Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Playoffs Are Here!

And I'm as excited as these kids cheering on the Tigers at Briggs Stadium in Detroit seventy-three years ago. Here's to brisk afternoons and chilly nights of languor and drama.

My fearless predictions:

American League
WC: Astros > Yankees
ALDS: Royals > Astros
ALDS: Blue Jays > Rangers
ALCS: Blue Jays > Royals

National League
WC: Cubs > Pirates
NLDS: Cubs > Cardinals
NLDS: Mets > Dodgers
NLCS: Mets > Cubs

World Series
Blue Jays > Mets in seven

Photo via The History Place.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The story of Russ Mann, jukebox singles, and the hits that never were

Pull up a stool. And buckle up.

Who is Russ Mann? You got me. I can't find a picture of the guy, but I know that he released a handful of singles in the late 1960s and early 1970s on the Detroit-based Dearborn label, an imprint of Martin & Synder Distributing that produced 45s exclusively for jukeboxes. In a long tradition, so-called jukebox labels worked with manufacturers and bar owners to stock jukeboxes with singles, many of them novelty, seasonal or, as in Mann's case, environmentally-topical songs. Mann sang songs about drinking in bars, and you headed to your favorite tavern to hear them. From what I can gather, Mann enjoyed little to no success on the airwaves; diverted to honky-tonks, his songs were limited to those who heard or didn't hear them as they were sent across the heads of drunks, regulars and newcomers alike. Although jukebox labels benefited from the loose change of tipsy tavern-dwellers, the owners of the labels eyed the far more lucrative radio market, but it was tough to crack for even top-selling jukebox-only singles. In the January 30, 1971 issue of Billboard, L&R One-Stop manager Rick Eliot lamented this, saying, "We have singles that sell in quantities of 12,000 to l5,000 copies that never get aired." Elliot added that, though records sell in heavy quantity to jukebox programmers, they receive little radio airplay.
"This creates a problem," he said, “because jukebox programmers will come back to us complaining that play doesn't continue without airplay support."
        He said perhaps stations lean away from records on small labels. "I just don't understand it," he said.
Alas, poor Russ Mann was fated to be a name trapped under smudged glass, a singer limited to the four walls of a bar and the suspect memories of hungover patrons. Surely fame of a sort, but dwarfed by that earned on Music Row. The blur of this reproduction from a January 9, 1971 Billboard article seems grimly appropriate to the bleary-eyed guy choosing the song at last call:

A natural for country jukebox programming, but not for the airwaves? Written by J.P. Mayton and Tom Valentine, released on Dearborn in 1971, Mann's "Seatbelts On The Bar Stools" is a terrific slice of old-school honky-tonk, a well-played drinking song that masks the darkness of alcoholism with light of whimsy—that old story.

For the perfect reading accompaniment to Mann's tune I recommend the indispensable Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music by Henry Horenstein. Here are two of the many terrific photos in the book:


Note: Mann's story calls to my mind Dave Edmunds's "A. 1. On The Jukebox," a great tune that Edmunds co-wrote with Will Birch, of The Records, for his Trax On Wax 4 album, released in 1978. I'm not sure that the vexed fate of the "big Wurlitzer star" has ever been told so well. Nowhere on the charts, indeed:

Saturday, October 3, 2015

So Long, White Sox

Last night I attended my final White Sox game of the season, a contest that was lacking in pennant-chase excitement but notable for some franchise history. When starter Chris Sale struck out Detroit Tiger James McCann looking on a 3-2 count in the second inning, he broke a team record that had stood for over a century: Ed Walsh's season-high total of 269 K's set in 1908. Sale was wild for most of his seven innings—I lost count of the number of times catcher Tyler Flowers leapt up with his mitt-arm extended high. But it turns out that at least one of Sales's errant pitches to McCann was intentional. Reports Brian Sandalow of the AP:
On a 1-2 pitch to McCann, Sale tried to set the mark with an eephus—a high blooper ball—but the pitch drifted well inside.
Sale (13-11) said the idea came into his mind after talking to members of the LaRoche family, including Dave, who threw a "La Lob" during his career and is the father of Chicago first baseman/designated hitter Adam LaRoche.

''You have to have fun in this game,'' Sale said.
And it was for me, my buddy Dan, and the other 18,000 who braved a very cold fifty-one degree evening. A sharp and constant wind blew all manner of detritus around the field—napkins, wrappers, plastic cups, at one point a paper plate on its side for a dramatic roll from the first-base line to the Sox dugout along third. Yet the 2-1 Sox victory was played crisply. The game was over in a taut two hours and thirteen minutes, highlighted by a couple of loud doubles and sterling defense from both teams, including a terrific diving catch by Sox right-fielder J.B. Shuck in the seventh.

But the chill underscored the melancholy, the fun tempered by the fact that this was my final game at the park until next season. We'll watch another off-season of front office machinations that may or may not improve the team's chances to catch the legit Kansas City Royals—and the inevitable new scoreboards are coming, too—but regardless of the odds, I'll be here next year as soon as I can, raising a beer to the game I love. I came out in July to watch Sale attempt to become the only pitcher in MLB history to throw nine consecutive games with ten or more strikeouts; he fell short that day, but the rough weather held off until after the game. This time, Sale prevailed against the elements, and provided the fans at U.S. Cellular Field an historic and exciting October moment, rare these days.

See you in April.

Sale sets the record.

Friday, October 2, 2015

"You tell me what it means."

"It is not clear-cut, this retracing of steps that begins in innocence. We do what we have to do. We move on. We forget. We become someone else. We become ourselves. And what we think we forget is never really gone. We don’t have time to remember. We don’t have time to forget. You tell me what it means. This is life passing us by slowly, then gaining speed around a corner and then another corner. We go with it. We have no choice. Somehow along the way we put a distance between ourselves and what we did, how we became the people we are today. The distance grows."

Robert Vivian, "Shooting Churches"

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Jerry Lee Lewis turns 80

Happy 80th Birthday to Jerry Lee Lewis, the walking, talking Americana songbook and performing legend. Lewis has stared down death on many occasions in his long life, over the course of which he's navigated the emotional and spiritual extremes into which he was born: a rock and roll musician and a devout believer; a sinner, a repentant, a sinner again. These conflicts are borne out in his private life and in his songs and performances, a musical landscape he's crossed with bravado, pride, ego, showmanship, and deeply-rooted ambivalence. Last year the Library of Congress asked me to write about "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," which was added to the National Recording Registry in 2005. I was honored to contribute in a modest way to the recognition of the permanence of this great American artist.

Here's to The Killer and a life in song:

"Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," The Steve Allen Show, 1957

"That Lucky Old Sun," recorded 1956/57

"Mean Woman Blues," Live! At The Star-Club, 1964

"There Stands The Glass," She Still Comes Around (To Love What's Left Of Me), 1969

"He Looked Beyond My Fault," In Loving Memories: The Jerry Lee Lewis Gospel Album, 1971

"Sunday Morning Coming Down," Mean Old Man, 2010

"Miss The Mississippi," Mean Old Man, 2010


Over at the Rock N Roll Freaks blog, Ted Cogswell has been running Killer material all week. Head here for excerpts from Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found as well as videos and other commentary.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The most intense sixty seconds of 1970

2:34 to 3:34. As the decade begins, the Stooges burn it all down to the essentials. Scary, riveting, and revolutionary.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Billboard Country Music ads, ctd.

Let's take another stroll through the tropes of country music via 1970 Billboard ads.

From front-porch rocking chair strummin'...

...and right neighborly professional courtesy...

...to drinking songs...

...and sad songs.

From skepticism at feminism ("You're a young girl, so understand / it's so hard to find a man / Who comes home every night to only you / You may not find true love again, so go home while you still can / And find a way to work it out with your man")...

...and the virtues of an authentic, hard past...

...to faith and redemption.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Two Ways to the Bottle

Well I was standin' in the tavern a-feelin' blue
My foot on the rail, just a-thinkin' 'bout you
But I won't be blue all day
Because relief is just a swallow away

Well I've been blue before and I will again
I'll drown all my worries or I'll teach 'em how to swim
And I won't be the one to pay
Because relief is just a swallow away

Yes, you thought when you left I wouldn't have any fun
I'll admit I worried but I won't be long
We're apart because you wouldn't swallow your foolish pride
So you hurt me deep inside

But you're not the first to hurt me and you won't be the last
Can't tell the future, but I've learned from the past
As long as there'd a cabaret
I know relief is just a swallow away

Well, I looked down the bar and what did I see
Your sad-lookin' face a-lookin' back at me
Wishin' you could turn time a few hours back
Get off of that one-way track

Well you want me to come over, but I'll tell you true
You're as close to me as I am to you
And that may still be too far away
Because relief is just a swallow away
I said relief just a swallow away
                 (written by Eddie Noack and Ted Doyle)


Walking slow to the graveyard
I've lost everything I could lose
Now I've even lost my baby
I guess I've got the drunkard's blues

It was down at Big Joe's barroom
on the corner beyond the square
Everybody drinkin' good liquor
the regular crowd was there
So I strolled out on the sidewalk
began to look around
Looking everywhere for my baby
but that sweet woman can't be found
It was down at St. James infirmary
I found my baby there
Stretched out on a long white table
so cold so pale so fair
So I strolled back down to the barroom
to get another drink of gin
The next thing you know
I'm reeling rocking and drunk again
Sixteen coal black horses
all hitched up in a line
In that pretty buggy she's ridin'
goodbye ol' gal of mine
Walking slow to the graveyard
I've lost everything I could lose
Now I've even lost my baby
I guess I've got the drunker's blues
                  (written by Hank Thompson)

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Yogi Berra, 1925-2015

I didn't really say everything I said, said Yogi Berra, who died today at age 90. He was 15-time All Star, 3-time MVP, Hall of Famer, and a Yankee icon. To paraphrase: you couldn't imitate him, and you didn't copy him.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

"Life rocked on. It always does."

Every couple of years I'm tapped on the shoulder and take a Larry Brown book off of my shelf to read—and then over the next few weeks devour every word he's written. I love Brown's work immoderately; there's something in his spare, elemental Naturalism, his marginalized men and women driving around and drinking, fucking up or redeeming themselves, and his evocative descriptions of the dark and vibrant north Mississippi landscape that speak to me beyond reason. This time around—having again read Joe, Father and Son, Fay, and On Fire, his riveting memoir of being a firefighter—I'm struck by this passage, the conclusion of his great essay "Goatsongs" in Billy Ray's Farm. Brown's on the hunt for a coyote that killed several baby goats on his farm. Hating the coyote passionately, he stalks him one afternoon but the goat gets away. Brown's resigned:
I stood there looking after the last fleeting image of him, brown, low to the ground and laid out, getting away. Holding the gun like nothing. And feeling so helpless and hating it so bad. He was just an animal, but still he got the best of me. He came, he saw, he ate, he left. And there was not one thing I could do to prevent any of it, given the circumstances of my station and my family and cattle matters that were out of my hands. But still, it hurt. It hurt about as bad as anything had in a while. They were just so goddamn cute. If you could have seen them, you would know what I mean

We don't have any goats now. Nanette got sick and died. I found her. I don't know if Tom ever told his children or not. But I guess when they grow up they might read this and finally know.
     I keep one of Nanette’s horns in my desk drawer.There is also a picture of her on the promo CD of Blue Mountain's Dogs Days. The horn, hollow and fluted, in a spook, a talisman, a key. I keep it here to remind me of what a man can go through for goats. It reminds me of what is possible in this life in the country, and sometimes what is not.
Brown died of a heart attack at his home in 2004. He was just finishing Miracle of Catfish, which was published posthumously with his notes for the ending included. Catfish is his greatest novel, and suggests what marvelous, complex, absorbing fiction Brown might've continued to produce. Barely a week goes by that I don't mourn this guy's passing.

Photo of Brown via The Local Voice.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Hurtin' with Lydia Loveless

I know it's impossible, but every note Lydia Loveless sings sounds like it's is in a minor key. She and her band rocked The House in DeKalb last night, her twang and desperate sincerity plugging up my throat tight for most of the night. Richard Hell said that "Lydia is the only singer/songwriter the power of whose music and voice consistently makes me cry." I'm with Meyers. I'm glad wasn't much close-harmony; that would've put me over the edge.

Her band looks as if they were rounded up from a bar down the street, their beat-up guitars as if they're collectively 75 years old. Jay Gasper plays pedal steel and a very cool, bright-sounding 12-string, the make of which I couldn't determine. Todd May gets sounds out of his guitar that mock weeping and howling, back-to-back. Bass player Brian Lamb (Loveless's husband) alternated from electric to stand-up, and Loveless moved between those ranges too, as her band politely excused themselves from the stage near the end of the show and she picked up an acoustic and sang solo, beautifully, heart-breakingly, for a few numbers. She wore heeled strap-sandals, denim shorteralls, and a lace t-shit— "I'm all about class," she drawled. She drained a 40 oz. New Belgium Fat Tire over the course of the show, and sang "Wine Lips," "Really Wanna See You," "Head" and the other songs with sobbing catches and with her eyes tightly shut, opening them occasionally to reorient herself in the landscape of loss and lust she'd created. Lydia Loveless and her band are the real thing—they play tuneful, tawdry, honest, seams-showing rock and roll country love songs. See her if you haven't yet.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Left Behind: Country Music Promotional Materials, Various

Lauren Leja ("Furtive chronicler of lives of quiet desperation") recently sent me a folder of items she purchased at a flea market in Massachusetts. They appear to have belonged to one Richard ("Dick") Smith of Manchester, New Hampshire, who collected promotional and fan-club materials of mid-century country artists. There are some very cool finds in the box lot.

I like the Wilburn Brothers' and the Phillips Sisters' warm and welcoming faces:

And The Crossroads Quartet:

Here are some Season's Greetings, country-style:

And some righteous-looking dudes:

As Lauren helpfully points out, rudimentary biographical information on a few of these artists can be found at Hillbilly Music, but many of the details are lost to time. Until the next heartfelt archivist researcher digs them up, that is.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Perfect Album

There's no accounting for taste, and everyone has their favorite record, but I submit that the Records' Shades In Bed from 1979 is about as perfect as a rock and roll album gets. Is there a more potent blend of tenderness and crassness, hooks and melodies, Beach Boys harmonies and pub rock verve, power and pop, humor and earnestness, sex and romance, guitars and drums, epiphany and dislocation, beauty and disappointment, heady adolescence and rueful adulthood, ugliness and lyricism, and pop ambition and daily grind than this remarkable gem? Did I mention "Starry Eyes"? "Teenarama"? "Up All Night?" Did I mention the hooks?

There's a high stack of albums from 1979 that have long been crossed off of the list of records that still matter to and resonate with me. Shades In Bed remains high on that list.

Monday, September 7, 2015

In Which I Wax Superfluous

Nothing approaches the head-lifting sensation of strolling down Waveland Avenue toward Wrigley Field when, a block or so away, you hear the sounds of Gary Pressy's organ wafting over and through the neighborhood. A baseball team might someday replicate Wrigley in dimension and 'hood location, but the history—the literal amount of time, the roughly 36, 500 days that the park has been standing at the corners of Addison and Clark—cannot be matched, and that's brought home for me graphically by those notes lifting and settling over busy game-day streets. My favorite approach to the park is heading west on Waveland toward Sheffield as the rear of the old centerfield sign and flags looms and the place in all of its history and placeness welcomes you. Streaming up the road with hundreds of baseball fans past open-air bars, everything and everyone leaning noisily off of the crowded sidewalks into the narrow, centuries-old streets, knowing that a beery game in the sun awaits you and your buddies: unbeatable.

The game was terrific, a taut pitching affair until the fifth, when Miguel Montero blasted a grand slam that blew things open for the Cubs, who won in front of a packed house. As for the much ballyhooed, and in some corners lamentable, new Jumbotron scoreboards and expanded bleachers—they've been added tastefully and appropriately as far as I'm concerned. Nothing short of a wholesale tear-down of the park could expunge the palpable sense of time and culture and history of this place. Go there.

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