Raindog's salt-and-pepper hair is tucked under the bill of a purple Three Olives Vodka baseball cap that shades a thin pair of glasses and a wiry billy goat beard. His husky, well-more-than-6-foot frame is shrouded in a pea-green hoodie. When he's not putting around town in a rusted-out '84 Olds Cutlass Supreme, he hunches a bit as he limps with the aid of a jagged oak walking stick. And his gruff, low-key demeanor hardly seems like that of the rock-star wordsmith he is.
“I'm lucky if I get 30 good poems all year,” he quips over a pulled-pork sandwich at a restaurant in downtown Long Beach. “They're all good, though–hardly any crap in them.”
The poet, who publishes as RD Armstrong (“Raindog” is a nickname taken from a Tom Waits song), has been a known force on the Long Beach/LA poetry scene since the '90s. He has put out 18 chapbooks and 10 poetry anthologies and has appeared in more than 300 poetry magazines, anthologies, blogs and e-zines. He also operates the Lummox Press, a small press based in Long Beach that published the Lummox Journal for 11 years and celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. As a publisher and a poet, Armstrong's style harkens back to the days of Charles Bukowski, of whom he's a huge fan. However, his writing touches on issues of love in a compassionate way that makes him a bit different from his idol.
Lately, Armstrong has been enjoying an unlikely collaboration with Ikey Owens of Mars Volta and Jack White fame. With Owens' help, he created Eyes Like Mingus, a spoken word EP featuring a selection of his poems. Read aloud by gravelly voiced New Yorker Hank Beukema (a friend), the poems are accompanied by ambient, jazzy tracks produced by Owens–an admirer of Armstrong's work on the local coffeehouse circuit.
Armstrong recalls Owens approaching him as he came off stage at an open mic where he performed both music and poetry. “Ikey said, 'If you ever wanna do recording of some of your music, I'd love to play keyboards,'” he says. “At the time, I didn't know who he was . . . and I was like, 'Okay, that's nice.'”
The poet would eventually bring LBC's indie producer extraordinaire a collection of recorded spoken word in need of some background music. The title piece, “Eyes Like Mingus,” is a vivid list-style poem written for one of his musician friends affected with ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's disease), which jazz great Charles Mingus also struggled with toward the end of his life. Like Mingus, Armstrong's friend was only able to communicate by staring or blinking at him in his final days. Driving along one day, listening to a radio documentary about Mingus, Armstrong was struck by a story told about another musician friend of Mingus' who'd gone to visit him in Mexico, where the legendary bassist had supposedly gone to see a shaman who would try to heal his disease.
“[The friend] was describing [Mingus] and what he looked like and how sad he looked–he couldn't move or talk, and all he could do was look at him,” Armstrong says. Upon hearing the documentary, the poet raced home to write. “When I heard that, something clicked in my head,” he says. “I sat down and wrote the poem in 10 minutes–boom!”
Years after he'd written it, finally getting the chance to record “Eyes Like Mingus” was a cathartic experience for Armstrong. Though he considers himself a poet more than a songwriter, putting his ideas on record has helped him to see the similarities between the two.
“When you write a song, it's like the same process,” Armstrong says. “They just kinda come out–you get an idea or you hear a phrase in your head, and you write it out, and the next thing you know, you got a song.”