Friday, May 29, 2015

Eternal Oblivians

In preparation

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—Oblivians brought their lo-fi mania to the Empty Bottle last night, plugging in and blasting three-chord streaks through their spiky catalog. The band—Greg (Cartwright) Oblivian and Jack (Yarber) Oblivian on guitars, and Eric (Friedl) Oblivian on drums—broke up in 1997, but have played sporadically since then, and issued a new album, Desperation, in 2013. Old friends, they assume a reckless, garage-band spirit, tight and rehearsed but untethered to a set list, with a lot of eye-glances and head-nods and muttering among them as the loud, beery night progressed. They played songs from their early albums ("She's A Hole," "No Reason To Live," "Blew My Cool," "Bad Man," "Live The Life," "Feel All Right," "What's The Matter Now)" and a few from Desperation, including "Fire Detector," "Mama Guitar," and the great "Pinball King"—a song I love immoderately. Thankfully, Oblivians remind us that barre chords, beer, and loud clubs aren't going away anytime soon, that rock and roll songs can both attack and be attacked—a kind of amplified cage match. Cartwright was at his howling best, shutting his eyes when he sang, and pummeling his guitar, though he looked a little beat by the end of the night. The band rotates drummers—Friedl gave way to Cartwright, and then Cartwright to Yarber as the set closed—and my favorite moment occurred when Yarber, behind the kit, looked suddenly alarmed and a little scared when Cartwright started a typically raucous Bo Diddley-on-crank riff; Yarber made eye contact with Friedl, who stepped to Cartwright and said, "It's too fast!" Cartwright slowed down and Yarber played along with the song, gamely, and as cautiously as an Oblivian can be onstage. When they came back for an encore, after ducking out in the alley out back of the club, Yarber grabbed his guitar and said to the crowd, "Well, we took a vote—I'm still in the band!" He then apologized to all drummers. Cartwright smiled and said, "I thought he was good!" Great stuff.

An obnoxious-if-smiling slam-dancing handful up front insisted on turning the night into their own basement version of pro wrestling. Eyed by security, they managed to take over the front, childishly. (A drag when I was 20, a drag now.) As for the opening bands, I'll just say this: there is a time and place for Deconstruction; a rock and roll club ain't one of them.

Left to right: Cartwright, Friedl, Yarber

Who wants to drum?

Thursday, May 28, 2015


The interior of an abandoned convenience store/gas station in DeKalb. Sometimes an image does the heavy lifting.
Sad M&M's.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Edward Hoagland Walks Manhattan in 1975

Edward Hoagland
In an era of rapid New York City transformation and consequent losses, and the very public grieving of those losses, it's worth taking a look at Edward Hoagland's essay "City Walking," which appeared in the New York Times Book Review on June 1, 1975 and was collected in Hoagland's collection Heart's Desire in 1988. Hoagland's brief piece is in the long tradition of tributes to walking Manhattan. In the humid and difficult mid-1970s, of course, perambulating the island was a considerably riskier proposition than it was before and than it is now. But the intrepid walker that Hoagland is, he ventures out to embrace the freedom and the dangers, in the process offering a gift to his future 21st Century readers: a redolent, tactile stroll dicey, long-gone Manhattan.

"There is a time of life somewhere between the sullen fugues of adolescence and the retrenchments of middle age when human nature becomes so absolutely absorbing one wants to be in the city constantly, even at the height of the summer," he begins. "Nature can’t seem to hold a candle to it."
One gobbles the blocks, and if the weather is sweaty, so much the better; it brings everybody else out too. To the enthusiast’s eye, what might later look to be human avarice is simply energy, brutality is strength, ambition is not wearisome or repellent or even alarming. In my own case, aiming to be a writer, I knew that every mile I walked, the better writer I’d be; and I went to Twentieth Street and the Hudson River to smell the yeasty redolence of the Nabisco factory, and to West Twelfth Street to sniff the police stables. In the meat—market district nearby, if a tyro complained that his back ached, the saying was “Don’t bleed on me!” 
Hoagland reminds us of the losses that are always endemic to progress in a major city:
Down close to the Battery the banana boats used to unload (now they are processed in Albany). Banana boats were the very definition of sea-going grubbiness, but bejeweled snakes could be discovered aboard which had arrived from the tropics as stowaways. On Bleecker Street you could get a dozen clams on the half shell for fifty cents if you ate them outdoors; and on Avenue A, piroshki, kielbasa, and suchlike. Kids still swam from piers west of the theater‘ district in the Hudson and under Brooklyn Bridge, and I was on the lookout among them for Huckleberry Finn. He was there, all right, diving in, then scrambling up a piling, spitting water because he hadn’t quite learned how to swim. In the evening I saw him again on Delancey Street, caught by the ear by a storekeeper for pilfering.

Oh yes, oh yes! one says, revisiting these old walking neighborhoods. Yorkville, Inwood, Columbus Avenue. Our New York sky is not muscular with cloud formations as is San Francisco’s, or as green-smelling as London’s, and rounding a corner here, one doesn’t stop stock-still to gaze at the buildings as in Venice. The bartenders like to boast that in this city we have “the best and worst,” yet intelligent conversation, for example, is mostly ad-libbed and comes in fits and starts, anywhere or nowhere; one cannot trot out of an evening and go looking for it. We have our famous New York energy instead, as well as its reverse, which is the keening misery, the special New York craziness, as if every thirteenth person standing on the street is wearing a gauzy hospital smock and paper shower slippers. 
NYC 1975
The mention of New York's "keening misery" sends Hoagland down some of the sorry streets of 1975 Manhattan: "Edmund G. Love wrote a good city walker’s book some years called Subways Are for Sleeping. Indeed they were, but now if the transit police didn’t prevent old bums from snoozing the night away while rumbling back and forth from Brooklyn to the Bronx, somebody would set them on fire."
Up the street hunting parties are abroad, whom the walker must take cognizance of; it’s not enough to have your historical guidebook and go maundering about to the Old Merchant’s House on East Forth Street. A pair of bravos will ask you for a light and want a light; another pair, when your hands are in your pockets, will slug you. If you’re lucky they will slug you; the old bar fighters complain about how risky fighting has become. You must have a considerable feel for these things, an extra sense, eyes in the back of your head: or call it a walker’s emotional range. You must know when a pistol pointed at you playfully by a ten-year-old is a cap pistol and when it’s not; whether someone coming toward you with a broken bottle is really going for you or not. We have grown to be students of police work—watching a bank robber scram as the squad cars converge, watching a burglar tackled, watching four hoodlums unmercifully beating a cop until four patrol cars scream to a halt and eight policemen club down the hoods.

Nevertheless, if you ask people who have some choice in the matter why they live in a particular neighborhood, one answer they will give is that they “like to walk.” Walking is a universal form of exercise, not age—oriented or bound to any national heritage, and costs and implies nothing except maybe a tolerant heart. Like other sports, it calls for a good eye as well as cheerful legs—those chunky gluteus muscles that are the butt of mankind’s oldest jokes—because the rhythm of walking is in the sights and one’s response as much as simply in how one steps. 
After predicting that walking will catch on in the suburbs, Hoagland recounts a time he'd recently been loafing on the docks of a Mississippi river town, watching young boys straight out of Huckleberry Finn dare each other to drink the water, a melancholy thing for Hoagland to witness, so distanced, he feels, are so many Americans from their vibrant natural surroundings. (And, no, walking didn't catch on in suburbia.)

"Now, muggers are herd creatures like the rest of us; they too have a 'rush hour'," Hoagland laments in closing. "So if a walker is indeed an individualist there is nowhere he can’t go at dawn and not many places he can’t go at noon. But just as it demeans life to live alongside a great river you can no longer swim in or drink from, to be crowded into the safer areas and hours takes much of the gloss off walking—one sport you shouldn’t have to reserve a time and a court for."

Image of of New York City in 1975 via Andy Blair at flickr.

Friday, May 22, 2015

"5 to 2"

Roger Angell has written—has, indeed, made a career out of noting—that inside of a baseball fan lives a child who expects each game to be a tense, nine-inning struggle with bottom-of-the-ninth heroics for the home team. Of course, this rarely happens; baseball is a game of ebbs and flows, with far more than not receding from a dimly-seen shore if a team's playing poorly. I was reminded of this again last night, as I watched glumly as the glum White Sox fell to the Cleveland Indians, a glum game in which the Sox starter John Danks allowed four runs in the opening frame. This was an insult my friends and endured outside of the park at the gate, listening to a dispirited Ed Farmer call the game over speakers, mired as we'd been, first, in horrendous, Chicago Blackhawks-to-blame traffic, and, second, in a delay entering due to a random, park-wide security check. By the time we reached our seats behind home midway through the bottom of the first, the game's conclusion felt foregone. The Sox lost, 5 to 2.

It didn't matter. I was with good buds, good beer (Revolution and Half Acre, local brews) in great seats. The Sox played poorly—there were impatient at-bats, embarrassing fielding, Danks's lousy, junky outing—but the weather was gorgeous, and Tyler Flowers's hard-hit homer to left, which plated Gordon Beckham who was on second after a loud double, in the ninth, was just the kind of funny, too-little-too-late, boo!-and-yay! offense that characterizes a bush league game for an average team having an average season. And for that matter, it characterizes the game of baseball. There will always be something to cheer about if you wait out a game, among both friends and strangers, believers and cynics. It's a truism as old as the sun glinting off of US Cellular Field.

Too little, too late

Photo of a forlorn John Danks by John J. Kim for Chicago Tribune

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"You gotta have soul, baby"

The late Paul Williams founded Crawdaddy! magazine in 1966, and was one of the first to elevate rock and roll as a subject worth essaying and having fun with on intellectual terms. (1966-1968 archives of Crawdaddy! can be found here.) This excerpt from "How Rock Communicates," published in 1969 in Williams's first book, Outlaw Blues: A Book Of Rock Music, is certainly of its era. Peer through the druggy vibe and the tone of 3 a.m. dorm-room heavy-rapping, and what Williams is saying about the emotional immediacy of rock and roll and the myth of virtuosity is good stuff.
Communication is transportation (uh, I’m just fooling around here; I wouldn’t want to perpetrate new slogans). Time and space are things to pass through, art is the rearranging of the universe into patterns reflecting the artist’s will. Message is a specific thing, a discernible thing. Will is not. Few artists deal with messages, few artists expect you to go at the physical body 0f their work with a scalpel and attempt to extract its essence. The artist’s emotions and sense perceptions are transmitted by means of his work. He receives, and he sends so that you may receive. The medium is not important. The medium is inanimate, an object. What you receive—not a message, not a specific, but a sum of messages, an emotion, a vision, a perception—is a part of the artist. It’s alive. It’s reborn in you. Music. The notes are not important. Virtuosity means nothing. No one cares how well you rearrange the objects. You gotta have soul, baby, which just means it’s gotta be you you’re passing on, people receiving parts of people, living matter, animate stuff. The medium and the messages it contains are just so much nothing, trees falling in the forest with no one to hear, unless there is human life on both ends of the line, sending, receiving, transferring bits of human consciousness from one soul to another. Communication is the interaction between our personal worlds.
And then, he writes, he put on a Byrds album. Salud.

Paul Williams, 1948-2013

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Rick Moody and Music Writing: Why so Beautiful?

Rick Moody
One of the joys of reading is being stopped cold when you encounter a passage so akin to your own sensibilities and ideas that you feel you could've written it yourself, had you been there first and a better writer. Rick Moody, a longtime fiction writer and musician and current music columnist at The Rumpus, published a collection of his music essays in 2012, On Celestial Music: And Other Adventures in Listening, gathering writing about Pete Townsend, Otis Redding, Wilco, Magnetic Fields, style, taste, modes of music and lots of music-related musings in between. From the introduction:
These essays, which were composed over so many years now, nearly fifteen years, are a record of that pursuit, and they return to the site of the first revelation of music as though there really were a first revelation and not an entire lifetime of listening. These essays try to explain what it is that so overwhelms this writer in song and instrumental music. It bears mentioning: the inability to stop trying to explain this imprinting, this mark that music has made on me, is why some of these pieces are longer than essays normally are. I can't stop. What these songs have done to me, in remaking me, is open me up to certain kinds of feelings and perceptions, even when much of what's in the world opposes any opening up at all.


I always return to writing—in the harder moments; I come back to these alphanumerical keys here, as if it's only with words that I can make sense of the travails of consciousness. And yet when I come back to these keys, I find that music often comes with me. Much has changed, and the kinds of things I'm listening to are nothing like what I loved when I was first listening to the AM transistor radio under the sheet: now I find that sentimentality always drives me off, and a lot or what I like is music that most people would find hard to enjoy, but the experience is the same: I could still easily pass a whole night just spinning tunes on the stereo. and I could talk the ear off a friend, indulging in the little shades of differences between certain approaches to the popular song, certain recordings. I feel very excited and happy when I encounter a person with whom I can go on in this way, and you, consumer of books, are that person today.

The suspended fourth! Why so beautiful? The major seventh! Why so beautiful?...
You took the words out of my mouth. Where I diverge from Moody is at the intersection of memory and sentimentality; he bolts one way, maybe toward noise, dissonance, and anti-sentimentality, I another, often toward sentimentality and what it might reveal about its power and limitations. Otherwise, this is shared-skin stuff here.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Real Thing from the Real Kids

John Felice. happy just to be alive
DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—The Real Kids played some stirring rock and roll at the HoZac BLACKOUT Fest before a packed crowd at the Empty Bottle last night, running through a clutch of songs from their eponymous 1978 debut and their most recent album, 2014's Shake...Outta Control, which Felice has described as their "follow-up." (He announced a song from "our new album," and smiled.) These songs— "All Kindsa Girls," "Do The Boob," "My Baby's Book," "Tell Me (What You Want Me To Do)," "All Night Boppin'," "She Don't Take It," "Common At Noon"—remind us how riff-y three-chord songs about girls, loneliness, kicks, and desperation will always have currency. Founding member John Felice plays his Fender like an old pal, occasionally thumping it with his hand to keep it in line. With his mop of blonde-white hair and his ample, building-super's body, Felice is all stolid presence, and he howls like it's 1977. His guitar playing is still terrific—muscular and choppy, never showy but always galvanizing. Cherubic-faced Billy Cole, a Felice co-hort since the early 1980s, traded licks with Felice, swapping out for a 12-string Rickenbacker a few times. The band was having monitor problems, but they forged on, one indelible tune and Hamm Beer after another. They threw in a couple of covers—crunchy rips through the Beatles' "You Can't Do That" and Badfinger's "Baby Blue"—but the emphasis was on Felice's originals, which tell stories of anxiety and ennui and solitude and elevate them to beery anthems.

"As far as trying anything new, I ain't sure who said it but it goes something like '...stick with what you're good at'," Felice said to David Laing a couple years ago. "That don't mean I wanna just keep making the same record over and over. But our fans are hard core, and if we tried to go all 'Sgt Pepper' on them they would rise up and kill us. No, we just keep doing what we do." Before playing the affecting, cinematic "Common At Noon" last night, Felice cracked, "Someone told me today that if I'd only written this song and it'd been a hit, I'd still be remembered." He paused, adjusting his guitar, looked up at the dusty disco ball hanging from the ceiling, and said, "I could've killed myself, like, forty years ago." Despite Felice's years—or because of them—his songs resonated with a young, buzzed crowd nodding their collective head to life's romantic messiness.


Of the three other bands on the bill, I liked Minneapolis's Cozy the best. They arrived on stage in matching denim overalls and light blue t-shirts and mock-huddled at the drum set before kicking off a great set of glam pop. Their songs are hook-y and fun. When the bass player looks like Emmit Rhodes, the guitarist like a scrubbed-clean, stayed-in-school twin to Angus Young (complete with Gibson SG), and the songs would make any Slade fan grin, then you're in luck. By the end of the set the singer was stripped down to his drawers—he complained about pants a lot during the show—and gratefully accepted shots from the audience only to pour them over his head. It was that kind of night. I picked up their album on the way out.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Richard Meltzer is still learning

The inimitable Richard Meltzer turned 70 the other day. In tribute, here's an excerpt from "F**k My Childhood," a piece he wrote around the age of 50 about the vagaries of taste. The piece originally appeared in San Diego Reader in 1994, and was collected in 2000 in A Whore Just Like The Rest.

I love Meltzer's tone here: bitchy, resentful, naive, and humble, sometimes all in the same sentence. Great stuff.
I saw Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry at the Brooklyn Paramount; Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show; the Beatles at Shea Stadium (twice); The Doors something like FORTY times, more than half before Jim even wore leathers (no: jeans and a surfer shirt); Sonny Rollins at the Five Spot after he got down off the Williamsburg Bridge to start gigging again (he had a Mohawk); Ornette Coleman at the Village Vanguard after his woodshed time-out to add trumpet and violin to his arsenal. The first time I heard the Troggs was on a jukebox as I peed in a urinal trying to make cigarette filters stand on end while my blind date not exactly waited for me at the bar, a
total washout.

I could go on for paragraphs, pages, volumes ’bout all the rock and jazz things I experienced not only in real time but in their real time—their only time (before history got them—as it gets everyone and everything—wrong, before they got nailed to some idiot conception of the great chain of being, or the Time-Life lie-lie-lie-lie, or worse) and certainly mine (and double certainly theirs and mine in even proximate relevant conjunction); maybe someday I

The point for now being simply THIS: I have no context, no history (other than remote; remoter than remote; wholly, utterly incidental) to plug into when I listen to classical music, no environment in which to meet and greet it even halfway—none in which I really wish to participate (the concert scene, hanging out at Tower Classical, subscribing to archivist/discophile mags) (it’s just too, what’s the word, yes, too fussy) (too Euro, too creepy): no nexus of anysort, any import, OTHER THAN the shoddy Gestalt of childhood, or (and here’s the kicker) some icky yucky structural equivalent: stamp collecting, model airplanes, by-the-numbers kid chemistry: a socially redeeming “hobby.”

Or a—heaven help me—school project (for “extra credit”)—I’m still a fucking overachiever. I diligently sift through exemplars of “baroque,” “classical,” “romantic,” “modern,” “avant garde” as I would through the airmail imperforates of Belgium, New Zealand and Estonia; I wiggle my toe in the vast ocean of opera, using my encounter with easy/early Wagner to give me entree to difficult/late, I go from Aida to Rigoletto, from Les Préludes to A Faust Symphony to Mephisto Waltz #1. I’m, as they say, “learning.” I probably don’t have enough years left to actually ever come up to speed with it, but I’m also likewise at a stage of mammal froth where such a fact don’t faze me. Or do I have it backwards? Is this in fact an apt preoccupation for my coming dotage—pipe and slippers—geezertime, daddy—o?

In any event, it feels somewhat absurd at age 50 or age anything, given the downscale biases of my music-critical past, that I’m sort of reviewing—that I’ve lived to review—make semi-reasonable non-pejorative allusion to—in a single piece—two operas and a tone poem, but, y’know, hey: fuck me.

Friday, May 8, 2015

That Time Again...

The Chicago White Sox were utterly in character in losing the third game of the recent series with the Detroit Tigers. After winning the first two games, the Sox torpedoed expectations and regressed to meek batting supporting good pitching; next week the poles will reverse, I suspect. Likely that will be the course throughout the season: one game up, two games back. The off-season signings of Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, Jeff Samardzija, and David Robertson excited all of us Sox fans—I told a friend in March that this was the first Spring Training I was feeling realistically—not fanly—optimistic about the team's chances. The White Six are currently a game out of last place.

My "It's early!" and "It's cold!" and "Wait until [ ]" proclamations have worn out their expired-by dates. Now is the time of the season when—and I admit this to few people—I wish I could be a fair-weather fan, adopt myself to whatever team is winning, be it the Giants or the Cardinals or the Royals, and enjoy a quality season with quality players and managers playing quality major league baseball, enduring player- and team-slumps that genuinely feel like the bottom of a hill to be conquered, not an endless void into dark mediocrity. But I can't do that. I'm a fan. And so I'll continue to wax philosophically to Amy over morning coffee, and lunch, and happy hour that losing builds character, that baseball is about adversity, that it's a humbling game. "A lifetime .300 hitter fails to get even a nubber hit seven out of ten times!" Meanwhile, over in Detroit....

I know. It's early.

Photo by Jason Miller via Getty Images