Monday, July 31, 2017

All I want

In 1987, when blues-based rock and roll wasn't terribly fashionable in most quarters, it was very cool to hear The Godfathers quote Elvis:

"I ain't greedy, baby..."

...all I want is all you got."

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sleepless nights, slashing guitars

The Buzzcocks, ca. 1978
Among the legacies of the Punk and New Wave era of the late-70s was the revival of the speed-laden, tight rock and roll performance. Hippies, use back door. The Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Jam and countless bands in between, from Pub Rock to No Future, renewed the music they wrote and played with an amphetamine garage band ethos, playing short songs fast. Bands like the Buzzcocks played swift, tuneful songs, and, perhaps ironically given the punk mentality in the air, rarely neglected the pop song-craft of verse-bridge-chorus. In fact, Punk went a long way to restoring the value of the mid-60s AM radio pop song. Easy to see that, in retrospect.

One of my favorite bridges occurs in the Buzzcock's killer 1978 single "What Do I get?" All the singer wants is a lover, a friend, a caress, and/or a break—but what does he get instead? The answer, implied in the unhappy anxiety of the verses, is made explicit in the bridge:
I only get sleepless nights
Alone here in my half-empty bed
For you things, seem to turn out right
I wish they'd only happen to me instead 
Those breakneck changes in the second and fourth lines kill me every time: he's alone and miserable, awake and self-pitying, and the turmoil in his head and heart is best told, and hopefully left behind, via slashing guitars. Even an era intent on destroying the past tells old stories.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Smiling, frivolous duties

Vladimir Nabokov on memory still amazes. From Speak, Memory:
In thinking of my successive tutors, I am concerned less with the queer dissonances they introduced into my young life than with the essential stability and completeness of that life. I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past. I like to imagine, in consummation and resolution of those jangling chords, something as enduring, in retrospect, as the long table that on summer birthdays and namedays used to be laid for afternoon chocolate out of doors, in an alley of birches, limes and maples at its debouchment on the smooth-sanded space of the garden proper that separated the park and the house. I see the tablecloth and the faces of seated people sharing in the animation of light and shade beneath a moving, a fabulous foliage, exaggerated, no doubt, by the same faculty of impassioned commemoration, of ceaseless return, that makes me always approach that banquet table from the outside, from the depth of the park—not from the house—as if the mind, in order to go pack thither, had to do so with the silent steps of a prodigal, faint with excitement. Through a tremulous prism, 1 distinguish the features of relatives and familiars, mute lips serenely moving in forgotten speech. I see the steam of the chocolate and the plates of blueberry tarts. I note the small helicopter of a revolving samara that gently descends upon the tablecloth, and, lying across the table, an adolescent girl’s bare arm indolently extended as far as it will go, with its turquoise-veined underside turned up to the flaky sunlight, the palm open in lazy expectancy of something—perhaps the nutcracker. In the place where my current tutor sits, there is a changeful image, a succession of fade-ins and fade-outs; the pulsation of my thought mingles with that of the leaf shadows and turns Ordo into Max and Max into Lenski and Lenski into the schoolmaster, and the whole array of trembling transformations is repeated. And then, suddenly, just when the colors and outlines settle at last to their various duties—smiling, frivolous duties—some knob is touched and a torrent of sounds comes to life: voices speaking all together, a walnut cracked, the click of a nutcracker carelessly passed, thirty human hearts drowning mine with their regular beats, sough and sigh of a thousand trees, the local concord of loud summer birds, and, beyond the river, behind the rhythmic trees, the confused and enthusiastic hullabaloo of bathing young villagers, like a background of wild applause.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Found, Baseball

I found this photograph in a box of my father-in-law's memorabilia, containing items ranging from photos and postcards of upstate New York to World War II snaps and letters. This may be my father-in-law, Lou Newman, swinging through a strike, but the shadows and lighting and age of the photograph make it difficult to be certain that it's him. There's no writing on the back. There's so much I love about this photo of a mid-century pickup baseball game, the casually tossed jacket (third base?), the grass-high perspective, the big sky.

Where was this taken, I wonder. Brooklyn? Catskills? Europe?

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Dave Marsh on "Punk"

Dave Marsh, writing in Rolling Stone in 1977:
Because of a certain churlish attitude and a deep-seated distaste for elites and the effete, I have myself sometimes been described as a punk. This would be endlessly amusing to those hard guys back on the block. But however vicarious my experiences, the punk sensibility (as I define it) is at the heart of what I care about in American culture, not least of all in rock and roll.

For me, the punk sensibility in its original form offered something better and deeper than a way to walk and talk, or an excuse for petty crime and amateur nihilism. Punk in its fifties sense could never be merely music or merely fashion. The pose implied a set of standards, a code of behavior, founded on friendship, carried out as a matter of principle. This sensibility runs through American folklore from the mythic (if not actual) Billy the Kid to what once were known as antiheroes—Cagney and Bogart, later Dean and Brando. That sort of punkitude reached its greatest glory with Elvis Presley, who could bring teenage women to the edge of orgasm while dedicating songs to his mother. The punk code is simple, direct street philosophy: loyalty and self-respect are its highest values, the camaraderie between friends the only society it recognizes.


I mourn the prostitution of true punks by performers for whom public vomiting is a rebellious act of stagecraft, but that’s not what really disturbs me. It's the idea of the dilution of that concept as another symptom of rock’s loss of moral force. That’s not to say that the Ramones and the Sex Pistols are immoral—though they’re definitely a little mixed up. But what these performers and their fans (not to mention their promoters) mistake for rebellion—the honest stand—is too often merely marketable outrage....

A few years ago Esquire called me the last man in American who believed that rock could save the world. I responded that I was, instead, the last who believed that rock could destroy the world. But I never expected to see my prediction confirmed so soon.

Image via PunkiLadd

Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Tourist at Home

Amy and I hung out for several days in wonderful Asheville, North Carolina, where we took in a Tourists game. The Class A team for the Colorado Rockies, the Tourists play their home games at McCormick Field, where the history is palpable. Teams have played under the Tourists name dating back to 1897; the current team has played in the South Atlantic League since 1976. The curious "Tourists" name was adopted sometime in the 1930s—an earlier team had been called The Moonshiners, which I prefer! In the 1940s, the Tourists shared the park with the Asheville Blues, an independent Negro Leagues team.

McCormick Field opened in 1924, and was renovated in 1959 and again prior to the 1992 season. A mostly concrete structure now—the old wooden roof was leaking badly—the park is still intimate, cozy, and, nestled in the green mountains, with houses right across the street, fantastically homey. The whole thing feels like it's tilting (in a good way). As night fell and the outfield lights came on, the trees were illuminated in such a way that a home run ball hit to right vanished in the trees, giving the impression of a bright mythic sphere consumed by the dark. Good beer is plentiful in the park, as throughout all of Asheville, terrific local brews (my fave that night was the Hi-Wire Hi-Pitch Mosaic IPA), and the mood was convivial and family-friendly, without being sentimentally cloying or stuffed with distractions, save for the fun, Minor League kind: kids running bases between innings, groups of them leap-frogging in giant underpants or racing the mascot. One kid a row over from us took a shot at predicting the speed of the first pitch of the following inning. He called 87, and had three chances: the first three pitches were clocked at 88, 89, and 86. Everyone around us laughed. Baseball's hard.

Perusing the game program, I learned about the team's and park's history, including the impressive number of Tourists who've ended up in the Majors, most for a cup of coffee, a few for a Hall of Fame career. The coolest fact I learned was that Cal Ripken Jr.'s father—that would be Sr.—managed the Tourists for a spell in the 1970s, and young Cal was the batboy. Right after I read this, I saw the Tourists' current ball fetcher run onto the field to claim a ball or a bat, and I pictured Cal—skinny, little, wide-eyed—in this boy's place. Modest moments of history, transposed one on the other like that, are among the deep pleasures of taking in a baseball game at an old park.

The Tourists won in a bit of a laugher, 12-3. The Augusta GreenJackets' catcher had a rough night of it, both behind and at the plate, and the Tourists' middle infielders, second baseman Carlos Herrera and shortstop Jose Gomez, threw some mighty impressive leather. I'll keep an eye out for them. Nearly all of the crowd of 2,300 stayed until the end of the game.

Beforehand, as we were descending the hilly lot where we parked—for free—an attendant asked if we'd ever been to McCormick Field. We said No, and he gave us each a "My First Tourists Game" button. Can't wait to get back.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

"That's just the way I feel." Guralnick on LaBeef, or, How to Write a Great Profile of an Obscure Musician

Peter Guralnick's profile of Sleepy LaBeef, which I read in Guralnick's essential collection Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians, published in 1979, remains one of the finest and most evocative distillations of the spirit and passions of a working musician. I read it often, and I never fail to take pleasure in the respect Guralnick pays to LaBeef, who at the time the piece was published, was, it turns out, in the middle of a long career playing festivals and one-off gigs. Guralnick writes with his characteristic clarity, warmth, curiosity, and knowledge, bred in his longstanding love for rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and blues.

Guralnick uses LaBeef's Massachusetts residency gigs as a kind of rhetorical home base, while sketching LaBeef's early life and career, personal idiosyncrasies, and setbacks and successes, and essaying the nature of hard work, luck, and core values necessary in the makeup of a musician who's making a living—or trying to—against odds. Here are the opening and closing graphs of "Sleepy LaBeef: There's Good Rockin' Tonight," which I recommend you find and read as soon as you can; I love the opening sentence, which both assumes and avoids condescension:
If you frequent the honky tonks, you may very well have run across the music of Sleepy LaBeef. For a number of years he worked the area around Atlanta. Before that it was Port Huron or Kansas or the circuit of NCO service clubs where there is three or four hundred dollars to be made for a night's work and a string of bookings to be lined up— if you go over. When I first met him in the spring of 1977, Sleepy LaBeef had been working Alan's Fifth Wheel Lounge, about an hour north of Boston, for nearly three months on a pretty regular basis. There he had been laying down the original rockabilly sounds of Sun six nights a week, five sets a night, to an appreciative audience of truckers, regulars, factory workers off the late—night shift, and just plain Sleepy LaBeef fans who may have caught him on talk-master Larry Glick’s two A.M. phone-in broadcasts from the truckstop.

How in the world, the question naturally arises, did a six-foot six, 265- pound, basso profundo, first-generation rockabilly from Arkansas ever end up at Alan's Truckstop in the northeast backwater of Amesbury, Massachusetts?
In many ways Sleepy is as great a performer as I've ever seen, and when you see the way that people respond to his music, you wonder why, and if, rockabilly ever went away. Sleepy has a theory on that ("I didn't ever see it change. The people were still digging it, and the musicians liked playing it, but the big companies figured it was a fad and they took it away from the kids"), but in any case it is no exercise in nostalgia for the people who have come out to see Sleepy LaBeef at Alan's Fifth Wheel or the Hillbilly Ranch; they couldn't care less that it was Iohn Lee Hooker who originated ’In the Mood’ or Scotty Moore whose licks Sleepy duplicates note for note on ’Milkcow Blues Boogie.’ Sleepy’s records may not do him justice, but Sleepy knows how good he can be.

"I never sold out," he can say with pride. "Nobody owns me. I know I'm good. I wouldn't be honest if I didn't tell you that. I've been around long enough to know that if I get the breaks I can still make it—Charlie Rich was older than me when he finally did. And if I don't get the breaks—wel1, when I started in this business I didn't even know you could make a dime out of it. And I think I'd still be doing it tomorrow, if there wasn't any money in it at all. That's just the way I feel."
As I worked on Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band, I clung to these inspiring, moving words of LaBeef's—I think I'd still be doing it tomorrow, if there wasn't any money in it at all. That's just the way I feel. Indeed, LaBeef's comments could've been my book's subtitle. I owe a great debt to Guralnick, for this profile which I could only have hoped to emulate in my long, sprawling book, and for the hours of pleasure that his work has given me over the decades.
LaBeef, center, in Houston, Texas, ca. 1957

England, 1979

I was happily able to cross off Seeing LaBeef from my bucket list. In 2013, I caught him in an outdoor tent at the American Music Festival at Fitzgerald's, in Berwyn, Illinois.  Here are few minutes I recorded of the great man hard at work, forgetting about yesterday and not thinking about tomorrow:

Photos reproduced from Lost Highway.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

No Heroes: Lester Bangs on Stage

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's "How To B A Rock Critic" begins with Lester Bangs on the toilet. Thankfully, we don't see this; we hear Bangs, played by Jensen and directed by Blank, offstage, cursing a lousy order of Kung Pao Chicken, and then a toilet flushing. Enter: Lester, opening random cans of sudsy Schlitz, and bitching about a deadline and writer's block. We're facing Bangs's apartment, a mess, with a couch at center stage flanked by a chair, ottoman, and a writing desk stage right, and a messy table on which sits a stereo, stage left; strewn across the stage are many albums—some crated, most in towering stacks—, several cough syrup bottles, tossed books and magazines, the requisite open Chinese food takeout box on its side. The production at Steppenwolf Theater is very intimate; 1700 Theater is tiny, and at the Saturday matinee we attended I counted twenty heads as the lights went down. Jensen used this nearness to address the crowd, first imploring us to remain in the hall outside his apartment, then tossing audience members beers and (era-appropriate) copies of People and Rolling Stone magazines to read before he settled in, took a deep breath, belched, and launched a ninety minute monologue/rant/statement-of-purpose about music and writing about music and the appeal and despair of both, with occasional backward-looking glances to his fucked-up childhood and adolescence, a fractured account of his move from California (where he wrote for, among other outlets, Rolling Stone) to the Lower East Side (Village Voice) via Detroit (Creem), and random spins of his favorite records—the Troggs, the Count Five, the Carpenters, the Velvets, the Stooges, the J. Geils Band, the Ramones, Van Morrison—all the while sipping beer, swilling Romilar cough syrup, and chugging straight gin. Jensen being Lester being Lester.

I'm not exactly sure what "How To Be A Rock Critic" is, or who it's for. Bangs apostles who attend  will likely find themselves in one of two camps: among the Besotted, nodding along in recognition of the play's lines and the stories adapted from Bangs's work, and getting off on Jensen's tightly-wound portrayal of the sloppy hero made flesh; or the Skeptical, in love with Bangs's words and his charged calling, but doubtful of the need to dramatize them so theatrically. Those new to Bangs or only slightly familiar with him might feel as if they're trapped, lectured by a well-meaning blowhard. In a way, each response is valid, as each registers somewhere along Bangs's character and intentions and the reactions that his writing—and his oversized personality—often got.

If there's a narrative arc in the play, it's Bangs's search for Van Morrison's Astral Weeks album; he's literally looking for it throughout the play, promising the audience that they'll love it if he can just find the damn thing, and also figuratively searching for the momentary transcendence that that music provided, and might again. The play is also book-ended by Bangs's narrating of two events he witnessed: when a groupie was viciously attacked by a Hells Angel member during an orgy; and when a fourteen-year-old fan of the Clash was assaulted by a member of the band's retinue. In both cases, Bangs did not intervene. Jensen plays these two accounts as sources of great guilt and shame for Bangs, who seems to find a parallel sense of ennui and helplessness in the face of corporate rock and bloated professionalization of rock criticism of the early- and mid-1970s pre-Punk era. As Bangs often did, Jensen moves between ecstasy and despair—he foams at the mouth, leaps about, jumps on the coffee table and the stacks of records to make his points, and ends the performance dissolute, drunk, and high, nodding off on the couch as Van Morrison album  plays. In a nice bit of directing, the album jump-cuts to the last song, stuck in a perpetual skip as the play ends.

People who knew Bangs well said that he could be a blowhard and a loudmouth bore, that he could be mean, especially when drunk or high, and that you often felt like a captive audience when he was holding forth. That sense of being stuck with an ecstatic as he proselytizes and careens between sincerity and bombast is well dramatized in the intimate space of the 1700 Theater, and Jensen milks his center-of-attention status well. Bangs could be annoying; so is Jensen playing Bangs. Bangs was also brilliant, talented, funny, and deeply-caring; Jensen moves among those poles, as well.

Erik Jensen as Lester Bangs

Can the call to writing be dramatized? (Should it be?) Do we really need more Bangs Myth thirty-plus years after his death? Didn't he provide enough of that when he was alive, and haven't his followers stoked the legend? Jim DeRogatis's terrific Let It Blurt (2000) and Raul Sandelin's 2013 documentary A Box Full of Rocks: The El Cajon Years of Lester Bangs are sturdy, clear-eyed takes on his biography, but Blank and Jensen seem interested in the Theater Of Bangs, the dimensional space that his writing inhabited in all of its hyper-energy and essayistic galloping about. These are Bangs's words and rambling sentences; it's up to Jensen to adapt them and to act them. For the most part, actor and director succeed in dramatizing Bangs's mania, which was both genuine, and fuel for his self-conscious persona. A few times the production stumbles: Bangs's epiphanic moments of reflection are precious and often telegraphed, Blank making Bangs's unhappiness and depressive hopelessness obvious. Bangs was rarely subtle, a personality trait and writerly aesthetic he seemed to lack or be deeply skeptical of, but often on the page, especially in his more autobiographical writing, the energy and drive of his sentences did as much to describe his ill-fated mania as do Jensen's wounded, over-the-shoulder glances to the audience.

Blank and Jensen also get it right, most often when Bangs holds forth about the music he loves. His description of driving around with a blissy, spaced-out girlfriend as the Troggs's "Wild Thing" plays on the radio wonderfully captures the way that simple, unadorned rock and roll—Bangs's favorite kind—can open doors into very complex rooms. Near the end of the play, as Jensen's admirably-paced alcohol- and cough syrup-high is cresting, Bangs takes on Elvis, persuasively proving that the boy from Tupelo who seemed to come from outer space was both a local turd and a larger-than-life force of nature. Why can't he be both? Bangs wonders. (I bristled at Jensen's mimicry of Elvis's moves as Bangs imagined eating the drugs from Presley's intestines after Presley died; it's one of Bangs's greatest, most insanely inspired riffs and Jensen's play-acting trivializes it.) Before he nods off to Morrison's "Cypress Avenue," Bangs ruminates on the power of music that once gave him a glimpse into something remarkable, something that refreshed him and gave him hope. His confessing to spending the rest of his life trying to rediscover and renew that moment is the most potent and moving dramatization—and description—of Bangs's life and career that the play achieves.

As any fan of Bangs's writing knows, even in his pay-the-rent shitty album reviews and profiles, he was rarely writing just about music; he was writing about what it means to be a living, breathing human who didn't choose to be here and is now stuck looking for justification. Bangs writes about how being alive blows and is also the greatest gift—45s and album cuts were simply the moving parts that got his words to the page.

Still, I'm on the fence, somewhere between my gratitude for Blank and Jensen's commitment to a great writer and my my skepticism about whether music writing can be fully dramatized. After the performance, I wondered half-seriously if maybe the best thing Blank and Jensen could've done would've been to have Bangs sit on his couch, drink, get high, and play the entirety of the Carpeners' Close To You or all four sides of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music while half-grinning, leering, and crying. (Bangs on MMM: "As a statement it's great, as a giant FUCK YOU it shows integrity—a sick, twisted, dunced-out, malevolent, perverted, psychopathic integrity, but integrity nevertheless.") Not saying a word. He's staying here. After all, we've got his books.


Photo of Jensen onstage via The Artery (Courtesy Craig Schwartz/ArtsEmerson)

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Pipes, Wires, Girders, and all

Midway through his absorbing and moving book The Final Season: Fathers, Sons, and One Last Season in a Classic American Ballpark, writer Tom Stanton—who is taking in every home game during the Detroit Tigers' 1999 season, their last in Tiger Stadium—meets up with Carolyn  Krause, a visiting Bostonian. In her hometown, she helps run Save Fenway Park!, an organization that will ultimately help stave off the movement to demolish the storied Boston ballpark. She's taking in a game at Tiger Stadium to say a last goodbye, and she chats with Stanton. Their conversation rankles Stanton. Krause seems more enamored of Fenway and Wrigley Field in Chicago than of old, crumbling Tiger Stadium. Her apparent coolness toward Stanton's beloved park, where he grew up and where he takes his sons, in the age-old generational passing of the torch, gives rise in Stanton to old, unwelcome feelings. In addressing them internally, he essays the appeal and beauty of old ballparks, nostalgia, and the sometimes absurd attachment to place. He writes, "Deep inside, beyond the childhood insecurities that occasionally spring from my depths and cause me to get defensive, I know [Krause] must say this to give herself hope. I know she must believe it will be  different for her park. Still, her words feel disrespectful, as if she’s attacking the value of me memories and those of my father, my grandfather,  and my son, as if she's she’s saying, Well, it’s unfortunate that your grandmother died, but mine’s more special anyway and maybe we can save her."
Her words bother me because in part they are accurate. There is a perception that Fenway and Wrigley are more special than Tiger Stadium. I have struggled to understand it. Is it because those parks are in better neighborhoods? Or because their fans are more educated or affluent, more worldly? Or because they’re based in Boston and Chicago, cities with grand literary traditions and writers who celebrate them? Or is it just because neither team has won a world championship since Hollywood began making talking movies and some find that romantic?

Our ballpark feels like Detroit. It carries no airs. It’s blue-collar and industrial. When you enter through the gates, you come in beneath corrugated doors that have been rolled up on tracks, like at a warehouse delivery dock. You’re greeted by cement and steel, strong, riveted girders that thrust upward and serve a purpose, holding the deck above in place. There are no architectural flourishes: no cornices, no fancy tile Work, no aesthetic touches. This stadium shows its secrets—pipes, wires, girders, and all. It’s plain and simple, no scent of pretentiousness. It doesn’t yearn to be something it is not.

Krause may sense my irritation because her Words take on a conciliatory tone.

“I feel like I couldn’t help Tiger Stadium,” she says. “But if Fenway can be preserved, at least part of that era can go on.”
Three years ago, I visited the site of old Tiger Stadium, a park I regrettably never attended. To be nostalgic means to have a deep desire for a homecoming, of sorts—difficult to do when that place is gone for good. Reading Stanton's words somehow brought me back home to a place I'd never been.

Tiger Stadium, marvel to rubble. 

Past and present history of Tiger Stadium and the site at Michigan and Trumbull Avenues here.

Top image of Tiger Stadium via Ballparks Of Baseball; middle image via flickr; bottom image via Pinterest.