Thursday, September 19, 2019

Prolonged and glittering

In honor of Roger Angell's 99th birthday, a paragraph from his piece "La Vida," which appeared in his 1988 book, Season Ticket. “Baseball is not life itself, although the resemblance keeps coming up. It’s probably a good idea to keep the two sorted out,"
but old fans, if they’re anything like me, can’t help noticing how cunningly our game replicates the larger schedule, with its beguiling April optimism; the cheerful roughhouse of June; the grinding, serious, unending (surely) business of midsummer; the September settling of accounts, when hopes must be traded in for philosophies or brave smiles; and then the abrupt running-down of autumn, when we wish for—almost demand—a prolonged and glittering final adventure just before the curtain. 
I made certain to give Roger the last word in my book, No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and Life in Baseball Writing:
I’m not retired, which is good. So I’ll keep at it. There will always be obituaries. At my age you write a lot of farewells.

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Saturday, September 14, 2019

Minor griefs, cont'd

For a few years after high school I worked at Baskin-Robbins in Rockville, and then later Bethesda, Maryland. I dreaded the weekend afternoon shifts, always packed with customers in the warm months. Occasionally I remember, with not a little shame, a man who used to stop in—though stop in was a delicate proposition for him, as he'd only enter the store if there were no children present. On more than one occasion we'd watch as he'd walk slowly past the large store window, peer in to make sure that no children were inside (the odd grown up was fine, it seemed), shuffle toward the door, and then literally grimace in pain when an unexpected small child would bound toward the store ahead of a parent or friend. He'd beat a hasty retreat, but linger on the sidewalk, his hands in the pockets of his ill-fitting coat, and wait, with a pained expression on his face. Naturally, his weirdness became fodder for us bored and resentful teenage employees. Some of us (though not me) would openly taunt him and jeer at him, immobile on the sidewalk as if mired in glue, but I confess to silently, childishly hoping that a rambunctious kid would suddenly appear after he'd steel up the courage to enter the store. The plainest way I can express it now is that I got off on his suffering. I was less cruel to him outwardly than some of my co-workers (and some of the customers, if I'm remembering correctly) but still I'd hate to see what my face betrayed whenever he'd show up—the four o'clock weirdo—and any measure of sympathy I might've held gave in to the much stronger, indulgent desire to rubberneck this man's strange problem. I don't think that I'll ever forget the look on his face as he loitered outside—some blend of desire, embarrassment, and genuine suffering. He really—he merely—wanted some ice cream, but for whatever reason couldn't bear to buy, let alone eat, it if kids were present. At the time we self-righteously diagnosed him as a deviant, a kind of anti-pedophile who fetishized young kids by rendering them toxic (though we were hardly this objectively "smart"-sounding in our gossiping). He looked mean but also helpless about it, and so became a butt of our jokes. Decades later I don't know what possessed this man, why he couldn't enjoy a simple tasty diversion among children, but now I'm regrettably and I think eternally sorry for him and his obvious inability to live in the world the way the world offered itself. Maybe he was a grouch, or worse a sorry and cruel man, but he was also weirdly tender and mild in his manner—yet in my childish imagination I never allowed for any other possibility but "freak." Maybe he was sad and deeply ashamed of his compulsion, and couldn't control it, was far more innocent than we imagined. Maybe he wanted to be able to be around kids, but I'll never know. I never let him in.


Photo via Villa Skaar.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

That unseen wall

I've been listening to a lot of Edwin Starr lately. Most bio sketches will observe that Starr never received the level of fame and recognition that he was due; it's true that, although everyone knows "War," not everyone knows Starr's name—he's not on par with the Smokey Robinsons and the Marvin Gayes in Tamla Motown iconography. But his voice and interpretive skills were among the strongest and most enduring that the label ever featured. A ferocious singer with controlled yet extraordinary dynamics, Starr possessed vocals that were frightening in their righteousness and power. He died in 2003.

These days I'm obsessing over the track "Time" from War & Peace, released in 1970 (co-written by Starr with Richard "Popcorn" Wylie and Wade Marcus, it was also issued as a single as the follow-up to "War")The arrangement, propelled by the peerless Funk Brothers, is a sonic illustration of form nearly conquering content. The song begins with a chiming, and charming, tick-tock over a metronomic hi-hat; horns enter in the fifth measure playing descending notes until Starr enters, looks around with disgust, and commands "Well, well, well, well well well." Pummeled by a driving, headlong, full band rush into the first verse, that clock up on the wall's destroyed—though its looming presence is never absent from the song.

Oh let me tell ya. An emboldened Starr refers to the time of the second-hand moving implacably on the clock face, yes:
Time is the one thing everybody feels
It just expires with no regards to years
but also to the time of eras and moods and movements:
They say time can bring about a change—listen!
But I ain't see a doggone thing
"That's what they tell me: It takes time," Starr laments, his patience growing thinner with each verse. The problem?
"It's in the answer," that's what people say
But it looks like peace is getting further away
"Together we stand, and divided we fall / But we are still divided by that unseen wall" is one of the great lyric couplets of the late 60s/early 70s, a devastating comment on both the potential that time offers and the speed at which time is wasted, the unseen wall created by the spin of the earth and the bigotry and short-sightedness of the folks spinning upon it. This is a seriously pissed-off song, Starr's ferocity echoed in the relentless tambourine and the fiery backing vocals, clamoring for their own attention. Starr reaches for some measure of optimism in the last verse, but it burns to a crisp, really, under the white-hot heat of his performance. Like so many great songs, the content can't bear the form, which consumes it with its own urgency. ("How much time will it take?" the song pleads.) It's amazing that the musicians cut something this combustible without burning down the studio. A positively stirring recording, it will stand as one of the most powerful songs of its era. We can't solve time, but I'm tempted to give a victory of sorts to Starr.


~~

I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that War & Peace also includes the song to turn up when you've gotten the bitterness out of your system and you're ready to party. Starr's rip through Little Willie John's "All Around The World" (an absurdly fun and funky arrangement that the Fleshtones taught me via their 1981 cover) is the perfect antidote to the grim recognitions in "Time." Fuck the clock on the wall, tomorrow will never come as long as the joint's rocking. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Wait

Given the immediacy of contemporary life—connecting on Skype across oceans in a millisecond, drones bringing food to your front door, Spotify and Wikipedia offering the largest music collection and encyclopedia, respectively, at your fingertips, instant downloads, and the rest—it feels almost morally important to get stopped every once in while at a train crossing. Happens fairly regularly in town and, though it can be mighty annoying, there's something humbling and perspective-shifting in being required to wait, to be still, to not move, to not proceed. You're in a different zone of nowness, one in which a large moving object impedes your path and there's no click or ESC button or scrolling away to save you. It sucks, and it's also marvelous.

Friday, August 30, 2019

A measure of something

The Outnumbered, ca. 1985
Sometimes a song's hook gets in your head and stay there, but not only for a that summer or that long-ago semester or that exotic vacation, but for good. The chorus of the Outnumbered's "I Feel So Sorry Now" is one of those hooks. I came across the band's terrific debut album sometime during my first year as a DJ at WMUC at the University of Maryland. I liked the label, Homestead, which had released great records by Dogmatics, Salem 66, Naked Raygun, the Flies, and Windbreakers, but also some noisy stuff that I didn't dig; happily, the Outnumbered's album was on the lo-fi, playfully reckless janglepop side of the spectrum. And I loved the album's title, Why Are All The Good People Going Crazy, which echoed my and my friends' righteous indignation at all things.

And yet I recall little of the album now but for the chorus of the opening track, which soon after I first heard it I'd hum disconsolately to myself on campus between classes, or heading over to my girlfriend's, or aimlessly walking or driving around. If rock and roll is fun songs about sad stuff, then "I Feel So Sorry Now" is Exhibit A. I played the song weekly on my radio show; the chorus got in me, stuck around, and scored my days and nights as graphically as If I'd written it myself. The four-bar, five-word-cum-singalong phrase became a kind of musical theme for my interior movie, a refrain that'd recur when I felt lonely, regretful, blue, or hopeless—in other words, just about every other day. The chorus disengaged itself from its own song and became a micro-song, all four notes and five seconds of it. Yet what's remarkable to me is that still, thirty-plus years down the line, this refrain will sound in my head in moments of duress, or panic, or emotional anxiety—shitty feelings that are hardly limited to one's twenties—a snippet of melody so deeply ingrained that it's virtually in my DNA, inseparable from my character. Musical skin that was somehow grafted on, and took. I could sing this chorus aloud and the phrase would identify me as surely as my driver's license or blood type.


This is only to say that I marvel at all of this. But why this (admittedly great) tune? Why this chorus of this song written by some record-reviewing college student down in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois? (Jon Ginoli, who wrote the song. later decamped to San Francisco and formed Pansy Division.) Who knows? Right song, right time, right sorry kid who was open to rock and roll's beautiful tendency to sing what you can't yet say, what you can only feel, to provide a recurring theme song to your interior life. I remain in awe of random melodies, sounds, and words becoming as deeply personal—and permanent—to us as our own names and body types, finally, down the years, having little to do with the source song or artist or band anymore. I'm certain that I'll find myself humming this modest, enormous chorus until my dying day. Thanks, Jon.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

No Place I Would Rather Be


If you're a fan of baseball and of the greatest living baseball writer, I hope that you'll consider my book No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing as a complement to the dog days of summer. Available at Amazon, IndieBound, and directly from University of Nebraska Press.

Some praise:
"A rich adventure."—Tom Hoffarth, fartheroffthewall.com 
"[No Place I Would Rather Be] offers a look behind the scenes of a remarkable career in a changing field."—New York Post
"In 2014, Roger Angell was in Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame to receive the J. G. Taylor Spink Award "for meritorious contributions to baseball writing." Joe Bonomo's book offers an infinite number of reasons why this honor was richly deserved. It is a book worth reading."—Richard Crepeau, New York Journal of Books 
"Of the recent books I have read about baseball, Joe Bonomo's book chronicling the career of Roger Angell, No Place I Would Rather Be is one of the best, not only for Bonomo's considerable writing skills, but also for his compelling portrayal of Angell's erudition and unique focus on the 'lesser and sweeter moments' of the sport he loves."—Jill Brennan O'Brien, America Magazine 
“The game of baseball best represents our country’s soul, and no one has chronicled its beauty better than Roger Angell. With only class and eloquence, Roger’s insights have taught us all—starting with sport and extending to humanity.”—Joe Torre, Hall of Famer and four-time World Championship manager of the New York Yankees and MLB’s chief baseball officer 
“Roger Angell is an American treasure. Fans of baseball and the craft of writing will enjoy this inside look at one of the all-time best.”—Tom Verducci, author of The Yankee Years and The Cubs Wa
“Joe Bonomo’s immensely enjoyable book examines Angell’s baseball writing through the decades, shedding welcome light on the forces and events (both in the game and in Angell’s life) that shaped him into the greatest baseball writer of the post–World War II era. It’s an absolute must for any Angell fan and for anyone who digs great baseball writing in general.”—Dan Epstein, author of Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s 
“Joe Bonomo has curated an enjoyable journey through the career and work of Roger Angell, the godfather to generations of outsiders who set out to bring a fresh perspective to baseball coverage. If you’ve ever immersed yourself in Angell’s prose and wondered where his incisive wit, ear for dialogue, and attention to detail came from, or wished to trace the development of recurring themes throughout his oeuvre, No Place I Would Rather Be is well worth your time.”—Jay Jaffe, author of The Cooperstown Casebook and a senior writer for FanGraphs.com

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Unresolved

The Delta Sweete is one of my favorite Bobbie Gentry albums, and hands down my favorite of her album covers. The image of Gentry superimposed over a dilapidated backwoods shack is both of its era and timeless, a graphic illustration of the complications of homesickness, and the album's interested in that uneasy blend of sentimentality and realism. I wrote a few years ago in The Normal School that because The Delta Sweete didn’t match the commercial success of Gentry's debut Ode to Billie Joe, it’s remained a sadly underrated Americana original, an imaginative collection of linked songs about the tensions of Southern life near the close of a tumultuous decade, the bulk of it written by the Mississippi-bred Gentry. (Paired with her 1970 album Local Gentry, The Delta Sweete was reissued in 2006 by the Australian label Raven, and again last year as part of the mammoth and long overdue compilation The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters). The liner notes promised a concept of sorts, narrative songs concerning “the dust, the fragrance, the molasses, grits and grit, the love, sorrow, and the humor of the Delta country…the people, young and old, bad and good, from Monday to Sunday.” Producer Kelly Gordon and arrangers Jimmie Haskel and Shorty Rogers seemed to have had in mind a kind of pop-rococo storyscape, a yoking together of genteel and melancholy steamboat-era strings and brass with earthy, bedrock rural balladry, blues, and soul—a fascinating and illuminating blend of styles.

As with the majority of Gentry's music, the album's mysterious, and not altogether easy to dip into; there's not a killer tune like "Ode to Billie Joe" to anchor the album; rather, the tone's ruminative, kind of distracted. Generally singing low in her register and closed-miked, Gentry chases down ideas. I love the album for that blend, which is echoed in the album cover. (The photograph's credited to both Gordon and George Fields.) A pensive Gentry looms over the ramshackle, leaning structure, both present in the moment and beyond time, recollecting and revisiting. What's the look in her eyes? Regret? Relief? Acceptance? Or something else destined to remain unresolved? It's a beauty of a composition, striking but eternal, both weird and comforting. The very image of nostalgia, that perpetually conflicted desire to return to a place that really only exists in our heads and hearts, the complications smoothed over by the passage of time and the distance between now and then. What we swear we won't miss often ends up consuming us. Cue Gentry's take on "Tobacco Road," below.




Gentry, back cover

Monday, August 19, 2019

Let Me Teach You How


DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—I've been listening to and going to see Reverend Horton Heat since the 1990s, but there'd been quite a gap between my most recent show and last night's at Brauer House in Lombard. I was pleased to see that a road warriors Jim Heath and Jimbo Wallace—complemented by a new (to me) drummer and a visiting keyboard player—can still pack a joint on a Sunday night in the 'burbs, and though the lines of eternal touring and fun are showing on Heath and Wallace's faces, they performed with the same chops, humor, and aim-to-please spirit that they displayed the last time I saw them, many years ago. Heath's leaner, Jimbo's a bit fuller, and they give the impression now of gently-aging blues musicians, playing because they love to play, they love the road, and because they can fill a house on an off night. Heath's dialed back the manic sermonizing and devilish joking a bit, replacing it with an almost intimate pas de deux between his face and his guitar: he's playing as well as I've ever seen him play, the boisterousness now leavened with the eyes-closed bliss of his running leads and extended solos. (He still cracks the odd joke.) I don't know much about Heath's personal life nor how autobiographical his songs are, but you can't convince me his first and truest love isn't his gorgeous orange Gretsch 6120.

The band balanced cuts from their latest album Whole New Life ("Got It in My Pocket," "Hate to See You Cry," "Ride Before the Fall") with road-tested classics ("Psychobilly Freakout," "I'm Mad," "I Can't Surf," "Big Red Rocket of Love," "Jimbo Song," "Let Me Teach You How to Eat," the still righteously rocking "400 Bucks"), a ripping cover of "Ace of Spades" and a fun dash through "Viva Las Vegas." They played for nearly two hours, pausing for an intermission. Drummer Arjuna "RJ" Contreras, who's played in the band since 2017, is a blast: always grinning or pulling faces, he looks like a Michelin star chef and plays with real swing and power; during his "solo" late in the gig he strolled the stage, sticks in hand, and played Jimbo's prone bass, a few beer glasses, and the stage monitors as well as his own kit. About Lance Lipinsky, the keyboard player, I should say little. Though he's clearly a gifted player, his showy playing felt gimmicky to me, the last thing that this band of old veterans needs. When Heath announced that Lipinsky had played Jerry Lee Lewis in the Million Dollar Quartet, I pretty much knew what was coming: stagy playing and corny mannerisms with some solid boogie woogie riffing, though to his credit he didn't kick his stool away. (With his exaggerated pompadour he struck me as a cross between Dennis Quaid as Lewis in Great Balls Of Fire and Jean-Ralphio Saperstein from Parks and Recreation, which didn't help things.) Anyway it was my problem: props to Heath for changing things up after a few decades, and the crowd seemed to really dig Lipinsky, who knows how to play to a crowd, though his playing was unfortunately mixed low.

Mid-set, at the finish of a reworked "Five O Ford" (from 1994's Liquor In The Front) Heath looked over at Jimbo and mouthed, "What happened?" He was half-grinning, and I couldn't quite read the moment: was he frustrated by a problem-riddled performance? The song sounded great to my ears. More likely he was was asking how they can still be reinvesting this stuff so well after all these years? At the show's close, Heath announced that Jimbo was celebrating his 30th year with Reverend Horton Heat, and mock-generously offered that Jimbo would be posing for photos. The phones came out, and Jimbo looked pleased. The two hugged it out on stage, a lot of years and miles between them. Afterward I did something I rarely do. I waited until Jimbo came my direction as he was leaving the stage and, waiting my turn, shook his hand, patted him on the shoulder, and said "Congrats." I'm always down to honor Rock and Roll Lifers. Next stop: Iowa City. Then Omaha, Kansas City, St Louis, Oxford, Alabama....










Saturday, August 17, 2019

Tripping with Ellen

In the latest issue if Ugly Things, Glynis Ward speaks with Ellen Sander, a Vermont-based reporter-turned-poet who in 1973 published Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties. I certainly knew Sander's name well, as music writers I admire often cite her, but I'd never read her book until recently. (A couple of months ago Dover reissued an augmented edition of Trips; I read my university's library's copy of the original book, lamentably absent of a chapter on Plaster Caster added to the reissue.) Writing for high-circulation magazines such as Life, VogueSaturday Review and smaller publications as well, Sander was an informed, turned-on, clear-eyed reporter of the late-1960s music scene, her writing both objective and deeply personal, a blend that's catnip to me. I heartily recommend the book if you're interested in on-the-ground descriptions of rock and roll as it was in the process of becoming Rock, its mythology exploding as folk musicians and second-wave pop artists (Beatles, Dylan, Stones, Byrds, et al) were in the throes of both rolling back the limits of pop music and questioning their songs' cultural value.

In the preface, Sander admits to some disbelief that the book ever came into being. "I was merely the collector of anecdotes, the detective of revealing details, the nibbler concocting a fest of my favorite adventures, and everyone's pet road story," she acknowledges. Goaded by her pal David Crosby into collecting the pieces into a book, she soon recognized that her journalistic work told a wider story. "The result is not meant to be a reference work, comprehensive in its scope, or a rigidly detailed history," she writes. "It is a story of a time, parenthesized by ambivalence and apathy, yet bursting with energy, humor, adventure, a search for the ultimate high, a generation with an irrepressible vision, its art and artists and its audience, the substance of its statement. Most importantly, it was written in the period it describes, though published shortly after. What I have given to it—and received from it—is a sampling of the esprit of the rock and roll Sixties, a smattering of the personalities, and impressions of the impact as events were happening."

A bit later she writes:
To all the makers of myths and music and the wonderful madcap scenes surrounding them, the dazzling highs and the inevitable come-downs and the things learned in between, what follows is a love letter to you and the times we lived together. There. was a significant change in awareness during these times, and we are all of us more sensitive to one another today.  
Ellen Sander
Sander wasn't afraid to write about her own fandom and drug use, nor about the loutish behavior of some bands. At the shuddering close of "Can I Borrow Your Razor in Minneapolis," her account written for Life magazine of traveling with Led Zeppelin a U.S. tour, she's assaulted by "two members of the group" who rip her dress off of her, one of the most graphically disturbing things I've read about Rock entitlement and misogyny, and the story deserved to be printed at the time. Sander had grown close to the band in the mutually respectful, professional way that a traveling reporter can, the assault all the more confounding and heartbreaking, if grimly unsurprising, because of that. The closing sentence is striking: "If you walk inside the cages of the zoo you get to see the animals close up, stroke the captive pelts, and mingle with the energy behind the mystique You also get to smell the shit firsthand." In under forty words Sander captures the allure and darkness of rock stardom, especially as experienced by females. I doubt I'll ever forget the passage.

In "Teenism in the Fifties," another terrific read, the observations she makes about being a teenager in the 1950s, though era-specific, are eternal in their mix of frustrations, awe, and righteousness. "One day, in 'hygiene' class, the girls were shown a film on menstruation," she writes. "The same day, in 'shop,' the boys saw a film on V.D. The next day we all saw a film of Hiroshima together. I learned to menstruate and live in terror of the Bomb the same week."
The mushroom cloud flared, it rose and crested in magnificent bursts of fire and power. It was one of the most movingly beautiful sights any one of us had ever seen. Our minds broke in terror and awe. We walked out of the auditorium changed children. Our pants were hot and we were full of paranoia. The cycle of anger, fear, and rebellion had started. We’d had our illusions busted and it was only the beginning.
Later in the essay:
It struck some of us that it was their world and we didn’t care much about admittance to it. There had to be a better way and we had to find it. We looked in other directions. The only thing specifically and exclusively for us was that rock and roll. 
We trembled on the brink of self-awareness while TV, movies, rock and roll, and other media were introducing us to the shudderings of the world. The music grew louder, raunchier; dancing grew crazier and our bodies and minds convulsed in a rapturous motion that was both an escape from, and a direct response to, the precarious spasms of events. We were a generation cut off from the past by total absorption with the present. And our parents thought surely that it was a phase, that we would outgrow it.
~~

My favorite passage in the book comes in "Trips! Lights! Fantastic!", Sander's report on the late-60s L.A. scene. I'm always on the lookout for great definitions of rock and roll, which is a notoriously hard thing to categorize. Ostensibly writing about the Byrds, but by extension all rockin' bands, Sander lands on a brilliant analogy, one I'll probably always visualize when I'm turning up and grooving to some reckless R&R song that sounds as if it might fall apart in the next measure:
There was once a kiddie cartoon in which a bulldog was furiously chasing down two magpies who tormented him. They flew out a twenty-story window and he tore after them in rabid pursuit. He leaped over the windowsill and continued chasing them, hundreds of feet up in the air. All of a sudden he screeched to a stop, looked down, and growled, “This is impossible!”—at which point he went plummeting down to disaster. It’s about the same with a rock and roll group.
Sander today

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

A Day at the Park

There are few things more fun than a spontaneous, I'm-hitting-a-game-today decision, which I made yesterday following Monday night's White Sox-Astros rain delay. The impromptu 3:40 game time assured a thin turnout, but I wasn't there to see the fans (though the guy in front of me keeping score provided entertainment with his shirt alone, pictured below) but to again see Sox starter and Future Hope Dylan Cease, this time taking on the Astros' newly-acquired Zack Greinke. The Sox lost 6-2 and the game was particularly frustrating in that the pitchers' duel that I'd hoped indeed materialized—only a first-pitch homer by George Springer and Jose Altuve's muscled line-drive homer gave the Astros' their thin lead through most of the game—but Sox catcher Welling Castillo was charged with three passed balls, two of which resulted in Astros runs, and the Sox couldn't touch the trio of relievers following Greinke's departure.

Anyway, the weather was beautiful, my seats were superb, and the beer tasted great. Cease pitched well (six innings, five hits, two earned runs), I saw a loud, patented Jose Abreu run-scoring double, and my DeKalb buddy Kevin Goldstein, who's the Astros Director of Pro Scouting, emerged from his office perch to hang with me for a couple of late innings. (‪Also: cheers to the White Sox and Guaranteed Rate Field for playing Rufus and Chaka Khan’s "Tell Me Something Good" during replay reviews, which makes the process somewhat bearable.) All in all a good, late-summer day at the park. But the best part occurred before the game....





~~   

In September of 2016, Chicago-area artist and Founder and President of Arts Alive Chicago Cyd Smillie unveiled "The Leather, The Wood & The Dream," a striking mural along both walls of the 35th Street viaduct running beneath the train tracks just west of Guaranteed Rate Field. A continuation of the previous summer's "Baseball Rules" project, the mural came to life with the assistance of over three-hundred volunteers. Approaching the park, I'd driven the viaduct countless times, but yesterday finally walked it and paid closer attention to Smillie's work. It's a marvel: playful, affectionate, smart, colorful in all senses of the word, the paintings capture a blend of eternal-and-urban baseball history, a dimly-lit art gallery a block away from the park. Hanging with it up close, as loud cars and cheerful, ballpark-headed fans moved past me, turned out to be the highlight of the day. Photos and some mural details here:

Sunday, August 11, 2019

City by water

I live just beyond Chicagoland, and in all my years here have never taken a Chicago lake and river tour, dismissing it foolishly as toursit-y. With my wife's sister in town, we redressed that today, and I never realized how much I wanted to do it until I was out on the water and gazing back at an improbable cityscape. The last-leg trip along the interior river was the coolest—gliding past hulking buildings and under the din of sturdy bridges—that sensation of moving on water so different from driving or walking. There's something eternal about it, a kind of movement outside of time. I could've used some earplugs—our tour guide was loudly amplified and allergic to moments of quiet contemplation—but that might just have been me.

With all due respect to the aforementioned, well-versed guide, the best moment came near the end when a rogue two-person kayak cut recklessly in front of our boat on the river. "Gotta paddle faster!" our ship's captain commanded over his mic, then, when the kayak was safely on the other side of us, he barked loud enough for the whole Riverwalk to hear, "That was really stupid."








Monday, July 29, 2019

Radio On

[SPOILERS BELOW]

I wanted to wait a bit before I considered Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. More specifically, I wanted to go to bed first. Because the phenomenon of awaking from a dream is central to the experience of the movie. Sure enough, what I felt this morning was what I felt last night at the film's finish: the bittersweetness of a pleasant dream yielding to reality. Tarantino's alternate version of the events of August 9, 1969 is a small part of his Tinseltown buddy film, but it's what you leave with. The violent comeuppance visited upon the Manson Family first felt to me tonally at odds with the film—it's over-the-top and horror-film gory, and played for laughs, I think—but a bit later I understood that this is a kind of communal revenge fantasy led by Tarantino against Manson and his followers for the despicable acts that they committed, and its excessiveness felt justified (though the scene's still too long and needlessly explicit). The film's general dismissiveness of Dirty Hippies is of a piece with Tarantino's reclaiming of Sharon Tate, and others victimized like her.

The soundtrack to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is fabulous—driving, blissy AM rock & roll, pop, and folk—and the songs evoke the era in rousing and dimensional ways. I'm always a bit amused when period films cram Top 40 and advertisements into every nook and cranny, but Tarantino reminds us, as he often does, that songs score our lives whether we're really paying attention to them or not. His blend of actual sound and commentary sound—car radio on, radio off, needle dropping onto an album, the Rolling Stones' "Out of Time" remarking upon a passé film career—renders America's late-60s tensions between innocence and the apocalyptic, between bubblegum and acid. (This conflict is made explicit as Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton, cut off from the world via headphone as he lounges in his pool, grooves to the Royal Guardsman's silly "Snoopy vs. The Red Baron" as the bloody havoc goes down in his own house behind him.) The tunes—innocent, portentous, bland, and righteous—blend pleasurably into a day's long hazy afternoon leading to a night on The Strip or in the bedroom, roach in hand. Years later, we have an internal soundtrack to play that brings back those days.

Look at the Billboard Hot 100 for the first week of August, 1969. Layered onto the Tate reclamation are the songs themselves that, in the film's alternate timeline, are now going to score lives lived, rather than lives snuffed out. But this is fantasy. Elsewhere—a county away, states away, Vietnam—the horrors go on, and on. Sadly, there aren't enough movies to rewrite every ghastly act in the world. In a film full of foreboding and violence, some of the most startling moments were when radios were switched off: the silence that follows is the ugly world rushing back.


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