“The foul rag and bone shop of the heart,” Yeats called it – that repository of musings, detritus and discarded emotions out of which we assemble art. Songwriter-poet Rags Rosenberg, performing under the name Rags and Bones, has spent a lifetime sifting through the leftover parts of the world and himself to try and create an archival record. At 70, he feels like he may be getting close.
Rosenberg grew up in Tujunga, California just north of Los Angeles, in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains – a tide pool built to catch the overflow of bikers, rednecks, drifters and all the other societal misfits thrown off by the city. With the Angeles Crest Forest as his backyard, he spent the long afternoons of his childhood climbing the chaparral-studded foothills with their low scrub oak and sage. Once, he could even make out Catalina Island, 26 miles distant, through the blue haze of the Pacific -- the last outpost of manifest destiny. It’s an image that never left him.
Coming of age just in time to launch into the barrel of the ’60s, he majored in music, marched against the war, got expelled, hitchhiked to San Francisco, toured with rock bands, somehow obtained conscientious-objector status and, miraculously, survived. Married with two children, he moved to Atlanta in the early ’80s and interned at Tom Wright’s Cheshire Sound Studios during the early days of Atlanta hip-hop. He also founded the Atlanta chapter of the Nashville Songwriters Association International in 1992, after years of making the four-hour drive to Nashville once a week.
Not long afterward, he moved to Nashville to pursue a career in songwriting. By now a single father, to make ends meet he started a business remodeling homes, eventually working for many of Nashville’s musical and political luminaries. (He was one of three contractors responsible for the “greening” of Al Gore’s private residence.) Quoting the poet Richard Cambridge’s Pulsa (“The thing I had thought was the work was in fact only the scaffolding around the work.”), he describes how his failure to grab the brass ring of songwriting, refracted through his success as a carpenter and builder, incidentally led to his emergence as a poet.
“I was about to turn 50,” he says. “I was living in Nashville with two children and virtually no time or space for the songwriting career that had brought me there. Poetry sustained me during that period, and I wrote poems in response, in one intense year of reflection and scribbling.”
The result was Raised in the Shadow, a version of his life story in 25 poems, presented as a series of snapshots. No less an authority than the poet Robert Bly said of the collected poems: “I do think they’re very fresh, and they have a certain drive forward into truth.” His work has been excerpted in Black Moon and Hudson View. And he takes a measure of pride in having been the only poet to ever appear in Fine Homebuilding Magazine.
After 14 years there, Rosenberg sold his business in 2008 and left Nashville for what he calls the People’s Republic of Joshua Tree in California’s High Desert. (As a kind of parting gift, his song “I’ll Meet You There” appeared in Dixie Gamble’s short film Beyond Right & Wrong, set on Tennessee’s Death Row.) Today, amid the sparse beauty of the Mojave Desert, he lives in an isolated 480-square-foot cabin with his wife, two cats and a rescue Labrador retriever named Steinbeck. Steinbeck – the real one, in Travels with Charley – got as close as Route 66, about 50 miles north, where he considered shooting a pair of coyotes. (He fed them a tin of dog food instead). He teaches guitar at the local music store, plays for the lunch crowd at the Joshua Tree Saloon and organizes a monthly Songwriters in the Round song pull at the Beatnik Lounge.
And here in what some have christened the land of second chances, after 40 years performing and playing in bands, Rosenberg has managed to release two EPs of original songs: These Bones and Rabbit Holes, on his own Coyote Gulch Records.
“Everyone is in service to something” says Rosenberg. “I want to be in service to the song. Songwriting is my daily devotional – in-between studying the unfathomable night sky and relocating the rattlesnakes when they join us in the shade. It’s my way to embrace the ambiguities of life and deal with the terrifying uncertainty thrust upon us as we make our way, as the poet David Whyte says, ‘through the immensities.’
“I’m a storyteller at heart.”
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.-