Saturday, December 15, 2012

Abandoned, Ctd.

Architecture is made of memory. The slope of a roof, the shape of a window, and the color of a door contain the record of the minds that conceived them and the hands that crafted them. Anthony Lawlor

I call architecture frozen music. Goethe

Architecture is inhabited sculpture. Constantin Brancusi

And when a building is emptied, then abandoned, who or what inhabits it then? What music do we hear? Do the memories of the minds that conceived it and the hands that crafted it linger or vanish? These are questions I ask whenever I see an abandoned building, and I worry that they're precious questions because 1) they've been asked before, and 2) there are no answers for them. But I proceed in a kind of erotics of wondering, indulging a scene that gives back little but emptiness and weird pleasure. There is something in me so paradoxically rooted to abandoned buildings that I have to trust it as a kind of knowledge, or at least an urgency that has value beyond the sentimental and romantic. That is: I hope (believe?) that gazing at something faded and fading has value beyond the indulgent act of gazing itself. The speed at which buildings are razed and replaced in culture now is slowed figuratively in the brakes-on ballast of the slow deterioration that you can still see in smaller towns and rural areas. (The above building is part of the old veterinary clinic in DeKalb, IL.) Time stretches: as buildings are emptied, pulled down, and replaced across the country in rapid succession, there are at the other end of the spectrum buildings decaying of their own accord, at their own speed, time and nature doing the slow work of bulldozers and cranes. And that is a kind of music, and a kind of memory that's given the time to deepen, become mythic, if only in my own grasping imagination and reflective tendencies.

Many years ago in West Virginia I drove past a small abandoned shop on a main street in some forgotten town. Glancing as I went by, I saw that the large front window remained, though it was gravely cracked, and behind, inside the store, improbably grew a large bush that in its immense size and wildness pushed up against the window and front door. I'd say it was threatening to burst through except that everything was going so slow that the threat felt more like a slow exhalation. I wish that I'd had my camera with me. But the frozen music and memories and inhabited sculpture of that no-name little store front in Somewhere, West Virginia exist anyway. I summon them often as I hurry through.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Rock and roll books, 2012

I was asked by Kimberly at Rock Book Show for some comments about rock and roll books I liked in 2012. I'm joined by Mike McPadden, Caryn Rose, Marc Dolan and others. My take:
Every Day I Take A Wee: The Beastie Boys And The Untimely Death Of Suburban Folklore (Christopher R. Weingarten) and Who I Am: A Memoir (Pete Townshend). The former is part of Singles Notes, Rhino Records’ e-book series. Former SPIN editor Weingarten tells a funny tale of growing up white and suburban and navigating the sometimes tricky cultural landscape of hip-hop and geeky Beastie Boys fandom. Weingarten’s smart and doesn’t take himself too seriously, thoughtfully exploring NYC romance and the increasing divide between old-school record collectors and current downloading music fans. Townshend’s book sprawls, unsurprisingly from a man who speaks in paragraphs, but is a detailed, engrossing account of what it was like to be the cause of, and in many ways the victim of, the aural and cultural storm that was The Who. Townshend’s honest in the book about his shortcomings as a songwriter and a man, and at times his bafflement in the face of his own philandering and general ill behavior gets tiresome and predictable. But overall Who I Am is an idiosyncratic, valuable look at coming of age as a songwriter in the 1960s and 70s and of truly believing Rock’s promises for a better world.

Johnny Ramone’s autobiography Commando is exactly what I expected. His voice is dry and forthright (you can hear the Borough accent), lacking in self-interrogation but with the occasional self-criticism. Ramone’s not shy about exposing some bad decisions and poor judgement, especially in his reckless, aimless adolescence, but Commando is hardly his end-of-life mea culpa, an opportunity to sensitively, unsparingly essay his life for telling contradictions and graphic self-awareness. Essentially, what governs Commando is a late-life shrug: we did what we did as best we could. I’m a little surprised at—and a bit uneasy with—how appealing I find Ramone’s voice. I think that I would’ve loved talking to him; we could have discussed baseball and rock and roll all night long, and when the subject turned to politics I would’ve dodged the issues on which I knew we wouldn’t agree. But I would certainly have known where he stood. Our shared ground might have been broader than I would’ve guessed. Judging from people I’ve spoken with who knew Ramone, his stubbornness and narrow-mindedness could be wearing. Confined between book covers, his personality is appealing, if odious at times. Entertainingly predictable. I laughed a lot—you know what you’re getting, and what’s coming, with Ramone.

I also weigh in, with many others, at Music Tomes on some Recommended Reading.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Martin Scorsese's boyhood home

253 Elizabeth Street. Little Italy. New York, NY.

I'm not videotaping my life, but in a way I am trying to put certain things about myself on canvas.... 

...On the one hand, you're the same person, but as you get older, you change somewhat, and you never know how it's going to affect your work. (Martin Scorsese)


Elizabeth Street, from the third floor.

Scorsese from In The Neighborhood, a short film he made for the The Concert for New York City, a benefit that took place on October 20, 2001 at Madison Square Garden in New York City in response to the 9/11 attacks:

...That was pretty much by point of view for most of my life downtown. From the third floor window looking down. That was only one floor away from the roof. The roof was like, well, the roof was like God's point of view. The roof was like heaven. It was the closest you could get to heaven. It was like an escape. The place where you could be alone, which was kind of important, especially if you were one of eight or nine kids, fourteen people living in three rooms, the way my parents were....

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Marshall Crenshaw, singing the thin line between cynicism and faith

I'm generally not a "lyrics first" rock and roll fan—music, hooks, changes, and textures lead my body, and my head follows. But I do like paying to attention to thoughtful lyrics across an artist's career, especially if that career is a long one such as Marshall Crenshaw's. One of Crenshaw's most indelible songs is "Cynical Girl," his heart-catching ode to irony and disaffection, one of the great examples in 1980s rock and roll of "fun songs about sad stuff." Crenshaw's sweet melody, ringing guitar, and gaily struck bells provide the dulcet ballast against the pessimism in the lyrics. The whole thing's fun and danceable, and that's the point for this couple who will find a dark corner away from the mainstream "real world" and live out their smirking romance far from popular culture and the illusions it maintains. It's great, shouldabeenahit stuff. I was sent the first time I heard it, shortly after Crenshaw's self-titled debut album was released in 1982. 

Nearly a decade later, things have changed a bit. Though in "Cynical Girl" the singer distrusts illusions, favoring the sexiness of scorn and skepticism, he may have fallen for the illusion of his cynical girl who promised deliverance from the everyday:
Well I hate TV
There's gotta be somebody other than me
Who's ready to write it off immediately
I'm lookin' for a cynical girl
I'll know right away by the look in her eye
She harbors no illusions and she's worldly-wise
And I'll know when I give her a listen that she
She's what I've been missin'
What I've been missin'
I'll be lost in love...
But over time love grows complicated between adults who've committed themselves to tough ideals. Nearly a decade after Crenshaw recorded "Cynical Girl" he released Life Is Short, his final album for Warner Brothers, a major label exasperated with its inability to deliver consistent chart hits for Crenshaw. The Ed Stasium-produced sounds are a bit dated and the songs are too long, but Life's Too Short is, like the majority of Crenshaw's albums since the late-80s, underrated, not enough folks paying attention to the maturity that by necessity was working its way into Crenshaw's lyrics. I don't know the man and so I don't know what his personal life was like in the early 1990s, but his songs began reflecting some unease during that decade. A friend once dismissed Crenshaw as writing songs about "high school hops," which is patently untrue. "Don't Disappear Now" is a great song, a smoldering, disconsolate pop tune about abandonment and shattered fantasies. Be careful what you wish for, Marshall: your dreamy, cool Cynical Girl has morphed into the one who vanishes on you, herself unable to trust the illusion of romance and commitments. Of course, you were both probably like this back in 1982, but were young and faux-earnest enough to ignore where sexy cynicism can lead: to disappointments, and an inability to live with much currency in the casually spurned "real world."
"There is a certain appeal to danger and pain"
When she whispered those words, I said, "What's your name?"
Right then I knew in my heart
That we shouldn't start
But there you go...
Could she mess up my mind?
She looked so fine
I just had to know.
A month of fucking follows. Then:
So just imagine how I'm feeling right now
No word from her again today
Did she follow that dream like a flaming star
I hope she hasn't gone to stay
I just wish that I could find a way
To make her hear these words somehow
I need you bad
Don't disappear now
We'll meet again by and by
'til then I'll try to keep moving my shoes
One step ahead of the blues
I have no idea if Crenshaw considers such correspondences among his own songs. It's fun to brush away the powdered sugar on top of his early records and see what remains: bruised, rueful acknowledgements of flawed characters and of a world that needs rock and roll precisely because the world disappoints so often. Tonight's cynical girl can disappear tomorrow.

"Cynical Girl," Marshall Crenshaw (1982)

"Don't Disappear Now," Life's Too Short (1991)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

An Origin Story

In the Basement Era of analog cassette tapes all you needed was a steady hand, a screwdriver and some Scotch tape, the nerve to believe that a fortress made by man could be pried open and entered, and if you were lucky not to fatally crack the plastic case and get in, the world inside was promising, somehow comforting in its thereness, its tiny motocross of black tape and spindles over which you hover in a kind of preteen omniscience, your fingers impossibly large, trembling now to find and lift one end of the snapped tape and with a sliver of Scotch tape marry it back to the other end, all the while feeling as if you're creating fire or, because you'd just watched The Wizard Of Oz again with the family last night, that you've pulled aside the curtain, seeing what you're not supposed to be seeing, touching what had been invisible, magic, and private, the cassette tape vanishing and emerging from a dark you've now flooded with basement fluorescent light, humming, nervous as you reattach the plastic housing, hoping against hope that when you press play the homespun little-boy mend won't catch on the tape heads and split again, not aware even in your deepest imagination that one day tape will recede from the basements and bedrooms and rec rooms and from beneath tires on the driveway and streets out front, that one day the dark that you've imagined inside your Certron C90, the dark you cracked as puberty loomed and all sorts of unsolvable mysteries upstairs threatened, the dark entered with the suburban toolkit of tape-and-wish would merge with an anti-language spoken in 1's and 0's, that that dark that once seemed impenetrable would come to be seen as nonexistent, less a mystery to ponder than a digital nothingthere to never quite understand, a dark that stymies boys when they have the urge to mend, keep out.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Monday, November 26, 2012

Anatomy of a Memory

From Deborah Tall's A Family Of Strangers:

And who is to say that, in some crucial sense, the life that we remembered is not the life we lived?
After all: what's remembered is all we know. Everything that has meaning gets it from the up-till-now, the long file drawer of experience.

Knowledge relies as much on memory as on invention, on accumulation and axiomatic shape.

How otherwise could we cross the street?

How could we imagine a future without the given forms, the replications, the reincarnations of the already?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

"I'm So Thankful"

Girl when you found me
You made me feel alright
You really helped me to see
Now I see the light

Girl I'm so thankful
When you hold me tight
Girl I'm so thankful
Let me show you how much tonight

When you rescued me
I was a shell of a man
You lift me up
Now I'm on my feet again

I want you, I need you, oh baby I love you
You make me, completely, I don't want no one else but you

Reigning Sound, Break Up...Break Down (2001)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

"This world is awfully big..."

When I was growing up, Saturday night was a very fun night for TV. My older siblings and I would watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show in succession. My parents went out to dinner virtually every Saturday night of my adolescence (and beyond), usually returning as The Carol Burnett Show was starting, smiling tipsily as they joined us in watching it. (Once in a while they'd come back early enough to watch The Bob Newhart Show, but, in adherence to some sort of suburban cosmic law, the episode would never be a particularly funny one.) In my memory, I slot episodes of M*A*S*H and All in the Family into these long nights of television enjoyment, but a quick perusal of the network television schedules of that era proves my memories suspect. As in, that usual suspect.

Reach for that future, Mary!
The Mary Tyler Moore Show went off the air in 1977, and around the time of its final episode (March 19) I was hanging out with one of my older brothers in our driveway. I loved the theme song to the show, especially the little drum fill in the opening bars before the proper melody begins. I used to hum the song to myself on the way to school and back, out playing in the yard or on my bike, dumm-dumm-ing that cool drum part out loud. It occurred to me that soon I was going to hear that drumming for the last time in my life. I told my brother that I couldn't wait for it and he told me, in suitably Older Sibling Unkindness, that he was going to talk out loud over that part so that I'd miss it.

The agony! (My brother knew what he was doing.) My last opportunity to hear that drum fill! I was despondent. (I can't remember whether or not my brother did what he so villainously promised; Dali: "The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant." This jewel, though, I've lost for good.) In retrospect, I was also silly because within months of The Mary Tyler Moore Show's final airing the show would begin its assault on our afternoons via syndication; at one point, channel 5, the local Washington D.C. NBC affiliate station, was airing up to three episodes in a row in daytime, under clustered themes such as "Lou's Lu-Lu's!" But at my age I didn't really understand reruns, where they came from, who was in charge of them, why they happened —if they'd happen—except that Get Smart! and My Three Sons were great and we were blessed when they were beamed into our rec rooms every afternoon, the broadcasts originating from far-away Baltimore caught, tenuously, by a movable antenna on our roof that we activated from a console atop our TV set.

What's striking about that boy on the driveway and the misery his older brother created is how utterly archaic the tableau has become. Even my childish waiting for the inevitable reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show involved, well, waiting, and for who knew how long I'd have to wait! I've written before about this blend of anguish and pleasure, and how that's lost in this century, or anyway so changed as to be unrecognizable. In Plutarch's "Consolation To His Wife," written in the first century, the philosopher and his wife have to stoically bear weeks and months as their missives to each other arrive, awash in their grief of losing their small child. Try and imagine such an interval as you and your loved one are forced to deal separately with a loss of that magnitude. Now, when something—virtually anything—happens in, say, the remote countryside of France, I can know about it within seconds. This is, of course, both a staggering and, by now, not terribly fresh development. We're all aware at the hyper speed by which we live our lives, but none of us can understand the implications of it. Waiting as a fact, as a condition of being alive, as a kind of simmering that allows desire and anticipation and fear and regret and imagination to steep as their maddening flavor profile matures, has virtually been eliminated from contemporary life. Will we ever come to regret this organic, inevitable leap into the narrowing gap between seconds, minutes?


The Internet would have allowed that pathetic kid in his driveway to listen to and love the theme song anytime he wanted, as many times as he wanted. And the web might've rendered impotent his older brother's teasing. This is what I had no access to in 1977:

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Dilemma, Ctd.

"It is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop...". Auguste Rodin

"Cameras that capture the moment are giving us the impression to own it." Vittorio Canta

Friday, November 16, 2012

Solve this dilemma:

"Photography helps people to see." Berenice Abbott

"Photography is truth." Jean-Luc Godard

"A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know." Diane Arbus

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Some A's to Q's

I was happy to virtually sit down with at Eric Banister at Music Tomes and Darren Robbins at Heartbreak Beat to talk about my books, writing about rock & roll, the state of music journalism, and my influences and prized music books. I also weigh in on my favorite Fleshtones stories, what didn't make it in to Sweat and why, Greil Marcus, my Top 5 AC/DC songs, and more:

@ Music Tomes: "Conversations with Joe Bonomo"

@ Heartbreak Beat: "Interview with Joe Bonomo, Author of Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones!"

Monday, November 5, 2012

Norton Records vs Hurricane Sandy

As many of you know, Brooklyn-based label Norton Records was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. The warehouse was decimated, much of the stock ruined. Miriam Linna and Billy Miller are still asking for volunteers to help with the cleanup-and restoration effort. Just a year ago the label celebrated its 25th anniversary. There's something poignant about a label zealously devoted to restoring and archiving a forgotten past faced with the task of saving its own stock. Help if you can.

Here's a video, with contact info:


A grim update from The Brooklyn College's Kingsman:
Not only were nearly a quarter of a million record titles soaked and scattered throughout the expansive warehouse space, but countless archival materials of American rock and roll history. Photos, original fanzines, rare paperbacks and memorabilia, all destroyed, all irreplaceable. In addition, Kicks Books, the neophyte paperback publishing division of Norton, lost nearly their entire stock of brand new books.

“You open the doors and can’t even begin to think of what happened there,” Linna claimed. “It was like an earthquake or a hurricane! We opened the door and saw all the records, then we were like, oh my god, the brand new printed books! Oh my god the paperbacks!”

“The thing that got whacked the most was our 45s,” Miller explained. “Because we had tons and tons of picture sleeves for every release… we were able to keep them in print because we had extra sleeves for them.”

“Last November at this time we were having a big festivity about having a great label and 30 years of struggle and success and hard work and happiness and here it is, one year later, and we’re looking a total destruction of the mind,” Linna added.