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1310 words
SHJ Issue 9
Spring 2014

Dan Turèll+Halfdan E Meets Thomas E. Kennedy:

Reviewed by Dennis Otte

Translated from Danish by Thomas E. Kennedy

Dan Turèll’s old musical buddy, Halfdan E, has had a fine visit from the Danish-American Thomas E. Kennedy—it led to brilliant beat.

A half-decade ago, I visited the Booktrader in Copenhagen’s Skindergade on my usual route through the central city’s antiquarian bookshops, and when I inquired about the best Turèll stock in the city [translator’s note: Dan Turèll, 1946-93, is a vastly popular, Danish, cult, beatnik poet], I was told that there was nothing new on the shelves since the last time I asked, but that the impeccable gentleman standing beside me was in the process of translating a number of Turèll’s poems to English so they could be published in various international magazines—which they in fact had been. I sharpened my ears! The man presented himself as Thomas E. Kennedy, an American author who lives in Denmark and who, in addition to his work with the Turèll translations, had also skillfully translated Henrik Nordbrandt.

The background

At that point the undertaking exclusively was to get the American incarnation of Turèll’s poems transported to the international print media. There still hadn’t been talk (officially at least) about Thomas E. Kennedy’s recording the translations accompanied by Halfdan E’s now legendary music from the two original albums which Halfdan, in the beginning of the 1990s, published with Turèll. The two albums were Watch Out for Your Money (1993) and Happy in Happy Hour (1996). The first came out a half-year before the poet’s death and together the two albums sold the dizzying number of 70,000 copies—unheard of for a Danish record of a musically accompanied poetry reading. But Turèll had with the young Halfdan found a congenial sound architect to support his distinct intonation. The two albums had long since written themselves into Danish folk history and have, with their continual playing on the air and as part of the curriculum of educational institutions, become a part of the modern folk lore. Ask the average Dane to name a Turèll poem and chances are he will name “A Tribute to the Everyday Things,” “Last Walk through the City,” or “I Should Have Been a Taxi Driver”—not least because of the versions on the records.

Thomas E. Kennedy's project

Honestly, that the form should succeed again when it involved the well-known Danish Turèll poems in English, I was a bit skeptical. Because it seemed to me the poems were too Danish, in spite of Turèll’s dedicated infatuation for American things. The very popular lyrics of the Danish rock group Gasolin’ did not manage to be successfully, idiomatically transported to American, even though the effort was allied to Leonard “Skip” Malone, an American who lived in Denmark. Not a bad word about either him or the now defunct Gasolin’ could ever fall from my lips—but Thomas E. Kennedy is now a little bit of a capacity and not Mr. Whoever: he was born in Queens in 1944 (two years before Turèll); his mother was a grammar school teacher, and his father a bank executive with a penchant for poetry and a bit of a poetry aspirant. Kennedy’s father gave the 15-year-old Thomas a copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and it opened the teenager’s eye for literature—he decided that he would be a writer and dropped out of college a couple of years later (sound familiar, Mr. Turèll?). It would take, however, a couple of decades before he, as a 37-year-old in 1981, had his first short story published. He was living then in Denmark and was married to a Danish physician. From that point, Kennedy began to publish hundreds of essays, stories, poems, interviews, and translations in American and European periodicals. That was followed by novels, inter alia the four-volume novel series Copenhagen Quartet, each of which takes place in one of the Danish capital’s seasons, each written in a different style, and each of which can be read independently of one another.

In 2009 this literature devotee sent Halfdan E a letter with his idea: a new record with the new translations set to Halfdan’s masterful music. This was sweet music in the composer’s ears; in his time it had been a declared wish for him and Turèll that their poetry and music should go as far beyond Denmark’s borders as possible. The poet’s death, however, put an end to those plans.

New album

With Thomas E. Kennedy behind the microphone, the poems have to a great extent received a new life and offer themselves vitally to the listener as if there were an old jazz and poetry LP with Kerouac. What could be feared impossible manifests itself to our ears. The language flows unforced and extremely successfully and sharply cut. The music is of high quality, as all Danes have known for 20 years, but what is so fine is that it in no way sounds as though the old recordings have been overdrawn with any artificial English declamation upon it. It is highly tuned, the architect Halfdan has been at work with the reboring of Turèll’s vocal to make room for Kennedy’s. Kennedy, who shines as a surprisingly good poetry reader, whether it involves a swinging presentation such as “I Should Have Been a Taxi Driver” and “Total Euphoria” or a more sotto voce masterpiece like “My TV Drama” and “Last Walk through the City.” It sounds so playfully easy that one completely forgets how difficult it without doubt has been to get the whole thing to work.

It is not a matter of replaying from the basis of the old music, but rather a face-lift and “make-over” so the numbers sound fresh as dew and so they glide around Kennedy’s unswerving poetic delivery. As Kennedy himself intones in his taxi driver translation, “I myself chattily drive with nonchalant perfection with one finger on the wheel”—it is exactly what he does, in the poems and readings. It is surprisingly little that seems forced in its translation and just as few times has a linguistic finesse been untranslatable. In the original version of “Tribute to Everyday,” Turèll says in his final words, “hold da helt ferie [translator’s note: untranslatable—‘hold a whole vacation’?], how I like the everyday things,” which is deftly deleted in “A Tribute to the Everyday Things.” But it doesn’t matter when the music plays. “Vesterbrogade” has become “West Bridge Street” and “Nytorv” “New Square,” but it cannot really be otherwise.

Kennedy does not sound like Turèll. It would also be a misunderstanding to imitate and very unnecessary when he himself is equipped with a so easily understandable and flexible voice which skillfully fits itself to the variety of texts. A little bonus is the accomplished cover art [by Thomas Thorhauge], where the title Dan Turèll+Halfdan E meets Thomas E. Kennedy is reminiscent of the old jazz covers that Turèll liked so much. It doesn’t matter that “Last Walk through the City” is misquoted in the original language.

When Turèll’s first detective novel in 1986 was filmed and shown in the theater, the author was so dissatisfied that he demonstratively stood up from the first row and walked out in protest at the premiere. The same thing would scarcely happen if Turèll had been alive to experience this album’s issue—he would, it seems moreover, have shouted, “One more time!”

Turell Introduction CD
Click image to hear the clip,
“Last Walk Through the City”

Order CD from:


  1. A Tribute to the Everyday Things
  2. My TV Drama
  3. I Should Have Been a Taxi Driver
  4. All These Women
  5. Deep Frost Film
  6. Today's Disney Sermon
  7. Teddy Bear
  8. Total Euphoria
  9. Last Walk Through the City *
  10. Red Harvest
  11. My Friend the Microphone
  12. Dream of Age

* See also Kennedy’s translation of the poem: “Last Walk Through the City”

—CD album was issued on November 11th, 2013, on the PlantSounds label, both as a recording and digitally.

—Review was previously published in Ørevoks: Ord & Toner (Earwax: Words & Toner), 11-25-2013, and is reprinted here in translation by author’s permission.


SHJ Issue 9
Spring 2014

Dennis Otte

Born 1986 in Denmark. Master of Arts in Literature, but not at all academic minded. Lives and breathes for music and poetry and writes the Danish music and literature blog, Ørevoks: Ord & Toner (Earwax: Words & Toner).


“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury