Sunday, August 25, 2019


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

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

Gentry, back cover

Monday, August 19, 2019

Let Me Teach You How

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

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

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

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Tripping with Ellen

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

A Day at the Park

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

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


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

Sunday, August 11, 2019

City by water

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

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

Monday, July 29, 2019

Radio On


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

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

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

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Happy 40th, Highway To Hell

Let There Be Rock (1977) and Powerage (1978) may be rawer, Back In Black (1980) and For Those About To Rock (1981) the mega-blockbusters, but Highway To Hell will always be the quintessential AC/DC album to me. Released forty years ago today, the record married Malcolm and Angus Young's massive riffs and Bon Scott's cheeky ribaldry with Robert "Mutt" Lange's polished but noisy production. The result was a ten-song masterpiece, a loud, boozy, grins-filled party ranging from the epic and eternal title track and its followup, the perpetual motion machine "Girls Got Rhythm," to the cartoonish-scary close of "Night Prowler," the somberness of which Bon couldn't help but send up with his album-closing nod to Mork of Mork and Mindy fame. In between are studies in stirring riffology ("Beating Around the Bush"; "If You Want Blood"), a tale of striking out at the bar ("Shot Down In Flames"), and "Touch Too Much" which contains my favorite Bon line (and there are many), a girl described as having "the face of an angel" and the "body of Venus—with arms." Bon died within six months of the album's release, forever casting the album in shades of darkness, a sonic warning against excessive partying. Bon used to joke, in answer to the question of whether he was the "AC" or the "DC," that he was the lightning bolt down the middle. As Bon's swan song, Highway To Hell is a perfect summation of the singer's appeal: it's smart but ironic, fun and funny, attuned to Bon's twin poles of menace and laughter. AC/DC took itself too seriously, even after its worldwide successes, but when Bon died so did a particular strand of unique, winking humor in the band's songs.

Happy Birthday, Highway To Hell. Here's what I wrote about the title track in my 33 1/3 book on the album:
Three halting, growling chords issue menacingly from the right channel. There's faint reverb, the guitarist muffling the strings with the edge of his picking hand. It's a deceptively simple progression that anyone can master, witness the hundreds of tutorials from garages and teenage bedrooms to cover-band rehearsals and YouTube. The sound, from a familiar solid-body Gibson SG, is snarling but controlled, loose though coiled tightly. It's somehow both nasty and inviting. It’s all you hear for the opening few moments, and it's hard to place where the downbeat will come, though your head's rocking already. Ten seconds in and the drum lands, centered in the mix, and fat. Nothing fancy or virtuosic, just steady, dragging slightly behind the riff. If you've been following the band up to this point, you'll notice that the snare and hi-hat are much crisper, and mixed higher. The snare virtually rings, and the kick drum, playing off the silences left open in the chords, pounds straight into your chest. You feel that you're in the room and, man, it sounds almost slick. Almost. Twenty seconds in and the stupidly simple four-on-the-floor groove is official and irresistible. Now the singer enters. He sounds wasted, he sounds like he's drooling a bit, he sounds funny, he sounds completely unique, and you know who it is. He's spitting out declarations of easy living and season tickets on one-way rides. He doesn't want to be asked anything or to be bothered by anyone, but he doesn't sound obnoxious or precious, he sounds, well, sincere. And damn appealing. A half-grin crawls onto his face and now on to yours, and it’s there for good. 
Here's the kicker: it's party time, he's going down, and—as the guitar strikes a new chord and the rhythm guitar and bass join in confidently on the left and the middle—his friends are gonna be there, too. You’re gonna be there, too, if the singer has anything to do with it. 
Invitation in hand, surrendered to the simple overwhelming groove, you anticipate the chorus before it comes, but love the grinding, noisily-ascending trip to it anyway, and crash now you really hear something new if you've been a fan of the band, hear what millions of others around the world, some of whom had been only casual fans of the band or of rock & roll, will hear: an effortless, head-rocking, arms-elevated, smile-lifting chorus so appealing and fun and full of filthy guarantees, and so layered with harmonized, gang-bellowed vocals that you feel surrounded at a smoky party. You're yelling along about riding the highway and maybe shaking your head at the silliness of the words but beaming at the huge, answering riffs, and before you know it the thing coyly suspends for a moment before the second verse kicks in with the same dynamics, only this time you've rubbed your eyes and see where you are. And if you’re worried—I shouldn't be here, I feel kinda guilty for being here, there's a lot of open bottles and girls and I'm gonna get in trouble but these are the guys who made the pretty convincing argument that hell’s got a rocking band while heaven is stuck with harps—that's good, the song's promises are a little scary and the singer, even behind his grin, is a little scary and he should be. But the beat is so impossibly cool. You're in. Just have fun.

The title track to Highway to Hell is not only an AC/DC classic and in many ways their signature song, it's about as perfect as a rock & roll song gets. In three and a half minutes, AC/DC manages to translate Dionysian excess, the lure of naughty behavior, and the promises made by twin-guitar riffing across all languages and culture. The peak fever of the band's combustible sum, "Highway to Hell' has become a touchstone for many, from besotted fans to worried evangelicals, dyed-in-the-wool hard rockers to indie hipsters who can grin and ironically head-bang their way through the song's fun inanity.
Bon in '79
Not that Malcolm, Angus, Phil, Cliff and Bon were aware of this at the time—they were just going to work under immense pressure, reviving that "dog's balls" riff from the sessions with [early producer Eddie] Kramer. By the second verse, those riffs, played by the Young brothers in big, trouble-free, open chords, have become indelible. "It's the sound quality of open chords that's the thing," Angus explained in Guitar World. "They're big-sounding buggers, and they ring for ages, if you want them to." Sandwiched between the final hollered choruses is Angus's solo, another great chapter in his churning, blues-based style (quite possibly the best solo that Keith Richards never played)—a grooving lick that makes the lift into the final chorus palpably inevitable.
And here, the band, maybe at Lange's prompting, does something interesting: in between the bars of the chorus they halt their playing for a couple of seconds as Angus runs his pick up and down the strings in a maniacal screech—the audio equivalent of the party's funniest, over-the-top moment, the one that we’ll all laugh about tomorrow through our hangovers, though we'll barely remember it. Critic Steve Huey describes this "wild freak-out pick-slide down the strings" as “nothing so much as Bon Scott's insanity being let loose upon the world." Mad and wild as Scott's vocal is, he manages to get it together in the closing moments, the brothers sustaining their chords as Angus, the dervish in the middle channel, picks impatiently. Scott slows down and asserts passionately that he’s going all the way down (did we doubt him?) as the band builds up the chord in deafening volume and Rudd creates an ear-splitting storm on his ride cymbals. And then it all slams shut.


... For their part, the guys have long claimed that the lyrics to "Highway to Hell" originated in Angus's weary observation that riding around for years in a tour bus with the singer's reeking feet in your face is nothing short of a highway to hell. Locker-room humor, no evil spirits around. My favorite origin story is this: near where Bon Scott was living, in Fremantle, Australia, was a favorite pub of his, The Raffles. To get there, he had to take the Canning Highway. As the pub approaches, the road dips into an infamously steep decline; allegedly, scores of people died at the intersection near the bottom of the hill, and its descent into mayhem became known luridly as "the Highway to Hell." Bon loved the joke and the joint, and when the band was off of the long road and out of the studio he flew down that hill to drink and carouse at the Raffles regularly with like-minded folk. He always managed to avoid tragedy, but what a ride it must've been, drunk and high and zooming down the Australian night. Duly inspired, likely shaking his head at yet another near-miss, Bon channeled no stop signs and no speed limit, the daring spin of the steering wheel, the happy memory of his friends gathered at the pub after he'd survived the journey. Virtually a night out with AC/DC at your favorite bar, "Highway to Hell" is also one of rock & roll's great driving songs.

Friday, July 26, 2019


I experienced one of those moments tonight that I covet but can't ever plan for or will into being. We were in our local Chipotle grabbing some burritos and as we stood in line I recognized R.E.M.'s "Fall On Me" playing over the speakers. Because the song surprised me, I wasn't prepared for it, and that stirring melody in the chorus and the beautiful changes in the middle, not to mention the thoughtful lyrics, floored me—I spent a maybe a minute in that delicious "catch up" mode, as if I were hearing a song that I've listened to countless times for the first or maybe the third time. Sitting at a table near us was a college couple from central casting—young, wholesome, lost in their world together, from the looks of it early in their relationship—and at once a kind of transparency was laid over the tableau: a college couple scored by one of the great college radio hits of my era, a song that soundtracked many a sweet and bittersweet moment from my own early twenties. The more things change the more they stay the same is far too clichéd an observation, and yet every well-worn phrase began in head-lifting, irrefutable truth. What two college kids thirty years from now might be noticed sentimentally by the man or the woman from tonight's couple, and what song will be playing? One that reminds him or her of a heartbreak, or of a blissy night at some fast food joint they can't remember early in their long and happy coupledom? Songs always tell the truth, no matter how sad or heartwarming.

Thursday, July 25, 2019


home plate
Recently in The Boston Globe Stan Grossfeld wrote a piece lamenting the vanishing of baseball pickup games. He points his finger at the usual suspects—the video game explosion of the last decades, the growing waves of helicopter parents—but also at the tragic death of 6-year-old Adam Walsh in the summer of 1981, which Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute's Sports & Society Program, observes “set off this wave of parental panic in which it was no longer considered good parenting if you didn't know where your child was or who was watching your child 24/7." Walsh was abducted in Hollywood, Florida, and local police issued a photo of him smiling happily in his baseball uniform holding his bat. (Walsh's father, John, later hosted America’s Most Wanted.) Grossfeld also cites the rise of travel teams, highly organized and sophisticated groups of tiered squads that honed changes on the playing field that "offered a new world of opportunities," Farery remarks. "Those that played travel ball received better instruction, new challenges, bonding experiences, and lessons in team building and sportsmanship." He adds, "The cons, however, included significant costs, huge time commitments, and too much parental control."

I'm loathe to add even one more weeping voice to the choir grieving the diminishment of baseball's prominence in American youth culture, but after reading Grossfeld's article I was reminded that I haven't seen a game of ball played on the ramshackle field at the park around the corner from me in years. Wither the pickup game? About a decade ago a family moved in across the street from us. The kids—two small girls and two older boys—played on the street until dusk fell, the girls doing cartwheels until they were silhouetted against the oncoming dark, the boys throwing footballs and hanging out on their bikes. Serious Americana, folks. The local ice cream truck even re-materialized, making its sing-song rounds on our block. On long summer days our neighbors would occasionally round up some more kids, cross the street to the meadow behind our house, and play a pickup baseball game or two. I could watch them play from my back deck.

That family moved to a suburban town closer to Chicago years ago. The city of DeKalb has recently embarked upon a project to let that meadow, and a couple of others nearby, go wild; the field behind our house has been designated an official Monarch butterfly way station, and the profusion of wild flowers is gorgeous, and welcome. I'm super grateful to the town for spearheading this conservation movement, but just this morning was reminded of what's been lost. Walking the perimeter of the meadow I looked down and noticed a rock, long embedded in the ground, that the neighborhood kids used to use as "home plate." The meadow's wild sprawl has taken the entire infield and outfield with it. I've got my own gone-to-seed baseball field behind me now, which if I squint could act as yet another metaphor for the perception of baseball's cultural irrelevance. But I'll resist that. It's a sweet meadow. There are kids playing something somewhere. There always will be.

Facing the mound

Monday, July 22, 2019

Disposable mumblings

I'm late to Tommy James's compulsively readable memoir Me, the Mob, and the Musicco written with Martin Fitzpatrick (published in 2010 and recently optioned for a film version). Packed with insane, hilarious, and ultimately unsettling stories about  Roulette Records' da capo Morris Levy and his extended "family" of Mob associates, the book charts James's adolescence in the Midwest and his alarmingly rapid ascension as a New York City-feted chart-topping superstar. Even though I grew up with their songs on the oldies stations, I'd never fully realized just how big James and the Shondells were. Though some of his boasts of gold record after gold record smack of exaggeration, he was truly a superstar, aided and abetted by Levy who, in exchange for a strangling, rip-off, lifer-type contract, strong-armed James' records onto the radio, and gave him pretty much free rein in the studio and in booking his own tours. James's star shone very brightly in the late 1960s and early 70s.

Yet as I've written herehere, and here, I've come to find the "fame and fortune" passages in rock star memoirs and biographies dull and uninteresting; how many times do I need to read about endless tours, growing amp stacks, groupies, alcohol and drug abuse, and all manner of excess on the road and in personal lives? (And James joins the disturbingly long line of rock stars who became obsessed with firearms and shooting guns randomly out of apartment windows. Yikes.) His trajectory from Nowhere to Everywhere on a jet stream of amphetamines, payola, and self-mythologizing ends predictably: he hits bottom, finds The Lord, and marries well—and in a rare and welcome development, finally gets paid the millions that are owed him.

I'm happy for James in this regard, and yet I'm more interested in reading about his early, hungry years. One story in particular  captures the uncanny blend of happenstance, ambition, and nerve that seems to be crucial for rock and pop stars at the dawn of their careers. In 1964 James' band was in its infancy. He was banging around in his hometown of Niles, Michigan and one afternoon dropped into a local joint, Shula's, to catch his friends' band the Spinners. One of the songs they played, unfamiliar to James, got a tremendous reaction from the crowd. In between sets, James asked the Spinners' drummer about the tune, called "Hanky Panky." It turns out that they didn't know much about the song, either; they'd heard another band play it a few weeks earlier, duly noted the crowd loving it, and decided to add it to their set. As James remembers, the Spinners "could not find a copy of the record so they were really playing whatever bits and pieces they could remember."
During the next set, over the PA system, I could hear people requesting this song over and over. The requests were coming mainly from the girls, which was always a good sign. The Spinners played “Hanky Panky” twice more that afternoon and each time the reaction was the same. The crowd went wild. Everybody hit the dance floor and sang along. I remember thinking what an unusual response this was from a normally low-key, Sunday-afternoon crowd. It was more like the reaction you would expect from a good party crowd on a Saturday night. 
The next day James headed to Spin-It, the Niles record store where he worked, and asked a fellow employee, "Dr. John" (the joint's "resident musicologist") if he knew the tune.
“No, who’s it by?” “I have no idea.” The doctor got out his huge, thirty-pound retailers’ guide, which listed virtually every record ever made, and looked it up. It turned out to be the flip side of a record called “That Boy John” by the Raindrops on Jubilee Records. We found it had been released the previous fall but was almost immediately pulled off the market after the Kennedy assassination because the John in the title was JFK. (I found out later that the Raindrops were really the great Brill Building songwriting team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich.) In essence, it was the B side of a record nobody ever heard. Well, almost nobody. The Spinners had sure heard of it and so had the group who did it originally. I really felt we had to move fast. 
"Dr. John" (left) at Spin-It, with James and the store's owner and a clerk (from Me, the Mob, and the Music)
"Hanky Panky" sleeve (above) and this label via Discogs
At band rehearsal the next night, James and his band tried to learn "Hanky Panky." They were "as much in the dark as the Spinners as to what the words really were," James recalls, adding, "All I could remember was: 'My baby does the hanky panky.' We were actually doing an imitation of the Spinners' imitation, and who knew how far the chain stretched? Since we needed more lyrics than that, [guitarist Larry] Coverdale and I made up some disposable mumblings that passed for a second verse." I immoderately love that phrase "disposable mumblings," which is a hell of a euphemism for rock and roll. The band worked the song into shape, played it at every gig, and eventually went into the studio in the fall of '64 to record it. "All we had to do was get it down on tape and the rest would take care of itself," James writes. They did. And it did.

I'm enamored with the idea of an eternal rock and roll song born out of an ear worm and the stubborn insistence of a teenager not to forget it. In the pre-digital era, that retailer's book (I remember paging through it in record stores through the 1980s) was among the only links between songs and bands beyond drunken oral histories in dark clubs and bars, or a snippet of a tune caught on the transistor radio and then tantalizingly slipping away. James couldn't Shazam the song or search online for it. He did what he had to do, part of a long tradition, spanning centuries from fields to street corners, of song passed from one singer to another in the air above their heads: ask questions, imitate an imitation, busk the rest, and call it his own.


Me, the Mob, and the Music also has a line that's vaulted to the top of my favorite lines in rock memoirs (this week, anyway). James and his fellow songwriters Ritchie Cordell and Bo Gentry are in Allegro Studios in a basement on Broadway in Manhattan, working on an early draft of what will become one of James and the Shondells' great hits, "I Think We're Alone Now." Gentry sits at a Baldwin grand piano, Cordell behind a drum set, while James is playing a Fender Jazzmaster through an Ampeg Gemini II amp. The boys are recording in stereo for the first time, separated by acoustic baffling, surrounded by cutting-edge high-tech gear. 

James remembers: "I was not sure if the three of together could play more than a dozen chords but we sure looked cool." Exactly.
TJ and the Shondells, in peak form

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Then and now

In a 1937 letter, the Italian poet Antonia Pozzi wrote to her writer friend,"Quanto più impersonale sarai, tanto più universale," or, "The more impersonal you'll be, the more universal." I'm a sucker for paradox. I'm also a sucker for passages in autobiography where the writer, famous or unknown, rock star or daughter of a farmer, transcends specific autobiographical details and reaches a kind of eternal plane, where the words might've been considered and written at any time in human history. I love these two graphs from Roxane Gay's Hunger in which she's recalling poring over albums of family photographs dating to her childhood and adolescence, that eternal act. Though Gay's looking for something specific, if intangible—the dividing line between herself before and after trauma—her longing for her origins and for whatever it is that might fill in the memory blanks is universal.
As an adult, I have gone through these albums many times. I have been trying to remember. At first, I looked for pictures to show a child of my own, "This is where you come from," so when I have that child, she might know her family knows how to love, however imperfectly, so she knows her mother has always been loved and so she may know that she, in turn, will always be loved. It is important to show a child love in many forms, and this is the one good thing I have to offer, no matter how this child comes into my life. I also study the pictures, the people in them; I recall the names and places, the moments that matter, so many of which elude me. I try to piece together the memories I have so carefully erased. I try to make sense of how I went from the child in these perfect photographed moments to who I am today. 
I know, precisely, and yet I do not know. I know, but I think what I really want is to understand the why of the distance between then and now. The why is complicated and slippery. I want to be able to hold the why in my hands, to dissect it or tear it apart or burn it and read the ashes even though I am afraid of what I will do with what I see there. I don’t know if such understanding is possible, but when I am alone, I sit and slowly page through these albums obsessively. I want to see what is there and what is missing and what happened even if the why still eludes me.
The presence of the photographs dates this passage, obviously. Gay is situated in a specific time in human history where the reckoning of images, both of others and of oneself, has really complicated memory and the stories we tell ourselves of our pasts. But unyielding to a time- or date-stamp is Gay's admission that she knows and yet doesn't know, a knotty epiphany that anyone who's glanced back at the complex of family history understands all too well.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

"What's a clubhouse?"

Here's a sample of what made Jim Bouton (1939-2019) great, two paragraphs from I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally, his 1971 follow-up to Ball Four, in which he takes on the so-called "sanctity of the clubhouse.” What’s a clubhouse? he asks.
It’s a place for men to change their pants. In this place baseball strategy (which may be as mythical as sanctity) is sometimes discussed. In this place a manager may give a pep talk to his players, or perhaps berate one for poor performance. (If he does, he will lose points, for berating is supposed to be done in the “privacy of the manager's office." This is almost as sanctified as the clubhouse.)
In the next graph Bouton, allergic to sanctimony, hones in: "So what I want to know is what’s so damn important or secret about what goes on in a clubhouse? The only reason to keep any of it secret is, of course, that most of it is silly. Nothing happens in clubhouse meetings. Nothing happens in clubhouses." He goes on to say that if he "really wanted to violate the 'sanctity of the clubhouse'" he'd out "all the bastards" who use the n-word on "supposedly integrated teams" and the "stupid anti-Semitic remark," adding that he could have revealed in greater detail "the mindlessness of it all." It's worth reminding ourselves again of how shocking many of Bouton's claims were to certain privileged quarters in the early 1970s. In one amusing section Bouton lists all of the self-righteously negative responses Ball Four elicited among players, managers, and ad executives, all of whom knew that what Bouton exposed was the truth, yet a truth they didn't want to acknowledge publicly for mostly petty, pious, and self-serving reasons.

After I heard the news that Bouton had died, I pulled Take It Personally off the shelf and opened randomly to the page where the passages I've quoted above appear. Bouton's batting average was terrific: his truth-to-power bravery and humor ring out on nearly every page. Baseball is very buttoned-up and tidy now; with talk radio and Twitter, every "blue" or otherwise indecorous comment that a player might utter or post on social media post-game, however innocently or humorously intended, can in seconds be magnified beyond proportion. Man, I'd likely be quiet, too, if I were a player. Thank God we had Bouton a half century ago to peer stubbornly through the decorum and report the "real" reality.
Bouton, center. "What's a clubhouse?"

Bottom photo by Gene Herrick/Associated Press via The New York Times.
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