Friday, September 23, 2022


Since 2012, I've been stoked to be the music columnist at The Normal School: A Literary Magazine. The folks there have now set up my own page, and I'm pleased that my earlier print-only pieces will be moving into the digital domain in the future. Please bookmark!

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

737 comin' out of the sky...

There's a moment in the new Netflix documentary Travelin' Band: Credence Clearwater Revival at the Royal Albert Hall when drummer Doug Clifford's on a balcony in Paris, knocked out that he's spending his 25th birthday in the City of Lights, gushing about having visited the Louvre and Lois XIV's "playground" like a wide-eyed tourist. Which he was. Though in the Spring of 1970 Credence Clearwater Revival were in rapid ascension, the band members were still appealingly untutored in the ways of the world. And, in some ways, on stage as well. John Fogerty mentions to an interviewer that his band isn't progressing as swiftly as he'd like, that they're still clocking in the hours at The Factory in order to learn and grow as musicians. You wouldn't guess that by watching the Albert Hall performance, which is tight, grooving, and, in several places, transcendent. My favorite moments occur during an excitable "Fortunate Son"—the air's crackling in the Hall despite the overly polite audience—as the band members make eye contact among each other, grinningly in awe at the rock and roll they're making. 

Narrated sparingly by Jeff Bridges, who's wise to step off of the stage as CCR hits theirs, Travelin' Band is part biography, part tour film. The editing suggests that the two Albert Hall gigs were the pinnacle of the European Tour, when in fact they sat in the middle of the eight-show swing, which also saw the band playing Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Sweden, Essen, West Germany, and Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The show's sequencing is altered as well: if Setlist is to be trusted, the twelve-song show began not with the fiery "Travelin' Band" but with the swampy "Born on the Bayou." No matter, the band's at their peak in whatever order they're delivering the goods, white-hot and tight, and the newly-mixed sound is superb, Stu Cook's bass and Fogerty's searing leads in particular standing out warmly and clearly. Well rehearsed, the band doesn't push their songs into the red or recklessly careen into improvisations; one or two songs pick up a tick in speed versus the studio versions, but mostly this band's about delivering solidly. You can see the smile growing on Fogerty's face as the set progresses: he knows that his songs kill.

Pull wide, and the Albert Hall gig can be seen as a peak of antoher sort. Travelin' Band refrains from commenting on the band's rapid and ugly demise the following year, during which Tom Fogerty would leave the band, and CCR would carry on as a bickering three-legged dog. The documentary ends with the boys smiling on couches in their rehearsal space while miming to "Looking Out My Back Door." What they saw out that door was a startling three-year span that saw CCR become, indeed, "the biggest band in the world." The view through the front door was far murkier, but the credits roll before that view becomes clear. For that, we should be grateful: the thankfully-full performances of songs that comprise the film's last hour allow us to marvel at one of the finest American rock and roll bands at their commercial and artistic peak.

John Fogerty comes across as characteristically guarded in his interviews; he smiles the least, but perhaps that's because, as he'd reveal in interviews down the decades, he was under the most pressure at the time. We know now that during this time his band members were eager to contribute more in the studio, but Fogerty, assuming the role of gifted but burdened task master, wouldn't let go of the reins, stubborn in his knowledge that the key to the band's considerable success was in his capable songwriting hands. (For the full story, I'm eager to read John Lingan's new A Song For Everyone: The Story of Creedence Clearwater Revival, as Lingan's Homeplace was a terrific read.) 

My chief takeaway is the marvel that is drummer Doug Clifford (seen left). From his guileless reactions to visiting the Old World for the first time to his appealingly friendly interviews to his commanding drumming onstage, where he's somehow both locked-in and blissed-out, he's an utter delight to watch. All of the band members are young and beautiful, and hairy, laughing as they're digging the world that's arrayed at their feet. Travelin' Band ends as the band's final act begins. Enjoy the moment.


Another reminder in this film is just how timeless CCR's best songs are, transcending the era's fractious, political theater into the realm of Platonic rock and roll. The songs' deep imagery of the South (where Fogerty hadn't stepped a foot) evokes an eternal landscape devoid of dated sloganeering. Fogerty's more pointed anti-war, anti-Establishment songs, hollered in his inimitable way into the oddly-quiet dark of Albert Hall, aren't time- and date-stamped as are many of his peers' because of the immediacy of his band's blues-based, black-influenced playing, conservative, yeah, but steeped in ages-old lore. Nary a psychedelic note is heard, yet Fogerty, a backward-looking traditionalist in many ways, was reflecting his times and singing as directly to his audience as were Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and the rest.

That said, several of my favorite moments in Travelin' Band off the stage do issue from the era:

Stu Cook, basking in the liberating breezes of Europe, where culture is "like shades of gray compared to America, where things are really and white. People don't get all pissed off at what you look like, you can get a job and you can, like, advance, with long hair! In the States, man, to get a job you've got to cut your hair. You can't even have sideburns! It doesn't matter how many degrees you have or what your trip is, or any of that."

Tom Fogerty, excitable in the van en route to Berlin, "I'd like to go to [the Berlin Wall]. It'd be great. The wall, is it barb wire? Or is it thick? I was thinking about setting up there, you know, set the equipment on roof the wall, and aim it that direction, you know? We can aim it in both directions, how about that, and bring every up on it and dance and maybe the wall would come down!"

And his brother John, dryly relating to an interviewer his hopes for a more a considered rock and roll, "I want people to know when I'm really saying something serious, and when I'm just being an entertainer, you know? But it's also important that I don't appeal to basic motivations, and I don't start, you know, 'Hey all you hippies, join together and let's smoke dope!' I mean, people are gonna dig that, a certain element of society, but I don't want 'em digging it for that. I want them to look a little further than just, 'Hey, OK, we're all together, brutha!' and all that crap," adding, 

"Who'll Stop the Rain," and some of the others, too, but especially that one, I tried to stay away from, "Hey, he's a Left Wing Radical Crazy or he's a super Bircher," you know. Because both sides can take it and use it as their own rallying cry. Same as "Fortunate Son," really.

How prescient. One side or the other will always manipulate a song in order to hear what they want to hear. Yet, happily, a half century down the line we'll also always want to watch a kick-ass rock and roll band kick up some righteous noise.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

The appeal and the limits of Mod

I recently finished The Sharper Word: A Mod Anthology, a gathering of writing devoted to the history of the Mod lifestyle edited by Paolo Hewitt. With a few exceptions, Hewitt selected of-the-era pieces about the 1960s—he ignores the Mod Revival of the late-70s/early-80s—presenting looks, takes, and reminiscences of a unique and short-lived era that continues to resonate. "Modernism has longevity because it recognises two absolute facts," Hewiit writes in the introduction. "True style and quality never ever dates and that as long as there’s a money-go-round, there will always be someone wanting to dress up to fuck off a world that constantly wants to put you down." Nik Cohn, Richard Barnes, Colin MacInness, Alan Fletcher, Tom Wolfe, Pete Meaden, and others write in tones varying from adoring to skeptical, and in styles from personal to sociological. Their approaches are enlivened with details, reportage, and interviews from the era. 

The Sharper Word was first published in 1999; I'm glad that I couldn't have read this book in my late-teens, as I would've suffered some measure of anxiety. As I wrote about at length a few years ago, my teenage infatuation with Mod was deep and intense but limited by my own skepticism and unwillingness to commit to an ideology (an expensive one, at that). I never felt as if I could belong with the Maryland/Virginia/D.C. Mods in the 1980s in part because I was stoking a native, stubborn resistance to joining; I didn't dislike belonging to a group or community, but I resented having to follow certain explicit, unbending rules to maintain membership. I grudgingly admired those in the area who fully committed to the right clothes, the right Scooters, the Right Look, but I also found them slightly ridiculous in their slavish devotion. (Or was it jealousy? Envy of their dedication, which I knew took work I wasn't ready to do?) 

Pete Meaden, early Who manager and major Mod scenester, who's probably most famous for defining Mod as "clean living under difficult circumstances," was asked by NME writer Steve Turner to explain the 60's Mod revolution. "My Mod revolution was an undefined revolution against commodities and people," he insisted (emphasis added). "That is people were commodities, my parents treated me as a commodity, and Modism to me was a release, sweet release, relief." Later he's asked:

The mod thing was style as opposed to content, wasn't it?

Yeah, in as much as you can dismiss life as having no substance, there was no substance. But if you can put life together as having substance, a reason to believe, then you have Modism, which is where it was, which was via having a pill, having a few drinks, via having music to listen to, and a style of your own, so succinctly beautiful and self-contained, where privacy was everything, and no-one ever disturbed your privacy, because you are all the same...

Appealingly, Meaden also remarks that nurses can be "the best Mods of all." What if they're on night duty, Turner wonders, unable to reconcile all-night pill popping with all-night care giving. "Well, they'll come out in the daytime," Meaden enthuses, "go shopping with you, and they'll have the short haircuts, and nurses are about the best Mods of all, because they're actual practical people," adding, "Can't you understand, that's what Mods are all about." Meaden logic. What an interesting if tragic character he was.

One of my favorite passages, excerpted from Parallel Lives, a memoir by Peter Burton, a queer Mod and journalist, nails what I found so moving about Mod: its timeless appeal to youth, energy, and sensation. "As we danced along to Motown’s idealistic songs, we fell in love." Burton wrote. "We fell in love every weekend. Often affairs were brief—started on Sunday morning, over by Monday night. But the high obtained from the speed, the music and the companionship meant that these transitory flings were passionate and intense. And who is to say they were any less valid than romances which last for weeks, months, years?"

Great stuff. A common thread through many of the pieces in The Sharper Word is the thrilling liberation many original Mods felt while speeding on pharmaceuticals, delivered, however recklessly and finitely, from the rigors of dour class expectations and middle-class fear disguised as complacency. Many Mods who danced and, foaming at the mouth, sped all weekend from clubs to diners to clothes stores and back again were acting out freedoms that they felt society had denied them. They endured, indeed accepted with a kind of stoic pride the dreary day jobs that allowed them their purchase on The Weekend. Hewlitt reveals that there was an intellectual and philosophical underpinning to many of the more thoughtful Mods' weekends: they strove to look good (and to stay looking good) as a way of distancing themselves from their gray parents's gray lives, those who'd seemingly settled for what life meagerly offered, an all-too possible future. There was indeed something culturally revolutionary in many of the Mods' ways of behaving: the gobbled-by-the-handful Purple Hearts just got them there quicker, even as the infamous Sunday come-downs brutally reinstated the realties they were zooming from.

"Mod has been much misunderstood. Mod is always seen as this working-class, scooter-riding precursor of skinheads, and that’s a false point of view." This is Steve Sparks, a 60s Mod quoted in an excerpt from Jonathon Green's Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground 1961-1971. Sparks adds, "Mod before it was commercialised was essentially an extension of the beatniks. It comes from ‘modernist’, it was to do with modern jazz and to do with Sartre. It was to do with existentialism, the working-class reaction to existentialism."
Marc Feld (who became Marc Bolan) was an early example of what was the downfall of mod, which was the attraction of people who didn’t understand what it was about to the clothes. Mare Feld was only interested in the clothes, he was not involved in thinking. 
He added with a wink: "Mind you, it’s quite hard to think on twenty Smith Kline and French Drinamyl [both infamous Mod-era pharmaceuticals]."

And yet. The pursuit of liberty paradoxically came at the cost of individuality, that absurdist riddle that I had trouble accepting, or was afraid to try and tackle, when I was younger. Hewlitt, to his credit, included several pieces that aren't shy about taking aim at the Mods' obsessive attention to the shallowness of fashion. (In his brief intro to Nik Cohn's contribution, Hewlitt dryly observes, "I don't think he particularly liked Mods.") Though he reverently describes Richard Barnes' 1979 book Mods! as "the bible," Hewlitt's smart to excerpt this passage from Barnes's book about the the light foolishness of some overly-striving, Continental-worshipping Mods:
Another of Willie and Johnny’s friends took it all a bit too seriously. "We never smoked but would light up a Gauloise just to be seen with it. We all got into the French films and magazines, but Les went berserk. He used to wear a striped jumper and a beret and eat garlic and everything. He started to learn French. We saw him once sitting in Aldgate Wimpy holding up a copy of Le Soir. When we went in and joined him we saw that he was really reading the Sunday Pictorial which he had concealed in between the middle pages. It was all a pose. There was even a time when we saw him walking along wearing his beret and striped jumper and carrying a loaf of French bread under his arm."
Here's Alan Fletcher (whose novelization of the Quadrophenia film, by the way, is surprisingly good), in an excerpt from his novel The Blue Millionaire, perfectly capturing the consuming attention to manner and look endured by many Mods. "In pursuit of the true Mod style of riding the bike Dazz sat at the front edge of the seat and tucked himself in closely behind the front leg shields, his knees touching the gentle curves of Piaggio’s carefully sculpted panel lines. The side of his shoes rested against the point where the running boards met the front panels’ upward sweep. His toes hung out to the side of the bike. The geometrical relationship twixt tip of shoe and running board was of particular significance (it followed the lines laid down before). The shoe could be positioned at whatever angle you wished, providing it was exactly 45° to the horizontal! Jed knew that to conform with the decreed way of riding pillion he should be leaning well back over the rear wheel of the scooter, arms folded or behind his head; the snag was that the bike didn’t have a back rest—yet. In a flagrant contravention of all the interests of safety he refused point blank to put his arms around Dazz’s waist—so he gripped the bottom of the seat and was thus whisked white knuckled, around Nottingham."

And poet Andrew Motion, in an excerpt from his memoir The Lamberts, succinctly defines a certain "version of Mods—a suddenly coherent section of young England which was, in [The Who singer Roger] Daltrey’s phrase, 'the first generation to have a lot of money after the war’, and were using it to have good clean fun" that was "strikingly at odds with the original flavour of the Goldhawk Social Club." Motion adds, quoting Cohn, that "the Mods’ rebellion had a more threatening aspect too."
"The archetypal Mod," said Nik Cohn, the rock and roll commentator and entrepreneur, "was male, sixteen years old, rode a scooter, swallowed pep pills by the hundred, thought of women as a completely inferior race, was obsessed by cool and dug it. He was also one hundred per cent hung up on himself. On his clothes and hair and image; in every way, he was a miserable narcissistic little runt."
I guess Cohn didn't particularly like Mods.

Photo of dancing Mods via Pinterest; images of target from the 1999 edition of The Sharper Word

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Living through Cookie

I’m shamefully late to the writing of Cookie Mueller. I’m not a John Waters devotee, though I love his work, so I was unaware of Mueller’s maverick career in indie films and the stage. She died of AIDS-related complications at age 40, leaving behind decades worth of writings that ran the gamut from memoir, travelogue, and personal essays to fables, art criticism, and advice columns. The common thread through it all is an incredibly cool, nearly affectless voice describing an uninhibited life of drug excess, worldwide traveling (of the seat-of-her-pants, bohemian, graced-by-luck variety), and living on the margins peopled with crazy, beautiful, talented individuals. I hear Emily Hahn, Jim Carroll, Lucy Sante, and others in her voice, but Mueller was a true, cool original, never bitter nor overly cynical, eminently quotable, a fierce feminist and major partier. I think I would’ve loved to have known her. 

In 2014 artist, actress, and filmmaker Chlo├ę Griffin published Edgewise, an essential oral biography of Mueller, and maintains a lively site devoted to it. And this year, Semiotext(e) published an expanded editon of Mueller's Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, originally published in 1990, adding more than two dozen pieces, many previously unpublished. “What comes off these pages now is in no way anesthetized or anhedonic," writes Olivia Laing in her introduction,
but rather a deep relish for adventure, a powerful, vibrating pleasure at the oddness of people, and the capacity of language to freeze even the most plainly terrifying or distressing material, to make it something that can be appreciated and shared, a communal pleasure rather than a private humiliation. It goes without saying that this is not the dominant style right now, which for this reader at least makes it all the more desirable.
Between the material gathered in Clear Water, YouTube, and online remembrances (I recommend photographer Nan Goldin's 2001 piece in ASX), there's a lot of access to Cookie's extraordinary life and work, thankfully. 


Here are some of my favorite passages from Walking Through Clear Water:
I was always leaving. Every time I left I had a different hair color and I would be standing on the porch saying goodbye to the older couple in the living room. I didn't have anything in common with them except that we shared a few inherited chromosomes, the identical last name, and the same bathroom. ("Alien, 1965")

Next on the street I noticed a gathering of women. I thought this was a little odd since this was long before the days when women felt it their duty to exclude men from their conversations. As I got closer, I realized the blond in the center of the group was extolling the virtues of Jimi Hendrix, after having fucked him the night before. I walked on by. It seemed silly. I'd fucked him the night before she had. ("Haight-Ashbury—San Fransisco, 1967")

Happiness is a fictitious feeling. It was created by imaginative storytellers for the purpose of plot building or story resolution. Fortunately most people don’t know this. They think the lives they are living are actual screenplays or theater pieces. In earlier times people were convinced their lives were the fantastic tales told at the fireside. Because of this, I have seen people stop in their tracks for a moment and wonder where the plot is, but mostly they just forge on blindly. 
        .... Being a human being isn’t easy, what with all these insatiable physical, emotional, and intellectual desires.
        If the ultimate goal in life is to be happy, then you have to admit that one-celled creatures have it all over us. Little germs are probably always happy. They are superior, they don't sing the blues. Think about that the next time you bring out the disinfectant bottle and start scrubbing them away. ("Fleeting Happiness")

“Oh, I never did much, Cookie, I mean in the way of big success and things like that,” she lit a cigarette and brought the other knee to her chin. She reminded me of a giraffe. This is what future women will look like, I thought. Ethereal, long, lean, able to see the scope of things from a higher altitude, ready to lope away when danger threatens. ("Out of the Bottle and into a Danish Remedy")

Each friend I’ve lost was an extraordinary person, not just to me, but to hundreds of people who knew their work and their a fight. These were the kind of people who lifted the quality of all our lives, their war was against ignorance, the bankruptcy of beauty, and the truancy of culture. They were people who hated and scorned pettiness, intolerance, bigotry, mediocrity, ugliness, and spiritual myopia; the blindness that makes life hollow and insipid was unacceptable. They tried to make us see. ("A Last Letter")

The next time you find yourself climbing out on a ledge, give me a call. I can recommend a travel agent. ("Manhattan: The First Nine Years, the Dog Years")

There is a great art to handling losses with nonchalance. ("Brenda Losing")

Top photo of Mueller by Nan Goldin

Thursday, August 11, 2022

The family paradox

The great cosmic joke is that we don't choose our parents, yet we spend the bulk of our lives defining ourselves in relation to them and wrestling with their at-times outsized influence on us. The artist Joe Schactman died in 2000 when his daughter Lilly Dancyger was 12. In her tough, affecting memoir Negative Space, Dancyger explores the pull that her father has on her in both his presence and absence. 

Many memoirs, especially contemporary ones, are variations on the K├╝nstlerroman, the story of how a writer comes into being. Dancyger has lived with art all of her life. Her father was a vagabond sculptor/painter, often using found objects such as tossed hardware, roadkill, and parts of bird corpses in his jarring, sometimes disturbing, work. He remained stubbornly outside of the East Village art scene of the 1980s and '90s. He was also a heroin addict, and left Dancyger's mother, an addict who cleaned up, when Dancyger was small. Dancyger maneuvers among these biographical data points, assembling meaning as she ping-pongs from one truth to the next. Early on she writes, "They say all the cells in your body regenerate every seven years. When I turned twenty, my father had been dead for eight—so if that theory is true, no cell in my body had ever been on the planet at the same time as him." She adds, "I'd changed, cell by cell, into a person he never knew." Charged by this startling realization, Dancyger feels compelled to learn the ways that that person unknown to her father might've been shaped by him.

Throughout Negative Space, Dancyger wrestles with paradox, that stubbornly human dilemma that marks most thoughtful and searching memoirs. "Once again," she observes near the middle of her book, "I was faced with the feeling that by living my life, I was abandoning my father, that each milestone I reached brought me further and further away from him." Written over many years, her book is an attempt to bridge that gap, yet, as countless writers have recognized before her, by writing the book she widens the gap between herself and her subject, that weird discovery that dawns at some point in the writing process: the further we're distanced from our family they clearer we might be able to see them.

Three paradoxes rule the book; call them the Paradox of Family. Dancyger's mother Heidi was sexually abused when she was young, a truth that she confessed to her daughter; she also admitted that her husband, Lilly's father, insisted on having sex with her even she was working through the traumas with her therapist. "I knew that my father adored my mother, thought she was unbelievably beautiful and constantly stopped to admire her. But I never realized there was such an ugly side to this admiration, that it was a sometimes violent, possessive love."

I strained to visualize that dark side, and I waited. I waited for something in me to shatter, for my memory of him to shift—I waited for my idealized, mythologized vision of my father to distort now that I knew about this selfish, coercive side of him. I felt like it should. But it didn’t.

Dancyger writes powerfully about that discomfiting fact that we can be both repelled by and forgiving of a loved one: echoing F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous definition of intelligence, she admits that she somehow "could hold these two images in my mind at once: the brutish, demanding husband who compounded his young wife’s sexual trauma: and my father, endless source of art supplies and projects, who used to wink at me with conspiratorial glee after making references to inside jokes, even when we were alone." The two Joe's lived together in Dancyger's mind, obstinately so, "butting up against each other, contradicting each other, but neither erased the other. I could see more, could see deeper into the story, but the parts I remembered and cherished remained unchanged. Like the frame of the image expanded to show more around the edges, but what had always been at the center stayed the same."

Bound as much to her responsibilities as a writer as to her obligations as a daughter, Dancyger admits that  "Something in [her] mind" sheltered her memory of her father "by walling it off from this idea of him as an antagonist; [she] created a whole other version of him, like a separate character, distinct form the father I loved." We're talking about candid, brave writing here, and its requirements; as so many memoirs do, Negative Space ends up being a book as much about writing as it is about anything else. If Family is the great subject of contemporary American memoir, so is the journey of writing itself. 

Joe Schactman and Lilly Dancyger, San Fransisco, ca. 1996 (via Negative Space)

And that journey's usually fraught. Similar to Alison Bechdel's epiphany in Fun Home—that if her father had embraced his queerness as a young man rather than chosen the heteronormative route, she wouldn't exist—Dancyger recognizes the grim fact that had her father lived, she wouldn't be writing her book, and by extension, likely wouldn't have made the series of profound discoveries about herself and her mother that she does. "In a strange way," she writes, with a touch of regret, "I might not feel as close to him as I do now, his life and story and art such an urgent thread in my life. I hold the image of us together, artist-father and writer-daughter drinking coffee, talking craft and words and life, so tightly that I can almost see it like a photograph."

But it’s an image that would be impossible even if he'd lived—the version of me that I became without him could never have known him. They can only exist together here on these pages, and in my mind. I wonder sometimes what will happen when I’m finally done with this book, when I don't have this search to keep me connected to him anymore. I expect that I’ll mourn him all over again, in a whole new way.

Near the end of the book, Dancyger describes a moment when she's tasked in a writing workshop with making a list of her most crucial personal metaphors. She suddenly realized—"with an audible gasp that caused several writers to look up from their own lists"—that she'd become heir to her father's vast storehouse of images and symbols that had made up his art. "Of course they were mine too, not just to observe and read, but to play with, to make my own meaning out of. I didn't inherit the physical pieces of his artwork; I inherited the language in which his art was written, like I'd hoped to do all along." Chasing after her father’s story "into the core of my own grief, thinking of writing about him as a response to the call of his work" she recognized that she wasn’t simply "layering his imagery into my own creative experience, but building my own identity as an artist out of the pieces my father had left behind for me." The presence of her absent father is everywhere—she hangs his art, much of which is reproduced in the book, in her tiny apartments and interprets it, interviews his friends and art associates, reads his letters and diaries, breathes in the scents of his left-behind shirt as if it were life-giving—and turns out to have been instrumental in her her own creations, less a void filled with grief, though of course it's that too, than a kind of found puzzle piece that completed her own identity as an artist.

In his poem "Ars Poetica" the late Tom Andrews wrote that "the dead drag a grappling hook for the living." That's always seemed to me a graphically effective and powerful way to describe grief, that unwanted thing that seizes and takes you, usually against your will, to wherever it's headed and whatever it is you may or may not learn there. In the middle of her book, Dancyger ends a segment with a knock-out sentence, and an essential discovery: "I had a happy childhood, and my parents were junkies. Both of these things are true." Negative Space is a brave and clear-eyed story about the friction perpetually humming in the center of that conflict.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Transparencies, ctd.

While driving home to DeKalb from Geneva after a Kane County Cougars game—a 25-mile drive through small towns and farmland—I was struck by an unbidden moment where the past settled on top of the present like a transparency. We had the White Sox game on AM radio and as we headed west away from Chicagoland the reception cut in an out, that phenomenon itself a relic of sorts in the era of satellite radio. It was dark out but close enough to dusk that I could make out silhouettes of barns and farm buildings as we sped past and—in a confluence of the crackling radio, the mild summer night, and the rural abstract out the windows I was dropped into my family's Gran Torino station wagon as we drove west across Ohio in the summer of 1978. I felt that date because I was no longer listening to a White Sox/Rockies game, I was listening to a Cincinnati Reds on WLW in the midst of Pete Rose's epic hitting streak. I don't know what precise game we had tuned in that night—it was likely in mid- or-late July, and so near the end of the streak—but as I'd followed Rose's feats at home, in Maryland, I knew that the stakes were high, and higher still with each game. I listened with hyper attention and looked out the window as Rose took an at-bat or two, and eventually got his hit, the streak continuing impossibly, and I imagined Rose sprinting to first and rounding the bag as outlines of barns played on the passenger windows competing, or complementing, the tableau. The rest fades. We arrived at my grandparents' house, in Coldwater, Ohio, later that night. We stayed for a week or so. I played with my older siblings on train tracks and at the small public park. Rose's 44-game hitting streak ended on August 1. He went 0-for-4 against the Atlanta Braves.

The narrowing of that four-and-a-half decade gap of time to a few moments was nothing short of breathtaking, yet of course banal and common. I'm grimly aware that if I'd watched this scene in a movie—a man coming home from a ball game driving past cornfields and farms, listening to a game on the radio and magically brought back to a moment when he was a kid listening in the dark in the family car to an historic game of baseball—I might've rolled my eyes at the predictability, the sentimentality, and the Americana cliche of it all. I guess this is why we risk corn in storytelling, and why I'm trotting out yet another note on memory and nostalgia, my own dubious streak. Another of life's surprise gifts, which feel in short supply these days. And the Sox won, 2-1.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Any scene of childhood

This morning I was spending some time on Google Street View, cruising down some blocks of my adolescent neighborhood in Wheaton, Maryland, when I was struck again at the magic tricks that memory plays. There are the woods behind the long-gone Equitable Bank where my friends and I drank beer on Friday nights during the football games; across the street there's the parking lot next to that apartment where in my my parents' station wagon we forced down some wide-mouth Mickey's and chased them with fistfuls of barbecue chips, provisions for the accidental poor-man's donuts I laid down on the wet grass. Funny how much more vast the stage sets are when I replay these events, the woods larger, the trees taller, the parking lot dramatically lit, the donuts endlessly spiraling into endless laughter, the suburban corners everywhere shadowed with charged potential.

Nothing new here, no news. You know the story. If we weren't playing Springsteen in the car on our boom box, we were playing him in our heads, his songs—or whatever band or singer's songs scored your nights—soundtracking these minor shenanigans that grew epic in the retelling, soaring from verse to bridge to chorus as if they're our songs only. Those long nights of teenage rebellion and the testing of limits occurred last weekend, somewhere, and will again this weekend, somewhere else—and years from now when those actors return to those stages they'll be struck, too, by how small the sets are, how tacky the props, how underwhelming the lighting, each tasting their own unique bittersweetness.

For years I've taught George Orwell's "Such, Such Were The Joys," a torturous, dryly confessional essay about Orwell's years at the St. Cyprian prep school. Semester after semester I've watched my students grapple with the essay's ending, where Orwell imagines visiting the school after many years away, and where he lands on this inevitable discovery:

I think I should only feel what one invariably feels in revisiting any scene of childhood: How small everything has grown, and how terrible is the deterioration in myself!

We debate the words invariably, terrible, and deterioration, and the students gamely attempt to locate themselves in the shoes of an older man (Orwell was in this thirties when he wrote the essay) who's reckoning with the vagaries of memory, not to mention trauma. The students are also, but under less weight, their futures ahead of them. Their collective brow furrows, their face turns solemn, but the recognition of Orwell's epiphany is, of course, beyond them. They'll have to wait a while before it rings true.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

The way it goes

Had Johnny Thunders not died in New Orleans in 1991 at the too-young age of 38, he would've turned 70 yesterday. Occasioned by that sad realization, I heard the Heartbreakers' immortal "Born To Lose" on a loop in my head all day.

As thrilling as the song is, the opening ten seconds may top everything in it. What sounds like a false start is probably deliberate, Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan evoking unhappiness, ugliness, and sourness all at once—a loser misfit wearing an itchy sweater that doesn't fit. Nolan clears the disenchantment enough to count in Walter Lure (guitar) and Billy Rath (bass), and the song roars into life, item #234,989,000 in rock and roll's Fun Songs about Sad Stuff file. Thunders's desperate vocal, both confessional and self-mocking, is answered by his signature lead lines, only here his guitar evokes demented fun house clowns. "The city is so cold," he complains,
And I'm so sold
That's why I know
Nothing to do
I've nothing to say
Only one thing that I want
It's the only way
Living in a jungle
It ain't so hard
Living in the city
It'll eat out, eat out your heart
That's why our hero is born to lose. Or is it born too loose? The band had it both ways on L.A.M.F.'s initial German release (the first of the album's multiple iterations), printing "loose" on the back cover and "lose" on the label:

Subsequent reissues have occasionally swapped the words' places, but more often than not "lose" appears on both sleeve and label, and some lyrics and fan sites winkingly split the difference as "Born To(o) Lo(o)se." I hear both words whenever I jam the tune, a sonic transparency laid one on top of the other—and that's perfect, it seems to me, the two words so close phonetically and, given the right unhappy context, so near in meaning, too, each evoking a hardscrabble existence on the margins where excess of sex and drugs—or simply the fact of being born into a body whose parts rattle around and threaten to fall apart—conspire only to numb or deaden, and to breed self-contempt and a grim understanding of one's place in the fucked-up cosmos. 

Even if you strip the song of Thunders's unhappy fate, I've always found "Born To Lose" very moving: it's a raucous, righteously-rocking ode to loserdom, an anti-anthem shorn of self-pity (though I acknowledge its seeds of the junkie romance that Thunders often traded in). The song's funny, in a louche, ironic street way, but also really affecting. The last line of the chorus slays me with its earnest major-minor melody lifting ever so slightly (in some mixes aided the third time around by Rath's extended-hand bass line in the previous bar), signaling to my ears both weary acceptance and resolute celebration. I'm born to lose. I'm born too loose. The night's young! I know: it's just a hook, but Thunders's intentions, whatever they were, don't necessarily affect what I and so many will forever hear in that infinite space between song and listener. That chorus is a perpetual motion machine between defeat and swagger. Could've been Thunders's epitath.

Long curious about the lose/loose dynamic, I've for decades apparently misheard Thunders's answer to the chorus's title phrase: I'd always thought that Thunders sang—bellowed—"I can't hear it!" when, if the vast majority of lyric sites are to be trusted, he's really exhorting his charging band with "I said hit it!" 

Which is, of course, the same thing. Play really loud, we'll wake up tomorrow.

Photo of Thunders by Beth Herzhaft via Beth Herzhaft Photography

Saturday, July 2, 2022

Hello, hi, Ty again

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—Last night I attended my first show in three years. I was grateful to ride back in to town with Ty Segall, who's delivered for me so often in the past. 

Segall and his Freedom Band—Emmett Kelly on guitar, Mikal Cronin on bass and keyboards, Charles Moothart on drums, Ben Boye on keys—played Thalia Hall in Chicago, and it felt like a homecoming: every Segall show I've seen, acoustic or electric, produces the same trippy, friendly, ultimately ecstatic mood that builds and crescendos, Segall leading his band across a spectrum of sound and moods. Throughout the night a guy in front of me, tripping balls or maybe not, seemed to leave his body and ride Segall to the ceiling and back. Individual songs stood out: "My Lady's On Fire," "Orange-Colored Queens," an epic, moving "Sleeper," a stomping "Love Fuzz," among others. Yet a Segall show can also feel like one protracted song, the blend and wash of the arrangements unifying the at-times chaotically different parts. 

This was a night about sonic textures. Segall began the show solo, stage-left with his acoustic; after a few songs, so whisper-quiet in places that the back-bar conversation competed, he was joined by Kelly on another acoustic. The two faced off at opposite ends of the stage for a few more songs, producing a folky, gently rich prelude to the full band, who eventually emerged to let rip the middle, thickly-loud and groovy section of the show. Longtime mate Cronin and Boye produced on keyboards heavy layers of ambient psychedelia during and between numbers, some passages of which felt like songs in and of themselves. Kelly and Segall's tandem playing was vivid, divided as the guitarists were on opposite ends of the stage. Kelly's leads soared, yet were kept tethered to this world by Segall's hefty rhythm playing; Kelly obliged with his ballast to Segall's ascending solos. Symbolically centered, drummer Moothart kept everything grounded, a look of spacey but determined concentration on his face, his style moving from nimble free-jazz to four-on-the-floor stomp, sometimes in the same song. While his bandmates jammed, he tightened down the bolts. It took me a few songs to connect with last night's performance, but once I did I elevated and remained aloft. A good Segall full-band show gives the impression of lighting a Chinese sky lantern: you have to be patient while the heat fills the paper balloon, but once the density lowers and the lantern rises, the borne-up feeling is liberating. Now you're along for the ride.

Segall doesn't talk much—a "Hello," a "Thanks," and an endearingly awkward twirl-and-bow before his encore is all the stage presence he needs with a catalogue as vast and deep as his. His personality emerges from his performance. Segall seems most alive as he plays, strumming his acoustic or ear-splittingly mauling his electric. He often solos in a push-and-pull with feedback that you can practically see come lurching from his amp. When he takes the mic to sing, he does so through his thick curtain of blonde hair, his face and its mood completely obscured; when he solos, he's truly on stage, bathed in cones of purple or gold light. Segall's released so many albums and he tours so often that you can hit a show of his and, if you haven't listened to his latest two or three releases, you might not recognize much in the setlist. I haven't listened to his latest, Hello, Hi, a whole lot yet, but I know and love the lead single "Saturday," a highlight last night, one of those tunes that galvanized the crowd which, amoeba-like, moved imperceptibly closer to the stage. 

"I feel OK on Saturday," Segall sang, we all sang. I woke up today, a Saturday, with the song in my head, and I felt even better. To drink again in a crowded venue packed with lively strangers, to feel amplified noise in my chest: these are simple but sublime pleasures that have been denied me and millions of others for so long. I'm back finally, hesitantly, and hedging, and I'm grateful. I stood three-or-so deep from the stage as I like to do, which put me at the edge of a spontaneous poor-man's mosh pit which heated up now and again. One guy unintentionally kicked me hard on my shin before I shoved him back into the pit. This morning I woke up with a bruise I was very glad for.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Sonic threads

    People say we're wasting our time
    They don't seem to understand
    'Cause when you're dancing all night long
    It gives you the feeling that you belong

So sang Paul Weller in 1977 on "Non-Stop Dancing" on the Jam's debut album In The City. The song had been inspired by the Northern Soul movement then churning up dance floors in venues in northern England. "By 1975, Northern Soul had spread south into a national phenomenon, and the charts were full of reissues of old classics and new cash-in groups like Wigan’s Ovation," John Reed wrote in his Weller biography, My Ever Changing Moods. "And it reached Woking and the teenage Paul Weller, who'd ride up to the Bisley Pavilion on his scooter," adding, "It made such an impact that he even wrote a song about the experience." According to scrapbook notes that drummer Rick Buckler kept during the Jam's early years, "Non-Stop Dancing" was demoed in May of 1976, which means that Weller wrote the song when he was around seventeen years-old. Remember being seventeen?

Pushing forty years-old two decades later, Weller would essentially rewrite the song as "Peacock Suit," the lead single off of Heavy Soul (1997), a swaggering tune defending the Mod sensibility that gripped him as a teenager and that would come to define his tastes into his adult years, an outlook that Weller would liken to a religion. "I'm still a mod, I'll always be a mod, you can bury me a mod," Weller said to television host Jonathan Ross in the early 1990s on the cusp of a solo career. "Peacock Suit" was another in a clutch of songs wherein Weller married his twin obsessions, style and music. Allegedly written in response to an article critical of Mod attire, the song can be seen as a sneeringly cocky double a-side to the joy and abandon of "Non-Stop Dancing," both tunes celebrating Mod movement and style—"clean living under difficult circumstances," as the Who's early manager Pete Meaden famously put it in the mid-1960s. "I'm Narcissus in a puddle / In shop windows I gloat," Weller exults in "Peacock Suit,"
Like a ball of fleece lining
In my camel skin coat

I don't need a ship to sail in stormy weather
I don't need you to ruffle the feathers of my Peacock Suit
Did you think I should?
Weller now might blanch at the desire to fit into a community so dear to his heart in "Non-Stop Dancing," yet a sturdy sonic thread runs from that song to "Peacock Suit." The opening riffs in each are cut from the same cloth, as it were (and both are borrowed from the Small Faces' driving "Grow Your Own") and though the pace in '77 is typically quicker than what Weller would take in '97, each song extolls the same thing: the joy of movement, out on the dance floor and out on the street, your image mirrored gleefully in your sweaty mates' faces or in a streak-free shop window. The singer in each song doesn't give a fuck about your review. The driving "Peacock Suit" is still a staple in Weller's set lists; it's a wonder he hasn't revived "Non-Stop Dancing" yet (or updated it in other ways, as he's done in the past with his songs.) Overlay "Non-Stop Dancing" onto the cool, "Day Tripper"/"Jumpin' Jack Flash"-styled vamp at the end of "Peacock Suit" and what do you hear? I'm still a mod, I'll always be a mod, you can bury me a mod. Depending on one's attitude toward Weller, the resemblances in the two tunes can suggest a songwriter who's recycling ideas, and shallow ones at that, a criticism long lobbed at Weller, who never shies away from acknowledging that he steals from the best, and often himself. I hear a groove of sentiment and sound that keeps arriving and keeps surprising, the way a sunny day can affect you at seventeen and at forty in the same blissy and overwhelming ways. 

left, 1977; right, 1997

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Acting flash

On balance I enjoyed watching Pistol. The music's so goddamned great it allowed me to more or less forgive the original sins of biopics: the inevitable inaccuracies, the obvious dialogue, the self-awareness of the characters, the insistence that History Is Being Made when we all know that history comes later in the reckoning, rarely in the present tense of things. But the actors gave it their all, the use of archival footage was very cool, the set designing was terrific, and the direction and editing kept things moving. I wasn't there at the time, and I accept the portrayal of the intense media attention—journalists knew they had a story; Malcolm McLaren made sure of that. But I bristled at the dialogue: "We're Punks!" "We hate long guitar solos!" The telegraphing in private conversations was often over the top.

Did I mention how great the music is? Every episode sent me back to Never Mind The Bollocks which honestly I hadn't pulled out and cranked for too long.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

It's in the tune in your head

To say that I'm on a Paul Weller kick isn't terribly accurate; I've been on a Paul Weller kick since I was sixteen-years old. But lately I have been paying more attention to his songs that I've known and liked for years but have been hearing in new ways.

Like much of Weller's solo material, "Brushed" (from 1997's Heavy Soul) is as much a groove as it is a song, yet this particular groove is galvanizing, intuitive, and purposeful. It's also wholly original. Shuffling three chords, Weller and his band—bassist Mark Nelson and longtime drummer Steve White—are forced to muscle their way through their own arrangement and mix, which churns and startles, layered with screeching, riffing guitars, backward tapes, stereo panning, and restless, excitable percussion. Heavy Soul's producer Brendan Lynch and producer/engineer/mixer Max Hayes are credited with providing "additional sounds"—an apt credit for a soundscape that's hard to pin down, as a vivid nightmare is upon waking. I hear a scream in the mix at one point.

A strangely angry song, "Brushed" is remarkable: at once uncomfortable and lived-in, both anxious and grateful. Weller's words aim to reproduce, or anyway to try and make sense of, what seems to have been an epiphany that the singer's experienced, the title word evoking a blink-and-it's-gone moment when the universe wobbles a bit, and something bright and penetrating shines through for a moment before it's gone. (The Japanese have a great word for this, satori, a sudden kick between the eyes.) The first verse lays out the flicker of insight:
It's in a stroke of a brush
It's in the wave of a hand
And a view so bright
It turns the world
And makes all right
Yet seems to say
Come what may
You will be what you will
The second verse alters the terms slightly:
With a brush stroke of fate
You will have to think again
If you touch by it all
Lucky to be brushed at all—
Weller sings that he must now "walk a crooked mile / In a worn out smile" that's been "found on the ground." At the word found there's a sinister and alarming chord change. "Somebody else threw" that smile "down," and it's up to the listener to pick it up. "Looks like that you're the next blessed in town," Weller growls, the irony thick. Given the roiling arrangement, where parts of the song quarrel with each other to find resolve, that blessing feels pretty damn mixed. (You'd be forgiven for thinking that the eternally-stylish Weller sings "best dressed in town," as "Brushed" sits near the great "Peacock Suit," a riff-of-a-song essentially defending Weller's wardrobe.)
In the third verse, Weller locates the inspiration in "a verse" and in "the tune in your head": a revelation that revolves the world, illuminates life, and "makes you see / All the love within / Is still yet to come out." Weller's singing about the gift of art, I think, but he could as well be singing about mind-bending psychedelics; either way, the brief experience that he's trying to wrestle into form and expression ("Like the word—as a bang!") has demanded that he think again, see fresh again, and, blown away, he's grateful for this gift.

Then why the turbulent mix that sounds like nothing less than the soundscape of a bewildered brain? This is what I've been obsessing over since sometime last week, when—I don't know why or, really, how—I heard the song as if for the first time. It might've because I was listening to the 45 I'd recently scored, and the vinyl, unsurprisingly, led me to deeper and warmer places than the 1's and 0's had allowed me for the last couple of decades I'd spent with the song. Whatever the reason, I was particularly struck by the groove and music and the "rough seas" mix this time around, how unruly their vibe is while scoring a song ostensibly about the welcome, unbidden gift of a vision, however vague and fleeting. I think it's because the song matches, or translates, Weller's frustrations in describing what he experienced; if the perception had come unto him peacefully, in tranquility, then he might've reached for his acoustic, but because its presence shook him up and astounded him, he turned to his band, cranked up the amps, and tried to blast his way toward clarity. Weller often second-guesses his lyrics: in a video promoting Heavy Soul, he said about "Brushed": "Don't know what to say about that, because I really like the actual sound of it, sonically it sounds brilliant, I think. But...lyrically, I don't know. I'm not so sure." Yet the arrangement insists on the truth: you may be the next blessed in town, but the grace will forever slip beyond full understanding. Enjoy the ride and its surprising turns.

"[Heavy Soul] feels like quite an angry album," Weller remarked to Paul Lester in Uncut a year after the album was released. "Quite bare and exposed. The idea was to try and do something even more removed from [Stanley Road], more rough and spontaneous." He added,
There was criticism that some of the songs were undeveloped. That was true. I wanted to write them as quickly as possible. I wouldn't say I could listen to it every day. It's a bit heavy going. It's quite uncompromising.
On "Brushed," Weller sings in a way that sounds as if he's indebted and at the same time resentful for his tongue-tied fate. Heavy on the soul, indeed.

"Brushed" is one of Weller's great songs, yet it's the full-band performance that brings it to life. Here's the group grooving it in1997.