Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Old 97s on Broadway

Times Square, old and new
Old 97's are a great American rock and roll band. It's no surprise to me that one of the best song about New York City in recent years was written by a guy born and raised in Dallas. Old 97s songwriter Rhett Miller moved from Dallas to Manhattan (via Los Angeles) in the late 1990s as his band was on the cusp of leaving the indie label Bloodshot for Elektra Records. "We landed [in New York]... and rode in a limousine to the Paramount, a swanky hotel 'just off Times Square'," Miller wrote. "The lobby was as massive as the rooms were tiny, and everything about the hotel seemed to ooze the kind of hipness that inflates the nightly rate by about 80%."
My room looked out across a narrow street, into the large windows of a dance studio where a ballet class was in full swing. If it is possible to fall in love with twenty-five women simultaneously, that is what happened to me the moment I looked out that window.

As I stood in that tiny room, I did the math. I could live for a month in my East Dallas garage apartment for the amount of money Elektra was paying per night at the Paramount Hotel. Granted, my accommodations in Dallas were humble to say the least, but this was some serious opulence. If you ever wonder why the old “major label” business model failed, look no further than the money lavished on our little Texas rock band by the dozen or so labels that wooed us that summer. Ridiculous.
Miller had his guitar, "a bunch of nervous energy, and an hour to kill before dinner." He wanted to impress his new label bosses, but mostly he wanted to capture "the feeling I had at that moment–the feeling of being on the brink of something huge. My life was changing right before my eyes. The dream I’d fostered since adolescence was coming true." The song came quickly.
I am the innocent of the song, but I’m not. I have always been too aware to be "unaware." That night, even as my dreams were coming true, I was laughing at the silliness of it all, the overblown nature of these things we build up, these goals to which we attach ultimate significance. You know what’s real? This moment, this breath, a long and lonesome high note, and that lovely roomful of dancers.
"Broadway" appears on 1997's Too Far to Care. Miller's lyrics capture his disorientation and fearful awe, and the rise and fall of his melody in the verses chart his hopes and realizations, but the transcendent chorus sends the song to a place that's somehow both timeless and new—what one feels visiting New York City for the first time. The yearning, ache, and melancholy of the chorus capture the splendor and the decadence, potential and heartbreak of the moment. Feeling crass or cynical about city living? Spin this cut and you'll feel innocence again. This moment, this breath, a long and lonesome high note, indeed.

Old '97s in '97.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

"It's the same every year"

Last night, Amy informed me that since June of 2016 she's been privately writing down comments that I've made about the Chicago White Sox, some to her, some spoken under my breath, ducking into her writing room and scribbling as many as she could. Among my mutterings while reading the Tribune and various online sites and my cheers and curses during games, there's been quite a bit for her to document. I barely noticed when she'd disappear for minutes at a time, probably because I was still puzzling over a lousy game. She was curious if over time she might be able to chart a baseball fan's hopes and optimisms in the face of the game's typical and relentless heartbreaks, look for patterns. ("It's the same every year," she helpfully points out to me.)

Eventually she started thinking that it'd be kind of weird if I stumbled upon her secret on my own; coupled with the devastating news of Sox pitcher Michael Kopech likely out for 2019 with Tommy John Surgery, the time felt right for her to turn over her findings to me. Reading them was part strange, part hilarious. Apparently I'm a bit of an obsessive, and a repetitive one, at that. No surprise there. That's what baseball does to you if you're a fan: build you up in March, and test your will over the next several months, only to do it all over again the following season.

Here are some highlights and lowlights, some ups and downs from a White Sox fan. See any common threads?

15 June (Wednesday)
Baseball is so humbling. They’re only the best players in the world. And still they struggle.

16 June (Thursday)
There’s a rumor today that Robin Ventura might be fired.
20 June (Monday)
Wow. Walked the bases loaded. None out. Okay. Not much to say.

25 June (Saturday)
By the way did you see that the White Sox hit seven home runs but still lost? It’s only happened 3 times since 1913.

17 July (Sunday)
It’s comic that we do not score runs when Jose Quintana is pitching. We waste a beautiful pitching performance. I love baseball. It’s confounding.

18 August (Thursday)
I don’t get it. It’s a humbling game.

20 August (Sunday)
Inconsistent offense and shaky bullpen. Same old stories. [shakes head]

4 September (Sunday)
[reading from paper] White Sox are leading the Major Leagues with 26 blown saves. That’s great.

1 October (Saturday)
[sigh] Last game of the season tomorrow. I’ll watch as a loyal fan.

3 October (Monday)
God, why do I have to pull for a team that is so mediocre? Oh well, we’ll see… [wry smile] I already feel optimistic about March.

12 June (Monday)
It's a rebuilding year. Currently we’re in last place but if we stay there, we get a good change at a high draft pick so it’s actually a good thing.

16 June (Friday)
You know what place the White Sox are in the Central Division? …Last.

Hey it’s the second inning and we’re already 7-1! Maybe we’re getting our stroke!

17 June (Saturday)
With today’s win the Sox have won 5 of 6. We're still 5 under 500.

They say you win 60 and lose 60 and it’s what you do with the other 42 that counts. [a saying Joe likes]

18 June (Sunday)
The American Central Division is so bad that we’re in last place, but we’re only 4 games behind first place.

25 June (Sunday)
We’re in last place but that’s okay because it means we’ll get a higher draft pick.

2 July (Sunday)
Pedroia plays his 100th game without an error, meanwhile our shortstop Tim Anderson is leading the American League with errors.

8 July  (Saturday)
[excitedly] It’s that time of year when the division races are tightening up. [pause] The White Sox are not involved. They’re in last place. Last place. Can’t be worse in our division than last place.

22 July (Saturday)
Record-wise the White Sox are by far the worst team in the major leagues. Thought I’d clue you in.

27 July (Thursday)
This is going to be a real laugher of a season.

Meanwhile our great pitcher Chris Sals who was traded to the Red Sox is having a great year. That’s one of the difficulties in being rebuild-y.
We have a stadium logo with an arrow pointing down and our new pitchers name is “Bummer.” That just about tells you how our season is going.
30 July (Sunday)
Love the sport more than the team.

31 July (Monday)
We’re in last place but that felt like October ball.

27 August  (Sunday)
It’s getting to the point where I realize it’s only a month left of White Sox baseball [listening to DJ and Farmer on the radio]

1 September (Friday)
I can’t wait ‘till playoffs. [Amy: for the White Sox??] The White Sox are firmly in last place with one of the worst seasons in baseball. We’re rebuild-y, don’t forget.
52-80 wow that’s bad. But we’re optimistic!
8 September (Friday)
[sunny day] Beautiful day for losing baseball battle of the #1 draft pick.

9 September (Saturday)
Ame my favorite White Sox player hit for the cycle!

9 April (Monday)
I don’t know if I’m going to be saying this everyday, but the Sox are losing.

21 April (Saturday)
[whistles] We’re terrible. I knew it was going to be rebuild-y, but…

6 May (Sunday)
[offers extended play-by-play of the game] …then we lost it. Typical Sox game. Typical Sunday.

10 May (Thursday)
White Sox are 3 and 15 at home.

11 May (Friday)
Rough season for the White Sox. That’s okay, rebuild-y.
May 30 (Wednesday)
In other news, White Sox are down 7-0 in the 4th inning already. Just keeping you in the loop.
May 31 (Thursday)
[reads headline] "Brights spots getting hard to find with Sox." It's true.

June 1 (Friday)
This looks about right. We're down 2-0 and the bases are loaded.

7 June (Thursday)
Sox start playing 21 games on 2 days. Oy. [voice of mock earnestness] We'll see what we're made of! We'll see if we've come to play!

19 June (Tuesday)
[listening to radio] Oh, rough year.

[a minute later] If you have a team that's terrible you don't have any anxiety or tzuris about losing or winning. You can just enjoy the baseball!

21 June (Thursday)
I feel bad for the White Sox beat guys because they have nothing to write about because we’re doing so bad. It’s all ‘specu-lying.’

8 July (Sunday)
Boy I wish my baseball team was winning.
Sox lost. Houston swept us every game this season. Hashtag rebuild-y.
21 July (Saturday)
You know what the Sox W-L record is? 33-62. 63 after last night.

26 July (Thursday)
I think the White Sox traded a player today. I gotta find out.

30 July (Monday)
[kindly tone]: Just wanted to let you know… The White Sox have reached a new low in ineptitude. … this is one of the worst teams that I can remember… that’s all. 13-4.

31 July (Tuesday)
We’re on a course to be one of the worst seasons in the franchise’s history!

26 August (Sunday)
Kopeck’s pitching well; got everyone out of a jam again

29 August (Wednesday)
[listening to a game on the radio] I love baseball; I’m already missing it.

1 September (Saturday)
[yearning tone] Honey, are the White Sox gonna compete in the next two years? Probably not.

2 September (Sunday)
It’s probably best that the White Sox won’t compete because I’d be a nervous mess, but when are we going to be good enough to compete again? It would be SO FUN to be in the playoffs. Oh well, rebuild-y. Two, tree years.

7 September (Friday)
Kopech tore his UCL and is out for the season. That’s why the White Sox can’t have nice things.
To be continued....

Saturday, September 1, 2018

All night: Spectacle in the Desert

I've been re-reading the chapter on underrated honky-tonk singer Wynn Stewart in Colin Escott's essential, and equally underrated, Roadkill on the Three-Chord Highway: Art and Trash in American Popular Music. In 1961 Stewart opened Nashville Nevada, a club in Las Vegas east of The Strip at 3015 Fremont Street called. "It was more a honky-tonk than a Vegas showroom," Escott writes.
The prevailing motif was Western, and when the curtain was lowered around the bandstand it simulated a covered wagon. There was a button behind [drummer] Peaches Price’s riser triggering the curtains, although [steel guitarist Ralph] Mooney insists that the device never worked, and the curtains usually had to be raised and lowered by hand. In theory, the curtains scalloped back, revealing the band.
As if this description isn't evocative enough, Escott includes these two great details: a jukebox would play as Wynn and his band hit the stage, and they'd open each set "by picking up whatever was playing on the jukebox in midsong."

Fantastic. But the best:
The club never closed, and so as part of the opening celebrations, the door key was dropped into the desert from an airplane.
That may be my new all-time favorite music story.
Stewart at the Nashville Nevada with Jackie Burns (at mic) and Ralph Mooney (on steel). Who knows at what time of night.


Here's a Google Street View image of the building, now housing Imperio Club, taken in March of this year:

And here's Wynn few years after Nashville Nevada opened rocking a killer tune that I've always wished those other consummate showmen, Rockpile, would've covered:

Photo of Nashville Nevada via Vintage Las Vegas; photo of Stewart at Nashville Nevada via Biography of Wyn Stewart.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Tale of Two Parks

Before last night's Chicago White Sox game I checked out the 114-year old, ten-acre Armour Square Park, which sits next to Guaranteed Rate Field (a name I still hate writing). Activity was low—no kids running around, no pick-up games; there were a few families strolling and plenty of folk streaming by the park on their way to the game—but noting the proximity of the vintage Armor Square Fieldhouse and the modest ball fields to a giant Major League park is a pleasure. I imagine that it would be pretty sweet to patrol the outfield in one of these parks, a glimpse of the White Sox's home flashing in your line of sight as you park yourself under a fly ball. Open-air bars along West 33rd Street were humming, a nice reminder that the much maligned 'hood around Sox Park (ah, that's better) is warmer and more hospitable than its undeserved reputation.

Guaranteed Rate Field, as seen from the batters box in the ball field in Armor Square Park

Guaranteed Rate Field, as seen from deep left field

Still, I can't help thinking about what might have been.


As for the game, well, continually impressive Sox starter Lucas Giolito cruised through five and then the bullpen imploded, that old story. Sitting in the second row of bleachers in Section 160, which afford a terrific view and game experience, I got to see a Mookie Betts homer land a few sections over to our right, and enjoy the Sox throwing around some good leather in the infield (the same couldn't be said of the Red Sox outfielders). The loss marked another victory for Boston, on their way to a possibly (likely) franchise-record in wins. Best of all, I got to take in an inessential but entertaining game, drink some fine Revolution beer, and swap hilarious and often enlightening stories with my buddies, great company that I'm always grateful to share.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Like a child

The opening paragraph from "To the Reader" in Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, published in 1957:
These memories of mine have been collected slowly, over a period of years. Some readers, finding them in a magazine, have taken them for stories. The assumption that I have "made them up" is surprisingly prevalent, even among people who know me. "That Jewish grandmother of yours . . . !" Jewish friends have chided me, skeptically, as though to say, "Come now, you don't expect us to believe that your grandmother was really Jewish." Indeed she was, and indeed I really had a wicked uncle who used to beat me, though more than once, after some public appearance, I have had a smiling stranger invite me to confess that "Uncle Myers" was a hoax. I do not understand the reason for these doubts; I have read about far worse men than my cruel uncle in the newspapers, and many Gentile families possess a Jewish ancestor. Can it be that the public takes for granted that anything written by a professional writer is eo ipso untrue? The professional writer is looked on perhaps as a "story-teller," like a child who had fallen into that habit and is mechanically chidden by his parents even when he protests that this time he is telling the truth.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Form & Theory, a lecture by Greg Cartwright

There are as many chord changes in this song as there are points, counter-points, and breakdowns in the couple's argument. "The problem here is we're both right." Cartwright's a master.

Reigning Sound, single (with Last Year's Men), 2011

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Rock and Roll

I'm always grateful that I got to regularly catch Lyres in their prime, the early- and mid-1980s, before lineups began imploding (sometimes onstage) and before Jeff Connolly's output diminished. Onstage, the band didn't wear the trappings of a Neo Garage Revivalist band; it was usually jeans and t-shirts for these guys, who looked indistinguishable from the venue's sound man or bartenders, or the odd roadie helping them load-in at sound check. Their songs were raw, unvarnished, rancorous rock and roll, self-consciously styled spectacle and image be damned, whether they were obscure covers or Connolly's originals. A night at a Lyres show meant a grinning, sweaty, dancing good time. I miss 'em.

And a killer cut from '92, a cover of a 1966 song by Ohio's Thhemm:

Wednesday, August 22, 2018


DeKalb County, IL
Kingston, IL
Kirkland, IL
The Farmer's Inn. Pkg. Goods. Kirkland, IL
"Bar For Sale." Kirkland, IL.
DeKalb County, IL

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

God only knows... Satan knows...

Heaven...or Hell
1966 was a heady year for questing adolescents. Heaven and Hell? God only knows in July, but Satan knew what you did back in February.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Youth, discovery, sexuality, et al

Last semester a student of mine worshipfully rocked a Beyoncé Lemonade t-shirt to class virtually every other day. Years from now she'll discover that shirt in a box or in an old photo and the flood of feelings that will overcome her: in that moment she's enacting what someone experienced a year before her, five years before, a decade before, half a century before, and what someone will experience next year. What identified her and so graphically broadcast her attitudes and desires—what was uniquely hers in that heady era of highs and lows—morphs into a silhouette for—what?— youth, discovery, sexuality, that which we love and can't define, and so on. My Stones tour t-shirt is his Sub Pop t-shirt is her Lemonade. Your past is unique and special because it's yours, yet you act out the epiphanies, regrets, and losses of all those who came before you. A humbling and beautiful thing. Bittersweet. Nothing and somehow everything.

Detail of t-shirt via ModCloth.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Songs used to have stopping places

I love this passage in Bobbie Ann Mason's "Nancy Culpepper" from Shiloh and Other Stories. (It first appeared in The New Yorker on February 9, 1981.) The title character straddles eras, as so many found themselves doing during the tumultuous late 1960s: she's obsessed with a long-dead relative who shares her name, and she's hopeful to retrieve her grandmother's photographs, as she's afraid that otherwise no one will remember them or those far-away times; she's marrying Jack, a progressive man with a graduate degree and an interest in taking bold, abstract photographs who's angling for a draft deferment and about whom her conservative farming parents are skeptical.

This passage occurs the night of Nancy's hippie wedding in the Summer of Love. She's disconcerted: instead of organ music, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band played on a stereo, and she'd been "astonished by the minister's white robe and his beard and by the fact that he chain-smoked." During the after-party, someone "had taken down the poster above the fireplace and put up the picture of Sgt. Pepper—the cutout that came with the album. Sgt. Pepper overlooked the room like a stern father." 
     “What’s the matter?” a man asked Nancy. He was Dr. Doyle, her American History 1861-1865 professor. “This is your wedding. Loosen up.” He burst a balloon and Nancy jumped.
     When someone offered her a joint, she refused, then wondered why. The house was filled with strangers, and the Beatles album played over and over. Jack and Nancy danced, hugging each other in a slow two-step that was all wrong for the music. They drifted past the wedding presents, lined up on a table Jack had fashioned from a door—hand-dipped candles, a silver roach clip, Joy of Cooking, signed pottery in nonfunctional shapes. Nancy wondered what her parents had eaten for supper. Possibly fried steak, two kinds of peas, biscuits, blackberry pie. The music shifted and the songs merged together; Jack and Nancy kept dancing.
     “There aren’t any stopping places,” Nancy said. She was crying. “Songs used to have stopping places in between.”
     “Let’s just keep on dancing," Jack said.  Nancy was thinking of the blackberry bushes at the farm in Kentucky, which spread so wildly they had to be burned down every few years. They grew on the banks of the creek, which in summer shrank to still, small occasional pools. After a while Nancy realized that Jack was talking to her. He was explaining how he could predict exactly when the last, dying chord on the album was about to end.
     “Listen,” he said. “There. Right there.”
I love the image of Nancy straining to hear the fading chord of "A Day in the Life" and her weeping frustration with the lack of spaces between songs on Sgt. Pepper's, an intentional, and novel, decision the Beatles made during mixing of the album. The great Bobbie Ann Mason nails the headiness and disorientation of a certain moment poised between two eras. Of course it involves dancing.

A stern father...

Top photo via Pinterest.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Never lose that beat

Peter Zaremba (middle) and Keith Streng (right) signing with Red Star Records, with Marty Thau (back) and Miriam Linna (left), 1978.
40 years ago this month the Fleshtones trekked up Highway 9A to Blauvelt, New York and recorded their first, albeit aborted, album with legendary producer Marty Thau.

Here's the story, from Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtiones, America's Garage Band:
They met Thau at Ultima, what Lenny [Calderon, original drummer] would soon soon dub the “River of Fear Studio” (“His head was awash with lugubrious heavy metal imagery,” bemoans Peter). For a couple of weeks, the guys had to overcome any fears they might have, and make a great rock & roll record. “They were reasonably prepared,” Thau says. “They were where I thought they would be.” High-ceilinged, Ultima had the shape and vibe of an enormous rehearsal space, and Lenny marveled at the soundproof tiles and the giant Hammond organs, in the warm presence of beautiful vintage equipment that he remembered from his childhood. Peter, Keith, and Marek plugged in and swallowed hard

After two years of hesitant composing, Peter and Keith had a batch of songs, most of which had been stage-tested for several months, a year in some cases. They brought with them to Ultima one cover song, The Strangeloves’ “Cara-Lin” from 1965, and three originals: “B.Y.O.B.,” a shout-along ode to The House parties; the year-old “Judy,” Peter’s upbeat, childlike testimonial using Keith’s girlfriend’s nom de plume; and a new song Peter had just written, a propulsive four-in-the-bar anthem celebrating the radio sounds and homeland imagery that he grew up with, and that he was calling “American Sound.”

The band had to find a way to capture their sweaty, chancy onstage spirit onto magnetic tape, and the move from a cheering, beer-stained dancefloor to the friendless, analog domain was a challenge. “We were turned loose to recreate all the great sounds from all our favorite records in our record collections, all on the same song,” laughs Peter. He adds that “Marty was great about letting us add whatever junk we wanted to, no matter how superfluous. We added reverb from the amps, the ultimate 70s engineering sin, reverb from the board, and then reverb in the mix. But it still wasn’t enough. After a while it was hard to tell what we were listening to.”

From the control room Thau would ask, “How’s this?” Then he’d turn a small knob. “How’s this?”

The guys would shrug their shoulders. Good? I guess? 

During a break in the sessions, Peter told Andy Schwartz in New York Rocker that “what we’re trying to do in rock & roll now is bring it back to a level simple and infectious enough to dance to. Party music.” Above all the guys wanted their studio tracks to be propulsive, to really move. “We always made sure that everything was danceable,” says Lenny. “No matter how wild I got, I always kept things very danceable. I put this great disco beat on ‘Cara-Lin’ where I played two separate drum parts on top, one track of playing all over the drums and then one track of the high-hat disco drumming.” The Strangeloves’ “Cara-Lin” embodied everything that The Fleshtones loved about rock & roll: an archetype of groove and rhythm, put the song on anywhere in the world anytime and people will grin and move. The Fleshtones’ version was one of the high points of these sessions, Lenny’s darting drums dancing with Peter’s cheap, ham-fisted organ and Keith’s strident guitar creating an energetic rereading, replacing mid-60s frathouse chants with late-70s speed and punkish verve, finding as close to a punk/dance hybrid as The Fleshtones would in these early days.

But what were they capturing on tape exactly? Peter and Keith brought tunes into the studio as the sessions resumed, including two, “Shadow Line” and “Watch Junior Go,” composed literally on the way up to Ultima, “riding with Marty on Palisades Parkway,” as Keith remembers. “Shadow Line,” a moody, urgent number issuing from the wellspring of Peter’s imagination and muscled along by Keith’s psychedelic melody, was inspired by the Joseph Conrad story of the same name, a characteristic Conradian exploration of the thin line between adolescence and adulthood, innocence and responsibility. Peter, nearing his mid-twenties, was trespassing that line nightly.

“‘Shadow Line’ is about people who stayed up all night doing things,” says Peter. “I was with a bunch of people and we’d finish playing at four in the morning and go off to the Crisco, and this place is packed with all sorts of people. Fine citizens. I mean, these people are not burning the candle at both ends, these people are on fire. So we’d leave there at nine in the morning and we’d go up to the Cell Block. You sit in there and you're wondering, What the hell, I should have been asleep hours ago. Here’s this guy with chains wrapped around him, and that’s definitely beyond the shadowline.” Notable for the quickness with which it was put together, “Shadow Line” was an ambitious song, a plea from outsiders for understanding, and would do much to catapult the band’s career in the coming year. The guys felt that the song was seminal and they would re-record it three times within the next three years.

Also taking shape at Ultima were “Critical List,” Keith’s first song, to which he gave a weird, whiny, but effective lead vocal aided by Peter’s wailing harmonica; “Atom Spies,” a high-energy surf instrumental written by Keith and Marek; and “I’ll Walk By,” a middling Mersey Beat-styled tune from Peter that would see the light of day a quarter-century later. The band nailed two songs particularly well, veering close to the sweaty feel of a Max’s or Club 57 gig. “The Way I Feel” was a hilariously fast statement of purpose from Peter, articulating his desires to connect in the best way he knew how: an audience-embracing, call-and-response chorus and nonsense singing. The song is in many respects the most sincere that Peter’s ever written, a childlike, passionate sing-along set to a rocking beat, a hopelessly unhip marriage that he would spend the better part of his career defending—and The Fleshtones would be stubbornly, happily playing the song twenty-five years later. Keith’s “Comin’ in Dead Stick” was a companion tune to “The Way I Feel,” equally reckless in nature, breakneck in pace, and frank in attitude.

In local fanzines at the time the band was adamant in stating that the ratio of originals to covers on their debut would be low. “We’ll have maybe two covers at the most,” declared Keith. They had planned on recording “Cara-Lin” and Kid Thomas’ fabulous early-60s burner “Rockin’ this Joint Tonight,” an obscure cut that Gordon turned the guys onto and that they raved-up onstage, proudly aligning themselves with remote but impassioned black R&B when few New York bands beyond Blondie were embracing musical history across racial lines.

Indeed, Peter, Gordon, and Brian were relating to black R&B as intensely as they were to white 60s rock & roll, and Peter and Marek had begun to celebrate that in the discos. “Keith’s background was more like my own; we knew the better-known rock of the time,” Marek says. “But Peter, Gordon, and Brian were bringing in the Kid Thomas records, really zeroing in on a spirit that was there in the off-the-wall honkers and shouters that had influenced the white rock & roll that was coming out of Britain. The Shadows of Knight were imitating The Stones imitating Little Walter, but what Peter ended up doing was going back to the Little Walter.” That wasn’t that common in the New Wave scene, Marek notes, and “that was where The Fleshtones came out of.” The Fleshtones tore through “Rockin’ this Joint Tonight” at Ultima. The band flew and twenty-three year old Peter shouted and fiercely blew on his harmonica, an instrument that he was excelling at to a degree that surprised even him. His solos, respectful to Thomas’ wailing, were blistering and real, creating a sound that only further distanced the band from what was happening in New York, allowing Peter to escape his geeky white suburban background and lifting into something universal, a clarion call for fun and rock & roll.

The band ended up recording two more cover songs for the album. They discovered “Soul Struttin’,” a Bubblegum song by 1910 Fruitgum Co. on a shared album with The Lemon Pipers from 1968. The tune was as funky as the pop-conscious Buddah Records would get, but what was especially enticing was that Marty Thau had cowritten the track (with Tony Orlando, whose sister Thau eventually married). Thau had always liked the song and was pleased when the guys decided to record their rendition in tribute; it took them three versions before they were happy. The band was dividing their time now between Ultima and Blank Tape studio in Manhattan, where Thau brought in Alan Vega who took lead as The Fleshtones, wire-tight, played a memorable, atmospheric, psychedelic version of Suicide’s “Rocket U.S.A.” Vega growled and moaned his way through the taut song, and the utterly unique track could fit nowhere else on the album but in closing. “Recording with Vega was a great day, a cool memory,” marveled Lenny. “Being that close to Alan was really cool.” Peter cherished the experience, also: “Too bad we didn’t do a few of his other things as well.”

The Fleshtones spent the remainder of their brief time at Blank recording overdubs of vocals, handclaps, and various percussion. Thau had struck some rough mixes, volume presence, balance, and touches of EQ extras in the course of recording. All that was left was the final mixing, but the console knobs would soon be darkened by the long shadow of financial misery.

Thau had his own ideas, especially concerning Keith’s novice guitar-playing. “I tried to get out of Keith a certain guitar presence that was present in The Sex Pistols and The Ramones,” Thau says, “sort of bridging them between that classic Yardbirds place and what the punk sound of New York was about.” The basic tracks for “Cara-Lin,” “B.Y.O.B.,” “Judy,” and the re-titled “American Beat”—already earmarked by Thau as the band’s first single—were laid down quickly. Thau and the band were interested in translating their essential energy, and so the pace of the songs was quick, the performances wound-up tight, too tight in some cases. A certain drunken, sing-along recklessness is apparent in these tracks but it’s hard to tell whether it issued from nerve or nerves. Bum notes, microphone “pops,” brittle energy, and amateur spirit abounds.

The late Marty Thau's take on the band here.

The ill-fated album, Blast Off!, would eventually be released in several iterations down the years. "American Beat," the band's debut single, was released on Red Star in 1979. Never lose that beat:

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Ether in the shape of a space ship

I love reading "on the ground" accounts of writers struggling to make sense of what's around them as it's happening. In the heady late 1960s, a perceptive and open music fan was overwhelmed by newness on virtually a weekly basis. I've been re-reading Paul Williams's great Outlaw Blues, a 1969 gathering of his writing at Crawdaddy! magazine, and his take on the Rolling Stones in 1967 is still one of the smartest and most intuitively right pieces on the band's sound that I've ever read.

"The Stones always come through," Williams writes. "It’s not a coincidence. I remember in 1965 I just assumed that you couldn’t judge a song the first few times you heard it."
“Satisfaction” felt great the first time through, but I couldn’t hear anything at all. Piece by piece the structure of the song, as I listened again and again, came clear to me from all that confusion. “Get Off of My Cloud” sounded like pure noise the first ten times through on a transistor’ radio. The form of a song is something you see all at once. When it comes to you, you suddenly find a picture of the entire song in your head, and at any given point you’re aware of the context, the whole thing. Until you get that picture, you just follow a line through the song—you hear something, you hear something else, finally the song is over. The more you listen, the more you begin to sense a shape replacing that line, until eventually the song is familiar to you and you’re not lost any more (“gestalt perception”—you can perceive a thing as part of a group, you can perceive a group as a collection of things).
"And it’s not a coincidence," he continues. "Because the one thing the Stones are absolute masters of—and it certainly shows on the new album [Their Satanic Majesties Request]—is structure." What follows is Williams at his hippest (and most insightful):
If you take the Rolling Stones and maroon them in the swirling vacuum of space, stranded with nothing but ether, that imponderable stuff of the universe, to play with, they’ll take that ether and mold it into a space ship and come chasing back after you, and they’re the only rock group that can do that.

Again and again, not just on this album but throughout their procession of not-quite-a-dozen albums, the Rolling Stones incorporate chaos by creating entirely new structures out of it, and never are they incoherent. If you listen to a Stones song long enough you’ll always see the picture, always perceive the whole and feel relaxed at the naturalness of it all . . . no matter how much of a struggle it was for you to break through to that naturalness.

And the Stones love to fool around. They sound sloppy—they don’t want you to feel comfortable till you get there. They give the impression of incoherence so that their uptight listeners buzz off and not bother them, and so the people who care will not relax on the surface but will continue to penetrate the song until they’ve really got to it. “Open our minds let the pictures come. . . ."

Sunday, July 22, 2018

All stories are personal

I admire Kathryn Harrison's memoir The Kiss and teach it regularly; her absorbing While They Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family is a fascinating companion to that book, as Harrison acknowledges that what intrigued her was her unsettlingly deep and graphic identification with the subject. In 1984, Billy Gilley murdered his parents and young sister in their home; he spared his other sister, Jody. The Gilley's parents had routinely abused and terrorized the children since they were young, and Billy half-imagined/half-hoped that he and Jody would run away and begin a new life together. That never happened. Jody called the police that night after escaping the house, and Billy was arrested. He's currently serving multiple life terms in a prison in Oregon.

What fascinates Harrison about the incident is how Jody's life snapped in two on the night of the murders. Harrison's life has a before-and-after, as well. As she recounted in The Kiss, when she was college-aged she embarked on an affair with her father, a man who'd been absent for her whole life. He preyed on and manipulated Harrison into a sexual relationship, which lasted for several years before Harrison escaped, beginning her fraught new life. In While They Slept Harrison explores Jody's similar dilemma: how to begin a second life after the first ended so abruptly and violently?

Jody's and Harrison's pasts, as different as they were on the surface, are linked by violence and rebirth. As Harrison remarked to Sarah Weinman at Vulture, "My response to people who say, 'Oh, there goes Kathryn Harrison talking about her father again' is 'I'm not getting over this! If you're waiting for me to get over it, it's not going to happen.' It would be very unnatural if I did get over it."
It's also one of the reasons Jody let me write the story—because I could say to her, you and I have been through different things, but we are both people with lives that have suffered a rupture. I believe that about myself. My relationship with my father broke my life into two pieces.

I saw aspects of myself in those children. I understood Billy's rage. You could say there was some ugly gratification in exploring what it was like to pound your father's head in with a baseball bat because I am someone who felt murderously angry at my father. I have fantasized about killing my father. Not with a baseball bat; a little more distantly, with a gun … I got both Billy and Jody in a way that made me want to tell what was a very different story from mine, but one I felt connected to from the beginning. It resonated. 
While They Slept is, then, two books: one a journalistic, well-researched and well-told recounting of the history and destruction of the Gilley family, the other a parallel narration of Harrison's personal intersection with that story. Harrison traveled to Oregon, interviewed both Billy and Jody (who's now on the east coast) at length, researched effects of child abuse and family violence, and read court documents, letters, and creative pieces that both Billy and Jody have produced, attempts to make sense of or re-imagine their chaotic lives.

Unlike with Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, a dusting to raise authorial fingerprints is unnecessary: throughout, Harrison places herself in the center of the book alongside her subjects. Some readers (see Amazon, Goodreads, et al) and critics have complained about what they view as "inappropriate" insertions of Harrison into the story she's telling. Beyond the normal amount of noise this adds to the debate about the value of creative nonfiction (a term I dislike), such readers' reactions seem to miss the idea that all stories are personal, even the ones to which we seem to have little ostensible relation. Humans are often drawn to stories because we see ourselves reflected back; if the identification isn't that distinct, and sometimes it isn't, then we read to watch others enacting trivial or profound tales of the human condition, ideally experiencing some measure of empathy along the way. Harrison saw young Jody as a silhouette into which she, Harrison, fit; startled and moved by this discovery, she explored how storytelling shapes the lives of the storytellers, both the story Harrison told to keep herself whole after her father's abuse and the story she tells of Jody's storytelling that Jody shaped to keep herself whole. While They Slept is a fascinating book, and a bit daring, too, in its insistent author/subject symbiosis: an unsympathetic, ungenerous reader might read self-absorption into Harrison's motives in writing it, when what really moves Harrison is recognition of the heartbreaking links among us, the tethering that reminds us that we're not alone and are, in fact, enacting a story as old as time itself, however private ours might feel. That seems to me the great abiding value of memoir.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

A song from the old days

Joyce Carol Oates has written that good nonfiction "is not place- or time-bound; it survives the occasion of its original composition." A dilemma for every music writer is this: how might a piece survive beyond its time-and-date stamp? Nick Kent's memoir Apathy for the Devil is a tad adjective- and simile-friendly, and reads on more than one occasion as if the thesaurus were open, but its sprint through mid-1970s music and journalistic excess is a blast to read. You want Iggy, the Stones, Bowie, Rod Stewart, sunny LA, grimy London, Led Zeppelin, the Sex Pistols, a little Dylan, highs, crashes, fuck-ups, and piles and piles and piles of cocaine? You got it.

I especially love the book's opening, where Kent takes on the limits of memory and the power of recalled songs to transcend time and bring it all back home:
When you get right down to it, the human memory is a deceitful organ to have to rely on. Past reality gets confused with wishful fantasy as the years march on and you can never really guarantee that you’re replaying the unvarnished truth back to yourself. I’ve tried to protect my memories, to keep them pristine and authentic, but it’s been easier said than done.

Music remains the only key that can unlock the past for me in a way that I can inherently trust. A song from the old days strikes up and instantly a film is projected in my head, albeit an unedited one without a linear plot line; just random scenes thrown together to appease my reflective mood of the moment. For example, someone just has to play an early Joni Mitchell track or one of David Crosby’s dreamy ocean songs and their chords of enquiry instantly transport me back to the Brighton of 1969 with its Technicolor skies, pebble=strewn beach and jaunty air of sweetly decaying Regency splendour. I am dimple-faced and lanky and wandering lonely as a clod through its backstreets and arcades looking longingly at the other people in my path: the boys enshrouded in ill-fitting greatcoats and sagebrush beards and the bra-less girls in long skirts sporting curtains of unstyled hair to frame their fresh inquisitive faces. i

It was at these girls in particular that my longing looks were aimed. Direct contact was simply not an option at this juncture of my life. Staring forlornly at their passing forms was the only alternative. This is what happens when you don’t have a sister and have been sidetracked into single-sex schooling systems since the age of eleven: women start to exert a strange and terrible fascination, one born of sexual and romantic frustrations as well as complete ignorance of their emotional agendas and basic thought processes.

Monday, July 16, 2018

File: Rock & Roll, definitions of

Allow the late, great Reg Presley and the minimalist Troggs to distill rock and roll to 100 or so words:
When my luck is down and I can't think of a thing
I just go to my bed, lay my hands on my head
I open my mouth and I sing, yeah I just sing

When we're out on a gig and you start moving that thing
Well, it goes to my head and I start seeing red
I open my mouth and I sing, yeah I just sing

When I think I'm right and you, you think I'm wrong
It just goes to my head and I start seeing red
I open my mouth and I sing, yeah I just sing
Despair, lust, and frustration—the Troggs nail it. Again.

The Troggs, "I Just Sing" (Wild Thing, 1966)
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