Tuesday, June 30, 2015

John McNulty and the Lure of the Tavern (And those Damn Yankees)

I love this opening passage from John McNulty's "You Can't Tell How You'll Get Clobbered," which originally ran in The New Yorker on October 31, 1953 and was later collected in McNulty's terrific This Place On Third Avenue in 2001:

It was very tiresome on this particular afternoon, because what was the use of watching the ball game on television because no matter what happened that particular day it was going to be the Yankees against the Dodgers in the Series. So most everybody in the bar was merely leaning on the bar and using the drinks in front of them as a flimsy excuse for doing something, if it was only drinking they were doing.
As was his particular gift, McNulty economically evokes both the dire boredom and the tireless potential of a tavern. Bored? Just wait, take a bite of your rye-and-water, something'll happen, a brawl inside or out on the street, a fire down the block, or maybe a stranger will show up and hold forth mysteriously on the unpredictability of mortality (as occurred on the day McNulty writes about here). Like his peer Joseph Mitchell, McNulty had a wonderful ear and eye for the telling details of taverns, of day-drunks, barkeeps, and the men and women who wander in and out. Great stuff. (McNulty's particular and oft-celebrated haunt was Tim and Joe Costello's, an Irish bar on Third Avenue and Forty-forth Street, long since razed.)

Oh, and this piece appeared three weeks after, yes, the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series, a rematch of the previous year's contest, and the Yankees' fifth consecutive Championship. But hold on: Vin Scully, filling in for Red Barber, called his first Wold Series in 1953—so something new happened after all. See, just wait around.

Waiting around. Photo by Morris Engel, from This Place On Third Avenue

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Ty Segall's Trip

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—Ty Segall is one of the few musicians who in the middle of a set can mutter, "Here's another new song" and be greeted with an enthusiastic and wholly sincere "Please!!" from someone in the crowd. Segall played a moody, stirring acoustic show at a sold-out Empty Bottle in Chicago last night, and his fans were rapt and grateful. Shaggy-haired and shy, wearing a New York Dolls t shirt and grabbing from among several beat-up guitars from the stage as if he were in his bedroom, Segall rode his intense songs from the bottom to the top of his amazing range. This was my first time seeing Segall: I love his voice on record, where it moves between lull and screech, but playing live and with no accompaniment but his own acoustic, his range really impresses: he can live in the low end, sexy and foreboding, and then soar to the top end where what was earthy becomes atmospheric—and this trip comes in one or two lines.  The hypnotic "Crazy" from 2013's Sleeper (one of Segall's forty-plus releases) was both direct and airy, a psychedelic trick that few pull off with the confidence and nerve that Segall does, inspiring dreamy dancing from his female fans and guarded but worshipful countenances on his male fans. Among the highlights was a cover of Syd Barret's "Bob Dylan Blues," a gem from 1970 that surfaced in 2001; Segall sang the ode-parody with affection and a smile. His playing moved between evocative finger-picking and manic strumming—he busted a ton of strings—and he was able to maintain command while hiding inside the most tender, raw songs. That's what a great artist can do. Ty Segall's the real thing.

Segall and Corey Hanson
Mid-set, he brought Corey Hanson onstage to sing a few songs with him. Hanson had played before Segall, and several of his quiet, coffeehouse-vibe songs weren't charitably received by some quarters of the crowd itching for Segall. (Hanson swung with it very well; on the din coming from the uninterested patrons in the back of the club he remarked that they must be people seeing each other for the first time in 20 years. "It's fantastic," he said wryly. "I can't compete with that.") Segall took some measure of revenge by first admonishing the crowd for not listening to Hanson's set, then by bringing him onstage where the two of them played a whacked-out medley of Spinal Tap's "Gimme Some Money" and the Beatles' "Yer Blues" and "Why Don't We Do It On The Road," egging each other on, guffawing, breaking several strings between them. When the applause died down, Segall sang the first line of Paul McCartney's "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" and then abruptly stopped; I was disappointed, I really wanted to see and hear what the two could've down with that. The Segall-Hanson duo had a knockabout Everly Brothers quality to them; it's a pity they didn't tackle, say, "Let It Be Me," or "Like Strangers." The Segall-Hanson blend of irony and sincerity would've taken those songs apart. Hopefully there's an acoustic 7" in the pipeline.

For his last song Segall asked for requests. He couldn't hear a thing in the din, and so randomly pointed to a guy who, to my delight, yelled "Thank God For Sinners." (I'd hollered it too, but wasn't heard.) Segall asked the guy's name, and then said, "Thanks to John, the guy with the beard!" and then launched into a scathing, inspired, uplifting version of this great song, one I've marveled at before for its exhausted Saturday night/Sunday morning redemptive spirit. When it was over, Segall said "thanks" quietly, that it was an honor to be heard, and vanished—a modest guy with a hundred records of great music behind him. This is a cool time.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

No Easy Baseball

The Cell, home of the Chicago White Sox
A colleague affixed a postcard on her office door that reads, No Bad Art. I think that the expression "bad art" is a contradiction in terms; art is, by definition, good (or, at least, successful). Bad art is not art, it's something else. On the other side of the rhetorical street, that baseball is a hard game feels like a redundancy, one that becomes graphically apparent when you follow an average-to-poor team. This season's Chicago White Sox are inept offensively and defensively, and as a consequence the generally decent starting pitching is taking virtually nightly scarring. When a team is stuffed with veterans having simultaneous poor years at the plate you can see first-hand just how difficult it is to play baseball well consistently. Though as I write Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, and Adam Eaton are starting to swing the bat well, Jose Abreu and Jose Quintana are playing well, and Chris Sale continues to have a stellar year, it may be too little too late. The season writ small: a high contact rate is good; hitting balls hard but directly at position players is bad; a pitcher getting ahead of a batter in a count is good; falling behind—in the White Sox Way—is bad. There is plenty of luck, good and bad, involved in a winning team. When the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, they'd been in first place from the first game to the last (following an August scare and charge from the Indians). Many players had consistently strong seasons that year, and the team had a plenty of luck go its way. Mostly, baseball is about struggling to play well. Because of that, the game is sometimes dull, but it's never boring. Most major league players struggle to regularly string together several good games in a row over the course of a season, and it's hard for teams to follow suit for very long. Statisticians of the game always encourage the average curious fan to look at a three-year span to gauge a player's value; anyone can get hot for a week, a month, even for a single miraculous season. Baseball rewards its players who play well, and is tough on those players who can't play well consistently. For a fan, a struggling team is a reminder of how the game renews itself: every at-bat is a fresh struggle.

I have no problem watching players struggle; I have a problem having to pay so much for the privilege of watching bad baseball. Sometimes I fantasize about MLB introducing new ticket pricing based on a team's standing in the rankings: a first-place team would charge the highest ticket price; the last-place team the lowest, Think of the incentives! "We suck, but we're cheap!" It seems unlikely, though it's nice in theory.


I was recently reading Thomas Boswell's terrific How Life Imitates The World Series. His piece on the Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax's early retirement sent me to Roger Angell; I wanted to read Angell's recap of the '66 World Series, Koufax's last. The Dodgers rolled over for the Baltimore Orioles in the Series, losing in four. Angell was at pains to understand—and to describe—the Dodger's glaring failures over the four games. His conclusion: baseball is hard, even for the best players and teams. "The only answer to that question 'What happened?' is that the Dodgers stopped hitting, and the only explanation must be that baseball is still the most difficult, and thus the most unpredictable and interesting, of all professional sports," Angell writes in the aptly-titled "A Terrific Strain," in his first book The Summer Game. "For all its statistics, the game does not yield itself readily to the form player or the expert; only two out of two hundred members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America correctly picked both pennant winners this year. There are so many surprises in baseball and so many precedents for this unexpected Series result that one must conclude that the only reliable precedent in baseball is surprise itself."

Throughout the essay, as if to reward himself for enduring such an unexciting Series, Angell quoted from Lawrence Ritter's classic The Glory Of Their Times, an oral history of the game's earliest eras. Angell warmed himself with the old tales, and concludes "Terrible Strain" with  series of observations from the old-timers in the book:

Heinie Groh, of McGraw’s Giants: “So much of baseball is mental, you know, up there in the old head. You always have to be careful not to let it get you. Do you know that I was scared to death every time I went into a World Series? Every single one, after I’d been in so many. It’s a terrific strain.”

Rube Bressler, of Connie Mack’s early Athletics: “Baseball . . . is not a game of inches, like you hear people say. It’s a game of hundredths of inches. Any time you have a bat only that big around, and a ball that small, traveling at such tremendous rates of speed, an inch is way too large a margin for error.” And “[The Athletics] won four pennants in five years, and three World Championships. . . . The only one they lost was that 1914 one—to George Stallings’ ‘miracle’ Boston Braves, of all teams. The weakest of them all. And we lost it in four straight games, too.”

Sam Jones, of the Yankees, on the 1923 World Series: “Art Nehf and I both pitched shutouts through six innings, but then in the seventh Casey Stengel hit one of my fast balls into the right-field stands. That was the only run of the game, and Nehf beat me, 1-0. Oh, that really hurt‘. ”

Paul Waner, of the Pirates, on losing the 1927 Series to the Yankees in four straight: “Out in right field I was stunned. And that instant, as the run that beat us crossed the plate, it struck me that I’d actually played in a World Series. It’s an odd thing, isn’t it? I didn’t think, ‘It’s all over and we lost.’ What,I thought was, ‘Gee, I’ve just played in a World Series.’ ”

Waner was in his second year with the Pirates in ‘I927, and he batted .333 in that Series. He remained in the big leagues for twenty years more, with a lifetime average of .333, but he never got into another World Series. Baseball is a hard game.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Father's Day, Brooklyn and Beyond

My dad was born in 1930 and raised in Brooklyn, New York. The Dodgers were his team and Ebbets Field his park. He left town for college (West Lafayette, Indiana, then Cambridge, Mass) and never returned. When the Dodgers played their final game at Ebbets Field on September 24, 1957 my dad was living in suburban Washington D.C. working for Westinghouse, freshly married to my mom for three months. Their first child, my brother John, was born nine months after the Dodgers' final game. End of an era, start of a new one.

After the Washington Senators moved to Arlington, Texas and became the Rangers in 1971, my dad had had two teams snatched from his fanly allegiance. Happily, the Nationals moved into town in 2005 and my dad has been able to enjoy several games, the most memorable, perhaps, coming on June 18, 2006 when I surprised him with a visit, and he, my brother Phil and his son went to the Nationals/Yankees contest, three generations of Bonomos at a D.C. baseball game. Ryan Zimmerman hit a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth. Two things I'll never forget: the site of a loosened-up Mariano Rivera in the bullpen, hanging his head in dismay after the homer. And that it was Father's Day.

Happy Father's Day, dad. Here's a full radio broadcast of a Dodgers/Giants game from 1950. Maybe you were back in Brooklyn, USA and tuned in to the call, maybe you weren't.

In memorium: Ebbets Field, November 1957.

Joe Adcock (Braves) hitting a home run off Don Newcombe during a doubleheader in 1956.

Three generations of Bonomos at the old ball game

Black and white images via Getty; color image via The Ballparks by Bill Shannon and George Kalinsky (Hawthron, 1975)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

New Jersey, 2015 A.D.

Leaving Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel and emerging into daylight is like elevating slowly though an archaeological dig.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Didn't We Have A Nice Time: Paul Weller at The Vic

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—I did something last night that I've wanted to do since I was fifteen: see Paul Weller. Other than the Beatles, there was no band more important to me in my teen years then The Jam, whose albums and singles I devoured and whose news sightings were, in those days, far and few between: I might see an interview in Trouser Press or a rare weeks-old issue of Melody Maker or NME, but mostly the very-British Jam lived for me in their stirring, passionate songs. I came close to seeing them: for my sixteenth birthday my brother chose to buy me the Dance Craze album rather than go with his other idea, tickets to The Jam show at University of Maryland's Ritchie Coliseum. (I've since charitably forgiven him.)

I was a Weller Apostle for many years. In college I followed Weller into The Style Council, buying every single, twelve-inch, and album at Yesterday and Today Records—at import prices—and hopeful to catch a video on MTV or Friday Night Videos late at night. These decades later, my enthusiasm for the Style Council embarrasses me, though my fandom was a sincere element of my early-twenties "scanning." I rarely listen to their music now, as most of it's ghastly, dated, and painfully self-conscious, especially from their later career. Rising to the surface when I do listen is the inescapable fact that, after 1985 or so, I was stubbornly determined to like them (and ape their fashion sense) even as their work grew wan and boring, having little to do with my life. And Weller had turned his back on the guitar, a grave sin in my book those days. (OK, these days, too.) By the end of the 1980s, I was through with Weller, and didn't reacquaint myself with him until several years ago when I began methodically going through his large solo catalog, surprised and deeply pleased at what I found. I'd missed him in Chicago the last several years, but—via the generosity of my friend Jay, who scored VIP tickets and asked me along—I went to see Weller last night, at The Vic.

The show was terrific: muscular, lively, energetic. Each of Weller's solo albums has strong moments, but his albums since 2008's 22 Dreams have been uniformly strong, eclectic, warm, and often surprising, but rarely indulgent, texturally, I'll always prefer the rocking/soulful//Mod Weller to the piano-playing balladeer, acoustic folk artist, or electronica novice, but I'll always love his singing, his commitment to song-craft, and what Stephen Thomas Erlewine at Allmusic notes as Weller's dependable professionalism. (And he still releases one-off, non-album singles!) Last night he looked lean and fit and happy to be onstage, bouncing around (as much as he does) from guitars to keyboards, obviously grooving on every song and alert to the possibilities for newness that each presented. Saturns Pattern's "White Sky" and "Long Time" were propulsive and rocking and, I was very happy to hear, kicked into gear by loud guitars (Weller's and Steve Craddock's) rather than by keyboards and samplers. "Peacock Suit," "Friday Street," and "From The Floorboards Up" also killed, as did several ballads that seemed warmly right in their pacing. I was dismayed before the show began at the sight of two drum sets, but the setup served the arrangements well; there was little fussiness or excess in the set. Above all, Weller remembered that he was live: no song dragged to the point of dullness.

Even though I knew that "Town Called Malice" (the only Jam song of the night) was coming as the final of three encores, I was still thrilled to hear it, and to sing along with the crowd which has been given the chorus of the song to gang-bellow for years. I've been waiting for a long, long time to be in the same room with Paul Weller as he sings the final, evocative and moving verse of the song, and it didn't disappoint. Earlier in the tune, while singing "A hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to the hearts," Weller dropped his tambourine, shut his eyes and mimed the squeeze of a bottle against his chest—Oscar-level emoting for this Cool Modfather, and it seemed genuine, a reminder, I think, of the loss and political//domestic devastation at the heart of that great song.

The VIP treatment was meant to include a meet-and-greet with Weller, who at some point balked at the prospect and instead signed posters and albums for us. Just as well: such events aren't my bag, and anyway I wouldn't know what I'd say to the man whose song lyrics I dreamily wrote over and over in my high school English notebook.

Ah, When You're Young.

I could go on for hours and I probably will....

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Zones of Melancholy: Saying Goodbye

In The Technology Trap (1979), Leo J. Moser identifies seven Zones of Human Experience—in essence, everything you perceive, from your skin outward to the cosmos, arranged into levels, the last two being purely conceptual constructs:
1. area of sensation immediately touching the skin
2. area within two or three yards in which mass social interaction takes place
3. maximum area of social interaction, a few hundred feet
4. area that extends as far as one can see or otherwise gather information from any one location
5. irregular/varying area of the zone 4 areas that a person experiences during a lifetime
6. surface/biosphere of the earth
7. the universe as far as one can conceive
(Ray and Charles Eames' Powers of Ten video explored a similar idea.) Moser's seven zones came into mind the other day as Amy and I drove home to DeKalb from Wheaton, Maryland where we'd helped close down the home my parents have lived in for more than half a century, the home in which I was raised and which I left (for good, as it turned out) at age twenty-two. It was, of course, a peculiar, melancholy, somewhat surreal experience. We culled stuff; we spent several days hauling unwanted items to thrift stores; we helped spruce up the yard; I honored the house (and my parents) as best I could. We brought back with us to DeKalb a few items I cherished—a 1969 Washington Senators pennant; a print of a barn on a rural road that I've loved since I was a kid; a small wooden phone table made by my uncle, my mom's brother, a priest who married my parents in 1957; a green glazed Arts-and-Crafts-styled lamp from the house my mom grew up in in Coldwater, Ohio. Small elements from the house are now living here.

The prospect—the image—of another family inhabiting the same hallways, bedrooms, the kitchen and basement and backyard where I lived and grew up with my five siblings is bizarre to me, virtually unimaginable: my parents bought the house new, when Amherst Avenue was a dirt road and Wheaton a tiny, sleepy D.C, suburb. The house has known no other family. And here's where you're bored, if you weren't already, especially if you've already undergone this rite-of-passage, or will have no opportunity for it. My sadness at saying goodbye to my parents' home is deep and genuine, and no different from yours or the family saying goodbye to their homestead down the block, across town, at the edge of the state border. I know this, and yet I still childishly resist the image of a new family in my parents' house pressing re--set, eager to update the bathrooms, remodel the basement, to take advantage of the proximity to the new-ish Metro station a few blocks away and a thriving, Internationally-rich Wheaton that bears little resemblance to the town I grew up in, and loved. Though I know statistically my situation isn't unique, my melancholy feels new and untapped, even if I were to witness, say, my parents' neighbor's family undergoing the same process of letting go of their old family home. Self-regard is a wickedly powerful and self-deceiving impulse. In what zone does narcissism end and empathy—or, at least, sympathy—begin? I feel as if my sadness stretches well past Zone 7—it must!—at the same time recognizing the pathetic, precious self-absorption in that. So do you. Really, the friction created by my Zone 2 rubbing against my neighbors'—and theirs against their neighbors'—is perpetual, an eternal reminder that our experiences aren't unique or particularly special; they are ours, certainly, but only in the trivial sense. There are homes everyday changing hands: structures that pretend to preserve the memories inside, when really they are as transient as the air that moves around them.

Well, we'll always have Google Maps.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


A new series of "Origin Stories" in The Rumpus (accompanied by some really great, evocative illustrations by Liam Golden).

A long essay-profile of songwriter and Reigning Sound-leader Greg Cartwright in The Normal School.

And a prose poem about the Clash's version of "Brand New Cadillac" in Clash By Night, a poetry anthology about London Calling edited by Gerry LaFemina and Gregg Wilhelm.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Baseball: When The Grass Was Real and the photos were black & white

Published in 1975, Donald Honig's oral history of 1920s to 1940s baseball collects terrific stories of the game and life playing the game by Lefty Grove, Johnny Mize, Ted Lyons, Billy Herman, James "Cool Papa" Bell, Bob Feller, and many others. Inspired by Lawrence Ritter's legendary The Glory of Their Times, Honig spent the spring of 1974 traveling the country and interviewing players who came of age after Ritter's book. As good as the remembrances are, equally powerful are the many photographs Honig collected for the book which evocatively document the game in an earlier era.

Wes Ferrell

Charlie Gehringer

Nevin Field (Detroit). 1934 World Series
Lefty Grove

Al Simmons

"Gas House Gang." Cardinals.

Grover Cleveland Alexander and George Pipgras

James "Cool Papa" Bell

Jackie Robinson

Pepper Martin

Frank McCormick