Thursday, August 6, 2020

Big Fuckin Party

In March of 1993, the Devil Dogs—guitarist and singer Andy "The Fabulous Andy G" Gortler, bassist Steve Baise, and drummer Mighty Joe Vincent—gathered with the Fastbacks' Kurt Bloch at Egg Studios in Seattle and cut Saturday Night Fever. The album recreates the sonic blast of a crowded house party in all of its beery, humid, ear-ringing glory, and feels a little dangerous these days, no matter that it was put over with a half-grin. Folks inside drinking, rocking, and yelling only feet away from the band? Not this year, sadly. On the prowl in the mid 1990s, I needed this album, and return to it when I'm jonesing for a dose of lo-fi, amped-up, three-chord rock and roll, especially now as the memories of sweaty, packed clubs grow dim. The band having plugged in to something eternal back then, the album never disappoints.

The Devil Dogs turned to Bloch following an unhappy experience with their previous record, and their first with Vincent, We Three Kings. "We really had great songs on that LP," Baise told me, "but the mastering got screwed up, and we took the heat for it, so to speak." That record had been the third Dogs album produced by the Raunch Hands' Mike Mariconda, and as the band were already planning out Saturday Night Fever, Mariconda suggested that they consider doing the record with someone else. "That was odd," Baise acknowledges now, "but we love and respect him. He knew we had a great one in us and he knew enough to step aside and allow someone else to take us there." After returning from a tour of Japan during which they'd dug Supersnazz's Superstupid!, produced by Bloch, the Dogs knew who they wanted manning the boards for Saturday Night Fever.

By the time the guys arrived at Egg Studios, they were primed. "We rehearsed the shit out of those songs for months," Baise says, "then did an eight-week tour ripping those songs a new ass for two weeks before Seattle." He adds, "I believe we recorded four ten-hour days straight, and played three nights live." The Devil Dogs had no trouble acclimating themselves to the homespun charms at Egg. Gortler told Eric Davidson in We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001, “They talk about these famous studios—the Hit Factory, the Power Station, Olympic Studios in London. The places that I work in are like in some guy’s house, in the basement, next to the recycling bin. That’s what Egg Studios is, Conrad Uno’s basement. But Kurt really did know his shit. It sounds great!”

Hard at work
"The idea for the Live Party atmosphere was Andy's," Vincent told me. "He wanted it to sound kinda like the Beach Boys' Party! album, like the vibe of 'Barbara Ann'." Bloch concurs: "It was their idea to make it a party scene—We Are The Devil Dogs And You Have Been Invited To A Party!” That was the idea." Says Baise, "We always treated what we did as a special occasion. Andy orchestrated when everyone yelled or screamed." When Capitol Records hyped Beach Boys' Party! in 1965, the label distributed bags of potato chips featuring the album's cover art to record stores and radio stations. One can only imagine what Crypt Records might've sent as a promotional item with Saturday Night Fever: a shot glass? A bottle opener? A barf bag?

Vincent feels that Saturday Night Fever was the Dogs' "most planned and concentrated effort." The majority of the material was written and demoed at a studio in Brooklyn, and then battle tested on that long cross-country trip from New York to Seattle. "We were going to treat the recording just like another gig," Vincent said. "Just set up in the studio with Kurt and rip through our set."
Then we saved an overdub track where we were gonna put backing vocals and tambourines and stuff for the party. So on the last day we invited everyone we knew in Seattle to come to a party at Egg, which was not a very large room, got a bunch of beers, and had everyone making noise and getting drunk in the background. We got them to sing along on some stuff too. So we had the Supersuckers there, but I think it was only Eddie and Dan Bolton. We also had the guys from the Sinister Six who brought a bunch of cool girls with them. Forgive me but many of the names have been lost in the mist of time and drug use. Kim from the Fastbacks was there, as well as Ken Stringfellow from the Posies.
The Dogs cut twenty songs at Egg, fourteen for Saturday Night Fever, the remaining six spread over an EP and a single. Bloch remembers a highly productive week of orchestrated carousing. "The party was probably the last night of the session," he told me. "They’d invited their Seattle friends over for beers and a listening session. We must’ve had a pretty good idea of the album's running order, and they’d done a Seattle gig and a Bellingham gig during that week so we managed to load up the tiny recording room with likeminded revelers." Bloch, and Gortler, had to each don a poor-man's conductor hat, as the party hadn’t heard the record yet, "so it was hard for them to know where to clap along without some corralling, but it worked great!"

As Egg was set up in the basement of a house, "we’d have to be finished by ten p.m. each night due to the neighbors," Bloch remembers. "No-one really up and running very early in the daytimes. But what a raging session. Once they got warmed up and rolling, there was no stopping them. And so goddam funny they were. Non-stop slapstick. Glad we recorded everything the way we did, 'cause there wouldn’t have been nearly enough time to have done it any other way." The Dogs laid down the scorching tracks, live, with all involved working and hollerin' in the same room, "kinda the modus operandi of all good sessions," Bloch feels. "A few guitar overdubs and some vocals. It was all their raging energy that made it as killer as it is."


Saturday Night Fever starts with idle party noise: some high-spirited chatter, stray handclaps to urge on the band who's taken "the stage" (probably the floor, feet away from the partygoers). Someone remarks that he could seriously use some beer. Just as someone else gets the nerve up to ask the girl next to him, "What did you say your name was?" the plugged-in Dogs count-in, hit a deafeningly loud chord, and Gortler steps to the mike: "It's so good to see all my friends down here tonight, and I know—I know—everybody's ready to have a good time, yeah!" "We are!" someone retorts, and after Gortler compliments everyone for looking good, the set rockets off with the evening's theme song, the stomping "Big Fuckin Party"—part one, that is. The song's reprised at the album's end. "I think that was Kurt's idea," Vincent says. "We recorded it as a whole and I think it clocked in at over four minutes! That is absolutely forbidden in Punk Rock world, and certainly in [Crypt Records honcho] Tim Warren's world! So it got split in two sections which open and close the album. I thought that was a brilliant touch."
l-r, Gortler, Vincent, Baise
Saturday Night Fever detonates one killer cut after another—sounding, as in the best rock and roll, that each song might implode before it finishes, that the band is letting the music play them rather than the other way around, all of it sent to the ceiling by a boisterous gang of partying friends. "I was worried that someone would break something down [in the basement]," Bloch said, "but I think it was all fine. Not the first drunken party in that room, that’s for certain." The band threw in a few covers: the Victims' "Dance With You Baby," Gary Glitter's "Shakey Sue" (left off of the CD version), Gene Pitney's "Backstage," and a quickly-arranged take on the Stones' "It's Not Easy" (Baise: "Andy said it could be done in five minutes, and he was right, as usual.") Each cover slotted in nicely next to snarling yet catchy originals such as "Gonna Be My Girl," "I Don't Believe You" (my personal fave from the record), "Back In The City," "6th Avenue Local," and "Sweet Like Wine." The band's take on "Backstage" is especially great, a desperate, heart-on-sleeve ballad about the loneliness of a rock star's life. No backstage in this joint, maybe a tiny bathroom off of the hall. The guitar's loud and distorted, the drums and bass rumble, yet the songs' considerable hooks are strong enough to withstand the assault. Everything's played at breakneck speed yet as tight as a Swiss watch, sung with half-grins and that intangible urgency that arises when a band knows it's locked in.

Just before the Dogs reprise "Big Fuckin Party," a reveler shouts "Uh oh, somebody's in trouble!" while another asks "Hey, what's in the box?"—a little off-stage narrative mystery and a great touch of drunken verisimilitude, reminding the listener that at every party there are always a few smaller parties working the room, all kinds of fun-and-drama catching fire, blazing, and burning out during the course of the long night. Alas, we'll never know what was in that box....

"All the memories [of the session] are great," Baise says. "We were so ready to record that record," adding, "We were taken care the whole time by really fucking nice, cool folks. I will say we always minded our shit and always kicked ass." Vincent added one more thing, "which sounds kinda name-droppy, because it is. After the album came out, one of the dudes from the Sinister Six was at a party in Seattle and Eddie Vedder was there. The guy put Saturday Night Fever on the stereo and Eddie loved it!" The next day, a note was slipped under his door which read:
Thanks for turning me on to the greatest Rock'n'Roll record EVER! 
Your friend, 
Let's hope the cops don't show up....

Back on home turf

Friday, July 31, 2020

Love, luck, and anarchy

Under the bridge at Lincoln Highway 
DeKalb, IL

“Everyone has to scratch on walls somewhere or they go crazy," Michael Ondaatje

Thursday, July 30, 2020

When you're not there

Someone asked me this morning what my earliest memory is. I often tell my writing students that I recall when my dad and I visited my mom at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland after my younger brother was born; I was three and a half years old. I'm sure that I possess snippets of images from even earlier days, but this memory's a vivid one. My mom had long red hair, was smiling in the lobby, holding my new brother in light blue blanket, my dad and I approaching....

My parents tell me that this never happened, that I wasn't at the hospital that day. I was home, being looked after by my older siblings. I guess I have to trust my parents on this one—their authority as witnesses and participants is pretty unassailable, after all. And yet.... the image of my mom holding my brother is so crystal clear, even narrative, in its details, that can't let go of it, have in fact replayed it countless times over the decades, and it's become a kind of touchtone for my relationship with my family and with Paul, with whom I'm in many was the closest of all of my siblings (in part because he's closest in age to me). The confounding and profound questions remains: where did I grab that image? Did I dream it? See a comparable scene in a movie, TV show, or magazine, and will my family into it, to posses and take it over and name it as ours? (Mine?) Am I conflating a different event that verifiably occurred with this fantasy? If so, how? Or the more interesting question to me: why? If we are the sum total of our memories and if many of our earliest, formative memories are suspect—let's face it, invented—like mine, what does that say about our past and our relationship to it? Our personalities and temperaments are forged in part by the events in our past, and if some of those events are created wholesale...well, which came first.... If this fictional image of my mom and brother was the result of misfiring synapse gaps or the product of pure fantasy, that it's stayed in me for decades, feeling as if it occurred as vividly as last night's dinner (if soft around the edges), seems vital. I was born at the same hospital. Does that mean anything? Regardless of how much of the past we create, the stories the past tells informs our present and future as surely as the news on CNN. None of this is new, of course and yet startles me every time. You tell me.

Holy Cross Hospital of Silver Spring postcard, ca. 1960s, via CardCow

Tuesday, July 28, 2020


During coffee this morning we spotted a squirrel at the end of the yard fooling around on a downed tree branch. At first I was afraid he was sick—a couple of summers ago we'd watched a raccoon "frolicking" under an arbor vitae; he stayed there all day, finally wandering in small, aimless circles, clearly deranged from rabies or poison—but soon enough the squirrel appeared to be playing. He flopped on his back, did flips and chin-ups on the branch, scaled its length, dashed beneath the arc like a show dog, and generally had a blast. Was it the novelty of a branch on the ground? He didn't seem to be accomplishing much of anything, just enjoying himself without purpose, hurtling through the air and rolling around, like a kid at the beach. After a few minutes of recess, the bell rang and up the nearby locust tree he shot, punched in, and was back at work squirreling away.

In an undergraduate poetry workshop with the late Stanley Plumly at the University of Maryland, a student next to me ventured writing a poem about a squirrel. Plumly, in his self-assured way, discouraged him, claiming that it was impossible to write a good poem about a creature as ubiquitous and easily sentimentalized as a squirrel. (As I recall, he mentioned Richard Wilbur's amazing "The Death of a Toad" as an exception to this.) Plumly may have been right, but today all I know is that watching that squirrel seemingly unburdened of the fear of predatory animals, hoarding food, and the general grim business of staying alive in a cutthroat world, reminded me of the joy of being a body, of the fact that all of us are capable of playing in the world and ignoring the daily weights we carry around and grow resentful of. A poor-squirrel's jungle gym in the backyard was a welcome surprise. Having a body feels dangerous now, surrounded as we are by an invisible virus intent on exploiting that body's weaknesses, and we're taking measures to protect ourselves, in the (necessary) process depriving our bodies of some of simple physical pleasures that we crave.

We want to play. Yet it's easy to give in to nostalgia, especially these days. When we were kids fooling on the jungle gyms, slides, and swings on the playground, each of us still carried around some dark stuff, rascism, gut-wrenching tweener politics, sad and bewildering family issues, any host of problems. Maybe flying through the air on a swing or balancing precariously at the top of the climbing bars or risking a leg burn on a hot slide lifted us out of our lousy bodies for a moment, until we were returned moodily to the adolescent crises of feeling complex things before we could name them. Sentimentalized or not, that playful squirrel was a nice reminder of the pleasures of the body we take for granted, what we experience in those moments before we're back toiling in the tree, one eye on the ground below, the other over our shoulder.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Looking back

Not that you asked, but I'm dubious about the runner standing out on second at the start of extra innings ("I missed it; how'd he get on second?"), the expanded playoffs (for $$$, I mean, fairness), the piped-in Crowd Noise and virtual fans in the stands as well as the Houston Astros playing without enduring the fair-and-balanced judgments of drunk fans (are they going to pipe in lusty boos when Jose Altuve's at the plate?), and the very fact of a baseball season (with traveling, spitting, high fives, physical intimacy among players, etc.) occurring in a pandemic, even with cautionary practices in place and robust testing.

Yet, historically at least, this season will be pretty damn interesting to watch. And I'm intrigued thinking about a 12-, 13- or 14-year old fan for whom the 2020 season is their formative season, the campaign that ignites their love of the game and to which they warmly return in memory for decades. Mine was the '78 season, for many reasons; I was twelve and I loved Reggie and Lou Piniella and the rancorous Yankees, and with some lean years along the way—the game was replaced by rock and roll and girls for quite a spell—I've been a lifelong fan, though one armed with plenty of complaints about the sport, though rarely the game. I'm looking forward to the future memoir written by the middle-aged fan whose love for baseball was sparked by that crazy 2020 season when they were a kid, when the Pandemic raged, when the game stood at a crossroads of sorts when many were writing it off. At the time it all seemed so serious and important. You know, memory. Oh, and those masks (some of) the players wore!

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

It's the reason I exist

I had tickets to see Amyl and The Sniffers at Lincoln Hall in Chicago back in May. Well, yeah. The show's been rescheduled for October. Well, yeah.

So, who knows when I'll be able to catch the Melbourne, Australia band whose intense songs and live reputation have created a major buzz since their self-titled 2019 debut. Meanwhile, I've got the videos and the songs. "Control" is a riveting track that, like the best rock and roll, is poised between command and chaos. The song's about the singer's obsession with being in charge, made all the more powerful and urgent given that it's sung by a woman, the tiny stick of TNT known as Amy Taylor. (She's also been dubbed a “human firework.") Gender politics aside, what's most galvanizing about the song is the tension between what it's saying and what it's doing, the band harnessing their considerable three-chord firepower to both support the singer's declaration and to make it vulnerable to implosion. "I like being a big bad boss," Taylor sings, sexily. "I like telling people off."
I like working under pressure
I'm a freak, it gives me pleasure 
I like control, I’m obsessed
She likes staying up all night, yet also being treated right. She gets off on proving people wrong, as she should, yet grimly recognizes that because of that she'll "probably...die alone." Frankly, she claims, it's "the reason I exist." What is? Control, or the obsession with it? The fact that she needs it, or the fact that she succeeds at it? In the stunning bridge, Taylor chants I like control until it becomes a mantra more dimensional with each declaration, as the band builds intensity vamping a single chord. Moving to the second chord might topple things, so precarious is the balance between authority and anarchy, yet the band holds it together. By the sound of Taylor's excitable screeches at the end, she might be on the brink of losing grip on things altogether. Ot maybe it's glee. Two and a half minutes is all this boss needs, or all she can handle, it's hard to say.

I feel as if I need to hear this song more every day, not only because my withdrawal pangs from not seeing shows are reaching epic levels, but because the overwhelming urge to control things—politics, other people, a virus—beyond my ability to do. Cranking one of the great rock and roll songs of the last couple of years helps me to press re-set. Turn it up—in a controlled environment.

Bottom photo by Jamie Wdziekonski via Monster Children

Monday, July 20, 2020

Early Self-Portrait

I'm a kid, lying on the kitchen floor, cradling a puppy on my chest. I can't remember now whose—possibly ours, Molly, but I think she might've been on loan from a neighbor. I was alone, enjoying this nice moment with a warm animal on top of me, when a subtle shift in consciousness occurred. I slowly became self-aware, seeing myself on the floor, an image of a small boy with a puppy. I imagined what I looked like—precious, I probably thought, though I wouldn't have used that word at that age—and then I imagined what I'd look like to one of my siblings if he or she walked in the kitchen. Precious, I probably thought—so I struck a pose, staying there on the floor long after the spontaneity and immediacy of the moment had passed, and certainly long after the poor squirming puppy wanted to bolt to better fun.

An ordinary moment, yeah, but one I find myself returning to as a kind of melancholy origin story. I see that moment as the beginning of my awareness of myself as a person who others notice. I became, in effect, a tableau, or part of one anyway, part of a stage set that I constructed. A step toward maturity and self-actualization, I guess, yet clearly too a step away from purity of feeling unburdened by self-consciousness, purity which is I guess is a definition of innocence. I was proto Instagram. I was branding myself. ("Cute kid and puppy.") I became mannered. Early Self-Portrait. I was concerned more about appearance than authenticity—again, words and ideas that I wouldn't have know or used at that age, but, you know, childhood: it's all about catching up to experiences with the language to express those experiences, and often failing. I think of this moment as a sweet one, and on days when I'm feeling generous I see it was the burgeoning of a writer's sensibility, but I also recall feeling quickly foolish on that floor, a phony, annoyed by my own self-interest. Then that sweetness of that moment curdles, becomes something unappetizing, a fact of the human condition I grimly accept and often try to flee. Like you, I can attain moments unburdened of self-awareness—at a live show, or two or three drinks in, or during sex, or occasionally on long walks, solo or with Amy—but those moments are finite. This is hardly news, is in fact is simply the hard won stuff of maturity, I guess, but it says a lot about me that I try and doge it as often as I can. Live in the moment, they say. How brief those moments are before marauding, toxic self-awareness arrives. I wish that poor sap on the kitchen floor had has a few more moments to himself before his self showed up to spoil everything.

Photo of "Mannington vinyl floors—Roman Square pattern (1974)" (detail, filtered) via Click Americana

Friday, July 10, 2020

Don't play ball

Normally, reading the following comments from Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Lucas Gialito would fill me with the warmth of anticipation. “[The] first inning I felt was a nice pace, established some pitches there,” he said of a recent start in so-called Summer Camp.
Second inning rushing, I felt like I was a little bit out of my mechanics and needed to make an adjustment. In a real game, that’s something [catcher James] McCann would recognize. We talked about it after. After I walked the first guy and went 2-0 the next guy, he’d be out there getting me reset. Third inning, [I] bounced back, made the necessary adjustment. It was a solid inning. Overall it was good work.
I've been missing this kind of baseball talk: unhurried, granular, the everyday work of the game, of a guy tuning up. Yet such modest talk feels reckless now, as Major League Baseball prepares to play a "season" of sixty games, a meaningless mad dash against great and perhaps lethal odds in order to reap the financial benefits of cable, streaming and advertising revenues and thus to satisfy owners and investors, to desperately keep baseball on the cultural radar and in the minds of casual fans, and to allow highly-paid professional players to do what they do. The foreground is the so-called Grand Old Game assuming its rightful role as "healer" of the nation, a gently smiling, field-taking Pastime that we apparently need; the background is a chaotic blur of rising COVID-19 rates, tragic and unnecessary deaths, and an appallingly heartless, ignorant administration more than willing to trade lives for self-serving politics. I feel for those at the less remunerative levels of the game—the park attendants and concession stand employees, the parking lot guys, the grounds crew, et al—but I don't know that baseball should proceed. I imagine the wheels falling off within a week or two as more players and staff become infected, and the notion of playing seems, finally, inappropriate and reckless. I could be wrong, and though I miss baseball on the radio and the kinds of daily comments like Gialito's—that is, the game itself, not the often craven and cash-obsessed sport—I would happily do without for the greater good. It's hard to imagine what October will look and feel like, let alone next week. Play ball? Let's wait, wear our masks, travel only when it's essential, work as we need to within CDC guidelines, and meanwhile dial up some favorite classic games on YouTube. We'll all thank ourselves next March, when Gialito and other rested players can get back to the business of murmuring about making adjustments, the small and less-risky kind.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

An empty Bottle

"An empty drawer is unimaginable. It can only be thought of." So says Gaston Bachelard. But what of an empty rock and roll club? Courtesy of these wonderful, melancholy photos, I don't have to try to imagine it. I can see it.

I certainly never wanted to think of the Empty Bottle as, well, empty for the foreseeable future, but here we are. (You can contribute to the venue's Reopening Fund, Staff Fund, or Music Friendly Distancing artists here.) These photos capture something beyond the atmospheric hour-after-last-call or the busy few minutes before a joint opens up: they evoke stillness and quiet, a noun and adjective one rarely associates with a raucous rock and roll club. Gorgeously photographed with a blend of light sources, the long bar, the dance floor, and the adjacent room (whither goest thou, merch tables?) look beautiful and artfully appointed, because they are; over the decades, the staff at the Bottle have created a warm and lived-in feel at the place but the aesthetics, not to mention the often striking artwork on the walls, are often lost to dim lighting, and in another lifetime, to swirling cigarette smoke. These noiseless photos create an alternate mood, homey, rich even. All that's missing are the patrons, the bands, and the virtually-visible music reaching into every corner. The images are pleasing yet heartbreaking, most of all to the struggling owners and the unplugged bands who were primed to visit the little Ukrainian Village corner joint from a few neighborhoods over, or the other side of the country, or another continent. I want so badly to pull up a stool here, order a beer and a shot, people watch, stroll the place, and ignore, or fall in love with, the second of three opening acts who I'd never heard of before. In the meantime, I'll wait. The music will come back one day. In a silly way, I'm grateful for these evocative photos even as they do what all photographs do: welcome me in while keeping me out. See you soon, down at the rock and roll club.

Photos courtesy of Empty Bottle

Monday, June 29, 2020

Less human noise

It might be my imagination, but it appears that the animals around me—birds, deer, even the fireflies at night—are less fearful, more approachable. I wonder if this is due to the pandemic, if wildlife is feeling fewer vibrations of human activity and, instinctively, feel emboldened, or anyway more comfortable, venturing out. The deer in the woods in our backyard come closer to us and don't bolt off as suddenly; birds are more plentiful and full-throated, it appears, and have taken to landing very close to us when we're out on the deck. Fireflies have returned at night; they've been scant the last few years. A couple of months back, ABC News ran some photos documenting this new "roaming," for better and for worse.

Again, I might be imagining this, but even so I take comfort in the apparent ease with which the suburban wildlife around us are spending their ordinary days, blissfully unaware of our ugly, self-created problems, and vibing off of the new clearness within which they silently move, perhaps feeling, and fearing, less human noise.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Magic Sam's secret heart

I'm astonished at the places singer and guitarist extraordinaire Magic Sam goes in his version of "My Love Will Never Die," one of the great obsessive love songs in blues history. Willie Dixon wrote the brooding tune and released it in 1952 with his Big Three Trio. After Otis Rush and others, Magic Sam recorded a version at Sound Studio in Chicago with his Blues Band for his debut album West Side Soul, released in 1967. Mighty Joe Young aids and abets on guitar, and Stockholm Slim on piano, Earnest Johnson on bass, and Odie Payne on drums round out the band, who play—surrender to, really—the compulsive 12/8 time as if they have no choice: the song arrived, and well, that's it, you may as well not play it like might you stand out in the rain and stay dry. The music masters the musicians, even as they master its dilemmas.

I'm not a musician, nor am I an actor. But like every human being in existence, I present a different persona for any given time of the day. We get into roles and we play them. What's brilliant and unsettling is how Magic Sam navigates words he didn't compose, lyrics which dramatize either a pathetic and delusional man or a brave and noble one. Sam amazed with his expressive guitar, but I keep coming back—on this record, his equally great follow up Black Magic, and the terrific Magic Sam Live—for his voice, which can leap into a falsetto so graphic in its expressiveness that I'm startled nearly every time. What Sam lacks in finesse he more than makes up for in gruff urgency; he's too close to the mike at times, the needle in the red just a corollary to his own heart pounding. He's steeled by the song's insistent, coiled beat, which gives the impression of a brave march, yet the minor key gives away his desperation and weak bargaining position. "You've done me wrong for a long, long time, and all you've done still never changed my mind," he—asserts? wills himself to believe?—and those dozen or so words lay out the song's problem to solve: she's hurt him, yet he still loves her. Now what? The last verse—
These flowers grow where I lay and rest
And these colored blossoms darling, hold to your breast
And darling, I know it's my mind breaking out
From inside my love for you will never die
—says that he's here for the long haul, but to what end? Does he believe that his declaration will win her back? (And why would he want to?) Doesn't he realize that his feelings for her, however noble and earnest, might look like neediness to her, or, worse, as tiresome and creepy obsessiveness? Yet either way he's singing, he has no choice, and that's what's both moving and exhausting about "My Love Will Never Die." The more he sings, the further she moves away, until he's alone at the end, clutching little but his continuing, baffling affection for a person who's hurt him. How to solve that age-old dilemma.... The strutting time signature has its knees taken out by the sadly knowing minor key; Sam's needful vocal is undercut by the helplessness of the very words he's singing. No matter how many times I listen to this remarkable performance, my sympathies remain at war: the singer's tired yet confident, resolved yet weak, emboldened yet haunted, assertive but owned by a weepy tremolo that he can't keep out of his voice. Of course, this is what I hear, with my own history, biases, and needs—you might hear something else.

Magic Sam's performance cut in this studio on this day in 1967 is timeless, and reveals a surprise or two with every listen. Like all great art, "My Love Will Never Die" remains in many ways unresolved. Joyce Carol Oates, who knows a thing or two about the dark heart, says “Lovers of pristine harmony, those who dislike being upset, shocked, made to think and to feel, are not naturally suited to appreciate art, at least not serious art, which, unlike television dramas and situation comedies...does not evoke conflict merely to solve it within a brief space of time."
Rather, conflict is the implicit subject, itself; as conflict, the establishment of disequilibrium, is the impetus for the evolution of life, so is conflict the genesis, the prime mover, the secret heart of all art.
It's an observation as old as dirt, sure, yet the paradox that Magic Sam tries to sing himself out of sounds and feels desperately fresh every time I listen. In the eternal present tense of the song's finish, he's battling a problem so ancient that it's as new as yesterday.

Trying to figure it all out

Tuesday, June 23, 2020


Years ago, Amy and I planted a Serviceberry tree by our front walk. We only recently learned that the fruits are edible when ripe. So this morning we picked a cup full and baked some muffins. It's restorative these days to be able to walk outside, pick some berries, and an hour later have a plate of muffins.