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.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Fleshtones are singing songs about living. Who's listening?

Since I published Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band in 2007, a number of people have asked me, half in jest, half earnestly, if I'm working on a second volume. In a way, the Fleshtones have been doing that work for me. In surprisingly autobiographical songs on 2008's Take A Good Look and this year's Wheel Of Talent, the Fleshtones are telling stories about what it's like as borough veterans to be living in a changing New York City, to be aging while watching young hipsters abound, and to be survivors, playing in a rock and roll band for nearly forty years against great odds. From regrets about blowing off high school, pride in re-defining conventional success and maturity, and baffled hostility toward gentrification to pridefully and affectionately remembering Ground Zero of U.S. Punk ("We were there," they crow from the stage) and dealing with dysfunctional family politics and the bittersweet lure of memory, the Fleshtones are proving that they aren't just a "party band" anymore. They've endured and have stuff to say. How did Pete Townshend define rock and roll, that it's fun songs about sad stuff? Turn it up, live and learn:

"Going Back To School," Take A Good Look

"Never Grew Up," Take A Good Look

"Take A Good Look," Take A Good Look

"It Is As It was," Wheel Of Talent

"Remember The Ramones," Wheel Of Talent

"Stranger In My House," Wheel Of Talent

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Scully, Angell, All Too Briefly

The 2014 postseason marches on, and we're now shy one voice. I pinch myself every time I get to hear Vin Scully call a Dodgers game; through the miracle of MLB GameDay I've been able to listen to him throughout the summer. His call at the bottom of the ninth in yesterday's Dodgers' loss to the Cardinals—Saint Louis advanced and will play the San Fransisco Giants in the Championship Series—reminded me of just how superb he is. And how rare. Sadly, a transcript doesn't exist of his statesman-like narration as his team went down, but we didn't need one, really: we've heard this call for decades. His voice circles us now. He described the confetti falling at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals collectively leaping about, that this is "a perfect moment in Saint Louis Cardinals history." Then he was off to a commercial break. When he returned, he ran down the game's numbers, and then signed off: "This is Vin Scully saying, Good evening from St. Louis." He'll be back next year.

He is 86 years old. Since Since Harry S. Truman was President, Scully has been describing the Dodgers and the atmosphere that their games create, home and away (mostly home now; yesterday's broadcast on the road was rare). He proves—forget "suggests"—that there is no inherent need for two, let alone three, talking heads in the booth. His calls are elegant, economical, witty, and precise. What I admired most about his ninth inning call yesterday was that there was nary a trace of homerism from this lifetime Dodgers announcer. He is a respectful fan of the game first, of his team second.

Meanwhile, the great Roger Angell, at 94, is again blogging his was through this postseason. His first New Yorker blog post went live on October 5, 2008 (it was about the actor Tommy Lee Jones); his first baseball blog post, on then-Red Sox manager Terry Francona, went live a week later. He hasn't written a full magazine recap of the World Series since 2009. At his age, he's decided that it's best now to weigh in virtually, when the mood strikes him. I deeply miss his Spring Training, mid-season, and postseason essays that ran in The New Yorker for decades, but I'm realistic about The Old Man. I await his miniature online observations, looking forward to how he'll blend his acumen, grace, and wit, because he will, invariably.

With Scully and Angell, two mythic voices in different media, one never hears sentimentality, over-hype, or unearned, shopworn exclamations such as "Un-be-lievable!" or "Epic Showdown." Listen and read while you can. Here's hoping that their influence on current broadcasters and writers is even more pronounced than I believe it is.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Abandoned, Ctd.

Barn. North 1st Street and Coltonville Road. DeKalb, Illinois.
On its way out.

A little over a year ago I photographed an abandoned barn in north DeKalb. Driving by the site the other day I noticed that the entire barn had been moved from its original position to the north edge of the field. I assume the old barn will be removed entirely; the re-location didn't do it any favors. I came back today to say goodbye before it's gone for good.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

That Nun and those Devil Horns

I love this photo immoderately, and feel no shame in adding to the number of shares it's received worldwide in the last few years. Great art asks more questions than it provides answers for, and this snapshot has entered the realm: Who took this photo, and when? And where? Is this an actual snapshot, or a fraud created recently via Photoshop? Is the poor sister in on the joke—such nuns did exist, I can assure you (though a painful memory of my years at Saint Andrew Apostle grade school: singing along in class with the words "happy and gay" and guffawing as Sister Joy naively, and merrily, mimicked our limp wrists. Or was she in on the joke?)—or is she the fool? Whose horns are they, the girl's on the right, or the girl's to her right? Did students outside the frame know how much power the offending girl had in creating among her classmates crushes, fear, and unhappy or liberating memories of subversion, that this image wouldn't need photographic evidence to ensure that it remains in the imagination? An image is shared as often as this and it enters myth: the number of those nodding at it gravely, or with queasiness, or who claim I was there! or I snapped this! or We did this too! multiplying exponentially.

"A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know." Diane Arbus
Photo by ?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

"I don't want to say 'fans,' I want to say 'friends'."

I was at U.S. Cellular field last night to say so long to Paul Konerko, one of my all-time favorite baseball players. Konerko's retiring after 18 seasons, 15 with the Chicago White Sox, leaving behind a solid and productive career, including—as of this morning; he has one game left this afternoon—over 9,500 plate appearances, 2,340 hits, 439 homer runs, 1,412 RBI, 410 doubles, a .279 batting average, and an OPS of .841. He played in the postseason three times, including a World Series Championship (2005), made six All-Star Teams, and, as Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf reminded the throng last night, is the first player to hit a solo, two-run and three-run home run, along with a grand slam, in postseason history. If his career numbers numbers are likely to keep Konerko out of the Hall Of Fame, it's worth noting that they were compiled in the Steroid Era, that Konerko played clean, and that they were excruciatingly earned. An outstanding fastball hitter and excellent first baseman, Konerko was not a supremely gifted player otherwise: he was awfully slow, struck out too much, especially late in his career, was prone to hitting into rally-killing double plays, and endured ghastly, painful-to-watch slumps. As I've written before, Konerko's body language was always an indicator of the degree to which he worked hard, day in and day out, to maximize his relatively limited baseball skills. When he struck out, or popped up feebly to third, or sent a ball dribbling harmlessly to second, he often reacted with a visible I really can't take this anymore frustration: head down, shoulders slumped, a pose of anger and resignation he'd take with him as he stalked to a sullen dug out. Few baseball players I've seen in my lifetime have so graphically proven the argument that baseball is a very, very hard game to master over a long career. To put up the numbers Konerko did is testament to his love of the game, a game bigger than individual statistical peaks and depths, a game that is brutally humbling to even the most gifted. To a regular starter like Konerko, the daily lessons in humility were as part of his game as strapping on his jock and locating his batting glove. Paul Konerko's career numbers were etched, determined, and it often appeared, tabulated at a cost.

That's misleading, and possibly precious: Konerko loved playing baseball, and retiring must be tough. Last night's pre-game festivities for Paul Konerko Day were a predictable blend of warmth and boredom: Sox television announcer Hawk Harrelson held forth, gently mocking Konerko while setting up video board clips of his greatest achievements; Jerry Reinsdorf spoke well of The Captain, and presented him with his World Series grand slam ball pried loose from the guy (Chris Claeys) who caught it. That was a nice moment. But generally the video tributes from teammates, ex-teammates, and players around the league and across the decade were full of dull platitudes and corny jokes, and were marred by surprisingly sub-par sound at The Cell. Konerko spoke, of course, looking like he willed himself up to that microphone as he willed himself through a particularly brutal slump: this is my job. With class, he thanked all responsible for the ceremony and congratulated the Kansas City Royals on their successes. Then, smiling and gesturing broadly to the crowd of 38,160, he said, "I don't want to say fans, I want to say friends." That seemed genuine sentiment, not sentimentality, issuing from a graciousness and humility that many who personally know Konerko speak of. Later during the game, my friends and I walked the outfield concourse to check out the new Konerko statue, facing the bronze likeness of Frank "The Big Hurt" Thomas. Alas, the crowd was too thick for me to get close, but the photos I did take speak volumes, I think, for the love and affection that this city has for Konerko.


As for the game—oh yeah, the game—the Sox won, 5-4, forestalling the Royals' unlikely, and terrifically exciting, grab for a first place tie in the American League Central Division. John Danks pitched well, Jose Abreu hit another monster home run. Konerko came to bat three times. In his last AB before manager Robin Ventura pulled him to yet another standing ovation, Konerko struck out looking, twirled on his back foot in a kind of Drat, fooled again dance, and sulked back to the dug out.

Perfect. It's a hard game. Thanks for gutting it out for so long and giving us so much pleasure watching you play. See you, Paulie.

An era ending.

The Captain's number.

Black and white balloons rise into the air from the site of the new Paul Konerko statue.

9:04 pm. Last At Bat on Paul Konerko Day

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Billboard Magazine, 1966: Juke Boxes, Vietnam, and Sizzling Summer Hits

I recently spent some time perusing random Billboard issues from 1966. The advertisements alone narrate a dynamic year moving among the financial and cultural value of juke boxes and discotheques, pro-Vietnam patriotism, menacing urban anti-anthems, buoyant pop songs, and Southern soul. Quite a year, quite a trip.

From the January 15, 1966 issue: The Toys "Attacked!"

But the juke box industry was concerned with the state of things regarding twisting teens. Rock-Ola Manufacturing sniffs: "We viewed the juke box discotheque conception—as we do now—as a sort of 'illegitimate' substitute for the live or 'legitimate' discotheque, and unquestionably a feeble attempt to stimulate equipment sales." But Rowe A Go-Go Vice President of Manufacturing Fred Pollak cautions: "The nations's demographic breakdown indicates we should push the concept harder. Persons under 40 years of age now make up 75 percent of the population, and it is the younger age group that demands lively entertainment like discotheque." ATTACK!

I'm fairly confident I know what Johnny Wright—hot on the heels of "Hello Vietnam"—thinks of those long-haired kids at the discotheque. "Are you a boy or as girl?"

From the July 2, 1966 issue. Things are getting colorful. And hopeful:

And things are getting dirty and gritty:

But taking Fred Pollak's heed, Rock-Ola is pushing its gorgeous GP/Imperial juke box hard:

These guys have a new album, but it's more than a new album, it's a way of life. Take It Or Leave It.

July's sizzling!

From the November 26 issue, a remarkably potent line-up of new and fantastic 45s and LPs of the Great Memphis Sound:

And introducing the solo debut of an ex-Byrd, "revealing emphatic, thought-provoking lyrics and vividly expressive music he has written himself."

Saturday, September 20, 2014

How Great Is Silence?

Years ago I had my hearing tested and was astonished to learn that I had virtually perfect hearing. After decades of loud rock and roll shows and punishing music room and earphone/ear bud sessions, my hearing remains relatively unscathed. I'm grateful and perplexed. It's maybe ironic for someone of such robust hearing and who's written book about noisy rock and roll bands to observe how loud culture has gotten, but we're besieged. I like to choose my own decibels. When I work out at the Y my iPod earphones compete, feebly, against the roar of the gym's multiple speakers cranking Top 40; in the locker room there are a dozen televisions broadcasting, loudly, a half dozen different channels, the smart designer of the room's layout having placed pairs of TVs back to back, so in order to listen to one you have to tune out the blare of the the TV directly behind it. It's rare to find a bar, even of the divey sort, without a TV in the corner. At one of my and my friend's favorite watering holes in Rockford, Illinois—the Oasis—a busted TV hung for years n the corner, black and silent, defeated. Imagine our gloom when we went in one day and Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island was blaring over our heads. I heard or read once that the average American sees more images in a week than the average Victorian saw in a lifetime. This sounds too good to be true, and anyway I've failed to track down the source, so I might've heard or read it wrong. But it feels right. Baseball ballparks: too loud. Waiting rooms: too loud. Elevators with someone on Bluetooth: too loud.

And I won't pretend that I drive home from ear-splitting shows at the Empty Bottle or Double Door thinking of Seneca, the first century a Roman Stoic philosopher—I'm busy cranking the stereo really loud—but his essay "On Noise" resonates somewhere under my consciousness as I'm zipping along I-88. "You may be sure, then," Seneca writes, "that you are at last 'lulled to rest' when noise never reaches you and when voices never shake you out of yourself, whether they be menacing or inviting or just a meaningless hubbub of empty sound all round you." So deal with it, Seneca says to me, boasting: "For I force my mind to become self-absorbed and not let outside things distract it. There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within, so long as fear and desire are not at loggerheads, so long as meanness and extravagance are not at odds and harassing each other."

Of course, Seneca couldn't even cut it, resolving at the end of his essay on noise to move somewhere less noisy. I'll still take beautiful, underrated silence where I can get it:

Friday, September 19, 2014

Liverpool, Where The Tourists Root Like Trees

This is Google Street View of Paul McCartney's family home at 20 Forthlin Road in Liverpool, where he lived from 1955 to 1963. The house was bought by the National Trust in 1995. If this isn't an image of contemporary celebrity culture, I don't know what is. I imagine that no matter what time of day the ubiquitous, camera-mounted Google car moves past this home there will be fans from all over the world milling about, standing, staring, taking pictures, lining up for a tour. They're like the weather, or indigenous shrubbery—always there, and easy to take for granted.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

That Ain't Easy: the Stones Shake Their Hips

Recorded in July and October 1970, December 1971 and March 1972 among the Rolling Stones Mobile Unit, Mick Jagger's residence in Newbury, England, Olympic Sound Studios in London, and Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles—not at the fabled 1971 sessions at Keith Richards' rented home in Villefranche-sur-mer, in southern France—this deceptively simple cover of Slim Harpo's 1966 Excello single still astonishes. As cool as Jagger's reverb-soaked vocal, Richards and Mick Taylor's rockabilly serpentine playing, and Bill Wyman's funky walking bass are, it's Charlie Watt's deft playing that continues to surprise me. I've listened to this song a thousand times, and those four isolated snare shots seem to land on a slightly different beat each time, an aural illusion. Or voodoo. Or Charlie being Charlie.


Here's some cool "Shake Your Hips" rehearsal footage from 1972.


EDIT: according to James "The Hound" Marshall, the four snare shots were played by producer Jimmy Miller, not Watts, and were overdubbed in Los Angeles. As Marshall said, the Stones were great at sounding spontaneous.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Abandoned Bike, redux

Last March I found an abandoned house and barn off of North First Street in DeKalb. In June I returned, and found a bike that wasn't there before. It appeared to have been left behind in the middle of a field. But who would leave it here? And why? I went back today to see if the bike was still there. It is. I'll keep going back, until the bike's absorbed by the natural world, or until someone comes and rides off with it.

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