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.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Lying to Tell the Truth: Teaching Lauren Slater

I was asked by the editors at Assay: A Journal Of Nonfiction Studies to write a brief piece about the challenging but ultimately rewarding experience of teaching Lauren Slater's memoir, Lying. Slater's book is subtitled "A Metaphorical Memoir," and may be an account of her life as an epileptic, or may be an account of her using the disorder solely as a metaphor. You can read the piece here.

My opening gives you an idea of some of the difficulties I face with a book that requires that readers reassess what memoir is, means, and can do, a book that requires that we press re-set:
Once, a student in my Literary Nonfiction class refused to open his copy of Lauren Slater’s Lying during discussion. An excellent student, he wasn’t being precious or dramatic. Glaring at me, he simply refused to enter the text, so irritated and discomfited was he by Slater’s approach to memoir and the way she subverts the expectations we bring to reading.
The "My Favorite Essay To Teach" archive is here.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Dateline: Greenpoint Tavern, Brooklyn

Among my many mementos from working on Sweat: The Story Of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band is this swank beer coaster from the Greenpoint Tavern, near and dear to several members of the band during the years I researched and wrote the book (1999 to 2004). Located on Bedford Avenue, the GT has no bottles, only Budwesier on tap, proudly served. Like it or split. I managed to remember to snag this following one of my long, cracked liquid interviews with drummer Bill Milhizer, who was a grinning regular at the Tavern in those days, when Williamsburg was in its nascent stages as Hipsterville USA.


Armed with ideas, the Fleshtones celebrated the Greenpoint Tavern (along with other favorite NYC watering holes) in "A Motor Needs Gas" on Laboratory Of Sound (1995). Pardon us for living, but the graveyard's full....

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Bill Owens, Suburbia, Circuitry

Top photo via Bill Owens's Suburbia; bottom photo, garage door opener.

More No Such Thing As Was on suburbia here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Freshness of the Mid-20th Century: Jade East and the Phone Flipper

'Tis the season for catalogs, and apparently for irony-free advertisements, if you look in the right places. We received our annual catalog from The Vermont Country Store, a business that prides itself on stocking the kind of product that "evokes memories of a time gone-by," is a "unique problem solver," or is generally a "hard-to-find item from the United States and around the world." I love looking through the catalog for its odd blend of kitch and earnestness: among the ads for flannel Granny gowns, red and blue Mosser Glassware, and European Chocolate Bottles Filled With Top-Shelf Liqueurs I spied these two small ads, both hearkening to an era long-gone:

Jade East? Fantastic. I believe that Jack Lord at a 1973 Hawaii Five-O promotional appearance was the last man to wear this cologne without irony. Very much of its era, Jade East capitalized on the West's then-romanticized affection for all things Polynesian: Tiki restaurants and bars, backyard luas, "exotic" drinks of varying potency. (Bars that cater to the old craze still hang on.) "Notes of cedar, oakmoss, sandalwood, and a touch of musk create a lasting impression": this was the scent that promised that you'd get lei'd. In the 70s.

And I'm not sure that I can express the mixture of nostalgia and despair that swept over me when I saw the ad for the desk phone flipper. As a kid I loved playing Business Man with my dad's phone flipper on his big wooden desk: scroll down to a letter, press a button, and up snapped the lid, efficiently revealing a page of "contacts," whatever that was. All of my friends' dads had one, and I thought that the item had vanished, that there were maybe a few hundred of them gathering dust in a New Jersey warehouse. What strikes me is the sarcasm-free presentation of the item—not only is there a factory somewhere that still manufactures the parts that can be assembled into the phone flipper, there is apparently a market for them, beyond mid-century-besotted hipsters and Mad Men stylists. And your refill demands are met, as well.

Paging through the Vermont Country Store catalog can be a humbling experience: what I'm ready to snarkily dismiss as old-fashioned or obsolete proves its usefulness, for someone, somewhere. Who am I to snicker?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Shake Some Action" vs. "Shake Some Action"

The Flamin' Groovies with Dave Edmunds (third from the right)
After I first heard the magic of the Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action" (on the late, lamented WHFS 102.3 FM out of Bethesda, Maryland) I embarked on a years-long, semi-obsessed quest to find the song. In the mid-1980s, if your local record stores (plural—it was still the Golden Age) didn't have the record and if the record was out of print, you were out of luck. I searched bins in Maryland, Illinois, and points between but couldn't find the Dave Edmunds-produced album. (I will find a way to get to you some day.) Eventually I located a German-issued 45 on LINE Records at Yesterday and Today Records, sometime in 1987. I sped home, threw the single on the turntable, and was vaguely disappointed. This wasn't the version I loved, the aural scripture, the bright, ecstatic song with the echoed, ringing, descending guitar phrase and the sweet but urgent harmonies. This was something else: ragged, unwashed, sounding like a re-recording of the tune. I loved Charlie Pickett and the Eggs' howling and reckless take of "Shake Some Action" on their Live At The Button (I write a bit about it in here) but their version, I felt, did what a live cover does, it pummeled a song, made it the band's own, whether that band's playing before 50,000 or 50, whether the band knew the song from their collective childhood, last year, or dad's album collection. I wanted to hear the "Shake Some Action" I knew from the radio—that old story.

I wasn't even aware that there were two versions of the song; I needed some help. I wrote a letter to Fred Mills, whose music writing I loved in The Bob and other magazines. He wrote a postcard back (at left, a gesture of thoughtfulness and assistance that's still touching to me) and helpfully explained some of the discographical minutiae. (Thanks, Fred!) But I still wanted my "Shake Some Action," the shimmering one. I finally found Shake Some Action in a record store in Evanston, Illinois, but in the years that followed I couldn't shake the version on the LINE single; it kept shoving me from behind. It wasn't until years later when the information Mills supplied me gained larger context. In 2002, Norton Records issued Slow Death, a collection of Flamin' Groovies demos and odd tracks cut between 1971 and 1973 shortly after Roy Loney had left the band and when Chris Wilson (co-writer with Cryil Jordan of "Shake Some Action") had joined. The Groovies were in an oft-documented transitional stage in the early 1970s, between Loney-era roots rock and Jordan-envisioned 60s Brit pop. Idling and hustling for label support, they cut some tracks including, at Rockfield Studios in Wales in 1972 with Dave Edmunds producing, the album version of "Shake Some Action" and the classic "Slow Death," the latter of which was swiftly re-mixed and issued as a single a year later. In Hollywood in the summer of 1973 the band recorded another version of "Shake Some Action," a demo that shadily wound its way among bootlegs and labels and licenses and ended up in my hands in the mid-80s. Over time, I've come to treasure this version, now neck-and-neck to my taste with the version recorded with Edmunds and released on the 1976 album of the same name.

In his liner notes to Slow Death, Jordan writes that the Hollywood demo of "Shake Some Action" remains his favorite track. I hear its glory now; I was listening with the wrong ears in the 80s. The album version is shiner and more compact a production, if a song this explosive can be considered compact. Jordan's and Wilson's guitars ring and David Wright'ssnare pops and his cymbals shape gorgeous halos. But what's implied in the album version is made passionately explicit in the demo: in the final moments, Jordan and Wilson sing "Shake some action / down on me," and it's that plea to the heavens, that glance upward, that redirects the song's passions—and redefines them. It's as if the shimmering production values on the album version were pious misdirection, where the urging in the demo version feels dirty, desperate, and all the more necessary. Though Jordan layered the acoustic guitars on the demo to achieve a mandolin effect, they're still rag-tag, loose, more lived-in than the studied, well-rehearsed electric guitars in the album version.

Demo versus polish, a body before a cleansing, a body after. For me, it's a draw as to which version of "Shake Some Action" is greater. And a draw it will likely remain.

EDIT: Jack Riley, host of Magic Transistor Radio on WPRK 91.5 FM, helpfully wrote to inform me that drummer David Wright does not play on either the '72 Rockfield version or the '73 Capitol Tower recording. Danny Mihm played on the '72 version, Terry Rae on '73 version.


Fred Mills is still a "mega-groovies nut." He's written about the band many times, notably here at Blurt, the magzine he edits.

Photo of the Flamin' Groovies and Dave Edmunds by Paul Slattery from the Mike Wilhelm Collection. Via Mike Wilhelm.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

How We Talk About Ourselves (and Music, too): A Conversation with Sad YouTube's Mark Slutsky

At Sad YouTube, Mark Slutsky haunts the comments threads of YouTube music videos, finding in that endless stream of memories, reactions, and confessions a certain 21st Century noise: anonymous or semi-anonymous people virtually gathering around random videos, talking of their own pasts and their own ways into the song. The result is a kind of prismatic doorway that opens onto nearly endless interpretations of, and narratives about, music. Slutsky is a curator of the melancholy, an archivist of the nostalgic. If YouTube is how we listen to music today, it's also how we talk about ourselves in relation to that music.

In a terrific, must-read essay about his site at Buzzfeed, Slutsky writes, "The YouTube comment section has long been considered the worst place on the internet. You won’t find much consensus about anything online, but one thing pretty much everyone can agree on—including, seemingly, the people at YouTube itself—is that the user-generated content beneath practically every video is a semi-literate cesspool. But for the last year I’ve been increasingly discovering—thanks in part to a longer-than-usual lull in employment—that everyone was wrong." He continues:
Dig deep into comments—particularly on pop songs—and you’ll see that buried beneath the hate speech, the poorly formulated insults, and the Obama conspiracy theories are countless amazing nuggets of humanity. You’ll find stories of love and loss, perfectly crystallized moments of nostalgia and saudade (a Portuguese word meaning an ineffable longing for something lost in time). [See below.] It’s a repository of memories, stories, and dreams, an accidental oral history of American life over the last 50 years written by the site’s millions of visitors every day.
"But like all memories," Slutsky notes, "it’s ephemeral. Chunks of it disappear every day, when a video is deleted or pulled for copyright reasons, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t entirely evaporate when someday Google decides to revamp or 'sunset' the comments section. Recently, Google introduced an overhaul of the system, integrating the comments more deeply with its Google+ social network—changes that are already unbalancing the strange, delicate ecosystem that produces a rare diamond among the thousands of useless or repetitive comments."

Autobiography as comment. Memoir as thread. The personal in a deletable window. Here are a few, recent posts:

Recently, I virtually sat down with Slutsky to discuss Sad YouTube, his favorite comments, memory, and the cultural value of nostalgia.


How did the idea for the site come? Was there a crystallizing moment? How long have you been running the site?

For a long time, I had noticed that there was something...else going on in the YouTube comment section. Something besides the usual racism, insults, obscure shout-outs and general noise. Particularly on videos of old songs (either legitimate music videos or fan-uploaded audio tracks with slide shows or home-made clips accompanying the music), people had been leaving little stories. Memories they associated with the music, stories with such touching specificity and seeming honesty that they stood out among all the other comments. It intrigued, and honestly, delighted me in a perverse way, that in that part of the Internet universally acknowledged as the garbage heap of our civilization, I was finding such moments of beauty.

I knew that these comments were ephemeral; they'd either be driven so far down the page by the "bad" ones that no one would ever find them, or the video they were associated with would be deleted—either way, they'd be lost. So I started Sad YouTube in the fall of 2012 to preserve them.

You write, "I almost feel like you could write a Studs Terkel oral history of America culled entirely from YouTube comments on pop songs." That's fascinating. Could you talk a bit about that? What's the value of an oral history? What can it capture or dramatize that others documents cant?

There's a truth to oral histories that you don't find anywhere else. You get stories, details and emotions you don't find in any other form of history. Very few of the comments I've chosen tell stories significant or dramatic enough, at least from the outside, to make it into the news, let alone the history books. But each one conveys something about what it felt like to be alive at the time. Or what it feels like to be alive at all.

You write, "What I look for are comments that tell a whole story in just a few lines—a picture emerging from several quick brushstrokes. Comments that bring a specific moment to life that would have otherwise just dissolved forever in time." Do you have a favorite comment, a comment that most memorably "tells a whole story in a few lines"?

I'll give you a few examples. What strikes me about these comments, and every comment I choose for the blog, is how much they're able to communicate with just a few specific details:

Slowdrive, "Crazy For You"
Bobby Goldsboro, "Honey”
Joni Mitchell, "Help Me"
What is the cultural value of nostalgia?

What I find so compelling about many of these memories is how spontaneous they seem. Meaning, favourite memories can often be gilded by our recall of them, subtly altered every time we think of them, resembling less and less the original moment. But so many of the stories I find in YouTube comments seem to have laid dormant in the commenters' minds until triggered unexpectedly by hearing an old song. In that way they feel refreshingly direct, un-romanticized. I think that sets them subtly apart from what we think of as "nostalgia," although they are no less emotional for it. I actually prefer the Portuguese word "saudade," which, roughly, means an ineffable yearning for something irretrievably lost.

How were people sharing these kinds of memories and conversing about them before YouTube?

I think people have always shared their memories—in conversation, in blogs, memoirs, etc. Many, if not most, of my commenters do not seem to be professional or even amateur writers, but the YouTube comment platform gives them the freedom to express themselves with some degree of anonymity. This opens up the conversation to people who might not even realized they had a story to tell.

You write about what's gained—emotionally and culturally—in the YouTube Comments section; what's lost in our digital age?

It might be too soon to tell what we're losing, besides the obvious things like adequately-paying jobs in the cultural sector. What concerns me the most when I work on Sad YouTube is preserving all the memories that would almost certainly been lost among the detritus of the comment section. I think about some of the stories I've found in there—the way they're worded and the emotions they express—almost every day. They mean a lot to me.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Are We There Yet?

In his review of poet Richard Blanco's new memoir The Prince of Los Cocuyos (a book I have not read) Kevin Nance hoists a tiresome complaint. After writing favorably of the memoir, which dramatizes and explores Blanco's youth in the 1970s and 80s in South Florida's Cuban-American community, Nance writes, "Regretfully, however, I have a significant reservation, which has to do with the author's note that introduces the main text."
In it, Blanco describes his childhood as "concrete and accessible" but also "elusive and fractured. As such, these pages are emotionally true, though not necessarily or entirely factual. Certainly, I've compressed events; changed the names of people, places, and things; and imagined dialogue. At times I have collaged two (or three) people into one, embroidered memories, or borrowed them. I've bent time and space in the way that the art of memory demands."

Call me old-fashioned, but the art of memoir demands factual accuracy, not collaging, embroidering, borrowing or bending. While the form is subject to the author's fallible memory—and is therefore less stringent, in terms of documentation, than biography or autobiography—Blanco baldly admits that he is making things up in the service of a larger "emotional" truth.

The problem with this is that we don't know which parts of "The Prince of Los Cocuyos" are facts and which are fiction.
Allow me to sigh. Every human being who has been burdened with the charge of remembering and conceiving of her or his past—that is, every human who's ever lived—has employed "collaging, embroidering, borrowing or bending" and has made things up "in the service of a larger 'emotional' truth." Everyone, virtually always—at bars, in bedrooms, in the mirror at night, toward the ceiling at 4 am, in a court of law, at parties, and in the car on the way home from work. Often—perhaps more often than not—we aren't aware that we're doing this, which underscores the power and ubiquity of memory's unreliability, But it's all we have, nothing and everything. Nance writes "Call me old-fashioned," which is pretty tricky of him. The phrase implies that in earlier eras we demanded and received factual, verifiable memory in our autobiographies, that there was a time in human history when our memories were infallible. Saint Augustine would have a thing or two to say about that. The sooner readers and critics of memoir and autobiography—as narrative books, personal essays, graphic art, Tweets, or whatever shape it takes—resist the tyranny of taxonomy and the fascism of genre, the better.

Can we talk about art, and not category? Story-telling, and not classification? How are we not past this yet?

Image via The New York Times

Friday, November 7, 2014

On Filtering

John Rosenthal
The Dish recently excerpted an interview with the photographer John Rosenthal, whose work I hadn't been familiar with. His photographs—many of which you can find on his website—are utterly terrific: mostly black and white images of cities (Manhattan in the 1970s and 80s and New Orleans post-Katrina in particular) and of rural places and small towns and the people who inhabit them.

In the interview Rosenthal speaks on the ethical dilemma of photographing people. "A photograph can extract people from the flow of their lives (and to some people that flow is everything)," he argues.
It can crop them from the lively space in which they live and have their being. A photograph can also secretly juxtapose people and objects in a highly suggestive way. Sometimes that’s a form of cruelty.

...generally speaking, we need to be careful about what our photographs claim to know. The knowledge is often, as Susan Sontag once pointed out, “unearned.”

I rarely photograph people anymore.
I never have, or I avoid them at all cost. (I tend to favor abandonment, here and here.) I've never quite understood if my disinclination to photograph people, even to allow them to wander into the frame, is ethical rigor on my part or simple cowardice. As an introvert, I think I natively shy away from capturing someone in a photo against her will, or at least by surprise. I know that I've missed many opportunities: last summer I was taking photos at the old Tiger Stadium site in Detroit when a man, possibly homeless, clearly indigent, wandered into the park with two large shopping bags and began going through the trashcans located behind the backstop. I stopped photographing out of respect, recognizing at that I might be sacrificing a killer image of a foraging human foregrounded against an abandoned historic ballpark foregrounded against an epically crumbling city. I looked the the other way instead.

A comment Rosenthal makes later in the interview struck me. Asked to describe his equipment, he says, "Well, I should start off by saying that I’ve been shooting with a digital camera for a while now. Probably out of necessity."
I spend as much time working on digital prints as I used to spend in the darkroom, but now I don’t have to stand on my bad left foot.

In my case, switching from film to digital was a matter of convenience, and that’s about it. Even though I am using a new technology, the reasons why I take photographs haven’t changed. The digital camera is, really, just a camera, and the world I want to photograph is the same old world. The old challenge remains unchanged: to use my camera to disclose some sort of hidden meaning that lies below our common awareness. A poet’s task, neither more nor less. So I trained myself to look closely for the little thing that nobody was paying attention to, the quiet thing that didn’t want to give away its secret importance. An unmade bed. A chessboard in Tompkins Square after a rainstorm. Something you might walk right by.
Good stuff. Then, he says:
I guess I have faith that the actual world, as it is, is enough. It’s my guiding principle. I think that if I move things around in my photographs, arrange expressions, say, or digitally create a dream effect, then I won’t meet the criterion of perception that I’ve set for myself. I want to distill reality, not modify it with software.

Of course I’m describing only one approach to image-making—one that I inherited from a certain time and place. It’s just the way I do things. It’s no better or worse than a hundred other ways of considering and making photographs. It’s just mine.

I'm relived by his generous admission there at the end that his way is not necessarily the best way, and yet the old worrisome scab is pulled at again: I take photos using my iPad, and filter virtually every image through Hipstamatic. I've wrestled with this for a long time, recognizing that any effective image I do end up producing is as much a testament to pre-set filters and lenses as to my own eye for composition (not to mention random luck). I guess that I'm comfortable with sharing a successful photo with Lucas Buic and Ryan Dorshorst, the founders of Hipstamatic, but here are questions that keep me up at night: Have filters ruined me? Are photos taken with and subsequently manipulated via Hipstamatic any less authentic than photos taken with a film camera and adjusted in post-production process? Does a filter produce an ersatz experience, or texturally heighten, intensify an experience that's already there? I'm not sure. Certainly Hipstamatic has eliminated the laborious processes of the dark room—which I never experienced, anyway, being an amateur—but I still need to manipulate my camera in such a way as to take best advantage of light, perspective, composition, etc. I only utilize the filters and lenses that came bundled for free with Hipstamatic when I first downloaded the app, and I often marvel at the effects—though, as in any creative enterprise, for every good image there are dozens that don't work. And luck, as always, plays as much of a powerful role as anything.

If I sound defensive, it's because I am. I'm not sure where in the continuum of photography history I'd locate my inessential self and the filters and lenses vouchsafed me and millions of others.