Commentary, Essays

Matthew Rohrer: “Hey There, Mr. Blue”

The third issue of Poetry Northwest, our special Music Issue, features prose by poets on the subject of music.

This month we preview this Spring-Summer 2007 (v2.n1) special issue with an online exclusive: poet Matthew Rohrer writing about his all-time favorite band, Electric Light Orchestra. Rohrer has been listening to ELO since 1978, even through the dark times, when it was decidedly uncool.

Hey There, Mr. Blue

It was over a hundred degrees outside because it was Oklahoma, but inside our house it was perfectly cool, sometimes too cool, like something out of the future. And everyone’s house was this cool, and everything else was too, so essentially one moved through town (only when necessary) in an air-conditioned car, from chilly house to chilly movie theater to chilly grocery store. We might as well have been living on a moon colony because we needed advanced technology just to survive. Which I only mention because that day when I stood in the living room with the stereo—my parents’ stereo, the one made to look like wood—and listened to a cassette of the Electric Light Orchestra’s Out of the Blue for the first time, I felt an enormous blanket of science fiction descend, affecting everything.

My friend, Moss, said listening to ELO when he was a kid was like learning there was another world. That image of a UFO on ELO’s album covers—apparently their emblem in the sense that bands used to have emblems to stand for them—probably had a lot to do with this. Obviously. And then there was the big UFO they had onstage, which took a dozen trucks to transport from show to show, and would rise before the band started (and then I guess do nothing else).

I was desperate to see this, but I was also only eight at the time. It was 1978 and Star Wars had been out for a year, and this album had been out for a year, and it must have been big enough for an eight-year-old to hear about it. I bought the cassette so I could listen to it in my room, but I almost always used my parents’ stereo because it was so much louder. When I stood over one of the vents in the floor with really cold air blowing on me, and when I pushed play with all the ceremony I could muster, I heard the menacing buzz of the flanger coming closer and closer, landing. And the music just sounded so clean. It was dense and intoxicating but crystal clear. It was like science fiction. But its concerns were incredibly simple—the weather, the time of day. Their songs were so perfectly present, when Jeff Lynne sang in “Thunder and Lightning,” “here it comes again / (thunder and lightning) / it’s all around me / (thunder and lightning) / it must be magic / yeah yeah yeah,” the ecstatic squall of it all was totally affecting; I believed him.

Now I still look for that kind of presence in a poem or a song, and feel its absence if it isn’t there. Much later I realized that ELO’s odd looking UFO was based on the Wurlitzer jukebox, but at eight I had no idea about that or any of the music’s connection to fifties music (and also the Beatles of course, mostly songs by Paul). To me, it all sounded super-modern and representative of the Future. There are robots all over Out of the Blue, and, in fact, a robot has the last word on “Mister Blue Sky,” probably their most timeless song—a song that embodies their aesthetic: futuristic, but familiar.

Listen to ELO on their web site:

“Hey There, Mr. Blue” appears exclusively on Poetry Northwest Online.

Matthew Rohrer is the author of five books of poems, most recently Rise Up, published by Wave Books. He is the recipient of a Hopwood Award for poetry and was shortlisted for the 2005 Griffin Prize for his collection, A Green Light.