Sunday, December 18, 2011

Super Rocked: Titus Turner's "All Around The World"

Titus Turner
When I was writing Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band, I compiled an appendix of the many songs that the Fleshtones have covered since their inception in 1976, a "party among scratchy flip-sides, long-forgotten album tracks, and obscure movie soundtracks, a motley crew of rock & rollers, wanna-be's, and one-off's."  (I added, in understatement, "Some songs have been lost in the memory-swiping vapors of the last thirty years.") The book is four years old already, so the Fleshtones have expanded that list considerably, but it was a hopeful-at-best compilation to begin with.  The Fleshtones have always been keen to get inside of a song they cover, avoiding over-respect by plugging in to the song's impulse and timelessness, its pulse points, regardless of which artist might've placed a version on the charts and made the tune well-known. The Fleshtones have always prized obscurity—(to a fault?)—thus the songs that they cover are rarely the standard-issue, canonical holy writs, though they have played oft-trodden numbers by the Kinks, the Stones, and other big-wigs on occasion.  What attracts them to a song is multi-fold: is it cool? is it fun? is it too well-known? will it translate to the stage?

One song that was for many years a verifiable nugget in the Fleshtones' celebration of rock and roll history was Titus Turner's "All Around the World."  Turner was a Georgian-born R&B singer-songwriter who penned "Leave My Kitten Alone," among numerous lively songs, and he's well-remembered by "All Around the World," which Little Willie John cut and issued in as a single on King Records in 1955. John's version ("Vocal with Orchestra") is a mid-tempo, swinging, walking-bass performance that highlight's the singer's strong, emotive tenor.

A decade and a half later, as The Blues and R&B were experiencing a renaissance among British and American musicians, Little Milton tackled Turner's tune for his 1969 Checker single, retitling it "Grits Ain't Groceries," a riotous line from the song's chorus.  Backed by a rocking band, Milton sped up the tune and funkified it with horns and a syncopated rhythm section that drove the song around the bend.  A year or so after Milton's release, Edwin Starr corralled the number for his album War & Peace on Gordy and dragged it through a beer-soaked, funky frat party, beefing up a wild, even faster arrangement with an of-the-era synthesizer keyboard and utterly irresistible guitar and bass licks to which it is physically impossible not to move.  Both Milton's and Starr wailed on their versions of Turner's number, which in the hands of Little Willie John now felt tame.

Ten years later, the Fleshtones recorded their version of "All Around the World" in London with Richard Mazda in a one-off session that produced the band's third I.R.S. single, "The World Has Changed," released in 1981 in advance of Roman Gods.  You can read all about the wacky recording session in Sweat: pharmaceutically aided and well-oiled, the guys barreled through "All Around the World," offering the world the fastest version of the number yet, nodding both to Milton and Starr with a syncopated arrangement, chugging horn section courtesy of Action Combo (featuring future Fleshtone Gordon Spaeth), and a shredding take on the chorus wailed by bassist Marek Pakulski.  A ragged product of late-70s/early 80s New Wave and Punk energy, the Fleshtones' harmonica-soloed version amps up the song for a sweaty, dancing garage rock audience.

Turn it up, the second half of the 20th Century in all of its American beat glory:


Image of Titus Turner via TheFunky16Corners.

Friday, December 16, 2011

To shape or mold...

Here's a little experiment.  Consider the following:
We went there for everything we needed. We went there when thirsty, of course, and when hungry, and when dead tired. We went there when happy, to celebrate, and when sad, to sulk. We went there after weddings and funerals, for something to settle our nerves, and always for a shot of courage just before. We went there when we didn't know what we needed, hoping someone might tell us. We went there when looking for love, or sex, or trouble, or for someone who had gone missing, because sooner or later everyone turned up there. Most of all we went there when we needed to be found.
This is the opening paragraph of a novel about a boy who finds a collective father-figure at his local bar, a place that over the years offered him "shelter from failure, rejection, heartbreak—and eventually from reality."

Consider this:
We went there for everything we needed. We went there when thirsty, of course, and when hungry, and when dead tired. We went there when happy, to celebrate, and when sad, to sulk. We went there after weddings and funerals, for something to settle our nerves, and always for a shot of courage just before. We went there when we didn't know what we needed, hoping someone might tell us. We went there when looking for love, or sex, or trouble, or for someone who had gone missing, because sooner or later everyone turned up there. Most of all we went there when we needed to be found.
This is the opening paragraph of a memoir written by a man who as a boy found a collective father-figure at a local bar, a place that over the years offered him "shelter from failure, rejection, heartbreak—and eventually from reality."


Did your attitude toward the passage change when you discovered that it was memoir?  As a writer and teacher of autobiographical essays, I notice that casual reader brings to bear different assumptions about fiction versus nonfiction. Dorothy Allison wrote, "the deepest way to change people is to get them to inhabit the soul of another human being who is different from them. And that happens in story. That happens in literature." I like that she broadens her argument to include literature at large, allowing in narrative poetry and personal essays. The impulse to inhabit another's life—a stone's throw, when managed well, from the gift of empathy—is found in the biographer as well as the fiction writer. It's found in the autobiographer, as well.

I recently read David Carr's The Night of the Gun, and although I'm mixed on the book's success, I'm wholly taken with its premise: the journalistic investigation of one's past.  Carr digitally records interviews with dozens of people from his past and present—from dodgy drug dealers to his twin daughters, born prematurely to a crack-smoking mother—in an attempt to fill in the blanks of his druggy, befogged past, but also to see himself from the point-of-view of third-person. There I am/he is.  Carr's impulse is to inhabit his life told-by-others, and that's a fascinating idea, to me, though Carr's hardly the first; as our culture tips toward full-on video and online documentation, perhaps it's a tidal shift toward challenging received forms of memoir and autobiography. (Carr maintains an interesting website devoted to the book and its processes.) 

Back to inhabiting: when I write autobiographically, I'm trying to inhabit the past, or more accurately the present looking back, and I feel that that's a desire similar to the fiction writer or the dramatist, the desire to inhabit a life, and via language and imagination to render that life artfully and meaningfully.  I don't always succeed, neither does the fiction writer.  Lives—imagined or otheriwse—must be molded to matter.

Excerpt and cropped cover image from The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Runnin' with Van Halen

The 33 1/3 blog links to photos of a Van Halen in-store appearance from 1978. Large vinyl albums! Feathered hair! Mirror shades! The chest hair! The denim! The artificial plants! You can virtually smell the Faberge Organic Shampoo and incense. I wish they'd done an in-store performance. Ah youth.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Kopp on the Killer

Over at Musoscribe, Bill Kopp takes on Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found:
It’s walking a fine line to write a book that (a) tells the story one wants to tell and (b) uses lovely and descriptive language to do it but (c) writes in a way that doesn’t attract undue attention to the writing style. Bonomo wins on all three counts with this book. Here’s a representative sample of the heartfelt, rhapsodic and colorful writing found in this book’s pages. Describing Lewis’ early trio on the 1958 track “Lewis Boogie,” Bonomo writes:
As is the case with Jerry Lee’s great early Sun recordings, Van Eaton and Janes don’t so much accompany Jerry Lee as they come along for the ride – the rhythm track swings beautifully, and Van Eaton’s and Janes’ participation is crucial to the sound and vibe of the tune, much in the way that the shotgun-rider and backseat clowns are crucial for any drunken joyride.
Damn, I love that imagery: you can almost hear the music while reading the pages.
Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found mostly concerns itself with Lewis’ landmark album Live! At the Star Club Hamburg in 1964, and with Lewis’ eventual turn toward country and western music toward the end of that decade. But those major turning points are placed into the needed context—musically, chronologically, etc.—so that they make sense. Though Bonomo’s story is ultimately a personal one, the reader need not be well-versed in Lewis’ life story to gain a great deal from reading.
In fact, hours spent with Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found will almost surely send the reader to his or her choice of media to listen to the Killer’s best work. And ultimately, that’s one of Bonomo’s primary goals with this book.

Lost and Found is out now in paperback.


I recently spoke about the book on WLBK with DeKalb Public Libary Director Dee Coover.   You can listen to the interview here:

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Hero on the Bar Stool

A triptych from David Carr's The Night of the Gun:

But was it really all thus? Shakespeare describes memory as the warder of the brain, but it is also its courtesan. We all remember the parts of the past that allow us to meet the future. The prototypes of the lie—white, grievous, practical—make themselves known when memory is called to answer. Memory usually answers back with bullshit. Everyone likes a good story, especially the one who is telling it, and the historical facts are generally sullied in the process. All men mean well, and clearly most people who set out to tell the truth do not lie on purpose. How is it, then, that every warm bar stool contains a hero, a star of his own epic, who is the sum of his amazing stories?


There is also an almost irresistible consistency bias. Memory is an expression of hindsight as much as recollection, so my rear view must incorporate the fact that I was eventually redeemed from a life of drugs, alcohol, and mania. In this construct, the moments when I stumbled across a life-changing epiphany are vividly reserved, while the more corrosive aspects are lost to a kind of self-preserving amnesia. To be fully cognizant of the wreckage of one's past can be paralyzing, so we, or at least I, minimize as we go. Nowhere is that imperative more manifest than in memoir. Popular literature requires framing a sympathetic character, someone we can root for or who is, as they say on the studio lot, relatable.

The star of his own epic...

Truth is singular and lies are plural, but history—the facts of what happened—is both immutable and mostly unknowable. Can I somehow remember enough to type my way to an unvarnished recitation of what happened to me? No chance.

Image via (the great) Jeremiah's Vanishing New York.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Stories Not Told: A Conversation with Jim Linderman

Jim Linderman and the forgotten
"Every passion borders on the chaotic," writes Walter Benjamin in "Unpacking My Library," "but the collector's passion borders on the chaos of memories."  This observation informs the work of collector, archivist, and Americana yay-sayer Jim Linderman.  At his wide-ranging, comprehensive, and lively blogs Vintage Sleaze ("The true and untold story of smut in America"), Old Time Religion ("Vernacular religious detritus"), and Dull Tool Dim Bulb ("Surface, wear, form and authenticity in art, antiques and photography") Linderman acknowledges the obscure at the same time that he elevates it.  For many years he's doggedly pursued the arcane and the forgotten—from late-19th Century religious iconography to mid-20th Century smut, from vernacular photography to vanished advertising.  His collections tell vast stories in sotto voce, allowing curios and objects shadowed by mainstream culture and ideology to converse and be heard.  What we hear is an enormous American sub-culture speaking in forbidden, marginalized languages: stuff discovered boxed in the attic out of embarrassment or zealotry, smutty ash trays crowing next to religious pamphlets, each claiming a part of the complex, sometimes contradictory, always conflicted American imagination, a chaos of memories that will one day vanish.  I've been an admirer of Linderman's work for a while, especially the breadth of his interests: the racy to the pious, the filthy to the redeemed.  Sounds like America to me.

Linderman and I virtually sat down recently, and I asked him about his collections.  


How and why did you begin collecting?

As soon as I could walk, I probably took three rocks from the front yard, put them next to each other and someone said "That looks nice."  Three of anything makes a collection.  That seems simple, but the process of assembling and categorizing always made sense to me.  Before long with stamps and baseball cards.  Maybe I was completing a puzzle or filling in blanks.  When I could read, I was always at the newsstand the day the comics came in.  The drive to collect is to appear "more special" than others, and there is a psychological need just as with any human activity.  It is a solitary pursuit when done well, as a good portion of collecting is study and learning.  Perfect for a shy person like me.  Some collecting is highly competitive, especially when one likes things no one else has.  I have always collected the hard things.  I find a niche, preferably one no one has thought of (as I have never had any real money) and then sacrifice a bit to obtain things I want.   I always had to be first, both with the idea and in line at the flea market.

I have always collected for a particular purpose.  For a book project, for a show, to prove a point, to illustrate a truth.  I don't collect things willy-nilly...and I seldom post anything on the blogs I haven't found and purchased myself.  Folks don't quote Mao much these days, but he once wrote something like "To know what an orange is, you must first taste the orange," and the truth and beauty of that has stayed with me since junior high school.    Unless I have put in the work and lived with an object, I don't think I am qualified to understand it or write about it.

Among Dull Tool Dim Bulb, Old Time Religion, and Vintage Sleaze you cover a vast, perhaps conflicting, terrain of Americana and ephemera.  What, in your conception, fits inside that triangle?

Authenticity and stories not told.  That is the common thread running through all three.  As mass culture became so prevalent, I saw how important the little things were.  It is a losing game, I suppose, but there is far more value in what is done beneath the surface than what is offered to us as product for consumption.  Even as a kid I didn't like the records I could buy downtown, I liked the bootlegs I had to drive miles for.  To me if 60 million people see the same hit movie, that is just horrendous.   It is a massive, destructive waste of precious human time and talent.  Frightfully so. Outsiders and eccentrics are far more interesting, and ultimately far more real to me, so I seek out their stories and share them.  What is "presented" or packaged for consumption tells virtually none of the truth.  Long ago (or ideally) in our system, the cream will rise to the top.   That is certainly no longer even remotely the case.  I purposely avoid that which I am "supposed" to like.  I don't watch TV or read best sellers.  I don't need to, as millions have done it for me, and if I need to know anything I missed I can ask.  I'm not being smug, I'd just rather find and learn about things not so easily available.  I'd rather have salsa from my little sister's garden than spicy corn syrup in crates from Kraft.

I have also always been drawn to things forbidden.  I don't know why.  I think they are intellectually stimulating. 

There is a clear distinction between all three blogs, but that current of authenticity is there in all, as is my own thread an artistic outsider.  I've never studied art, but Dull Tool Dim Bulb is an art blog.  It is intentionally diverse, but more than anything it is about the artistic inclinations of amateurs and passionate people from the past who have created beauty without being recognized for it.  My aesthetics, which drive both my collecting and the material I post, come from the honest, direct and worn surface of folk art, and the blog is about surface, wear, age and form as much as it is about people.

Similarly, I don't believe in God, but Old-Time-Religion is a blog about believers and how they are manipulated by others.  It is about the interesting, beautiful and often hopelessly eccentric and hilarious graphics used by preachers and personalities involved in a massive, pervasive fraud... but I seldom editorialize.  I let the material speak for itself.  The origins of the religious right are shown there every day, and I delight in digging up that which has been passed over or swept under by current practitioners.  The more crooked and silly, the better.  It is amazing, just amazing to me that in this day and age there are still people getting away with being "faith healers" and when I find one lining his pockets, I might point it out...but for the most part it is about the striking graphics and pictures.  And no one wants the things (most of them were given away after all) I don't have any competition.  I usually find a pile of tracts at the end of the shelf in used bookstores and that keeps me busy for a while.  Sometimes I'll spring for a particularly beautiful photograph and add that.

Vintage Sleaze might appear to be about sex, smut and boob jokes, but it is in fact about hypocrisy and untold stories.  It is also just funny as hell.  My entire life there have been attempts to censor smut, usually by folks with equally offensive morals as the smut producers,  but everyone bought it.  I don't care how upstanding someone appears to be on the surface, when they pass away you'll find a dirty book in a box in the basement.   This hypocrisy meant no one ever wrote about the producers, the writers, the artists or the models who created the material, and what a group of eccentric, talented, unusual folks they were.   Because you weren't supposed to acknowledge it, no one has told the stories, and I have found it an incredible rich, fertile area for study and writing.  The women's movement made much of the material passe and taboo, and rightly so, but at one time it was so pervasive that to pretend it didn't exist is not only wrong, we are missing so much history and entertainment.  Personally, I believe Bettie Page and proto-pornographer Lenny Burtman have had more influence on popular culture than virtually anyone you can name.  I like to think of the blog as a James Ellroy novel but with every word true

Can you talk a bit about the distinction between collecting and hoarding?  Does the line ever blur? 

Everything I have fits on the shelves behind me.  I used to collect large things. Folk art objects, paintings, handmade furniture...and I have been through a dozen art forms which did take up space.  But today, as I collect to tell stories and put together books, little paper ephemera and photographs fit the bill...and they don't take up any space.  I also use collections as tools.  I'm not a pristine Mylar bag kind of guy.  I'd rather see the wear and the surface.  It lends that all important authenticity.  When I was working as a librarian, most of my colleagues seemed more concerned that the material be on the shelf in the right place, but I'd rather have it circulating and being used, even if a kid stole it.

When I'm done with a category, an object or a collection, I feel I have mastered it and pass it along.   Increasingly as donations to museums, but back when I was living on a librarian's salary, I traded or sold things I had put together to afford to collect in another area which interested me.  To me, stuff is a tool, and when I'm done with it someone else gets it.   Plus there is always something else to study.  I might add that I have learned one or two splendid objects against a white wall look better than 50 objects in a I edit a little as I go along.

How do you define "vernacular photography"?

More than anything, to me it means amateur.  I suppose it actually means "photography of the people" or "photography of the common man" or something like that.  I'm not too interested in "mistakes" or "shadows" or the commonly collected categories.  Photographs which mistakenly turned out approximating beautiful art are interesting, but I just like pictures taken by those who happened upon it themselves.  I usually collect photographs of my collection of folk art objects being made or where they are placed...and many of them just happen to have been taken by amateurs.  I also love press photographs which have been virtually obliterated by cropping and "touch-ups" before publication, as they help illustrate how we have been manipulated by photographs all along.
Can you talk a bit about the distinctions between smut and pornography?  Is it a question simply of relative explicitness, or is there something less quantifiable involved?  Does smut still exist in the 21st Century?  If so, where?   

My blog only deals with smut up to around 1965, when through court rulings and such virtually anything went.  The characters I profile worked at a time when they could be arrested at the whim of a local politician or authority, and living on that edge made them interesting characters.  With the 1970s, porn became a much larger business with larger profits and also unfortunately became less interesting.  

Pornography used to be something kids shouldn't see and still is, but because of the Internet I think it has become something kids have virtually no interest in seeing!   When is the last time you saw a cartoon showing a kid trying to peek into a nudist colony?  It's over.  We are saturated.  Hopefully we are finally on the verge of defining the real obscenities, which are poverty, hunger, war, racism, greed, violence and sexual abuse.  Those are pornographic to me.  Unfortunately, at the same time we seem to be living in a productive era for ignorant zealots who latch onto the most convenient religious beliefs and try to force them on others, both here and maybe my optimism is misplaced. I know some kind of clash is coming.  Due to backward notions and religious beliefs, a large percent of the world's population doesn't have the lax attitude towards undraped women as the Western world, though the wealthy of all cultures still reserve it for themselves.  Bin Laden was watching porn in his adobe, after all.  But if I happened to come from a culture where women were forced to wear veils, I'd be pretty angry at the West, I guess.  Thankfully, I was raised in a country where one could find anything and women are becoming equal. 

It is relative explicitness, as there are still arbitrary rules applied by censors of various forces.  I never voted for them, but they still try to tell me what I can read.   Today the pasties which cover nipples are blurs on the TV screen.  Just like the "founding fathers of smut" I delight in getting as close as I can on the blog without crossing that arbitrary line, and just like the girly magazines of the 1950s, women have no nipples on my blog!   But it appears filthy and that is the point.  In the vintage sleaze paperbacks of the 1950s, folks slowly took their clothes off, over and over, but nothing ever happened.  The cover of the cereal box tastes better than the kibble inside.  Additionally, "pornography" today is no more real than any other mass media product.  Frosted hair, breast implants, air-brushing, skin-bronzing...ugh.  That is pornographic to me...the false presentation, the lies, the artificial "allure" which just looks pathetic.  I'm not old fashioned in the least, but I can see phony, and phony is what we get today.

I should point out women far outnumber men as regular followers of the site.  The guys pop in by mistake looking for the real thing, but I think women appreciate the irony, the history and the kitsch more.  I hope everyone reads the text, as the images mean little without it...but we have become more visual and less word savvy.

What's the cultural value of collecting and exhibiting smut?  

Americans can only handle one or two cultural figures at a time.  For example, (as Harry Smith, John Fahey, Joe Bussard and others have shown) there were thousands upon thousands of folk and blues musicians, but we only know Bob Dylan,  Peter Paul and Mary and B.B. King.  Today Dita Von Teese represents the entire concept of  the pin-up, but as I try to show there have been thousands of hard-working models doing the same thing and in very harsh conditions indeed for decades.  R. Crumb draws dirty and funny cartoons...well, so did a thousand other cartoonists, illustrators and artists.  The richness and depth of our culture comes not from celebrities, no matter how much the increasingly concentrated and interlocking media wish us to.   By the way, I use the examples above because I love them very much, except for Peter Paul and Mary, who sucked.  But then they loaned their microphones to Garth Hudson who recorded the Basement Tapes for I'll cut them some slack.

I am most interested in smut because this was fugitive literature.   The libraries didn't collect it, the material wasn't indexed, there are no bibliographies and often not even a copyright.  That makes documenting it challenging.  It as such a large part of our collective nature, but in a secret way.  It should be known about.  The sex drive is as basic as eating and drinking, and yet we have this huge vacuum in our understanding of how it has been treated in popular culture. 

You publish your books with Blurb, the on-line publishing company.  Can you describe your experience working with Blurb? 

Blurb is a wonderful platform. It is amazing how creative one can be, and I decided to see if it was a viable medium for publishing.  Of course, their primary emphasis is on wedding photographs and travel pictures, but I found one can also actually do art books.  They are too expensive for anyone to buy, but they've recently made it possible to sell books for the iPad and iPhone too, so that is pretty great.  I hardly think of them as books actually, I think of them more as "limited edition prints" and a way of documenting things I have assembled.  They won't make anyone rich other than the owners of Blurb, and that is due to the death of the book as much as anything else, but I am proud of the modest little things I've done there.  I also like that they are in a sense "fugitive" themselves as they are outside the established channels of book publishing.  I hope one day some kid will happen upon them and collect them.

Who's working in your field who you admire, or have admired, and why?

I have dozens of heroes from history and popular culture.  Those who influenced me most directly in what I am doing today are friends I was fortunate enough to make some 25 years ago, Herbert Hemphill jr. and Sterling Strauser.  Hemphill was a folk art collector who helped found the American Museum of Folk Art, and Strauser was a painter who happened to collect self-taught artists.  They both impacted me in ways I can hardly describe, and spending time with each in their homes were among the most meaningful times of my life.  We swapped stories, discoveries and both taught me to be fearless and collect the hell out of what I found interesting, no matter what the prevailing experts were shilling.  As for writers and bloggers, John Foster at Accidental Mysteries, Joey Lin at Anonymous Works, Carolina Miranda at C-Mon and Jim Marshall at The Hound are essential.  Every day essential.  The Bob Dylan site Expecting Rain is the best music site around. 

All images from Jim Linderman's blogs Dull Tool Dim Bulb, Vintage Sleaze, and Old Time Religion.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

"Life is tough; thank God there's design," Paola Antonelli


In her 1996 essay "Resolution and Independence: John Berryman's Ghost and the Meaning of Life," a memoir of John Berryman with whom she briefly studied, poet Madeline DeFrees writes about hearing Walt Whitman read aloud for the first time.  Berryman recited passages from Song Of Myself at a public event, and DeFrees was so moved that she had to leave the reading.  After finding some solace in a nearby empty room, she was discovered by her friend and fellow student Bruce Jackson, who was concerned, and who would ultimately compile some Whitman for her in a kindred-spirit gesture.

DeFrees' overwhelming response to hearing Whitman was complicated, and deepened, by the fact that she was, at the time, a nun at the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, where her sobriquet was Sister Mary Gilbert. With hindsight, she writes:
By that time, I had let down my guard with Bruce and could tell him with great hilarity what a radical shift the title of Whitman’s poem signalled for me. Our Mistress of Novices had believed that to say myself with accents on both syllables indicated large reserves of egotism. Unfortunately, the word occurred in the vocal portion of the evening prayer, routinely read aloud in chapel by a succession of novices. All of us were trained to say m’self, trying our best to minimize the reflexive pronoun. Religious modesty demanded this kind of attention: and for Thy sake I love my neighbor as m’self.

I told Bruce about the intense inner conflict this created for me. Should I obey without question, or should I be loyal to the language? When it was my turn to lead prayer I put the language first, hurrying past the offensive term, but avoiding the contraction. I was not sure whether I could get away with it, but nothing was ever said. 
It's interesting to read about Whitman's physical self-singing as filtered through spiritual self-abnegation, something I imagine that Whitman would've had a thing or two to say about.  After DeFrees, I'm reminded of my own brief history with being an altar boy—hardly a calling as dramatic or meaningful as DeFrees', yet an experience that was marked by intensity, often born in the clashing of my ego with my service.  That I was helplessly in the throes of puberty at the time didn't help, as the girls' round and rounding bodies in the pews threatened to render my modest cassock meaningless (metaphorically, anyway).  Yet such humming sexuality—inevitably heightened by stuffy, churchy decorum—was often relegated to my own sense of myself minus others, the complicated and seductive world ending at the end of my arm.

Like so many pre-teens at the cusp of teendom, I struggled mightily to focus on the mass as I served—a duty for which I enthusiastically volunteered at St. Andrew the Apostle, a duty in which I was genuinely interested.  As a beginner altar boy (girls weren't allowed to serve yet, hence there was no need to employ the gender-neutral term "altar server") I was often assigned the duty of acolyte—or, taper-lighter and -bearer—and my seat during mass was along the side of the altar, where, languishing, usually hot and uncomfortable in my cassock and dress pants, I'd wander far and wide mentally, at times bored stiff.  Later, I advanced to participating in the consecration, carrying the chalice and the Missal to the altar, assisting the priest in receiving the bread and wine, presenting the bottles (cruets) of wine and water for the priest to pour into the chalice, pouring water over the priest's hands, occasionally ringing a small black bell to indicate transubstantiation.  I'd receive the sign of peace from the priest—rare!—and accompany him with the other altar boys at the end of mass as we left, or recessed from, the altar, all eyes on me (or so I dreaded/hoped).  These activities brought me literally closer to the altar, in that I was now seated next to the priest during mass.  This proximity, and especially the washing of the hands and handling of the drying towel and the altar materials, at times lent a heft and tangibility to serving that I hadn't experienced as an acolyte during mass, or during the Station of the Cross.  My attention at the altar was usually well-focussed—by enchantment and by seriousness of purpose, but also by necessity, as I didn't want to screw up and anger the priest, especially one grim, always grouchy Father who, I learned years later, left the parish to receive help for alcoholism.

But just as often my attention wandered—to the girls, to homework, to the recess politics and the dread of Monday, or to Mark Belanger or Graig Nettles or Joe Theisman.  I was, far more often than not, immersed in myself, each syllable braying inside me, clamoring for secular attention.  I was indoctrinated at school against such egotism while in church, though certainly not as severely as was DeFrees, but my self took little heed.  I, in fact, couldn't have cared less about where the self met the spiritual; with some rare exceptions, and this saddens me to write now, my altar serving often felt obligatory come Sundays.


I possess an image now that's become representative of the years I served, meaning that I need to be sceptical of its accuracy, but mindful of what it's trying to say to me.  One of the requirements of serving at St. Andrews was the occasional morning mass duty, dreaded by all except the most devout of us kids.  When your name came up, you had to serve a week's worth of 8 a.m. mass, a tradition I now see as a wonderful thing to make a sullen teen do.  But at the time....

There were, maybe, five people who attended daily mass on a regular basis, one of whom wasn't a member of the clergy.  To a 12 or 13-year old it felt like a foreign country.  I recall sitting on the folding chair on our front porch waiting for my mom to drive me to church that week.  It was bitterly cold, I was tired, cranky, and full of anger and self-pity that I had to get up an hour before my classmates, be driven to school!, serve mass in a virtually empty church, and then endure an interminable school day and whatever drama and melodrama awaited me there.  I sat on the porch with my head in my hands, bemoaning my fate.  This was as far from selfless as I'd ever get in relation to serving mass.  My self, myself, so enlarged and all-encompassing it is a wonder that I fit in the station wagon where I sat, surly and—in mournful retrospect—treating my tireless mother with icy silence.  I don't recall any moment serving that week where I left my egotism behind, where I embraced, in the halting, timid way that a pre-teen can, the spirit and the transcendence of mass.  This I regret. 

Cropped cover of Song of Myself via Shambhala PublicationsAltar Boy by Herime Steller via Photography by Charly.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Some Memories, Deluxe Edition

The past is now.
Between October of 1977 and March of 1978, the Rolling Stones gathered at Pathé Marconi Studios in Boulogne-Billancourt, France and recorded dozens of tracks, ten of which were completed and mastered for Some Girls. Among the remaining songs, several were mostly-finished, some were merely sketches, and some ("Summer Romance," "Start Me Up," "Hang Fire," "Black Limousine") would show up on albums over the next few years. Recently, the Stones released a "deluxe" version of Some Girls appended with a dozen extra songs cut during those extended sessions in France and sweetened with new vocals and instrumentation. This isn't a new gimmick for the band: a couple of years ago they did the same with Exile On Main St. Then, I was struck by two things: how decent the new, previously ignored songs were, and how well 2009 Mick Jagger—after nearly four decades of voice wear, persona-swapping, and life changes—approximated the vibe of his 1971 singing. I'm pleasantly surprised by the new Some Girls tracks, too. "No Spare Parts," Hank Williams' "You Win Again," and Keith's great take on Waylon Jennings' "We Had It All" are lived-in, loose country in the boozy, late-70s Stones vein, and "Keep Up Blues" is cool, basic, and propulsive grunt blues with attitude. Yeah, had these tracks been finished for release at the time they would've likely been relegated to b-sides of singles and 12"s (as was the wild, sloppy, chaotic "Everything's Turning To Gold"); with the exception of "We Had It All," which at the very least ought to have replaced Keith's "All About You" on 1980's Emotional Rescue, these songs aren't quite album-worthy. And I'm not sure that Some Girls in its original 10-song release could've been improved, anyway. But as rejected tracks, these new songs stand up well. Even chasing and cutting stray grooves and cover songs, the Stones in 1977/78 were hitting hard.


A brief aside from the Historically Irresponsible Department: I've been fantasizing lately about what if the Stones had released Some Girls as a double album. It would've been commercially risky, perhaps invited inevitable comparison to Exile's sprawl, and certainly not been in keeping with the verve of the original album as a "response" to Punk; the country material wouldn't have fit with Jagger's vision for what Some Girls was. But: in some respects it might've been a very Stones thing to do, releasing a double-album as New Wave was ascending, and, after all, the newly unearthed material reveals that the Mick and Keith (the latter especially) were quite into honky tonk at the time, so a double album would actually have been a more accurate barometer of where they were musically at the time, Jagger's image-concerns notwithstanding. Anyway, here's how I imagine the running order:

Side 1
Miss You
When the Whip Comes Down
I Love You Too Much
No Spare Parts

Side 2
When You’re Gone
Far Away Eyes
Do You Think I Really Care?

Side 3
Tallahassee Lassie
Some Girls
So Young
Petrol Blues
We Had It All

Side 4
Keep Up Blues
Before They Make Me Run
Beast of Burden

Snotty album cover and back cover artwork remain the same; inside are Warhol-esque photos of the band posing in a dive honky tonk somewhere, Charlie grimly posing with a ten-gallon hat. Smirks and sneers all around. What a record this might've been.

Spotify playlist here.

Enough geek; back to the real world.


Rock and roll: it's personal. What interests me most about the Exile... and Some Girls reissues is the way they attempt to revisit, reanimate, and re-present the past. Some Girls was released in June of 1978. My indelible memory of the album is "Miss You" playing at Wheaton Pool at Wheaton High School, in Maryland, where I went in the summers, splashing elbow-to-elbow with what seemed like a thousand other kids. I had sex on the brain that summer, and "Miss You"'s four-on-the-floor thump and salacious vibe was working its way in and out of me at will, as girls in bathing suits walked around everywhere, vanishing in and out of painfully bright sun like myths. The song, and the album, remain for me touchstones of that sensual summer, and of erotic possibilities. Time, place, era. Mick Jagger has said often that Rolling Stones albums exist to his mind as products of their era, and no more, but here he is recording new vocals against tracks recorded thirty or more years ago, tracks quite redolent of their eras (in the case of Exile... in the basement of Keith's house, Villa Nellcote, during a steamy, drug-hazy summer in Villefranche-sur-mer, France; for Some Girls, suburban Paris in the autumn of '77 as Punk was roiling on the Continent and in the U.K.). It's interesting to hear Jagger in the fall of 2009, in some recording studio in New York, Los Angeles, or London, sing on top of the old tracks. Is he consciously trying to sound like he did in 1970, 1971, 1977? Or is he trusting that the mystery of the notes and chords and grooves as arranged, accidental or deliberate, will lead him inevitably, wholly into the past? There are clanging cliches in the new lyrics Jagger's written—the late great Ian MacDonald once wrote that when the Beatles were dozing as lyricists they went on about baubles and rings; when Mick's dozing it's strictly card playing metaphors—and definite 21st Century Jagger tics in the added vocal tracks in the self-conscious nasal styling, the affected phrasing. But in places ("Pass The Wine [Sophia Loren])," "No Spare Parts") he sounds to my ear as if he's singing not simply like he did thirty-plus years ago, but as if he couldn't help but sing that way. That may be simply the veteran singer's equivalent to the professional actor who can rely on craft, rather then Method, to bring characters to life, or it may be something else altogether, an aural time machine of sorts into which Jagger effortlessly steps, led by music.

Unsettlingly, I wonder if I like the new Some Girls tracks because I know that they were originally cut during the band's (end-of) high streak, at sessions that would score a season for me. The Some Girls tracks were cut in a certain place and era, and released to me via the radio at the cusp of a formative summer when adolescence and teenagedom did early battles, wars raging in my body and my head. In a recent interview, Keith said that when he was laying the new guitar parts down onto the old Some Girls-era tracks, he had to remind himself, This is 1977, the implication being that he had to resist relying on licks or an aesthetic he learned or cultivated in recent decades, lest he...what, deceive us? Deceive himself? Break some law in the time-space continuum? There's an intriguing clash between late-70s and early-21st Century ethos in these Some Girls tracks. In the middle, I'm pulled between memories of a certain summer, and revisiting that summer with music recorded then, but tweaked now. What are the implications of revisiting the content of the past with contents from today? Ethically, we're in dangerous territory, not too far from a wholesale representation of the past as filtered, and amended, through today's ideology. (When the Beatles reissued new material in the mid-90s, they used an image of the group posing circa 1965, digitally erasing the cigarettes that Lennon and Ringo were holding. Rest assured, the Beatles do not promote smoking!) If I were to take an overexposed Polaroid of myself from the mid-70s, my face blurred into whiteness, and fill in my facial features, trying to get it right, resisting the impulse to correct, to add, to subtract—is that an image of me-as-then, or of me-as-then-as-now?

Remix me
It's a curious exercise, and I'm not quite sure why the Stones are doing it, certainly not to fortify thinning bank accounts; they either feel the need to keep Stones product on a forgetful market, or the desire to pull old clothes out of the closet and see if they still fit. ("We had this idea that we'd reinvigorate certain albums by finding other songs recorded in that time that would hold up," Jagger says. "That sounded like a better idea than doing mindless compilations.") Is this simple indulgence, or something more generous? Producer Don Was, who helped with the new recordings, has asserted that he next wants to revisit the sessions that produced Beggars Banquet (1968) and Let It Bleed (1969), promising more nuggets from the vaults which Mick and Keith will hold in their hands like moon rocks, like materials from another planet. How will Mick channel the late-60s? With a script, avoiding references to cell phones and texts? Meanwhile, my curves-and-Coppertone memories of the summer of 1978 are undimmed. The new tracks on Some Girls give me a new, befogged window through which to view them.

One dubious souvenir of the Stones' revisiting Some Girls: the advertising campaign and the unconscionable erasing of bassist Bill Wyman from the promotional imagery:
Where's Bill?
I can handle new vocals and guitar over old tracks; I can't see ushering one of the principal musicians into the dustbin of history. Silly Mick.

Recording session info via the inestimable The Complete Works Of The Rolling Stones.  If you're a Stones nut and haven't seen this site, prepare to lose a few hours.