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.