Thursday, March 31, 2011

An Origin Story

At Saint Andrew the Apostle the bells ring first for those with bikes—it's 2:50—I vault across the playground to the rack and swiftly pull my ten-speed and hop on and head southwest to the exit and hang a sharp right onto Arcola Avenue and here's the first hill in the sun past the woods on the right and I pump hard and climb toward the energy-leveling-off point that I must keep for the mile home the woods on the right blur and at the crest I smile because the first downhill comes now zooming past houses and quick looks right and left fly over Orbaugh past the sign for the Wheaton Regional Park district and I know behind there back there is Lee Middle School but I can't think of girls now I'm head-down and pumping as Arcloa levels out and it's a pretty straight shot now past the weird color-block mod Goodman homes on the right and the sun's pretty hot now and I'm sweating and shoot past Channing Drive and the trees begin to shade a little and Nairn Road approaches and the cool dark of the Wheaton Regional woods the swallowing dark but I can't think of that now because the second and biggest the mythic hill the Mythic Hill approaches now at the intersection of Arcola and Nairn and here's where the bit of danger comes though I don't think of the word danger just a cold splash in my chest I shoot a quick glance left and man I hope there are no cars I've got a record to beat and Arcola's clear so I swing the bike across the street and back onto the sidewalk to take on the hill and I pump and pump head down and hit the top leg-tired and huffing past Susan J's house but I can't think about her now because I'm almost home and best of all? I'm at the top of The Hill and now it's a fast glide down to the bottom past the weird garage mechanic's house with the half-assembled cars out front but I can't think about that now because at the level-out I've got a little more to go and there I swing a hard left onto Amherst Ave and it's one two three four houses and I'm home and down goes the bike in the front and I run inside into the air-conditioned cool dash into the kitchen check the clock—2:58—not bad and it's downstairs for Captain 20 and cartoons and here really is where it all began: challenging lonely journeys from A-Z.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

These six months

In honor of Opening Day this Friday, I've rounded up some baseball and baseball-related posts: on being a White Sox fan; a quote for the ages; wrestling with the great Roger Angell and losing; and a prismatic memory of me and The Bird.

~~

Play ball, and all of that.  I'll likely be posting on the game as the season progresses, as I watch games from the Collegiate Summer League to the Majors, and burrow deeper into my shelf of baseball books and storehouse of vivid and vague memories.  Baseball's a beautiful game, and a beautiful game to write about, but I find myself courting a deadly sentimentality and nostalgia.  I'll try to leaven my immoderate love of the game, its history, and my lifelong fandom with skepticism and anti-melodrama—if possible.  As a writer, it's tough to guard against when your subject is maddeningly perfect, perennially heartbreaking, fascinatingly logical yet oftentimes beyond description, urgently tied to your adolescence, occurs every Spring, and renews a kid-like spirit burdened with grown-up perspective.  But I'll try.

Monday, March 28, 2011

essays @ scribd

I've posted a few more recent essays at Scribd: "Prismatica," from "The Future of Experimental Writing," a special feature in Quarter After Eight; "The Sky's Tent" from Hotel Amerika; and “Gone" from The Normal School.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Mnemosyne's art director

Me, or an extra?
Hall & Oates' "Rich Girl" came up on iPod shuffle the other day at the local Y as I was walking from the gym to the locker rooms.  The moment the song started I was deposited in time, as so often happens, miraculously and mundanely.  "Rich Girl" appeared on Hall & Oates' fifth album Bigger Than Both Of Us, released smack in the middle of my grade school years, and appeared as a single a few months later.  As anyone alive at the time remembers, "Rich Girl" was everywhere on radio that year (it went to number one on Billboard).  The song's indelible, and, perhaps primed by having just finished reading Josh Wilker's great memoir-via-baseball-cards Cardboard Gods, listening I luxuriated in the mid-1970s sepia-toned memory dreamscape into which I was transported, the analog vibe, the soft funky keyboards, the AOR strings.

Big deal.  But something weird happened: as I listened, the long-ago image of myself that had materialized in memory began to change, or more accurately, things around the image began to change.  The background rack-focused from blur to specific decor—a shag carpet that I never stood on in front of unfamiliar posters tacked to wallpaper that I never saw before—while my clothes morphed from a vague shirt and jacket I might've owned to striped pants and a garish turtleneck that I'm fairly certain I didn't own.  My face remained the same, round and happy, a bit blurred, content, but everything around that face changed, and quickly, to a decade-specific style that I vaguely recognized as "true." 

Mnemosyne's art director, I was inadvertently stylizing my memory.  Key word: inadvertently.  A specific memory of myself became a set design, a cinematic frame, me an extra in a 1970s period movie, a generic mid-decade boy as cast by Hollywood.  It was a strange phenomenon to experience, and it got me wondering how much of ourselves we remember as how we actually were, versus how much of ourselves nostalgia, or hindsight, or popular reenactments of the past suggests we were, or conditions us to remember ourselves as.  Do I recall an actual self, or a self I've seen elsewhere posing as a self from the era I'm recalling?  In a movie, say, or a video at advertisement.  It's vaguely troubling to me, and super interesting.  Perhaps the version of me I saw while listening to "Rich Girl" is a memory of a persona I adopted or wished for while listening to (and loving) the song when it was released, but that seems unlikely: the image in my mind's eye was too broad, too informed by Seventies aesthetic to be anything but a stylized recreation.  So which is me?

"Things you remember often change and date," Mark Doty says, "any more immediate perception replaced by the stories we tell about them.  But that which we don't know we remember—well, those things seem untouched."  Sure, but what happened to my memory feels less like dating than a kind of popular re-creation.  Seventies Reenactment (line up for tickets): my biographical specifics replaced (improved?) by the notes of an assistant art director from That '70s Show.  My rounded self rendered flat not by a flawed memory-making but by the intrusion of today's popular versions of the past.  That's scary.  I'm on guard now.


Generic Barcode Design via Zazzle.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

SXSW in the rear view mirror

With Pamela Des Barres
I was invited by ace Austin promoter Roggie Baer to come down to SXSW to sign copies of Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band at the Austin Convention Center. I was happy to do it; Amy came (she did some research at the amazing Harry Ransom Center at UT) and we explored Austin for the first time. I was interviewed about Sweat in front of cacti by Kimberly Austin for Rock Book Show, and I shared my book-signing table with Pamela Des Barres, who was as sweet and friendly as she was popular. I asked her if she's used to the leering and curious stares of the guys who walk past her. "I'm near-sighted," she told me quietly, gesturing at her glasses on the table in front of her. "If I take my glasses off, I can't see the stares. Otherwise..." She trailed off as another fan came up. "I can't tell you what it means to meet you," the fan gushed. "And wait until my boyfriend finds out!"

Ivan Julian
I'm not a music journalist by trade. My several days at SXSW this year weren't badge- or wristband-aided. Mostly an observer, I dug the scope and vibe of the festival, and the efficiency of the organizing (water coolers and hand sanitizing stations everywhere, each event I attended well-run and on-time), though anxiety was all around. The sense of hustle-or-die was in the air—mostly at the Convention Center—and the sight of hundreds of band fliers, business cards, bills, website posters, etc, was mildly depressing. The "I signed a record deal at SXSW" moment is cliched, but the need-to-be-seen dynamic at the festival is nonetheless intense, and is ratcheted up each year, or so I'm told. Up on Sixth Street, the epicenter of live music, the vibe was much happier, and looser, music pouring out of every other bar, venue doors and windows open, vehicular traffic prohibited, alcohol flowing. Truly festive.

The Fleshtones
I caught several acts while I was in town. At the Rajiworld showcase at the great Continental Club on South Congress I missed Richard Barone, but Ivan Julian tore it up with his band, peppering his set with some Richie Hell classics. Edgy and taut, Julian was as as wired and manic wrapped-in-cool as I thought he'd be, his late-70s street vibe and jagged but melodic songs propelled with a young sensibility and a band that, though disparate in ages, came together really well. Steve Poltz was a talking-song singer, a goofy guy with a beat-up acoustic guitar who spun funny narratives (usually revolving around sex and embarrassment, or a combo of the two) backed with a really tight band, including an unreal drummer who jazzily played everything near him, from his drum rims to the metal Continental sign on the curtain behind him to Poltz's belt buckle and jeans zipper (you had to be there). The headlining Fleshtones' set was a bit of a mess, unfortunately; Keith Streng's wireless gear crapped out on him, and he was tethered to a cord all night, kind of like unfairly leashing a dog who just wants to run in the yard and have fun. The band never quite recovered from momentum-killing guitar snafus, the errant feedback, a shortened set given the late start, and a hoarse Peter Zaremba over-compensating, spending "The Dreg" miming snorting coke off of his Farfisa to the delight of patrons nearby. A sloppy set, but not in the good way.

Peter Buck (with Baseball Project)
I wasn't disappointed, because that afternoon I'd watched the Fleshtones wow a packed crowd at Ginger Man at Fourth and Lavaca, an afternoon Industry Of Music showcase hosted by Blurt Magazine in absurdly bright and hot Texas sun. I arrived a little late—unfortunately missing the Bellrays—and Streng and Ken Fox were already up on picnic tables, riffing and grinning through a tight, ridiculously fun set that had everyone smiling and a little wide-eyed.

Afterward I hung a bit with Streng and Peter Buck in the cooling shade inside, then saw Steve Wynn (an under-appreciated songwriter) and his band the Miracle 3 play a solid, muscular set of passionate, desperate songs. Great stuff. Buck played a song with them, and then returned with Baseball Project, Wynn's and Scott McCaughey's band devoted to baseball, goofily but earnestly singing songs about Pete Rose, steroids, and Bill Buckner. I loved Baseball Project because I love baseball and rock and roll, but the songs were sturdy and hook-filled, any too-cute/obsessive qualities shamed by good songwriting. The afternoon at Ginger Man had a fantastic feel to it: old friends among the bands warmly hanging out and playing for an appreciative, well-oiled crowd under a high sun.

~~

Walking up and down Sixth Street, you can find the music pouring out of venues to be overwhelming, a hipster sensory overload, but the sheer volume, in decibels and foot traffic, is part of the fun.  If you're not paying attention you miss stuff like this:


or



An acoustic band from Alaska busking on the street. An old-school, upright washtub-and-broom handle string bass acoustic duo playing in the sun of an open-door venue. Tacos and beer brats all around. Bliss, really.

~~

The coolest moment of SXSW was an unexpected one, as is often the case. On Saturday, our last full day in Austin, starting to feel a bit of festival burn, Amy and I hopped on a bus to north Austin to catch Twangfest at the Spider House. Staggering in the sun, we went from stage to stage, inside little clubs and outside to back-patios, but no Twangfest. (It turns out that I had the wrong venue; the sets were happening below the river off of Southern Congress at Jovita's near where we'd just eaten lunch.) Oh well. We grabbed a bus back down to our hotel, then decided to head over to Hole In The Wall, a great-looking dive bar on Guadalupe that we'd walked past a night or so earlier. It was five-ish in the afternoon, a band was wrapping up in the front room, and we headed to the back, where we hoped it'd be a bit quieter. As funny as it sounds, I was a little surprised that it was virtually impossible to find a quiet bar in town. Anyway, we loved the historic place. Stylized 1950s-slash-punk stencils on the walls, a great (though unplugged) jukebox, front and back doors open letting in breezes, and Austin Amber drafts in our hands. We were winding down the trip, and it felt like a perfect, unassuming, friendly bar to be in. A minute or so of sipping and chatting, and a band starts setting up on a stage in our end of the bar. I was a little irritated (and tired) but it is SXSW and, what the hell, we had a good view and good beers. The band was a trio, kids who looked to be pushing 21 (as was the case with the drummer, we learned after the set, when the guitarist happily announced that it was the drummer's last under-21 gig!!). They looked like my students, and gave off an earnest English Lit-major vibe.

Best of all, they were good. The singer played an electric acoustic, the bass player was shy, the bushy-haired drummer was a maniac—but they controlled their wide dynamics very well, and sang earnest songs with memorable melodies, occasional awful, grinning harmonies, and precise arrangements that felt loose and limber. Two of the musicians' moms were there, singing along, mildly dancing, taking photos. There were maybe a dozen of us there watching the brief set. Festival-weary with my defenses lowered, I found their little performance—one of hundreds of others by hundreds of bands that week—confident but humble, sweet but energetic, nerdily swaggering at time. In short, memorable, touching, even moving. They were just a little band of Austin kids playing in a back room at a campus bar, invisible in the blinding rays of buzz bands and established artists and label reps and bloggers and journalists who were nowhere near their little gig. We loved them.

Their name is Marmalade. I think. [Correction: Marmalakes.  See comment below.] I have no idea if I—or you—will ever hear from them again.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

At What Point

does a self-portrait fully portray the self?  When I supplement pen with keyboard?  Keyboard with video camera?  Video camera with POV shot?  Video camera with POV shot with audio track?  Audio track with scratch-n-sniff?  Scratch-n-sniff with memory card?  Memory card with abstractions?  Abstractions with stories?  Stories with others' versions?   Others' version with my version?  My version with my versions?  My versions with faulty logic?  Faulty logic with calendar truths?  Calendar truths with narrative truths?  Narrative truths with a photo album?  A photo album with pictures missing?  Missing pictures with reasons why?  Reasons why with defense mechanisms?  Defense mechanisms with sober discoveries?  Sober discoveries with wishful thinking?  Wishful thinking with denouement?  Denouement with the messy beginning of something else?  The messy beginning of something else with how I felt yesterday about it?  How I felt yesterday about it with how I'll feel tomorrow?  How I'll feel tomorrow with yesterday's lies?  Yesterday lies with explanations?  Explanations with illogic?  Illogic with line drawings?  Line drawing with colors added?  Added colors with smudges?  Smudges with clarity?  Clarity with soft-focus?  Soft-focus with bone?  Bone with flesh?  Flesh with odors?  Odors with memories?  Memories with stories?  Stories with their revisions?  Revisions with revisions?  Revisions with revisions with alternates?  Alternates with revisions?  Revisions with myth?  Myth with what-really-happened?  What-really-happened with the larger sense the writer is able to make of what happened (V. Gornick)?  The larger sense the writer is able to make of what happened with music?  Music with silence?  Silence with gravity?  Gravity with lightlessness? Lightlessness with the sad weight of the body?  The sad weight of the body with puberty?  Puberty with young adulthood?  Yong adulthood with adulthood?  Adulthood with declining years?  Declining years with nostalgia for the past?  Nostalgia for the past with skepticism?  Skepticism with homesickness?  Homesickness with objective distance?  Objective distance with subjective desires?  Subjective desires with one's place in the world?  One's place in the world with the end of one's arm?  The end of one's arm with the cosmos?  The cosmos with the basement?  The basement with the bedroom?  The bedroom with your parents' bedroom?  Your parents' bedroom with reckoning?  Reckoning with unknowns?  Unknowns with knowns?  Knowns with unknowns?  Unknowns with dreams?  Dreams with waking up?  Waking up with leaving the house?  Leaving the house with rarely leaving?  Rarely leaving with melancholy?  Melancholy with joy?  Joy with tragedy?  Tragedy with humor?  Humor with heartbreak?  Heartbreak with growing up?  Growing up with dying?  Dying with procreating?  Procreating with ambivalence?  Ambivalence with certainty?  Certainty with doubt?  Doubt with searching?  Searching with discovering?  Discovering with loss?  Loss with accumulations?  Accumulations with knowledge?  Knowledge with depth?  Depth with shallow needs?  Shallow needs with frustration?  Frustration with finding?  Finding with losing?  Losing with gaining?  Gaining with loss?  Loss with having?  Having with disappointment?  Disappointment with wisdom?  Wisdom with aging?  Aging with bygones?  Bygones with tomorrow?  Tomorrow with last week?  Last week with her?  Her with him?  Him with me?  Me with myself?  Myself with my selves?  My selves with history?  History with your history?  Your history with her history?  Her history with my history?  My history with someone I've never met?  Someone I've never met with fiction?  Fiction with nonfiction?  Nonfiction with autobiography?  Autobiography with one side?  One side with two sides?  Two sides with three sides?  Three sides with infinity?  Infinity with madness?  Madness with reason?  Reason with failure?  Failure with trying?  Trying with pen?  Pen with keyboard?  Keyboard with video camera?  Video camera with POV shot?  Video camera with POV shot with audio track?  Audio track with scratch-n-sniff?  Scratch-n-sniff with memory card?  Memory card with abstractions?  Abstractions with stories?  Stories with

Friday, March 11, 2011

Cosmopolite

I love coming across sentences like these in an memoir:
I used to think truth was eternal, that once I knew, once I saw, it would be with me forever, a constant by which everything else could be measured.  I know now that this isn't so, that most truths are inherently unretainable, that we have to work hard all our lives to remember the most basic things.
This could have been written by anyone anywhere at any time.  Notwithstanding the vagaries and subtleties of translation or other-century syntax, etc., these sentiments rise above the individual nature of the person who conceived and wrote them, and would have have at any time.  They usher from individual, private experience, but make contact with universal, personal experience, a worthy, crucial gesture in autobiographical writing.  This is partly what Joyce Carol Oates means when she says that the memorable essay "is not place- or time-bound; it survives the occasion of its original composition."

~~

The lines I quoted above were written by the late Lucy Grealy and appear near the end of Autobiography Of A Face.  The statistically unique life she writes out of is broadened, Grealy becoming for a moment a silhouette into which we step and recognize that we fit.  That we can do this—offer our privacy as personal, via language and the imagination—is a remarkable truth that we work hard to retain.  It's why we keep writing, to remember that possibility

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Sound Solution

The Fleshtones drop their new album, Brooklyn Sound Solution, on March 15.  The deluxe edition comes with a copy of Pardon Us For Living But The Graveyard's Full, Geoffray Barbier's full-length documentary of the band.  Peter Buck, Handsome Dick Manitoba, Miriam Linna, Andy Shernoff, M. Henry Jones, and others, including me, hold forth.  Here's a preview:

A reminder that I'll be signing copies of Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band at SXSW at 1 pm on Friday, March 18 at the Austin Convention Center, Ballroom D Foyer (500 E Cesar Chavez St).

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Me and The Bird

In Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, Nick Flynn writes about the bunker mentality and family closeness he cherished while watching the Boston Red Sox with his mother and brother during the 1975 season.  "Part of watching the Red Sox together was to hunker down, circle the wagons, show a unified front," Flynn writes about a discordant season in his dysfunctional family's life.  "But the greater (if unspoken) part for my brother and me was to be close to our mother, to keep an eye on her."  Flynn was fifteen,
an age when most kids are breaking from their parents, spending more time with their friends, developing a secret language only they can understand.  But now my mother, brother and I are developing our own common  language, talking about Fred Lynn and Bernie Carbo over dinner, over our newfound couscous and curries.  We knew the strengths and weaknesses of each player, how they'd done against the A's last time around, who to watch out for, who was a hitter, who'd made an incredible catch....  My mother had made it clear that she wouldn't be around forever—If something happens to me..., she'd say.  To look into her face for too long only brought up dread.  To stare as one into the television on a hot Saturday afternoon, to glimpse the word outside still going on, unfolding with or without us, to feel part of something larger, something that made it to the newspapers every day, that people seemed excited about, something to get caught up in and carried along by—Tiant would be pitching next Saturday, maybe reason enough to stick around, if just to see how it turned out, if just to see him smoke the bastards.
Maybe reason enough to stick around.  That phrase resonates throughout Flynn's memoir about his absent father and chaotic, splintering home life.  Watching the Red Sox reminded Flynn that the world was still going on out there, despite his family's implosion, and the momentum of the season (ending in heartbreak, as all fans of the game know) gave him a sense of abstract if urgent hope, a daily stay against chaos.

~~

The summer after Flynn followed the Red Sox I was with my family in Reboboth Beach, Delaware, where we'd rented a house for a week.  My romanticized, lone-wolf self-image nascent, I was beginning to explore places on my own, relishing emotional solitude even when with my family on outings.  This time I was on my own, at a five and dime store near the boardwalk.  I was eyeing a basket of plastic gold rings, imagining one of them on my finger, lost in a kind of gaudy materialism that I couldn't yet name.  I glanced around quickly, grabbed a ring, and stuffed into my shorts pocket.  Casual, terrified, I skulked outside into the sunny afternoon, the roar of the Atlantic behind me as I scurried home.  It was June 28, 1976.

I know the date in retrospect because of what happened that night.  All afternoon I'd been in anguish about stealing the ring, awash in embarrassment and fear, and not a little shame, sweatily fingering the ring in my pocket in slow-motion panic.  I knew that what I'd done was wrong.  Worse, I knew that I had to confess, if only to face down my growing nausea.  That night my dad made popcorn in the kitchen, my brothers and sister and I drank orange soda from cans around the table, all of us weary from sunburn, and at some point someone turned on the television.  I couldn't enjoy any of it.  I either found my parents upstairs in their bedroom or I asked them to come up; however it unfolded, I shakily produced the ring from my pocket and told them the story.  I was afraid, and crying.  The next day, my parents walked with me into the store where I returned the ring to the owner.  What I remember now is knotted, understanding concern on my parents' faces—no upbraiding, no yelling.  I remember very little of the store owner's face and reaction; perhaps I've blocked it out.

An ordinary, small trespass, the kind committed every day by kids.  Trivial.  As I was upstairs unburdening myself to my parents, downstairs Mark "The Bird" Fidrych was on TV in the process of electrifying the nation and guaranteeing himself pop culture immortality.  I vividly remember my brothers cheering and yelping as the game played and as Fidrych talked to the ball, scooped out circles on the mound, jumped up and down, and prowled the mound area like a lunatic, his yellow hair spilling from under his cap, his eyes and toothy grin bulging, friendly and wacky.  Millions of Americans were watching, Warner Wolf and Bob Uecker were amused, and I was upstairs confessing a petty sin with the door closed.  What strikes me now is the permanent connection in my mind between my theft and admission, and The Bird's antics.  How dissimilar the stages!  Fidrych on a national arena, me in my parents' bedroom.  Fidrych ebullient, charming, out-of-this-world, glad-handing his catcher and the fans, me cringing in shame, a little mortified.  One triumphant, one dejected.  Two opposites, forever linked in my mind. 

I'm thinking of this after Flynn, and I'm wary of trusting the memory as anything more than it is.  Flynn's emotional connection to the '75 Red Sox was bred from hope against despair, community against disunity, finding a home in chaos.  My connection to The Bird is a small disconnect, hardly profound, and yet it's burned in there for good, a permanent duet between the private and the personal, the domestic and the national, the tiny and the large.  A humid Monday night in mid-70s America: a pop culture spectacle being broadcast to millions while a little kid's upstairs, hearing the muffled shouts of his brothers, wishing he could be there too but knowing that his sour stomach would preclude any fun, confessing something trite.

"We only store in memory images of value," says Patricia Hampl.  What does this confluence mean?  My memory has a time-date stamp at the bottom.  What goes on behind us means nothing, and yet somehow everything.  Culture is never simply the background against which stuff happens.  Bird, meet Boy.  You'll go on linked arm-and-arm.





Photo of Mark Fidrych via Sportsbook Bonus.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

"Ready? One two three four!"

I saw The Parting Gifts at the Empty Bottle in Chicago last night.  The band was ramshackle, a little ragamuffin, cute, under-rehearsed, and a lot of fun.  Maria "Poni" Silver from The Ettes laid down a grooving and driving rhythm, and Dave Amels (of Reigning Sound and the Jay Vons) sat in on keyboards, providing texture and a bed to the melodies.   Lindsay "Coco" Hames was a bit of a surprise to me; I hadn't seen her perform before and she seemed a bit more shy and coy than I would've expected.  Maybe that's her thing.  And it might have been my vantage point, right near the stage under the speakers, but her voice was a bit thin, more helium-cute than the womanly-wise of her recordings.  But she was great, and she looked great, and smiled and held her tambourine like a good luck charm, and was clearly having a good time.  All in all it was a loose and fun night.

~~

I came to see Greg Cartwright, who is one of the great rock & roll songwriters around.  I hadn't seen Cartwright live yet (shame on me) and so didn't know what to expect.  Dressed in a flannel shirt, ripped jeans, and deck shoes, he looked like a fan at the show who'd been given a chance to jam onstage for a bit.  Or he looks like Bob Mould's little brother.  Either way it seemed right to me.  Turns out Cartwright and I had stood near each other at the bar earlier; I'd thought he was a patron.  Onstage, Cartwright is friendly, loose, and intense, a strange blend of personality and talent that works to both intensify and deflect attention.  What I love about Cartwright's songs—dating to his days in the primal Oblivians, but more so in his recent work in the great Reigning Sound, the Parting Gifts, his album for and with Mary Weiss (Dangerous Game), and his solo material—is the way he reinvests genre with genuine feeling, recognizing the limitation of pop songs as something to happily argue with, not respectfully surrender to.

Much has been written about Cartwright's love for pre-Beatles, Brill Building, Girl Group sounds, but he is no revivalist.  There's passionate sincerity in his best work—"I'm So Thankful," I Walk By Your House," "We Repel Each Other," "Your Love Is A Fine Thing," "Sour And Vicious Man," "Dangerous Game," "Stick Up For Me," among others—all the more remarkable, rewarding, and pleasurable because the rawness is in service to classicist pop structures, where each aids and abets the other, creating something new and vibrant, real heart-beating stuff.  And his voice is superb: hoarse but melodic, intense but controlled, capable of evoking the pain of heartache and the disorientation of aimlessness at once.  I hear the soul and history of raw Memphis in his voice—he was born in the River City—but that could be my own wishful, sentimental ear.

Cartwright writes a lot, but his work is remarkably consistent.  That's where his love of Pop and Rock And Roll serves him well, as reliable templates within which he'll move around, finding a 21st Century voice in Phil Spector's idiom.  Especially cool are his takes on Rolling Stones demos from the infamous Metamorphosis album, tracks that Jagger/Richards penned early in their career for other artists, in hopeful submission to pop formalism; Cartwright takes "I'd Much Rather Be With The Boys" (on Reigning Sound's Time Bomb High School) and reimagines it less as made-to-order songcraft than as a genuine complicated admission of adolescence.  The Parting Gifts' take on "Sleepy City" (also from Metamorphosis) is sweeter, but no less truthful.  I love how Cartwright sees through the formalist cliches and to the heart of the songs.  That's one of the great strengths in his successful songs: the intuition that pop craft can amplify the human condition, not deflect it, or simply dress it up and reduce it to genre.

I like each of the Reigning Sound albums, and Cartwright's solo album Live At Circle A, where his voice and acoustic guitar sound ageless and folky, but never, to my ear, dated or slavish.  His songs for the Parting Gifts are equally strong, and I hope there will be more.  No one around right now can navigate the changes of the romantic heart and the changes of a two minute pop song quite as well and as urgently.  I'm a fan.


Distressingly grainy iPhone photos from the Parting Gifts' show at The Empty Bottle, in Chicago, March 4, 2011.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Signing @ SXSW

A reminder that I'll be signing copies of Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band at SXSW on March 18, 1 pm, at the Austin Convention Center (500 E Cesar Chavez, Ballroom D Foyer).  One or two Fleshtones are rumored to be on hand, too. (And I'll be alongside the one and only Pamela Des Barres.) The Fleshtones are playing that night at the Continental Club. Bound to be a fun day, so swing by if you're in town.
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