The Vision: Uniting Prose and Song

“The idea for Wild Animus germinated while I was at Berkeley in the late 60s,” Rich says. “It started with an identification with wild things—the ram and his wolves. There were some attempts to merge serious writing with popular music, at the time, by artists like Jim Morrison and Don Van Vliet. I dreamed of the search for deeper truths in a wild setting, using words and music, married in new ways.”

“The Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues”

Rich encountered the classical stories told in song—The Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s works, and the medieval romances. He began to experiment with the long-story form, using music in a modern setting. Then he came across Blind Willie McTell’s “The Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” and an idea took shape: “Blind Willie’s song gives you the story of a man in his last hours. You’re at his bedside, and beside the wagon taking him to the graveyard, and you experience a panorama of emotion—pathos, futility, wry humor—as the story unfolds. Instead of using a repeated melody with a fixed meter and tempo, Willie took a variety of melodies, each with its own meter and tempo, and stitched them together. The ‘logic’ for the changes came from the story itself. The clashes were jarring, but each moment was accessible, and the violence of the construction gave it a special power. I wondered if it might be possible to bring the Bardic tradition into the modern era by using a similar approach.” Rich fell in love with the idea. “I thought it might be a way to experience a story more fully, more deeply.”

A Journey of Discovery

My story—the story I wanted to tell—was a journey of discovery,” Rich recalls. “The setting for my journey was the wilderness of Alaska. I had to get there, to act out the mythos germinating in my head. But that wasn’t so easy. When I graduated from Berkeley, I didn’t have a nickel. I worked on the music and first draft of Wild Animus for about eight months, and sold all my stuff—stereo, books, records, furniture. Then I got a job digging ditches for BART. Then I ran printing presses. Then I sold printing presses. When I wasn’t working, I was writing.”

He didn’t want to return to school, but he was considering that when a friend introduced him to an old raconteur who worked for a computer company named Univac. “Al had been an English lit major at Berkeley, like myself, and worked for the Disney organization back in the Peter Pan days. He offered me a job.”

Jumping Off

“It was a magical opportunity,” Rich says. “Not only did I get a paycheck, but it meant relocating to Seattle, the jumping-off point for Alaska‚ the landscape for Wild Animus and my creative dreams.” Two years later, he traveled there. He would return frequently over the next 30 years.

Rich set Wild Animus on Mt. Wrangell. “I negotiated leaves with my employers, in some instances as long as a month or two. Between jobs, I took as much time off as I could, exhausting my savings. One summer, when airfare rates were low, I flew to Alaska every weekend. I’d leave Friday afternoon, return on a red-eye Sunday night, and drive from the airport to work Monday morning. When I started my own business, it was easier.”

As he prepared for solo trips into the backcountry, scientists asked him to collect information for them. “I ended up doing the first plant collection on Mt. Wrangell, and the first bird accounting. I collected butterflies for the Smithsonian and spiders for the American Museum of Natural History. There were scientific papers that came out of it. I found what appeared to be a new species of plant and used that in the novel.”