Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Infinity: Some Q's and A's

I spoke with Dan Klefstad on WNIJ's "Morning Edition" today about This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began, memories, and Facebook, among other topics. If you missed it, the interview's here, and there's also audio of me reading two essays from the book, "The Blur Family" and "Occasional Prayer."

Recent interviews about my new book here, here and here.

This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began is a collection of essays that interrogates the dark edges of my suburban youth and explores issues of spirituality, sex, violence, and myth. From the memory of a rebellious Catholic schoolgirl to a coming-of-age story in a porn theater, I turn a prism lens on desire and faith and the body’s role in both, and ultimately questions the fallibility as well as the enduring power of memory.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

FDR, Disney, Russ Hodges, and the sounds of history

I've always loved the opening to Tommy Keene's "Places That Are Gone," the title cut to his 1984 EP. In a brilliant sound montage, a section of President Roosevelt's "Pearl Harbor Speech" (left), Russ Hodges's dramatic radio call of Bobby Thomson's pennant-clinching home run (the "Shot Heard 'Round the World") (right), and a snippet of noir-sounding dialogue from Disney's One Hundred and One Dalmatians (middle) are blended in front of a swell of orchestra strings in advance of Keene's and Billy Connelly's guitars.

I didn't notice until recently that the three sources are separated by ten years each—1941, 1951, and 1961. The surreal yoking together of FDR, Hodges's call, and the Dalmatians feels like memory, a dream-like confluence of cultural touchstones that when laid atop each other as aural transparencies create what the past feels like—and maybe sounds like—when filtered through memory: shards, snippets, dread, excitement, music. Nothing lands, everything hovers, little is stated, a lot it evoked. Ghosts replace people. These three moments—one epochal, one fantastic, one thrilling—are unmoored from their moments of origin and collide in space, making a new soundscape. Which is what memory does, create, not re-create.

Anyway, that's the first 20 or seconds, then the songs kicks in, and it's a great one. I was a big fan of Keene and saw him many times in the Washington D.C. area in the mid-1980s, and the EP itself is terrific (featuring a very cool, rousing version of Alex Chilton's paean to Catholic high school girls "Hey! Little Child").

A bittersweet coda: in 1986 Keene signed with Geffen Records, and for all of us in the D.C. metro area it felt as if he was headed for the big time and was going to bring D.C. with him. His debut album for Geffen, Songs From The Film, was quite good but suffered from somewhat stiff arrangements and excess production via Geoff Emerick. The greater sin was the decision to re-record "Places That Are Gone." The opening montage was dismissed, and the new slick version of the tune, despite the addition of nice harmonies in the last verse, fell sadly into the Second Guesses file. Stick with the above, Keene- and Ted Niceley-produced version, which is better in nearly every way. Keene's a great songwriter and singer who's had a fine and productive career—I urge you to check him out if you're unfamiliar with him. This dreamy, obsessive, evocative opening to his EP is a high-water mark.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Highway to Hell 33 1/3 @ iTunes

33 1/3 books are now available for purchase at iTunes, where, when possible, they pair the book with the album under discussion.

Now you can get your Bon on in words and "music"! Turn it up.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

On Ruins

When I drive through Camden...I am...overwhelmed of course by the horror: empty fields where there were once factories and houses, empty streets where there were once people, nonexistent stores, boarded-up schools, broken glass. It would be, probably, false apocalyptic writing and fake redemption to make something positive out of that. I may have, earlier, been more than a little addicted to the heavenly nature of ruins. I am more inclined now to see them for what they are: the consequences of human greed, indifference, and stupidity.

   —Gerald Stern, "The Devotion of a Mourner," A God in the House: Poets Talk about Faith

More photos of the Pleasant Street factory here.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Between the Selfie and Self-Reflection

I like the distance between Jonathan Safran Foer's "How Not To Be Alone" and Kate Losse's "The Return of the Selfie," the former published in The New York Times, the latter as a blog post at The New Yorker, both this week. Each writer essays the implications of intense self-regard, a state encouraged by, implicitly argued for, and necessary to online living.

Foer writes:
We often use technology to save time, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich. I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts. It’s not an either/or—being “anti-technology” is perhaps the only thing more foolish than being unquestioningly “pro-technology —but a question of balance that our lives hang upon.
And Losse, on a "Vine" selfie from Twitter founder Jack Dorsey:
Dorsey’s Vines suggest that the selfie has come full circle, from a sign of the subject’s marginality to a sign of his or her social-media importance. In these videos, Dorsey is the center of the universe. Isn’t that, perhaps, what social media has been saying to us all along?
If I could step into the proverbial time machine, I'd go back and get in line for Jerry Lee Lewis's show at the Star-Club in April, 1964, or catch an early Stooges or Ramones gig in front of, say, 20 people. I'd also go forward in time and see what social networking will have wrought on autobiographical writing. The rapid, disconnected pace at which we're living now suggests that the patient waiting for theme and surprise in an essay, the unfolding of argument and point-of-view, will become a rare thing, but I don't want to be pessimistic, as every age must guard against solipsistic lamenting of a greater past. I do think that silence is now Officially Underrated, and that the kind of slow give-and-take between forthrightness and skepticism that marks essay writing is under heavy duress in today's write-and-post alacrity. We'll see. A turning away from the sexiness of social networking and instant blogging is probably a good thing. And more and more we may feel the need for that.

Thumbs-up image via Jasa Utama.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Robert J. Lee's baseball illustrations (1955)

I'm reading Arnold Hano's terrific book A Day In The Bleachers, about Game One of the 1954 World Series. I love Robert J. Lee's simple but graphic line drawings that accompany Hano's text. Over half a century old, they evoke a long-gone era of Polo Grounds baseball, high socks and stirrups, and nattily-attired umpires. Lee, who died in 1994, was primarily a children's book artist, and his dynamic drawings of the mid-century New York Giants capture a kid's kinetic, can't-get-to-sleep memories of that day's game heroes.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Visiting a past I never possessed: Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, ghosts

"Baseball, because of its continuity over the space of America and the time of America, is a place where memory gathers," says Donald Hall. But what if those memories are of events that you didn't witness? In New York City this past weekend, I visited the old Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field sites. They were both razed in the 1960s, and imposing, torn-at-the-seams public housing complexes have stood at the sites for decades now. As I looked—up—at the buildings each housing 1,000-plus units, families stacked on top of families, I thought about the strangeness of looking at places and imagining the events that took place there, like laying down and lifting transparencies. This is a queer kind of nostalgia, for a past I never possessed yet long to return to. My dad, born and raised in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, took the trolley to many a Dodgers game at Ebbets Field in the 1940s, and I wanted to go to where he enjoyed himself on so many afternoons, and to where, uptown, countless others took in ballgames in a treasured park (and where, allegedly, the term hotdog was coined!).

I was staying in the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn, and on two broiling hot afternoons took the express up to 155th Street in Harlem and then rode back down to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, all the while projecting myself back in time, resisting romanticizing a past long vanished to inevitable, and controversial, civic and cultural changes. I took some photos along the way, my own modest addition to what's been documented about these venerable sites for decades.

Polo Grounds/Coogan's Bluff/Bushman Steps
Upper Manhattan, New York

Management at Polo Grounds Towers attempts to evoke, or at least name, past glories of the area on the sign:

The steps leading up from the Towers to 155th Street, Harlem River Drive, and the old Coogan's Bluff are intensely long and steep, at least they felt that way to me in the 90+ degree weather:

The view from what is now Harlem River Drive, at the bottom of Coogan's Bluff. That's the new Yankee Stadium gleaming in the background between two of the Polo Grounds Towers:

One of the largest rocks at Coogan's Bluff, next to a playground on Edgecombe Avenue. Here's where fans of baseball, football, and the odd boxing match gathered to watch the events for free; below; the view of Polo Grounds Towers from the furthest edge of Coogan's Bluff:

Here's a great Sports Illustrated photo of fans watching a Polo Grounds game from atop trees at Coogan's Bluff (more or less the vantage point I captured in the above photo):

And a terrific shot of Babe Ruth hitting his "first HR as a Yankee at the Polo Grounds." Via Lost Ballparks @lostballparks

Much to my disappointment, the infamous steps leading from the Bluff down to the Polo Grounds were being renovated. Disappointing for sentimental me, good for the neighborhood, as the stairway had become dangerously impassable:


I'll interrupt the tour here to quote Arnold Hano from his great book A Day In The Bleachers, first published in 1955, a narrative account of the Game One of the 1954 Giants/Indians World Series (ie, the Willie Mays "Catch" game). It's a wonderful, evocative book, packed with details of a long-gone era. Early on, Hano describes what it was like to peer down at a Giants game from Coogan's Bluff:
I could climb to the top of Coogan’s Bluff, overlooking the ball field to the north-west, sit on the rocks and grass, and watch second base while I listened to the game. I had done this many times in my youth. My brother and I would go to the Polo Grounds during the summer recess from school, hoping a boys’ club or some social group was getting in free. We'd try to duck into line and sit in the upper left field stands with a bunch of other boys who did not understand baseball too well and who would clap their hands in unison and yell, “We want a hit,” as early as the second inning.
When we failed to get in, which was about half the time, we’d walk up the wooden stairs that lead to the top of Coogan’s Bluff on the left-field side of the Polo Grounds. There, with a scattered hundred other fans enjoying a sun bath, we’d “watch” the game. All you can see, through the open-work of the stadium, is the rear portion of the pitcher’s mound, the area around second base, and a portion of the outfield. But after a while, you get the hang of it from the noise of the crowd and what the second baseman does.
I remember the first game I saw that way, the Giants against the Phillies. Hubbell was pitching and in a late inning, with the score quite close (the Giants leading, I believe), the Phillies got a man on first with one out. Then on Hubbell’s next pitch (you knew the pitch was on its way by the sudden stillness) there was a roar that abruptly broke and then climbed to a shrill scream of delight.
All I could see was the second baseman take on quick step toward the base, then stop and fling his glove behind him to the outfield grass and trot in to the dugout. I’ll never forget the elderly Negro sitting next to us in rolled-up white shirtsleeves. He said as he marked his scorecard, “Line drive to Terry. Unassisted double play.” He was right.
So I could always climb Coogan’s Bluff. Even without my portable radio. Somebody up there would have one.
Read Hano's book if you haven't.

Back to the present. This was a nice surprise: turning away from the Bluff and looking across Edgecombe Avenue, I spotted these steps leading up to St. Nocholas Avenue, a block west. Bushman Steps, too, were occupied by fans unwilling or unable to pay the fee to enter the Polo Grounds:

The view from the bottom step looking toward Coogan's Bluff and the Polo Grounds Towers:

Back down at the Polo Grounds Towers, I was pleased to hear the sounds of baseball. A Little League game was going on in a park shadowed by the Polo Grounds Towers:

I was on the search for a plaque on the Towers' grounds noting the approximate site of home plate at the Polo Grounds. In this shot you can see the plaque outlined in red on the far right:

The plaque itself:

And the view from the home plate site, looking out toward what was once the infield and infamously spacious outfield of the Polo Grounds. Hard to make out the ghost of Willie Mays:

This was another nice surprise: a sign urging Towers residents to remember the exploits of the Polo Grounds and to keep the area beautiful:

Much of the Towers grounds are well-maintained, but plenty of areas have seen better days:

Ebbets Field
Brooklyn, New York

The apartments at the old Ebbets Fields:

On the cornerstone of the southwest side of the building there's a sign:

The site of home plate at Ebbets Field; now an imaginary batter gazes into a parking lot:

And this must be...right field. Where have you gone, Carl Furillo?


Here are a few links about the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field, with some great photos:

"The Last of the Polo Grounds" at the National Trust for Historic Preservation site

Sunday, June 2, 2013

One of my favorite views

120 1/2 First Avenue, NYC. First table by the door, maybe three feet from the jukebox over which, late in the afternoon, I have control, Jonathan Richman, the Kinks, the Jam, Beatles '65, the Buzzcocks, Chicago blues, and doo-wop after doo-wop tune issuing into the bar that's characteristically so dark when I walk in I instinctively thrust out my hands, my eyes adjusting soon to find the always-friendly, always-laughing Linda who serves me a cold can of Schaefer beer (three bucks) that I take to the front table and and watch the people traffic as the songs slowly brighten the place, competing with the loud regulars up front who mistake my DeKalb Flying Corn t-shirt for the street in Brooklyn, for the street in the Bronx, they're everywhere! but as usual I duck the small talk to sit for a couple hours after an afternoon of work, to look out the window and to think and soak in the tunes and the three or so cans of Schaefer I'll drink and love, leaving regretfully across the creaking wood floor after Thanks! and See yas! out into the late-afternoon sunshine on the street which after the hospitality and quiet, friendly dark of the soothing International feels warm and vibrant, somehow more welcome.