Westside language artist Michael C. Ford still strives to perfect his craft, whichever medium it takes
By Bliss Bowen
There are writers, and then there are artists whose medium is language in all its kaleidoscopic nuance and rhythmic sway.
For septuagenarian Michael C. Ford, labels like “poet” are suspect. Over the past four decades the West Los Angeles resident has published numerous volumes of poetry, but he has also authored plays and essays, in addition to teaching and making spoken-word recordings; he is reflexively averse to pigeonholing.
“I should be classified as a language artist,” Ford insists in his deep, resonant baritone. “That’s it, that’s all.”
The man described by Doors drummer John Densmore as “the ultimate hipster” was born in Illinois and relocated to Pasadena with his family when he was a young child. Ford shares vivid memories of visiting his aunt and uncle’s rented house in the middle of an orange grove and watching them move loaded crates tagged “Upland Oranges” in late 1950 — and also of seeing steamrollers and tractors move in, as urban LA sprawled eastward.
“All of my formative years were spent looking at the changes that were going on in the eastern suburban districts of Los Angeles,” he recalls.
Later Ford gravitated to the halls of UCLA, where he audited classes. He “schlepped scenery” for John Houseman’s theater group, and met Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek and vocalist Jim Morrison at a film directing lecture delivered by Josef von Sternberg. The Doors considered recruiting Ford to play bass with them, until Manzarek found a keyboard bass. In 1969, Ford read his poetry at a fundraiser for writer Norman Mailer’s ill-fated New York mayoral campaign, alongside Morrison and poet Jack Hirschman, a UCLA professor and mentor.
All of that fulgent history informs Ford’s latest recording, “Look Each Other in the Ears,” released in June by Hen House Studios. Densmore, Doors guitarist Robby Krieger and Manzarek (in a final performance before his death in 2013) made substantial contributions to the jazzy, grooving musical settings, as did Geggy Tah vocalist Tommy Jordan and Fishbone saxophonist Angelo Moore, among others. Ford says he’s humbled by the musicianship and “incredible collaborative energy” of all the players and producer Harlan Steinberger.
“Don’t you see how difficult it is for me to say it’s ‘my’ record?” he asks. “It’s our record, in a familial sort of way.”
Indeed, the music’s integral to the album’s appeal, and it was Hen House’s urging that persuaded him to make it. But ultimately it’s Ford’s deliberately intonated language that gives the album heft.
“I’m creating verbal music,” he says. “There’s a melodic sensibility. … [Like] the way a jazz musician works, I sense the juxtaposition of words and stanza breaks and punctuations of rhythm changes [and] variations on note clusters.”
Amiable and forthrightly opinionated in conversation, he casually references history-making figures and events like the Black Dahlia, Jack Kerouac, Charlie Parker, the Kennedy assassination and Kenneth Rexroth. His album recitations are similarly studded with place names.
“For Openers” is a saxophone-blazed trip down memory lane, revisiting Hollywood watering holes, Central Avenue jazz joints and other hallowed music halls across Southern California — congregated symbols of what LA has lost:
“What was full has become a baleful cavity in the tooth of music. Why is it no surprise to see poets in LA standing at the edge of a tremendous and treacherous gorge? They stand in some gnarly, perpendicular manner between Barstow and the blue, burgeoning breakers at Huntington Beach … Let me be like a bridge; I think it would be the best way to be run over.”
Over slinky bass and organ lines, “An American Bomb” namechecks Renoir and Grant Park before asking:
“I am fetus balloon. When they finally let the air out of my mother’s uterus, I wonder: like a dud firecracker, will I die in the sky?”
“Wartime Carol” crafts political metaphor from President George H.W. Bush’s 1992 food poisoning incident in Japan.
“I guess I would call myself an audio journalist,” Ford says, “… a cultural reporter.”
Most writers, he says, deal with synthesis — combinations of images that align with one another — while he attempts to “create sets of opposing principles, opposing elements … images that are literally bumping into each other. …
“[With] this record, I’m confronting the corruption of our natural environment, and the destruction and decimation of traditional landmarks, the obliteration of the importance of cinema … I’m aware of the fact that I’m being judgmental and critical, but I’m also aware that I’m dealing with poetic imagination and I have allegiance to the art form. I can’t just be ranting and raving and cursing things that are wrong.”
Active in LA’s literary community, Ford’s traveling to San Francisco in October for Hirschman’s series.
“My teacher has invited me to read; we’ve lived that long that we can actually say that — a miracle. Moments like that are worth years,” he says.
Yet Ford is still striving to “fine-tune” his work.
“You go through your fledgling years as a writer – not just a poet, but a real writer, capable of dealing with different disciplines: fiction, cultural essays, dialogue in stage plays and poetry,” he observes. “You’re dealing with the blessings and curses that go along with all the long years it takes to cultivate your craft, to develop your voice. You reach a point, I think, where you begin to identify where you are, where your presence is as a writer [and] how to define your work. Whether it’s involved with music or dry reading. I’m really writing … not only to define the work, but to find myself.”