Monday, November 30, 2015

"I can laugh at the past but the laughter sticks in my throat."

The final paragraph in Luc Sante's absorbing memoir The Factory Of Facts:
The past is a notional construct, a hypothesis, a poem. I hold on to its passport because it was issued at my birth, without any possibility of my assenting or not. It’s not so much a document as it is a brand or a scar. I don’t really endorse the past, mind you, and I don’t intend to go back and settle there. My actual relation to the past is ironic, if anything, even if the irony is poisoned with sentiment; I can laugh at the past but the laughter sticks in my throat. I certainly feel more affection for it from a distance. And only from within the past can I appreciate the present, which is all things considered a dispiriting place to live. Each is a shabby, passive-aggressive dictatorship of compromise and self-delusion. Under the rhetoric, we all know this. I'm not alone because every one of us is an alien. That makes us us all compatriots.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Neither pin-ups nor news-briefs: Crawdaddy! in 1966

Paste Magazine is currently housing the archives of Paul Williams's essential Crawdaddy!, the first American magazine devoted to writing about rock and roll. It's well worth your time to hang out in these virtual pages, which begin with the magazine's inception in 1966. Someone recently uploaded scans of the first couple years' worth of mimeographed issues here, and it's a kick to look at the stapled evidence of Williams and company's lo-fi labor of love. Here's the cover and page one of the first issue in which Williams—a freshman at Swarthmore College at the time—writes his manifesto with urgency and nervy confidence:
You are looking at the first issue of a magazine of rock and roll criticism. Crawdaddy will feature neither pin-ups not news-briefs: the specialty of this magazine is intelligent writing about pop music. Billboard, Cash Box, etc., serve very well as trade news magazines, but their idea of a review is: "a hard-driving rhythm number that should spiral rapidly up the charts just as (previous hit by same group) slides." And the teen magazines are devoted to rock and roll, but theit idea of discussion is a string of superlatives below a fold-out photograph. Crawdaddy believes that someone in the United States might be interested in what others have to say about the music they like.
A paragraph later, he gets to the heart of things:
The aim of this magazine is readability. We are trying to appeal to people interested in rock and roll, both professionally and casually. If we could predict the exact amount of sales of each record we heard, it would not interest us to do so. If we could somehow pat every single pop artist on the back in a manner calculated to please him and his fans, we could not bother.
Get off my cloud, indeed. Among the writers who appeared in Crawdaddy!'s early issues were Jon Landau, Sandy Pearlman, Richard Meltzer, and Peter Guralnick.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Rebecca Solnit on Punk and Place

Rebecca Solnit is a great writer on the ways we define place and the ways place defines us, how we so often long to transcend its limits yet carry it with us wherever we go. In her terrific essay "Abandon" from A Field Guide To Getting Lost, Solnit moves from describing the time she and a friend filmed a lo-fi movie in the ruins of a San Fransisco hospital to essaying abandonment of a more figurative and tragic sort: the death of her younger friend, a talented and beautiful but lost artist-musician named Marine, to reckless drug use. In the course of narrating Marine and the graphic and influential impact she had on her life, Solnit describes the emotional outlets to which she, Marine, and so many other young were drawn in the late 1970s. (Solnit was born in 1961.) In the process, she offers one of the most evocative, beautiful definitions of punk rock—of rock and roll in general—that I've read in quite a while:
Punk rock had burst into my life with the force of revelation, though I cannot now call the revelation much more than a tempo and an insurrectionary intensity that matched the explosive pressure in my psyche. I was fifteen, and when I picture myself then, I see flames shooting up, see myself falling off the edge of the world, and am amazed I survived not the outside world but the inside one. Before and afterward, landscapes rural and wild would be the places that resonated most powerfully for me, but for the decade that started with my discovery of punk it was cities. The social I've often called a layer of baloney sandwiched between the bread of the physical and the spiritual, but that is only the most reductive form of the social, one that defines human possibility within narrow and predictable terms. Punk with its slam dancing and getting wasted and stage diving and standing in front of speakers that made your bones vibrate, with its political indignation and impulse to incite and express extreme states, was in collective revolt against this social. Like ruins, the social can become a wilderness in which the soul too becomes wild, seeking beyond itself, beyond its imagination. And there is a specific kind of wildness, having to do with the erotic, the intoxicating, the transgressive, that is more easily located in cities than in wilderness. It has a time too, the time of youth, and of night.
Chelmsford (U.K.) punks outside the City Rock (Chelmsford City Football Club), 1977. Photo by Crispin Coulson.

Near the end of the essay Solnit turns her attention to the northern California suburbs in which she grew up and from which she yearned to escape, like so many of her peers turning to the energy and mayhem of punk rock as her way out. Here, again, Solnit's description and insights on place and its value and limitations are fantastic:
I think now that the suburbs were a kind of tranquilizer for the generation before us, if topography can be a drug. The blandness of ranch houses, the soothing lines of streets curving into cul-de-sacs, the homogeneity, the repetition, the pretty, vacant names were designed to erase the desperation of poverty and strife, to erase tenements and barracks and migrant camps and sharecropper shacks. What they wanted to erase, we unearthed and made into our underground culture, our refuge, our identity. We were shaking that trance off us and going out in pursuit of the world of our grandparents, us kids not so remote from a lost Europe, from the Second World War, from desperation and privation. That was what the city offered, a sharp antidote, the possibility of being fully awake, surrounded by all possibilities, some of which we’d learn the hard way were terrible. I am still a city dweller, but in those days when everything changed I first began going deep in the other direction. Another world was opening up to me in which night was for sleep and, far from city lights, for stars. I got to know the Milky Way and the sharpness of the shadows the full moon casts in the desert.
Photo by Bill Owens, from Suburbia (1973)

Photo of punk kids via Southend Punk Rock History: 1976-1986.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Where have you gone, Billy Joe Barrett? Andre Dubus Can't Forget

Fiction writer Andre Dubus (1936-1999) was a lifelong baseball fan. In "Under The Lights," which first appeared in the Village Voice in 1989 and was included in Broken Vessels in 1991, he writes with grace and economy about memories of minor league baseball, and his own, nascent attempts at playing the game. He sees in low-rent ball fields among low-league baseball lifers the kinds of humane character-making and grace that he dramatizes in his best fiction.

In the late 1940s Dubus was on the cusp of his teen years. In Lafayette, Louisiana, where he grew up, the Lafayette Bulls played in the Evangeline League, as a Class C minor league team. Dubus and friends and family attended many Bulls games, and his father became friendly with Harry Strohom, the team's manager. In school Dubus played ball, practicing diligently, but he'd ultimately surrender, as the vast majority of us must, to the limits of his mediocre skills. Recalling the tortures of adolescent shyness and self-consciousness that rendered him stiff and ugly at the plate and on the field, Dubus writes, "Decades later I realized I was a poor athlete at school because I was shy, and every public act—like standing at the plate, waiting to swing at a softball—became disproportionate. Proportion is all; and, in sports at school, I lost it by surrendering to the awful significance of my self-consciousness. Shyness has a strange element of narcissism, a belief that how we look, how we perform, is truly important to other people." This is classic Dubus: an ordinary moment that resonates through an infinite number of other like moments, some trivial, some profound.

But Dubus surrendered to more than just insecurity in his adolescence. At age eleven he read in a book written by Joe DiMaggio that if a baseball player spent more than a year at a low-level minor league team, he should quit the sport. Dubus can't recall the exact passage; I found it, on pages 34 and 35 in Chapter 3, "The Minors," in DiMaggio's Baseball For Everyone, published in 1948. Here's Joey D's sage advice, and I quote:

Oh, how this burned up Dubus! He's still singed four decades later. The problem was cognitive dissonance: Dubus couldn't bridge the gap between his beloved DiMaggio's stern advice and the obvious pleasures displayed by the low-league players Dubus loved to watch. Angry at himself for having so long internalized DiMaggio's unquestioned authority, Dubus in his essay repudiates it—recognizing that doing what you love to do despite diminishing returns is its own reward and pleasure. He remembers watching a spectacular home run by Bulls' player Billy Joe Barrett, struck into the sky "in a way I have never seen again." Faced with the resonance of such simple pleasures against DiMaggio's severe warning, Dubus ends his essay by asking, repeatedly, How could I forget DiMaggio's sentence? He writes:

Our first baseman, in the Bulls’ first season, was a young hard-hitting lefthander whose last name was Glenn. We were in the Detroit Tiger system, and after Glenn's season with us, he went up to Flint, Michigan, to a Class A league. I subscribed to The Sporting News; and read the weekly statistics and box scores, and I followed Glenn’s performance, and I shared his hope, and waited for the season when he would stand finally in the garden. At Flint he batted in the middle of the order, as he had for us, and he did well; but he did not hit .300, or thirty home runs. In the next season I looked every week at the names in The Sporting News, searched for Glenn in double A and triple A, and did not find him there, or in Class A or B, and I never saw his name again. It was as though he had come into my life, then left me and died, but I did not have the words then for what I felt in my heart I could only say to my friends: I can't find Glenn's name anymore.
These final paragraphs explore loss, adulthood, and memory in beautiful, haunted ways, characteristically Dubusian in their power and clarity. Again, he asks: "How could I forget DiMaggio's sentence?" (And: why does a simple sentence in a simple book linger for decades?)
Before I got out of high school, the Bulls’ park was vacant, its playing field growing weeds. The Strohms had moved on, looking for another ball club; and Norm Litzinger and Billy Joe Barrett and their wives had gone to whatever places they found, after Lafayette, and after baseball. I was driving my family's old Chevrolet and smoking Lucky Strikes and falling in love with girls whose red lips marked their cigarettes and who, with painted fingernails, removed bits of tobacco from their tongues; and, with that immortal vision of mortality that youth holds in its heart, I waited for manhood.

DiMaggio was wrong. I know that now, over forty years after I read his sentence. Or, because I was a boy whose hope was to be a different boy with a new body growing tall and fast and graceful and strong, a boy who one morning would wake, by some miracle of desire, in motion on the path to the garden, I gave to DiMaggio too much credence; and his sentence lost, for me, all proportion, and insidiously became a heresy. Which I am renouncing now, as I see Billy ]oe Barrett on the night when his whole body and his whole mind and his whole heart were for one moment in absolute harmony with a speeding baseball and he hit it harder and farther than he could at any other instant in his life. We never saw the ball start its descent, its downward arc to earth. For me, it never has. It is rising white over the lights high above the right field fence, a bright and vanishing sphere of human possibility soaring into the darkness beyond our vision.
Where have you gone, Billy Joe Barrett?


At The Bilko Athletic Club author Gaylon H. White has also written about "Under The Lights," and he includes a terrific photograph of Billy Joe Barrett and his wife Neta at their ballpark wedding in Thibodaux, Louisiana in 1951:

DiMaggio book cover via Legendary Auctions; text via amazon.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Who needs a fourth track?

L-R: Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Andrew Loog Oldham, Hassinger, Bill Wyman, Keith Richards in the RCA Studios.
(Photograph by Bob Bonis courtesy of
In the new issue of Ugly Things, writer and musician Greg Prevost interviews legendary RCA recording engineer and producer Dave Hassinger, who died in 2007 at the age of eighty. The conversation is essential reading for anyone who loves mid-1960s record production. Hassinger is most notable for engineering the Rolling Stones' classic 1964-1966 Los Angeles sessions that produced, among other songs, "Heart Of Stone," "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," "She Said Yeah," "Get Off My Cloud," "Mother's Little Helper," and "Under My Thumb." He also signed, managed, and engineered the recordings of the Electric Prunes, and over many years recorded sessions for Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, the Monkees, Love, the Jackson 5, and others. In 1969 he opened the venerable and highly lucrative Sound Factory recording studio.

In this lengthy, fascinating interview, the appealingly modest Hassinger discusses the finer points of his studio gear and set-ups and band arranging, as well as his personal background and history, the wide variety of artists he produced, and the melancholy fact that much of his equipment (including a Gibson Firebird guitar given to him by Keith Richards) and his albums were stolen from him; at the time of the interview—conducted during the early-aughts—a disconsolate if accepting Hassinger had made little effort to replace his collection via CD's, finding the prospect overwhelming.

Hassinger acknowledges that he learned a lot about rock and roll from the Rolling Stones. ("A turning point in my career.") My favorite moment in the conversation comes as Hassinger's describing the arrival in RCA Studios of a four-track recorder. "'Satisfaction' was [mixed] on four tracks," Hassinger recalls. "That was a big thing." He adds:
When I first arrived at RCA there were three tracks. When it went to four tracks we were all thinking. What are we going to do with the extra track?
Hassinger in 1968

Bottom photo via The Collectors

Friday, November 20, 2015

"I hope you f*ckin' kids take something." Johnny Thunders, 1977

L-R: Walter Lure, Billy Rath, Thunders, Jerry Nolan
Though I guard against romanticizing the dissolute, ultimately tragic junkie lifestyle, it's nonetheless a kick to listen to Johnny Thunders onstage at the Speakeasy in London on March 15, 1977. He's berating the crowd following the band's opening number "Chinese Rock," unsatisfied with their enthusiasm. He has some support from a woman in the crowd:
Johnny Thunders: Thank you. Can't you fucking kids dance?
Woman in crowd: Yeah!
JT: What the fuck are you doin' here?
W: They're too young!
JT: You come to fuckin' just stand around and look funny?
W: No!
JT: Why don't you fuckin' dance?
W: Yeah!
JT: For our next tune, for you boring motherfuckers, it's called "All By Myself." That's how I feel!

This is an exchange that's heard in countless rock and roll clubs around the world, amped up here by a tangible Punk versus Prog ethos and Thunders's self-conscious baiting of the "Limeys," acting his role. It was 1977, after all. A little slice of life courtesy Jungle Records' 1982 album D.T.K. Live At The Speakeasy:

This brand of "you're so boring" insults reappears between each song, to diminishing returns. At the end of side one, during the band's vamping at the close of "I Wanna Be Loved" Thunders announces: "I don't know what to say but we'll be back in an hour. I hope you fucking kids take something. I don't know what but something, anything."

Flip the album over, and it sounds like they did.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Louis Menand on the Sound of Unrehearsed Exuberance

In a must-read New Yorker essay, nominally about Peter Guralnick's new bio on Sam Phillips, Louis Menand navigates and narrates the early years of rock and roll, Billboard and local-radio racial politics, and good old-fashioned luck in a brief but solid history. I especially love Menand's opening graphs, in which in 227 words he distills the appeal and promises of rock and roll:
In 1968, when Patti Smith was twenty-one and working in a Manhattan bookstore, she went to a Doors concert at the old Fillmore East. She loved the Doors. As she described the concert in her memoir Just Kids, everyone was transfixed by Jim Morrison, except for her. She found herself making a cold appraisal of his performance. “I felt,” she concluded, “that I could do that.” For many people, that response is the essence of rock and roll.

To this way of thinking, rock and roll—the music associated with performers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and the early Beatles—is music that anyone can play (or can imagine playing) and everyone can dance to. The learning curve for performing the stuff is short; the learning curve for appreciating it is nonexistent. The instrumentation and the arrangements are usually simple: three or four instruments and, frequently, about the same number of chords. You can add horns and strings and backup singers, and you can add a lot more chords, but the important thing is the feeling. Rock and roll feels uninhibited, spontaneous, and fun. There’s no show-biz fakery coming between you and the music. As with any musical genre, it boils down to a certain sound. Coming up with that sound, the sound of unrehearsed exuberance, took a lot of work, a lot of rehearsing.
Sun Records studio

Photo via The Soundtrack of America: Made in Tennessee

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"That World Still Exists": Peter Guralnick in 1971, Looking Forward

I've been re-reading a lot of Peter Guralnick lately, in advance of his new biography of Sam Phillips which I eagerly await. Guralnick has been an enormous influence on my writing—Sweat began, in part, as an exercise to see if I could write anything remotely as good as Gurlanick's profile of Sleepy LaBeef in Lost Highway—and on my attitude toward the roots, history, value, and legacy of rock and roll and writing about that tradition. He is among the greatest of living writers about blues, R&B, and rock and roll; a Gurlanick book—and I recommend all of them—is marked by stellar research, an even-handed, sometime invaluably skeptical perspective pitched between fan and historian, honest and sensitive explorations of race, a balance of the first-person "I" and the reportable world, and exquisite writing.

I was recently struck, again, by this following passage. Writing in 1971 in "A Fan's Notes," the epilogue to Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock 'n Roll, Guralnick, having witnessed the unhappy spectacle of the Memphis Blues Festival, laments the state of blues music, describing concerts as "a stiff, unnatural atmosphere, and unbridgeable gulf between performer and audience, and a tendency to treat the blues as a kind of museum piece, to be pored over by scholars, to be admired perhaps but to be stifled buy the same time by the press of formal attention." It was, he adds, "a depressing realization and one that left me on the whole with the feeling that even in its own backyard blues has ceased to be a living experience." He takes a breath and continues:
Well, I no longer feel that's true. Certainly blues is the property of an older generation whose days are just as certainty numbered. Then, too, there is little questions that the sense of regional isolation which gave rock 'n' roll as well as blues much of its original impetus is fast dying out, to be replaced by a form of cultural homogeneity which denies local differences or distinctions. All across the country the radio announcers have the same bland voice, and I couldn't help thinking as I drove down to Memphis how different it must have been for Elvis or Johnny Cash or Carl Perkins, growing up listening to B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson on the radio, seeing Muddy Water and Junior Parker and Joe Hill Louis as popular artists of the day. It' almost as if they were living in another world. And yet doing this boo taught me that world still exists, and that despite the fierce assault of time upon it the music had an ongoing vitality.
Though Gurlanick's predictions were smart, his renewed and renewable love of the music has carried him very far since 1971, and for that I'm grateful.
Detail from cover of Feel Like Going Home

Monday, November 9, 2015

Robert Frank

“The eye should learn to listen before it looks." Robert Frank, 91 years old today
Las Vegas, Nevada, 1952

Monday, November 2, 2015

Ninety Feet...

I'd picked the Royals to beat the Mets in seven games, but the Series was over in five. This terrific photo by Anthony Causi—it's a Renaissance painting—evokes it all: the Royals' aggressive, opportunistic, impossible base-running; the Mets' series-long inability to catch and throw the ball consistently well; the anguish of managerial second guessing; the Queens' die-hard fans in disbelief; the pace, confidence, and joy of Series-winning baseball.

As a White Sox fan I actively root against the Royals during the season, but I couldn't help but love their style of play this year. Eric Hosmer's gutsy dash to home from third in the ninth tied the game, a ridiculous decision that issued from instantaneous, supreme confidence and a killer scouting report, the surprise of which forced Lucas Duda to make a rushed and errant throw to the plate, and will go down as an all-timer in my postseason baseball memory scrapbook, alongside Fisk in 1975, Chambliss in '76, Reggie in '77 and '78, Kirby in '91, Bream in '92, Gonzalez in '01, Freese in '11 and the rest. It feels that way now, anyway. If I were a youth baseball coach, I'd have my kids watch film of the 2015 Royals' postseason, if only to point out what to do and how what not to do is often the right thing to do, if you have the nerve and the luck. Congrats, Royals and Series MVP, the bruised but valiant Salvador Perez; my condolences, Mets.

Anyway, Spring Training begins on February 18th.

Photo by Anthony J. Causi via New York Post

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Royals edge Mets in the 2015 World Series

The Kansas City Royals upset my predictions for a Blue Jays-Mets World Series, but that wasn't surprising given the Royals' talent and excellent coaching. This Series will come down to defense, bullpen effectiveness, and timely contact hitting—the Royals have the slight edge in all three.

Royals in seven. Sorry, Jerry.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

One Road, Four Songs

John Loudermilk comes upon a band of marauding teens, a half-woman/half-ghost, and a man born here, maybe there, heading north.

Monday, October 19, 2015

After Larry Brown: Taylor, Mississippi (Google Maps)

As I've noted recently, I'm in a periodic immersion into all things Larry Brown, devouring his fiction and essays, watching documentaries online, listening again to the music that inspired or otherwise surrounded him in northern Mississippi, where he lived and wrote until his death in 2004. Though I'm loathe to let Google Street View do my work for me, and continually, if often unsuccessfully, guard against romanticizing a point-of-view and economic lifestyle I don't share—the air's getting cold outside and I can't resist turning to digital maps. I haven't been down through Mississippi in many years, and this ragged intersection of First and Main Streets in tiny Taylor (population 320) evokes precisely the hardscrabble landscape that Brown's characters drive past or stop at, walk around and struggle within.

This is the deep South, Brown's world. Taylor's official website makes a charmingly casual, understood reference to William Faulkner:
For a town of about 320 people, Taylor has more than its share of interesting history, culture and atmosphere. Taylor has survived good times and devastating times, and it faces the future, always changing, but always keeping an appreciation for hard work, good food and music, sociability, and a slower pace of life.
     From modest beginnings as a pioneer settlement to its rise and fall with the railroad and King Cotton, Taylor endures and is now, as Faulkner put it, a “postage stamp of native soil” that attracts visitors and new residents from all over the world who come for its famous food, music and arts scene and bucolic lifestyle.

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