Thursday, February 28, 2013

One of my favorite R&R moments occurs before the song begins

Overheard, Chess Studios, Chicago IL, Bo Diddley to drummer Frank Kirkland while recording "Dearest Darling," which appeared on Diddley's self-titled debut in 1958:

Bo: Frank, can you, can you put that, that—what you just did in there— all the way through, brrrhmmm-cha, brrrhmmm-cha, brrrrrrhmmm-cha, bmm, you know? 'Cause that makes it feel more full, you know? brrrhmmm-cha. There ya go, yeah, yeah, yeah, that it!!

Perpetual motion machine that it is, even Bo's beat needed some fine tuning once in a while.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Roger Angell Storyboards Mania: Chambliss and 1976

Nearly overcome by the gloom in his essay "Cast A Cold Eye," in the November 15, 1976 issue of The New Yorker, is Roger Angell's brilliant recap of one of the most iconic baseball moments of the 1970s. Chris Chambliss's bottom-of-the-ninth, game-winning home run in Game Five of the 1976 Championship Series between the New York Yankees and the Kansas City Royals is remembered mostly for its aftermath: the vivid assault of the field by overjoyed (and over served) Yankees fans and Chambliss's tense, insane attempt to circle the bases. It's one of my favorite memories of baseball and, frankly, one of my favorite images of New York. Major League Baseball has recently opened its video vaults. Here's a fabulous three-minute summary of the October 14 game, the homer, the bedlam. And here's Angell's translation:
The ending was a sudden multiple tableau—almost a series of movie stop-frames—now fixed in the New York sporting memory. Frame 1: Chris Chambliss has just swung at Mark Littell’s very first pitch of the ninth inning, a fastball. He has swung from the heels, and the ball is now suspended somewhere out in the darkness above the right-center-field fence. Chambliss stands motionless at the plate, with his feet together and the bat still in his right hand and his head tipped back as he watches the ball—watching not in admiration (as Reggie Jackson has been known to do) but in true astonishment and anxiety. Frame 2: Al Cowens and Hal McRae, the Kansas City center fielder and right fielder, stand together at the base of the wall, waiting and looking straight up in the air, like a pair of bird-watchers anxious to confirm a rare species. Frame 3: McRae leaps, twisting his whole body into a single upward plane, with the left arm extended and the open, straining glove at its apex. Frame 4: McRae descends empty-handed, and falls back against the fence in despair, slumping there like a discarded marionette. A whole season is gone. Frame 5: Now it is Chambliss’s turn to leap—a great bound of joy, with both hands raised high in triumph. He begins his ritual tour of the bases, running slowly at first and then (Frame 6, Frame 7) with increasing attention and urgency, as he sees surging, converging waves of out-scattering, frantically leaping spectators pouring onto the field from the left-field and right-field grandstands. These people sprint through descending streamers of toilet paper and torn-up newspaper and other debris, and through the reverberating, doubly and triply reechoed explosions of shouting. They all meet near second base—Chambliss, the thickening and tumbling crowds, the waves of noise, and the waves of people (multiple frames here, faster and faster, all blurring together)—and now it is plain that he is almost running for his life. He is knocked down between second and third, and springs up again, holding on to his batting helmet and running now like a fullback, twisting and dodging through the appalling scene. It is a new game—one for which we have no name yet, and no rules. Chambliss makes it at last to the dugout, without touching third or home (third base has disappeared), and vanishes under the lip of the dugout, with his uniform shirt half torn away and the look on his face now is not one of joy or fear or relief but just the closed, expressionless, neutral subway look that we all see and all wear when abroad in the enormous and inexplicable city. Later, Chambliss comes back onto the ripped-up, debris-strewn field with two cops, and after a few minutes’ search they find home plate and he steps on it.
Five Seasons (1977)
Angell characteristically expands pure frenzy into pure narrative, evocative, deceptively organized, and vivid. I imagine that he was there—I can't picture him at home grumbling that he's forced to watch the game on his nemesis, television—and I picture him simultaneously revelling in the present-tense madness of it all and taking it in with a wide-angle lens. What's especially notable about this small recap—which Angell's been the master of since he began writing about baseball in the early-1960s—is the buoyant effect it seemed to have, retrospectively, on what came before it in the essay. "Cast A Cold Eye" is, as the title suggests, a somewhat grim piece, an assessment of a game that Angell loves but that he fears is changing irrevocably for the worse. The villains are those that Angell had been griping about for a couple of years at this point: postseason night games in frigid temperatures to satisfy television executives, the appearance of “cookie-cutter” stadiums and artificial grass, free agency and explosive player salaries, implementation of the Designated Hitter, the rising, competitive popularity of professional football, etc.. In the midst of the bottom-line corporatizating of the game comes Chambliss's homer and all of the pent-up Bronx mania. Angell didn't seem pleased with the uncouth fans—he'd wag his finger at them for a few more years before shrugging his shoulders and accepting more coarsening of the sport—but he was delighted that the game could still surprise him—us—with moments like Chambliss's homer, which catapulted the Yankees into the World Series for the first time since 1964.


Perhaps so moved by his disconsolate response to the dynamics of the sport, Angell ends "Cast A Cold Eye" with highly unorthodox gesture: he gets not only personal, but autobiographical, bringing his then six-year-old son John Henry into the essay in its final moments. Earlier in the year his family had tried to see a Mets/Cubs game but steady rain fell and Angell figured that the game would be called. By the time they arrived back home, naturally, the rains had ended; they watched the rest of the game on television. The essay ends:
"I am sorry, John Henry," I said. "I didn't think they were going to play today."
"Oh that's all right," he said at once. "I liked it there. That was cool."
So it was all right, after all. And maybe one batter is plenty to see, the first time. It was a beginning.
A deeply affectionate person always risks sentimentality. Angell does so here. As a writer he didn't regularly offer glimpses into his private life, especially in his early pieces; his baseball-watching persona is warm, but guarded. A sport going awry, a miraculous home run, and the game as seen through a young boy's warm eyes seemed all of a piece for Angell in 1976. It is a new game—one for which we have no name yet, and no rules. He was fifty-five. It was a beginning.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began

This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began is out with Orphan Press on March 1. Here's a section from "Colonizing the Past":
In autobiographical nonfiction, place is elastic, no firmer than smoke. Nostalgia carries with it the desire to return, and memory its own mindfulness, less the urge to go back than the desire to stay put and try to understand. An autobiographical essayist’s relationship to place has to do with his ever having left it. Memory erects a universe of civic construction, where things — fields, buildings, people — remain where you last left them. Physically return years later to the neighborhood in which you were raised and it can look like a cartoon image of overdevelopment, or decay. Changes look incremental to one who never left; to the one returning, the displacement can be overwhelming. But Nabokov insists: “One is always at home in one’s past.”

The friction between place-as-remembered and place-as-is warms any personal essay charged by its author with investigating the now mythic past. The danger comes when this warmth, sometimes startling, sometimes pleasant, morphs into sentimentality, a maudlin, grabby insistence that place matters simply because I once existed there and now I have lost it. When, in memory, I’m sitting on the low brick wall in front of an office building in Wheaton, Maryland, lovingly flipping through a newly-purchased three-pack set of Topps baseball cards, happy beneath the high Saturday sun, on my own and rich with my small weekly allowance, among stops at the newsstand and Barbarian Bookstore and Highs for a Slush Puppie, the impulse to sing it all produces a melody with both major and minor chords. (“No one cares for your tragedy until you can sing about it,” says V.S. Naipaul.) Yet my loss is no greater than yours.

The past shapes and reshapes itself into vast proportions; the setting of my youth now glows as myth. The larger the imagined, geographic, and temporal distance, the more burnished and epochal that remembered place feels. Was. Is. This place is a lot smaller than I remember. It is huge.
There are a few days left to pre-order a signed copy of the book here. Like and join the facebook page here.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Irony + Sentiment = ?

There's a great moment in Daniel Clowes's Ghost World (1993-1997, published in 1998) where Enid and Rebecca visit Cavetown USA, a corny, low-rent kids amusement park. Enid's back home visiting from college, and the two now-distancing friends make the trip to Cavetown, where Enid claims her "only happy childhood memory" occurred.
The girls head to Cavetown armed with irony and contempt—let's make fun of how lame we were in childhood, how lame childhood was—but when they arrive, Enid's disarmed by genuine feelings of loss that derision is too weak to swat away:

I love the friction that Clowes explores here, the surprising sparks that fly when irony rubs against sentiment. Enid's a great character: she's too smart to adopt irony simply as a pose; she'll see right through that in herself, as she does in others. So the irony with which she comes equipped at Cavetown is genuine: "We're hurtling back in time to a SAVAGE ERA where DINOSAURS RULE THE EARTH!" she says sarcastically to Rebecca before they head out, well aware that she's outgrown her naive and historically inaccurate past where children are duped in the name of cheap entertainment. They drive to the park in a hearse.

But when she gets to Cavetown, she succumbs to what we all do when our ironic facade is invaded by overpowering sentiment. Her satanic ritual fears giving way to her "semi-religious experience" takes her, without warning, to a place for which she's unprepared, and where parody is impotent. What she wasn't planning on was the jarring that comes with loss—not the hoped-for loss of childish unsophistication and gullibility, but the loss of the capacity for wonder and amusement. Her surprise is moving, and, smartly, Clowes simply evokes it, he doesn't name it. Something speechless occurs to Enid because she wasn't expecting what she encountered, and so had little language for it except more ironic distance, which is rapidly closing on to something else entirely. The crack in her facade is small, and she's careful (as is Clowes) not to linger in this disorienting place for too long. But I think that her mood's affected permanently.

What happens when irony and sentiment meet? Firmly (permanently) ensconced as we are in Post Irony, I wonder how genuine sentiment can be treated anymore, especially in autobiographical writing that explores moments like Enid's. If all we have is distance, how can we see that, up close and affectionate, nostalgia can transcend itself and become something valuable: an opportunity to weigh the distance between wonder and jadedness.


Monday, February 11, 2013

The "Going-est": In The Suburbs

This 20-minute video was produced by the editors of Redbook magazine in 1957. I love images of suburbia immoderately, especially such industrial shorts as a window onto an era. The window, of course, is narrow. It's too easy to lampoon the cultural naivete and ideology of mid-century suburbia—that's been done and done, from The Crack In The Picture Window, through Cheever, Updike and The Ice Storm, to Mad Men. What I can't resist doing is imagining the dark doppelgänger for each carefully scrubbed image: the town drunks we don't see; the racism in theory and deed occurring off-screen; the ennui on the faces of haggard parents in long lines. Redbook was less interested in literary realism than in subscription-hawking, but the short does give mild lip-service to suburban malaise and its complexities and sorrows:
What are young adults like from an editor’s point of view? Well, they’re not so much highbrows, or lowbrows, as wrinkled brows! They’re serious, and no wonder. To give these serious young adults the substance they want, to build a durable relationship with each reader, Redbook edits for one person at a time. Having established a personal relationship with its readers, Redbook then talks to them so they recognize their own living situations in its pages….
Just as the realities of family life are thoroughly woven into Redbook, so are the realities of community life. Many young adults come to the suburbs as ex-apartment renters. So: what about the roads? The schools? Will somebody please explain what a bond issue is? Writing for young adults, Redbook’s editors have to keep learning and analyzing.
Between the solemnly announced "They're serious, and no wonder" and "Redbook’s editors have to keep learning and analyzing" there's a montage of grim, if carefully-selected, World War II newsreel footage, head-for-the-shelter nuclear panics, and scenes of social unrest, from religion in schools to sexual issues, that recognizes the chaos behind and amidst the placid surfaces of suburbia, but only with a brief, unhappy shudder. Then it's back to the mall!

I'm especially taken with the references at the end of the video to the next generation of purchasing, eye-to-the future"young adults" as viewed through a crystal ball:
Redbook’s editors have to keep an eye to the future. There’s a whole new generation coming, soon to be young adults, a bigger-than-ever market of people who have a history of their own, who remember all the way back to Eisenhower, who probably never aw their mother use a ringer, think automobiles are household appliances, and have reserved seats on the next rocket to leave the earth!
Teenagers hop into convertible jalopies and peel off down Center Street past young, manicured lawns and I think: these kids will come of age in the 1960s, and deal with their own prophesied, surprising, sold-to mid-20s amidst the Vietnam War, civil rights movement, the rising tides of recreational drug use, and the yawning generation gap, epoch-defining movements barely hinted at by the Redbook editors.


Better to simply frame the present through a picture window, and hope for the best.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Family on the Moon

I was alerted (via Retronaut) to the photograph below at Universe Today:

The story:
On April 23, 1972, Apollo 16 astronauts Charlie Duke and John Young embarked on the third and final EVA of the mission, exploring the Descartes Highlands via Lunar Roving Vehicle. During the EVA, before setting up a Solar Wind Collector, Duke placed a small family photo he had brought along onto the lunar surface and snapped a few photos of  it with his Hasselblad film camera. This is one of the photos.

The portrait shows Charlie, his wife Dorothy, and their two sons Charles and Thomas. It looks like they are sitting on a bench in the summertime.

The family photo, gingerly wrapped in clear plastic and slightly crumpled from being stashed in the pocket of a space suit, was left on the Moon. It presumably still sits there today, just inches away from Charlie’s boot print—which, presumably, is also there.

At the time of this writing it’s been exactly 40 years to the day that this photo was taken.
It's safe to say that I'll be obsessing over this for a while. A posed family portrait, Sears-perfected, wrapped in plastic, resting on the surface of the moon: it's so potent an image—a fact—as to be nearly beyond belief. This is the stuff of myth and lyric poetry, of surreal dreams that you wake from and barely recall. Dad's footprint—patriarchal, protective, massive—will remain by the photo for eons, during which families on earth will take root, sprout, and wither generation after generation after generation, homes built, houses razed. Duke's own lineage might one day vanish. But his early 1907's family will stay, smiling, on the surface of the moon, a cartoon-like transposing of the promises of the suburban Space Age, an odd but moving intrusion of the frail human family into time-free, infinite darkness. This stuff doesn't happen in real life. Right now, I can't think of anything weirder. Or more affecting.

Friday, February 8, 2013

How To Write An Essay

Be skeptical.

But consider Terence: "I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me."

Also file under: "An Essay, How To Read."

Monday, February 4, 2013

Reg Presley

Reg Presley died today. He was an original, and an oddity, and wholly his own. Here's a late Troggs track, a b-side from 1972, and my favorite. The absurdity of the mock-serious tone, the ear-slitting, in-the-red fuzz, and the Paleolithic, bedrock rhythm track is vintage Troggs stomp. Such sonic commitment to minimalism and its many promises always moved me. Everyone else pretends. PLAY LOUD.

Here's an earlier pounder, "I Want You," another b-side, from 1966. So simple as to be virtually not there, yet it's bedrock. And dig the solo.


Sunday, February 3, 2013

Roger Angell and the death of still another neighborhood

The Summer Game, 1972
As it's February, gray and bleak, the hint of green a rumor, I instinctively reach for Roger Angell. His essays and columns on baseball have appeared in The New Yorker since the early 1960s, and have been collected in many books: The Summer Game (1972); Five Seasons (1977); Late Innings (1982); Season Ticket (1988); Once More Around the Park (1991); A Pitcher’s Story (2001); Game Time (2003). As I've hinted at before, I'm an immoderate fan: no one dramatizes and essays the game quite like Angell, who brings a sentimentalist's affection, a novelist's eye, and an editor's judiciousness to knowledgeable descriptions of ballgames, parks, and players, and by extension, cultural eras and decades. Though 92, he still posts the occasional piece at the New Yorker website. This year, in anticipation of spring training and the first games in April, I've decided to read all of Angell's books in order, a narrative, evocative journey through baseball from 1960s to the 2000s.

Last night, I again read again Angell on the demolition of the fabled Polo Grounds. The "Talk Of The Town" piece ran in the April 25, 1964 issue of The New Yorker, unsigned (as was then the custom for "Notes And Comments" features). Titled "Farewell" for inclusion in The Summer Game, the tribute to the decaying box along the Harlem River, home to the New York Giants before they flew west in 1957, crumbling home to the woeful Mets before they moved into Shea Stadium in 1964, is one of Angell's most moving renditions of loss and befuddlement. Though brief, it's one of the great essays of our time on cultural grief in the face of modernity. Writing in the Majestic Plural, Angell mourns less the specific game memories that we'll cherish— "Carl Hubbell's five strikeouts, Bobby Thomson’s homer, Willie Mays’ catch, Casey Stengel’s sad torment"—than the atmosphere of the park in all of its quirkiness and, in the face of the Jet Age, its antiquity. "Farewell" is so powerful in its tear-choked blend of grief, restraint, sighing acceptance. Here's an excerpt:
Curiously, these historic recollections played little part in our own feeling of sadness and loss, for they had to do with events, and events on a sporting field are so brief that they belong almost instantly to the past. Today’s fielding gem, last week’s shutout, last season’s winning streak have their true existence in record books and in memory, and even the youngest and brightest rookie of the new season is hurrying at almost inconceivable speed toward his plaque at Cooperstown and his faded, dated photograph behind a hundred bars. Mel Ott’s cow-tailed swing, Sal Maglie’s scowl, Leo Durocher’s pacings in the third-base coach’s box are portraits that have long been fixed in our own interior permanent collection, and the fall of the Polo Grounds will barely joggle them. What does depress us about the decease of the bony, misshapen old playground is the attendant irrevocable deprivation of habit—the amputation of so many private, repeated, and easily renewable small familiarities. The things we liked best about the Polo Grounds were sights and emotions so inconsequential that they will surely slide out of our recollection. A flight of pigeons flashing out of the barn-shadow of the upper stands, wheeling past the right-field foul pole, and disappearing above the inert, heat-heavy flags on the roof. The steepness of the ramp descending from the Speedway toward the upperstand gates, which pushed your toes into your shoe tips as you approached the park, tasting sweet anticipation and getting out your change to buy a program. The unmistakable, final “Plock!” of a line drive hitting the green wooden barrier above the stands in deep left field. The gentle, rockerlike swing of the loop of rusty chain you rested your arm upon in a box seat, and the heat of the sun-warmed iron coming through your shirtsleeve under your elbow. At a night game, the moon rising out of the scoreboard like a spongy, day-old orange balloon and then whitening over the waves of noise and the slow, shifting clouds of floodlit cigarette smoke. All these we mourn, for their loss constitutes the death of still another neighborhood—a small landscape of distinctive and reassuring familiarity. Demolition and alteration are a painful city commonplace, but as our surroundings become more undistinguished and indistinguishable, we sense, at last, that our environs are being replaced by mere events, and we are stabbed by the realization that we may not possess the score cards and record books to help us remember who we are and what we have seen and loved. 
April 25, 1964

The cover illustration of the April 25 issue of The New Yorker depicts the moon guardedly watching the earth as a satellite giddily orbits it in far-fetched, yet actual, modernity. The world is changing. As Angell was writing his farewell to the Polo Grounds, the Beatles were likely assaulting his senses if he had the radio on: on April 4 they occupied the top five positions in Billboard's Top 100, an astonishing feat of cultural domination that will likely never be repeated. Within a year, the Beatles would play Shea Stadium to shrill, deafening screams. The suburban venue was space-age new, the Polo Grounds long-leveled, and with it "what we have seen and loved."

Every generation of baseball fans mourns their parks and stadiums that are razed for progress and the bottom-line: Angell's farewell ("O lost!" he'd write of the Grounds in his next column) is indelible not only for its details and rendering of a mood and era gone, but for its particular time in post-Kennedy, Moon Race newness. We never really saw the likes of the Polo Grounds and Ebbetts Field again, did we? Or for that matter, the Astrodome or the Kingdome. I hope whoever is around to say goodbye to Fenway Park and Wrigley Field will do so with Angell's panache, respect, and finely-tuned ear for gains and losses.

Demolition and alteration are a painful city commonplace: The Polo Grounds on the way out.

Photo of demolished Polo Grounds via The Greatest Stadiums On Earth.