Wednesday, May 29, 2013

On the run in America: a triptych

Born in Chicago, this is how I got to Texas, and now I've gotta get out of Denver, baby.

Slammin' Watusis, "Born In Chicago"

Glambilly, "How I Got To Texas"

Bob Seger, "Get Out Of Denver"

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The old fanly connection

Roger Angell, sighing
Writing in the September 21, 1998 issue of The New Yorker, as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were finishing slugging their ways across the country, stadium by ear-splitting stadium, Roger Angell couldn't help but sound a note of regret and loss. As I've remarked before, Angell rarely wrote confessedly, but always personally, with nostalgia and sentimentality held, for the most part, manfully at bay. I've been reading my way through Angell's baseball essays for a while now—the pile of his uncollected pieces since the mid-1960s is cheerfully enormous—and if there are common threads of discontent running through his fan's love for the sport they are faults found generally with modernity, not with the game itself: talent-diluting expansion; too many night games; escalating salaries; owner posturing; television's breathless, 24/7, non-news coverage of a quiet, august game that, relative to the bombast and spectacle of football and basketball, is essentially modest.

Something about Big Mac and his enormous feats troubled Angell, even as he was cheering the good vibe that the home-run record chase produced. Instinctively, he looked backward, and here perhaps nostalgia and sentimentality get the better of him. "One can’t quite blame sports television and its technical feats for our current state of total sports distraction," Angell sighs,
and perhaps we shouldn’t blame ourselves, either. Perhaps this full-court blather over the home-run record has become more important to us than the games themselves, which suggests that the function of baseball now is simply to be historic, to remind us, through feats and statistics and the unchanging dimensions of the game, that we are still connected to Roger Maris and to Babe Ruth and their times—times that may have been simpler or more vivid than our own. It’s also possible that we are preoccupied with the sideshows because we can no longer find the old fanly connection between ourselves and the extremely rich, extremely large young men we see out on the field. Back when the players stayed in place from one year to the next, they appeared to represent us on the field—not just our town but the way we would play the game, too, given a little break. Now they are lost to us, like our grown-up children-—admirable or awesome at times, and anxious to please, but members of a different species. 
Eight months later, as a new season was commencing, Angell's gloom had barely lifted. "At this hopeful time of year, we should perhaps put off further discussion of the ironbound or dollar-bound competitive imbalance of contemporary ball," he writes in the May 17, 1999 issue,
except to note that money now entirely controls the free-agent market, the amateur draft (thanks to signing bonuses), the international-talent market (how else did Hideki Irabu and Orlando Hernandez wind up with the Yankees?), and the great majority of trades. Indeed, one of the few competitive attractions this summer may be to watch what happens to the Dodgers, habitual non-winners in the National League West, who have raised their payroll to seventy-nine million dollars, the most in their league, since their acquisition by Rupert Murdoch last March. Their signing of the pallid, hard-throwing Kevin Brown, last seen with the Padres, who was the No. 1 free agent on the market last winter, showed the lordly manner as well as the depth of their ambitions. Counting bonuses and incentives, Brown will receive a hundred and five million dollars for a seven-year contract (he’ll be forty in its last season), plus twelve free private-jet flights each summer for his family, to L.A. from their Georgia home. Based on his performance last year, Brown’s stipend breaks down to fifty-eight thousand dollars for each strikeout and four-hundred and seventeen thousand dollars for each game. Like other fans, perhaps, I try resolutely not to think in these terms once the season starts—he players themselves never do—but the numbers explain why the Yankees, whose average salary of over three million dollars is the biggest in baseball, will win almost all those close games with the young Blue Jays or Twins, no matter how gallant we find them. 
It is this form of denial, coupled with the: instability and anonymity of home-team lineups from year to year and the proliferation of divisions and franchises, that tells us fans how our need for records and monuments could have begun to replace our joy in the games and our eagerness for action. Don’t Wait till next year—what good will that do?—but keep us watching a little, because something new or never before seen could happen here, and we’ll be part of it. This is duller than our old passion, but it hurts less and doesn’t require as much attention. Wait long enough and Mark McGwire will hit one out or sign your wristband.

Those players out there on the field don't seem to be the same players I remember as a kid in the Polo Grounds: their bodies and wallets and distance from us are too large, too spectacular. How human, these Y2K complaints; the kid eye-rolling at Gramps Angell today will be lamenting the passing of his Good Old Days soon enough.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Roger Angell, bringing a homer back in view

In the middle of "Homeric," an essay in the May 27, 1991 issue of The New Yorker about notable longballs, Roger Angell laments the corrosive consequences of video replay. Complaining about overplayed sports highlights was hardly novel in the 1990s. Angell was 70 when he wrote this piece, but he wasn't arguing simply from old-fogeyism or nostalgia. Throughout his writing career—and throughout his career as a baseball fan—Angell has been sceptical of inevitable modern, cultural infringements on the sport, from too many televised and night games in the 1960s, to Free Agency and noisy ballparks in the 1970s, to bloated salaries and owner/player wrangling in the 1980s, to expansion and dilution of talent in the 1990s, to player/umpire egos in the 2000s. Throughout his somewhat grumbling, resentful coverage of The Barry Bonds Spectacle several years ago, Angell winced at the explosions of digi camera flashes at ballparks—and the man remembers Babe Ruth and the Polo Grounds, too. He's been around. 

He writes affectingly in "Homeric" about the potential dangers of watching too many replays, about their addictive, but treacly, agains and agains. "Like other long-term baseball writers," he reports, "I have had a firsthand view of many of the other celebrated late-season and post-season home runs of the past three decades." But, sighing: "in common with every sports fan, I have noticed that their very celebrity—in particular, their numbingly repeated reappearances in video-clip on my home screen—eventually drains them of meaning and emotion."
Carlton Fisk’s twelfth-inning shot in Game Six of the 1975 World Series now feels like Jimmy Stewart’s tearful late homecoming in It’s a Wonderful Life; and similar fabulous blows, such as Kirk Gibson’s previously cited game winner in the 1988 Series, Dave Henderson’s stunner against the Angels in the ’86 American League playoff, and Bucky Dent’s little sailer into the screen at Fenway Park which destroyed the Red Sox in a one-game playoff in ‘78, are in danger of similar Hallmarking. Only a deliberate effort of memory and imagination—a private revisiting of the scene, so to speak—can sometimes bring them back into view for an instant or two.
The blurring of these thrilling moments because of overexposure is a shame, but there is probably no help for it. Hollywood historians still bemoan the loss of hundreds of early movie classics that fell to dust because they were shot on unstable nitrate film, but I have sometimes perversely wished that our sports footage could suffer the same fate, so that we might again learn to rely on memory as an depository for our most precious games. One night at Yankee Stadium last month, when the White Sox were in town, I asked Carlton Fisk whether that ceaselessly replayed scene of his gyrations along the first-base line as he watched his Game Six homer go up and out on that long-ago night had not come to replace his own memories of the moment, and he said, “You know, I’ll bet you haven’t viewed it more than four or five times, for just that reason. I turn it off or go out of the room whenever it comes along, because I want to keep it fresh in my head. I try not to talk about it or to answer questions about it, either. I want to keep hold of the memory of what it felt like, as opposed to what it looks like on the screen. Maybe there’ll come a time later on when I can be relaxed and think about it again on my own, but right now it’s best to keep it enclosed."
Meantime, he said, he can dwell on a homer he smacked on August 17th last year—to set a new all-time record for all White Sox hitters, and simultaneously break Johnny Bench’s record for most home runs by a catcher. Making a new memory may be the best trick of all.
Nice. I like when Angell skirts perversity—it doesn't happen too often. Ironically, his perversity is closer to a kind of purity. He didn't really want the Major League Baseball cache of highlights to turn to dust, or for millions of kids to have been deprived of Mel Allen and This Week In Baseball on Saturday afternoons; he wanted to challenge himself, and us, to recall favorite moments down the years via the vagaries and pleasures of memory, filtered through sentimentality and scepticism alike. This—in the 21st century, where many fans at games are watching vast stretches of innings through their phones, recording to be able to watch later, and where instant replay in the game is controversial—is sound advice.

So, enjoy. (Repeatedly.) But watch at your own risk:

Friday, May 3, 2013

"Mama Loved The Ways Of The World"

I have an essay in the new The Normal School about country music and the surprising dearth of songs about strippers. What gives? I touch on a couple versions of the early-70s' camp classic "Daddy Was A Preacher But Mama Was A Go-Go Girl"—one of my all-time favorites—plus young Troy Hess's "Please Don't Go Topless, Mother" and Drive-By Truckers' "Go-Go Boots."

From the essay's opening:
In the canon of country music there are countless odes to broken hearts, depraved dalliances, and dark taverns, but precious few numbers about go-go dancers and the men who gawk at them. Consider the road toward or away from redemption walked by the man trailing hot pants and knee-high boots, his ageless conflicts between the secular and the sacred, his wallet and his God, his dancer and his wife. Nashville songwriter Harlan Howard defined a triumphant country record as “Three chords and the truth”; I’m surprised that more Music City songwriters don’t pen odes to the truths embodied in scantily dressed women who move in and out of bright lights. Bump and grind, high heels and a downcast gaze: a lurid imagination easily admits both the nude dancer and the man in the Nudie suit staring up at her. Yet the tradition of country music about go-go dancers is, well, skimpy.

Some music for your reading pleasure:

Jo Anna Neel, "Daddy Was A Preacher But Mama Was A Go-Go Girl"

Betty Jo Bangs, "Daddy Was A Preacher, Mama Was A Go-Go Girl"

Southern Culture On The Skids, "Daddy Was A Preacher But Mama Was A Go-Go Girl" 

Troy Hess, "Please Don't Go Topless, Mother"

Drive-By Truckers, "Go-Go Boots"



The Normal School currently publishes twice each year, Spring and Fall. Get a two-year subscription, or four issues for $20, here.