Monday, July 22, 2019

Disposable mumblings

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

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

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

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


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

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

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Then and now

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

Thursday, July 11, 2019

"What's a clubhouse?"

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Minor griefs

For decades my dad worked at IBM. The company, renowned for its generosity to its employees, would annually rent out the modest amusement park at Marshall Hall, Maryland, across the Potomac River. There the families of Big Blue would have free run of the joint. It was exciting: we took a loud ferry—"excursion boat" in the romantic parlance—from the Virginia side of the the river to get there. The park and its rickety wooden roller coaster and lo-fi fairway closed in 1980. Yet I believe I'm conflating those days with a similar day at Wheaton Regional Park near my childhood home; for reasons that are obscure to me now, that park was closed for a special occasion during which my friends and I ran around. Anyway, location doesn't matter—leave that stuff to historians and map makers. What maters is a small gesture I made that day. I'd invited my friend Paul B. to come with me and my family, and at one point I impulsively ran up behind him and threw a full cup of icy Pepsi against the back of his neck, drenching him. It was a hot day; the soda got sticky, a big mess. Why did I do it? Paul was a great friend, my only friend, really, after Karl R. moved to far away Illinois, and he was my guest that day. I'd been possessed by one of those strange destructive moments that you know is wrong to indulge in but feel powerless not to, an awful, queasy feeling I associate with childhood. Why can't I shake this trivial memory? Far worse things have been meted out among kids; I've done mean-spirited, indulgent stuff to friends and lovers that I deeply regret. Yet this one lingers, I think, because of the look on Paul's face. His shoulders shot up in surprise, he wheeled around, and his face said, I wanna think this was a fun prank but that was a terrible thing to do. He looked straight into my eyes—an intimacy that ten-year old boys aren't at all comfortable with—and his look seemed to register both shock and a kind of adult disappointment. I carry the moment with me to this day, decades after anyone who might have witnessed this minor transgression, Paul included, have long forgotten it. A lesson? A kid glimpsing a future of consequences? Or is my weepy recollection and embarrassment just more precious self-indulgence, mattering to no one but myself? My answer shifts with the days, but the memory and its shame are constant. The things that linger.

Photo (with b&w filter applied) by Kelvin Murray/Getty Images via NPR

Sunday, June 30, 2019

"The business of caring"

Hat tip to Jim Margalus over at Sox Machine who cited the following graphs from Hannah Keyser's terrific piece on the Tampa Bay Rays' declining attendance and television rating despite a winning season. "What is winning worth?" Keyser asks. "I understand why players and anyone associated with the team wants to win—an intrinsic need to define ourselves as superior to those around us has driven most of human history. And I even understand how that translates into impassioned tribalism among fan bases—an ability to satiate that base desire to dominate vicariously through typically non-violent competition is one of the few good human adaptations." She adds:
To disregard fans’ feelings—about roster constructions, stadium financing, or the way all of that is communicated to the public—isn’t just unkind, it’s unsavvy. 
If that sounds sort of naively idealistic consider that so is the cultish ritual of attending a baseball game and deriving a sense of meaningful communion from the arbitrary athletic feats of strangers. What I’m saying is that baseball has no inherent value beyond the cultural construct, by which I mean whether or not people give a crap. If the fans aren’t showing up, and the touted TV numbers are slipping, then how can we call a baseball team “good?” 
The bigger picture isn’t really about the Rays—and their prohibitive geographical limitations. It’s about the rise of three true outcomes, the other sports leagues that have gotten good at marketing their players’ personalities, the alienating predominance of analytics, cities wising up to the scam that is publicly funded stadiums, owners cheaping out on retaining marquee talent.
It seems to be increasingly harder these days in the din of Big Business Baseball for some fans to plug themselves into what they loved about the game during the first blush of their fandom. (I've wrestled with it myself.) Keyser's argument put me in mind of something Roger Angell wrote over forty years ago in the wake of the stupendous 1975 World Series. The games took it out of him, as long-suffering Red Six fan, but in the days and weeks following Game Seven he took a wide-angle view, engaging with feelings that had buoyed him over the years, feelings that Keyser's on about, too: “What I do know is that this belonging and caring is what our games are all about; this is what we come for," Angell wrote. 
It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look—I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost.
What such a reckoning ignores, Angell continues, is “the business of caring—caring deeply and passionately, really caring—which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives." 
And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Navïeté—the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball—seems a small price to pay for such a gift.

Last week Amy and I took in games at the Durham Bulls' and Charlotte Knights' parks in North Carolina, back-to-back reminders of how easy it is to care about this fun, maddening game, and how Minor League games in particular allow fans that much closer to the child-like—not childish—joy of the game. I was wildly fortunate to have caught Chicago White Sox's number three prospect Dylan Cease pitch for the Knights (if, alas, in an abbreviated fashion, his start curtailed by a rain delay). We had seats close to the field on the first base side, and got to watch Cease warming up before the game: the impressive boom of his tosses into the catcher's mitt; his patient pitching coach by his side. Cease was maybe twenty feet from me. A few days later he was called up to the big leagues. If he pans out, becomes a reliable starter, and enjoys a good career—and there's no guarantee of it—I'll never get that close to him again. It was bittersweet to recognize that, but nice to care. 

Durham Bulls Athletic Park
Durham NC

Go Bulls!!

BB&T Ballpark
Charlotte NC

Dylan Cease on the mound

Saturday, June 29, 2019


I flew for the first time in my life relatively late, at the age of 18, then not again for four years. I'm still catching up. Maybe because flying feels so fresh to me still, I marvel every time I'm thousands of feet above ground. During each flight I also think back, with a wince, to a poem I wrote in college. During my first flight, which happened to be from Washington D.C. to London, I startled at the sight—at the fact—of being above clouds for the first time in my life. Gazing out my window, I felt as if I were flying over the white-haired heads of the gods, a prideful gesture that as a mere mortal I shouldn't have been able to accomplish, let along dream of; modernity in all of its forward-thinking ingenuity was revealed to me somewhere over the Atlantic.

Ha! Now that image and conceit feel sentimental to me, hoary, the stuff of 2 a.m. dorm room epiphanies. Yet I still have no words to adequately describe, to name, the feeling of being in the air, the feeling of elevation, so amazing yet so finite a gift that we've given ourselves. As a teenager I pretentiously imagined eternal gods angry with me for daring to fly above my gravity-bound station—yet flying is unnatural in many senses of the word, and that insight is still with me every time. I hope I never lose it, and I doubt that I'll ever find the language beyond cliche to express what I can't when I'm eight miles high.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

"One of the best"

The season's heating up, and my book about baseball's greatest living writer No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing is out now. Some reviewers have recently weighed in:
Of the recent books I have read about baseball, Joe Bonomo’s book chronicling the career of Roger Angell, No Place I Would Rather Be, is one of the best, not only for Bonomo’s considerable writing skills, but also for his compelling portrayal of Angell’s erudition and unique focus on the “lesser and sweeter moments” of the sport he loves, Jill Brennan O'Brien, America
The author of several books about rock music, Bonomo has written a well-sourced and intelligent portrait of the erudite but unpretentious Angell. Carefully assessing his subject’s copious output, Bonomo quotes his best pieces at length and draws on Angell’s archive of notes and early drafts for context. His analysis is bolstered by his interviews with Tina Brown, David Remnick, Janet Malcolm, and other boldface names who have worked alongside Angell. The result is a gratifying quasi-biography of a superb prose stylist who came of age in an era of thick, general-interest magazines, a successful writer of fiction who found, as the years passed, that he preferred to focus on baseball, Kevin Canfield, Los Angeles Review of Books
Bonomo moves more or less chronologically through Angell’s career, examining the changes in his interests and the evolution of his writing, while using Angell’s life as part of the backdrop rather than placing it in the foreground. Bonomo quotes liberally from Angell’s work and, for those who are familiar with the baseball columns, these passages will evoke many fond memories. For those not familiar with Angell’s work it, should produce an urgent desire to read more. In addition, Bonomo offers guidance to Angell’s lesser known work especially from his early career and for his work beyond the pages of the New Yorker and away from the world of baseball, Richard Crepeau, New York Journal of Books
You can buy the book at Amazon, Indiebound, or directly from University of Nebraska Press.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

"I think this record is a smash!"

Mr. Neil Bogart
Sometime in the late 1990s, the Fleshtones were banging around in a tour van. Among the books shuffled among the band members was Fredric Dannen's Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business. The chapter about the infamous Casablanca Records' owner Neil Bogart and his legendary hubris, cockiness, and over-spending inspired guitarist Keith Streng to pen an ode to the label and the coke-fueled era. "Men like Bogart made it possible," Dannen writes. "Casablanca was the first label composed entirely of promotion people. Its unofficial motto, 'Whatever It Takes,' became the industry’s rallying cry."
The idea took hold that selling the product was just as important—maybe more important—than the product itself. And it appeared to work.  When Casablanca conquered the charts, it did not dawn on the industry, or even PolyGram at first, that the company was losing vast sums of money. Sales were great, but the cost of selling was greater. “Whatever It Takes” was a recipe for profitless prosperity, and that is what the entire record business suffered in the end.
One of the label's early releases was the album Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments from the Tonight Show," a "compendium of comedy bits from Johnny Carson’s program, featuring talents such as Bette Midler, Lenny Bruce, and Groucho Marx." With his patented blend of shrewdness and blind faith in his own rightness, Bogart promoted the album to the max, and the label's independent distributors put in a large order. Dannen writes dryly, "The demand did not match the supply. Comedian Robert Klein took the occasion to coin what has become a standard industry joke: The record shipped gold and returned platinum. ('Not really,' said Casablanca’s Bruce Bird. 'It shipped platinum and came back double platinum') But because the distributors had put in for so many copies, Casablanca had the cash flow it needed to survive until its luck changed. It was symbolic." Dannen added, "A gargantuan flop kept the company going." Bogart pushed his luck—it was a personality trait—and in 1978 shipped hundreds of thousands more copies of the four KISS solo albums then the market could realistically bear. By that point, record store were routinely returning unsold albums, and the substantial money drain was among the nails in Casablanca's gilded coffin. This didn't stop KISS from unironically naming their 1978 greatest hits collection Double Platinum.

Streng's song, suitably titled "Whatever It Takes," appeared on the Fleshtones' Solid Gold Sound in 2001, and name checks the label's infamous missteps as it cheerfully celebrates the era's excesses and Bogart's endless hype.
Whatever it takes, I'll take
anything anytime anyplace
Whatever it takes I'll take tonight 
We shipped gold but it returned platinum
Like Casablanca, it's a blast
Every day, another party
Too bad it just can't last 
Whatever it takes, I'll take
anything anytime anyplace
Whatever it takes, I'll take
The drinks on the house tonight
Whatever it takes, I'll take
We'll spare no expenses tonight
Whatever it takes I'll take tonight
Champagne and coke, we need to celebrate
"I think this record is a smash!"
Mr. Neil Bogart should be our President
and we'll be rolling in lots of cash 
Donna Summer, KISS comes Alive tonight....
We need the Village People so we can party all night! 

And, well just because, here's the band performing "Whatever It Takes" at a bowling alley in Stockholm, Sweden in 2011.

"Whatever it Takes," words and music by Keith Streng (Nascha Music, BMI)

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

See you at the merch table

I'm quite late to Michael Walker's Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Legendary Neighborhood. The "insider's" hype into the era is a bit of a misnomer; Walker did quiet a few interviews for the book, and though Graham Nash holds forth amply (and honestly) and one or two shall-remain-nameless sources offer up some great details of coke-laden nights, the book's fairly straightforward. Not that isn't enjoyable: I dug reading about the remarkable sense of artistic camaraderie brokered by stars-aligning meet-ups among the region's musicians and tangential figures, including Nash, David Crosby, various Byrds, Joni Mitchell, Peter Tork, Frank Zappa, Cass Eliot, and Pamela Des Barres. Walker brings to life the air of casual, weed-gentled music- and scene-making in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 70s, down winding Laurel Canyon Boulevard to the homey Canyon Country Store and into the head-lifting scenes at the Troubadour and the Rainbow in West Hollywood, then grimly dramatizing the era's raucous, messy end in coke excesses and rising violence.

The epilogue struck me particularly. Walker shifts his lens from the past to the future, and irks me with an unfortunate note of things-were-better-then nostalgia, suggesting that the magic of Laurel Canyon is unlikely to be repeated again. "It can be argued that many of the conditions that allowed Laurel Canyon to become such a hothouse of creativity exist again today," he acknowledges. "Generation Y, spawn of the baby boomers, is statistically a larger generation and is hitting young adulthood in a massive demographic bulge. There is even an unpopular and desultory war steadily picking off its cannon fodder in a manner eerily reminiscent of Vietnam."
Yet Gen Y has yet to show an inclination for speaking with one voice, or rallying behind a single band, as the Boomers did around the Beatles and then the LA. bands of the ’60s and ’70s. Unlike their parents, who seized the moment and, with narcissistic glee, bent the world to their will, Gen Yers are balkanized as a cultural force and exert their influence piecemeal. Thus far their only truly huge music stars have been the Britneys and Christinas and J. Los, manufactured by boomer-age record company executives for maximum market penetration in the same manner as the Brill Building machine of the ’60s, only with far more cynicism and far fewer good records. Even the notion of chops and paying one’s dues has gone out the window in an era when everybody is a Sta. “Look at what we’re dealing With HOW,” grouses Chris Hillman, “the end game: American Idol.”
I was irritated with Walker's tired assertions. "Far fewer good records?" Well, that sounds just a tad subjective and solipsistic. And what the hell's wrong with J. Lo? Why, I wonder, is it so hard for certain people to acknowledge that a 14-year-old girl might fall in love with Britney or Christina with the same ardor and the-world-is-changing enthusiasm as a young woman fell for Joni Mitchell or Linda Ronstadt? Walker wisely cites hip-hop communities as like-spirited to the Canyon, but what of other intense scenes that sprouted in the wake of the 1960s, in Seattle, and Athens, Georgia, and lower Manhattan, to name only a few? Not to mention obscure but no less heady local scenes in shitty 'hoods or college towns that never move beyond basements or house parties but mattered deeply to the few dozens involved.

Then Walker pivots, and makes a compelling observation: "Despite their great numbers, Gen Y is far more diverse racially, ethnically, and demographically than the boomers; hip-hop notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine a single issue or cultural trend that could unite them as thoroughly as their parents bonded over the Vietnam War or rock and roll." The kicker:
They are also able, thanks to the Web, digital file sharing, and powerful recording software, to consume and create music without the intervention of the recording industry. While there will always be scenes where young musicians inspire one another—New York City’s Williamsburg neighborhood is a recent example—it’s just as likely the modern equivalent of Stephen Stills running into Neil Young on the Strip will take place within the Web’s virtual Laurel Canyon. The potential is tremendous. Because of the Web, young artists are exposed to an arsenal of ideas unimaginable in the ’60s, at warp speed. And maybe that’s the point. A constant refrain, invariably posed by smug boomers, asks when the new generation will create “their Beatles.” The answers are: never, and, they already have. Marshall McLuhan’s prophecy in the ’60s was right: the medium and media have reached parity. The Web is Generation Y's Beatlemania."
Presently, I think of merch tables at mid-sized clubs and larger venues, which I hold dear, and of wonderful sites like Bandcamp, which is basically a 24/7 venue stuffed with worldwide DIY merch tables where music fans of all stripes and persuasions gather to listen, spend (hopefully), download, read, and bond in the swiftly-moving Zeitgeist. Walker was writing in the late 2000s—hence his reference to Williamsburg—and his notion of the Web's virtual communities was prescient. Though let's lose the "virtual" tag once and for all, shall we?

Photo of merch table by Daniel Paxton via DIYMusician.

Friday, June 14, 2019

His Song, His Story

When I was a kid, the rumor burning up school was that Elton John earned a nickel every second. He was at the height of his fame then, and the idea that simply by existing—fabulously—Elton earned millions a week was of a piece with the mythic, larger-than-life figure he cut. I can't decide if Rocketman is ridiculous or nearly perfect, and I think that's the point. Much has been made of director Dexter Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall playing wildly with chronology in this life story: Elton wows a pub crowd when he's just a lad and still Reggie Dwight singing "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting" which was written years later; he sings "Crocodile Rock" at his legendary Troubadour gig in 1970, though the song wouldn't be out for two more years; his hit "I'm Still Standing," cut in 1983 when Elton was seven years away from sobriety, is used in the film as his final-act Redemption Theme of recovery; etc.. But this is what I like about the movie, which is less a biopic than a grandiose song that a peak-era Elton and Bernie Taupin might've written about his life, packed with hooks, camp, sentiment, sentimentality, nuggets of wisdom, and spectacle. Granted, Elton may very well have bodysurfed atop a writhing orgy at one point, or several points, in his life, and I'd love to think that he literally strode into rehab in full-costume. The movie poster winks that the film's "based on a true fantasy," and in this way Rocketman's very much a true story—Elton played himself onstage, and often in private, as a diva beyond all normal range, and as much of his life post-1975 charted graphic rises and plunges via abuse of drink, drugs, and sex, so does the movie trade on exaggerated sensations and highs, normal chronology a thing for mortals.

But the problem with using camp and melodrama to tell a story is that eventually you may have to move beyond camp into ordinary, real drama: the interwoven scenes of Elton's 1990 stay in rehab try to ground the film in gritty reality, but end up bumping up against the film's fantasies, leading to an unfortunately cringe-worthy scene of release and recovery. Hall and Fletcher give Elton one or two moments when he glimpses his true self behind the facade, but they're really just pauses between (the great) songs. If you go in to Rocketman expecting the kind of based-on-real-events life story that Elton would screen in his imagination, up awake at 4 a.m. thinking up new, theatrical arrangements of his most well-known songs, then you'll have fun with it. In public, Elton John was in many ways a caricature of himself, and Rocketman interprets his songbook as joyously, if as flatly, as a cartoon.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Something in the air

13th Floor Elevators
It's highly unlikely that John Lennon heard 13th Floor Elevators' version of the Beatles' "The Word," captured live at the Avalon in San Francisco in September 1966 as Lennon's band was winding down their touring career. Had he somehow, I imagine he would've been studiously cool toward it, and then dismissed it; he wore an infamous superiority complex over a host of crippling anxieties. After Roky Erickson's recent death, I've been revisiting his first band's stunning output, especially digging the '66 show, released officially in 2009 on the Sign Of The 3 Eyed Men box set. The Elevators' take on "The Word," a tune sung and mostly written by Lennon, is slower than the the original, the Beatles' proto-flower power vibe funked-up into something grungier and much louder. I love its soulful grind and churn, and Roky's Yoko Ono-like wailing and screeching near the close, something Lennon, eventually, would come to dig. As the story goes, John met Yoko in the Indica Gallery in London a couple months after the Elevators let loose this version. Something in the air.

Lennon, '65

Saturday, June 1, 2019

It was always there anyway

Forty years ago this month the Fleshtones released their debut single, "American Beat" backed with "Critical List." Dedicated to Miriam Linna, the 45 was released on Marty Thau's Red Star Records in June of 1979, the picture sleeve sporting a close-up of Keith Streng’s Mustang-strumming hand, a frame from Henry M. Jones’s Soul City. Thau pressed up twenty-five-hundred copies of the 45, and competition on Billboard was stiff. Though Blondie’s "One Way or Another," Joe Jackson’s "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" and the Knack's "My Sharona" were charting that month, the big sellers were The Charlie Daniels Band, Dionne Warwick, and Barbara Streisand.

Copies ended up in Los Angeles, and even trickled over the pond to London and Paris. "We were pretty proud," Peter Zaremba recalls. "There was our 45 with its own pigeonhole at Bleecker Bob's. In our little world, anything seemed possible then." The single received good notices: "'American Beat"'s booming wall of sound caught my ear," Richard Mortifoglio wrote in the Village Voice. "Though the mix muffles Zaremba’s guttural Mitch Ryder vocal somewhat, lines like 'Heard it on the radio in my hometown' emerge often enough to make 'American Beat' a raving anthem for traditional-minded local bands who say no to the No Wave."
Peter Zaremba (middle) and Keith Streng (right) signing with Red Star Records, with Marty Thau (back) and Miriam Linna (left), 1978.

Slash, the burgeoning rock and punk magazine out of Los Angeles, published an effusive review that described "American Beat" as an "awesome recreation of a period in time (mid-60s) when rock & roll was YOUTH music, not an Industry Business. This record captures it all—fuzzy reverb guitars, tambourines, harmonicas, gruff voices, oohhing backup—god, it's perfect, and yet still real and immediate enough to keep from being a museum piece."
Like the Cramps, the Fleshtones have reshaped the past for the future, and I can't fault their faithfulness. The sincerity is overwhelming, you wanna blast this out of your car radio, even though they don't play this kind of music on the radio anymore. Ok, the tape deck then. It's a soundtrack for going a thousand down the freeway with no tomorrow, blast it in your den, do all the Shindig dances on the living room rug. This is the rock & roll we all nearly missed the first time out. Let's get it right this time. Hey, play that again!"
Perhaps most exciting for the guys were hearty European notices. New Musical Express in London wrote that the single was "a nugget from New York's best-kept secret weapon. The purest distillation of garageville gonzo genius this week (or maybe this year) comes from The Fleshtones, sublime practitioners of the rigorous punk four chord trick."
Body crushing waves of sexy power surge and jangle to the front in a mad melee while the rhythm section bites on the beat with a zealous disregard for subtlety and the singer (a deranged specimen in the mould of Messrs. Saxon and Erickson) mouths off in full glorious spate: 'Can you hear the American sound / Don’t wanna hear you put it down.' This is an example of the beast at its most dangerous with American new wave's forgotten hero Marty Thau at the controls. History in the making.
(Excerpted from Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band)


Indeed. As I write this the Fleshtones are currently testifying to Super Rock through Switzerland, Austria, and Germany on a fourteen-gig tour. Shows are selling out, and the band's promoting a new single, "Layin' Pipe," the twenty-first of their career. (UPDATE: On June 10, "Layin' Pipe" debuted at #7 on Billboard's Maxi-Singles Chart. Not a bad way to celebrate an anniversary.)

In 1984 the Flestones re-recorded "American Beat" for the soundtrack to Bachelor Party, and they occasionally still haul out the old song, most recently a few months ago at Bowery Electric in New York City. Never, as they say, lose that beat.

And dig Handsome Dick Manitoba and the Nomads' rip through "American Beat" from the 2007 tribute compilation Vindicated! A Tribute To The Fleshtones:

Friday, May 31, 2019

At the park in the summer of 1977

I recently discovered Peter Elliott's terrific Park Life: The Summer of 1977 at Comiskey Park (2001), a collection of photographs that Elliott took during the "South Side Hitmen" season of '77. To someone who never made it to Comiskey (I moved to northern Illinois in 1995), these images are tremendously evocative—of the old park, yeah, but also of the era, of long afternoons of shirtless, beer-swilling fans getting rowdy next to more nattily dressed gents and women, of pennants and bench-and-concrete bleachers and inexpensive concessions. I urge you to track down a copy of this sadly out-of-print book. Here are a handful of images, in no particular order of awesomeness:

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