Wednesday, July 12, 2017

"That's just the way I feel." Guralnick on LaBeef, or, How to Write a Great Profile of an Obscure Musician

Peter Guralnick's profile of Sleepy LaBeef, which I read in Guralnick's essential collection Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians, published in 1979, remains one of the finest and most evocative distillations of the spirit and passions of a working musician. I read it often, and I never fail to take pleasure in the respect Guralnick pays to LaBeef, who at the time the piece was published, was, it turns out, in the middle of a long career playing festivals and one-off gigs. Guralnick writes with his characteristic clarity, warmth, curiosity, and knowledge, bred in his longstanding love for rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and blues.

Guralnick uses LaBeef's Massachusetts residency gigs as a kind of rhetorical home base, while sketching LaBeef's early life and career, personal idiosyncrasies, and setbacks and successes, and essaying the nature of hard work, luck, and core values necessary in the makeup of a musician who's making a living—or trying to—against odds. Here are the opening and closing graphs of "Sleepy LaBeef: There's Good Rockin' Tonight," which I recommend you find and read as soon as you can; I love the opening sentence, which both assumes and avoids condescension:
If you frequent the honky tonks, you may very well have run across the music of Sleepy LaBeef. For a number of years he worked the area around Atlanta. Before that it was Port Huron or Kansas or the circuit of NCO service clubs where there is three or four hundred dollars to be made for a night's work and a string of bookings to be lined up— if you go over. When I first met him in the spring of 1977, Sleepy LaBeef had been working Alan's Fifth Wheel Lounge, about an hour north of Boston, for nearly three months on a pretty regular basis. There he had been laying down the original rockabilly sounds of Sun six nights a week, five sets a night, to an appreciative audience of truckers, regulars, factory workers off the late—night shift, and just plain Sleepy LaBeef fans who may have caught him on talk-master Larry Glick’s two A.M. phone-in broadcasts from the truckstop.

How in the world, the question naturally arises, did a six-foot six, 265- pound, basso profundo, first-generation rockabilly from Arkansas ever end up at Alan's Truckstop in the northeast backwater of Amesbury, Massachusetts?
In many ways Sleepy is as great a performer as I've ever seen, and when you see the way that people respond to his music, you wonder why, and if, rockabilly ever went away. Sleepy has a theory on that ("I didn't ever see it change. The people were still digging it, and the musicians liked playing it, but the big companies figured it was a fad and they took it away from the kids"), but in any case it is no exercise in nostalgia for the people who have come out to see Sleepy LaBeef at Alan's Fifth Wheel or the Hillbilly Ranch; they couldn't care less that it was Iohn Lee Hooker who originated ’In the Mood’ or Scotty Moore whose licks Sleepy duplicates note for note on ’Milkcow Blues Boogie.’ Sleepy’s records may not do him justice, but Sleepy knows how good he can be.

"I never sold out," he can say with pride. "Nobody owns me. I know I'm good. I wouldn't be honest if I didn't tell you that. I've been around long enough to know that if I get the breaks I can still make it—Charlie Rich was older than me when he finally did. And if I don't get the breaks—wel1, when I started in this business I didn't even know you could make a dime out of it. And I think I'd still be doing it tomorrow, if there wasn't any money in it at all. That's just the way I feel."
As I worked on Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band, I clung to these inspiring, moving words of LaBeef's—I think I'd still be doing it tomorrow, if there wasn't any money in it at all. That's just the way I feel. Indeed, LaBeef's comments could've been my book's subtitle. I owe a great debt to Guralnick, for this profile which I could only have hoped to emulate in my long, sprawling book, and for the hours of pleasure that his work has given me over the decades.
LaBeef, center, in Houston, Texas, ca. 1957

England, 1979

I was happily able to cross off Seeing LaBeef from my bucket list. In 2013, I caught him in an outdoor tent at the American Music Festival at Fitzgerald's, in Berwyn, Illinois.  Here are few minutes I recorded of the great man hard at work, forgetting about yesterday and not thinking about tomorrow:

Photos reproduced from Lost Highway.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

No Heroes: Lester Bangs on Stage

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's "How To B A Rock Critic" begins with Lester Bangs on the toilet. Thankfully, we don't see this; we hear Bangs, played by Jensen and directed by Blank, offstage, cursing a lousy order of Kung Pao Chicken, and then a toilet flushing. Enter: Lester, opening random cans of sudsy Schlitz, and bitching about a deadline and writer's block. We're facing Bangs's apartment, a mess, with a couch at center stage flanked by a chair, ottoman, and a writing desk stage right, and a messy table on which sits a stereo, stage left; strewn across the stage are many albums—some crated, most in towering stacks—, several cough syrup bottles, tossed books and magazines, the requisite open Chinese food takeout box on its side. The production at Steppenwolf Theater is very intimate; 1700 Theater is tiny, and at the Saturday matinee we attended I counted twenty heads as the lights went down. Jensen used this nearness to address the crowd, first imploring us to remain in the hall outside his apartment, then tossing audience members beers and (era-appropriate) copies of People and Rolling Stone magazines to read before he settled in, took a deep breath, belched, and launched a ninety minute monologue/rant/statement-of-purpose about music and writing about music and the appeal and despair of both, with occasional backward-looking glances to his fucked-up childhood and adolescence, a fractured account of his move from California (where he wrote for, among other outlets, Rolling Stone) to the Lower East Side (Village Voice) via Detroit (Creem), and random spins of his favorite records—the Troggs, the Count Five, the Carpenters, the Velvets, the Stooges, the J. Geils Band, the Ramones, Van Morrison—all the while sipping beer, swilling Romilar cough syrup, and chugging straight gin. Jensen being Lester being Lester.

I'm not exactly sure what "How To Be A Rock Critic" is, or who it's for. Bangs apostles who attend  will likely find themselves in one of two camps: among the Besotted, nodding along in recognition of the play's lines and the stories adapted from Bangs's work, and getting off on Jensen's tightly-wound portrayal of the sloppy hero made flesh; or the Skeptical, in love with Bangs's words and his charged calling, but doubtful of the need to dramatize them so theatrically. Those new to Bangs or only slightly familiar with him might feel as if they're trapped, lectured by a well-meaning blowhard. In a way, each response is valid, as each registers somewhere along Bangs's character and intentions and the reactions that his writing—and his oversized personality—often got.

If there's a narrative arc in the play, it's Bangs's search for Van Morrison's Astral Weeks album; he's literally looking for it throughout the play, promising the audience that they'll love it if he can just find the damn thing, and also figuratively searching for the momentary transcendence that that music provided, and might again. The play is also book-ended by Bangs's narrating of two events he witnessed: when a groupie was viciously attacked by a Hells Angel member during an orgy; and when a fourteen-year-old fan of the Clash was assaulted by a member of the band's retinue. In both cases, Bangs did not intervene. Jensen plays these two accounts as sources of great guilt and shame for Bangs, who seems to find a parallel sense of ennui and helplessness in the face of corporate rock and bloated professionalization of rock criticism of the early- and mid-1970s pre-Punk era. As Bangs often did, Jensen moves between ecstasy and despair—he foams at the mouth, leaps about, jumps on the coffee table and the stacks of records to make his points, and ends the performance dissolute, drunk, and high, nodding off on the couch as Van Morrison album  plays. In a nice bit of directing, the album jump-cuts to the last song, stuck in a perpetual skip as the play ends.

People who knew Bangs well said that he could be a blowhard and a loudmouth bore, that he could be mean, especially when drunk or high, and that you often felt like a captive audience when he was holding forth. That sense of being stuck with an ecstatic as he proselytizes and careens between sincerity and bombast is well dramatized in the intimate space of the 1700 Theater, and Jensen milks his center-of-attention status well. Bangs could be annoying; so is Jensen playing Bangs. Bangs was also brilliant, talented, funny, and deeply-caring; Jensen moves among those poles, as well.

Erik Jensen as Lester Bangs

Can the call to writing be dramatized? (Should it be?) Do we really need more Bangs Myth thirty-plus years after his death? Didn't he provide enough of that when he was alive, and haven't his followers stoked the legend? Jim DeRogatis's terrific Let It Blurt (2000) and Raul Sandelin's 2013 documentary A Box Full of Rocks: The El Cajon Years of Lester Bangs are sturdy, clear-eyed takes on his biography, but Blank and Jensen seem interested in the Theater Of Bangs, the dimensional space that his writing inhabited in all of its hyper-energy and essayistic galloping about. These are Bangs's words and rambling sentences; it's up to Jensen to adapt them and to act them. For the most part, actor and director succeed in dramatizing Bangs's mania, which was both genuine, and fuel for his self-conscious persona. A few times the production stumbles: Bangs's epiphanic moments of reflection are precious and often telegraphed, Blank making Bangs's unhappiness and depressive hopelessness obvious. Bangs was rarely subtle, a personality trait and writerly aesthetic he seemed to lack or be deeply skeptical of, but often on the page, especially in his more autobiographical writing, the energy and drive of his sentences did as much to describe his ill-fated mania as do Jensen's wounded, over-the-shoulder glances to the audience.

Blank and Jensen also get it right, most often when Bangs holds forth about the music he loves. His description of driving around with a blissy, spaced-out girlfriend as the Troggs's "Wild Thing" plays on the radio wonderfully captures the way that simple, unadorned rock and roll—Bangs's favorite kind—can open doors into very complex rooms. Near the end of the play, as Jensen's admirably-paced alcohol- and cough syrup-high is cresting, Bangs takes on Elvis, persuasively proving that the boy from Tupelo who seemed to come from outer space was both a local turd and a larger-than-life force of nature. Why can't he be both? Bangs wonders. (I bristled at Jensen's mimicry of Elvis's moves as Bangs imagined eating the drugs from Presley's intestines after Presley died; it's one of Bangs's greatest, most insanely inspired riffs and Jensen's play-acting trivializes it.) Before he nods off to Morrison's "Cypress Avenue," Bangs ruminates on the power of music that once gave him a glimpse into something remarkable, something that refreshed him and gave him hope. His confessing to spending the rest of his life trying to rediscover and renew that moment is the most potent and moving dramatization—and description—of Bangs's life and career that the play achieves.

As any fan of Bangs's writing knows, even in his pay-the-rent shitty album reviews and profiles, he was rarely writing just about music; he was writing about what it means to be a living, breathing human who didn't choose to be here and is now stuck looking for justification. Bangs writes about how being alive blows and is also the greatest gift—45s and album cuts were simply the moving parts that got his words to the page.

Still, I'm on the fence, somewhere between my gratitude for Blank and Jensen's commitment to a great writer and my my skepticism about whether music writing can be fully dramatized. After the performance, I wondered half-seriously if maybe the best thing Blank and Jensen could've done would've been to have Bangs sit on his couch, drink, get high, and play the entirety of the Carpeners' Close To You or all four sides of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music while half-grinning, leering, and crying. (Bangs on MMM: "As a statement it's great, as a giant FUCK YOU it shows integrity—a sick, twisted, dunced-out, malevolent, perverted, psychopathic integrity, but integrity nevertheless.") Not saying a word. He's staying here. After all, we've got his books.


Photo of Jensen onstage via The Artery (Courtesy Craig Schwartz/ArtsEmerson)

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Pipes, Wires, Girders, and all

Midway through his absorbing and moving book The Final Season: Fathers, Sons, and One Last Season in a Classic American Ballpark, writer Tom Stanton—who is taking in every home game during the Detroit Tigers' 1999 season, their last in Tiger Stadium—meets up with Carolyn  Krause, a visiting Bostonian. In her hometown, she helps run Save Fenway Park!, an organization that will ultimately help stave off the movement to demolish the storied Boston ballpark. She's taking in a game at Tiger Stadium to say a last goodbye, and she chats with Stanton. Their conversation rankles Stanton. Krause seems more enamored of Fenway and Wrigley Field in Chicago than of old, crumbling Tiger Stadium. Her apparent coolness toward Stanton's beloved park, where he grew up and where he takes his sons, in the age-old generational passing of the torch, gives rise in Stanton to old, unwelcome feelings. In addressing them internally, he essays the appeal and beauty of old ballparks, nostalgia, and the sometimes absurd attachment to place. He writes, "Deep inside, beyond the childhood insecurities that occasionally spring from my depths and cause me to get defensive, I know [Krause] must say this to give herself hope. I know she must believe it will be  different for her park. Still, her words feel disrespectful, as if she’s attacking the value of me memories and those of my father, my grandfather,  and my son, as if she's she’s saying, Well, it’s unfortunate that your grandmother died, but mine’s more special anyway and maybe we can save her."
Her words bother me because in part they are accurate. There is a perception that Fenway and Wrigley are more special than Tiger Stadium. I have struggled to understand it. Is it because those parks are in better neighborhoods? Or because their fans are more educated or affluent, more worldly? Or because they’re based in Boston and Chicago, cities with grand literary traditions and writers who celebrate them? Or is it just because neither team has won a world championship since Hollywood began making talking movies and some find that romantic?

Our ballpark feels like Detroit. It carries no airs. It’s blue-collar and industrial. When you enter through the gates, you come in beneath corrugated doors that have been rolled up on tracks, like at a warehouse delivery dock. You’re greeted by cement and steel, strong, riveted girders that thrust upward and serve a purpose, holding the deck above in place. There are no architectural flourishes: no cornices, no fancy tile Work, no aesthetic touches. This stadium shows its secrets—pipes, wires, girders, and all. It’s plain and simple, no scent of pretentiousness. It doesn’t yearn to be something it is not.

Krause may sense my irritation because her Words take on a conciliatory tone.

“I feel like I couldn’t help Tiger Stadium,” she says. “But if Fenway can be preserved, at least part of that era can go on.”
Three years ago, I visited the site of old Tiger Stadium, a park I regrettably never attended. To be nostalgic means to have a deep desire for a homecoming, of sorts—difficult to do when that place is gone for good. Reading Stanton's words somehow brought me back home to a place I'd never been.

Tiger Stadium, marvel to rubble. 

Past and present history of Tiger Stadium and the site at Michigan and Trumbull Avenues here.

Top image of Tiger Stadium via Ballparks Of Baseball; middle image via flickr; bottom image via Pinterest.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Baseball's visual clock

"Man Sitting at the Bar Watching a Tigers Game, Detroit, 1972." Photo by Dave Jordano.
A month ago in the New York Times Magazine, Jay Caspian Kang became the latest to weigh in on baseball's alleged decline. Taking on televised baseball, Kang argues that the increase, and now the norm, of high-definition broadcasts have altered the game's time (and, he claims in his main thesis, has killed off the Hollywood baseball movie, to boot).

Two key graphs:
Baseball, more than any other American sport, has an extensive visual archive, and the change in imagery—the sharpening of focus, the addition of color—always created a sense of progress across eras. Babe Ruth winks in grainy, flickering black and white. In the 1951 home run known as “the shot heard round the world,” you can see Bobby Thomson’s swing, but the camera that tracks the ball out of the park is so jumpy, unsteady and late to the trajectory that it looks as if it were shot on an iPhone by someone six beers in. Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax come through in blurry, bright color, but you can rarely see their faces as they wind up and throw. By the 1975 World Series, when Boston’s Carlton Fisk seems to will the ball to stay fair with his flapping arms until it’s a home run, you can see the “27” on Fisk’s back and the square outline of his jaw, but the field still looks as if it were lit by mosquito zappers. Baseball nostalgia is tied to the way the game looked at any given moment in the past; the progress of the game is told, more than anything else, by the changes in its imagery.
Last week, I watched a replay of David Ortiz’s game-winning home run in the 12th inning of Game 4 of the 2004 A.L.C.S. It happened nearly 13 years ago, but it could have been last October, the way the scene was presented: the HD video, the score at the top of the screen, Joe Buck calling balls and strikes. We may be past the point when the only way to distinguish among coming eras will be by the change in uniforms. In terms of action and detail, the post-HD eras are likely to all look the same—our eyeballs can’t take in much more than what’s being beamed out to today’s 4K and 1080p televisions. Baseball’s visual clock, which once kept time for a changing country, now seems frozen.
It's ironic that in a rapidly developing and changing time culturally, technology is effectively embalming televised baseball, cementing it in a future-now that will likely remain uniform for a while. On one hand, Kang's argument is an easy one to make: as technology evolves, things look different from one era to the next, but on the other hand he brings up something corollary but important. His argument is an interesting one, and I'm sympathetic to it: the level of detail and the "noise" of informational data common to high-def broadcasts and streaming has crowded out something essential in the game. Baseball has always been a statistic-driven game, but the SABR-led spike in data in the last decade or so has gotten very noisy. Much of the information is fascinating and illuminating—WAR and defense metrics, for example—but I can't be the only one who could care less about exit velocity or angle of home runs. I'm sure that the numbers are helpful to some, particularly those in the game, but I don't need it. It's clutter on a screen that's already mighty crowded. I'm reminded of Roger Angell many years ago asking Carlton Fisk if Fisk ever watches the replay of that epic '75 blast. Fisk claims that he hasn't, and doesn't; he wants to keep the memory secure and fresh in his imagination. It's becoming increasingly harder for one to do that and to duck the onslaught of data at the same time.

But that's alright. Like so much, I'll probably become nostalgic for StatCast in the distant future.


Meanwhile, baseball historian John Thorn has rounded up the heated responses on his facebook wall to Tom Verducci's latest.

Photo illustration by Cristiana Couceiro. Ruth: Bettmann/Getty Images. Gibson: Getty Images. Koufax: Focus on Sport/Getty Images. Fisk: Focus on Sport/Getty Images. Boone: Joe Robbins/Getty Images.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

"Wall of Respect," Chicago, 1967

I can't recommend highly enough the "Wall of Respect" exhibit at Chicago Cultural Center, guest curated by Romi Crawford, Abdul Alkalimat, and Rebecca Zorach. The exhibition chronicles how "the Organization of Black American Culture's Visual Artists Workshop designed and produced a seminal mural for and within Chicago’s Black South Side communities."
Featuring the images of leading black icons ranging from Sarah Vaughan and John Coltrane to Marcus Garvey and Ossie Davis, The Wall of Respect received national critical acclaim when it was unveiled in 1967 on the side of a building at 43rd St. and Langley Ave on the heels of the March on Washington, the assassination of Malcolm X and the emergence of Black Power. The Wall was ultimately painted over and virtually forgotten after damage by a fire in 1971, but its legacy has reemerged today as one of the most significant projects in Chicago’s storied public art history.
Here and above are some images from the exhibit, which I found fascinating, inspiring, and enlightening.  More on the project here and here. A book about the wall is forthcoming in September from Northwestern University Press. See the exhibit if you can.
From an article in Ebony, December 1967

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Field notes

I was happy to sit down recently with Joe Oestreich at The Normal School and with Dan Klefsatd at WNIJ to talk about Field Recordings from the Inside and the many ways we listen to and are marked by music. My interview with Oestreich is here, my talk with Klefstad, along with video of me reading a couple excerpts from the book, is here.

I'm also grateful for this thoughtful review of the book by Megan Volpert in PopMatters. "The author is at his best when he’s talking about music delivery systems—records, cassettes, juke boxes, radios, Shazam."
He delves into the careful technicalities of repairing a favorite mix tape, the agony of the broken 45 and the scratch of a needle, the magic of requested songs, the terror of sudden volume and creeping static, the melancholy of instant gratification in a digital world. These are great leaps into the sensual, tangible, liminal properties of our experience with music. They are instantly relatable and will springboard readers into a renewed sensitivity toward their own parallel history of sound.

There’s a solid essay of Elvis Costello and Patsy Cline. I confess to not listening to much of either of their bodies of work over the years, yet I found myself turning the pages ever so slowly. Bonomo’s poetic craft remains strongly redolent even when one is not terribly interested in his specific factual content. On the other hand, there’s a quick paragraph on Nirvana that I reread several times after exclaiming aloud, “that exact same thing happened to me!”

He knows big bands and obscure bands, ancient ones and happening ones, so every reader is bound to find a bullseye on the journalism front somewhere in this book. The research and quotations are often compelling on their own, but the real gem of Field Recordings is its poetics. Bonomo slides between the skills and conventions of genre with an aptitude and ease that is mightily impressive, never fighting to tie it all together. This is a book that floats, landing on each reader uniquely but with similarly orchestrated intensity.
Field Recordings from the Inside is out now, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound, and your local happening bookstore.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Times Square Nostalgia

Howard Johnson's, Times Square, 1986
Reading Charlie LeDuff's terrific Work and Other Sins, a gathering of columns he wrote for the New York Times in the 1990s and early 2000s, I was struck by the many levels of nostalgia at work in urban gentrification. "The Lights Are Bright, the Hours Always Happy," one of LeDuff's "Bending Elbows" pieces, is about the old Howard Johnson's bar and restaurant in Times Square; the piece appeared in the April 28, 2001 issue of the Times, and HoJo's was gone by 2005. Bittersweetly, in the piece the manager Joseph claims that are no plans to sell, despite offers.
"We went through a lot of hard times here,'' he said. ''I would stare out the window and watch muggers slit open the back of people's pants and steal their wallets, or sometimes they would spray ketchup on a tourist's back, and while they were apologizing and wiping it off, they would pick the poor guy's pocket.''
Joseph explained that the place is now making money, but even so, it has not been remodeled since the 60's, because the clientele favor the nostalgic look of the cheap paneling, brass chandeliers and orange banquettes.
''It's like we haven't aged,'' the manager said.
Now, we—well, some of us—are nostalgic for a place that was itself a site of nostalgia for a different, equally long-gone time.


LeDuff writes out of the Joseph Mitchell/John McNulty tradition of dry, detail-rich, objective observational journalism, and, like those two scribes, LeDuff is attracted to bars, restaurants, and other establishments where marginal city figures dwell. In his introduction to Work and Other Sins, LeDuff comments on the subjects that interest him: 
The dandies I know say I write about dives and losers, but they are wrong. I write about the people who live in neighborhoods, crowded apartments and dreary ranch houses. These are the people who shovel their own snow and have fat aunties who wear stretch pants with stains on the ass. This is not a book about the people who have doormen but a book about doormen. It is about the laborer, the dreamer, the hustler, the immigrant—whether he is a writer from Michigan or a waiter from Michoacán. I suppose in all of this I’m trying to find myself and justify him, to you.
"The Lights Are Bright, the Hours Always Happy" ends with a brief, devastating profile of a couple at Howard Johnson's, the kinds of people LeDuff justifies, though this pair makes it difficult:
There was an obese couple who sat by the bar. He ordered a shell steak and baked potato smothered in gravy, Texas chili to start, a strawberry shortcake to finish and a light beer.
His wife asked him if the beer wasn't too much, and he told her to shut up. She asked him why she was supposed to shut up.
''Because you talk too much,'' he said. ''So zip it.''
She did, and when the platters arrived, he speared one of her fries and ordered another beer. 
RIP Howard Johnson's. RIP Times Square.

Photo of Howard Johnson's via The Smoking Nun.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Birney Imes's Jukes

Birney Imes's photographs of rural Mississippi are fantastic. From Jackson Fine Art, which represents him: "For more than 20 years Birney Imes roamed the countryside of his native Mississippi photographing the people and places he encountered along the way. Working in both black and white and color, Imes’ photographs take viewers inside juke joints and dilapidated restaurants scattered across that landscape."
There he introduces the viewer to, as one writer put it, “the characters and locales that linger in the margins of Southern memory and culture.” Imes’s photographs have been collected in three books: Juke Joint, Whispering Pines, and Partial to Home, and have been exhibited in solo shows in the United States and Europe. His work is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, La Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and many public and private collections in the U.S. and abroad.
The University Press of Mississippi published Juke Joint. From their website:
The evocative Mississippi place names in Imes's photographs are as captivating as the names of the juke joints themselves: the Pink Pony in Darling, the People's Choice Café in Leland, Monkey's Place in Merigold, the Evening Star Lounge in Shaw, the Playboy Club in Louise, Juicy's Place in Marcella, the Social Inn in Gunnison, and A. D.'s Place in Glendora.... Juke Joint includes approximately sixty photographs taken between 1983 and 1989 as Imes traveled throughout the Delta. Many of the images are the result of long exposures that show the blur of human movement as a figure lounges at a bar or steps across a room to feed quarters into a juke box. The resulting "ghosts" animate the pictures and give them an otherworldly quality.
Imes captures the allure, warmth, and danger of out -of-the-way juke joints and other rural establishments, celebrating in vibrant colors and textures, rather than documenting in a strictly sociological manner—his photographs invite you in, that is, rather than encourage an outsider's view, the latter of which can result in sentimentalizing or romanticizing. Great stuff.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

"One hell of a good time."

Club Bar. Troy, Montana.
I came very late to Jesus' Son, the brilliant, difficult, and mesmerizing book of stories by Denis Johnson, pictured below. who died on May 24 at the age of sixty-seven after a bout with liver cancer.  In the loosely connected stories, Johnson's narrator follows, and sometimes runs around with, a crew of desperate, marginalized characters in the American northwest, most of whom stagger around in a fog of joblessness, sexual messiness, and drug and alcohol excess, all of whom are elevated to genuine human scale by Johnson's feverish but incisive language, not to mention his sympathetic curiosity; no character is a druggie- or alcoholic-cliché who's easy to pity, scorn, or condescend to. Great stuff.

I loved the book, so I sought out Seek: Reports form the Edges of America and Beyond, a book of nonfiction travel essays Johnson published in 2001. Unsurprisingly,  among my favorite pieces in the book is a brief essay about a dive. "The Lowest Bar in Montana"—the title refers to the tavern's geographical depth relative to the highest point in the state—paints an affectionate picture of Club Bar, in Troy, Montana, a rough-and-tumble joint that Johnson frequented back when it was even rougher. It's still got its cranky charm, and Johnson, who'd been sober for many years when he wrote the piece, captures the details of the low-rent scene and the quirky regulars very well, with affection and respect. Back visiting, out of the blue he mentions a coffin in the back of the bar, and asks the owner, Tony, if he could look at it again. "Tony took me back to the storeroom to see it, a cheap one made of half-inch plywood that looks as if a big man would fall though the bottom when his pallbearers gave it a heave."
I have always believed the coffin will be mine when I die, so I can be buried in it in my backyard next to my wife Cindy and my dog Harold (Cindy’s not there yet; Harold is), with Tony Brown saying a few words in farewell (Tony performed the service at our wedding, too), but I believe he’s sold my coffin to, or promised it to, or used it for collateral on small loans from, a great many people. I haven’t actually paid for it yet myself. Generally he says it’s “for the next guy who dies in here.”
Johnson also describes an honest to goodness fight that he witnessed at Club Bar, though, waged as it was by day- and all-night-drunks full of liquid courage, the skirmish lacked cinematic drama. "Everyone in the place was up and fighting except for me and one old veteran of WWII," Johnson writes, "both of us hanging on to the poker table for dear life and hoping we’d have enough uninjured players to get the game going again when this was over.
It wasn’t the choreographed, stool-slinging slugfest you see in movies. There was just this squabble that the customers kept attaching themselves to until a kind of mass or glob of Montanan animosity heaved itself this way and that, shoving into the pool table and knocking over stools and repositioning the booths. Every time they got near the plate-glass window I thought they’d go through it, but they didn’t; not that time; some time later it got busted and was boarded over for several months, if I remember right.
Club Bar. Troy, Montana

Johnson ends the essay with a mild lament that the place had lost a bit of its edge, though "[p]lenty of the old spirit remains."
It’s just that you don’t need twenty-four-hour life insurance and a big dog to go inside and feel comfortable—though dogs are still allowed. “Not all dogs,” Tony advises me—“some dogs.”
To be sure, there are still the kinds of characters at the joint who Johnson remembers (barely) from the old daze. The piece ends with a beaut of a narrative moment, a glimpse of the blend of great nights and lousy mornings—and the pull in that queasy tension that's hard to resist—suffered by many a regular. "Just as I’m leaving, a guy out front in a big gold Buick with Washington plates wakes up with a dead battery.
I recognize him as one of last night’s patrons as he rolls out and looks at his car. “I been sleeping in it all night,” he says—maybe with the door cracked open or his head on the horn, and that would explain his lack of power. He studies the whole situation and delivers his conclusion:
       “You can have one hell of a good time in that place.”

Photo of Johnson by Cindy Lee Johnson, Macmillan Publishers. Top photo of Club Bar via Flickr; bottom photo of Club Bar via Flickr.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Story & Sound in the Underground

There are few rock and roll songs as grippingly cinematic as The Jam's "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight," released as a single in October of 1978, one in an astonishing run of Jam 45s from 1978 through 1980. ("Tube Station" reappeared a month later, with a "false ending," as the closing track on the band's third album, All Mod Cons.) Allegedly, Weller was displeased with the arrangement of this song that began life as a long poem (in Paul Weller: My Ever Changing Moods, John Reed states that it started as a play); with the enthusiastic support of producer Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, the band banged it into shape in the studio. (The single charted well, reaching 15 on the U.K. Singles chart.) I can't imagine how Weller could've improved the arrangement: the song is tense, evocative, and brilliantly-structured, and its yoking of sympathy and menace is so palpable that when I listen to the song now, over thirty years after I first heard it, I'm as moved as ever.

The story's simple: a guy ducks into the tube late at night, on the way home to his wife—he's picked up some curry for a late-night dinner—when he's approached by a group of guys who ask him if he has any money. He replies honestly ("I've a little") and they savagely attack him, beating and kicking him senseless. As he lies prone, suffering, he imagines his wife, who's likely just opening a bottle of wine, hearing the door of their flat opening and believing it's him—but the thugs took his keys as well as his money. What makes this story riveting are the details, the pacing, and the band's performance. Paul Weller sings the verses plaintively, perfectly capturing the unknowing innocence of the victim, as Bruce Foxton plays a syncopated riff on his bass that amps up the tension as the story unspools, as does a curious "heartbeat" thumping that sounds in the right channel throughout the record—the narrative of bodies inevitably colliding made physical. The chorus, composed only of the title phrase, barrels along, growing more desperate as the song plays, pummeling the well-chosen details in the verses, all riders' individual lives rendered as a noisy blur.

Weller's details are striking throughout. The station's ordinary, daily atmosphere, (the "glazed, dirty steps," the toffee wrappers), the other tube riders, newspaper headlines are all presented vividly. As is well known, as a teenager Weller made regular forays into London, a city he idolized, from suburban Woking, and brought along a tape recorder to capture the city's sounds. (The train in this song was recorded at St. John's Station.) Weller both adored the city and grimly recognized its racist violence, and his lyrics evoke that uneasy blend. Among the song's most infamous lines are the ones dramatizing the attack, and the victim's addled thoughts afterward:
I first felt a fist, and then a kick
I could now smell their breath
They smelt of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs
And too many right wing meetings
The last thing that I saw
As I lay there on the floor
Was "Jesus Saves" painted by an atheist nutter
And a British Rail poster read "Have an Away Day, a Cheap Holiday, Do it Today!"
In a lesser writer's hands, the desire to commingle violence, suffering, atheist irony, and cheery tourism might've resulted in ham-fisted social commentary; yet Weller's cinematic details, hurried along by the band's playing, are heartbreaking, simple and devastating in their effect. (As for "Wormwood Scrubs," and other references unknown to me as a teenager, such as putting in the Queen and pulling out a plum, luckily my older brother was dating an English woman; problem solved! She became a go-to source for me as I puzzled over many a British band's references.) That said, Weller was only twenty when he wrote the song—impressive, certainly, yet in places his earnest poeticizing ("My life swam around me / It took a look and drowned me in its own existence") as well as the obvious foreshadowing of violence in the opening verse gives his naivete away. Yet that makes the song all the more charming: Weller's a young guy making sense of the pointless violence interrupting his urban idyll, recognizing that one can't exist without the other. He was preoccupied with violence on the band's previous single, and he's still writing songs reacting to this.



As powerful as the song is (it made for a staggering close to All Mod Cons) the band's live performances added fiery dimension to the story. I never saw the Jam live—a loss I'll live with forever—but recordings and videos attest to a stunningly powerful band producing enormously righteous noise. They recorded a gig at The Rainbow on November 3, 1979, and issued a version of "Tube Station" from that show (first on a double-pack 45 of "Going Underground" in 1980, and again the following year as the b-side of a West German release of "That's Entertainment.") Like all great rock and roll, the performance nearly collapses under its own urgency, the band playing so intensely that the song becomes far scarier, not to mention LOUDER, than the studio version, as if they're running to catch up with their own playing. The final third of the song startles: Rick Buckler's drum-pounding breakdown, Weller's slashes at his Rickenbacker, the crowd's clapping in pulse-racing unison, and the breathless crash into the final lines of the final verse remains, to my ears, one of the greatest, most urgent passages in recorded live rock and roll. If it's possible that innocence, love, fear, violence, and heartbreak can be rendered as pure sound, the Jam have done it here.

The Jam, 1979

Tube station photo via Geograph; live photo via Toronto Star (Ebet Roberts / Redferns/Universal Music Canada)

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Riffs, hooks, spectacle, and grins

There are times when I wish that the members of Van Halen had looked at each other in Sunset Sound studio after the final mix of "Everybody Wants Some!!", nodded knowingly, and then broken up on the spot. We can't top this.

But then we wouldn't have gotten this gem, which surprised me on Shuffle Play at the gym today. When a grinning David Lee Roth barks back at the studio engineer, "One break, coming up!" and Eddie Van Halen leads the band back into that transcendent, killer riff, I think of the staged corniness of it all that somehow works, of Eddie's shaggy 80s hair bopping onstage, of his brightly-colored jumpsuit, of Michael Anthony guffawing and flying around the stage, of Alex Van Halen earnestly pumping behind his over-the-top kit, hi-hat permanently open, crash cymbals cashing—and I firmly believe that in the late-1970s and early 1980s, Van Halen was the World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band. (Their early Kinks worshiping didn't hurt!) Even well into their arena domination on Fair Warning, they weren't taking themselves too seriously, and they understood the power in rock and roll of a great riff, hooks, spectacle, humor, and grins .

We still had "Panama" and "Hot for Teacher" to come, but I never liked "Jump," and soon after came keyboards, Van Hagar, Van Hallen III, and the rest.

But for a while there....

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Take and Give on the South Side

José Quintana (top) and Chris Sale, Guaranteed Rate Field, Chicago
It wasn't what I'd imagined. Chris Sale's return to Chicago to face José Quintana didn't result in a low-scoring nail-biter. Quite the contrary. But the Red Sox 13 to 7 victory was still a very entertaining affair. Love the game more than the team, my mantra of this century.

It was a classic Take & Give Affair. After a quiet first inning for both pitchers, Quintana gave up three doubles and two home runs in the top of the second: score, 4-0. In the bottom frame, Sale gave up a walk and four singles; score, 4-3. In the top of the third, Q gave up two singles and another homer to Devon Marrero: score, 7-3. In the bottom of the inning, Tom Anderson knocked in Avisail Garcia from third; in the bottom of the fourth, Todd Frazier homered with Leury Gracia on base. Three more runs for the White Sox: score, 7-6. Naturally, at the top of the next inning, White Sox pitching, being good hosts, felt obligated to give those runs back via a three-run Jackie Bradley home run. Etc.

My pre-game prediction, written in jest, wasn't very funny after a while:

Quintana lasted two and two thirds, and his ERA ballooned to 5:60. Sale pitched five innings and struck out nine, though his slider wasn't particularly nasty—White Sox chased a lot of high stuff, and Sale noticed—and he gave up five earned. Not a stellar night for pitching.


The defeat-and-surge play was fun to watch, for a while, until it wasn't. There were three Red Sox fans in my row in Box 120; I became friendly with them as the night progressed, the talk moving from fanly allegiances to baseball news to How's the family? as can happen during a game. This is one of the many reasons I love taking in a game at the park, the camaraderie, however, shallow, that's forged among strangers for a few hours. That, and the way your eye can choose what it wants. When I was a kid and went with my Dad to Baltimore Orioles games at the old Memorial Stadium, he'd always bring a pocket binoculars with him, to watch the action on the field closely—we never had great seats—and to peer into the dugout. That curiosity has been passed on to me. On television, a commercial interrupts before you can watch a player head into the warmth or chill of the dugout after a plate appearance or the end of an inning. Last night's Dugout Drama featured a couple vivid scenes: after Dan Jennings induced two ground outs to end the fifth inning in which he surrendered Bradley's home run, he stalked into the dugout and strode swiftly past his teammates as if he were sliding downhill; everything looked tilted by his anger and self-disgust. After Jose Abreu lined sharply to second baseman Josh Routledge to end the sixth, Abreu stood on first looking baffled. White Sox first base coach Daryl Boston customarily took the slugger's bating helmet from him, and the two chatted, about what? Probably how frustrating baseball is.

Speaking of which, the career-challenged Matt Davdison, a player I'm watching closely this year, DH'd last night and struck out five times. I'd never seen that before. (Jim Margalus at South Side Sox reminds us, "It’s the third such game for a White Sox hitter since last August. Before then, they hadn’t had a five-strikeout game since 1998." Selective memory on my part, I guess.) After his final K, Davidson stood alone in the dugout, gravely removing his batting glove, a tableau of misery. There wasn't a player with fifteen feet of him. There are no words.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Dreaming a stranger's house

I used to have a recurring dream where I'd be walking down a city or suburban street after dark, minding my own, when I'd make a small move to the left or right and suddenly be inside a stranger's home. It's 2 am, and I'm standing in a quiet living room or rec room, in the dark, frozen, afraid to move lest I reveal myself. The smells of strange home, the odd arrangement of unknown furniture and wall hangings slowly materializing in the dark, a clock ticking. I don't know what to do. I've breached, I've trespassed without trying, or even wanting, to, sealed in to a fate I didn't want. How'd I get in here? How do I leave? I might get arrested, I might startle someone. 

The dream would usually end, or, as dreams do, narratively morph into something else entirely, or I'd wake up before I'm discovered by the home owners. I had this dream for years. I haven't in a long time. Now that it's absent, I wonder about it. Does it originate in my autobiographical impulse? The curiosity to essay my own life and past leading me to wonder, on the protected dreamscape level, about others' lives behind closed doors? Maybe, and more accurately, it comes from my writing about others, the desire to get into someone's home and learn what goes on there as, at the same time, I'm deeply wary of that impulse: temperamentally, I shade toward introversion. (I still hate interviewing people.) Maybe as a quasi-introvert, I experience my greatest social discomforts when I dream. Maybe I fear that I'm a fraud, or am morally dubious, on the occasions I write about others, making of their private lives a public subject matter. The dream is scary, unpleasant.

When I was a kid I imagined a machine—with gauges, blinking lights, electrodes, and the rest—that would record my dreams onto film; the next morning, I could watch them. I both craved and feared this. Sure, I wouldn't mind getting comfy and playing (and re-playing) that dream featuring Tina P. or Susan J.—but what about the embarrassing, shameful, awful stuff, the stuff in dreams (nightmares) that we blessedly forget or, if we're burdened with remembering, try and shake as the day progresses. I hoped that video would never surface. Anyway, I'm skeptical of dream interpretations, so I'll stop here. Maybe writing this will spur the stranger's-house dream to make an encore. Maybe I'll figure it out.

 Top photo via Senior Art Studio; bottom photo via Raygun Brown

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
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