Friday, July 29, 2016

Ears and Heart

Ian MacDonald
The world lost a terrific, idiosyncratic, and wise music writer when Ian MacDonald committed suicide in 2003. I was introduced to MacDonald by his powerfully persuasive Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the 1960s, among the greatest books of Beatles criticism. The book has many detractors—some roll their eyes at MacDonald's over-confidence and overly subjective approach; others (including Paul McCartney) have cited errors in his musical analysis and a presumption on the author's part to know more than he can about the members' private motives. Be that as it may, on the level of the sentence alone, Revolution in the Head has few competitors among Beatles criticism. Elegant and sophisticated, MacDonald's prose feels finally like earthy, highly articulate conversation, eager to communicate and engage, not to dazzle and lecture. His writing is highly figurative, employing eye-opening metaphors, and his ability to characterize the songs' moods startles me every time I read the book, which is often. He's especially perceptive on the aesthetic and psychological differences among Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison, and how those differences are reflected not only lyrically but musically.

Above all, MacDonald cared deeply about popular music (and classical and the plastic arts, too, under different hats), and understood intuitively that music has scored the lives of millions and is freighted with personal and cultural value. That affection and seriousness of purpose are born out in The People's Music, published just prior to his death, a book that took me far too long to get to. A miscellany, collecting pieces that MacDnald wrote about mostly 1960s and 70s pop, rock, and R&B musicians and bands for Mojo, Uncut, and Arena, and other U.K. magazines, The People's Music showcases MacDonald's wide-ranging knowledge and taste and his personal style. He's beholden to magazine journalism's economy of space, and so doesn't stretch out as he does in Revolution in the Head, to amazing results, but, forced to three or so pages, as most of these pieces run, he's cogent and focused. (The exception here is "Wild Mercury: A Tale of Two Dylans," a lengthy, terrific essay on Dylan's demons and conflicts.) And MacDonald never loses his voice, and he's never afraid to lead with a devastating take-down, as in this, on late Cream:
The rest, while undeniably passionate and crushingly powerful, is aesthetically grotesque: a blazing blue furnace of crude banality blown into megalomania by a zillion watts of electricity.
Whether you agree with his arguments or not, MacDonald doesn't care; he trusts his ears and his heart. His forthright critical reconsideration of Marvin Gaye's vexed and ultimately tragic career is characteristically part affection, respect, and frank disappointment:
Without delving into deep waters, it seems likely that Marvin's problems boiled down to what medieval divines once condemned as the sin of acedia, or spiritual boredom. His restlessness, even when it led to drug-frazzled rages, was basically inert, characterised by drift. In his recent biography, Trouble Man, Steve Turner suggests that Gaye manoeuvred his father into killing him — one of the most deviously passive methods of suicide ever contrived. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the same passivity mars much of his music. What other artist, after all, spawned so many half-finished or abandoned projects?
Gaye's break came with 1971's What's Going On, a record which, while piously elected to the upper echelons of every top 100 albums list, is nevertheless pervaded by an underlying torpor more obvious in his later work. The sound and structure are undeniably original, if samey and repetitious; his ‘political’ lyrics, on the other hand, are trite and often mushily wishful. What's Going On offers as many vague gestures as flashes of talent, its classic moments failing to disguise that Gaye, while gifted, was mainly extemporising off the musical initiatives of his collaborators.

A basic lack of commitment left Marvin susceptible to sentimental dishonesty. His assertion, on the title track of Let's Get It On, that ‘we're all sensitive people’ is true to the extent that few of us are completely impermeable, but risible if taken to mean that we're all equally perceptive and caring about each other. An observant man capable of watching himself washed to and fro by his conflicting desires, Gaye must at heart have been aware of the emptiness of such stuff....
Marvin Gaye was a beguiling voice worth hearing even when spinning vocal and lyric clichés or effectively singing about nothing at all — which covers a large tranche of his career. The supine coke-fuck aesthetic that governs much of his work will strike future listeners as decadent or prophetic, depending on how history proceeds. More certain is that the lushly listless drift of posthumous issues like 'Walkin' In The Rain’ and ‘Just Like’ accurately represents their creator's inner world, wherein ecstasy, melancholy, and ennui were twined in troubled complicity.
His takes on Lennon and McCartney, the Stones, Chic, the Beach Boys, Lenny Bruce, Love, Simon and Garfunkel, Miles Davis, and many others are equally candid, concise, and distinctive (if, admittedly, not always blazing ground that others haven't covered). If you care about thoughtful and passionate takes on culture, pop music and rock and roll, and love great sentences that hum with conviction and authority, I recommend you read some Ian MacDonald. He left us way too soon.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Super Rock in Jersey City

l-r, Ken Fox, Peter Zaremba, Keith Streng
The Fleshtones' performance in Jersey City, New Jersey proved once again that this band of veterans knows how to pace themselves—over four decades, that is. Playing in front of a full house at WFMU's Monty Hall, a small, square room with great sound and incongruous carpeting, the Fleshtones knocked out a rockin' fifty minute set with style and humor, an old blend that works so well because the guys love each other and what they do. Though they live far distances from each other—they move within an axis of Brooklyn, Beacon, and Troy, New York—they play with the verve of a young band banging out a song they learned that day, charmingly disguising well-worn showmanship and rhythmic tightness forged over decades. (Bassist Ken Fox, once the New Kid, has been in the band for over a quarter century.) This isn't 1985, of course: Keith Streng, clean and semi-sober since the late 1990s, confessed to me that he crashed for a nap in the band's van before the show; and the only pharmaceuticals coursing through this once coke- and speed-inspired band would've been antihistamines. But Peter Zaremba, Streng, Fox, and Bill Milhizer have each been blessed with Herculean native energy, on which ample supply they drew for this sweaty, fun show, and the Fleshtones' true legendary status issues as much from the energy in last week's show as in the ones they played back when Reagan was president. Viva Super Rock.
Bill Milhizer

Monty Hall, a small, boxy joint on Montgomery Avenue, blocks from the Hudson River waterfront and a knock-out view of lower Manhattan, is a blessedly lo-fi affair, the state-of-the-art live video streaming on monitors dragged back to divey respectability by the cans of cold-ish beer plucked from a picnic cooler by the front door. I'm a fan of the place.

Of the opening bands, I was especially happy to see the great and timeless Paul Collins again. I caught him two years ago in Berwyn, Illinois, and though he's got a new crew of kids behind him, his songs sounded as effortlessly spirited as ever. Collins gives the impression, especially at the merch table while peering through his readers, of your cool uncle, wide around the middle and full of great R&R stories. He was his genial self onstage, laid back before detonating beautiful, desperate songs, old and new, powered by his Rickenbacker which somehow both rings and slashes. He's a local— "I love playing this place because I can get on the PATH and I'm here in twelve minutes!" he crowd—and vibed off of the crowd's goodwill, at one point genuinely besotted with a fan's vintage Paul Collins Beat t-shirt. I recognized his new bass player, the diminutive Joi La, who I last saw a few years ago at the Bowery Electric ably holding down the low end in Eric Davidson's fierce band LIVIDS; she gave the impression then of holding down the corner of a large tent about to blow away in a mammoth summer storm. She's great onstage; she obviously loves Collins's songs and plays with confidence and enthusiasm. She looks a bit like a Soho art gallery intern, especially when her hair's pinned up against the venue's heat, and one look below at the hot pants, tights, and pointy heels reveals the flip side of her record collection. See Paul Collins if you haven't yet, in a joint like Monty Hall all the better. His is eternal rock and roll that's best heard and seen close up in sweaty quarters.
Paul Collins Beat

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Some thoughts on Cooperstown

I visited the Baseball Hall of Fame last week for the first time. I was there ostensibly to work (I was researching Roger Angell's papers in the Bart Giamati Research Center, in the Hall library) but of course I was thrilled to explore the exhibitions on my off hours. But I did so skeptically and with a deep fear of sentimentality—or what the anti-nostalgic Angell himself calls "goo." I discovered that the Hall's physical modesty is its virtue. Because the building housing the Hall is relatively small (history here) there's little room for bombast and for overdoing things. Yes, I cringed at the phrase "Sacred Ground" at the so-named exhibit of ballparks, on the third floor, being able to conjure any number of genuine sacred grounds, spiritual or otherwise, and the central Hall of Fame Gallery is sacramentally back-lit with natural light (a boy to his father, overheard: "Dad, this is like church." The lad wasn't pleased). But overall, the Hall exudes a pleasantly. and surprisingly, lo-fi vibe, as if, hysterical as it is to imagine, the site was hurting for funds. To me, the impression is more of a museum on a fine college campus than an official institution devoted to a $36 billion industry.

This reserve is due in no small part to the anti-sprawl unique to tiny Cooperstown, population 1,852. One afternoon in Cooley's, a bar on Pioneer Street, a few rabid regulars regaled me of Jane Forbes Clark's gobbling up of nearby properties in town, and in the course of the conversation Clark, granddaughter of Hall founder Stephen Carlton Clark and current chairman of the Board of Directors, took on the role of hero-villain.
          "She's a trip," one young woman said, laughing loudly.
          "Well...," the old-timer next to her murmured doubtfully, staring into his beer.

Yet, the village of Cooperstown is pretty much set; it's not going to get any bigger, bordered by modest homes in neighborhoods to the west, south, and east, and tranquil Otsego Lake to the north, and this tucked-into-the-mountains feel is both cozy and a happy guard against civic overreach, a kind of Natural conservatism, apt for a conservative game. The Hall itself has grown over the decades, of course, but barring a Manhattan-style vertical leap, it's unlikely that it will get much larger than it is, and so we have a quaint red-brick building—a nice reflection of the several blocks of low-slung, low-key storefronts along Main—the modest size of which I wasn't quite prepared for when I saw it for the first time, despite the hundreds of images of it I've seen. Inside in the main hall, I gawked at several plaques and, upstairs, dug seeing Mantle's bat, Nolan Ryan's no-hitter hats, and Yogi's glove, a fireworks pinwheel from old Comiskey Park, a rescued metal turnstile form the old Polo Grounds, a cornerstone from Ebbett's Field, a gallery devoted to fabulous baseball photographs, the digitally-generated aerial fly-through of long-gone ballparks, the many video screens highlighting epochal plays and moments, and all the rest, but rarely did the hall feel to me overly-gushy or golden-tinted, especially while encountering thoughtful, candid, and well-stocked exhibits dedicated to the history of African Americans, Latinos, and women in the game ("Pride and Passion," "¡Viva baseball!," and "Diamond Dreams," respectively) and, surprisingly, the frank acknowledgement of the game's business woes and recent PED scandals. And yes, there is an interactive kiosk regarding Pete Rose's banishment from the Hall. Plenty of unexpected sunlight on the game's more troubling aspects.

Hall of Fame Gallery

The Big Hurt's plaque, the first I headed to.

Johnny Podres rears back...

...and lets it fly (to Roy Campanella). Sculpture Garden.

Manual standings board. Main Street.

Luckily, Chris Sale couldn't get to this one.

"Exploding scoreboard" pinwheel from old Comiskey Park.

Cornerstone, rescued in 1960.

Polo Grounds turnstile

An even greater surprise to me was Doubleday Field a few blocks from the hall, tucked off of the side of Main, another opportunity for Field of Dreams, "Hallowed Ground"-style schmaltz that the Hall and town have happily avoided. The field, built in 1920 and renovated a couple times since, is gorgeously cozy and laid-back, and not a little dumpy. One's free to wander in and out. Long, paint-peeling wooden benches, a white church steeple poking up beyond the left field wall, weeds growing through the metal bleachers: heaven. One the day of my first visit, a local Cooperstown team of kids was playing a team from Massachusetts, a smattering of fans, mostly families, out to see. The next day, the place was empty, and I sat and talked to my wife on the phone and watched idly as preparations were being made for that weekend's Induction Ceremonies (which, I acknowledge, I was glad to miss—where does everyone fit in this tiny hamlet?). The humility of Doubleday Field is a nice complement to the Hall itself, and keeps things in perspective, easy to savor watching a field full of kids play ball in a nearly-century old park. Out in the far center field bleachers, a couple of shambling kids had hopped the admission gates and sat watching in the sun, a blissed-out silhouette borrowed from any decade.

The Hall's self-proclaimed mission is to preserve history, honor excellence, and connect generations. I won't use this space to weigh in on the Hall's myriad voting issues—we have the great Jay Jaffe, among others, for those debates—but on the first and last score, the Hall's doing a terrific job. During my visit, I found it virtually impossible to believe that baseball is suffering from dwindling interest among kids. In Cooperstown, kids are everywhere, their enthusiasm and energy matched in the faces, if not in the thicker, road-weary bodies, of their parents. (One amusing thing I noticed was the bright-eyed, slack-jawed look on just about every man, and many women, there; those seeing the Hall for the first time couldn't wipe the childlike looks of joy off their faces; I'm sure I looked the same.) Yes, the Hall of Fame is a self-selecting and small sample size, but if my three-day visit was any indication, there are many, many boys and girls who will stick around the game for years to come. Not every visit was so pleasant. In the middle of Sal's, a pizza place on Main, a boy clutching a newly-bought bat was fighting back tears as his parents and some kind strangers murmured their support. He hadn't played well that day, or anyway his team lost. Cheers of "Get 'em tomorrow, kid!" didn't seem to help much—it never does—and the kid trudged out behind his family, his head down, sniffling. Tough stuff, and timeless.


Unsurprisingly, my visit to the Hall inspired by own fight against sentimentality:
Ultimately the richness and funky pleasures of the game and its crazy, fascinating history outweigh any excess earnestness, for me, anyway. Each minute I was at the National Baseball Hall of Fame I was grateful that the owners haven't decided to pull up roots and move to a sprawling, gleaming, many-acre campus surrounded by miles of parking lots and smelling of millions of dollars. On my second night in town I had a very enjoyable hang with baseball fan, author, and Cooperstown mayor Jeff Katz. Over a couple of rounds we talked about the game, the Hall, the town, and rock and roll. As we said our goodbyes kitty corner from the Hall, near the local public library where Katz had parked, he said, "Look at that," gesturing to the Hall in the late-dusk light. "No other sport has a hall of fame that people talk about and debate 365 days a year." I agreed. Yeah, it's pretty perfect, I said. Though baseball is an enormous business run by men and women whose primary interest always will be to satisfy stockholders and fatten the bottom line, this is a game, also, that brings deep and irrational pleasures, joys, and heartaches to millions. The Hall of Fame in its charming and unassuming way reminded me of that at every turn.

"Sandlot Boy," sculpture outside Doubleday Field.

Main Street, Cooperstown.

Main Street, Cooperstown. Looking west.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Mullin's Mugs

Willard Mullin's genial, evocative illustrations of ball players in The Best of Red Smith (1963) are terrific. Mullin is best known for his creation of the "Brooklyn Bum," the lovable, lovelorn icon of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Mullin's faces here are a bit caricatured and seamed, and a few give the impression of having lasted to the end of an sixteen-inning game in the hot August sun. From a by-gone era:







Thursday, June 30, 2016

Tom McComas's No Game Today (1966)

In my recent research on old Comiskey Park in Chicago, I came across this terrific, evocative eleven-minute short directed by Tom McComas in 1966 about a boy who sneaks into and explores Comiskey on an off-day. No Game Today captures the excitement of being an eleven- or twelve-year old and having a Major League ballpark all to yourself. Certain the coast is clear, the boy hops a fence, opens a door into the park, and runs the ramps and aisles down to the field, where he leads off at first, and to the dugout, where he sits and pretends to manage. Grabbing a bat, he peers out to the field as an all-too-common fantasy begins: it's the World Series, Game Seven, the game's tied in the bottom of the ninth, the bases are juiced, and a rookie—our boy—walks up to the plate against none other than Sandy Koufax. The count runs full before the boy rookie lashes a triple to left. Victory on the line, he rounds third and attempts to score, and as the throw comes in, the fantasy is abruptly cut short, and—victoriously? forlornly?—he walks across center field as the film ends.

Tom McComas
I recently spoke to McComas about No Game Today. "I grew up a White Sox fan," he told me. "No Game Today was my fantasy." Born in 1938 and currently living in northern Indiana, McComas has for many years operated TM Books and Video, a company that produces entertainment and educational family films for Lionel toy trains, John Deere, Caterpillar, and the Ford Motor Company, among other businesses. In the 1960s, while living on the north side of Chicago, McComas produced documentaries and television spots for advertising agencies, but his eye was on Hollywood. He wanted to make feature movies, and produced No Game Today "with the idea of going out to Hollywood and selling a script that I'd written, not about baseball. But it didn't work out."

Growing up in Wilmette, Illinois, McComas dealt with a fact as hard as the streets: "Everybody was a Cubs fan! We're talking about the late 40s, and early 50s. The Sox were awful. I used to cry in bed when they lost. I spent my youth in tears! I learned how to deal with defeat and disappointment by being a Sox fan."

McComas pitched the project to Ed Short, the White Sox general manager. "They were OK with it. They didn't care one way or the other." On a crisp day in late September, between the second-to-last and the final series of the 1966 season, McComas, his crew, and Peter Sandquist, a young boy whom McComas knew from his neighborhood and who was the son of a state representative, gathered at the park and spent the afternoon filming exterior and interior footage. Particularly memorable are shots inside as an elated Sandquist runs past the long line of photographs of former White Sox players, their faces and bodies a blur of action. "Those photos were inside, right opposite the stairs leading into the park. So we used a hand-held subjective camera to show Peter's point-of-view as he runs past the photographs. That's why the picture is jumping up and down." Also evocative are interestingly-composed shots of Sandquist running past closed concession stands and empty seats, and along steeply angled ramps.
McCamos, on location at Comiskey Park
As for the film's conclusion, where the boy's fantasy remains suspended, McComas had very firm feelings. "I had a friend who was a child psychologist, and she watched it. She said, 'You know, kids never dream anything that's a disappointment. They always come out ahead in the end.' And I said, 'Yeah, but that would take all of the tension and mystery out of it.' I felt that it would be boring if he scores the winning run and jumps up and down. For this kid, the dream ended in mid-slide." To this day, McComas is unhappy with the music covering Sandquist as he runs the bases for the first time, and he has yet to find the appropriate substitute. But the final shot, of Sandquist walking across the vast, sunlit outfield, features "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" scored by friends of his who were in a jazz band. Their uniquely arranged version of the classic song, McComas feels, is a key moment in the film.

Also key: verisimilitude. McComas grew up, as so many in Chicago did, listening to the great Bob Elson call White Sox games on the radio, and he hoped to get the broadcaster to narrate the fantasy sequence in his film. "In those days they had debutante balls and coming-out parties," McComas says. "I met Elson's daughter at one of those and asked her if I could get to her dad." The ruse worked. Elson met McComas and his crew at a recording studio on Hubbard Street in Chicago. "I had listened to him for years so it was a big deal for me." Elson arrived in style, rolling up to the studio in a big Buick. "It was tough to find parking there, but I had a spot," McComas remembers. "I stood in the spot for him but he was late—I probably got into ten fights protecting that parking space! But he got in and we went upstairs, where I played the film for him once, and he said, 'Alright, I get it.' The idea was for Elson to ad-lib the action just like he would if it were a real game. So when the bases are loaded, Elson says 'Koufax into the stretch.' I said, 'Cut, cut! Bob, with the bases loaded he'd go into a full windup.' And he said, 'You're right!'

"So I corrected Bob Elson!" McComas laughs at a memory that still delights him a half century later.

McComas felt some pressure to finish the film, as he was anxious to submit it to the Chicago Film Festival, then in its second year. In post-production, he recognized that the film needed more work, "five or six re-dos or shots that I didn't anticipate." Alas, running the bases wasn't the only physical activity Sandquist had been enjoying that late summer: "He broke his arm skateboarding! I talked to his mother and asked how long the cast would be on, and she said, 'Well I think the cast will come off on October 10.' So there was about two weeks between the cast coming off and the screening at the Chicago Film Festival." In mid-October, McComas and his crew hustled back to Comiskey for re-shoots. At the doctor's office, McComas had told Sandquist to make sure he wore the same t-shirt, but some continuity suffered: "In the background there's a wagon with wheels on it, way out in center field. The season was over and they had equipment all over the place, working on the field, preparing it for winter, I guess. When he's running toward second that was before the broken arm, and sliding into second and leading off was after the broken arm, and there are three or four shots where you can see him holding his arm kind of awkwardly, like it's still in a cast. And I'm saying, 'C'mon slide, Peter! Your arm's fine!'" McComas and his crew "edited night and day to get it ready for the festival. It was shown, but it was too late for the judging. We submitted it the day before the screening. It turns out they judge these things before they show them to the public."

The image of a tow-headed, striped-shirted boy jumping a fence and running the bases is strangely eternal, yet also, in its innocence, very much of the era. I asked McComas if he feels that he could make his film today. "They'd probably want money," he sighs. "Everybody wants money." Of no small surprise to McComas is the the general indifference with which his film was greeted by the White Sox organization. "No one ever picked up on the film. Years ago, I sent it to the White Sox marketing guy thinking that, once they'd moved to U.S. Cellular Field, there'd be nostalgia, a yearning for old Sox fans to see the old Comiskey again. The first 20,000 would get a free DVD of the film, or they could show it on the screen during a rain delay. But I never heard back from them. I don't know that it got to the right guy. They can still do it."

"It was fun for me to get into the park and to do all that stuff," McComas says. "They say you should do what you know. And I definitely knew that."

Here are some screen grabs, followed by the film:

Photo of young McComas via Tom McCamos.
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