Saturday, November 10, 2018

Stomping & Tripping

I paid overdue respect to Roky Erickson last night at Lincoln Hall in Chicago. Erickson, who's had highly publicized bouts with mental illness in the past, and an up-and-down career, is something of a legend among rock and rollers. He was led by his guitarist to a leather high chair at the front of the stage, where he sat, virtually immobile and silent, when he wasn't signing, for the duration of the show. I'm not sure that his guitar was plugged in; I couldn't hear his playing, anyway, but it didn't matter. His physical presence coupled with the decades of strife almost visible around his face and ample body stole the show. Now 71, wearing a gray sports jacket, black pants, and slippers, gently smiling, Erickson gives the impression of a content, bearded Buddha, sitting patiently with his fingers laced together over his stomach as his lead guitarist, the show's emcee, announced the next song or tuned his guitar. Erickson's band is supremely tight and they play warmly; the rhythm section looks like they could gig in a Ten Years After tribute band if they wanted to, and that's accounting for their considerable chops and ensemble playing more than their hirsute, hippie appearance. Erickson, well, he sang and warbled and yelped, muttering a quiet "thank you" during the show only once (ignoring the thinks-he's-funny idiot in the crowd who yelled "Speech! Speech!" once or twice). The songs ranged from up-tempo rockers to blues-based ballads, and when Erickson was plugged-in emotionally, such as on "Starry Eyes," a wonderful tribute to his wife, he sang with honest depth, his eyes often shut against the mood; he seemed to belie his large body by mentally floating off and vibing with the songs as they were played. Quirkier and offbeat tunes "I Walked With a Zombie," in which Erickson spun a yarn without telling a story, "Johnny Lawman," and "Two-Headed Dog," and 13th Floor Elevators' classics "(I've Got) Levitation" and the inevitable closer "You're Gonna Miss Me" found Erickson alternating between leading the vocal charge, his eyes alight, and letting the songs' infamy do most of the work for him. He left without an encore, shuffling off the stage with the aid of the guitarist who'd walked him on earlier, his legacy assured and his present still charged.

During the show Lincoln Hall projected a swirling psychedelic light show on a large screen above and behind Erickson and his band, and it felt as if the display had been percolating since White Mystery's storming opening set. I'm a fan of Miss Alex White & Francis Scott Key White, two Chicago siblings who raised the roof last night with their powerhouse glam rock roll funk lo-fi blues. Miss Alex plays charged and stirring riffs and screechy Hendrix-like wails on a sunburst Rickenbacker, and wore a black latex bodysuit and white platform boots, her red hair teased in a 'fro. White Mystery's songs are sexy, anthemic, and a little dark, rousing but, yes, mysterious, too. The band has been on the road with Rocky Erickson for two weeks and though clearly amped to be playing in front of a home crowd, the duo showed a bit of road burn, at least relative to the electrifying show of theirs I caught at The House in DeKalb a few years back. Francis Scott Key White gave the impression of someone who'd slept through sound check and woke up just in time to forget to button his pants but still man the drums, chugging behind Miss White's righteous riffing. At the end of the set, the drummer and guitarist switched places, a standard move of the theirs; while he mumbled incoherent poetry into the mike, she sat behind the drums but still kept riffing on her guitar as she thumped a four-on-the-floor with the bass drum. A perpetual motion machine, White Mystery. At the end of the set Miss White sweetly informed the crowd that her parents were in attendance. (Her mother Diane White is a celebrated Chicago photographer; among other accolades she shot iconic photos at the infamous Disco Demolition at Comiskey Park in 1979.) It's that kind of homey, bro-and-sis charm coupled with the band's nervy eroticism—a crowd-pleaser was the tune "Fuck Your Mouth Shut"—that ignites and moves this band. I highly recommend you do the White Mystery thing in your town if you haven't.

Monday, November 5, 2018

No Place I Would Rather Be

My book about Roger Angell's baseball writing career, No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and Life in Baseball Writing, is out in May with University of Nebraska Press. You can pre-order the book now from Amazon. I couldn't be happier to have landed with a Press that not only boasts an excellent list of baseball and sports books, but that also reissued Angell's first two books, The Summer Game (first published in 1972) and Five Seasons (1977).

Please spread the word about the book to anyone and everyone you know who's a fan of Roger Angell or of baseball writing—or, really, of great, artful, and memorable writing period. Here's a description of the book:
Legendary New Yorker writer and editor Roger Angell is considered to be among the greatest baseball writers. He brings a fan’s love, a fiction writer’s eye, and an essayist’s sensibility to the game. No other baseball writer has a through line quite like Angell’s: born in 1920, he was an avid fan of the game by the Depression era, when he watched Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit home runs at Yankee Stadium. He began writing about baseball in 1962 and continued through the decades, lately blogging about baseball’s postseasons. 
No Place I Would Rather Be tells the story of Angell’s contribution to sportswriting, including his early short stories, pieces for the New Yorker, autobiographical essays, seven books, and the common threads that run through them. His work reflects rapidly changing mores as well as evolving forces on and off the field, reacting to a half century of cultural turmoil, shifts in trends and professional attitudes of ballplayers and executives, and a complex, discerning, and diverse audience. Baseball is both change and constancy, and Roger Angell is the preeminent essayist of that paradox. His writing encompasses fondness for the past, a sober reckoning of the present, and hope for the future of the game.
And some pre-pub blurbs:
“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 Way 
“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
Moe info coming over the next several months about readings, etc.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

No matter what they say

Stooges, '72
"Every great work of art has two faces, one toward its own time and one toward the future, toward eternity." Lester Bangs

Iggy and the Stooges, timeless in the Fall of 1972:
Anytime I want I got a right to move
No matter what they say
Anytime I want I got a right to move
No matter what they say
I got a right, I got a right to move
Anytime I want, anytime
I got a right, I got a right to move
Anytime I want
Anytime I want I got a right to sing
No matter what they say
Anytime I want I got a right to sing
No matter what they say
I got a right, I got a right to sing
Anytime I want
I got a right, I got a right to sing
Anytime I want
12" (Bomp, 1991)

Photo by Mick Rock via Morrison Hotel Gallery

Friday, October 26, 2018

Not knowing how to say it

I love this passage in Karl Ove Knausgaard's Inadvertent, the latest in the "Why I Write" series from Yale University Press. (The book was translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey.) Discussing his own epic My Struggle series of autobiographical novels, Knausgaard acknowledges that in order to write he had to let go, to "abdicate as king of myself," as he puts it, and let "the literary, in other words writing and the forms of writing, lead the way."
That is also the method employed in writing this essay. I have written literary texts for thirty years, and for twenty of them I have done it full-time; in short, I have spent my entire adult life writing. This means that I know a great deal about what it is to write, and about why I do it. Yet despite this great knowledge, I have been sitting in front of my screen for three days, not knowing what to say—or rather, not knowing how to say it. And as soon as I got started, by writing that the simplicity of the question was treacherous, my pathway through the material took a certain direction, excluding all the other possible paths, so that only what I am writing now could be written. This is what became accessible, not all the rest. And perhaps even more important: I still don’t know what lies ahead, what to say, where this essay is going. 
This is so because I have to hit upon it inadvertently, or it has to hit upon me. It is one thing to know something, another to write about it, and often knowing stands in the way of writing. Make it new, Ezra Pound said—and is there any other way to do that than to let everything we know about something fall away and regard it from a position of defenselessness and unknowing?

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Sick and tired of hearing things

Lennon and Harrison during the recording sessions for Imagine, in 1971.
Recorded in May of 1971 as the Nixon administration was arresting over 13,000 anti-war protesters and the National Guard was subduing riots, John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth" has lost none of its drive or bite in the ensuing half century. The spat-out lyrics about "uptight short sided narrow minded hypocritics," "neurotic psychotic pigheaded politicians," "condescending mama's little chauvinists," and "schizophrenic egocentric paranoiac primadonnas" may have originated for Lennon in the late-1960s, early-1970s, but they cut across time and space, skewering every generation's sad parade. We've seen versions of each of those types lately, from Capitol Hill to FOX News to reality television to a stand-in for a "yellow-bellied Son of Tricky Dicky" in the White House. As was always the case with Lennon, when the feeling is real, the words and his voice rise to the occasion, authenticity and sincerity carrying the day, feelings not always present in his songs from the 1970s, slippery as he was among identities and ideologies. (From the opposite side of the spectrum check the gorgeous "Oh My Love" from the same Imagine sessions, a world away sonically and emotionally from "Gimme Some Truth," yet no less urgently felt.)

To my ears what feels even more relevant than Lennon's timeless lyrics is George Harrison's startling slide-guitar solo, a wailing of anger, resentment, and frustration that scores what I've heard in my head just about every day for the last two years. In this song, as in so much great rock and roll, it's the wordless moment that articulates the most.

Photo via Tumblr

Friday, October 19, 2018

Home and ruin

"Leaving a house for the last time, we can be tempted into an odd fantasy," Brian Dillon writes in In the Dark Room: A Journey in Memory. "We start to see it as a sort of ruin; or rather as a pair of ruins, one of which exists only in our imagination."
The other is the real space in which we drift about, disconsolately or impatiently, depending on the circumstances of our leave-taking. Our vision of the house splits in two: we see it as we imagine it once was, and in its present state. The latter image is just a ghost of the former. Leaving the house in which one grew up, the chasm between the two times seems especially deep. But haven’t we missed something? What gets repressed, as we prepare to go, is not the space itself, but how it felt to live there. The house is only ever what we make of it, and remake, from day to day: to live in a house means ceaselessly refashioning it, reimagining, forgetting and recollecting a place that never stops changing, even if (as is the case in my own family home) we’re rarely tempted to redecorate or rebuild.
On rare occasions you read a book that feels as if it were written for and at you. Dillon's is that book for me: remarkable writing on memories of houses, things, photographs, bodies, and places. Highly recommended.

Image via Storyblocks.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Learning a secret language

In the prologue to The Mansion on the Hill, his deeply researched and absorbing book about the intersection of music and commerce, writer and reporter Fred Goodman describes high school summers in the early 1970s when he toiled in a kitchen in a camp in the Poconos, "dirty work but a great paying gig at sixty dollars a week." There wasn't a lot to do during the long evenings; sometimes he and his buddies would drive the two or so hours into Manhattan, where'd they likely be served in the bars. But usually they stayed put in the mountains and engaged in age-old behavior. "We’d just sit around the dilapidated shack we lived in behind the kitchen, getting loaded on whatever we could lay our hands on and listening to records. Among eight guys there were four stereos and over two thousand albums in that bunk: the bare necessities required for two months away from civilization. Music—rock and roll—was far and away the most discussed topic. (Girls and drugs were tied for second.)"
As great as the music was, the ongoing conversation was really about something more than solos and songs. Listening to rock and roll was learning a secret language. There was something conveyed by the attitude of the bands and their records that stood apart from the music, and the way you spoke that language told people how you felt about the world. When you first met someone, the conversation turned immediately to music because once you knew which bands a person listened to, you knew if you were going to get along. 
It was a lot like administering a psychological test. First you’d check to see if the basic language was there—the Beatles, the Stones, and the British Invasion bands; Motown and Stax; the San Francisco groups; Dylan. After that, you’d probe special interests for signs of sophistication or character flaws. For instance, a passion for a perfectly acceptable but lightweight group like Steppenwolf showed a certain genial rebelliousness but suggested a lack of depth; a girl who listened to a lot of Joni Mitchell could probably be talked into bed but you might regret it later; a single-minded focus on the Grateful Dead and the New Riders of the Purple Sage was a sure sign of a heavy dope smoker; anyone with a record collection that traced the blues further back than John Mayall and the Yardbirds was an intellectual. It was, I recall, a remarkably accurate system.

For many years I'd begun each semester by asking my students to fill out an index card with their name, email, phone number. etc. And I'd always ask them to list whatever song they were singing to themselves as they walked to class that day. You could make a song up if you have to, I said, but I'm pretty sure you were humming a tune as you walked to class. Their responses more or less broke down the same across the years: always surprisingly high number of "classic rock" songs, a lot of indie bands and hip hop, the previous summer or fall's indelible Big Hit, a local "my boyfriend's" or "my girlfriend's" band or three, occasional classical or jazz, an occasional song or band I'd never heard of. One or two students would cheekily admit that there were singing a song that they'd written, or try to stump me. I'm pretty sure some of them did make up a song.

I stopped this practice a few years back, regretfully. I hadn't really needed to collect info cards for a while anyway in the digital age, yet I'd come to prize this glimpse into my students' music tastes, overhearing their interior mix tapes that scored their walks around campus and down hallways. Now, I try and eavesdrop on their conversations before and after class when they get down to talking about what they're listening to, what they love or hate. I should maybe bring back my old-school index cards and the secret language my students' songs spoke.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Owens's suburbs

I can't remember where or when I first encountered Bill Owens's fabulous photographs of suburbia. They spoke to me in a head-lifting way: though Owens was photographing individuals, families, and communities on the other side of the country from me (northern California), his images were very close to my adolescence, in its regimented lawn-carpets, faux natural interiors, refrigeration-will-save-us pantries, and block parties. David Halberstam, from his introduction to Suburbia's overdue and heralded 1999 reissue, says, "I think [Owens's work] succeeds for two main reasons."
One is that Owens, in the best and most natural way, found himself a part of a major social movement and shrewdly understood that something emotional as well as physical was taking place around him. The second reason is that he did not—unlike all too many Americans of that period, particularly those with an artistic sensibility—condescend to the people who were part of the migration. Altogether too many social critics, themselves secure citizens of the middle class for several generations, mocked the new suburbs, particularly the outward uniformity of the homes, as if that uniformity reflected a spiritual uniformity inside. lnstead Owens wisely respected the sense of liberation the suburbs represented to those arriving there. "I find a sense of freedom in the suburbs...," he quotes the head of one family. "You assume the mask of suburbia for outward appearances and yet no one knows what you really do." What comes through is Owens’ empathy for the people he photographed.

Images via Suburbia: Bill Owens Photography.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Playoffs!

And fearless predictions! From frightful Wild Card games to the World Series, part analytical, part gut. I, again, have no horse in the race, but I like the idea of a Milwaukee History Lesson in the NLCS, and Cream City's a great baseball town. Here's to taut, well-played games.

Yankees > As

Cubs > Rockies

Astros > Indians
Red Sox > Yankees

Brewers > Cubs
Braves > Dodgers

Red Sox > Astros

Brewers > Braves

Red Sox > Brewers in 6

Image via "The Fans Are on the Field! A history of celebratory field-storming in baseball, from the 1920s to today." (Slate)

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Friday, September 28, 2018

Body Music, Head Music

Jon Landau, left, at home among friends
I've been dipping in and out of Jon Landau's It's Too Late To Stop Now: A Rock and Roll Journal, published in 1972, a gathering of the critic's late-60s and early-70s music writing from Crawdaddy!, Rolling Stone, and the Phoenix. I always enjoy reading "on the ground" reports about bands and artists that are now mythic or otherwise "classic," and Landau writes with real present-tense passion and smarts about the on-going travails of the Stones, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Otis Redding, Credence Clearwater Revival, Wilson Pickett, Sky Stone, and many others who were turning him on, challenging him, and/or disappointing him.

One of his pieces, "Rock as Art," really resonates. I've always said that I look for art in art, not in rock and roll, a pithy comment that hasn't always served me well among my music writing friends. On my dark days I question the limitations of this long-held creed, yet I always return to it. In college, rushing between studying, say, Franz Kline or Joan Mitchell in an art history class and James Joyce and Sylvia Plath in a literature course, still tingling with the head-lifting discoveries of each, I'd lose myself to the Ramones or REM or the Jam on my Walkman, and that experience, sonically and bodily intense, was far different but no less urgent than what I'd experience in the classroom. "Rock is not primarily poetry or art," Landau argued, "but something much more direct and immediate than either." This I felt. I didn't much want to find cross-currents between my American Literature syllabus and the playlist to my afternoon radio show at WMUC 88.1 FM. Neither cancelled out the other, of course, yet the distinction—between literature and eight notes, between the plastic arts and a transcendent middle-sixteen—felt like holy writ. That gap hasn't narrowed all that much since I was in my late teens and early twenties. Perhaps that should embarrass me.

Landau, too, was preoccupied with the matter. Though some of his later industry behavior, particularly his monomaniacal, ruthless management of Bruce Springsteen, is suspect, his writing, especially his early writing, really impresses me in its authenticity, energy, and ideas. He was informed, and he had arguments to make. His essential premise in "Rock as Art," it must be said, is wobbly: he pushes far too hard to separate the supposed binaries, allowing for little gray area in between, though this was perhaps not as unsophisticated a point of view in 1968, when Landau wrote the piece, as it feels now. (Though his friend and colleague Greil Marcus was already poking holes in it.) He's prone to overstatements and unsupported generalizations, and yet his direct drive here lands on target. I confess, turning up the volume, that he's got my sympathetic ear.

"Rock and roll has to be body music, before it can be head music," Landau writes, "or it will wind up being neither." That's scriptural, that.

Some excerpts:
It must be realized that the core attitude of rock, with the early Beatles as much as with Little Richard, and the core attitude of formal art were antithetical. Rock was not intended to be reflective or profound. God help Little Richard if he had had to survive in the atmosphere of an opening night art gallery. Yet over a period of the last "two years, the artiness cult has grown within the rock community. More and more people expect of rock what they used to expect of philosophy, literature, films, and visual art. Others expect of rock what they used to get out of drugs. And in my opinion, rock cannot withstand that kind of burden because it forces onto rock qualities which are the negation of what rock was all about in the first place.
But why rock and roll has turned to the more preachy, poetical and pretentious style which it sought to disparage in its earlier years, at this particular point in time, is a very complex question. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that as older people, including many refugees from the folk-scene of the early Sixties and many post-adolescents in general became involved with rock, they wanted it to say more than it already did. 
It wasn’t good enough to just sing about cars, balling, dances, school, and summertime blues. There was a feeling that you have got to say something big and new; The self-infatuation and easy half-truths that come so easily with semi-religious mentality filled that void and created the kind of piety and solemnity which is often rock’s worst enemy. The joyfulness and uninhibited straight-forwardness which is such an essential side to all rock and roll was often lost in the shuffle. Rock became cerebral. 
Of course, we can’t force rock back into its own past. But rock, in its earliest period, created a life style which has relevance today, and to which we may find more and more of our leading rock stars turning as they reach a dead end with the kind of artistic, proselytizing mode that infested so much of the recent outpouring of pop. 
There is nothing wrong with being serious if you keep it all in perspective and if you have the artistic ability to be serious. Most rock and roll musicians are banal, amateurish and insipidly stupid when they try to express their philosophy of life in the context of popular music.     
The only thing I would insist on is that rock functions at its best when it does not seek to over-generalize, preach, or tell people what to do or think. It is at its best when it is used to explore the experience of the musician and the listener, when it seeks to entertain as well as provoke, when it realizes that rock is not primarily poetry or art, but something much more direct and immediate than either. Rock and roll has to be body music, before it can be head music, or it will wind up being neither. Rock and roll may be the new music but rock musicians are not the new prophets.
Cue the 1970s and progressive rock. The next act dawns.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Great Moments in Rock and Roll, Ctd.

From The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen. and the Head-On Collision of Rock and Commerce by Fred Goodman:
...the [MC5's] legend...really began to solidify with a May 31, 1968, gig at the Grosse Point Hideout. The club, one of a chain of Hideouts owned by rock manager Punch Andrews, drew a capacity crowd of four hundred kids that night, perhaps helped by Gary Grimshaw-produced handbill that showed the band, naked in front of a backward American flag, along with the legend “Break through American stasis with the MC5.” 
   During an opening set, [John] Sinclair and drummer Dennis Thompson had stepped outside to smoke a joint with a group of local kids when the club’s security guards saw them and called the police. About to be arrested, Sinclair and Thompson got word to the band. Ron Levine, the group’s roadie, took the microphone in front of the packed club and urged the crowd to surround the police outside if they wanted the show to go on. And although the police dragged Levine offstage and quickly closed the club’s doors to prevent a confrontation in the parking lot, the manager was sufficiently shaken to have the police release Sinclair and Thompson. It was a triumphant MC5—and an equally jubilant audience—that rocked the Hideout that evening. When the exasperated club manager later shut off the electricity in a bid to end the frenzied show, the audience—led by guitarist Fred Smith—chanted “Power! Power! Power!” until the electricity was turned back on and the band allowed to finish.
John Sinclair's take on the cataclysmic event here.
The MC5, picnic shelter in park, 1968 

Top photo via Pinterest; bottom photo via Make My Day.

Friday, September 21, 2018

"Man, I don't know. I can't tell. I got no way of knowing."

Terry Knight and The Pack
Lately I've been obsessing over this 1965 teenage ground report, dateline Detroit Rock City, from rockin' Terry Knight and the Pack:
Sit all alone got no money in my pockets
Newsman on the radio talks of bombs and rockets
Jagger's on the TV screen singing about his cloud
Man lives in the house next door yelling at me loud 
People laugh at my long hair and try to put me down
My funny clothes and way-out ways are the talk of this whole town
Nobody tries to understand why I'm the way I am
Just tryin' to make a living, doing what I know I can 
Landlord's been yelling for me to pay off my back rent
The last girl I was goin' with, well, she pulled up and went
And it's hard, yeah it's hard, to get along without the one you love
When everyone around you just wants to push and kick and shove 
How much more have I got to give?
Before I can live the kind of life that I want to live
The kicker is the dramatic playlet in the eight-bar bridge, a shouted exchange between the singer and The Man next door in Everytown, USA:
"Hey, you with the long hair!"
"Tell me where you're going!"
     "Man, I don't know. I can't tell. I got no way of knowing"
"You leave my daughter alone, you hear? Don't try to take her out!"
     "Well, what makes you think your daughter wants to hang around in my cloud?"
I love that fourth line, a summary of all of the angst that a long-haired kid might've felt mid-decade, with the Byrds and Dylan and the Stones on the radio both scoring and fighting with heartbreaks and the social mores of home, school, bosses, and the rest. In that last line, the singer might be snarling "what makes you think your daughter wants to hang around with my crowd?" It's hard to tell, he's too worked up. I got no way of knowing.

Essential reading on Terry Knight and his wild career here and here.

Words and music by Terry Knight, Photo via YouTube.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...