Thursday, February 11, 2016

Better Call Saul Matters

The beginning of the end.

Jimmy McGill brings groceries and supplies back and forth from his car to his ill brother's darkened living room while Jesse Pinkman, a skinny, shiftless senior at J. P. Wynne High School, sits in Mr. White's 9 a.m. chemistry class; Mike Ehrmantraut talks stiffly with his daughter-in-law in her sparse backyard, both idly watching a small girl on a swing, as across town Gus Fring trains an employee at his new fast food chicken franchise, Los Pollos Hermanos; at his home, DEA agent Hank Schraeder snorts as he reads the story of McGill's inadvertent heroism rescuing a man from a billboard, then folds the Albuquerque Journal, his mind elsewhere....

At least, it's easy to believe such parallels. The attention to narrative detail is so richly exact in Vince Gilligan's and Peter Gould's southwestern United States that the pleasures of imagining Breaking Bad's characters' daily, uneventful lives as they might be occurring during scenes in Better Call Saul are deep and irresistible. Knowledge of their future colliding is a drama in itself. Like many Breaking Bad fanatics, I was somewhat doubtful about the prequel, which is set roughly six years before White's story begins. But concerns I had that the McGill character might not be dimensional enough to sustain a series or that Ehemantraut's intersecting with McGill might feel contrived vanished within the first several, patiently delivered episodes. Gilligan and company's unfolding of characters against a comfortingly familiar Albuquerque background is riveting in a different way than is the breathless Breaking Bad action: some of this has to do with our sobering foreknowledge of McGill's and Ehrmantraut's fates, of course, but most of it originates in the show's artful rendering of time and place, of motives and inevitable gestures enacted against a pitiless environment. I care about watching McGill and Ehrmantraut this season; a while back I wondered if I'd feel something at stake in this show. These characters move, consciously or distractedly but always vividly, between bleakness and fulfillment, and their truths seem utterly true.

I watch Better Call Saul as someone in the mid-1960s bought a 45 at Woolworth's solely for the Motown label—you had a good idea of what you were going to get, you bought into the delivery system of quality. In other words, I'm a fan. Still, I feel confident that the Better Call Saul brand, no matter how many seasons the show lasts, won't let me down. In a recent Reddit AMA, Gilligan confessed, "Without a doubt, my greatest fear was abject failure—and that is still my greatest fear. Seriously: I was afraid that [Better Call Saul] would go on the air and people wouldn’t like it, and—worse than that—people would say it sullied their memory of Breaking Bad." He needn't worry: he and Peter Gould and the men and women with whom they work are expert storytellers at the top of their game, with deep affection in and curiosity about their characters and the Big Sky/Low Ceiling environments in which they move; they also know the value of suspense, surprise, and sudden, random violence in the service of a good story, and that hiding desperation beneath humor is a fool's game. (In the Toronto Sun, Bill Harris does bring up a logical concern: "This is a prequel, and increasingly it'll be a challenge to keep the carry-over cast looking believably younger than they looked in Breaking Bad. Maybe we just have to let that go. But we can't have them looking so much older that it becomes a distraction.") Of course, I want Gus Fring to show up sometime this season—I want to know how Ehrmantraut became his main man. Of course, I want to see more of Tuco or The Cousins, as much as I fear them. Of course, I want to spot Hank Schreader in a brief walking cameo in the background in some bland municipal building. However Better Call Saul's stories unfold, they will unfold with the integrity and purposefulness of indelible narrative art.

Strangers no more.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Everything Approaching and then Disappearing: Virgina Woolf and the "great hall" of childhood

In April of 1939, seeking a break from the task of writing a biography of Roger Fry, Virginia Woolf embarked on a memoiristic essay titled "A Sketch of the Past." She worked on the piece for a year and a half, the last entry coming in November of 1940, some four months before her death. In the evocative essay, reprinted in Moments of Being, Woolf writes beautifully and memorably about love and grief, the difficulties of capturing the past in language, and of the differences between remembering and composing. In the process, she offers one of the descriptions of childhood:
Many bright colours; many distinct sounds; some human beings, caricatures; comic; several violent moments of being, always including a circle of the scene which they cut out: and all surrounded by a vast space—that is a rough visual description of childhood. This is how I shape it; and how I see myself as a child, roaming about, in that space of time which lasted from 1882 to 1895. A great hall I could liken it to; with windows letting in strange lights; and murmurs and spaces of deep silence. But somehow into that picture must be brought, too, the sense of movement and change. Nothing remained stable long. One must get the feeling of everything approaching and then disappearing, getting large, getting small, passing at different rates of speed past the little creature; one must get the feeling that made her press on, the little creature driven on as she was by growth of her legs and arms, driven without her being able to stop it, or to change it, driven as a plant is driven up out of the earth, up until the stalk grows, the leaf grows, buds swell. That is what is indescribable, that is what makes all images too static, for no sooner has one said this was so, than it was past and altered. How immense must be the force of life which turns a baby, who can just distinguish a great blot of blue and purple on a black background, into the child who thirteen years later can feel all that I felt on May 5th 1895—now almost exactly to a day, forty-four years ago—when my mother died.

This shows that among the innumerable things left out in my sketch I have left out the most important—those instincts, affections, passions, attachments—there is no single word for them, for they changed month by month—which bound me, I suppose, from the first moment of consciousness to other people. If it were true, as I said above, that the things that ceased in childhood, are easy to describe because they are complete, then it should be easy to say what I felt for my mother, who died when I was thirteen. Thus I should be able to see her completely undisturbed by later impressions, as I saw Mr Gibbs and G. B. Clarke. But the theory, though true of them, breaks down completely with her. It breaks down in a curious way, which I will explain, for perhaps it may help to explain why I find it now so curiously difficult to describe both my feeling for her, and her herself.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Fleshtones & Ken Fox, A.D. 1990

In advance of the Fleshtones' 40th anniversary this year, I'll be combing through the Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band archives for some little-seen nuggets. Below are the first photographs of Ken Fox playing with the Fleshtones. The occasion was the Mediterranean Rock Circus Festival on July 18, 1990 in Italy, where the band played before a large crowd in a soccer stadium, spending most of the time in the large field in an attempt to get closer to the cordoned-off crowd. (Fox had to get used to getting moving, on and off stage.) This xeroxed article first appeared in Corriere di Pordenone, and the Paleolithic graininess of these photos is distressing but somehow appropriate, because when Fox joined the Fleshtones he plugged in to something eternal. When I saw the band at Stache's in Columbus, Ohio a year or so later, it looked like Fox had been playing with the band forever. It'll be a quarter century this summer. The "new guy" no more.

Here's a pretty typical headline from Fox's debut tour with the Fleshtones in northern Europe, this from Il Gazzettino on July 20, 1990:

More archival Fleshtones materials here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Ten Commandments of The Fleshtones: Star Hits, 1985

In advance of the Fleshtones' 40th anniversary this year, I'll be combing through the Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band archives for some little-seen nuggets. In December of 1985 the Fleshtones appeared in Star Hits magazine, alongside Thompson Twins, Tears For Fears, A-Ha, Paul Young, ABC, et al. As unlikely as it is in retrospect to consider Super Rock sharing glossy pages with Top-40 New Romantics, here are the guys gamely posing for a promotional photograph. ("We've made a career out of baffling people," Peter Zaremba admits in the article.) The best bit is "The Ten Commandments of The Fleshtones," as proclaimed by the fellas, fearlessly uncool edicts for commercial radio in 1985 and all the more timeless:











More archival Fleshtones materials here, here, here, here, here and here.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Fleshtones: Riding the High Life

In advance of the Fleshtones' 40th anniversary this year, I'll be combing through the Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band archives for some little-seen nuggets. By 1983 the folks at I.R.S. Records were hopeful that the Fleshtones would break into commercial radio and start selling records. History would prove otherwise, of course, but in the mid-1980s some major corporations were willing to bet on Super Rock. Following the release of Hexbreaker! the band signed a sponsorship deal with Miller Beer in the national Miller Rock Network, a promotional boon that gave the band coast-to-coast exposure and tons of free equipment and gear—and their own Shout! Poster & Magazine, cover illustration courtesy of Scribblin' Bill Milhizer. The copy reads, a tad optimistically, "The world will be hearing more about The Fleshtones very soon, and who knows what these wild guys will be up to next." Read Sweat to find out.

Best of all, the Shout! promo magazine opened up to become a full-size poster, perfect for your bedroom next to your Michael Jackson and Men At Work posters!


Meanwhile in France, where the band was always more popular than the U.S.:

As French rock and roll promoter Alain Lahana explained to me, “The Fleshtones had all the talent, and were fantastic live, but were only appreciated by an elite in France. They could never reach the level they should have reached there, but they always stayed proud and convinced. We like Beautiful Losers.” The Fleshtones, Lahana adds, “were amongst the best in that category!” Merci!

More archival Fleshtones materials here, here, here, here and here.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Frank Conroy's Waiting

If great autobiography moves from individual experience to the time- and the place-less, then Frank Conroy, unmoored from his own lousy Floridian adolescence, is writing across millennia in this passage from his 1967 book Stop-Time:
My philosophy, at age eleven, was skepticism. Like most children I was antisentimental and quick to hear false notes. I waited, more than anything else, waited for something momentous to happen. Keeping a firm grip on reality was of immense importance. My vision had to be clear so that when “it” happened I would know. The momentous event would clear away the trivia and throw my life into proper perspective. As soon as it happened I would understand what was going on, and until then it was useless to try. (A spectacularly unsuccessful philosophy since nothing ever happened.)
Painting of Conroy by John Rich, Paris, 1953. Cover of first edition of Stop-Time.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Fleshtones: High Times in the 80s

In advance of the Fleshtones' 40th anniversary this year, I'll be combing through the Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band archives for some little-seen nuggets. In August of 1986 the band was profiled by Art Black in High Times magazine, a straightforward account of the band's early years, tenure at I.R.S. Records, and frustrating commercial plateau. Among ads for "Body Energizer" pills and "Indoor Sun" Energy Efficient Grow Lights were some terrific photos.

These colors were shot by Monica Dee. This is among my favorite photos of the band, mocking temperance in Tompkins Square Park, feet away from several of their favorite drinking holes.
A few Fleshtones off-shoots: Love Delegation, Mad Violets, and the rarely-seen and short-lived Tall Lonesome Pines, bassist Marek Pakulski's Everly Brothers-styled outfit with George Gilmour and pals.


These moody black-and-whites were shot around the same time by Anders Goldfarb at the band's rehearsal space at 584 Eighth Avenue, a block below the Port Authority bus station. Note that the High Times editors helpfully tagged each with official Pupilometer Readings.

More archival Fleshtones pics here, here, here and here.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Add Country Western Square Dance Blues Gospel Rhythm and Race; Stir

Bobby Gregory was a country music performer and bandleader in the 1920s through the '40s; he led an outfit called His Cactus Cowboys, and wrote or co-wrote and recorded hundreds of songs over many labels. Beginning in the 1950s he landed a gig for Country Song Roundup magazine writing a regular question-and-answer column in which he patiently waded through topics ranging from how to manage copyrights and contact fan clubs to the precise tuning of Hawaiian pedal steel guitars and the necessity of one's tonsils for yodeling. The popular feature, with Gregory's taut but knowledgeable face on top, ran for 63 issues.

In December 1957, one Harry Taylor, of tiny Princeton, West Virginia, posed an interesting question to Gregory, whose careful and honest answer suggests just how thorny and labyrinthine-like the nomenclature got in mid-century popular music, the virtual calisthenics needed for crossover success, and the racism under the surface of radio programming—but also the strange excitement of this "new," genre-leaping, undefinable sound. Where the heck do I file "Rock 'n' Roll?"

Monday, January 25, 2016

Before The Fall: Jerry Lee in 1958

Apparently the winds of change hadn't yet reached Derby, Connecticut, where the editorial offices of Country Song Roundup magazine stood. "In Like A Lamb—Out Like A Lion," an enthusiastic, fan-friendly article on Jerry Lee Lewis, ran in the September 1958 issue, months after Lewis's so-called "marriage scandal" had erupted. Near the end of the piece, Mae Boren Axton makes a great observation about Lewis that he'd trade on a decade later, licking his considerable wounds:
But when he changes his mood from his rocking, rolling piano playing and singing to such tender melodies as “You Win Again”, there is a hush that grips the audience which is a greater tribute to this versatile artist than his rockabilly tunes bring forth. They realize that he can furnish an outlet for their nervous energy then turn right around and, with a wistful sadness in his eyes, sing their stories of life and its problems in a soothing way.
Ah, life and its problems. ("Out like a lion," indeed.) For now, at least, he was still in the hands of well-meaning writers and editors.

Here he is in 1956, proving Axton's point:

Saturday, January 23, 2016

A Southern Past in Gothic Grays

In his absorbing, vivid memoir masterpiece A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, Harry Crews describes a world teeming with weirdness. Crews was raised in southern Georgia, Bacon County, not far from the Florida panhandle, in a violent family poised between despair and the dimmest of hopes. Born in the middle of the Depression, his earliest memories involved struggle and loss. Echoing his Southern Gothic and Grit Lit ancestors, Crews, rendering place from a child’s point-of-view, describes endless hours looking up: at strange, unfathomable adults, at the impossibly hot sun, at diminishing expectations. All around him is oddness that he takes for granted, accepts as normal because it’s all he’s ever known. A daddy vanishes for days on end, staggering home putrid with whiskey, eyes red and wild, armed with a shotgun. A dead possum’s eyeballs are buried facing up so the revenging animal’s ghost can’t find his hunter once he’s dead and buried six feet beneath him. A man driven by desperation stabs himself in the back of a feed store and dies slowly, strangely, beautifully, all the while talking. A Childhood is an unforgettable book.

First published in 1978, A Childhood was reissued in 1995 by the University of Georgia Press in an edition including Michael McCurdy's wood-engraved drawings—haunting evocations of a Southern past in Gothic grays. Paradoxically, McMurdy has lived his entire life in the northeast United States; he was born in New York City in 1942, grew up in New Rochelle and Marblehead, Massachusetts, and now lives in Springfield, Massachusetts. His geographic distance from the lurid Deep South of Crews's childhood and adolescence is breached via the imagination sparked by surreality, violence, rural landscape: place filtered through dream.

Here are details of a few of my favorite drawings from a favorite book, imagery now so deep inside me and likely to stay there that I wonder, as McCurdy likely did, startled, if it was always there.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Fleshtones, Early Posing, cont'd

More from the Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band archives: details from three contact sheets of never-before-seen photographs taken in 1980 by Fran Pelzman for Meridian Photographics, in New York City. Drummer Bill Milhizer had just joined the band in the spring and, judging by the fellas' short sleeves and the good light, these photos look like they were taken in the summer, perhaps on the west side of Manhattan or out in Brooklyn. "Meatpacking District, High Line," Peter Zaremba thinks. "We did a lot of photo shoots on the High Line, I think also with the Go-Gos. If only the droves of tourists knew." Milhizer confirms: "Yes, these were at the high line," adding, "where we are no longer welcome, unless I hit the Lotto." When these hopeful promotional pics were snapped, the Fleshtones had just signed with Miles Copeland at I.R.S. Records and were about to head out to Los Angeles to record the Up-Front EP.  The Party was just getting into gear.

More rarely-seen Fleshtones pics here, here, and here.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Little Richard is Real

In the late 1950s, Little Richard turned his back on secular rock and roll music and entered Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, to study theology, reconnect to his evangelical Christian roots, and, to no small degree, continue to reckon with his queerness. At the beginning of the next decade he went into the studio to cut a series of spiritual and gospel standards. The first of these sessions occurred in the fall 1960 in New York City, under the guidance of producer and multi-label owner George Goldner; Richard also recorded spirituals with producer Quincy Jones in New York and Los Angeles. On many of the songs recorded with Goldner, Richard is backed only by organist Herman Stevens, aided and abetted later by dubbed group backing vocals and string sections. Over the next few years the material from these sessions were released on a number of albums, including Pray Along With Little Richard (Top Rank International), Little Richard Sings Freedom Songs ‎(Crown Records), and Little Richard Sings Spirituals ‎(United/Superior Records), the latter of which I recently picked up.

The Goldner tracks are often disparaged. In The Life And Times Of Little Richard, biographer Charles White describes them as "pretty miserable" and "dirgelike," and down the years his opinion seems to have became holy writ, as it were. I find the recordings, on the whole, genuine and genuinely moving. True, in places Stevens's organ bizarrely mimics tones usually reserved for a baseball game, and on some cuts Richard sounds—if you can believe this—hesitant. But on standards like "Milky White Way" (words and music by Landers Coleman) and "God Is Real" (Kenneth Morris) Richard really gets inside the words and the beliefs they articulate, and it's a thrill to hear the octave leaps, graphic falsetto, and signature, aggressively ranging, joyous vocal stylings we associate with "Good Golly Miss Molly" and "Tutti Frutti" in the service of veneration and adoration (which, in his inimitable way, Richard was also doing while going on about Long Tall Sally, but that's another story). In the studio with Goldner he's relatively decorous, but the devotion, passion, and troubles are real, and whatever complications we're aware of now—Richard's intense conflicts across his sexual spectrum (what he called "unnatural affections") and across the expanse of his God's mercy and his family's and church's dogma—make the performances that much more absorbing. I hear lines like "There are some things I may not know; there are some places I can't go" and, perhaps naively, wonder what knowledge and what places are beyond his ken, if he's imagining, or not allowing himself to imagine, his own native eroticism and desires as well as grace and secular and spiritual limits. When he sings about walking the milky white way to take his stand, I wonder how he expects to find God's home, welcoming or censuring?

Within a few years he'd be rocking again, so naturally. The conflicts have never deserted him.

From the Little Richard Sings Spirituals album notes: 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

"Something deeper that we may all recognize"

Painter, sculptor, and printmaker Eric Fischl recently sat down with the editors of Out Of Sync, an online interview series, to discuss his career and work. Fischl speaks casually and openly, and the brief window into his life, aesthetic, and motivations is very interesting.

On his early art schooling:
I found as I started to take these art classes, that two things happened that had never happened to me before. One was that I could be alone. And the other was that I could concentrate.... I felt so integrated when I made art, so connected to my self, my essential self, that I thought that, even if I was not a good or successful artist, that I would keep doing that for the rest of my life.
On the effect of his mother's alcoholism and her effort to hide it from the public:
I became acutely aware of the difference between inside and outside, between experienced and speakable, and in my work, once I began to mature as an artist, that became part of the impetus and the themes in the work, to expose that which cannot be spoken.
On being a self-taught representational painter:
I was making this transition from abstract painting, which is what I was taught in school, to figuration, which I was impelled to make but actually didn't know how to. I wasn't trained as a drawer or a renderer or something like so I had to kind of make the whole thing up as I went along.
On the family as subject:
I chose a structure that I thought would give me a lot of things to work on, so the structure was a family matrix....[wherein] you could explore the relationship between the mother, the father, between the sister, the brother, the husband, the wife, the father, the daughter, etc.. You'd go through all of these variations and you could find some deep, emotional, psychological content within those. So I began to play around, moving these characters in and out. I was looking for something that was more universal than just my personal experience, going for something deeper that we may all recognize, empathize with, or share experientially.

Particularly interesting are Fischl's comments on two of his more notable, and infamous, paintings, Sleepwalker and Bad Boy, as he considers the differences between the taboo of pornography on the one hand, and complex human experience sexual experiences on the other. I've been a big fan of Fischl's for years, and it's great to see him discuss his work, however briefly, in a relaxed environment. Good stuff.
Sleepwalker (1979)

Bad Boy (1981)

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Jim Nesbitt Can Sing a Ballad, Too

Jim Nesbitt sang goofy songs about trucks, drinking, and women (and I mean that as a compliment). But, like any committed country music artist steeped in tradition, he also let in songs that were less comical, more in tune with Music Row's expert pairing of heartache's chaos and a good song's formalism. Nesbitt—a talented tunesmith who wrote the majority of his own material—is probably best know for his killer 1964 single "Tiger In My Tank" which reached number 20 on the Billboard Country chart; he also scored hits with "Please Mr. Kennedy" (#11 in 1961) and "Looking for More in '64," a number seven hit in that titular year. These singles were issued on Chart Records, one of the more successful independent country music labels of the 1960s and '70s.

By the end of the decade, Nesbitt's singles were performing less robustly in a dynamically changing record-selling culture. In 1968 he released his first album in four long years, The Truck Drivin' Cat With Nine Lives, one of the all-time great titles, the lyrical content of which wasn't much of a stretch (trucks, drinking, and women—and, in a fashionable nod to the era, Vietnam draft-dodging. He followed this up in 1970 with Runnin' Bare, the title track an ode to, well, you know). "The Truck Drivin' Cat With Nine Lives" is a hoot (and was a modest hit), but I'm partial to "I Ain't Ever Been Passed," a cut on the second side, a rockin' trucker ode that's ripe for a cover by Reverend Horton Heat:


Yet, emblazoned on the album's back cover is the phrase "From Novelties To Ballads," a message from Chart Records to radio programmers and jukebox owners that Nesbitt is willing to ease off the throttle once in a while. From the notes:
When you first put the needle down on this record you will know that Jim Nesbitt really does “have something." This is the Jim Nesbitt who has kept you laughing for several years with hilarious hits like Looking for More in '64, Still Alive in '65, The Friendly Undertaker and many other rib-tickling tunes. Now, this is Jim Nesbitt pulling at your heartstrings too, making you ‘feel every heartache in She Didn't Come Home and Social Security. With this. album Jim establishes the fact that he is not just a novelty-type recording artist, but that he can sing a ballad just as well as he does the novelty songs.
Defensive stuff, with the tell-tale whiff of commercial anxiety. And Nesbitt does offer a few terrific ballads on The Truck Drivin' Cat With Nine Lives. Particularly strong is the album's second cut, the little-known "Living The Life Of Riley," a clever but moving song about infidelity, the tenuous bonds of male friendship, selfishness, and regrets. Here, Nesbitt gets his hands around the kind of emotional complexities that aren't easily dispensed with in the exhaust of a semi-truck with a girl down the line. I wonder how a timeless song like this turned inside-out would sound today. I'd love to hear Jason Isbell or American Aquarium or Greg Cartwright, when he's feeling rustic, or heck even The Handsome Family or a gender-fucking Lydia Loveless give this deserving song a shot. What do you say?

The Truck Drivin' Cat With Nine Lives (Chart, 1968). A timeless semi and of-the-era babes.
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