Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Only Three Days Left! Enter to win a copy of Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found autographed by The Killer

"Words cannot describe—cannot contain—the performance captured on Live! at the Star Club, an album that contains the very essence of rock & roll." Stephen Thomas Erlewine, AllMusic

On the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the release of Live! At The Star-Club, Bloomsbury Publishing is offering a copy of Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found signed by Jerry Lee Lewis himself.

For a chance to win, tweet something you lost and then found again with the hashtag #lostandfound and you will be entered to win. Contest ends 5/1!

~~

From 333Sound:

On April 5, 1964, as the Beatles were filmed in London being chased by a horde of screaming kids for the opening credits of A Hard Day’s Night, Jerry Lee Lewis was in Hamburg, West Germany, where he’d arrived with his backing band, the Nashville Teens. Lewis played two sets that evening at the Star-Club. The shows were captured on tape by producer Siggi Loch, edited down to twelve songs, and issued later that year. Live! At The Star-Club remains one of the most powerful rock and roll shows ever recorded, Lewis’s and the Nashville Teens’ performances among the most mighty ever waxed.
I asked esteemed rock and roll writer and Jerry Lee Lewis biographer Nick Tosches for his take on the 50th anniversary of the album’s release. He said that Live! At The Star-Club is “the perfect suicide-pact marriage between music and methamphetamine, and one of the most overpowering and essential moments in all of rock and roll—a manic paroxysm such as might raise the dead, fell the living, and forever rend the veils of night.” I too was amazed by the ferocity of the record when I first heard it in the early 1990s on a Rhino Records CD re-release, and over the years I became deeply curious—one might say obsessed—about the making of the album and its place in Jerry Lee Lewis’s vexed career and in the history of great, raw rock and roll.

When Lewis played the Star-Club he was, of course, six years removed from the scandal of having married Myra Gale Brown, his 13-year-old first cousin (once removed). As I began research for the book, I’d assumed that six years was a long enough stretch for Lewis to have been “forgiven” by the record-buying public, but I was wrong. Commercially speaking he was at a low point when he played Hamburg. He was continuing to tour, but without the assistance of his earlier, powerful promoters and supporters; the venue sizes were shrinking, as were his record sales. He visited England and Germany in the spring of 1964 promoting his newest single “I’m On Fire” and The Golden Hits of Jerry Lee Lewis, an album featuring rerecordings of some of his older songs, both released by his new record label, Smash.

After the so-called British Invasion of 1964, Lewis had to battle harder than ever to recapture the interest and the dollars of his dwindling audience. It wasn’t until the end of the decade, when he reinvented himself as a hardcore honky tonk country musician, that he would again sell millions of albums, helping to restore his career well into the 1970s. But the years in between “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out Of Me)” were lean and exhausting, marked by diminishing returns, and Lewis found that nonstop touring (in the shape of brutal, often sparsely-attended one-night stands across the U.S.) was the best way to keep himself, his splintering family, and his band members in pocket money, and his legend in the light.

So, among obscure singles and album releases, Jerry Lee Lewis continued to hit the road, mining his Sun Records catalogue and his staggering knowledge of the Americana songbook, kicking away his piano stool and shaking loose his hair. Fans of raucous, no-holds-barred rock and roll are the luckier for it. Lewis’s performance at the Star-Club, backed by a band barely able to keep up with the Killer, is incendiary and untouched. The opening trio of songs, as sequenced by Loch, stands up to any live rock and roll ever taped: “Mean Woman Blues,” “High School Confidential,” and “Money”—women, youth, and cash—barrel over the listener from the sheer intensity of Lewis’s playing amped up by his outsized personality, the sonic myth of The Killer. From a reckless tear through “What’d I Say?” to rehabilitated older hits to an astounding, brawly emotional take on Hank Williams’s “Your Cheating Heart,” Lewis and the Nashville Teens muscle their way through the rock and roll in front of a delirious crowd as if the sweaty, ear-splitting journey might somehow renew them. Lewis had a lot to prove every night during this complicated and difficult time in his career.

Fortunately, Siggi Loch was there to record for posterity this ordinary, extraordinary night in April of 1964. “I listened to the album again, after all these years.” Loch said. “It still sounds amazingly exciting!”

Friday, April 25, 2014

New Buildings, New Past

While leaving my local beer store in Sycamore, Illinois, I noticed what appeared to be a "ghost sign" on the side of the Portillo's building next door. If one squinted, one could make out the lettering fading behind two brick arches:

Norris And Sons
Furniture and Undertaking

I wondered if this Portillo's might have renovated an old factory, and was paying stylish homage to the building's former tenants:


Amy reminded me when I came home that no factory stood on that site before Portillo's showed up. Was this a fraudulent "ghost sign," an other-century father and son business fictionalized by Portillo's in an attempt to evoke and celebrate vanished local commerce, quaint industry befitting a Sherwood Anderson story?

I contacted Patty Sullivan, Executive Assistant in the Portillo Restaurant Group, who forwarded my request to Jeff Atkins, who works at Mercury Studios, a design firm based in Chicago. Atkins told me that Norris And Sons was in fact a business in West Chicago, Illinois that operated in the first half of the twentieth century. He directed me to a site devoted to the history of the Amity Lodge No. 472, in West Chicago. In 1890 Norris and Son erected a building on Main Street for their furniture and undertaking establishments; they added a third floor for the Masonic Hall, which held meetings there until 1926. Atkins informed me, "At the time it was common practice for carpenters/furniture makers to make coffins as well," adding, "If I remember correctly I think we recreated the ghost signage from an old newspaper advertisement that we found."

~~

So: Norris and Sons at one time existed in West Chicago. Twenty-eight miles west and decades later, a design firm creates a faux "ghost sign" against faked bricked-over windows on the side of a building that was erected in 2006. What interest me is the decision to recreate a faded sign on a new building, a kind of architectural Instagram. If in fact Mercury Studios did recreate the sign based on an old advertisement, then it's likely that the sun-faded look is imagined, or projected. Either way we have a terrific early 21st Century creation: a faked advertisement further dissembling as vintage further dissembling as weather-faded; and if you want to throw in the notion that the sign suggests a Norris And Son once stood on this spot, go ahead. We have a lot of filters from which to choose on Instagram, Hipstamatic, Magic Hour, etc., when we curate and post our images. A picture taken last night cropped and filtered through Instagram 1977 with Tiltshift invokes nostalgia for a past that didn't exist. What does a paint-peeling ghost sign on a restaurant building less than ten-years-old project? Tradition, community, quality, sentimentality, all qualities I'm sure Portillo Restaurant Group doesn't mind washing over its customers as they idly line up at the drive-thru to order an Italian Beef or B-B-Q Ribs. A ghost sign also signifies loss: perhaps if I order my dinner at Portillo's—sitting in one of their themed interiors, or eating at home in front of the TV—I'm forestalling that loss just a bit more by honoring a business that once existed. To say nothing of the sense of constancy and permanence, the rootedness and the sturdiness implied in the solid foundation a building that appears to have been standing since the end of the nineteenth century.

The history of the Amity Lodge concludes with this quote, the origin of which I can't find. It feels appropriate to Portillo's reclamation of the past:
We know that memories of men
Will fade and then be gone.
But records of our fathers' deeds
May pass from son to son
~~

Related: I recently interviewed Derek Stenborg here about his many photographs of ghost signs.

Monday, April 21, 2014

More Than You Can Give Me

After using Spotify for a long stretch, I looked at my iPod and thought, Meh.

There are 19,324 songs on my iPod

A little perspective may be in order.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Enter to win a copy of Lost and Found signed by The Killer

Jerry Lee Lewis wowing 'em at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Wes Germany on April 5, 1964
Six years ago, I happily accepted editor David Barker’s invitation to write a book about Jerry Lee Lewis’s Live! At The Star-Club album, released in 1964. Lost and Found, which bookends a history of the Star-Club and the recording of the album with examinations of Lewis’s tumultuous career before and after the mid-1960s, was published by Bloomsbury in 2009. Now, on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the release of Live! At The Star-Club, Bloomsbury and I are offering a copy of Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found signed by Jerry Lee Lewis himself.

For a chance to win, tweet something you lost and then found again with the hashtag #lostandfound and you will be entered to win. Contest ends 5/1.

~~

From 333Sound:
On April 5, 1964, as the Beatles were filmed in London being chased by a horde of screaming kids for the opening credits of A Hard Day’s Night, Jerry Lee Lewis was in Hamburg, West Germany, where he’d arrived with his backing band, the Nashville Teens. Lewis played two sets that evening at the Star-Club. The shows were captured on tape by producer Siggi Loch, edited down to twelve songs, and issued later that year. Live! At The Star-Club remains one of the most powerful rock and roll shows ever recorded, Lewis’s and the Nashville Teens’ performances among the most mighty ever waxed.
I asked esteemed rock and roll writer and Jerry Lee Lewis biographer Nick Tosches for his take on the 50th anniversary of the album’s release. He said that Live! At The Star-Club is “the perfect suicide-pact marriage between music and methamphetamine, and one of the most overpowering and essential moments in all of rock and roll—a manic paroxysm such as might raise the dead, fell the living, and forever rend the veils of night.” I too was amazed by the ferocity of the record when I first heard it in the early 1990s on a Rhino Records CD re-release, and over the years I became deeply curious—one might say obsessed—about the making of the album and its place in Jerry Lee Lewis’s vexed career and in the history of great, raw rock and roll.

When Lewis played the Star-Club he was, of course, six years removed from the scandal of having married Myra Gale Brown, his 13-year-old first cousin (once removed). As I began research for the book, I’d assumed that six years was a long enough stretch for Lewis to have been “forgiven” by the record-buying public, but I was wrong. Commercially speaking he was at a low point when he played Hamburg. He was continuing to tour, but without the assistance of his earlier, powerful promoters and supporters; the venue sizes were shrinking, as were his record sales. He visited England and Germany in the spring of 1964 promoting his newest single “I’m On Fire” and The Golden Hits of Jerry Lee Lewis, an album featuring rerecordings of some of his older songs, both released by his new record label, Smash.

After the so-called British Invasion of 1964, Lewis had to battle harder than ever to recapture the interest and the dollars of his dwindling audience. It wasn’t until the end of the decade, when he reinvented himself as a hardcore honky tonk country musician, that he would again sell millions of albums, helping to restore his career well into the 1970s. But the years in between “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out Of Me)” were lean and exhausting, marked by diminishing returns, and Lewis found that nonstop touring (in the shape of brutal, often sparsely-attended one-night stands across the U.S.) was the best way to keep himself, his splintering family, and his band members in pocket money, and his legend in the light.

So, among obscure singles and album releases, Jerry Lee Lewis continued to hit the road, mining his Sun Records catalogue and his staggering knowledge of the Americana songbook, kicking away his piano stool and shaking loose his hair. Fans of raucous, no-holds-barred rock and roll are the luckier for it. Lewis’s performance at the Star-Club, backed by a band barely able to keep up with the Killer, is incendiary and untouched. The opening trio of songs, as sequenced by Loch, stands up to any live rock and roll ever taped: “Mean Woman Blues,” “High School Confidential,” and “Money”—women, youth, and cash—barrel over the listener from the sheer intensity of Lewis’s playing amped up by his outsized personality, the sonic myth of The Killer. From a reckless tear through “What’d I Say?” to rehabilitated older hits to an astounding, brawly emotional take on Hank Williams’s “Your Cheating Heart,” Lewis and the Nashville Teens muscle their way through the rock and roll in front of a delirious crowd as if the sweaty, ear-splitting journey might somehow renew them. Lewis had a lot to prove every night during this complicated and difficult time in his career.

Fortunately, Siggi Loch was there to record for posterity this ordinary, extraordinary night in April of 1964. “I listened to the album again, after all these years.” Loch said. “It still sounds amazingly exciting!”

Saturday, April 12, 2014

One Night in 1986 God Blessed Me and The Oysters

Every once in a while, you stumble upon the right rock and roll band playing on the right night—right for them, and for you. This has happened to me more than once, happily, but never quite as urgently as on a night nearly 30 years ago when I caught The Oysters at the (old) 9:30 Club in Washington DC. I don't remember what drew me and my buddies to the show; I know I hadn't heard their debut album yet; probably it was just a random night out; maybe they were opening for Lyres? (The Oysters hailed from Boston.) Whatever the reason, there I was, drunk, young, ready for anything, and the Oysters blew me away. I was astonished at their coming-apart-at-the-seams playing, their literal crashing into one another on stage, the tuneful, anthemic noise, their beery grins often fading to desperate looks when it sounded, and likely felt, like everything was going to fall apart: the song, the band, the friendships, maybe a romance, my night. But the Oysters held it together for a show that's remained secure in my list of all-time favorite shows.

If I'd seen the Oysters the night before or the night after, would they have sounded and looked as if they were saving rock and roll, as they did that night? (It's a question I've asked before.) Maybe they were really on (or desperately off), maybe I was in the correct place to have rock and roll grace bestowed upon me. Maybe it was a random, twenty-something aligning of the stars. Luck. I was amazed and surprised at how good the Oysters were that night. One image stands out: the bass player J.R. leaping and landing on the band's crashing note at the end of some sloppy song—or was it the ragged opening?—a sloppy grin on his face, we pulled it off! He looked like a kid who'd made a half-court shot, or a younger brother who'd begged the band to let him play just tonight, I promise! When I later picked up their one and only album (Green Eggs And Ham, released on Taang! in 1985) there J.R. was in a group shot, wearing his guitar more or less the same expression. I was happy to see that.

The album, alas, disappointed me—it had to, after that night. The drums sounded smaller, the guitars quieter, the indefinable and unpredictable maelstrom of a show—sweat and girls and beer and a night without end and the surprise of being surprised by a great band—culdn't possibly be reproduced. But that's OK. I have the memories, kind of. I did write a review of the show for the late great Washington DC punk zine The Period, but my copy of the issue is long gone. (Anyone got one?) That's OK, too: all I need is the fact of what I saw, a young band of reckless kids hitting a stage, plugging in, and taking everyone and themselves down a shockingly steep steep hill that bottom of which is both blessed and regretted. What a night.

"Headhunter" comes the closest to reproducing something of that night, though really what provided the ear-splitting score was youth and chance. Turn it up.

~~

UPDATE: I tracked down the Oysters' follow-up single, "Mine Caroline," released in 1986. This Bo Diddley amphetamine stomp is more like it. Jump around and bang into things.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Bouton's Doubt

In 1969, knuckleballer Jim Bouton was pitching for the expansion Seattle Pilots (and later in the season for the Houston Astros). During the year he kept a journal in which he reflected upon aspects of the game and industry, and detailed many notable players’ booze- and amphetamine-fueled escapades and general louche behavior both in the clubhouse and on the road that hadn’t been reported on by mainstream sportswriters. A year later Bouton published his insider look as Ball Four. Edited by Leonard Shecter, the book became a best-seller, Bouton a coveted talk-show celebrity. But the book also alienated many current and former players who felt that Bouton had betrayed them and sullied their public images. Mickey Mantle was notoriously upset with him. Pete Rose taunted him at games. Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, the game’s self-appointed moralist, called Ball Four “detrimental to baseball.”

Midway through his under-appreciated follow-up book, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally, published in 1971 and also edited by Shecter, Bouton pauses to reflect on the damage that Ball Four may have caused:
There’s a song written by David Frishberg that appears in an album called Oklahoma Toad. The title of the song is “Van Lingle Mungo.” The words are, basically, just the names of ballplayers out of Frishberg’s childhood and they’re sung one after the other in a kind of lilting refrain: Whitey Kurowski, Johnny Sain, Eddie Jost, Johnny Pesky, Ferris Fain, Van Lingle Mungo. It’s a very pleasant song, sad and haunting. Here is a man reliving his childhood through the names of old baseball players, men he admired and respected, maybe loved. 
While listening, Bouton admits to twinges of regret about having written Ball Four. “I felt that perhaps a kid reading it would be so turned off to baseball heroes that he would never want to write songs about them when he grew up, that he would never feel nostalgia about them,” Bouton writes. “I wondered if I had really smashed heroes, whether I had ruined the game for the kids and ruined it for baseball fans.”

Chastened, Bouton acknowledges going through fanish stages when he was a kid, adoring the New York Giants, Alvin Dark, Dusty Rhodes, Sal Maglie. “Even now, thinking back, I can remember exactly how I felt about those men,” he writes. “There is still that same rush of good feeling when I think about them and what they meant to me,” adding, “my memories of them are still so happy that if I could write songs I’d write one about them.”

And yet, Bouton insists, there are two sides to everyone. “There’s the Dusty Rhodes who won a World Series pinch-hitting and the Dusty Rhodes who drove a bus in the World’s Fair. I could write a song about one of them. But I’m writing no songs about the Alvin Dark who ignores kids who want his autograph. And I’ll write no songs about Sal Maglie, the pitching coach, my pitching coach, who did me more harm than good.” He acknowledges that it’s possible to see people as both heroes and as flawed creatures, “imperfect, narrow sometimes, even not very good at what they do. I didn’t smash any heroes or ruin the game for anybody. You want heroes, you can have them. Heroes exist only in the mind anyway. David Frishberg has his heroes. I have mine. I just wish I could write songs.”

Here’s Frishberg’s:


~~

A few years ago, NBC News reported that the breaking pitch—the pitch that bends or, out of some hurlers’ hands, seems to “drop off the table” as it approaches home plate—is a false impression. Researchers Arthur Shapiro and Zhong-Lin Lu observed that batters focus on the ball as it leaves the pitcher, but when the ball nears the plate batters quickly alternate to peripheral vision, then return to central vision as the ball arrives at the plate. Shapiro and Lu note that this shift in focus can cause the ball to appear to break as much as a foot. Lu recognizes that for fans watching games on television a curveball seems to break when seen from behind home plate. “That is a geometric illusion,” he said, “caused by the fact that for the first part of a pitch, the viewer sees little or no vertical drop. Because the pitcher throws the ball at a slight upward angle, the first part of the pitch appears more or less flat. Then the drop seen near home plate surprises the eye.” 

Nostalgia deceives as sneakily. The word, after nostos, its Greek root, evokes wistfulness and an almost painful desire to return home, but the questions are, “Whose home?”, “Where is it?”, and “Did it ever exist?” A couple of months ago I wrote about Game Six of the 1977 World Series in which Reggie Jackson smacked three home runs on three consecutive pitches. Remembering the onfield spectacle afterward—Jackson ran for his life to the dugout through the crazed crowd—I’m nostalgic for homer heroics, delirious fans, and being allowed to stay up late to watch all the madness, but this ignores the brutal realities of the era, the cultural turmoil beneath the spectacle. As Jim Bouton reminds us, there are always two sides: playing and braying; celebration and violence; joy and danger. (Nostalgia only exists in the mind anyway.) There are no pleasant songs about urban collapse, reckless violence, class inequities, erupting crowds, a city nearly coming apart at the seams. Nostalgia requires that we elide darkness, blinded as we are by the lights calling us back home, wherever that is.

Bouton worries that Ball Four may have affected the game’s presumed innocence and its roster of burnished heroes, but nostalgia is very forgiving; that’s why we talk about the “good old” days, not the bad ones. When we’re nostalgic for the game of baseball we’re usually recalling isolated moments, images, still-frames from memory: a coveted Topps baseball card; a sun-warmed glove in the backyard; a favorite player rounding second; an enemy player overthrowing first, allowing your team to score the winning run; your dad’s moist eyes in the rec room. Nostalgists, all of us, prefer the close-up, not the wide-angle, the soft-focus, not the harsh realities.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Tomorrow's Nostalgia

One of the reasons that we urgently mourn the loss of old neighborhoods and industry to gentrification and technology is because the losses remind us of our own limited time on earth. There isn't an intelligent person around who would argue with the notion (the fact) that the "good old days" is largely a myth, a function of nostalgia, not of sociology. The brutal truth is that what we decry today as soulless, vacuous, and lacking flavor—the devolving of a better, more humane past into the characterless present—will be tomorrow's "good old days" for someone, somewhere. The problem is, I won't be around to share her grief.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Win a copy of Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found autographed by The Killer

EXCITING NEWS! Win a copy of Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found autographed by Jerry Lee Lewis.

Fifty years ago today, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Nashville Teens played two sets at the Star-Club in Hamburg, West Germany. The shows were edited down to a dozen songs by producer Siggi Loch and released in 1964 as Live! At The Star-Club, widely heralded as one of the greatest live rock and roll records ever made. In 2009 I published
Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, which bookends a history of the Star-Club and the recording of the album with examinations of Lewis’s tumultuous career before and after the mid-1960s.

Now, in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Star-Club album, Bloomsbury Publishing USA is running a contest where the lucky winner will receive a copy of
Lost and Found personally autographed by Jerry Lee Lewis himself!

Details coming early next week. Stay tuned. And spread the word.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Origin Stories, ctd.

I have a new batch of "Origin Stories" up at Pithead Chapel:
In church at Saint Andrew the Apostle, the mutterings of prayers and rejoinders had little effect on me beyond the sibilants, ssssssss that slithered into my sinuses and down my spine, splitting me in two—part penitent, part boy—the language sluicing through me, dissolving me, siphoning from me any attention to orthodoxy, or prayer life, or offering up—as it is in heaven, Give us this, forgive us our sins, those who trespass against us, the s’s a slippery slope into sensuality, a sounding of words, the ssssssss of a wronged tongue in my mouth, thessssssssof pulling down my classmate’s zipper, the ssssssss of Yes.
~~

More from the "Origin Stories" series here, here, and here.

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