Bob Cobbing - A Tribute

Bob Cobbing


Coming up Randolph Avenue I can feel my arms pulling from their sockets. It's hot. There is sweat on my forehead. The Avenue seems so enormously long. I'm taking my second aeon pages, printed in Cardiff, carried on the 125 to Paddington, hauled through the Underground and now lugged from the Maida Vale Tube to number 262, up the steps, through the door, along the hall and then down into Bob's vast basement. 1500 sheets on yellow paper. My pages for ALP's annual catalogue, Bob's co-operative answer to the unsolvable small press distribution problem. It's the early seventies. He makes me sweet tea to aid recovery. We sit amid the paper stacks, floor to ceiling packages, boxes of Gestetner smears, unbound editions of Lee Harwood, Allen Ginsberg, Allen Fisher, Micheline Wandor, Jiri Valloch, Neil Mills, Criton Tomazos, off-prints, boxes of staples, cartons of ink, a z-bed, a broken tray, half a tea maker, a crushed yin-yang cube. The phone goes and it's some contributor to And, Bob's legendary magazine. At this time I've never seen And, published as loose sheets in a plastic bag and distributed among those who happen to be near when it actually appears. "Ah, yes", says Bob, using that deep resonating voice of his, before treating the caller to a fluid rejection of whatever has been sent. Bob blames time, mail, quantity, printing difficulties, and his co-editor John Rowan for not liking the stuff before swiftly hanging up. Ever interested in the ways of publishers and editors I ask, "Does John see all this material?" But Bob's gone upstairs again to make another hot drink.

Bob Cobbing at Cwm Ystwyth 1973
Bob Cobbing at Cwmystwyth - 1973

We're at Cwmystwyth on the back road through the Elan Valley heading for a reading organised by Mary Lloyd Jones at Aberaeron. I'm driving a Hillman Avenger which is supposed to be a hot hatch but actually overheats at the first opportunity and usually breaks down if you drive it at over 40. Bob's never been to this part of Wales before. The green desert. We stop at an abandoned lead mine where a vast slurry of spoil sprawls down the hillside. The village is deserted, none of the cottages have roofs and the machine used for pulling the ore from the soil is either wrecked or gone. The wreckage is weathered. Vegetation is beginning to grow back. I take a b&w out of focus photo on my tiny instamatic, find a bolt from some ancient tram sleeper, and a rock with a mark on it that could be a word. We clamber over the sliding piles. Bob roars juka kuru roku juka kuru roku joku kuro roko joko kuru roko, his Kerouac tribute, which echoes back at us off the sky. Cymru. Poetry. Land of Bards. Jack Kerouac. French Canadian. Breton. Almost Welsh. Of course.

In the back room at my house Bob sits before my BBC-B computer. It's the early 80s and he's in Cardiff for a reading at the Oriel Bookshop. I've programmed this weak-brained but so-simple machine to assemble words from a common wordpool and make them into random sentences. The poem streams up the screen like a demented Jackson Mac Low. There's no printer attached, no storage device for the computer's output. It creates into electronic space and then disappears into the void. Bob is fascinated. "It plays little poetry films, doesn't it? Can we get this to rearrange the letters that make up the name Edwin Morgan?" We can. It's simple enough, written in BBC Basic the new program takes about fifteen minutes. Bob is working on a poem to celebrate the great Scots concretist. I save it onto cassette and then load. The BBC-B begins to rearrange the letters of Edwin Morgan's name at high speed: WNIDE GARNOM NAGNIRWDE OM DWRG ENIMONA. Bob sits seemingly stunned and then begins to catch lines he likes and to scratch them onto a pad he's pulled for his jacket pocket. The screen is a blur of white. The endless permutational stream rolls towards infinity. The poem is in Bob's collected works, somewhere. Edwin Morgan approved.

On the train back from Sunderland Bob has bought a whole crate of Newcastle Amber Ale and sits with it between his legs. He's sockless in sandals. I've never seen him any other way. We've been on the Cobbing/Finch/Rain-in-the-Face northern tour playing in dark rooms above pubs and poorly attended halls in Newcastle and in Whitley Bay. These are the places where you worry if your jacket falls to the floor because it will be too filthy to put on again when you pick it up. Rain In The Face, a duo made up of Paul Burwell and David Toop, use guitars with errant tunings and dementedly random percussion. Burwell is a master of new and rediscovered musical instruments including the amazing wasp phone with its insect driven membrane. The band use things you bang and things you hit. Bob has flailed and roared through the set pulling the disparate elements around him into one forward flowing drone. The evenings have been brilliant creative successes even if the audiences have been small. The train ride is long. I try to talk Rain In The Face into using a piece of traditional rock and roll, unexpectedly, right in the middle of their set. "Imagine the faces of the seriousos if you suddenly broke into Whole Lot of Shakin." They smile and say they'll think about it, but they don't, (although David Toop was heard later performing a sort of slow falsetto rock song among his otherwise progressively random set). Bob tells us that he once tried to use Chuck Berry lyrics in one of his performances but they came out sounding like standard Cobbing. Of course.

In Oxford in the nineties Bob and I are reading to the usual audience mix of fans of the avant garde, small press publishers, literateurs, fakes, academics and random passers-by. Bob's set uses no text whatsoever. I've not seen him read for a few years and am amazed by the transformation. There was a time when everything Bob did was connected with text of some sort. Writers Forum publishing and his own performances were indivisible. Now here was the great man, teeth less in number but stature undiminished, rolling through an hour-long reading of standard Cobbing greatest hits without a single piece of paper visible anywhere. The poems - Are Your Children safe In the Sea¸ Tan Tandinanan, Alphabet of Fishes, Soma Haoma, Kurrirrurriri mostly come from the early period. They are as they were but they are changed. They are extended, bent, turned, increased. Cobbing is now Bob Dylan, using the old songs but changing the tunes. Retreading, remaking. The past recycled but with all the power still in place. The audience, some of whom have never encountered Cobbing before, love it. There is cheering. People hang onto every roar. Towards the end, as if for a moment lost for inspiration or forgetting the next item on the set list, Bob turns towards a cheap print of the local landscape. It's framed on the wall behind him. His eyes brighten. Back to his audience he stares straight at it, his head no more than a foot away. "raar rop rill room rut up up rut roop roop roop" His voice soars. The landscape becomes poem. Cobbing's voice booms up to fill completely the excited room. He's in his seventies and has been on his feet for at least sixty minutes. He can't see to read properly, in this light, with these glasses. Why slavishly follow the texts he's been using for decades? Who needs them. Great applause breaks out around me. Bob's finished. Best I've heard him in thirty years.

I guess the most important thing that Bob taught me was that the voice could learn from the machine. Once you've heard voice treated on tape, he explained, then you can make that sound yourself. He'd play me a tape of voice slowed and then make the same deep rolling sounds. Then we'd try it with a tape speeded up and with, maybe, the middle section cut out and spliced back in upside down. The taped sound would flicker and zip. Do it, he'd say. And we would. We don't need machines to make work. They can show us new ways but once those have been experienced then we are on our own.

Bob was the great centre of the left hand for the forty years between 1960 and 2000. Mention avant garde, alternative, innovative, concrete, sound, textural, sonic, visual, experimental and Bob would have a part in it. Official recognition didn't matter. He relished the bad reviews he'd got and used them as part of his own self-promotion. What was important was that the door be open and that the work carry on. His creativity in both sound and vision was intimately linked with small publishing. Big stuff, hard covers, and fine print were all well and good but most of the time just not flexible enough or fast enough for his needs. Bob would make a piece in a morning - a smear from the back of a Gestetner stencil cut-up and rearranged - and in the afternoon he'd publish it. Writers Forum, his curiously old-fashioned sounding imprint, brought out more than a 1000 items during his lifetime. The editions were small. But they were significant.

We're sitting the White House, the hotel bar next to the Poetry Society in Earl's Court Square. Criton Tomazos is standing on the mantle piece ripping bits out of a book and chanting. Bob has drunk almost half a bottle of whiskey and is still standing, or leaning, at least. Jennifer arrives in her small car to take us home. The vehicle is full of boxes, papers and bits of equipment. We push Bob into the front seat but there's no room for me in the back. I climb onto the roof rack. We drive. Somehow we get back.

Are you a concrete poet or a sound poet, I once asked Bob. By concrete I guess I meant visual. Bob's answer was immediate. There's no difference. He showed me. Anything can be read he insisted. He took a set of visuals from the book we were working on, Songsignals, and began to roar them out. Impassioned, accurate, active, elemental, real. They are the same thing, sound and vision. In Cobbing's hands they are.

Bob Cobbing - Such a life.

Peter Finch

Bob was buried under the trees at the City of London Cemetery, Manor Park on 11th October, 2002

For more tributes visit Bill Griffiths' small press pages at Lollipop
(no longer there when I check in 2023 - a resource lost)


for bob cobbing

antimacassar cryptography corporate Cirencester
corpuscular christigineous igneous conflation
creel cruel scrim cylindrical cricoid
crankshaft creosote crimson coronet
cormorant carboniferous cynical cystitis

Cadogan canton capper cyncoed piepowder
criddle cree crip
ip oop oodle
cron crarp crap croonmeanfester
middle piefancier dally rinkle stammen

damaged cantonment kings road rusted
deal dominion antique meal voucher
real attack rich managed aromament rings
sandwiched busted dole linoleum frantic
mile pouch racked itch sings minion
advantaged canton crapper pie-eyed
kingdom doodle

fun irreligious ethic ah yes

excited slight sweat smile breath
mighty right sweet breath death
frightened tightener
fun was yellow flower is

drown word word road eastender



Peter Finch



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