Sunday, May 28, 2017

"The words we use." Brian Doyle, 1956-2017

"I met a tiny, frail nun once, in Australia, while walking along a harbor, and we got to talking, and she said no one defeats cancer;"
cancer is a dance partner you don’t want and don’t like, but you have to dance, and either you die or the cancer fades back into the darkness at the other end of the ballroom. I never forgot what she said, and think she is right, and the words we use about cancers and wars matter more than we know. Maybe if we celebrate grace under duress rather than the illusion of total victory we will be less surprised and more prepared when illness and evil lurch into our lives, as they always will; and maybe we will be a braver and better people if we know we cannot obliterate such things but only wield oceans of humor and patience and creativity against them. We have an untold supply of those extraordinary weapons, don’t you think?
Brian Doyle, from "On Not Beating Cancer," Leaping: Revelations & Epiphanies

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Round Saul, Flat Goodman

Left to right: Jimmy McGill, ca. 2003; Saul Goodman, ca. 2009; Gene, ca. ?
As a reader, I love fictional constructs; as a nonfiction writer, I'm deeply skeptical of them. I'm more interested in the actual plots that life offers—unpredictable and formless, though stubborn with, and bemused at, those who think they can shape them. "A to B to...H? OK."

I'm on record as being a Vince Gilligan/Peter Gould obsessive. I loved Breaking Bad immoderately, and have been watching its prequel Better Call Saul with great interest. I'm especially curious about the meeting point of Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman, particularly the Saul Goodman who appears in Breaking Bad. By the time that character pops up, Goodman's already a great deal sleazier, shadier, and more morally dubious than the Goodman who's materializing before our eyes weekly on Better Call Saul. I trust that Gilligan, Gould, and company will finesse McGill's evolving toward Goodman expertly, and, probably, surprisingly. One thing they can't finesse, however, is the Goodman who's already appeared on Breaking Bad, who, despite the performance by Bob Odenkirk and the character's crucial role on the show, was far less dimensional a character than Walter White or Jesse Pinkman, than even Hank Schraeder. Saul's interior life remains closed off to us, and he often goes for broad laughs.

However, the McGill/Goodman we're getting on Better Call Saul—made complicated by the drama/tragedy with his brother Chuck, the cautious, likely doomed romantic relationship with Kim Wexler, and his various, half-hearted attempts to stay straight—is a pretty rich and dimensional character. Will the round Saul and the flat Saul meet awkwardly? Will they glue together, or is the complexity we're getting with McGill/Goodman going to overpower the Goodman in Better Call Saul as to render the latter character oddly less than what arrives via Better Call Saul? And what about Gene? I'm not a fiction writer, let alone a prequel writer, so I wouldn't know what to do here. Hope that the tracks laid by Better Call Saul's McGill and Breaking Bad's Saul join up, and aren't laid a fraction of an inch—or a few yards—off.

Time will tell. This recent exchange between Gilligan and Gould about the developing character of Chuck McGill underscores the surprises and maybe the unavoidable pitfalls of prequel territory:
Vince: If you go back and watch the very first episode of Better Call Saul, there’s no indication at all that Chuck McGill is anything but a loving brother who is damaged mentally or emotionally at some level.

He’s got this allergy to electricity that may or may not be a real thing. That’s the big issue for him but the two brothers seem to love each other. Maybe Chuck is a little condescending. Maybe he takes him a little bit for granted. But there’s no indication that he’s going to be the villain of the whole piece.

That’s for a good reason. Because we had no idea.

Peter: That’s right.

Vince: When we started we thought Chuck was going to be like Mycroft Holmes. The guy who helped his brother come up with various scams. In our early mind’s-eye version of this Jimmy would be this rascal who would say to his brother: “How can I stick it to this guy.”

And Chuck would have a pained expression and say “That’s reprehensible. That’s not the way the law is supposed to work. However, having said this… hypothetically speaking…”

There’s an alternate universe in which that happens and it would have been fun.

But something happened along the way. You describe how it came to you.

Peter: To me, the moment was watching Michael and Bob do the very first scene between Jimmy and Chuck. A scene in the pilot episode that Vince and I wrote together. Just as Vince said, Chuck was there to be a burden to Jimmy. He humanized Jimmy by having someone to take care of. I don’t think our thinking was much more sophisticated than that.

But we both saw something in Michael McKean’s performance. A tremendous pride. Michael brought to this character not just vulnerability. He wasn’t just a big baby who needed to be taken care of. He was someone who had towering pride.

When we went back to the writer’s room, we said “We invented this character to tell us something about Jimmy. But what is it like from Chuck’s point of view?” The more we thought about it, the more we thought about how hard it is to be Jimmy’s older brother. There’s a jealousy there. That pride was a shield that Chuck was living behind. That fascinated us. The best thing about doing a series like this is that the characters get to talk back to you. You get to observe the performances of the actors and take that knowledge back to the writer’s room and use it to shape the story.

We started off the season Chuck was going to be more or less a hapless burden. Maybe even Hamlin’s victim. By the end of the season, Hamlin was Chucks’ reluctant minion. There was nothing we had to change, it was observing how Michael played the character.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Sheffield's Dream

If you're a hardcore Beatles fan, you probably won't learn anything new in Rob Sheffield's Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World, but that's the point: there are no new facts, and yet those facts keep renewing themselves generation after generation. Sheffield is the Platonic version of a Fan: geeky; supremely knowledgeable; biased; enthusiastic; grating; humble. His prose—which I've been reading for years in Rolling Stone, and other places—purely captures the bubbling, ecstatic mood of a bar or dorm room conversation among friends who are so passionate about their stakes in the argument that they'll go on for hours. But his conversational style misleads: this is a deeply smart, considered, and well-reseacrhed book, its brilliance originating in its essayistic approach, which originates in, and is given voice by, Sheffield's energetic talkiness. The scope of Dreaming the Beatles staggers. Excitably, Sheffield connects disparate points in pop culture—Beatles songs to Hip Hop to politics to movies to TV, across decades, across continents—but rarely reaches too far, and one he does, I forgive, because that's one of The Rules in this bar/dorm game: you can fall flat as long as you gave everything you had in your running approach. Sheffield's appealing grin is practically visible above the pages of Dreaming the Beatles, and the engine that powers the book is Sheffield's amazed amazement, the deep joy and awe he feels, and expresses, when considering the infinite possibilities of the surprises that the Beatles, decades after breaking up, still give. His essays on the vexed, uneven solo years and on the Beatles' baffling renewals in the Eighties and Nineties are especially smart. The book's funny, too.

If you're an over-the-top, lifelong Beatles fan, as I am, reading Dreaming the Beatles is page-to-page delight—your smartest friend who's in a good mood, feeling generous, and is really on his game. Upon waking from Sheffield's dream, you begin to recognize where you differ with him. His tendency to drop in phrases and sentences from Beatles lyrics, insider joke-style, got too cute for me by page 20—in places it feels as if he's more interested in that gimmick than in the idea he's exploring—and his winsome, bubbly voice discourages deep reflection or consideration in more than one place, where a more refined justification might've helped; I stopped keeping tracks of where I agreed with him, with head nods and mental high fives, and where I wildly disagreed, my eyes rolled back in my head. Because, finally, Dreaming the Beatles is less about argument or persuasion, than passion and the surreal, trippy pleasures of grateful fanly reverie. There's a lot of room in there for both Yes and No.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Charlie ruminates

I discovered this terrific sit down with a typically thoughtful Charlie Watts, dating from the Spring of 1966 and apparently never broadcast. Context: the Rolling Stones' boundary-breaking "Paint It, Black" single and Aftermath LP have recently been issued, and the band will depart for a North American tour in June. The conversation was taped in Watts' yard on bright day, and his wife Shirley is seen atop a horse, and galloping about. Ruminatively chewing his glasses, Charlie holds forth on a number of topics, including the limitations of fame, Mick Jagger's and Keith Richards's growth as songwriters (their early demos "weren't very good"), particularly Jagger's increasing social commentary in his lyrics, jazz music, and show business.

He's particularly interesting when he discusses the Rolling Stones' and other U.K. bands' co-opting of  African-American traditions and sounds, and on racism, a word that neither he nor the interviewer use, but which is practically visible in the air as they speak. "It's very strange. That's another facet of America that you can't really understand is the Negro," Charlie offers.
When you get a version of "Long Tall Sally" by the Beatles sold half a million records and then you've got Little Richards's which is ten times better, selling three hundred copies...that sort of thing. It's just remodeling a thing and making it acceptable. And it's only acceptable because the Beatles have done it. And the same thing with us. We probably sold more copies of something like [pauses] "Little Red Rooster" than Howlin' Wolf ever thought of. But all we did was do our version of Howlin' Wolf's "Little Red Rooster." And yet it sold. It's a very funny thing. I suppose it's the wrapping they buy.
When the interviewer suggests that it's "mass media" that provides the wrapping, Charlie agrees:
Television's got to have something entertaining, something that's nice to look at, although it doesn't have to but that's what they put on it. And so Howlin' Wolf singing a song is not very acceptable as far as selling the record goes as some good looking white boy singing the same song, but it's got a totally different meaning. To them, anyway.
And about the relationship between pop music and sex, Charlie is predictably modest and buttoned-up, even nervous. What's sex got to do with sound? he asks nerdily, or knowingly—I can never tell with Early Charlie. 
I don't know because I'm really quite a bit naive about things like that, because I don't really think of it.... I think it must play a part. But there again I should've thought that the Beatles would never get anyone out to see them anymore, since they're nearly all married. But, I mean, there you are, you see. So I really can't answer that, properly.... You can sing about "sexual intercourse" all night long and it wouldn't draw any effect. But if the person who's singing it has got one of those faces that women like, then he's gonna be a big success. [chuckles] You see, that's the funny thing about it. It really is only your face, which makes this sort of life to me a bit shallow. 

Interviewer: How do you mean?

It's all very silly, you know. It isn't silly, it's just obvious, things like having a wash, really, just obvious things that go through people's mind, like you must eat, or something. So I suppose the sex thing is just an obvious thing which no one ever talks about but it must be there. But it just nauseates me a bit.
Great stuff. Full interview here:


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What do I owe?

In her episodic memoir The Odd Woman and the City, published two years ago, Vivian Gornick offers vignettes of Manhattan life, interspersed with scenes with her longtime friend Leonard. Gornick's a native New Yorker and, thus, a native perambulator, and her book (after her earlier Fierce Attachments) is a lively addition to the long tradition of urban walking memoirs, and also features many passages on trains and buses. In one, Gornick describes riding a subway from Fourteenth Street to midtown. At the station, a man in front of her with an "elaborately folded-up baby carriage on his back" leads a small child to some seats directly ahead of her. "I plop down on the one opposite him," Gornick writes, "take out my book and  glasses, and, settling myself, am vaguely aware of the man removing the carriage from his back and turning toward the seated child." Then Gornick looks up.
The little boy is about seven or eight, and he is the most grotesquely deformed child I have ever seen. He has the face of a gargoyle—mouth twisted to the side, one eye higher than the other—inside a huge, misshapen head that reminds me of the Elephant Man. Bound around the child’s neck is a narrow piece of white cloth, in the center of which sits a short, fat tube that seems to be inserted into his throat. In another instant I realize that he is also deaf. This last because the man immediately begins signing. At first, the boy merely watches the man’s moving fingers, but soon he begins responding with motions of his own. Then, as the man’s fingers move more and more rapidly, the boy’s quicken, and within minutes both sets of fingers are matched in speed and complexity.
Gornick's self-consciously embarrassed at her insistent gazing, and repeatedly turns away, but the two "are so clearly oblivious to everyone around them" that she can’t help looking up from her book. And then "something remarkable" occurs:
the man’s face is suffused with such delight and affection as the boy’s responses grow ever more animated—the twisted little mouth grinning, the unaligned eyes brightening—that the child himself begins to look transformed. As the stations go by, and the conversation between the man and the boy grows ever more absorbing to them, finger flying, both nodding and laughing, I find myself thinking, These two are humanizing each other at a very high level.
By the time we get to Fifty-Ninth Street, the boy looks beautiful to me, and the man beatific.
This passage gives me pause. On one hand, Gornick—who's no novice at interpreting subway drama—is describing a charged, epiphanic moment, of which she is the observer and the affected, a welcome, and perhaps rare, moment wherein the limits of her prejudices and biases are tested; on the other hand, she verges on sentimentalizing the boy's handicap and the older man's burden (and perhaps, in using the word "burden" I myself am ascribing qualities to the man he doesn't feel) by casting them as beatified messengers. What obligations, if any, does a writer have to the people she writes about? Does she take away their agency by describing them from a distance, however affectionately, and then publishing the account? Or is any responsibility mitigated by the fact that it's only her reality, simply her perspective, that she's describing? Her truth. As someone who on occasion writes about others, I'm interested in the answers to these questions, and to the degree that I'm ethically—if not aesthetically—bound to present a dimensional and fair a portrait of the people who happen to wander into my autobiographical writing. In his essential essay "Bride in Beige," Mark Doty writes that "beyond the personal ethics of memoir—how fair or unfair we are to other people in our lives—and beyond the matters of accuracy, there's a higher ethical standard, which has to do with the ethics of art: that what is made is commensurate with the real." What is "real" for Gornick on the train is the "remarkable" gift of unbidden, surprising grace that she witnesses; the actual details of the exchange as experienced from the man's and boy's point of views—and the difficulties, tragedies, and griefs they've likely experienced—aren't the issue. Should they be taken into account?

~~

Reading this passage of Gornick's, I was put in mind of Michel de Montaigne's response at observing a conjoined child. Four centuries before Gornick rode the subway, Montaigne suggests a practical, humane way of seeing deformity:
Whatever falls out contrary to custom we say is contrary to nature, but nothing, whatever it be, is contrary to her. Let, therefore, this universal and natural reason expel the error and astonishment that novelty brings along with it.


Photo via Brute Reason.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

"I love you because you're home..."

My latest essay in The Normal School is out, a trip down John D. Loudermilk's "Tobacco Road" and some of the many, sometimes wildly different, cover versions that followed, including the Nashville Teens', Lou Rawls's, the Blues Magoos', Bobbie Gentry's, and Junior Wells's, and the maddening ways we define home. You can subscribe to The Normal School here.

Here's an excerpt from the opening:
Loudermilk rode his bicycle to Marvin’s Alley with a flashlight and a fistful of money orders to deliver: muddy road, no cars, seven or eight houses, each darker than the next. “But each porch lamp had a light in it of different colors,” he remembered. “I didn’t know what that meant. So I knock on the door of the first house, and the lights come on inside. And it was full of people. Quiet. Because they were not supposed to be so free with their Saturday nights.” Loudermilk would peer through the front doorway at the suddenly illuminated folks inside who, propped up on the couch, would quietly smile and nod back at him. “And when the guy was through with the business at the front door, I left, and he’d turn the lights off. And I went to the next house. That was Tobacco Road.”
A decade later, the imagery of the dark, mysterious alley and the people who lived there haunted Loudermilk and the words of the song he’d write and record. That kid born in a lump—some will sing “bunk”—whose parents vanish, who’s left to live or die alone, who hates Tobacco Road, enacts the great dream: he leaves town and, blessed by the Lord, earns lots of money, comes back, bulldozes that lousy road, and rebuilds it, proud, at long last, of the name. But there’s a paradox in the chorus made graphic by a change in melody and mood, a nagging conflict that makes the song real: the place will always be home, no matter how bleak and despised, as it’s the only life he knew. Can a song solve that puzzle, make something joyful of it?

Raised in the Baptist church, Loudermilk didn’t know the world and the people of Marvin’s Alley. He wasn’t writing autobiography. “My mother didn’t die in childbirth,” he made clear. “My daddy didn’t get drunk. I never saw him drink a drop. He smoked cigarettes and died as a result of it. I never heard a dirty joke or a curse word from my father.” The angry man in “Tobacco Road” lives in that space between Loudermilk’s upbringing and the zones he crossed into Marvin’s Alley, between home and fantasy, real life and fiction. Loudermilk already knew the power of the imagination, of an interior life engaged with the world outside. “Dad, he was very, very quiet. I’d come home at night after work and he and mother would be sitting in the dark having watched the sunset go down. And I said, ‘What are y’all doing in here?’ He said, ‘You’ll know someday’.”
And some strolls down Tobacco Road:

Lou Rawls, Tobacco Road (1963)
The Nashville Teens, single (1964)

Blues Magoos, Psychedelic Lollipop (1966)

Bobbi Gentry, The Delta Sweete (1968)

Junior Wells, Coming At You (1968)

Monday, May 15, 2017

"Endlessly, All Night"

Recreation at Exhibitionism: The Rolling Stones of the flat at 102 Edith Grove in West London shared by Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and James Phelge in the early 1960s. Photos from Navy Pier in Chicago.
...like many young men in bands their home was an absolute mess with clothes, dirty dishes and old fag ends and empty beer bottles everywhere!

"The milk bottles were just growing this stuff. It was very much like that, the kitchen particularly," Charlie Watts commented.

The band were instrumental in bringing their old home to life again and whilst no photos exist of the flat it would become the launchpad for an amazing legacy.

Keith recollected, "It was definitely a time when we were working hard, learning the blues, endlessly, all night… imbibing it. It was a major part of the band coming together."
The verisimilitude was pungent. I manfully resisted reaching over and rifling through the albums. The kitchen and bedroom I gave a wide berth.

Living Room



Kitchen


Bedroom



Friday, May 12, 2017

Tuning Up with Vivian Gornick

In her terrific 2015 memoir The Odd Woman and the City, essayist Vivian Gornick nails the currency of anticipation so lavishly spent in one's 20s. Gornick is rightly hailed as one of the great urban essayists working now—Manhattan is her canvas—but she also has extraordinary access to her childhood and adolescence, and the ways we tend to wander, wide-eyed, from one thrilling possibility of the future to the next. Here, she describes the sophisticated allure that Manhattan's west side held for her when she was young and erupting with dreams of adulthood, emphases added. "In college, another friend walked me down West End Avenue. I’d never seen a street as wide and stately as this one, with doormen standing in from of apartment houses of imposing height that lined the avenue for a mile and a half."
My friend told me that in these great stone buildings lived musicians and writers, scientists and émigrés, dancers and philosophers. Very soon no trip downtown was complete without a walk on West End from 107th Street to Seventy-Second. For me, the avenue became emblematic. To live here would mean I had arrived. I was a bit confused about whether I’d be the resident artist/intellectual or be married to him—I couldn’t actually see myself signing the lease—but no matter; one way or another, I’d be in the apartment.
In summer we went to the concerts at Lewisohn Stadium, the great amphitheater on the City College campus. It was here that I heard Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms for the first time. These concerts came to an end in the mid-sixties, but in the late fifties, sitting on those stone bleacher seats July after July, August after August, I knew, I just knew, that the men and women all around me lived on West End Avenue. As the orchestra tuned up and the lights dimmed in the soft, starry night, I could feel the whole intelligent audience moving forward as one, yearning toward the music, toward themselves in the music: as though the concert were an open-air extension of the context of their lives. And I, just as intelligently I hoped, leaned forward, too, but I knew that I was only mimicking the movement. I’d not yet earned the right to love the music as they at few Years I began to see it was entirely possible that I never would.
The wry title of Gornick's book, and the decades she's spent essaying herself honestly as a thorny emotional outsider, offers further, bittersweet evidence of how one's twenty-something dreams often remain just that.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Talkin' Field Recordings with Joe Oestreich

I recently hopped on the phone with writer and musician Joe Oestreich to talk about my new book of essays Field Recordings from the Inside, and of course we ended up gabbing about plenty more—most of it music- and writing-obsessed, naturally. An exceprt:
JO: In the book Freakonomics, one of the fun economic facts is that reading out loud to your kids doesn’t necessarily make them more literate. But there is a correlation between just having books in your house and your child’s literacy. So maybe if you keep the physical object of the record at home, then some afternoon when the kid is alone and bored, he can sift though the shelves, pick out the Carly Simon album cover, and say, “Oh my God. What is this?”
JB: Oh my God. Who is this? The kids that only know music through streaming or You Tube, they’re missing out on something, absolutely. But every older generation says that. That’s what the horse-and-carriage driver said about the automobile, etcetera, etcetera. That’s always going to be part of the human condition. So you’re right. We do have to guard against “Get off my porch” kind of thinking. I have to remind myself that somewhere there’s a 13 year old for whom his introduction to music was streaming. In 10 or 15 years when streaming goes away and is replaced by something else, that kid is going to bemoan the loss of streaming in ways I can’t comprehend. But that’s the nature of loss; that’s the nature of growing.
The conversation can be found here.

Field Recordings from the Inside is out now, available in print and e-book at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound, and at your groovy local bookstore—and if it isn't, ask for it! Literary Hub recently posted the title essay along with a special Spotify playlist I curated to accompany the book, music ranging from Top 40 pop to punk, standards to one-offs, songs I discuss in the book, some in passing, some in depth.



Thursday, April 27, 2017

Baseball Doesn't Get Easier, ctd.

Matt Davidson
Ah, the saga of Matt Davidson, the Vexed Baseball Player writ small. Two Februaries ago I wrote about Davidson, then a prospect with the Chicago White Sox who was ticketed as a sure-thing but who was baffled and struggling in the Minors. That old story. Since then, I've been keeping an eye on Davidson, who's the kind of player I think I would've liked when I was a kid: he's handsome but not overwhelmingly so, obviously talented yet modest, brooding, a quiet, head-down-go-to-work kind of grinder. Things started to come together for Davidson in AAA ball, and he was promoted to the White Sox last summer. He promptly broke his foot in his debut game while rounding the bases after stroking an RBI single in the fourth inning.

More Davidson Appeal: lousy luck, in game that depends as much on kind fate as on elite talent. His 2016 full-season stat line says it all, in not saying much:


He was out for the year.

This season, back with the team, undeterred, Davidson has been playing solidly: as of this writing, in 48 plate appearances (an admittedly small sample size) he an OPS of 1.000, with four home runs, fourteen RBI, and two doubles. He's hitting .311. His latest speed bump on the path to starting, if not stardom? That's he playing on a rebuilding club. Recently, he was benched for four consecutive games so that White Sox manager Rick Renteria could give at-bats and playing time to rookies. Davidson's reaction, at least his public one, was mature and balanced, another reason to like the kid: "It feels a whole lot better being here than in (Triple-A) Charlotte, so I'm enjoying every single day," he said. "Obviously I want to play, but being here with these guys and being in Chicago is a dream come true."

And:
It gives me the luxury to get a little more work in, whereas when you play every day, you try to conserve your energy. I'm really trying not to take any mental days off, even if I'm not playing. ... There's still a lot to learn every day.
And:
Talking to those guys and taking ground balls in batting practice with them, I felt like I gathered a lot of wisdom from them in those moments. Playing every day is important as far as development, but you can learn a lot just sitting, listening and watching as well.
Good stuff, a jock's eagerness tempered with mature patience; I like the blend. With Davidson, I want to believe that his responses aren't canned, but genuine.

What did Davidson do when reinserted into the lineup? Promptly have what White Sox announcer Jason Benetti quipped should've been retroactively dubbed a promotable "Matt Davidson Day:" a three-hit, four-RBI night in a 12-1 victory over the Kansas City Royals at Guaranteed Rate Field. Looks like I won't have to figuratively peer at Davidson in the dugout too often anymore. And yet...injuries surprise, slumps are stubborn, baseball is a humbling game, and his journey of ups and downs should be rewarding, maybe even teacherly, to watch.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Sam Phillips's eyes

In I'm Just Dead I'm Not Gone, Jim Dickinson describes a mid-1960s recording session at Sam Phillips's Sun Studio in Memphis:
When I got to the studio, Sam was busy notating microphones on a clipboard. He was in a suit and tie, and all business. We were going to record! Sam was fantastic. His eyes were wild. When he got worked up, the black of the iris nearly filled his whole eyeball.
Quite the image. Gives me new way to see this epic conversation in my imagination:


Saturday, April 22, 2017

On seeing Bo Diddley: "The night stopped being pink and became flaming green. Everything was orange."

Jim Dickinson, detail from front cover of I'm Just Dead I'm Not Gone
Early in his evocative, essential memoir I'm Just Dead I'm Not Gone, an eighteen year-old Jim Dickinson, on the cusp of a unique and varied career in music, already mature in band experience (The Regents, others), recreational drug use (beer to grain alcohol to speed to acid), and getting there with girls, gets the chance to open for Bo Diddley at a fraternity-sponsored fall dance at the National Guard Armory in Memphis, in 1959. The night was charged, for rumor had it that Diddley had "caused" a riot the night before in Nashville, when a white girl jumped onstage to dance. Adding to the tension—to the thrills—was Diddley's and his band's very late arrival at the Armory. Dickinson's band is vamping and elongating their thin stage set to compensate. "It got later and later," Dickinson writes. "We stretched out. The audience was getting crazy. Finally, we got word Bo had arrived."
We stopped playing and went out back door. Two Chrysler stations wagons had pulled up and parked on the sidewalk. They were covered with randomly placed pinstriped hot rod decals and a hand-lettered sign that read BO DIDDLEY BAND. Two giant black men in thick fur coats were driving. The three-piece band unloaded their drum kit. Bo argued with the frat-boy promoter. Ricky, Stanley, and I walked up. The frat boy, irate and overly agitated, shook a performance contract and screamed, “It says right here you are playing two hour sets and taking one break.” Bo Diddley slowly reached in his pants pocket and pulled out a wadded up greasy piece of paper and unfolded it. Sure enough, it is the contract.

“Yeah,” he says. “It say that in my contract, too.” He wads it up and puts it back in his pants. He points at me. “He could have been Bo Diddley.” He points at Stanley, who is in true racist near frenzy. “Or he could have been Bo Diddley,” he continued. "But I is Bo Diddley and Bo Diddley is taking three breaks."

That was it. I agreed to play the breaks for an extra $150; the proceedings commenced. The hour struck and the witch man, great raiser of the dead, had arrived with an amplifier that looked like an icebox lying down and an orange guitar shaped like a Ford Fairlane. The trio wore knee-length red coats. Bo turned on the amp and tuned his guitar at full volume. The crowd screamed. Bo laughed and laughed, and kept tuning. Then he started, drums laying a repeated pounding rhythm, maracas filling up the holes. Jungle sound filled the armory. The world stood on its head and screamed. No one was dancing exactly; the crowd moved like one great sheet. On a pedestal ten feet over the crowd's heads, mad men were rain dancing. The night stopped being pink and became flaming green. Everything was orange, like methylate spilled in a bathtub. Football disciples down front had six-pack beer cartons on their heads and whooped the Indian dance, hearing the organ grinder, hearing the mating call.

...

Watching his hands was a mystery. The chords weren’t recognizable. He seemed to play a pattern, first open and then closing his hand for the four chord. His hand zoomed up the neck, making the low bass string scream and rumble. I looked around. Ricky watched him, too, trying to figure it out. After the dance, I took Vera home and went to Ricky’s. We worked in his music room until dawn, by which time we had figured out "open” D tuning. We broke the code. Bo Diddley’s guitar was tuned to a chord. We were the new white disciples of the black man’s magic powerful technique; it opened a new world of soul funk. Wild-eyed, still possessed by the witch man, I was in bed and away on a gray sleeping cloud.
I never saw Bo play, but after reading this passage I feel a lot closer to what the experience would've felt like: Bo in his prime. We can forgive what in Dickinson's excitable writing and observations might be objected to on racial or essentialist grounds—the "jungle sound," et al—and vibe on the mood of forbidden excitement and sonic (and sartorial) mysteries that pulsed for Dickinson that night, on those strange hands and chords, on the doors that opened, on that horizon rolling back.

~~

Here's Diddley around this time, posing on front of another formidable road machine:
And if you can track down a copy of Spring Weekend 1959, a lo-fi recording of a knocked-out, trance-inducing Bo and his band in front of a sweaty and drunken room of frat boys and their dates, turn it up LOUD and you'll get a good feel for what Dickinson encountered that night.



Sunday, April 16, 2017

New Bomb Turks at the Bottle

Last night's New Bomb Turks show at a crowded and sweaty Empty Bottle in Chicago graphically reminded me that the erstwhile Columbus, Ohio band plays serious rock and roll that doesn't take itself too seriously. A paradox? Singer Eric Davidson and fellas have always cited sonic touchstones in 1960s snotty garage rock as well 70s nihilism and 80s speed—their bio puts it this way, "Musically, they are akin to The Saints, Dead Boys, The Pagans,The Sonics or the Troggs"—and the blur of their best songs creates a thrilling roar of amped-up anthems and crunchy, hooky rock and roll, leavened with humor. Davidson's cartoonish stage act gets schticky at times—he'll stick the mic down his pants, choose a giddy fan up front to fake-fellate said mic, rub said mic under his arms, sniff it, and grimace or produce a theatrical "A-OK" thumbs-up, wag his tongue out and shake his head violently, pick his nose, pick a fan's nose, steal their hats, chuck their phones, generally leap about like an ADD schoolkid trying to bust out—and the comedy threatens to distract from the earnestness and tightness of his band's riffing. But then guitarist Jim Weber's Gibson—which sounded great last night—will cut through Davidson's banter, shove it aside, really, show who's boss, and they're a band again, whether Weber's whipping up two minutes of breakneck eighth notes or slowing things down, as in the strutting, rocking "T.A.S.". I love Weber's face when he plays—he often looks mildly anxious about what he's detonating, as if he might lose control of the sound and then he'd be responsible for the ensuing riot. But the Bottle stayed safe; the mosh pit was mild and sloppy drunk, under adult supervision, and Davidson, for all his rabble rousing, pushed things to a line that teased the mayhem, but always pulled back, grinning.

The band hit the stage at midnight, opening with "Point A To Point Blank," and was firing on all cylinders, barreling through as potent a train wreck of punk R&R as when I first saw them 23 years ago (!). You don't need to know all of the Turks' songs to dig their energy and wall-of-sound: the nihilism, bitterness, and disgust come through in every number. The band closed their encore with a rousing version of Wire's "Mr. Suit" from their 1993 debut Destroy-Oh-Boy. Davidson dedicated it "that fucking asshole Sean Spicer."

I'm tired of being told what to think
I'm tired of being told what to do
I'm tired of fucking phonies
That's right, I'm sick of you


Message received.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

"We got the Detroit Demolition here for ya tonight"

J. Geils Band's "Live" Full House was one of the first records I bought with my own money, joining a couple of KISS albums, Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man soundtrack, and the Rolling Stones' Goats Head Soup. I bought Full House at the long-long-gone Backstreet Records in Wheaton, Maryland, a short walk from my house. It's not an understatement to say that the album forever imprinted me. Every song blew me away—the band's tightness, ferocious energy, chops, humor, and sweaty, coiled looseness was everything I was looking for in the early 1980s synth-drum era but didn't know yet. (And, needless to say, graphically illustrated for me that "Love Stinks" and "Centerfold," however catchy, weren't great rock and roll.) The album foregrounds the band's four-on-the-floor R&R and grinding R&B, generally eschewing the jive shuffle and boogie that, for me, drag down too many of their studio albums of the era. Geils's muscular chords in "First I Look at the Purse," strutting riffs on "Hard Drivin' Man," electrifying lines on John Lee Hooker's "Serves You Right To Suffer," and grinning leads on the preposterously fun "Looking for a Love" ("Play your guitar, Clarence!") were epic and larger-than-life to my young ears. The album, edited down from two April 1972 shows recorded at the Cinderella Ballroom in Detroit, dramatized for me the reckless, joyous fun to be had watching a LOUD band in a sweaty, smoky club or venue. The album was likely tweaked in post-production, but such editing wouldn't have mattered to me then even if I knew about it. The lean but muscular Full House remains one of my favorite R&R albums and is one of the greatest live albums ever issued (stronger to my hearts and ears than the indulgent Blow Your Face Out from 1976 and slick Showtime from '82). As I wrote about the album in Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, a book about another insanely good live album, "I could nearly smell the venue, and Detroit in the early-1970s felt grimy and exhilarating."

RIP John Warren "J." Geils, whose righteous guitar playing on this and the other early J. Geils Band albums truly sent me.
J. Geils (1946-2017)
(Apparently, Rhino Records has been sitting on a double-album, expanded version of "Live" Full House for seven years now. But where is it??")





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