Saturday, October 29, 2016

Love, Sex, Movement, Hope

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

Friday, October 28, 2016

October: Coming Back

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

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

Apologies to Pirates fans of a certain age:


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

More Super Rock 40th Anniversary posts here.

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

Sunday, October 23, 2016

176 Years and Counting

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 21, 2016

Myths on the Rock and Roll Stage

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

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

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


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

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

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

Anyway, RIP John Cummings. Turn it up:

Photo of Johnny Ramone via David Corio / Getty

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Guy at Hammerjacks

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

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

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Bill Milhizer and The Charades

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

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

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Playoffs Are Here!

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

My fearless predictions:

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

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

World Series
Cubs > Red Sox in six

Photo via Mashable.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Memory À Go-Go

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

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

Sunday, October 2, 2016

So Long, Vin Scully

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


Saying so long

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