Thursday, October 30, 2014

M. Henry Jones's Soul City

Clapboard, Peter Zaremba, and Lenny Calderon
Gallery 98 is exhibiting M. Henry Jones's photo cut-outs from his 1979 short film Soul City, featuring the Fleshtones. (You can read all about the three-year odyssey of the making of the film in Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band.) The gallery has put up an online exhibit, and it's terrific, a comprehensive, long-overdue documentation of this seminal and influential short film and the dedication and labor-intensive work involved in pulling it off in the pre-digital era. From the site:
The emergence of digital photography during the last decade has provided a new perspective on photographs from the pre-digital era. The photographs that M. Henry Jones created in the late 1970s for the animated film Soul City have a special place in this story of technological change. Sometimes the urge to create precedes the technology that makes it practical. That was certainly true for Jones’ 2 ½-minute photo animation of a performance by the rock group Fleshtones, enhanced with stroboscopic effects. Created before the widespread use of computers, digitization, and tools like Photoshop (1988), Jones’ special effects were created solely through tedious analog techniques. It took nearly two years but there was an unexpected bonus: 1700 individually printed photographs, each hand-cut with an X-acto knife and then hand-colored. This was the raw material for the film, reshot frame-by-frame with changing backgrounds. Today these photographs stand on their own both as beautiful objects and as an artistic record of the creative toils that preceded the digital revolution.

Soul City also proved to be prophetic in another way. Created three years before the 1981 launch of Music Television (MTV), Jones’ short film of the Fleshtones performing Soul City has been cited as an important fine-arts precursor of the commercial genre of rock videos. According to the Wall Street Journal, Jones’ “motives were more perceptual than promotional”; his goal was to “overload viewers” and “induce retinal after-images” (March 3, 2011). The film derives first from Jones’ love of rock and roll but its techniques were rooted in the avant-garde films of his mentors Harry Smith and Paul Sharits. Soul City is emblematic of how serious young artists like Jones redefined both high art and popular culture in the post-pop art world of the late 1970s.
Here's the film:

And some cut-outs. Check out the full online exhibit here.


Marek Pakulski

Keith Streng

Friday, October 24, 2014

Baseball's on the Clock

20, 19, 18, 17, 16, 15...
As the World Series marches on, I'm gazing toward a chilly Autumn with proactive regrets and with interest in a season that's just starting. In the Arizona Fall League, Major League Baseball is experimenting with ways to quicken the pace of the game, a long-standing complaint from both casual and committed fans. Among the changes with which the league is experimenting are the Batter's Box Rule ("The batter shall keep at least one foot in the batter's box throughout his at-bat," with exceptions), the No-Pitch Intentional Walks ("In the event a team decides to intentionally walk a batter, no pitches shall be thrown. Instead, the manager shall signal to the home plate umpire with four fingers, and the batter should proceed to first base to become a runner"), and, perhaps most controversially, the 20-Second Rule, the insertion of a  play-clock between pitches designed to hasten the pitcher's delivery and dissuade out-of-the-box dawdling by the batter.

Here's how the 20-Second Rule works, from Major League Baseball: "A clock will be displayed in both dugouts, behind home plate, and in the outfield. The clock will be operated by an independent operator, who is not a member of the umpire crew."
A pitcher shall be allowed 20 seconds to throw each pitch. The batter must be in the box prepared for the pitch during the entire 20-second period. If the batter steps out of the box during the 20-second period, the pitcher may deliver the pitch and the umpire may call a strike, unless the batter was first granted time by the umpire. As described in Rule 6.02(b) Comment, umpires may grant a hitter's reasonable request for "Time" under appropriate circumstances. 
The 20-second clock shall begin when the pitcher is in possession of the ball, regardless of whether the batter is in the box or otherwise alert to the pitcher; provided, however, that (1) with respect to the first pitch to each batter, the clock shall begin when the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher, (2) with respect to a pitch to a batter following a play in which the pitcher was involved as a fielder (including backing up throws), the clock shall begin when the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher, and the pitcher has entered the dirt circle to approach the pitcher's plate to begin pitching to the batter, and (3) after a hitter fouls off a pitch, the clock shall begin when the umpire points to the pitcher and says "Play." Please note that the Official Baseball Rules governing quick pitches still apply. 
The clock will stop only when the pitcher begins his motion to deliver the ball (and not "when the pitcher releases the ball" as prescribed in Rule 8.04). Beginning the motion of coming to the set position shall be sufficient to stop the clock. If the pitcher maintains possession of the ball without beginning his pitching motion for more than 20 seconds, the Umpire shall call "Ball." The umpire shall give the pitcher a reasonable opportunity to take his proper position on the pitcher's plate after the umpire has called a ball and before the umpire calls a successive ball pursuant to this Rule.
The players who've been affected by the 20-Second Rule are, so far, displeased. (Granted, it's a small sample; the clock is being tested during seventeen home games at the Salt River Rafters.) Toronto Blue Jays outfield prospect Dalton Pompey: "I feel like it's going to throw off the rhythm because guys have their own rhythm and take deep breaths, practice swings, have their routines. It's just going to make everybody so generic and I feel like that's taking away what the game has been all about for however many years.”
Los Angeles Dodgers prospect and Glendale Desert Dogs infielder Corey Seager shares a similar sentiment.
“It's tough,” Seager said. “You almost feel rushed. It's not your normal (routine) where you can take your time, get your rhythm. It's kind of on somebody else's rhythm. It was a little rushed … getting on and off the field, getting your stuff done in the dugout and in the box mainly because you only have 20 seconds between pitches. You swing and then get right back in—it's a little weird.”
As Pompey (and many others) point out, this rule will irk batters and pitchers who are routine-driven, whose plate appearances or mound poise is defined in large part by a symphony of well-earned, precise, and borderline-superstitious body movements. Think of Mike Hargrove, fabulously nicknamed the Human Rain Delay for his pre- and between-pitch fiddling:

A generation of kids has grown up with nearly unlimited access to video of their favorite players, and so this personality-defining behavior in the box and on the mound is ingrained early, and encouraged, or at least tolerated, by fans, managers, and umpires from Little League onward.

But the more serious concern, it seems to me, is the introduction of a timer into a game celebrated and embraced for its clock-free play. I won't belabor what you've likely heard from besotted fans: a baseball game can, theoretically, go on forever. And there have been some marathons. An inning can last an hour—without commercials!—; a game can last for days. Of course, a 20-second timer between pitches won't affect this salient aspect of baseball, and yet a clock is an intrusion of sorts. It requires that players obey the tyranny of a clock rather than the ebb-and-flow of an athletic moment, an invisible drama staged not within time limits but as an infinite mini-game. A plate appearance is, after all, different every time: when a batter faces a pitcher, especially for the first time in his career, and if he's lucky to see him more than once in a game, he'll adjust as he needs to: his stance; placement of his bat; place in the box; his eye-angles. These minute adjustments take time—I'd wager, on average longer than 20 seconds per pitch. This goes for pitchers, as well, of course, who, when detecting a batter's adjustment, must now adjust his own approach and mental state. I admit to getting exasperated at times with particularly self-micro-managing batters and pitchers, but these strategy sessions, these chess games, will not be hastened by a hovering L.E.D. timer implacably counting down the time before the next pitch.

But, as always when reflecting on the game I love so much, I am careful not to overreact. I don't want to be precious or hidebound about this; I'm curious, is all, as to what effect if any this rule, if adopted, would have on the quality, tenor, and mental pleasures of the game. MLB in its futile attempt to regain the impossible television ratings of yore, will do anything to shorten games. But will a hurried plate appearance do more harm than good? Would we rush archeological diggers at a fossil site? Would we require a painter to finish each stroke within 20 seconds? (Someone stop me, I'm getting precious again.) We'll discover sooner rather than later what tick tick tick might do to the game.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Understatement: "That Star Club ...was a wild deal."

"We cut that live, and the audience wanted to tear up the stage." The Star-Club, April 5, 1964
A long time ago, Jerry Lee Lewis was heard to utter, "Y'know, there's nothin' like tearing up a good club now and then." In a recent article and Q&A at Wall Street Journal promoting his new album, Rock & Roll Time, and new biography, the fully-authorized Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, Lewis was asked what is his favorite album that he's cut. "I’d have to say Live at the Star Club from 1964 is my best live recording," he said.
That Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, was a wild deal. We cut that live, and the audience wanted to tear up the stage. It was a big hall and wide open as a case knife. The best thing about playing there was the equipment—the mics, the amplifiers, guitars, fiddles and piano. We didn’t have that kind of high-quality gear back home. In other places where they’d give me a bad piano, I’d usually finish it off anyway.
I couldn't agree more.


In related news, I was pleased to have been invited by archivist Cary O’Dell to write an essay about "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," Lewis's epochal second single, released in 1957. The song—rightfully so—has been selected for the National Recording Registry by the National Recording Preservation Board at the Library of Congress. My essay will stand side-by-side with the song in perpetuity. You can read the full essay here. It begins:
The opening two minutes of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” are so striking and irrepressible that they all but guaranteed the song would be a major hit. The second half ensured that the song, and “The Killer,” would become unforgettable.

Released in April 1957, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” was Lewis’s second single, following “Crazy Arms,” which had failed to chart. But Lewis, well aware of his own potency, and his singular talent, and buoyed by producer Sam Phillips’s intuitive work in Sun Studio, brought “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” into the recording sessions confident that it could be a hit. How Lewis came to know the song is a predictably murky tale. Sources suggest that he’d learned it from Big Maybelle’s or Roy Hall’s earlier versions; Lewis himself claimed to have heard it from the singer Johnny Littlejohn at the Wagon Wheel nightclub in Natchez, Mississippi. Force of nature that he is, Lewis usually transforms the landscape of any tune he moves through, and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” was no different.
And while you're there, peruse the fascinating list of National Recording Registry titles—from Thomas Edison's Talking Doll cylinder, Jesse Walter Fewkes's field recordings of the Passamaquoddy Indians, and "Star Spangled Banner" to Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong's broadcast from the moon, Parliament's Mothership Connection, and Public Enemy's Fear Of A Black Planethere.


Meanwhile, here's a spectacular version of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" from a March 19, 1964 U.K. television special titled after the song, filmed just a few weeks before Lewis headed down to West Germany to record that "wild deal."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Pocket Infinity

Charles and Ray Eames's documentary dealing with the relative size of things in the universe—for your back pocket.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Fleshtones are singing songs about living. Who's listening?

Since I published Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band in 2007, a number of people have asked me, half in jest, half earnestly, if I'm working on a second volume. In a way, the Fleshtones have been doing that work for me. In surprisingly autobiographical songs on 2008's Take A Good Look and this year's Wheel Of Talent, the Fleshtones are telling stories about what it's like as borough veterans to be living in a changing New York City, to be aging while watching young hipsters abound, and to be survivors, playing in a rock and roll band for nearly forty years against great odds. From regrets about blowing off high school, pride in re-defining conventional success and maturity, and baffled hostility toward gentrification to pridefully and affectionately remembering Ground Zero of U.S. Punk ("We were there," they crow from the stage) and dealing with dysfunctional family politics and the bittersweet lure of memory, the Fleshtones are proving that they aren't just a "party band" anymore. They've endured and have stuff to say. How did Pete Townshend define rock and roll, that it's fun songs about sad stuff? Turn it up, live and learn:

"Going Back To School," Take A Good Look

"Never Grew Up," Take A Good Look

"Take A Good Look," Take A Good Look

"It Is As It was," Wheel Of Talent

"Remember The Ramones," Wheel Of Talent

"Stranger In My House," Wheel Of Talent

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Scully, Angell, All Too Briefly

The 2014 postseason marches on, and we're now shy one voice. I pinch myself every time I get to hear Vin Scully call a Dodgers game; through the miracle of MLB GameDay I've been able to listen to him throughout the summer. His call at the bottom of the ninth in yesterday's Dodgers' loss to the Cardinals—Saint Louis advanced and will play the San Fransisco Giants in the Championship Series—reminded me of just how superb he is. And how rare. Sadly, a transcript doesn't exist of his statesman-like narration as his team went down, but we didn't need one, really: we've heard this call for decades. His voice circles us now. He described the confetti falling at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals collectively leaping about, that this is "a perfect moment in Saint Louis Cardinals history." Then he was off to a commercial break. When he returned, he ran down the game's numbers, and then signed off: "This is Vin Scully saying, Good evening from St. Louis." He'll be back next year.

He is 86 years old. Since Since Harry S. Truman was President, Scully has been describing the Dodgers and the atmosphere that their games create, home and away (mostly home now; yesterday's broadcast on the road was rare). He proves—forget "suggests"—that there is no inherent need for two, let alone three, talking heads in the booth. His calls are elegant, economical, witty, and precise. What I admired most about his ninth inning call yesterday was that there was nary a trace of homerism from this lifetime Dodgers announcer. He is a respectful fan of the game first, of his team second.

Meanwhile, the great Roger Angell, at 94, is again blogging his was through this postseason. His first New Yorker blog post went live on October 5, 2008 (it was about the actor Tommy Lee Jones); his first baseball blog post, on then-Red Sox manager Terry Francona, went live a week later. He hasn't written a full magazine recap of the World Series since 2009. At his age, he's decided that it's best now to weigh in virtually, when the mood strikes him. I deeply miss his Spring Training, mid-season, and postseason essays that ran in The New Yorker for decades, but I'm realistic about The Old Man. I await his miniature online observations, looking forward to how he'll blend his acumen, grace, and wit, because he will, invariably.

With Scully and Angell, two mythic voices in different media, one never hears sentimentality, over-hype, or unearned, shopworn exclamations such as "Un-be-lievable!" or "Epic Showdown." Listen and read while you can. Here's hoping that their influence on current broadcasters and writers is even more pronounced than I believe it is.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Abandoned, Ctd.

Barn. North 1st Street and Coltonville Road. DeKalb, Illinois.
On its way out.

A little over a year ago I photographed an abandoned barn in north DeKalb. Driving by the site the other day I noticed that the entire barn had been moved from its original position to the north edge of the field. I assume the old barn will be removed entirely; the re-location didn't do it any favors. I came back today to say goodbye before it's gone for good.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

That Nun and those Devil Horns

I love this photo immoderately, and feel no shame in adding to the number of shares it's received worldwide in the last few years. Great art asks more questions than it provides answers for, and this snapshot has entered the realm: Who took this photo, and when? And where? Is this an actual snapshot, or a fraud created recently via Photoshop? Is the poor sister in on the joke—such nuns did exist, I can assure you (though a painful memory of my years at Saint Andrew Apostle grade school: singing along in class with the words "happy and gay" and guffawing as Sister Joy naively, and merrily, mimicked our limp wrists. Or was she in on the joke?)—or is she the fool? Whose horns are they, the girl's on the right, or the girl's to her right? Did students outside the frame know how much power the offending girl had in creating among her classmates crushes, fear, and unhappy or liberating memories of subversion, that this image wouldn't need photographic evidence to ensure that it remains in the imagination? An image is shared as often as this and it enters myth: the number of those nodding at it gravely, or with queasiness, or who claim I was there! or I snapped this! or We did this too! multiplying exponentially.

"A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know." Diane Arbus
Photo by ?