'Word Jazz' pioneer Ken Nordine's career gets a closer look at film festival

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Ken Nordine

Ken Nordine with his wife Beryl at his north side home. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune / October 19, 2012)

Chicago's Oldest Living Hipster lives in Edgewater, on the North Side. He is 92 but looks 83. He lives behind a wrought-iron fence, surrounded on all sides by the drabbest of stone-colored apartment complexes.

His home is a small castle, built a little more than a century ago but seemingly much older. It is solid-looking, constructed of faded red brick, and the foliage on this fall day, strewn across its porch and clinging to its weathered walls, has taken on the same burnished look.

Chicago's Oldest Living Hipster has lived here with his wife since 1950. She's 91 now. After she comes into the room and leaves a few treats — a dish of nuts, a dish of Hershey's Kisses — Chicago's Oldest Living Hipster, whose name is Ken Nordine, is quick to remind:

“She taught me how to speak,” he says. “She was my vocal coach for a while.”

Beryl Vaughan, his wife, did several of the voices on the old "Lone Ranger" and "Sky King" radio serials and had a brief career as a Hollywood actress before the couple settled in Chicago and had three kids and Nordine became a legend.

A weird legend.

He reaches for his TV remote and cues up the hourlong film he just finished making and will show this week at the Chicago International Film Festival. It's called "Agenbite of Inwit" and begins with a playful disclaimer: "Fair Warning: This movie does not have a beginning, middle or end …" The words go on to explain the film does not contain car crashes, was made with a home computer and is intended as a kind of visual approximation of "Word Jazz," the spoken-word poetry he first popularized in a Wilson Avenue nightclub in 1956 and has long been his signature. He recorded more than a dozen albums of the stuff.

Fred Astaire once danced to it on television; the Grateful Dead asked him to perform it at a New Year's Eve show; it influenced spoken-word legends such as Laurie Anderson, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen; it's been up for Grammys (but, alas, never won). It also can still be heard Sundays at midnight on WBEZ 91.5 FM. Though a version of the show first aired on WBBM in the 1960s, "Word Jazz" has been on public radio since the 1970s.

For those unfamiliar with "Word Jazz": Imagine the silkiest voice delivering light Beat poetry over an aural landscape of piano tinkling and ringing phones and plops and echoes and hums, seeming to meander so far into Nordine's subconscious that (through the miracle of tape) he has sonorous, trance-inducing discussions with his own thoughts. He hasn't recorded a new episode of "Word Jazz" in many years. Not that it matters: The series, which he is not paid for (and insists he doesn't mind being not paid for), remains so spacey and seamlessly of a piece that it's often hard to tell the difference between one episode of "Word Jazz" and the next. The film is a sort of byproduct of what has become Nordine's late-career life's work: marrying all 90 or so of these episodes with their rough visual equivalent. Nordine told me that "Agenbite of Inwit," which takes its name from a line in James Joyce's "Ulysses," is two such episodes squashed together.

He watches the digital images glide and melt and dance, then sits up and addresses the TV:

"Jackson Pollock says 'Hi.'"

Then he turns to me: "Some of this stuff gets outrageously out of hand," he says as his deep voice resonates over the speakers, the poetry vaguely relating to trippy, floating images. "But it's fun to track the depths of your mind, each level going deeper into revealing the complexity of what is in your mind and reactions, so when you say 'come on,' and it becomes" — his voice becomes Barry White pillowy — "something like 'commmme onnnnnnn,' you can play with that. Though, at a point, it gets thick."

He talks this way.

It has nothing to do with age, only constitution. Nordine at 92 has the long, unkempt hair of a Pitchfork indie darling, only white and thinning. He has been making short films of his poetry for decades: "Agenbite," which mixes in several of those films, is a memoir and a visual career retrospective, he admits sheepishly. What it doesn't include is the 47 short trailers he's made for the Chicago International Film Festival, almost one for every year of the festival's existence. Or the adaptation of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," which he never actually completed. Or his appearance in "Fearless Frank," an obscure early work from Chicago-born filmmaker Philip Kaufman ("The Right Stuff"), who appeared at the festival last week. Nordine tells me Kaufman called him to say hello just before I arrived.

Festival founder Michael Kutza later tells me he first asked Nordine to make a film for the festival in 1965, after he saw Nordine's short film about the color black. "The thing is, you never hire Ken Nordine. You just let him do things. And he is nonstop creative, even now. When Phil Kaufman was here the other day, he called Ken from my office, and when he hung up, he said to me, 'He really does have the voice of God.'"

The voice of God — and indeed, onstage in London, he once played God opposite Laurie Anderson, who played Mrs. God — sits in an old chair in his TV room. He is surrounded by old furniture and photos of his many grandchildren and stacks of magazines and, on the end table with the remote, a photo of him with David Bowie, who asked Nordine to perform at New York's High Line Festival in 2007.

It's the last time he performed. Maybe the very last time.

He leads me up a flight of stairs into a small studio outfitted with computers and mixing equipment, a nice video camera and a black curtain, against which he can film himself reciting his poetry. We climb another flight, and in the attic is a large recording studio. Tom Waits recorded here, Nordine says offhandedly. Anderson too. Countless musicians.

We pass walls of old recordings, boxed up and labeled. Scribbled on the side of several is "The Exorcist." These are the recordings he made while serving as a voice coach on the horror classic. Written on the side of many other boxes are the names of corporations: Nike, Six Flags, Blue Cross, Disney, Shell, Corona, Sears, Chicago Blackhawks, Taster's Choice, Dr. Scholl's, Amoco, Miller, Motorola. Each is a small reminder that for decades Nordine led a dual life as a hipster and as a commercial voice-over artist.

He still gets calls to do commercials, he says. "I try to discourage them." We descend three flights of stairs that begin narrow and steep at the top and widen the closer we get to earth. I notice the walls surrounding the staircase are painted in bright blues, greens and yellows, and there is meaning in this: In the mid-'60s, when Nordine was one of the most sought-after commercial announcers in the country, the Fuller Paint Co. asked him to write a radio spot. The only parameters were that he mention the company name and the phrase "a century of leadership." So he gave them a commercial that began with "The Fuller Paint Co. invites you to stare with your ears at yellow."

Then continued:

"In the beginning — no, longer before that — when light was deciding who'd be in — or out — of the spectrum, yellow was in serious trouble. Green didn't want yellow in — some primal envy, I suppose. Yellow wept yellow tears for several eternals — before there were years — until blue came along and said, 'What's the trouble?' And yellow told him about green, and blue said, 'Let me talk to green.' So blue got together with green and told him, 'Look, if yellow and I get together, we can make our own green. We won't need you.' And 'Oh!' said green, with some understanding. But it worked out fine: yellow got lemons and green got limes. The Fuller Paint Co.: a century of leadership in the chemistry of color."

He made 10 similar commercials about paint, and then, buoyed by the popularity of the spots, he recorded 14 more odes to the color spectrum, including sepia, magenta, puce, olive and russet. "Colors," the resulting album, became a big hit and a ubiquitous '60s earwig. (His poem about blue later became the backbone of Levi's iconic, animated '70s TV spots.)

As we near the ground floor, Nordine seems to move slower and slower. His breathing becomes louder and shallow. He says that someday he would like to film himself descending those stairs. A poetic idea, I say, but ask why he would want to film himself walking down his stairs. "So I don't kill myself on them," he says.

In the living room, on my way out, I notice a motif. Hanging above the fireplace, on a throw pillow, etched in stained glass, is an image of a snail.

"The snail, huh?" Nordine asks.

He seems eager to take a rest and for me to leave, yet incapable of not responding to his own question, of doing what's been doing for decades: He takes a nugget of something and finds meaning. "The snail — the snails — the snail is like the cochlear, which is your inner ear, the part that helps you hear things," he says. "The cochlear is snail-shaped. Oh, yessssssss, I like the snail, I like the snails. The snail is slow, and it is lonely, but it is also self-sufficient, and it's got its own house. The snail, he makes his own hours."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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