Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Writing from Jubilation: Duncan Hannah's New York Stories

What's the literary value of a diary? Beyond being a time machine into the past, it can describe a real tension between grown-up and youthful selves. Most adults are no longer tuned to the mania and energy of the their youth, but they are to the larger universal underpinnings of that youth, what all that sweaty, blind striving was about; a grown-up may have slowed a bit, but the big picture's clearer. Speeding along as we do in our twenties, we can't see it. A diary is a snapshot of a blur; later, wide screen wisdom takes a while to emerge, though it's less sexy.

Painter Duncan Hannah's remarkable new book 20th Century Boy: Notebooks of the Seventies, chronicles what Gillian McCain drolly describes as "the adolescence that most of us wish we had." Born in 1952 and raised in Minnesota, Hannah attended art school, then transferred to Bard and then to Parson's, in downtown Manhattan, in the early 70s, just as the city was both declining into a social morass and ascending in shabby glamour. Hannah seems to have been blessed with amazing luck: he shows up at a concert, and ends up backstage partying with his rock gods; he drinks and drugs excessively, winding up in predictably dangerous and dire situations, once in an abandoned apartment hundred blocks north of where the party started with no recollection of how he got there, yet survives again and again; he creates defiantly unfashionable art (representative illustrations and painting in a heavily Abstract era) but meets the right people, and ends up making a living. His twenties was an extraordinary crash course in alcoholic depths and plucky providence, presided over by what Hannah calls his guardian angel. If you want a mad dash into Downtown NYC as Glam ruled and Punk was stirring, artists were thriving in low-rent lofts, and larger-than-life personalities seemed to pop up on every corner, party, and dark dive bar, you will inhale 20th Century Boy.

How many grains of salt you'll need for the ride is a personal call, I guess. I did some low-key fact-checking of Hannah's exploits, and most of the amazing events he witnessed and involved himself in, either as a drunken fly-on-the-wall or as the center of attention, did occur. Yes, Jagger was in London when Bowie played the Rainbow Theatre and so likely was there, dancing in the front row; the infamous issue of Rolling Stone with a half-naked David Cassidy on the cover did come out around the time a couple of English giggling school girls mistook Hannah for the Partridge. I can't account for the numerous run ins with scenesters and rock stars that Hannah, a relatively unknown artist in the city, describes, and neither can he. One of the problems with diaries, as with all autobiographical accounts, is legitimacy and authenticity. Hannah implies in his introduction that he didn't rewrite his diaries, but there's nonetheless an occasional feeling as I read of retroactive shuffling, of today's insights pushing against the immediacy of the diary's present tense—did Hannah really feel that stepping into CBGB for the first time felt like the dawning of a new era? "It's like watching the birth of a wildly frantic and perverse new subculture," he gushes in the entry. Perhaps. We often sense something, even an epoch, before our language catches up with us. Or did Hannah touch up that entry with a bit of hindsight? "I had never read these journals before transcribing them," he confesses in the introduction.
In preparing them for publication, I removed a lot of extraneous detritus. I didn't do a lot of navel gazing, as many diarists do, so I didn't have that to contend with. I noticed, at the time, that mostly it was girls who kept journals, and they generally wrote only when they were upset. I was determined not to do this. I tended to write from jubilation. I wrote these at night, in bed (if I was in any kind of shape to write), or in the morning, over coffee. I didn't write every day, and as life accelerated I would miss notating chunks of experience. Indeed, 1979 hardly gets a look in at all. I don’t know why. I’ve changed some of the names to protect the innocent, and also the not-so-innocent. The grammar and spelling have also been corrected, as my slipshod grasp of English composition leaves something to be desired.
The book's early diaries are marked by long, narrative passages, as if Hannah was conscious of the story he was living, and making; the later entries are far shorter, often impressionistic, less episodic. His addictions were growing by this point, and no doubt the blackouts were more frequent. How Hannah recalls as much as he did in a state of near-continual inebriation and forgetfulness is also somewhat dubious, but, again, the art is in the shaping.

DH with Craig Gholson (left) at CBGB
Stars and starlight abounds. Hannahh meets Bowie and Janis Joplin, Iggy Pop and David Hockney, Warhol and Lou Reed and Richard Hell and David Johansen; Flo and Eddie ask him if he's got weed; he starts an early Television fan 'zine, and Danny Fields becomes his tour guide into and out of the Downtown jungle of artists and scene makers. He hits Max's, CBGBs, and later Hurrah and Mudd Club. He somehow gets invited to most of the best parties, where he's usually chased around by older gay men. Hannah recognizes his appeal to queers—it's been a lifelong dynamic. But he's straight, and he gets laid, a lot, even judging by the bed-hopping standards established in other memoirs of the era. Hannah was young and beautiful with a beatific, boyish innocence that was catnip to women, most of whom in the book are curious, independent, and generous, yet mask some serious psychological unease. It's a drag to admit that the sex gets a bit dull to read about after a while. By a third of the way in, each time a woman enters a scene it's virtually guaranteed that somehow, somewhere—in a borrowed bedroom, in a car, in an attic, in a shabby room in the Village or an estate on Long Island—Hannah will be alone with her, clothes will fall to the floor, hard nipples will be admired, and welcoming vaginas will be poetically praised. The readiness of so many eager women borders on the pornographic. It was the era. Yet it's always a shame when good fucking becomes predictable or dull in the retelling.

Hannah and Jim Carrol shared an editor, and Carrol's Beat Punk jittery ghost floats in and out of the book, in the staccato prose and epiphanic wooziness, such as in this entry from February 1976:
It’s already springtime, tweet tweet. Nick [Hannah's cat] got his balls cut off at the vet on Tenth Street. I waited for him at the Lion's Head. (He’ll take a fishtail, turn it into a fish scale.) Meaney’s got a friend of a friend who got castrated by some S&M guys last week. Eric got mugged when he was high on downers. Guillemette Barbet got her cameras stolen. E. S. Wilentz’s Eighth Street Bookshop burned down. There’s a full moon all this week that’s got all the ghosts and skeletons jittery. It gets crazy around here, and none of us have stuntmen to fill in for us.
Carrol and Hannah also shared a love of music, and pulsing throughout 20th Century Boy is the sound and spectacle of rock and roll, Hannah's second great passion after art. His description of Iggy Pop's drunken collapse at the Academy of Music on New Years Eve 1973 and of Bowie's New York City debut at Carnegie Hall are epic; throughout, his memories of shows and gigs are shot through with the sheer joy of fandom. Hawkwind bores him, but the New York Dolls, Roxy Music, and Mott the Hoople thrill him. Describing listening to the Velvet Underground's Loaded and the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle in a September 1970 entry, he marvels, "...fantastic. Such a rich wealth of music coming out. It’s where we get our messages, our subversive directions. It’s the soundtrack to our lives. The centerpiece to all this action. Ties us all together."

The Rolling Stones pop up often in the book, and it's quite interesting to see just how pervasive an influence the band was into into the mid-70s, even as they approached their alleged Dinosaur Era. Hannah continually seeks a Keef Richards haircut, and pre-sex with a girl once, he takes Joni Mitchell off of the turntable and slips on the Stones, "to get the right groove going." "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" was as intense to him as a teenager as the Stooges' Fun House was when he was a bit older, and nothing was lost in the trade-off. In yet another instance of Hannah being in the right place at the right time, he inadvertently witnessed one of the Stones' great PR moves in May of 1975. I'd always wanted to read an on-the-ground description of the time the Stones roared into Manhattan on a flatbed truck singing "Brown Sugar." They'd actually simply turned a corner onto Fifth Avenue, but the spectacle was eye-popping. "Yesterday Mary Jane and I were walking north on Fifth Avenue to school," he writes. "I heard what sounded like a garage band playing 'Brown Sugar.' Loud! Outside! At ten-thirty in the morning? On a weekday? What is this?"
There was a small crowd in front of the Fifth Avenue Hotel on Tenth Street. We were on the east side of the street, looking at the back of a large flatbed truck. That’s where the live music was coming from. From under the partition I could see rolled-up Levi’s and Frye boots. I ran around to the front, maybe four people deep from the lip of the stage. It was the Stones themselves! They threw a press breakfast party for all the NYC journos inside Feathers restaurant, whose windows face Fifth. The scribes were reportedly pissed off that the Stones hadn't shown up at their own press party to promote their extensive summer tour, only to have them roll right up in front of them and begin to play. I caught the end of their first number, then they raced into the next. They looked appropriately scruffy in denim and worn leather, good shag haircuts, Mick's lips, etc, Their backdrop was a giant eagle with jet engines (drawn by one of my favorite illustrators, the German Christian Piper). Then the skies broke, and the rain came down in earnest. Police cars began to arrive. The truck began to drive slowly off, a gaggle of kids racing behind it. I finally saw the Stones!


20th Century Boy is a wild, mostly thrilling and engrossing chronicle of a thoughtful, talented, and fortunate boy's journey through one of modern Manhattan's most storied eras. If you dig the 1970s and its art and music, you'll love Hannah's in-the-moment accounts. The New York Times found Hannah recently and wrote about him here and here. Please Kill Me featured him in an article here.

For what it's worth, my favorite detail in the book is David Bowie drinking Schaefer Beer at an after hours party in Larry Rivers's loft on East Fourteenth Street following a Roxy Music show in 1974. He probably had more than one.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Nowhere to run

Michael Kopech
It's tougher than ever to struggle these days if you're a professional baseball player, especially a highly-touted one. Chicago White Sox pitching prospect Michael Kopech, selected by the Boston Red Sox in the first round of the 2014 MLB Draft, number 33 overall, is having a rocky time of it down in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he's pitching for the Knights, the White Sox AAA minor league team. In his last start, the twenty-two year old walked eight and allowed five earned runs in only three innings, his second poor outing in a row; he gave up five free passes in six innings on June 8. “Obviously he had a struggle commanding the fastball,” White Sox manager Rick Renteria said.
I think he was 23 of 60-plus pitches in terms of strikes, which is not a good ratio. Just continue to get back to the drawing board, work through his side work, get back and hopefully try to get in a position where he’s commanding the fastball and able to use his secondary pitches. … He has had a few tough ones.
All of this is normal for a player in the minor leagues, where he's expected to struggle as he faces increasingly elite competition on his way, hopefully, to the bigs. What's different now is the nearly obscene amount of scrutiny such a player faces. When I was a kid and I heard on the radio or during a broadcast or read in the paper that a player was being "sent down" to the Minors, down may as well have been Antarctica. He'd vanish off the radar: I'd rarely hear about him again, let alone follow his daily progress, until the day he was promoted back to the Major League team. If he never made it back...well, see ya. He'd be banished from my daily knowledge of the team, maybe make an appearance in a dream or an unbidden memory a decade on. When a player I really liked, Ruppert Jones of the far-away Seattle Mariners, was injured during the 1978 season, I called Ken Beatrice, a radio sports talk show host on Washington D.C.'s WMAL, for an update on his status. Beatrice didn't have an iPad in front of him, a tab open to He probably made up something, and went on to a more interesting caller. I hung up the phone, and continued imagining where Jones was, and what he was doing.

Things are vastly different now. I read about Kopech's struggles in the Chicago Tribune, can track his AAA efforts pitch-by-pitch online, can an even watch the Knights play on television, a development unheard-of when I was a kid. There is a massive amount of attention paid to all levels of professional sports now, and a demotion to the Minors—which might as well have been an actual farm for all I understood when I was twelve—is no longer an escape into obscurity. There are bright lights everywhere, now. Little about my comments here is new, yet I'm still occasionally startled by how unprecedented media coverage is in this century, and of how we're unable to gauge its impact on the future.

Monday, June 11, 2018

To Find Things in Common

"To be treated well in places where you don't expect to be treated well, to find things in common with people you thought previously you had very, very little in common with, that can't be a bad thing."

I often felt that Anthony Bourdain's best television shows, especially in his most recent series Parts Unknown, were essayistic. He led with a curious, questing persona, embodied by both his gregarious, ambling body and his thoughtful voice-overs, and he often allowed in the deeply personal, and at times confessional. Witness his deep despondency in Sicily, and his honest recounting of his addictions, among other bracing autobiographical moments. He was skeptical, hungry for knowledge, and always seemed open to surprise (of the blissful and the despairing varieties), to some measure of self-interrogation, and to the infinite, often surprising, usually joyous connections among disparate people and cultures. (He was, of course, a heck of a writer, too.) Food, as it was with M.F.K. Fisher, was the door opening onto the human condition.

He'll be missed.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Michael Nesmith on Riffs & Truth

In his thoughtful, aloof, definitely odd memoir Infinite Tuesday, Michael Nesmith riffs on the riff. "Anecdotes and riffs are true things, even though they seem loose and unscientific," he observes. "In music the definition of a riff is essentially broad. A riff is not necessarily a repeating phrase, like the guitar intro to “Paperback Writer,” even though it may have started there."
A riff by definition is not written or defined before it is played or sung or said. It is of the moment. It can be an added string of notes between a refrain and a verse, or a made-up phrase across the top of a series of chords, as in a jazz performance, but the critical distinction is that riffs are real-time, happening pre-thought in the moment, and many times a surprise. It might even be a wisecrack, if it’s insightful enough.

A good riff can embody and express the essence of a song or a melody in just a few notes, the same way a quick anecdote can frame an actual event, making its spirit clear even to those not resent at the event. Truth works in this way—it is illuminated through the metaphor, the parable, the anecdote, and the riff. It is terse, clear, concise. The truth reveals the spiritual facts of life. A notable aspect of riffs and anecdotes is that they only happen once and never repeat. They are sui generis.

The ephemeral nature of a riff points, for some, to insubstantiality, but for others this is timelessness, an essential nature of the riff, the spontaneous and sudden appearing, then disappearing, of the genuine article, a quick wink that lets everyone know that the universe is watching out for us.

Riffs take readiness and practice, as does truth-telling. Silence is the gold standard because spaces in a riff count for just as much as what is spoken. When W\what is said is true, there is a ring to it that is like no other sound. It is a real sound, an actual sound, a sound that makes one turn their head, but its substance is spiritual, beyond the sense fences, the walls and clatter that hide so much.
Read Infinite Tuesday if you want similar essaying of Celebrity Psychoses, the Hollywood Mind, the nature of reality, the limits of epistemology, and video technology. You'll likely be disappointed if you're looking for a breakdown of the various mixes and takes of "Valleri" or much gossip about The Monkees and the band running around goofily in it. Nesmith decidedly keeps his gaze above the horizon, where his philosophical thoughts and ruminations gather.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Wildest...The Kookiest...The Grooviest...The Slurpiest Essay Yet

My latest essay is live at The Normal School. In it I tell the full story of the promotional 45 "Dance the Slurp" issued by the 7-Eleven Corporation in 1966. Along the way I cover the fascinating history of jingle writer Tom Merriman, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist's remarkable Brainfreeze mix CD, what happens when a song gets stuck in your head, and a lot more. I've had the single since I was a kid and I always wanted to learn more about it.

Here's the opening graph:
“Maybe I’ve lost too many brain cells from too many Slurpee-induced brain freezes.”

That’s my brother Phil. I’ve asked him and my other siblings if they can recall how “Dance the Slurp,” a 1966 promotional single released by the 7-Eleven chain of convenience stores, ended up in our house in Wheaton, Maryland. “If I’m the one who first acquired it, I don’t remember how or when,” he admits. None of my other brothers or my sister can remember, either, but the journey wouldn’t have been very far. There was a 7-Eleven less than half a mile from our house on Amherst Avenue, and, over many years, we ducked in to escape the sticky summer heat, and to load up on cherry or lemon-lime and cola Slurpees, wads of gum, fistfuls of comics and magazines. The 7-Eleven was a regular stop on my solitary Saturday afternoon allowance walks, yet I too don’t know how it ended up in the house. For many years it was on high rotation on the Bonomo family turntable.
You can read the full essay here. You can subscribe to The Normal School here.

Slurp! Slurp!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

On the Outside

I'm dipping in and out of and enjoying Lizzy Goodman's Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011. As with all good oral histories, reading it gives the impression of being at a party with all the right people at that sweet spot when everyone's in a good mood and talking, say between drinks (or snorts) two and three. I didn't listen to all of the bands Goodman's book covers—over the years I've essentially sampled Kings of Leon, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, and many others she talks to—but I loved the Strokes' and Mooney Suzuki's first records (and the White Stripes', the Kills', and the Hives'), and at the time was cutting through the haze of the myth as the myth was blooming. But I was on the outside looking in. I lived in New York City for month-long stretches in the early 2000s as I was researching and writing Sweat, a book about a NYC rock and roll band utterly ignored if not dismissed by most contemporary Big Apple musicians and bands (and conspicuously absent from their own scene chronicles, as well. I'm looking at you, Please Kill Me). In a sense I was living in an alternate reality, thinking a lot about a band that itself lived a kind of invisible arc. Once at B-Side, a bar in Alphabet City where I'd become friendly with the bartenders and regulars, I mentioned why I was in town, and one of the twenty-somethings a few stools down said to me, "Hey, call up the Fleshtones, let's get 'em down here to drink with us!" He didn't realize just how out of the scene and, saddled with families and other burdens as two of the band members were, otherwise occupied the band was. It might've been Goodman's twenties, but It wasn't the Fleshtones' anymore.

My vivid sense of New York City the early 2000s is not hanging out at Pianos or at Brooklyn loft parties but walking around lower Manhattan post 9-11 vibing the mean streets by blasting the Dirtbombs' epic version of Curtis Mayfield's "Kung Fu" on my CD Walkman. So it's interesting in retrospect to have been in the City during the era Goodman's book describes, and to recognize how far from the epicenter I was, in part by choice, willfully planting myself in another era as I reconstructed the late 70s and 80s. I did catch Mooney Suzuki at CBGB in the summer of '01—a killer show—and Yeah Yeah Yeahs (and Mooney again) at the Siren Festival at Coney Island the following year. On the agonizingly long subway ride back to Greenpoint, Brooklyn after the Festival I drolly remarked to my friend Steve that just about everyone on the oppressively hot, crawling train looked like a member of the Strokes. Such idolatry didn't last too long, as Goodman's book makes clear. Amidst the blurry recollections of drug abuse, random hookups, record contracts, and touring are vivid glimpses of the Strokes' early gigging and swift ascendancy and just as swiftly their fall from the heights of commercial potential. The first Strokes album is great; the second, being a rewrite of the first, is good. The similarity in sound and sounds in those two records goes a long way to illustrating the gap between hype and reality, mood and fact. What sounds vanguard and revolutionary today might sound bittersweet tomorrow. As Goodman titles her book's first section: "Nostalgia for an Hour Ago."

But what do I know? I was there bodily but it wasn't my time; my time was over. I wasn't there in spirit. All of which is to say, it's a blast and always moving to read the memories of those who in their twenties believed truly in their generation's music, as you do, blasting ever forward by the native propulsion of stay-out-all-night youth and fizzy optimism, and now landing and settling in the rear-view wisdom of perspective. Every era needs its book like this.

The Strokes, circa 2001

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Work-a-Day Worlds

A few days before The Longshot played Black Cat in Washington D.C.—one of the best R&R shows I've seen in a while—Paul Collins posted a picture of himself with Billie Joe Armstrong snapped by Bob Gruen after The Longshot played Coney Island Baby in the East Village in Manhattan. "It was the third time I have met Billie and he is always the coolest guy!" Collins wrote. "He wears his success very well!" Among the covers The Longshot played a Black Cat was a rousing rip through "Walking Out On Love" from the Beat's 1979 debut album.

Billie Joe Armstrong, left, and Paul Collins

The Longshot's terrific Love is for Losers rocks in the spirit of the Beat's debut, and I revisited the latter album today, reminded again of what a great rock and roll album it is. With its singer's punk-ish loner persona and track-by-track girl problems, it's always sounded like an album that, in an alternate universe, the moody bad boy Jimmy in the Shangri-La's "Leader of the Pack" might've listened to. To my ears, it's always been the paragon of rock and roll sound, via a tight band and producer Bruce Botnick: the guitars are bright and sharp and sound as if they could cut you; the drums and bass are recorded to emphasize muscle and punch but mixed to maximize pop sheen. (Listen to those cymbals!) Everything's in your face, but the room's recorded, too, and the dynamics are so well-balanced as to retain the wallop and roar of a hot live band as well as that band's beguiling hooks and melodies. Power. Pop. The album benefits from the era in which it was produced, as well, as the songs breathe without the stuffy, loudified suffocation of so many current-day recordings.

The album's full of killer tunes—"Rock N Roll Girl," "Different Kind Of Girl," the explosive "Don't Wait Up For Me," the driving "U.S.A."—but to my ears "Work-A-Day World" best captures Collins and his band's exuberance at playing rock and roll and believing in the promises that the music can deliver. The back-and-forth bass and guitar riffs mimic the clockwork grind of a work day, but the song busts out of that rut with a great singalong chorus, as at the end of the second verse:
The boss comes and says to me, "Hey, get to work for me!"
Who is he anyway? I just got to get away from the work-a-day world
The best moments occur in the two ruminative half-time passages, at 0:54 and 2:17, when the clock on the wall's going backwards but the song lifts the singer from the blues of everything that work requires of him, everything that working dulls him to and prevents him from achieving, no matter how trivial:
I don't want to think about all the things I could've done
I don't want to think about all the time that's gone in my work-a-day
But listen how the song's pace accelerates, insisting on itself, and brings us right out of the tiresome, what if doldrums into the lift of that terrific chorus. Like so many great rock and roll songs, the music rescues the singer from the problems he's singing about, or at least gives him reprieve, and in just under three minutes.

I caught Paul Collins and his band a few years back in suburban Chicago and two years later (opening for the Fleshtones) in Jersey City. Time has done nothing to dim his ardor. He's working a better job now.

Monday, May 28, 2018

That's my DNA

I love my friends and family, but playing, that's my DNA. 
     —Billie Joe Armstrong

Photos and video of The Longshot and about a hundred kids onstage, at Black Cat in Washington D.C. on May 25. A righteous night of amped-up rock and roll.

Here's some video. I especially love the kid starting at 0:34 who leaps into the crowd at Armstrong's prompting. It doesn't matter that such spontaneity happened the night before and the following night, too: this kid will never forget this moment. And that's the point.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

When we were kids

Driving around the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and into the district last week, I grew nostalgic for the music I loved during my era I lived in town. So I cued up my Slickee Boys playlist, struck again by this great, lesser-known song which first appeared on Here To Stay, a hard-to-find, German-release compilation in the early 80s. (The band re-recorded it for 1985’s Uh Oh...No Breaks!) I came late to the original version, years after I’d left the area, but it’s become one of my favorites. The insistent, driving arrangement beats like a teenager's heart, and the lyrics perfectly evoke adolescence and its heady blend of innocence and cockiness, mystery and disappointments, oft-ignored limits and dimly-understood facts. Mark Noone (center) always had direct access to the world as felt by kids and near-adults; here he and the band really capture that overwhelming sense. And it rocks.


Everything our parents told us
Every way they tried to mold us
We were all so pliable when we were kids
Running in the street at night
We were cute when we used to fight
No one thought we were dangerous when we were kids
Being good as loonies can be
We got away with stealing candy
We got away with murder when we were kids
We believed in what we were taught
Believed in God, believe it or not
All we believed was wrong when we were kids

Go to teach at Sunday school
Stoned lifeguards at the pool
We didn’t know minds could be altered when we were kids
How to drink and how to drive
How to keep yourself alive
We never had to pay rent when we were kids
We gave ‘em hell at the liquor store
What is this thing between my legs for?
We couldn’t know enough when we were kids
Getting drunk, stay out all night
Or settle down and marry Mr. Right
We couldn’t wait to grow up when we were kids

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Writing about music

I love discovering the where-else that a song that's taken me somewhere might take me as I think and write about it, yet something essential's lost in the process. I like to explore the mystery of music, how an arrangement of notes and chords and words played by strangers sometimes half the world away from me and decades ago can come to mean so much to me personally, now, how that meaning, though urgently felt, is often difficult to describe, existing in a kind of pre-language bliss. I guess I'm as interested in the atmosphere a song creates, and is created in, as much as I am in the nuts-and-bolts of composing and playing. How Al Jackson strikes his snare in such a way to evoke both power and tenderness; how a three-chord rock and roll song banged out by kids in a basement or garage might reach emotional depths that the most dimensional literature does; how close-harmonies can drop me to my knees and make me cry, but only from some vocal pairings, not others...all of this amazes and so deeply interests me, and as a writer I try and make sense of it, failing often (to my ears, anyway).

In "To Fashion a Text" Annie Dillard says, "You can't put together a memoir without cannibalizing your own life for parts. The work battens on your memories. And it replaces them." This is true, and this is melancholy. Once I've explored a song or an album or a performance that I love, especially one that I've loved for many years—and, like any memory, have played and replayed and thus shaped and re-shaped in my head for all of those years—the mystery is replaced with the attempt to understand. The irrational with the rational, I guess, sound with sense, or ineffability with comprehension, the unknown with known. Loving a song for decades means giving over to myth it creates, and writing about that song debunks the myth. Sometimes as a music writer I feel what folks must've felt when science explained lightning.

When I write about music, I open a window and something powerful and unnameable escapes the room for good. Why bother, then? Hang on, I've got to flip the record.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Just like a Human Being

EC and the Attractions, 1978
If had to choose one song that fulfills the promises that rock and roll makes, it'd be "Lipstick Vogue," the ferocious track Elvis Costello cut with the Attractions in late 1977/early 1978 at Acton Studios, in London. Written in a flurry, the song's rhythm was inspired by Costello's rides on the Metropolitan London Underground as those journeys dovetailed with the propulsive Byrds track "I See You," from Fifth Dimension (1966). Lay the rocking to-and-fro of a tube ride over Jim McGuinn and David Crosby's raga-inflected soundscape and you have the taut sinew of "Lipstick Vogue." Costello later said, "I didn't mention this bit to [Attractions drummer] Pete Thomas at the time, so what you hear is all his own work," adding, "I stand by every word."

"Lipstick Vogue" is a remarkable performance. Thomas's driving drums, a snare-and-tom attack that ebbs and flows throughout—a pulse that quickens and slows and quickens—, Bruce Thomas's high-end worrying on bass, and Steve Nieve's paranoid organ lines amp the energy and anxiety levels of the song, and sound like nothing less than the inside of your body the moment when you're angry, resentful, proud, and vindictive, your heart racing and blood pounding. (How'd the band get a mic inside me?) The song's subject is Costelloian: a hot-temper persona rails against someone who's self- and surface-obsessed, mean, teasing, and dismissive, unable or unwilling to see the heart and depth of the man she's throwing away. The chorus suggests that the singer sees something more in her than she does, that she's more than just a prevailing fashion or style; that she can't or won't see this fill him with spite. That old story. The song features one of Costello's most biting opening verses, spat out in Elvis's signature early-career style:
Don't say you love me when it's just a rumor
Don't say a word if there is any doubt
Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor
You've got to cut it out
and other lines that have become iconic:
Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being
You say I've got no feelings, this is a good way to kill them

You want to throw me away but I'm not broken
But it's the Attractions' performance that elevates and adds dimension to the anger and resentment in the lyrics. As in all great rock and roll, it feels as the musicians have to catch up to the song though they're the ones playing it, creating yet chasing after something that in its eight-note urgency, blend of loud and quiet passages (the vitriolic verses and chorus, the take-a-deep-breath middle), and hurtling, forward momentum embodies what the lyrics alone can't fully. I love a song that sounds at the end as if the band was amazed at where their playing took them.

What does rock and roll promise? That a song you can never quite catch up to can say everything you're feeling in a moment of passion.

Look at this kicking garage band, from a June 21, 1978 show for Rockpalast at WDR Studio L, in Cologne, West Germany. Incendiary:

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Worth Remembering

At its best, Roger Ebert's writing was a moving blend of observation and insight. Ebert's tone was marvelous, and inspiring: he wrote accessibly about complex issues in a casual, uncluttered style that never sacrificed depth for clarity. I strive in my own writing for that mix, and fail far more often than Ebert succeeded weekly—and, later, regularly, when he turned to blogging near the end of his life. His late essays are fantastic, and are likely to be considered among the best of our age.

I'm finally getting around to reading his memoir Life Itself, published in 2011 two years before his death, a largely chronological, detail-heavy reminiscence. (I have yet to see the film.) If it in places gets bogged down by Ebert's amazing and generous memory, and threatens to go under the stream of events and the men and women he met in his amazing life, the passages where Ebert takes a wide-angle lens on larger subjects—such as as his adolescence in downstate Illinois, alcoholism, world traveling, illness, spirituality, and endless coincidences and charmed moments of serendipity—glow with humane, universal discoveries. His writing about movies is, of course, terrific. Two graphs in particular exhibit that Ebertian knack for chasing a larger subject in a narrow one, for writing generously about the democratic love for popular art, even crappy popular art, and for pleasure as an argument for itself (to paraphrase another great critic, Emily Nussbaum). Writing about his film reviewing career, which fell into his lap (he was planning on being an op-ed writer and then a novelist), Ebert acknowledges that "There is something unnatural about just...going to the movies."
Man has rehearsed for hundreds of thousands of years to learn a certain sense of time. He gets up in the morning and the hours wheel in their ancient order across the sky until it grows dark again and he goes to sleep. A movie critic gets up in the morning and in two hours it is dark again, and the passage of time is fractured by editing and dissolves and flashbacks and jump cuts. “Get a life,” they say. Sometimes movie critics feel as i they've gotten everybody else's. [Gene] Siskel described his job as "covering the national dream, beat," because if you pay attention to the movies they will tell you what people desire and fear. Movies are hardly ever about what they seem to be about. Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may seem.

I have seen untold numbers of movies and forgotten most of them, I hope, but I remember those worth remembering, and they are all on the same shelf in my mind. There is no such thing as an old film. There is a sense in which old movies are cut free from time. I look at silent movies sometimes and do not feel I am looking at old films; I feel I am looking at a Now that has been captured. Time in a bottle. When I first looked at silent films, the performers seemed quaint and dated. Now they seem more contemporary. The main thing wrong with a movie that is ten years old is that it isn’t thirty years old. After the hairstyles and the costumes stop being dated and start being history, we can tell if the movie itself is timeless.
A bit earlier, he quotes something that the film critic Pauline Kael said to him about her reviewing process, a line that was very influential to Ebert: "I go into a movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me." This is a wonderful sentiment and critical approach, putting aside agenda and bias and trusting that your response to something might have a representative quality to it, one as applicable to the viewing of great works of art as to the next Adam Sandler film. I miss reading Ebert every week describing what happened to himself in the dark.

Sunday, May 6, 2018


Rock & roll is so great, people should start dying for it. You don't understand. The music gave you back your beat so you could dream...The people just have to die for the music. People are dying for everything else, so why not for music? Die for it. Isn't it pretty? Wouldn't you die for something pretty?
    —Lou Reed

I think Lou Reed is a creep.
   —The Dictators, "Two Tub Man," Go Girl Crazy

Ezra Furman's 33 1/3 book on Reed's Transformer moves among many impulses. Furman's respectful, adoring, obsessive, overly forgiving, overly harsh, indulgent, embarrassed, knowledgeable, joyous, stubborn, and skeptical in his take on Reed's iconic second album, careful not to absolve Reed of his racism and sexism as he extols his brave, idiosyncratic navigation of his queer identity. It's a great read, equal parts autobiographical and critical, doing what the nervier books in the Series do: risking reverence and personal crushing at the expense of objectivity, and loving the friction that comes when those fanly impulses rub up among each other. (Deeply personal, the book's likely to be embraced by many, and dismissed by some.) Furman, a songwriter and musician, is at his best when he talks about the tensions in Reed's gestures. Is he gay? Queer? Straight? Or does he ignore labels and try to live among them? And is he sincere or bullshitting, anyway? The album's "gay-themed songs are hiding in plain sight," Furman writes. "Many listeners were amazed that the line 'even when she was giving head' was not censored on UK radio stations; the censors were, reportedly, not familiar with the term."
But listening forty-odd years later, with the shock value of sexual songs considerably if not totally dulled, the non-explicit lyrics are where the real intrigue lies. These songs fascinate, not for the excess and over-the-top deviance that was associated with Lou Reed in the sixties, but rather for their understatement, their partially submerged aggression, and the damaged personality they both mask and expose.

Monday, April 30, 2018


I've been playing this ultra obscure '66 Texan flip-side really loud these days. I discovered it years ago on the inestimable Back From The Grave series (God bless Tim Warren), and info on this blog filled in the blanks. I love the loner details in the verses—one mouth to feed, sleep all day up all night, no pals but lots of gals. And does he answer his phone or not? It's hard to decipher his punk mumbling.

I especially love the strange middle—1:09 to 1:45—where Denny Murphy shouts and yelps and graphically dramatizes the self-conscious plight of the born loser:
People, they just don't understand
They see me comin', they shake their heads
They say,"Look at him, he's a born loser
Well, alright. Were it not for the 12-bar changes under-girding this garage playlet of social dislocation, Murphy sounds just like another misfit 1,100 miles north, who'll be similarly yowling his outsider pain and glory a few years later. It's highly unlikely that James Osterberg heard this regional single—it was pressed in only 500 copies—but there was something in the air, alright.

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