Saturday, December 27, 2014

Up in the Air with R.E.M.

I recently watched R.E.M. By MTV, the music channel's new feature-length video documentary, and it sent me back to R.E.M.'s vast catalog, and back in time. My self-made R.E.M. iTunes playlist is 9-plus hours, and over the course of this past week I listened, chronologically, from 1982's Chronic Town EP to the band's final single in 2011, "We All Go Back To Where We Belong." The songs' and albums' progression and forward momentum over thirty years paralleled the images in the documentary of four skinny, hungry kids with energy to burn sitting for earnest interviews giving way, inexorably, to three middle-aged men who often seemed bored and jaded, whose legendary stage shows had morphed from raw sets in front of hundreds to grand spectacles for tens of thousands.

In many cases, songwriters are more elastic than prose writers about their words' meaning; authorial intention is important to me, and I can get irritated when it's devalued or ignored. Paul McCartney famously said that he was thinking of his mother Mary—not The Mother Mary—when he wrote "Let It Be" in 1970, but that if a listener wants to think he was writing under divine inspiration and was directing the song toward the Christ Mother, that's fine by him. I usually find this objectionable, but then again I'm not a songwriter, I'm an essayist and prose writer, to whom meaning is precise and earned, and originates in specific intentions and ideas, however lyric and abstract that origin might be. And yet.

Michael Stipe is—let's not belabor this—uniquely blasé about the meaning of his early lyrics. He famously confessed to an online group that he was basically busking nonsense sounds as the lyrics on R.E.M.'s first couple of records. I've always held that the band's full-length debut Murmur is a great all-instrumental album, Stipe's words less prose and content than another wordless instrument. If you weren't around at the time Murmur was released, it's difficult to appreciate how amazing that record sounded; I walked around in a daze on the University of Maryland campus listening to the album, bumping into things. The album was new and old and knowable and unfathomable and catchy and obscure and rocking and folky and funny and somber at once. A phrase in one song, "Laughing," stuck with me: "Logic, logic, laughing too." I believed in this as a kind of faith, a twenty-something kid balancing the excess and discipline of college and romance, friendships and introversion. Yes: one needed a kind of Stoic logic to get through life, but one also needed to laugh irrationally at it all. Brilliant! I have a distinct memory of idling between classes at Maryland one day, listening to this song and half-consciously, half-unconsciously assembling its philosophy.

Decades later, I learned that what Stipe is actually singing in the song is "Lighted, lighted, laughing in tune"—which means nothing, beyond its presence in the mouth and whatever private resonance it might've had for Stipe. But when I hear "Laughing," as I did again three days ago, I sing along to the unlikely marriage of logic and laughter, remembering how reflecting on that that tenuous bond helped to get me through my absurdly volatile early 20s.


2011. Amy and I are flying from Chicago to Austin, Texas. In the plane I'm listening to Collapse Into Now, R.E.M.'s brand new, and as it turned out, final, album. Because of her fear of flying, neither Amy nor I had flown in decades, and though the flight was uneventful, our nerves were shot. I kept replaying two songs on the album that narrated both the majesty of the flight (prosaic to other frequent travelers) and my deep anxieties about flying. "Überlin" and "Walk It Back" have little to do with a plane ride (I think) and yet the ascending lilt and calm in each helped me through the flight, allowed me to appreciate the beauty of the clouds and sunlight glinting off of the jet wings, to rationalize a safe end to the journey, to calm my own nerves so that I could help calm Amy's. Again, certain of Stipe's words stood out in stark relief in each song:

From "Walk It Back":
You, don't you turn this around
I have not touched the ground in
I don't know how long
From "Überlin":
I am flying on a star into a meteor tonight
I am flying on a star, star, star
I will make it through the day
And then the day becomes the night
I will make it through the night
When I listen to these songs, the images and memories each stirs in me have less to do with the songs' compositional circumstances, or with Stipe's intentions, or to whatever head-space the band was in when they wrote and recorded them, than with where I was: 40,000 absurd feet in the air, nervous, next to a nervous girl I care deeply for who was twisting her Southwest Airlines napkin to a fine point. I was balancing logic and laughter, airborne with a soundtrack. These songs will always be up in the air with me, restorative. I'm glad that I have such deeply personal and resonant touchstones on both R.E.M.'s first and last albums.

As it turns out at SXSW, hanging with the Fleshtones' Keith Streng, I ran into Peter Buck at a bar where he was playing with the Baseball Project. He was on guard behind dark sunglasses, escaping the Texas heat. I told him that I thought that Collapse Into Now is "a great flying album." I'm not sure that he knew what I meant. It doesn't matter.

"Laughing," Murmur (1983)

 "Überlin," Collapse Into Now (2011)

"Walk It Back," Collapse Into Now (2011)

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Married Life, Narrated by Billboard Country Music Ads

The trials and tribulations of being hitched, Nashville-style. A triptych of Billboard advertisements, 1969.

Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn wrestle with the age-old domestic dilemma...
While Cal Smith's caught in the middle...
And Claude King remains ever-faithful.

More vintage Billboard ads here and here.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Billboard magazine, 1965: Girls Want the Airwaves, Dylan's Sensational, and Conigliaro Sings!

It's time for another stroll through the evocative advertisements of Billboard, this time the heady Spring of 1965. (I took a look at a few 1966 Billboard ads here.)

Dave Clark Five and Sam The Sham and The Pharaohs were rocking, and hawking some killer tunes.

The women were out in the streets and demanding the airwaves.

Meanwhile, this guy was peaking.
The Wurlitzer "Remote Speaker Wall Box" was promising unity and love between besotted couples. Wonder which song they argued about? Dylan or Sam the Sham?
These are my two favorites: an ad for Boston Red Six outfielder Tony Conigliaro's single "Why They Don't Understand." In the spring of 1965 Coniglaro was in his second season, during which he'd lead the league in home runs, becoming the youngest home run champion in American League history. In 1967 Conigliaro was hit in the face by a pitch, a brutal setback to his promising career. A year and a half later, he clubbed 20 homers and knocked in 82 RBI to earn the Comeback Player of the Year award. In 1970, he reached career-high numbers in HRs (36) and RBI (116).

Last but not least we have an awesome example of an earlier era's pre-Politically Correct ad for celebrating drinking and driving, via Dave "Six Days On The Road" Dudley and his latest, "Two Six Packs Away." From what?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Boeingville, USA

Several years ago, Sally Howes reported on the massive, twelve-square block Boeing Plant 2 in south Seattle, Washington that was camouflaged by a fake suburban town during the Second War. The intersections of artifice and productivity, and of the suburban myth and the ugly realities of the war machine, are utterly fascinating, so of the era and the century. Particularly affecting are the publicity photos of men and women strolling through "suburbia," pausing for the cameramen at the corner of Synthetic Street, literally standing atop a giant war factory assembling fighter planes for the men who are meant to be living in the homes. They tower over the fake houses, a wicked visual metaphor of the country's giant economic and political stature following the war. The smiles on the their faces, the placid blocks of Anytown, the verisimilitude are in the service of the war effort, of Geo-politcal necessities and grim realities—the cognitive dissonance is sublime. This is an unsettling but gripping part of mid-century history. The site was dismantled in 1946, and the majority of the area remained deserted for years—I wish I could've taken some photos!—and it's now demolished, with no indication of its former role.

"Literally," Howe reports, "It's a set. A huge set. This suburb sat over 12 metres in the air, atop a World War II airplane factory.
Fearful of Japanese bombing raids during World War II, plane manufacturer Boeing's critical Seattle factory, known as Plant 2, was hidden in spectacular theatrical style—beneath a fake suburb.

In 1942, Hollywood set designer and art director John Stewart Detlie was called in to work his magic on Plant 2's enormous—and very obvious—flat roof.

It cost a fortune to pull off this spectacular disappearing act. According to Boeing's Corporate Historian, Michael Lombardi, it cost $US1 million in 1942; he estimates that would be $15 million in today's money. There is no record of how long the project took to complete.

The factory was so huge that it needed a whole suburb for camouflage. At 14 hectares, the size of eight American football fields (according to Boeing), the building was largest in the world and had some of the longest single-span trusses of its time.

Just south of Seattle, this 12-square-block "suburb" was complete with houses, streets, footpaths, trees, lawns and shrubs nestled in gently rolling hills.
Below are some photos. Read Howe's full article for a detailed history of the project and many more terrific photographs.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Are We There Yet?

As the fog and chill in northern Illinois sets in, this terrific cache of photographs from past Spring Trainings will help warm me until March. Via The Daily Beast.
"A St. Louis Cardinals player's spiked foot coming out of sliding pit during spring training drill at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 5, 1955."

"A view of St. Louis Cardinals players during a spring-training game against the New York Yankess at Crescent Lake Field, in St. Petersburg, on March 10, 1955."
"The spring before these two had a historic home-run race that electrified America, Mickey Mantle, left, and Roger Maris of the New York Yankees did a little bench warming as they visited the spring-training camp in St. Petersburg. Feb. 25, 1961."
"Jackie Robinson, first baseman of the Brooklyn Dodgers, returns an autograph book to a fan in the stands, during the Dodgers' spring training in Ciudad Trujillo, now Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, on March 6, 1948."
"Pete Rose of the Philadelphia Phillies runs hard for home plate with hair flying as he scores the Phils' first run in an 11-1 win over the New York Mets at Al Lang Field on March 25, 1979."
"First baseman Willie McCovey of the San Francisco Giants stands at the batting cage waiting his turn to hit, circa mid-1970s, in spring training in Phoenix."
"March 1960: Members of the St. Louis Cardinals stretch  at Al Lang Field."

Friday, December 12, 2014

End-of-the-Year Roundup

This year I overheard photographers and essayists holding forth at a bar, wondered about the paradox of memory (under Try It > Write Your Story), thought some more about some of my Origin Stories, visited an abandoned motel that wasn't, had fun annotating an excerpt from AC/DC's Highway To Hell, wrote a piece for the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress about "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," listened to and considered how music scores our past, reflected on the worthwhile difficulties in teaching Lauren Slater, gathered some of my photos and thoughts (plus audio) about abandoned buildings in New York City and Chicago, and propped up Charles Lamb and Lester Bangs on New Year's Eve.

Thanks to everyone who read and to the editors who gave these essays their homes. See you in 2015.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"Our minds were tubes that seldom blew": Mark Harris on watching baseball on the radio

Mark Harris
We were all watching, it seems. On television, that is. The 1980 World Series between the Kansas City Royals and the Philadelphia Phillies is tied with the '78 Series for the highest overall television ratings to date. The six games averaged a Nielsen rating of 32.8 and a share of 56; the sixth and final game, which ended with Tug McGraw dramatically striking out Willie Wilson, remains the most-watched game in Series history, with a television audience of 54.9 million viewers. Two days before the Series started, Mark Harris published an essay extolling the virtues of listening to baseball on the radio, a somewhat-mournful piece at odds with the game's then-dominance of television.

Harris is known chiefly for having written the novel Bang The Drum Slowly (1956); the book was adapted into a feature-length film in 1973 starring Robert De Niro and Michael Moriarty. Harris started out as a journalist, but in the late 1940s moved into academia, where he had a long and distinguished career; he died in 2007. Harris wrote often about baseball, in fiction and in essays, and many of his nonfiction pieces were collected in 1994 in Diamond: Baseball Writings of Mark Harris, where I came across "Recalling the Joy of Watching Baseball on the Radio," originally published in the New York Times on October 12, 1980. As NBC and its booth crew of Joe Garagiola, Tony Kubek, and Tom Seaver were readying a state-of-the-art television production, Harris, who was born in 1922, was looking back—at a childhood and adolescence where baseball lived as much in his imagination as it did on the field.

Harris's piece is terrific, if old-fashioned, managing the balancing act between sentiment and sentimentality so often botched by writers pining for the game's "golden" past. Harris's thesis was simple: baseball on the radio isn't necessarily better than baseball on TV, but it's different in profound ways. His tone is elegiac, but accepting. "For almost everybody, a game of professional baseball was an image before it was a reality," he begins. "We heard about it before we saw it."
Depending on the year of our birth, it came to us first as a voice through the air into that blind box we called radio. Or it came to us in more recent decades as figures moving on a screen that, in its early stages (I’m remembering the Yankees and Dodgers in the World Series of the early 1950s), often appeared to be men gallantly struggling through a snowstorm.
In time the picture was fine-tuned or cabled, the snowstorms ended, color was introduced and the visual transmission of the game equaled any dream we could have generated out of our imagination. This perfect colored clarity was known as television.

Is television better than radio? Each instrument brings a different kind of satisfaction. Each has different uses and emphases. When radio was all we knew, it was good enough, marvelous beyond telling. One set oneself up with a scorepad and beverage and followed the action without the slightest sense that he was somehow deprived by the fact that he was following something he could not see.

Harris writes about the "stadium of the mind" where he impossibly saw Ruth point and Hubbell mow down five consecutive All Stars.
It does not now occur to me that I did not literally see those things. I saw them as truly as I saw Dave Parker in the 1979 All-Star Game make his remarkable game-saving throw from right field, saw Parker make his throw not once, not twice, but half a dozen times at least by the miracle of instant playback and slow motion. Of playback, nobody had ever heard in 1933. And life itself was slow motion.
Harris evokes mid-century details that, if you're a fan of baseball's long history, you're familiar with: the giant radio in the living room (not everyone owned a portable radio); a line score helpfully hung on a banner in a store window; the agonizing wait for the seven o'clock news for game results; incomplete box scores in newspapers (Chicago was "West"). Rather than inhibit his enjoyment of baseball, such waiting dovetailed with the tantalizing imagery brewing in Harris's head, the narrative ingredients of which were supplied by listening to games on the radio. " Radio left things to the brain, to the imagination, and to fantasy," he writes.
On radio we saw the whole baseball field because we saw it in our minds through wide-angled fantasy. We knew no limits upon our vision. We were our own camera. Pictures arose in our imaginations from the merest hints of things. Our minds were tubes that seldom blew.
Fans listening to the 1929 World Series at the Sturges radio store on Wilshire Blvd.
That last line is great, and there are several gems in the piece, such as "Radio was awe. The awe was produced by remoteness." And he offers this neat argument:
The voices of radio are no longer the voices of excitement, as they were when they were the only voice. They have modulated themselves, striving to be informative, as if they know that they are only holding actions; you will tune them out as soon as you can get to a TV set.
The voice of radio came to us in duet with a roar of the crowd, but radio can no longer hold us on a plateau of indiscriminate excitement. Radio conveyed excitement. Television brings an accurate, hard image out of which everyone may make his own excitement out of beckoning moments.

In television the voice of the announcer is not so much provocation to excitement as background to the action. The announcer does not excite us, he informs us. Our eyes now see that scene our fantasies created in the days of radio. Our vision forces modesty, silence and discretion upon the television announcer; only a fool dares to describe what we can see for ourselves.

History has ordained that the pattern of broadcast baseball follow from excitement to information. Radio served the fantasizing fan; television serves the viewer watching the game for himself.
Harris, writing as Election Day neared, ends the piece with implicit references to Watergate and the Vietnam War. "Television," he laments, "is closeup. In politics and in warfare in recent years television has cast a cruel but salutary light upon realities. Baseball is neither war nor politics, and whether it required the cruel light of television I do not know. " But he shakes himself free of doldrums, recognizing that television broadcasts of games are highly informative and instructive, that in fact "we may he better off than we were for its having brought us closer to an understanding of the way the game is played afield, and the way it is played by the men and women at every level of enterprise. Truth is better than fakery, and we are better off for having come to the end of the spurious excitement that was radio at worst. We are free to enjoy the act of observing for ourselves the real rhythm of the sport."

Which medium does Harris prefer? His evocative close to the piece offers no firm answers: "The voice of the television announcer is low. The voice of radio was shrill, fast. The voice of television is cool. The voice of radio was high and hot."


I wonder what in the future we'll lament of today's game? Access to broadcasts, statistics, and video is so startlingly fast now, that it seems we can't go any faster. Bet we'll go faster, of course, and half a century from now someone might muse bittersweetly about an era of slow Internet. Or perhaps he'll look back on this time as a tipping point of sorts, when the speed of access peaked, or began to reveal diminishing returns. Who knows? One certain thing is that we will look back on 2014 as the gold old days when we had to [ ] this and [ ] that, as opposed to kids today with their [ ].

For what it's worth, the venerable Vin Scully called the 1980 World Series for CBS radio (with Sparky Anderson providing the color—I wish I'd listened to that!). I'm not sure that even Scully, the greatest living baseball radio announcer, could evoke Tug McGraw's triumphant mound leap as effectively and memorably as did NBC's camera crew.

Photo of fans listening to the 1929 World Series via Martin Turnbull.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Karen Durbin, Chet Flippo, Mick Jagger: No Sympathy

Jagger, aloft in 1975: you can't catch me
I've been reading about the Rolling Stones' 1975 tour ("Of the Americas") and was struck when I noticed that two journalists—Karen Durbin and Chet Flippo—each reporting independently in different sources (The Village Voice and Rolling Stone, respectively)—had precisely the same response to an answer Mick Jagger gave at a press conference following the first show of the tour (at the Louisiana State University Assembly Center, in Baton Rouge). Jagger was holding forth for a group of visiting British journalists, and was asked about Altamont, the ultimately tragic free show that the Stones had played in 1969; the mayhem and violence of that event was documented by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin in their absorbing film Gimme Shelter (1970).

Durbin, from "Can the Stones Still Cut It?", The Village Voice, June 23, 1975 (reprinted in Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap):
A moment later, one of the reporters asked, "Tell me, Mick, have you sing 'Sympathy for the Devil' since...then?"
     Thus respectfully was the touch subject of Alatamont broached. "Sure, sure, hundreds of times," said Mick, cheerfully lying. "We were going to do it tonight, we just forgot." And into the small silence which followed this absurd statement, he suddenly sang, in a high, sweet falsetto: "Please allow me to introduce myself..." Just the first line, nothing more. But then you remember the line that follows. A man of wealth and taste indeed.
Flippo, from It's Only Rock 'N' Roll: My On-The-Road Adventures With The Rolling Stones:
He was then asked if the Stones had performed "Sympathy for the Devil" since "then" ("then" being the disastrous Altamont concert of 1969 when demonic powers of darkness seemed to accompany that anthem to the unknown void). "Oh yeah," Mick said casually, "we've done it hundreds of times." total bullshit of course. The Stones had done it fourteen times on their 1970 European tour, but had been careful to drop it from their 1971 British tour and their 1972 dates in the united States. No one dared to call him down on that; Mick being the exalted Mick, after all.
Durbin and Flippo also both scoff at the imperious presence of the hapless British journalists—Durbin dismisses the obsequious over-respect they pay to Jagger; Flippo sniffs that the journalists were "slavering, unsuccessfully, to get Stones Access." I'm enjoying this image I have of Durbin and Flippo at either ends of the table, eyeing Jagger skeptcially, sifting myth from fact, scribbling in theit notebooks. (Later in Flippo's book, he meets Durbin; maybe they compared notes.) Moments later Jagger pranced away, publicly unharmed, the PR master smooth as always. The gap between public persona and truth, between Rock Stars and casualties, was ever-widening.


Here are the Stones performing "Sympathy For The Devil" at the Forum in Los Angeles on July 11, five weeks after the press conference. Altamont must've seemed a lifetime ago, or at least Jagger hoped, or believed, that it was:

Photo of Jagger via The Los Angeles Times.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Happy Birthday, Pennsylvania Turnpike

The Pennsylvania Turnpike turns 70 this year, and the Turnpike Commission is celebrating by gathering and exhibiting artifacts and curios related to the road's considerable history. Last week in southern-central Pennsylvania on our way to Maryland, Amy and I pulled over at a rest area, luckily for me one of the stops displaying a glass-enclosed, nostalgia-inducing exhibit. During childhood, my family annually visited my mom's parents in western Ohio; one stretch of the long drive from suburban Washington D.C. to Coldwater rolled along the Pennsylvania Turnpike (which we picked up in Breezewood, a place I write a bit about here.) The "beautiful mountains and fields of grass" (see below)—not to mention the smell of diesel fuel, the exotic lure of picnic tables, and the roar of trucks—are forever embedded in me. Here are some of the objects on display:

That 45 single above is my favorite item: "Pennsylvania Turnpike, I Love You," by Dick Todd and the Appalachian Wildcats. (What a name!)  "This country song appeared in the late 1970’s," according to the Commission.
It was composed by Vaughn Horton.
Vaughn Horton was not only a composer, but a singer, author, entertainer and was known through many radio appearances. He went to Pennsylvania State College.
“Pennsylvania Turnpike, I Love You” was one of many compositions. Horton also wrote “Address Unknown”, “Come What May”, Teardrops in My Heart” and many others … 28 of his songs became gold records. He was inducted into the Nashville Song Writer’s Hall of Fame in 1971.
Horton’s songs were recorded by many artists, including Gene Autry, Lionel Hampton and Jimmie Rogers.
Click here to listen to the song, and to dig more of the history of the great Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Triptych: 8-Track Fail

Back at the old childhood basement, two of my brothers and I hooked up our Sound Design 8-Track player from back in the day. Yes, "The White Album," Beach Boys, KISS, the Who, America: they all came back via magnetic tape, four tracks, and the brutal cachung of the manual track-selector button. We'd forgotten just how lame and unfriendly, not to mention inefficient, was 8-Track technology: ugly red plastic cases, no fast-forwarding or rewinding, songs re-sequenced to fit the track time-limits, or rudely divided in between tracks. How did we put up this?

And, alas, the inevitable disappointment: while we were grooving to "Brown Sugar" on Made In The Shade, the tape was eaten alive, usually the sad denouement of music in the Basement Era.