There are 19,324 songs on my iPod
A little perspective may be in order.
|Jerry Lee Lewis wowing 'em at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Wes Germany on April 5, 1964|
On April 5, 1964, as the Beatles were filmed in London being chased by a horde of screaming kids for the opening credits of A Hard Day’s Night, Jerry Lee Lewis was in Hamburg, West Germany, where he’d arrived with his backing band, the Nashville Teens. Lewis played two sets that evening at the Star-Club. The shows were captured on tape by producer Siggi Loch, edited down to twelve songs, and issued later that year. Live! At The Star-Club remains one of the most powerful rock and roll shows ever recorded, Lewis’s and the Nashville Teens’ performances among the most mighty ever waxed.
I asked esteemed rock and roll writer and Jerry Lee Lewis biographer Nick Tosches for his take on the 50th anniversary of the album’s release. He said that Live! At The Star-Club is “the perfect suicide-pact marriage between music and methamphetamine, and one of the most overpowering and essential moments in all of rock and roll—a manic paroxysm such as might raise the dead, fell the living, and forever rend the veils of night.” I too was amazed by the ferocity of the record when I first heard it in the early 1990s on a Rhino Records CD re-release, and over the years I became deeply curious—one might say obsessed—about the making of the album and its place in Jerry Lee Lewis’s vexed career and in the history of great, raw rock and roll.
When Lewis played the Star-Club he was, of course, six years removed from the scandal of having married Myra Gale Brown, his 13-year-old first cousin (once removed). As I began research for the book, I’d assumed that six years was a long enough stretch for Lewis to have been “forgiven” by the record-buying public, but I was wrong. Commercially speaking he was at a low point when he played Hamburg. He was continuing to tour, but without the assistance of his earlier, powerful promoters and supporters; the venue sizes were shrinking, as were his record sales. He visited England and Germany in the spring of 1964 promoting his newest single “I’m On Fire” and The Golden Hits of Jerry Lee Lewis, an album featuring rerecordings of some of his older songs, both released by his new record label, Smash.
After the so-called British Invasion of 1964, Lewis had to battle harder than ever to recapture the interest and the dollars of his dwindling audience. It wasn’t until the end of the decade, when he reinvented himself as a hardcore honky tonk country musician, that he would again sell millions of albums, helping to restore his career well into the 1970s. But the years in between “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out Of Me)” were lean and exhausting, marked by diminishing returns, and Lewis found that nonstop touring (in the shape of brutal, often sparsely-attended one-night stands across the U.S.) was the best way to keep himself, his splintering family, and his band members in pocket money, and his legend in the light.
So, among obscure singles and album releases, Jerry Lee Lewis continued to hit the road, mining his Sun Records catalogue and his staggering knowledge of the Americana songbook, kicking away his piano stool and shaking loose his hair. Fans of raucous, no-holds-barred rock and roll are the luckier for it. Lewis’s performance at the Star-Club, backed by a band barely able to keep up with the Killer, is incendiary and untouched. The opening trio of songs, as sequenced by Loch, stands up to any live rock and roll ever taped: “Mean Woman Blues,” “High School Confidential,” and “Money”—women, youth, and cash—barrel over the listener from the sheer intensity of Lewis’s playing amped up by his outsized personality, the sonic myth of The Killer. From a reckless tear through “What’d I Say?” to rehabilitated older hits to an astounding, brawly emotional take on Hank Williams’s “Your Cheating Heart,” Lewis and the Nashville Teens muscle their way through the rock and roll in front of a delirious crowd as if the sweaty, ear-splitting journey might somehow renew them. Lewis had a lot to prove every night during this complicated and difficult time in his career.
Fortunately, Siggi Loch was there to record for posterity this ordinary, extraordinary night in April of 1964. “I listened to the album again, after all these years.” Loch said. “It still sounds amazingly exciting!”
There’s a song written by David Frishberg that appears in an album called Oklahoma Toad. The title of the song is “Van Lingle Mungo.” The words are, basically, just the names of ballplayers out of Frishberg’s childhood and they’re sung one after the other in a kind of lilting refrain: Whitey Kurowski, Johnny Sain, Eddie Jost, Johnny Pesky, Ferris Fain, Van Lingle Mungo. It’s a very pleasant song, sad and haunting. Here is a man reliving his childhood through the names of old baseball players, men he admired and respected, maybe loved.While listening, Bouton admits to twinges of regret about having written Ball Four. “I felt that perhaps a kid reading it would be so turned off to baseball heroes that he would never want to write songs about them when he grew up, that he would never feel nostalgia about them,” Bouton writes. “I wondered if I had really smashed heroes, whether I had ruined the game for the kids and ruined it for baseball fans.”
In church at Saint Andrew the Apostle, the mutterings of prayers and rejoinders had little effect on me beyond the sibilants, ssssssss that slithered into my sinuses and down my spine, splitting me in two—part penitent, part boy—the language sluicing through me, dissolving me, siphoning from me any attention to orthodoxy, or prayer life, or offering up—as it is in heaven, Give us this, forgive us our sins, those who trespass against us, the s’s a slippery slope into sensuality, a sounding of words, the ssssssss of a wronged tongue in my mouth, thessssssssof pulling down my classmate’s zipper, the ssssssss of Yes.~~
|The Bird was The Word in '76|
|"How'd Mantle do last night?" "Dunno."|
The simultaneous reappearance of spring and the newspapers has made it certain that one of our favorite urban flowers, the baseball box score, will burgeon and flourish through the warm, languid information-packed weeks and months to come. When spring training began and Bertram (Big Six) Powers remained an obdurate holdout, our obsessively fannish mind tried to contemplate the desert prospect of a baseball season without daily box scores.Here's how Angell rewrote the opening for The Summer Game:
Today the Times reported the arrival of the first pitchers and catchers at the spring training camps, and the morning was abruptly brightened, as if by the delivery of a seed catalogue. The view from my city window still yields only frozen tundras of trash, but now spring is guaranteed and one of my favorite urban flowers, the baseball box score, will burgeon and flourish through the warm, languid information-packed weeks and months to come. I remember a spring, not too many years ago, when a prolonged newspaper strike threatened to extend itself into the baseball season, and my obsessively fannish mind tried to contemplate the desert prospect of a baseball season without daily box scores.
It represents happenstance and physical flight exactly translated into figures and history. Its totals—batters' credit vs. pitchers' debit—balance as exactly as those in an accountant's ledger. And a box score is more than a capsule narrative. It is a precisely etched miniature o the sport itself, for baseball, in spite of its grassy spaciousness and apparent unpredictability, is the most intensely and satisfyingly mathematical of all our outdoor sports. Every player in action is judged against a standard of absolute perfection; no ball is thrown and no base ids gained without an instant responding judgement—ball or strike, hit or error, yea or nay—and an ensuing statistic. This encompassing neatness permits the baseball fan, aided by experience and memory, to extract from a box score the same joy, the same hallucinatory reality, that prickles the scalp of a musician when he glances at a page of his score of "Don Giovanni" and actually hears bassos and sopranos, woodwinds and violins.That such a pleasing blend of evocation and data, image and numeral could be mortally threatened by a newspaper strike is somewhat charming to me, and a startling reminder of how omnipresent were daily print newspapers and how great was our reliance on them. Angell's response to such a threat is yet another reminder of just how long he's been at it, what remains eternal about the game he loves, and what about it may be gone for good.
|Holiday, May 1954|
Holiday is a magazine of civilized entertainment. It aims at satisfying and spurring the leisure-time interests of a sizable number of moderately well-heeled Americans. It is wielded to no doctrine except that of making propaganda for the politer pleasures of our time.Fadiman claimed for Holiday a "new kind of American journalism" in which editor, publisher, and advertising manager "cheerfully relinquish some of their triune omnipotence, and in which the main idea is to get the writer to produce the best he has in him, on the theory that you must give him his head before you can get him to use it." (Fadiman also wrote: "The editors of Holiday know that fun is fun, but they are also subtly urging on us the peculiar discovery that thinking can be fun too.") Holiday published an impressive array of writers in its time, and Ten Years Of Holiday gathered some of the most eminent, E.B. White (Angell's step-father), James Thurber, Frank O'Connor, Paul Bowles, Alistair Cooke, Jean Stafford, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Arthur Miller among them. (A unique magazine, Holiday ceased publication in 1977, by which point it had been merged with its former competitor, Travel.)
|Commissioner of Bseball Ford Frick (left) and Roger Angell, 1954. Angell's presenting a bound copy of May '54 issue of Holiday (photo cropped)|
"This is not in plea for more roughnecks in baseball, but only a complaint against uniformity," Angell continues.Possibly I am getting crotchety or sentimental, but it seems to me that the major leagues today are suffering from an unfortunate shortage of true stars—of men of the caliber of DiMaggio, Ruth, Cobb, Gehrig, Sisler, Dizzy Dean, Hubbell, Johnson, Hornshy, Mathewson, Frisch, Speaker, Alexander, Waddell. All of these men were not only magniicent ballplayers but they had that other quality, that aura of distinction and excitement, that distinguishes the true star. Such men have never been numerous, but in the past there have almost always been ﬁve or six of them active in the majors at the same time, plus a larger assortment—men like Heilmann, Cochrane, Simmons, Hartnett, Greenberg, the Waners, Bob Meusel, Rabbit Maranville—who were almost equally talented. Today, out of all the active big leaguers, most experts would rank only Ted Williams and Stan Musial and perhaps Bob Feller in the very ﬁrst rank and would have a hard time picking another four or five in the second group. And even a man like Musial, who has won the National League batting crown six times, lacks that extra dimension, that spark that kindles the imagination. On the ﬁeld and off, he appears to be exactly what he is—not a hero, but an extremely likable, pleasant man who is extremely good at his profession.
More and more, there is a ﬂattening out of differences, and off the field most ballplayers now look and not like suburban householders instead of like giants. There is a reason for this, of course; they are suburban householders. Better pay and better working conditions have made big-leaguers prosperous and respectable. No one can legitimately complain against such a gain, yet the fan still longs for an occasional gangly, country-boy rookie like those immortalized by Ring Lardner, for a scrapper like Frisch, for a hater like Cobb, for a likable loudmouth like Dean, and for an outright baseball god like Babe Ruth.
|Saved this cigar, at least|
The big-league ballplayer is now in range of the TV eye every moment he is on the ﬁeld and therefore unlikely to cut up or indulge a crazy whim; instead, he is worrying about his appearance and often staging his “battles" or complaints for the beneﬁt of the camera.
What is even more deadening is the odd passion radio announcers have for reducing every ballplayer to the same respectable, dull level by describing them all as level-headed, quiet-spoken, home-loving, friendly good fellows.
All big leaguers appear on TV and radio interview shows now, and all have fallen into this insipid pattern. Certainly none of them nowadays would be so gauche or full of gusto as to make the mistake Babe Ruth made on a radio program once. Imitating the sound of a pitched ball hitting a glove, he slammed his fist into his leather windbreaker and then blanched. “Jesus!” he exclaimed to several thousand fascinated listeners, “I broke the Goddamned cigars!”"Baseball—The Perfect Game" explores one of the central themes in Angell's baseball writing, the paradox of the supreme difficulty of the game and the apparent ease with which its players play. Patient with (and sympathetic to) those who find the game dull, Angell insists that it's the disconnect between boredom and elite skill, numbing routines and extravagant catastrophes that gives baseball its peculiar, renewable energy, and which allows fans to half-heartedly imagine that they could be out there, too. "Unknowing people, new to the game, often complain that 'nothing happens' in a baseball game," Angel notes.
Innings pass, the teams change sides, yet no one scores or appears to come close to it. This, of course, is far from the truth. It is only the fantastic, almost contemptuous ease with which a big-league team completes the routine plays that make it appear, when a good pitcher is working, that it will never be scored on. Yet disaster, as every player and every fan knows, waits on every pitch and can descend with appalling violence and speed. A pitcher can be working beautifully after six perfect innings and the find himself, in the space of four minutes, on his way to the showers. A scratch hit, a bit of bad luck, an adverse call on a close pitch and a hit ball which just eludes the ﬁngers of a racing outﬁelder, and the pitcher is done, his team defeated. Here, in its purest form, is the drama, the perfection of baseball. Action and tragedy, defeat and triumph are suddenly enacted, against a background of apparent safety and invulnerability. A good baseball game, in those innings of mounting tension before the break and the sudden coming of excitement, can be fondly described, as Red Smith described a World Series game last fall, as “fine entertainment, splendidly close and dull and dragging...."
Is it any wonder that the players, grown professionals, can turn into scuffling, snarling animals on the hot, sun-baked August inﬁelds, as the pennant scramble moves toward its climax? Is it any wonder that such childishness as home-town pride and hero worship grips great segments of the population of America and that adults will pay well for the right to sit under a broiling midsummer sun on hard seats in order to scream and pray over the ﬂight of a hall? Is it any wonder that to those of us—those millions of us—who love the game, baseball will always remain the only game, the sport of our hearts’ content?~~
Myth is born of the urge to name what’s nameless, to convey enormity between finite covers, or to describe one end of the Brooklyn Bridge to the other, even if it was really the Verazanno-Narrows. Myth describes something, or some people, or some event, or some place, that makes contact with vastness. Beyond my Saturday afternoon allowance sagas, my incidents as a wandering child may have been far fewer in number, smaller in scale than I remember—would I really leave the store where my mom was shopping to wander off, or am I conflating other visits to the plaza that I took, later, on my own, as a restless, sullen teenager? If I’ve elevated little journeys to mythic proportions—if I’ve told tales—then I must need them to explain something, a religion of adolescence in which to have faith
An essay wanders. An essay doesn’t trail the straight line that can’t exist in nature but the path that meanders, u-turns, takes lefts, circles back, forgets its origins. An essay sets out down a lane that’s both familiar and not, well-known and full of surprises. When I essay the past I wander, too, bring back objects that I’ve pried from the ground, or found hidden, or imagined half-built in the sky—and by the time I’ve returned home these things have changed, grown impossibly large or small, their transformation undetected until I look down at my hands. And those places where I found them? They’ve changed, too.
As a kid I remember recognizing that my family home wasn’t unique. When I’d play at Karl’s house or visit Mrs. Pollack’s for piano lessons in her basement, I’d feel overwhelmed by images of strangers in framed photos, by matchless odors and unfamiliar floor plans, and by the dawning knowledge that this house, too, has a family that stretches backwards through time, through parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, cousins, etc., and that this family might experience the same dynamics that mine does. I’d multiply this by the dozens of homes surrounding me, and I’d get dizzy. (And melancholy, before I knew the word.) It seemed impossible that the intensity of family life in my house might be replicated in every house on the street, block, town, county, state, country, continent….
Before an essayist embarks on the journey from “I remember” to “I write,” he accepts a paradox: to get there I must lose my way. An essay that knows its own ending when it begins is less an essay than an exercise in wish-fulfillment. Shifting memories play a crucial role: how I recall last week or the summer when I was ten affects the persona I wish to embody today, the shading I want (even need) as I essay myself as subject matter. Remembering something accepts black holes and dropouts, illogic and broken chronology; a story fills up the holes, links them, covers them over with plot and scene. We recall in ruins, and there are as many ways to preserve or renovate those ruins as there are writers.
This doesn’t happen with anything like the same regularity in other teams sports, and it’s one of the reasons that baseball offers hope as one of its steady ingredients: balm for your pain; restoration for your foundering, down-on-its-luck team; and that little three-run rally by the good guys in the bottom of the eighth which starts when your No. 7 batter lifts a feeble Roman-candle pop that just falls in behind first base and sends a runner scurrying along into scoring position.I hope that one day the Baseball Hall of Fame gives Angell a call and asks him to donate his scorecards. [I've since learned that Angell's papers are housed at the Hall; the list of his donated items, including scorecards, is impressive.] Cooperstown ought to showcase the meticulous work of a dedicated baseball watcher like Angell, whose scorecards—if he's kept them—would date back to the late 1920s/early '30s. (Angell's father was a lawyer, and Angell remembers using his father's long yellow legal pads to keep score when he was a kid in the living room, listening intently to some middling New York Giants game on the radio.) Unsurprisingly, Angell has written affectionately and memorably about scorecards and their usefulness—as above—and I've gathered a few of his references over the decades (all, of course, from The New Yorker):
Later on, swarms of second-stringers began to crowd into the lineup, quickly causing my scorecard to resemble a botched arithmetic test, so I cheerfully gave up following the game….
I stuck with the game until the end of the seventh inning, by which time matters stood at 16-12, in favor of the Padres, and my scorecard looked like a volume report from the Chicago commodities market.From a Winter postseason recap (November 24, 1980):
O my Mets! I came back to Shea—came back home, really, after a sensible defection of several summers—when they began to win, or almost win, a lot of games in June, mostly on nerve and pitching and some plain luck. I have a private scorecard symbol for an eye hit—two tiny circles under the pencil stroke that indicates a single—and a good many of my Mets scorecards saved from midsummer, I notice, have those beads peeping out from the thickets of some Mets rally.From a midsummer account (August 15, 1983):
[My] squidgy, messed-up scorecard looked like a child’s work of art (a valentine, a birthday card)….And three more from postseason essays (December 5, 1988; November 22, 1993; November 24, 2003, respectively):
Watching [the Red Sox’s] six-run second-inning assault against Doyle Alexander, I at last devised a neat addition to my scorecard symbols—a little
The smoking 15-14, thirty-two-hit morass looks not better on one’s scorecard, which yields up dripping, sanguinary slices whether read vertically or across….
Watching, you knew that [Aaron] Boone had glimpsed [Juan] Pierre, or the idea of Pierre, whirling past first base, and wanted him stopped there. He’d given up the run—the winning run, as it turned out—because he was afraid of the next one, or a bunch more. Call it a forced mistake. And as I put the play into my scorecard, I circled it, for elegance.~~
|Looking back afterward...|