Thursday, October 31, 2013

"One of the important books about AC/DC"

Down under at Booktopia, Jesse Fink, author of the new and heralded The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, has named my own AC/DC's Highway To Hell as one of the "five important books" about AC/DC. I'm grateful, and happy to be in good company.

"It’s slim, really a long essay rather than a book," Fink writes,
but Bonomo brings a fresh American perspective on the AC/DC story by writing from the point of view of a young man growing up in Wheaton, Maryland, hearing this landmark album from these wild colonial boys for the first time and, like me and every AC/DC fan, being blown the f*** away by it. 
He strongly denounces AC/DC for their lyrics to “Night Prowler”, a song that unfortunately came to be associated with the Richard Ramirez killings in California in the early 1980s (Ramirez was a fan of AC/DC). The band claimed the song was simply about a guy sneaking into his girlfriend’s room late at night. Bonomo disagrees: “Bon Scott’s more treacherous imagery pushes the song into regrettably mean places. I’m not sure that the band can have it both ways.” He’s absolutely right. How else do you explain the lyrics, "And you don’t feel the steel/ / Till it’s hanging out your back?"

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Dreaming of photographs

It's a drag to wake up from a dream where you took photographs because, a) you realize that the photos don't exist, and b) worse, you realize that the places you photographed don't exist. Perhaps can't exist. This is a different kind of grief. What's a photograph but a re-imagining of place, and if that place doesn't exist, then it can only be imagined, not re-imagined. That's a fatal disconnect between place and fantasy: when I photograph a site I hope to discover something, via composition or lighting or angle or filter, that transcends the site itself, that has moved from the reality of the site to somewhere else. When I dream of taking photographs, all I have—all I had—is the somewhere else, the wished-for. William Leith has said, "Photographers never have much incentive to show the world as it is," and I agree, in that the world "as it is" benefits from the surprise or re-presenting of a good photograph, but I disagree in that such a surprise was always  there, waiting to be sprung. When I dream a photograph, the (very) minor grief stems less from, "Oh I can't see those photos!" than from, "Oh I can't see that place." It never was.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Abandoned, Ctd.

Barber-Colman Company factory. Rockford, Illinois.

Recognized in  2006 by the National Park Service with a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

An essay can eat itself. Then what?

In the fun-house mirror of the essay, an idea can take many iterations: as idea, as idea dramatized, as dramatization of idea dramatized. An essay can essay itself coming into being, keep making left turn after left turn in pursuit of story and commentary on story and the story of commentary and commentary on that commentary, until it turns back on itself and begins consuming what it produces. Then what? Well, if the reader is still around, an apology is in order. And then a wholesale rethink. We don't want our essays so consumed with themselves that they vanish into their own making. Ultimately what's of greater value, a working watch or a watch taken apart.

I'll let Annie Dillard have the last word, though she was probably going somewhere else with this. Still, it's one of my favorites: "You can't put together a memoir without cannibalizing your own life for parts."

Essayists beware.

Image via Avantgarda.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"The piano as battlefield": Alain Feydri on Lost & Found

French music journalist Alain Feydri recently reviewed Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found in the fanzine Dig It!. I asked Janique Jouin, who heroically translated Sweat into French, if she would translate Feydri's review into English. She generously obliged, admitting that she works best moving from English to French, and suggesting that I "English up" the translation. Modesty and respect for Feydri forbid me, and besides, I like Jouin's attempt, which she graciously allowed me to publish here. It captures something essential, I'm guessing, about Feydri's style. I'm grateful for his kind and effusive words:
Once you close this book, you can be grateful to Bonomo for not having spared the iconic Jerry Lee Lewis, for having avoided being hypnotized by the myth, and having most of the time stuck to this minefield of a discography which is the great untamed one. We're far from absolute rejoicing. Joe Bonomo, who we already have to thank for this amazing Fleshtones’ biography, has refrained from entering in there as you enter the Holy Land, as a contrite devout, with one’s hands together, blank-eyed and gape-mouthed. Ready to swallow anything. It’s almost the exact opposite. He doesn’t keep his opinions and biases for himself. So, of course, it’s a little bit about the hero's fingers magnetized by the booze, his drinking sprees, and pills swallowed by the box. About the fire, too, that burned his groin, nest of so many sins, just before Homeric rages and slaps given out at will. Bluntly. When God himself can hardly call him to order. It’s about his wedding with his young cousin Myra, too, the source of so much trouble. No serious book about Jerry Lee Lewis could avoid this. But the most important thing is somewhere else, based on the music and by someone who proclaims his belonging to others tribes: punk-rock, garage-rock, indie-rock! Who can praise "Shake Some Action" and evoke Charlie Pickett, the New Bomb Turks and whoever! He’s just like us! We like the way he tells it, explains it in great detail, leaves Jerry Lee behind, and finds him again a few sentences later. Tracking him passionately. The intact emotion inspired by this music crosses the pages, this unique excitement he describes with the right words, the paragraphs crashing into each others like a train crashing into the terminus platform. A book whose backbone remains Live at the Star-Club in Hamburg, a great record, with no air pocket that, literally, pulverizes you. As if there, far away from home, the Killer had had set the turbines of Hell into motion. The Piano as a battlefield. And even if some of us already know it, nobody so far has made a better effort than Bonomo, to say it again so beautifully! With his personal credo, saving Lewis’ Sun era, then telling about the late 60’s country records, on Smash. Tirelessly separating the wheat from the chaff, never taken in by the thickness of the character. Which requires a real discernment, considering all the records the high voltage Louisiana man has cut. A passionate, obstinate book, proudly rooted in a true point of view. Which makes it look like his unruly subject. Portrait of the artist as a mad dog! 
Dig It! (2013)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Nostalgia As Bacteria

Julie Beck, in her July write-up at The Atlantic covering new books about nostalgia, cites an interesting dilemma in the pre-20th century "treatment" of nostalgia. In discussing the various ways medical professionals dealt with longing for the past, she writes, "How to treat this primordial sludge of symptoms depends on the situation and, I guess, your perspective. For a little boy who missed his wet nurse, doctors brought her back and then slowly conditioned him to spend time away from her. The soldiers sometimes were treated with less patience. French doctor Jourdan Le Cointe thought nostalgia should be treated by 'inciting pain and terror,' as Svetlana Boym describes in her book The Future of Nostalgia."
Le Cointe cited the example of the Russian army's outbreak of nostalgia in 1733, on its way to Germany. The general told the troops that the first one to come down the nostalgic virus would be buried alive, and actually made good on his threat a couple times, which nipped that right in the bud.
When nostalgia finally made its way to the United States, after the Civil War, the "scare it out of them" tactic was replaced with "shame it out of them."  American military doctor Theodore Calhoun thought nostalgia was something to be ashamed of, that those who suffered from it were unmanly, idle and weak-willed. He proposed curing it with a healthy dose of public ridicule and bullying. Maybe this is why most people don't feel nostalgic about middle school.
Other dubious cures tried over the years include leeches, purging the stomach, and "warm hypnotic emulsions," whatever that unspeakable horror might be. Doctors did sometimes go with the obvious solution of just letting the patients go home, which more often than not cleared their symptoms right up. But even that wasn't guaranteed to work, if the home they longed for had changed significantly or just no longer existed.
This last development is the most interesting to me. Consider the logic: a patient suffers from nostalgia—a disease coined by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer in the 17th-century from the Greek nostos, for homecoming, and algos, for pain— and that patient is sent home to visit what he yearns for. The "what" in this case is really the "where," but it all might have changed irrevocably. Treatment then fails.

When is the past ever the same? When is "back there" ever the way it was? Nostalgia is less a yearning for a place or time or person than a kind of distracted grief, an acknowledgement of loss dressed up as a wistful sigh. The ludicrousness of myopic nostalgia-treatment aside, this particular misunderstanding of nostalgia's slippery nature is poignant. It's interesting to note how human attitudes evolve relative to permanent states of the human condition. The litany Beck cites of inhumane if well-intentioned responses to nostalgia underscores the fact that until relatively recently humans have been fighting nostalgia —that is, considering it a hostile force to be eradicated, destroyed as a bacterial virus might be. Yet, nostalgia is in our DNA—you might as well treat hunger by starvation, or sleeplessness by staying up all night. To be alive is to be nostalgic. To argue, as some other-century doctors quaintly did, that one can "cure" nostalgia by going back is foolish, and understandable. How many times we chase the cure before we realize that going back—to a place, a relationship, a time in life—is a placebo.

Illustration by Chris Piascik, via

Friday, October 18, 2013

Nowhere So Fast: A Conversation with Mary E. Donnelly

In 1979, Zion, Illinois pop band Shoes were gathered at the Opium Den, a restaurant in London, celebrating the completion of their major label debut album Present Tense, when someone on the staff began playing a new single by this new American band the Knack. Over the course of a wildly drunken evening, "My Sharona" was spun ad infinitum, its riff and chorus scoring a reckless night of excess. Shoes guitarist Jeff Murphy drank so much that he slept through the Present Tense playback party. As Mary E. Donnelly pointedly observes in Boys Don't Lie, her terrific new biography of Shoes, "Jeff heard more Knack that evening than Shoes." It's a richly ironic moment: Shoes backgrounded by the Knack at Shoes' own celebratory evening. So went history: the Knack, skyrocketing, would go on to sell millions of records in 1979, while Present Tense suffered gravely disappointing commercial results. Of course, the Knack are fated to be remembered as a specific product from a specific time in history. Shoes—Murphy, his brother John, and Gary Klebe—survives.

Have you heard the story? Band forms, band flirts with success, band fails to reach that success, band is forced to redefine what success means, band soldiers on in the shadows, marginalized by mainstream tastes. Boys Don't Lie is thoroughly researched and deeply affectionate, but clear-eyed and smart, an epic account of how a band that relies on its own stubborn instincts and collective artistic rudder faces difficult choices in an inhospitable market. (It's a familiar and appealing narrative to me. I've been a fan of Shoes and their exquisite harmonies and fuzzy pop songs since the mid-1980s, when I first heard them.) Over the course of their four decades as a band—an arc beginning with small, self-produced, -manufactured, and -distributed albums in the mid-1970s, a graduation to a major label (Elektra) in 1979, and a return to DIY by the 1990s—Shoes has never wavered from its commitment to songcraft, pop aesthetic, and quality.

In another telling and hilarious passage in the book, Donnelly describes the unlikely, late-1980s mingling of Shoes and KISS's Gene Simmons, who was briefly but urgently interested in the band for his vanity record label. Shoes listened uneasily to some of the well-heeled Simmons's more craven suggestions—put a chick in the band; write more sexual songs that "make the girls wet," etc.—but, thankfully for all concerned, the relationship between refined power pop and calculated crotch rock was never consummated. These kinds of stories—and there are plenty of them to be found in this ambitious, sweeping story—remind the reader that, one, despite their sealed-off, finely-crafted cannon, Shoes doesn't exist in a vacuum, and two, of how difficult it is to live life by a creed when that creed is at odds with conventional thinking and taste makers. Shoes persisted, writing songs, layering and crafting them in their home studio, forging professional and personal lives that revolved around their love of music and recording. Boys Don't Lie narrates that story vividly and respectfully.

Recently I virtually sat down with Donnelly and asked her about the book.


Mary E. Donnelly
You stay pretty much out of Boys Don't Lie as an author and persona. What is your history with the band and what attracted you to telling their story?

I'm not cool. I'm pretty much the most ordinary person there is. My training is in literary scholarship (I have a PhD in English with a specialization in British, Irish, and Postcolonial Literature). I didn't belong in the book (except for the weird little coda); it's their story, not mine. All I want to do is help restore to them the respect I think they deserve, and I think I do that better by offering dispassionate analysis and explanation, rather than fangirling all over them.

My history with the band is pretty much nonexistent. (I never even saw them play live until this year.) I was a fan from the time, in the fall of 1979, my brother put on "Tomorrow Night" [single on Bomp Records, later re-recorded for Present Tense] for me and said, "I think you'll like this." I bought all their records, and evangelized like crazy, but no one else bit, and I came to think of them—as so many other Shoes fans have done—as my own private possession, this thing I got that no else seemed to.

In 2003, I wrote a small web piece about them, and sent it to Black Vinyl Records on a lark. Jeff Murphy answered me, and we corresponded, on and off, for years. But though that correspondence, and when I read the liner noted to As Is [1996 collection of Shoes rarities], and when I read Jeff's 2007 book on the making of Present Tense, I became convinced that there was a much bigger story here: with one thing and another, Shoes stood at all the important turning points of the music industry for over 25 years. So I proposed it, and they accepted.

Can you describe the publishing process? Did you approach established houses and/or agents at any point?

When you have a PhD in English, your go-to fill-in job is publishing, and over the years I worked for a wide variety of commercial and academic publishing ventures, from the most frivolous (a magazine dedicated entirely to honeymoon planning), to the most serious (a publisher focused on the socioeconomics and history of Southeast Asia). So I knew how books were made, what a manuscript looked like, the steps and safeguards you put in.

But at the same time, I knew that this was going to be a book with a pretty narrow focus. I did send out some halfhearted queries once or twice, usually coming back with the same "too niche for us" responses. Commercial publishing has a huge overhead, and need to expect huge sales to make it worth it even to read.

I expected, from the beginning, that Boys Don't Lie would be self-published. That's the beauty of the world we live in now: there's no need to sell 500,000 books to reach the audience you want to reach; make it, get news of it to the right people, and they'll find you. I founded a small press, and we have other books in the hopper, but I really don't expect to sell thousands of anything, It's more to help people take this genre seriously, to see it as a discrete artistic movement.

Shoes' career spans nearly four decades
Were Shoes behind the book from the beginning? Was there ever any resistance on their part?

I have to admit, when I first proposed the book, there were a few days of silence which really freaked me out. Shoes are nothing if not deliberate. But when they committed, they did so wholeheartedly. They have been extraordinarily generous with their time and support and friendship, really just nice, nice people. They were patient through the often excruciatingly slow process of building a history for which the source texts sometimes didn't exist, or had to be cobbled together from a multitude of sources. They had their perspectives, but they often didn't quite know why a certain event had unfolded as it did, and I was determined, as much as possible, to illuminate those corners. I would not say I faced much resistance, even when they thought I was missing the point as they understood it.

Some people will read this book as a heroic struggle to keep focused on your own vision through really difficult circumstances, and that's certainly one way to see it. Others will see it as as a tragedy, where that same focus led them to resist certain conclusions others might have reached sooner, ending in a series of pretty painful losses. That's also a decent interpretation. So it wasn't resistance so much as the pain of discussing unfulfilled ambitions, and the things they did to try and fulfill them. It was not easy for them to revisit a lot of these corners of their lives--I don't think any of us, including me, would want a "me" poking at our most painful memories to try and tease out root causes--but, to quote Jane Austen, they "bore it bravely, as no one could have borne it" and I think we're all pleased with the final product.

Shoes' story became as much a story of the shifting record industry as a story of a band. Did this surprise you?

When I started this project, in summer 2009, Gary Klebe said to me, in his half-amused-but-dead-serious way, "This book is going to be like a Shoes record." I asked how. "It's going to take longer than you think. It's going to be longer than you think. And it's going to be better than you think." At the time, my vision was 250 pages, done by the end of that year.

He was right. I was wrong.

What he knew that I didn't was the way in which their story intersected with some of the most major trends in the industry for the last four decades. It's not an exaggeration to say that these three men in this one little boat rode wave after wave of economic and technological and historical change. (Or, as John Murphy snarks, "Great. We're Forrest Gump.") But telling the story of Shoes is telling the story of this industry. And yes, no one was more surprised than I was at the amount of information I had to digest. I thought I knew this story: I was wrong. And usually, when we get this narrative, it's from the winners' point of view. Shoes, as longtime aspirants to the Big Time, have a fundamentally different perspective.

What was Moira McCormick's role in and contribution to the book?

Jeff referred me to Moira pretty early on, and it took some doing to find her. But when I did, it was love at first sight. In the first place, we are sisters under the skin: we got along like old friends immediately. In the second, she has exactly what I lacked with the band: length of time covering them as a writer. She's been writing about Shoes for 30 years. More than that even, Moira has a resume as long as her arm writing about rock, and she's been in every major Midwestern and national music publication. She's got a great eye and ear.

I knew they day we met that we were going to work together. Initially, we just had lunch and she showed up with files and files of material to give me; our first date was to a Kinko's. But before I left that day, I had asked her to edit the book and she agreed. There was almost no one who could both proofread and content edit a book like this. She could. She's literally one of a kind.

And as her queries got deeper and more perceptive, I began to realize that the book was changing shape. She pulled me back when I got too cerebral, and together we kind of forged this middle way between standard rock journalism and critical biography. I knew by early last year that we needed to be co-credited on the book, and have never questioned that decision.
Is Shoes comparable to other bands? In what ways?

I see Shoes along a continuum of pop-rock bands, as part of the genre called power pop (a term they're not crazy about). But those British Invasion-influenced, punk-flavored bands of the 70s and 80s have more in common than they do separating them. Shoes are part, then, of a movement they didn't know existed, and I discuss in the book how they stack up in relation to the Knack, 20/20, the Cars, Blondie, Paul Collins' Beat, the Romantics, etc.


At the same time, they are unique. They taught themselves to play. They taught themselves to write. They taught themselves to produce. They taught themselves to run a record label. "Independent" doesn't begin to cover it.

Moira once said of Shoes that they "willed themselves into existence," and I spend a lot of time in the book trying to set up the specific cultural and local circumstances that made that act so improbable in their case. A religious outpost that became a suburban backwater, Zion was a place to get the hell out of and never look back. And yet they didn't. They are rooted in a way I find very appealing, not just rooted to their town, but to each other. Even when they drive each other nuts, they stick together. Most bands, as you note, would have packed it in. They did not. Some of the bands I note above are still playing, but rarely with their original lineups. Even if Shoes stick together out of sheer stubbornness, that's still impressive. Jeff Murphy said to me once, "Shoes never really ends, we just go in and out of music-making phases," and I think it's helpful to see them that way. I can't think of another band like that.

Sound check, 2013
You ironically title one chapter "When It Hits," when, of course, it never really did for Shoes. The most interesting era of the band for me is the post-Elektra years, when most bands would hang it up. What era or eras of Shoes' career do you find most compelling?

Well, I actually meant the record (Present Tense) hitting the streets, but I think through that whole section of the book, you do get this sense of "when will it hit? when will it hit?" just as they did in 1979. Anyone who doesn't know their story is bound to think, over and over, "Is this it? Will this be the time?" and feel the pressure the band felt.

But I think, honestly, that while all of that 1979-82 stuff is intriguing, they really were just one of a number of bands who got signed by a major label, saw the businesses crash and burn in front of them, and got dumped.

I'm much more intrigued by the period 1988-96, which should have been different. They were on their own, there was a lively independent music scene, and they could/should have had it made. First there was all the comedy with Gene Simmons, which I think says a lot about conventional wisdom in the industry in that era. Then Stolen Wishes looked like it was going to set them up as a really solid independent entity: doing it their own way and being successful at it. Ultimately, that worked for a while, but they weren't able to turn it to their advantage (and indeed many studios and indie labels met the same fate). I think that was more heartbreaking for me because it did seem like, finally, they could chart their own course. Shoes against the world is an easy story; Shoes fighting among themselves was much harder to tell. But in some ways, the fact that they came through that says more about them as people and as a band than anything else.

Friday, October 11, 2013

You know, the one what walks around the store

Gene Vincent
I've been thinking lately about one of my favorite lines in rock and roll. Yes: no more really needs to be written about "Be-Bop-A-Lula," Gene Vincent's classic 1956 b-side (the a-side was "Woman Love," equally great) yet I've always obsessed over a line in the second verse. Vincent's ecstatic, breathy vocal renders the words superfluous, really; he's so hyped-up about this girl that you can virtually hear his hard-on. What I love is the age-old disconnect between the urge to say what he needs to say and his inability to say it, the origin point of most rock and roll, I'd argue. The song's writing history is predictably disputed. In 1970, Vincent claimed that he wrote the song with fellow U.S. Naval Hospital patient Donald Graves after a bender and an impromptu glance at a comic book: "I come in dead drunk and stumble over the bed," Vincent recounted. "And me and Don Graves were looking at this bloody book; it was called 'Little Lulu'. And I said, "Hell, man, it's 'Be-Bop-a-Lulu.' And he said, 'Yeah, man, swinging.' And we wrote this song."

Of greater interest is the origin of the song's title. Via Wiki:
The phrase "Be-Bop-A-Lula" is almost identical to "Be-Baba-Leba", the title of a # 3 R&B chart hit for Helen Humes in 1945, which became a bigger hit when recorded by Lionel Hampton as "Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop." This phrase, or something very similar, was widely used in jazz circles in the 1940s, giving its name to the bebop style, and possibly being ultimately derived from the shout of "Arriba! Arriba!" used by Latin American bandleaders to encourage band members.
I love that the title evokes the image of a bandleader trying to whip a song into a froth, because "Be-Bop-A-Lula" is as much a song about rock and roll as it's a song about a girl. And for how many countless tunes can that argument be made? (For the record, here's the band lineup: Cliff Gallup on lead guitar, "Wee" Willie Williams on rhythm, "Jumpin'" Jack Neal on string bass, and Dickie "Be Bop" Harrell on drums.) The song's all about the urge to express. Here's the second verse:
Well, she's the one that gots that beat
She's the one with the flyin' feet
She's the one that walks around the store
She's the one that gets more more more
She's the one that walks around the store. That's the line that slays me, every time. He's already drooled over the red jeans that the Queen of the Teens wears, and that she "loves" him. In the second verse he praises her dance moves, but the idle but obsessive observation "she's the one that walks around the store" seals her grip on him. It's the song's most potent line because it's the most surprising line, and the moment surprises him. Of course she's hot in her jeans moving in front of the jukebox. That's she's hot simply walking around the store? Just walking. Around the store. How ordinary a day that must've been as the singer glances up from the register where he's working or stares in through the front plate glass window or peeps from behind his comic book: she's just walking around the store. It's such a daily, trite, boring detail in the midst of a sizzling song, and so it sizzles along with the rest of his helplessly horny observations.

She's sexiest when she's not trying to be. He's hooked. He's sunk: