Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Skeptical Roger Angell

Roger Angell in 1954
I recently stumbled across an interesting mid-1950s essay at This I Believe, the popular radio program originally hosted by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s and revived by National Public Radio a decade or so ago. The contributor here, reading "The Dignity of Man," is none other than Roger Angell, at the time an editor at Holiday magazine and, as the introduction informs us, "a frequent contributor of fiction to The New Yorker." A year or two before he joined The New Yorker as an editor, in 1956, and nearly a decade before he began writing about baseball for that magazine, Angell essays the nature of humankind from his suburban perch over the Hudson River in Palisades, New York. The writing is somewhat stiff and unusually abstract, and the tone is serious-sober for Angell, but already intact, and characteristic, are Angell's deep affection for skepticism and his appreciation for the surprising gift of empathy—two of the most valuable tools for a great nonfiction writer, it seems to me.

Two excerpts:
And this is not, it seems to me, a time of certainty, of faiths easily espoused and firmly held. I suspect that this is a good thing, because I am a great believer in skepticism. I think that a man should grasp a belief warily and carry it gingerly. He should always be ready to test its worth against experience and to abandon it without regret if it begins to look ugly, expensive or cumbersome.
Once in a while, in my dealings with other men, an astonishing thing happens. Something I cannot get out of my head. Suddenly I see straight into a man and find, to my shock, only myself there. This is a rare moment, because men do not often give themselves away, only by accident or in times of great pain and happiness. In that moment, if I dare to look, I see in any man my own desires, my deeply hidden beliefs, my need for love, my inner seriousness, and my hope. This moment is a lightning flash in an unlit room that suddenly illuminates all. After it is gone, I still see, pressed on my eyes for a few instants, the shape, the bright highlights and the true vivid colors of the dark room in which I sit. In that moment, the dignity of man is an almost visible thing.
A rare recording of Angell from a relatively obscure era in his professional life, the three-minute essay is worth listening to in full.

Friday, September 16, 2016

R&R in Technicolor

You know that moment in The Wizard of Oz when the sepia-tinted black and white transitions to glorious Technicolor? The :59 mark in this song always affected me the same way. Depending on your taste, or perhaps your fondness for two-tiered harpsichords or your political stance on Eric Clapton, you might feel differently. And on some days it reverse for me, the raw, chugging middle throwing the brightly-colored exoticism of the opening verse and chorus into harsh, below-ground B&W rumble. Such is the glory of mid-1960s rock and roll: B&W to color to B&W in the same song.

Sleeve pic via Psychedelic sixties.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Nostalgia, Play Loud

Rock and roll and nostalgia go hand in hand. The songs you loved at [insert age here] can't possibly matter as much to someone born ten years younger or ten years older than you, and each of them has songs that have indelibly soundtracked their lives and who look at you, baffled, when you don't share their passion. Nostalgia is a tattoo that you can't remove, and most of the time, we don't want to.

Carrie Brownstein's 2015 memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is a terrific account of Brownstein's early and ongoing identification with punk rock and creative expressions. On one level a chronological narrative of Sleater-Kinney—loaded with details of road-and-stage exploits, band dynamics, Pacific NW Riot grrrl history, fly-on-the-wall songwriting and recording sessions with fellow members Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss—the book also allows Brownstein to maturely essay more personal questions about queerness, gender performance, friendship, intimacy, and personal integrity. Brownstein's references throughout the book to Joseph Mitchell, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, and The New Yorker didn't surprise me: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is a very well-written, literate and cerebral book, but thankfully Brownstein doesn't sacrifice anecdote or evocative details. Her tone is humble—self-deprecating without false humility—and her style conversational, though it suffers in places from over-writing—8 out of 10 Brownstein metaphors land, on average, but when they do they are memorable. (It also didn't surprise me that during Sleater-Kinney's hiatus in the late 90s Brownstein considered studying nonfiction writing in an MFA program.) 

One of my favorite passages comes early in the book when Brownstein—first and always a fan of music—writes very wisely about the value and limitations of nostalgia:
Nostalgia is so certain: the sense of familiarity it instills makes us feel like we know ourselves, like we’ve lived. To get a sense that we have already journeyed through something—survived it, experienced it—is often so much easier and less messy than the task of currently living through something. Though hard to grasp, nostalgia is elating to bask in—temporarily restoring color to the past. It creates a sense memory that momentarily simulates context. Nostalgia is recall without the criticism of the present day, all the good parts, memory without the pain. Finally, nostalgia asks so little of us, just to be noticed and revisited; it doesn't require the difficult task of negotiation, the heartache and uncertainty that the present does.

Now l can’t listen to some of these records alone, in my house that l have cleaned and organized, books arranged just so, sheets washed. The sounds don’t hold up. In these cases, fandom is contextual and experiential: it’s not that it happened, it’s that you were there. It’s site-specific, age-specific. Being a fan has to do with the surroundings, and to divorce the sounds from that context often feels distancing, disorienting, but mostly disappointing. I think of all the times I’ve had a friend over and pulled out records from high school or college, ready for the album to change someone’s life the way it changed mine. I watch my friend’s face, waiting eagerly for the “aha!” moment to arrive, only to realize that my affection for this intentionally off-key singing, saggy bass sound, and lyrics about bunnies isn’t quite the revelation it was fifteen years ago. “You had to be there” is not always a gloat or admonishment—often it’s an explanation for why something sounds utterly terrible.
Carrie Brownstein and Jessica Hopper

This passage put me in mind of Jessica Hopper, author of the pointedly-titled The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, also published last year. Gathered from pieces Hopper's written over the past fifteen years for magazines and online sites such as SPIN, Chicago Reader, Village Voice, and her own tumblr, Tinyluckygenius, Hopper's pieces are smart, meaningful, and affecting. She writes conventionally solid album reviews as well as evocative profile pieces, and in between personal essays, all of it benefiting from the intelligence of a fan who's steeped in historical knowledge and the perspective it grants. My favorite essay in the book is "Emo: Where the Girls Aren't," first published in Punk Planet in 2003. Hopper's a powerful writer when she zooms in on individuals in the middle of living inside of historic moments, in this case the rise of punk feminism in the 1990s. Hopper, too, writes about nostalgia in her book, devoting an entire section to it, with essays on Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Dinosaur, Jr., and Hole, but in this essay she comes at nostalgia from a different angle than Brownstein; Hopper's nostalgia carries some troubling questions. Writing about her early experiences with punk rock and emo, Hopper turns her attention to the generation of hungry and wide-eyed female fans who came after her:
My deepest concerns about the lingering effects of emo is not so much for myself or for my friends—we have refuge in our personal-political platforms and deep-crated record collections—but rather for the teenage girls I see crowding front and center at emo shows. The ones who for whom this is their inaugural introduction to the underground, whose gateway may have been through Weezer or the Vagrant America tour or maybe Dashboard Confessional's Unplugged. The ones who are seeking music out, who are wanting to stake some claim to punk rock, or an underground avenue, for a way out, a way under, to sate the seemingly unquenchable, nameless need—the same need I know I came to punk rock with. Emo is the province of the young, their foundation is fresh-laid, my concern is for people who have no other previous acquaintance with the underground, save for these bands and their songs.
When Hopper was that age, she too "had a hunger for a music that spoke a language I was just starting to decipher, music that affirmed my ninth grade fuck-you values—music that encouraged me to not allow my budding feminist ways to be bludgeoned by the weight of mainstream, patriarchal culture—I was lucky I was met at the door with things like the Bikini Kill demo, Fugazi and the first Kill Rock Stars comp." She continues, "I was met with polemics and respectful address; I heard my life and concerns in those songs. I was met with girl heroes deep in guitar squall, kicking out the jams under the stage lights. I was being hurtled towards deeper rewards. Records and bands were triggering ideas and inspiration." Hopper knows that she wouldn't be who she is now, as a woman and a fan and a professional, if she "had not had gotten those fundamentals, been presented with those big ideas about what music and, moreover, what life, can be about."

And now Hopper recognizes that at shows she watches the girls up front as much as the band, looking for signs:
I watch them sing along, to see what parts they freak out over. I wonder if this does it for them, if seeing these bands, these dudes on stage, resonates and inspires them to want to pick up a guitar or drum sticks. Or if they just see this as something dudes do, since there are no girls, there is no them up there. I wonder if they see themselves as participants, or only as consumers or—if we reference the songs directly—the consumed. I wonder if this is where music will begin and end for them. If they can be radicalized in spite of this. If being denied keys to the clubhouse is enough to spur them into action.
Hopper acknowledges that she wouldn't have considered starting a band until she saw other women in bands—a clarion call that previous generations of female artists recognize and are grateful for. "It took seeing Babes in Toyland and Bikini Kill to truly throw on the lights, to show me that there was more than one place, one role, for women to occupy, and that our participation was important and vital—it was YOU MATTER writ large," Hopper writes.
I don’t want these front row girls to miss that. I don’t want girls leaving clubs denied of encouragement and potential. As lame as punk rock can be, as hollow as all of our self-serving claims ring—that the culture of punk is truly different somehow than that of median society—at its gnarled foundations still exists the possibilities for connection. There is still the possibility for exposure to radical notions, for punk rock to match up to what many kids dream, or hope for punk DIY to mean. But much of that hinges on the continual presence of radicalized women within the leagues, and those women being encouraged—given reasons to stay, to want to belong—rather than diminished by the music which glues the community together.
Hopper ends her essay with a demand: "Us girls deserve more than one song. We deserve more than one pledge of solidarity. We deserve better songs than any boy will ever write about us."

Nostalgia, from nostos, implies a return home—but more accurately, it's the inability to return to a home that we've defined, often inaccurately, by its absence. (I've weighed in on this most human of impulses here.) Hopper isn't explicitly writing about nostalgia in her piece, but in looking hard at those young women up front rocking out at shows, she's seeing them through her own feelings about, and memories of, herself in that very position, years earlier—nostalgic for a liberating and empowering era that she hopes lives on. Brownstein pulls albums that may or may not rock your world as they did hers; Hopper hopes that what she longingly recalls is happening right now for you. Nostalgia simultaneously redefines our past and our present. Someone should write a song about it.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Autobiography, Drinking As.

The May 25, 1929 issue of The New Yorker featured "A Short Autobiography," a casual by F. Scott Fitzgerald comprised of seventeen brief segments. Four years after The Great Gatsby, seven years before "The Crack-Up," his great Esquire essay about his nervous collapse, Fitzgerald identifies his life's key moments chronologically as seen through wine and cocktail glasses. The list essay spans "four defiant Canadian Club whiskeys at the Susquehanna in Hackensack" in 1913 to the weary admission a decade and a half later of "A feeling that all liquor has been drunk and all it can do for one has been experienced, and yet—...". In between are fondly remembered toasts with champagne, burgundy, brandy, bourbon, red and white wine, sherry, crème de cacao, and "oceans" of ale. Friends and associates drift in the background as blurred accomplices and walk-ons to important occasions. The essay ends with another drink order.

Eleven years later, Fitzgerald would die of a heart attack, his body weakened by years of alcoholism. "A Short Autobiography" reads tragically now, of course, our take on Fitzgerald tempered by a host of things, not the least of which being a wide view of his reckless drinking and a grim understanding of the word "short" in the title. But in the late 1920s, moments from economic and not a little emotional collapse, the merry little essay must've tasted like the first of many drinks, Last Call being an unimaginable nuisance. The opening:


I first read "A Short Autobiography" in My Lost City: Personal Essays, 1920-1940, a terrific collection edited by James West, who assembled the book of autobiographical nonfiction that Fitzgerald had hoped to publish in the mid 1930s but was discouraged from doing so by his editor. West helpfully explains that the "Nathan" in the dedication was the drama critic Jean Nathan, and that the ingredients in Sazerac Cocktails are "absinthe, sugar, bitters, water, and whiskey." I might have to try one.

Photo of Fitzgerald in repose via Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald. Astonishingly, I couldn't a photo of him drinking.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Subterranean Epiphany: Vivian Gornick Rides the Subway

For decades, I've been immoderately obsessed with the New York subway, in part because I don't live or work in the city and can indulge my obsessions on leisurely visits. I try to get to New York a couple of times a year—with my wife Amy, or solo—and when I'm in town I ride the trains as often as I can, for hours. A marvel of engineering and efficiency (nowadays), the subway is an unparalleled way to take a measure of the city's social pulse, an intensive and rich experience I don't quite feel in trains in other American cities (San Fransisco, Chicago, Washington D.C., etc., though I did experience something similar in the crowded and noisy London Underground). The hours I've lost sitting in a front car, gazing forward through grimy glass as the train moves through tunnels under boroughs and the East River, ascends and descends in and out of daylight, arrives at stations. I've even fantasized about moving us to New York and taking a job as a subway conductor—an indication of the urban romanticizing of which I'm unfortunately guilty. I recently finished 722 Miles, Clifton Hood's history of the subway, an engrossing if in places unexciting read, a well-researched account that unfortunately stops short of the subway system's notorious era of mechanical and cultural dilapidation and disrepair, a time period in which I'm especially interested. Then last night I came across "A Ride on the New York Subway," an essay by the great Vivian Gornick, in The Village Voice Anthlogy (1956-1980).

Gornick's essay ran in the December 21, 1972 issue of the Voice, and opens with a familiar note of nightmarish terror at the deleterious condition of the subway. "The New York subways are, and always have been, a kind of Kafkaesque parallel to the life that is lived above ground on the streets of the most quintessential city in the world," Gornick begins.
Each working day of their lives, millions of New Yorkers “willingly” descend hundreds of feet, through huge manholes in the street, into a subterranean world of darkness and gloom; there, in the dimness, they crowd mechanically together in astonishing numbers at the edge of a deep pit riven with tracks of steel fatal to the human touch, along which will hurtle with exhausting irregularity an iron monster spitting flame and noise like some pagan construction designed for the express purpose of intimidating the cowering human; when the monster comes to a temporary halt, doors slide open in its sides, and the men and women at the edge of the pit tumble inside, very much like Jonah tumbling into the whale; the doors then lock shut, and the iron creature goes roaring off down the pitch-black tunnel with its cargo of human prisoners—sullen penitents all: confused, silent, passive-aggressives doomed to an hour or more of suffocating companionship; during which time it becomes extremely difficult for anyone aboard the monster to see his own reflection in the closed faces that are relentlessly jammed, eyeball to eyeball, breath to breath, blackhead to blackhead, up against one another. . . .

But there are times when the subway, like the city itself, seems so grotesque that, indeed, one wonders how this entire enterprise can continue to call itself human. Much less continue.
Vivian Gornick
Gornick's eye for detail is remarkable, such as in this terrific paragraph, which is as evocative as a sharply-focused photograph:
The platform was indescribably filthy; the tile walls surrounding the staircases were streaked with years-old dirt and the graffiti of a thousand greasy marker pens: Johnny and Velda, ’69; The Jets Was Here; Lindsay Sucks; Tony and Maureen, ’71; Benny and Concita Forever; Loreen Is A Cunt; The Black Hawks Can Beat The Shit Outta The Silver Eagles Anytime. On and on it went, in an endless abstraction of red, blue, and black that covered the walls, the staircases, parts of the platform itself. The floor was littered with the overflow of the few trash cans that stood vaguely about: candy wrappers, orange peels, leaky milk cartons, prophylactic wrappers, torn nylon stockings, pellets of chewed gum, discarded junk mail, globbets of spit. The lights in the ceiling were crusted over with webs of dirt that threatened, momentarily, to fall onto the heads of the passengers. The ceiling of the tunnel seemed lower, the walls more porous, the floor harder than ever I remembered; the black metal pillar supports were caked with rust; tiles in the walls on the far side of the tracks had been ripped out, and the plaster within hung loose like a set of nerves that have been severed.
As Gornick scans the station, her feverish reaction intensifies, and she dissociates herself:
I was the only white person on the platform. All around me were New York‘s working-class blacks and Puerto Ricans, pouring down onto the wide, gloomy subway platform from the offices and factories that filled the streets above our heads, jamming the uptown trains that, at the end of a weary working day, would release them some sixty or seventy minutes later into the streets of Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. Their numbers seemed extraordinary to me; I seemed to have no recollection of this many people on the trains, even at this hour. The platform was filled to capacity, and still they kept coming: the strongly muscled young black men who push the heavily loaded dress racks through the streets of the garment district; the fat Puerto Rican women who sit at the machines in the dress factories; the Puerto Rican men, thin and wan, who spend forty hours a week tying packages or keeping track of shipping orders; the black and brown girls who bring home fifty-five dollars on Friday after a mindless day of clerk-typing; the gray-haired messenger boys, the round-shouldered bookkeepers, the lunch-counter waitresses; that whole tight, closed, no-way-out world up there seemed bent on pushing its way down here, onto this grimy black metal construction, and now threatened, nearly, to spill over onto the tracks. . . . I looked around in alarm.
By this point in the essay, even forgiving Gornick the era in which she's writing, the reader might be turned off by Gornick's racist, obsessive attention to cultural otherness, as her fears—mostly, it appears, stoked by imaginary threats—mount and as her self-pitying overheats. Standard-issue brow-skinned juvenile delinquents and a young black man, to Gornick clearly high on drugs, loom nearer and nearer, and Gornick sees no one to aid her, only faces battered by exhaustion and lost to defensive and intractable self-absoprtion.

Then, Gornick makes eye contact with a woman whom she'd noticed in passing earlier in the essay. "Abruptly, I looked up and out into the platform crowd," she writes, "and there, still leaning against the metal pillar, was the young Puerto Rican woman in the pink plastic slicker—staring at me. What’s this? I thought, and looked back at her."
Our eyes locked. For a length of time which felt eerily like a slow-motion sequence, that strange mutual stare endured, creating a sudden, curious silence in the midst of all this turmoil. And then—as in a dream that may take only eleven seconds to unfold but gives the illusion of hours passing—I felt the entirety of my immediate experience here on this subway platform tumbling, quickly-slowly, through a kaleidoscope of altered meaning, spinning and jerking inside my head, buzzing through the unnatural silence that now surrounded and penetrated me.

For, there in the eyes of the young Puerto Rican woman staring at me, I could see my own face reflected. I could see all of my thoughts and feelings of the last twenty minutes being summed up and appraised. I could see the mixture of mockery and sympathy in her eyes that said so clearly and so honestly what I had not quite been able to say to myself. “We are ‘those people’ to you, aren’t we?” her eyes said, “and all this is happening in another country, isn’t it?” I could see the weary, working-class sophistication with which she “recognized” the entire human scene around her, and the amusement with which she observed middle-class panic. I could see the bitter intelligence that indicated she knew I’d been looking at the people around me as though they were animals in a 200. But, more than any of these things I could see in her face, I could see me in her face. I could see me at seventeen (she was no more than eighteen or nineteen), standing exactly where she now stood, thinking exactly what she was now thinking....
This empathetic communion (felt by Gornick on her end, at least) has an unburdening effect:
The young Puerto Rican woman and I were still staring at each other; I shook my head slightly, and smiled into her face. I wanted to laugh and hug her. I felt free, as though a weight had been lifted from my chest. It wasn’t racism, after all, that I had been experiencing, only a classic instance of “class alienation.” Which, of course, is what New York is all about. . . . How was it possible that in only one short generation I had forgotten who I was, and where I came from? And what I knew of the varieties of human pain experienced behind that annihilating phrase “those people”?
Appalled, Gornick uses this moment to delve into her past and into her Jewishness, a cultural heritage she recalls in her family's own dire and oppressive rides on the subways decades before her, a stigma she now recognizes that she herself was applying to others. This passage is the essay's strength, and it's a turn that I'm glad Gornck makes, as she indoctrinates herself in her own unappealing, knee-jerk behavior, and writes honestly about it. But I'm of two minds about Gornick's subterranean epiphany. Her discovery—led by innate biases and personal history to a surprising and humane recognition—rings true, and feels as if it's the genuine occasion of the essay, but there's a tone of defensiveness also, as if she needs to work extra hard in the first half of the essay to dramatize her revelation in the second half; her descriptions of minorities' unhappy and burdened experiences in the opening, though finally something she understands as spirit cousins to her own past, smacks of overwriting. If Gornick did inappropriately feel as oppressed and ganged-up-upon as she describes in the first half, then she might've done a little more self-interrogating in the second half. But an essay is as imperfect—or as perfect—as the essayist's imperfections. That's why I love the form.

"A Ride on the New York Subway" ends with another moment of communion, unspoken but deeply felt largess from a man whom Gornick had earlier, characteristically, stereotyped. He steers her away from perceived danger on the platform, toward the relative safety of the train car. At the ride's end, Gornick is warmed by her experience of empathy and dignity, and possibly altered:
At 149th Street and Third Avenue, in the Bronx, the train left the tunnel and emerged into the early evening twilight. Half the people in the car in which I was riding went spilling off onto the first elevated station, which is situated in one of the worst black and Puerto Rican slums in the city. The man in the red shirt was one of the last to leave the train. As he reached the door, he suddenly turned and looked at me. The dead cigar was still stuck in his mouth and his eyes were once more expressionless; but he lifted his porkpie hat to me, and lowered his head slightly in my direction. I nodded back. He disappeared through the door. We had spoken not a single word to each other.

For an indication of how much things change to remain the same, check out Colson Whitehead's underappreciated The Colossus of New York from 2004, a smart, kaleidoscopic, essayistic take on the city. Writing three decades after Gornick, Whitehead considers riding the subway in a manner that echoes Gornick's epiphanic experience, his perspective shaped in part from being African American, in part from being a fellow, and weathered, native New Yorker. "This is the fabled journey underground, folks, and it’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better," he writes in the essay's second segment:
On the opposite track it’s a field of greener grass, you gotta beat trains off with a stick. From his secret booth the announcer scares and reassures alternately. The postures on the platform sag or stiffen appropriately. With a dial controlling the amount of static. What are their rooms like, the men at the microphones. One day the fiscal improprieties of the subway announcer’s union will be exposed and that will be the end of the hot tubs and lobster, but until then they break out the bubbly. Look down the tunnel one more time and your behavior will describe a psychiatric disorder. It’s infectious. They take turns looking down into darkness and the platform is a clock: the more people standing dumb, the more time has passed since the last train. The people fall from above into hourglass dunes. Collect like seconds.
Moving forward darkly underground in vastly different times in the city's history, Gornick and Whitehead arrive at similar destinations.


Finally: some terrific photos of New York subway history here and here.

Top photo via Historical Images of New York City Subway.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Language Lessons with Guitar Wolf

Guitar Wolf bludgeoned the crowd at Beat Kitchen last night, hitting the stage wearing Godzilla masks and departing after an hour and a half of ear-ringing mania, assisted by handlers to the dressing room as if they were walking wounded. (One aspect of Beat Kitchen I love: bands need to walk through the crowd to approach and to leave the stage, like ballplayers had to do after games at the old Polo Grounds, reaching the clubhouse in center field.) This was my first time seeing "Japanese Greatest Jet Rock Rock & Roll Band," and I was staggered by their stamina and commitment to intensely-played garage punk; they never let up the roar, and that they do this every night, and have been since 1987, is pretty remarkable. If you were new to their sound, you'd maybe recognize a pummeled version of "Summertime Blues," and cocking your ear to guitarist and singer Seji you'd hear, behind his Ultra Man shades, a garbled reference to Lake Michigan and, I think, broken hearts. He smiles often, but at what? It's hard to know, exactly, and the feeling that Seji, bassist U.G., and drummer Toru are in on the sinister joke and a half step ahead of the crowd contributes to the excitement in the room. Really the only words you have to understand are "one," "two," "three," "four," "rock," and "roll." Though Guitar Wolf's two- and three-chord songs are minimal and fiercely attacked, they shape-shift onstage, from frantically played one-minute bursts to extended and brutal lo-fi jams, giving Seji the space and time to prowl the stage, douse himself with restorative beer and bottled water, and bait the crowd. (I wonder what a Guitar Wolf rehearsal sounds like.) The highlight of the show began with an intensely earnest, and hilarious, thumb war among Seji and a few up front; the winner jumped onstage and, taking over Seji's guitar, shred deliriously while a grinning Seji screamed commands at him. At one point, it felt as if some sort of sacrifice might occur, and I wondered if the guy knew what he was in for. The mosh pit up front was roiling. Later I spied the drummer Toru leaning on his hi-hat, exhausted, but the band was astonishingly tight and on point all night, navigating between eighth-note thrashing and showy, James Brown-like stops. It was maybe a bit much; I don't know that Guitar Wolf's set would've suffered by being trimmed a half hour or so. The last third of the set felt sadistic. They won! We surrender!

My favorite moment of the night occurred during opener Hans Condor's set. A terrific power trio hailing from Nashville, their riffing lo-fi arena rock had the crowd moving, and guitarist and singer Chazz Kaster, who looks a bit like a teen going as David Crosby for Halloween, wasn't afraid to leap from the stage and witness first hand what his band had detonated. At one point during a break down he mock-heroically surveyed the crowd, eventually pointing at a guy who was summarily given Kaster's guitar to play on the floor. At first he simply, sheepishly, held on to the Ibanez, but Kaster was having none of this. "You won the guitar! Play it! PLAY IT!!" he screamed. After a few bars of good-humored thrashing, the mood turned a bit dramatic as Kaster made a motion for the front of the crowd to clear out; he pointed to the guy and shouted "Ready? On four!" It felt as if no one, least of all the dude on the floor, knew what was happening, or what was meant to happen. Kaster counted to four and took a running leap from the stage as the guy threw the guitar in the air; Kaster caught it in mid-air and landed on his knees, shredding wildly, not missing a note. It was hilarious, awesome, and felt utterly unpredictable—if it's shtick, I don't care. It was a fantastic rock and roll moment. I hope they try it again tonight. And I hope it lands.

Hans Condor at Beat Kitchen. Photo by

Saturday, September 3, 2016


In recognition of the Fleshtones' 40th anniversary in May of this year, I've been combing through the Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band and online archives for some little-seen nuggets. The band's label, Yep Roc, has helped the cause: this swank stainless steel flask came in a bundle with the band's new album, The Band Drinks For Free. The perfect thing to sneak in to the next show.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Whole Point of the Weekend

In the latest issue of the dependably great Ugly Things, Richie Unterberger profiles the Yardbirds' co-founder and bass player Paul Samwell-Smith. It's a dense and informative must-read, packed with details of the Yardbirds' history. Samwell-Smith is lively and candid, and his memory is sharp. At one point, he discourses on the purpose of the recording studio the mid-1960s, as he saw it: “I think we regarded the recording process as entirely different from the live shows." He adds,
The songs changed quite dramatically every night anyway—"Smokestack Lightnin'" would sometimes go on for ten or even fifteen minutes; "I'm a Man" likewise. That was the point and purpose of playing live. The recording studio was for a different purpose. I remember driving around London with Jeff Beck in his car, which had a record player in the front (yes, a record player), listening to the Mamas & the Papas singing "Monday, Monday," and Brian Wi1son’s "Good Vibrations" from the Beach Boys, or so many of the Beatles recordings— "A Day in the Life," "Yesterday," "Norwegian Wood." That is what the recording studio was for in my eyes—not trying to nail a "live" performance.
A few graphs earlier, remembering the ferocity of the Yardbirds (and another like-spirited band, the Rolling Stones) onstage, Samwell-Smith nails the palpable thrills of live shows, especially in small, sweaty places like the Crawdaddy: "It was fun to see several hundred young people come in to the Crawdaddy club on a Saturday night and just let go." He adds,
When we went to see the Rolling Stones playing at the Crawdaddy or the Station Hotel in Richmond, in the very early days, a lot of the audience would stand at the front just by the stage and just drop their heads down and shake them frantically at these crucial climactic moments, or they would be hanging from the rafters up in the (low) ceiling doing a similar thing. This was an important part of the whole experience. And with a couple of drinks inside, well, it was very exciting. So when we played live we were often trying to get the audience to rave like that. It was the whole point of Friday/ Saturday night.
Great stuff. Dig the Yardbirds live here and grab the new Ugly Things here.

Photo of crowd at the Crawdaddy, undated, via Welcome To Carnaby Street, where the photo is credited to Jeremy Fletcher.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Baseball: I'll Go Back

"The Old Roman" turns away from the field at soon-to-be-dubbed Guaranteed Rate Field.
Fine pitching on display at U.S. Cellular Field last night, as the White Sox ace Chris Sale faced the Seattle Mariners' ace Felix Hernandez. King Felix was removed after loading the bases in the 8th inning; Sale pitched a complete game. Guess who lost?

Truth be told, the Mariners put good wood on Sale for much of the night, lifting several long fly oits, banging loud doubles off of the wall; Franklin Guitierrez smacked a homer in the second. The Sox didn't help Sale much against Fernandez, with Todd Frazier and Avisail Garcia each running into outs after being caught off first; the Sox loaded the bases in the 8th, but J.B. Shuck was forced at home via a nifty play by Mariners third baseman Shawn O'Malley, and Jose Abreu popped up in foul territory to end the inning. Hernandez, with his square shoulders, thin legs, and high socks, struts on the mound regally, overseeing his denizens, befitting his nickname. He was pissed at himself for walking Eaton and juicing the bases, but is there any American League pitcher who pisses off batters more than Sale? He struck out fourteen last night, and at least a half dozen of his victims spun away from the plate and stalked back to the dugout trailing baffled fury behind them. Sale's sliders, when he kept them down, were untouchable. More than once he kicked the dirt around the mound, staring down impatiently after dealing yet another devastating slider strikeout, and I have to wonder if the Sox offensive ineptitude is getting to him.

As always, I enjoyed watching Jose Abreu. When seen up close from the along first base line, he gives the impression at the plate of a poised alley fighter, cornered but confident, ready to strike, his back leg tapping the ground for timing and power. Alas, his feeble first-swing pop up in the eighth was deflating, and—something you don't see on television—he stood at the plate in quiet disbelief for what felt like a minute, before picking up his bat and trudging to the dugout to grab his glove, the personification of dejection, It's been that kind of year. Mariners' reliever Edwin Diaz's pitches hit 100 on the radar gun in the 9th, and the Sox were finished.

Chris Sale and Felix Hernandez hard at work.


I have to admit, with mild embarrassment, that that 8th inning crushed me, and I childishly brought the disappointment with me out of the park. Driving west along Pershing Road, past crumbling blocks of enormous, empty warehouses and abandoned store fronts, churlish at the amount of money US. Cellular Field again soaked me for, I questioned my fanly allegiance to the White Sox, a team that I adopted, a team that's been "mired in mediocrity," to quote General Manager Rick Hahn, for years. The empty, sour-yellow blocks did not lighten my mood, and of course it began to rain. But by the time I turned on Western Avenue, I was able to objectively admit that civic disrepair has nothing to do with baseball, that I'd been more than a little precious. It's silly what a game can do to me, how watching millionaires play can haul me from literal edge-of-seat excitement to glowering disappointment. The ride home to DeKalb and lots of Stones on the iPod helped, and I burdened Amy with my blues less than I might have. I'll go back before the season's over, and submit again to the absurd fun of it all.
Celebrating Todd Frazier's homer in the 7th. Too little, too late.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Fleshtones' Super Cap

In recognition of the Fleshtones' 40th anniversary in May of this year, I've been combing through the Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band and online archives for some little-seen nuggets. Following the release of Hexbreaker! in 1983, the Fleshtones signed a sponsorship deal with Miller Beer in the national Miller Rock Network, a promotional boon that gave the band coast-to-coast exposure and tons of free equipment and gear—and the odd promotional item, such as this swank Fleshtones cap, perfect for hiding that big 80s hair. Thanks to photographer and Super Rock fan Jimmy Cohrssen, who generously sent me the cap.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Lydia Loveless Stays Real

If you were distractedly listening to Lydia Loveless's new album Real, heard her sing the lines, "How can love like this exist? It gets more perfect with every kiss," and worried that she'd hired songwriters fired by American Idol castoffs, fear not. The following lines:
Now I'm walking away I guess I don't understand
Why someone like you would be cruel
I don't know what the truth is but
You give me every reason to fall out of everlasting arms
remind you that this is a Loveless song, where romance is often undercut by a turn toward confusion, ruefulness, or liberation that always feels honest. On her fourth album, recorded in Loveless's hometown of Columbus, Ohio, co-producer Joe Viers has smoothed the group's sound a bit; gone is the reckless cowpunk bar-band sound of earlier records, replaced with studio finesse and laid-back pop grooves, but Loveless's yearning twang is intact, and as affecting and powerful as ever. As before, Loveless is singing about boys and sex and love, about the ideal and the bitterly real, and the cynical humor to be found in it all. "I know just what you do, I know just how it feels when you make it seem real," she sings in the title track.

I'm a fan; her show at The House (RIP) in DeKalb last fall was one of the best I've seen in years. Happily, onstage Loveless and the fellas behind her (Todd May on vocals, guitars, and keys, Ben Lamb on bass, Jay Gasper on guitars, pedal steel, and keys, and George Hondroulis on drums and percussion) play with raw edges and humorous abandon; her songs benefit from that kind of loose-limbed barreling sound, and several cuts on Real suffer from studio claustrophobia and, though Loveless maintains a sure grip on her subjects, a bit of a sonic identity crisis. On the strongest songs—"Longer," "Heaven," "Out On Love," "Clumps," the title track—Loveless's voices cuts through the gray studio weather and adds pulse and personality. She's especially effective solo and acoustic (no knock against her band), as in "Clumps," where she gives the impression of having rushed to the studio with the song, anxious to track its emotional interior before she'd had much time to flesh out a band arrangement.

The greatest cut on Real is "Midwestern Guys." Loveless is a born-and-raised Buckeye, and even though I've lived in Ohio and Illinois for most of my adult life, I still feel like an East Coast Guy, and I'm taken by her take on the men who grow up here. Recently she discussed the song's origins with David Anthony at A.V. Club: "I was thinking about it when I was writing that one, the fact that most of my friends are middle-aged men," she said. "I was laughing at myself and thinking about how those are my girlfriends—older dudes—and how they all sort of have the same story and the same upbringing."
A few of the guys in my band went to school together or grew up near each other, and I love sitting in the van listening to their weird rural Ohio school stories. Particularly Ben [Lamb, bassist], there was one story that he told me that was the trigger for that song. He had a half-brother who was doing some drug up in a tree and fell out and died. That inspired one of the verses, which ended up getting cut from the song. Maybe it was too depressing. But I don’t know, just the boredom of the ’80s and how everyone was driving around drunk, and the guys always talk about how at least two times a year people would drive into a tree. I listen to their stories and wonder how they survived. It’s a tribute to all my sensitive guy friends that are weird.
Wry, yearning, haunted, and packed with narrative detail that ignite moments, "Midwestern Guys" is prime Loveless. Though I wish she'd done more with the chorus then simply repeat the tile phrase, the details in the verses add poignancy to that litany. She addresses a man pretty common to her songs, someone to whom she's maybe attracted but of whom she's also wary, burned by his type before even as she finds it hard to resist the flame, a guy she studies because he tells her something even though neither he nor she can articulate what that is.
And after it gets dark you want to go look at the stars,
Aw, you sure know the way to my heart honey
You wanna make love, not fuck, in Schiller Park
That's how romantic you are, yeah.
The next verse gets even more explicit:
And tell me all about '83
It was a long time ago, you can sure say that again to me
All the lives lost to Natty Light in a tree
You played Pyromania until she got down on her knees between your thighs
Oh you Midwestern guys.
It's hard to know, behind the song's careful pace and the lilting melody, what the singer makes of this guy: is he still hot, or is he a loser? Easy to mock or hard to fathom, and so more attractive because of it? It's great stuff, and "Midwestern Guys," in its humor, sexiness, and longing, is one of Loveless's finest songs.
Her Twitter feed's worth following, too:

"I'd rather be lonely than ashamed." she sings in "Bilbao," a song whose prettiness is made complex by lines just like that one, and on "European" she nails the intersection of mind and body, a favorite place to linger for Loveless: "Honey, come on, I thought I was broken, then you turned me on." At its best, Real confirms that Loveless is one of our finest songwriters, that her wise, honest, and skeptical take on men and women and the lives they enrich and fuck up is always worth hearing.

You can stream Real at NPR's First Listen here.

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