Monday, November 24, 2014

Lying to Tell the Truth: Teaching Lauren Slater

I was asked by the editors at Assay: A Journal Of Nonfiction Studies to write a brief piece about the challenging but ultimately rewarding experience of teaching Lauren Slater's memoir, Lying. Slater's book is subtitled "A Metaphorical Memoir," and may be an account of her life as an epileptic, or may be an account of her using the disorder solely as a metaphor. You can read the piece here.

My opening gives you an idea of some of the difficulties I face with a book that requires that readers reassess what memoir is, means, and can do, a book that requires that we press re-set:
Once, a student in my Literary Nonfiction class refused to open his copy of Lauren Slater’s Lying during discussion. An excellent student, he wasn’t being precious or dramatic. Glaring at me, he simply refused to enter the text, so irritated and discomfited was he by Slater’s approach to memoir and the way she subverts the expectations we bring to reading.
The "My Favorite Essay To Teach" archive is here.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Dateline: Greenpoint Tavern, Brooklyn

Among my many mementos from working on Sweat: The Story Of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band is this swank beer coaster from the Greenpoint Tavern, near and dear to several members of the band during the years I researched and wrote the book (1999 to 2004). Located on Bedford Avenue, the GT has no bottles, only Budwesier on tap, proudly served. Like it or split. I managed to remember to snag this following one of my long, cracked liquid interviews with drummer Bill Milhizer, who was a grinning regular at the Tavern in those days, when Williamsburg was in its nascent stages as Hipsterville USA.


Armed with ideas, the Fleshtones celebrated the Greenpoint Tavern (along with other favorite NYC watering holes) in "A Motor Needs Gas" on Laboratory Of Sound (1995). Pardon us for living, but the graveyard's full....

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Freshness of the Mid-20th Century: Jade East and the Phone Flipper

'Tis the season for catalogs, and apparently for irony-free advertisements, if you look in the right places. We received our annual catalog from The Vermont Country Store, a business that prides itself on stocking the kind of product that "evokes memories of a time gone-by," is a "unique problem solver," or is generally a "hard-to-find item from the United States and around the world." I love looking through the catalog for its odd blend of kitch and earnestness: among the ads for flannel Granny gowns, red and blue Mosser Glassware, and European Chocolate Bottles Filled With Top-Shelf Liqueurs I spied these two small ads, both hearkening to an era long-gone:

Jade East? Fantastic. I believe that Jack Lord at a 1973 Hawaii Five-O promotional appearance was the last man to wear this cologne without irony. Very much of its era, Jade East capitalized on the West's then-romanticized affection for all things Polynesian: Tiki restaurants and bars, backyard luas, "exotic" drinks of varying potency. (Bars that cater to the old craze still hang on.) "Notes of cedar, oakmoss, sandalwood, and a touch of musk create a lasting impression": this was the scent that promised that you'd get lei'd. In the 70s.

And I'm not sure that I can express the mixture of nostalgia and despair that swept over me when I saw the ad for the desk phone flipper. As a kid I loved playing Business Man with my dad's phone flipper on his big wooden desk: scroll down to a letter, press a button, and up snapped the lid, efficiently revealing a page of "contacts," whatever that was. All of my friends' dads had one, and I thought that the item had vanished, that there were maybe a few hundred of them gathering dust in a New Jersey warehouse. What strikes me is the sarcasm-free presentation of the item—not only is there a factory somewhere that still manufactures the parts that can be assembled into the phone flipper, there is apparently a market for them, beyond mid-century-besotted hipsters and Mad Men stylists. And your refill demands are met, as well.

Paging through the Vermont Country Store catalog can be a humbling experience: what I'm ready to snarkily dismiss as old-fashioned or obsolete proves its usefulness, for someone, somewhere. Who am I to snicker?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Shake Some Action" vs. "Shake Some Action"

The Flamin' Groovies with Dave Edmunds (third from the right)
After I first heard the magic of the Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action" (on the late, lamented WHFS 102.3 FM out of Bethesda, Maryland) I embarked on a years-long, semi-obsessed quest to find the song. In the mid-1980s, if your local record stores (plural—it was still the Golden Age) didn't have the record and if the record was out of print, you were out of luck. I searched bins in Maryland, Illinois, and points between but couldn't find the Dave Edmunds-produced album. (I will find a way to get to you some day.) Eventually I located a German-issued 45 on LINE Records at Yesterday and Today Records, sometime in 1987. I sped home, threw the single on the turntable, and was vaguely disappointed. This wasn't the version I loved, the aural scripture, the bright, ecstatic song with the echoed, ringing, descending guitar phrase and the sweet but urgent harmonies. This was something else: ragged, unwashed, sounding like a re-recording of the tune. I loved Charlie Pickett and the Eggs' howling and reckless take of "Shake Some Action" on their Live At The Button (I write a bit about it in here) but their version, I felt, did what a live cover does, it pummeled a song, made it the band's own, whether that band's playing before 50,000 or 50, whether the band knew the song from their collective childhood, last year, or dad's album collection. I wanted to hear the "Shake Some Action" I knew from the radio—that old story.

I wasn't even aware that there were two versions of the song; I needed some help. I wrote a letter to Fred Mills, whose music writing I loved in The Bob and other magazines. He wrote a postcard back (a gesture of thoughtfulness and assistance that's still touching to me) and helpfully explained some of the discographical minutiae. (Thanks, Fred!) But I still wanted my "Shake Some Action," the shimmering one. I finally found Shake Some Action in a record store in Evanston, Illinois, but in the years that followed I couldn't shake the version on the LINE single; it kept shoving me from behind. It wasn't until years later when the information Mills supplied me gained larger context. In 2002, Norton Records issued Slow Death, a collection of Flamin' Groovies demos and odd tracks cut between 1971 and 1973 shortly after Roy Loney had left the band and when Chris Wilson (co-writer with Cryil Jordan of "Shake Some Action") had joined. The Groovies were in an oft-documented transitional stage in the early 1970s, between Loney-era roots rock and Jordan-envisioned 60s Brit pop. Idling and hustling for label support, they cut some tracks including, at Rockfield Studios in Wales in 1972 with Dave Edmunds producing, the album version of "Shake Some Action" and the classic "Slow Death," the latter of which was swiftly re-mixed and issued as a single a year later. In Hollywood in the summer of 1973 the band recorded another version of "Shake Some Action," a demo that shadily wound its way among bootlegs and labels and licenses and ended up in my hands in the mid-80s. Over time, I've come to treasure this version, now neck-and-neck to my taste with the version recorded with Edmunds and released on the 1976 album of the same name.

In his liner notes to Slow Death, Jordan writes that the Hollywood demo of "Shake Some Action" remains his favorite track. I hear its glory now; I was listening with the wrong ears in the 80s. The album version is shiner and more compact a production, if a song this explosive can be considered compact. Jordan's and Wilson's guitars ring and David Wright's snare pops and his cymbals shape gorgeous halos. But what's implied in the album version is made passionately explicit in the demo: in the final moments, Jordan and Wilson sing "Shake some action / down on me," and it's that plea to the heavens, that glance upward, that redirects the song's passions—and redefines them. It's as if the shimmering production values on the album version were pious misdirection, where the urging in the demo version feels dirty, desperate, and all the more necessary. Though Jordan layered the acoustic guitars on the demo to achieve a mandolin effect, they're still rag-tag, loose, more lived-in than the studied, well-rehearsed electric guitars in the album version.

Demo versus polish, a body before a cleansing, a body after. For me, it's a draw as to which version of "Shake Some Action" is greater. And a draw it will likely remain.


Fred Mills is still a "mega-groovies nut." He's written about the band many times, notably here at Blurt, the magzine he edits.

Photo of the Flamin' Groovies and Dave Edmunds by Paul Slattery from the Mike Wilhelm Collection. Via Mike Wilhelm.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

How We Talk About Ourselves (and Music, too): A Conversation with Sad YouTube's Mark Slutsky

At Sad YouTube, Mark Slutsky haunts the comments threads of YouTube music videos, finding in that endless stream of memories, reactions, and confessions a certain 21st Century noise: anonymous or semi-anonymous people virtually gathering around random videos, talking of their own pasts and their own ways into the song. The result is a kind of prismatic doorway that opens onto nearly endless interpretations of, and narratives about, music. Slutsky is a curator of the melancholy, an archivist of the nostalgic. If YouTube is how we listen to music today, it's also how we talk about ourselves in relation to that music.

In a terrific, must-read essay about his site at Buzzfeed, Slutsky writes, "The YouTube comment section has long been considered the worst place on the internet. You won’t find much consensus about anything online, but one thing pretty much everyone can agree on—including, seemingly, the people at YouTube itself—is that the user-generated content beneath practically every video is a semi-literate cesspool. But for the last year I’ve been increasingly discovering—thanks in part to a longer-than-usual lull in employment—that everyone was wrong." He continues:
Dig deep into comments—particularly on pop songs—and you’ll see that buried beneath the hate speech, the poorly formulated insults, and the Obama conspiracy theories are countless amazing nuggets of humanity. You’ll find stories of love and loss, perfectly crystallized moments of nostalgia and saudade (a Portuguese word meaning an ineffable longing for something lost in time). [See below.] It’s a repository of memories, stories, and dreams, an accidental oral history of American life over the last 50 years written by the site’s millions of visitors every day.
"But like all memories," Slutsky notes, "it’s ephemeral. Chunks of it disappear every day, when a video is deleted or pulled for copyright reasons, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t entirely evaporate when someday Google decides to revamp or 'sunset' the comments section. Recently, Google introduced an overhaul of the system, integrating the comments more deeply with its Google+ social network—changes that are already unbalancing the strange, delicate ecosystem that produces a rare diamond among the thousands of useless or repetitive comments."

Autobiography as comment. Memoir as thread. The personal in a deletable window. Here are a few, recent posts:

Recently, I virtually sat down with Slutsky to discuss Sad YouTube, his favorite comments, memory, and the cultural value of nostalgia.


How did the idea for the site come? Was there a crystallizing moment? How long have you been running the site?

For a long time, I had noticed that there was something...else going on in the YouTube comment section. Something besides the usual racism, insults, obscure shout-outs and general noise. Particularly on videos of old songs (either legitimate music videos or fan-uploaded audio tracks with slide shows or home-made clips accompanying the music), people had been leaving little stories. Memories they associated with the music, stories with such touching specificity and seeming honesty that they stood out among all the other comments. It intrigued, and honestly, delighted me in a perverse way, that in that part of the Internet universally acknowledged as the garbage heap of our civilization, I was finding such moments of beauty.

I knew that these comments were ephemeral; they'd either be driven so far down the page by the "bad" ones that no one would ever find them, or the video they were associated with would be deleted—either way, they'd be lost. So I started Sad YouTube in the fall of 2012 to preserve them.

You write, "I almost feel like you could write a Studs Terkel oral history of America culled entirely from YouTube comments on pop songs." That's fascinating. Could you talk a bit about that? What's the value of an oral history? What can it capture or dramatize that others documents cant?

There's a truth to oral histories that you don't find anywhere else. You get stories, details and emotions you don't find in any other form of history. Very few of the comments I've chosen tell stories significant or dramatic enough, at least from the outside, to make it into the news, let alone the history books. But each one conveys something about what it felt like to be alive at the time. Or what it feels like to be alive at all.

You write, "What I look for are comments that tell a whole story in just a few lines—a picture emerging from several quick brushstrokes. Comments that bring a specific moment to life that would have otherwise just dissolved forever in time." Do you have a favorite comment, a comment that most memorably "tells a whole story in a few lines"?

I'll give you a few examples. What strikes me about these comments, and every comment I choose for the blog, is how much they're able to communicate with just a few specific details:

Slowdrive, "Crazy For You"
Bobby Goldsboro, "Honey”
Joni Mitchell, "Help Me"
What is the cultural value of nostalgia?

What I find so compelling about many of these memories is how spontaneous they seem. Meaning, favourite memories can often be gilded by our recall of them, subtly altered every time we think of them, resembling less and less the original moment. But so many of the stories I find in YouTube comments seem to have laid dormant in the commenters' minds until triggered unexpectedly by hearing an old song. In that way they feel refreshingly direct, un-romanticized. I think that sets them subtly apart from what we think of as "nostalgia," although they are no less emotional for it. I actually prefer the Portuguese word "saudade," which, roughly, means an ineffable yearning for something irretrievably lost.

How were people sharing these kinds of memories and conversing about them before YouTube?

I think people have always shared their memories—in conversation, in blogs, memoirs, etc. Many, if not most, of my commenters do not seem to be professional or even amateur writers, but the YouTube comment platform gives them the freedom to express themselves with some degree of anonymity. This opens up the conversation to people who might not even realized they had a story to tell.

You write about what's gained—emotionally and culturally—in the YouTube Comments section; what's lost in our digital age?

It might be too soon to tell what we're losing, besides the obvious things like adequately-paying jobs in the cultural sector. What concerns me the most when I work on Sad YouTube is preserving all the memories that would almost certainly been lost among the detritus of the comment section. I think about some of the stories I've found in there—the way they're worded and the emotions they express—almost every day. They mean a lot to me.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Are We There Yet?

In his review of poet Richard Blanco's new memoir The Prince of Los Cocuyos (a book I have not read) Kevin Nance hoists a tiresome complaint. After writing favorably of the memoir, which dramatizes and explores Blanco's youth in the 1970s and 80s in South Florida's Cuban-American community, Nance writes, "Regretfully, however, I have a significant reservation, which has to do with the author's note that introduces the main text."
In it, Blanco describes his childhood as "concrete and accessible" but also "elusive and fractured. As such, these pages are emotionally true, though not necessarily or entirely factual. Certainly, I've compressed events; changed the names of people, places, and things; and imagined dialogue. At times I have collaged two (or three) people into one, embroidered memories, or borrowed them. I've bent time and space in the way that the art of memory demands."

Call me old-fashioned, but the art of memoir demands factual accuracy, not collaging, embroidering, borrowing or bending. While the form is subject to the author's fallible memory—and is therefore less stringent, in terms of documentation, than biography or autobiography—Blanco baldly admits that he is making things up in the service of a larger "emotional" truth.

The problem with this is that we don't know which parts of "The Prince of Los Cocuyos" are facts and which are fiction.
Allow me to sigh. Every human being who has been burdened with the charge of remembering and conceiving of her or his past—that is, every human who's ever lived—has employed "collaging, embroidering, borrowing or bending" and has made things up "in the service of a larger 'emotional' truth." Everyone, virtually always—at bars, in bedrooms, in the mirror at night, toward the ceiling at 4 am, in a court of law, at parties, and in the car on the way home from work. Often—perhaps more often than not—we aren't aware that we're doing this, which underscores the power and ubiquity of memory's unreliability, But it's all we have, nothing and everything. Nance writes "Call me old-fashioned," which is pretty tricky of him. The phrase implies that in earlier eras we demanded and received factual, verifiable memory in our autobiographies, that there was a time in human history when our memories were infallible. Saint Augustine would have a thing or two to say about that. The sooner readers and critics of memoir and autobiography—as narrative books, personal essays, graphic art, Tweets, or whatever shape it takes—resist the tyranny of taxonomy and the fascism of genre, the better.

Can we talk about art, and not category? Story-telling, and not classification? How are we not past this yet?

Image via The New York Times

Friday, November 7, 2014

On Filtering

John Rosenthal
The Dish recently excerpted an interview with the photographer John Rosenthal, whose work I hadn't been familiar with. His photographs—many of which you can find on his website—are utterly terrific: mostly black and white images of cities (Manhattan in the 1970s and 80s and New Orleans post-Katrina in particular) and of rural places and small towns and the people who inhabit them.

In the interview Rosenthal speaks on the ethical dilemma of photographing people. "A photograph can extract people from the flow of their lives (and to some people that flow is everything)," he argues.
It can crop them from the lively space in which they live and have their being. A photograph can also secretly juxtapose people and objects in a highly suggestive way. Sometimes that’s a form of cruelty.

...generally speaking, we need to be careful about what our photographs claim to know. The knowledge is often, as Susan Sontag once pointed out, “unearned.”

I rarely photograph people anymore.
I never have, or I avoid them at all cost. (I tend to favor abandonment, here and here.) I've never quite understood if my disinclination to photograph people, even to allow them to wander into the frame, is ethical rigor on my part or simple cowardice. As an introvert, I think I natively shy away from capturing someone in a photo against her will, or at least by surprise. I know that I've missed many opportunities: last summer I was taking photos at the old Tiger Stadium site in Detroit when a man, possibly homeless, clearly indigent, wandered into the park with two large shopping bags and began going through the trashcans located behind the backstop. I stopped photographing out of respect, recognizing at that I might be sacrificing a killer image of a foraging human foregrounded against an abandoned historic ballpark foregrounded against an epically crumbling city. I looked the the other way instead.

A comment Rosenthal makes later in the interview struck me. Asked to describe his equipment, he says, "Well, I should start off by saying that I’ve been shooting with a digital camera for a while now. Probably out of necessity."
I spend as much time working on digital prints as I used to spend in the darkroom, but now I don’t have to stand on my bad left foot.

In my case, switching from film to digital was a matter of convenience, and that’s about it. Even though I am using a new technology, the reasons why I take photographs haven’t changed. The digital camera is, really, just a camera, and the world I want to photograph is the same old world. The old challenge remains unchanged: to use my camera to disclose some sort of hidden meaning that lies below our common awareness. A poet’s task, neither more nor less. So I trained myself to look closely for the little thing that nobody was paying attention to, the quiet thing that didn’t want to give away its secret importance. An unmade bed. A chessboard in Tompkins Square after a rainstorm. Something you might walk right by.
Good stuff. Then, he says:
I guess I have faith that the actual world, as it is, is enough. It’s my guiding principle. I think that if I move things around in my photographs, arrange expressions, say, or digitally create a dream effect, then I won’t meet the criterion of perception that I’ve set for myself. I want to distill reality, not modify it with software.

Of course I’m describing only one approach to image-making—one that I inherited from a certain time and place. It’s just the way I do things. It’s no better or worse than a hundred other ways of considering and making photographs. It’s just mine.

I'm relived by his generous admission there at the end that his way is not necessarily the best way, and yet the old worrisome scab is pulled at again: I take photos using my iPad, and filter virtually every image through Hipstamatic. I've wrestled with this for a long time, recognizing that any effective image I do end up producing is as much a testament to pre-set filters and lenses as to my own eye for composition (not to mention random luck). I guess that I'm comfortable with sharing a successful photo with Lucas Buic and Ryan Dorshorst, the founders of Hipstamatic, but here are questions that keep me up at night: Have filters ruined me? Are photos taken with and subsequently manipulated via Hipstamatic any less authentic than photos taken with a film camera and adjusted in post-production process? Does a filter produce an ersatz experience, or texturally heighten, intensify an experience that's already there? I'm not sure. Certainly Hipstamatic has eliminated the laborious processes of the dark room—which I never experienced, anyway, being an amateur—but I still need to manipulate my camera in such a way as to take best advantage of light, perspective, composition, etc. I only utilize the filters and lenses that came bundled for free with Hipstamatic when I first downloaded the app, and I often marvel at the effects—though, as in any creative enterprise, for every good image there are dozens that don't work. And luck, as always, plays as much of a powerful role as anything.

If I sound defensive, it's because I am. I'm not sure where in the continuum of photography history I'd locate my inessential self and the filters and lenses vouchsafed me and millions of others. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

M. Henry Jones's Soul City

Clapboard, Peter Zaremba, and Lenny Calderon
Gallery 98 is exhibiting M. Henry Jones's photo cut-outs from his 1979 short film Soul City (1979), featuring the Fleshtones. (You can read all about the three-year odyssey of the making of the film in Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band.) The gallery has put up an online exhibit, and it's terrific, a comprehensive, long-overdue documentation of this seminal and influential short film and the dedication and labor-intensive work involved in pulling it off in the pre-digital era. From the site:
The emergence of digital photography during the last decade has provided a new perspective on photographs from the pre-digital era. The photographs that M. Henry Jones created in the late 1970s for the animated film Soul City have a special place in this story of technological change. Sometimes the urge to create precedes the technology that makes it practical. That was certainly true for Jones’ 2 ½-minute photo animation of a performance by the rock group Fleshtones, enhanced with stroboscopic effects. Created before the widespread use of computers, digitization, and tools like Photoshop (1988), Jones’ special effects were created solely through tedious analog techniques. It took nearly two years but there was an unexpected bonus: 1700 individually printed photographs, each hand-cut with an X-acto knife and then hand-colored. This was the raw material for the film, reshot frame-by-frame with changing backgrounds. Today these photographs stand on their own both as beautiful objects and as an artistic record of the creative toils that preceded the digital revolution.

Soul City also proved to be prophetic in another way. Created three years before the 1981 launch of Music Television (MTV), Jones’ short film of the Fleshtones performing Soul City has been cited as an important fine-arts precursor of the commercial genre of rock videos. According to the Wall Street Journal, Jones’ “motives were more perceptual than promotional”; his goal was to “overload viewers” and “induce retinal after-images” (March 3, 2011). The film derives first from Jones’ love of rock and roll but its techniques were rooted in the avant-garde films of his mentors Harry Smith and Paul Sharits. Soul City is emblematic of how serious young artists like Jones redefined both high art and popular culture in the post-pop art world of the late 1970s.
Here's the film:

And some cut-outs. Check out the full online exhibit here.


Marek Pakulski

Keith Streng

Friday, October 24, 2014

Baseball's on the Clock

20, 19, 18, 17, 16, 15...
As the World Series marches on, I'm gazing toward a chilly Autumn with proactive regrets and with interest in a season that's just starting. In the Arizona Fall League, Major League Baseball is experimenting with ways to quicken the pace of the game, a long-standing complaint from both casual and committed fans. Among the changes with which the league is experimenting are the Batter's Box Rule ("The batter shall keep at least one foot in the batter's box throughout his at-bat," with exceptions), the No-Pitch Intentional Walks ("In the event a team decides to intentionally walk a batter, no pitches shall be thrown. Instead, the manager shall signal to the home plate umpire with four fingers, and the batter should proceed to first base to become a runner"), and, perhaps most controversially, the 20-Second Rule, the insertion of a  play-clock between pitches designed to hasten the pitcher's delivery and dissuade out-of-the-box dawdling by the batter.

Here's how the 20-Second Rule works, from Major League Baseball: "A clock will be displayed in both dugouts, behind home plate, and in the outfield. The clock will be operated by an independent operator, who is not a member of the umpire crew."
A pitcher shall be allowed 20 seconds to throw each pitch. The batter must be in the box prepared for the pitch during the entire 20-second period. If the batter steps out of the box during the 20-second period, the pitcher may deliver the pitch and the umpire may call a strike, unless the batter was first granted time by the umpire. As described in Rule 6.02(b) Comment, umpires may grant a hitter's reasonable request for "Time" under appropriate circumstances. 
The 20-second clock shall begin when the pitcher is in possession of the ball, regardless of whether the batter is in the box or otherwise alert to the pitcher; provided, however, that (1) with respect to the first pitch to each batter, the clock shall begin when the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher, (2) with respect to a pitch to a batter following a play in which the pitcher was involved as a fielder (including backing up throws), the clock shall begin when the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher, and the pitcher has entered the dirt circle to approach the pitcher's plate to begin pitching to the batter, and (3) after a hitter fouls off a pitch, the clock shall begin when the umpire points to the pitcher and says "Play." Please note that the Official Baseball Rules governing quick pitches still apply. 
The clock will stop only when the pitcher begins his motion to deliver the ball (and not "when the pitcher releases the ball" as prescribed in Rule 8.04). Beginning the motion of coming to the set position shall be sufficient to stop the clock. If the pitcher maintains possession of the ball without beginning his pitching motion for more than 20 seconds, the Umpire shall call "Ball." The umpire shall give the pitcher a reasonable opportunity to take his proper position on the pitcher's plate after the umpire has called a ball and before the umpire calls a successive ball pursuant to this Rule.
The players who've been affected by the 20-Second Rule are, so far, displeased. (Granted, it's a small sample; the clock is being tested during seventeen home games at the Salt River Rafters.) Toronto Blue Jays outfield prospect Dalton Pompey: "I feel like it's going to throw off the rhythm because guys have their own rhythm and take deep breaths, practice swings, have their routines. It's just going to make everybody so generic and I feel like that's taking away what the game has been all about for however many years.”
Los Angeles Dodgers prospect and Glendale Desert Dogs infielder Corey Seager shares a similar sentiment.
“It's tough,” Seager said. “You almost feel rushed. It's not your normal (routine) where you can take your time, get your rhythm. It's kind of on somebody else's rhythm. It was a little rushed … getting on and off the field, getting your stuff done in the dugout and in the box mainly because you only have 20 seconds between pitches. You swing and then get right back in—it's a little weird.”
As Pompey (and many others) point out, this rule will irk batters and pitchers who are routine-driven, whose plate appearances or mound poise is defined in large part by a symphony of well-earned, precise, and borderline-superstitious body movements. Think of Mike Hargrove, fabulously nicknamed the Human Rain Delay for his pre- and between-pitch fiddling:

A generation of kids has grown up with nearly unlimited access to video of their favorite players, and so this personality-defining behavior in the box and on the mound is ingrained early, and encouraged, or at least tolerated, by fans, managers, and umpires from Little League onward.

But the more serious concern, it seems to me, is the introduction of a timer into a game celebrated and embraced for its clock-free play. I won't belabor what you've likely heard from besotted fans: a baseball game can, theoretically, go on forever. And there have been some marathons. An inning can last an hour—without commercials!—; a game can last for days. Of course, a 20-second timer between pitches won't affect this salient aspect of baseball, and yet a clock is an intrusion of sorts. It requires that players obey the tyranny of a clock rather than the ebb-and-flow of an athletic moment, an invisible drama staged not within time limits but as an infinite mini-game. A plate appearance is, after all, different every time: when a batter faces a pitcher, especially for the first time in his career, and if he's lucky to see him more than once in a game, he'll adjust as he needs to: his stance; placement of his bat; place in the box; his eye-angles. These minute adjustments take time—I'd wager, on average longer than 20 seconds per pitch. This goes for pitchers, as well, of course, who, when detecting a batter's adjustment, must now adjust his own approach and mental state. I admit to getting exasperated at times with particularly self-micro-managing batters and pitchers, but these strategy sessions, these chess games, will not be hastened by a hovering L.E.D. timer implacably counting down the time before the next pitch.

But, as always when reflecting on the game I love so much, I am careful not to overreact. I don't want to be precious or hidebound about this; I'm curious, is all, as to what effect if any this rule, if adopted, would have on the quality, tenor, and mental pleasures of the game. MLB in its futile attempt to regain the impossible television ratings of yore, will do anything to shorten games. But will a hurried plate appearance do more harm than good? Would we rush archeological diggers at a fossil site? Would we require a painter to finish each stroke within 20 seconds? (Someone stop me, I'm getting precious again.) We'll discover sooner rather than later what tick tick tick might do to the game.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Understatement: "That Star Club ...was a wild deal."

"We cut that live, and the audience wanted to tear up the stage." The Star-Club, April 5, 1964
A long time ago, Jerry Lee Lewis was heard to utter, "Y'know, there's nothin' like tearing up a good club now and then." In a recent article and Q&A at Wall Street Journal promoting his new album, Rock & Roll Time, and new biography, the fully-authorized Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, Lewis was asked what is his favorite album that he's cut. "I’d have to say Live at the Star Club from 1964 is my best live recording," he said.
That Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, was a wild deal. We cut that live, and the audience wanted to tear up the stage. It was a big hall and wide open as a case knife. The best thing about playing there was the equipment—the mics, the amplifiers, guitars, fiddles and piano. We didn’t have that kind of high-quality gear back home. In other places where they’d give me a bad piano, I’d usually finish it off anyway.
I couldn't agree more.


In related news, I was pleased to have been invited by archivist Cary O’Dell to write an essay about "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," Lewis's epochal second single, released in 1957. The song—rightfully so—has been selected for the National Recording Registry by the National Recording Preservation Board at the Library of Congress. My essay will stand side-by-side with the song in perpetuity. You can read the full essay here. It begins:
The opening two minutes of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” are so striking and irrepressible that they all but guaranteed the song would be a major hit. The second half ensured that the song, and “The Killer,” would become unforgettable.

Released in April 1957, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” was Lewis’s second single, following “Crazy Arms,” which had failed to chart. But Lewis, well aware of his own potency, and his singular talent, and buoyed by producer Sam Phillips’s intuitive work in Sun Studio, brought “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” into the recording sessions confident that it could be a hit. How Lewis came to know the song is a predictably murky tale. Sources suggest that he’d learned it from Big Maybelle’s or Roy Hall’s earlier versions; Lewis himself claimed to have heard it from the singer Johnny Littlejohn at the Wagon Wheel nightclub in Natchez, Mississippi. Force of nature that he is, Lewis usually transforms the landscape of any tune he moves through, and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” was no different.
And while you're there, peruse the fascinating list of National Recording Registry titles—from Thomas Edison's Talking Doll cylinder, Jesse Walter Fewkes's field recordings of the Passamaquoddy Indians, and "Star Spangled Banner" to Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong's broadcast from the moon, Parliament's Mothership Connection, and Public Enemy's Fear Of A Black Planethere.


Meanwhile, here's a spectacular version of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" from a March 19, 1964 U.K. television special titled after the song, filmed just a few weeks before Lewis headed down to West Germany to record that "wild deal."

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Five Reasons Why I Love Reverend Horton Heat

1.) He's funny. BUT, he rocks.

My tolerance for "funny songs" is pretty low. But if you can make me smile while we're rocking, I'm with you. Jim Heath writes a lot of humorous songs, but nearly always foregrounds his love of eighth note, supercharged rock and roll and honky tonk. "400 Bucks" from The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds Of The Reverend Horton Heat is a prime example, but there are plenty of other grinning songs—"Bales Of Cocaine," "Baby, I'm Drunk," "Galaxy 500," "Please Don't Take The Baby To The Liquor Store," and "Let Me Teach You How To Eat," for starters.

2.) "If you drive a car then you'll understand."

Hey, I drive a Ford, too! Well, a Ford Taurus. I'm no gear head. Though I gawk like everyone else at cool old cars at shows or on the street, my fascination with and knowledge of custom-built or restored 1940s and '50s automobiles end there. But that doesn't matter: Heath's car songs are so infectious and affectionately-written that it doesn't matter if I can't tell my flathead motor from my four-twenties under the hood from my suicide door. I'll hop in, anyway. "Yeah kids, that's 'Like A Rocket.' That's Rock and roll!"

3.) He's dependable.

There's something to be said for the bang-for-buck value that you get at a Reverend Horton Heat show. He's a true pro: I've never seen a down show, a phone-in performance, or a truncated gig. He always delivers. "Can't call in sick," he sings, "never once late."

4.) He's not afraid to write personal songs within the limitations of genre.

I've said on many occasions that I tend to look for art in art, not in rock and roll. That's not to say that a rock and roller can't mine the self for poignancy. "Smell Of Gasoline" explores regrets, boy-girl politics, and shy, adolescent haplessness, while "Scenery Going By" addresses mortality, missed opportunities, and a wasted life, not to mention the suicidal impulse:

Lookin' out my window there's a world going by
Out here on this highway is probably how I'll die
I've been everywhere, haven't seen a thing
But that's what you get when you play guitar and sing

Asked about writing songs in the tradition of the rockabilly revival, Heath said," "I’m thinking more of, ‘Should this chord be an augmented chord, or just a straight dominant chord?,’ you know? I’m thinking about, ‘Is this lyric going to work better in a slower song because the story is so good?’ I don’t have time to think about genres, or what’s watered down . . . I don’t go there. I’m thinking about the nuts and bolts of what makes music happen—stuff that is generally lost on 90 percent of everybody who has opinions about music."

5.) He works really hard.

Heath and his band have hundreds and hundreds of shows under his belt, and he shows no signs of letting up. "It’s so weird. You know, we live in a world where it’s all about retirement. ‘Oh, I can retire,’ blah blah blah. I never want to retire," he said last year. "Willie Nelson is still out there doing gigs—as many gigs as we are probably. Think about a guy like Willie. He got his start as a young guy playing bass with Ray Price way back in the ’50s. Well, Ray Price is out there playing a gig tonight somewhere. So really, Willie Nelson isn’t even an old guy."

I'm goin' back home some day
I'm goin' back home some day
I've played a million bars
And another one today
I'm goin' back home some day...

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Pocket Infinity

Charles and Ray Eames's documentary dealing with the relative size of things in the universe—for your back pocket.

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