The Blues of Achilles had immediate opportunities with very high level college audiences.

Luckily, I had the songs I wrote for the characters we know most intimately from Homer’s Iliad: a number of songs for Achilles of course, but also songs sung by Chryseis, Bryseis, Agamemnon, Hector, Hecuba, Priam, Helen, Andromache, Patroklus, and Thetis. Songs sung by the bard (me in this case) telling the story as well as other more impartial observers to the human suffering portrayed in the poem. 

I had these songs that I loved very deeply and I felt said something interesting, deep and most importantly true about the characters and story, something that modern audiences might have a harder time accessing when considering them in millenia old translated texts. 

And these songs I wrote about warriors and war were mostly love songs, a fact with which I was uncomfortable until, after I’d written them, I read Simone Weil’s influential 1940 essay The Iliad or The Poem of Force in which she writes “there is hardly any form of pure love known to humanity of which the Iliad does not treat…”  

(There should be a word for when you read a sentiment similar to one which you’ve arrived at entirely independently, especially when it is confirmed by a lauded source. Joel suggested “serendipity” which is true and good but doesn’t quite capture the validation and confidence boost such an occurrence can confer upon an artist or intellectual.)

If excavating love from the grief of the Iliad was good enough for Simone Weil, it was certainly good enough for me. I thought perhaps this relationship between love and grief was the heaviness that had created such apprehension in me about considering the Iliad

It was actually several months into these pandemic performances of The Blues of Achilles that I fully realized why adapting the Iliad scared me more and was so much harder for me than adapting the Odyssey

In April, the songwriter John Prine died of Covid complications. In a beautiful New York Times tribute to this amazing artist, Jason Isbell (a brilliant songwriter in his own right) wrote about the genius of Prine’s writing in general but in particular the song “Angel From Montgomery,” which opens with Prine singing “I am an old woman/named after my mother.” Isbell has this epiphany:  “songwriting allows you to be anybody you want to be, so long as you get the details right.” 

John Prine, One of America's Greatest Songwriters, Dead at 73 - Rolling Stone

When it came to the Iliad, my anxiety was (and is) rooted in the fear that I couldn’t get the details right. And I knew that for these characters deep inside the machine of war and their legacies, the details were a matter of life and death. This was why I spent a year reading any war literature I could get my hands on from All Quiet on the Western Front to Catch-22 to Slaughterhouse Five. I read Achilles in Vietnam and The Things They Carried and Letters Home from Vietnam and Dispatches.  I interviewed veterans who served in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Operation Enduring Freedom. I interviewed a Gold Star father who lost his son in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I found myself by chance in a hazy whiskey-fueled late night conversation with a veteran military journalist who turned me on to the album Soldier’s Heart, a set of songs by Jacob George, a veteran of OEF who wrote and recorded this album of the truest war stories I’ve ever heard before he died by suicide in 2014. 

And with these details and a new vocabulary, I went back to the text and as is the case over and over with Homeric epic I found truths hovering in the spaces around the words, waiting for me. I thought about some of the other Iliad adaptations I read: Memorial by Alice Oswald, The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, the play An Iliad by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson. Casey Dué’s Achilles Unbound helped me recognize the multiplicity inherent in oral tradition and gave me even more confidence to find my own Achilles.

And out of me in less than 30 days in early 2019 came tumbling my 17 love songs. If Homer’s Iliad tells of the Anger of Achilles, my Blues of Achilles makes its focus the Grief that is prominent in the first syllable of Achilles’ name and the Love that is so inextricably connected to Grief (for more “serendipity,” see Emily Austin’s work in particular the forthcoming Grief and the Hero.)

Frank Zappa purportedly said “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and whether or not he actually did, the sentiment is correct. I write songs to capture something that other types of writing cannot convey so I won’t try to describe what my online Blues of Achilles shows are like in detail other than to say they are heavy, connected, and beautiful. I break the songs up to allow for audiences to ask questions and contribute to the meaning as we go rather than waiting until the end for them to participate and engage. Pandemic audiences seem particularly attuned to the less central characters to whom I try to give voice, to the characters who have been pulled into the grievous orbit of the principle tragic figures of the story. 

I’ll be doing these shows (both Odyssey and Blues of Achilles) online for at least the first half of 2021: while I’m hoping that later in the year conditions might allow for safe travel and gatherings, it might be even into 2022 before that’s possible. But I know that eventually I’ll be able to bring The Blues of Achilles (and my Odyssey) to audiences in-person.

Joe's Odyssey

Whereas my online Odyssey shows were informed by live in-person performances, my live in-person Blues of Achilles shows (when they happen) will be informed by my online performances and I’m interested to see how this inversion impacts the futures of both pieces.

I return to one of my first impressions of performing online which is that these stories are so durable and rich and full of possibility that they can thrive in any sort of performance environment. Maybe better put: making the change from in-person to virtual is no big deal when a story has survived the transition from oral performance to written text and the thousands of years since. 

Joe Goodkin is a modern bard who performs original music based on epic poetry and other subjects.  He can be seen and heard at http://www.joesodyssey.com http://www.thebluesofachilles.com or http://www.joegoodkin.com and emailed at joegoodkin@gmail.com about bookings or anything else.

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