When he isn’t writing verse or teaching at Princeton University, Irish poet Paul Muldoon taps into his inner Dylan and jams with the New Jersey rock group Wayside Shrines.
Muldoon, whose poetry collection “Moy Sand and Gravel” won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, writes song lyrics and plays guitar for the group. He’s modest about his avocation.
“I certainly don’t present myself as a musician. That would be inappropriate,” Muldoon, 61, said by phone with a gentle brogue. “I’m not really a guitar player. I tell people that I’m working my way up to the third chord.”
Muldoon makes his foray into songwriting with the publication this month of his new collection, “The Word on the Street: Rock Lyrics” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).
He writes lyrics for the Shrines, who are led by singer and guitarist Chris Harford, a 1980s-era alternative rocker. The rest of the band’s lineup includes: vocalist and guitarist Ila Couch; violinist Tim Chaston; drummer Ray Kubian; keyboardist and Princeton musicology professor Noriko Manabe; Kate Neal on accordion; and Nigel Smith, a Princeton English professor, on bass and mandolin.
Rock producer Paul Kolderie, whose credits include Radiohead, the Pixies and Warren Zevon, worked with the group in the recording studio.
“We’re allergic to the idea of a single sound associated with the band,” Muldoon said. “There are a number of songwriting teams within the band. No two songs really sound the same.”
At a performance last week at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan, Muldoon’s lyrics easily topped the band’s music for the show’s highlight. The words to “It’s Never Too Late (For Rock ’N’ Roll)” triggered smiles among the crowd. The song started with:
It may be too late to learn ancient Greek
Under a canopy of gnats
It may be too late to sail to Mozambique
With a psychotic cat
Muldoon, looking like a cross between a middle-aged rocker and a brainy professor with his thick black eyeglasses, black T-shirt and pin-striped sport coat, appeared happy and comfortable onstage. Plucking his guitar, his head bobbed to the music while Harford led the band through a set of eclectic songs.
“We’re part of the bridge-and-tunnel set!” Muldoon said to the audience.
Muldoon had seen Harford perform in the Princeton area and two years ago approached him about working with the group. The poet started writing song lyrics for the Shrines and soon realized it was very different from poetry.
“The poem brings its own music that’s kind of built into it, whereas the lyric needs the music,” Muldoon said.
One of Muldoon’s favorite guitars in his collection is a 1952 Fender Telecaster Thinline. An avid collector, he concedes that he has too many.
“I’m at a stage in my life where I’m very happily getting rid of things, and I’ve given away a few guitars recently,” he said. “If there are any hoarding shows that would like to do an intervention on me, I’m sure we could arrange something!”
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