Sunday, July 31, 2016

Lust, Jealousy, and Detachment

One of the more startling songs on Godless America, the legendary Crypt compilation of "Country & Western for all ye Sinners 'n' Suffers" released in 1995 (or thereabouts), is Sanford Clark's "It's Nothing To Me," misattributed on the album to Harry Johnson. Six years ago over at Dreamtime, Fred Bals recounted the history of this bizarre song, contributing a much-needed corrective to the wrongs predictably perpetrated against obscure singles down the years. Bals's post traces "It's Nothing To Me" from the pen of the great Leon Payne (writing under the pseudonym Pat Patterson) through its many recordings and arrangements through the 1950s and 1960s (Lee Hazlewood, The Coasters[!]), simultaneously telling the bittersweet story of Clark himself, one in a long Nashville line who never managed That Next Big Hit beyond his debut, in this case "The Fool," written by Hazlewood, a single that reached 7 on the Billboard Top 100 in 1956.

The story of "It's Nothing To Me," released in 1966 on the Phoenix-based Ramco label, is, as is the case with most long-lost, here-and-gone 45s, worth reading. As for the song itself, it chills, at the strange line that divides earnestness and kitsch. The scene: a bar, probably a dive. The singer narrates his side of a conversation with a guy, undoubtedly in the cups, who's trying to talk to a woman at the other end of the bar. The problem? The third guy, who's eyeing up the second guy with a jealous, murderous gaze. In the first two verses, the narrator tries to talk some sense into his friend at the bar, urging him to avoid the woman, and thus the man, but to no avail, as loud gunshots precede the third verse, wherein the narrator, audibly shaking his head sadly, speaks now at a man bleeding out on the bar floor, soon to die. The gunshot sound effects are straight out of B-movie, as is, frankly, the well-worn love triangle story, but Clark delivers his lines with a worldly bloodlessness that's poised somewhere between sympathy and cynicism. The moral: shut up and drink, or, we live in a hopeless world. Either one works. Though the song doesn't quite transcend its lurid, kitschy hysteria, Clark's performance is pretty wild, just below mannered, starkly dramatizing tavern ethos, the place where adult men and women go to drink to forget, forgetting that there isn't enough booze in the world to dampen lust, jealousy, and in the case of the singer, cool detachment.

Leon Payne was no stranger to the dark underside of human compulsions. Though he's famous for writing the great "I Love You Because," sung by Elvis and many others, he's infamous for writing "Pyscho," a grisly murder ballad sung from the point of view of a serial killer, sung by the more recent Elvis, among others. "It's Nothing To Me," then, with its low-light drama, dreadful circumstances, and uncomfortable pov, is vintage Payne. He knew a thing or two about weakness, especially that issuing from a bottle, and no lesser an interpreter than the iconic, peerless George Jones recorded a full album of Payne's songs, which I wrote about here.

Sanford Clark

Leon Payne

If you're into weirdness and darkness in country music, I heartily recommend Godless America. A couple of years ago I wrote an essay for The Normal School about that album's "Please Don't Go Topless, Mother" by the child singer Troy Hess. 

Top image via American Bars
Image of Sanford Clark via Phoenix New Times
Image of Leon Payne via Tinymixtapes

Friday, July 29, 2016

Ears and Heart

Ian MacDonald
The world lost a terrific, idiosyncratic, and wise music writer when Ian MacDonald committed suicide in 2003. I was introduced to MacDonald by his powerfully persuasive Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the 1960s, among the greatest books of Beatles criticism. The book has many detractors—some roll their eyes at MacDonald's over-confidence and overly subjective approach; others (including Paul McCartney) have cited errors in his musical analysis and a presumption on the author's part to know more than he can about the members' private motives. Be that as it may, on the level of the sentence alone, Revolution in the Head has few competitors among Beatles criticism. Elegant and sophisticated, MacDonald's prose feels finally like earthy, highly articulate conversation, issuing from a smart guy eager to communicate and engage, not to dazzle and lecture. His writing is highly figurative, employing eye-opening, effective metaphors in virtually every other sentence, and his ability to characterize the songs' moods startles me every time I read the book, which is often. He's especially perceptive on the aesthetic and psychological differences among Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison, and how those differences are reflected not only lyrically but musically.

Above all, MacDonald cared deeply about popular music (and classical and the plastic arts, too, under different hats), and understood intuitively that music has scored the lives of millions and is freighted with personal and cultural value. That affection and seriousness of purpose are born out in The People's Music, published just prior to his death, a book that took me far too long to get to. A miscellany, collecting pieces that MacDnald wrote about mostly 1960s and 70s pop, rock, and R&B musicians and bands for Mojo, Uncut, and Arena, and other U.K. magazines, The People's Music showcases MacDonald's wide-ranging knowledge and taste and his personal style. He's beholden to magazine journalism's economy of space, and so doesn't stretch out as he does in Revolution in the Head, to amazing results, but, forced to three or so pages, as many of these pieces run, he's cogent and focused. (The exception here is "Wild Mercury: A Tale of Two Dylans," a lengthy, fantastic essay on Dylan's interior demons and conflicts, and an equally great and ambitious piece on Nick Drake.) And MacDonald never loses his voice, and he's never afraid to lead with acute, sometimes devastating observations, as in this, on late Cream:
The rest, while undeniably passionate and crushingly powerful, is aesthetically grotesque: a blazing blue furnace of crude banality blown into megalomania by a zillion watts of electricity.
Or this, on Pink Floyd's post-Syd Barrett music:
...a uniquely stately basic tempo in which melody lines adopted a characteristic wave-like uniformity and chord changes became almost effortful events. 
Whether you agree with his arguments or not, MacDonald doesn't care; he trusts his ears and his heart and his grasp of historical context. His forthright critical reconsideration of Marvin Gaye's vexed and ultimately tragic career is characteristically part affection, respect, and frank disappointment:
Without delving into deep waters, it seems likely that Marvin's problems boiled down to what medieval divines once condemned as the sin of acedia, or spiritual boredom. His restlessness, even when it led to drug-frazzled rages, was basically inert, characterised by drift. In his recent biography, Trouble Man, Steve Turner suggests that Gaye manoeuvred his father into killing him — one of the most deviously passive methods of suicide ever contrived. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the same passivity mars much of his music. What other artist, after all, spawned so many half-finished or abandoned projects?
Gaye's break came with 1971's What's Going On, a record which, while piously elected to the upper echelons of every top 100 albums list, is nevertheless pervaded by an underlying torpor more obvious in his later work. The sound and structure are undeniably original, if samey and repetitious; his ‘political’ lyrics, on the other hand, are trite and often mushily wishful. What's Going On offers as many vague gestures as flashes of talent, its classic moments failing to disguise that Gaye, while gifted, was mainly extemporising off the musical initiatives of his collaborators.

A basic lack of commitment left Marvin susceptible to sentimental dishonesty. His assertion, on the title track of Let's Get It On, that ‘we're all sensitive people’ is true to the extent that few of us are completely impermeable, but risible if taken to mean that we're all equally perceptive and caring about each other. An observant man capable of watching himself washed to and fro by his conflicting desires, Gaye must at heart have been aware of the emptiness of such stuff....
Marvin Gaye was a beguiling voice worth hearing even when spinning vocal and lyric clichés or effectively singing about nothing at all — which covers a large tranche of his career. The supine coke-fuck aesthetic that governs much of his work will strike future listeners as decadent or prophetic, depending on how history proceeds. More certain is that the lushly listless drift of posthumous issues like 'Walkin' In The Rain’ and ‘Just Like’ accurately represents their creator's inner world, wherein ecstasy, melancholy, and ennui were twined in troubled complicity.
His takes on Lennon and McCartney, the Stones, Chic, the Supremes, Randy Newman, Laura Nyro, the Beach Boys, Lenny Bruce, Love, Simon and Garfunkel, Miles Davis, and many others are equally candid, concise, smart, and stylish (if, admittedly, not always blazing ground that others haven't covered). There is throughout MacDonald's work the idea that it's been all downhill, culturally and artistically speaking, since the 1960s, that we live in the 21st Century in a soulless, anti-spiritual, materialist, soul-murdering, metronomic sheen of shallow posing, and at times this worldview, which couldn't have been softened by MacDonald's ongoing clinical depression, leads to rather large generalizing on his part. To wit: "In today's pleasure-seeking world, introspection holds no appeal and the sixties' focus on innerness is ignored or derided as a cover for nineties-style chemical hedonism. The truth was otherwise in 1965-9." The title essay is especially crabby; among other complaints, he asserts that no contemporary artists are worthy of biographies the way their mid-century predecessors were! But such overstatement issues from the deep care that MacDonald took in writing truthfully, as he saw it. His sincerity and fierce intelligence suggests that he may have been a prophet of sorts, with whom the rest of will have to catch up. If you care about thoughtful and passionate takes on culture, pop music and rock and roll, and love great sentences that hum with conviction and authority, I recommend you read some Ian MacDonald. He left us way too soon.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Super Rock in Jersey City

l-r, Ken Fox, Peter Zaremba, Keith Streng

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—The Fleshtones' performance in Jersey City, New Jersey proved once again that this band of veterans knows how to pace themselves—over four decades, that is. Playing in front of a full house at WFMU's Monty Hall, a small, square room with great sound and incongruous carpeting, the Fleshtones knocked out a rockin' fifty minute set with style and humor, an old blend that works so well because the guys love each other and what they do. Though they live far distances from each other—they move within an axis of Brooklyn, Beacon, and Troy, New York—they play with the verve of a young band banging out a song they learned that day, charmingly disguising well-worn showmanship and rhythmic tightness forged over decades. (Bassist Ken Fox, once the New Kid, has been in the band for over a quarter century.) This isn't 1985, of course: Keith Streng, clean and semi-sober since the late 1990s, confessed to me that he crashed for a nap in the band's van before the show; and the only pharmaceuticals coursing through this once coke- and speed-fueled band would've been antihistamines. But Peter Zaremba, Streng, Fox, and Bill Milhizer have each been blessed with Herculean native energy, on which ample supply they drew for this sweaty, fun show, and the Fleshtones' true legendary status issues as much from the energy in last week's show as in the ones they played back when Reagan was president. Viva Super Rock.
Bill Milhizer

Monty Hall, a small, boxy joint on Montgomery Avenue, blocks from the Hudson River waterfront and a knock-out view of lower Manhattan, is a blessedly lo-fi affair, the state-of-the-art live video streaming on monitors dragged back to divey respectability by the cans of cold-ish beer plucked from a picnic cooler by the front door. I'm a fan of the place.

Of the opening bands, I was especially happy to see the great and timeless Paul Collins again. I caught him two years ago in Berwyn, Illinois, and though he's got a new crew of kids behind him, his songs sounded as effortlessly spirited as ever. Collins gives the impression, especially at the merch table while peering through his readers, of your cool uncle, wide around the middle and full of great R&R stories. He was his genial self onstage, laid back before detonating beautiful, desperate songs, old and new, powered by his Rickenbacker which somehow both rings and slashes. He's a local— "I love playing this place because I can get on the PATH and I'm here in twelve minutes!" he crowed—and vibed off of the crowd's goodwill, at one point genuinely besotted with a fan's vintage Paul Collins Beat t-shirt. I recognized his new bass player, the diminutive Joi La, who I last saw a few years ago at the Bowery Electric ably holding down the low end in Eric Davidson's fierce band LIVIDS; she gave the impression then of holding down the corner of a large tent about to blow away in a mammoth summer storm. She's great onstage; she obviously loves Collins's songs and plays with confidence and enthusiasm. She looks a bit like a Soho art gallery intern, especially when her hair's pinned up against the venue's heat, but one look below at the hot pants, tights, and pointy heels reveals the flip side of her record collection. See Paul Collins if you haven't yet, in a joint like Monty Hall all the better. His is eternal rock and roll that's best heard and seen close up in sweaty quarters.
Paul Collins Beat

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Some thoughts on Cooperstown

I visited the Baseball Hall of Fame last week for the first time. I was there ostensibly to work (I was researching Roger Angell's papers in the Bart Giamati Research Center, in the Hall library) but of course I was thrilled to explore the exhibitions on my off hours. But I did so skeptically and with a deep fear of sentimentality—or what the anti-nostalgic Angell himself calls "goo." I discovered that the Hall's physical modesty is its virtue. Because the building housing the Hall is relatively small (history here) there's little room for bombast and for overdoing things. Yes, I cringed at the phrase "Sacred Ground" at the so-named exhibit of ballparks, on the third floor, being able to conjure any number of genuine sacred grounds, spiritual or otherwise, and the central Hall of Fame Gallery is sacramentally back-lit with natural light (a boy to his father, overheard: "Dad, this is like church." The lad wasn't pleased). But overall, the Hall exudes a pleasantly. and surprisingly, lo-fi vibe, as if, hysterical as it is to imagine, the site was hurting for funds. To me, the impression is more of a museum on a fine college campus than an official institution devoted to a $36 billion industry.

This reserve is due in no small part to the anti-sprawl unique to tiny Cooperstown, population 1,852. One afternoon in Cooley's, a bar on Pioneer Street, a few rabid regulars regaled me of Jane Forbes Clark's gobbling up of nearby properties in town, and in the course of the conversation Clark, granddaughter of Hall founder Stephen Carlton Clark and current chairman of the Board of Directors, took on the role of hero-villain.
          "She's a trip," one young woman said, laughing loudly.
          "Well...," the old-timer next to her murmured doubtfully, staring into his beer.

Yet, the village of Cooperstown is pretty much set; it's not going to get any bigger, bordered by modest homes in neighborhoods to the west, south, and east, and tranquil Otsego Lake to the north, and this tucked-into-the-mountains feel is both cozy and a happy guard against civic overreach, a kind of Natural conservatism, apt for a conservative game. The Hall itself has grown over the decades, of course, but barring a Manhattan-style vertical leap, it's unlikely that it will get much larger than it is, and so we have a quaint red-brick building—a nice reflection of the several blocks of low-slung, low-key storefronts along Main—the modest size of which I wasn't quite prepared for when I saw it for the first time, despite the hundreds of images of it I've seen. Inside in the main hall, I gawked at several plaques and, upstairs, dug seeing Mantle's bat, Nolan Ryan's no-hitter hats, and Yogi's glove, a fireworks pinwheel from old Comiskey Park, a rescued metal turnstile form the old Polo Grounds, a cornerstone from Ebbett's Field, a gallery devoted to fabulous baseball photographs, the digitally-generated aerial fly-through of long-gone ballparks, the many video screens highlighting epochal plays and moments, and all the rest, but rarely did the hall feel to me overly-gushy or golden-tinted, especially while encountering thoughtful, candid, and well-stocked exhibits dedicated to the history of African Americans, Latinos, and women in the game ("Pride and Passion," "¡Viva baseball!," and "Diamond Dreams," respectively) and, surprisingly, the frank acknowledgement of the game's business woes and recent PED scandals. And yes, there is an interactive kiosk regarding Pete Rose's banishment from the Hall. Plenty of unexpected sunlight on the game's more troubling aspects.

Hall of Fame Gallery

The Big Hurt's plaque, the first I headed to.

Johnny Podres rears back...

...and lets it fly (to Roy Campanella). Sculpture Garden.

Manual standings board. Main Street.

Luckily, Chris Sale couldn't get to this one.

"Exploding scoreboard" pinwheel from old Comiskey Park.

Cornerstone, rescued in 1960.

Polo Grounds turnstile

An even greater surprise to me was Doubleday Field a few blocks from the hall, tucked off of the side of Main, another opportunity for Field of Dreams, "Hallowed Ground"-style schmaltz that the Hall and town have happily avoided. The field, built in 1920 and renovated a couple times since, is gorgeously cozy and laid-back, and not a little dumpy. One's free to wander in and out. Long, paint-peeling wooden benches, a white church steeple poking up beyond the left field wall, weeds growing through the metal bleachers: heaven. One the day of my first visit, a local Cooperstown team of kids was playing a team from Massachusetts, a smattering of fans, mostly families, out to see. The next day, the place was empty, and I sat and talked to my wife on the phone and watched idly as preparations were being made for that weekend's Induction Ceremonies (which, I acknowledge, I was glad to miss—where does everyone fit in this tiny hamlet?). The humility of Doubleday Field is a nice complement to the Hall itself, and keeps things in perspective, easy to savor watching a field full of kids play ball in a nearly-century old park. Out in the far center field bleachers, a couple of shambling kids had hopped the admission gates and sat watching in the sun, a blissed-out silhouette borrowed from any decade.

The Hall's self-proclaimed mission is to preserve history, honor excellence, and connect generations. I won't use this space to weigh in on the Hall's myriad voting issues—we have the great Jay Jaffe, among others, for those debates—but on the first and last score, the Hall's doing a terrific job. During my visit, I found it virtually impossible to believe that baseball is suffering from dwindling interest among kids. In Cooperstown, kids are everywhere, their enthusiasm and energy matched in the faces, if not in the thicker, road-weary bodies, of their parents. (One amusing thing I noticed was the bright-eyed, slack-jawed look on just about every man, and many women, there; those seeing the Hall for the first time couldn't wipe the childlike looks of joy off their faces; I'm sure I looked the same.) Yes, the Hall of Fame is a self-selecting and small sample size, but if my three-day visit was any indication, there are many, many boys and girls who will stick around the game for years to come. Not every visit was so pleasant. In the middle of Sal's, a pizza place on Main, a boy clutching a newly-bought bat was fighting back tears as his parents and some kind strangers murmured their support. He hadn't played well that day, or anyway his team lost. Cheers of "Get 'em tomorrow, kid!" didn't seem to help much—it never does—and the kid trudged out behind his family, his head down, sniffling. Tough stuff, and timeless.


Unsurprisingly, my visit to the Hall inspired by own fight against sentimentality:
Ultimately the richness and funky pleasures of the game and its crazy, fascinating history outweigh any excess earnestness, for me, anyway. Each minute I was at the National Baseball Hall of Fame I was grateful that the owners haven't decided to pull up roots and move to a sprawling, gleaming, many-acre campus surrounded by miles of parking lots and smelling of millions of dollars. On my second night in town I had a very enjoyable hang with baseball fan, author, and Cooperstown mayor Jeff Katz. Over a couple of rounds we talked about the game, the Hall, the town, and rock and roll. As we said our goodbyes kitty corner from the Hall, near the local public library where Katz had parked, he said, "Look at that," gesturing to the Hall in the late-dusk light. "No other sport has a hall of fame that people talk about and debate 365 days a year." I agreed. Yeah, it's pretty perfect, I said. Though baseball is an enormous business run by men and women whose primary interest always will be to satisfy stockholders and fatten the bottom line, this is a game, also, that brings deep and irrational pleasures, joys, and heartaches to millions. The Hall of Fame in its charming and unassuming way reminded me of that at every turn.

"Sandlot Boy," sculpture outside Doubleday Field.

Main Street, Cooperstown.

Main Street, Cooperstown. Looking west.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Mullin's Mugs

Willard Mullin's genial, evocative illustrations of ball players in The Best of Red Smith (1963) are terrific. Mullin is best known for his creation of the "Brooklyn Bum," the lovable, lovelorn icon of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Mullin's faces here are a bit caricatured and seamed, and a few give the impression of having lasted to the end of an sixteen-inning game in the hot August sun. From a by-gone era: