Saturday, March 26, 2016

Minimum Estimate: 9,577 miles

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 the late 1990s the hardest working men in show business took a breather, peered into their collective wallet, and changed course, opting to target specific regions of the country and organize four- and five-day weekend shows rather than inexhaustibly barnstorm the country. Apart from when in Europe, where the band plays for weeks at a time, this is the Fleshtones' touring modus operandi into the 21st century.

Roughly a quarter century ago, things were much different, as this helpful map outlining the band's Spring 1993 U.S. tour indicates. (The map was created by Anne Tek, then married to Keith Streng.) Supported by their label, Ichiban, the Fleshtones drove nearly 10,000 miles testifying to Super Rock, 22 shows in 32 days. Such was the punishing schedule the Fleshtones tore through for many years.

The damage, beyond ringing ears and bruised livers:
Two shows cancelled by promoters (in Vancouver, Canada and Montgomery, Alabama).
Six of ten days off for diving-only.
One van breakdown.
No accidents.
Fun fact: between the New Mexico and Texas shows, the guys applied themselves to a diverting task assigned by old friend Billy Miller, who was assembling a tribute album to Sam the Sham and The Pharaohs for Norton Records. At a local record store they bought a copy of Pharaohization, the Rhino Records best-of for which Peter Zaremba had written liner notes years before, and quickly banged out an arrangement of “Medicine Man.” Ducking the high Tejas sun, they slipped into Michael Vasquez’s Sweat Box Studios in Austin and made with the abacadrabra. The result:

More Fleshtones 40th Anniversary archival materials here.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Meet You at Candy Ass?

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. Anne Tek—then married to Keith Streng—unearthed this gem in the early 1990s, a matchbook and postcard from Candy Ass, a pizza bar in the French Alps that was named after the Fleshtones' instrumental sleaze anthem from 1991's Powerstance!

The Jet-Set Fleshtones. Are they The Most Interesting Men in the World?

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

Thursday, March 24, 2016

In Between

The last paragraph of Joe Mackall's terrific memoir The Last Street Before Cleveland: An Accidental Pilgrimage:
When I think back on the last street before Cleveland, I want all of the old neighborhood, all of the confused, ignorant boys who are now men, all of these perpetually pubescent blue-collar boys who hated kneelers and loved spitting, to know that grappling with the unknowable should never end; that this life should always be a battle between what is and what could be, between here and there, spiritual and corporeal, past and future, and ultimately, unbelief and belief, all examined through the sweet, brief window of the in between.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Hey, White Sox: Throw Strikes

In an article on Chicago White Sox pitcher Carlos Rodon in the Chicago Tribune, Sox pitching coach Don Cooper—whose beloved Bronx-bred accent I can hear in print—succinctly laid out the goal for his number three starter: throw strikes.
Looking ahead, the Sox are trying to help the second-year pitcher get ahead in the count and ahead of his head.
"If we do that, we lessen walks," Cooper said. "If we lessen walks there will be more balls in play, more balls we can catch. There might be some hits involved, but the bottom line is if he can get ahead and get contact early. If they don't have contact early with the pitches he's got, he can be devastating."
So simple, and so often, so aggravatingly, ignored by pitchers. I write "ignored" from the perspective of the fan who last played a competitive baseball game when he was twelve; I know that Major League pitchers can throw strikes, and that when they fail to they're usually toying with batters by wasting pitches (ie, throwing balls) to upset a batter's timing, expectations, and instincts, to widen the plate. Yet Coop's argument is unassailable; everything comes from first strikes and getting ahead in counts: fewer walks; anxious, defense batters; fielders on their toes; less wear on pitcher's arms; quicker games; etc.. So simple, and yet I'll sit at home listening or watching, or I'll be at The Cell, frowning in my beer as another Sox pitcher issues a walk or a mammoth home run or a loud triple after going 2-0, 3-0.

Listen to Coop, throw strikes. We'll all have more fun.

"If we do that..."

Image of vintage catcher's mitt via Forbes. Image of Don Cooper via CBS Chicago.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Rowan Oak

Oxford, Mississippi, March 2016

Amy and I recently visited William Faulkner's former home in Oxford, Mississippi, exploring the house and the surrounding twenty-nine acres of Bailey's Woods. Owned, curated, and operated by the University of Mississippi, the house still retains a remarkably lived-in, domestic feel, despite the plastic dividers keeping us out of rooms and the many plaques and exhibits under glass on both floors. The young woman staffing the entry desk charmingly couldn't answer my question about the empty bottles on the front porch (see the photo below). "Sometimes people rummage around the woods and pick up trash and bottles and leave it on the front porch, like a keepsake," she told us. The house has that kind of casual, welcoming vibe; inside, one has the impression that Faulkner himself, or a family member, might appear from the kitchen or a bedroom upstairs. Visitors are encouraged to wander the grounds and woods, and once Amy and I walked into the woods just far enough that when we turned around we lost sight of the houses completely.
The iconic red cedar walkway leading to the house.

The library, where Faulkner wrote until he built a writing room at the rear of the house.

Map of old Oxford.

Modus operandi

Office and writing room upstairs, which Faulkner built after 1950. He wrote the outline to A Fable on the walls.

The kitchen, off-limits to visitors, but I leaned in to snap this picture.

Amy, peering into the kitchen from outside.

"A notorious binge drinker, Faulkner favored the inexpensive and readily available 'Four Roses Bourbon'."
Amy and I both agreed that sneaking in a bottle and drinking in the Bailey's Woods would be sublime. Many others had the idea, judging from the number of empties we saw strewn around.

An anonymous gift of bottles at the front door.

Old, old gnarled tree in foreground; servants quarters in background.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night...

Brooklyn, New York, 1992. Photo by Ann Arbor.
In advance of the Fleshtones' 40th anniversary this year, I've been thinking about the many places where I've seen the band play since 1983: Washington D.C.; College Park, MD; Baltimore, MD; New York, NY; Buffalo, NY; Hoboken, NJ; Jersey City, NJ; Detroit, MI; Chicago, IL; Berwyn, IL; Sycamore, IL; Columbus, OH; Cleveland, OH; Athens, OH; St Louis, MO; Austin, TX; Iowa City, IA; Green Bay, WI; Madison, WI; Mankato, MN; Minneapolis, MN; Chapel Hill, NC; and probably a few places I'm forgetting. Common to each show—from the Reagan Era to the Obama Era, from Friday nights to Tuesday nights, from 4-star hotels to 1-star Mom & Pop's to friends' and promoters' floors and couches, over countless thousands of miles in vans and on planes—has been the band's commitment to deliver a memorable, fun, spontaneous, and sweaty experience, whether in front of a packed house or a ragged handful.

Few Fleshtones songs capture the ups and downs of life in the World's Most Unusual Blues Band more graphically than Ken Fox's "I Want The Answers" from 2005's Beachhead (a song produced by Rick Miller, himself a road-tested testifier).

I wanna know why money doesn’t just fall down from the trees
I wanna know why fame doesn’t just blow in with the breeze
Why do the bad things feel so good
when the good things find another neighborhood?
Why does the upside always bring me down
while the downside finds me lifting off the ground?

Give me, c'mon and give me, just give me the proof
Give me, c'mon and give me, just give me the truth

'Cause I want the answers, just give me the answers,
I want the answers and I want ‘em right now

I wanna know why if I’m so good I didn’t die young
I wanna know why, maybe then I’d have me a Number One
Why does everybody wanna steal my act
and then I waste all these years, I’ll never get ‘em back
Why does everybody wanna bow at my feet
when I can’t earn enough just to make ends meet?

Friday, March 11, 2016

Against Closure

In her terrific essay "On Not Liking Sex," writer Nancy Mairs revisits an old essay she thought she'd finished, titled "On Not Liking Sex," and discovers that her earlier attitudes were sorely lacking. Near the end of the new piece she brings a skeptic's eye to narrative resolution, admitting that she craves it, but also recognizing its essential artificial demand: no more development. A hard thing to reign in, development, least of all of the personal sort. Life's just too messy:
I love closure. Especially in any kind of writing. l like to lie off the tale with some statement that sounds as though nothing further can he said. Never mind the Princess's hysterical weeping on the morning after her wedding night, her later infidelities, the first son's cleft palate, the Prince's untimely death during an ill-advised raid on a neighboring kingdom, the old King's driveling madness: They lived happily ever after, or, if the tale is a modern one like mine, unhappily ever after. But their development ceased. 
When does an essay end? she's also asking, and Why there? The sneaking, and sinking, suspicion I have when I read Mairs's essay is that there really are no endings to essays, only pauses—for deadline, dejection, frustration, faux triumph, boredom. Life demands that we turn elsewhere, finally, and that's a good thing. But eventually we depress the pause button and resume, usually fooling ourselves into believing that that last period had been the ending of something, when it might've been the beginning. As I've said elsewhere, writing an essay can feel like building a house without advance blueprints: rooms keep popping up; doors multiply; acreage expands; basements deepen; attics soar. If we don't stop at some point, the whole structure will come crashing down of its own indulgent weight. That's a good enough place to stop as any, I guess.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Fleshtones, Le Palace, 1982

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. I was stoked to find online this ticket stub to one of the more celebrated Fleshtones shows, a Paris gig that those who were in attendance still talk about.

By April of 1982, a few months after the release of Roman Gods, the band had endured diminishing returns on the radio and a miserable slog through Britain, playing shows in front of hostile crowds, when they arrived in Paris for the tour's final gig.

Here are some excerpts from Sweat:
Even the warm and welcoming weather couldn’t prepare the band for the show that evening at Le Palace. The buzz from the “Radio Party” show had only increased in Paris in the year and a half since its broadcast, Roman Gods was selling well, and Parisian fans and certain critics were very interested in seeing this wild New York City band.... The Palace show was promoted well and filmed for the weekly television show Les Enfants du Rock (the performance still shows up occasionally on French and Canadian television). Popular French band The Dogs opened the show to a rocking and primed audience, and just before nine The Fleshtones hit the stage—utterly shocked to find the venue sold-out with over a thousand fans stomping and yelling for them. “We had just come from England where we had five people who’d rather piss on us than care if we were in front of their club, or dead in it,” Keith says. “We walked in on something at Le Palace that we weren’t expecting.”

l-r: Marek Pakulski, Keith Streng, Peter Zaremba, Gordon Spaeth
Duly launched by ringmaster Zaremba, Gordon was the first band member to hit the stage in the group’s stylish entrance. At the time Gordon was opening each show with the theme from an old TV show called The Defenders. “It was a very pretty, moving piece,” Gordon remembers. “I make it to the stage, play the opening theme, and within five seconds I know that this was not any normal crowd. By the third song we had them in the palm of our hands. By the fifth song, we weren’t scared, but we realized that if we were to pursue it any further we could've caused a riot. We almost did.” Keith remembers the chaos and thrill of the show’s opening. “When we started the show we went through the audience, which kind of amazed them because this wasn’t a small club, this was a sold-out theater. Entering through the crowd was something that struck us that night because of the situation. The audience, of course, never saw that before. I’ll never forget that I got up close to the stage and the bouncers didn’t know that we were the band! I’m trying to tell them in English, ‘I’m in the band, I’m supposed to play!’”


After several delirious encores the band was finished, or so they thought. Gordon remembers the near-Messianic mood at the show’s culmination: “When we left the stage, I stood upstage and saw Peter Zaremba—God’s truth—being carried aloft, his feet never touching the ground from the stage to about three hundred feet back.” Seized by the building’ exalted vibe, the sweaty stamping and cheering, and the mood generated by the hour-long rock & roll party, The Fleshtones inaugurated a soon-to-be trademark gesture: they leapt from the stage as one, and, singing and chanting down the long corridor that led to the front entrance, took their orgy out through the doors and into the streets. The five sweating guys from Queens had become pied pipers in paisley shirts.

“Hundreds of people followed us out onto the street, while we’re still playing,” Keith remembers. “We’re just picking up whatever we could find, singing whatever R&B tunes we knew a capella, and the audience is joining in, they’re all around us.” The police were summoned and stopped traffic in front of the club. Bill: “The traffic couldn’t do anything. The police came, mostly just observing and trying to get a handle on what it was, holding back traffic, making sure nobody got killed!” Peter recalls, “There were a bunch of gendarmes lining the street with submachine guns, holding the crowd back. As we approached them, we said, ‘Peace, baby,’ and marched through them and took over the whole intersection.” The bacchanalian drift out into the streets was wholly spontaneous, as Marek remembers. “I don’t think we were going out of the building a lot; later that became a signature thing to do, to get down in the audience. I don’t know where it first started, that may have been it. I think Peter was definitely thinking, This is some crowning moment, and how can we pay homage to that, what can we bring to it? This is such an amazing thing that The Fleshtones have come to France and the fans were rabid!”


The crowd eventually followed The Fleshtones back inside the venue, and after the show dissolved, the band was treated by C.B.S. to a late dinner at Chez Gus on the rue Montmartre, escorted to the restaurant personally by the Hells Angels of France. The guys were buzzing, the toast of Paris. “You must see it to believe it,” an epileptic reviewer wrote the next month in Rock ‘n’ Folk, a Paris fanzine. “I’m talking about The Fleshtones on stage. A rock ‘n’ roll American raid.... I can declare this, in a bombastic excess of advertising generosity: The Fleshtones live cannot be related!... It’s not a stage anymore, it’s a nuclear power station.... They came, we saw, they conquered."
Here are two clips from Les Enfants du Rock—"Shadow Line," "All Around The World," "Cold, Cold Shoes," and "Ride Your Pony"—that indicate just how raucous and fun the show was. If only someone had thought to drag the video cameras outsides on the street afterward.

Le Palace as it looked last June:

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

Ticket stub and performance photos via Play It Loud !!!! Le rock'n'roll, c'est fait pour la scène...
Palace images via Googe Maps.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Six Books that Changed My Life

I first cracked open this tale of a 1947 raft journey across the Pacific Ocean by Norwegian daredevil Thor Heyerdahal either in the school library at Saint Andrew the Apostle, or at home in the basement. This book was the first to open my eyes to an exotic world beyond the Washington D.C. suburbs (planting in me the seed for a Polynesia obsession that would bloom many years later) and the accompanying action-packed, treated photographs were thrilling. I learned about scarifying sea storms and whales and plankton and other bright green marine life you could scoop from the hundreds of miles of diamond-blue water around you and eat for nutrition. Head-lifting, other-side-of-the-world stuff. Heyerdahal evoked the solitude and reflection of the voyage well, too, and those issues were beginning to matter to me.

I could've easily slotted a Beverly Cleary Henry Huggins book in this spot, a kid whose cool nonchalance I worshiped. (I loved Encyclopedia Brown, too, but he seems a little smug to me now, born to the purple!) But something about Robert McCloskey's Homer Price got into me and stayed, too. I read this book countless times. Homer showed me that it was OK to be happy when you're alone, whistling as you walk, working on your radio, befriending your imagination. If you're patient, all kinds of amazing things might happen around you, not the least excess donuts, a skunk for a friend, and, in a story that I really responded to, an actor playing a movie superhero who in the course of a sorry evening teaches Homer a thing or two about adulation and inevitable disappointment—you know, adult stuff. Just like Homer, I lived on Rt. 56 (in Ohio) for a while. As Kon-Tiki evoked the South Pacific, so did Homer Price evoke Centerburg, the kind of rural small town in which I think that—no, I know that—I secretly wished I'd been raised.

The first book where the top of my head came off when I read it, and the first book to show me the power of arranging words and sentences in such a way that the reader can feel as if the world's been presented new again. I left his aesthetic behind long ago, but I'll always be in debt to Eliot for being the first writer to teach me a foreign language.

I've read many Beatles books that blew me away because the author articulates something that I've heard in the music. too, but didn't know how to say. Mark Lewisohn's amazing book virtually opened the doors to a world that music fans had only guessed about. Before easy access to studio outtakes and chatter via file sharing and YouTube, Lewisohn allowed me to be the fly on the wall in Abbey Road Studios during the making of every Beatles song, first exuberant take to fitful last, utterly and profoundly affecting the way I think about and hear the songs now. My wife has a fond (I hope) memory of visiting me at my apartment during our early days in the early 90's; I was eating spaghetti at the kitchen table with this book and Lewisohn's The Beatles Day By Day diary book, furiously cross-referencing in full on Geek Mode.

Really, any Roger Angell book could've made this list. He's the greatest living writer about baseball, and he fundamentally affected my way of thinking not only about the game but about how to write about it. Late Innings is my particular favorite as it covers the chaotic New Yankees teams of the mid- and late-1970s, the era during which I permanently fell in love with the game.

Music as living, living as writing. (More on Bangs here.)

Homer Price via 70s Sci-Fi Art

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Richard Hell and Rock & Roll, Ctd.

The most interesting passages in Richard Hell's memoir in I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp come as Hell pushes up against the limits of language to describe rock and roll. (His writing about the seduction, bliss, and brutality of heroin addiction is also very strong, among the best I've encountered about the personal politics of drug addiction. Hell got out.) Embedded among his startlingly-clear memories of early jobs, early girls, and early drug use are scenes where his first band Television (metamorphosed from the Neon Boys) rehearses its early songs. "The power and beauty of it was unimaginable until then," Hell writes, still marveling decades later. "It can't be overstated, that initial rush of realizing, of experiencing, what's possible as you’re standing there in the rehearsal room with your guitars and the mikes turned on and when you make a move this physical information comes pouring out and you can do or say anything with it."

Maybe recognizing that that description is lacking, he pushes on:
It was like having magic powers. The ability to create action at a distance. The sounds that came from the amplifiers were absurdly moving and strange, the variety of them so wide in view of the fact that they came from flicks of our fingers and from our vocal noises, and the way that it was a single thing, an entity, that was produced by the simultaneous reactive interplay of the four band members combining various of their faculties. We were turned into a sound a flow of sound. I remember having a weird moment of weird revelation once, that each moment of a phonograph record being played, each millimeter of information conveyed via the needle to the amplifier to the speaker to the ear, is one sound. A whole orchestra is one sound, altering moment by moment, no matter how many instruments go into producing it. And, as our band rehearsed, on each moment we made the sound spray out in arrays we could instantly alter, emanating from inside us and out interplay and our inner beings combined, playing. And the sound included words.
Now the frustration sets in:
All through this book I've had to search for different ways to say “thrill,” “exhilaration,” “ecstatic” to communicate particular experiences. Maybe the most extreme example of this class of moment is what I’m trying to describe here. What it felt like to first be creating electrically amplified songs. It was like being born. It was everything one wants from so-called God. The joy of it, the instant inherent awareness that you could go anywhere you wanted with it and everywhere was fascinatingly new and ridiculously effective. It was like making emotion and thought physical, to be undergone apart from oneself.

That's theory filtered through remembered bliss and mind-expanding drug use, and bit over-blown. Trying to describe: it's hard work. A few pages later, his head seemingly cleared, Hell delivers a far more promising description of the power of rock and roll and its origins. Recalling a Television gig that co-founder Tom Verlaine was unhappy with, Hell writes, "It's true that the band sounded ragged [that night]."
But this was something that had also been said of the early gigs (and often the later ones) of the New York Dolls and the Stooges and the Velvet Underground. It was something that I positively liked in a band. It’s true of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street sessions too, or on some of their early singles, like “Who’s Driving Your Plane?” or “l9th Nervous Breakdown.” Another band whose sound I’d always loved was Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, especially on a track like “Going to a Go-Go,” which sounds like it was recorded in an alley, the band banging on cardboard boxes and garbage cans. I love a racket. I love it when it seems like a group is slipping in and out of phase, when something lags and then slides into a pocket, like hitting the number on a roulette wheel, a clatter, like the sound of the Johnny Burnette Trio, like galloping horses' hooves. It’s like a baby learning to walk, or a little bird just barely avoiding a crash to the dirt, or two kids losing their virginity. It's awkward but it's riveting, and uplifting and funny. In a way it's the aural representation of that feeling that makes the first time people feel the possibilities of rock and roll music in themselves the benchmark of hope and freedom and euphoria.
And then a bit later, after considering Dee Dee Ramone's potent appeal as a young man in the mid-1970s, Hell really nails it:
Rock and roll is the only art form at which teenagers are not only capable of excelling but that actually requires that one be a teenager, more or less, to practice it at all. This is the way that “punk” uniquely embodies rock and roll. It explicitly asserts and demonstrates that the music is not about virtuosity. Rock and roll is about natural grace, about style and instinct. Also the inherent physical beauty of youth. You don't have to play guitar well or, by any conventional standard, sing well to make great rock and roll; you just have to have it, have be able to recognize it, have to get it. And half of that is about simply being young, meaning full of crazed sex drive and sensitivity to the object of romantic and sexual desire, and full of anger about being condescended to by adults, and disgust and anger about all the lies you're being fed, and all the control you've been subjected to, by those complacent adults. And a deep desire for some fun. And though rock and roll is about being cool, you don’t have to be cool to make real rock and roll—sometimes the most innocuous and pathetic fumblers only become graced by the way they shine in songs. And this is half of what makes the music the art of adolescence—that it doesn’t require any verifiable skill. It’s all essence, and it’s available to those who, to all appearances, have nothing.
That's about as good a definition of rock and roll I've read for some time.