Friday, April 30, 2010

AC/DC's Highway to Hell

My contribution to the 33 1/3 Series with Continuum Books will be shipping very soon: a book about AC/DC's 1979 album Highway to Hell, the last recorded with the great Bon Scott. Here's an excerpt from the book's opening:
A gray October late-morning. Wheaton, Maryland. On the playground at St. Andrew Apostle School, Billy’s holding forth before a rapt audience of thirteen year olds. I’m one of them.
“Hey guys, my brother and I saw AC/DC,” he tells us. “I met Bon Scott.”
We know that the band will come to town again soon to rock Capital Centre, out in Largo. And we wonder: since Billy’s already shaving once a week and has an older brother who brings him along to rock concerts, will a backstage pass to one of the great party bands come next in the inevitable, lucky scheme of things? In our freshly minted teenage naiveté we can virtually inhale the sweat and the reefer as Billy talks to us. It feels as if we’re in the presence of divine fortune here, on the blacktop next to the dodge ball court and the basketball hoops and the swing sets, just feet away from the rectory where the priests live and write the sermons to which we’ll mentally undress the girls. Will Billy get to hang out in a smoky backstage, feel up the groupies, drink beer with Bon Scott?
As the Seventies came to a close, AC/DC was not yet a sonic institution firing oversized cannons from vast stages into seas of millions. The band’s seams were showing. They’d formed in Sydney, Australia, in late 1973, when twenty-year-old, Scottish-born guitarist Malcolm Young aborted an earlier band and roped in his kid brother Angus on lead guitar to round out a new lineup featuring Colin Burgess on drums, Larry Van Kriedt on bass, and singer Dave Evans. They debuted on New Year’s Eve at the Chequers Club in Sydney. Maneuvering among band defections, they ducked into EMI Studios and recorded their debut single “Can I Sit Next To You, Girl?,” and spent the remainder of the year raising their profile, gigging tirelessly, and enduring various rhythm section lineups with feet firmly planted on a bedrock of Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, and loud, electric blues. At older sister Margaret’s cheeky suggestion, Angus donned a schoolboy uniform onstage in April of 1974, and in between tours and one-off shows taking them from divey gay bars and provincial dance halls to the Sydney Opera House (where they opened for Australian legend Stevie Wright), the band signed with Albert Productions, benefiting happily from record distribution through the mammoth institution of EMI. Their first single charted in Perth, in Western Australia. AC/DC were hungry.
In August, a wiry, affable hood tattooed with a risky past caught an AC/DC show in Adelaide in southern Australia, and he dug what he saw. Ronald “Bon” Belford Scott was like the Young brothers, a transplanted Scotsman, but a bit older and a little wilder, and already a veteran singer in several bands (the Valentines, Fraternity). In the midst of a brief stint as a driver, handyman, and general gofer for an old bandmate, Scott was asked to audition to replace Evans, with whom Malcolm and Angus had grown unhappy; he joined in September. In November, after relocating southwest to Melbourne, AC/DC swiftly cut their debut album, High Voltage; their second, T.N.T., was recorded eight months later. Melbourne local Phil Rudd stepped in as drummer, and over the next several years the band committed themselves to a Herculean diet of gigs, drinking, and writing and recording: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap was released in 1976; Let There Be Rock in 1977. By 1978, with English-born bassist Cliff Williams in the band and the classic lineup intact, they were reaping the benefits of their driven work ethic. Though essentially ignored in America, AC/DC was hugely popular in Australia, where their concerts had grown in size and intensity as their albums went gold. They’d made exploratory inroads throughout Europe and in England, and were boozily, noisily heading west.
To get the juices flowing here are two clips of the band in full-on, classic-lineup glory: "Sin City" from NBC's Midnight Special (1978), and "Highway to Hell" recorded in Arnhem, the Netherlands in 1979. Get your Bon on. (Best viewed in a new window; double-click the vid.)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Killer: Lost and Found

A round-up of some recent notices:

Alex V. Cook in Country Roads:
"A welcome rarity among books about rock legends, Bonomo lets the music and the history do the actual talking."
L. Kent Wolgamott in the Lincoln Journal Star:

"I've read most of the books about him and will now put Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found on the indispensable list. It's one of the best books about the man and his music."

Christel Loar in PopMatters:

"This is not a biography or discography, but an exhaustive and exhilarating analysis of what has been called one of the greatest live albums of all time."

Also weighing in are Fffanzeen and Country Standard Time.

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry

An excerpt from my essay "The Hyphen," in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry:
I’d been mulling over a memory from school, an awful day when a bunch of my classmates threw stones at a girl named Mina because she was Iranian and Iran at that time held American hostages. In a brief prose piece I tried to write about the incident and whether or not I was implicated, worrying less about a beginning-middle-end then in circling the story though the indelible images I possessed of the day and era. I trusted that the common thread among them would be strong enough to bind together several pages, and it did. I began writing more essays, aligning myself with Montaigne’s exercise of “essay” in attempting to make sense of the tones, sensations, and imagery my imagination clung to about occasions, trivial and large. I often had no idea where I’d land. More jagged than arced, these prose pieces began to coalesce into something more substantial, visually and thematically, than my poems. The magnetic right margin, with which I no longer danced self-consciously, tugged and lengthened my lines, layering them. And the discursive element and conversational voice relieved me (mostly) of the lyric, abstract tone with which my more recent poems had whispered, affectedly, to my ear.
My prose natively took shape as block text, but arranged musically, the sentences growing or shrinking as Denise Levertov observed the phenomenon in organic poetry. I approached the page with the same impulse I did when writing poetry: less with a subject then with a note struck inside of myself. And so my essays naturally hyphenate, sitting astride music and discourse, cadence and idea(s). I’ll always lean toward the poetic with my feet firmly planted in the prosaic.

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice, edited by Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek
Nin Andrews • Joe Bonomo • John Bradley • Brigitte Byrd • Maxine Chernoff • David Daniel • Denise Duhamel • Nancy Eimers • Beckian Fritz Goldberg • Ray Gonzalez • Arielle Greenberg • Kevin Griffith • Carol Guess • Maurice Kilwein Guevara • James Harms • Bob Hicok • Tung-Hui Hu • Christopher Kennedy • David Keplinger • Gerry LaFemina • David Lazar • Alexander Long • Kathleen McGookey • Robert Miltner • Amy Newman • William Olsen • Andrew Michael Roberts • Michael Robins • Mary Ann Samyn • Maureen Seaton • David Shumate • Jeffrey Skinner • Mark Wallace • Gary Young
A wide-ranging gathering of 34 brief essays and 66 prose poems by distinguished practitioners, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry is as personal and provocative, accessible and idiosyncratic as the genre itself. The essayists discuss their craft, influences, and experiences, all while pondering larger questions: What is prose poetry? Why write prose poems? With its pioneering introduction, this collection provides a history of the development of the prose poem up to its current widespread appeal. Half critical study and half anthology, The Field Guide to Prose Poetry is a not-to-be-missed companion for readers and writers of poetry, as well as students and teachers of creative writing.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Season of The List

The editors of Northern Star at Northern Illinois University asked me to come up with 5 albums that every college student should listen to, and Writers Read asked me to talk about books that I've been into of late.

Of course I'm already thinking of how I'd change these lists....

Thursday, April 22, 2010

On bearing across

"The metaphor is perhaps one of man's most fruitful potentialities. Its efficacy verges on magic, and it seems a tool for creation which God forgot inside one of His creatures when He made him," Jose Ortega y Gasset

Friday, April 16, 2010

Impossible Places

Bored and distracted in the classroom at St. Andrew the Apostle, I’d often fantasize about a figure I’d occasionally draw in my notebook with fetishistic attention. My drawing was an impossible thing, an unnatural object, couldn’t be made. I was too young to know about M.C. Escher’s work or to understand optical illusions, so my discovery felt new and strange, and somehow forbidden. I loved that I could draw something that couldn’t actually exist in nature, that I’d create — the stirrings of language and the power of the imagination in a fourth-grade classroom.

My object was a triangle connected to a square: the two sides tapering from the square had to slope gradually until they reached the triangle front. I was young and didn’t how factories worked or how finely-calibrated machinery might replicate this: I’d simply stare at what I’d wrought and the top of my head would come off. This can’t happen!

This next impossible thing would steal toward me at night — actually, I’d chase it. A three-adult-tall, jet-black wall dotted with a hundred finger-sized holes. Who'd built it, where it came from, where it’d go, I didn’t know and wouldn’t pretend, only that the wall would materialize in the middle of the playground at St. Andrews in the middle of recess. If I stuck my index finger into the correct hole, the world would stop spinning, time would freeze. The desire of any body exhausted by the agitation of puberty: to halt things for a second, so I can rush headlong in. This had a lurid appeal for me: with the girls around me frozen in place, I could indulge the forbidden and lift skirts, unbutton blouses, enact in reality what had plagued me in hormone fantasies. And: the bullies, locked in place now, their menace around the swing sets or brewing on the low wall beneath the basketball hoops stilled in a tableau of impotence. And I, skulking between and among the powerless boys.

The impossible and the sacred, a church of the body. We all remember: here’s the church here’s the steeple open the door and see all the people. When no one was around I’d play open the door and where are the people? Always romanticizing absence and loss, I liked the idea of the empty church — although it was sad, too — and that I could build that church with my hands. Linking my fingers, I could create a space and peer in, see a quiet church, see post-church, see loss made.

Gaston Bachelard: "One must go beyond logic to experience what is large in what is small."

Over twenty years ago I came upon an abandoned stone church in London. The building, intensified by the dim weather, seemed an organic chunk of earth ascending in vain, and I felt compelled to move toward it to explore the grounds. I slipped through a hole in a fence meant to keep me out, and stepped onto thinning grass and then broken sidewalks toward a large door covered in vines. The natural world had begun the task of claiming the edifice back into the earth. The grounds were quiet, the near Hampstead traffic hushed. I moved toward a window that hadn’t been boarded-up, or maybe had had its shabby particle planks removed, and I peered in.
Several rows of silty pews materialized in the darkness; the center aisle became apparent, as did a sacristy, and slowly a choir loft, and then a jittery movement among crumbling pews and in a nanosecond a pack of wild dogs—eight or more—bolted upright in unison, baring their teeth and growling guttural warnings toward me. Utter fierceness. The pack leader rising in intensity and determination, eyes yellowed, piercing, leaning toward me.
Drenched with hysteria, I darted from the grounds and ran breathlessly for blocks, disorientated, frightened, and exhilarated. No map could have augured: nature had risen and pronounced that I was trespassing.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Steven Church + Robert Vivian + Culture

I’m reading Robert Vivian’s Cold Snap as Yearning and Steven Church’s The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record. Both go about the business of autobiography quite differently.

Vivian’s essays are poetic unpackings of his imagination, Church’s memoir an evocative, talky jog through obsession and commitment. When I put my fist in Vivian’s book, I come back with air and light; when I put my fist into Church’s, I come back with fingernails, flesh, rifles, tactile things. If I were to run my hand over the tops of Church’s chapters my hands would cut and bleed; if I were to run my hand over the tops of Vivian’s essays my hands would glide, buoyed by contemplation and abstraction. Vivian’s book was published in 2001; Church’s four years later. The vivid contemporary world lives and breathes in both of these books, but so differently.

I’m interested in the place and role of popular culture in memoir. As an essayist I’m bound to place; am I bound to the specific things of place? Church’s memoir recounts growing up in suburban Kansas in the seventies and eighties, lensed through his obsession with the Guinness Book of World Records, a book he coveted as a kid and, as an adult, uses as a kind of autobiographical template. Mixing and matching various coming-of-age episodes with their direct and indirect counterparts among the exotic and arcane industry of world records, Church charts family, responsibility, memory. Because he uses the Guinness Book as a scrim, his memoir is full of crazy people and places and events, the personal and cultural excesses that we associate with world records. Church draws a loving knot around the world’s fattest twins, the longest hiccups, the fastest amputation, and the longest shower, and the considerably unspectacular but unforgettable friends and neighbors and episodes from his suburban past.

Vivian’s essays roam mostly the “woebegone” (a favorite word of his) landscape of Nebraska: the endless, crow-dotted sky, the sweet fields, the scents through trees, a detour into stultifying office life (near the end of the book he essays London and Las Vegas). He’s also obsessed with bizarre, marginal figures, but differently than is Church. The bag ladies, homeless wanderers, and mentally-challenged figures in his Omaha aren’t breaking any world records, they’re simply, sometimes painfully, existing—for Vivian, as puzzling signs toward larger understanding beyond his grasp. (Very much Montaigne-esque in urgency, Vivian’s essays follow what he doesn’t yet know.) The figures in Vivian’s book differ from Church’s in another way: they’re rendered as archetypes, their physical and psychic details stubborn and earthly, but also abstracted and poeticized, so much so that Vivian’s world feels less like a landscape full of people and animals than a landscape painted with imaginative renderings.

There’s a moment in the middle of Vivian’s book when he makes reference to Annie Lennox, and it jars. There are so few time-specific details in his book that Lennox appears as a kind of exotic alien from a far-away world that invented pop music. Church’s book, on the other hand, is loaded with memories rooted in pop culture. Such differences have as much to do with style and aesthetic as with Omaha-versus-Lawrence subject matter. What place does popular culture have in memoir? Martin Scorsese never wanted to use music in a film that simply time-stamps a scene as occurring in, say, 1963; the music should (must) evoke mood and theme. We don’t want to aspire to writing autobiography that enacts a time-capsule; we need to reach for larger meaning, the undying essaying of the personal and the ecumenical. But I’m fascinated by the ways in which the things and objects of our past might hold us down, might tether us too lovingly to sentimentality and nostalgia — or to the desire to reproduce a given era of our lives — so that we miss the opportunity for interrogating that past for meaning beyond mere personal experience.
Wallace Stevens said: turn an ordinary object slightly and it becomes a metaphor of that object. So, turn that Big Wheel, that Barbie Dream House, that Action Jackson Safari Hut, that Evel Knievel bike, that Monkees lunch box — and hope for transformation, for a carrying over. When I was 10, I stole a plastic gold ring from a five-and-dime store on the boardwalk at Bethany Beach, Delaware. My family had rented a house there for a week, and the night of my petty theft I bawled to my parents in their bedroom; the next day they came with me to the store as I returned the ring. The night that I confessed, my brothers were downstairs in front of the TV watching Mark Fidrych’s national debut on ABC’s Monday Night Baseball, marveling at the pitcher’s idiosyncrasies, his weird muttering to the ball in his glove, talking to himself and to the mound like a nutty Big Bird shaman. The game made Fidrych a legend; upstairs, I was unwittingly creating my own legend. As Peggy Lee asked, is that all there is? Did the two episodes simply coincide as the world spins? Or might I yet explore something appealing between them, a confluence of cockiness and pettiness, of national glamour and private shame, of success and loss?

Should our autobiographical details radiate with Wal-Mart fluorescence or with a star’s impersonal, million-mile distance? Or somewhere in between.

(Thanks to my students for the conversation. "Terminatoy" via Flickr Creative Commons)

Monday, April 5, 2010

In Defense of Reading (Books)

...I remain convinced that there is a singular experience — of devoting time to read a writer's sustained and crafted words of more than, say, 50,000 words — that cannot be supplanted by anything else. Maybe this solitary absorption of another's words will become the activity of a precious few. But anyone seeking wisdom or learning over knowledge and entertainment will still look for it. And treasure it.
—Andrew Sullivan

Old as the Hills

“If a Civil War veteran came back, about the only thing he’d recognize is baseball. He’d know the rules and be able to identify somewhat with baseball. When we tinker around with it, we tend to make mistakes. We don’t really know why baseball works," Fay Vincent

Friday, April 2, 2010

On White Sox Fandom

My dad has had two baseball teams taken from him. When he was in his late-20s his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers packed up and moved to far away Los Angeles; then when he was in his early-40s his Washington Senators relocated to Texas to become the Rangers. That last tragedy has been redressed somewhat with the arrival a couple of years ago of the Nationals in Washington D.C..

I didn’t have a local team to root for when I was growing up. After the Senators decamped to Texas, the nearest club for me was the Baltimore Orioles. My family, thus, were fans by proxy, a kind of necessity. I remember the old Memorial Stadium fondly, in that it was the first stadium where I watched professional baseball (I was brought to a Senators game or two; the droopy pennants in my parents’ house attest to this, though they were likely my older brothers’ and at any rate I don’t remember much from the games). Memorial was a pretty bland, ramshackle, lo-fi park, but I love this game and I liked the Orioles teams then: Ken Singleton; Al Bumbry; Jim Palmer; Brooks Robinson (who I asked to autograph my Topps card at Wheaton Plaza); Mark Belanger. By the time Cal Ripken, Jr. arrived on the scene I was a slightly less-crazed fan of baseball — but the O’s weren’t my team, anyway. My dad himself grumbled for years about this gloomy fact, even as he and my mom bought Orioles season tickets and made countless hour-plus treks up and down Route 95, fighting traffic and parking and the far more burdensome, unforgivable requirement of pulling for another’s team.

This existential crisis has trailed me. (I am not a homer, therefore I am not?) When I moved to Athens, Ohio I was, again, without a home team. Allegiances bore themselves out in the classrooms where my students would glare at each other beneath Reds and Indians hats, but who cared? Dibble, Schmibble—who did I have? I’d fallen away from the game a bit, the wide-eyed affection of a twelve-year old having been diluted (and for a few years, obliterated) by the fun and heartaches and arousing complications of college and grad school and various twenty-something melodramas. In the early 90s I started paying attention again, tuning in to baseball on WGN. I was happy to listen to Harry Carry and to vibe off of the Wrigley Field bleachers and the grimy Chicago sunshine. But the Sox grabbed me.

I admit that part of the attraction for me was buying happily into gritty South Side myth, the hard-scrabble, blue-collar, tough mentality that I grinningly accepted, and loved. Hey, and the Chess label was South Side, too — so many of my favorite records were cut at 2120 S. Michigan Ave. It was a groovy aligning of electric blues and baseball, Muddy and Luzinski, long shadows and black uniforms, irresistible (semi-true) history in a sprawling, railyard-grunting city toiling in the shadows of the well-to-do North Side. That’s what I wanted to believe, anyway. I followed the Big Hurt and Robin Ventura and Jack McDowell, all filtered through Hawk Harrelson, and grew, very quickly, to love the White Sox.

After we moved to DeKalb in the mid-90s, I was sixty miles away from the team. I still have no hometown baseball, but I’ve loved the White Sox—in minute detail, box score after box score, inning after inning, disappointment to elation back to disappointment—for many years now, and they are my team. Finally.

I might head east to DC this summer and catch a Nationals/White Sox game with my dad and brother, enjoying baseball a few miles from the house in which I was raised. As happy as I’ll be watching my dad beam and groan along with his home team (finally!), I’ll be pulling for the South Siders.

Cheers to allegiances and regional pining, and to the game that’s bigger than all of that. Opening Day is almost here.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

"...the mysteries of everyday things..."

Patrick Madden asks, "Are Essays Viable in the Twenty-First Century?" His answer is spirited and smart. A must-read.