Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Hunting Larry Hunting Hank

"Hunting Larry Hunting Hank," my new essay in The Normal School, is the saga of my travels down to Oxford, Mississippi to find and read the unfinished screenplay that novelist Larry Brown wrote about the life of Hank Williams. You can find The Normal School at your local fine bookstores. It publishes twice each year, Spring and Fall. You can subscribe here.

Here's the opening:
 I never met Chip.
     “Oh, you’ve got to meet Chip!” The beaming young woman behind the check-in desk wears straight blonde hair and wire-rim glasses. “He was a good friend of his. He went fishing with him right before he died, I think. He'll be excited that you’re here. I think he's working the third-floor bar tonight." My wife and I are in Oxford, Mississippi, Where I've tracked down the late fiction writer Larry BroWn’s unfinished, unpublished screenplay of the life of Hank Williams, something that I hadn't known existed until I came across a casual mention of it in an interview. I’ve driven 650 miles to read the screenplay. 
Here's some musical accompaniment:

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Saga of Bazooka Joe?

As the Fleshtones' 40th Anniversary winds down, let's summarize: they've released over twenty albums and twenty singles: two covers albums; three live albums; half of an instrumental album; an album where each band member sings; an album of demos; an aborted debut album; an album with strings; a Christmas album; a Spanish-language EP. They've recorded in large and small studios in New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Spain, Chapel Hill, Detroit, Austin. They've written songs about love, sex, mortality, family, memories, gentrification, Coney Island and Canada, girls, ghouls, zombies, and Rick Wakeman's cape; they've recorded with Alan Vega and written a song about the Ramones; they've written a song about a book written about them; they've written a disco song and a 12-bar blues; they've written a fake theme song for a TV show that never existed. They've recorded with Dave Faulkner, Peter Buck, Steve Albini, Rick Miller, Jim Diamond, Lenny Kaye, and Ivan Julian.

The never lost that beat. What's next? A concept double-album about Bazooka Joe? They've gotten a head start:

Saturday, November 26, 2016

On the radio

I drive a car of a certain vintage. That is: no satellite radio. When I tire of Spotify or my iPod, I like to start at the far left of the dial and hit the "seek" button, then stay for only a moment on each station, judging in the split-second whether or not I want to linger (I ignore the call numbers). I've done this in every car I've owned, starting with my 1972 Datsun and its push-in radio buttons. Usually, the trip from the left to the right is a quick one, mostly unwelcoming squibs of synthesizer blasts, whether it's All-Spanish or Top 100 or New Country. Occasionally I'll land on an oldie, although those stations don't seem to be around in abundance as they were in the 1970s and '80s, or anyway, seem few and far between in northern Illinois—more precisely DeKalb County, where I can barely receive most Chicago stations clearly. I recognize that this is an archaic practice, and quickly expiring; my next car, which I really have to purchase soon, will come with satellite radio and all of the 21ct century achievements in sound and efficiency that my late-20th century car lacks. I think that the static-filled pop song on a car radio is this era's melancholy signal, how even a song that is coming in clearly can fade by the end of the block or the next light. There's something—well, analog about it, and air-y, and of the elements. I'm reminded that I'm driving on earth when a song fades on terrestrial radio: I'm moving away, or toward, A to B. So last century.

Today, playing while driving home from the Y, I heard a startling burst of bagpipe and rough guitar. AC/DC, of course! "It's A Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock n Roll)" muscled its cocky way through the static over 97.9 FM The Loop, "Chicago's Classic Rock" station, but even Bon Scott couldn't keep the song from fading away before I got home. A couple of weeks ago, I received a nice lesson in irony, when on 95.3 FM—The Bull, a Rockford, Illinois country station—Trace Adkins's "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" played (loudly, but the wall-to-wall noiseification of radio is another issue for another time) and then segued into The Band Perry's "Comeback Kid." (Both of these songs I had to look up when I got home.) What caught my attention was the friction between the two when played back to back, Adkins's stupid, clichéd sexism and unimaginative objectification ("There outta be a law / Get the Sheriff on the phone / Lord have mercy, how'd she even get them britches on," and so on) dovetailing brutally with The Band Perry's sincere, brave-woman victory song: "They like to kick you when you're down / They like it better when you're there on the ground / And up 'til now I've never made a sound / I bet they never had a broken heart / But they sure know how to beat the hell out of one / Sometimes I think they do it just for fun." I'm not certain that Guy Smiley behind the studio mic was aware of the irony afterward; he just plowed through to the next commercial announcement. But it was something. A bit of real life caught on the radio dial.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Field Recordings from the Inside, out in February 2017

I have a new book of essays coming out with Soft Skull Press in February. You can pre-order here. From the publisher:
Using as its epigraph and unifying principle Luc Sante’s notion that “Every human being is an archeological site,” Field Recordings from the Inside provides a deep and personal examination of the impact of music on our lives. Bonomo effortlessly moves between the personal and the critical, investigating the ways in which music defines our personalities, tells histories, and offers mysterious, often unbidden access into the human condition. The book explores the vagaries and richness of music and music-making—from rock and roll, punk, and R&B to Frank Sinatra, Nashville country, and Delta blues. Mining the often complex natures and shapes of the creative process, Field Recordings from the Inside is a singular work that blends music appreciation, criticism, and pop culture from one of the most critically acclaimed music writers of our time. 
“Part memoir, part criticism, Field Recordings From The Inside maps the ways music can define and shape our lives—which, in Joe Bonomo’s case, encompasses local bands and Top 40 one-hit wonders, Hank Williams and Frank Sinatra, everything that gets inside if your ears are open enough.” —Alan Light, author of The Holy or the Broken and former Editor-Chief of Spin Magazine

“What is music? More importantly, what isn’t music? In Field Recordings from the Inside, Joe Bonomo looks at family and faith, country and culture, Mississippi and Memphis, life and death, with sharp eyes (and ears) and a strong heart, shining a light on the past to help arm the present to make sense of the future. If you want beautiful writing in the service of powerful emotions, you want this book.” —Ben Greenman, author of Mo Meta Blues and The Slippage

“It’s so easy for critics to spend all their time worrying over how pop music gets made – the granular technical details, what a song or record means in its various historical or social contexts. Joe Bonomo understands those things, but still returns to what’s arguably the most crucial component of art: how it makes us feel and what it does to our lives. Field Recordings from the Inside is a beautiful, revelatory book about what it means to be a human with headphones on.” —Amanda Petrusich, author of Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records
Field Recordings From The Inside is the first book I’ve encountered that expertly blends my two favorite kinds of writing: music criticism and the literary essay. Joe Bonomo combines sound, the self, and the “roll and prank” of an essayistic mind to create a book that skates between discussions of history, records, coming of age, literature, relationships, and great rock-and-rollers. This book is a thoughtful and sonorous pleasure from start to finish.” —Elena Passarello, author of Let Me Clear My Throat and Animals Strike Curious Poses

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Sometime Yesterday Morning

. . . . I thought that the lines in "She" were "She devoured all my Sweet'N Low / Took all I had and then she fed me dirt / She laughed when I was crying / It was such a joke to see the wafer" and when you're a kid stuff like that just gets inside and you don't try to make too much sense of it but on the playground at Saint Andrew the Apostle I still couldn't get my mind around sugar substitute and Communion wafers in the same song then the fourteen-bar middle comes in and all I think about is how cool that song-within-a-song is until those lyrics about a girl who needs someone to walk on get inside too and things get complicated again like the beautiful counter melody in "When Love Comes Knockin' (At Your Door)" that told me that the music alone can stir things made double fun when "Mary, Mary" kicked in and now we're just dancing down in the basement no worries about whether I understood "love" and how the girls were looking at other guys with a secret language that the album seemed to speak then the weird Greek vibe in "Hold On Girl" more dancing against adolescent blues before "Your Auntie Grizelda" arrived for an always-welcome hilarious visit even though we knew that Tork was aping Ringo the song was a blast and we'd turn it up even better because my mom would close her ears whenever the song came on and though the drum fill at the organ break in "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" was all the grinning excitement we'd ever need it was still melancholy because we knew that side one was over that we'd have to flip it and hear "Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)" a throat-tighteningly sad song and though I was light years away from the problem the singer had the chorus sang my own dread of going back to school on Monday and facing classroom and playground sadness so preoccupied was I that I barely listened to "The Kind of Girl I Could Love" it sounded country and out of place anyway but is there anything better than hooting with laughter to bring you out of your indulgent melodramas because oh boy here's Davy Jones cracking us up with "The Day We Fall in Love" too corny and hilarious for words though again we were years away from understanding the reality behind the schmaltz but those syrupy strings! and then again the magic of pop music as we go from laughter to childish introspection the melody in "Sometime in the Morning" so gorgeous and lyrical and melancholy that I almost couldn't take it and sometimes listened the other way to get through it all knowing that "Laugh" was coming a kind of how-to manual to get through Monday that helped even though we somehow knew that it was forced but not "I'm a Believer" came on the uplifting pop perfection of which soothed the hurt that the album was over so let's flip it again . . . .


Percentage of words in this post that I knew/understood when I was a kid listening to More of the Monkees? Maybe 8. Percentage of the album that I understood then? 99. (That "Sweet'N Low and wafer" verse always threw me.) Boyce, Hart, Sager, Sedaka, Nesmith, Goffin, King, Diamond and the rest of them out in Hollywood with those wonderful seasoned session musicians scored my mornings, afternoons, and evenings. Timing is everything in pop music: you too have an album or a song that got into you before you could speak it and that soundtracked your day.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

"There ain't no dance she couldn't do . . . I feel fine to be dancin', baby"

Shake it, shake it, shake it . . . you can't pull down this bridge.

Clockwise from top left, the Kingsmen (photo via USE//MEB); Rocky and the Riddlers (photo via Pacific Northwest Bands); Detroit Wheels (photo via Motor City Music Archives); the Stooges (photo via Iggy and the Stooges Music)