Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"Field Recordings from the Inside"

I was recently named the Music Columnist at The Normal School, where my writing will appear in each issue. My first piece "Field Recordings from the Inside," in which I take on 10cc, a Beatles cover band, and Late Elvis, appears in the current issue. I'm honored to have an essay next to work by Phillip Lopate, Ned Stuckey-French, Patrick Madden and many others.

From the opening of my essay:
My younger brother Paul had developed a phobia of listening to records played at the wrong speeds. We’d be listening to a 45 or an LP, and if I moved the RPM knob one way or the other and the song lurched into nasal, pinched hysteria or growled down to a menacing dirge, Paul would cover his ears, his eyes flashing. Sometimes he’d dash from the room, sometimes he’d cry. I can’t claim largesse these many decades later, manfully acknowledging that I soothed my younger brother in his distress—once in a while I’d torture him, quickly switching a record to the wrong speed to see his (predictable) reaction. Older Sibling Job Description, maybe, but an unkind responsibility not without its trails of remorse. Inside of me: that a record could be insidious, that music has an interior darkness I didn’t know about. Look what it can do.

Some music for your reading pleasure:

10cc "I'm Not In Love"

R.E.M "Star Me Kitten"

Kings Road "Revolution"

Elvis "Introduction: Also Sprach Zarathustra (Theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey)"


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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Lester At The Beach, Smelling of the Bells Of Hell

Yeah, so?
I will add image to this to the stack in my Lester Bangs photos file, and it will sit on top for a long time, I'm certain. Chris Stein of Blondie snapped this at Coney Island sometime in 1977, and just look: the composition is pure snapshot aesthetic, a clanging, half-accidental blend of the ridiculous and the sublime. Lester's in full-on Eighth Avenue garb: sneakers, jeans, mouthy t-shirt, leather jacket, cap, sunglasses, cigarette and (open) beer. The Coney Island Wonder Wheel has burst forth from his head, mimicking whatever whirling, nutty thought process he's chasing, or avoiding. Lester's standing between two girls. His friends? Or did he just meet them? One's in a skimpy bikini, her gaze a bit more studied than Lester's, a bit as if she's trying on this pose that came so easily to Lester; the other is dressed fully, a balance to Lester's outfit. She's also in a leather jacket. She's holding a chain. On a beach. All three are drinking. It was the Seventies.

What makes the photo greater than just another smirking portrait of Bangs is the family on the right. The mom's mildly intrigued by the Lower East Side scuz, or she's beating it out of there, her boy staring directly into the camera, a less guarded and more innocent version of the gaze that Lester's trying to level. There doesn't need to be a fence between Lester and His Girls and the family; there already is. I wonder: does the kid want to jump over, or does he want run away? What would you do?

There's something about this photo that is very rock and roll, though I can't quite quantify what that is. Lester At The Beach, Smelling of the Bells Of Hell. Where he went after this, I haven't a clue. Ruby's? The train? Someone's floor? I resist mythologizing the man, but this street-meets-beach noisy beaut of an image doesn't help me do that.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

An Origin Story

I thought that Terry Jacks was dying, that "Seasons In The Sun," playing endlessly on AM radio that year, was his goodbye letter to the world, that as he sung he knew that he was dying, that his body was shutting down, the melody and the words a gentle but tragic farewell to his family and his friends, their mammoth grief now shared with millions, none of this really explainable to me, neither by my older brothers nor by myself, how a song could exist on the radio that was so sad, so utterly sad, not sad in the way "The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia" or "Daniel" was sad, or in the way that "The Theme from Love Story" was sad, the simple melody of which was everywhere for a while then, too, but throat-tightening sad, a song that as it played made me desperate to wordlessly turn to my brothers and sisters in the rec room or in the car and ask Why?, why is this happening, why is Casey Kasem playing this man's death song, how can something so sad be so public, and why are your friends laughing, none of these words available to me at the time but in the language that my cold chest spoke when the song came on WPGC and I again pictured Terry Jacks on his deathbed in a hospital, his weeping family around him, or—was he dead already? was the song I'm listening to a melody and a clenched apology for mortality issuing from the grave? and either way it was a desolate season for me, the start of something ineffable, the unhappy, unwanted blend of a sing-song melody and grief, popular radio on a sunny Saturday afternoon and half-thoughts of death and dying, all of it a blur of presentiment and incomprehension, and when the song disappeared, as all Top 40 songs will, I thought that Terry Jacks, whoever he was, wherever he was, went with it too, gone forever but for this wrenching goodbye trailing him, until years later when I learned that nah, Jacks is alive, somewhere up in Canada, he'd never died or been ill when he released the song, urban legend, it was a cover of some old French song anyway, and get this, the b-side of the single, you're not gonna believe it, was called "Put The Bone In"!—all the adolescent irony I'd need to erase, for a while, the season of sadness.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Children Leaving School

Pierre Bonnard, Children Leaving School (ca. 1895)
I was lucky to have attended college (University of Maryland) near Washington D.C. and its art galleries and museums. I minored in Art History, and I remember clearly when my 19th Century European Art teacher informed us, "We will not look at any art in this class. We will only be looking at reproductions of art." Get yourself to the galleries, he said. One of my early favorite paintings was Pierre Bonnard's Children Leaving School, which I'd first seen in an art book somewhere. I was pysched when I learned that the National Gallery of Art in Washington owned the small painting, and that I could request that they retrieve it from storage for me to study for a class paper I was writing. I drove to the Mall on a weekday (did I cut classes? Probably), entered the research annex of the Gallery, and sat as an employee wheeled out the painting to me on a small table. The piece was behind a curtain, which the employee drew aside. I was allowed a small amount of time with the painting, I think a half hour, and I was required to leave a foot or so of space between the painting and me.

I've been looking at Children Leaving School for years and can look at it forever. What I love are the little dark blobs of kids, the smudges of head-down disconsolance which feel so accurate to me. Bonnard was an illustrator and print maker as well as a painter, and he had an eye for stark figures, contrasts, movement. Apparently, he rarely painted "from life" but from drawings and, sometimes, photographs, relying on notes in his studio. Does that explain the evocative mood in Children Leaving School, that Bonnard painted from memory, first recollected, than drawn? It certainly accounts for movement-and-stasis (this happened, this happens) and the abstraction, the formal unity among the kids whose small sizes are contrasted with the vertical authority of the adult figure, who also looks melancholy. There's something about the obliteration of the environment—or of the environment brutally reduced to blur and sensation—that feels so common to my afternoons leaving school, tired of playground politics, classroom melodramas and my own prickly and awful self-consciousness. The faceless kids look so little and tired! I have to guard against sentimentality and preciousness (how many times have I written that) and the faux content of nostalgia. Children Leaving School is not a great work because it brings me back, it's a great work because it brings me in, to black and beige adolescence, of that somehow-sad single red scarf on the one kid for which, in my telling, he was either lauded or persecuted. There it is, ringing its redness across the century, a bright scarlet hope, or a warning light. Look at the kid in the front and the kid straggling in the back: such cute forlornness, if there's such a thing. Little wrapped bundles of inward-looking childishness we leave behind and carry with us forever.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Common Moments, Wrapped Secrets

Autobiography begins with a sense of being alone. It is an orphan form.

I was interested in these lines of John Berger's when I first encountered them. I was confounded, too. Such statements belong in that group of observations that seem profound but that also stiff-arm me; I want to get in and better understand, but something—my own ignorance, lack of perspective, lack of context—keeps me out.

John Berger
In 1986 Berger, a well-known art critic and writer, published "Her Secrets" in The Threepenny Review. Seven years later Threepenny editor Wendy Lesser published Hiding In Plain Sight: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography and included Berger's piece. This is where finally I recently read the essay where Berger makes his curious comments about the foundling origins and nature of autobiography. "Her Secrets" is a beautiful elegy for the Berger's mother, who'd died only a month before Berger wrote the essay; Berger is indeed writing directly about orphanhood, for his father had died a decade earlier. I was lacking context, but that didn't preclude me from wanting to understand further what Berger had meant when he wrote that autobiography begins with a sense of being alone. Is it because of the starkness of grief? Because the writer is a solitary figure? Because even if an autobiographer is writing about and exploring the enormous world it's a world that's filtered finally (only) through the particular perspective of the writer herself (and her many selves)? But, Berger writes: begins. Not includes, or ends with.

What Berger was evoking was his own grief, sadness unique to him, of course, and yet not, as he recognizes that the anxiety over his and his parents' mortality is a common thread. "Every time I went to bed—and in this I am sure I was like millions of other children—"
the fear that one or both of my parents might die in the night touched the nape of my neck with its finger. Such a fear has, I believe, little to do with a particular psychological climate and a great deal to do with nightfall. Yet since it was impossible to say: You won't die in the night, will you? (when Grandmother died, I was told she had gone to have a rest, or—this was from my Uncle who was more outspoken—that she had passed over), since I couldn't ask the real question and I sought a reassurance, I invented—like millions before me—the euphemism: See you in the morning! To which either my father or my mother who had come to turn out the light in my bedroom, would reply: See you in the morning, John.
Faced now with the reality of his mother's death, Berger wonders if it isn't the time to write an autobiography. He decides against it, in his reasoning inadvertently making a defense for personal essaying: "All that interests me about my past life are the common moments. The moments‚ which if I relate them well enough—will join countless others lived by people I do not personally know." As the essay's title suggests, Berger's mother was a hard woman to know, thrifty, practical, neither ebullient nor particularly reflective, mysterious, a carrier of "wrapped" secrets that she believed her son intuited, understood, and would help silently bear. "The last, the largest and the most personally prewrapped wrapped secret was her own death," Berger writes. "Of course I was not the only witness. Of those close to her, I was maybe the most removed, the most remote. But she knew, I think, with confidence that I would pursue the matter. She knew that if anybody can be at home with what is kept a secret, it was me, because I was her son whom she hoped would become a writer." Indeed, Berger's mother had hoped her son would become a writer, he notes, "since the night after I was delivered."

"Her Secrets" is brief, circling Berger's mother after the fact in an attempt to understand her and her "respect, a secret loyalty to the enigmatic," and ends with a lovely but haunting scene at her deathbed where her illness remains largely unspoken. "For the first time in her life and mine, she could openly place the wrapped enigma between us. She didn't watch me watching it, for we had the habits of a lifetime. Openly she knew that at that moment her faith in a secret was bound to be stronger than any faith of mine in facts. With her eyes still shut, she fingered the Arab necklace I'd attached round her neck with a charm against the evil eye. I'd given her the necklace a few hours before. Perhaps for the first time I had offered a secret and now her hand kept looking for it."


Before I read "Her Secrets," what bothered me about Berger's observation about autobiography was that it felt like, well, a secret, insights offered in a foreign language. His essay has given me greater context, but I see now that it wasn't necessary to read the essay in order to understand the observation. Autobiography is an orphan form in that every writer begins and ends alone. Berger himself, in trusting his impulse to write about his mother, recognizes that the solitude and the specificity of his grief, though wholly his, might be also a door that opens to others.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Mark Rothko

"Silence is so accurate." From Red.
"Mural Sketch p 96" 1959 Seagram Mural Series

Thursday, October 11, 2012

An Origin Story

The family, the eight of us, in the rec room, watching one of the great Biblical Movies, the name of which is gone now but for the wide-screen melodrama, the green and yellow suburbs outside a sad replica, breezes moving through crab apple trees, old folks waiting patiently for the bus, on the screen there's plagues and pestilence and bared chests, passions nameless to me but for the language spoken by actors' faces all turned to divine light and Will, what the nuns said, what the priests muttered, here in Technicolor! and popcorn in our laps, riveted, we're watching a wide shot of a long, rumbling chunk of ground a violent crack in the middle groans and the land is torn down the middle an abyss into the vast dark of which tumble men and women and children in gasps and screams and Cool! I say aloud to no one really, and my mom next to me slaps me hard on my thigh, That's not cool she says quietly and within the warm burn of my siblings turning to look I shrink away from the drama when another rises to meet it, the burn of the motherly scold, of course, the embarrassment, but more, the nausea of fascination and wrongdoing, the lure of spectacle and anguish, an easy lesson in childish perspective except that this one took, tattooed me, as hard I tried to rub it off the next days weeks months it lingered, the danger of pleasure, Schadenfreude the wrong word even if I'd known and understood it, pleasure not in the agony of the poor desert people plummeting to certain death but in the wide-screen staging of it all, the spectacle, a new window onto yet another adolescent confusion: that where? between violence and its telling, the world and its imagined doppelgänger, makeup and hair and lights and Action! sweetening the misery all around me, but no it's not cool.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Lester Bangs: Admitting Our Own Stupidities

"I think Lester has had an enormous influence in terms of keeping people honest. He worked very hard not to lie, either by commission or omission. He worked very hard to say what he meant, to find out what that was, and then to find a way to express that as strongly and as plainly as he could. He continues to have a huge influence on people in that way. He reminds us, whether it’s me, or Dave Marsh, Bob Christgau, or dozens and dozens of other people, that we’re stopping short, we’re not pressing on with the subject as far as it ought to go, that we’re covering up, that we’re protecting ourselves, that we’re not admitting our own stupidities, our own bigotries. Lester reminds people not to be pretentious. He was a genius at getting out from under his own pretensions, of hoisting the weight of the world on his shoulder, and then knocking it up in the air, and kicking it around with his foot. He was very good at that." Greil Marcus, 1988.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Crack In The Picture Window

Or, "An inquiry into America's great housing developments with some suggestions as to how they may be saved for us...and we from them." So writes John Keats in The Crack In The Picture Window, a snarky, wholly of-its-era screed against faceless Suburbia. A Southerner by birth (he was born in Moultrie, Georgia in 1921), Keats attended the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania before seeing action in the Pacific during World War II. He published The Crack in the Picture Window in 1956 while reporting and writing for the long-gone Washington Daily News. During that decade Keats bought one of the Thousand Islands in Lake Ontario as a vacation home for his family, far, far from the suburbs. He was wrote several books of social criticism during his career, including Schools Without Scholars (1958), The Sheepskin Psychosis (1965), and What Ever Happened to Mom's Apple Pie: The American Food Industry and How to Cope With It (1976), but is best known for The Crack In The Picture Window. Keats died in 2000, in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. He was 79.

I picked up The Crack In The Picture Window years ago during one of my many manic forays into the literature of Suburbia, a subject that has long fascinated me. Keats's book is a prose time capsule: he lists several august titles in the bibliography (for "The scholarly reader who wishes to bog himself down with further researches into development life, its origins, delights and despairs"), including articles from The New York Times, American Journal of Sociology, and U.S. News & World Report, as well as sober Congressional findings, yet the tone of The Crack In The Picture Window is deathly snide and sarcastic. In it, he dramatizes the life of Mr. and Mrs. John Drone (yep). "Welcome to the Inquest," Keats begins,
For literally nothing down—other than a simple two percent and a promise to pay, and pay, and pay until the end of your life—you too, like a man I'm going to call John Drone, can find a box of your own in one of the fresh-air slums we're building around the edges of America's cities.
"There's room for all in any rice range," he continues, "for even while you read this,"
whole square miles of identical boxes are spreading like gangrene throughout New England, across the Denver prairie, around Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, New York, Miami—everywhere. In any one of these new neighborhoods, be it in Hartford or Philadelphia, you can be certain all other houses will be precisely like yours, inhabited by people who age, income, number of children, problems, habits, conversation, dress, possessions and perhaps even blood type are also precisely like yours. In any one of these neighborhoods it is possible to make enemies of the folks next door with unbelievable speed. If you buy a small house, you are assured your children will leave you perhaps even sooner than they should, for at once they will learn never to associate home with pleasure.
Note the delicate diction. We're not going to get anywhere if Keats keeps holding back. He winds up, "In short, ladies and gentlemen,"
we offer here for your inspection facts relative to today's housing developments—developments conceived in error, nurtured by greed, corroding everything they touch. They destroy established cities and trade patterns, pose dangerous problems for the ares they invade, and actually drive mad myriads of housewives shut up in them.
Paging John Cheever. John and Mary Drone live in suburban Washington, D.C., interesting to me because so did I. In fact, my parents purchased their split-level on Amherst Avenue in Wheaton, Maryland just a few years after the fictional Drones bought their box in northern Virginia. The Crack In The Picture Window condemns, punningly and witheringly, if unfairly and broadly, suburban anonymity, its "unnatural community," its colossal mortgages, stultified self-expression, necessity for "wonderful gadgets," and promises of "friendly neighbors but not true friends." Poor Mary Drone: "In short, Mary's ennui stemmed from the same sources which fed the ennui of Rolling Knolls. In Merryland Dell there was once again physical monotony, the enforced intimacy with neighbors, the homogeneity of the inhabitants, the constantly expressed desire to move 'sooner or later,' and—most of all—complete surrender of social and neighborhood affairs to a disillusioned, inexperienced, inept, frustrated matriarchy." I can't believe it took so long for the Key Parties to make it into Merryland Dell. But by then poor Mary was probably mad.

The Crack In The Picture Window is understandably dated, worth tracking down because of that. The book swiftly joined a long line of mid-century titles condemning the suburbs, many of which were written with an Apocalyptic tone, warning that the suburbs were going to destroy the fabric of American life from within. We're half a century away from Keats's warnings and the Organization Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and, for better or worse, the suburbs are still thriving, the incidents of suicide and "Mother's Little Helper" pill-popping within an acceptable range. Keats's writing is unsubtle, as most sourly humorous muckraking is; what makes his book especially notable are Don Kindler's incisive illustrations, also of-their-era, but far more evocative than Keats's heavy-handedness, and sometimes downright unsettling. I can find nothing online about Kindler, which is a shame because I'd like to see more of his work. Click to enlarge: