Monday, January 30, 2017

My Life's a Mess

Five years years ago, Pete Townshend published a memoir, Who I Am, which I liked at the time but which hasn't grown on me well. Though stuffed with some terrific details of 1960s rock star culture—including the best on-the-ground description of the Beatles I've read by a musical contemporary; it was their their potency, Townshend marvels, that astounded—and some characteristically Townshendian discourses on the spiritual magnitude of songwriting, the book clouds over in the second half with the author's unfocused musings and obsessions. In places, his bafflement in the face of his own philandering and general ill behavior gets tiresome and predictable. The two takeaways for this reader: 1) Townshend really, really loves sailing; and 2) he'll probably die in front of his laptop, with fifteen music composition tabs open.

If you want more graphic Townshend autobiography, look no further than his 1980 solo album Empty Glass, a personal and deeply idiosyncratic memoir-in-songs. Throughout the record, Townshend's famously expressive, inexpert voice dramatizes his internal struggles and reflections; his singing is naked. He writes about love, sex, writing, death, and fame—each a longstanding passion for him—in material and spiritual iterations; the songs alternately rock ("Rough Boys"), lilt ("Let My Love Open the Door," "A Little is Enough"), and leave the earthly realm in a kind of hymnal bliss ("And I Moved"). Each of the ten songs reflects an aspect of Townshend's complex and contradictory persona—it's Quadrophenia, all over again—and the songs fail to resolve those tensions. Townshend was a drunken and drug-addled (and Keith Moon-grieving) mess when he wrote the album, and the desperation in his personal and public lives is given shape in fascinatingly different ways in the songs. In short, Empty Glass is a lesson in the richness, limitations, and value of the autobiographical impulse. Sometimes I joke about teaching the album in a Memoir class; other times I'm dead serious about doing that.

The title track is the standout. The verses trade Townshend's spiritual concerns—the meaning of living, the uselessness of materialism, the shallowness and vivid promises of rock star posturing, the endless cycle of physical excesses, Ego versus God—his voice at turns mocking and confessional, chiding and vulnerable. The song begins aggressively, Townshend barking over a single, insistent guitar note, and the verses are melodically and rhythmically upbeat, gladly doo-wopping their way along, until things change dramatically at the chorus, when the tone abruptly, and movingly, shades toward confession:
My life's a mess I wait for you to pass
I stand here at the bar, I hold an empty glass
The melody's heartrendingly beautiful, and Townshend, as he does often when moved, sings near the top of his register, yearning and unembarrassed. This brave and pathetic tavern confession—or is it supplication?—is soon elbowed out of the way by the return of the assertive verses and some classic Townshend guitar licks. (Wasn't this the man who said that rock and roll allows you to dance all over your problems?) Yet the chorus returns, of course—it's the reason the song exists and what it spins outward from, and the truth the singer can't dance away from, or ignore. A playlet, "Empty Glass" is theatrical, almost absurdly so—you can virtually see the lone spotlight on Townshend as he sings this passage—but the honesty of the lyrics and vocal is real.

Near the song's close, Townshend bravely tries one more time to balance the prayerful desolation and dissolution in the chorus with, what, good cheer? Empty bromides? A pep talk?
Don't worry smile and dance
You just can't work life out
Don't let down moods entrance you
Take the wine and shout 
More likely another self-erasing excuse to get wasted. Either way, it doesn't take, unsurprisingly, and that haunted and haunting chorus returns—to my ears, among the most moving and powerful passages Townshend has written—as the weary, accepting guitar notes fade at the song's unresolved end.

In a 1980 Rolling Stone interview with Greil Marcus, Townshend explained the song's genesis:
"Empty Glass" is a direct jump from Persian Sufi poetry. Hafiz–he was a poet in the fourteenth century–used to talk about God's love being wine, and that we learn to be intoxicated, and that the heart is like an empty cup. You hold up the heart, and hope that God's grace will fill your cup with his wine. You stand in the tavern, a useless soul waiting for the barman to give you a drink–the barman being God. It's also Meher Baba talking about the fact that the heart is like a glass, and that God can't fill it up with his love–if it's already filled with love for yourself. I used those images deliberately. It was quite weird going to Germany and talking to people over there about it: "This 'Empty Glass'–is that about you becoming an alcoholic?"
The listener hears what the listener hears, filtering the song through her own personal drama and self-absorption and demons, casting sentiments written by a stranger as personal holy writ—that ancient and generous magic trick of art. In one of his greatest songs, Townshend essayed something deeply private and ended up somewhere eternal. 

"Pete Townsend in London pub in 1980" (cropped) via Getty Images. Townshend bleeding photos triptych via The Pulmyears Music Blog.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Enjoy Life

Spring Training games start in twenty-five days.
Roberto Clemente, 1962. Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Traffic stopped. Drivers honked. Woman ran up and touched him: the Legend of Guitar Slim Onstage

I love this passage about New Orleans legend Guitar Slim in Randy McNutt's terrific and overlooked book Guitar Towns: A Journey to the Crossroads of Rock 'n' Roll:
He attracted thousands of customers to the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans. Like Slim, it never shut down. When he climbed up on its stage, he became a Crescent City happening through which customers vicariously fulfilled their fantasies—the women, the adulation, the money, the cars, the no-cares lifestyle. For a few hours, at least, they could forget the kids and the bills. With the hit ["The Things That I Used To Do", January, 1954], Slim finally gained the national audience he needed. He sang at Gleason’s and the Ebony Club in Cleveland, the Club Walahiye in Atlanta, and the Palms Club in Hallandale, Florida. At the Apollo in New York, Slim once became so excited that he wouldn’t stop playing. Stagehands had to drop the curtain, but Slim continued. In Louisiana, his act became a legend. Before battles of the bands, Slim would tell the other performers—Fats Domino, Bobby Bland, and anybody else with enough nerve to share the stage with him—that he would win. In clubs, he’d often walk off the stage and into the street, playing guitar with an electrical cord that stretched, according to varying estimates, from 200 to 350 feet. Sometimes he Stood on the shoulders of a muscular valet. Traffic stopped. Drivers honked. Woman ran up and touched him. He walked on the tops of cars, picking his guitar and somehow not missing a beat.
More epic details from Ted Barron in Perfect Sound Forever:
Every account of Guitar Slim places him as the greatest showman and most outrageous performer in the history of New Orleans music. That's saying something. He would dye his hair the same color as his suit and shoes--sometimes using paint to get the shoe color to match. One week it was red, the next blue, or yellow, and so on.... He would enter a club through the front door, playing while moving through the crowd, and join his band onstage, frequently on the shoulders of his personal valet. He exited the stage in the same fashion, proceeding to his car and driving away while still playing.
Barron's piece featured a rare shot of Slim doing his thing live:
Guitar Slim: what a rock and roll spectacle he must've been onstage—and off!—breaking down the walls between performer and audience well before 1960s and '70s rock and roll and punk bands. Sadly, I can find no footage of Slim playing onstage; he died in 1959. We're reliant upon the memories and first-hand accounts of knocked out witnesses.

Here's a killer b-side, with insane guitar distortion, from 1954:

Photo of Guitar Slim via Innocent Words.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Enter to Win a Free Copy of Field Recordings from the Inside

Goodreads is giving away a five free copies of my new book of music essays, Field Recordings from the Inside. You have until the end of the month to enter (United States, only.) If you're interested, enter here—and spread the word! (You can pre-order the book at Amazon and Indiebound.)

About the book, which is out on February 14 from Soft Skull Press:
“[Bonomo] looks at the ways music influenced and underscored events throughout his life. The best essays here extend that gaze beyond his own life and into those of other artists and their audiences . . . [a] great collection.” —Publishers Weekly

“The writings he collects for this mix tape of memories are deep cuts . . . That is the appeal of this genre-spanning collection, along with the mix tapes: no special musical expertise is necessary for appreciating Bonomo’s point of view or the richly described nostalgia. Just drop the needle, hit play, scroll, or turn the page and enjoy.” —Booklist

“Bonomo’s passion for his subject matter is undeniable, and the verve with which he writes about music is endearing.” —Kirkus Reviews

“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

“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

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.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

demanding and hopeful and desperate and lonely

The idea of "perfection" in rock and roll is kind of counter intuitive: a great rock and roll song threatens to fall apart by the next measure, is played with, and against, a kind of desperation, no matter how fun and liberating it feels. Unless what you've built is built is not meant to break, then what you've built is imperfect. But we all know rock and roll perfection when we hear or feel or see it, usually measured in moments: a move to a bridge or chorus; a rawly, surprisingly transcendent solo; 45 reckless seconds in the middle of a song played by a bar band in Somewhereville on a Tuesday night.

The Ramones' "I Just Want To Have Something To Do," the lead track of their fourth album, Road to Ruin, released in the fall of 1978, comes close to my ears to achieving two and half minutes of rock and roll perfection. The song's about nothing and having nothing to do, so it's about everything, on that night anyway. The opening riff is downbeat and tense, suggesting an East Village tableau that's slightly menacing yet is all that's on offer, and we're only five seconds in. (The riff is a variation on the Dictators' "The Next Big Thing," released two years earlier.) The famous first verse—the song was written by Joey—lays out the stakes:
Hangin' out on Second Avenue
Eating chicken vindaloo
I was just wanna be with you
I just wanna have something to do tonight...
I love that he moves from wanting to hang with you, to just wanting something to do; there's a kind of acknowledgement that she might not come through, or be around, or want to hang with him. What's left? No matter that Joey was pushing 30 when he wrote the tune; this kind of desire to make contact is eternal, doesn't die with adolescence. "I Just Want to Have Something to Do" is one of punk rock's great melodramas, and I write that with great affection. In the chorus, Joey, against three chords, aches and climbs up into his vocal range, singing tonight tonight tonight in a poor-man's EV play-let; it's theatrical. The song gains great power in the gang-sung "Wait! Now!" passage—which could've been in the running as the song's title, too, come to think of it—and in the final 40 or so seconds, where the chorus is repeated against Marky's eighth-note bass drum kicks—a racing heartbeat brought upon by anticipation of something happening or by the drugs ingested to get something happening—and those stubborn chords, and as commenting guitar leads (likely played by someone other than Johnny; I could be wrong) howl and detonate all over it until the thing crashes to an ambivalent close. Producers Tommy Ramone and Ed Stasium recorded and mixed the band's dynamics superbly: crisp, punchy, with an ear tuned to hooks and radio drama. Great stuff. The final 40 seconds are, still, absurdly moving to me, still bring me to tears in its below-14th Street widescreen catching everything demanding and hopeful and desperate and lonely about adolescence and desire and kicks—not to mention about guys and girls. And it's one of the great rock and roll songs about New York City, too. Turn it up.

Photo of the Ramones in 1978 via New York Daily News.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Eight Seconds

Rock and roll history is a long, sturdy bridge, elevated on sturdy pillars. The first bridge is hard to discern now—it's so far back there—and we haven't reached the end yet. A more accurate metaphor might be that same bridge in a thick fog; as history and biases and subjectivity lift, more and more of those pillars are revealed. Or, I'll just make it easy: Eddie and the Hot Rods were a great rock and roll band and they don't get their due. Usually categorized as a pub rock outfit, Eddie and the Hot Rods were a smokin' rock and roll band that made a handful of great records. Their EP Live at The Marquee was released on Island Records in July of 1976—from a mobile recording of a July 9th show—as the UK punk scene was roiling. Their version of "Gloria" segueing into "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" vibes off of the same nihilistic energy that the Sex Pistols let loose when, snarling, they attacked and upended the Monkees' "(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone" a little while later. Earlier that year, the Pistols opened for the Hot Rods at the Marquee and smashed up the joint, and also the Hot Rods' gear; later, in the summer, the Hot Rods would alternate ear-ringing slots at the club with AC/DC.

This performance begins even before the song starts, when one of my favorite rock and roll moments occurs. Singer Barrie Masters, surveying the front of the stage, senses something not quite right, and then gets dismissive:
Move all these chairs, don't want 'em in 'ere! Get up, move 'em all. Can't have chairs in the audience, they get in the way. Get 'em out of here!!
The front of the room cleared for dancing, pogo-ing, and general slamming around, the band rips into "Gloria." It's a fantastic moment, and sounds epochal, practically historic: in eight seconds, one era ends and another begins. That's as long as it takes, sometimes. Feels that way this on this night, anyway. Sitting, that's finished; get up and jump around, 1977's almost here.

And listen to Masters—with Dave Higgs on guitar, Paul Gray on bass, Lew Lewis on harmonica, and Steve Nicol on drums, churning behind him—as he hollers "Satisfaction!" over and over at the song's close, so close to Johnny Rotten's heralding "No Future!" that it could be one transparency laid over another. The Stones roughed up. Pub Rock. Punk Rock. Rock and Roll. The tyranny of taxonomy. What's in a name? Clear those chairs and turn it up.

EP sleeve pic via 45cat

Sunday, January 15, 2017

"To gaze into the camera is to look into the future"

Geoff Dyer has a terrific meditation on family photographs, memory, Walker Evans, and hints of the future in The New York Times Magazine. "This picture, which seems like a pure emanation of memory, includes the person whose memories it represents: the person, that is, whose consciousness never included this view of himself."
I have no idea who took the picture. As a result, and because it includes every member of our family — I had no siblings — something strange happens. An unknown friend, relative or passer-by must have taken the picture, but in the absence of clinching evidence to the contrary, it is not unreasonable to think that the place itself made a record of the day. 
Later: "I’ll actually be 60 next year, and so, looking at this picture, I think again of something the poet George Oppen said to Paul Auster about getting old: 'What a strange thing to happen to a little boy.' That, surely, is among the wisest things ever said by anyone about aging."

More on family photos here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Sister Nena Reading

A blend of nuns and lay faculty taught at Saint Andrew the Apostle Grade School, which I attended from first through eighth grades. Many of the Sisters had been there since before my oldest brother was a student—they lived in a small, dark brown convent annexed to the school—but by the time I left for high school, teaching nuns were well on their way out. My favorite nun there‚ one of my favorite teachers to this day, was Sister Nena, an Italian woman who, to my ten-year old perspective, could've been anywhere from fifty to seventy years old. She was dark haired and small, funny with a quick and loud laugh, with bright eyes and a direct gaze, and a smile that seemed to indicate more than it let on. She's directly responsible for my lifelong love affair with language and words. At around one or two, following the afternoon recess, the room full of nine or ten-year olds buzzing with post-lunch, pre-3 p.m. mania, Sister Nena would instruct us to lay our heads down on our desks, and she'd read aloud to us from a book. I can't remember any of the titles she read, but the fact is I'd probably forgotten them by the next day, so immersed was I in the sound and textures of Sister Nena's voice, the timbre, sing-song, up-and-down music of sound. Her voice would caress the back of my neck and head, fill my sinuses, tickle behind my nose. As she read, I'd half doze off—as most of us kids did—moving dreamlike in and out of the story, the characters, the setting, her voice massaging me into bliss. I couldn't articulate this to myself then, only lift my head in a daze when she finished, stealing glances at the kids around me, their faces suddenly softened and made more intimate, but not threateningly or weirdly so—it was as if we'd all become siblings, our odd differences smoothed. The world, the classroom, had changed a bit, but rubbing the sleepiness from my eyes was a kind of movement back from the land of story and sound to the lousy politics of the classroom and playground. The pleasures—the physical pleasures—were paradoxically temporary but lasting, each time the sounds of Sister's soft voice pressing a little deeper in me. I was wildly grateful to her, but couldn't really understand that, let alone tell her. In every book that I've ever opened, I hope to hear her voice.