Saturday, December 31, 2016

5, 4, 3, 2, 1...

To wrap up the year-long celebration of the Fleshtones' 40th anniversary, here's a raucous 2008 New Year's Eve countdown from the fellas onstage at Long Island City Bar in New York, followed by a rip through "Destination Greenpoint." Happy New Years one and all!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

"It's getting late but it's so early"

l to r: Luke De Beaumarchais, Bill Rohla, Nato Coles, Sam Beer, Mike Cranberry
Bars are great, deadly, a caution. Minneapolis-via-Brooklyn Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band capture the desperate pledges of tavern life beautifully in "Julie (Hang Out a Little Longer)" from their 2013 album Primises to Deliver. It's last call and the singer begs Julie, an old friend (a flame?), to stay with him. He reminds her of the way things used to be: "Lookout! bands and east bay zines / I ain't changed, don't think you did either / You and me, babe, we're believers." He begs her to see through the present's disappointments ("Days turn to weeks and months turn to years  / You feel like you're living your life in a mirror / Random tests so now you can't get high / You start thinking liberty is a lie") to earlier promises they'd made, "Somewhere back in the glory days / Time to cash it in, do it today / Or else you're gonna fade away."

Drunken inspiration hits him in the singular discovery "it's getting late but it's so early," to my ears one of the great lines in recent rock and roll, evoking not only after-hours optimism but the kind of adolescent horizon-free mobility that's so sexy and joyous but tough to keep renewing as you get older, let alone with a partner who's heading out the door. But he gives it a shot. "Julie" is a moving song with a terrific chorus; I hesitate to praise a song by describing it as something you might've heard on the radio back in the late-70s or, more likely, back then on your favorite underground New Wave or Power Pop group's criminally-unrecognized debut, but the band's in touch with something eternal here, begging at a bar, a silhouette of like desperate gestures made since the dawn of time. Turn it up.

(I might prefer the rawer demo recording of the song at Bandcamp here.)

Photo via Nato Coles & the Blue Diamond Band

Monday, December 26, 2016

"That homemade thing": Super Rock on MTV

In recognition of the Fleshtones' 40th anniversary in May of this year, I've been combing through the Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band and online archives for some little-seen nuggets. Courtesy of Mike Ziegler on YouTube comes this beauty, a full feature on the band that was broadcast in July of 1983 on MTV's The Cutting Edge—which just happened to be hosted by Peter Zaremba. Watch the guys promote Hexbreaker, chat about music, goof around flipping burgers in an L.A. hamburger joint, and run through a (lip-synced) version of "Want!" This feels like a long, long time ago.

Keith Streng: "When you get down to it, what garage rock is, it's like everything you listen to gets incorporated into one sound, which becomes your own sound. That's what garage rock really is. I mean, it's not like you have to go out of your way to become a garage band by trying to sound like a garage band. It should happen naturally." 

Peter Zaremba: "We get most of our ideas when we sleep, or dancing to someone else's music, or driving in a car. I don't know what that adds up to, but I think the guy that sits down and says, 'I must compose the masterpiece now,' generally is not gonna really get a Super Rock type of sound."


Sunday, December 25, 2016

Happy Holidays

Here's hoping that you and yours have a fun, relaxing, safe, and free-of-enmity Holiday season!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Lean and the Hungry

As I'm coming out of an off-grid sabbatical and gearing myself up for teaching again, I've been thinking more about autobiography, and that dovetails nicely with reading Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run. I doubt I'd use it in the classroom; Springsteen's memoir isn't particularly artful, which is just as well; the earnestness I feared, and which mars far too many of Springsteen's songs for my taste, doesn't show up in his prose much, mostly elbowed out of the way by a true music fan's gushing, hyper-hyphenated, elipsis-breathless, ALL CAPS, half-grin bemusement at his life and career and the folks he's met over the decades. The cliches are forgiven because that's how we talk most of the time. This book is conversational.

As I discovered last year while reading Elvis Costello's memoir, I'm more interested in the leaner, hungrier days than in fame and success. I don't know if that's odd or not. I should want a fly-on-the-wall perspective on elite popularity and the attendant riches and and upper-echelon lifestyle it brings, that life being so removed from my own existence, but that point of view often bores me, perhaps because it's beyond my ken and so I have little purchase on it; I tell my students over and over, the success of autobiography doesn't depend on the degree to which the reader can "relate" to it. Springsteen's hungry ("glory") days—wearying battles with his uncommunicative, resentful, Schaefer-beer pounding old man; the geeky Catholic boy's disarming and thrumming crushes on the dark, giggling Jewish girls next door; playing a bar in front of no one for ten bucks to split among his band; traveling out to California first as a non-licensed, petrified driver, later on a non-stop ride crammed in the trunk, fearing that the luggage and band equipment might topple over and flatten him; the terror and hysteria of draft day; homeless and living on the Jersey beach while cutting Greetings From Asbury Park; spinning 45s on a piece-of-shit turntable in a rented cottage in West Long Branch, New Jersey while he was writing "Born to Run"—are more more entertaining, insightful, and valuable to read than the sealed, backstage comforts, a millionaire's various, non-urgent dilemmas, pulling off the logistics of a first arena or Super Bowl halftime show, playing with Sting and Pete Townshend, well-heeled equestrian training, and how to keep a marriage and family healthy while living among mansions and sold-out international arena touring.

Perhaps I'm being unfair. Springsteen's admissions of his essential lonerness and lifelong depression, untempered by material successes, and frank acknowledgement of the surcease brought on by antidepressants and regular visits to his shrink, complicate his late-life (and late-book) accomplishments in an engrossing way. Yet two moments struck me: in the early 1980s, flush off of the commercial success of The River album and tour, Springsteen takes a cross country drive with a friend. The passage is wonderfully written, hauntingly evocative of the kinds of low-rent, anonymous, blue-collar neighborhoods Springsteen grew up in, escaped, and is committed to writing about in songs; but I couldn't help acknowledging to myself as I read that Springsteen's 3 A.M. departure from these towns now is easily, wealthily assisted, with much less at stake; he's not slumming, but in a way he is. And there's a moment in the days following the 9/11 attack when Springsteen, pulling out of a parking lot in New Jersey, hears someone yelling from a passing car, "We need you, Bruce!" A remarkable instant that dramatizes Springsteen's fame and larger-than-life iconic status as a coveted, mythic eastern seaboard truth-teller—yet I feel removed from it. Is it wrong that I'm more interested in hearing from the skinny Bruce on the boardwalk in his teens who might imagine achieving that kind of impossible, local/national heroism through hard work and some luck? After all, that's where the vast majority of us stay: dreaming. Probably. Neither of these passages I cite are Springsteen's fault, of course, and I am a self-admitted fameist. As I wrote about Costello's book: fame and success aren't the writer's problems, but they may be his memoir's problems.


Art affects us: we look up and the world's altered. Springsteen's greatest songs—such as "Thunder Road" and "Tunnel of Love," to name the two in highest rotation in my music room these days, the codas in each still absurdly moving—do that to me: as I'm out in the world listening, the folks around me at the Y or the Hy-Vee morph into characters in his songs and, just as wonderfully and magically, vice versa. Unsurprisingly, Springsteen's a great story teller, his nutty, freaky misbehaving (including, though coming startlingly late in life, drunken misbehaving) in Born to Run packed with details and humor. Among my favorite songs of his are the ones that have beginning-middle-ending narratives, that tell a tale over time, eschewing figurative language, abstractions, and lyric bursts for pure story. Here are two of my favorites, one darkly funny, the other grimmer, each alive with round characters following or betraying urgent impulses, desires, and crazy conflicts—each, that is, full of life. Minor greatness in Springsteen's catalogue, perhaps, but minor greatness is still great.

"From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)" 
(The Essential Bruce Springsteen, 2003; outtake from The River, 1980)

At sixteen she quit high school to make a fortune in the Promised Land
She got a job behind the counter in an all-night hamburger stand
She wrote faithfully home to mama, "Now mama don't you worry none
From small things, mama, big things one day come"

It was late one Friday, he pulled in out of the dark
He was tall and handsome, first she took his order then she took his heart
They bought a house on the hillside, where little feet soon would run
From small things, mama, big things one day come

Oh but love is fleeting, it's sad but true
When your heart is beating, you don't wanna hear the news

She packed her bags and with a Wyomie County real estate man
She ran down to Tampa in an El Dorado Grande
She wrote back, "Dear mama, life is just heaven in the sun
From small things, mama, big things one day come"

Well she shot him dead on a sunny Florida road
And when they caught her all she said was she couldn't stand the way he drove

Back home dear Johnny prays for his baby's parole
He waits on the hillside where the Wyomie waters roll
At his feet and almost grown now, a blue-eyed daughter and a handsome son
Well from small things, mama, big things one day come

"Spare Parts" 
(Tunnel of Love, 1987)

Bobby said he'd pull out, Bobby stayed in
Janey had a baby, it wasn't any sin
They were set to marry on a summer day
Bobby got scared and he ran away
Jane moved in with her Ma out on Shawnee Lake
She sighed, "Ma, sometimes my whole life feels like one big mistake"
She settled in in a back room, time passed on
Later that winter a son come along

Spare parts and broken hearts
Keep the world turnin' around

Now Janey walked that baby across the floor night after night
But she was a young girl and she missed the party lights
Meanwhile, in South Texas in a dirty oil patch
Bobby heard 'bout his son bein' born and swore he wasn't ever goin' back

Janey heard about a woman over in Calverton
Put her baby in the river, left the river roll on
She looked at her boy in the crib where he lay
Got down on her knees cried till she prayed
Mist was on the water, low run the tide
Janey held her son down at the riverside
Waist deep in the water, how bright the sun shone
She lifted him in her arms and carried him home
As he lay sleeping in her bed Janey took a look around at everything
Went to a drawer in her bureau and got out her old engagement ring
Took out her wedding dress, tied that ring up in its sash
Went straight down to the pawn shop man and walked out with some good cold cash

Photo of "Bruce Springsteen Writing Desk" by Pamela Springsteen via Morrison Hotel Gallery

Sunday, December 18, 2016

"Love, work, sex and fun"

In Born to Run, Bruce Springtseen writes memorably about the genesis of his most famous song, on the way describing the appeal of rock and roll records made in the 1950s and 60s and what was turning him off about much of the early- and mid-70s popular music he heard, and to some extent wrote toward on his first two albums:
I wrote “Born to Run” sitting on the edge of my bed in a cottage I’d newly rented at 7 1/2 West End Court in West Long Branch, New Jersey. I was in the midst of giving myself a crash tutorial in fifties and sixties rock ’n’ roll. I had a small table holding a record player at the side of my cot, so I was just one drowsy roll away from dropping the needle onto my favorite album of the moment. At night, I’d switch off the lights and drift away with Roy Orbison, Phil Spector or Duane Eddy lullabying me to dreamland. These records now spoke to me in a way most late-sixties and early-seventies rock music failed to. Love, work, sex and fun. The darkly romantic visions of both Spector and Orbison felt in tune with my own sense of romance, with love itself as a risky proposition. These were well-crafted, inspired recordings, powered by great songs, great voices, great arrangements and excellent musicianship. They were  filled with real studio genius, breathless passion . . . AND . . . they were hits! There was little self indulgence in the. They didn't waste your time with sprawling guitar solos or endless monolithic drumming. There was opera and a lush grandness, but there was also restraint.
We all have our favorites, but these three were likely in high rotation on Springsteen's turntable at West End Court:

Photo of Springsteen onstage at a dining hall at Dickson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvanis on Ocotber 20, 1974 via Brucebase.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Megastars in Nowheresville

I love these two passages about music and adolescence, each capturing that blend of joy, mystery, fantasy, desperation, identification, and bittersweet reality that scored countless days and nights. The first is "Records," from Kevin Sampsell's 2010 memoir A Common Pornography: "Two plastic record players and a nice stack of Top 40 45s were all I needed to start my own radio station."
My plan was to do a pirate radio show that would broadcast to my neighborhood. Instead I just pointed my speakers out the upstairs window and hoped the sound reached the corner.
          In fifth grade I started writing really bad pop song lyrics. When I wrote something I thought to be particularly hit-worthy, I’d cut out a piece of paper in the shape of a 45, and then, after coloring in the black wax area, I’d put the name of my song on the “label.” Some of these hits were “Sound of Thunder,” “Rich Dude,” and “Diamond Girl." The name I gave myself was Billy Rivers, because I thought it sounded cool.
          After cutting out the center hole, I’d string the smash hit to a hook on my ceiling. I imagined I was a megastar. Sometimes I’d even put them on one of the turntables and watch them spin. Forty-five revolutions per minute. Once I put a needle on one as it spun and ruined the needle. I had to go to the record store, where they sold little smoking pipes and stoner posters, spending my entire five-dollar allowance on a new snap-on needle.
The second is from Bruce Springsteen's new memoir Born to Run: "I always remember driving up the New Jersey Turnpike, and shortly before you reached New York, somewhere out in the industrial wasteland, stood a small concrete building."
There in the middle of the stink and marshes hung a brightly lit radio call sign. It was just a relay station, I suppose, but as a young tween I’d first imagined it was the real thing. That all my favorite deejays were crowded into this one cramped shack out here in Nowheresville. There, they were bravely pouring out over the airwaves the sounds New jersey and your life depended upon. Was it possible? Could this abandoned-looking little frontier fort so far from civilization be the center of your heart’s world? Here I dreamed in the swamps of Jersey were the mighty men and women you knew only by their names and sounds of their voices.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Sound of Less Control

I love this passage from Bruce Springsteen's highly readable (if unimaginatively titled) memoir Born to Run. Springtseen's describing the run-up to the mammoth recording sessions for The River, and what obstacles he, his band, and his co-producer Jon Landau were facing in trying to make a kick-ass rock and roll record at the end of the Seventies: "It was 1979 and state-of-the-art production values were still heavily influenced by the late-seventies mainstream sounds of Southern California," he writes.
Their techniques consisted of an enormous amount of separation between the instruments, an often stultifying attention to detail and very little echo or live room resonance. Most studios, in those days, were completely padded to give the engineer the utmost control over each individual instrument. The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and many other groups had a lot of success with this sound, and it had its merits, but it just didn’t suit our East Coast sensibilities. We wanted open room mikes, smashing drums (the snare sound on Elvis’s “Hound Dog” was my Holy Grail), crashing cymbals, instruments bleeding into one another and a voice sounding like it was fighting out from the middle of a brawling house party. We wanted the sound of less control. This was how many of our favorite records from the early days of rock ’n’ roll had been recorded. You miked the band and the room. You heard the band and the room. The sonic characteristics of the room were essential in the quality and personality of your recording. The room brought the messiness, the realness, the can’t-get-out-of-each-other’s-way togetherness of musicians in search of “that sound.”
It's a take!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Almost enough

I was born and raised in suburban Washington D.C., and lived in southeast Ohio for seven years and northern Illinois for twenty-one. I've endured my share of winters; I will never get used to them. The unrelenting gray, the wind, the layers of clothes. The day after a snowfall, however, still gets me, enough to renew the cliché of stark winter beauty, if not quite enough to make me pine, daily, for spring.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Hunting Larry Hunting Hank

"Hunting Larry Hunting Hank," my new essay in The Normal School, is the saga of my travels down to Oxford, Mississippi to find and read the unfinished screenplay that novelist Larry Brown wrote about the life of Hank Williams. You can find The Normal School at your local fine bookstores. It publishes twice each year, Spring and Fall. You can subscribe here.

Here's the opening:
 I never met Chip.
     “Oh, you’ve got to meet Chip!” The beaming young woman behind the check-in desk wears straight blonde hair and wire-rim glasses. “He was a good friend of his. He went fishing with him right before he died, I think. He'll be excited that you’re here. I think he's working the third-floor bar tonight." My wife and I are in Oxford, Mississippi, Where I've tracked down the late fiction writer Larry BroWn’s unfinished, unpublished screenplay of the life of Hank Williams, something that I hadn't known existed until I came across a casual mention of it in an interview. I’ve driven 650 miles to read the screenplay. 
Here's some musical accompaniment:

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Saga of Bazooka Joe?

As the Fleshtones' 40th Anniversary winds down, let's summarize: they've released over twenty albums and twenty singles: two covers albums; three live albums; half of an instrumental album; an album where each band member sings; an album of demos; an aborted debut album; an album with strings; a Christmas album; a Spanish-language EP. They've recorded in large and small studios in New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Spain, Chapel Hill, Detroit, Austin. They've written songs about love, sex, mortality, family, memories, gentrification, Coney Island and Canada, girls, ghouls, zombies, and Rick Wakeman's cape; they've recorded with Alan Vega and written a song about the Ramones; they've written a song about a book written about them; they've written a disco song and a 12-bar blues; they've written a fake theme song for a TV show that never existed. They've recorded with Dave Faulkner, Peter Buck, Steve Albini, Rick Miller, Jim Diamond, Lenny Kaye, and Ivan Julian.

The never lost that beat. What's next? A concept double-album about Bazooka Joe? They've gotten a head start:

Saturday, November 26, 2016

On the radio

I drive a car of a certain vintage. That is: no satellite radio. When I tire of Spotify or my iPod, I like to start at the far left of the dial and hit the "seek" button, then stay for only a moment on each station, judging in the split-second whether or not I want to linger (I ignore the call numbers). I've done this in every car I've owned, starting with my 1972 Datsun and its push-in radio buttons. Usually, the trip from the left to the right is a quick one, mostly unwelcoming squibs of synthesizer blasts, whether it's All-Spanish or Top 100 or New Country. Occasionally I'll land on an oldie, although those stations don't seem to be around in abundance as they were in the 1970s and '80s, or anyway, seem few and far between in northern Illinois—more precisely DeKalb County, where I can barely receive most Chicago stations clearly. I recognize that this is an archaic practice, and quickly expiring; my next car, which I really have to purchase soon, will come with satellite radio and all of the 21ct century achievements in sound and efficiency that my late-20th century car lacks. I think that the static-filled pop song on a car radio is this era's melancholy signal, how even a song that is coming in clearly can fade by the end of the block or the next light. There's something—well, analog about it, and air-y, and of the elements. I'm reminded that I'm driving on earth when a song fades on terrestrial radio: I'm moving away, or toward, A to B. So last century.

Today, playing while driving home from the Y, I heard a startling burst of bagpipe and rough guitar. AC/DC, of course! "It's A Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock n Roll)" muscled its cocky way through the static over 97.9 FM The Loop, "Chicago's Classic Rock" station, but even Bon Scott couldn't keep the song from fading away before I got home. A couple of weeks ago, I received a nice lesson in irony, when on 95.3 FM—The Bull, a Rockford, Illinois country station—Trace Adkins's "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" played (loudly, but the wall-to-wall noiseification of radio is another issue for another time) and then segued into The Band Perry's "Comeback Kid." (Both of these songs I had to look up when I got home.) What caught my attention was the friction between the two when played back to back, Adkins's stupid, clichéd sexism and unimaginative objectification ("There outta be a law / Get the Sheriff on the phone / Lord have mercy, how'd she even get them britches on," and so on) dovetailing brutally with The Band Perry's sincere, brave-woman victory song: "They like to kick you when you're down / They like it better when you're there on the ground / And up 'til now I've never made a sound / I bet they never had a broken heart / But they sure know how to beat the hell out of one / Sometimes I think they do it just for fun." I'm not certain that Guy Smiley behind the studio mic was aware of the irony afterward; he just plowed through to the next commercial announcement. But it was something. A bit of real life caught on the radio dial.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Field Recordings from the Inside, out in February 2017

I have a new book of essays coming out with Soft Skull Press in February. You can pre-order here. From the publisher:
Using as its epigraph and unifying principle Luc Sante’s notion that “Every human being is an archeological site,” Field Recordings from the Inside provides a deep and personal examination of the impact of music on our lives. Bonomo effortlessly moves between the personal and the critical, investigating the ways in which music defines our personalities, tells histories, and offers mysterious, often unbidden access into the human condition. The book explores the vagaries and richness of music and music-making—from rock and roll, punk, and R&B to Frank Sinatra, Nashville country, and Delta blues. Mining the often complex natures and shapes of the creative process, Field Recordings from the Inside is a singular work that blends music appreciation, criticism, and pop culture from one of the most critically acclaimed music writers of our time. 
“Part memoir, part criticism, Field Recordings From The Inside maps the ways music can define and shape our lives—which, in Joe Bonomo’s case, encompasses local bands and Top 40 one-hit wonders, Hank Williams and Frank Sinatra, everything that gets inside if your ears are open enough.” —Alan Light, author of The Holy or the Broken and former Editor-Chief of Spin Magazine

“What is music? More importantly, what isn’t music? In Field Recordings from the Inside, Joe Bonomo looks at family and faith, country and culture, Mississippi and Memphis, life and death, with sharp eyes (and ears) and a strong heart, shining a light on the past to help arm the present to make sense of the future. If you want beautiful writing in the service of powerful emotions, you want this book.” —Ben Greenman, author of Mo Meta Blues and The Slippage

“It’s so easy for critics to spend all their time worrying over how pop music gets made – the granular technical details, what a song or record means in its various historical or social contexts. Joe Bonomo understands those things, but still returns to what’s arguably the most crucial component of art: how it makes us feel and what it does to our lives. Field Recordings from the Inside is a beautiful, revelatory book about what it means to be a human with headphones on.” —Amanda Petrusich, author of Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records
Field Recordings From The Inside is the first book I’ve encountered that expertly blends my two favorite kinds of writing: music criticism and the literary essay. Joe Bonomo combines sound, the self, and the “roll and prank” of an essayistic mind to create a book that skates between discussions of history, records, coming of age, literature, relationships, and great rock-and-rollers. This book is a thoughtful and sonorous pleasure from start to finish.” —Elena Passarello, author of Let Me Clear My Throat and Animals Strike Curious Poses

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Sometime Yesterday Morning

. . . . I thought that the lines in "She" were "She devoured all my Sweet'N Low / Took all I had and then she fed me dirt / She laughed when I was crying / It was such a joke to see the wafer" and when you're a kid stuff like that just gets inside and you don't try to make too much sense of it but on the playground at Saint Andrew the Apostle I still couldn't get my mind around sugar substitute and Communion wafers in the same song then the fourteen-bar middle comes in and all I think about is how cool that song-within-a-song is until those lyrics about a girl who needs someone to walk on get inside too and things get complicated again like the beautiful counter melody in "When Love Comes Knockin' (At Your Door)" that told me that the music alone can stir things made double fun when "Mary, Mary" kicked in and now we're just dancing down in the basement no worries about whether I understood "love" and how the girls were looking at other guys with a secret language that the album seemed to speak then the weird Greek vibe in "Hold On Girl" more dancing against adolescent blues before "Your Auntie Grizelda" arrived for an always-welcome hilarious visit even though we knew that Tork was aping Ringo the song was a blast and we'd turn it up even better because my mom would close her ears whenever the song came on and though the drum fill at the organ break in "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" was all the grinning excitement we'd ever need it was still melancholy because we knew that side one was over that we'd have to flip it and hear "Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)" a throat-tighteningly sad song and though I was light years away from the problem the singer had the chorus sang my own dread of going back to school on Monday and facing classroom and playground sadness so preoccupied was I that I barely listened to "The Kind of Girl I Could Love" it sounded country and out of place anyway but is there anything better than hooting with laughter to bring you out of your indulgent melodramas because oh boy here's Davy Jones cracking us up with "The Day We Fall in Love" too corny and hilarious for words though again we were years away from understanding the reality behind the schmaltz but those syrupy strings! and then again the magic of pop music as we go from laughter to childish introspection the melody in "Sometime in the Morning" so gorgeous and lyrical and melancholy that I almost couldn't take it and sometimes listened the other way to get through it all knowing that "Laugh" was coming a kind of how-to manual to get through Monday that helped even though we somehow knew that it was forced but not "I'm a Believer" came on the uplifting pop perfection of which soothed the hurt that the album was over so let's flip it again . . . .


Percentage of words in this post that I knew/understood when I was a kid listening to More of the Monkees? Maybe 8. Percentage of the album that I understood then? 99. (That "Sweet'N Low and wafer" verse always threw me.) Boyce, Hart, Sager, Sedaka, Nesmith, Goffin, King, Diamond and the rest of them out in Hollywood with those wonderful seasoned session musicians scored my mornings, afternoons, and evenings. Timing is everything in pop music: you too have an album or a song that got into you before you could speak it and that soundtracked your day.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

"There ain't no dance she couldn't do . . . I feel fine to be dancin', baby"

Shake it, shake it, shake it . . . you can't pull down this bridge.

Clockwise from top left, the Kingsmen (photo via USE//MEB); Rocky and the Riddlers (photo via Pacific Northwest Bands); Detroit Wheels (photo via Motor City Music Archives); the Stooges (photo via Iggy and the Stooges Music)

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Love, Sex, Movement, Hope

Richard Wright, from his foreword to Paul Oliver's The Meaning of the Blues:
Yet the most astonishing aspect of the blues is that, though replete with a sense of defeat and down-heartedness, they are not intrinsically pessimistic; their burden of woe and melancholy is dialectically redeemed through sheer force of sensuality, into an almost exultant aflirmation of life, of love, of sex, of movement, of hope.
Photo by Michael L. Abramson, via American Photo, from his exhibition "Michael L. Abramson: Pulse of the Night," at the Columbia College Chicago Library.

Friday, October 28, 2016

October: Coming Back

As Game Three of the Cubs and Indians World Series resumes tonight, I'm looking back at a gap of missing Octobers. After the 1981 World Series I drifted away from baseball for much of the following decade, turning my attention to books, school, girls, music, and drinking, not necessarily in that order. My interest revived during the amazing 1986 World Series (regrettably, while the Game Six drama played out I was in the studio at WMUC on the campus of University of Maryland, horsing around during a friend's on-air show) but it wasn't until the taut and epic '91 Series that I returned to the game for good. Yet another thrilling invitation came in the form of Sid Bream sliding across home plate in the deciding game of the 1992 National League Championship Series, sent from second base courtesy of Fransisco Cabrera's hit, beating Barry Bonds's throw by inches, and shredding CBS announcer Sean McDonough's larynx. I jumped up and down in the front of the TV that night like I hadn't done since watching Graig Nettles's and Bucky Dent's heroics in the late 70s. I haven't missed a season since, my love for the game and its history only deepening.

So here's to Bream's huffing and puffing, an October moment for which I'm eternally grateful.

Apologies to Pirates fans of a certain age:


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"We didn't break up. We Were at The Pyramid."

In recognition of the Fleshtones' 40th anniversary in May of this year, I've been combing through the Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band and online archives for some little-seen nuggets. Digital artist, animator, and filmmaker Marjan Moghaddam recently uploaded her mini-documentary Drag Queens, Skinheads, Artists and Some Girls: the Pyramid Club of the 1980s. She notes:
Between 1983 and 1988, I shot bands, performance art, art, and other related events at the Pyramid club, in addition to showing my own early video art and computer animation there. I’ve held on to the original videos for decades now, and in 2011 I put together this short Video for a Pyramid event at Howl Festival, where it was originally screened. It was shown again at Howl gallery during the Pyramid show in 2015.
Readers of Sweat, and those friendly with the band in the mid-1980s, know how important The Pyramid was to the Fleshtones. In Sweat I wrote:
While Peter was decked out in shades, propped up in convertibles, and driven around sunny L.A., Keith and Marek were hanging out in the East Village at the Pyramid Club, a lively, memorable, and unique gay dive-bar on Avenue A that opened in 1981 and quickly became a second home to all of the band members, who found the eclectic, cross-dressing, pure-fun vibe of the joint intoxicating. Peter’s friend Gary Fakete had introduced them to the club, the happenings and clientele of which was in large part fueled by the same inspiration (and in some cases, by the same cast of characters) that drove the old Club 57. Ann Magnuson, Keith Haring, Wendy Wild, and others set the Pyramid’s nights alive with gallery openings, drag shows, and DJ-spun glimmer; at one point, Nico lived in a loft upstairs. As Time Out New York noted, “The supremely grimy hole-in-the-wall” was much more than “a trannie tavern—it was the creative heart of a then-thriving East Village scene.” The Fleshtones dug it, and were the first rock & roll band to play there. “We were basically the house band at The Pyramid,” says Peter.
. . .
The Pyramid Club did a good seven or eight years of being a unique club, “a mix of New York sensibility,” Keith remembers. “Artists, musicians, drag queens, bikers, the whole thing would just groove. It was exciting every night, and there was always something happening entertainment-wise, Lower East Side-entertainment, that made it just so much fun.” The narrow club had a small stage and sound system, and in the mid-80s Keith began booking shows on Thursday nights that he dubbed “Mod Teepee,” and many side-projects for the guys, Love Delegation, Wild Hyenas, Tall Lonesome Pines, and Mad Violets among them, would originate from the sleepless Pyramid scene.

At the end of one long evening in the spring of 1984, Keith, Marek, Butterick, and drinking buddies Michael “Kitty” Ullmann and local-legend drag queen Lady Bunny closed the bar and dragged a bag of six-packs over to the band shell at Tompkins Square. The drunken talk turned to the idleheaded idea of throwing a day-long drag festival in the shell, an open-air invite to all of the most fantastic queens, fags, and straight-cum-inner-freakflag-wavers in the neighborhood who wanted to groove to disco and sunshine. The friends laughed into early morning hours, and at some point Marek suggested that they call the event “Wigstock,” as a parody of Woodstock and as a sly insistence on a required fashion accessory.

Wigstock debuted on a crisp Labor Day in 1984. Lady Bunny kicked off the proceedings by belting “I Feel the Earth Move,” sashaying across the stage to the delight of the small but enthusiastic crowd; The Fleshtones played, and in subsequent Wigstock’s would team up with Wendy Wild as a waggish “Jefferson Hairplane.” A cast of regulars would catapult the event into a major local scene; both Ru Paul (“Supermodel: You Better Work”) and Dee-Lite (“Groove is in the Heart”) launched their careers from the amped frivolity of the Wigstock band shell. By 1990, the crowds were numbering in the tens of thousands. In 1991, the event was moved to Union Square, and ultimately to the West Side piers, where the crowds swelled to 50,000, before Lady Bunny finally put an end to the series that had grown beyond anyone’s wildest dreams on that beer-soaked, uranian night back in Tompkins Square.
By the time Nirvana played their first New York-area show at The Pyramid in the summer of 1989, The Fleshtones were dropping out of the scene. “The Pyramid became our home for much of the 80s,” Peter acknowledges. “A lot of people assume that the band broke up in the mid-80s. We didn’t break up. We were at The Pyramid.”
Gordon Spaeth speaks briefly in the first minute of the video, and Bill Milhizer, Keith Streng and Wild Wild appear, too. Drag Queens, Skinheads, Artists and Some Girls: the Pyramid Club of the 1980s is a time capsule of Reagan Era EV fun. Dig the scene, which Moghaddam and the boozy, happy-at-home regulars capture with aplomb:

More Super Rock 40th Anniversary posts here.

Screen grabs from Marjan Moghaddam's Drag Queens, Skinheads, Artists and Some Girls: the Pyramid Club of the 1980s.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

176 Years and Counting

Just fantastic: two old franchises (the Cubs formed in 1876, the Indians in 1894); two great sports towns; two terrific managers; two solid, well-balanced teams (though one teeters slightly more than the other); two great ballparks (well, one great one, the other good). Plus, the weather's getting nippy.

The 2016 World Series will likely, and unsurprisingly, come down to stout defense and sturdy pitching, especially in the late innings. The Cubs are ridiculously talented, 1 to 9, and very well-managed; the hungry, relatively-anonymous Indians are led by the superb Terry Francona. Both squads will be well-prepared, balancing discipline and routine with the youthful energy coursing through them. I'm quite certain that we'll witness plays up the middle turned by the ebullient, irresistible duo of the Indians' 22-year old shortstop Fransisco Lindor and the Cubs' 23-year old second-baseman Javier Báez that we'll talk about for a long time (and that Fox will beat to death). There will be epic at-bats in front of roaring crowds in both towns. I'm really excited about this one.

I semi-rooted for the Cubs in the playoffs, if only as a magnanimous gesture toward the city and my students (and my former students, whose ashen faces in the classroom the day after Game Six in 2003 I still vividly recall). But that high road has proven too steep. I'm an American League guy through and through, not to mention a White Sox fan, and though the Indians have long been Sox-killers, I'm pulling for the Tribe. The Cubs are young and so gifted that their window of opportunity will stay open for a few more seasons.

That said, I predict the Cubs in six, given their balance of starting pitching, defense, and slugging, though I don't with utter confidence. I want a competitive series, and I think we'll get it. Play Ball!

Friday, October 21, 2016

Myths on the Rock and Roll Stage

I saw the Ramones for the first time at the long-gone Wax Museum in Washington D.C. in March of 1984. The band was supporting Subterranean Jungle, an album that I pulled out recently to listen to and which floored me—again—with its great guitar sound, courtesy of co-producers Ritchie Cordell and Glen Kolotkin, and overall amped-up energy. Like each Ramones album since Road to Ruin, the record has its detractors, among them the band members themselves (but they hated everything). Some decry the slick, of-the-era production and drum sound; some lament the three cover songs; some hate the cartoonish cover. Johnny Ramone liked the guitar sound—aided and abetted by ex-Heartbreaker guitarist Walter Lure, who's thanked on the inner sleeve but otherwise uncredited—and he recalls watching the Cardinals/Brewers World Series while recording the album, and that's enough for me. Those cover songs—"Time Has Come Today," "Little Bit O' Soul," and the Boyfriends' transcendent, desperate "I Need Your Love"—are all great, as are the originals "Outsider," "Somebody Like Me," "In the Park," "Time Bomb," and "Psycho Therapy," the opening siren-wailing-riff of which excites me as much as it did when I first heard it in Regan America.

What I remember about the show is the scarifying ringing in my ears for a week afterward, but there was a current running through the performance that had nothing to do with the band's considerable Marshall backline. Seven months before the show, following a show in Queens, Johnny had been involved in a street confrontation with twenty-two year old Seth Macklin, a member of the punk band Sub Zero. According to an August 16, 1983 New York Times account, Ramone "suffered a fractured skull during a fight . . . that began at 3:50 A.M. when Mr. Ramone encountered Mr. Macklin with a young woman Mr. Ramone had dated, according to Sgt. Peter Ruane, a police spokesman."
Mr. Ramone, who was born as John Cummings, was injured when Mr. Macklin kicked him in the head near the end of the fight, Sergeant Ruane said. Mr. Macklin was arrested on assault charges and Mr. Ramone was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital where he underwent surgery. The hospital refused to disclose Mr. Ramone's condition. 
The following day, the Times reported that "punk-rock star" Ramone was in stable condition, and "Mr. Ramone's friend" was identified as Cynthia Whitney, twenty-two; Macklin, who wasn't injured, "was arrested and charged with first-degree assault, according to the police. He was arraigned and released in his own custody." 

Here's an account in the Prescott, Arizona Courier of the so-called "jealous rage":


Johnny didn't talk about the incident much afterward until his posthumously published autobiography, Commando (which I wrote about here.) He devotes a page to the incident, acknowledging that he remembers little of the attack that put him in the hospital for ten days. "I was thankful that I didn’t have brain damage and that I was okay," he wrote, "but other people said that they saw something different about me after the attack."
They thought that it had changed me. I didn’t feel any different, but I began to be more cautious, and looked to avoid confrontational situations. I didn’t back down, of course, because New York is a confrontational place. But I watched situations more carefully, even people around the Ramones who might want to get too close. I did not want to get into another fight. I saw the damage that it had done. I was now more vulnerable to head injuries. 
He revealed that Macklin served only a few months in jail. "I went to court and testified," he wrote. "I never heard from him again. I was very angry. I wanted him killed. I'm all for capital punishment. I think it should be televised." Afterward Johnny worried about going soft, and he peered around a bit more while on the street, bought a gun and began carrying mace.

My buddies and I knew none of this the night of the show, of course. Somehow we'd heard that Johnny had been fighting for his life, the result of a street brawl with some skinhead on a grimy, shadowy street in scary New York City. I hadn't visited the city since I was a child with my family, and so the imagery in my head quickly grew lurid and exaggerated, a story telling its own story. This is how the imagination works: facts are replaced by desire, what it wants. Before the Internet, such vivid conjuring was easy, required even. Down in D.C., because we had no corroboration of, or updates about, the fight, we recreated the incident in our heads, giving it mythic proportions within which to grow. The details were murky, so we brightened the story with our own, internal versions. Now: every fact can be searched for and found online, and there's precious little time left for mythology to form between an incident and its instant sharing, and vetting, by millions around the world. Then: we'd heard that his head had been shaved for emergency surgery and that he was sporting uncharacteristically short hair, or maybe even a wig! (It didn't look like it the night of the show, but then again it was months later.) That fall in the tiny record store in the Student Union at the University of Maryland, I looked at the Ramones' new album and sensed that the band was working up a little myth of their own about the incident: Too Tough To Die it was called. On the cover they emerged, back-lit, from a tunnel. Inside they played faster than they ever had.

There are a lot factors that affect the memory of a great show: the songs; the performance; the venue; the size of the crowd; the drugs or alcohol coursing through or absent from your body. Within minutes, driving or walking home afterward, a show can grow large in our retelling of it. Also graphically affecting a show are the stories that we carry inside of ourselves as we're rocking out, narratives that may or may not have happened to those guys and girls up there onstage, or next to me on the floor, but which cast the evening on an even larger stage.

Anyway, RIP John Cummings. Turn it up:

Photo of Johnny Ramone via David Corio / Getty

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Guy at Hammerjacks

The things that stick in memory. I'm at a Godfathers show at Hammerjacks in Baltimore, Maryland, probably in 1987. The band's in the States promoting Birth School Work Death, but the song I remember most is "I'm Unsatisfied," a tune that first appeared on a 12-inch in the U.K. and was later gathered on Hit By Hit. What I see when I hear the song now: a guy near the front of the stage, to my left, decked out in standard-issue Hammerjacks black-leather, head banging during the song's first verse. In memory I associate him with the leather-clad, Marginal Man crowd that used to hang at Back Alley Cafe in downtown Washington D.C., lining their motorcycles out front, but it's more likely that he was a Baltimore native. The memory is devoid of any real meaningful context, but there it is, always, when I hear this great song. He's forever enshrined, and I'll likely carry him wherever I go. Where is he now? A dad, a boss, far removed from Baltimore? Dead? Who knows, but he lives in the eternal present, a perfect, decay-resistant image of rocking out.

I have other memories of Hammerjacks: my buddy returning from the bar clutching four shots of Jägermeister, grinning and excited because "It's like brushing your teeth"; in the parking lot out front, gathered around another friend's car, talking randomly and self-consciously about fucking; the time I almost got pulled under the mosh pit at a Ramones show; the seedy and thrilling shadows of Route 395 and the cars roaring above our heads as we'd leave the club.... But no image sticks quite like this head-banging dude, utterly lost in the intense elation of a rock and roll song, enacting a silhouette that occurred the night before, the following weekend, and last weekend, too, there and elsewhere and everywhere. But he's mine for good. He's become a kind of favorite character from a book or TV show. This is how memory works: the guy's emblematic, representative, without my having asked him. What if I'd looked the other way at that moment? He wouldn't have been cast. He doesn't matter, and he means a lot.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Bill Milhizer and The Charades

In recognition of the Fleshtones' 40th anniversary in May of this year, I've been combing through the Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band and online archives for some little-seen nuggets. Here's a terrific photograph of Bill Milhizer and his first band, The Charades, in Troy, New York, in the mid-1960s. The photo appears in an article at The Spot 518 promoting the Fleshtones show this weekend in Troy, where Milhizer lives. Local hero, and all that.

Here's the story of The Charades, from Sweat:
In the summer of 1964, Bill bought his first drum kit, the same set that he plays now with The Fleshtones. In March of that year The Beatles had completed their infamous assault on North America by holding the top five spots on the Billboard singles charts, and now every teenager in Troy wanted drums and guitars. Forget the old accordion players, the soft-shoe horn players, the sequined Big Band dance players (Bill’s parents had hung up their own patent leather shoes around this time). Rock & roll and pointy boots were in and listen to the girls scream!
Overnight, [Paul] Buehler [Milhizer's drum teacher in Troy] had dozens of Beatle-wig-wearing students. So he turned to Bill, his best and most serious pupil, and asked him if he could take up some of the slack for the beginning students. Bill was only sixteen but he was capable in getting students off the ground and off to playing a set, because by that time Bill had been out playing with his own band The Charades, named after the popular movie from the previous year starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. The title tune, a Henry Mancini number, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song in 1963, and Bill and his band loved it and played an instrumental version as their theme song. Local desires and circumstances required that the band play and sing everything because people in Troy wanted to hear old swing music as well as popular rock & roll. A couple of guys in the band were Polish, and since they played some Polish weddings they had to do polkas, and later they clumsily learned some Latin music because people wanted to do a tipsy cha-cha or samba. And of course they had to do the hits so every weekend they’d throw in a new Beatles tune. 
Milhizer found his way from Troy to the Lower East Side in a characteristically roustabout, roundabout way. Nearly forty years after joining The Fleshtones, Lucky Bill's going strong. “I make enough money to easily take the bus,” Milhizer reflects in the article. “And, I do…. To that extent, we’ve been a success… We’ve met a lot of people in little places around the world.”

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Playoffs Are Here!

And I'm as excited as these fans at Sportsman's Park during Game Six of the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox, seventy years ago this week. Here's to chilly afternoons and nights of languor and drama.

My fearless predictions:

American League
ALDS: Blue Jays > Rangers
ALDS: Red Sox > Indians
ALCS: Red Sox > Blue Jays

National League
NLDS: Cubs > Giants
NLDS: Nats > Dodgers
NLCS: Cubs > Nats

World Series
Cubs > Red Sox in six

Photo via Mashable.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Memory À Go-Go

We rarely know when we're in the middle of a moment that will become historic. We have our conventional markers—our high school or college graduations; our weddings; the baby's first tottering steps—but these are marketed, by Hallmark, and to ourselves, as unforgettable. Usually when I say to myself, at a show, a party, on a river, alone or with someone, I'm gonna remember this, the memory's gone within an hour or a day, called up only when I will it. It's a melancholy, and maybe disturbing, thought that we don't choose our memories, they choose us. On my darkest (or is it my most lucid?) days, I feel that we're little more than the sum total of our memories, but those memories tend to stay with us, and thus define so much of ourselves, for random, scattershot reasons.

Anyway, I mulled over all this today while washing the lunch dishes as Johnny Rivers's terrifically fun Johnny Rivers At The Whisky À Go-Go played in the next room. The album was recorded live ("very live!") at the famed club during a Rivers residency in the early Spring of 1964 as the Beatles were in ascension, months after their Ed Sullivan Show appearance and weeks from storming and occupying the first five spots of the Billboard Top 100. The album features a throaty and tipsily enthusiastic audience, and I wondered, when they clapped and whistled, if they knew that 1964 was going to be a watershed year in American pop music. Of course they didn't. I'd like to track down an audience member who was at one of these Rivers gigs, and ask him or her: what do you remember most from that night? Rivers's singing and his slashing Stratocaster, dancing in front, twinkling Sunset Boulevard, or the trouble getting a babysitter for the night, a random billboard on the way to the show, the fight you had with your sister that morning,...?

Sunday, October 2, 2016

So Long, Vin Scully

Words can't approximate what I've felt, thought, and imagined as I've listened to Scully call baseball games over several decades. I'll let him have the last word: "It's a mere moment in a man's life between the All-Star Game and an old timer's game."
Vin, Lucky Strike, and Schaefer


Saying so long

Top photo via Lockerdome, middle photo via Awful Announcing, bottom photo via Diamond Hoggers

Friday, September 30, 2016

Road Trip

Driving west on I-70 in Maryland, I encountered a massive backup east of Hancock. Trusting my GPS, I hopped off of the interstate and into the Maryland panhandle country. I drove north into Pennsylvania on a series of stunningly pretty roads that wound and dipped and banked and gently lifted and lowered me in and out of the Allegheny Mountains, a friendly blur of churches, farms, and small storefronts (and Trump placards), the pleasantness interrupted only by a series of handmade painted roadside signs warning about an incoming pork rendering plant and the damage it might cause to local streams and rivers. I'd always wanted to drive on these particular roads, as the view looking east on I-70 driving below I-76 is breathtaking, one of my all-time favorite vistas in the country, a steep, CinemaScope view of Pennsylvania farmlands and tiny, steeple-dotted villages. This providential side trip eventually took me onto Route 522 heading north; after a half hour or so I picked up Route 30 going west. The road felt familiar, and soon enough things were clarified when a sign indicated that I was driving on the old Lincoln Highway, Route 30 being the southern Pennsylvania leg of one of the country's earliest transcontinental highways. I arrived at Breezewood—an icon of sorts, for me—from the east rather than the south, for the first time in my life, and approaching the legendary junction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and I-70 on the old Lincoln Highway—well, let's just say that this surprise Americana road trip, wholly unplanned, the result of traffic congestion on a major interstate, was a welcome amusement ride that I won't soon forget.