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By Shawn Weston
Bobby Long is giddy with excitement when he talks about his first published collection of poetry. The slim volume called Losing My Brotherhood represents a year of work, not only in the actual writing but in the selection, sequencing and editing, and he’s thrilled to be able to hold it in his hands. The affable Brit, who makes his home in New York City, is also looking forward to the October release of his second album for ATO Records, but he is quick to point out that the poetry is a totally separate form of writing from the powerful, deeply personal songs that first brought him critical attention back in 2009.
Now 26, Bobby Long began his odyssey into poetry when he realized the cache of songs he was stockpiling for his new album would be limited in seeing daylight to the 10 or 12 that would make the final cut onto an album. So he decided to try out another art form to satisfy his creativity. “I’ve always been writing stuff—words on a page—and I wanted to challenge myself,” he explains. “I was on the road in the back of a van for four months last year (in support of his recording debut, A Winter Tale), and I got sick of playing with my phone and my laptop, and I decided to go fully into writing poetry.” For Long, it was more than an exercise. “I’m not very good when I don’t have things to do. I become a maniac, so it makes me healthy to be busy. It helps me sleep.”
Losing My Brotherhood is an unexpected collection of 62 poems—whittled down from a much large number—that delves into notions of love, desire, heartbreak and melancholy. The sometimes sad, sometimes colorful, sometimes acerbic word pictures offer glimpses of everyday life, growing up in England and snapshots of Long’s new existence a world away from home.
Literature, it would appear, has always unwittingly surrounded him, so it is not surprising that the act of writing has become synonymous with breathing. Born near Manchester in Wigan, the town of George Orwell fame, Long moved with his family at age four to rural Wiltshire where he grew up in the idyllic English countryside that inspired one of England’s greatest writers, Thomas Hardy. “I’ve been writing down thoughts since about the age of 12, but with no discipline to it, without something specific in mind,” he says. “I never kept a journal or a diary; it was just lines. It was more of an expressive thing. I never told anyone at school that I wrote because I would have been beaten up. Now, I try to write something every day.”
A struggling student, his purview was upended when a caring teacher recognized his difficulties and introduced him to the joys of reading. “She gave me a Dylan Thomas book,” and he was hooked. He acknowledges her contribution in the book. “I actually write more in the book about the time before I went to school. I just didn’t know how to do school,” Long confesses. “I didn’t know how to get an A or even how to write a paper. It’s kind of a blur now. People always had me wrong. They thought I was smart and not trying very hard, but the truth is that I was a dreamer, and I would get lost in my own imagination. Reading was something very intimidating.” He has since become a voracious reader, devouring classics like Dickens, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Alexandre Dumas. He also likes John Cooper Clarke, the English punk poet and performance artist who he mentions in his poem “Sleepers Creepers,” and many other poets, among them Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, Jorge Luis Borges and Leonard Cohen, to whom he has sometimes been compared. Cohen, it should be noted, published his ground-breaking The Spice Box of the Earth at age 26.
Losing My Brotherhood includes many tender reflections on Long’s childhood. “I wrote five different poems about my childhood on a day I was at the Byron Bay Blues Festival in Australia. It was beautiful there,” he recalls, “but I didn’t like being there on my own, alone. Sometimes it’s hard to get away from your surroundings. I often write from the passenger seat, looking in. I went far deeper in the poems than I have in my songs because there was no guitar to hide behind.”
Upon this ridge that the moss is growing from
upon this ridge where it all fell silent.
curated by the night sky and let in by the wall of fog,
someone stood tall amongst the trees that you gave me.
This is your land my father
why don’t you take it back,
and stay behind.
My grandfathers planted these trees on the ridge that we stand upon,
with my father in the pram and my mother in his heart.
So clear the moss and reveal the etchings,
reveal something you didn’t know about me,
my grandmother cut her hand on this rock,
scrubbing my clothes.
Since then the river has dried up and grandma has passed,
the stone is like marble with the cutaway finish.
The trees have grown tall and have blocked out half the sky,
the birds have nested and moved on,
I still come back here to remind myself,
that upon this ridge where the moss grows,
the moss is still growing.
“Trouble on the Ridge” © 2012 Bobby Long
from Losing My Brotherhood
The title, Losing My Brotherhood, rises out of that sense of isolation and alienation Bobby felt when he abruptly abandoned London to pursue his music career in America. He left behind the three close friends with whom he shared an apartment and most everything else and has never looked back, but there are still times he misses the camaraderie and the shared assets that kept them in beer and sustenance. “I just went and didn’t really say good-bye to anyone,” he explains. “‘Losing my brotherhood’ refers to a specific group of friends who I don’t get a chance to see any more. Steve is a drummer, Luke is a graphic designer and Ben is a painter and musician, and we all lived together for four years. We were like brothers, and I realized that I hadn’t seen any of them since I moved to New York The title is signifying that time is over—living in London, sharing cigarettes, buying beer. It’s a tribute really.”
Bobby had come to London to attend university where he studied sound and media for film. By that time, he had honed his skills as a guitarist and was finding his own voice. London’s mushrooming open mic circuit for new acoustic music became the perfect environment to expose the songs he had begun to write, and it was there he found his brotherhood. Luke Edge took some of the early photos of Long as a performer, and his brother, Ben Edge, contributed the 15 gritty line drawings that illustrate Losing My Brotherhood.
Sharp observations of his new life in New York permeate Losing My Brotherhood. The grouping of the poems “Essex Street Crawl,” “Horror on Clinton Street,” “Just Like Hollywood,” “Man-Hattan” and particularly poignant “Looking Out” capture moments not found on a postcard rack—a suicidal jumper with a hushed audience holding its collective breath, the late-night streets pulsating with movement at a snail’s pace, the bleak view of The Dakota (“Lennon’s shot dead there every day”) from a Central Park vantage point—all seared in a kind of stark realism. Long doesn’t do pretty, even if he tries.
Bobby Long characterizes himself as a bit of a loner. “It’s a conundrum in that I love being on stage, yet I’m really shy. I keep putting stuff out there for judging, and I question what I’m doing to myself. I have to express myself and be creative, but it runs the gauntlet.”
In addition to upcoming live shows this summer, he will once again challenge his comfort zone with a couple of poetry-oriented events, one of them at the glitzy Barnes & Noble store at The Grove shopping center in Los Angeles on July 23. While he will perform a few songs as well, he won’t have the guitar to hide behind when he reads from his book, but don’t expect him to meld the two art forms when he tours on behalf of the new record. “I don’t know how I could incorporate the poetry without it seeming pretentious,” he says. “I don’t want to pretend I know what I’m doing when it comes to poetry so I want to keep the music and the poetry separate. The book is a very personal thing.”
I see the fifteen trees in the garden and see every branch
as a stage in a man’s life.
Long at the bottom and growing shorter as it grows up,
and although the lengths are shorter
they hold more flowers and fruit.
….excerpt from “On a Good Day”
Losing My Brotherhood is available from amazon and other retail outlets. Visit www.bobbylong.info for more information.