Saturday, April 30, 2011

Infinity inside

In July of 1976, the Air and Space Museum opened on the Mall in Washington D.C., one of many federal events heralding the country's Bicentennial.   My excited dad — an IBM engineer who worked with NASA, and a mathematics devotee — brought the family in from Wheaton to visit the following month.  The photos he or my mom snapped that day are oddly, and brutally, under-lit — must've had something to do with the dim interior lighting at the museum, or more likely with a camera snafu that irked my dad.  The thick haze which permeates the photos feels retroactively appropriate three and a half decades later, not only as a visual equivalent to the gauzy curtain of memory and a vanished childhood but because I experienced something that afternoon that drew a kind of curtain around me.

Among the exhibits at the museum was Ray and Charles Eames' nine-minute documentary Powers of Ten, a film that explores the relative scale of the universe by journeying across it in powers of ten, moving outward from earth to the edges of the galaxy, and then back, into and through the human body.  The film ran on a loop at a small, wood-paneled kiosk outside one of the main exhibit halls on an upstairs floor, as I remember.  Wandering around, probably on my own, I came across the display and took note of a small, obviously interested crowd gathered; weaseling my way in among grown-ups, I started watching.  What I saw captivated me immediately: the narrator's voice was dry but friendly, not intimidating or school teacher-y, and at the point that I started watching the film we seemed to be out in the cosmos somewhere.  Cool!  Yep, cool, but soon vaguely unsettling, and then weird, and then amazing, and then scary.  I stood for what felt like an hour watching the Powers of Ten loop, hooked on the trip from a Chicago couple dozing on the grass near Lake Michigan out to the infinite reaches of outer space, and back again and then into and under the surface of the man's hand, probing relentlessly toward his basic cellular makeup, the randomness of protons madly humming and humping and colliding and reacting, an unreal but obvious universe inside my own body....  

Struck, I watched the loop again and again, quietly disappearing, awaiting my no-doubt searching parents, a kind of cosmic journey that tattooed me forever:


What I remember most profoundly that afternoon was the image — the proof — that the inside of the human body looks virtually identical to the furthest reaches of the universe: black, endless, chaotic.  It was astounding!  I stared down at my own small hand, imagining the infinite darkness inside of it, and I reeled.  It was overwhelming at that age to consider the molecular makeup of my own body, that things I couldn't see inside of me were reacting and going on all over the place, buzzing, storming, colliding.  I entwined the parallel images of the dark of outer space and the dark inside my body without understanding the science of it — in fact, the film was mostly beyond my rational understanding, though I don't recall ever being bored.  But something struck a chord in my kid imagination, before language: my body is an imitation of the universe writ small.  It was heady stuff, half-understood, promptly shelved away once I hooked back up with my family and we departed, visiting other museums, and then left the city.  I returned to suburbia, baseball, bike-riding, and the Beatles.

But something enormous lodged inside of me, waiting for maturity and knowledge and language and the imagination to approach its heft in scale.  Many years later my girlfriend said to me, Think about it, everything that happens in the body happens in darkness, and I was brought back to that day in the Air and Space Museum when I became infinitely large and infinitely puny, and began the struggle to make sense of that.


At the Air and Space Museum, August 1976:

Tableaux: two boys and moon's surface.

Of the era: a deep-sea diver, an astronaut, an Energy Crisis t-shirt

Happy faces, two brothers.  Yeah, it was a fun day.  But something pretty enormous and humbling was seeded in me, something between rational and irrational and between real and surreal — I don't matter; I do; I'm a speck of a speck within the cosmos; I'm unique and individual.  Once, during dinner, my mom fled the table when talk among by siblings and my dad turned to infinity.  I think of her upstairs in the bedroom, her ears shut against the imponderable.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

An Origin Story

I'm 10 or 11 and it's a Saturday morning and once again 10cc's "The Things We Do For Love" is on the radio, in my bedroom or in my head, it's playing somewhere everywhere that bright suburban day and now it's become for me the aural equivalent of sun and warm afternoons not yet embittered by dusks, of June allowance walks and bike rides and woods swallowing me in the dark with a playground at the other end — and accompanying the song is the smell of Lemon Pledge, Saturday's olfactory mascot, the sounding start of my mom's workday cleaning a house of eight people and a shedding dog, and now 10cc and Lemon Pledge are entwined forever, feeling like nothing less than knowledge, but of what? — adolescent freedom, nostalgia! — but if I think a little harder: the rue of sentimentality, of blitheness, of the dangers of trusting a mawkish memory of a boy lying in bed waking up to a buoyant pop song and a greenyellow world where drudgery and thanklessness evaporate, and, like last season's Top 40 hit, leave no trace, no clues yet to sorrow.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Writing About Rock & Roll: A Reading with Jim DeRogatis and Joe Bonomo

A head's up that on Thursday, April 28 at 6:30 pm at the Ferguson Lecture Hall at Columbia College Chicago I'll be reading from and discussing Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, and AC/DC's Highway to Hell along with veteran rock/pop critic and Chicago mainstay Jim DeRogatis, who'll be reading from his varied work.  Free and open to the public.  Swing by if you can.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

An Origin Story

the once-upon-a-time

"Wherever a story comes from, whether it is a familiar myth or a private memory, the retelling exemplifies the making of a connection from one pattern to another: a potential translation in which narrative becomes parable and the once upon a time comes to stand for some renascent truth.  This approach applies to all the incidents of everyday life: the phrase in the newspaper, the endearing or infuriating game of a toddler, the misunderstanding at the office.  Our species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories."  Mary Catherine Bateson

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Between Having and Losing

Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again. Henri Cartier-Bresson.

We're all familiar with, and guilty of, the suppressed groan or eye-roll the moment someone's photo album emerges from the basement or Flickr slide show arrives in the Inbox. A fascinating disconnect is the distance between the urgency of photos for their owner and the disinterest in the trapped viewer. What a disinterested person is saying, without realizing it, is that beyond aesthetic or historical value these photos have to be made to matter to me, especially if it's a series of your family's trips to Ocean City in the mid-70s. Cartier-Bresson is sentimentalizing the photo's inability to time-travel, to age in a manner that moves the image into the future concurrently with our shaping memories. Once an image is committed in a frame, the magic trick commences: the image is static and immobile, and it moves and shifts. A thing in a photograph can vanish twice: first into faulty memory, second into civic progressivism, i.e., the wrecking ball. Language can retrieve it, though, by placing the vanished thing in a larger narrative context — not simply nostalgia or sentimentality, but history, or an essaying of the valuable, ever-present mess between having and losing. Make that vanished thing matter by linking it with all vanished things, with the woods, the buildings that replaced those woods, the people in those buildings, the people who replaced those people in the buildings, the bigger buildings that replaced those buildings. The revived photo becomes dimensional, bulging, humming with all that it's now holding.


The magic of photography is metaphysical. What you see in the photograph isn't what you saw at the time. The real skill of photography is organized visual lying. Terence Donovan.

What I'm trying to say is that language tells the truth, or reorganizes the truth, in a way the image can't. "That's not what I saw at the time," we claim, yet the photo says otherwise. Who's telling the truth here? One thing Donovan is arguing is that the photograph assembles its contents in deceiving ways; I'll add, but only with memory's OK. How does the photograph lie? In lots of ways: I don't remember that; where's what I remember? There it isn't. Donovan may be describing the happy accidents within a shot's composition; the arrangements between or among figures blessed by a certain slant of light that's as unpredictable as it is welcome. But: "the magic of photography is metaphysical." That's the good stuff, the magic again. It's the narrative's job to bridge the when of the photo with the now of the skeptical gaze, to decode (to tell on?) the photo's organized visual lying, to enhance metaphysics with even more metaphysics.


Take these two:

Who cares, right? Well, I do. Both shots are of University Boulevard in Wheaton, Maryland, a half mile mile from the house in which I grew up. That clicking sound you hear, if you're still here, is a bored someone navigating away from this page in haste. I don't expect you to stay because these photos have intense sentimental value to me; I've got to earn your interest. The photos above seem dated to the late-1960s, early-1970s; I don't know the photographers; I discovered the photos at a Facebook group page devoted to Wheaton. Although the second snap is inferior in terms of quality, I prefer it, for the slight perspective shift westward and thus the reveal of the grainy News Stand: my second-home during adolescence, a vital stop during my allowance walks where I'd sift among knowable and unknowable ingredients: Topps baseball cards; comic books, Chery Smash sodas, dirty magazines, the vague menace and intimidation of adults. The shop is long gone now, and I notice this with dismay each time I visit my parents. When I came across these photos recently, I was startled — not because I hadn't seen such a clear view of my favorite block even in my mind's eye, but because someone else had stood where I once had, impossible! Vain, I know. That someone else can prize the same image you do, from a slightly different vantage point in time and space — there's your metaphysics for you. I've written about this block before (here and here), essayed its fading tattoo, and hope now that your eyes won't glaze over a picture of an anonymous row of shops in Suburb, Somewhere. I won't lie to you; it means a lot to me.


In America, the photographer is not simply the person who records the past, but the one who invents it. Susan Sontag.

Language in memory rearranges posed elements in a photo and tells a different story, the one which tens of thousands of people cross the stage to narrate, exit right, exit left, the one where even the extras in the background have vital contributions, "remember when?"'s that lift like scented mawkishness but drift back down as real knowledge. Language in memory tells a story where the set never changes and never looks quite the same, where doors open and close on a random news stand and a man walks out, and a boy walks in, and nothing's the same again.

Photos of University Boulevard in Wheaton, MD via You Know You're From Wheaton, MD Because...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

An Origin Story

We lived behind a high school and while I was still in grade school I'd sometimes walk over on weekends, liking the solitude, the evaporating blacktop politics, the ghosts of kids, sometimes I'd take a walk around the track, play pretend on the fields, or sit in the empty bleachers that sat beneath the towering wooden poles that held banks of lights — the lights that lit the football games on Friday nights where a few years later we'd appear to make appearances and than cut out, walking along Georgia Avenue toward Country Boy where we'd hope against hope that someone would buy us a twelve-pack of Wide Mouth Mickeys and we could disappear into the woods behind Equitable Bank, a block from my house, and drink and laugh in the dark and learn intoxication while the football game roared in a surreal muffle behind us — once, emboldened by something vague and urgent, I made sure that no one was around to yell at me (it was a Saturday) and carefully grabbed hold of a metal spike on the pole, the poor-man's ladder, and hoisted myself up and started climbing, my small chest all cold, my palms wet and my legs trembling, I climbed spike-by-spike until I was towering over the track and I looked, barely able inside my roaring nerves to crane my neck downward, and could see my house, tiny and inconsequential, a missing piece in a board game, the roof so foreign, the yard hidden by tops of trees I'd never reached, the  station wagon and the sky-blue Karmann Ghia cast-metal toys with bad paint-jobs and now I'm really trembling, terrified that I'd climbed this high, sick with mistake, and from the height and the omniscience and distance from the world I'd craved, desperate to get back to where my dad couldn't fit in my pocket, to where I could hear concerned voices, not indifferent wind.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Baseball and the Me Decade: A Conversation with Dan Epstein and Josh Wilker

Beyond the game on the diamond, baseball is a a prism through which the lights of culture pass, illuminating the trivial, the profound, and everything in between. And like many professional sports, baseball is a deeply personal game to its fans, a connection reflected not only in wins and losses but in the ways the game can shape and reflect character and a fan's ways of defining himself, writ small and large.

Two recent books, Dan Epstein's Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s and Josh Wilker's Cardboard Gods: An American Tale, explore baseball and the 1970s in engrossing ways. Epstein's book is vibrant history, a chronicle of a game that kept on truckin' as many of its traditional aspects were warped by the decade's cultural experimentation and freak-flag-wavin' loopiness. The book's hilarious, written with great affection, and thoroughly researched, a kind of winking time capsule that doesn't shy away from history's less-celebratory moments. Wilker's book is something different altogether, an affecting narrative memoir in and as baseball cards, an autobiography of adolescence shaped by the author's deeply felt love of his card collection. In raw and candid ways, Wilker recognizes that many of our childhood passions originate in complicated emotional truths.

Both Big Hair and Plastic Grass and Cardboard Gods rack-focus baseball in foreground and background in highly entertaining, novel ways: Epstein looks through the window of his subject to see its place in culture at large, while Wilker peers through his window and sees his reflection back. Interesting stuff. Epstein resides in Los Angeles, Wilker in Chicago. Recently, the three of us virtually sat down for a conversation.


Dan, Josh, both of your books explore the 1970s through baseball, one culturally, one personally. Could each of you discuss your approach?

Dan Epstein: I was mainly inspired to write Big Hair & Plastic Grass for three reasons: 1) I became a baseball fan in the 70s, 2) there were surprisingly few baseball books out there that covered the entire decade, and 3) those that did cover baseball in the 70s made little attempt to connect the dots between what had happened on the field to what had happened in the rest of American pop culture during that time, even though you really can't talk about Dock Ellis' LSD-assisted no-hitter, Disco Demolition Night, etc. without putting those things in a greater cultural context. I wanted to connect those dots, while also trying to capture the uniqueness of 70s baseball — how it was played, how it looked, the crazy shit that went down on and off the field, and the many remarkable personalities who were involved.

Algonquin (2011)
Josh Wilker: My own approach to writing Cardboard Gods evolved over time, I guess, and grew out of playfulness, among other things. Just before I started writing every day about my baseball cards I was a little creatively worn out by spending the previous 15-20 years trying and pretty miserably failing to be Raymond Carver or Jack Kerouac or Rick Moody, etc., so I started playing around by just writing whatever came to mind when I looked at my old cards. Also, for most of my adult life, I had lived in close proximity to my brother, who was deeply connected to my childhood baseball cards, and that geographical closeness was no longer true when I started writing about the cards, so I was probably searching for a way to keep that bond alive, as well as maybe to try to understand it. Stories of my life started rising up fairly organically and oddly from meditations on the old cards, and the more they did so the deeper I wanted to go into both the personal material and into the weird old world of 1970s baseball the stories seemed to be tangled up in. I wanted to bring it all back, or as much as I could. I remember thinking at times of Pagan Kennedy's term "guerilla nostalgia," which she coined in her book about the 1970s called Platforms. If I remember correctly, the idea was that in a world where nostalgia is generally used to smooth out the rough edges of history and move product, it's important to try fight that deadening commodification. I wanted to go back not to anesthetize myself but to try to wake up a little to my singular experience of the weird old days.

DE: Josh's reference to the "weird old days" is the perfect way of putting it. It was weird being a kid in the 70s, and one of the many things I loved about Josh's book was how oddly similar (and similarly weird) his childhood was to mine. Both of our fathers were older Jewish intellectuals from New York City who married younger, free-spirited hippie types; we both got caught in the emotional fallout when our parents split, our mothers went off to "find themselves"; both of our lives lacked stability, but our love of baseball gave us both something else to focus on. Still, my memories of baseball in the 70s are inextricably linked to the weirdness of the era; for instance, I went to my first National League game—Reds vs. Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, August 1976—with my sister, my mom and one of my mom's freaky pals in his white Volkswagen microbus, the interior of which was completely covered with images of Indian spiritual guru Meher Baba.

What role does nostalgia play in your book, Dan? If you were born a decade earlier or later do you think you’d still prefer/be attracted primarily to the 1970s?

As far as nostalgia goes, I have to say I utterly loathe the term, since it often implies a superficial, rose-colored look back at a time when things were "better" or at least "less complicated," and Big Hair & Plastic Grass isn't that at all. The 70s are unquestionably my favorite decade of baseball history, but that's partly because it was such a complicated, confusing, and fucked-up era—which is also why I think most sportswriters and documentarians have shied away from trying to tackle it, since it really doesn't sync up with the All-American, feel-good image that's been imposed upon the sport for generations. I'm not saying in my book that everything about baseball was unequivocally better in the 1970s, but I am saying it was an incredibly unique, fascinating and significant period that deserves far more attention than it has thus far received.

I definitely aimed Big Hair & Plastic Grass at baseball fans in my demographic: i.e., forty-somethings who became baseball fans in the 1970s, and who will always have a special place in their hearts for teams like the "Moustache Gang" A's, the Big Red Machine, the "Bronx Zoo" Yankees, and the "We Are Family" Pirates. But even if I'd been born a decade later or earlier, I would still find the 70s incredibly interesting, just for the incredible characters like Dock Ellis, Bill Lee, Mark Fidrych, Al Hrabosky, Dave Kingman, Luis Tiant, Reggie Jackson, etc, etc. But the 70s are also extremely important from a historical perspective—aside from the fact that more baseball records were broken during that decade than in any before or since, the 70s also saw the advent of the designated hitter and free agency, two things which still have a profound impact on the way the game is played. To fully grasp why the game today is the way it is, and how we got here, you need to understand what happened in the 1970s.

Josh, do you think that every personal object has the potential to be a touchstone, as baseball cards are to you? Why or why not?

Wilker and pal
The baseball cards are really my only surviving relics of my past, and I think there is a kind of magic to them in their ability to bring me out of myself or into myself or whatever. I'm sure other objects would work for other people, and there are probably other objects that would have worked for me if I hadn't lost them along the way, like my collection of Mad Magazines, or my old KISS records. But the baseball cards, like I said, had the element of being something that grew out of my connection to my brother, which is one of the defining elements of my life, so it's probably not just an arbitrary thing that I held onto the cards long enough for them to be the objects that pulled the story out of me.

As you guys moved from adolescence to adulthood how did your relationship to the game of baseball—as opposed to the sport (i.e., the industry)—change? Has it deepened in any ways? Or has your enthusiasm waned over the years?

JW: My connection to baseball started waning a bit at puberty, and from then on for a few years, through high school and college, it kind of existed at a bit of a remove from me, at least relative to the singular connection I'd had to it as a kid. Probably I was just smoking too much pot. In my early years of adulthood, there was a weird element of hurt in my connection to the game—it wasn't the same for me as when I was a kid, not as all-engrossing, and that new form of detachment hurt. This probably was one reason why some friends and I decided one year to go to The Last Baseball Game Ever. But life went on, baseball went on, and now I follow it pretty closely and even, with the near-daily practice of the Cardboard Gods blog, use it via my baseball cards to get through the day, so it's kind of come around full circle to how it was when I was a kid.

Dan Epstein
DE: By the time I got to high school in 1980, my enthusiasm for baseball definitely began to wane; partly because I discovered that I found greater solace and meaning in music than I did in baseball, and partly because I became worse at actually playing the game as I grew older—I'd started at shortstop on my 6th grade little league team; but by the time I was 14, I'd become a completely uncoordinated adolescent who couldn't hit a pitch to save his life. I also became a fan of the Chicago Cubs around this time, having moved to Chicago in 1980; and when they blew the '84 NLCS to the Padres, I kind of took it as a sign that it was probably time to focus on other things. I still went to games on occasion, but I pretty much stopped paying close attention to baseball until around 1998. I was having some pretty big problems in the relationship I was in at the time, and I was struggling as a freelance writer. Music—which had been my refuge for almost 20 years—wasn't helping; every song I heard just made me feel worse. Baseball became a welcome distraction again, and I found myself getting seriously sucked back into the game; sure, the McGwire/Sosa home run chase was happening, but reading books about baseball history was what really offered me a temporary escape from my problems. It was at this point that I started looking for books on 70s baseball, just because I wanted to get in touch with that part of my past, and hopefully gain a greater understanding about that period of the game. I couldn't find the book I wanted to read, so I decided to try and write it.

Josh, Montaigne said, variously translated, that “every man has within himself the entire human condition.” Do you agree with that? When you were writing were you thinking about reaching the casual reader who's not manically interested in baseball? Was your essaying of baseball cards a door to universal experience — for want of a better expression — or was it limiting at all?

I don't know about the human condition, but I think everybody's got a story. I wanted to tell mine—have been wanting to tell mine for a long time—and the baseball cards definitely helped. I'm really glad to hear from other people who loved baseball cards that they can relate to my story, and I'm just as glad to hear from people who relate to the story despite not being interested in baseball. Shit, I'm just happy if anyone cracks open the book, I guess. I wasn't thinking a whole lot about who I might be able to reach but more that I wanted to write a book that was true for me and my story like the books I've loved the most were true for the writers of those books.

In my opinion, Dan, an unfortunate tendency of much baseball writing is to surrender to the Field of Dreams “glow” of the game’s beauty. Thankfully there's very little sentimentality or mawkishness in your book, perhaps originating in your distaste for the limiting aspects of nostalgia. Were you conscious of limiting sentimentality?

I can't say I was conscious of limiting any sentimentality while writing Big Hair & Plastic Grass, but I think most writers are conscious of trying to write in their own voice—and my voice is not a particularly sentimental one, haha. There are some pretty moving stories from the era, specifically the untimely deaths of Roberto Clemente, Lyman Bostock and Thurman Munson, but I felt like my job was to simply tell those stories, not to wring them out for maximum emotional effect. As for Field of Dreams, I found that book to be the most fucking depressing example of middle-aged male wish-fulfillment I've ever read; if you think that the tone and content of Big Hair & Plastic Grass are diametrically opposed to that of Field of Dreams, I take it as a high compliment indeed!

Guys, who or what has influenced your writing? Who are among your favorite writers? Josh, there's obviously a literary (narrative, autobiography, memoir) component to your book; did you experience challenges in shaping your narrative? Dan, do you draw inspiration from music writers as well as baseball writers (if you draw influence from either of those camps!)?

JW: When I was a little kid I followed in the footsteps of my big brother, literally and figuratively, everywhere, and since then my writing practice has had, more than most writers, I think, that same element of following in it, me trying to place my steps in the footprints of other writers like I used to do when following behind my brother on a hike. I would stumble off on my own in my notebooks and in letters and in early drafts of stories, but when it came time to try to "polish" that more ragged voice I'd always end up unconsciously forcing it toward some facsimile of a literary hero's work, which would more or less kill whatever lived in the writing. Writing about my cards—and maybe some advances in my slow growth as a writer—helped keep that bad habit at bay. But all the writers I've loved and studied definitely influenced the writing, and two books in particular stood out, when combined in my mind, as a kind of nightlight showing the way as I was groping around at work on the book: Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes (a "fictional memoir" that uses Exley's love of the New York Giants as a framework for a painful, seemingly formless flail of a life) and Brendan Boyd's and Fred Harris's The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book (a brilliant collection of hilarious and bittersweet profiles of the authors' childhood baseball cards).

By the time I sat down to write the book, I'd experimented with a lot of material on my blog, and the stuff that had the most life in it suggested the basic form, i.e., the "career lowlights" I wanted to cover. I also knew I wanted to use the idea of "packs" to break the book into sections. One of the most difficult parts of working on the book was whittling down the cards to the amount of cards that would have come to me as a kid in four packs. I feel especially bad about not being able to find a place for the unmatchably weird 1978 Greg Minton card, and so I was really glad that the publisher of the hardcover, Seven Footer, included Greg Minton in the scattering of cards inside the front and back covers.

DE: For me, it all comes down to two major influences: Roger Angell and CREEM magazine. Angell's Five Seasons is my all-time favorite baseball book, and not just because it covers the game in the first half of the 1970s (which I was too young to fully appreciate at the time). Angell is an incredibly knowledgeable writer with a wonderfully conversational style; but he's never been afraid to inject humor or opinion into his writing, and he's ultimately more interested in the people who played the game than the numbers they put up. And during its most vital period (1970s to early 80s), CREEM magazine took the same approach to music that Angell did to baseball — their writers came from a place of deep love and knowledge, but they weren't afraid to call bullshit when appropriate, or have a few laughs at the expense of some pompous rock star. They took their subject seriously, but not too seriously, and they didn't take themselves seriously at all. Whether I'm writing about music, baseball or anything else, that's the template I always aspire to.

Alright fellas, bottom of the ninth, you're each MLB Commissioner-For-A-Day, go for it.

JW: I might be tempted to use my day to hire Dan Epstein as acting commissioner-for-a-day and let him make the calls. I can't think of anybody better equipped to put a charge into the game than the guy who plunged deep into the world of 10-cent Beer Night and Disco Demolition Night and came back to brilliantly tell the tale. But if it really were up to me to make some decisions, I'd probably just ban the designated hitter and call it a day. I'm an AL guy because of my team, the Red Sox, but the DH just doesn't seem right to me, in part because I like seeing guys up at bat periodically who look like I might look if I had to try to hit major league pitching.

DE: If I were to accept Mr. Wilker's appointment as Commissioner of Baseball, I would push through the following 10-point plan:

1) Eliminate the DH. Like Astroturf, it's an experiment whose time has come and gone. Yes, it extends a few careers and adds some offense (at least in theory), but it ruins the game from a strategic standpoint. Getting rid of the DH would also put the two leagues on more equal footing in interleague games and the World Series.

2) Actually, while we're at it—let's get rid of interleague play, as well. The territorial rivalries are fun, but the novelty has definitely worn off by now; and when you get such scintillating matchups as Pirates-Royals, you can't help wondering what's the point.

3) Eliminate corporate naming rights for ballparks. If baseball stadiums are truly the cathedrals of the game, then they should be named after an important player or figure in the team's history—say, Bill Veeck Field instead of US Cellular Field—and not some faceless corporate entity that doesn't give a shit about the game or its fans. Corporations that really want to make their presence known at the ballpark can buy season tickets for a particular section, donate them all to local schools, summer camps and youth groups, and hang a sign with their logo above the section.

4) Make all "body armor" illegal, and eliminate the warnings that umpires give to both benches whenever a pitcher dusts off a batter. The players should "police" the game, not the umps; if this means the occasional escalation into a full-scale bean-ball war, so be it.

5) Remove "God Bless America" from the 7th Inning stretch. The song is a total buzz-kill that can instantly evaporate the energy of even the most rabid crowd. If "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" isn't intrinsically patriotic enough, why don't we at least pick a flag-waving anthem that rocks—like Grand Funk Railroad's "We're An American Band"? And speaking of flag-waving...

6) No more egregious displays of military might before ballgames, like those Stealth bomber fly-overs. Not only does that kind of jingoistic dick-waving have nothing at all to do with baseball, but it costs taxpayers shitloads of money. If a color guard and the National Anthem aren't enough to get your crowd pumped up, try letting some chimps drive the bullpen cars around the field right before the game, and watch the fans come alive.

7) Return to the previous "home field advantage" system for the World Series, wherein the NL champ plays four home games during even-numbered years, and the AL champ plays four home games in even-numbered years. Contrary to Bud Selig's retarded ruling, the All-Star Game should not determine which league has home-field advantage in the World Series. If you want the players and managers to play the Mid-Summer Classic like it matters, give 'em a financial incentive—the winning squad splits a healthy percentage of the gate receipts and advertising revenues, and the losers get nothing.

8) Force the McCourts to sell the Dodgers. They are a complete fucking disgrace—not just to one of the most storied major-market franchises in the history of the game, but to baseball in general.

9) Exploding scoreboards for every ballpark. As the aforementioned US Cellular Field has proven, even the most generic and soulless ballpark can be considerably enlivened by the presence of a scoreboard that goes absolutely apeshit whenever the home team hits a round-tripper.

10) Any rain delay over 30 minutes automatically means one thing: Wet t-shirt contest.

Baseball map via The United Countries of Baseball.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Remembering Frantic Fridays

The great Jonathan Gilbert—aka, "Weasel"—scored endless afternoons at WHFS

Much of what we endure in the present softens and comes to a mild glow through the wide lens of nostalgia. It's more rare when something vital and urgent in the far past retains its charge in the present. Joyce Carol Oates says that "blood is memory without language." When a recollection stirs us, language vainly tries to translate. So my dilemma: how do I describe the effects on me of Weasel's "Frantic Friday" sets on WHFS in the 1980s, which have retained their charge in my memory.  

Weasel—whose actual name is Jonathan Gilbert—was for many years the afternoon DJ at WHFS, first in its legendary lo-fi incarnation on Cordell Avenue in Bethesda, Maryland at 102.3 FM, then at its 50,000-watt boost in Annapolis at 99.1 FM. At its heyday, 'HFS was a remarkable radio station, and I can only be glad that the stars aligned when they did and that I was alive during the station's glory years. At 'HFS, free-form was philosophy, and philosophy was practice, especially at the 102.3 incarnation which was on the air from 1970 to 1983: no DJs had a required set-list of pre-selected songs; a set could last three songs or six, or seven, lengthened or shortened by the whim (and moods) of the DJ; no genres were off-limits; a quarter of a show might be devoted to yammering with a fellow DJ or with a visiting band or artist, and the yammering could go on as long as anyone was interested; commercials had a funky, local flavor. The overall vibe—originating in the DJ's personalities and attitudes and their love and knowledge of the songs they played and the history those songs scored— was loose, warm, exciting, and vital, a celebration of alternative music long before the term was coined. "Home grown radio," WHFS was organic and unique.  Anyone who grew up in suburban Washington D.C. in the 1970s and 1980s who wanted true progressive radio became enamored, and a passionate fan and advocate. The era is long-gone, memories of which having recently been stoked and debated in blogs, here and here.

Jonathan "Weasel" Gilbert
The on-air staff was full of adventuresome spirits, but Weasel was my favorite. His name originated from his high, chirpy voice and rodent-like face (which, in the pre-Google Image era, I rarely saw, maybe once or twice in the City Paper). His legend grew from his remarkably broad knowledge of rock & roll history and his staggeringly large music library. (In what felt like myth, he lived, as did several DJs, in the building in Bethesda where 'HFS occupied two floors, what Weasel would call on-air "the twin towers at radio park," still an evocative expression for me.) What I loved most about Weasel was that this man knew rock & roll. He got it. For all of the station's reputation for playing obscure or deep album tracks rather than singles, Weasel, its mainstay DJ, had a singles mentality, a love for the two and a half-to-three minute pop song that he grew up with in the 1950s and 60s. (He was also very knowledgeable about R&B and Blues, less so, it appeared, about Punk.) His celebration and love of the Pop Hook was born of affection for earlier decades when producers mixed songs imagining how they'd sound coming from a transmitter radio by the public pool.

Weasel offered me a desperately coveted alternate reality of popular music: Marshall Crenshaw rather than Christopher Cross; Hoodoo Gurus rather than Tears For Fears; the Spongetones rather than Mr. Mister. (He was a great and obvious influence on my own concurrent poor-man radio show at the weakly-transmitted WMUC at the University of Maryland. I had a show for more than three years, nabbing a great Friday afternoon slot of my own by the end, proudly and stubbornly playing pop and retro rock & roll while many of my colleagues spun Skinny Puppy and early Sub Pop, much more adventurous and interesting than me; I wore my narrow-minded badge a bit too proudly in retrospect.) Weasel wasn't afraid to play a current hit—say, Doctor And The Medics' version of "Spirit In The Sky," or the Bangles or R.E.M after they hit mainstream success—but the track needed to cram as many hooks into its grooves as possible. I distinctly remember his crush on the L.A. roots band Green On Red; he'd often play, back to back, two tracks from their 1983 debut Gravity Talks, the title track and "Five Easy Pieces." The problem was that the tacks were separated by another song, so Weasel would just lift the needle to go from track one to three—with the subsequent dead air. Sometimes songs would skip, and the transmitter volume would be yanked down to remedy it, or if a song inadvertently bled into another in an inelegant segue. Such was the ramshackle professionalism by which WHFS worked


It's hard to describe the excitement of listening to the evolving Frantic Friday sets, Weasel's last of the week. Friday was here and Weasel provided your soundtrack. Characteristic of 'HFS looseness, the Frantic Friday set wasn't ironclad; Weasel might start it at around 4:45, or earlier, and end it close to 5, or later when the next DJ, the beloved "Bob Here," would begin his shift.  It felt like whatever Weasel was in the mood to play, he played; your Friday afternoon had an unpredictability to it, so get your drink on and decide where you and your friends are gonna hang tonight. Back Alley Cafe? Cagney's? Your car?

I asked Weasel about the history of the Frantic Fridays sets. "There is no real history," he told me. "Like everything else it simply evolved. In the late 70's when I switched from being an overnight jock to afternoons Friday's just seemed right for that type of party music. And 5:00pm on Friday was the mythical liberation from office drudgery and the beginning of the free at last weekend. And of course the music of Joe 'King' Carrasco, Dave Edmunds, the Beastie Boys, NRBQ, and others were coming out at about the same time period. Like most other sets, I did it one Friday on a whim and got great response, did it again the next Friday and then started to vary it a bit." He adds, in understatement: "Then it became a tradition."

There were a few regular songs in the tradition. The classic set went like this:

Wild Weekend (Rockin' Rebels)

Weekend (Eddie Cochran)

Here Comes The Weekend (Dave Edmunds)

Party Weekend (Joe "King" Carrasco)

A song he'd sometimes slot in to this set was "Thank God It's Friday," a locally-pressed single by the D.C.-area band Harbison, Bond & Goddard:

Thank God It's Friday (Harbison, Bond & Goddard)

"Party Weekend," always the set closer, became the song most associated with Frantic Friday and, I'd argue, with Weasel himself. It was actually my least favorite song of the set, because it signalled the end and because it was a bit overrated to my ears, and sounded too much of the processed era for me, production-wise, especially a later re-recorded version. (I do remember Carrasco saying in an interview once that all he aspired to in his career was to write a song as good as "96 Tears." He didn't manage that, but hats off for such a noble goal.) I first heard the evocative drunken fun of "Wild Weekend" via Weasel (he later replaced this with NRBQ's lesser version, complete with lyrics, from 1989). The fact the standard songs in the set were a decades-old by the mid 1980s didn't matter to the program directors at the station. What mattered were the songs themselves, not units moved or place in the Billboard charts.

In my favorite sets, Weasel rocked a little harder. Maybe he was in an amped-up mood, felt the weekend coming in his marrow, whatever. These were the sets I'd mentally will Weasel to play, the ones I'd groove to cruising down Rockville Pike in Maryland or 16th Street in the District, the night's reckless fun ahead of me, the songs that have settled permanently in my DNA:

Somebody's Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight (The Rezillos)

She Makes Me Rock Too Much (Switchblade)

Rock You Up (The Romantics)

Sometimes after the Switchblade song he'd drop in Skafish's intense "Wild Night Tonight":

Or this great New Wave kinda-hit from the Flirts:

We Just Wanna Dance (The Flirts)

I don't think it's simply time, circumstance, and nostalgia that have woven these songs together so urgently for me; I defy you to play those tunes in any order and not feel stirred. Switchblade was a local rockabilly band, which was cool. Yeah, "Rock You Up" is corny.  But I couldn't (I can't) resist it: the groove, the harmonica, the hooks, the corn, the attitude, the rock & roll of it all. Listening now still gets my heart going. Also indelible are the feelings and memories associated with listening to Skafish's "Wild Night Tonight" on the radio; though the band hailed from Chicago, I will always associate the driving, anthemic song with mid-1980s Washington D.C. culture in all of it cocaine-fueled, Marion Barry-mania, 9:30 Club-rocking, suburb-into-the-city-journeying, 14th Street-hookers hooking, Redskins-winning, "Disco" Dan-graffiti-emblazoned, beer-drenched glory. Raw, exciting, fun times. The Flirts' tune may as well be for me an aural scratch-n-sniff for Reagan-era club decadence. (The good kind of decadence.) Weasel understood the appeal of clubs and bars and also knew that the anticipation of getting there is half the fun. By 1986, Weasel was kicking off many of his Frantic Friday sets with:

Fight For Your Right To Party (Beastie Boys)

And the fun went on. Other songs that he'd drop into the Frantic Friday sets: the Flirts' "Jukebox (Don't Put Another Dime)"; local legends the Slickee Boys' "When I Go To The Beach" and "Life Of The Party"; Dave Edmunds' "Almost Saturday Night"; the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" and "Psycho Therapy"; the Fleshtones' "American Beat '84"; Grand Funk's "We're An American Band." I'm neglecting many songs, some that came before or after my time living in the area, others that memory's wiped for some reason or other.

"Fight For Your Right To Party" represents Late Weasel to me: in 1988 I left suburban D.C., headed to southeast Ohio and what felt, at the time, as a cultural vacuum. I missed Weasel a lot, and would always try to tune in when I was home visiting. By the mid 1990s I was tuning in less and less as 'HFS became more and more adherent to a corporate notions of Alternative Music, at least to my visitor's ears. Weasel finally jumped ship in 2003, and after freelancing and consulting in radio and the Internet, landed a weekly Saturday afternoon gig at WTMD in Towson, Maryland. I'll be tuning in, and won't be surprised if Weasel channels rock & roll and the power and lure of The Weekend as lovingly as he always has, finding the right language for my stirred-up blood.

Unicorn TimesMarch 1980, via Robbie White at‎ DC Scene: The 80's & 90's

UPDATE: More recently, Weasel's been on the air with Robbie White on the "Forbidden Alliance" radio show on WOWD-lp FM, in Tacoma Park, Maryland. Here's a terrific photo of Weasel behind the boards taken by Washington Post columnist and lifer rock and roll fan John Kelly:

Top photo of Weasel via WTMD Blog For Music People.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Interview at Rock Book Show

Here's an interview about Sweat and the Fleshtones at Rock Book Show, a new interview site hosted by Kimberly Austin.  We spoke last month in Austin during SXSW.  It was even windier than it looked.  The cacti look cool, don't they.

Look for upcoming interviews at Rock Book Show with Holly George-Warren, Richard Barone, Dorian Lynskey, Kristin Hersh, Jonathan Silverman, and others.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Delmore Schwartz was so enamored with the letters he composed to his friend Julian Sawyer that he'd read them aloud at his favorite Wisconsin bar—Perratoni's—to anyone who cared to listen (and to those who didn't).  This was the fall of 1931.  The image of a feverish poet performing in a bar isn't strange; what's strange is the image now of anyone clutching a stack of letters.  What was the last generation to compose letters, by hand, on paper?  When did emails generally replace written letters between besotted boys and girls?  I'm guessing the late 1990s.  Emailing was in ascension.  Then texting.  Now tweeting, for who knows how long.  (I could be wrong.)   Buzzed twenty-somethings in bars read aloud to each other emails or texts, clutching a hunk of molded plastic rather than a dog-eared sheet of paper, from a bright screen of 1's and 0's rather than an expanse of page and handwriting as unique as it is personal.

We seem to live in a particularly speculative age.  The speed of technological advancements and change is so accelerated now that there's little time for reasoned reflection gifted by perspective.  There's no Perspective Now.  I grudgingly acknowledge that preceding generations worried over this same thing, from concerns about the chugging coal train to concerns about air mail and television, but like each of my curious predecessors I feel that my historical situation is unique, frontier-striding, something borne only of my time in history.  So I speculate on the cultural shift from letter-writing to emailing/texting.  It's too soon to know the implications.  I wonder on the sensuous differences between an oft-folded, tear-stained, doodle-adorned, finger-kissed letter and an electronic correspondence brightly illumined on an Android or iPhone.  Certainly expression is the same if the form has changed.  Isn't it?  


The 21st Century Romantic Relationship versus the mythologized past.  When I was in college at the University of Maryland my girlfriend attended Northwestern, in Chicago.  In the somewhat-desperate mode of a long-distance relationship she sent me five to six letters a week, each bursting with energy and narrative and inspired language; lamely, I sent her far fewer, mostly tortured, Kerouac-lite, first-thought-best-thought screeds that I'd be embarrassed (but perhaps touched by) to read now.  She eventually transferred to George Washington University; a few years later when I moved to Athens, Ohio to attend Ohio University, her letter-writing started up again, though with less passionate frequency.  I don't know if she has my letters still (I suspect not), but the image of them in a box somewhere confounds me; they seem as much a relic now as Polaroids.  But there they are (maybe, probably not) humming against each other, present-tense documents of young love, each stamped uniquely with that adolescent mark of enthusiasm, naivete, and earnestness, aging inevitably.

Digitalmenship: our early century hybrid.  I don't mean to suggest that emails and texts aren't composed with the same urgency as last century's extended letters, obviously, but I doubt that someone lingers over an email, even a relatively lengthy one, or a text with the same sense of elongated time and reflection as a letter-writer did.  Even if a letter is written in spontaneous haste, it goes somewhere—into hands that open, unfold, handle.  A letter remains something tangible, has a dimensional quality of softness or gentleness that an email or text can't pretend to possess.  Sure, mails remain in Inboxes for a while, maybe even in a particular folder file.  But they remain inert, bytes in a mostly figurative sense.

"Letter writing" via The Partition Street Project