Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Hunting Larry Hunting Hank

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

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 My wife and I are in Oxford, Mississippi, Where I've tracked down the late fiction writer Larry BroWn’s unfinished, unpublished screenplay of the life of Hank Williams, something that I hadn't known existed until I came across a casual mention of it in an interview.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

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Saga of Bazooka Joe?

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

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

Saturday, November 26, 2016

On the radio

I drive a car of a certain vintage. That is: no satellite radio. When I tire of Spotify or my iPod, I like to start at the far left of the dial and hit the "seek" button, then stay for only a moment on each station, judging in the split-second whether or not I want to linger (I ignore the call numbers). I've done this in every car I've owned, starting with my 1972 Datsun and its push-in radio buttons. Usually, the trip from the left to the right is a quick one, mostly unwelcoming squibs of synthesizer blasts, whether it's All-Spanish or Top 100 or New Country. Occasionally I'll land on an oldie, although those stations don't seem to be around in abundance as they were in the 1970s and '80s, or anyway, seem few and far between in northern Illinois—more precisely DeKalb County, where I can barely receive most Chicago stations clearly. I recognize that this is an archaic practice, and quickly expiring; my next car, which I really have to purchase soon, will come with satellite radio and all of the 21ct century achievements in sound and efficiency that my late-20th century car lacks. I think that the static-filled pop song on a car radio is this era's melancholy signal, how even a song that is coming in clearly can fade by the end of the block or the next light. There's something—well, analog about it, and air-y, and of the elements. I'm reminded that I'm driving on earth when a song fades on terrestrial radio: I'm moving away, or toward, A to B. So last century.

Today, playing while driving home from the Y, I heard a startling burst of bagpipe and rough guitar. AC/DC, of course! "It's A Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock n Roll)" muscled its cocky way through the static over 97.9 FM The Loop, "Chicago's Classic Rock" station, but even Bon Scott couldn't keep the song from fading away before I got home. A couple of weeks ago, I received a nice lesson in irony, when on 95.3 FM—The Bull, a Rockford, Illinois country station—Trace Adkins's "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" played (loudly, but the wall-to-wall noiseification of radio is another issue for another time) and then segued into The Band Perry's "Comeback Kid." (Both of these songs I had to look up when I got home.) What caught my attention was the friction between the two when played back to back, Adkins's stupid, clichéd sexism and unimaginative objectification ("There outta be a law / Get the Sheriff on the phone / Lord have mercy, how'd she even get them britches on," and so on) dovetailing brutally with The Band Perry's sincere, brave-woman victory song: "They like to kick you when you're down / They like it better when you're there on the ground / And up 'til now I've never made a sound / I bet they never had a broken heart / But they sure know how to beat the hell out of one / Sometimes I think they do it just for fun." I'm not certain that Guy Smiley behind the studio mic was aware of the irony afterward; he just plowed through to the next commercial announcement. But it was something. A bit of real life caught on the radio dial.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Field Recordings from the Inside, out in February 2017

I have a new book of essays coming out with Soft Skull Press in February. You can pre-order here. From the publisher:
Using as its epigraph and unifying principle Luc Sante’s notion that “Every human being is an archeological site,” Field Recordings from the Inside provides a deep and personal examination of the impact of music on our lives. Bonomo effortlessly moves between the personal and the critical, investigating the ways in which music defines our personalities, tells histories, and offers mysterious, often unbidden access into the human condition. The book explores the vagaries and richness of music and music-making—from rock and roll, punk, and R&B to Frank Sinatra, Nashville country, and Delta blues. Mining the often complex natures and shapes of the creative process, Field Recordings from the Inside is a singular work that blends music appreciation, criticism, and pop culture from one of the most critically acclaimed music writers of our time. 
“Part memoir, part criticism, Field Recordings From The Inside maps the ways music can define and shape our lives—which, in Joe Bonomo’s case, encompasses local bands and Top 40 one-hit wonders, Hank Williams and Frank Sinatra, everything that gets inside if your ears are open enough.” —Alan Light, author of The Holy or the Broken and former Editor-Chief of Spin Magazine

“What is music? More importantly, what isn’t music? In Field Recordings from the Inside, Joe Bonomo looks at family and faith, country and culture, Mississippi and Memphis, life and death, with sharp eyes (and ears) and a strong heart, shining a light on the past to help arm the present to make sense of the future. If you want beautiful writing in the service of powerful emotions, you want this book.” —Ben Greenman, author of Mo Meta Blues and The Slippage

“It’s so easy for critics to spend all their time worrying over how pop music gets made – the granular technical details, what a song or record means in its various historical or social contexts. Joe Bonomo understands those things, but still returns to what’s arguably the most crucial component of art: how it makes us feel and what it does to our lives. Field Recordings from the Inside is a beautiful, revelatory book about what it means to be a human with headphones on.” —Amanda Petrusich, author of Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records
Field Recordings From The Inside is the first book I’ve encountered that expertly blends my two favorite kinds of writing: music criticism and the literary essay. Joe Bonomo combines sound, the self, and the “roll and prank” of an essayistic mind to create a book that skates between discussions of history, records, coming of age, literature, relationships, and great rock-and-rollers. This book is a thoughtful and sonorous pleasure from start to finish.” —Elena Passarello, author of Let Me Clear My Throat and Animals Strike Curious Poses

Sunday, November 20, 2016

You made your bed...

Some people might say my life is in a rut
I seem quite happy with what I've got
People might say that I should strive for more
But I'm so happy I can't see the point
Something's happening here today
A show of strength with your boy's brigade
And I'm so happy and you're so kind
You want more money, of course I don't mind
To buy nuclear textbooks for atomic crimes
And the public gets what the public wants
But I want nothing this society's got

I'm going underground
Well, let the brass bands play and feet start to pound
Going underground
Well, let the boys all sing and let the boys all shout for tomorrow

Some people might get some pleasure out of hate
Me, I've enough already on my plate
People might need some tension to relax
Me, I'm too busy dodging between the flak
What you see is what you get
You made your bed, you'd better lie in it
You choose your leaders and place your trust
As their lies wash you down and their promises rust
You'll see kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns
And the public wants what the public gets
But I don't get what this society wants

We talk and we talk until my head explodes
I turn on the news and my body froze
These braying sheep on my TV screen
But this boy shouts, but this boy screams!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Sometime Yesterday Morning

. . . . I thought that the lines in "She" were "She devoured all my Sweet'N Low / Took all I had and then she fed me dirt / She laughed when I was crying / It was such a joke to see the wafer" and when you're a kid stuff like that just gets inside and you don't try to make too much sense of it but on the playground at Saint Andrew the Apostle I still couldn't get my mind around sugar substitute and Communion wafers in the same song then the fourteen-bar middle comes in and all I think about is how cool that song-within-a-song is until those lyrics about a girl who needs someone to walk on get inside too and things get complicated again like the beautiful counter melody in "When Love Comes Knockin' (At Your Door)" that told me that the music alone can stir things made double fun when "Mary, Mary" kicked in and now we're just dancing down in the basement no worries about whether I understood "love" and how the girls were looking at other guys with a secret language that the album seemed to speak then the weird Greek vibe in "Hold On Girl" more dancing against adolescent blues before "Your Auntie Grizelda" arrived for an always-welcome hilarious visit even though we knew that Tork was aping Ringo the song was a blast and we'd turn it up even better because my mom would close her ears whenever the song came on and though the drum fill at the organ break in "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" was all the grinning excitement we'd ever need it was still melancholy because we knew that side one was over that we'd have to flip it and hear "Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)" a throat-tighteningly sad song and though I was light years away from the problem the singer had the chorus sang my own dread of going back to school on Monday and facing classroom and playground sadness so preoccupied was I that I barely listened to "The Kind of Girl I Could Love" it sounded country and out of place anyway but is there anything better than hooting with laughter to bring you out of your indulgent melodramas because oh boy here's Davy Jones cracking us up with "The Day We Fall in Love" too corny and hilarious for words though again we were years away from understanding the reality behind the schmaltz but those syrupy strings! and then again the magic of pop music as we go from laughter to childish introspection the melody in "Sometime in the Morning" so gorgeous and lyrical and melancholy that I almost couldn't take it and sometimes listened the other way to get through it all knowing that "Laugh" was coming a kind of how-to manual to get through Monday that helped even though we somehow knew that it was forced but not "I'm a Believer" came on the uplifting pop perfection of which soothed the hurt that the album was over so let's flip it again . . . .


Percentage of words in this post that I knew/understood when I was a kid listening to More of the Monkees? Maybe 8. Percentage of the album that I understood then? 99. (That "Sweet'N Low and wafer" verse always threw me.) Boyce, Hart, Sager, Sedaka, Nesmith, Goffin, King, Diamond and the rest of them out in Hollywood with those wonderful seasoned session musicians scored my mornings, afternoons, and evenings. Timing is everything in pop music: you too have an album or a song that got into you before you could speak it and that soundtracked your day.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

"There ain't no dance she couldn't do . . . I feel fine to be dancin', baby"

Shake it, shake it, shake it . . . you can't pull down this bridge.

Clockwise from top left, the Kingsmen (photo via USE//MEB); Rocky and the Riddlers (photo via Pacific Northwest Bands); Detroit Wheels (photo via Motor City Music Archives); the Stooges (photo via Iggy and the Stooges Music)

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Love, Sex, Movement, Hope

Richard Wright, from his foreword to Paul Oliver's The Meaning of the Blues:
Yet the most astonishing aspect of the blues is that, though replete with a sense of defeat and down-heartedness, they are not intrinsically pessimistic; their burden of woe and melancholy is dialectically redeemed through sheer force of sensuality, into an almost exultant aflirmation of life, of love, of sex, of movement, of hope.
Photo by Michael L. Abramson, via American Photo, from his exhibition "Michael L. Abramson: Pulse of the Night," at the Columbia College Chicago Library.

Friday, October 28, 2016

October: Coming Back

As Game Three of the Cubs and Indians World Series resumes tonight, I'm looking back at a gap of missing Octobers. After the 1981 World Series I drifted away from baseball for much of the following decade, turning my attention to books, school, girls, music, and drinking, not necessarily in that order. My interest revived during the amazing 1986 World Series (regrettably, while the Game Six drama played out I was in the studio at WMUC on the campus of University of Maryland, horsing around during a friend's on-air show) but it wasn't until the taut and epic '91 Series that I returned to the game for good. Yet another thrilling invitation came in the form of Sid Bream sliding across home plate in the deciding game of the 1992 National League Championship Series, sent from second base courtesy of Fransisco Cabrera's hit, beating Barry Bonds's throw by inches, and shredding CBS announcer Sean McDonough's larynx. I jumped up and down in the front of the TV that night like I hadn't done since watching Graig Nettles's and Bucky Dent's heroics in the late 70s. I haven't missed a season since, my love for the game and its history only deepening.

So here's to Bream's huffing and puffing, an October moment for which I'm eternally grateful.

Apologies to Pirates fans of a certain age:


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"We didn't break up. We Were at The Pyramid."

In recognition of the Fleshtones' 40th anniversary in May of this year, I've been combing through the Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band and online archives for some little-seen nuggets. Digital artist, animator, and filmmaker Marjan Moghaddam recently uploaded her mini-documentary Drag Queens, Skinheads, Artists and Some Girls: the Pyramid Club of the 1980s. She notes:
Between 1983 and 1988, I shot bands, performance art, art, and other related events at the Pyramid club, in addition to showing my own early video art and computer animation there. I’ve held on to the original videos for decades now, and in 2011 I put together this short Video for a Pyramid event at Howl Festival, where it was originally screened. It was shown again at Howl gallery during the Pyramid show in 2015.
Readers of Sweat, and those friendly with the band in the mid-1980s, know how important The Pyramid was to the Fleshtones. In Sweat I wrote:
While Peter was decked out in shades, propped up in convertibles, and driven around sunny L.A., Keith and Marek were hanging out in the East Village at the Pyramid Club, a lively, memorable, and unique gay dive-bar on Avenue A that opened in 1981 and quickly became a second home to all of the band members, who found the eclectic, cross-dressing, pure-fun vibe of the joint intoxicating. Peter’s friend Gary Fakete had introduced them to the club, the happenings and clientele of which was in large part fueled by the same inspiration (and in some cases, by the same cast of characters) that drove the old Club 57. Ann Magnuson, Keith Haring, Wendy Wild, and others set the Pyramid’s nights alive with gallery openings, drag shows, and DJ-spun glimmer; at one point, Nico lived in a loft upstairs. As Time Out New York noted, “The supremely grimy hole-in-the-wall” was much more than “a trannie tavern—it was the creative heart of a then-thriving East Village scene.” The Fleshtones dug it, and were the first rock & roll band to play there. “We were basically the house band at The Pyramid,” says Peter.
. . .
The Pyramid Club did a good seven or eight years of being a unique club, “a mix of New York sensibility,” Keith remembers. “Artists, musicians, drag queens, bikers, the whole thing would just groove. It was exciting every night, and there was always something happening entertainment-wise, Lower East Side-entertainment, that made it just so much fun.” The narrow club had a small stage and sound system, and in the mid-80s Keith began booking shows on Thursday nights that he dubbed “Mod Teepee,” and many side-projects for the guys, Love Delegation, Wild Hyenas, Tall Lonesome Pines, and Mad Violets among them, would originate from the sleepless Pyramid scene.

At the end of one long evening in the spring of 1984, Keith, Marek, Butterick, and drinking buddies Michael “Kitty” Ullmann and local-legend drag queen Lady Bunny closed the bar and dragged a bag of six-packs over to the band shell at Tompkins Square. The drunken talk turned to the idleheaded idea of throwing a day-long drag festival in the shell, an open-air invite to all of the most fantastic queens, fags, and straight-cum-inner-freakflag-wavers in the neighborhood who wanted to groove to disco and sunshine. The friends laughed into early morning hours, and at some point Marek suggested that they call the event “Wigstock,” as a parody of Woodstock and as a sly insistence on a required fashion accessory.

Wigstock debuted on a crisp Labor Day in 1984. Lady Bunny kicked off the proceedings by belting “I Feel the Earth Move,” sashaying across the stage to the delight of the small but enthusiastic crowd; The Fleshtones played, and in subsequent Wigstock’s would team up with Wendy Wild as a waggish “Jefferson Hairplane.” A cast of regulars would catapult the event into a major local scene; both Ru Paul (“Supermodel: You Better Work”) and Dee-Lite (“Groove is in the Heart”) launched their careers from the amped frivolity of the Wigstock band shell. By 1990, the crowds were numbering in the tens of thousands. In 1991, the event was moved to Union Square, and ultimately to the West Side piers, where the crowds swelled to 50,000, before Lady Bunny finally put an end to the series that had grown beyond anyone’s wildest dreams on that beer-soaked, uranian night back in Tompkins Square.
By the time Nirvana played their first New York-area show at The Pyramid in the summer of 1989, The Fleshtones were dropping out of the scene. “The Pyramid became our home for much of the 80s,” Peter acknowledges. “A lot of people assume that the band broke up in the mid-80s. We didn’t break up. We were at The Pyramid.”
Gordon Spaeth speaks briefly in the first minute of the video, and Bill Milhizer, Keith Streng and Wild Wild appear, too. Drag Queens, Skinheads, Artists and Some Girls: the Pyramid Club of the 1980s is a time capsule of Reagan Era EV fun. Dig the scene, which Moghaddam and the boozy, happy-at-home regulars capture with aplomb:

More Super Rock 40th Anniversary posts here.

Screen grabs from Marjan Moghaddam's Drag Queens, Skinheads, Artists and Some Girls: the Pyramid Club of the 1980s.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

176 Years and Counting

This is just fantastic: two old franchises (the Cubs formed in 1876, the Indians in 1894); two great sports towns; two terrific managers; two solid, well-balanced teams (though one teeters slightly more than the other); two great ballparks (well, one great one, the other good). Plus, the weather's getting nippy.

The 2016 World Series will likely, and unsurprisingly, come down to stout defense and sturdy pitching, especially in the late innings. The Cubs are ridiculously talented, 1 to 9, and very well-managed; the hungry, relatively-anonymous Indians are led by the superb Terry Francona. Both squads will be well-prepared, balancing discipline and routine with the youthful energy coursing through them. I'm quite certain that we'll witness plays up the middle turned by the ebullient, irresistible duo of the Indians' 22-year old shortstop Fransisco Lindor and the Cubs' 23-year old second-baseman Javier Báez that we'll talk about for a long time (and that Fox will beat to death). There will be epic at-bats in front of roaring crowds in both towns. I'm really excited about this one.

I semi-rooted for the Cubs in the playoffs, if only as a magnanimous gesture toward the city and my students (and my former students, whose ashen faces in the classroom the day after Game Six in 2003 I still vividly recall). But that high road has proven too steep. I'm an American League guy through and through, not to mention a White Sox fan, and though the Indians have long been Sox-killers, I'm pulling for the Tribe. The Cubs are young and so gifted that their window of opportunity will stay open for a few more seasons.

That said, I predict the Cubs in six, given their balance of starting pitching, defense, and slugging, though I don't with utter confidence. I want a competitive series, and I think we'll get it. Play Ball!

Friday, October 21, 2016

Myths on the Rock and Roll Stage

I saw the Ramones for the first time at the long-gone Wax Museum in Washington D.C. in March of 1984. The band was supporting Subterranean Jungle, an album that I pulled out recently to listen to and which floored me—again—with its great guitar sound, courtesy of co-producers Ritchie Cordell and Glen Kolotkin, and overall amped-up energy. Like each Ramones album since Road to Ruin, the record has its detractors, among them the band members themselves (but they hated everything). Some decry the slick, of-the-era production and drum sound; some lament the three cover songs; some hate the cartoonish cover. Johnny Ramone liked the guitar sound—aided and abetted by ex-Heartbreaker guitarist Walter Lure, who's thanked on the inner sleeve but otherwise uncredited—and he recalls watching the Cardinals/Brewers World Series while recording the album, and that's enough for me. Those cover songs—"Time Has Come Today," "Little Bit O' Soul," and the Boyfriends' transcendent, desperate "I Need Your Love"—are all great, as are the originals "Outsider," "Somebody Like Me," "In the Park," "Time Bomb," and "Psycho Therapy," the opening siren-wailing-riff of which excites me as much as it did when I first heard it in Regan America.

What I remember about the show is the scarifying ringing in my ears for a week afterward, but there was a current running through the performance that had nothing to do with the band's considerable Marshall backline. Seven months before the show, following a show in Queens, Johnny had been involved in a street confrontation with twenty-two year old Seth Macklin, a member of the punk band Sub Zero. According to an August 16, 1983 New York Times account, Ramone "suffered a fractured skull during a fight . . . that began at 3:50 A.M. when Mr. Ramone encountered Mr. Macklin with a young woman Mr. Ramone had dated, according to Sgt. Peter Ruane, a police spokesman."
Mr. Ramone, who was born as John Cummings, was injured when Mr. Macklin kicked him in the head near the end of the fight, Sergeant Ruane said. Mr. Macklin was arrested on assault charges and Mr. Ramone was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital where he underwent surgery. The hospital refused to disclose Mr. Ramone's condition. 
The following day, the Times reported that "punk-rock star" Ramone was in stable condition, and "Mr. Ramone's friend" was identified as Cynthia Whitney, twenty-two; Macklin, who wasn't injured, "was arrested and charged with first-degree assault, according to the police. He was arraigned and released in his own custody." 

Here's an account in the Prescott, Arizona Courier of the so-called "jealous rage":

Johnny didn't talk about the incident much afterward until his posthumously published autobiography, Commando (which I wrote about here.) He devotes a page to the incident, acknowledging that he remembers little of the attack that put him in the hospital for ten days. "I was thankful that I didn’t have brain damage and that I was okay," he wrote, "but other people said that they saw something different about me after the attack."
They thought that it had changed me. I didn’t feel any different, but I began to be more cautious, and looked to avoid confrontational situations. I didn’t back down, of course, because New York is a confrontational place. But I watched situations more carefully, even people around the Ramones who might want to get too close. I did not want to get into another fight. I saw the damage that it had done. I was now more vulnerable to head injuries. 
He revealed that Macklin served only a few months in jail. "I went to court and testified," he wrote. "I never heard from him again. I was very angry. I wanted him killed. I'm all for capital punishment. I think it should be televised." Afterward Johnny worried about going soft, and he peered around a bit more while on the street, bought a gun and began carrying mace.

My buddies and I knew none of this the night of the show, of course. Somehow we'd heard that Johnny had been fighting for his life, the result of a street brawl with some skinhead on a grimy, shadowy street in scary New York City. I hadn't visited the city since I was a child with my family, and so the imagery in my head quickly grew lurid and exaggerated, a story telling its own story. This is how the imagination works: facts are replaced by desire, what it wants. Before the Internet, such vivid conjuring was easy, required even. Down in D.C., because we had no corroboration of, or updates about, the fight, we recreated the incident in our heads, giving it mythic proportions within which to grow. The details were murky, so we brightened the story with our own, internal versions. Now: every fact can be searched for and found online, and there's precious little time left for mythology to form between an incident and its instant sharing, and vetting, by millions around the world. Then: we'd heard that his head had been shaved for emergency surgery and that he was sporting uncharacteristically short hair, or maybe even a wig! (It didn't look like it the night of the show, but then again it was months later.) That fall in the tiny record store in the Student Union at the University of Maryland, I looked at the Ramones' new album and sensed that the band was working up a little myth of their own about the incident: Too Tough To Die it was called. On the cover they emerged, back-lit, from a tunnel. Inside they played faster than they ever had.

There are a lot factors that affect the memory of a great show: the songs; the performance; the venue; the size of the crowd; the drugs or alcohol coursing through or absent from your body. Within minutes, driving or walking home afterward, a show can grow large in our retelling of it. Also graphically affecting a show are the stories that we carry inside of ourselves as we're rocking out, narratives that may or may not have happened to those guys and girls up there onstage, or next to me on the floor, but which cast the evening on an even larger stage.

Anyway, RIP John Cummings. Turn it up:

Photo of Johnny Ramone via David Corio / Getty
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