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....