Friday, April 28, 2017

Talkin' Field Recordings with Joe Oestreich

I recently hopped on the phone with writer and musician Joe Oestreich to talk about my new book of essays Field Recordings from the Inside, and of course we ended up gabbing about plenty more—most of it music- and writing-obsessed, naturally. An exceprt:
JO: In the book Freakonomics, one of the fun economic facts is that reading out loud to your kids doesn’t necessarily make them more literate. But there is a correlation between just having books in your house and your child’s literacy. So maybe if you keep the physical object of the record at home, then some afternoon when the kid is alone and bored, he can sift though the shelves, pick out the Carly Simon album cover, and say, “Oh my God. What is this?”
JB: Oh my God. Who is this? The kids that only know music through streaming or You Tube, they’re missing out on something, absolutely. But every older generation says that. That’s what the horse-and-carriage driver said about the automobile, etcetera, etcetera. That’s always going to be part of the human condition. So you’re right. We do have to guard against “Get off my porch” kind of thinking. I have to remind myself that somewhere there’s a 13 year old for whom his introduction to music was streaming. In 10 or 15 years when streaming goes away and is replaced by something else, that kid is going to bemoan the loss of streaming in ways I can’t comprehend. But that’s the nature of loss; that’s the nature of growing.
The conversation can be found here.

Field Recordings from the Inside is out now, available in print and e-book at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound, and at your groovy local bookstore—and if it isn't, ask for it! Literary Hub recently posted the title essay along with a special Spotify playlist I curated to accompany the book, music ranging from Top 40 pop to punk, standards to one-offs, songs I discuss in the book, some in passing, some in depth.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Baseball Doesn't Get Easier, ctd.

Matt Davidson
Ah, the saga of Matt Davidson, the Vexed Baseball Player writ small. Two Februaries ago I wrote about Davidson, then a prospect with the Chicago White Sox who was ticketed as a sure-thing but who was baffled and struggling in the Minors. That old story. Since then, I've been keeping an eye on Davidson, who's the kind of player I think I would've liked when I was a kid: he's handsome but not overwhelmingly so, obviously talented yet modest, brooding, a quiet, head-down-go-to-work kind of grinder. Things started to come together for Davidson in AAA ball, and he was promoted to the White Sox last summer. He promptly broke his foot in his debut game while rounding the bases after stroking an RBI single in the fourth inning.

More Davidson Appeal: lousy luck, in game that depends as much on kind fate as on elite talent. His 2016 full-season stat line says it all, in not saying much:

He was out for the year.

This season, back with the team, undeterred, Davidson has been playing solidly: as of this writing, in 48 plate appearances (an admittedly small sample size) he an OPS of 1.000, with four home runs, fourteen RBI, and two doubles. He's hitting .311. His latest speed bump on the path to starting, if not stardom? That's he playing on a rebuilding club. Recently, he was benched for four consecutive games so that White Sox manager Rick Renteria could give at-bats and playing time to rookies. Davidson's reaction, at least his public one, was mature and balanced, another reason to like the kid: "It feels a whole lot better being here than in (Triple-A) Charlotte, so I'm enjoying every single day," he said. "Obviously I want to play, but being here with these guys and being in Chicago is a dream come true."

It gives me the luxury to get a little more work in, whereas when you play every day, you try to conserve your energy. I'm really trying not to take any mental days off, even if I'm not playing. ... There's still a lot to learn every day.
Talking to those guys and taking ground balls in batting practice with them, I felt like I gathered a lot of wisdom from them in those moments. Playing every day is important as far as development, but you can learn a lot just sitting, listening and watching as well.
Good stuff, a jock's eagerness tempered with mature patience; I like the blend. With Davidson, I want to believe that his responses aren't canned, but genuine.

What did Davidson do when reinserted into the lineup? Promptly have what White Sox announcer Jason Benetti quipped should've been retroactively dubbed a promotable "Matt Davidson Day:" a three-hit, four-RBI night in a 12-1 victory over the Kansas City Royals at Guaranteed Rate Field. Looks like I won't have to figuratively peer at Davidson in the dugout too often anymore. And yet...injuries surprise, slumps are stubborn, baseball is a humbling game, and his journey of ups and downs should be rewarding, maybe even teacherly, to watch.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Sam Phillips's eyes

In I'm Just Dead I'm Not Gone, Jim Dickinson describes a mid-1960s recording session at Sam Phillips's Sun Studio in Memphis:
When I got to the studio, Sam was busy notating microphones on a clipboard. He was in a suit and tie, and all business. We were going to record! Sam was fantastic. His eyes were wild. When he got worked up, the black of the iris nearly filled his whole eyeball.
Quite the image. Gives me new way to see this epic conversation in my imagination:

Saturday, April 22, 2017

On seeing Bo Diddley: "The night stopped being pink and became flaming green. Everything was orange."

Jim Dickinson, detail from front cover of I'm Just Dead I'm Not Gone
Early in his evocative, essential memoir I'm Just Dead I'm Not Gone, an eighteen year-old Jim Dickinson, on the cusp of a unique and varied career in music, already mature in band experience (The Regents, others), recreational drug use (beer to grain alcohol to speed to acid), and getting there with girls, gets the chance to open for Bo Diddley at a fraternity-sponsored fall dance at the National Guard Armory in Memphis, in 1959. The night was charged, for rumor had it that Diddley had "caused" a riot the night before in Nashville, when a white girl jumped onstage to dance. Adding to the tension—to the thrills—was Diddley's and his band's very late arrival at the Armory. Dickinson's band is vamping and elongating their thin stage set to compensate. "It got later and later," Dickinson writes. "We stretched out. The audience was getting crazy. Finally, we got word Bo had arrived."
We stopped playing and went out back door. Two Chrysler stations wagons had pulled up and parked on the sidewalk. They were covered with randomly placed pinstriped hot rod decals and a hand-lettered sign that read BO DIDDLEY BAND. Two giant black men in thick fur coats were driving. The three-piece band unloaded their drum kit. Bo argued with the frat-boy promoter. Ricky, Stanley, and I walked up. The frat boy, irate and overly agitated, shook a performance contract and screamed, “It says right here you are playing two hour sets and taking one break.” Bo Diddley slowly reached in his pants pocket and pulled out a wadded up greasy piece of paper and unfolded it. Sure enough, it is the contract.

“Yeah,” he says. “It say that in my contract, too.” He wads it up and puts it back in his pants. He points at me. “He could have been Bo Diddley.” He points at Stanley, who is in true racist near frenzy. “Or he could have been Bo Diddley,” he continued. "But I is Bo Diddley and Bo Diddley is taking three breaks."

That was it. I agreed to play the breaks for an extra $150; the proceedings commenced. The hour struck and the witch man, great raiser of the dead, had arrived with an amplifier that looked like an icebox lying down and an orange guitar shaped like a Ford Fairlane. The trio wore knee-length red coats. Bo turned on the amp and tuned his guitar at full volume. The crowd screamed. Bo laughed and laughed, and kept tuning. Then he started, drums laying a repeated pounding rhythm, maracas filling up the holes. Jungle sound filled the armory. The world stood on its head and screamed. No one was dancing exactly; the crowd moved like one great sheet. On a pedestal ten feet over the crowd's heads, mad men were rain dancing. The night stopped being pink and became flaming green. Everything was orange, like methylate spilled in a bathtub. Football disciples down front had six-pack beer cartons on their heads and whooped the Indian dance, hearing the organ grinder, hearing the mating call.


Watching his hands was a mystery. The chords weren’t recognizable. He seemed to play a pattern, first open and then closing his hand for the four chord. His hand zoomed up the neck, making the low bass string scream and rumble. I looked around. Ricky watched him, too, trying to figure it out. After the dance, I took Vera home and went to Ricky’s. We worked in his music room until dawn, by which time we had figured out "open” D tuning. We broke the code. Bo Diddley’s guitar was tuned to a chord. We were the new white disciples of the black man’s magic powerful technique; it opened a new world of soul funk. Wild-eyed, still possessed by the witch man, I was in bed and away on a gray sleeping cloud.
I never saw Bo play, but after reading this passage I feel a lot closer to what the experience would've felt like: Bo in his prime. We can forgive what in Dickinson's excitable writing and observations might be objected to on racial or essentialist grounds—the "jungle sound," et al—and vibe on the mood of forbidden excitement and sonic (and sartorial) mysteries that pulsed for Dickinson that night, on those strange hands and chords, on the doors that opened, on that horizon rolling back.


Here's Diddley around this time, posing on front of another formidable road machine:
And if you can track down a copy of Spring Weekend 1959, a lo-fi recording of a knocked-out, trance-inducing Bo and his band in front of a sweaty and drunken room of frat boys and their dates, turn it up LOUD and you'll get a good feel for what Dickinson encountered that night.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

New Bomb Turks at the Bottle

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—Last night's New Bomb Turks show at a crowded and sweaty Empty Bottle in Chicago graphically reminded me that the erstwhile Columbus, Ohio band plays serious rock and roll that doesn't take itself too seriously. A paradox? Singer Eric Davidson and fellas have always cited sonic touchstones in 1960s snotty garage rock as well 70s nihilism and 80s speed—their bio puts it this way, "Musically, they are akin to The Saints, Dead Boys, The Pagans,The Sonics or the Troggs"—and the blur of their best songs creates a thrilling roar of amped-up anthems and crunchy, hooky rock and roll, leavened with humor. Davidson's cartoonish stage act gets schticky at times—he'll stick the mic down his pants, choose a giddy fan up front to fake-fellate said mic, rub said mic under his arms, sniff it, and grimace or produce a theatrical "A-OK" thumbs-up, wag his tongue out and shake his head violently, pick his nose, pick a fan's nose, steal their hats, chuck their phones, generally leap about like an ADD schoolkid trying to bust out—and the comedy threatens to distract from the earnestness and tightness of his band's riffing. But then guitarist Jim Weber's Gibson—which sounded great last night—will cut through Davidson's banter, shove it aside, really, show who's boss, and they're a band again, whether Weber's whipping up two minutes of breakneck eighth notes or slowing things down, as in the strutting, rocking "T.A.S.". I love Weber's face when he plays—he often looks mildly anxious about what he's detonating, as if he might lose control of the sound and then he'd be responsible for the ensuing riot. But the Bottle stayed safe; the mosh pit was mild and sloppy drunk, under adult supervision, and Davidson, for all his rabble rousing, pushed things to a line that teased the mayhem, but always pulled back, grinning.

The band hit the stage at midnight, opening with "Point A To Point Blank," and was firing on all cylinders, barreling through as potent a train wreck of punk R&R as when I first saw them 23 years ago (!). You don't need to know all of the Turks' songs to dig their energy and wall-of-sound: the nihilism, bitterness, and disgust come through in every number. The band closed their encore with a rousing version of Wire's "Mr. Suit" from their 1993 debut Destroy-Oh-Boy. Davidson dedicated it "that fucking asshole Sean Spicer."

I'm tired of being told what to think
I'm tired of being told what to do
I'm tired of fucking phonies
That's right, I'm sick of you

Message received.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

"We got the Detroit Demolition here for ya tonight"

J. Geils Band's "Live" Full House was one of the first records I bought with my own money, joining a couple of KISS albums, Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man soundtrack, and the Rolling Stones' Goats Head Soup. I bought Full House at the long-long-gone Backstreet Records in Wheaton, Maryland, a short walk from my house. It's not an understatement to say that the album forever imprinted me. Every song blew me away—the band's tightness, ferocious energy, chops, humor, and sweaty, coiled looseness was everything I was looking for in the early 1980s synth-drum era but didn't know yet. (And, needless to say, graphically illustrated for me that "Love Stinks" and "Centerfold," however catchy, weren't great rock and roll.) The album foregrounds the band's four-on-the-floor R&R and grinding R&B, generally eschewing the jive shuffle and boogie that, for me, drag down too many of their studio albums of the era. Geils's muscular chords in "First I Look at the Purse," strutting riffs on "Hard Drivin' Man," electrifying lines on John Lee Hooker's "Serves You Right To Suffer," and grinning leads on the preposterously fun "Looking for a Love" ("Play your guitar, Clarence!") were epic and larger-than-life to my young ears. The album, edited down from two April 1972 shows recorded at the Cinderella Ballroom in Detroit, dramatized for me the reckless, joyous fun to be had watching a LOUD band in a sweaty, smoky club or venue. The album was likely tweaked in post-production, but such editing wouldn't have mattered to me then even if I knew about it. The lean but muscular Full House remains one of my favorite R&R albums and is one of the greatest live albums ever issued (stronger to my hearts and ears than the indulgent Blow Your Face Out from 1976 and slick Showtime from '82). As I wrote about the album in Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, a book about another insanely good live album, "I could nearly smell the venue, and Detroit in the early-1970s felt grimy and exhilarating."

RIP John Warren "J." Geils, whose righteous guitar playing on this and the other early J. Geils Band albums truly sent me.
J. Geils (1946-2017)
(Apparently, Rhino Records has been sitting on a double-album, expanded version of "Live" Full House for seven years now. But where is it??")

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Barry Lopez, the Drifters, another kind of wildness

I'm reading Nonstop Metropolis, the New York installment of Rebecca Solnit's and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro's "Atlas Trilogy" from the University of California Press—you can read about the fascinating cartography/nonfiction series here. I especially like Barry Lopez's brief essay on the Drifters' "Up On The Roof" in the "Singing the City" chapter. Lopez, a celebrated nature and environmental writer, begins by reminiscing about a wonderful flock of pigeons from his his early boyhood in California. When he was eleven, his family moved to the Murray Hill neighborhood in Manhattan, where he learned that his seventh grade classmates "saw more shabbiness than grace in pigeons." In the city, he came to appreciate something else, an urbanity that dovetailed with the yearning of the AM radio and the moving, mysterious songs that issued from it. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t miss his pigeons for long:
Eleven seemed the perfect age to be swept up in another kind of wildness, which I found in Vermeers hanging in the Frick Collection on 70th Street, in the imposing sight of the prow of the Flatiron Building, and in learning the labyrinth of the IRT, the BMT, and the IND. The strongest shift in my appreciations, however, came with my discovery of Manhattan’s rooftops. When I visited the homes of my new friends in school I always asked to be taken up to the roofs, for the endlessly vast and engaging views they provided—the sight of human intimacy in the window of an apartment two blocks away, the obdurate facade of the Palisades across the river in Jersey, and once, from a friend’s rooftop on East 29th, the way the architecture of Manhattan bellied out between Midtown and Wall Street, the glacial till overlaying the bedrock there being too deep to safely foot a building. On my own block I clambered from rooftop to rooftop, studying the foot traffic on Lexington, so distinctly different from human traffic on Park Avenue. And I came to understand how different deference to someone else’s privacy was in the city from what it had been in rural California. I also came to understand a type of freedom that had not occurred to me in California, as I entered the volumes of raw space apparent from up there and felt the expansion, the release that came from the absence of crowding, from the tedious queues at the headline museums or at theaters where the most popular plays were running.

The day in 1962 I entered the record store on East 34th Street where I bought all of my 45s, having that afternoon heard “Up on the Roof" by the Drifters for the first time on 1010 WINS, I no longer felt I was just living in an apartment in New York; I was now of New York. I was starting to fall in love with girls, and the Drifters’ lyrics in that song spoke directly to the soaring and deflation I was experiencing in my heart. Up on the roof now, I was a city boy, entering that landscape of dreams, floating above the hustling streets.

I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it's peaceful as can be
And there the world below can't bother me
Let me tell you now

Monday, April 3, 2017

Mid-Century Baseball, Illustrated

I avoid sentimentality in baseball like the plague, so it was with some trepidation that I picked up A Century of Baseball, a "Special Collector's Edition" magazine published by The Saturday Evening Post. The issue features, to my taste, too many Norman Rockwell illustrations at their earnestly-composed, theatrically-mawkish "best," but it also features some terrific art and illustrations I'd never seen before, from the likes of Roy Hilton, Benjamin Kimberly Prins, Thornton Utz, Richard Sargent, Rudy Pott, John Falter, and Amos Sewell. The works are of the era, to be sure—rosily tender and already-nostalgic scenes of generational play, gently sexist illustrations of patient if harried moms and wives, pulling distracted men away from the games, nary a minority figure to be seen in most of the work—but all the more evocative because of that. These are glimpses through a mid-century lens on the game, then considered America's Pastime and due soon for some cultural erosion. The last image is a Rockwell (and a great one), but the lesser-known—to me!—artists first:
"Baseball Stadium at Night" (detail), June 28, 1941, Roy Hilton

"World Series in TV Department Store" (detail), October 4, 1958, Benjamin Kimberly Prins

"World Series Scores" (detail),  October 2, 1954, Thornton Utz
"Rough Him Up," May 7, 1955, Rudy Pott

"No Time for a Hotdog" (detail), April 11, 1959, Richard Sargent

"Baseball in the Hospital" (detail), April 29, 1961, Amos Sewell
"Date with the Television," April 21, 1956, John Falter
"Knothole Baseball," August 30, 1958, Norman Rockwell

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Happy Opening Day!

May your love of the game be greater than your love for your favorite, agita-giving struggling team. Play ball!

Image via YouTube.