Duende | By David Hernandez
[T]he duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: ‘The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning, it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive. —Federico García Lorca, Theory and Play of The Duende
A man breaks up with his girlfriend and afterwards he gets drunk—that’s the story. Or, rather, that’s the back story to one of the most emotionally-naked songs I’ve ever heard. The man in question is Kevin Whelan, one of the vocalists and the bass player for The Wrens, an indie rock band from New Jersey.
After the break-up and boozing it up, the first thing Whelan did when he stepped into his home was turn on the tape recorder, and what happens for the next minute and thirty-some seconds is included as the final track to the band’s album The Meadowlands.
“This Is Not What You Had Planned” begins with Whelan coughing and clearing his throat, the sound of his footsteps on the floorboards. We hear him clearing his throat some more, which has me wondering if, in addition to all the drinking, he smoked a fair number of cigarettes as well. Finally we hear the squeak of the piano bench as he settles himself on it and begins to drunkenly pluck the keys.
The song surprises me every time I hear it, and that surprise comes from the knowledge that it was improvised on the spot, melody and lyrics. It makes me stop whatever it is I’m doing, whether I’m answering emails or paying bills. I have to just listen…
Something isn’t just quite how you planned
Something isn’t just like it ever seemed
This is not what you had planned
And then, at the 1:10 mark, the song becomes memorable as Whelan uncorks what’s been bottled up, singing “Babe!”—correction: wailing—for six, long, throat-scraping seconds. There’s no piano: only his voice spilling out from the speakers. At this moment of the song, I cannot help but think of Lorca, of what “surges up, inside, from the soles of [his] feet.” My skin feels electric.
“This Is Not What You Had Planned” is not perfect. It’s better than that. It has duende.
NER Digital is a creative writing series for the web. David Hernandez is the recipient of a 2011 NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry. Hoodwinked, his third collection, won the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry and was published by Sarabande Books. His other collections include Always Danger (Southern Illinois University Press, 2006), winner of the Crab Orchard Series, and A House Waiting for Music (Tupelo Press, 2003). His poems have appeared in FIELD, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, The Missouri Review, TriQuarterly, The Southern Review, and Poetry Daily. David lives in Long Beach and is married to writer Lisa Glatt. For more information, visit his website at www.DavidAHernandez.com.