Sunday, February 28, 2016

"Inevitably, it was a self-portrait."

Blank Generation album original cover shot by Roberta Bayley
Richard Hell, from his absorbing autobiography I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp:
People still always ask me what the song “Blank Generation” means. If I trust them, I might tell them it was partly a joke, a joke that was meant to be understood by people compatible enough with me to get the joke, being that it was also a personal ad addressed to those “people compatible enough.” But it was also a description of a state of consciousness that came from having lived through what people my age had lived through: the Vietnam War, the inevitable failure of the flower children, the exposed corruption and venality of the politicians, the sleaziness of patriotism, the flood of drugs, and the overwhelming media data flow of the late sixties and early seventies. That had been numbing and alienating, but, yes, In wearing away all your illusions, it did leave you in a place where the option of remaking yourself from scratch did come to mind. But really the song was an evasion of explanation, as most all attempts to write something decent are. Inevitably it was a self-portrait, still. "I was saying let me out of here before I was even born," it began.

Photograph via I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp.

Friday, February 26, 2016

I Wanna Hear It on the Radio

My earliest memory of baseball on the radio is walking past my mom, barely glimpsed behind behind a mountain of white dress shirts, as she ran an iron in the laundry room. A week's worth of my dad's IBM-uniform shirts needed pressing, and through the periodic hissing of steam I'd hear the voice of Chuck Thompson, the longtime broadcaster of Baltimore Orioles games. (Ironing knowing no seasonal respite, I also have memories of her listening to Washington Bullets basketball games as she toiled away.) That stack of shirts steadily diminished as the game's late innings approached.

I've written before about another baseball radio memory from my adolescence:
In the summer of 1978 my dad, mom, and five siblings scrunched into our Ford Gran Torino station wagon and drove from suburban Washington D.C. to the small town of Coldwater in rural, far western Ohio, a trip we made annually to visit my mom's parents and her hometown. I loved cruising the Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes for nine or so hours, leaving suburbia behind, armed with a cache of Richie Rich and Archie comics and candy (and car sickness pills). I have an indelible memory from this particular trip: staring idly out the window as night came on, the radio tuned to the Cincinnati Reds game as Pete Rose tried to keep a hitting streak alive. My mom's dad was born and raised in western Ohio (he was mayor of Coldwater for a time) and was a staunch Reds fan. We'd often arrive after dark, and I remember seeing through the living room window my grandfather's silhouette as he stood up from his chair where he'd been sitting listening to the Reds game. I associate these mid-summer trips and damp, muggy Ohio with baseball, specifically Big Red Machine baseball: Rose's hustle, Johnny Bench's restaurant in Cincinnati with the giant hand-shaped bar chairs, George Foster's herculean homer

That summer, Rose's 44-game hitting streak—it began on June 14 in Cincinnati and ended on August 1 against Gene Garber and the Atlanta Braves—was epic to me, a striving for something that seemed impossible, mythically so. I didn't have a home team; my family pulled for the Baltimore Orioles by default, the Washington Senators having decamped for Texas in 1972, and so I mostly watched American League baseball, tuning in to snowy Channel 11 to catch the O's. When I wanted to watch National League ball—when I wanted to see Rose or Foster or Mike Schmidt or Steve Garvey or J.R. Richard—I had to wait for NBC's Saturday Game of the Week, the All-Star Game, or the playoffs. This scarcity made Rose's hitting streak for me all the more distant, other-worldly: I'd follow it in the Washington Post Sports section, mostly, maybe catch a highlight on local news at 10 or 11. And so as my family drove closer to south-western Ohio and my dad was able to tune in the game, Rose's streak became clearer to me, and not only in reception. This is happening now, I remember thinking. The top of my head came off as I gazed out the window at the dusk dark, the shapes of barns and grain silos against enormous corn fields silhouetted against an even bigger dark sky, as Rose took a fastball low, chopped a breaking pitch foul, the smell of gasoline and manure and the rhythmic hum of the two-lane roads in rural Ohio hypnotic, as I wondered where exactly Riverfront Stadium is as Rose looked at a ball low, and then drove the next pitch into center field. I pictured Rose holding his helmet tightly onto his bushy head as he rounded first. This was 1978: there was no Internet, satellite radio, or ESPN. The drama in my head was all I had, and it was everything. Roger Angell calls this "the interior game." I watched a baseball game last night, but my vision of Rose hitting in 1978 is just as vivid. Childhood: Pete Rose, baseball, a streak, farms, and the black Ohio night sky.
And about luckily tuning in to the car's satellite radio for the final inning of Mark Buehrle’s perfect game in 2009, when my wife and I were idle on that same Pennsylvania turnpike of my childhood:
Thirty years later, again on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, this time heading east, and Ame said, “Let’s try and tune in a game.” A button or two later and the White Sox, my team, come on, editorialized by a high-pitched ESPN announcer calling the three outs left for Mark Buehrle’s perfect game. As I'd imagined Rose’s swings, I imagined DeWayne Wise’s scaling of the center field wall to preserve Buehrle's perfect game. We were stuck in endless traffic, construction, single-lane purgatory. We yelled after the last out and I pounded the roof of the car. Who knew what the passing cars thought.
In recent years I've been listening to baseball games via MLB GameDay, which last year afforded me an old-school-style radio experience. Minutes before I was scheduled to teach my night class, I was glued to my office computer listening to the fifth game of the Toronto Blues Jays/Texas Rangers American League Division Series. With two out in the seventh inning, the Rangers' Rougned Odor scored the tying run from third after catcher Russell Martin's casual throw to reliever Aaron Sanchez deflected off the bat of elbow-pad-adjusting Shin-Soo Choo. Midway through the subsequent lengthy delay, as umpires, both teams, and thousands of fans debated, I had to head to class. About that game, Sports Illustrated's Jay Jaffe wrote, "Operas have been written about less." I crossed campus with my iPhone pressed to my ear, taking in the theatrical drama, a 21st Century stand-in for kid a half century earlier listening through the crackle of his transistor radio.

A few years ago I enjoyed a radio moment of the terrestrial sort, sitting in my car on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago waiting for Amy. I tuned to AM670 for the last inning of the White Sox game. It was early April, still chilly, and the Sox and the Seattle Mariners were knotted at three in the bottom of the 10th inning. Paul Konerko had lined out for the first out. The next batter, right fielder Dayan Viciedo, took a 2-0 pitch from Kameron Loe deep to left field to win the the game. Walk-offs are always thrilling, even in early season middling games, and this conclusion came in a flash, before I'd really acclimated myself to the situation, to the ebbs and flows of the game. It was out, it was over. Hearing Ed Farmer's excitable call brought me back to countless trivial and enormous baseball moments that I've enjoyed through antenna hiss or digital 1s and 0s. Clapping my hands in the car, grinning like an idiot, I was, in that instant, every age of fan I've ever been.


One undeniable drawback to listening to this game on the radio: I missed the team's 1980s throwback jerseys.

Image of vintage Mantle/Maris Stellar Radio via Regency Superior.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Baseball Doesn't Get Easier

Third baseman Matt Davidson was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009 in the first round—the 35th pick overall—before being traded to the Chicago White Sox in December of 2013. Playing for the AAA Charlotte Knights in 2014 and last season, Davidson made over a thousand plate appearances, but managed to hit only .199 and .203, respectively. He slugged forty three homers, but averaged a mid-.600s OPS, and last season struck out 191 times. As a top-level prospect, he's struggling.

This is hardly news. Major League baseball is littered with first-round players who failed to satisfy expectations. In a small piece in the Chicago Tribune, Davidson commented on his frustrations. "The White Sox want to produce at third base, and obviously I haven't been doing that," he said. "No hurt feelings. I would have [also traded for quality infielder Todd Frazier] if I was in their position."

After remarking that he hopes to learn from Frazier and to cut down on his strikeouts, Davidson added:
Putting the ball in play more, hitting my pitches when I get them. I fouled off a lot of pitches. I was really indecisive last year, trying to hit everything and worrying about every pitch. A lot of mental stuff that you can't do.
These precise words have been uttered by baffled players at every age; I'm struck by the common thread of frustration, humility, and veiled panic that you see in kids first playing ball right up through players in the Major Leagues. Baseball never seems to get much easier for the vast majority of players, even heralded first-round prospects who towered over their less-gifted peers in high school and college. The difficulty of playing baseball well is one of aspects of the game I most love—though it's easier to appreciate as a non-player on the outside looking in, even as it frustrates. Will Davidson produce consistently well for long enough to join a Major League team and stick? Who knows. The only guarantee is that if he does, he'll go through stretches where he mutters to himself the same exact things he did when he was in grade school, high school, college, the minors. Trudging back to the dugout after another infield pop-up or feeble strikeout, he'll look at his hitting coach and see, for a moment, the concerned face of dad.

Photo of Davidson via The Charlotte Observer.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

These Things Stay with a Kid

I picked up three packs of Topps 2016 baseball cards at Target yesterday. I do this every couple of years, to keep up, steeling myself against the sentimentality of nostalgia. As I flipped through the cards back home—a gesture that felt ageless—I frowned, as each generation does, at some of the recent noisy (read, different from what I remember) design changes and the lack of bubble gum, noted with surprise and pleasure the addition of OPS and WAR to the statistics on the back of the cards (which otherwise looked unchanged, though I sure miss the "fun facts" and accompanying cartoon images on my childhood cards), and randomly experienced two cheering, and one melancholy, shivers of recognition:

During last year's American League Division Series between the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers, Blue Jays right fielder José Bautista flipped his bat ("ostentatiously" as the New York Times saw it) after hitting a homer off of Sam Dyson. I will not re-open Bat Flip Gate here, only to remark that the above iconic image will become ingrained in many a boy and girl's memory because of the endless replays and commentary, sure, but also for the thrill of coming across Bautista's card in a pack. These things stay with a kid.

Ah yes, the sadly out-of-date card. The great (well, I'm a fan) Alexei Ramírez signed a contract with the San Diego Padres last month, ending his popular eight-year career with the Chicago White Sox and leaving Topps holding the bag. Oops. I remember this well as a kid, coming across the card of a player now suddenly with another team, whose exploits I might see only on This Week In Baseball on Saturday afternoons, his uniform oddly colorful, or not, relative to the card in my hand. There was something in these woeful cards that was sad to me, an inarticulated glimpse into the larger, complicated adult world of disappointment and futility that I couldn't then name. These things stay with a kid.

When I came across this card I exclaimed to my wife, "Ooh I got a Mike Trout!" Echoing in my head Ooh I get a Reggie Jackson, Ooh I got Mike Schmidt, Ooh I got a Nolan Ryan, Ooh I got a J.R. Richard! Silly, yeah. These things stay with a kid.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Freedom in the Villages: Ronald Sukenick's NYC

Early in his memoir Down and In: Life in the Underground (further sub-sub-titled, Bohemian to Hip to Beat to Rock and Punk: Mutiny in American Culture), writer and theorist Ronald Sukenick offers a clear-eyed and valuable definition, and defense, of The Underground. "Much of the attraction of the underground derives from the circumstance that it pursues the tiger of pleasure instead of yoking itself to the oxen of duty," he writes.
Before hurling the usual charge of irresponsible hedonism, it is a good idea to reflect that the sign of free people is that they are able to do things because they like Bohemians do what they feel like. Desire becomes a positive force rather than one to struggle with. For all of its negations of the status quo, the underground is finally based on affirmation. A few years ago a mass-media journal not only accused Jack Kerouac of being an anti-Semite, which he was, but also charged Allen Ginsberg with being one, which he isn’t. I called Ginsberg and urged him to write a denial, but he said that negation leads only to further negation. Several months later I happened to be sitting in a Polish restaurant in the East Village on Yom Kippur eve when Ginsberg, a dedicated Buddhist, came in wearing a dark suit, tie, and yarmulke, urgently wanting to know where he could find a temple. The meaning I take from this coincidental parable is that the positive force of desire is more compelling than the negativity of denial.
Sukenick's book is wroth tracking down for its wealth of anecdotes and details of mid- to late-mid-century Manhattan Bohemia, from White Horse Tavern to Max's Kansas City, Burroughs to Warhol—with many figures and places in between. The book's also cool for the map of the West and East Villages printed on its flyleaves. Perry Street to Avenue C, Sukenick's got you covered—but hit the streets armed with your imagination as well as the map, as Down and In was published in 1987, a lifetime of gentrification ago, and many of these sites, of course, are long gone.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Wright Morris on Childhood

"To the Reader," from Wright Morris's Will's Boy: A Memoir, published in 1981:
Few things are so wondrous as our assurance that we are each at the center of a cosmos. Nor does learning we are not long disturb us. In the early thralldom of this feeling we accumulate the indelible impressions we will ceaselessly ponder but never question, pebbles that we fondle in the mind’s secret pockets. One center and one only lies within us, as clearly perceived in a dream of Joseph, told by Thomas Mann.
                 For lo, the world hath many centers,
            one for each created being, and about
            each one it lieth in its own circle.

     Since first reading those words my mind has sought an image that is commensurate with my wonder. One I find congenial is that of a vast tranquil pond on which a light rain is falling. Each drop that falls is the center of a circle that is soon overlapped by other circles. The apparent obliteration of the circle does not eliminate the radiating vibrations. This image of endlessly renewed and expanding circles is my own ponderable cosmos.
     The first of my childhood impressions is that of lampglow and shadows on a low ceiling. But under my steadfast gaze it dissolves like tissue. It resists both fixing and enlargement. What I am left with is the ache of a nameless longing. On my child’s soul lampglow and shadows have left radiating circles that a lifetime drizzle of lapping and overlapping, have not washed away.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Better Call Saul Matters

The beginning of the end.

Jimmy McGill brings groceries and supplies back and forth from his car to his ill brother's darkened living room while Jesse Pinkman, a skinny, shiftless senior at J. P. Wynne High School, sits in Mr. White's 9 a.m. chemistry class; Mike Ehrmantraut talks stiffly with his daughter-in-law in her sparse backyard, both idly watching a small girl on a swing, as across town Gus Fring trains an employee at his new fast food chicken franchise, Los Pollos Hermanos; at his home, DEA agent Hank Schraeder snorts as he reads the story of McGill's inadvertent heroism rescuing a man from a billboard, then folds the Albuquerque Journal, his mind elsewhere....

At least, it's easy to believe such parallels. The attention to narrative detail is so richly exact in Vince Gilligan's and Peter Gould's southwestern United States that the pleasures of imagining Breaking Bad's characters' daily, uneventful lives as they might be occurring during scenes in Better Call Saul are deep and irresistible. Knowledge of their future colliding is a drama in itself. Like many Breaking Bad fanatics, I was somewhat doubtful about the prequel, which is set roughly six years before White's story begins. But concerns I had that the McGill character might not be dimensional enough to sustain a series or that Ehemantraut's intersecting with McGill might feel contrived vanished within the first several, patiently delivered episodes. Gilligan and company's unfolding of characters against a comfortingly familiar Albuquerque background is riveting in a different way than is the breathless Breaking Bad action: some of this has to do with our sobering foreknowledge of McGill's and Ehrmantraut's fates, of course, but most of it originates in the show's artful rendering of time and place, of motives and inevitable gestures enacted against a pitiless environment. I care about watching McGill and Ehrmantraut this season; a while back I wondered if I'd feel something at stake in this show. These characters move, consciously or distractedly but always vividly, between bleakness and fulfillment, and their truths seem utterly true.

I watch Better Call Saul as someone in the mid-1960s bought a 45 at Woolworth's solely for the Motown label—you had a good idea of what you were going to get, you bought into the delivery system of quality. In other words, I'm a fan. Still, I feel confident that the Better Call Saul brand, no matter how many seasons the show lasts, won't let me down. In a recent Reddit AMA, Gilligan confessed, "Without a doubt, my greatest fear was abject failure—and that is still my greatest fear. Seriously: I was afraid that [Better Call Saul] would go on the air and people wouldn’t like it, and—worse than that—people would say it sullied their memory of Breaking Bad." He needn't worry: he and Peter Gould and the men and women with whom they work are expert storytellers at the top of their game, with deep affection in and curiosity about their characters and the Big Sky/Low Ceiling environments in which they move; they also know the value of suspense, surprise, and sudden, random violence in the service of a good story, and that hiding desperation beneath humor is a fool's game. (In the Toronto Sun, Bill Harris does bring up a logical concern: "This is a prequel, and increasingly it'll be a challenge to keep the carry-over cast looking believably younger than they looked in Breaking Bad. Maybe we just have to let that go. But we can't have them looking so much older that it becomes a distraction.") Of course, I want Gus Fring to show up sometime this season—I want to know how Ehrmantraut became his main man. Of course, I want to see more of Tuco or The Cousins, as much as I fear them. Of course, I want to spot Hank Schreader in a brief walking cameo in the background in some bland municipal building. However Better Call Saul's stories unfold, they will unfold with the integrity and purposefulness of indelible narrative art.

Strangers no more.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Everything Approaching and then Disappearing: Virgina Woolf and the "great hall" of childhood

In April of 1939, seeking a break from the task of writing a biography of Roger Fry, Virginia Woolf embarked on a memoiristic essay titled "A Sketch of the Past." She worked on the piece for a year and a half, the last entry coming in November of 1940, some four months before her death. In the evocative essay, reprinted in Moments of Being, Woolf writes beautifully and memorably about love and grief, the difficulties of capturing the past in language, and of the differences between remembering and composing. In the process, she offers one of the descriptions of childhood:
Many bright colours; many distinct sounds; some human beings, caricatures; comic; several violent moments of being, always including a circle of the scene which they cut out: and all surrounded by a vast space—that is a rough visual description of childhood. This is how I shape it; and how I see myself as a child, roaming about, in that space of time which lasted from 1882 to 1895. A great hall I could liken it to; with windows letting in strange lights; and murmurs and spaces of deep silence. But somehow into that picture must be brought, too, the sense of movement and change. Nothing remained stable long. One must get the feeling of everything approaching and then disappearing, getting large, getting small, passing at different rates of speed past the little creature; one must get the feeling that made her press on, the little creature driven on as she was by growth of her legs and arms, driven without her being able to stop it, or to change it, driven as a plant is driven up out of the earth, up until the stalk grows, the leaf grows, buds swell. That is what is indescribable, that is what makes all images too static, for no sooner has one said this was so, than it was past and altered. How immense must be the force of life which turns a baby, who can just distinguish a great blot of blue and purple on a black background, into the child who thirteen years later can feel all that I felt on May 5th 1895—now almost exactly to a day, forty-four years ago—when my mother died.

This shows that among the innumerable things left out in my sketch I have left out the most important—those instincts, affections, passions, attachments—there is no single word for them, for they changed month by month—which bound me, I suppose, from the first moment of consciousness to other people. If it were true, as I said above, that the things that ceased in childhood, are easy to describe because they are complete, then it should be easy to say what I felt for my mother, who died when I was thirteen. Thus I should be able to see her completely undisturbed by later impressions, as I saw Mr Gibbs and G. B. Clarke. But the theory, though true of them, breaks down completely with her. It breaks down in a curious way, which I will explain, for perhaps it may help to explain why I find it now so curiously difficult to describe both my feeling for her, and her herself.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Fleshtones & Ken Fox, A.D. 1990

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. Below are the first photographs of Ken Fox playing with the Fleshtones. The occasion was the Mediterranean Rock Circus Festival on July 18, 1990 in Italy, where the band played before a large crowd in a soccer stadium, spending most of the time in the large field in an attempt to get closer to the cordoned-off crowd. (Fox had to get used to getting moving, on and off stage.) This xeroxed article first appeared in Corriere di Pordenone. The Paleolithic graininess of these photos is distressing but somehow appropriate, because when Fox joined the Fleshtones he plugged in to something eternal. When I saw the band at Stache's in Columbus, Ohio a year or so later, it looked like Fox had been playing with the band forever. It'll be a quarter century this summer. The "new guy" no more.

Here's a pretty typical headline from Fox's debut tour with the Fleshtones in northern Europe, this from Il Gazzettino on July 20, 1990:

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

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Ten Commandments of The Fleshtones: Star Hits, 1985

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 December of 1985 the Fleshtones appeared in Star Hits magazine, alongside Thompson Twins, Tears For Fears, A-Ha, Paul Young, ABC, et al. As unlikely as it is in retrospect to consider Super Rock sharing glossy pages with Top-40 New Romantics, here are the guys gamely posing for a promotional photograph. ("We've made a career out of baffling people," Peter Zaremba admits in the article.) The best bit is "The Ten Commandments of The Fleshtones," as proclaimed by the fellas, fearlessly uncool edicts for commercial radio in 1985 and all the more timeless for that:











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