Monday, December 31, 2018

Scenes from the Anti-Ark

From Jean Baudrillard's "New York City," in America, published in 1986:
Such is the whirl of the city, so great its centrifugal force, that it would take superhuman strength to envisage living as a couple and sharing someone else’s life in New York. Only tribes, gangs, mafia families, secret societies, and perverse communities can survive, not couples. This is the anti-Ark. In the first Ark, the animals came in two by two to save the species from the great flood. Here in this fabulous Ark, each one comes in alone—it's up to him or her each evening to find the last survivors for the last party. 
In New York, the mad have been set free. Let out into the city, they are difficult to tell apart from the rest of the punks, junkies, addicts, winoes, or down-and-outs who inhabit it. It is difficult to see why a city as crazy as this one would keep its mad in the shadows, why it would withdraw from circulation specimens of a madness which has in fact, in its various forms, taken hold of the whole city.
Chinatown, New York City. Photo by Vivienne Gucwa
Kenny Scharf, Cosmic Closet (1980s/2017). Multimedia installation.

’Breakdancing’ is a feat of acrobatic gymnastics. Only at the end do you realize it actually was dancing, when the dancer freezes into a lazy, languid pose (elbow on the ground, head nonchalantly resting in the palm of the hand, the pose you see on Etruscan tombs). The way they suddenly come to rest like this is reminiscent of Chinese opera. But the Chinese warrior comes to a halt at the height of the action in a heroic gesture, whereas the breakdancer stops at the slack point in his movements and the gesture is derisive. You might say that in curling up and spiralling around on the ground like this, they seem to be digging a hole for themselves within their own bodies, from which to stare out in the ironic, indolent pose of the dead.
Break dancing in NYC (1980s)

Image of Chinatown, New York City via NY Through the Lens 
Image of Cosmic Closet via Artspace
Image of break dancing via reddit

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Right through the haze

l-r. Michael Pollan, Walter Benjamin, Pete Townshend
"One of me best songs I've ever written. Quite a fiery Wagnerian piece."

That's Pete Townshend on "I Can See For Miles," the masterpiece that the Who released as a single on October 13, 1967. Recorded during the fall in studios in London, Manhattan, and Los Angeles— accessing Gold Star Studios's echo chamber at the latter for the proper menacing reverb on Roger Daltrey's vocals—"I Can See For Miles" is recognized as one of Townshend's greatest songs, and one of his biggest personal disappointments when the single didn't move in the numbers he'd envisioned (he had to wait for Tommy for such success). I've been obsessing about this astounding song for many years, an obsession renewed while reading Roger Daltrey's new memoir, which off course sent me back to the band's catalogue, which sent me back to Dave Marsh's excellent biography Before I Get Old: The Story of the Who, which sent me back to YouTube, which sent me back to the records, etc..

I was also put in mind of the song while reading Michael Pollan's recent piece in the New York Times, an account of the profound difficulties Pollan experienced while attempting to write about his drug-induced psychedelic experiences for his latest book How To Change Your Mind. In "How Does a Writer Put a Drug Trip Into Words?" Pollan lays bare the problem: while it was clear that he would have to trip in order to write his book, "it wasn’t at all obvious how I would write about that experience, one often described as, well, indescribable."
William James famously wrote that mystical experience—perhaps the closest analogue we have of a psychedelic trip—is “ineffable”: beyond the reach of language. I couldn’t count on a common frame of reference, since not all of my readers would be familiar with the exotic psychic terrain onto which I wanted to take them. Boring readers was another worry. Perhaps the second closest analogue of a psychedelic journey is the dream, and there is no surer way to drive people off—even your loved ones!—than to tell them your dreams. I’d also read enough “trip reports” online and in books to be acutely aware of the literary risks—what Arthur Koestler, a skeptic after his own psychedelic experiments, described as “pressure-cooker mysticism” and “cosmic schmaltz.”
Reading his next-day notes and journals, Pollan recognized with a sinking feeling something many of us have experienced: the lameness, sometimes embarrassment, of the drug epiphany. What sounded—what felt—solemnly profound and insightful at 3 a.m. in the dorm, at the party, in the bar, alone at home, read the next morning as trite, and often indecipherable. Famously, when Paul McCartney first got high with his bandmates in New York City, he asked ol' reliable Mal Evans to write down a head-clearing insight that Mccartney, liberated by the marijuana, had been vouchsafed: There are seven levels. McCartney may have indeed perceived something profound, even accurate, that we can't access in our clean and sober hours. But life-changing it wasn't.

Pollan continues: "What I realized, reading over my own dubious epiphanies, is that there is an inside and an outside to a psychedelic experience, and that one way to write about it would be to honor both perspectives more or less simultaneously. I wouldn’t take sides, in other words, but would instead attempt to cultivate a measure of intellectual generosity, a kind of negative capability, toward my mental doings, however bizarre, and at the same time frankly acknowledge the reader’s skepticism, which in fact I shared. I would be of two minds." This duality of perspective allowed Pollan to render, as best he could, the weirdness and irrationality of a trip. As he puts it, "Multiplying my authorial persona—or was I dividing it?—in this way allowed me to capture at least some of the paradoxicality and sheer weirdness of the psychedelic experience as no single, stable narrator could hope to do."
By this point in my story there were three distinct “I’s” telling it: the voyager reporting from inside the experience; the I who observes that first-person poof into Post-its (who is also “inside” the experience but at a remove); and, finally, the “outside” narrator who, acutely aware of just how crazy this all sounds and of the demands he is making of the reader, tries to assure her that it is only the limitations of language that make it hard to see there’s something here worth taking seriously. The acknowledgment of doubt is precisely what allows us to suspend it.
Pollan goes on to cite two books about drug experiences, one well known, The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, the other obscure, Miserable Miracle by Henri Michaux. Huxley's book "is a seamless, confident, elegantly written travelogue of a psychedelic journey that the author found astonishing but entirely comprehensible." Michaux's account "took the opposite tack, refusing the offer of metaphor to make sense of an experience he believed was beyond the power of words to convey." Pollan attempted to locate his writing somewhere between those two poles, between beauty and chaos, rational and irrational. "I can see now that I was charting a path between Huxley’s Scylla of neat interpretation (I had none to offer) and Michaux’s Charybdis of incoherence."
But even though the anarchy of my experience bore a closer resemblance to Michaux’s, it seemed to me that to give up on language and metaphor, inadequate to the experience though they might be, would constitute a breach with my reader, who had already come some distance with me in my psychedelic journeying. Could I now abandon the reader in order to preserve some ideal of literary integrity?
Reading Pollan's struggles reminded me of Walter Benjamin's killer essay "Hashish in Marsailes," in which Benjamin recounts a night he doped-up and walked the streets, part lab analysis, part kicks. (He called these experiences in the late 1920s and early '30s “protocols of drug experiments.”) There's a subtle thread of comprehension and insight that runs through Benjamin's generally wacky experiences on that night involving the miraculous oneness he achieved with strangers, the strong sense of empathy and recognition he felt for his fellow men and women, and the indeed mind-blowing, and valuable, discovery that there is beauty to be found in the ugly, worth to be discovered in what was considered hitherto worthless. Benjamin ends the essay with a brilliant passage that I love to try and parse with my writing students because, for as many times as I've read and taught the essay, I can never quite get to the bottom of it: "When I recall [the state of being high] I should like to believe that hashish persuades nature to permit us—for less egoistic purposes—that squandering of our own existence that we know in love," he writes. "For if, when we love, our existence runs through nature's fingers like golden coins that she cannot hold and lets fall to purchase new birth thereby, she now throws us, without hoping or expecting anything, in ample handfuls to existence."

That feels like a foreign language that I only semi-understand. That's also the language of a changed man.


The Who at Monterey Pop, 1967
The Who played the Monterey Pop Festival on June 18, 1967. On the flight home to England, Townshend took a hit of STP, and the unnerving experience, a ghastly four-hour high with intense mind-body divide, profoundly affected him and drove him away from hallucinogenics, "and it was on an airplane over the Atlantic," he marveled later. "I said, ‘Fuck this, I can’t stand any more.’ And I was free of the trip. And I was just like floating in midair looking at myself in a chair, for about an hour and a half. And then I would go back in again and it would be the same. And I was just like, zap, completely unconscious as far as the outside world was concerned. But I was very much alive, crawling alive."
Eventually, it tailed off and then. you get like, instead of a night’s lovely planing out, nice colorful images, you get about a week of it and you get a week of trying to repiece your ego, remember who you were and what you are and stuff like that.
For his part, fellow passenger Daltrey remembers Townshend "staring fiercely at my caftan coat. God knows what was going on inside his head but he kept gibbering on about rainbows." Daltrey meaningfully added: "Two good things came from that journey." One was Townshend's new-found antipathy to hard drugs. The other? "Pete got the idea for 'I Can See For Miles'."

Chris Charlesworth has observed that "I Can See For MIles" is "psychedelic without being trippy," and others have remarked on the song's hallucinatory vibe, but Townshend has always denied that the record's a drug song. "I swoon when I hear the sound," he acknowledged in 1971, but added, "The words, which ageing senators have called ‘Drug Oriented‘, are about a jealous man with exceptionally good eyesight. Honest." Elsewhere he said, "It was [originally] written about jealousy but actually turned out to be about the immense power of aspiration. You often see what it is you want to reach, and know you can't get at it and say, ‘I'm gonna try.' Those words start to move you in a direction, as long as you say, ‘I can see what I want, but there's no way I can get it'."

Perhaps through tabs? I want to believe Daltrey, though he might be mistaking "...Miles" for "I Can't Reach You." I've always heard the heady grandiloquence in "I Can See For Miles" as, shall we say, chemically assisted. It sounds and feels that way: the song rises to the surface as if it has eternally existed in some form and needed the acid to reveal it; the guitar drones, the airy spaces in the arrangement, the menacing, smugly knowing reverb, Townshend's famous one-note guitar solo (which he'll revise a dozen complicated years later in the opening to "Empty Glass") that's both aggressive and passive, boring down yet complacent in, pleased with, its own distracted inertia. Keith Moon rumbles on his toms throughout and then snare-attacks the song in places as if awakened from a narcotic daze, his blissy galloping in the choruses chasing Townshend's ascending, vapor trail Stratocaster leads. The key change at the line "The Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal" feels like nothing less than the epiphanic next wave of the drug kicking in, our eyes open again to the newness and nowness of the song's discoveries. The wide-screen self-assurance in the song feels like newly-won insight, its arrival so surprising yet familiar that it could've only come from previously untapped channels.

Townshend, quoted in Marsh's bio: "You can tell what is and what isn't rock & roll. To be the real thing, a song has to have an awareness of rock history. It has to have the beat, that undulating rhythm. Even while it feels like history, it has to say something new. And most important, it has to have crammed into it all the poignancy and excitement of youth, because that's what it's really all about." 
John Dougan, in his 33 1/3 book on The Who Sell Out: the band's performance on "I Can See For Miles" "strains against the confines of the song itself, as if the band knew full well that maintaining control was impossible and, more importantly, beside the point.... As much as anything they‘d recorded to that point, 'I Can See for Miles' articulated the band’s uncontrollable desire to smash rock and roll to bits and start all over." 
Just turn it up.

"I Can See For Miles" psychedelic poster designed in 1967 by Michael English and Nigel Waymouth, known as Hapshash and the Coloured Coat. Via V&A.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Staying Put

Laying low raises some questions about the meaning of home, how it's defined, and whether it's a place one visits or a place one carries abound inside. Probably some measure of both, I'd guess. This is the first Christmas/New Years in more than twenty years that we haven't driven east to visit my parents and siblings. We're staying put in DeKalb this year, alone yet not at all lonely, and, as much as I'll miss family and the growing racket of what I used to call home, I won't miss the three hours it took us to cross Indiana in a horizontal blizzard, the bedraggled hotels, the too-brief human connections, the stress. And the rest. What I'm trying to pay close attention to this year, quiet with Amy in our small town, are eternal rhythms, from cookie making and tree decorating to the otherworldly quiet of the yard at night and, today, on Christmas morning, of the neighborhood itself where in homes all over, many families are enacting what still feels absurdly joyous and close to me. But during this season it's especially important to remember that a home packed with family members is no more festive than a home with one or two lonely occupants, fighting against the blues or worse, feeling underwhelmed by the season and so feeling miserably anti-human, and purposeless, because of it. Home is where you live, no matter what shape or noise that living takes.

Unsurprisingly, I've been thinking about all of this because of a couple of songs. Last night, we listened to Frank Sinatra's "I'll Be Home For Christmas (If Only In My Dreams)" from 1957—a song about home and how we long for it, but often have to settle for it as imagined—and I was again struck by how elementally simple on a technical level is the the arrangement of notes, the movement of harmonics, the rhymes, all of it written out in charts and on sheet music, and yet how mysterious the end result, how endlessly fresh, how in a moment of composition lies the eternity of expression. And yesterday "He's A Rebel" came up on shuffle at the Y. No one in their right mind would call this a holiday tune, and yet it couldn't have arrived at a better time for me, surrounded by the lights and spectacle and oppressive materialism of the Christmas season, as I'm trying to keep my ears and ears tuned to what's timeless. There's something eternal in the changes in this song, as if they've always existed, and surprised into hearing them again, and moved, I found myself still catching up to a song I've heard, and marveled at, hundreds of times. Written by Gene Pitney and recorded by the Blossoms in 1962, "He's a Rebel" was credited to the Crystals, who were then obligated to add the song to their repertoire and who became forever identified by it. The inestimable Wrecking Crew, with dependable Hal Blaine on drums, played on the track, laying the sturdy foundation for singer Darlene Love. Where's Love on this Christmas morning? Phil Spector produced the tune, and where's he now? I know where he is, but how is he defining home, and should I even care? (Coincidentally, it's his birthday tomorrow.) The men and women who wrote, recorded, and produced "He's A Rebel" entered pop myth for me long ago, and may as well be epic characters, some resplendent, some unsavory, most just normal, in a vast story about the Twentieth century. They lived, and live, in the echo of the eternal, something that will always exist just above our heads, practically visible in the ether, even as it pounds in our hearts and chests, moistens our eyes, plugs our throats forever, I'd wager today, this morning.

Anyway, Merry Christmas wherever you are, whatever you believe or don't, if you're in the old homestead or a new joint you just moved to and that doesn't feel like home yet, whether you're with loved ones or on your own. I wish you all sorts of eternal moments, in whatever form they take: family, friends, quiet reflection, loud songs. Maybe today is a good day to look for them, or better yet, to leave yourself open to the surprise of them.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Drive. Drive. Drive.

I'm getting a little bored with Rock Star memoirs. Shouldn't I be interested in the trappings of fame fortunes? I'll never posses them. They'll always remain exotic, other-worldly. I'll always be on the outside looking in. I should find tales of global mass success awe inspiring, the experience of, say, a band playing the Super Bowl halftime show riveting. Yet Roger Daltrey's description of that 2010 event in his memoir Thanks a Lot Mr. Kibblewhite is astonishingly similar to Bruce Springsteen's, in his memoir, in its banal reveal of the kind of necessary corporate think that rules stage spectacle. It's much more fun to read about the High Numbers'/Who's early shows on stages a foot off the ground in front of maybe a dozen Mods. Many rock stars lead boring, or anyway deflatingly ordinary, lives off the road, and the endless tour stories get tiresome after awhile. The book begins to grow a bit stale and repetitive after the Who make it, after the band graduates from small, cramped clubs to arenas, after Pete Townshend's songwriting gains traction, and we have to read again about Keith Moon's alcohol abuse and serial trashing/ketchup-decorating of hotel rooms (make that chains), John Entwhistle's creepy weirdness, and Townshend's moodiness and self-absorption. Daltrey's versions of these events don't lack for details; his bad luck is that his stories have arrived so late in the Who's well-worn myth that they don't add anything terribly new. The book, as did the band, loses considerable momentum once Moon dies in 1978, the boring 1980s arrive, and the band goes on a long hiatus, only to reunite on the odd occasion before embarking on a series of farewell tours (the band down to two original members following Entwhistle's death in 2002). Does lordly downtime make for interesting reading? If you want to read about Daltrey excavating the lakes around his ample property, endlessly stripping and staining wood with his mates at his Victorian estate, worrying about tapping big-name artists for his charity shows, or struggling to learn how to act on film and the odd stage production, then this memoir is for you. If not, well.... I've written before about Townshend's similarly disappointing memoir, and where to look if you want his real confession.

"I’m a deeply private person," Daltrey writes. "Why else do you think it’s taken so long to write this autobiography?" That rhetorical question gives me pause. I expect some measure of self-interrogation in memoirs, even in image-managed Rock Star memoirs, and though Daltrey does explore his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood for his social anxieties, personal contradictions, interior tickings, and occasional health scares, few of his excavations are particularly revelatory if you've read a well-researched, well-written Who biography. Though he does confess to a genuine bout of suicidal depression as a bullied lad, Daltrey admits to having difficulty in the Who's early years connecting emotionally with the loners, oddballs, and freaks in Townshend's songs. Daltrey seemingly couldn't understand a boy who had to beat off to pin-up photos ("Pictures of Lilly") when, even at this stage in his career, women were throwing themselves at him (after reading this passage, his doubt looks clear to me in the promo video!). He couldn't stomach singing about a boy forced to cross-dress ("I'm a Boy") as such gender fluidity and queerness were beyond his ken, and it seems, beyond his imagination as well. Eventually, he comes around to understanding how to sing. "Empathy, that’s the root of it all," he writes. "If I can empathize with where [Townshend] was when he was writing it, I’m at the root of the song. And most of those songs were written from a place of pain, as well as spirit."
I struggled at first to find that place and you can hear the struggle. But then I inhabited it. I didn't have to become Pete, I just had to find my own vulnerability. I had to tear down all my own defenses I’d put up to survive.
Sounds confessional, but Daltrey mostly plays his cards close to the vest in Mr. Kibblewhite, and that's his prerogative. Unsurprisingly, he's at his best and most insightful when writing about, and marveling at, making music, the chief passion in his life, lyrics aside. He's especially perceptive about his band's legendary stage antics as they dovetailed with a keen understanding and manipulation of commercial instinct, something band managers Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert intuited also. The practical Daltrey, who grew up hardscrabble, was initially appalled at Townshend's infamous guitar smashing. Then he began to understand, on a gut rock and roll level. "Very quickly, Pete wasn’t just smashing his guitar," he observes. "He used to stick the neck of it right up into the amps and through the speakers to make all kinds of surreal noises. It was animalistic. It was sacrificial. The guitar used to scream, and it used to go on for about five minutes until it was wrecked." He adds, "The critics missed it, but the fans got it the first time; they understood through the energy it created. The critics were writing about what they were seeing, but they weren’t listening. That became the problem with the smashing of the guitars; I felt that in the end people had just come to see that; it stopped people listening."

Observant stuff. Describing the Who's early sonic evolution, Daltrey really nails the Who's appeal and surging power: amped-up aggression and nerve fighting with, and within, a pop song, all of it barreling the band forward in unpredictable ways while grappling with real ideas and cultural observations. And Daltrey was in many ways leading the charge. "We were developing the way we performed as well. We were finding ways of expressing our aggression. The phrasing of things, the punch of the chords, more onbeat than swing. Our word for it was drive. Let’s drive, we used to say before a gig. Drive. Drive. Drive." 
I used to feel like we were trying to drive our music through the audience to the back wall. I’ve always done that, even at Woodstock, with no back wall and half a million people stretching over the horizon. I had to drive the curvature of the earth. It’s no good to play at an audience. You’ve got to play to them. You’ve got to try and move them. You have to drive through them. And it works.
Indeed. I had to drive the curvature of the earth. What a line! What a summary of how rock and roll became Rock, how audiences morphed from shoulder-to-shoulder intimacies in sweaty clubs to open-air communing under the sun and rain, and how one man learned how to sing it.

Photos from Thanks a Lot Mr. Kibblewhite; top and middle photo cropped; photo of Townshend leaping at Woodstock via tumblr.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Sound gets in and stays

The other day in the gym locker room I found myself humming “It Won’t Be Long,” the first cut from the Beatles’ With The Beatles album. Ten or so minutes later, having been distracted by idle talk, the TV in the locker room, my phone, I noticed that I’d kept singing the album to myself in sequence without being aware of it. I was on the third song now. Perfectly timed.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

December 8, 1980

I was listening to Monday Night Football on the radio in my bedroom. Either Jack Buck or Hank Stram announced it—I'm pretty sure it was Stram, whose voice afterward I always associated with the shock and drama of the moment, though memory and its desire might be telling the story at the point. Anyway, in my teenage earnestness and grief I wanted to wear a black arm band to high school the next day, but I chickened out. My brothers and sister and I stood in her bedroom in mumbling disbelief. In retrospect, something did change that night, though I'm still not sure exactly what: violence and self-absorption and mania felt that much more personal, yet at the same time removed and beyond belief. All of the awfulness scored by music: DJs across the country dropped the needle, the opening of "(Just Like) Starting Over" suddenly became impossible to listen to, and "Watching the Wheels," it seemed, began its 24/7 presence on the radio that moment.

In the studio, near the end

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Sadness, Fun, Frustration, Release

RIP Pete Shelley, who died of a heart attack today. He was 63. The Buzzcocks' early, careening singles—"Orgasm Addict," "What Do I Get?," "I Don't Mind," "Love You More," "Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)," "Promises," "Lipstick," "Everybody's Happy Nowadays"—with their rocking, pent-up mania and hilariously chaotic chord changes against singalong melodies, all under two minutes, give or take—sounded like the aural equivalent of adolescence. Shelley came close to rock and roll perfection a remarkable number of times but, to my ears, never as close as he got here, the middle eight of which ("I only get sleepless nights...") remains one of my favorites, and in its simplicity, ferocity, and liberation is so powerful as to be beyond language to express. I've written about this song so many times because it remains remarkably fresh. One of the great rock and roll songs of the era, if not of all time: sadness, fun, frustration, and release. Repeat.
I just want a lover like any other, what do I get?
I only want a friend who will stay to the end, what do I get?
What do I get, oh-oh, what do I get?

I'm in distress, I need a caress, what do I get?
I'm not on the make, I just need a break, what do I get?
What do I get, oh-oh, what do I get?

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
What do I get, oh-oh, what do I get?
I just want a lover like any other, what do I get?
I only want a friend who will love to the end, what do I get?
What do I get, oh-oh, what do I get?
I get no love
I get no sleep at nights
I get nothing that's nice
I get nothing at all, at all, at all, at all
At all, at all, at all, at all 'cause I don't get you

Friday, November 30, 2018

Take another look: The Magic Plants' "I'm a Nothing" (1965)

You better take another look, girls
I've been jamming lately to "I'm a Nothing," by New York City's The Magic Plants, a 1965 stomper which I discovered years ago on the I'm a No Count compilation in the inestimable Teenage Shutdown! series. Who says that a garage rock and roll song can't be smart, or needs more than three chords to sustain an argument? The singer, snotty in the best garage style, pitches his vitriol at the gullible girls mooning for the Rock Stars manufactured by fan magazines, pretty in make-up and long hair, out of reach on the movie screen and in limousines. Yet the man underneath the trappings of pop fame is a disgrace, a nothing. Sung in venomous first-person, the song wages war against the formulaic pop star and the fans who send blind adulation his way.

"I'm a Nothing" was a regional one-and-done for the Plants, two members of which went to form the far more remunerative Left Banke. After a bit of research—kickstarted by this post at the great Garage Hangover—I discovered that I"m a Nothing"'s songwriter, Mike Wexler, is still around and, to my utter amazement, lives in my town. I asked him about the song. "What was I thinking about 54 years ago?" Wexler says. "The way-back machine suggests a starry-eyed kid hitting the great white way in search of fame and fortune and finding a den of thieves, con artists, and hopelessly sad groupies." He adds, "At least the groupies were honest." In all-too-familiar fashion, the producers at World United added their names to Wexler's writing on the flip side of the record, "on the chance we actually made some money, assuring me it was all part of the business. As far as I know, no promise went unfulfilled. No lie proved too demeaning. Verve pressed a few copies, how many is unknown, but there was no push."


Here are the uncompromising lyrics:
I'm the one that you see on the movie show
The type that you hear on the radio
The one that makes you really scream
The one that you always see in your dreams
You write your name all over my car
Just because I'm a long-haired star
But I'm a nothing 
Take away my crazy long hair
Take that silly makeup off my face
You better take another look, girl
I'm a disgrace
I'm a nothing 
I ride around in your limousine
Sign my name in your fan magazine
You think that there's something that I'm tying to prove
But baby that's not part of my groove
Once was true, now it's a drag
Baby, that's just not my bag 
Take off the silly makeup
Take away my crazy long hair
Baby, take just one more look
Now you don't care about a nothing 
If you'd ever take a good look at me
Baby, you'd cry at the things you'd see
A normal average unconcerned guy
So get them stupid stars out of your eyes 
You carried this game now way too far
I don't like to be a sex symbol star
"I'm a Nothing" seethes with righteous garage nerve, but the sneer and decibels belie the song's origins. "The truth is, at that time, I was actually a folk singer working the Village, a la Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, etc.," Wexler says. "I have a truck load of good songs never heard by anyone. 'I'm A Nothing' was a part of my act and delivered entirely as parody, including the vocal inflections, a satire on the prevailing culture of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Peter [Schekeryk, Wexler's manager] heard it one night and thought it would pass easy as genuine." Wexler adds that there were no "magic plants"—band members so-named, that is—"just me and Tom Finn doing a little backup singing. We used to stand on street corners and harmonize Beatles tunes." Schekeryk did manage to arrange an audition for Wexler at Elektra Records for Paul Rothchild, who'd heard Wexler perform at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, "but then the label started making changes, emphasis to Blues and groups like the Doors." When Wexler later inquired, the tapes were, apparently, "quote-unquote lost."

Parody or satire, turn it up, this is the real thing:

The Magic Plants, "I'm a Nothing," single (1965)
Words and music by Michael Wexler

Monday, November 26, 2018

Some kind of peculiar miracle

Dial, 1956
The other I picked up a book at the music library on campus, then ducked into the Jack Arends Art Building and walked the hallways. It was late in the afternoon so classes weren't in session, but handfuls of students were working in studios, painting or working with wood or metal. I stopped into an empty auditorium hall and was sent back my days as an Art History student as the University of Maryland (I minored; now I wish I'd double majored). The feeling swept over me: the queasy thrill of a first day in, say, Modern European or Contemporary Art; the giant screen; scoping out the unfamiliar students, someone I might know, the cute loner girls with oversized canvas carriers; the knowledge that I'd be introduced to so many artists and works that I didn't know and didn't know that I was so thirsty to know.

I'll never forget my 19th Century European Art teacher telling us the first day of class, "We won't look at any art in this class." Wha?? we wondered, the oddness of his remark cutting through our affected irony. "We're going to look at reproductions of art." Oh, I get; and it stuck. You'll have to go into D.C. to look at actual art, he said—which I started to do, in head-lifting pleasure. (I recall a favorite trip in here.) I remember my contemporary art class fondly, and a particular favorite who cut through the reproductions to really enter me, among Joan Mitchell, Franz Kline, and de Kooning, was Philip Guston, whose mid-1950s paintings staggered me. My introduction to abstract expressionism, Guston's work affected me so deeply in all of the cliched ways: it felt like a foreign language, and so was a little frightening; it re-presented the world to me; it was utterly baffling and at the same time familiar. His paintings created a parallel universe wherein I understood texture and design as natively as I understood hunger and grief, and graphically introduced to me a new way of seeing things; abstraction, essence, nonfigurative, inside-out, otherworldly: all of the mean descriptors miss the point. His paintings were both the thing and the definition, somehow both pre- and post-language. I can say with certainty and with a thrill, still, that my life was never quite the same after experiencing Guston's colors, impasto, and monumentality. Nor was the world I looked at.

 The Mirror, 1957

 'for m.', 1955

A few remarks from Guston:
When I see people making "abstract" painting, I think it's just a dialogue and a dialogue isn't enough. That is to say, there is you painting and this canvas. I think there has to be a third thing; it has to be a trialogue. 
The painting is not on a surface, but on a plane which is imagined. It moves in a mind. It is not there physically at all. It is an illusion, a piece of magic, so that what you see is not what you see.

Painting seems like some kind of peculiar miracle that I need to have again and again. 
To paint is a possessing rather than a picturing.
Philip Guston

Saturday, November 24, 2018


Charlie Gillett, from his introduction to The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, first published in 1970: "The city’s sounds are brutal and oppressive, imposing themselves on anyone who comes into its streets. Many of its residents, committed by their jobs to live in the city, measure their freedom by the frequency and accessibility of departures from it."
But during the mid-fifties, in virtually every urban civilization in the world, adolescents staked out their freedom in the cities, inspired and reassured by the rock and roll beat. Rock and roll was perhaps the first form of popular culture to celebrate without reservation characteristics of city life that had been among the most criticized. In rock and roll, the strident, repetitive sounds of city life were, in effect, reproduced as melody and rhythm.
The above photo, via Underwood Archives, is titled "Teenage Rock 'n' Roll Fans" and was shot on February 23, 1957 in New York City on 44th Street, as fans were "restrained by police as they line up to see disc jockey Alan Freed and the movie, Don't Knock The Rock." Two months later on April 6, an AP photographer captured one of the most iconic images in rock and roll, below, an "unidentified teenager" losing her mind and her body at an Elvis Presley concert at the Arena in Philadelphia. (Photo via Flashbak.) Among my favorite rock and roll images, few shots top these two moments which, though well known, beg yet another view. Look at her body, somehow both rigid and fluid, out of control and in charge, a saint being assumed by the devil's music. Positively (anti) Pentecostal. How could she not have been permanently altered, emotionally and physically, by this? Man, I'd love to know who she is, to find her, and to ask her, at the risk of sentimentality: what did it feel like? And the two girls next to her, keeping it together, look as if they're both fighting decorum, pity, embarrassment, and not a little envy: wow look at her, it's scary, she's gone, do I want to go too?

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Reading Joyce on poor-man's speed

Cutting across campus yesterday: a confluence of the gray weather, chill, and looming academic buildings brought me right back to McKeldin Library, at the University of Maryland, where as an undergrad I took a course in Joyce and Yeats; we ended the semester with a couple weeks devoted to Ulysses. Blessedly, my teacher assigned Harry Blamires's indispensable The Bloomsday Book to help us through Joyce's epic. I worked in the division of Non-Print Media (a quaint name!) at Hornbake Library, and in the hours before my shift started I'd enter McKeldin—gray and dusty, the oldest library on campus—head upstairs to the fourth floor, wind my way through seemingly endless stacks of musty books, and select a tiny desk in a tiny carrel in front of a tiny window. McKeldin was built in the late 1950s and wasn't renovated until two years after I'd graduated, so at the time felt, to me, ancient and catacomby with its narrow aisles and hushed stacks. I'd pop a couple of No-Doz, my usual lunch or dinner substitute, open Blamires's book, read a chapter and orient myself, and then dive head-first into the corresponding adventure in Ulysses. The movement from Ramires' dry, helpful summaries to Joyce, well, it was a leap from one language to another, thrilling and exotic and urgent. There was nothing quite like these afternoons for me as a student, lost in the richness of characters' interior worlds in a foreign city rendered so tactile it might've been outside; not even the hours I'd spend as a DJ on my radio show at WMUC compared. When I finished, the afternoon light straining through the old old window, it would be dusk, and I'd stumble out of McKeldin and gaze at the long, sweeping McKeldin Mall: night coming on, guys and girls coupled or solo against the cutting wind, my head Joycean and speeding and reeling, the landscape altered. I was 21 and I felt eternal. These hours spent with Ulysses at a cramped wooden desk in front of a narrow window overlooking campus remain among my most cherished and transformative reading experiences. A close second: a few years later at Ohio University in Athens, in graduate school, reading for the first time Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury with the peerless Dr. Dean McWilliams, and walking home after the late-May seminar, following an inevitable detour at The Union or Tony's, my bars of choice, to where I lived in the blighted west end of town and honeysuckles honeysuckles everywhere as I reckoned with Quentin and Benjy and Caddy, oh Caddy....


Coming down the steps in Reavis Hall yesterday, on my way to teach, a girl coming up the opposite way stumbling slightly, her head down, deep in a book. Timeless stuff.

McKeldin Library (pre renovation)

Monday, November 19, 2018

Timeless melancholy

Ellen Willis, at home, in music

I've been revisiting Out of the Vinyl Deeps, the terrific collection of Ellen Willis's (mostly) music writing published in 2011, again admiring Willis's intelligence and insights as they dovetailed with a genuinely sensual and physical response to pop music and the ideas in it. In December 1972 Willis wrote "Into the Seventies, for Real," a small piece reacting to a recent column by Ron Weiser in the Flash fanzine; Weiser complained that when rock and roll turned to Rock (and then into Art) in the mid- and late-1960s, some measure of rawness and authenticity was leeched out of the music. As early as the early 1970s there were some crowing that pop music had peaked in the early 1960s, when the dangerous stirrings of primal music in the previous decade were thrumming, still scary. Then the Beatles in Suits—and then the Rolling Stones merely ripping off Chuck Berry, and then Dylan's literary pursuits in song—spelled the end of all of this.

Willis's take on Weiser's take is predictably nuanced, and smart, moving between doubts about rock's so-called purity and the ways it was intellectually dull and excluded her, and and head-banging understanding that above all else rock should move us, literally, out of our blues. "You get the idea," Willis wrote in her "Rock, Etc." column in the December 9, 1972, issue of The New Yorker. "We’re supposed to get back to the mythic crudity and crassness reputed to be at the heart of rock and roll before it was corrupted by meaning, sensitivity, taste, and the like." (Note btw Willis's pretty early use of the term "punk rock"—in The New Yorker!)
The aestheticians of the backlash may overlap with the fifties-R&B nuts we’ve always had with us, but in general they take the spirit rather than the sound of fifties rock as their inspiration—particularly the Dionysiac illiteracy of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Punk-rock has become the favored term endearment. I have mixed feelings about all this. For one thing, the blood-'n'-raunch-forever approach to rock tends to degenerate into a virility cult. Besides, having lived through the fifties, I find it impossible to romanticize them. In spite of rock and roll, they were dull, mean years—at least for middle-class high-school girls. For all the absurdities of the counter-culture, it was better than what we had before; there’s something to be said for a little cosmic awareness, provided it doesn’t get out of hand. And if it hadn't been for the Beatles (I wonder, did Rockin' Ron despise Buddy Holly for wearing suits and glasses and looking like a school teacher?) we might never have developed the ind of consciousness about our shared past that allows a rag like Flash to exist. 

"Still," Willis pivots, "I do have a weakness for dedicated crudity and crassness." She cites Five Dollar Shoes, the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils, and Black Sabbath's Vol. 4 album as current music she's digging, half-bemusedly, half-seriously, that mines early, and timeless, rock and roll mayhem. "The genius of these songs," she observes, "is that they convert the residue of a decade’s aborted visions into the timeless melancholy of adolescence."
They remind me that the antisixties backlash is an anachronism even before it begins. Pretty soon, there’s going to be a new crop of kids, who, whatever they may inherit from the sixties, won’t know where it came from, or care—until, of course, they grow up and get self-conscious, like everybody else.

Friday, November 16, 2018

What it is

I'm a self-taught essayist. In graduate school I wrote and studied poetry. Twenty or so years ago I began growing dissatisfied with my poems and with poetry generally, and turned to writing prose, which I'd already done a bit of. I became very interested in essays, a desire dormant in me, and among my first steps in catching up (ongoing) was to sit down and read Phillip Lopate's 1995 anthology The Art of the Personal Essay from front to back. I read and teach the anthology to this day. For all of the valid criticism of the book—it could've used more avante and experimentally lyric essays, for one, and more marginalized voices wold be nice in an updated edition—it remains, for me, an indispensable and frequently rewarding and surprising book. The introduction is stellar and a standard-bearer, and Lopate's choices of essays beautifully balance forms, subject, and autobiographical impulse, not to mention the centuries. What I learned early on in the classroom was how fun and valuable it is to teach essays in pairs—say, Virginia Woolf's “The Death of the Moth” with Annie Dillard's “Seeing," how close observation of ordinary things can yield an infinite world of sensations and ideas, especially helpful as I face the uphill battle of dissuading students from believing that they have to have experienced something conventionally "dramatic" in order to write an interesting essay. (Open your eyes in the morning and you have enough to write about.) Wole Soyinka's “Why Do I Fast?” paired with Walter Benjamin's “Hashish in Marseilles" can show how a hash trip and extreme fasting, widely disparate experiences, one born of intellectual curiosity and indulgence, the other from political injustice and protest, can open up similar doors of surreal and startling perceptions.

The other day I paired Plutarch's “Consolation to his Wife” (1st century AD) with William Hazlitt's “On the Pleasure of Hating" (early 19th century). I asked my students to imagine the essays fighting each other in a boxing ring or back alley: Which essay would win? And why? The conversation's always fun, and often illuminating, as my students debate the strengths and vulnerabilities of each essay, each of which offers a philosophy of how to live. How do we move through our days while grieving or dealing with ordinary setbacks: with consolation or hate? Ideal stoicism or lower passions? Deliberate remove or hot takes? What I especially love is the liveliness of conversation about essays that are hundreds and hundreds of years old, the issues raised in them as relevant to twenty-something lives as anything, the writers' act of writing and exploring part of a long tradition my students are engaging. When Hazlitt complains about a favorite painting fading from his imagination, the early joys it brought him dulled by the passage of time, my students substitute their own favorite song, video, or meme that's lost its luster. And the centuries dissolve. A student once dismissed Hazlitt as sounding like a "cranky blogger," and to a semester that description rings hilariously true and accurate to my classes. "The memorable not place- or time-bound," says Joyce Carol Oates. "It survives the occasion of its original composition." I wrote this on the title page of my copy.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Stomping & Tripping

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—I paid overdue respect to Roky Erickson last night at Lincoln Hall in Chicago. Erickson, who's had highly publicized bouts with mental illness in the past, and an up-and-down career, is something of a legend among rock and rollers. He was led by his guitarist to a leather high chair at the front of the stage, where he sat, virtually immobile and silent, when he wasn't signing, for the duration of the show. I'm not sure that his guitar was plugged in; I couldn't hear his playing, anyway, but it didn't matter. His physical presence coupled with the decades of strife almost visible around his face and ample body stole the show. Now 71, wearing a gray sports jacket, black pants, and slippers, gently smiling, Erickson gives the impression of a content, bearded Buddha, sitting patiently with his fingers laced together over his stomach as his lead guitarist, the show's emcee, announced the next song or tuned his guitar. Erickson's band is supremely tight and they play warmly; the rhythm section looks like they could gig in a Ten Years After tribute band if they wanted to, and that's accounting for their considerable chops and ensemble playing more than their hirsute, hippie appearance. Erickson, well, he sang and warbled and yelped, muttering a quiet "thank you" during the show only once (ignoring the thinks-he's-funny idiot in the crowd who yelled "Speech! Speech!" once or twice). The songs ranged from up-tempo rockers to blues-based ballads, and when Erickson was plugged-in emotionally, such as on "Starry Eyes," a wonderful tribute to his wife, he sang with honest depth, his eyes often shut against the mood; he seemed to belie his large body by mentally floating off and vibing with the songs as they were played. Quirkier and offbeat tunes "I Walked With a Zombie," in which Erickson spun a yarn without telling a story, "Johnny Lawman," and "Two-Headed Dog," and 13th Floor Elevators' classics "(I've Got) Levitation" and the inevitable closer "You're Gonna Miss Me" found Erickson alternating between leading the vocal charge, his eyes alight, and letting the songs' infamy do most of the work for him. He left without an encore, shuffling off the stage with the aid of the guitarist who'd walked him on earlier, his legacy assured and his present still charged.

During the show Lincoln Hall projected a swirling psychedelic light show on a large screen above and behind Erickson and his band, and it felt as if the display had been percolating since White Mystery's storming opening set. I'm a fan of Miss Alex White & Francis Scott Key White, two Chicago siblings who raised the roof last night with their powerhouse glam rock roll funk lo-fi blues. Miss Alex plays charged and stirring riffs and screechy Hendrix-like wails on a sunburst Rickenbacker, and wore a black latex bodysuit and white platform boots, her red hair teased in a 'fro. White Mystery's songs are sexy, anthemic, and a little dark, rousing but, yes, mysterious, too. The band has been on the road with Rocky Erickson for two weeks and though clearly amped to be playing in front of a home crowd, the duo showed a bit of road burn, at least relative to the electrifying show of theirs I caught at The House in DeKalb a few years back. Francis Scott Key White gave the impression of someone who'd slept through sound check and woke up just in time to forget to button his pants but still man the drums, chugging behind Miss White's righteous riffing. At the end of the set, the drummer and guitarist switched places, a standard move of the theirs; while he mumbled incoherent poetry into the mike, she sat behind the drums but still kept riffing on her guitar as she thumped a four-on-the-floor with the bass drum. A perpetual motion machine, White Mystery. At the end of the set Miss White sweetly informed the crowd that her parents were in attendance. (Her mother Diane White is a celebrated Chicago photographer; among other accolades she shot iconic photos at the infamous Disco Demolition at Comiskey Park in 1979.) It's that kind of homey, bro-and-sis charm coupled with the band's nervy eroticism—a crowd-pleaser was the tune "Fuck Your Mouth Shut"—that ignites and moves this band. I highly recommend you do the White Mystery thing in your town if you haven't.

Monday, November 5, 2018

No Place I Would Rather Be

My book about Roger Angell's baseball writing career, No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and Life in Baseball Writing, is out in May with University of Nebraska Press. You can pre-order the book now from Amazon. I couldn't be happier to have landed with a Press that not only boasts an excellent list of baseball and sports books, but that also reissued Angell's first two books, The Summer Game (first published in 1972) and Five Seasons (1977).

Spread the word about the book to anyone and everyone you know who's a fan of Roger Angell or of baseball writing—or, really, of great, artful, and memorable writing period. Here's a description:
Legendary New Yorker writer and editor Roger Angell is considered to be among the greatest baseball writers. He brings a fan’s love, a fiction writer’s eye, and an essayist’s sensibility to the game. No other baseball writer has a through line quite like Angell’s: born in 1920, he was an avid fan of the game by the Depression era, when he watched Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit home runs at Yankee Stadium. He began writing about baseball in 1962 and continued through the decades, lately blogging about baseball’s postseasons. 
No Place I Would Rather Be tells the story of Angell’s contribution to sportswriting, including his early short stories, pieces for the New Yorker, autobiographical essays, seven books, and the common threads that run through them. His work reflects rapidly changing mores as well as evolving forces on and off the field, reacting to a half century of cultural turmoil, shifts in trends and professional attitudes of ballplayers and executives, and a complex, discerning, and diverse audience. Baseball is both change and constancy, and Roger Angell is the preeminent essayist of that paradox. His writing encompasses fondness for the past, a sober reckoning of the present, and hope for the future of the game.
And some pre-pub blurbs:
“The game of baseball best represents our country’s soul, and no one has chronicled its beauty better than Roger Angell. With only class and eloquence, Roger’s insights have taught us all—starting with sport and extending to humanity.”—Joe Torre, Hall of Famer and four-time World Championship manager of the New York Yankees and MLB’s chief baseball officer 
“Roger Angell is an American treasure. Fans of baseball and the craft of writing will enjoy this inside look at one of the all-time best.”—Tom Verducci, author of The Yankee Years and The Cubs Way 
“Joe Bonomo’s immensely enjoyable book examines Angell’s baseball writing through the decades, shedding welcome light on the forces and events (both in the game and in Angell’s life) that shaped him into the greatest baseball writer of the post–World War II era. It’s an absolute must for any Angell fan and for anyone who digs great baseball writing in general.”—Dan Epstein, author of Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s 
“Joe Bonomo has curated an enjoyable journey through the career and work of Roger Angell, the godfather to generations of outsiders who set out to bring a fresh perspective to baseball coverage. If you’ve ever immersed yourself in Angell’s prose and wondered where his incisive wit, ear for dialogue, and attention to detail came from, or wished to trace the development of recurring themes throughout his oeuvre, No Place I Would Rather Be is well worth your time.”—Jay Jaffe, author of The Cooperstown Casebook and a senior writer for
Moe info coming over the next several months about readings, etc.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

No matter what they say

Stooges, '72
"Every great work of art has two faces, one toward its own time and one toward the future, toward eternity." Lester Bangs

Iggy and the Stooges, timeless in the Fall of 1972:
Anytime I want I got a right to move
No matter what they say
Anytime I want I got a right to move
No matter what they say
I got a right, I got a right to move
Anytime I want, anytime
I got a right, I got a right to move
Anytime I want
Anytime I want I got a right to sing
No matter what they say
Anytime I want I got a right to sing
No matter what they say
I got a right, I got a right to sing
Anytime I want
I got a right, I got a right to sing
Anytime I want
12" (Bomp, 1991)

Photo by Mick Rock via Morrison Hotel Gallery

Friday, October 26, 2018

Not knowing how to say it

I love this passage in Karl Ove Knausgaard's Inadvertent, the latest in the "Why I Write" series from Yale University Press. (The book was translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey.) Discussing his own epic My Struggle series of autobiographical novels, Knausgaard acknowledges that in order to write he had to let go, to "abdicate as king of myself," as he puts it, and let "the literary, in other words writing and the forms of writing, lead the way."
That is also the method employed in writing this essay. I have written literary texts for thirty years, and for twenty of them I have done it full-time; in short, I have spent my entire adult life writing. This means that I know a great deal about what it is to write, and about why I do it. Yet despite this great knowledge, I have been sitting in front of my screen for three days, not knowing what to say—or rather, not knowing how to say it. And as soon as I got started, by writing that the simplicity of the question was treacherous, my pathway through the material took a certain direction, excluding all the other possible paths, so that only what I am writing now could be written. This is what became accessible, not all the rest. And perhaps even more important: I still don’t know what lies ahead, what to say, where this essay is going. 
This is so because I have to hit upon it inadvertently, or it has to hit upon me. It is one thing to know something, another to write about it, and often knowing stands in the way of writing. Make it new, Ezra Pound said—and is there any other way to do that than to let everything we know about something fall away and regard it from a position of defenselessness and unknowing?