Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Wisdom from Rachel Nagy

It's about feeding off of people. That crowd's energy, it's huge. Nowadays, everyone thinks they're a hipster and ironic, and they want to stand around and analyze what's happening. Get out there and dance. That's the point of live music. Dance around, meet a pretty girl. It's not to stand against the back wall and analyze and write for your stupid blog. Everyone's blogging and taking pictures and they forget to enjoy what they're actually doing. I guess that's more advice for the audience, but the band too. While you're there, do it. Be there. You can talk about the memories later. We only need a couple photographers in the world. We only need a couple writers. 
Rachel Nagy, from a great interview with Gary Schwind at Examiner, the whole of which is worth reading. 


Now listen to these. Then re-read the above. Then go see a show.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Stories That Seem Real

Reigning Sound at Beat Kitchen, July 27, 2013

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—I saw Reigning Sound in Chicago at Beat Kitchen last weekend, and as usual the band delivered an emotionally satisfying, rocking, passionate set. Cartwright is backed these days by Benny Trokan on bass, Mike Catanese on guitar, Mikey Post drums, and stalwart Dave Amels on organ. I've written before about my admiration for Cartwright's songwriting. In Chicago, Reigning Sound played some old Obilvians and Compulsive Gamblers tunes, and it was nice to hear a set that drew upon all of Cartwright's eras. I also recently picked up the new Oblivians album, and I'm stupidly in love with "Pinball King," a throwaway that Cartwright invests, characteristically, with genuine, humane feel for adolescent drama, self-mythology, and low-ceilings of possibilities. It's a rocking gem that somehow transcends novelty.

In April, Cartwright spoke about songwriting with Creative Loafing out of Atlanta. Cartwright was reminded by Austin Ray that Cartwright said recently, "When you make serious mistakes, you can draw on that forever." Ray asked: Is there stuff on the new album about past mistakes?
Oh, absolutely. Not that I'm not making fresh ones [laughs]. But it's the deep cuts that leave the scars you always see. When you make a big mistake, it never leaves your mind completely. It's always there to reflect on, especially when the sensation comes around to make the same mistake again and you think you'll get a different outcome [laughs]. I've always got several strings of thought going on when I try to write songs. I could be thinking about something that happened to me, or a friend, 20 years ago, and also thinking about some conversation or gossip I heard in a bar. It's all those things converging, where, in a way, you jump from one to the other, and you can tell a story that seems real. I'm all for that. That's an aesthetic I strive for—something that's emotional but also crafted, at the same time, to be a good pop song.
That's Greg Cartwright: reckless passionate craftsman. We're lucky to have him. As a demonstration of Cartwright's range, check out the silly and wonderful and inexplicably moving "Pinball King" and "I'm So Thankful," a track from Reigning Sound's first album, and one of the best (and sexiest) love songs that Cartwright's written.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

For Two Minutes Only

The Jam, 1979. L-r: Rick Buckler, Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton
Was there a better run of singles in the 1970s than The Jam's, from "Down In The Tube Station At Midnight" (1978) through "Start!" (1980)? You may have to go back to the brilliant runs on Billboard of the mid 1960s to find a band at such peak form. A pity that Paul Weller felt that this sound—humongous, thrilling, tight, smart, rocking, both in the studio and onstage—was ultimately limiting.

 "Down In The Tube Station At Midnight" (1978)

 "Strange Town" (1979)

 "When You're Young" (1979)

"The Eton Rifles" (1979)

 "Going Undergeound" (1980)

"Start!" (1980)

Photo "The Jam, London 1979," by Janette Beckman, via Morrison Hotel.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Infinity: interviews

Here's a round-up of some recent interviews I've done for This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began:

The Next Big Thing
NIU Today
Draft No. 4 (review and Q&A)
Northern Public Radio Morning Edition (Q&A and a reading)

You can order the book directly from Orphan Press here.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Vandals' "I Saw Her In A Mustang" Cracking the Code!

My dad was a teenager during the Second World War. He told me a story about catching a WWII action flick at a theater in Brooklyn, soon after the war ended. Aerial war movies were popular—think Fighter Squadron, Twelve O'clock High, et al—and my dad watched one set in the Pacific Theater. He doesn't remember the name of the movie, but vividly remembers something that happened in the theater. Onscreen, the brave pilots had just returned to the carrier after a bombing raid; in the debriefing room, the pilots were asked about the mission. One replied, "It was tough—those Zeroes were flying right up our rib cages." The audience—maybe it was a matinee full of teenagers like my dad—snickered behind their hands. Everyone knew that what the pilot really said was assholes, not rib cages. Everyone knew it, everyone got it, and—as my dad remembers it—the impact was that much stronger because the profanity was implied, not directly uttered. I think he recounted this story to me after watching Eddie Murphy Raw on TV the night before—so many f-bombs were dropped that they were rendered powerless.

I think of this story whenever I listen to The Vandals' remarkable 1965 single, "I Saw Her In A Mustang." I know little about the band: they hailed from Florida, the single was written by someone with the last name Bucci, and was released on Tiara Records and manufactured in Hollywood, Florida. The song's great, a rocking, gang-sung Farfisa-driven number that recounts a one-night stand. In amateur glory, the band lays out the narrative:
I saw her in a mustang
A whole lot of poontang
Her name was Alisa
And, oh, what a piece-a

I followed her to her place
And, man, it was such a race
And by the time that we got there
I had my hand in her hair

She asked me to spend the night
I didn't put up any fight
I didn't have my toothbrush
She said, "Now honey, hush-hush"

And by the time we got to bed
There wasn't much I hadn't said
I put a ribbon in her hair
She said, "Now honey, leave it there"
There's a long tradition of smutty lyrics in popular music, from the blues to Hip Hop, with a lot of naughtiness in between. "I Saw Her In A Mustang" is winking, too. What I love about tracks like this from this era is the alertness with which teenagers/twenty-somethings had to balance on the rope of disclosure: be too demure, and the song lacks teeth; go too far, and you'll get the song banned, and we want airplay, darn it! "Bucci" straddles the line very cleverly, although rhyming Mustang with poontang is hardly subtle, and was an hilariously risky move for a rock and roll band in the south in the mid-sixties. (I've read online that the band cut a cleaner version with that particular couplet changed.) And rhyming Alisa with piece-a, though indelicate, is pretty smart, and equally nervy.

Things get a bit more oblique in the second verse. Without much apparent foreplay, the couple head to her place (a fact that's also hot)—racing there, in fact, the pumping pistons of the engines a nice stand-in for surging hormones—and having arrived there the singer has his hand in her hair. Here's where lyrics such as these have to shine light in two directions at once. The hair where his hands are may be the sprayed bee-hive atop her head, or the hair may be further south. In the third verse, she magnanimously shrugs-off the fact that he doesn't have his toothbrush—a nice gesture of carnal intimacy on her part, but if the "toothbrush" is really a "condom," then she's a different kind of gal and this night could have long-lasting consequences. By the last verse, with that word "bed" so sexily announced again, there wasn't much he hadn't said to her: to woo her, or does "wasn't much" refer to the plummeting levels of decorum in his filthy talk to her, talk that she presumably wanted? And liked. And that ribbon in her hair, the one she wants him to leave there? Is that a pretty ribbon of hers that he grabbed off of her dresser or the floor? A sexy image. Or is it, well, a ribbon of a different kind?

I know. Sometimes a cigar, etc.. But the vivid smuttiness of the opening verse suggests all kinds of fun in that chick's apartment. The Vandals want us to go there. The rollicking, reckless tune sures wants us to, also, with its go-go-cage twist beat and sloppy guitar solo that tells us the story.

Good clean dirty fun in FLA. Don't play it when Mom and Dad are around.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Lifespan of a Motel

A Hampton Inn is going up in DeKalb. It's interesting to watch the skeleton gain muscle and heft as the weeks pass, lay down roots, as it were. Soon the doors will be open and families will stagger through the lobby at the end of long trips. Like a church that's yet to be blessed, this lodging-to-be has yet to be anointed with the fresh scent of a Eau De Hotel Room. At what point does that occur? At the opposite end of town, a hotel has vanished. I forget its name, Sunshine or Meadow something. It was in operation for years, then empty for a while, and then, virtually overnight, razed. I was surprised to learn that there are no basements in hotels, at least in inexpensive hotels, as this one was. All that's left now is pavement and weeds, and a forlorn sign hoping for a sale. In Rockford, I came across an abandoned hotel, or motel, or apartment—it's hard to tell what it was, it's so bleached and lifeless now. Broken windows, boarded-up doors, busted lamps, trees leaning in toward hallways and stairwells—all the decrepit ghotsiness I love and childishly romanticize.

Three hotels, three generations of strange and friendly ghosts, coming, going, and in the middle of vanishing.



En media res...

Sunday, July 14, 2013

That secret neighborhood, Ctd.

Kris Saknussemm's Sea Monkeys—he calls it a Memory Book; some editions (see image at the left) bear the words "A Novel"—presents a dilemma: throughout the book Saknussemm's writing is vivid, lyric, and urgent, but things go a bit slack as the Saknussemm persona enters and proceeds through his twenties. In short, Saknussemm gets annoying, having evolved into a drug-abusing, serial-womanizing, self-absorbed guy. None of this behavior precludes a good narrative, of course, but as Saknussemm turns inward, his gaze on the world narrows, his curiosity is sacrificed to blackouts or idle-brained epiphanies, and his observations become insular and pinched. Some of this has to do with the diminishing returns of self-destructive, obsessive behavior—but I'm bothered most by the fact that adulthood might be less interesting than adolescence as subject in memoir.

Is this fair? I've certainly read many, many good works of fiction and autobiography that dwell in and on adulthood, but the presentiment, native curiosity, and struggle to match language to action that marks childhood are gears that move more urgently and dramatically than those that power the engine of The Grown Up (this grown up included). When Saknussemm stands on the edge of adulthood, trying to understand his alcoholic preacher father, his unhappy mother, his confounding but loving sister, his friends, the odd and captivating northern California landscape, strange adults, weird classmates, weirder teachers, and, perhaps most profoundly, an incident when an older boy raped him, his writing is at its strongest and his book's searching energy is at its most humming, precisely because in childhood we are searching all of the time, often without being aware, often internally.

The book's last third recounts Saknussemm's reckless alcohol and drug abuse and his rather self-satisfied sexual conquests of his students, his friends, his friends' friends. Some of these liaisons are written about tenderly and with perspective; others are tossed off like snippets from Penthouse letters. Cheers, I'm all for the guy getting laid, but the litany of sexualized women becomes dull, as any obsession or addiction becomes dull, finally. (To wit: the second volume of Peter Guralnick's biography of Elvis Presley.) As a child, Saknussemm, like most of us, found little room for smugness—he was too busy trying to make sense, not avoiding it. He was too busy navigating through the unknowable and the new, not the routine or self-obliterating.

OK, so it's my problem, really. I'm just the reader, whose wheelhouse happens to be the mysteries of childhood. 


The book's final essay-chapter is fantastic, Saknussemm at his best. Here, he recalls a crazy adolescent stunt (which may or may not have happened; some of the pieces in Sea Monkeys were originally published as fiction), when he, after Neddy in John Cheever's "The Swimmer," attempts with his friends to cross his neighborhood via only rooftops. Look at this wonderful straddling of childhood bravura, imagination, and nerve with the adult's blinking wondering on the meaning of it all:
Once, long ago, they told us in school there was a time when a squirrel could cross an entire state without ever touching the ground. But they didn’t tell us that California foothills that had been golden for centuries would suddenly lose their live oaks and hawks to brick- veneer houses sprouting silver antennae that shone in the sun. Those houses filled the entire valley in less than two years and made us think even more intently about the squirrels of the not-so-distant past.
   Then one night, when the moon was full and there were no good television shows on, the idea came to me—like a magical cure. Like the night I taught myself how to ride a bike.
   Maybe we could turn the houses back into golden grass and trees, if we traveled the twenty-two miles of the valley without ever touching the ground—leaping over the shingles and ceramic tiles of all those roofs—at night when no one was watching and we were supposed to be in bed. We could reclaim the roofs. All of them. If we started from Noel’s house, in the newer subdivision, we stood a chance.There were three of us in on the expedition—Noel, Kim and me. Kim thought we should tell the newspapers or the Guinness Book of World Records, but Noel and I wanted to keep the journey a secret. We wanted to leave while the moon was bright. We wanted to leap between the black-windowed houses with the dogs barking and the water gleaming in the swimming pools.
   It was harder work than we thought. Kim was fat and sometimes almost fell. We heard sirens and got scared, but the air was sweet and biting with the scent of distant alfalfa and freshly watered lawns. We could hear the steady whoosh of the trucks on the interstate as we always could back in our beds, but the sound was more acute and resonant in the open air and made us wonder harder than ever where they all were going.
   We kicked sun-dried, pulpy newspapers out of rain gutters, we whistled down chimneys, we broke off a TV aerial and carried it like a standard, then chucked it like a javelin into an empty doghouse. We were simultaneously explorers and burglars-two very great things to be at least once in life, and no one in the world knew where we were or why we’d gone.
   We learned an important lesson that night. We found out you can hide behind a chimney while a dachshund barks its head off only so long before you realize it’s a dachshund. You can cross a hundred roofs but you will never experience that delicious life-mad fear the same way again. You will never whisper as you whispered that first time, or feel so intimately concerned with the fine fur on a cat’s back, seen in the sudden illumination of a flashlight held in a frightened homeowner's hand.
   Twenty-two miles is a hell of a long way, and no, we didn’t make it all the way, by any stretch of even our imaginations. But did we return home? That’s my question. Home is a mysterious place—seemingly the same but forever changed, when you’ve traveled as far as we did that night. So many years later, and I’ve lived a hundred lifetimes’ worth of nights beneath that moon. I’ve scaled derelict oil tanks on a beach in North Africa, and fallen off a camel drunk in the heart of Australia, only to be awakened by wild horses splashing on a red-rock creek. Still I don’t know if I found my way back home that morning or if I just reached a jumping-off place. Jump with me, go higher and higher.
   I suppose the truth is, we leap from house to house, and inevitably sometimes we stay too long. We grow afraid. The distance seems too great. Eventually we forget how we arrived—we’re so busy remaining.
   If you ever get that way, my recommendation is to go up on the nearest roof. That’s Where the adventures begin. Have an expedition party-I may even join you. But We must leave immediately, because We have many roofs to cross and darknesses to leap before We learn the secret of returning.

Monday, July 8, 2013

That secret neighborhood

From "We Live Forever":
In dreams I go back to that neighborhood, not the real neighborhood you can walk around today, however changed, but that secret neighborhood we entered unbeknownst to our parents, the place of truth and danger—of terrible hopes and sorrow growing like ivy over fences crumbling away into the soft-smelling nights, where whispers linger in the air for years.
Just one of many knockout sentences in Kris Saknussemm's Sea Monkeys: A Memory Book.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Sleepy LaBeef and those American Songs

I've wanted to see the legendary Sleepy LaBeef for more than 20 years, ever since I read Peter Guralnick's terrific profile of him in Lost Highway. Born in 1935 in Arkansas, raised on a melon farm, LaBeef has been playing American music for as long as anyone, through duress and semi-stardom, tragedy and brightness. Known popularly as The Human Jukebox, LaBeef allegedly knows thousands of songs that he can conjure at whim. This knack was on fantastic display at the 33rd American Music Festival at Fitzgrald's in Berwyn, Illinois. LaBeef and his band—a drummer and bass player, and Chicagoan Chris Neville on keyboards—set up in the tent area, and started playing around 7 pm with barely anyone around the stage (though plenty were seated). It didn't take long for him to draw a crowd. At six feet-five, LaBeef's commanding, standing stock straight and clutching a bright red Gretsch. He wears black slacks (of the Sears Dress variety), a black leather jacket, cowboy boots and a red-brim hat, and non-ironic aviator glasses. And he knows his music. Watching LaBeef play is like catching a long, sustained refreshing breeze of Americana: his set essentially consists of several long medleys blending classic and semi-obscure American rock and roll, boogie woogie, honky tonk, and country songs, filtered through LaBeef's baritone voice, fantastic playing, and genial personality. I was in awe. He throws solos to his keyboardist and drummer, resting his hands on guitar and smiling, pleased at the results. Neville looked equal parts baffled and bemused as he tried to follow LaBeef's smooth flight from song to song. Occasionally Sleepy will shoot a dagger glance at a musician if the breeze falters. During "Memphis, Tennessee" something in the bass player's performance was really bugging LaBeef—I couldn't figure it out, beyond noting the bassist played with his head down and wasn't very dynamic. LaBeef, his head twisted to his left toward the bass player, barked, "Pay attention now!" It was a little awkward, but over soon enough, LaBeef smiling again, the bass player breathing a little easier, playing double time now. I lost track of the number of songs LaBeef played: the net result is a rich run through an insanely large catalogue of songs made famous, infamous, or forgotten by dozens of past musicians. This contemporary of Elvis Presley just licks his fingers, finds the direction of the breeze, and plays on. And on and on. Check out these testimonials to LaBeef's talent and legacy.


Here are a couple minutes of Sleepy at work last night: