Friday, June 23, 2017

Baseball's visual clock

"Man Sitting at the Bar Watching a Tigers Game, Detroit, 1972." Photo by Dave Jordano.
A month ago in the New York Times Magazine, Jay Caspian Kang became the latest to weigh in on baseball's alleged decline. Taking on televised baseball, Kang argues that the increase, and now the norm, of high-definition broadcasts have altered the game's time (and, he claims in his main thesis, has killed off the Hollywood baseball movie, to boot).

Two key graphs:
Baseball, more than any other American sport, has an extensive visual archive, and the change in imagery—the sharpening of focus, the addition of color—always created a sense of progress across eras. Babe Ruth winks in grainy, flickering black and white. In the 1951 home run known as “the shot heard round the world,” you can see Bobby Thomson’s swing, but the camera that tracks the ball out of the park is so jumpy, unsteady and late to the trajectory that it looks as if it were shot on an iPhone by someone six beers in. Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax come through in blurry, bright color, but you can rarely see their faces as they wind up and throw. By the 1975 World Series, when Boston’s Carlton Fisk seems to will the ball to stay fair with his flapping arms until it’s a home run, you can see the “27” on Fisk’s back and the square outline of his jaw, but the field still looks as if it were lit by mosquito zappers. Baseball nostalgia is tied to the way the game looked at any given moment in the past; the progress of the game is told, more than anything else, by the changes in its imagery.
Last week, I watched a replay of David Ortiz’s game-winning home run in the 12th inning of Game 4 of the 2004 A.L.C.S. It happened nearly 13 years ago, but it could have been last October, the way the scene was presented: the HD video, the score at the top of the screen, Joe Buck calling balls and strikes. We may be past the point when the only way to distinguish among coming eras will be by the change in uniforms. In terms of action and detail, the post-HD eras are likely to all look the same—our eyeballs can’t take in much more than what’s being beamed out to today’s 4K and 1080p televisions. Baseball’s visual clock, which once kept time for a changing country, now seems frozen.
It's ironic that in a rapidly developing and changing time culturally, technology is effectively embalming televised baseball, cementing it in a future-now that will likely remain uniform for a while. On one hand, Kang's argument is an easy one to make: as technology evolves, things look different from one era to the next, but on the other hand he brings up something corollary but important. His argument is an interesting one, and I'm sympathetic to it: the level of detail and the "noise" of informational data common to high-def broadcasts and streaming has crowded out something essential in the game. Baseball has always been a statistic-driven game, but the SABR-led spike in data in the last decade or so has gotten very noisy. Much of the information is fascinating and illuminating—WAR and defense metrics, for example—but I can't be the only one who could care less about exit velocity or angle of home runs. I'm sure that the numbers are helpful to some, particularly those in the game, but I don't need it. It's clutter on a screen that's already mighty crowded. I'm reminded of Roger Angell many years ago asking Carlton Fisk if Fisk ever watches the replay of that epic '75 blast. Fisk claims that he hasn't, and doesn't; he wants to keep the memory secure and fresh in his imagination. It's becoming increasingly harder for one to do that and to duck the onslaught of data at the same time.

But that's alright. Like so much, I'll probably become nostalgic for StatCast in the distant future.


Meanwhile, baseball historian John Thorn has rounded up the heated responses on his facebook wall to Tom Verducci's latest.

Photo illustration by Cristiana Couceiro. Ruth: Bettmann/Getty Images. Gibson: Getty Images. Koufax: Focus on Sport/Getty Images. Fisk: Focus on Sport/Getty Images. Boone: Joe Robbins/Getty Images.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

"Wall of Respect," Chicago, 1967

I can't recommend highly enough the "Wall of Respect" exhibit at Chicago Cultural Center, guest curated by Romi Crawford, Abdul Alkalimat, and Rebecca Zorach. The exhibition chronicles how "the Organization of Black American Culture's Visual Artists Workshop designed and produced a seminal mural for and within Chicago’s Black South Side communities."
Featuring the images of leading black icons ranging from Sarah Vaughan and John Coltrane to Marcus Garvey and Ossie Davis, The Wall of Respect received national critical acclaim when it was unveiled in 1967 on the side of a building at 43rd St. and Langley Ave on the heels of the March on Washington, the assassination of Malcolm X and the emergence of Black Power. The Wall was ultimately painted over and virtually forgotten after damage by a fire in 1971, but its legacy has reemerged today as one of the most significant projects in Chicago’s storied public art history.
Here and above are some images from the exhibit, which I found fascinating, inspiring, and enlightening.  More on the project here and here. A book about the wall is forthcoming in September from Northwestern University Press. See the exhibit if you can.
From an article in Ebony, December 1967

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Field notes

I was happy to sit down recently with Joe Oestreich at The Normal School and with Dan Klefsatd at WNIJ to talk about Field Recordings from the Inside and the many ways we listen to and are marked by music. My interview with Oestreich is here, my talk with Klefstad, along with video of me reading a couple excerpts from the book, is here.

I'm also grateful for this thoughtful review of the book by Megan Volpert in PopMatters. "The author is at his best when he’s talking about music delivery systems—records, cassettes, juke boxes, radios, Shazam."
He delves into the careful technicalities of repairing a favorite mix tape, the agony of the broken 45 and the scratch of a needle, the magic of requested songs, the terror of sudden volume and creeping static, the melancholy of instant gratification in a digital world. These are great leaps into the sensual, tangible, liminal properties of our experience with music. They are instantly relatable and will springboard readers into a renewed sensitivity toward their own parallel history of sound.

There’s a solid essay of Elvis Costello and Patsy Cline. I confess to not listening to much of either of their bodies of work over the years, yet I found myself turning the pages ever so slowly. Bonomo’s poetic craft remains strongly redolent even when one is not terribly interested in his specific factual content. On the other hand, there’s a quick paragraph on Nirvana that I reread several times after exclaiming aloud, “that exact same thing happened to me!”

He knows big bands and obscure bands, ancient ones and happening ones, so every reader is bound to find a bullseye on the journalism front somewhere in this book. The research and quotations are often compelling on their own, but the real gem of Field Recordings is its poetics. Bonomo slides between the skills and conventions of genre with an aptitude and ease that is mightily impressive, never fighting to tie it all together. This is a book that floats, landing on each reader uniquely but with similarly orchestrated intensity.
Field Recordings from the Inside is out now, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound, and your local happening bookstore.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Times Square Nostalgia

Howard Johnson's, Times Square, 1986
Reading Charlie LeDuff's terrific Work and Other Sins, a gathering of columns he wrote for the New York Times in the 1990s and early 2000s, I was struck by the many levels of nostalgia at work in urban gentrification. "The Lights Are Bright, the Hours Always Happy," one of LeDuff's "Bending Elbows" pieces, is about the old Howard Johnson's bar and restaurant in Times Square; the piece appeared in the April 28, 2001 issue of the Times, and HoJo's was gone by 2005. Bittersweetly, in the piece the manager Joseph claims that are no plans to sell, despite offers.
"We went through a lot of hard times here,'' he said. ''I would stare out the window and watch muggers slit open the back of people's pants and steal their wallets, or sometimes they would spray ketchup on a tourist's back, and while they were apologizing and wiping it off, they would pick the poor guy's pocket.''
Joseph explained that the place is now making money, but even so, it has not been remodeled since the 60's, because the clientele favor the nostalgic look of the cheap paneling, brass chandeliers and orange banquettes.
''It's like we haven't aged,'' the manager said.
Now, we—well, some of us—are nostalgic for a place that was itself a site of nostalgia for a different, equally long-gone time.


LeDuff writes out of the Joseph Mitchell/John McNulty tradition of dry, detail-rich, objective observational journalism, and, like those two scribes, LeDuff is attracted to bars, restaurants, and other establishments where marginal city figures dwell. In his introduction to Work and Other Sins, LeDuff comments on the subjects that interest him: 
The dandies I know say I write about dives and losers, but they are wrong. I write about the people who live in neighborhoods, crowded apartments and dreary ranch houses. These are the people who shovel their own snow and have fat aunties who wear stretch pants with stains on the ass. This is not a book about the people who have doormen but a book about doormen. It is about the laborer, the dreamer, the hustler, the immigrant—whether he is a writer from Michigan or a waiter from Michoacán. I suppose in all of this I’m trying to find myself and justify him, to you.
"The Lights Are Bright, the Hours Always Happy" ends with a brief, devastating profile of a couple at Howard Johnson's, the kinds of people LeDuff justifies, though this pair makes it difficult:
There was an obese couple who sat by the bar. He ordered a shell steak and baked potato smothered in gravy, Texas chili to start, a strawberry shortcake to finish and a light beer.
His wife asked him if the beer wasn't too much, and he told her to shut up. She asked him why she was supposed to shut up.
''Because you talk too much,'' he said. ''So zip it.''
She did, and when the platters arrived, he speared one of her fries and ordered another beer. 
RIP Howard Johnson's. RIP Times Square.

Photo of Howard Johnson's via The Smoking Nun.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Birney Imes's Jukes

Birney Imes's photographs of rural Mississippi are fantastic. From Jackson Fine Art, which represents him: "For more than 20 years Birney Imes roamed the countryside of his native Mississippi photographing the people and places he encountered along the way. Working in both black and white and color, Imes’ photographs take viewers inside juke joints and dilapidated restaurants scattered across that landscape."
There he introduces the viewer to, as one writer put it, “the characters and locales that linger in the margins of Southern memory and culture.” Imes’s photographs have been collected in three books: Juke Joint, Whispering Pines, and Partial to Home, and have been exhibited in solo shows in the United States and Europe. His work is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, La Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and many public and private collections in the U.S. and abroad.
The University Press of Mississippi published Juke Joint. From their website:
The evocative Mississippi place names in Imes's photographs are as captivating as the names of the juke joints themselves: the Pink Pony in Darling, the People's Choice Café in Leland, Monkey's Place in Merigold, the Evening Star Lounge in Shaw, the Playboy Club in Louise, Juicy's Place in Marcella, the Social Inn in Gunnison, and A. D.'s Place in Glendora.... Juke Joint includes approximately sixty photographs taken between 1983 and 1989 as Imes traveled throughout the Delta. Many of the images are the result of long exposures that show the blur of human movement as a figure lounges at a bar or steps across a room to feed quarters into a juke box. The resulting "ghosts" animate the pictures and give them an otherworldly quality.
Imes captures the allure, warmth, and danger of out -of-the-way juke joints and other rural establishments, celebrating in vibrant colors and textures, rather than documenting in a strictly sociological manner—his photographs invite you in, that is, rather than encourage an outsider's view, the latter of which can result in sentimentalizing or romanticizing. Great stuff.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

"One hell of a good time."

Club Bar. Troy, Montana.
I came very late to Jesus' Son, the brilliant, difficult, and mesmerizing book of stories by Denis Johnson, pictured below. who died on May 24 at the age of sixty-seven after a bout with liver cancer.  In the loosely connected stories, Johnson's narrator follows, and sometimes runs around with, a crew of desperate, marginalized characters in the American northwest, most of whom stagger around in a fog of joblessness, sexual messiness, and drug and alcohol excess, all of whom are elevated to genuine human scale by Johnson's feverish but incisive language, not to mention his sympathetic curiosity; no character is a druggie- or alcoholic-cliché who's easy to pity, scorn, or condescend to. Great stuff.

I loved the book, so I sought out Seek: Reports form the Edges of America and Beyond, a book of nonfiction travel essays Johnson published in 2001. Unsurprisingly,  among my favorite pieces in the book is a brief essay about a dive. "The Lowest Bar in Montana"—the title refers to the tavern's geographical depth relative to the highest point in the state—paints an affectionate picture of Club Bar, in Troy, Montana, a rough-and-tumble joint that Johnson frequented back when it was even rougher. It's still got its cranky charm, and Johnson, who'd been sober for many years when he wrote the piece, captures the details of the low-rent scene and the quirky regulars very well, with affection and respect. Back visiting, out of the blue he mentions a coffin in the back of the bar, and asks the owner, Tony, if he could look at it again. "Tony took me back to the storeroom to see it, a cheap one made of half-inch plywood that looks as if a big man would fall though the bottom when his pallbearers gave it a heave."
I have always believed the coffin will be mine when I die, so I can be buried in it in my backyard next to my wife Cindy and my dog Harold (Cindy’s not there yet; Harold is), with Tony Brown saying a few words in farewell (Tony performed the service at our wedding, too), but I believe he’s sold my coffin to, or promised it to, or used it for collateral on small loans from, a great many people. I haven’t actually paid for it yet myself. Generally he says it’s “for the next guy who dies in here.”
Johnson also describes an honest to goodness fight that he witnessed at Club Bar, though, waged as it was by day- and all-night-drunks full of liquid courage, the skirmish lacked cinematic drama. "Everyone in the place was up and fighting except for me and one old veteran of WWII," Johnson writes, "both of us hanging on to the poker table for dear life and hoping we’d have enough uninjured players to get the game going again when this was over.
It wasn’t the choreographed, stool-slinging slugfest you see in movies. There was just this squabble that the customers kept attaching themselves to until a kind of mass or glob of Montanan animosity heaved itself this way and that, shoving into the pool table and knocking over stools and repositioning the booths. Every time they got near the plate-glass window I thought they’d go through it, but they didn’t; not that time; some time later it got busted and was boarded over for several months, if I remember right.
Club Bar. Troy, Montana

Johnson ends the essay with a mild lament that the place had lost a bit of its edge, though "[p]lenty of the old spirit remains."
It’s just that you don’t need twenty-four-hour life insurance and a big dog to go inside and feel comfortable—though dogs are still allowed. “Not all dogs,” Tony advises me—“some dogs.”
To be sure, there are still the kinds of characters at the joint who Johnson remembers (barely) from the old daze. The piece ends with a beaut of a narrative moment, a glimpse of the blend of great nights and lousy mornings—and the pull in that queasy tension that's hard to resist—suffered by many a regular. "Just as I’m leaving, a guy out front in a big gold Buick with Washington plates wakes up with a dead battery.
I recognize him as one of last night’s patrons as he rolls out and looks at his car. “I been sleeping in it all night,” he says—maybe with the door cracked open or his head on the horn, and that would explain his lack of power. He studies the whole situation and delivers his conclusion:
       “You can have one hell of a good time in that place.”

Photo of Johnson by Cindy Lee Johnson, Macmillan Publishers. Top photo of Club Bar via Flickr; bottom photo of Club Bar via Flickr.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Story & Sound in the Underground

There are few rock and roll songs as grippingly cinematic as The Jam's "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight," released as a single in October of 1978, one in an astonishing run of Jam 45s from 1978 through 1980. ("Tube Station" reappeared a month later, with a "false ending," as the closing track on the band's third album, All Mod Cons.) Allegedly, Weller was displeased with the arrangement of this song that began life as a long poem (in Paul Weller: My Ever Changing Moods, John Reed states that it started as a play); with the enthusiastic support of producer Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, the band banged it into shape in the studio. (The single charted well, reaching 15 on the U.K. Singles chart.) I can't imagine how Weller could've improved the arrangement: the song is tense, evocative, and brilliantly-structured, and its yoking of sympathy and menace is so palpable that when I listen to the song now, over thirty years after I first heard it, I'm as moved as ever.

The story's simple: a guy ducks into the tube late at night, on the way home to his wife—he's picked up some curry for a late-night dinner—when he's approached by a group of guys who ask him if he has any money. He replies honestly ("I've a little") and they savagely attack him, beating and kicking him senseless. As he lies prone, suffering, he imagines his wife, who's likely just opening a bottle of wine, hearing the door of their flat opening and believing it's him—but the thugs took his keys as well as his money. What makes this story riveting are the details, the pacing, and the band's performance. Paul Weller sings the verses plaintively, perfectly capturing the unknowing innocence of the victim, as Bruce Foxton plays a syncopated riff on his bass that amps up the tension as the story unspools, as does a curious "heartbeat" thumping that sounds in the right channel throughout the record—the narrative of bodies inevitably colliding made physical. The chorus, composed only of the title phrase, barrels along, growing more desperate as the song plays, pummeling the well-chosen details in the verses, all riders' individual lives rendered as a noisy blur.

Weller's details are striking throughout. The station's ordinary, daily atmosphere, (the "glazed, dirty steps," the toffee wrappers), the other tube riders, newspaper headlines are all presented vividly. As is well known, as a teenager Weller made regular forays into London, a city he idolized, from suburban Woking, and brought along a tape recorder to capture the city's sounds. (The train in this song was recorded at St. John's Station.) Weller both adored the city and grimly recognized its racist violence, and his lyrics evoke that uneasy blend. Among the song's most infamous lines are the ones dramatizing the attack, and the victim's addled thoughts afterward:
I first felt a fist, and then a kick
I could now smell their breath
They smelt of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs
And too many right wing meetings
The last thing that I saw
As I lay there on the floor
Was "Jesus Saves" painted by an atheist nutter
And a British Rail poster read "Have an Away Day, a Cheap Holiday, Do it Today!"
In a lesser writer's hands, the desire to commingle violence, suffering, atheist irony, and cheery tourism might've resulted in ham-fisted social commentary; yet Weller's cinematic details, hurried along by the band's playing, are heartbreaking, simple and devastating in their effect. (As for "Wormwood Scrubs," and other references unknown to me as a teenager, such as putting in the Queen and pulling out a plum, luckily my older brother was dating an English woman; problem solved! She became a go-to source for me as I puzzled over many a British band's references.) That said, Weller was only twenty when he wrote the song—impressive, certainly, yet in places his earnest poeticizing ("My life swam around me / It took a look and drowned me in its own existence") as well as the obvious foreshadowing of violence in the opening verse gives his naivete away. Yet that makes the song all the more charming: Weller's a young guy making sense of the pointless violence interrupting his urban idyll, recognizing that one can't exist without the other. He was preoccupied with violence on the band's previous single, and he's still writing songs reacting to this.



As powerful as the song is (it made for a staggering close to All Mod Cons) the band's live performances added fiery dimension to the story. I never saw the Jam live—a loss I'll live with forever—but recordings and videos attest to a stunningly powerful band producing enormously righteous noise. They recorded a gig at The Rainbow on November 3, 1979, and issued a version of "Tube Station" from that show (first on a double-pack 45 of "Going Underground" in 1980, and again the following year as the b-side of a West German release of "That's Entertainment.") Like all great rock and roll, the performance nearly collapses under its own urgency, the band playing so intensely that the song becomes far scarier, not to mention LOUDER, than the studio version, as if they're running to catch up with their own playing. The final third of the song startles: Rick Buckler's drum-pounding breakdown, Weller's slashes at his Rickenbacker, the crowd's clapping in pulse-racing unison, and the breathless crash into the final lines of the final verse remains, to my ears, one of the greatest, most urgent passages in recorded live rock and roll. If it's possible that innocence, love, fear, violence, and heartbreak can be rendered as pure sound, the Jam have done it here.

The Jam, 1979

Tube station photo via Geograph; live photo via Toronto Star (Ebet Roberts / Redferns/Universal Music Canada)

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Riffs, hooks, spectacle, and grins

There are times when I wish that the members of Van Halen had looked at each other in Sunset Sound studio after the final mix of "Everybody Wants Some!!", nodded knowingly, and then broken up on the spot. We can't top this.

But then we wouldn't have gotten this gem, which surprised me on Shuffle Play at the gym today. When a grinning David Lee Roth barks back at the studio engineer, "One break, coming up!" and Eddie Van Halen leads the band back into that transcendent, killer riff, I think of the staged corniness of it all that somehow works, of Eddie's shaggy 80s hair bopping onstage, of his brightly-colored jumpsuit, of Michael Anthony guffawing and flying around the stage, of Alex Van Halen earnestly pumping behind his over-the-top kit, hi-hat permanently open, crash cymbals cashing—and I firmly believe that in the late-1970s and early 1980s, Van Halen was the World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band. (Their early Kinks worshiping didn't hurt!) Even well into their arena domination on Fair Warning, they weren't taking themselves too seriously, and they understood the power in rock and roll of a great riff, hooks, spectacle, humor, and grins .

We still had "Panama" and "Hot for Teacher" to come, but I never liked "Jump," and soon after came keyboards, Van Hagar, Van Hallen III, and the rest.

But for a while there....

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Take and Give on the South Side

José Quintana (top) and Chris Sale, Guaranteed Rate Field, Chicago
It wasn't what I'd imagined. Chris Sale's return to Chicago to face José Quintana didn't result in a low-scoring nail-biter. Quite the contrary. But the Red Sox 13 to 7 victory was still a very entertaining affair. Love the game more than the team, my mantra of this century.

It was a classic Take & Give Affair. After a quiet first inning for both pitchers, Quintana gave up three doubles and two home runs in the top of the second: score, 4-0. In the bottom frame, Sale gave up a walk and four singles; score, 4-3. In the top of the third, Q gave up two singles and another homer to Devon Marrero: score, 7-3. In the bottom of the inning, Tom Anderson knocked in Avisail Garcia from third; in the bottom of the fourth, Todd Frazier homered with Leury Gracia on base. Three more runs for the White Sox: score, 7-6. Naturally, at the top of the next inning, White Sox pitching, being good hosts, felt obligated to give those runs back via a three-run Jackie Bradley home run. Etc.

My pre-game prediction, written in jest, wasn't very funny after a while:

Quintana lasted two and two thirds, and his ERA ballooned to 5:60. Sale pitched five innings and struck out nine, though his slider wasn't particularly nasty—White Sox chased a lot of high stuff, and Sale noticed—and he gave up five earned. Not a stellar night for pitching.


The defeat-and-surge play was fun to watch, for a while, until it wasn't. There were three Red Sox fans in my row in Box 120; I became friendly with them as the night progressed, the talk moving from fanly allegiances to baseball news to How's the family? as can happen during a game. This is one of the many reasons I love taking in a game at the park, the camaraderie, however, shallow, that's forged among strangers for a few hours. That, and the way your eye can choose what it wants. When I was a kid and went with my Dad to Baltimore Orioles games at the old Memorial Stadium, he'd always bring a pocket binoculars with him, to watch the action on the field closely—we never had great seats—and to peer into the dugout. That curiosity has been passed on to me. On television, a commercial interrupts before you can watch a player head into the warmth or chill of the dugout after a plate appearance or the end of an inning. Last night's Dugout Drama featured a couple vivid scenes: after Dan Jennings induced two ground outs to end the fifth inning in which he surrendered Bradley's home run, he stalked into the dugout and strode swiftly past his teammates as if he were sliding downhill; everything looked tilted by his anger and self-disgust. After Jose Abreu lined sharply to second baseman Josh Routledge to end the sixth, Abreu stood on first looking baffled. White Sox first base coach Daryl Boston customarily took the slugger's bating helmet from him, and the two chatted, about what? Probably how frustrating baseball is.

Speaking of which, the career-challenged Matt Davdison, a player I'm watching closely this year, DH'd last night and struck out five times. I'd never seen that before. (Jim Margalus at South Side Sox reminds us, "It’s the third such game for a White Sox hitter since last August. Before then, they hadn’t had a five-strikeout game since 1998." Selective memory on my part, I guess.) After his final K, Davidson stood alone in the dugout, gravely removing his batting glove, a tableau of misery. There wasn't a player with fifteen feet of him. There are no words.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Dreaming a stranger's house

I used to have a recurring dream where I'd be walking down a city or suburban street after dark, minding my own, when I'd make a small move to the left or right and suddenly be inside a stranger's home. It's 2 am, and I'm standing in a quiet living room or rec room, in the dark, frozen, afraid to move lest I reveal myself. The smells of strange home, the odd arrangement of unknown furniture and wall hangings slowly materializing in the dark, a clock ticking. I don't know what to do. I've breached, I've trespassed without trying, or even wanting, to, sealed in to a fate I didn't want. How'd I get in here? How do I leave? I might get arrested, I might startle someone. 

The dream would usually end, or, as dreams do, narratively morph into something else entirely, or I'd wake up before I'm discovered by the home owners. I had this dream for years. I haven't in a long time. Now that it's absent, I wonder about it. Does it originate in my autobiographical impulse? The curiosity to essay my own life and past leading me to wonder, on the protected dreamscape level, about others' lives behind closed doors? Maybe, and more accurately, it comes from my writing about others, the desire to get into someone's home and learn what goes on there as, at the same time, I'm deeply wary of that impulse: temperamentally, I shade toward introversion. (I still hate interviewing people.) Maybe as a quasi-introvert, I experience my greatest social discomforts when I dream. Maybe I fear that I'm a fraud, or am morally dubious, on the occasions I write about others, making of their private lives a public subject matter. The dream is scary, unpleasant.

When I was a kid I imagined a machine—with gauges, blinking lights, electrodes, and the rest—that would record my dreams onto film; the next morning, I could watch them. I both craved and feared this. Sure, I wouldn't mind getting comfy and playing (and re-playing) that dream featuring Tina P. or Susan J.—but what about the embarrassing, shameful, awful stuff, the stuff in dreams (nightmares) that we blessedly forget or, if we're burdened with remembering, try and shake as the day progresses. I hoped that video would never surface. Anyway, I'm skeptical of dream interpretations, so I'll stop here. Maybe writing this will spur the stranger's-house dream to make an encore. Maybe I'll figure it out.

 Top photo via Senior Art Studio; bottom photo via Raygun Brown

Sunday, May 28, 2017

"The words we use." Brian Doyle, 1956-2017

"I met a tiny, frail nun once, in Australia, while walking along a harbor, and we got to talking, and she said no one defeats cancer;"
cancer is a dance partner you don’t want and don’t like, but you have to dance, and either you die or the cancer fades back into the darkness at the other end of the ballroom. I never forgot what she said, and think she is right, and the words we use about cancers and wars matter more than we know. Maybe if we celebrate grace under duress rather than the illusion of total victory we will be less surprised and more prepared when illness and evil lurch into our lives, as they always will; and maybe we will be a braver and better people if we know we cannot obliterate such things but only wield oceans of humor and patience and creativity against them. We have an untold supply of those extraordinary weapons, don’t you think?
Brian Doyle, from "On Not Beating Cancer," Leaping: Revelations & Epiphanies

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Round Saul, Flat Goodman

Left to right: Jimmy McGill, ca. 2003; Saul Goodman, ca. 2009; Gene, ca. ?
As a reader, I love fictional constructs; as a nonfiction writer, I'm deeply skeptical of them. I'm more interested in the actual plots that life offers—unpredictable and formless, though stubborn with, and bemused at, those who think they can shape them. "A to B to...H? OK."

I'm on record as being a Vince Gilligan/Peter Gould obsessive. I loved Breaking Bad immoderately, and have been watching its prequel Better Call Saul with great interest. I'm especially curious about the meeting point of Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman, particularly the Saul Goodman who appears in Breaking Bad. By the time that character pops up, Goodman's already a great deal sleazier, shadier, and more morally dubious than the Goodman who's materializing before our eyes weekly on Better Call Saul. I trust that Gilligan, Gould, and company will finesse McGill's evolving toward Goodman expertly, and, probably, surprisingly. One thing they can't finesse, however, is the Goodman who's already appeared on Breaking Bad, who, despite the performance by Bob Odenkirk and the character's crucial role on the show, was far less dimensional a character than Walter White or Jesse Pinkman, than even Hank Schraeder. Saul's interior life remains closed off to us, and he often goes for broad laughs.

However, the McGill/Goodman we're getting on Better Call Saul—made complicated by the drama/tragedy with his brother Chuck, the cautious, likely doomed romantic relationship with Kim Wexler, and his various, half-hearted attempts to stay straight—is a pretty rich and dimensional character. Will the round Saul and the flat Saul meet awkwardly? Will they glue together, or is the complexity we're getting with McGill/Goodman going to overpower the Goodman in Better Call Saul as to render the latter character oddly less than what arrives via Better Call Saul? And what about Gene? I'm not a fiction writer, let alone a prequel writer, so I wouldn't know what to do here. Hope that the tracks laid by Better Call Saul's McGill and Breaking Bad's Saul join up, and aren't laid a fraction of an inch—or a few yards—off.

Time will tell. This recent exchange between Gilligan and Gould about the developing character of Chuck McGill underscores the surprises and maybe the unavoidable pitfalls of prequel territory:
Vince: If you go back and watch the very first episode of Better Call Saul, there’s no indication at all that Chuck McGill is anything but a loving brother who is damaged mentally or emotionally at some level.

He’s got this allergy to electricity that may or may not be a real thing. That’s the big issue for him but the two brothers seem to love each other. Maybe Chuck is a little condescending. Maybe he takes him a little bit for granted. But there’s no indication that he’s going to be the villain of the whole piece.

That’s for a good reason. Because we had no idea.

Peter: That’s right.

Vince: When we started we thought Chuck was going to be like Mycroft Holmes. The guy who helped his brother come up with various scams. In our early mind’s-eye version of this Jimmy would be this rascal who would say to his brother: “How can I stick it to this guy.”

And Chuck would have a pained expression and say “That’s reprehensible. That’s not the way the law is supposed to work. However, having said this… hypothetically speaking…”

There’s an alternate universe in which that happens and it would have been fun.

But something happened along the way. You describe how it came to you.

Peter: To me, the moment was watching Michael and Bob do the very first scene between Jimmy and Chuck. A scene in the pilot episode that Vince and I wrote together. Just as Vince said, Chuck was there to be a burden to Jimmy. He humanized Jimmy by having someone to take care of. I don’t think our thinking was much more sophisticated than that.

But we both saw something in Michael McKean’s performance. A tremendous pride. Michael brought to this character not just vulnerability. He wasn’t just a big baby who needed to be taken care of. He was someone who had towering pride.

When we went back to the writer’s room, we said “We invented this character to tell us something about Jimmy. But what is it like from Chuck’s point of view?” The more we thought about it, the more we thought about how hard it is to be Jimmy’s older brother. There’s a jealousy there. That pride was a shield that Chuck was living behind. That fascinated us. The best thing about doing a series like this is that the characters get to talk back to you. You get to observe the performances of the actors and take that knowledge back to the writer’s room and use it to shape the story.

We started off the season Chuck was going to be more or less a hapless burden. Maybe even Hamlin’s victim. By the end of the season, Hamlin was Chucks’ reluctant minion. There was nothing we had to change, it was observing how Michael played the character.

UPDATE: This, from Better Call Saul reddit user ArmsmasterFestil, suggests how the writers might link Round Saul and Flat Goodman:
There are actually more than a few times [in Breaking Bad] where Saul shows compassion and decency, glimmers of Jimmy I guess. In the podcast the writers have even talked about it. One of the season 2 podcasts I believe. Saul gets pissed at Walt for poisoning Brock, and only stays in his employ because Walt threatens him. He's even overly nice to Brock and Andrea earlier in the season, he stays and talks to Brock for a little bit, when all he really has to do is drop off a check. He tries to convince Jesse to talk to Andrea and not leave her in the dark. So every once and awhile we see flickers of the old Jimmy, which makes his character that much more interesting in my opinion.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Sheffield's Dream

If you're a hardcore Beatles fan, you probably won't learn anything new in Rob Sheffield's Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World, but that's the point: there are no new facts, and yet those facts keep renewing themselves generation after generation. Sheffield is the Platonic version of a Fan: geeky; supremely knowledgeable; biased; enthusiastic; grating; humble. His prose—which I've been reading for years in Rolling Stone, and other places—purely captures the bubbling, ecstatic mood of a bar or dorm room conversation among friends who are so passionate about their stakes in the argument that they'll go on for hours. But his conversational style misleads: this is a deeply smart, considered, and well-researched book, its brilliance originating in its essayistic approach, which originates in, and is given voice by, Sheffield's energetic talkiness. The scope of the ostensibly chronological Dreaming the Beatles staggers. Excitably, Sheffield connects disparate points in pop culture—Beatles songs to Hip Hop to politics to movies to TV, across decades, across continents—but rarely reaches too far, and when he does, I forgive, because that's one of The Rules in this game: you can fall flat as long as you gave everything you had in your running approach. Sheffield's appealing grin is practically visible above the pages of Dreaming the Beatles, and the engine that powers the book is Sheffield's amazed amazement, the deep joy and awe he feels, and expresses, when considering the infinite possibilities of the surprises that the Beatles, decades after breaking up, still give. His essays on the challenging, uneven solo years—Sheffield reminds us that the individual Beatles had to learn how to have solo careers, and couldn't lean on, and learn form, each other in a protective bubble as they did during the band's career—and on the Beatles' baffling renewals in the Eighties and Nineties are especially smart. The book's funny, too.

If you're an over-the-top, lifelong Beatles fan, as I am, reading Dreaming the Beatles is page-to-page delight—your smartest friend who's in a good mood, feeling generous, and is really on his game. I've already made room on my bookshelf to place it alongside Mark Lewisohn's The Beatles Chronicle and Tune In, Jonathan Gould's Can't Buy Me Love, and Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head. (I wish the latter author—yes, a bit of a Boomer finger-wagger—were alive to debate Sheffield.) Upon waking from Sheffield's dream, you begin to recognize where you differ with him. His tendency to drop in phrases and sentences from Beatles lyrics, insider joke-style, got too cute for me by page 20—in places it feels as if he's more interested in that gimmick than in the idea he's exploring—and his winsome, bubbly voice discourages deep reflection or consideration in more than one place, where a more refined justification might've helped; I stopped keeping track of where I agreed with him, with head nods and mental high fives, and where I wildly disagreed, my eyes rolled back in my head. Because, finally, Dreaming the Beatles is less about argument or persuasion, than passion and the surreal, trippy pleasures of grateful fanly reverie. There's a lot of room in there for both Yes and No.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Charlie ruminates

I discovered this terrific sit down with a typically thoughtful Charlie Watts, dating from the Spring of 1966 and apparently never broadcast. Context: the Rolling Stones' boundary-breaking "Paint It, Black" single and Aftermath LP have recently been issued, and the band will depart for a North American tour in June. The conversation was taped in Watts' yard on bright day, and his wife Shirley is seen atop a horse, and galloping about. Ruminatively chewing his glasses, Charlie holds forth on a number of topics, including the limitations of fame, Mick Jagger's and Keith Richards's growth as songwriters (their early demos "weren't very good"), particularly Jagger's increasing social commentary in his lyrics, jazz music, and show business.

He's particularly interesting when he discusses the Rolling Stones' and other U.K. bands' co-opting of  African-American traditions and sounds, and on racism, a word that neither he nor the interviewer use, but which is practically visible in the air as they speak. "It's very strange. That's another facet of America that you can't really understand is the Negro," Charlie offers.
When you get a version of "Long Tall Sally" by the Beatles sold half a million records and then you've got Little Richards's which is ten times better, selling three hundred copies...that sort of thing. It's just remodeling a thing and making it acceptable. And it's only acceptable because the Beatles have done it. And the same thing with us. We probably sold more copies of something like [pauses] "Little Red Rooster" than Howlin' Wolf ever thought of. But all we did was do our version of Howlin' Wolf's "Little Red Rooster." And yet it sold. It's a very funny thing. I suppose it's the wrapping they buy.
When the interviewer suggests that it's "mass media" that provides the wrapping, Charlie agrees:
Television's got to have something entertaining, something that's nice to look at, although it doesn't have to but that's what they put on it. And so Howlin' Wolf singing a song is not very acceptable as far as selling the record goes as some good looking white boy singing the same song, but it's got a totally different meaning. To them, anyway.
And about the relationship between pop music and sex, Charlie is predictably modest and buttoned-up, even nervous. What's sex got to do with sound? he asks nerdily, or knowingly—I can never tell with Early Charlie. 
I don't know because I'm really quite a bit naive about things like that, because I don't really think of it.... I think it must play a part. But there again I should've thought that the Beatles would never get anyone out to see them anymore, since they're nearly all married. But, I mean, there you are, you see. So I really can't answer that, properly.... You can sing about "sexual intercourse" all night long and it wouldn't draw any effect. But if the person who's singing it has got one of those faces that women like, then he's gonna be a big success. [chuckles] You see, that's the funny thing about it. It really is only your face, which makes this sort of life to me a bit shallow. 

Interviewer: How do you mean?

It's all very silly, you know. It isn't silly, it's just obvious, things like having a wash, really, just obvious things that go through people's mind, like you must eat, or something. So I suppose the sex thing is just an obvious thing which no one ever talks about but it must be there. But it just nauseates me a bit.
Great stuff. Full interview here:

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What do I owe?

In her episodic memoir The Odd Woman and the City, published two years ago, Vivian Gornick offers vignettes of Manhattan life, interspersed with scenes with her longtime friend Leonard. Gornick's a native New Yorker and, thus, a native perambulator, and her book (after her earlier Fierce Attachments) is a lively addition to the long tradition of urban walking memoirs, and also features many passages on trains and buses. In one, Gornick describes riding a subway from Fourteenth Street to midtown. At the station, a man in front of her with an "elaborately folded-up baby carriage on his back" leads a small child to some seats directly ahead of her. "I plop down on the one opposite him," Gornick writes, "take out my book and  glasses, and, settling myself, am vaguely aware of the man removing the carriage from his back and turning toward the seated child." Then Gornick looks up.
The little boy is about seven or eight, and he is the most grotesquely deformed child I have ever seen. He has the face of a gargoyle—mouth twisted to the side, one eye higher than the other—inside a huge, misshapen head that reminds me of the Elephant Man. Bound around the child’s neck is a narrow piece of white cloth, in the center of which sits a short, fat tube that seems to be inserted into his throat. In another instant I realize that he is also deaf. This last because the man immediately begins signing. At first, the boy merely watches the man’s moving fingers, but soon he begins responding with motions of his own. Then, as the man’s fingers move more and more rapidly, the boy’s quicken, and within minutes both sets of fingers are matched in speed and complexity.
Gornick's self-consciously embarrassed at her insistent gazing, and repeatedly turns away, but the two "are so clearly oblivious to everyone around them" that she can’t help looking up from her book. And then "something remarkable" occurs:
the man’s face is suffused with such delight and affection as the boy’s responses grow ever more animated—the twisted little mouth grinning, the unaligned eyes brightening—that the child himself begins to look transformed. As the stations go by, and the conversation between the man and the boy grows ever more absorbing to them, finger flying, both nodding and laughing, I find myself thinking, These two are humanizing each other at a very high level.
By the time we get to Fifty-Ninth Street, the boy looks beautiful to me, and the man beatific.
This passage gives me pause. On one hand, Gornick—who's no novice at interpreting subway drama—is describing a charged, epiphanic moment, of which she is the observer and the affected, a welcome, and perhaps rare, moment wherein the limits of her prejudices and biases are tested; on the other hand, she verges on sentimentalizing the boy's handicap and the older man's burden (and perhaps, in using the word "burden" I myself am ascribing qualities to the man he doesn't feel) by casting them as beatified messengers. What obligations, if any, does a writer have to the people she writes about? Does she take away their agency by describing them from a distance, however affectionately, and then publishing the account? Or is any responsibility mitigated by the fact that it's only her reality, simply her perspective, that she's describing? Her truth. As someone who on occasion writes about others, I'm interested in the answers to these questions, and to the degree that I'm ethically—if not aesthetically—bound to present a dimensional and fair a portrait of the people who happen to wander into my autobiographical writing. In his essential essay "Bride in Beige," Mark Doty writes that "beyond the personal ethics of memoir—how fair or unfair we are to other people in our lives—and beyond the matters of accuracy, there's a higher ethical standard, which has to do with the ethics of art: that what is made is commensurate with the real." What is "real" for Gornick on the train is the "remarkable" gift of unbidden, surprising grace that she witnesses; the actual details of the exchange as experienced from the man's and boy's point of views—and the difficulties, tragedies, and griefs they've likely experienced—aren't the issue. Should they be taken into account?


Reading this passage of Gornick's, I was put in mind of Michel de Montaigne's response at observing a conjoined child. Four centuries before Gornick rode the subway, Montaigne suggests a practical, humane way of seeing deformity:
Whatever falls out contrary to custom we say is contrary to nature, but nothing, whatever it be, is contrary to her. Let, therefore, this universal and natural reason expel the error and astonishment that novelty brings along with it.

Photo via Brute Reason.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

"I love you because you're home..."

My latest essay in The Normal School is out, a trip down John D. Loudermilk's "Tobacco Road" and some of the many, sometimes wildly different, cover versions that followed, including the Nashville Teens', Lou Rawls's, the Blues Magoos', Bobbie Gentry's, and Junior Wells's, and the maddening ways we define home. You can subscribe to The Normal School here.

Here's an excerpt from the opening:
Loudermilk rode his bicycle to Marvin’s Alley with a flashlight and a fistful of money orders to deliver: muddy road, no cars, seven or eight houses, each darker than the next. “But each porch lamp had a light in it of different colors,” he remembered. “I didn’t know what that meant. So I knock on the door of the first house, and the lights come on inside. And it was full of people. Quiet. Because they were not supposed to be so free with their Saturday nights.” Loudermilk would peer through the front doorway at the suddenly illuminated folks inside who, propped up on the couch, would quietly smile and nod back at him. “And when the guy was through with the business at the front door, I left, and he’d turn the lights off. And I went to the next house. That was Tobacco Road.”
A decade later, the imagery of the dark, mysterious alley and the people who lived there haunted Loudermilk and the words of the song he’d write and record. That kid born in a lump—some will sing “bunk”—whose parents vanish, who’s left to live or die alone, who hates Tobacco Road, enacts the great dream: he leaves town and, blessed by the Lord, earns lots of money, comes back, bulldozes that lousy road, and rebuilds it, proud, at long last, of the name. But there’s a paradox in the chorus made graphic by a change in melody and mood, a nagging conflict that makes the song real: the place will always be home, no matter how bleak and despised, as it’s the only life he knew. Can a song solve that puzzle, make something joyful of it?

Raised in the Baptist church, Loudermilk didn’t know the world and the people of Marvin’s Alley. He wasn’t writing autobiography. “My mother didn’t die in childbirth,” he made clear. “My daddy didn’t get drunk. I never saw him drink a drop. He smoked cigarettes and died as a result of it. I never heard a dirty joke or a curse word from my father.” The angry man in “Tobacco Road” lives in that space between Loudermilk’s upbringing and the zones he crossed into Marvin’s Alley, between home and fantasy, real life and fiction. Loudermilk already knew the power of the imagination, of an interior life engaged with the world outside. “Dad, he was very, very quiet. I’d come home at night after work and he and mother would be sitting in the dark having watched the sunset go down. And I said, ‘What are y’all doing in here?’ He said, ‘You’ll know someday’.”
And some strolls down Tobacco Road:

Lou Rawls, Tobacco Road (1963)
The Nashville Teens, single (1964)

Blues Magoos, Psychedelic Lollipop (1966)

Bobbi Gentry, The Delta Sweete (1968)

Junior Wells, Coming At You (1968)

Monday, May 15, 2017

"Endlessly, All Night"

Recreation at Exhibitionism: The Rolling Stones of the flat at 102 Edith Grove in West London shared by Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and James Phelge in the early 1960s. Photos from Navy Pier in Chicago. many young men in bands their home was an absolute mess with clothes, dirty dishes and old fag ends and empty beer bottles everywhere!

"The milk bottles were just growing this stuff. It was very much like that, the kitchen particularly," Charlie Watts commented.

The band were instrumental in bringing their old home to life again and whilst no photos exist of the flat it would become the launchpad for an amazing legacy.

Keith recollected, "It was definitely a time when we were working hard, learning the blues, endlessly, all night… imbibing it. It was a major part of the band coming together."
The verisimilitude was pungent. I manfully resisted reaching over and rifling through the albums. The kitchen and bedroom I gave a wide berth.

Living Room



Friday, May 12, 2017

Tuning Up with Vivian Gornick

In her terrific 2015 memoir The Odd Woman and the City, essayist Vivian Gornick nails the currency of anticipation so lavishly spent in one's 20s. Gornick is rightly hailed as one of the great urban essayists working now—Manhattan is her canvas—but she also has extraordinary access to her childhood and adolescence, and the ways we tend to wander, wide-eyed, from one thrilling possibility of the future to the next. Here, she describes the sophisticated allure that Manhattan's west side held for her when she was young and erupting with dreams of adulthood, emphases added. "In college, another friend walked me down West End Avenue. I’d never seen a street as wide and stately as this one, with doormen standing in from of apartment houses of imposing height that lined the avenue for a mile and a half."
My friend told me that in these great stone buildings lived musicians and writers, scientists and émigrés, dancers and philosophers. Very soon no trip downtown was complete without a walk on West End from 107th Street to Seventy-Second. For me, the avenue became emblematic. To live here would mean I had arrived. I was a bit confused about whether I’d be the resident artist/intellectual or be married to him—I couldn’t actually see myself signing the lease—but no matter; one way or another, I’d be in the apartment.
In summer we went to the concerts at Lewisohn Stadium, the great amphitheater on the City College campus. It was here that I heard Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms for the first time. These concerts came to an end in the mid-sixties, but in the late fifties, sitting on those stone bleacher seats July after July, August after August, I knew, I just knew, that the men and women all around me lived on West End Avenue. As the orchestra tuned up and the lights dimmed in the soft, starry night, I could feel the whole intelligent audience moving forward as one, yearning toward the music, toward themselves in the music: as though the concert were an open-air extension of the context of their lives. And I, just as intelligently I hoped, leaned forward, too, but I knew that I was only mimicking the movement. I’d not yet earned the right to love the music as they at few Years I began to see it was entirely possible that I never would.
The wry title of Gornick's book, and the decades she's spent essaying herself honestly as a thorny emotional outsider, offers further, bittersweet evidence of how one's twenty-something dreams often remain just that.
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