Sunday, February 26, 2017

Drop the needle and Play Ball!

On the first day of Spring Training last week, MLB GameDay tagged a meaningless exhibition workout with a bright-red "Perfect Game" alert. I couldn't help but roll my eyes. A starting pitching performance in February—a glued-together assemblage of a coddled starter and rookies hoping to make an impressions, all of them stretching out, looking for release points and working through winter-bred mechanical issues—bears little relation to a meaningful performance in mid-Summer. MLB is falling victim to that Twenty-first century seduction: more data because we have it, not because we need it. I don't think that God intended baseball fans to hear, let alone watch on our computers or phones, quite so much February and March baseball: Spring Training has become a first season, now, preceding the regular season and the postseason, and is no doubt plenty remunerative. I'll listen to, and sometimes watch, Spring Training because I can, but do I need to? Hearing the ambient sounds of a game, listening again to the voices that will be murmuring sonorously all year, imagining sunny skies from the dolor of gray Illinois is a wonderful escape, but, at the risk of indulging nostalgia, I'm pining for those days as a kid when all of the information I'd pick up from Spring Training arrived in the form of a grainy black-and-white photograph in the Washington Post of, say, Ken Singleton or Jim Palmer stretching their limbs in a far-off sunny land called Arizona (or was it Florida?). Maybe I'd get a score at the end of the sports segment on TV. I can't recall if any March games were broadcast in the 1970s; now, you can hear virtually every inning, if you pay for it. (And MLB GameDay audio is still one of the greatest bargains a ball fan's gonna find these days. Shhhh.) To quote The Quiet Beatle, who appreciated silence and the room for reflection, It's All Too Much.

What nicer way to combat the onslaught then with a game of RPM Turntable Baseball, a 2015 Record Store Day release that a couple thoughtful friends in Rhode Island sent me for Christmas last year. Microfiche Records released the seven-inch, 33 1/3 rpm record, a follow-up to their similar turntable football game. "The envelope has been pushed a little further as this record has a whopping 13 grooves spread over one 7''," their site proclaims:
The A side is the title game, players take turns getting runs, outs, home runs, and more as they play a full 9 inning game on their turntable. There's even a separate band of grooves should you feel like you'd like to try to steal a base.... Both of these games again use Decagonaphonic Multi-groove Technology. Jay Grainer and Barry Dingle return to provide color commentary on all the action and offer clear instructions when to advance your players to the next base, or add an out to your score card.
"Decagonaphonic Multi-groove Technology." Doesn't that phrase wonderfully, if winkingly, conjure the analog, pre-Internet era? By playing the record from the start each time and letting chance pick the grooves for you, you can play a simulated game among more than a dozen possibilities. Dropping a needle on a record and hoping for the best? Sounds like adolescence all over again! And it's just the kind of old-school, childlike immersion in imagination that I'm in the mood for, and to that'll help tune out some of the the 1s and 0s and noise coming out of the baseball camps. Play ball! In April.

GAME NOTE: In the first inning, Team Amy led off with a home run, and knocked another two-run shot later in the frame. She stole a base, too! Team Joe was dispatched with quickly in the bottom of the inning, on two fly outs to left and a grounder to second. We "played" only four of the thirteen groove options in the first inning. Despite the announcer's cringe-worthy use of the word "points" instead of "runs"—I think the developers are football fans—this is fun stuff, and will help to divert plenty of Winter blahs in the future.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Mark Buehrle, Sneaking Back

I hope that I'm not on the east coast on June 24 when the Chicago White Sox retire Mark Buehrle's number at Guaranteed Rate Field. I want to be at the commemorative ceremonies. I loved watching Buerhle pitch—he was swift, all-business, and as longtime White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper noted recently, he ignored the sex appeal of the dominant fastball (not that he had one, anyway) in favor of locating his pitches, changing speeds, and moving pitches around in the zone. Buehrle was one of those elite pitchers who somehow made it look easy; his famously short games—Cooper said you could schedule a dinner reservation the night Buehrle pitched without worrying that you'd be late—reflected a craftsman indulging his native skills, devastatingly potent when he was on, but never showy with his talent. He went to work. He dominated modestly, if that's possible. He was a magician at inducing ground balls, and every time he hit the mound you wondered if he might throw a no-no. He did, twice, including a perfect game. I saw him at work in the park a few times, but my favorite game might've been when he was pitching against the Sox. Two seasons ago in July, I made it to the park to watch Buehrle, pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays, square off against Sox ace Chris Sale, and the night lived up to the hype.

Buerhle slipped into retirement characteristically quietly after that season. "'I didn't want all the attention,' Buehrle said Friday on a conference call with Sox reporters—among his first public comments since leaving the game."
"I've always told people I was a young guy that came into the big leagues unknown, kind of snuck into the big leagues. I wanted to sneak my way out.
"That's why I haven't said anything. I haven't talked to anybody. I just kind of let it go. Hopefully one day it just kind of got forgotten, and five years down the road (people said), 'Where's that Buehrle guy? Is he still around?'"
Now he has to show up at the park for the team he pitched for for twelve seasons, and the Missouri farmer is dreading it. "Right now I'm just trying to not pass out from thinking I've got to get up there and do a speech," Buehrle said. "You think I'm joking. I'm not."

I bitter-sweetly enjoyed attending Paul Konerko's penultimate game for the White Sox in 2014, and Buehrle's return—with echoes of the sounds and the images of his 2009 perfect game bouncing all over the joint—would be something to see. He was beloved by Sox fans, and it would be nice to say goodbye officially. As I'm writing this I'm listening to Ed Farmer and Darin Jackson call the first Sox game of Spring Training—there's snow on the ground in northern Illinois after an impossibly gorgeous, warm week—and June still feels a long way off. I'm hopeful to be at Guaranteed Rate Field to say See Ya to a player I loved to watch, and who would likely receive the gratitude with a modesty befitting him.


Photo of Mark Buehrle, AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Electric Sound of the City

This brief passage from early in Ed Ward's terrific, ambitious, and fact-driven The History of Rock & Roll: Volume One 1920-1963 captures the excitement of Muddy Waters's band's plugged-in vibe, a sound that jolted a city and gazed at the future:
By [the late 1940s], the Muddy Waters-Jimmy Rogers-Baby Face Foster band had added another artist: Marion Walter Jacobs, whom Rogers knew from Mississippi as “a little squirrel-faced kid” who played harmonica. After being blasted out of bed one morning by the sound of a harmonica player performing at he Maxwell Street Market near his house, Rogers headed down there to find the kid, now an adult, playing like crazy, and took him over to meet Muddy. In no time, the band found a home at the Club Zanzibar, at Ashland and Thirteenth, just around the corner from Muddy’s home, where they started playing blues with a power and authority that was brand new. Some of it was the volume from those electric instruments (and Little Wa1ter’s using a microphone to amplify his harmonica), and some of it was the down-home sound, including that of the slide guitar that Muddy transformed with electricity, that reminded homesick immigrants of life in the South—but with the electric sound of the city. Nobody else in Chicago was doing this, and other musicians would come to gape.
Here's Muddy on guitar with Big Crawford on bass in '48, not full-band electric, but electrifying nonetheless:



Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Field Recordings at Literary Hub

The nice folks over at Literary Hub are running the title essay of Field Recordings from the Inside, along with a Spotify playlist that I've created especially for the book, highlighting many songs, from the well-known to the obscure, that I write about in the book. Read along as 10cc, Reigning Sound, Ishman Bracey, X, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dave Brubeck, Foreigner, the Monkees, the Detroit Cobras, Hank Williams, Sam & Dave, the Clash, Drive-By Truckers, Captain & Tennille, Southern Culture On The Skids, Paul Stanley, Terry Jacks, and many more serenade ya.

Here are the essay's opening graphs:
My younger brother had developed a phobia of listening to records played at the wrong speeds. We’d be listening to a 45 or an LP, and if I moved the RPM knob one way or the other and the song lurched into nasal, pinched hysteria or growled down to a menacing dirge, Paul would cover his ears, his eyes flashing. Sometimes he’d dash from the room; sometimes he’d cry. I can’t claim largesse these many decades later, manfully acknowledging that I soothed my younger brother in his distress—once in a while I’d torture him, quickly switching a record to the wrong speed to see his (predictable) reaction. Older-Sibling Job Description, maybe, but an unkind responsibility not without its trails of remorse. Inside of me: that a record could be insidious, that music has an interior darkness I didn’t know about. Look what it can do.
In the spring and summer of 1975, “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc was in regular rotation in the Top 40, reigning for two weeks at number one on the U.K. charts and peaking at number two on Billboard. Composed by Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman, the song is famous for its haunting tones and otherworldly choral effect, studio-created by massing more than 250 vocal harmonies, a mammoth, labor-intensive undertaking in the era before digital sampling. Band members Stewart, Gouldman, Kevin Godley, and Lol Creme each sang a single note in unison that was then mixed, dubbed, and re-dubbed across sixteen tracks, looped, then played in a heartbreaking descending-then-ascending melody via keyboards and faders. An airy construction, the song begins in medias res, the instrumentation spare throughout: a Fender organ in the left channel mutters softly, a bass drum thumps quietly in the center, a strummed acoustic guitar whispers in the right. The effect might be the closest a pop song has ever gotten to reproducing a dream, the loose ends of experience beyond language. “I’m Not in Love” is less a tune than a field recording from the inside of your body, your heart chambers’ vérité.
Turn it up.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

click-clack pop-BOOM

Stubblefield grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn., where he taught himself how to play the drums by absorbing the percussive industrial sounds that surrounded him. “I had no training at all. I just taught myself how to play and how to feel,” says Stubblefield. “There was a factory there that puffed out air — pop-BOOM, pop-BOOM — hit the mountains and came back as an echo,” says Stubblefield. “And train tracks — click-clack, click-clack. I listened to all that for six years, playing my drums against it.” - See more at: http://isthmus.com/music/give-the-drummer-some-clyde-stubblefield/#sthash.ps7kHsOO.xEPdRJRk.dpuf
In his obituary of legendary drummer Clyde Stubblefield, Jon Caramanica quotes a memorable passage from a feature that originally ran in 2015 in Isthmus, an online magazine produced in Madison, Wisconsin, where Stubblefield lived for many years and where he died, yesterday, at the age of 73. "Stubblefield grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn.," Bob Jacobson writes,
where he taught himself how to play the drums by absorbing the percussive industrial sounds that surrounded him. “I had no training at all. I just taught myself how to play and how to feel,” says Stubblefield. “There was a factory there that puffed out air— pop-BOOM, pop-BOOM—hit the mountains and came back as an echo,” says Stubblefield. “And train tracks—click-clack, click-clack. I listened to all that for six years, playing my drums against it.”
What a fantastic, endlessly evocative image of Americana this is: a kid next to an open window, playing with and up against concrete, gray, and steel elements all around him—factories coughing, trains barreling by—all of the ugly noise coming back at him, bigger now, off of some eternal mountainside as the he loses himself in the din, intuits rhythm, syncopates, creates something new and funky. It sounds like an origin story too good to be true.

Some of Stubblefield's finest work is on display in the impossibly funky "I Got the Feeling," recorded in January of 1968 at Vox Studios in Los Angeles, and released as a James Brown single in April:

Stubblefield grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn., where he taught himself how to play the drums by absorbing the percussive industrial sounds that surrounded him. “I had no training at all. I just taught myself how to play and how to feel,” says Stubblefield. “There was a factory there that puffed out air — pop-BOOM, pop-BOOM — hit the mountains and came back as an echo,” says Stubblefield. “And train tracks — click-clack, click-clack. I listened to all that for six years, playing my drums against it.” - See more at: http://isthmus.com/music/give-the-drummer-some-clyde-stubblefield/#sthash.ps7kHsOO.xEPdRJRk.dpuf


Here's the master more recently, playing and holding forth:


Saturday, February 18, 2017

This Grand Show

A few of Richard Renaldi's terrific photographs from his exhibition This Grand Show at Benrubi Gallery in New York City, from Spring 2014. Renaldi captures that dissolving line between heralded arrival and slow departure, amusement and abandonment, as human and heartbreaking, and as stubborn, an intersection as there is. Grand show, indeed.
ChallengeR, Hawi, Hawaii, 2007
Igloo, Homer, Alaska, 2008
Maxime, Cairo, Illinois, 2008
Sumatra, Montana, 2009

Galaxy 8122, Los Angeles, California, 2005
Dodge, Miami, Florida, 2011

Friday, February 17, 2017

More on "The Performanest Man"

Lately I've been reading everything I can about, and listening to every recording of, the wild Mississippi blues singer, guitarist and performer extraordinaire Guitar Slim, born Eddie Jones, who I wrote about a little while ago here. In addition to Randy McNutt's Guitar Towns: A Journey to the Crossroads of Rock 'n' Roll, Tom Aswell's terrific Louisiana Rocks! The True Genesis of Rock & Roll is a solid source of information on Slim, who was born in 1926 and died in 1959, and whose tragic life story is as cloudy and full of early holes as it is dynamically interesting. Slim's recording career was brief—stops at the Imperial, Bullet, Specialty, and Atco labels; Specialty, via Fantasy, released the indispensable Sufferin' Mind compilation in 1991—and though the influence of his recordings has been palpable, his true legend issued from the stage, which he commanded, and left behind in smoke and rubble in his inimitable style.

Slim, who's dye his hair and shoes to match his varied and colorful suits, was a rock and roller at heart—tyranny of taxonomy aside, what I mean is that he recognized intuitively that vital performing isn't relegated to a stage: he entered clubs playing a guitar, left the club playing a guitar while on the shoulders of his valet, and sometimes even drove away from a venue still playing the guitar. He understood that spectacle, grins, and a self-assured, grinning exuberance is as essential to making and delivering music as the capo he called his "choker" and getting the levels right in a studio (a technical nicety he usually ignored, God bless him). Years before Jerry Lee Lewis and later-day rock and roll bands like the Fleshtones, and decades before wireless guitars, the long-snake-guitar-chord trailing Slim regularly broke down the wall between performer and audience member, a thrilling and memorable gesture that seemed to be native to him, and which sent his audience into delirium, and his co-performers into envy, and then resignation. Slim performed ably off the stage to, if in an often vexed and reckless manner: at the end of his bfief life his body was weakened by years of alcohol abuse, and he left behind a string of common-law wives, and children. But, man, how I wish I could've seen him play.

~~

To get a flavor of the Slim, onstage, in the studio, and in hotel bacchanal, here are some observations and memories from a few guys who were close to the fun. From Aswell's book:
Taking the name Guitar Slim, he began experimenting in distorted overtones a full decade before Jimi Hendrix. Wearing his loud suits and flaunting his dyed shoes and hair, he would come onto the stage with more than three hundred feet of microphone wire connected to his guitar. Invariably, at some point in his performances, he would climb onto shoulders, and the two would walk through the crowd, out the front doors, and across the street, never missing a beat. Motorists would often come to a complete stop to gawk at the wildly dressed black man sitting on his valet’s shoulders and playing a guitar. Inside, the band would occasionally incur Slim’s wrath by unplugging his guitar from the amp and playing a completely different number as a prank while he was outside.

New Orleans songwriter-pianist Al Reed said Guitar Slim had a greater impact on the electric sound than any other guitarist. Once, Slim and Fats Domino were scheduled to engage in a “Battle of the Blues” at the Monroe Civic Auditorium. Fats was scheduled to go on last because he had several hit records. Before the show, Slim warned Fats that he was going to run him off the stage.

The auditorium was packed and true to his word, Slim had the crowd going wild. Slim walked off the stage with his guitar, slipped out the back door of the auditorium, and got into a car, still playing. No one knew where Slim had gone. When Fats came on, he told the people, "Ain’t gonna be no battle tonight." Instead, Fats played his regular show.

An important source for Aswell was Jeff Hannusch's I Hear You Knockin': The Sound of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues, published by Swallow in 1985. Two choice cuts from Hannusch's excellent book:
Earl King remembers seeing Guitar Slim at the peak of his all too short career:

Gatemouth Brown, T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulsom, and Guitar Slim were all performing one night at the White Eagle in Opelousas, Louisiana. Slim was headlining because "The Things I Used To Do" was a scorcher. They were an sitting in tho dressing room and Guitar Slim walked up to ‘em and said, "Gentlemen, we got the greatest guitar players in the country assembled right here. But when I leave here tonight, ain't nobody gonna realize you even been here." Well, they all laughed, but that's exactly what happened.

Slim come out with his hair dyed blue, blue suit, blue pair of shoes. He had 350 feet of mike wire connected in his guitar, and a valet carrying him on his shoulders all through the crowd and out into the parking lot. Man, he was stopping cars driving down the highway. No one could outperform Slim. He was about the performanest man I've ever seen.
...
When Slim came in off the road, he stayed upstairs at the Dew Drop. "Slim liked |o be where we action was," chuckles Earl. "In fact, you knew Slim was back in town, ‘cause early in the morning, around seven-eight o'clock, if he was tanked up, you'd hear them amps and P.A. going off. People'd be calling me police, ‘cause you could hear Slim three blocks away! And here's Slim up in his room with his shorts on, goin’ through his stage routine.

"And Slim‘s room was something else, man," laughs Earl. "If you went up there, thcre‘d always be about seven or eight different women up there. He'd have his songs written with eyebrow pencil on pieces of paper tacked to the wall."

Two more essential eyewitnesses to Guitar Slim's storm and spectacle. Legendary producer Jerry Wexler lured Slim over to Atlantic records near the end of Slim's life; Wexler picks up the story in his indelible Sufferin' Mind liner notes:
...I will never forget our first session with him at Cosimo's J&M Studio, A rehearsal has been arranged in a back o' town hotel ballroom the day before the date, and Ahmet [Ertegun] and I and the arranger, Renald Richard from Thibodeaux, awaited him with growing trepidation as the hours went by and the was no sign of Slim.

The next thing we saw was a tidal wave of humanity pouring down the street, children and grownups, couriers announcing to the world “Here come Slim! Slim on the way!" A fleet of three red Cadillacs pulled up, and himself emerged in a mobile bower of chicks in red dresses—matching the Cadillacs—and a retinue of courtiers, senechals, janissaries, mountebanks, and tumblers.

Slim did not agitate himself getting the rehearsal started; first thing he told us was he had to change into his singing pants. As he was changing, the room filled to bursting with his public, an excited, euphoric crowd of chattering, laughing civilians. When Slim finally appeared, we explained that what we were about to do was prepare tomorrow’s record session, and that the audience would require dispersing. He nodded gravely, plugged in a guitar cord that had to be, sans exaggeration, 100 feet long. He called to his sidemen for a blues in B-flat and as they vamped, he circled the room, addressing each of his admirers, one by one. Most of them were given congé (Slim explaining that we were rehearsing) but a sprinkling of devotees, all female, were allowed to stay.

One of the ladies in red dresses explained to us that she was a shake dancer and that Slim had scooped her up in Las Vegas just three days before, on the way down. “You know that $2000 advance you gave him?” We knew. “Well, I got most of it now—at $500 a week.” She dimpled charmingly.

The next day we cut four sides with Slim in a wild session during which he kept sneaking up the gain on his guitar and blowing the tubes in Cosimo’s tape recorder, as well as the lights in the studio—a story to be told another time.
~~

Finally, here's one legend on another:

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Another Notable for Nolan

Every baseball fan knows the name Ron Bloomberg. If for nothing else, he'll be forever remembered as the first Major League player to bat as a Designated Hitter. On April 6, 1973, Bloomberg stood in against Boston Red Sox ace Luis Tiant, and drew a base-on-balls, his future on the back of baseball cards ensured.

A few days ago, I got to wondering who the last pitcher was to make a plate appearance in the regular season before the D.H. rule went into effect. I headed to trusty Baseball-Reference, and learned that there were five A.L. games on October 4, 1972, the final day of the regular season: Boston at Detroit, Texas at Kansas City, Chicago at Minnesota, Milwaukee at New York, and Oakland at California. I assumed that that lone West Coast game was the last contest to finish, yet I just as quickly realized that it could've been a day game. Baseball Reference didn't provide start times, so I was stuck. I was commiserating about this with my buddy Dan Epstein—who knows a thing or two about 1970s baseball history—and he provided evidence, via an October 4th Chicago Tribune previews listing, that the Angels game in Anaheim Stadium began at eight o'clock PST, and was indeed the final game of the regular season:


Nolan Ryan started for the Angels against the soon-to-be crowned World Champion A's. The game mattered little to the Angels—they were mired in second-to-last place in the West Division—and with 92 wins, the A's had locked up a postseason appearance. Ryan took the mound searching for his twentieth win of the season, and he pitched well, scattering five hits and surrendering an earned run in a complete game, his twentieth that year. He struck out ten—bringing his season total to 329—and walked three. Alas, the sleepy Angels hitters provided little run support. Ryan lost the game, 2 to 1.

History, of a sort, occurred in the bottom of the seventh, when Ryan came up to plate with two outs and an opportunity, however unlikely, to tie the game in front of those who remained of an announced attendance of 7,977. Down by two runs, the Angels had a modest tide of momentum going: right fielder Leroy Stanton started off the inning with a double to right. Leo Cardenas grounded to A's second basemen Ted Kubiak, moving Stanton to third. John Stephenson came off the bench to hit for catcher Jeff Torborg, and promptly grounded to first, scoring Stanton. The Angels were within a run of knotting the game, and who should step to the plate but Ryan, then hitting a robust .135. History being occasionally generous with poetic narrative, Ryan, of course, struck out. Inning, and mild threat, over. The last pitcher in the American League to bat in a regular season game was the future all-time strikeout king who'd pitch seven no-hitters, one of the most dominant pitchers of his or any era and a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He whiffed. Baseball is hard.

I couldn't find an image of Ryan batting with the Angels. This shot from the 1985 All Star game will have to do, incongruous Padres batting helmet and all. Ruthian, Ryan was not.










Ryan baseball bard via Baseball Cards. Ryan batting via Uni Watch: History of the Midsummer Classic.
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