Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Writer's Dilemma

The last two sentences of "Coda: The Life of the Mind," the last essay in Phillip Lopate's Portait Inside My Head:
For it is only when writing that I begin to exist. In that sense I take no risks by writing: intensely honest self-exposures come easily to me, the most provocative positions that clash with conventional morality are a breeze, complex researches and ambitious structural challenges are finally child's play, next to the difficulty of getting through daily domestic life, trying to love one's family members on a consistent basis (despite the lack of respect they show me compared to the literary community), listening to the neighbors' small talk, and deciding which telephone company provides the best service package.
Both amusing and grave.

Photo via The Aviary.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Rain on the Window

Although I cherish childhood memories of riding my bike all over Wheaton, Maryland, in and out of the dark green woods of Wheaton Regional and Sligo Creek Parks and zipping down suburban streets, and of shooting hoops in my driveway until dusk, I secretly loved waking up to rainy days. (Come to think of it, those activities are solitary endeavors.) My introverted side, there all along but succumbing to adolescent and, later, teenage pressures to remain hidden, embraced the damp, the closing in of gray all around, the outside world shrinking to something psychological, emotionally manageable to me. The politics of the playground and of after-school hangouts, the witnessing from the side of the stage, where I'd often drift, of Naturalism played out among pre-teens and teens, the chill in my chest when faced with acting out with others whatever identity I'd adopted that afternoon: all of these external dramas vanished, as in a magic trick, with the image and soft sounds of rain on the window. Now: I could spend an hour with a book, or with an album, or scribble a lousy poem or, more secretly, shamefully, a dirty story, or just be alone in my head where I was always the happiest and safest, unburdened with the need to be public. Even now as an adult, waking to a rainy day or the prospect of afternoon showers means a staving off of anxieties: yard work and its brutal character-building; certain social engagements; choring I've put off. How eternally childish is it of me to prefer a day that requires the rest of the responsible world to stall in its gregarious, forward-moving momentum; why should I revel in a day that others detest, or that makes the daily tasks of already-busy adults more difficult? If I'm always gladdest when the world slows behind a wet gray window, I may need to sift the childish romance of that from the more pressing notion that I'm falling short of being a grown up.

Image via YouTube.

Saturday, March 18, 2017


I've just finished Phillip Lopate's A Mother's Tale, and it's a doozy, a deeply weird but engrossing hybrid of a book wherein Lopate disentombs taped interviews he'd conducted with his mother, Frances, when she was sixty-six and he was forty-one. For personal and psychological reasons Lopate ignored the tapes for more than thirty years—he'd stuck them in his closet—but recently felt compelled to listen. His relationship with his mother, who died in 2000, was fraught and terribly complex; she was governed by a remarkable tide of bitterness inside of a vexed and unhappy marriage, and Lopate in no small measure defined himself both in sympathy with and in opposition to his mother for his entire life (and it's an ongoing process). In listening to and transcribing the twenty hours of taped conversations, Lopate faced both his younger self asking questions and reacting to, and often challenging and mollifying, his mother, and his present self (Lopate is seventy-three) making sense of a relationship that's in the past but which marks his daily life. The bulk of the book, perhaps too much, is devoted to passages of his mother talking—about her unhappy childhood, her early marriage and overwhelming distaste for her husband, her numerous affairs, her children, her odd jobs, and her late-in-life career as an actress and singer—as Lopate the questioner listens, occasionally responding or pushing back, and as Lopate the writer reflects on the whole, knotty process. For many pages Lopate simply lets his mother go on—and she could talk! and was a larger-than-life character—hopeful that, as she holds forth, complaining usually, her considerable personality will dramatize her life and her many, deeply-ingrained complexities and grievances. This becomes maddening in places, as Frances can really suck the oxygen out of a room, as her children can no doubt testify, and the reader's patience is tested as Frances often ignores her son's attempts to steer her away from solipsism—but that's also what I like about the book, that nerviness, that dare to the reader to put up with it all. That said, I would've liked more present-day Lopate in the book; when he does appear, the passages are marked by his characteristic skeptical reserve, witty intelligence, stabs at resigned wisdom, and clean and entertaining prose—what we Lopate fans love in his writing.  

A Mother's Tale is quite unlike any other book that I've read, and for that I'm grateful. I'm fascinated by it. In a recent conversation with Kristen Martin at Literary Hub, Lopate was asked about the genre of his book. "I think it’s closest to a play," he said. "And I think it could be staged, in fact."
It does seem to me like a dialogue. Now some people think that dialogues have a relationship to essays, coming out of Plato or Oscar Wilde, and in any case, an essay is something that usually necessitates taking different parts of yourself and talking with each other. But I don’t think of it as essentially an essay, and I don’t think it’s a memoir either. It’s a bit of an oral history, because something that struck me a lot was how her own life was playing against the history of the times—particularly as a woman going through all of these periods.
Not an essay, not a memoir. A Mother's Tale does push at the conventional understandings of autobiography, in that it presumes that by listening in on a conversation—which is really, finally, what the book is and what the reader does—the reader can glean essential qualities from the participants, can hear in the back-and-forth, push-pull, personality-clashing of an intimate conversation between a mother and her son something personal, not merely private. On that score, the book succeeds. I do wonder on the confessional nature of the material Frances offers; she and her husband are dead, but Lopate's brother and two sisters are alive, and though much of what Frances unburdens herself of is unlikely to surprise the siblings, some revelations might, or at least go beyond the boundaries of what they would like to have been made public. Lopate doesn't state anywhere in the book that he asked permission of his siblings to publish these conversations. And the book thrives on that matrix of the private and the public: one son listening to his mother speak of family concerns in all of their joy and anguish, in so doing becoming a silhouette of sorts for any child on the long journey from son or daughter to independent adult, still weighted, always weighted, by the burdens of adolescence and of the family dynamic. I've long felt that America's greatest literary subject is the family—the way its definitions are challenged by evolving notions of gender and sexuality, the way the country's size encourages literal distancing and subsequent loss between and among family members, the way immigrant families are sometimes radically affected by assimilation, the way generations fight toward and away from clarity—and A Mother's Tale essays the agonies, secrets, pleasures, and complexities of family in a strangely idiosyncratic, necessary way.


Lopate recently joined his brother Leonard on the latter's WNYC radio show to discuss the book here.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Making it Tidy

In her difficult but rewarding book Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions, film, video and multimedia artist Michell Citron writes about her dreadful experiences with incest and the difficult ways to narrate it in film and prose. In one particularly interesting passage, she nails the tensions between the lure and the weakness of narrative, writing from the perspective of a filmmaker, but the challenges she describes common to any writer:
Narrative renders the incomprehensible understandable. Narrative offers the much needed illusions of coherency and cause and effect where there were none. Narrative puts the author at case. For the audience, however, narrative reduces a complex, confusing, overdetermined tidal wave of experiences and half-found awareness into something that is linear, understandable. It cleans up the trauma, makes it tidy, and makes it, at the structural level, familiar. Narrative makes it seem safe. This is a lie. Everything that makes narrative honest for the author is precisely what makes it false for the audience. Pieces not wholeness, discontinuity not fluidity is a more authentic language for the expression of trauma and its aftermath.
Speaking as an essayist and nonfiction writer, to evocatively and artfully piece together the past with the parts showing, rather than as whole, seamless cloth, seems to me the dividing line between authentic memoir/essays and less-authentic ones, between writing that recognizes the vagaries of memory and the chaos of the past and writing that shapes that chaos into a form with a beginning-middle-end. I've already mixed my metaphors in the preceding sentence, so let me go further. Autobiography-as-architecture: I prefer a partially constructed building with a few enticing closed-off rooms, uneven stairs, mirrors on the walls that distort, a stuffed attic that's off-limits, and the external scaffolding showing. Yet I deal with the necessity of syntax, of sentences and paragraphs. The stubborn question: where is the sweet spot where baffling incoherence—how reality feels—meets art—the root of which, after all, ar, means to shape and mold?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Field Recordings, an update

My new book of music essays Field Recordings form the Inside, has been out for a month. For the uninitiated (and the interested!), I answer seven questions here for Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press about the book, reading, writing, and music, Joshua James Amberson at Los Angeles Review of Books thoughtfully weighs in on the book here, and Literary Hub has posted the title essay, along with a Spotify playlist I created especially for the book, here.

If you're in or visiting Chicagoland in the near future, I have two readings coming up: at the wonderful Seminary-Coop 57th Street Bookstore (where Barack Obama might wander in; I mean, he could) in Hyde Park on April 1 at 2 pm, and in my lovely town of DeKalb at the terrific House Cafe on April 13 at 7 pm. Both readings are free and open to the public, and I'll be signing books at both events.

Details for more events as they're scheduled! Hope to see you! And please spread the word!
Reading at The Book Cellar, March 4.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Schaefer Beer, redux

I've been thinking that it's high time Schaefer beer enjoys a hipster renaissance, a cultural sea change not unlike that which elevated Rolling Rock, PBR, et al from cheap and obscure to cool and coveted. But I'd gravely fear this development, too, of course. I fantasize this because I can't find Schaefer beer—the beer of choice when I was in my 20s and 30s, and a brand I still love—anywhere in northern Illinois, where I live; when I'm on the east coast visiting family I make sure to buy a case or two to bring back home with me. While I'd welcome the increased availability that came with a revival of Schaefer, I'd worry that it might result in higher prices, an unwelcome (by me) change to the brewing process (a process that does not turn on the folks at Beer Advocate), and, worse, the kind of identification among scenesters that might alienate longtime Schaefer fans, those who, like me, won't apologize for the flavor or lack of ABV punch, who love one or several on a hot day, with a sandwich at dinner, or while spinning a stack of old albums into the night. When I was visiting-cum-living in New York City while writing Sweat in the early 2000s, I was stoked to stumble upon the Parkside Lounge on Houston that served Schefer on tap; that supply was short-lived, but there was always that diner off of Union Square that served Schaefer cans, and, later—and still—the wonderful International Bar on First Avenue, my warmly dark, narrow bar of choice for years when I'm in the city, where an always-friendly, always-laughing Claire will sell me an ice-cold can of Schaefer in the late afternoon. Sure, the nearby Burp Castle features a terrific cache of Belgian ales and kick-ass IPAs, and I always duck in there, too, but I often prefer the mild-strength, red-and-gold, American-style lager late of Ebbetts Field and my Washington D.C. suburban adolescence. A fashionable revival of the brand might deliver Schaefer more widely, but on second thought maybe I prefer to seek it out, a corollary to chasing my early and lasting affection for what the mid-century advertisements called the "real beer."

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Great Arrivals

I recently wrote about blue guitarist and performer extraordinaire Guitar Slim, who used to like entering clubs playing a guitar, leaving the club playing a guitar while on the shoulders of his valet, and sometimes driving away from a venue still playing the guitar. I love stylish rock and roll entrances, arrivals, and departures. Screamin' Jay Hawkins emerging from a coffin, P-Funk's Dr. Funkenstein exiting the Mothership, a black-thong attired Prince appearing onstage in a bathtub, Little Richard ending a show with a striptease on top of his piano (alas, no video): these are sublime rock and roll stage moments.

Here are three favorites: Jerry Lee Lewis descending from the heavens while opening his 1964 Grenada TV show with "Great Balls of Fire." Shouldn't he have been ascending from hell? Many commentators at the time thought so. Look at the dancers, they're telling the whole story.

I also love love rock and roll spectacle of the lo-fi variety. Bo knows that all you need for an epic entrance are a few stair-steps, in-sync, sequined gals, and The Beat.

This song comes near the end of AC/DC's blistering performance on Rock Goes to College from 1978, and the sight of a shredding Angus hitting the stage for an encore while aloft on Bon's bare shoulders, with smoke pouring out of his school book bag, is R&R personified. Every 12 year-old kid would wonder—what's in that bag?!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Drop the needle and Play Ball!

On the first day of Spring Training last week, MLB GameDay tagged a meaningless exhibition workout with a bright-red "Perfect Game" alert. I couldn't help but roll my eyes. A starting pitching performance in February—a glued-together assemblage of a coddled starter and rookies hoping to make an impressions, all of them stretching out, looking for release points and working through winter-bred mechanical issues—bears little relation to a meaningful performance in mid-Summer. MLB is falling victim to that Twenty-first century seduction: more data because we have it, not because we need it. I don't think that God intended baseball fans to hear, let alone watch on our computers or phones, quite so much February and March baseball: Spring Training has become a first season, now, preceding the regular season and the postseason, and is no doubt plenty remunerative. I'll listen to, and sometimes watch, Spring Training because I can, but do I need to? Hearing the ambient sounds of a game, listening again to the voices that will be murmuring sonorously all year, imagining sunny skies from the dolor of gray Illinois is a wonderful escape, but, at the risk of indulging nostalgia, I'm pining for those days as a kid when all of the information I'd pick up from Spring Training arrived in the form of a grainy black-and-white photograph in the Washington Post of, say, Ken Singleton or Jim Palmer stretching their limbs in a far-off sunny land called Arizona (or was it Florida?). Maybe I'd get a score at the end of the sports segment on TV. I can't recall if any March games were broadcast in the 1970s; now, you can hear virtually every inning, if you pay for it. (And MLB GameDay audio is still one of the greatest bargains a ball fan's gonna find these days. Shhhh.) To quote The Quiet Beatle, who appreciated silence and the room for reflection, It's All Too Much.

What nicer way to combat the onslaught then with a game of RPM Turntable Baseball, a 2015 Record Store Day release that a couple thoughtful friends in Rhode Island sent me for Christmas last year. Microfiche Records released the seven-inch, 33 1/3 rpm record, a follow-up to their similar turntable football game. "The envelope has been pushed a little further as this record has a whopping 13 grooves spread over one 7''," their site proclaims:
The A side is the title game, players take turns getting runs, outs, home runs, and more as they play a full 9 inning game on their turntable. There's even a separate band of grooves should you feel like you'd like to try to steal a base.... Both of these games again use Decagonaphonic Multi-groove Technology. Jay Grainer and Barry Dingle return to provide color commentary on all the action and offer clear instructions when to advance your players to the next base, or add an out to your score card.
"Decagonaphonic Multi-groove Technology." Doesn't that phrase wonderfully, if winkingly, conjure the analog, pre-Internet era? By playing the record from the start each time and letting chance pick the grooves for you, you can play a simulated game among more than a dozen possibilities. Dropping a needle on a record and hoping for the best? Sounds like adolescence all over again! And it's just the kind of old-school, childlike immersion in imagination that I'm in the mood for, and to that'll help tune out some of the the 1s and 0s and noise coming out of the baseball camps. Play ball! In April.

GAME NOTE: In the first inning, Team Amy led off with a home run, and knocked another two-run shot later in the frame. She stole a base, too! Team Joe was dispatched with quickly in the bottom of the inning, on two fly outs to left and a grounder to second. We "played" only four of the thirteen groove options in the first inning. Despite the announcer's cringe-worthy use of the word "points" instead of "runs"—I think the developers are football fans—this is fun stuff, and will help to divert plenty of Winter blahs in the future.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Mark Buehrle, Sneaking Back

I hope that I'm not on the east coast on June 24 when the Chicago White Sox retire Mark Buehrle's number at Guaranteed Rate Field. I want to be at the commemorative ceremonies. I loved watching Buerhle pitch—he was swift, all-business, and as longtime White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper noted recently, he ignored the sex appeal of the dominant fastball (not that he had one, anyway) in favor of locating his pitches, changing speeds, and moving pitches around in the zone. Buehrle was one of those elite pitchers who somehow made it look easy; his famously short games—Cooper said you could schedule a dinner reservation the night Buehrle pitched without worrying that you'd be late—reflected a craftsman indulging his native skills, devastatingly potent when he was on, but never showy with his talent. He went to work. He dominated modestly, if that's possible. He was a magician at inducing ground balls, and every time he hit the mound you wondered if he might throw a no-no. He did, twice, including a perfect game. I saw him at work in the park a few times, but my favorite game might've been when he was pitching against the Sox. Two seasons ago in July, I made it to the park to watch Buehrle, pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays, square off against Sox ace Chris Sale, and the night lived up to the hype.

Buerhle slipped into retirement characteristically quietly after that season. "'I didn't want all the attention,' Buehrle said Friday on a conference call with Sox reporters—among his first public comments since leaving the game."
"I've always told people I was a young guy that came into the big leagues unknown, kind of snuck into the big leagues. I wanted to sneak my way out.
"That's why I haven't said anything. I haven't talked to anybody. I just kind of let it go. Hopefully one day it just kind of got forgotten, and five years down the road (people said), 'Where's that Buehrle guy? Is he still around?'"
Now he has to show up at the park for the team he pitched for for twelve seasons, and the Missouri farmer is dreading it. "Right now I'm just trying to not pass out from thinking I've got to get up there and do a speech," Buehrle said. "You think I'm joking. I'm not."

I bitter-sweetly enjoyed attending Paul Konerko's penultimate game for the White Sox in 2014, and Buehrle's return—with echoes of the sounds and the images of his 2009 perfect game bouncing all over the joint—would be something to see. He was beloved by Sox fans, and it would be nice to say goodbye officially. As I'm writing this I'm listening to Ed Farmer and Darin Jackson call the first Sox game of Spring Training—there's snow on the ground in northern Illinois after an impossibly gorgeous, warm week—and June still feels a long way off. I'm hopeful to be at Guaranteed Rate Field to say See Ya to a player I loved to watch, and who would likely receive the gratitude with a modesty befitting him.

Photo of Mark Buehrle, AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Electric Sound of the City

This brief passage from early in Ed Ward's terrific, ambitious, and fact-driven The History of Rock & Roll: Volume One 1920-1963 captures the excitement of Muddy Waters's band's plugged-in vibe, a sound that jolted a city and gazed at the future:
By [the late 1940s], the Muddy Waters-Jimmy Rogers-Baby Face Foster band had added another artist: Marion Walter Jacobs, whom Rogers knew from Mississippi as “a little squirrel-faced kid” who played harmonica. After being blasted out of bed one morning by the sound of a harmonica player performing at he Maxwell Street Market near his house, Rogers headed down there to find the kid, now an adult, playing like crazy, and took him over to meet Muddy. In no time, the band found a home at the Club Zanzibar, at Ashland and Thirteenth, just around the corner from Muddy’s home, where they started playing blues with a power and authority that was brand new. Some of it was the volume from those electric instruments (and Little Wa1ter’s using a microphone to amplify his harmonica), and some of it was the down-home sound, including that of the slide guitar that Muddy transformed with electricity, that reminded homesick immigrants of life in the South—but with the electric sound of the city. Nobody else in Chicago was doing this, and other musicians would come to gape.
Here's Muddy on guitar with Big Crawford on bass in '48, not full-band electric, but electrifying nonetheless:

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Field Recordings at Literary Hub

The nice folks over at Literary Hub are running the title essay of Field Recordings from the Inside, along with a Spotify playlist that I've created especially for the book, highlighting many songs, from the well-known to the obscure, that I write about in the book. Read along as 10cc, Reigning Sound, Ishman Bracey, X, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dave Brubeck, Foreigner, the Monkees, the Detroit Cobras, Hank Williams, Sam & Dave, the Clash, Drive-By Truckers, Captain & Tennille, Southern Culture On The Skids, Paul Stanley, Terry Jacks, and many more serenade ya.

Here are the essay's opening graphs:
My younger brother had developed a phobia of listening to records played at the wrong speeds. We’d be listening to a 45 or an LP, and if I moved the RPM knob one way or the other and the song lurched into nasal, pinched hysteria or growled down to a menacing dirge, Paul would cover his ears, his eyes flashing. Sometimes he’d dash from the room; sometimes he’d cry. I can’t claim largesse these many decades later, manfully acknowledging that I soothed my younger brother in his distress—once in a while I’d torture him, quickly switching a record to the wrong speed to see his (predictable) reaction. Older-Sibling Job Description, maybe, but an unkind responsibility not without its trails of remorse. Inside of me: that a record could be insidious, that music has an interior darkness I didn’t know about. Look what it can do.
In the spring and summer of 1975, “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc was in regular rotation in the Top 40, reigning for two weeks at number one on the U.K. charts and peaking at number two on Billboard. Composed by Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman, the song is famous for its haunting tones and otherworldly choral effect, studio-created by massing more than 250 vocal harmonies, a mammoth, labor-intensive undertaking in the era before digital sampling. Band members Stewart, Gouldman, Kevin Godley, and Lol Creme each sang a single note in unison that was then mixed, dubbed, and re-dubbed across sixteen tracks, looped, then played in a heartbreaking descending-then-ascending melody via keyboards and faders. An airy construction, the song begins in medias res, the instrumentation spare throughout: a Fender organ in the left channel mutters softly, a bass drum thumps quietly in the center, a strummed acoustic guitar whispers in the right. The effect might be the closest a pop song has ever gotten to reproducing a dream, the loose ends of experience beyond language. “I’m Not in Love” is less a tune than a field recording from the inside of your body, your heart chambers’ vérité.
Turn it up.
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