Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Eight Seconds

Rock and roll history is a long, sturdy bridge, elevated on sturdy pillars. The beginning of the bridge is hard to discern now—it's so far back there—and we haven't reached the end yet. A more accurate metaphor might be that same bridge in a thick fog; as history and biases and subjectivity lift, more and more of those pillars are revealed. Or, I'll just make it easy: Eddie and the Hot Rods were a great rock and roll band and they don't get their due. Usually categorized as a pub rock outfit, Eddie and the Hot Rods were a smokin' rock and roll band that made a handful of great records. Their EP Live at The Marquee was released on Island Records in July of 1976—from a mobile recording of a July 9th show—as the UK punk scene was roiling. Their version of "Gloria" segueing into "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" vibes off of the same nihilistic energy that the Sex Pistols let loose when, snarling, they attacked and upended the Monkees' "(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone" a little while later. Earlier that year, the Pistols opened for the Hot Rods at the Marquee and smashed up the joint, and also the Hot Rods' gear; later, in the summer, the Hot Rods would alternate ear-ringing slots at the club with AC/DC.

This performance begins even before the song starts, when one of my favorite rock and roll moments occurs. Singer Barrie Masters, surveying the front of the stage, senses something not quite right, and then gets dismissive:
Move all these chairs, don't want 'em in 'ere! Get up, move 'em all. Can't have chairs in the audience, they get in the way. Get 'em out of here!!
The front of the room cleared for dancing, pogo-ing, and general slamming around, the band rips into "Gloria." It's a fantastic moment, and sounds epochal, practically historic: in eight seconds, one era ends and another begins. That's as long as it takes, sometimes. Feels that way this on this night, anyway. Sitting, that's finished; get up and jump around, 1977's almost here.

And listen to Masters—with Dave Higgs on guitar, Paul Gray on bass, Lew Lewis on harmonica, and Steve Nicol on drums, churning behind him—as he hollers "Satisfaction!" over and over at the song's close, so close to Johnny Rotten's heralding "No Future!" that it could be one transparency laid over another. The Stones roughed up. Pub Rock. Punk Rock. Rock and Roll. The tyranny of taxonomy. What's in a name? Clear those chairs and turn it up.

EP sleeve pic via 45cat

Sunday, January 15, 2017

"To gaze into the camera is to look into the future"

Geoff Dyer has a terrific meditation on family photographs, memory, Walker Evans, and hints of the future in The New York Times Magazine. "This picture, which seems like a pure emanation of memory, includes the person whose memories it represents: the person, that is, whose consciousness never included this view of himself."
I have no idea who took the picture. As a result, and because it includes every member of our family — I had no siblings — something strange happens. An unknown friend, relative or passer-by must have taken the picture, but in the absence of clinching evidence to the contrary, it is not unreasonable to think that the place itself made a record of the day. 
Later: "I’ll actually be 60 next year, and so, looking at this picture, I think again of something the poet George Oppen said to Paul Auster about getting old: 'What a strange thing to happen to a little boy.' That, surely, is among the wisest things ever said by anyone about aging."

More on family photos here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Sister Nena Reading

A blend of nuns and lay faculty taught at Saint Andrew the Apostle Grade School, which I attended from first through eighth grades. Many of the Sisters had been there since before my oldest brother was a student—they lived in a small, dark brown convent annexed to the school—but by the time I left for high school, teaching nuns were well on their way out. My favorite nun there‚ one of my favorite teachers to this day, was Sister Nena, an Italian woman who, to my ten-year old perspective, could've been anywhere from fifty to seventy years old. She was dark haired and small, funny with a quick and loud laugh, with bright eyes and a direct gaze, and a smile that seemed to indicate more than it let on. She's directly responsible for my lifelong love affair with language and words. At around one or two, following the afternoon recess, the room full of nine or ten-year olds buzzing with post-lunch, pre-3 p.m. mania, Sister Nena would instruct us to lay our heads down on our desks, and she'd read aloud to us from a book. I can't remember any of the titles she read, but the fact is I'd probably forgotten them by the next day, so immersed was I in the sound and textures of Sister Nena's voice, the timbre, sing-song, up-and-down music of sound. Her voice would caress the back of my neck and head, fill my sinuses, tickle behind my nose. As she read, I'd half doze off—as most of us kids did—moving dreamlike in and out of the story, the characters, the setting, her voice massaging me into bliss. I couldn't articulate this to myself then, only lift my head in a daze when she finished, stealing glances at the kids around me, their faces suddenly softened and made more intimate, but not threateningly or weirdly so—it was as if we'd all become siblings, our odd differences smoothed. The world, the classroom, had changed a bit, but rubbing the sleepiness from my eyes was a kind of movement back from the land of story and sound to the lousy politics of the classroom and playground. The pleasures—the physical pleasures—were paradoxically temporary but lasting, each time the sounds of Sister's soft voice pressing a little deeper in me. I was wildly grateful to her, but couldn't really understand that, let alone tell her. In every book that I've ever opened, I hope to hear her voice.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

5, 4, 3, 2, 1...

To wrap up the year-long celebration of the Fleshtones' 40th anniversary, here's a raucous 2008 New Year's Eve countdown from the fellas onstage at Long Island City Bar in New York, followed by a rip through "Destination Greenpoint." Happy New Years one and all!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

"It's getting late but it's so early"

l to r: Luke De Beaumarchais, Bill Rohla, Nato Coles, Sam Beer, Mike Cranberry
Bars are great, deadly, a caution. Minneapolis-via-Brooklyn Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band capture the desperate pledges of tavern life beautifully in "Julie (Hang Out a Little Longer)" from their 2013 album Primises to Deliver. It's last call and the singer begs Julie, an old friend (a flame?), to stay with him. He reminds her of the way things used to be: "Lookout! bands and east bay zines / I ain't changed, don't think you did either / You and me, babe, we're believers." He begs her to see through the present's disappointments ("Days turn to weeks and months turn to years  / You feel like you're living your life in a mirror / Random tests so now you can't get high / You start thinking liberty is a lie") to earlier promises they'd made, "Somewhere back in the glory days / Time to cash it in, do it today / Or else you're gonna fade away."

Drunken inspiration hits him in the singular discovery "it's getting late but it's so early," to my ears one of the great lines in recent rock and roll, evoking not only after-hours optimism but the kind of adolescent horizon-free mobility that's so sexy and joyous but tough to keep renewing as you get older, let alone with a partner who's heading out the door. But he gives it a shot. "Julie" is a moving song with a terrific chorus; I hesitate to praise a song by describing it as something you might've heard on the radio back in the late-70s or, more likely, back then on your favorite underground New Wave or Power Pop group's criminally-unrecognized debut, but the band's in touch with something eternal here, begging at a bar, a silhouette of like desperate gestures made since the dawn of time. Turn it up.

(I might prefer the rawer demo recording of the song at Bandcamp here.)

Photo via Nato Coles & the Blue Diamond Band

Monday, December 26, 2016

"That homemade thing": Super Rock on MTV

In recognition of the Fleshtones' 40th anniversary in May of this year, I've been combing through the Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band and online archives for some little-seen nuggets. Courtesy of Mike Ziegler on YouTube comes this beauty, a full feature on the band that was broadcast in July of 1983 on MTV's The Cutting Edge—which just happened to be hosted by Peter Zaremba. Watch the guys promote Hexbreaker, chat about music, goof around flipping burgers in an L.A. hamburger joint, and run through a (lip-synced) version of "Want!" This feels like a long, long time ago.

Keith Streng: "When you get down to it, what garage rock is, it's like everything you listen to gets incorporated into one sound, which becomes your own sound. That's what garage rock really is. I mean, it's not like you have to go out of your way to become a garage band by trying to sound like a garage band. It should happen naturally." 

Peter Zaremba: "We get most of our ideas when we sleep, or dancing to someone else's music, or driving in a car. I don't know what that adds up to, but I think the guy that sits down and says, 'I must compose the masterpiece now,' generally is not gonna really get a Super Rock type of sound."


Sunday, December 25, 2016

Happy Holidays

Here's hoping that you and yours have a fun, relaxing, safe, and free-of-enmity Holiday season!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Lean and the Hungry

As I'm coming out of an off-grid sabbatical and gearing myself up for teaching again, I've been thinking more about autobiography, and that dovetails nicely with reading Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run. I doubt I'd use it in the classroom; Springsteen's memoir isn't particularly artful, which is just as well; the earnestness I feared, and which mars far too many of Springsteen's songs for my taste, doesn't show up in his prose much, mostly elbowed out of the way by a true music fan's gushing, hyper-hypenated, ALL CAPS, half-grin bemusement at his life and career and the folks he's met over the decades. The cliches are forgiven because that's how we talk most of the time, and this book is conversational.

As I discovered last year while reading Elvis Costello's memoir, I'm more interested in the leaner, hungrier days than in fame and success. I don't know if that's odd or not. I should want a fly-on-the-wall perspective on elite popularity and the attendant riches and and upper-echelon lifestyle it brings, that life being so removed from my own existence, but that point of view often bores me, perhaps because it's beyond my ken and so I have little purchase on it; I tell my students over and over, the success of autobiography doesn't depend on the degree to which the reader can "relate" to it. Springsteen's hungry ("glory") days—wearying battles with his uncommunicative, resentful, Schaefer-beer pounding old man; the geeky Catholic boy's disarming and thrumming crushes on the dark, giggling Jewish girls next door; playing a bar in front of no one for ten bucks to split among his band; traveling out to California first as a non-licensed, petrified driver, later on a non-stop ride crammed in the trunk, fearing that the luggage and band equipment might topple over and flatten him; the terror and hysteria of draft day; homeless and living on the Jersey beach while cutting Greetings From Asbury Park; spinning 45s on a piece-of-shit turntable in a rented cottage in West Long Branch, New Jersey while he was writing "Born to Run"—are more more entertaining, insightful, and valuable to read than the sealed, backstage comforts, a millionaire's various, non-urgent dilemmas, pulling off the logistics of a first arena or Super Bowl halftime show, playing with Sting and Pete Townshend, well-heeled equestrian training, and how to keep a marriage and family healthy while living among mansions and sold-out international arena touring.

Perhaps I'm being unfair. Springsteen's admissions of his essential lonerness and lifelong depression, untempered by material successes, and frank acknowledgement of the surcease brought on by antidepressants and regular visits to his shrink, complicate his late-life (and late-book) accomplishments in an engrossing way. Yet two moments struck me: in the early 1980s, flush off of the commercial success of The River album and tour, Springsteen takes a cross country drive with a friend. The passage is wonderfully written, hauntingly evocative of the kinds of low-rent, anonymous, blue-collar neighborhoods Springsteen grew up in, escaped, and is committed to writing about in songs; but I couldn't help acknowledging to myself as I read that Springsteen's 3 A.M. departure from these towns now is easily, wealthily assisted, with much less at stake; he's not slumming, but in a way he is. And there's a moment in the days following the 9/11 attack when Springsteen, pulling out of a parking lot in New Jersey, hears someone yelling from a passing car, "We need you, Bruce!" A remarkable instant that dramatizes Springsteen's fame and larger-than-life iconic status as a coveted, mythic eastern seaboard truth-teller—yet I feel removed from it. Is it wrong that I'm more interested in hearing from the skinny Bruce on the boardwalk in his teens who might imagine achieving that kind of impossible, local/national heroism through hard work and some luck? After all, that's where the vast majority of us stay: dreaming. Probably. Neither of these passages I cite are Springsteen's fault, of course, and I am a self-admitted fameist. As I wrote about Costello's book: fame and success aren't the writer's problems, but they may be his memoir's problems.


Art affects us: we look up and the world's altered. Springsteen's greatest songs—such as "Thunder Road" and "Tunnel of Love," to name the two in highest rotation in my music room these days, the codas in each still absurdly moving—do that to me: as I'm out in the world listening, the folks around me at the Y or the Hy-Vee morph into characters in his songs and, just as wonderfully and magically, vice versa. Unsurprisingly, Springsteen's a great story teller, his nutty, freaky misbehaving (including, though coming startlingly late in life, drunken misbehaving) in Born to Run packed with details and humor. Among my favorite songs of his are the ones that have beginning-middle-ending narratives, that tell a tale over time, eschewing figurative language, abstractions, and lyric bursts for pure story. Here are two of my favorites, one darkly funny, the other grimmer, each alive with round characters following or betraying urgent impulses, desires, and crazy conflicts—each, that is, full of life. Minor greatness in Springsteen's catalogue, perhaps, but minor greatness is still great.

"From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)" 
(The Essential Bruce Springsteen, 2003; outtake from The River, 1980)

At sixteen she quit high school to make a fortune in the Promised Land
She got a job behind the counter in an all-night hamburger stand
She wrote faithfully home to mama, "Now mama don't you worry none
From small things, mama, big things one day come"

It was late one Friday, he pulled in out of the dark
He was tall and handsome, first she took his order then she took his heart
They bought a house on the hillside, where little feet soon would run
From small things, mama, big things one day come

Oh but love is fleeting, it's sad but true
When your heart is beating, you don't wanna hear the news
She packed her bags and with a Wyomie County real estate man
She ran down to Tampa in an El Dorado Grande
She wrote back, "Dear mama, life is just heaven in the sun
From small things, mama, big things one day come"

Well she shot him dead on a sunny Florida road
And when they caught her all she said was she couldn't stand the way he drove
Back home dear Johnny prays for his baby's parole
He waits on the hillside where the Wyomie waters roll
At his feet and almost grown now, a blue-eyed daughter and a handsome son
Well from small things, mama, big things one day come

"Spare Parts" 
(Tunnel of Love, 1987)

Bobby said he'd pull out, Bobby stayed in
Janey had a baby, it wasn't any sin
They were set to marry on a summer day
Bobby got scared and he ran away
Jane moved in with her Ma out on Shawnee Lake
She sighed, "Ma, sometimes my whole life feels like one big mistake"
She settled in in a back room, time passed on
Later that winter a son come along

Spare parts and broken hearts
Keep the world turnin' around

Now Janey walked that baby across the floor night after night
But she was a young girl and she missed the party lights
Meanwhile, in South Texas in a dirty oil patch
Bobby heard 'bout his son bein' born and swore he wasn't ever goin' back

Janey heard about a woman over in Calverton
Put her baby in the river, left the river roll on
She looked at her boy in the crib where he lay
Got down on her knees cried till she prayed
Mist was on the water, low run the tide
Janey held her son down at the riverside
Waist deep in the water, how bright the sun shone
She lifted him in her arms and carried him home
As he lay sleeping in her bed Janey took a look around at everything
Went to a drawer in her bureau and got out her old engagement ring
Took out her wedding dress, tied that ring up in its sash
Went straight down to the pawn shop man and walked out with some good cold cash

Photo of "Bruce Springsteen Writing Desk" by Pamela Springsteen via Morrison Hotel Gallery

Sunday, December 18, 2016

"Love, work, sex and fun"

In Born to Run, Bruce Springtseen writes memorably about the genesis of his most famous song, on the way describing the appeal of rock and roll records made in the 1950s and 60s and what was turning him off about much of the early- and mid-70s popular music he heard, and to some extent wrote toward on his first two albums:
I wrote “Born to Run” sitting on the edge of my bed in a cottage I’d newly rented at 7 1/2 West End Court in West Long Branch, New Jersey. I was in the midst of giving myself a crash tutorial in fifties and sixties rock ’n’ roll. I had a small table holding a record player at the side of my cot, so I was just one drowsy roll away from dropping the needle onto my favorite album of the moment. At night, I’d switch off the lights and drift away with Roy Orbison, Phil Spector or Duane Eddy lullabying me to dreamland. These records now spoke to me in a way most late-sixties and early-seventies rock music failed to. Love, work, sex and fun. The darkly romantic visions of both Spector and Orbison felt in tune with my own sense of romance, with love itself as a risky proposition. These were well-crafted, inspired recordings, powered by great songs, great voices, great arrangements and excellent musicianship. They were  filled with real studio genius, breathless passion . . . AND . . . they were hits! There was little self indulgence in the. They didn't waste your time with sprawling guitar solos or endless monolithic drumming. There was opera and a lush grandness, but there was also restraint.
We all have our favorites, but these three were likely in high rotation on Springsteen's turntable at West End Court:

Photo of Springsteen onstage at a dining hall at Dickson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvanis on Ocotber 20, 1974 via Brucebase.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Megastars in Nowheresville

I love these two passages about music and adolescence, each capturing that blend of joy, mystery, fantasy, desperation, identification, and bittersweet reality that scored countless days and nights. The first is "Records," from Kevin Sampsell's 2010 memoir A Common Pornography: "Two plastic record players and a nice stack of Top 40 45s were all I needed to start my own radio station."
My plan was to do a pirate radio show that would broadcast to my neighborhood. Instead I just pointed my speakers out the upstairs window and hoped the sound reached the corner.
          In fifth grade I started writing really bad pop song lyrics. When I wrote something I thought to be particularly hit-worthy, I’d cut out a piece of paper in the shape of a 45, and then, after coloring in the black wax area, I’d put the name of my song on the “label.” Some of these hits were “Sound of Thunder,” “Rich Dude,” and “Diamond Girl." The name I gave myself was Billy Rivers, because I thought it sounded cool.
          After cutting out the center hole, I’d string the smash hit to a hook on my ceiling. I imagined I was a megastar. Sometimes I’d even put them on one of the turntables and watch them spin. Forty-five revolutions per minute. Once I put a needle on one as it spun and ruined the needle. I had to go to the record store, where they sold little smoking pipes and stoner posters, spending my entire five-dollar allowance on a new snap-on needle.
The second is from Bruce Springsteen's new memoir Born to Run: "I always remember driving up the New Jersey Turnpike, and shortly before you reached New York, somewhere out in the industrial wasteland, stood a small concrete building."
There in the middle of the stink and marshes hung a brightly lit radio call sign. It was just a relay station, I suppose, but as a young tween I’d first imagined it was the real thing. That all my favorite deejays were crowded into this one cramped shack out here in Nowheresville. There, they were bravely pouring out over the airwaves the sounds New jersey and your life depended upon. Was it possible? Could this abandoned-looking little frontier fort so far from civilization be the center of your heart’s world? Here I dreamed in the swamps of Jersey were the mighty men and women you knew only by their names and sounds of their voices.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Sound of Less Control

I love this passage from Bruce Springsteen's highly readable (if unimaginatively titled) memoir Born to Run. Springtseen's describing the run-up to the mammoth recording sessions for The River, and what obstacles he, his band, and his co-producer Jon Landau were facing in trying to make a kick-ass rock and roll record at the end of the Seventies: "It was 1979 and state-of-the-art production values were still heavily influenced by the late-seventies mainstream sounds of Southern California," he writes.
Their techniques consisted of an enormous amount of separation between the instruments, an often stultifying attention to detail and very little echo or live room resonance. Most studios, in those days, were completely padded to give the engineer the utmost control over each individual instrument. The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and many other groups had a lot of success with this sound, and it had its merits, but it just didn’t suit our East Coast sensibilities. We wanted open room mikes, smashing drums (the snare sound on Elvis’s “Hound Dog” was my Holy Grail), crashing cymbals, instruments bleeding into one another and a voice sounding like it was fighting out from the middle of a brawling house party. We wanted the sound of less control. This was how many of our favorite records from the early days of rock ’n’ roll had been recorded. You miked the band and the room. You heard the band and the room. The sonic characteristics of the room were essential in the quality and personality of your recording. The room brought the messiness, the realness, the can’t-get-out-of-each-other’s-way togetherness of musicians in search of “that sound.”
It's a take!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Almost enough

I was born and raised in suburban Washington D.C., and lived in southeast Ohio for seven years and northern Illinois for twenty-one. I've endured my share of winters; I will never get used to them. The unrelenting gray, the wind, the layers of clothes. The day after a snowfall, however, still gets me, enough to renew the cliché of stark winter beauty, if not quite enough to make me pine, daily, for spring.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Hunting Larry Hunting Hank

"Hunting Larry Hunting Hank," my new essay in The Normal School, is the saga of my travels down to Oxford, Mississippi to find and read the unfinished screenplay that novelist Larry Brown wrote about the life of Hank Williams. You can find The Normal School at your local fine bookstores. It publishes twice each year, Spring and Fall. You can subscribe here.

Here's the opening:
 I never met Chip.
     “Oh, you’ve got to meet Chip!” The beaming young woman behind the check-in desk wears straight blonde hair and wire-rim glasses. “He was a good friend of his. He went fishing with him right before he died, I think. He'll be excited that you’re here. I think he's working the third-floor bar tonight." My wife and I are in Oxford, Mississippi, Where I've tracked down the late fiction writer Larry BroWn’s unfinished, unpublished screenplay of the life of Hank Williams, something that I hadn't known existed until I came across a casual mention of it in an interview. I’ve driven 650 miles to read the screenplay. 
Here's some musical accompaniment:

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Saga of Bazooka Joe?

As the Fleshtones' 40th Anniversary winds down, let's summarize: they've released over twenty albums and twenty singles: two covers albums; three live albums; half of an instrumental album; an album where each band member sings; an album of demos; an aborted debut album; an album with strings; a Christmas album; a Spanish-language EP. They've recorded in large and small studios in New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Spain, North Carolina, Detroit, Austin. They've written songs about love, sex, mortality, family, memories, gentrification, Coney Island and Canada, girls, ghouls, zombies, and Rick Wakeman's cape; they've recorded with Alan Vega and written a song about the Ramones; they've written a song about a book written about them; they've written a disco song and a 12-bar blues; they've written a fake theme song for a TV show that never existed. They've recorded with Dave Faulkner, Peter Buck, Steve Albini, Rick Miller, Jim Diamond, Lenny Kaye, and Ivan Julian.

The never lost that beat. What's next? A concept double-album about Bazooka Joe? They've gotten a head start:

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