Saturday, June 26, 2010


Driving east to Washington D.C., I noticed an abandoned motel north of Pittsburgh. I hastily pulled over, took the exit, and drove around a bit until I located the place. There's something about an abandoned hotel, grim and silent and mock-noble amidst the roar of trucks and cars on the highway. Later that afternoon, I got online and learned that many others have taken this same exit to explore this hotel, the old Pittsburgh North Motor Lodge.

Anti-Romance lured me. I pulled into an adjacent parking lot (Max & Erma's), climbed up a small hill, and walked toward the empty front office and parking lot. The details are perfect: grass and weeds pushing though asphalt; a hallway with Coke machines battling against trees and shrubs that have made their green way into the building; a scabby, empty pool; boarded up windows that once opened and gave to visitors the twin Americana promise of trees and diesel. I imagined decades' worth of stories — of tired families folding up maps for the day, of young couples and weary strangers, of the existential rootlessness common to all travelers. Eventually spooked by the silence, even at high noon, I took off, not before taking some photos:


A couple of days later in Washington, the memory of the hotel vivid, I made my way to a longtime favorite abandoned building, this crumbling echo:

The old Washington Coliseum (earlier named the Uline Arena) was built in the 1940s to hold basketball and hockey games. Its semi-fame comes from having been the venue where the Beatles, following their iconic appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, played their first North American concert in 1964. They had to pause the show three times, each time to manually move their gear, in order to play in front of each segment of the screaming audience. Here's a blog devoted to "place and placemaking and all that makes it work," with a great photo of Ringo Starr before the show strolling down M Street in front of the Coliseum, tossing a snowball in the air. (Good websites specifically devoted to the show here and here.)

For many years, rumbling past on the train home to Maryland after work, I could make out "DC Coliseum" on the building's brick sign, but that's long faded away and been covered with graffiti. The District used the building as a trash holding station for a while, now it's being used as a parking garage, and is on the market, if you're interested. Walking among the vestiges, I peered through holes in the brick walls made by man and nature, into cracks in the boarded-up foyer and ticket office, crossed the street to take in the wide view of a once solid, formidable building now silent and creaking in the sun and home to vagrant crows — and loved picturing, in false B&W nostalgia, a snaking line of curious teenage girls waiting for the show, of the early-twenty-something Beatles ducking in to the load-in area along L St., unaware of what was coming toward them.

Now: empty, quiet, fading, grimly ignored by the slow gentrification of surrounding blocks. "At times, the simpler the image, the vaster the dream," writes Gaston Bachelard, no stranger to the poetic lure of the once-inhabited, now-abandoned. Any building reduced to its frame, a ragged exterior, looks elemental, simple. But its long emotional history is vast: the housing of weary families on the long highway, or the amplified noise sent out over a cultural sea of screams.

Thanks to Steve Fisher for the Ringo link.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

My Top 15 Shows

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—In Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found I write briefly about live albums, and about some of my favorite shows over the years. Here’s a list of my top 15. These are of the ROCKING variety and, like all “best-of” lists, this is bound to be fluid:

The Rolling Stones @ Capitol Center, Landover MD, 1981

Through luck and kinda-connections my brother scored first- and second-row tickets for this stop on the Stones' Tattoo You tour. Jagger flew over my head in a cherry-picker, my brother shook Bill Wyman's hand, Keith painted on his jeans and drank from the bottle, Charlie rolled his eyes. Great stuff. And to think that they seemed like an old band then.

Hüsker Dü @ Psychedelly, Bethesda MD, 1984

One of the loudest shows I've ever witnessed. The Pyschedelly was a cool, lo-fi place, and a great roster of bands came through over the years. Bethesda was a kind of Mecca to me in my raised-in-Wheaton ways, and that the club was across the street from the seminal WHFS progressive radio station only made the place cooler. Some local punk kid jumped onstage at Bob Mould's invitation and promptly forgot the lyrics that he was supposed to yelp. I still feel bad for him.

The Ramones @ Wax Museum, Washington D.C., 1984

My first time seeing the Kings of Queens. The Too Tough To Die tour. Johnny Ramone had just had his clock cleaned in NYC by Seth Macklin of Sub Zero Construction, and was sporting slightly shorter hair; I could be wrong. They were fantastic, of course, and because we showed up late we had to stand along the wall by the stack of Marshall amps. My ears rang for a week. (UPDATE: I think I got some details wrong, unsurprisingly. More here.)

The Fleshtones @ University of Maryland, College Park MD, 1984

In all honesty, I can say that I've never seen a disappointing Fleshtones show, and I've seen many. This one ranks especially high. They played an absurdly extended "Girl From Baltimore," and opener Barrence Whitfield joined for a sing-along/chant through the crowd and out of the room to who-knows-where. They played forever that night in front of a great college crowd. Afterward, my friend Marty and I and some girls joy-drove drunkenly and stupidly through the campus parking lots. That kind of night.

Government Issue @ University of Maryland, College Park MD, 1984

At the time, loving the grins and groove of Mod and 50s R&R/60s garage, I wasn't much of a Punk fan. My friends took me to this amazing show, where for the first time I experienced the ferocity of moshing and the intensity of the D.C. Straight Edge scene. Around this time we saw G.I. in D.C. at the Sanctuary Theater on Columbia Road, where afterward a locally-legendary skinhead named Lefty chased us up 15th Street and (good-naturedly?) threw rocks at me, denouncing my sport jacket and skinny tie. "This ain't prom night!" she yelled. The rumor was that she put a guy in the hospital in Philly. Ah, D.C. in the 80s.

Madness @ Warner Theater, Washington D.C., 1984

What I remember most from this really fun show was the No-Standing policy at Warner, when we just wanted to dance to Madness' pop ska. That, and the guy who had the entire lyric to the Jam's "Carnation" written on the back of his jean jacket. I conflate this show with another ska concert from around this time, Bad Manners at the 9:30 Club; afterward on F Street Marty and I removed our thrift-shop old-man baggy suits and wrung the sweat from them as if we were pouring out water.

The Oysters @ 9:30 Club, Washington D.C., 1986
One of the great shows I've seen, mostly for its randomness. I have no idea what happened to this Boston band, and it might be that I saw them on a night when everything clicked for them. They were tight, loose, intense, sloppy, fun, and funny. Riffs, beer bottles, grins—a great night of rock & roll at the old 9:30.

The Dictators @ 9:30 Club, Washington D.C., 1991

My buddy Steve and I caught the Dictators on one of their reunion tours before they re-formed in the mid-90s. They deliver every time; this show ranks high as it was the first time I saw them, and they were particularly tight and stomping, from the mock-heroic opener "I Stand Tall" to "Two Tub Man." The place was packed and the legends vibed off of the good-will.

New Bomb Turks @ Union Bar and Grill, Athens OH, 1994

I'd dug the Turks' records, and was happy to see that they were playing in the tiny Union, my favorite bar in Athens, where I was living. The top of my head lifted off at their mid-Ohio rawk: energy, anger, noise. Singer Eric Davidson leapt about for his life as if he was dodging the guitarist's riffs and shards. One of the more scintilating performances I've seen, all the more intense for my lack of preparedness.

The Woggles @ Local 506 (Sleazefest), Chapel Hill NC, 1997

A band that always delivers live. I saw them for the first time here, at the late, lamented three-day Sleazefest, at Local 506, one of the all-time great divey places to see rock & roll. Good sound, happy bar maids, black interior, barbecue and sweet Appalachian air outside. And go-go dancers in cages. Worth the drive.

Mono Men @ Empty Bottle, Chicago IL, 1998

This was Mono Men's last show, and they hand-picked the Bottle for their sign-off venue, a thank-you of sorts to the club's owners and clientele of loyal fans. I liked the band's Estrus releases, but had never seen them live. Being "last show ever," the Men played long and loose, the evening both tempered and warmed by the fact that it was the final time the guys were going to be onstage together. Loud and raw, boozy and fun.

Electric Frankenstein @ Fireside Bowl, Chicago IL, 2000
Great super-charged riffs from this New Jersey band in front of a packed crowd of teens and Old School Punks. The long-gone Fireside was a working bowling alley that hosted mostly punk shows at night. E F didn't get to the Midwest that often, and I made sure to check it out. The show was of the coming-apart-at-the-seams variety, held together by an amped-up crowd and the band's ruthless energy and spontaneity.

The Mooney Suzuki @ CBGB, New York NY, 2001

Just before their ascension (?) to major-label ranks, Mooney Suzuki schooled a raucous crowd at CBs on their home turf. I was there with friends, and we were digging what felt like CB's last stand (that came a couple of years later). The place was packed and Mooney drank it up. I remember the MC5-channeled break in "Singin' A Song About Today" like it was, well, yesterday.

Reverend Horton Heat @ The Hideout, Chicago IL, 2002
I've seen a lot of great shows by the Rev. This makes the list because of the venue, one of my favorite places to see bands in Chicago. He played a four-night stand in the city, visiting a different club each night, and I knew that the Hideout gig would be special. It was my first visit to the place, and I drove past it twice, thinking that it was some family's home tucked away in an industrial strip. Turned out the be the Hideout (appropriately), and the show felt as if we were in the Rev's basement for a party. I don't know when again I'll see him in such an intimate, ramshackle place. Great.

Elvis Costello @ 9:30 Club, Washington D.C., 2007
Supporting his Hip-O First 10 Years compilation, Costello played over 30 songs in front of a sold-out and knocked-out crowd at the (new to me) 9:30. With 2/3 of the original Attractions behind him, Elvis seemed committed, and ripped into his past, revisiting the well-known and the obscure, singing and playing with intensity and sincerity. His recent "Country Darkness" felt ageless and lived-in; I'd wanted to hear him sing "Riot Act" for years. We were close to the stage and it felt historic. Once-and-gone.

What are your favorites?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Bricks, Mortar, Present, Past

The view from the rear window of a building on 14th St in Manhattan:

Something about the anonymity of this building struck me, its proximity to me a consequence of randomness and chance. In a large city, the number of bricks is incalculable, an absurd abstraction, like infinity, the proverbial urban blades of grass. Yet each brick was presumably handled by a human, touched, lifted, laid, slathered, supported, ignored. Row upon row, building after building, block on block. Etc. The sheer numbers are staggering, and banal. Nothing profound about my thoughts, but they captivated me anyway. Brought back to the idea of boundaries, of how bricks and mortar both house and shield, I began thinking about the lives inside this building. I’ve long been fascinated by abandoned buildings, by the steadfast ways that nature reclaims space, and by the ghosts and hints of the lives that nature erases with brutal impartiality. I’ve also often wondered on the mingling of psychic space in inhabited apartments and homes: the narcissism in believing in the impossibility that another family — with their crowded, urgent lives, memories and photo albums, joy and dread — could equally live in, and make, a home in the house your family once left behind. Memories in the corners still — stacked, transparent layer on layer, or box on top of box. The faint echoes still of decades’ worth of voice and family noise.

According to Jim Naureckas’ great New York Songlines website, the building on 15th St, the back of which I’m looking at here, housed Allen Ginsberg from 1951 to 1952. Looking at the rear of the structure, though, I can’t be sure of its address; so maybe it’s where James Agee lived from 1939 to 1941, “above a bar whose jukebox played nothing but ‘Roll Out the Barrel’.” Or maybe it’s the building with “a funky roof.” I don’t know, I can’t tell from here. But I like all three possibilities. I wonder what that person whose silhouette I just glimpsed behind the window is thinking. And what the person a floor below him is thinking of me.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


We just returned home after staying on 14th Street. I’ve long been interested in this street and what it represents, a kind of imaginary line between downtown and uptown, between the West Village/SoHo and Chelsea, and the East Village and Gramercy Park, etc. Beyond Union Square in the middle and the High Line on the west side, 14th Street is not a terribly interesting thoroughfare; the history is there, if disappearing, as it is in much of the evolving city. But it got me thinking about boundaries.

My dad was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York; my mom in a small farm town in western Ohio; I was born and raised in suburban Washington D.C.; I’ve lived in northern Illinois for a decade and a half. I’m a blend of east coast Italian and midwest German, and I’ve felt that merger keenly my entire life, mostly geographically. The east coast is in my marrow. I’ve visited, lived and worked in New York for months-long stretches during the last decade, mostly while writing Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band. From my past I recall day-long Italian Thanksgiving dinners at my uncles’ homes in Brooklyn and Queens, and visits with my family into Manhattan, and because my attachment to the city is personal and familial, my stays there feel oddly like home. In "Reflections on Subletting," New Yorker Phillip Lopate writes of a curious homesickness he would experience when visiting his native town: "I am homesick precisely because I have come home, but not to any house of mine." I’m not home here in a literal sense, though in a figurative way, it feels as if I am. I bring the solace and quiet and space of my midwest college town with me, and they bump up against NYC’s noise and chaos.

Boundaries emerge in nearly every move: crossing into New York in the Holland Tunnel, where childhood fears of burst walls came back; memories of the rigid demarcations of my uncles’ neighborhoods in Brooklyn among Black, Latino, and Hassidic lines; eating out nightly and emptying suitcases into makeshift dressers in a kind of artificial domesticity; peering self-consciously at subway maps and sniffing the air. Traveling becomes a daily straddling of the lines we use to outline and define ourselves: outsider, wannabe, unintended Midwesterner, pretend alcoholic, urban romantic, regretful suburbanite. That we lived on 14th Street — the fabled line that uptowners used to cross to slum, that downtowners sneered up at as delimiting a bourgeois universe — underscored it well.

During our stay we visited Christian Boltanski’s No Man’s Land installation at the Wade Thompson Drill Hall in the Park Avenue Armory. (Unfortunately I missed him talking with Luc Sante, a couple of weeks earlier.) Boltanski’s piece features a giant mound of used, donated, and discarded clothing centered in the hall amidst squares of laid-flat clothing; an enormous, man-operated crane methodically lifts random clawfulls of clothes to the ceiling, only to drop them back down. This continues all day, as a soundtrack of human heartbeats plays over cranked-up loudspeakers. (Earlier, Amy and I had our own heartbeats recorded and donated to a permanent exhibit on an island in the Sea of Japan.)

This camera video that I took hints at the scope and size of the exhibit.

The effect was profound, for me. Among other things, Boltanksi’s commenting on accident and mortality (“For me the [crane] claw acts like ‘the finger of god.’ Which clothes are taken and which are left appears as a matter of chance”) and I also thought, again, of boundaries, both stable and unstable: between body and clothes; clothes and personality; personality and the universal.

The boundary between home and where one visits might blur, but it's always there, keeping us rooted and wandering at once. William Hazlitt: “I would like to spend my whole life traveling, if I could borrow another life to spend at home."