Monday, August 31, 2015

Barry Hannah: "They're just strange"

One thing that fascinates me about this whole Flannery O’Connor thing that she said herself was she couldn’t understand why they kept calling her a master of the grotesque. And I get the same charge. It's as if I’m deliberately inventing eccentrics. I’m not being disingenuous, but I have never started out in a story to write about, deliberately, weirdness. They call me postmodern. I’m baffled by that—I think people are postmodern. They’re just strange.
     —Barry Hannah, 1997

Photo via CFS.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Adolescent Silliness, Grown-up Reckoning

I saw the Dogmatics once or twice in the mid-1980s in Washington D.C., marveling at the barreling energy and loud grins they brought down with them down from Boston. They played rock and roll that threatened to fall apart at the end of each measure, rollicking, good-natured, broken-string slop that wasn't absent of hooks, craft, or sentiment. I associated them with a handful of other Boston-area bands I liked, including Lyres, Barrence Whitfield and The Savages, Scruffy The Cat, The Turbines, The Prime Movers, and especially The Oysters who played, the one time I saw them, as if it was their final desperate hurrah. (It wasn't. They played the next night somewhere.) The Dogmatics' bass player Paul O’Halloran died tragically in a motorcycle accident on October 23, 1986, but I learned of it sometime later through the slow-moving 'zine/gossip grapevine that was the 1980s equivalent of a chat room. The band called it quits soon after that, having released a one-off single and two terrific mini LPs (those songs and some compilation appearances were collected in 2008 on the CD 1981-86). I'll always have great affection for The Dogmatics and their urgent, beery shows and the songs they wrote that straddled noisy, adolescent silliness with grown-up reckoning—a pretty good definition of rock and roll, in my book.

Jerry Lehane

Paul O'Halloran

Peter O'Halloran

Tom Long

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

On the Particular and Universal

Daniel Harris in 2002, from A Memoir of No One in Particular:
But as I began to write, I found myself asking if it wasn't a little disingenuous of me to pretend that I was "no one in particular,” if my experience of life was as universal as it should be for such a project, and if a statistical sampling of one—and a somewhat idiosyncratic statistic at that—was sufficient to draw credible conclusions about our most mundane behaviors. It became increasingly apparent that I was an unlikely guinea pig for my anthropological study, that the way I live only occasionally reflects the way the majority of people live, that an effete homosexual who spends six days of the week reading and writing, who lounges around for most of his waking hours in his house robe and pajamas, and who ekes out a subsistence living working one long shift as a word processor, scraping by in America's most expensive city, may not, in the final analysis, be an ideal candidate for the starring role of Everyman.
Against or in support of Montaigne: "Every man has within himself the entire human condition"?
From the dust jacket of A Memoir of No One in Particular

Monday, August 24, 2015

Bo and the Stooges Across the USA

The Stooges belong on the long, long list of artists who wouldn't have existed—or, would've existed in a very different way—without Bo Diddley, whose rhythmic propulsion, humor, and general bad-ass-ery they grabbed, dismantled, and put together again in their Detroit factory of rock and roll and blooze. This isn't news, but I was graphically reminded again of the debt Iggy and his band owed to Ellas McDaniel when "1969" came on shuffle today:

The year this staggering song was released, Diddley made this oft-quoted observation on the Pop Chroincles radio documentary: "I used to get mad about people recording my things; now I got a new thing going.... I don't get mad about them recording my material because they keep me alive."

Nearly half a century later Iggy Pop, in his BBC Music John Peel speech at the Radio Festival, discussed "a type of entrepreneur who functions as a kind of popular music patron of the arts....someone, usually the product of successful, enlightened parents, who owns a record company, but has had benefit of a very good education, and can see a bigger picture than a petty business person." Their precursors, Pop sniffed, are "the old time record crooks [who] just made it their business to make great, great records, but also to rip off the artist 100%, copyright, publishing, royalty splits, agency fees, you name it. If anyone complained the line was 'Pay you? We worship you!' God bless Bo Diddley."

What was The Originator up to in '69 besides claiming his legacy in print? Doing it in the studio, too.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Abandoned, Ctd.

Shadylawn Motel. Route 30. Hinckley, Illinois.

"TV   Electric Heat & Air Conditioning"
Built in 1960.

Children's play, interrupted

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Harlan Howard's Nixon's America

Harlan Howard
There's a long tradition of social conservatism in country music, in songs extolling traditional family values and gender roles to songs about the virtues of God and government. (There's also a loud tradition bucking this tradition, but that's for another time.) Inevitably, one of the great songwriters in country music dipped his toe into the cultural waters. Harlan Howard's 1971 album To The Silent Majority, With Love is a priceless time-capsule of the roiling pre-Watergate, high-Vietnam Nixon era. The President didn't coin the titular phrase, but he made it famous in a November 1969 speech, asking for support from "the great silent majority" of his fellow Americans. Nixon meant, of course, Government-loving, War-supporting, middle-American Christians, those disgusted by the long-haired youthful protests and counter-cultural shenanigans aired on the nightly news and yet politely "silent" in their dissent.

In December 1970 the venerable Howard, author of numerous classic country songs, wrote and recorded a dozen tunes at Nugget Studio in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, fifteen miles north of Nashville, as the country was reeling; in November, the Democrats swept the Congressional midterms and Jimmy Carter was elected Governor of Georgia; Nixon announced that the U.S. would withdraw 40,000 more troops from Vietnam before Christmas just as Lieutenant William Calley was going on trial for the My Lai massacre; the Environmental Protection Agency began its operations. Protests and dissent were occurring with greater frequency and decibel-level. Howard's response was to plug in to middle-class traditional values, perhaps his own, as if recording an imaginary soundtrack for cartoon father of the comically-divided family in Wait Till Your Father Gets Home (which debuted in 1972 but the spirit was already in the air). No work of art exists in a vacuum, and the song titles provide most of the context: "Uncle Sam (I'm A Patriot)," "Better Get Your Pride Back Boy," "The World Is Weighing Heavily On My Mind." There are a couple of more conventional tear-in-beer ballads ("She Called Me Baby," "The Chokin' Kind") but the bulk of the album is comprised of jingoistic tunes intended to both soothe and rally the folk pictured on the album cover: salt-of-the-earth, God-fearing, factory-working, hard-hat-tipping members of the silent majority.


A brief review of the album in the June 12, 1971 issue of Billboard reveals that the songs "have a statement to make."

Indeed they do. Three songs distill the statement well. "Sunday Morning Christian" (co-written with Lawrence Reynolds) is terrific, and was a small hit. Here, Howard gets his hands around the complexities of faith, devotion, family dysfunction, and social standing that in other songs are ignored, or flattened out and overly simplified. "Mister Jones" is the epitome of the contradictory man, and, thus, interesting, and Howard and Reynolds essay him concisely.


More representative of the album's mood, politics, and intentions is "Three Cheers For The Good Guys," a paean to those men who "work hard every week / and get a tear upon their cheek / when they see old glory waving in the breeze." Diplomatically, Howard allows that a Good Guy isn't only a Christian, but "Protestant and Jew / he's every creed and color race and hue," a qualification he's careful to make elsewhere on the album.


In "Mister Professor," those in my profession are admonished—warned, really— to leave the preaching to the preachers, and to inspire a student to become a brave, God-fearing man, "not a coward that [sic] runs and hides." After all, Howard sings, "If you look down with a cynical frown on us workin' slobs / Then all I can say is the taxes we pay created your jobs / Don't turn our kids loose on the world with a messed-up mind / Just help them learnin' nor marchin' and burnin' and we'll like it fine." I'm not sure where liberal arts and sciences learnin' ended and good-old Commie brain-washin' began—probably soon into a history of democracy, protest, and dissent—but, what the hell, the country waltz sure is pretty.


Howard famously coined the phrase "three chords and the truth" in describing the essence of county music. His songs on To The Silent Majority, With Love describe apparently self-evident truths that many couldn't get behind. And the beat goes on.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The History of Rock & Roll in One Paragraph

From Preston Lauterbach's terrific, absorbing Beale Street Dynasty:
Five years after [W.C.] Handy had played “Mr. Crump” to a crowd at the corner of Main and Madison, and two years since he published the tune as “Memphis Blues,” the song was completing a remarkable evolution. The idea for it had begun deep in the black experience, from the clinking forty links on Joe Turney’s chain. It had gone on to become a folk phenomenon through fiddler Jim Turner’s pig path repertoire, then crossed into polite society as Mr. Crump’s campaign theme. Now a white man had conned a Negro out of its ownership. “Memphis Blues” was a microcosm of American music. 
W.C. Handy

Image of W.C. Handy via ICollector 
"Memphis Blues" sheet music via Emory University

Thursday, August 13, 2015

"Ain't Going To The Bar Tonight"

American Aquarium
I really love this song from American Aquarium's Dances For The Lonely (2009). The song nails an old, old story, that inexorable creep from self-confidence to haplessness, from good to evil, discipline to helplessness, order to chaos. Etc. He's staying away from the bar tonight because he heard she's back in town—nope, turns out he knows she's back in town—he's not going to see her tonight—nope, turns, out he's going after all, and he'll probably see her there, no, he will see her there, the inevitable conclusion to this sorry tale.

Best word in the song? The "probably" steeped in denial. Topped only by the line in the bridge: I hope you know what you're doing to me. As if she hears him, as if he matters.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

"This is where the game was played?" Old Comiskey and new eyes

I've lamented here recently about never having attended a game at old Comiskey Park, which was constructed in 1910 and demolished in 1990. Before last night's White Sox game—a beaut; a 3-0 victory over the Mike Trout- and Albert Pujols-dominant Angels—I located home plate of the old park, embedded in concrete next to U.S. Cellular Field near Parking Lot B and a parking garage. As any reader of NSTAW knows, I love visiting old ballpark sites (here and here), relishing the bittersweet co-mingling, sometimes clashing, of the past and the present. The site of the old Comiskey home plate is nicely preserved, with green weeds happily peeking out from the edges of the "batter's box." If you tune out the ear-splitting DJ at the makeshift tent behind you, hawking some promotion, and look out toward what was the outfield—now a parking lot and, beyond that, the tops of some nondescript apartment buildings—you can imagine the game as it was played on this spot for eight decades, from dull affairs and postseason games to the old exploding scoreboard and Disco Demolition Night.

As I was taking these photos, a family walked by, and the three young boys, each clad in identical White Sox gear, listened as their dad explained the home plate. They stood shyly watching before I, idiotically slow on the uptake, realized that they wanted to surround the plat as I was doing. I stepped aside. "This is where Frank Thomas and Robin Ventura and Ozzie Guillen batted," dad said. "And Bo Jackson."

"So, this is where the game was played?" asked one son, gazing out skeptically toward the parking lot, his face betraying that blend of fantasy and reality that old ballpark footprints provide. It was a terrific moment, as if scripted and staged. Then they were off to the park to watch a baseball game, in real time.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

"Passion is what it's all about": Lester Bangs on rock & roll

Lester and friends
In 1980, two years before he died, Lester Bangs wrote a book about Blondie. His mild disillusionment with the hastily-conceived and -written project is well known, yet the obscure book is worthy not only in terms of the money it fetches; in it, Bangs gives one of his most passionate yet lucid definitions, and defense, of rock and roll. Years ago I came across an edited chapter from the Blondie book—the hilariously titled "In Which Yet Another Pompous Blowhard Purports to Possess the True Meaning of Punk Rock"—in Clinton Heylin's anthology The Penguin Book Of Rock & Roll Writing, published in 1992, and it still resonate with me. Nothing ground-breaking here from Bangs, just a solid restatement of what draws him to rock & roll. Listen to your favorite "brutal, mindless, primitive, vicious, base, savage, primal, hate-filled, grungy, violent, terrifying and above all REAL" rock & roll album as you read these three excerpts. Or turn on and turn up the embedded links:
The truth is that punk rock is a phrase that has been around at least since the beginning of the seventies, and what it at common means is rock & roll in its most basic, primitive form. In other words, punk rock has existed throughout the history of rock & roll, they just didn’t call it that. In the fifties, when rock & roll was so new it scared the shit out of parents and racists everywhere, the media had a field day. This stuff was derided mercilessly, it was called "unmusical," it was blamed for juvenile delinquency. Sexual depravity (well…), if not the demise of Western civilization as a whole. It was said that the musicians could not play their instruments; in large part, by any conventional standards (what they used to call "good" music), this was true. Does that matter now to the people who are still listening to those classic oldies twenty years later? It was said that the singers could not sing, by any previous "legitimate" musical standard; this was also true. It was written off nearly everywhere as a load of garbage that would come and go within a year’s time, a fad like the hula hoop.

Is any of this beginning to sound vaguely familiar?

The point is that rock & roll, as I see it, is the ultimate populist art form, democracy in action, because it’s true: anybody can do it. Learn three chords on a guitar and you’ve got it. Don’t worry whether you can "sing" or not. Can Neil Young "sing"? Lou Reed, Bob Dylan? A lot of people can’t stand to listen to Van Morrison, one of the finest poets and singers in the history of popular music, because of the sound his voice. But this is simply a matter of exposure. For performing rock & roll, or punk rock, or call it any damn thing you please, there’s only one thing you need: NERVE. Rock & roll is an attitude, and if you’ve got the attitude you can do it, no matter what anybody says. Believing that is one of the things punk rock is about. Rock is for everybody, it should be so implicitly anti-elitist that the question of whether somebody’s qualified to perform it should never even arise.

But it did. In the sixties, of course. And maybe this was one reason why the sixties may not have been so all-fired great as we gave them credit for. Because in the sixties rock & roll began to think of itself as an "art-form." Rock & roll is not an "art-form," rock & roll is a raw wail from the bottom of the guts. And like I said, whatever anybody ever called it, punk rock has been around from the beginning—it’s just rock honed down to its rawest elements, simple playing with a lot of power and vocalists who may not have much range but have so much conviction and passion it makes up for it ten times over. Because PASSION IS WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT—what all music is about.


Seventies punk largely reflects a reaction against the cult of the guitar hero. Technical virtuosity was not a sine qua non of rock & roll in the first place and never should have become. Not that brilliant rock hasn’t been made by musicians whose technical chops were and are the absolute highest. But see, that’s JUST THE POINT. Just because something is simpler than something else does not make it worse. It’s just the kind of hype a lot of people started buying in the late sixties with the rise of the superstar and superinstrumentalist concepts.

There was punk rock all through the sixties. The Seeds with "Pushin’ Too Hard." Count Five "Psychotic Reaction." "Talk Talk" by the Music Machine. And many others. It was simple, primitive, direct, honest music. Then, in 1969, Iggy and the Stooges put out their first album. Throughout the seventies, that and their subsequent two albums became cult items with small groups of people all over the world, who thought these records were some of the greatest stuff they had ever heard. They were also some of simplest: two chords, a blaring fuzztone, Iggy singing lyrics as simple as "Can ah cum ovah to-nat? Can ah cum ovah to-nat? Uh said uh we will have a real cool taam—to-naaat! We will hayuv—a real coool taam! To-naat!" Get it? It was, as Ed Ward wrote in Rolling Stone when it appeared, "A reductio ad absurdum of rock & that might have been thought up by a mad DAR General in a wet dream." [Note: I can't resist intruding and adding Ward's next sentence: "They suck, and they know it, so they throw the fact back in your face and say 'So what? We're just havin' fun'."] Except where he was being sarcastic, I thought that was a compliment: the Stooges’ music was brutal, mindless, primitive, vicious, base, savage, primal, hate-filled, grungy, violent, terrifying and above all REAL. They meant every note and word of it.


[The New York Dolls] didn’t "get away" with anything. They did what they could and what they wanted to so and out of the chaos emerged something magnificent, something that was so literally explosive with energy and life and joy and madness that it could not be held down by all your RULES of how this is supposed to be done! Because none of ‘em are valid! Rock & roll is about BREAKING the form, not "working within it." GIVE US SOME EQUAL TIME. Let the kid behind the wheel. Like Joe Strummer of the Clash says, "It’s not about playin’ the chords right, for starters!"
As many do, I wonder often about how Bangs would've reacted to the metronome sheen of popular music made in the 1980s. I wonder where he would've found his nervy rock & roll—it never went away, of course, and it would've been great to read his mad, anxious, righteous, rockist, occasionally annoying wanderings after it.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Because order sucks:
Dave Hickey on rock and roll (briefly)

Dave Hickey
I like this passage from Dave Hickey's "The Delicacy of Rock-and-Roll," an essay that first appeared in Art Issues magazine in 1985 and was collected in Hickey's book Air Guitar (the cover of which is so lame I can't share it; you've seen it). In the piece, Hickey makes characteristically loose and casual denunciation of the dichotomy between high and low art, and lands on this great working definition of rock and roll:
Rock-and-roll, on the other hand, presumes that the four of us—as damaged and anti-social as we are—might possibly get it to-fucking-gether, man, and play this simple song. And play it right, okay? Just this once, in tune and on the beat. But we can't. The song's too simple, and we’re too complicated and too excited. We try like hell, but the guitars distort, the intonation bends, and the beat just moves, imperceptibly, against our formal expectations, Whether we want it to or not. just because we’re breathing, man. Thus, in the process of trying to play this very simple song together, we create this hurricane of noise, this infinitely complicated, fractal filigree of delicate distinctions.
He cites prime-era Rolling Stones. Good call. "And you can thank the wanking eighties, if you wish, and digital sequencers, too, for proving to everyone that technologically 'perfect' rock—like 'free' jazz-—sucks rockets."
Because order sucks. I mean, look at the Stones. Keith Richards is always on top of the beat, and Bill Wyman, until he quit, was always behind it, because Richards is leading the band and Charlie Watts is listening to him and Wyman is listening to Watts. So the beat is sliding on those tiny neural lapses, not so you can tell, of course, but so you can feel it in your stomach. And the intonation is wavering, too, with the pulse in the finger on the amplified string. This is the delicacy of rock-and-roll, the bodily rhetoric of tiny increments, necessary imperfections, and contingent community.
He adds: "Rock-and-roll works because we're all a bunch of flakes. And that's something you can depend on..." 

I'll offer this simple hurricane of noise. Turn it up: