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.
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