Wednesday, July 30, 2014

If Living Legends Chant And There's No One To Hear...

Yeah, we're here, and we're not going away. The Fleshtones, 1991
In the summer of 1990, the Fleshtones were lost in the wilderness, and I'm not referring to Woodstock, where they were holed up at Dreamland Studios recording their eighth album, Powerstance. I mean the proverbial wilderness: ask the average rock and roll fan about the Fleshtones as the 1990s dawned, and half would say Didn't they break up after Hexbreaker? and the other half would say, Who? The band was as far from mainstream success and visibility as they'd been. Yet here they were, singing about being Living Legends, name-dropping their own songs and stage moves, and dropping in obscure references (Soupy Sales's 1965 novelty hit "The Mouse"). They were without a permanent bass player, but were among friends. Dave Faulkner of Hoodoo Gurus was producing, and Andy Shernoff of the Dictators was filling in on bass. (Ken Fox would join the band for good in July of that year.) But they were lonely. Clearly, most of the world had forgotten about the Fleshtones. Powerstance came out in the UK and Australia in 1991, making not a ripple in the States. A year later, the band would sign with Ichiban, but upstate, escaping New York City's wost murder rate in history, they were in free fall.

And still they were proud. What else is there to do when you're down and out but plug in and turn it up and crow to the few who are listening? "Living Legends" marked Fox's debut with the band, his popping bass heralding better days ahead. You can read all about in in Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band. Are you ready?

     Are you ready? Here’s a song
     Are you ready? Come along
     Are you ready everybody
     are you ready to belong
     in the mighty Hall of Fame?
     Are you ready? Shout your name
     They’re already carved in stone
     We’ve already found a home
     in the solid house of rock
     get ready on your block
     Are you ready in the house?
     Are you ready? Do The Mouse
     Are you ready? Take your place
     as they enter wearing capes
     Are you ready? Shout yeah!

     Living legends are now holding session
     Here’s a lesson for everyone
     Don’t be surprised when you realize
     I’m a Living Legend

     Magic number is 7, prime number is 11
     It’s never been divided, one for all, all for one
     Are you ready for the dawn?
     Are you ready everyone?
     We’re already Hexbreaking. Shout yeah!

     Are you ready? We want more
     Yeah we're ready at the door
     Yeah we're ready, start to dance
     and we strike the Powerstance
     Yeah we're ready, shout it now
     as we’re grooving through the crowd
     Are you ready? Shout yeah!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Friday, July 25, 2014

Roger Angell, Always With Feeling

This Saturday at the Baseball Hall Of Fame in Cooperstown, the great Roger Angell will receive the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the highest honor given by the Baseball Writers Association of America. This award is long overdue. (As anyone who reads No Such Thing As Was knows, I'm an immoderate fan of Angell's work.) I wont waste space with my own words here, except to say that Angell's best writing about baseball is always simultaneously the best writing about living, because he writes with passion, intelligence, economy, and humanity, and because, as in all great writing, his narrow subjects naturally give way his larger subjects. Angell shows us, again and again, how our loves, small or great, full of heartbreaks, disappointments, and diminishing returns, take many shapes. Angell's is diamond-shaped.

Here are three of my favorite passages. From his preface to his 1991 collection Once More Around The Park:
This is a linear sport. Something happens and then something else happens, and then the next man comes up and digs in at the plate. Here’s the pitch, and here, after a pause, is the next. There’s time to write it down in your scorecard or notebook, and then perhaps to look about and reflect on what s starting to happen out there now. It’s not much like the swirl and blur of hockey and basketball, or the highway car crashes of the NFL. Baseball is the writer’s game (there were three hundred and fifty baseball books published in the past year), and its train of thought, we come to sense, is a shuttle, carrying us constantly forward to the next pitch or inning, or to the sudden double into the left-field corner, but we keep hold of the other half of our ticket, for the return trip on the same line. We anticipate happily, and, coming home, reenter an old landscape brightened with fresh colors. Baseball games and plays and mannerisms (even the angle of a cap) fade stubbornly and come to mind unbidden, putting us back in some particular park on that special October afternoon or June evening. The players are as young as ever, and we, perhaps, not yet entirely old.
From "La Vida," an essay he wrote throughout the summer of 1987 that appeared in his fourth baseball book, Season Ticket, in 1988:
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. But nowhere is this metaphor more insistent than in baseball’s sense of slippage; our rueful, fleeting awareness that we tend to pay attention to the wrong things—to last night’s rally and tomorrow’s pitching match-up—while lesser and sweeter moments slide by unperceived.
And this, from Late Innings (1982):
I’m still not entirely sure why the sight of some young pitcher warming up in spring training means so much to me, but I would almost rather watch and write about that than see Reggie Jackson or Pete Rose come up with men on base in some jam-packed, roaring stadium in October. The old coach with his hands in his pockets watching the young man pitching is the same sports cliché—it’s almost a recruiting poster for baseball—but I’m not sure that it should be resisted for that reason. Its suggestions are classical. A mystery is being elucidated before our eyes; something is being handed on. The young man may fail (probably he will), but in time he may do better. One day, he may surprise his tutors, and they will turn and begin to take note of him when he is in the game. He will become better known, possibly famous, he might even become one of the best pitchers ever. It could happen; probably it won’t. Either way, it touches something in us. Because baseball changes so little, it renews itself each year without effort, but always with feeling.
 ~~

At Sports Illustrated, Tom Verducci has written a terrific profile on Angell on the eve of Angell's day in Cooperstown, and here's a short video interview, the first of several that The New Yorker will produce.



UPDATE: MLB posted a couple of minutes of Angell's acceptance speech here.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

US 101


Driving recently from Venice Beach to San Francisco along the epic 101, I was predictably yet intensely awed by the quiet of the desert stretches, big-sky, Breaking Bad silence that emphasized the vanished history of the area. Anyone who's driven on the 101 has noticed the innumerable red bells hanging on poles along the highway (they're known as "Franciscan walking sticks.") The bells commemorate the Jesuit and Franciscan missions that lined the paths between southern and northern California in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The present bells are new-ish (2005), replacing older bells more than a century old, the majority of which had been damaged by vandalism or lost to brutal weather; many simply disappeared as the roads and highways in the area shifted and settled over the centuries. The recent vintage of the bells does nothing to detract from the dignified history, and the bells' appearance every mile or so, as they accumulate, add a strange but welcome tone of cheery solemnity to the desert drive, impressively, stoically red under a blazing sun.

They also, of course, mark that which has vanished for good: the missions as well as the small roads upon which they were established. This loss was amplified in an ugly, common, perfect way by a busted-up, abandoned gas station I spotted as I zoomed north. I pulled off at the next stop and made my way south back to Los Lobos Avenue (I learned later that I was in the small town of San Ardo) and drove up to a quintessentially late-20th century find: an empty gas station in the proverbial middle of nowhere. The faded building looks like it hasn't been in operation for many years. An unidentified desert animal scurried past my feet toward a fenced-off area I was warned away from, a sign assuring me of a vast chemical wasteland leading back toward the hills. The sun was bearing down through weathered signs, one of which still says OPEN.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

What Do You Hear When You Hear The Ramones?

Greil Marcus has always been unimpressed with the Punk Rock scene in New York City of the mid- and late-70s. Thus it was interesting to read his 1977 Village Voice review of the Ramones' third album, Rocket To Russia (archived here) as he begins by praising the band's melodies and hooks‚ particularly on "Rockaway Beach" and "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker," which he smartly compares to Billy Bland's “Let The Little Girl Dance” from 1960. "The melodies are right on the surface, and they’re delicious: you can float on the changes," he writes. Soon enough, though, he arrives at his standard complaint with the band:
The central weakness of the Ramones remains: there’s no conviction in their music. This is particularly evident on a record where they have little to be ironic about (“Cretin Hop” is the only song here that might be called cruel, and that’s pushing it). Foregoing the blood and guts of “Blitzkrieg Bop” or “You’re Gonna Kill That Girl,” the Ramones have made a very straightforward album–which is probably why I like it–but while some may have found them seriously ironic, or ironically serious, in the past, their dropping of this pose/device, and the subject matter that demands it, simply shows up their inability to put emotional force behind what they say. “We’re a Happy Family,” a good song (as written) about a nuclear disaster area (“Daddy’s telling lies/Baby’s eating flies”) might have been truly sordid, but though the Ramones sing as if they mean to communicate bitterness, the song doesn’t cut, nor is it funny.
Down-and-out as they may appear, the Ramones sound spoiled: smug. There’s no conviction in their music because they don’t sing from the inside of the personae they posit; they make insulated music. It’s music that, for me, never puts across the feeling that something’s at stake when the band plays; none of their songs sound as if anything would be lost if they weren’t sung. To say that that’s the point isn’t good enough. It’s why, at this point, the group’s music does not compare to Alice Cooper’s “Eighteen” or just about anything by the Clash or the Sex Pistols. Much as they may intimidate AM radio, the Ramones aren’t dangerous yet. Until they get inside the roles they assume, they won’t be. 
Marcus raises an interesting issue: that rock and roll might matter only to the degree that it might fall apart when played genuinely, needfully, that what's at stake has to be enormous and maybe frightening in its intensity. How do we define R&R conviction, as I-know-it-when-I-feel-it? I'm not sure that I fully agree with Marcus about the Ramones. Yes, the band was cartoony, cultivating leather-and-safety-pin Punk Rock personae, but the departed Dee Dee Ramone and Tommy Ramone wrote songs out of genuine hungers and dysfunction. The Ramones were as much a pop band as a punk rock band; they wanted the airwaves, and they dressed up their genuine borough disaffection, mental duress, and drug addictions behind snottiness, 60s Top 40 radio changes, and caricature. I think that on "I Just Want To Have Something To Do" (on 1978's Road To Ruin), the boredom, angst, and desperation is full of conviction. Whatever persona Joey's singing from here and whatever's at stake, it always sounds real to me, not smug:


~~

Shortly after reading Marcus's review, I listened to the Buzzcocks' great 1978 single "What Do I Get?" The frenetic middle eight in is, to my ears, among the most sincere and desperate in any rock and roll song from the 1970s. Who's the "you"? A girl? The guy who gets the girl?
I only get sleepless nights
Alone here in my half-empty bed
For you things seem to turn out right
I wish, they'd only happen to me instead

Marcus complains that the Ramones can't—or won't—get inside the roles they assume. In "What Do I Get?" Pete Shelley sings as if his body is surprising, maybe embarrassing, him with its admission of need and sorrow (and self-pity). Do we get this level of emotional intensity, of vulnerability wrapped up in passionate, hook-filled rock and roll in the Ramones'? Is that what they were after?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Let Her Dance

Dancing has long been mined as a trope in popular music: irresistible code for letting loose, fucking, establishing and then trespassing boundaries (gender, race, age), and generally having a great time. But I've always loved these three songs for the way they dramatize the ache of not dancing and of waiting to dance—or worse, of watching someone you want to dance with dance with someone else.

Patti Page's well-known version of "Changing Partners," Larry Coleman and Joe Darion's classic, published in 1953. Page's version came out that same year as a single and on the LP The Voice of Pattie Page.



My favorite version of "Change Partners," the Irving Berlin standard. Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim's arrangement from their self-titled 1967 album seems coolly detached, but the singer's soreness is palpably beneath the surface. The best part is the bridge where, in the melody's head-hanging descent in the last line, the singer recognizes that his hopeful plan to gain the girl's attention might not work in the real world. Here's a beautiful live version performed around the time of the album's release.
 

One of my favorite rock and roll songs, Bobby Fuller's terrific 1965 single "Let Her Dance" captures everything about adolescence: desire, frustration, bitterness, pain, and eventual acceptance of the strengthening sacrifices of maturity (plus a little mild revenge). And, yeah, you sure can dance to it. Here's a fantastic performance (with "Another Sad And Lonely Night") from the short-lived Shivaree music variety and dance show. Those go-go dancers just make everything better and worse, don't they.


~~

The desires bottled up in each of these songs range in temperature. In its formal arrangement, Page's gentle waltz assures that she'll eventually meet up again with her partner, though the wait is hard. Sinatra's and Jobim's bossa nova dresses up the singer's needs in cool, urbane threads, but that bridge exposes the thinness of his hopes. And Fuller's four-on-the-floor rocker is nothing short of delirious, and finally moving in that the delirium gives way from hormonal frustration and heartache to acceptance and comeuppance, in two minutes.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Lester Bangs on rabbit costumes and soullessness

Lester Bangs was hardly the only rock and roll critic and fan saying stuff like this in the mid-1970s, but he was among the funniest, and most succinct and honest. I don't expect you to agree with him.

On Emerson, Lake & Palmer:
Here is, like, musical sterility at its pinnacle. A band that has absolutely no soul. There's nothing, there's no feeling in the music. The objective is to play pre-set solos as fast as you possibly can, breakneck speed, and do it for about five hours.
 On Bryan Ferry:
...possibly the most vacuous excuse for a superstar that has yet been presented to us. Now, I became a big Roxy Music fan when they did Stranded, and after that I had the unfortunate experience to meet Mr. Ferry after a party, where I wanted to go up and say, "Bryan Ferry, you're my hero, I love you!. Great record!" This fella, this man, was so bland that he was standing there in this white tuxedo with a cigarette in his hand, not saying anything. Somebody should've shoved him in a corner, shoved a martini in his hand, and forgotten about him. 
And his suspicion of Dick Clark's prediction that a star will emerge every mid-decade is equal parts arrogant, heartbroken, and accurate. Good stuff. Love him or leave him.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Abandoned: Early Mystery

Around the corner from where I was raised in Wheaton, Maryland, a house has been empty for decades. In fact, I can't I remember when this little house on Blueridge Avenue wasn't boarded up. My parents vaguely recall a family living there in the early 1960s when, soon after my parents moved into the neighborhood, my dad and several other men went fundraising for the parish church and knocked on the door; my dad remembers nothing about the family. Sometime soon after, the family disappeared, and the house has remained empty, securely rooted next to a four-story building that included my local barber school (still there, "The Academy of Professional Barber Stylists") and my pediatrician. For years I'd visit the doctor and steal glances at the strange, boarded up red-brick home next door, imagining who might've live there, but unable to conjure faces.

The house remains uninhabited despite noisy, rapid, decades-old gentrification of the area, including a nearby Metro subway stop, a population spike, and new pricey housing. On a website detailing to the value of area buildings the home is listed as "Nonclassifiable Establishment." What a perfect name for this tidy, enormous mystery, a two-story cipher I lived with, wondered after, and dreamed about, for decades—literally for as long as I can remember. It grew to possess a life of its own, silent but powerful, parallel to the moving lives around it, to the dramas small and large in the doctor's office next door, the row of stores across the street, complicating and darkening the baseball cards and Mad Magazine in my hands as I walked by, trying not to notice. My own bustling house was nearby but as if on another planet. My fascination with abandoned buildings no doubt has its roots in this suburban void, a modest riddle blocks from from childhood bedroom that has grown in my mind to mythic proportions.

Remarkably, the owners (Who are they? Someone mows the tiny yard, and the front door looks newish) never sold. But on a recent visit, I noticed that the home and a different office building to the west are fenced in, that side of the block now being razed for new housing. Finally, this home will be demolished. I don't know whether the owners sold, or whether the county took over the property via Eminent Domain. Either way, the next time I visit, it will finally be gone—following after a half century its previous, ghostly tenants who lived there when Kennedy was President, when the neighborhood was young, the tree out front just a sapling.









Sunday, July 6, 2014

Heritage Field, Ernie Harwell, and a parking lot: Baseball's Past Remembered Differently

In 1964, Roger Angell penned a small piece for The New Yorker about the razing of his beloved Polo Grounds. Citing favorite small moments from the old park ("sights and emotions so inconsequential that they will surely slide out of our recollection"), he wrote: "All these we mourn, for their loss constitutes the death of still another neighborhood—"
a small landscape of distinctive and reassuring familiarity. Demolition and alteration are a painful city commonplace, but as our surroundings become more undistinguished and indistinguishable, we sense, at last, that our environs are being replaced by mere events, and we are stabbed by the realization that we may not possess the score cards and record books to help us remember who we are and what we have seen and loved.
In the baseball era of excessive sports data, pitch-by-pitch recaps of obscure decades-old games, and instant replay, the reality of a demolished ballpark is surreal; it's something that really is gone for good, a finality. At many of the new ballparks in recent decades there are subtle or direct references to the parks, eras, and memories they replaced: the footprint of the old park embedded near the new one; banners celebrating franchise players, plaques commemorating celebrated plays. It's a tricky balancing act, maintaining a respectful nod to the past while looking boldly and optimistically to the future. Baseball is dangerously susceptible to nostalgia. Fans may want easier parking, better food, and luxury suites, but they also hunger for vivid ties to the past and their adolescence: it's what Angell felt in 1964 as he looked toward the inevitable Jet Age while fondly recalling Depression-era antiquities at the Polo Grounds. The death of still another neighborhood.

A year ago, I wrote about visiting the old sites of the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field; on a recent trip back to New York City and then Detroit, I visited Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, and old Tiger Stadium to see how the past is rendered in the present.

~~

The new Yankee Stadium opened in 2009, replacing "The House That Ruth Built" after nearly 80 years. I was curious to see how the team honored its illustrious history. As has been widely reported, the Yankees organization, with considerable taxpayer assistance, has bankrolled, designed, and built Heritage Field, a green, sprawling ball field-and-running track public park on the site of the old Yankee Stadium. At the cost of 50 million dollars, Heritage Field was created in part in response to the controversial dismantling of the longstanding public parks that allowed for the behemoth that is the new Stadium. It's apparently serving its purpose well: on the sunny June afternoon I visited, there were both straggly pick-up and crisply-uniformed teams of young ballplayers in the fields, playing and practicing, and the track was dotted with runners young and old, while groups of men and some lone wolves exercised nearby. There are plenty of benches, and clean public bathrooms. The vibe seemed pleasant, grateful, and relaxed. The Yanks were playing the Red Sox that night.

But where are references to the old Stadium? I wanted to stand where Babe, DiMaggio, Mantle, and Reggie stood and swung mightily. I wanted to position myself on the mound was and imagine aiming Guidry's fastball or deceiving with Catfish's change-up. The Stadium footprint is displayed, but subtly: among the ways that Yankees paid homage was to weave blue Desso GrassMaster fibers in one of the new fields to outline the old park's infield. (This was difficult for me to see and comment on, as I didn't want to trespass on occupied fields.) But I was surprised at the lack of specific markers for the old park. There are glittering plaques embedded in the walkways throughout the park commemorating famous Stadium moments, from baseball and football glories to boxing and speeches, but the feeling at Heritage is less historic than forward-looking. In civic and municipal terms, this might be fine and politically appropriate, but the baseball fan in me left disappointed.

One very cool touch: a chunk of the old Stadium frieze that famously ringed the park has been relocated behind the backstop at Heritage Field, one of the few striking reminders of the old park.
A view of the enormous new Stadium from the track and field:




A couple of views of the Stadium from one of several pleasant manicured walkways in Heritage Park:







Views of one of the newly minted ball fields. Behind the backstop is the section of the white frieze from the old Stadium. Beyond that, the elevated 4 train.


~~

On the 7 train to Queens and Citi Field (the new Mets ballpark that opened the same year as new Yankee Stadium) my heart sunk when I realized that the Mets were out of town, but upon arriving I was happy to learn that the team allows visitors to stroll the grounds even if the stadium is dark. As I headed to the parking lots I noticed several groups of people in Mets Plaza or circling the park with  cameras and grins. In the blinding sun I found my destination easily: in parking lot B, behind home plate and along the first base side, the team has embedded the footprint of the old Shea Stadium infield, a much more vivid and fan-friendly homage than anything up in the Bronx.




Here's home plate:



The new park looms nearby.



First:



Second:



Third:
And the pitcher's mound:



(I couldn't resist taking a photo from this perspective: here's first, there's the imagined right field line, there's Bill Buckner, and there goes the ball. "It gets by Buckner!")



The Home Run Apple is Shea-vintage, and proudly, goofily on display in Mets Plaza:




In parking lot B I was able to picture, feet away from the original action, Mookie Wilson streaking home, Ed Kranepool battling the sun on a pop-up, Tom Seaver on the mound. (I resisted running the bases.) Even cooler: I could stand out by second, turn around, and imagine thousands of seats filled with screaming kids as the Beatles launched into "I'm Down." Yes, silly, but a lot of fun, the kind of tingly dreaming an infield footprint affords fans.

~~

A few days later, I stopped in Detroit on my way back to DeKalb. Through fellow ball enthusiasts in a facebook group I'd learned that the original Tiger Stadium infield and outfield remains in Corktown. The stadium was demolished in 2008 and '09, but various civic, cultural, and legal circumstances—a rabid and devoted fan base versus the bottom-line, a battle foregrounding the city's historically depressed financial situation—have ensured that Tiger Stadium's original field is intact, and as "Ernie Harwell Park" is free and open to the public. The "Navin Field Grounds Crew," made up of Tiger Stadium fans, preservationists, and Corktown residents, mows the field, lobbies the city, and sponsors pick-up games.

After driving past blocks of enormous empty factories and office buildings, I parked my car on Michigan Avenue across from a hopefully gleaming Firestone auto care store. At first, disappointed, I skulked around the field's perimeter, kept out by a chain link fence describing the field, until—and I was way down Trumbull Street near right field looking for a way in at this point—I noticed a woman and her two large dogs scampering around the infield. How'd they get in? I hurried back to Michigan Avenue as the woman's boyfriend was emerging from a store across the street. He let me in: the gate's always open, he casually told me. We walked in together and stood near the first base line as he told me a little about the field and its future in limbo, keeping an eye on his dogs chasing rubber balls in the same infield once patrolled by Lou Whitaker and Alan Tramell.

"Incredible," I said, looking around. "I can stand where Ty Cobb stood, where Mark Fidrych pitched...."

Yep," he said. "And my boy [Jack] Morris. Should be in the Hall of Fame. Voting's a fucking joke," he muttered behind his hangover sunglasses, shaking his head and heading over to his girlfriend and their dogs who, tongues lolling, were now imitating Kirk Gibson in right.

Remarkably, what looks and feels like a worn, townie softball field is the place where MLB Hall of Fame players and managers played, and where epic, unforgettable, and historic games took place. There's nothing quite like it. The park's sign is hand-painted, a measure of the hands-on vibe at the old field.







Another hand-painted sign, this one grateful for the '84 World Series victory. It's redolent of the long-gone era of ballpark banners and of the fan-friendly, local energy behind keeping old Tiger Stadium open to the public.



The vintage entry gates along Michigan Avenue remain:







In fact, that's how fans and dogs alike enter the field today:
The old electrical fixtures remain, disused but evocative:

Here's home plate:







The pitcher's mound. (If the traffic along Michigan is light and you listen hard you might hear "The Bird" murmuring.)







First base, looking back toward home:
Second:



Third, looking home:
The view from behind the backstop. The trashcans were overflowing, and pungent, and I had to pause taking pictures as a couple of men with bags came in, picking through the trash for recyclables to claim.



They've painted an Old English "D" out in center field:



 Viva the Corktown Revolution:
 In the real Field of Dreams:





~~

A few hours later as I was driving somewhere in Indiana, Marshall Crenshaw's version of Bobby Fuller's great tune "Never To Be Forgotten" came on the iPod. The irony was terrific: Crenshaw grew up near Detroit, and I remembered the banner in Corktown, and thought about the sometimes-great disparity between the past and the present. We recall baseball stadiums as loud, raucous, and joyful—or as silent, crestfallen, and heartbroken. Either way, they linger vividly in what Roger Angell elsewhere has called the "interior stadium." When a ballpark's footprint is retained, there's a bridging of memories and the place where those memories were born, and to where they've always returned. Standing there is the closest most of us will ever get to the game.

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