Friday, February 19, 2021

The genius of Smokey

Smokey Robinson turns 81 today. If you get the chance, watch Hitsville: The Making of Motown (originally aired on Showtime, it's free on Prime until the end of this month). The documentary's a joy to watch, an inspiring story of personal and civic pride, discipline, camaraderie, courage, and master songwriters, cut through with humor. Among the many highlights for me were the studio breakdowns of "My Girl" and "What's Going On" and the far-too-brief footage of the electrifying Levi Stubs onstage, but the whole story's fascinating and moving. I wish it were twice as long. Smokey and Berry Gordy are the central players in the film, the center around which all of the musicians and songwriters orbit, and it's a blast to see them bs-ing, mock quarreling, and generally holding forth, if not revealing all. It's a must watch.

There are so many indelible songs of Smokey's, or those that he pitched in on, to choose from to celebrate today: but to my ears "The Tears of a Clown" is as close to perfect as a pop song gets. Stevie Wonder and producer Hank Cosby wrote the melody and arrangement, which glides between childlike circus wonder and four-on-the-floor dance propulsion, and brought the material to Smokey who, vibing on the calliope mood, wrote the lyrics. The song closes the Miracles' 1967 album Make It Happen, but wouldn't enjoy prominence for another three years until released as a single in England in July of 1970, where it rose to the top of the UK Singles Chart; always keen to exploit any commercial possibility, Motown recognized their error and re-released the song in the States, where it hit #1 on both the Billboard and the R&B Singles Chart.

And where it duly entered jukeboxes in nearly every bar. I fondly recall in the late 1980s sitting with my buddy John in The Union, our favorite joint in Athens, Ohio, feeding dollar after dollar after dollar into the jukebox, playing "Tears of a Clown" again and again, marveling at the production, the singing, the band, the tight yet somehow fluid arrangement wherein Smokey, effortlessly moving from chorus to verses, sings a fun song about sad stuff, that eternal game. The Union of course, was always loud, but the jukebox was loud, too, and yet we puzzled over the lines in the bridge—we couldn't make them out. We were steeped enough in the song's argument and metaphors, the story it was telling, that our ears were tuned, but drunken epiphanies as to what Smokey was singing were always just beyond us. In those pre-Internet, pre-smartphone days, we really had to work, relying on guesses shouted at each other over the din, on well-oiled hypotheses, squinting our eyes in the smoke as we listened as if that would somehow help, or gabbing our friends and strangers by their collars, jovially desperate for their help. It felt like—it was—a fun game we looked forward to each time, Smokey, smiling, winking his gold-green eyes at us, just beyond our reach: What am I singing? One night, it just clicked for us, we simply heard it, the lyric as clear and sweet as air. And when we heard it, we collapsed in the simple beauty of it—the rhyme, the image, the from-left-field reference that—of course!—made perfect sense!
Just like Pagliacci did
I try to keep my sadness hid
Smiling in the public eye
But in my lonely room I cry
Right there is the genius of Smokey Robinson, a line made infinitely rich with a smart simile sung on top of a lilting melody carrying both joy and agony, the Miracles singing "The Great Pretender" behind him knowingly and pityingly. It's all so simple and simply perfect that I wonder how I ever missed it the first time.

Happy Birthday, Smokey.

Image of Smokey Robinson on the front porch of the Motown Studio, Detroit, Michigan, 1967 via Pinterest

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Moving On: Super Rock '88

And the old Super Rock™ footage keeps surfacing....

Here's a full Fleshtones show from June of 1988, not, as the title says, from May of '87 (and that sure as hell ain't Fred Smith on "basse" and "chant"!) [Note: the video info was corrected after I posted this.] This show from Lyon, France dates from Robert Warren's final days in the band—his last show would be a few weeks later. Gordon Spaeth would depart in October. An era coming to a close, for sure.

The camera roams enthusiastically, but unfortunately the sound sucks. Setlist:

Let’s Go in ‘69
I Was a Teenage Zombie
Morgus the Magnificent
Return to the Haunted House
Long Green
Way Down South
Stop Fooling Around (part)
The Dreg
I See the Light
It’ll Be Me
Nothing’s Ever Gonna Bring Me Down
Let it Rock
I Got a Line on You
American Beat
Whatever Makes You Happy
Roman Gods

First encore:
The Lonely Bull
The Turn On Song
Return of the Leather Kings
The Theme from “The Vindicators”

Second encore:
Tiger Man
Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby
I’m Moving On

Doors, windows

DeKalb and Ogle Counties, Illinois

Sunday, February 14, 2021


Amy and I have never been a Valentine's Day Couple; we generally ignore it. In the COVID era of compromised intimacies and cautious physical distancing, I'm reminded of a time nearly thirty years ago when we experienced a surprise intrusion into our lives on a February 14 evening.

We were asleep in our home in Athens, Ohio. At three in the morning we were awakened by a loud banging on our front door. We opened it to find a young guy—student-aged—wearing a desperate look. There'd been freezing rain and sleet that night, as I recall, and when he gestured over his shoulder I saw that he'd driven his car off the road and flipped it over on its top in our front yard, into a ditch. Disoriented and in shock, he'd staggered to our front door. We invited him and he sat on our couch, his shoes and lower legs soaking wet. He stunk of alcohol. Trembling, he told us that his girlfriend had broken up with him that night—or she'd rebuffed him or ignored him, I can't remember, and I'm not sure even he was clear about it—and he'd driven out of town in a miserable state. Nearly all roads leading out of Athens end up winding, in places precariously, through hilly country; at that time we lived several miles west of town on a major state route but a curvy one; he'd hit a rough patch and, wasted, lost control of his car and it careened onto our lawn where it sat, having spun to a rest. Amazingly, he wasn't hurt, just badly shaken up, in agony over the state of affairs with his girl. Sobbing, he cycled over and over again through intense anger, bitter sadness, and boozy, shell-shocked glumness. Amy made some hot chocolate, and as we waited for the police he calmed down a bit. The tow truck arrived swiftly, and we watched from our window as his car was pulled from the ditch. 

A couple of days later, the doorbell rang. We opened it to find our boy again, hung over but cleaned up, wearing a contrite, bashful expression. He was clutching a basket of fruit; just behind him his mother stood looking stern and twice as embarrassed as her son. We accepted the basket and his gratitude for our having taken him in. We said, Of course. He offered a hand, and we shook. The whole thing seemed pre-staged by his mother, whose insistence that he visit us again, contritely, we felt was unnecessary yet also very moving. The tough, lucky lesson the kid was learning was nearly visible over his sorry head. 

For the remaining time we lived in Athens, I thought of him nearly every time I approached our house. A year or so after we moved friend of ours flipped his car in nearly the same stretch of road, emerging relatively unscathed; in retrospect, winding State Route 56 feels a bit cursed. But what has really stuck with me all of these years later is the way a Valentines Day went horribly wrong, the dark, desperate anti-sentiment you don't see in the Hallmark cards, commercials, and TV movies. To this day I can smell the booze on the guy, and his despondency. The features of his face are slipping from memory, but not his sobbing tears and shoulder-slumped pose of defeat on our couch. He was lucky, and no doubt recalls the crash, if in a blur, and the morning after reconciliation, far more vividly, in some blend of shame, bafflement, and gratitude. His car, spun onto its back in our yard in the dark: the flip side of Valentine's Day.

"sad anthropomorphic heart tattoo" via Pinterest

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Talking 'bout the Star-Club

In case you missed it the first time around, Nathan Wilcox at the Let It Roll podcast is re-airing the 2019 conversation we had about Jerry Lee Lewis and his Live at the Star-Club album.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

In the middle

Detail of Franz Kline’s Turin (1960), left, and Joan Mitchell’s Noël (1961-1962)

In college I essentially moved among the poles of art, literature, and rock and roll, cut through with beer. At the University of Maryland I minored in Art History; in retrospect, I wish I'd Double Majored, so in love was I with those cool, dark classrooms, murmuring professors, and oversized screens full of eye-popping, challenging paintings. I loved the way that the stakes in Modern and Post Modern paintings felt so absurdly huge, matching my own outsized self-regard and innocent belief in the power and value of art, and seemed to speak to me in a secret or foreign language that I boldly intuited. (I hooked up with a painting major named Kate H., and mooned over after her even when I knew that there was nothing there.) This all came back to me as I was looking through some of my old textbooks from those classes. I'm thinking fondly of a time when I'd be exposed to a Franz Kline, Phillip Guston, or Joan Mitchell painting, and I'd be affected for days. It's what life felt like, as if the painters were using my chest cavity and heart chamber as life models. And it still does. As I look back, my deep affection for the work of those painters, and many more, has stood the test of time, though I demand, or need, much less from them now than I did then. 

Then: I was half-convinced that, beyond boring stuff like food and sleep, all I needed in life was that zone between Kline and Mitchell, beyond stark figuration and colorful abstraction. At the end of a day, staring at the ceiling trying to fall asleep, my heart pounding—looking back at my fraught crushes on girls next to me in class, the politics at the campus radio station, songs playing in eternal rotation on my Walkman, the difficulties of remaining faithful to a girl I no longer loved as much as I did, anxieties and sleeplessness, musty books in high, musty floors in the graduate library, solitary strolls on campus, rock and roll on the radio—everything dissolved into that abstract yet deeply felt space between Kline and Mitchell, all of life in its variety of sensations, arguments, sadness, bliss, ugliness, and beauty, right there in the middle. 

Kline, photo by John Cohen (via ThoughtCo)

Mitchell, photo by Robert Freson (via Artsy)

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

You don't know what it's like

I took a long drive the other day with the Ramones on shuffle. If I could, I'd write a screenplay or novel based on the songs that Dee Dee wrote or co-wrote for the band. There's a great character-study story there of urban disaffection, addiction, triumph, and tragedy. I'm currently re-reading Ramones's 1997 autobiography Poison Heart: Surviving the Ramones (written with Veronica Kofman), struck again by Douglas Colvin's fucked-up adolescence as the wayward son of a brutal alcoholic father and generally indifferent mother. His book's grouchy and riven with paranoia, pockmarked with errors, misremembering, and petty grievances, and swerves from topic to topic—so, in many ways it's an ideal rock and roll memoir, energized by a storied man at the end of the bar chatting off the cuff, moving between honesty and mythology. Shuttled among military bases until settling in Forest Hills, Queens, Colvin found refuge in drugs, rock and roll, and male friendships, eventually learning bass, forming the Ramones, and changing his name, not necessarily in that order. His history of drug abuse and mental strife is melancholy, to say the least, and the pole between normalcy and instability was a wide and difficult gap for him to bridge. A famous person, he's an Everyman addict. His story's painfully familiar. 

I've always been attracted to the characters in his songs, who seemed genuinely and graphically punk to me, despite his band's often cartoonish image. I won't claim to know how purely autobiographical his songs were, though I'm guessing most began in a fraught memory, an unhappy personal situation, and/or a fuck-up, universalized in the guise of a faceless, lost street punk, a silhouette inside of which millions of outsiders found they fit. 

In his 2015 autobiography Punk Rock Blitzkrieg, drummer Marky Ramone touched upon Dee Dee's gift. As he tells it, the band was visiting Stephen King in his New England home in the late 1980s when King slid Dee Dee a copy of Pet Sematary; Dee Dee vanished for an hour and returned having skimmed the novel and produced the lyrics and melody to what would become the theme song of the film adaptation. Despite his triumph that night, Dee Dee was beleaguered, strung out and near the end of his tenure in the band. Marky sat with Dee Dee on King's front porch. "I explained to Dee Dee that he was among maybe a handful of people who could pick up a book, skim it, and write a catchy song about it in under an hour," Marky wrote.
I told him he had done for punk what Stephen King had done for fiction—create, from scratch, images, themes, and stories that drew people in because they could relate. Because the songs penetrated to the curiosity, fears, and insecurities people carried around with them but couldn’t put into words. 
I can easily see a composite character based on Dee Dee's songs in a narrative film, moving on the streets of the East Village, or a similar cityscape, among hard drugs, friendship, sex, and music, striving for reasons to live beyond opened eyes in the morning and a drug fix by noon. Some of Ramones's later songs for the band—"I Believe in Miracles" and "Strength to Endure," among them—wearily celebrated a hard-won transcendence, yet we know how Douglas Colvin's life ended in Hollywood. 

His lyrics, however aphoristic and skeletal they sometimes are, dramatize a really vivid point of view, and suggest so many possibilities for story lines for a kid born "a drumbeat behind" striving to battle addictions and demons to find a place to call home. Here's the storyboard.


Now I wanna sniff some glue, now I wanna have somethin' to do
Then I took out my razor blade, then I did what God forbade
Now the cops are after me, but I proved that I'm no sissy
I was feeling sick, I was loosing my mind 
I heard about these treatments from a good friend of mine
He was always happy, smile on his face
He said he had a great time at the place

Peace and love is here to stay, and now I can wake up and face the day
Happy happy happy all the time shock treatment, I'm doing fine
You by the phone
You all alone
It's a long way back to Germany
The plaster fallin' off the wall, my girlfriend cryin' in the shower stall
It's hot as a bitch, I should've been rich
But I'm just diggin' a Chinese ditch
I am an outsider
Outside of everything
Everything you know
It disturbs me so
Under street lamps I will play, after the school day
When troubles disappear, I feel excitement is here
I'm not an imbecile
Don't treat me like an animal
I'm not a creature in the zoo
Don't tell me what to do

You don't know what it's like
You don't know how I feel
I don't have a monkey's brain
I'm not an animal
No one ever thought this one would survive
Helpless child, gonna walk a drum beat behind
Lock you in a dream, never let you go
Never let you laugh or smile, not you
I'm making monsters for my friends

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Playing a ventriloquist

Luc Sante's 1998 The Factory of Facts is an engrossing memoir in which Sante attempts, with the titular facts, to assemble some sort of coherence out of the circumstances of his life: namely, he was born in Belgium, yet raised in New Jersey. Feeling rootless in both histories, he's in a sense placeless, without a tangible heritage to call his own. It's a great read, Santeesque in its unsentimental looks back at childhood and adolescence with, paradoxically, a romantic urgency. What Sante knows about his and his extended family, and about the history of Belgian art and culture—what the facts say, or dispute—often leads him into the ether of speculation, and that movement between solidity and uncertainty, between calendar and narrative truths, drives this great book. (I spoke with Sante back in 2010 about his work.)

This passage on the vagaries of writing about childhood is exceptional, and hasn't left my head in the weeks since re-reading the book:

Friday, January 15, 2021


The Cheepskates, summer 1983

"...that's the only problem." So said Mark Strand. I was reminded of that observation last night as I listened to the Cheepskates' "Run Better Run." My then-girlfriend had dug the song when it came out, played it on her radio show at WNUR at Northwestern, and turned me on to it on a compilation tape. I never owned a copy—I've happily sung it in my head for decades—but I recently picked it up. When the Cheepskates released the single in 1983, they were a decade-and-a-half removed from the era and the influences they mine in the tune; the Farfisa organ, neatly-harmonized chorus, and early-Lou Reed vocals vibe might consign this song to the heap of Neo Garage tunes bands with the proper period gear and look were issuing in the mid-1980s. Spinning the 45 at home last night, I realized that I'm nearly four decades removed from its release now, more than twice as far away from the single as the single was from its ancestors. And the further away "Run Better Run" gets from its source material, the fresher or, dare I say, the more timeless it sounds. Gently lifted by the rising tide of history, its self-conscious fashion trappings falling away, the song stands on its own as a great tune—well written, well played, no more, no less—rather than a copy, or an homage. Stripped of its historical context, which paid explicit tribute to earlier times, "Run Better Run" now exists in the air above our heads, unmoored, if not new again, than certainly less moldy. I'm not sure what accounts for this except the passing of the years, which, as they often do, force us to reassess the past, maybe second guess the smug biases we'd placed on things, the boxes labeled This or That that we dropped them in, secure in our narrow knowledge of naming things, consigning them to smaller lives. It's what the late Ned Stuckey-French called, in another context, "the tyranny of taxonomy." Time's not only a problem, Strand, it's also a welcome, often surprising unburdening. Anyway, turn it up, it's a good song.

Photo of the Cheepskates via The Cheepskates Live at The Dive

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Beyond us

A disconnect has been shooting sparks in my brain lately. The wide gap between the ugliness of the events on the national stage and the beauty of the natural world around me has been nearly impossible to reconcile. Here in northern Illinois we've been blessed with a hoar frost that has lingered for days—trees have been wearing stately coats seemingly for our benefit for nearly a week. The landscape has been a surreally serene background to the abhorrent gestures of Trump and his rabid, terrorist followers, and has created a cognitive dissonance, a graphic tension between loud violence and silent awe, between monstrousness and brilliance. I confess to have been so distracted by what's gone down in the country that I haven't paid nearly enough attention to the natural world, a small, pretty patch of which I'm fortunate to have just beyond the backyard. Nature always wins out, of course, as, hopefully, will our democratic institutions, ideals that are larger than the puny folk who are trying to subvert and twist them. The stately, beyond-gorgeous trees in town bedecked in dazzling ice and frost, as in a regal ball, have been reminding me of what's always just beyond us—the world that will outlive us.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Thoughts on home, ctd

This time last year, I wrote about my and wife's decision to stay put for the holidays after decades of traveling east to visit family and friends. "This is not to say that I don't feel the pang of absence," I wrote. "Christmas is a strange time of the year, a culturally-authorized period in which you're meant to be cheery, generous, and grateful for family, when in fact those good intentions often cruelly bounce off of those who don't fit the mold."

What I'm really thinking about here, I guess, is what home is and what home means, and about how many people define it in ways which is in opposition to the mainstream. The pro-family small-town Midwest, where we've lived for many years, casts a long (if polite) shadow over those couples, straight or queer, who've decided not to have kids, whose home may not feature on the front of Hallmark cards or in pop-up ads. And if you're alone, by choice or by unhappy circumstance, whether you're straight or queer, or cis-gender or non-binary, married or shackin' up or single, your choice of a home—or, let's face it, where you've anyway ended up despite those choices—is entirely yours, and, I hope, is as warm and comfortable and safe and contended as those golden-hued homes of your imagination, and in movies and television ads, that you've extolled as ideal. Home is where you make it, bah humbug, what you call and define it.

I didn't know, of course, that I was writing that on the cusp of the deadliest year in United States' history. My musings last year now feel quaint, if not archaic. In 2020 the very definition of home has been radically challenged and reimagined, those with homes—to hunker down in, or to mournfully avoid—and those without forced to reckon with a new understanding of what behind closed doors means. Because we'd made the decision to eschew Christmas/New Years traveling, staying put is relatively easy for us, but I feel for those for whom flying or driving from home to home is a profound and crucial emotional component of their lives; for many, the occasion is the only time to see family and friends. And I feel for the malcontents, too, and, more seriously, the members of dysfunctional families for whom "the holidays" are torture—even those folk, forced now to stay home, may face a startling renewal of the desire for familial intimacies, even the faking of them. Home's pull is surprisingly strong; it reaches across miles and through bolted doors.

I and millions of teachers lost the classroom this year, a second home of sorts for our students. What began as a novel, if enforced, twist to pedagogy—the delight of seeing my students' faces pop up one by during those first few weeks of Zooming; the genuine and serious attempt the vast majority of them made in a difficult situation—soon became a chore. I won't be teaching in the classroom until Fall 2021, yet that's hardly guaranteed, and face another semester at home reimagining this second home. The parallels are unhappy: as students can't enjoy communal experiences of the classroom, many can't enjoy the familiarities and comforts of holiday homes. We're all in the same situation, yet that kind of "community" really doesn't deliver. We want to hug, probably even those of us allergic to them; we want to hang out in bars and restaurants; some of us might even be pining for odoriferous rest stops on long drives. Picturing being at a rock and roll show, elbow-to-elbow with other sweaty folk packed into a small, loud room, feels like science fiction, if only because I can't envision a point when it will be reality again. 

And so: we're home, mandated to travel as infrequently as possible, an awful situation for many, yet perhaps an occasion during which we can take stock of what a home is, or can be, or might be, or should be—for those of us fortunate enough to have one, and for those who, for whatever reason, again find themselves on the outside looking in. As I write this, it's frigid in northern Illinois, and I think of those for whom home is a far less sturdy proposition than it is for most. If you can, donate to a local food bank, or to front-line medical workers. I have no idea what I'll be writing a year from now. Let's hope that whatever it is I write from a place, and you read in a place, that we again call home in all of its warmth, safety, and doors to a welcoming, and welcomed, outside.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The way you perceive things

Keith Streng
In 1992, writer and former musician Holly George-Warren wrote “Into the Abyss" (published in the November/December 1992 issue of Option, reprinted three years later in Rock She Wrote: Women Write about Rock, Pop, and Rap, edited by Evelyn McDonell and Ann Powers). In it, George-Warren discusses the prevalence of drug use in rock and roll—from booze and weed, to junk and hallucinogens—talking to a number of musicians about how drugs have affected them and their bands over the years. Johnny Thunders's travails and ultimate demise cast a long shadow across the words. 

Among Chris Mars, Lydia Lynch, Bob Mould, and Bootsy Collins, George-Warren spoke to the Fleshtones' Keith Streng (George-Warren is married to former Fleshtones bass player Robert Warren, who left the band in 1988). When he spoke with her, Streng was a good six years away from his own sobriety, and had a couple decades of alcohol and drug abuse behind him. His comments comprise a triptych of sorts one might title The Appeal, the Effect, the Danger.

“I did acid back in high school and that changes you forever, and the way you perceive things.”

“It’s a real social thing, playing guitar in front of people. Everybody’s there to drink, get high, and watch a band, so it’s good to get into that mode of thinking, that atmosphere. I like to drink before shows—but you don’t want to go onstage too drunk; you just want to be loose and do a good show. Partying is inherent in rock ’n’ roll.”

“I was using Ecstasy before it became illegal. I love it. On some road trips I’d do it every night for twelve nights in a row. It was great to play on, to party on, to come up with ideas. I also love speed, but the problem with speed is that it doesn’t last forever. It’s a wonderful drug; you're amplifying every cell in your brain, your body. You can do it for days and days, but when you finally say, ‘I’ve got to become normal,’ it hurts. It’s a hard drug.”

There was still a long road between those comments and Streng's bottoming out. He spoke candidly to me about his alcoholism and heroin addiction for Sweat. He's one of the survivors.

Still from 2020 video of Streng's cover of Johnny Thunders's "I'm A Boy, I'm A Girl"