Monday, April 24, 2017

Sam Phillips's eyes

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

Saturday, April 22, 2017

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

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

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

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


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


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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

New Bomb Turks at the Bottle

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

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

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

Message received.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

"We got the Detroit Demolition here for ya tonight"

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

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

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Barry Lopez, the Drifters, another kind of wildness

I'm reading Nonstop Metropolis, the New York installment of Rebecca Solnit's and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro's "Atlas Trilogy" from the University of California Press—you can read about the fascinating cartography/nonfiction series here. I especially like Barry Lopez's brief essay on the Drifters' "Up On The Roof" in the "Singing the City" chapter. Lopez, a celebrated nature and environmental writer, begins by reminiscing about a wonderful flock of pigeons from his his early boyhood in California. When he was eleven, his family moved to the Murray Hill neighborhood in Manhattan, where he learned that his seventh grade classmates "saw more shabbiness than grace in pigeons." In the city, he came to appreciate something else, an urbanity that dovetailed with the yearning of the AM radio and the moving, mysterious songs that issued from it. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t miss his pigeons for long:
Eleven seemed the perfect age to be swept up in another kind of wildness, which I found in Vermeers hanging in the Frick Collection on 70th Street, in the imposing sight of the prow of the Flatiron Building, and in learning the labyrinth of the IRT, the BMT, and the IND. The strongest shift in my appreciations, however, came with my discovery of Manhattan’s rooftops. When I visited the homes of my new friends in school I always asked to be taken up to the roofs, for the endlessly vast and engaging views they provided—the sight of human intimacy in the window of an apartment two blocks away, the obdurate facade of the Palisades across the river in Jersey, and once, from a friend’s rooftop on East 29th, the way the architecture of Manhattan bellied out between Midtown and Wall Street, the glacial till overlaying the bedrock there being too deep to safely foot a building. On my own block I clambered from rooftop to rooftop, studying the foot traffic on Lexington, so distinctly different from human traffic on Park Avenue. And I came to understand how different deference to someone else’s privacy was in the city from what it had been in rural California. I also came to understand a type of freedom that had not occurred to me in California, as I entered the volumes of raw space apparent from up there and felt the expansion, the release that came from the absence of crowding, from the tedious queues at the headline museums or at theaters where the most popular plays were running.

The day in 1962 I entered the record store on East 34th Street where I bought all of my 45s, having that afternoon heard “Up on the Roof" by the Drifters for the first time on 1010 WINS, I no longer felt I was just living in an apartment in New York; I was now of New York. I was starting to fall in love with girls, and the Drifters’ lyrics in that song spoke directly to the soaring and deflation I was experiencing in my heart. Up on the roof now, I was a city boy, entering that landscape of dreams, floating above the hustling streets.

I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it's peaceful as can be
And there the world below can't bother me
Let me tell you now

Monday, April 3, 2017

Mid-Century Baseball, Illustrated

I avoid sentimentality in baseball like the plague, so it was with some trepidation that I picked up A Century of Baseball, a "Special Collector's Edition" magazine published by The Saturday Evening Post. The issue features, to my taste, too many Norman Rockwell illustrations at their earnestly-composed, theatrically-mawkish "best," but it also features some terrific art and illustrations I'd never seen before, from the likes of Roy Hilton, Benjamin Kimberly Prins, Thornton Utz, Richard Sargent, Rudy Pott, John Falter, and Amos Sewell. The works are of the era, to be sure—rosily tender and already-nostalgic scenes of generational play, gently sexist illustrations of patient if harried moms and wives, pulling distracted men away from the games, nary a minority figure to be seen in most of the work—but all the more evocative because of that. These are glimpses through a mid-century lens on the game, then considered America's Pastime and due soon for some cultural erosion. The last image is a Rockwell (and a great one), but the lesser-known—to me!—artists first:
"Baseball Stadium at Night" (detail), June 28, 1941, Roy Hilton

"World Series in TV Department Store" (detail), October 4, 1958, Benjamin Kimberly Prins

"World Series Scores" (detail),  October 2, 1954, Thornton Utz
"Rough Him Up," May 7, 1955, Rudy Pott

"No Time for a Hotdog" (detail), April 11, 1959, Richard Sargent

"Baseball in the Hospital" (detail), April 29, 1961, Amos Sewell
"Date with the Television," April 21, 1956, John Falter
"Knothole Baseball," August 30, 1958, Norman Rockwell

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Happy Opening Day!

May your love of the game be greater than your love for your favorite, agita-giving struggling team. Play ball!

Image via YouTube.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Writer's Dilemma

The last two sentences of "Coda: The Life of the Mind," the last essay in Phillip Lopate's Portait Inside My Head:
For it is only when writing that I begin to exist. In that sense I take no risks by writing: intensely honest self-exposures come easily to me, the most provocative positions that clash with conventional morality are a breeze, complex researches and ambitious structural challenges are finally child's play, next to the difficulty of getting through daily domestic life, trying to love one's family members on a consistent basis (despite the lack of respect they show me compared to the literary community), listening to the neighbors' small talk, and deciding which telephone company provides the best service package.
Both amusing and grave.

Photo via The Aviary.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Rain on the Window

Although I cherish childhood memories of riding my bike all over Wheaton, Maryland, in and out of the dark green woods of Wheaton Regional and Sligo Creek Parks and zipping down suburban streets, and of shooting hoops in my driveway until dusk, I secretly loved waking up to rainy days. (Come to think of it, those activities are solitary endeavors.) My introverted side, there all along but succumbing to adolescent and, later, teenage pressures to remain hidden, embraced the damp, the closing in of gray all around, the outside world shrinking to something psychological, emotionally manageable to me. The politics of the playground and of after-school hangouts, the witnessing from the side of the stage, where I'd often drift, of Naturalism played out among pre-teens and teens, the chill in my chest when faced with acting out with others whatever identity I'd adopted that afternoon: all of these external dramas vanished, as in a magic trick, with the image and soft sounds of rain on the window. Now: I could spend an hour with a book, or with an album, or scribble a lousy poem or, more secretly, shamefully, a dirty story, or just be alone in my head where I was always the happiest and safest, unburdened with the need to be public. Even now as an adult, waking to a rainy day or the prospect of afternoon showers means a staving off of anxieties: yard work and its brutal character-building; certain social engagements; choring I've put off. How eternally childish is it of me to prefer a day that requires the rest of the responsible world to stall in its gregarious, forward-moving momentum; why should I revel in a day that others detest, or that makes the daily tasks of already-busy adults more difficult? If I'm always gladdest when the world slows behind a wet gray window, I may need to sift the childish romance of that from the more pressing notion that I'm falling short of being a grown up.

Image via YouTube.

Saturday, March 18, 2017


I've just finished Phillip Lopate's A Mother's Tale, and it's a doozy, a deeply weird but engrossing hybrid of a book wherein Lopate disentombs taped interviews he'd conducted with his mother, Frances, when she was sixty-six and he was forty-one. For personal and psychological reasons Lopate ignored the tapes for more than thirty years—he'd stuck them in his closet—but recently felt compelled to listen. His relationship with his mother, who died in 2000, was fraught and terribly complex; she was governed by a remarkable tide of bitterness inside of a vexed and unhappy marriage, and Lopate in no small measure defined himself both in sympathy with and in opposition to his mother for his entire life (and it's an ongoing process). In listening to and transcribing the twenty hours of taped conversations, Lopate faced both his younger self asking questions and reacting to, and often challenging and mollifying, his mother, and his present self (Lopate is seventy-three) making sense of a relationship that's in the past but which marks his daily life. The bulk of the book, perhaps too much, is devoted to passages of his mother talking—about her unhappy childhood, her early marriage and overwhelming distaste for her husband, her numerous affairs, her children, her odd jobs, and her late-in-life career as an actress and singer—as Lopate the questioner listens, occasionally responding or pushing back, and as Lopate the writer reflects on the whole, knotty process. For many pages Lopate simply lets his mother go on—and she could talk! and was a larger-than-life character—hopeful that, as she holds forth, complaining usually, her considerable personality will dramatize her life and her many, deeply-ingrained complexities and grievances. This becomes maddening in places, as Frances can really suck the oxygen out of a room, as her children can no doubt testify, and the reader's patience is tested as Frances often ignores her son's attempts to steer her away from solipsism—but that's also what I like about the book, that nerviness, that dare to the reader to put up with it all. That said, I would've liked more present-day Lopate in the book; when he does appear, the passages are marked by his characteristic skeptical reserve, witty intelligence, stabs at resigned wisdom, and clean and entertaining prose—what we Lopate fans love in his writing.  

A Mother's Tale is quite unlike any other book that I've read, and for that I'm grateful. I'm fascinated by it. In a recent conversation with Kristen Martin at Literary Hub, Lopate was asked about the genre of his book. "I think it’s closest to a play," he said. "And I think it could be staged, in fact."
It does seem to me like a dialogue. Now some people think that dialogues have a relationship to essays, coming out of Plato or Oscar Wilde, and in any case, an essay is something that usually necessitates taking different parts of yourself and talking with each other. But I don’t think of it as essentially an essay, and I don’t think it’s a memoir either. It’s a bit of an oral history, because something that struck me a lot was how her own life was playing against the history of the times—particularly as a woman going through all of these periods.
Not an essay, not a memoir. A Mother's Tale does push at the conventional understandings of autobiography, in that it presumes that by listening in on a conversation—which is really, finally, what the book is and what the reader does—the reader can glean essential qualities from the participants, can hear in the back-and-forth, push-pull, personality-clashing of an intimate conversation between a mother and her son something personal, not merely private. On that score, the book succeeds. I do wonder on the confessional nature of the material Frances offers; she and her husband are dead, but Lopate's brother and two sisters are alive, and though much of what Frances unburdens herself of is unlikely to surprise the siblings, some revelations might, or at least go beyond the boundaries of what they would like to have been made public. Lopate doesn't state anywhere in the book that he asked permission of his siblings to publish these conversations. And the book thrives on that matrix of the private and the public: one son listening to his mother speak of family concerns in all of their joy and anguish, in so doing becoming a silhouette of sorts for any child on the long journey from son or daughter to independent adult, still weighted, always weighted, by the burdens of adolescence and of the family dynamic. I've long felt that America's greatest literary subject is the family—the way its definitions are challenged by evolving notions of gender and sexuality, the way the country's size encourages literal distancing and subsequent loss between and among family members, the way immigrant families are sometimes radically affected by assimilation, the way generations fight toward and away from clarity—and A Mother's Tale essays the agonies, secrets, pleasures, and complexities of family in a strangely idiosyncratic, necessary way.


Lopate recently joined his brother Leonard on the latter's WNYC radio show to discuss the book here.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Making it Tidy

In her difficult but rewarding book Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions, film, video and multimedia artist Michell Citron writes about her dreadful experiences with incest and the difficult ways to narrate it in film and prose. In one particularly interesting passage, she nails the tensions between the lure and the weakness of narrative, writing from the perspective of a filmmaker, but the challenges she describes common to any writer:
Narrative renders the incomprehensible understandable. Narrative offers the much needed illusions of coherency and cause and effect where there were none. Narrative puts the author at case. For the audience, however, narrative reduces a complex, confusing, overdetermined tidal wave of experiences and half-found awareness into something that is linear, understandable. It cleans up the trauma, makes it tidy, and makes it, at the structural level, familiar. Narrative makes it seem safe. This is a lie. Everything that makes narrative honest for the author is precisely what makes it false for the audience. Pieces not wholeness, discontinuity not fluidity is a more authentic language for the expression of trauma and its aftermath.
Speaking as an essayist and nonfiction writer, to evocatively and artfully piece together the past with the parts showing, rather than as whole, seamless cloth, seems to me the dividing line between authentic memoir/essays and less-authentic ones, between writing that recognizes the vagaries of memory and the chaos of the past and writing that shapes that chaos into a form with a beginning-middle-end. I've already mixed my metaphors in the preceding sentence, so let me go further. Autobiography-as-architecture: I prefer a partially constructed building with a few enticing closed-off rooms, uneven stairs, mirrors on the walls that distort, a stuffed attic that's off-limits, and the external scaffolding showing. Yet I deal with the necessity of syntax, of sentences and paragraphs. The stubborn question: where is the sweet spot where baffling incoherence—how reality feels—meets art—the root of which, after all, ar, means to shape and mold?

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