Sunday, September 28, 2014

"I don't want to say 'fans,' I want to say 'friends'."

I was at U.S. Cellular field last night to say so long to Paul Konerko, one of my all-time favorite baseball players. Konerko's retiring after 18 seasons, 15 with the Chicago White Sox, leaving behind a solid and productive career, including—as of this morning; he has one game left this afternoon—over 9,500 plate appearances, 2,340 hits, 439 homer runs, 1,412 RBI, 410 doubles, a .279 batting average, and an OPS of .841. He played in the postseason three times, including a World Series Championship (2005), made six All-Star Teams, and, as Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf reminded the throng last night, is the first player to hit a solo, two-run and three-run home run, along with a grand slam, in postseason history. If his career numbers numbers are likely to keep Konerko out of the Hall Of Fame, it's worth noting that they were compiled in the Steroid Era, that Konerko played clean, and that they were excruciatingly earned. An outstanding fastball hitter and excellent first baseman, Konerko was not a supremely gifted player otherwise: he was awfully slow, struck out too much, especially late in his career, was prone to hitting into rally-killing double plays, and endured ghastly, painful-to-watch slumps. As I've written before, Konerko's body language was always an indicator of the degree to which he worked hard, day in and day out, to maximize his relatively limited baseball skills. When he struck out, or popped up feebly to third, or sent a ball dribbling harmlessly to second, he often reacted with a visible I really can't take this anymore frustration: head down, shoulders slumped, a pose of anger and resignation he'd take with him as he stalked to a sullen dug out. Few baseball players I've seen in my lifetime have so graphically proven the argument that baseball is a very, very hard game to master over a long career. To put up the numbers Konerko did is testament to his love of the game, a game bigger than individual statistical peaks and depths, a game that is brutally humbling to even the most gifted. To a regular starter like Konerko, the daily lessons in humility were as part of his game as strapping on his jock and locating his batting glove. Paul Konerko's career numbers were etched, determined, and it often appeared, tabulated at a cost.

That's misleading, and possibly precious: Konerko loved playing baseball, and retiring must be tough. Last night's pre-game festivities for Paul Konerko Day were a predictable blend of warmth and boredom: Sox television announcer Hawk Harrelson held forth, gently mocking Konerko while setting up video board clips of his greatest achievements; Jerry Reinsdorf spoke well of The Captain, and presented him with his World Series grand slam ball pried loose from the guy (Chris Claeys) who caught it. That was a nice moment. But generally the video tributes from teammates, ex-teammates, and players around the league and across the decade were full of dull platitudes and corny jokes, and were marred by surprisingly sub-par sound at The Cell. Konerko spoke, of course, looking like he willed himself up to that microphone as he willed himself through a particularly brutal slump: this is my job. With class, he thanked all responsible for the ceremony and congratulated the Kansas City Royals on their successes. Then, smiling and gesturing broadly to the crowd of 38,160, he said, "I don't want to say fans, I want to say friends." That seemed genuine sentiment, not sentimentality, issuing from a graciousness and humility that many who personally know Konerko speak of. Later during the game, my friends and I walked the outfield concourse to check out the new Konerko statue, facing the bronze likeness of Frank "The Big Hurt" Thomas. Alas, the crowd was too thick for me to get close, but the photos I did take speak volumes, I think, for the love and affection that this city has for Konerko.


As for the game—oh yeah, the game—the Sox won, 5-4, forestalling the Royals' unlikely, and terrifically exciting, grab for a first place tie in the American League Central Division. John Danks pitched well, Jose Abreu hit another monster home run. Konerko came to bat three times. In his last AB before manager Robin Ventura pulled him to yet another standing ovation, Konerko struck out looking, twirled on his back foot in a kind of Drat, fooled again dance, and sulked back to the dug out.

Perfect. It's a hard game. Thanks for gutting it out for so long and giving us so much pleasure watching you play. See you, Paulie.

An era ending.

The Captain's number.

Black and white balloons rise into the air from the site of the new Paul Konerko statue.

9:04 pm. Last At Bat on Paul Konerko Day


Post-season update: in a fitting farewell to a career played out of the limelight, Konerko was named, with Jimmy Rollins, as co-winner of the 2014 Roberto Clemente Award, recognition for "players who best represent the game of baseball through positive contributions on and off the field, including sportsmanship and community involvement."


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Billboard Magazine, 1966: Juke Boxes, Vietnam, and Sizzling Summer Hits

I recently spent some time perusing random Billboard issues from 1966. The advertisements alone narrate a dynamic year moving among the financial and cultural value of juke boxes and discotheques, pro-Vietnam patriotism, menacing urban anti-anthems, buoyant pop songs, and Southern soul. Quite a year, quite a trip.

From the January 15, 1966 issue: The Toys "Attacked!"

But the juke box industry was concerned with the state of things regarding twisting teens. Rock-Ola Manufacturing sniffs: "We viewed the juke box discotheque conception—as we do now—as a sort of 'illegitimate' substitute for the live or 'legitimate' discotheque, and unquestionably a feeble attempt to stimulate equipment sales." But Rowe A Go-Go Vice President of Manufacturing Fred Pollak cautions: "The nations's demographic breakdown indicates we should push the concept harder. Persons under 40 years of age now make up 75 percent of the population, and it is the younger age group that demands lively entertainment like discotheque." ATTACK!

I'm fairly confident I know what Johnny Wright—hot on the heels of "Hello Vietnam"—thinks of those long-haired kids at the discotheque. "Are you a boy or as girl?"

From the July 2, 1966 issue. Things are getting colorful. And hopeful:

And things are getting dirty and gritty:

But taking Fred Pollak's heed, Rock-Ola is pushing its gorgeous GP/Imperial juke box hard:

These guys have a new album, but it's more than a new album, it's a way of life. Take It Or Leave It.

July's sizzling!

From the November 26 issue, a remarkably potent line-up of new and fantastic 45s and LPs of the Great Memphis Sound:

And introducing the solo debut of an ex-Byrd, "revealing emphatic, thought-provoking lyrics and vividly expressive music he has written himself."

Saturday, September 20, 2014

How Great Is Silence?

Years ago I had my hearing tested and was astonished to learn that I had virtually perfect hearing. After decades of loud rock and roll shows and punishing music room and earphone/ear bud sessions, my hearing remains relatively unscathed. I'm grateful and perplexed. It's maybe ironic for someone of such robust hearing and who's written book about noisy rock and roll bands to observe how loud culture has gotten, but we're besieged. I like to choose my own decibels. When I work out at the Y my iPod earphones compete, feebly, against the roar of the gym's multiple speakers cranking Top 40; in the locker room there are a dozen televisions broadcasting, loudly, a half dozen different channels, the smart designer of the room's layout having placed pairs of TVs back to back, so in order to listen to one you have to tune out the blare of the the TV directly behind it. It's rare to find a bar, even of the divey sort, without a TV in the corner. At one of my and my friend's favorite watering holes in Rockford, Illinois—the Oasis—a busted TV hung for years n the corner, black and silent, defeated. Imagine our gloom when we went in one day and Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island was blaring over our heads. I heard or read once that the average American sees more images in a week than the average Victorian saw in a lifetime. This sounds too good to be true, and anyway I've failed to track down the source, so I might've heard or read it wrong. But it feels right. Baseball ballparks: too loud. Waiting rooms: too loud. Elevators with someone on Bluetooth: too loud.

And I won't pretend that I drive home from ear-splitting shows at the Empty Bottle or Double Door thinking of Seneca, the first century a Roman Stoic philosopher—I'm busy cranking the stereo really loud—but his essay "On Noise" resonates somewhere under my consciousness as I'm zipping along I-88. "You may be sure, then," Seneca writes, "that you are at last 'lulled to rest' when noise never reaches you and when voices never shake you out of yourself, whether they be menacing or inviting or just a meaningless hubbub of empty sound all round you." So deal with it, Seneca says to me, boasting: "For I force my mind to become self-absorbed and not let outside things distract it. There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within, so long as fear and desire are not at loggerheads, so long as meanness and extravagance are not at odds and harassing each other."

Of course, Seneca couldn't even cut it, resolving at the end of his essay on noise to move somewhere less noisy. I'll still take beautiful, underrated silence where I can get it:

Friday, September 19, 2014

Liverpool, Where The Tourists Root Like Trees

This is Google Street View of Paul McCartney's family home at 20 Forthlin Road in Liverpool, where he lived from 1955 to 1963. The house was bought by the National Trust in 1995. If this isn't an image of contemporary celebrity culture, I don't know what is. I imagine that no matter what time of day the ubiquitous, camera-mounted Google car moves past this home there will be fans from all over the world milling about, standing, staring, taking pictures, lining up for a tour. They're like the weather, or indigenous shrubbery—always there, and easy to take for granted.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

That Ain't Easy: the Stones Shake Their Hips

Recorded in July and October 1970, December 1971 and March 1972 among the Rolling Stones Mobile Unit, Mick Jagger's residence in Newbury, England, Olympic Sound Studios in London, and Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles—not at the fabled 1971 sessions at Keith Richards' rented home in Villefranche-sur-mer, in southern France—this deceptively simple cover of Slim Harpo's 1966 Excello single still astonishes. As cool as Jagger's reverb-soaked vocal, Richards and Mick Taylor's rockabilly serpentine playing, and Bill Wyman's funky walking bass are, it's Charlie Watt's deft playing that continues to surprise me. I've listened to this song a thousand times, and those four isolated snare shots seem to land on a slightly different beat each time, an aural illusion. Or voodoo. Or Charlie being Charlie.


Here's some cool "Shake Your Hips" rehearsal footage from 1972.


EDIT: according to James "The Hound" Marshall, the four snare shots were played by producer Jimmy Miller, not Watts, and were overdubbed in Los Angeles. As Marshall said, the Stones were great at sounding spontaneous.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Abandoned Bike, redux

Last March I found an abandoned house and barn off of North First Street in DeKalb. In June I returned, and found a bike that wasn't there before. It appeared to have been left behind in the middle of a field. But who would leave it here? And why? I went back today to see if the bike was still there. It is. I'll keep going back, until the bike's absorbed by the natural world, or until someone comes and rides off with it.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Pete Rose, in Memory

In the summer of 1978 my dad, mom, and five siblings scrunched into our Ford Gran Torino station wagon and drove from suburban Washington D.C. to the small town of Coldwater in rural, far western Ohio, a trip we made annually to visit my mom's parents and her hometown. I loved cruising the Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes for nine or so hours, leaving suburbia behind, armed with a cache of Richie Rich and Archie comics and candy (and car sickness pills). I have an indelible memory from this particular trip: staring idly out the window as night came on, the radio tuned to the Cincinnati Reds game as Pete Rose tried to keep a hitting streak alive. My mom's dad was born and raised in western Ohio (he was mayor of Coldwater for a time) and was a staunch Reds fan. We'd often arrive after dark, and I remember seeing through the living room window my grandfather's silhouette as he stood up from his chair where he'd been sitting listening to the Reds game. I associate these mid-summer trips and damp, muggy Ohio with baseball, specifically Big Red Machine baseball: Rose's hustle, Johnny Bench's restaurant in Cincinnati with the giant hand-shaped bar chairs, George Foster's herculean homers.

That summer, Rose's 44-game hitting streak—it began on June 14 in Cincinnati and ended on August 1 against Gene Garber and the Atlanta Braves—was epic to me, a striving for something that seemed impossible, mythically so. I didn't have a home team; my family pulled for the Baltimore Orioles' by default, the Washington Senators having decamped for Texas in 1972, and so I mostly watched American League baseball, tuning in to snowy Channel 11 to catch the O's. When I wanted to watch National League ball—when I wanted to see Rose or Foster or Mike Schmidt or Steve Garvey or J.R. Richard—I had to wait for NBC's Saturday Game of the Week, ABC's Monday Night Baseball, the All-Star Game, or the playoffs. This scarcity made Rose's hitting streak for me all the more distant, other-worldly: I'd follow it in the Washington Post Sports section, mostly, maybe catch a highlight on local news at 10 or 11. And so as my family drove closer to south-western Ohio and my dad was able to tune in the game, Rose's streak became clearer to me, and not only in reception. This is happening now, I remember thinking. The top of my head came off as I gazed out the window at the dusk dark, the shapes of barns and grain silos against enormous corn fields silhouetted against an even bigger dark sky, as Rose took a fastball low, chopped a breaking pitch foul, the smell of gasoline and manure and the rhythmic hum of the two-lane roads in rural Ohio hypnotic, as I wondered where exactly Riverfront Stadium is as Rose looked at a ball low, and then drove the next pitch into center field. I pictured Rose holding his helmet tightly onto his bushy head as he rounded first. This was 1978: there was no Internet, satellite radio, or ESPN. The drama in my head was all I had, and it was everything. Roger Angell calls this "the interior game." I watched a baseball game last night, but my vision of Rose hitting in 1978 is just as vivid. Childhood: Pete Rose, baseball, a streak, farms, and the black Ohio night sky.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Fleshtones, Gibus Club, 1985

I came across this priceless cache of photos taken by MaxWell Max of the Fleshtones at the Gibus Club in Paris in March 1985, a two-week residency during which the band was recorded—by Richard Gottehrer!—and a live album produced and for sale at the club within a week. An Instant Record, indeed. Read all about the epic residency—featuring a bombed-out Johnny Thunders, a bathroom set on fire, piles of heroin, and Super Rock—in Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band.

Below is a taste of the mayhem. The rest of the photos can be found here.
l-r: Peter Zaremba, Gordon Spaeth, Keith Streng
Zaremba, Spaeth
l-r: Spaeth, (Bill Milhizer, hidden), Zaremba, Streng, Marek Pakulski
Zaremba, Streng

ScottishTeeVee has unearthed this terrific footage shot during the Gibus residency, an interview with the band (minus Spaeth, plus wig) at a recording studio, presumably Le Grand Arnet, and a killer version of "Way Down South" recorded at the club before a show. ("Way Down South" wasn't included on Speed Connection, I or II;, Robert Warren played bass on the studio version cut the following year, so here's a rare chance to see original bassist Pakulski buckle in.)


Here are a couple tracks from Speed Connection II: The Final Chapter, soundtrack to the nuttiness: