The spiel. The back story. Planet Chernobyl. Poem, libretto, opera. There’s more than one Planet Chernobyl. You’ll find that here, in the words of Plymell, the vision of bassist Mike Watt and the orchestrations of singer/composer Petra Haden.
Pelicanman—the band of two, featuring Haden and Watt—is sharing a preview of Planet Chernobyl, the 15-part opera with a libretto by poet Charles Plymell. Hear Part 1 today, April 26, Plymell’s 88th birthday and anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Planet Chernobyl will be available everywhere on June 16 via Org Music, including digitally, CD, black vinyl and transparent blue marble vinyl. Pre-order here.
“Radioactive waves upon California shores, on our watch, in our blood. Oil spills, forever in our waters. Oh, brothers and sisters in catastrophic universe, catastrophic man. Oh, brothers and sisters, catastrophic man.” – Part 1. Read Charley’s full libretto here.
It was only after Plymell read Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices of Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster that he began to put words to his experience. As Plymell explains, “I used to think Allen Ginsberg was ‘off’ with his nuclear power protests, his trying to stop trains full of nuclear waste and stuff. Back then I wasn’t behind Allen, but now I see how nuclear power can kill us all. After reading that book, I couldn’t rest.”
Watt, who first met Charles in 2006 at a poetry reading in Northampton, picked up the initial Chernobyl drafts about seven years ago. “When I first saw it, there were 15 paragraphs,” Mike remembers. “They read like stanzas. Each one was its own little world and kind of like the solar system, like planets around the sun, they were all going around a single idea. I read the 15 stanzas that way, as a libretto, as a story. I saw themes through the whole piece and I wanted to put my bass to it. I let Charley’s words be the thing that informed me and my playing, and when I sent what I’d done to Petra I knew she’d make sure Charley’s words would still be the focus. I knew it was something D. Boon would want to hear.”
“Watt told me it was something I’d love,” says Haden, who has known Mike since she was 12 or 13, at a legendary show in LA when The Minutemen opened for Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. Pelicanman arranged the opera in 2020. Petra adds, “When I got into it, it broke me open, Charley’s words and Mike’s bass. That combination pushed me to do the best I could with what I had at the time––which was GarageBand, my grandmother’s mandolin and my childhood violin. I’ve always wanted to sound like I was in a choir or an orchestra. That’s why I love layering my voice, and layering strings. I wanted to express how Charley felt in making the connections between the accident and everything that’s come after, his reaction as a poet, his telling of how it all made him feel.”
The poem Planet Chernobyl has been published by Three Rooms Press and by Peter Engstler in a bilingual edition in Germany. It’s also available as the closing poem of Plymell’s Tent Shaker Vortex Voice, published by Bottle of Smoke Press, the latest edition offering a blurb from Grant Hart that reads, “Charles Plymell did not bother to shout ‘Eureka!’ when he made this great discovery. His sample of Philosopher’s Stone remains intact.”
Watt has brought three other operas to life: Contemplating the Engine Room (1997), The Secondman’s Middle Stand (2004) and Hyphenated-man (2011).