Saturday, January 30, 2016

Fleshtones: Riding the High Life

In advance of the Fleshtones' 40th anniversary this year, I'll be combing through the Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band archives for some little-seen nuggets. By 1983 the folks at I.R.S. Records were hopeful that the Fleshtones would break into commercial radio and start selling records. History would prove otherwise, of course, but in the mid-1980s some major corporations were willing to bet on Super Rock. Following the release of Hexbreaker! the band signed a sponsorship deal with Miller Beer in the national Miller Rock Network, a promotional boon that gave the band coast-to-coast exposure and tons of free equipment and gear—and their own Shout! Poster & Magazine, cover illustration courtesy of Scribblin' Bill Milhizer. The copy reads, a tad optimistically, "The world will be hearing more about The Fleshtones very soon, and who knows what these wild guys will be up to next." Read Sweat to find out.

Best of all, the Shout! promo magazine opened up to become a full-size poster, perfect for your bedroom next to your Michael Jackson and Men At Work posters!


Meanwhile in France, where the band was always more popular than the U.S.:

As French rock and roll promoter Alain Lahana explained to me, “The Fleshtones had all the talent, and were fantastic live, but were only appreciated by an elite in France. They could never reach the level they should have reached there, but they always stayed proud and convinced. We like Beautiful Losers.” The Fleshtones, Lahana adds, “were amongst the best in that category!” Merci!

More archival Fleshtones materials here, here, here, here and here.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Frank Conroy's Waiting

If great autobiography moves from individual experience to the time- and the place-less, then Frank Conroy, unmoored from his own lousy Floridian adolescence, is writing across millennia in this passage from his 1967 book Stop-Time:
My philosophy, at age eleven, was skepticism. Like most children I was antisentimental and quick to hear false notes. I waited, more than anything else, waited for something momentous to happen. Keeping a firm grip on reality was of immense importance. My vision had to be clear so that when “it” happened I would know. The momentous event would clear away the trivia and throw my life into proper perspective. As soon as it happened I would understand what was going on, and until then it was useless to try. (A spectacularly unsuccessful philosophy since nothing ever happened.)
Painting of Conroy by John Rich, Paris, 1953. Cover of first edition of Stop-Time.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Fleshtones: High Times in the 80s

In advance of the Fleshtones' 40th anniversary this year, I'll be combing through the Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band archives for some little-seen nuggets. In August of 1986 the band was profiled by Art Black in High Times magazine, a straightforward account of the band's early years, tenure at I.R.S. Records, and frustrating commercial plateau. Among ads for "Body Energizer" pills and "Indoor Sun" Energy Efficient Grow Lights were some terrific photos.

These colors were shot by Monica Dee. This is among my favorite photos of the band, mocking temperance in Tompkins Square Park, feet away from several of their favorite drinking holes.
A few Fleshtones off-shoots: Love Delegation, Mad Violets, and the rarely-seen and short-lived Tall Lonesome Pines, bassist Marek Pakulski's Everly Brothers-styled outfit with George Gilmour and pals.


These moody black-and-whites were shot around the same time by Anders Goldfarb at the band's rehearsal space at 584 Eighth Avenue, a block below the Port Authority bus station. Note that the High Times editors helpfully tagged each with official Pupilometer Readings.

More archival Fleshtones pics here, here, here and here.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Add Country Western Square Dance Blues Gospel Rhythm and Race; Stir

Bobby Gregory was a country music performer and bandleader in the 1920s through the '40s; he led an outfit called His Cactus Cowboys, and wrote or co-wrote and recorded hundreds of songs over many labels. Beginning in the 1950s he landed a gig for Country Song Roundup magazine writing a regular question-and-answer column in which he patiently waded through topics ranging from how to manage copyrights and contact fan clubs to the precise tuning of Hawaiian pedal steel guitars and the necessity of one's tonsils for yodeling. The popular feature, with Gregory's taut but knowledgeable face on top, ran for 63 issues.

In December 1957, one Harry Taylor, of tiny Princeton, West Virginia, posed an interesting question to Gregory, whose careful and honest answer suggests just how thorny and labyrinthine-like the nomenclature got in mid-century popular music, the virtual calisthenics needed for crossover success, and the racism under the surface of radio programming—but also the strange excitement of this "new," genre-leaping, undefinable sound. Where the heck do I file "Rock 'n' Roll?"

Monday, January 25, 2016

Before The Fall: Jerry Lee in 1958

Apparently the winds of change hadn't yet reached Derby, Connecticut, where the editorial offices of Country Song Roundup magazine stood. "In Like A Lamb—Out Like A Lion," an enthusiastic, fan-friendly article on Jerry Lee Lewis, ran in the September 1958 issue, months after Lewis's so-called "marriage scandal" had erupted. Near the end of the piece, Mae Boren Axton makes a great observation about Lewis that he'd trade on a decade later, licking his considerable wounds:
But when he changes his mood from his rocking, rolling piano playing and singing to such tender melodies as “You Win Again”, there is a hush that grips the audience which is a greater tribute to this versatile artist than his rockabilly tunes bring forth. They realize that he can furnish an outlet for their nervous energy then turn right around and, with a wistful sadness in his eyes, sing their stories of life and its problems in a soothing way.
Ah, life and its problems. ("Out like a lion," indeed.) For now, at least, he was still in the hands of well-meaning writers and editors.

Here he is in 1956, proving Axton's point:

Saturday, January 23, 2016

A Southern Past in Gothic Grays

In his absorbing, vivid memoir masterpiece A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, Harry Crews describes a world teeming with weirdness. Crews was raised in southern Georgia, Bacon County, not far from the Florida panhandle, in a violent family poised between despair and the dimmest of hopes. Born in the middle of the Depression, his earliest memories involved struggle and loss. Echoing his Southern Gothic and Grit Lit ancestors, Crews, rendering place from a child’s point-of-view, describes endless hours looking up: at strange, unfathomable adults, at the impossibly hot sun, at diminishing expectations. All around him is oddness that he takes for granted, accepts as normal because it’s all he’s ever known. A daddy vanishes for days on end, staggering home putrid with whiskey, eyes red and wild, armed with a shotgun. A dead possum’s eyeballs are buried facing up so the revenging animal’s ghost can’t find his hunter once he’s dead and buried six feet beneath him. A man driven by desperation stabs himself in the back of a feed store and dies slowly, strangely, beautifully, all the while talking. A Childhood is an unforgettable book.

First published in 1978, A Childhood was reissued in 1995 by the University of Georgia Press in an edition including Michael McCurdy's wood-engraved drawings—haunting evocations of a Southern past in Gothic grays. Paradoxically, McMurdy has lived his entire life in the northeast United States; he was born in New York City in 1942, grew up in New Rochelle and Marblehead, Massachusetts, and now lives in Springfield, Massachusetts. His geographic distance from the lurid Deep South of Crews's childhood and adolescence is breached via the imagination sparked by surreality, violence, rural landscape: place filtered through dream.

Here are details of a few of my favorite drawings from a favorite book, imagery now so deep inside me and likely to stay there that I wonder, as McCurdy likely did, startled, if it was always there.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Fleshtones, Early Posing, Ctd.

More from the Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band archives: details from three contact sheets of never-before-seen photographs taken in 1980 by Fran Pelzman in New York City. Drummer Bill Milhizer had just joined the band in the spring and, judging by the fellas' short sleeves and the good light, these photos look like they were taken in the summer, perhaps on the west side of Manhattan or out in Brooklyn. "Meatpacking District, High Line," Peter Zaremba thinks. "We did a lot of photo shoots on the High Line, I think also with the Go-Gos. If only the droves of tourists knew." Milhizer confirms: "Yes, these were at the high line," adding, "where we are no longer welcome, unless I hit the Lotto." When these hopeful promotional pics were snapped, the Fleshtones had just signed with Miles Copeland at I.R.S. Records and were about to head out to Los Angeles to record the Up-Front EP.  The Party was just getting into gear.

©Fran Pelzman/all rights reserved

More rarely-seen Fleshtones pics here, here, and here.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Little Richard is Real

In the late 1950s, Little Richard turned his back on secular rock and roll music and entered Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, to study theology, reconnect to his evangelical Christian roots, and, to no small degree, continue to reckon with his queerness. At the beginning of the next decade he went into the studio to cut a series of spiritual and gospel standards. The first of these sessions occurred in the fall 1960 in New York City, under the guidance of producer and multi-label owner George Goldner; Richard also recorded spirituals with producer Quincy Jones in New York and Los Angeles. On many of the songs recorded with Goldner, Richard is backed only by organist Herman Stevens, aided and abetted later by dubbed group backing vocals and string sections. Over the next few years the material from these sessions were released on a number of albums, including Pray Along With Little Richard (Top Rank International), Little Richard Sings Freedom Songs ‎(Crown Records), and Little Richard Sings Spirituals ‎(United/Superior Records), the latter of which I recently picked up.

The Goldner tracks are often disparaged. In The Life And Times Of Little Richard, biographer Charles White describes them as "pretty miserable" and "dirgelike," and down the years his opinion seems to have became holy writ, as it were. I find the recordings, on the whole, genuine and genuinely moving. True, in places Stevens's organ bizarrely mimics tones usually reserved for a baseball game, and on some cuts Richard sounds—if you can believe this—hesitant. But on standards like "Milky White Way" (words and music by Landers Coleman) and "God Is Real" (Kenneth Morris) Richard really gets inside the words and the beliefs they articulate, and it's a thrill to hear the octave leaps, graphic falsetto, and signature, aggressively ranging, joyous vocal stylings we associate with "Good Golly Miss Molly" and "Tutti Frutti" in the service of veneration and adoration (which, in his inimitable way, Richard was also doing while going on about Long Tall Sally, but that's another story). In the studio with Goldner he's relatively decorous, but the devotion, passion, and troubles are real, and whatever complications we're aware of now—Richard's intense conflicts across his sexual spectrum (what he called "unnatural affections") and across the expanse of his God's mercy and his family's and church's dogma—make the performances that much more absorbing. I hear lines like "There are some things I may not know; there are some places I can't go" and, perhaps naively, wonder what knowledge and what places are beyond his ken, if he's imagining, or not allowing himself to imagine, his own native eroticism and desires as well as grace and secular and spiritual limits. When he sings about walking the milky white way to take his stand, I wonder how he expects to find God's home, welcoming or censuring?

Within a few years he'd be rocking again, so naturally. The conflicts have never deserted him.

From the Little Richard Sings Spirituals album notes: 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

"Something deeper that we may all recognize"

Painter, sculptor, and printmaker Eric Fischl recently sat down with the editors of Out Of Sync, an online interview series, to discuss his career and work. Fischl speaks casually and openly, and the brief window into his life, aesthetic, and motivations is very interesting.

On his early art schooling:
I found as I started to take these art classes, that two things happened that had never happened to me before. One was that I could be alone. And the other was that I could concentrate.... I felt so integrated when I made art, so connected to my self, my essential self, that I thought that, even if I was not a good or successful artist, that I would keep doing that for the rest of my life.
On the effect of his mother's alcoholism and her effort to hide it from the public:
I became acutely aware of the difference between inside and outside, between experienced and speakable, and in my work, once I began to mature as an artist, that became part of the impetus and the themes in the work, to expose that which cannot be spoken.
On being a self-taught representational painter:
I was making this transition from abstract painting, which is what I was taught in school, to figuration, which I was impelled to make but actually didn't know how to. I wasn't trained as a drawer or a renderer or something like so I had to kind of make the whole thing up as I went along.
On the family as subject:
I chose a structure that I thought would give me a lot of things to work on, so the structure was a family matrix....[wherein] you could explore the relationship between the mother, the father, between the sister, the brother, the husband, the wife, the father, the daughter, etc.. You'd go through all of these variations and you could find some deep, emotional, psychological content within those. So I began to play around, moving these characters in and out. I was looking for something that was more universal than just my personal experience, going for something deeper that we may all recognize, empathize with, or share experientially.

Particularly interesting are Fischl's comments on two of his more notable, and infamous, paintings, Sleepwalker and Bad Boy, as he considers the differences between the taboo of pornography on the one hand, and complex human experience sexual experiences on the other. I've been a big fan of Fischl's for years, and it's great to see him discuss his work, however briefly, in a relaxed environment. Good stuff.
Sleepwalker (1979)

Bad Boy (1981)

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Jim Nesbitt Can Sing a Ballad, Too

Jim Nesbitt sang goofy songs about trucks, drinking, and women (and I mean that as a compliment). But, like any committed country music artist steeped in tradition, he also let in songs that were less comical, more in tune with Music Row's expert pairing of heartache's chaos and a good song's formalism. Nesbitt—a talented tunesmith who wrote the majority of his own material—is probably best know for his killer 1964 single "Tiger In My Tank" which reached number 20 on the Billboard Country chart; he also scored hits with "Please Mr. Kennedy" (#11 in 1961) and "Looking for More in '64," a number seven hit in that titular year. These singles were issued on Chart Records, one of the more successful independent country music labels of the 1960s and '70s.

By the end of the decade, Nesbitt's singles were performing less robustly in a dynamically changing record-selling culture. In 1968 he released his first album in four long years, The Truck Drivin' Cat With Nine Lives, one of the all-time great titles, the lyrical content of which wasn't much of a stretch (trucks, drinking, and women—and, in a fashionable nod to the era, Vietnam draft-dodging. He followed this up in 1970 with Runnin' Bare, the title track an ode to, well, you know). "The Truck Drivin' Cat With Nine Lives" is a hoot (and was a modest hit), but I'm partial to "I Ain't Ever Been Passed," a cut on the second side, a rockin' trucker ode that's ripe for a cover by Reverend Horton Heat:


Yet, emblazoned on the album's back cover is the phrase "From Novelties To Ballads," a message from Chart Records to radio programmers and jukebox owners that Nesbitt is willing to ease off the throttle once in a while. From the notes:
When you first put the needle down on this record you will know that Jim Nesbitt really does “have something." This is the Jim Nesbitt who has kept you laughing for several years with hilarious hits like Looking for More in '64, Still Alive in '65, The Friendly Undertaker and many other rib-tickling tunes. Now, this is Jim Nesbitt pulling at your heartstrings too, making you ‘feel every heartache in She Didn't Come Home and Social Security. With this. album Jim establishes the fact that he is not just a novelty-type recording artist, but that he can sing a ballad just as well as he does the novelty songs.
Defensive stuff, with the tell-tale whiff of commercial anxiety. And Nesbitt does offer a few terrific ballads on The Truck Drivin' Cat With Nine Lives. Particularly strong is the album's second cut, the little-known "Living The Life Of Riley," a clever but moving song about infidelity, the tenuous bonds of male friendship, selfishness, and regrets. Here, Nesbitt gets his hands around the kind of emotional complexities that aren't easily dispensed with in the exhaust of a semi-truck with a girl down the line. I wonder how a timeless song like this turned inside-out would sound today. I'd love to hear Jason Isbell or American Aquarium or Greg Cartwright, when he's feeling rustic, or heck even The Handsome Family or a gender-fucking Lydia Loveless give this deserving song a shot. What do you say?

The Truck Drivin' Cat With Nine Lives (Chart, 1968). A timeless semi and of-the-era babes.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Fleshtones, Early Posing

Rummaging through the Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band archives recently, I came across two photos from the late 1970s, neither of which made the cut for the book. They accompanied "The American Sound of The Fleshtones," a 1979 article written by Todd Abramson for the second issue of his 'zine Young, Fast & Scientific.

The first photo, taken by Dorothy Affa, is one of the earliest promotional shots of The Fleshtones. The gentleman on the far left is Mitchell Ames, who in 1979 joined the band briefly on second guitar; he's joined, left to right, by Lenny Calderon, Peter Zaremba, Keith Streng, and Marek Pakulski. "Mitchell and Lenny are typifying Rock bad boys, and Peter and Keith are channeling Warhol and a young Roger Waters, respectively," Pakulski mused after I showed him the photo. "Me, I have no clue what that look is about. Ah, youth."

The second photo (uncredited) is a favorite, the guys standing around holding stacks of records, that old pose. Streng's clutching a prized copy of Blue Magoos' Psychedelic Lollipop from 1966 and Calderon's holding Love's debut from the same year (he's showing us the back). Pakulski: "Looks like we've just been released from juvy." And now off to rehearsal.
left to right: Streng, Zaremba, Calderon, Pakulski

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Game Through a Prism

Near the end of his sprawling, kaleidoscopic The Devil's Snake Curve, Josh Ostergaard writes, "There are an infinite number of ways to write a book, an infinite number of ways to read a book, and an infinite number of ways to be a fan of baseball and of America." The Devil's Snake Curve establishes those observations and then tests their limits. Both a subjective fan and an objective chronicler, Ostergaard narrates baseball's history—from its contested origins through to this second decade of the Twenty-first century—as a series of casually linked observations and speculations, and he's not particularly interested in telling his story conventionally. He's read newspaper articles spanning a century, and many books, some baseball-related but many not, researched at the baseball Hall of Fame, and observed the game from its field as well as its stands, tuning his ear toward what connections there might be among baseball and culture at large. Moving among narratives of warfare, politics, racism, jingoism, organized religion, and cultural oppression of all stripes, Ostergaard casts a wide net, wondering on hidden correspondences among baseball, vernacular language, turns-of-phrase, Japanese internment camps, animal territorial behavior, Sun City retirement complexes, and fast food television commercials. And that's only a small sample size of Ostergaard's wide gaze.

But I don't want to suggest that the book is pedantic, or dully scholarly. It's not. Put more simplyThe Devil's Snake Curve is a book written about a Kansas City Royals fan who grew up hating the New York Yankees. That ancient story. Ostergaard was born in 1977 as the Royals were suffering October bruises courtesy of the newly-revived, bullying Yankees; by the time Ostergaard came of age and began playing ball himself, the Royals were well into a downward slide. We all know what happened to the Yankees. Chip on shoulder, deeply curious, Ostregarrd examines how the Yankees became symbolic of all that is Good and Patriotic in this country, following their history and identifying national and international cultural moments of Yankee iconography and what one might call Yankee Philosophy. Ostregaard draws a line from the organization's notoriously iron-clad anti-hair policy to baseball's general taming and fashioning of itself from a game played by wild man-boys having fun to an industry ruled by Corporate Think, family values, and astronomical player and management salaries. Not without a feeling of surprise, Ostregaard comes around to the Yankee way of thinking by the end of his book, describing being at an exciting playoff game at the Stadium when the team, and its telegenic brand of baseball on and off the field, suddenly made a kind of narrative and symbolic sense to him. Concurrently, his loathing of his hometown team increased. In short, Ostergaard—who isn't shy about his progressive politics in the book—is won over by success. "[Yankees principal owner and managing partner] George Steinbrenner was an old-school capitalist, in the flawed but comparatively human tradition of Henry Ford," Ostregaard observes.
At times he seemed to have an assembly-line approach to building his teams, because the best players eventually found their way to New York. But, like the system Ford created, the benefits of the Steinbrenner system were not limited to him alone. He became richer, and more powerful—and baseball owners do wield symbolic power—during his time at the helm of the Yankees. But his players also became rich, in fact richer than they could have been anywhere else. And if you overlook the late eighties and early nineties, when the team suffered losing streaks and Steinbrenner’s behavior distracted him from the task of winning, Yankees fans were better off under Steinbrenner’s system. Every year, Yankees fans knew they would be taken seriously. The owner respected them, if only for pragmatic reasons.
Ostergaard grudgingly respects the Yankees' "task of winning," and recognizes the responsibility the Royals ignored for so many woeful seasons. (Until recently, of course.) Winding its way among Ostergaard's cultural, political, and historical observations are autobiographical accounts of his own history with the game, from wide-eyed, gum-chewing Little League enthusiast to disillusioned, grown-up spectator unwilling to spend money to attend games. His fondness for the sport revives a bit at the end, buoyed, I think, as much by the knowledge gleaned through his book's wide lens as by his native, never-gone love for the game at his fingers. The Devil's Snake Curve is a wholly unique, collage-like take on baseball and the intersections among the fans, the sport, and the world's far-flung corners.

Ostergaard lives in Minneapolis and works at Graywolf Press. Recently, I virtually sat down with him to discuss his book, and how and why baseball matters in so many different ways.


Josh Ostergaard
The Devil's Snake Curve is classified in part as an "alternative history (fiction)." Really, it's an alternative form of history. What appeals to you about the segmented, mosaic form in terms of writing about baseball? Is that your natural aesthetic, or did the content dictate the form in some ways?

Before I begin tackling your questions, let me say that I really appreciate your interest in the book and I want to thank you for your good thoughts. When writing The Devil’s Snake Curve I was drawn to the mosaic form for several reasons. I think the biggest is that I wanted to avoid succumbing to theory-making tendencies I developed while working as an anthropologist. With this book I was trying to make a hard break from my past training and find a new way forward aesthetically. I was also trying to avoid “essay voice,” which as a reader I often find cloying. I wanted to use images and anecdotes and patterns to suggest meanings that the reader might or might not absorb—the risk of not being understood seemed preferable to telegraphing my intentions. It was lots of fun to write this way, and I think it’s more fun for readers to have to actively try to figure it out even though I was deliberately trying to scramble their brains. It’s also true that baseball, like the book, takes place in fragments, and that was a bit of a permission-giver with regard to form.

As for the classification of The Devil’s Snake Curve as “alternative history (fiction),” I assume that Coffee House Press gave it that label in response to the essay with which I concluded the book (“The Umpire’s Rules,” p.217-227). They had my back, which is nice. I chose not to fact-check the personal anecdotes in the book, so maybe the “fiction” classification was meant to save me from scandal if an old friend came out of the woodwork to present a different version of one of my memories. The classification doesn’t bother me—I think it’s interesting. But in reality, there is no fiction in The Devil’s Snake Curve. Apart from my memories, everything I drew from is readily available in old newspapers and archives that are accessible to the public, and I documented my sources very carefully in the back of the book. What’s different is that my overall point of view as the curator of the information is very slanted, very subjective. I used my angle of vision to “make visible” things that otherwise might seem normal or natural about the way baseball is commonly represented, but which in fact are pretty exotic and strange.

Richard Hugo wrote, "It is impossible to write meaningless sequences. In a sense the next thing always belongs. In the world of imagination, all things belong." Did you find a point at which the connection between baseball and whatever you were comparing it to or correlating it with snapped, became too tenuous?

This is a fun question—yes, there were definitely passages I drafted for The Devil’s Snake Curve that I later looked at and thought: what the hell does that even mean? But at least in my view, none of the elements that were too tenuous made it into the final version of the book. If I couldn’t explain it to the smart editors at Coffee House, or to myself, that was a bad sign, so I made cuts. From a thematic perspective, I can justify every segment, every sentence, and almost every word that made its way into the published version. That doesn’t mean that everything came off successfully, but I’ll avoid speculating on what worked and what didn’t—that’s up to readers.

A few sections that I cut from the manuscript are worth mentioning. I removed a section about the Mohawk haircut Travis Bickle wore in Taxi Driver because I could not figure out why in the world I even wrote it. At various times while drafting the text I was just “ripping and running” and the best I can figure is that the section on Bickle had something to do with the Mohican Motel in Cooperstown, where I stayed during my visits. Well, that’s not good enough, so I cut it. I also had a section about how Moose Skowron of the Yankees got his nickname, but ultimately the language I used and the directions it pointed were too forced, so I cut it. I also really wanted to include a section on the old Cub Fergie Jenkins hunting moose in the snow—a friend sent me a video of it—but I couldn’t justify it thematically. If Jenkins had been a Yankee it might have worked.

There’s a huge caveat with everything I’ve just said about cutting sections that were too tenuous, and it also applies to the issue of fact and fiction in the book. I took great delight in absurdity whenever I could. The best example is the section called “Intelligence” (p. 77-79). I implied there was a correlation between the performance of the Washington Senators and the coups enacted in Iran and Guatemala by Allen Dulles of the CIA, who was a Senators fan. Well, that’s absurd. I wrote it for the sheer fun of it, and because I wanted to gently mock quantitative approaches to making meaning. It’s tenuous, but it’s meant to be. The stats I quoted are true, but the implication is not. Does that make the passage fiction? I don’t think so.

Who's your favorite figure in the book? Why?

My favorite figure in the book is Billy Martin, and in fact through the research I did for the book Martin became one of my favorite characters from baseball history. Obviously he was a deeply flawed person who didn’t always do the right thing. But he was fully himself and fully human. And like George Brett, one of his enemies, Billy Martin was a fierce competitor.

There’s an anecdote from my own life involving Billy Martin that I completely forgot to write about for the book. In retrospect I can’t believe I forgot, because it would have fit perfectly with my larger themes. When I was about twelve years old, I was completely obsessed with collecting baseball cards. I was a ruthless little capitalist and tried to trade bad cards for good cards all the time. I would have made a good bond trader, if the New York banks had run out of bros and needed the services of a twelve year old boy from Kansas. One day, while at a friend’s house before soccer practice, we started talking about baseball cards. My friend was not a collector, but his dad had been. By this time every kid my age knew the legends of their dad’s baseball card collections being tossed into the trash by their mothers—all those Mickey Mantles lost to history. Well, my friend and I were standing in his bedroom when he mentioned that his dad’s cards had not only survived the fifties, they were in the room somewhere. I crawled under his bed and found a bunch of 1955 and 1956 Bowman and Topps baseball cards. The best of the lot was a 1956 Topps Mickey Mantle. That was the year he won the Triple Crown. The evil little capitalist in me took over and I tried everything to get those cards from my friend. I probably offered him a Ken Griffey Junior rookie card or something. Or even worse, a couple Bob Boones with bent corners. I don’t remember. In the end, the only card I could get from my friend was a 1956 Topps Billy Martin. It wasn’t worth much, and the backside had been destroyed by the glue his dad used to stick it into a scrapbook, but it was a relic or a link to that golden age. It wasn’t until later that I lost that capitalist drive and gained a richer understanding of Billy Martin. Since my book takes a decidedly leftist perspective, I would have loved to include this story as a way of implicating myself—I heard somewhere that deep within every socialist is a failed capitalist, and there might be some truth to that.

You mention some of your favorite baseball books in the "Extra Innings" section. Are there some favorite baseball books that you didn't mention, but can talk a bit about here?

I mostly avoided reading books about baseball while I was writing The Devil’s Snake Curve. I preferred the raw material, or slightly less polished material, that appeared in newspapers across the twentieth century. That said, there are several baseball books I enjoy now. My friend Tom Flynn (@mighty_flynn) introduced me to Ironweed by William Kennedy. It’s a novel about a washed up former baseball player who’s on the bum in Albany in the early twentieth century. I love that book. I also really enjoyed Will West, a novella by Paul Metcalf about a pitcher who walks away from baseball. The book can’t really be categorized, although it’s much more oriented toward narrative than Metcalf’s later work. I honestly can’t remember if I mentioned this in the back of The Devil’s Snake Curve, but A Fan’s Notes by Fred Exley is a novel I feel great kinship with, although it’s about football fandom rather than baseball. The phrase “A Fan’s Notes” that appears in the subtitle of my own book comes directly from Exley’s—I meant it as an homage. His novel is beautifully written and it’s about more than football, of course. It’s very different from my book, but what they have in common is a critique of the overall social system that uses sports as a launching pad.

One of the more poignant passages in the book is about your and your baseball-loving friends' disinclination to pay to attend baseball games anymore. Has this continued for you?

No—writing The Devil’s Snake Curve really was a kind of exorcism for me. For many years I found it impossible to enjoy professional baseball because of all the cultural and political garbage that came with it. I felt that the game’s meanings had gotten hijacked, but that nobody had noticed or cared even though the sport was being used in the service of warmongering, etc. But about the time I finished the book I became friends with a group of baseball fans who hang out at Grumpy’s Northeast in Minneapolis, and the combination of getting the critique out of my system through writing and just spending time with other fans led me to be able to appreciate the sport as just a game again. It’s been fun ever since. That doesn’t mean I don’t relate to that passage I included in The Devil’s Snake Curve or that it wasn’t true. Life is complex, people change, etc.

Another significant moment in the book is when you approach Bob Feller on the street in Cooperstown, following his lecture. Can you talk a bit more about the importance of that meeting for you?

Bob Feller joining the Navy following Pearl Harbor.
When I was a kid I read a book that mentioned when Babe Ruth made his final appearance at Yankee Stadium before he died, he needed a baseball bat to lean on as a cane. The bat he grabbed belonged to Bob Feller. I haven’t gone back to check if my memory is correct, but that connection between Feller and Ruth sparked something in me. When I shook Feller’s hand, it was a connection back to that period of baseball history that really captured my imagination as a young kid. But meeting him was meaningful for more reasons than that. The day I met him, he gave a talk at the Hall of Fame about his service in World War Two. I was, and still am, a severe critic of the second Iraq war and in many ways my perception of the U.S. has irrevocably changed as a result of the way that war started and was carried out. But even in the midst of that well-deserved cynicism, hearing Feller speak in person was a reminder that World War Two had been different. I can’t imagine having to participate in a battle, and I realize that makes me fortunate.

The book's a kind of secret history of the New York Yankees, a team you naturally loathed growing up a baseball fan in the Midwest. One of the book's main narratives describes your coming around to appreciating the Yankees historically, culturally, and as a fan of the game. What percentage breakdown of fandom would there be in you if the Yankee's and Kansas City Royals met up again in postseason series? Would you be a one-hundred percent Royals fan? Ninety-five percent? Fifty percent?

When the Yankees play the Royals I root for the Royals. What I wrote in my book was true—I came to appreciate their drive to win by studying a team I had long considered the enemy. And it’s true that I took pleasure in the Yankees beating the Royals during that period. But the Royals teams of the last couple years are the antithesis of the Yankee model of assembling a baseball team. The 2014 and 2015 Royals teams had lots of good players, but nobody that would be considered a superstar. They won because of things that cannot be quantified or distilled into a single player: team spirit and grit. If the Royals abandon that strategy and try to use the old Yankee model of buying superstars, I’ll care less about the Royals.

A Royals fan gives a Missouri-style Bronx Cheer
How has winning changed Josh Ostergaard? You put the book to bed the year before the Royals made it to the World Series. You mention at the end of the book that you'd found your way back to your beloved childhood team. How do you think the book would be different if you'd started writing it now, after the Royals' postseason successes?

I think it’s okay to hate your favorite team, but I’m biased because I wrote about it publicly. I’m still shocked that the Royals made the 2014 World Series, so there’s no way I can begin to process the fact they won it all in 2015. The games both years were so much fun to watch. I’ve never heard of a team that routinely entered the seventh inning down by three runs, and then routinely rallied to tie it in the ninth, and then routinely won in extra innings. But that’s what these teams did, over and over.
If I were still revising The Devil’s Snake Curve it’s an open question as to how winning would affect the book. After the Royals made the World Series in 2014 an old friend texted me and asked what it was like to have the central metaphor of my book destroyed by reality—he was referring to my use of baseball as a way to talk about capitalism, etc. After I punched his lights out I admitted there was some truth to his perspective. The Royals surprised me by winning. My criticism of David Glass was obviously shortsighted, and I never, ever, imagined the Royals would make the playoffs in 2014, much less the World Series. So if I could do it over, I would slightly temper my critique of the ownership, though I wouldn’t cut it from the book.

The bigger story, as I would write it now, is that despite being on the margins of the system and lacking a big star, the Royals had enough grit and spirit to win. I would love to be able to go back and do a little surgery on The Devil’s Snake Curve and write about grit and hustle and spirit. Because those traits fit perfectly with my overall project for the book—I wanted to celebrate the vitality of the animal within as opposed to “Webberized” domesticity and rational approaches to “winning.” That’s what the whole book was about. It’s as if the 2014-2015 Royals wrote the coda themselves, which is really fun.

Image of Billy Martin's 1965 card via PSA Card Facts.
Photo of Bob Feller via cbs.sports.