Thursday, May 17, 2018

Writing about music

I love discovering the where-else that a song that's taken me somewhere might take me as I think and write about it, yet something essential's lost in the process. I like to explore the mystery of music, how an arrangement of notes and chords and words played by strangers sometimes half the world away from me and decades ago can come to mean so much to me personally, now, how that meaning, though urgently felt, is often difficult to describe, existing in a kind of pre-language bliss. I guess I'm as interested in the atmosphere a song creates, and is created in, as much as I am in the nuts-and-bolts of composing and playing. How Al Jackson strikes his snare in such a way to evoke both power and tenderness; how a three-chord rock and roll song banged out by kids in a basement or garage might reach emotional depths that the most dimensional literature does; how close-harmonies can drop me to my knees and make me cry, but only from some vocal pairings, not others...all of this amazes and so deeply interests me, and as a writer I try and make sense of it, failing often (to my ears, anyway).

In "To Fashion a Text" Annie Dillard says, "You can't put together a memoir without cannibalizing your own life for parts. The work battens on your memories. And it replaces them." This is true, and this is melancholy. Once I've explored a song or an album or a performance that I love, especially one that I've loved for many years—and, like any memory, have played and replayed and thus shaped and re-shaped in my head for all of those years—the mystery is replaced with the attempt to understand. The irrational with the rational, I guess, sound with sense, or ineffability with comprehension, the unknown with known. Loving a song for decades means giving over to myth it creates, and writing about that song debunks the myth. Sometimes as a music writer I feel what folks must've felt when science explained lightning.

When I write about music, I open a window and something powerful and unnameable escapes the room for good. Why bother, then? Hang on, I've got to flip the record.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Just like a Human Being

EC and the Attractions, 1978
If had to choose one song that fulfills the promises that rock and roll makes, it'd be "Lipstick Vogue," the ferocious track Elvis Costello cut with the Attractions in late 1977/early 1978 at Acton Studios, in London. Written in a flurry, the song's rhythm was inspired by Costello's rides on the Metropolitan London Underground as those journeys dovetailed with the propulsive Byrds track "I See You," from Fifth Dimension (1966). Lay the rocking to-and-fro of a tube ride over Jim McGuinn and David Crosby's raga-inflected soundscape and you have the taut sinew of "Lipstick Vogue." Costello later said, "I didn't mention this bit to [Attractions drummer] Pete Thomas at the time, so what you hear is all his own work," adding, "I stand by every word."

"Lipstick Vogue" is a remarkable performance. Thomas's driving drums, a snare-and-tom attack that ebbs and flows throughout—a pulse that quickens and slows and quickens—, Bruce Thomas's high-end worrying on bass, and Steve Nieve's paranoid organ lines amp the energy and anxiety levels of the song, and sound like nothing less than the inside of your body the moment when you're angry, resentful, proud, and vindictive, your heart racing and blood pounding. (How'd the band get a mic inside me?) The song's subject is Costelloian: a hot-temper persona rails against someone who's self- and surface-obsessed, mean, teasing, and dismissive, unable or unwilling to see the heart and depth of the man she's throwing away. The chorus suggests that the singer sees something more in her than she does, that she's more than just a prevailing fashion or style; that she can't or won't see this fill him with spite. That old story. The song features one of Costello's most biting opening verses, spat out in Elvis's signature early-career style:
Don't say you love me when it's just a rumor
Don't say a word if there is any doubt
Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor
You've got to cut it out
and other lines that have become iconic:
Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being
You say I've got no feelings, this is a good way to kill them

You want to throw me away but I'm not broken
But it's the Attractions' performance that elevates and adds dimension to the anger and resentment in the lyrics. As in all great rock and roll, it feels as the musicians have to catch up to the song though they're the ones playing it, creating yet chasing after something that in its eight-note urgency, blend of loud and quiet passages (the vitriolic verses and chorus, the take-a-deep-breath middle), and hurtling, forward momentum embodies what the lyrics alone can't fully. I love a song that sounds at the end as if the band was amazed at where their playing took them.

What does rock and roll promise? That a song you can never quite catch up to can say everything you're feeling in a moment of passion.

Look at this kicking garage band, from a June 21, 1978 show for Rockpalast at WDR Studio L, in Cologne, West Germany. Incendiary:

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Worth Remembering

At its best, Roger Ebert's writing was a moving blend of observation and insight. Ebert's tone was marvelous, and inspiring: he wrote accessibly about complex issues in a casual, uncluttered style that never sacrificed depth for clarity. I strive in my own writing for that mix, and fail far more often than Ebert succeeded weekly—and, later, regularly, when he turned to blogging near the end of his life. His late essays are fantastic, and are likely to be considered among the best of our age.

I'm finally getting around to reading his memoir Life Itself, published in 2011 two years before his death, a largely chronological, detail-heavy reminiscence. (I have yet to see the film.) If it in places gets bogged down by Ebert's amazing and generous memory, and threatens to go under the stream of events and the men and women he met in his amazing life, the passages where Ebert takes a wide-angle lens on larger subjects—such as as his adolescence in downstate Illinois, alcoholism, world traveling, illness, spirituality, and endless coincidences and charmed moments of serendipity—glow with humane, universal discoveries. His writing about movies is, of course, terrific. Two graphs in particular exhibit that Ebertian knack for chasing a larger subject in a narrow one, for writing generously about the democratic love for popular art, even crappy popular art, and for pleasure as an argument for itself (to paraphrase another great critic, Emily Nussbaum). Writing about his film reviewing career, which fell into his lap (he was planning on being an op-ed writer and then a novelist), Ebert acknowledges that "There is something unnatural about just...going to the movies."
Man has rehearsed for hundreds of thousands of years to learn a certain sense of time. He gets up in the morning and the hours wheel in their ancient order across the sky until it grows dark again and he goes to sleep. A movie critic gets up in the morning and in two hours it is dark again, and the passage of time is fractured by editing and dissolves and flashbacks and jump cuts. “Get a life,” they say. Sometimes movie critics feel as i they've gotten everybody else's. [Gene] Siskel described his job as "covering the national dream, beat," because if you pay attention to the movies they will tell you what people desire and fear. Movies are hardly ever about what they seem to be about. Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may seem.

I have seen untold numbers of movies and forgotten most of them, I hope, but I remember those worth remembering, and they are all on the same shelf in my mind. There is no such thing as an old film. There is a sense in which old movies are cut free from time. I look at silent movies sometimes and do not feel I am looking at old films; I feel I am looking at a Now that has been captured. Time in a bottle. When I first looked at silent films, the performers seemed quaint and dated. Now they seem more contemporary. The main thing wrong with a movie that is ten years old is that it isn’t thirty years old. After the hairstyles and the costumes stop being dated and start being history, we can tell if the movie itself is timeless.
A bit earlier, he quotes something that the film critic Pauline Kael said to him about her reviewing process, a line that was very influential to Ebert: "I go into a movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me." This is a wonderful sentiment and critical approach, putting aside agenda and bias and trusting that your response to something might have a representative quality to it, one as applicable to the viewing of great works of art as to the next Adam Sandler film. I miss reading Ebert every week describing what happened to himself in the dark.

Sunday, May 6, 2018


Rock & roll is so great, people should start dying for it. You don't understand. The music gave you back your beat so you could dream...The people just have to die for the music. People are dying for everything else, so why not for music? Die for it. Isn't it pretty? Wouldn't you die for something pretty?
    —Lou Reed

I think Lou Reed is a creep.
   —The Dictators, "Two Tub Man," Go Girl Crazy

Ezra Furman's 33 1/3 book on Reed's Transformer moves among many impulses. Furman's respectful, adoring, obsessive, overly forgiving, overly harsh, indulgent, embarrassed, knowledgeable, joyous, stubborn, and skeptical in his take on Reed's iconic second album, careful not to absolve Reed of his racism and sexism as he extols his brave, idiosyncratic navigation of his queer identity. It's a great read, equal parts autobiographical and critical, doing what the nervier books in the Series do: risking reverence and personal crushing at the expense of objectivity, and loving the friction that comes when those fanly impulses rub up among each other. (Deeply personal, the book's likely to be embraced by many, and dismissed by some.) Furman, a songwriter and musician, is at his best when he talks about the tensions in Reed's gestures. Is he gay? Queer? Straight? Or does he ignore labels and try to live among them? And is he sincere or bullshitting, anyway? The album's "gay-themed songs are hiding in plain sight," Furman writes. "Many listeners were amazed that the line 'even when she was giving head' was not censored on UK radio stations; the censors were, reportedly, not familiar with the term."
But listening forty-odd years later, with the shock value of sexual songs considerably if not totally dulled, the non-explicit lyrics are where the real intrigue lies. These songs fascinate, not for the excess and over-the-top deviance that was associated with Lou Reed in the sixties, but rather for their understatement, their partially submerged aggression, and the damaged personality they both mask and expose.

Monday, April 30, 2018


I've been playing this ultra obscure '66 Texan flip-side really loud these days. I discovered it years ago on the inestimable Back From The Grave series (God bless Tim Warren), and info on this blog filled in the blanks. I love the loner details in the verses—one mouth to feed, sleep all day up all night, no pals but lots of gals. And does he answer his phone or not? It's hard to decipher his punk mumbling.

I especially love the strange middle—1:09 to 1:45—where Denny Murphy shouts and yelps and graphically dramatizes the self-conscious plight of the born loser:
People, they just don't understand
They see me comin', they shake their heads
They say,"Look at him, he's a born loser
Well, alright. Were it not for the 12-bar changes under-girding this garage playlet of social dislocation, Murphy sounds just like another misfit 1,100 miles north, who'll be similarly yowling his outsider pain and glory a few years later. It's highly unlikely that James Osterberg heard this regional single—it was pressed in only 500 copies—but there was something in the air, alright.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Ah, Weekend...

'Cause when that yellow moon's on the wane... 

...bye bye, tomorrow... 

...back to somethin' that I'd lost somewhere, somehow along the way.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Move to It

I love this weird, abstractly affecting quote by Keith Richards, from Terry Southern's "Riding the Lapping Tongue" from 1972:
I usually do it with the idea of its being moved to.

Photo of Richards in New York City in 1972 by Bob Gruen, via Morrison Hotel.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Turn it Down, Turn it Up: Roberta Cruger on Creem

In Evelyn McDonnell's and Ann Powers's anthology Rock She Wrote, Roberta Cruger describes the heady days of early Creem Magazine, where she was a media editor. Detroit, early 1970s: "Our lives had been changed by music, maybe saved," she writes.
Inspired by such Dylan lyrics as “the vandals took the handles” or knocked out by Hendrix, Zeppelin,‘Howlin’ Wolf . . . the list is endless. It expressed our youthful ideals and our subsequent anger at not reaching them. We distinctly felt a necessary part of a chapter in history, as if we were making a difference by challenging the status quo. Something important was occurring and a revolution was at stake. Like the future’s bigger brother, we were willing to take our parents’ and society’s licks so the world would be a better place. “Turn it down” made us increase the volume. Humor was our safety valve—it helped give us perspective, relieved the tension. Creem tapped into this situation, connecting the dotted lines, trying to make sense of it and find our place in it all.

There was a sense that we felt fortunate to contribute to this legacy, an excitement akin to Liverpool, Memphis, a Seattle of the seventies, or any burgeoning center of talent. The synergy of ideas spawned in this fertile environment was a product of the uniquely displaced times. Fearful of the creative charge dissipating, avoiding the flaccid was paramount. Subject to heavy neurotic tendencies and fueled by adverse conditions, we were free to be raw and unchecked. The inmates were running the asylum—immature, to be sure, but writing was an outlet that kept us from self-destructing.
A bit later, she describes Creem's Lester Bangs's manic methodology, of a piece with so many other descriptions of the brilliant, complex writer:
He’d sit bobbing his head to Velvet Underground or Black Oak Arkansas or hollering along to James Brown for inspiration. His cockapoo puppy danced in circles for attention in front of him. Earphones spared the household during these weekends. We’d walk by, ignoring him, convinced he wasn’t from the same planet. By Monday morning, the den, where he’d camp next to a stereo, smelled of his ripe oxidation. The wall was lined with empty pints of Rebel Yell. He’d finally pass out with some megatreatise strewn about him, drummed out in an overnight spurt that magically linked the above acts into a cohesive concept. He blinded everyone with his prolific pieces that defied editing. He just couldn’t stop himself, in a number of ways.
Earlier, she recalls that when Bangs first showed up at the Creem offices, he'd arrived "like a lost cartoon character, his suitcase really wrapped in rope and wearing a wide goofy grin."

God, said Mies van der Rohe, is in the details.


Here is Scott Crawford's Kickstarter page for Boy Howdy! The Story of CREEM Magazine, a documentary in the works.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Baseball in Sunshine!

Yesterday I took in my first baseball game of the year—an aluminum bat affair in DeKalb, Illinois. My Huskies were taking on the RedHawks of Miami of Ohio, and I sat in the welcome sun right behind home plate. The afternoon was especially glorious after (?) the brutal winter that has settled gloomily over northern Illinois like penance, and the crowd, more than four hundred of them, were grateful, lively, and loud, helped in decibel level by the visiting NIU football and women's basketball teams who, with their coaching staff, filled one side of the bleachers and yelled and screamed in support. It was a blast. Football head coach Rod Carey eventually moved down to the front row to sit with his peers and family and to let his players have a good time without Dad around. He had to wipe away many a smile and smirk as his charges laid into the opposing team with a little coarseness and a lot of goodhearted ribbing. Families were in attendance, little kids were running around, the sun was high: a tonic.

I enjoyed popcorn, a beer, and the pleasing sight of young kids playing baseball with earnestness, skill, and enthusiasm. I had to leave after the fifth, by which time the Huskies were in control —behind Senior Brad Wood's two-run double down the right field line, part of a loud four-run fourth inning that also included two Huskies getting plonked by pitches with the bases juiced. Miami's crestfallen Spencer Mraz suddenly looked like one of my students out there on the mound.

Huskies won, 5-2, improving their MAC record to 3-9. Hey it's early, kind of.

And remember:

Monday, April 16, 2018

Wherever relief can be found

Robert Gordon's new book Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music's Hometown is wonderful. In it, Gordon gathers his many magazine pieces over the years, and in a pleasingly noisy kaleidoscope captures the warmth, freakiness, and unique history of Bluff City and its music-making  denizens, from Sam Phillips, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Alex Chilton to Tav Falco, the Fieldstones, and Bobby "Blue" Bland, and many more in between. Gordon writes with humor, great respect, and honesty about his city's unfortunate cultural divides, its hidden gems, its juke joints and dive bars and picnics, and its hard-earned humanity. So many of the places Gordon writes about are long gone, as are many of the people he profiles, but his writing is so detail-rich and narratively engaging that the city and its outskirts feel palpably present, page after page. I half-expected my clothes to smell smoky after reading about some of the dimly-lit bars and joints Gordon has obsessively, affectionately haunted over the years, and that he brings to life in his pieces.
Great stuff, the book is nearly worth it for the searching and self-interrogative preface alone, where Gordon writes about the siren-call and the difficulties of freelancing and of the ways his comfortable suburban upbringing both insulated and prepared him for his life's work, and where he lands on a gorgeous definition of the blues, and by extension, of his own aesthetic:
Blues is the mind's escape from the body's obligation. Blues amplifies the relief whenever and wherever relief can be found. The scarcity of that respite makes it ecstatic.

Saturday, April 14, 2018


I've been listening to Lyres recently, and pulled out 1988's A Promise Is A Promise today. I was struck by a shaming memory but also a feeling of loss. Many have written about and lamented the diminution in scale of album artwork since the CD era, a shrinkage doubled down, as it were, in the MP3/streaming era. Jeff Connolly's dubious artwork—a mean-spirited fifteen-act storyboard of rock and roll touring excess and sexism—was featured in full narrative glory on the cover of A Promise Is A Promise, and I won't soon forget the look of disgust on my girlfriend's face as we sat together in the Washington DC Metro after I'd bought the album. My face hot, I probably defended the cover with defensive, twenty-something irony; now I roll my eyes at it in embarrassment. I wish I'd bought it on CD or squinted at the cover on my phone. A hell of a lot less implicating.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Sonic Bliss: Ty Segall at The Vic

Ty flying high.
A little-known story: sometime in late 1973 or early 1974, Marc Bolan heard a rumor that the Beatles had wanted to record Revolver in Memphis, Tennessee, but logistics and other issues had made that impossible. Intrigued, Bolan took it upon himself to record his own version of Revolver in Memphis, with area musicians, at Muscle Shoals Studio. A tussle with his management and his label buried those tapes, which somehow—no one's sure how, exactly—ended up in the late 70s in the hands of a New York City dee jay, a funk devotee with a Move/E.L.O. obsession and stack of cherished prog rock records that he kept quiet about. Perennially stoned, he remixed those tapes, playing amateur sax on a couple tracks and bringing in a fuller horn section for others, playing Black Sabbath records on down times for inspiration. Those tapes languished in his apartment for decades, heard by a few friends, and had assumed Holy Grail status among Bolan fans. Only recently have they been discovered....

Well, none of that happened. But on June 8, 1987, Ty Segall was born, and he grew up to make Freedom's Goblin, a close sonic approximation of the imagined history above. Last night at The Vic in Chicago, Segall bust open his recent clutch of songs (there are many) in a riveting set, part low-fuse, part explosive. I'd seen Segall a few years back perform a terrific solo acoustic set at Empty Bottle, and I was amped to see him in front of a loud, electric band. Segall lives in the narrow place between major and minor keys, but his songs turn that small place into an wide vista. His growls, falsettos, and nasal singing are in service to stoner dirges, garage stomps, and surprisingly gorgeous melodies, sometimes all in the same song. ("Rain," from the new album, navigates these intervals especially wonderfully.) His Freedom Band—Emmett Kelly on second rhythm/lead guitar, Charles Moothart on drums, Mikal Cronin on bass, and Ben Boye on keyboards—were loud and on-point, yet finessed, and loose enough to relax some songs into jams, Segall and Kelly trading licks and harmonizing leads as Boye laid thick textures on top. Boye looked like a kid watching a magic trick, entranced and smile-struck, and that blissy countenance was repeated among fans in the packed venue. With his messianic hair and beatific face, Segall has something of the magic touch about him right now, and I half expected to see him on the street afterward playing for a crowd of knocked-out disciples, leading with vision. He was laconic throughout—he muttered thank you a half hour into his set, and asked for a hand for the horn section, but that was about all he said, letting his fluid guitar playing and weighty, vibe-channeling stage presence do all the speaking for him.


Driving into the city for the show, I listened to Freedom's Goblin, sent again by the rich variety of songs, rockers to ballads to jams, all held together by Segall's considerable chops and his sonic curiosity—you can almost see his concentration when you listen. The album ends with a heartbreaking, transcendent version of "Sleeper" (the title track to Segall's 2013 album) buried in "And, Goodnight," a twelve-minute mid-paced, Television-like, twin-guitar jam, and as I headed down into Lower Wacker Drive, the guitars reached a crescendo as I made a hard right turn down and onto the city's floor. "And, Goodnight" is the perfect song to listen to in the shadows and gentle turns of Lower Wacker, a favorite drive of mine as I emerge at the end with glistening Lake Michigan at my feet. The song ended just as I turned onto Lake Shore Drive, and it's not an overstatement to say that I was altered a bit after the grandeur of that song, a vibe I managed to keep alive while on the freezing streets in an a bar or two preceding the show, a warmth Segall and his band stoked over the course of a wonderful night.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

"We are Four New Fevers"

A very interesting video popped up on YouTube recently, footage of an infamous Fleshtones tour of Italy in 1987 from which Peter Zaremba was notably absent. (Read all about the dysfunction and subsequent fallout in Sweat.) Reduced to a four-piece, the Fleshtones cancelled some gigs and gamely played others (Zaremba finally showed up for a show in Greece with Hoodoo Gurus and the Dream Syndicate.) Here, Streng, an unwitting front man, leads the band—Bill Milhizer, Gordon Spaeth, and Robert Burke Warren—through "Legend of A Wheelman," "Southern Twitch," "Way Down South," "Mean Ole Lonesome Train," "The Dreg/Hexbreaker," and "Return of the Leather Kings"; Warren sings lead on his track, "I Can't Do Without You." These odd "Fleshtones shows" were essentially Full Time Men gigs, Streng's side band with Milhizer, Warren, Spaeth, and guest musicians. They'd record a full length album Your Face My Fist, in January of 1988.

A bright side to all of this discord: the Fleshtones would later perform a make-up show in Italy at a beach near Rome. At the conclusion of the gig, Peter and Bill jumped into the ocean and swam away as the rest of the band was finishing Jody Reynolds’ “Endless Sleep,” a tune about a guy who saves his girlfriend from drowning. “They had set the stage up on the beach,” Peter remembers. “By the time we were playing, the tide had come up and there was water coming up under the stage. We were expecting to get electrocuted any second. It seemed like the only appropriate way to end a show like that was to swim away.” Peter and Bill, tom-drum in hand, ended up somewhere down the beach. “There was another party going on in an establishment on the beach,” Bill laughs. “So we walked in there soaking wet because we didn’t want to come back to the Fleshtones-show area just yet. That would blow the exit!”

Friday, March 30, 2018


(Jamie Squire / Getty Images)
Well, readers of this blog know, I've been following Chicago White Sox DH/infielder Matt Davidson closely for a couple of years now (here, here, and here). Hooray for small sample size and all that, but if his smashing performance in the team's opener on Thursday is any indication, my study's gonna be a lot of fun this summer. Davidson became only the fourth major-league player since 1908 to hit three homers on opening day. Jim Margalus at Sox Machine adds: "Just as importantly, Davidson drew a walk without striking out. He only had 16 zero-K games out of 107 starts last year, and he only strung together K-less starts twice."
"A lot of us don’t have a huge track record in the major leagues, so the confidence is going to be a big thing,” Davidson said in the Chicago Tribune. “Actually seeing the results in front of our eyes is going to be huge for us and our development. We want to keep on having those days, so we remember we’re that good."
On Thursday they were that good. But it's March.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Long Shot: The Fleshtones in 1980

It's very cool to watch this clip (below) of the Fleshtones playing CBGBs in August of 1980, filmed for the Urgh! A Music War movie and soundtrack. The band had been together for four years; drummer Bill Milhizer had joined a few months prior. If you've caught the Fleshtones somewhere recently, not much looks, sounds, or feels all that different, save for Ken Fox leaping around where Marek Pakulski used to play. (Witness the Beat Kitchen in Chicago a few weeks back.) I mean this as a compliment, of course.

Here's some context from Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band: "On August 21, Derick Burbridge arrived in New York with film crews in tow to lens acts for the Urgh! movie at CBGB’s and The Ritz. The Fleshtones were slotted to play their first show at the Bowery venue in well over a year."
Ian Copeland pronounced hopefully (and accurately) that “the acts that we’ve got are not what’s happening right now, but what’s going to be happening over the next ten years.” Burbridge filmed The Fleshtones following two support bands, Human Switchboard and Dirty Looks, before a surprisingly smallish crowd at CBGB’s, given the hype and promotion drummed up by A&M and F.B.I.. Although they were dismayed at having to play at CBGBs, where odd feelings between management and the band lingered, The Fleshtones tore through a typically frenetic if necessarily brief set, Peter doing nothing to indicate that he’d taken to heart Patron’s advice to stay more on mike. In The Soho News, Ira Kaplan called the band’s performance “superb,” and John Buckley raved that it was “sublime,” that “if this movie, F.B.I. or I.R.S. [does] something for The Fleshtones...then the Copelands deserve a certain degree of canonization.” Urgh! was released in 1981 with an accompanying double-album soundtrack, for which The Fleshtones contributed “Shadow Line.” (A version of Little Richard’s “Dancing All Around the World,” also recorded and mixed, didn’t make the final cut.) [From the Never Too Late File: the Fleshtones recorded “Dancing All Around the World" for their most recent album, Budget Buster.]
Soon after this performance, the Fleshtones flew to Los Angeles to record their ill-fated debut EP, Up-Front.
Ian Copeland himself lobbed an encouraging, if backhanded, compliment toward The Fleshtones as they prepared for Los Angeles: “Some of the bands on Urgh! are definitely a long shot, but who but us is convinced the Fleshtones are going to be huge?” 
Bill Milhizer (l) and Keith Streng

l-r: Marek Pakulski, Peter Zaremba, and Keith Streng


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Career Choices, circa 1975

"When I grow up, I wanna be a cowboy."

"I wanna be...uh...a dentist."

"When I grow up, maybe I wanna be a mechanic."

"I wanna be a rock and roll guy!"

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Why don't you ask her?

Mark Doty, in his terrific essay "Bride in Beige," recounts being asked by his copy editor to fact check an incident in his draft-stage memoir, Firebird. The incident in question was why his sister wore a beige, not a white, wedding dress. Why don't you ask her why? said the copy editor. Doty writes: "This question struck me with considerable force, in the way that obvious things often do. All I had to do was pick up the phone."
But what startled me was not that an answer to my question (or the version of the story my sister Sally would recall now, anyway) was readily available—what struck me was that I had been working on the book all this time and that, during all that delving, I hadn't wanted to know. l didn't realize until I was asked this question how deeply my book was allegiant to memory, not to history.
When I was a kid, my family regularly drove from suburban Washington D.C. to the small town of Coldwater, in western Ohio, where my mom's parents still lived. Train tracks cut through the town, and once, while I was walking with my older brothers and sister from our grandparents' house into town, a train arrived. While it was still a ways away, one of my brothers grabbed my foot and wedged it between the rail ties near a street intersection. My foot was stuck as the train—in memory—barreled toward me at reckless speed. It was probably traveling slowly, as trains do when cutting through a town, and soon enough I wrenched my foot free as—in memory—my brothers laughed.

I share this inconsequential story, a version of which you likely possess, not to incriminate my siblings or to whine and cry foul, but because I'm put in my mind of it whenever I read Doty's essay. I, too, could easily corroborate this story with the brother in question, but I don't want to know if a) it never happened, or b) it happened less dramatically then I recall. The facts don't matter to me, now. The incident (I'm still calling it that), how I've replayed it off and on down the years, has come in large part to define and narrate my attitude toward and relationship with my brother for a certain period of our lives. Were I to discover that my memory is suspect, or were I to hear my brother's version, likely different from mine, or his defense, or other details that would provide context, the essential truth that that memory tells in unchanged. It's a kind of Greek chorus to a certain era of my life marked by resentment, immaturity, and dysfunction. What it says is true, always, even if what it says is untrue.

Later in the essay, Doty writes, "I want to suggest that beyond the personal ethics of memoir—how fair or unfair we are to other people in our lives—and beyond the matter of accuracy, there’s a higher ethical standard, which has to do with the ethics of art: that what is made is commensurate with the real." Biblical stuff, that. What's real is what is felt; what's felt is what's true. There are many problems with that equation, which doesn't make it any less profound.

Doty's essay first appeared in Poets & Writers in 2008, and was reprinted in Truth in Nonfiction, edited by David Lazar.

Friday, March 23, 2018

"I was bored in my first semester at college..."
The Crawdaddy! Origin Story

Many creation stories originate in frustration ennui, boredom, and/or obsession. The origins of Crawdaddy!, the early rock and roll magazine founded by Paul Williams, were no different. From college disaffection to rock fantasies realized, that old story.

From Williams's introduction to The Crawdaddy! Book: Writings and Images from the Magazine of Rock: "I was seventeen and a half. The most important thing in my life for the last two years had been music."
I’d been listened mostly to folk and blues, but the previous winter—spring (1965), when I was a senior in high school, rock ‘n’ roll had started talking to me in a big way....

I was bored in my first semester at college, although I did have a weekly blues program...and a morning rock ‘n’ roll program on the college radio station, WSRN. Then one day in late January 1966 I was in a drugstore off campus looking at a fan magazine aimed at teenage girls. I read that two of my favorite bands, the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones, had got their start playing in a club in Richmond, Surrey, England, called the Crawdaddy CIub—and it hit me in a blinding flash that it was now time to start this rock ‘n’ roll magazine I’d been thinking about, and that it should be called Crawdaddy!

Walking back to campus, all the details of a plan of action flooded into my excited mind. I would hitchhike to New York City, scam some “review copies” of new records from record companies, write them up, put out the first issue of Crawdaddy! on a friend’s mimeograph machine, send it off to friends and radio stations, and try to sell it at newsstands and record stores in Cambridge and New York. And so I did....
So now I knew the name of the magazine and had a plan of how I could put together the first issue during the five days between the end of exams and the start of the next semester. I was happy and excited. I didn’t really know where this would go, but I had a place to start and a direction…a ticket to ride.
Excited-minded Paul Williams, armed with ideas

Sunday, March 18, 2018

"We did it in high school. We're doing it now."
Remembering the Prime Movers

The Prime Movers (l-r, Dick Tate, Cam Ackland, Jeff Sugarman, Dennis McCarthy)
Sometimes a band just gets in you and stays there—especially when you're in your hungry early twenties, when music's as vital as oxygen. I came across Boston's Prime Movers when the Claws compilation found its way to WMUC at the University of Maryland, where I had a radio show. I dug "True To Me" and fell in love even harder with "All That Cryin'" from the Mr. Beautiful Presents All Hard comp. Both songs are glorious, spirited, desperate rock and roll—singer Cam Ackland's vocals are soulful, gruff, and timeless—and I played them to death, along with several cuts from the band's earlier Matters Of Time EP. Sadly, I never got to see them live, which is pretty remarkable given the numbers of shows I went to back then and the pipeline of Boston-area bands who made it down to D.C. to play. But I'll always have these killer records.

"True To Me," Claws (1985)

"All That Cryin'," Mr. Beautiful Presents All Hard (1985)

"Something Called Time," Matters Of Time [EP] (1984)

The Prime Movers were short lived, breaking up in the late 80s. They reunited briefly in the early aughts, released an album, and played out a bit; sadly, bass player Jeffrey Sugerman died in 2012.


I've just come across a terrific document from the era, a feature on the band from "30 GO," a music video program spotlighting Boston bands created by Cathy Carter and James Berkowitz, two graduates of Emerson College. The interview was conducted in 1986 in Boston at the band's rehearsal space—a MAACO Auto Body garage! I never really knew at the band looked like, and had I seen them live I might've been put off initially by their 60s-style, fearing only that they were more enamored of capturing a period look and sound than in playing real rock and roll (a self-consciousness that torpedoed many a "revivalist" band back in the day, in my opinion). A song or two in, my anxieties would've faded. In this exchange, guitarist Dick Tate and Cam Ackland discuss those influences and the difficulties that posed for some listeners and critics:
DT: Everything that's been done today was done in the '60s first, in most respects. To just ignore that fact is kinda like cheating yourself. We take a lot of classic '60s chords, put our own lyrics to them....

CA: But it's only 'cause we like that stuff, it's not because we think it's hip, it's the new thing. It's because that's what we like.

DT: We did it in high school. We're doing it now.

CA: We also take, like, classic '80s or '70s stuff, too, that we like. It's not bound by any time or specific genre of music 
This is followed by a bit of a take down of the New York City garage rock scene—specifically those scene purists who'd make a face if the band didn't play a requisite cool '60s cover at a show—and inevitably a territorial proclamation on Boston Versus NYC. Drummer Dennis McCarthy: "There's more sense of fun up here [in Boston]".
The attitude in New York overcomes the fun, definitely. Don't you think? [In Boston] people let go of that a little bit more.

CA: In New York, all those people who are into garage music and stuff were the kind of kids who when you went over to their house in grade school, they were like, "Don't touch my models! Don't touch my Battleship models!"
To much laughter. A bit of snark, thick Boston accents, long hair, and rock and roll.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Was of 1s and 0s

Today I was thinking idly, and a little indulgently, about an impossibility. What if there were Google Street View images of the past? You could select a year and virtually stroll down the street of your childhood house, the 1s and 0s and intrepid Google cam-car filling in all of the blanks in your memory. You'd be startled by the puniness of the trees and shrubs and by the low-scale development, the behemoth size of the gas-guzzling cars, the blocks of favorite stores long-abandoned, or fields and forests leveled for today's homes, condos, strip malls.

Then I learned that this has happened, in a limited way, and that I was, again, lost in the solipsism of generation bias. Four years ago, Google opened its archives back to 2007, gathering "historical imagery from past Street View collections" to create a "digital time capsule of the world." I think it's very cool that, if, say, a half century from now people will still be able to archive Street Views of the 'hoods from their past, have a kind of digitized, click-by-click home movie, the audience of which will vary dramatically from spectator to spectator, from this neighbor to that neighbor, from this kid who grew up on the block to that one who lived there for just that one summer.

The force of the awakening of details long forgotten might be overwhelming—most of us lose to memory the vividness of childhood and adolescent backgrounds, the specifics replaced with recreations, some streets elongated, some shortened—and I'm not sure I'd want to actually access the past this way. But this is the new normal: future generations will have the means of visually exploring every inch of their past in ways that earlier generations could only imagine. But because nostalgia means the overwhelming desire to return home, it's always worth reminding myself that that home is redefined with every passing day. It probably means more as recollected than as was.

Image via Pinterest

Sunday, March 4, 2018

It's an art

As I've written about the last couple of seasons, I'm keeping my eye on Chicago White Sox third basemen and designated hitter Matt Davidson. I think that I learn more about baseball—its difficulties and challenges, as well as its occasional transcendent moments—by watching a single player over the course of a season or more. (I'm this way with teams, too; I'm regularly impressed by friends of mine who have League-wide knowledge of many teams over the course of a season.) When I was a kid, I followed Ruppert Jones because, living in suburban Washington D.C., Jones, a Seattle Mariner, was far enough away for me to project my love on the game onto, and he could live in my imagination. I rarely if ever saw him play, but followed his stats in the newspaper. He was mine.

It's different, of course, with Davidson. I'm an adult now and can see beyond childish attachments to a player (which still occur!) to be able to gauge what in a player 's approach might be emblematic of the game and its grown-up challenges. Davidson intrigues me because he's pretty ordinary, relatively speaking: he's not a feared slugger nor was he ever projected to be; he's an average fielder; he runs OK. In short, he'll probably struggle in some way, everyday, to maintain his presence in Major League baseball; he'll have hot streaks and go off on offensive tears like every player at this level is capable of, but he'll eventually regress, as they all do. Watching Davidson is my annual lesson in Major League Baseball Is Hard, Even For The Ones Who Make It. That he has a good shot to become the team's starting third baseman says as much about his tenacity and drive as it does it says about the White Sox talent and depth at the position.

In the Chicago Tribune, he spoke about his goals this year. “Seeing results gives you confidence,” he said. “Ultimately, I want to improve on that. I was glad I was able to show a little bit of what I can do. I still feel like there’s more to do.” He added:
It’s an art. All the greatest hitters, that’s something they have. They swing at strikes instead of balls. A good starting point is staying in the zone that you want and being ready to hit that pitch only and not trying to hit too many pitches. If somebody has a nasty slider it’s a ball … you can’t hit for the most part. The thing is, (it’s) not swinging at balls out of the zone, it’s swinging at pitches in the zone.
Late in the piece, Davidson reveals that he's a fan of former White Sox Paul Konerko. So was I.
“(Konerko) would never settle for not perfecting his swing,” Davidson said. “Pitchers are so good now, you have to be so precise on every swing and every pitch of the at-bat. You can’t give up (on) a pitch because that might be the one good one you get to hit.”

Paulie is a great player for Matt Davidson to emulate, someone to whom the game never seemed to come all that easily, someone who seemed to almost visibly wear (as Roger Angell might say) the difficulties of playing baseball consistently well at this level. Here's hoping that Davidson learns patience, at the plate and at every other place in the park.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Lost in the turn with Van Halen

I wrote an essay on Van Halen's monumental "Panama" from 1984 for March Shredness, Ander Monson's literary tournament of hair metal songs. It was a blast to write, and I'd appreciate your vote. Among other things, I weigh in on Eddie Van Halen's extraordinary guitar playing in the song:
A self-described “tone chaser,” Eddie takes his guitar to exhilarating places in “Panama,” as he does in his best work in the band. Isolated, his playing assumes dimensional shape—raw, rousing chords in the intro and chorus, lidded-cool idling during the verses and the breakdown, and swooping, diving leads and fret board tapping in the solo. I marvel every time I listen: his playing has so much personality that it’s a band in itself. Eddie’s rightfully lauded as a mold-breaking lead player yet, as the only guitarist in Van Halen, he’s also the rhythm player. What’s remarkable is how he alternates—morphs, really—between lead and rhythm in any given song. He was hardly the first to pull off this style—there’s a reason why Eddie is spoken in the same breath as Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page—yet coupled with an outrageous frontman, the giddiness of the songs, the blend of raw rock riffing and pop hooks, and the mass, international commercial successes of his band, it sounded, looked, and felt as if Eddie was doing something new.

Check out the turned-to-11, spandex-clad, hair-sprayed First Round bracket here.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Longing, revelation, self-mockery, and pain

Last summer, I saw How To B A Rock Critic, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's play about Lester Bangs, at the 1700 Theater at Steppenwolf. I wrote then that I was on the fence about the performance, "somewhere between my gratitude for Blank and Jensen's commitment to a great writer and my my skepticism about whether music writing can be fully dramatized." Meanwhile, I'd wondered what Greil Marcus—Bangs's friend and editor—thought of the play. He recently weighed in in his "Real Life Rock Top 10" column, these days running in The Village Voice:
A marvelously fast and convincing one-man play, set in Bangs’s disheveled New York apartment, which the late critic (1948–82) finds full of people to whom he proceeds to act out what he does and why. The structure is, interestingly, on a parallel with Springsteen on Broadway—riffing through Bangs’s work as dialogue, instead of stopping to sing a song as Springsteen does to mark a point in his life, Jensen walks over to a phonograph, puts on a record, and talks over it. The music instantly confirms whatever case he’s making: The sound that comes out is so rich it’s as if you’ve never heard Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” or Van Morrison’s “Cyprus Avenue” before.
Blank and Jensen get to the heart of the matter: The play is about Bangs’s struggle to believe that music can not so much save his soul as allow him, through signal moments of music, to construct a soul in which he might want to live, and his struggle to believe that he can pass that truth on to other people. For Lester, all good music, or all real music, was soul music. It didn’t matter if it was the nerd soul of White Witch or the heroic soul of Lou Reed, the doomed soul of Otis Rush or the intellectual soul of Charles Mingus. Because it was never absolute that what they had, could he write about it, would truly come to him, his work was full of longing, revelation, self-mockery, and pain. Jensen gets it all.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Always looking for that first fuck

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned an interesting (and wholly persuasive) New York Times article by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz about how songs that we hear, and fall in love with or are haunted by, in our adolescence seem to stick with us with particular force for the rest of our lives; the songs move around us into adulthood like satellites in perpetual orbit. I'm re-reading Dave Marsh's Before I Get Old, and was struck again by this terrific observation made in 1980 by Pete Townshend, rock and roll's Great Articulator. "I think what’s always been my problem is that I've always been fascinated by the period of adolescence," he said.
And by the fact that rock's most frenetic attachments, the deepest connections, seem to happen during adolescence or just post-adolescence. Rock does evolve, and it does change . . . but to you as a listener, someone who needs both the music and the exchange of ideas—you always tend to listen in the same way. You expect—and you feel happiest when you get—an album that does for you what your first few albums did. You're always looking for that first fuck. Of course, you can never have that first fuck, but you're always looking for it. Occasionally, you get very close. Always chasing the same feeling, the same magic. 
I love that Townshend cites his obsession with adolescence as a problem, and yet one that's on him like a tattoo he can never rub off, a paradox that not even a lifetime of tinnitus can erase.

He's also responsible for another of my favorite definitions of rock and roll:
We're not perfectionists. We're idealists. We think that rock & roll is more than just music for kids. Rock music is important to people because in this crazy world it allows you to face up to problem. But at the same time, to sort of dance all over 'em.
I can't explain. Turn it up.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

They’re all going to get so bored...

I'm re-reading Dave Marsh's fantastic Before I Get Old: The Story of the Who, first published in 1983. Nearly a decade into the Punk Era, and minutes after the Who had wrapped their (first of many, it turns out) farewell tour, Marsh takes the long view. Especially interesting to me is his description of the widening divide between Rock Bands and The Audience beginning in the early 1970s—a gap that a handful of bands strove valiantly to close, originating with the proto-punk MC5 and the Stooges and raucous pub rock, and cresting with punk by the end of the decade. Describing a rainy Forest Hills show in Queens, New York on the successful Who's Next 1971 tour, Marsh hones in on the issue:
The crowd inside was content to sit and soak as long as the Who played, a pattern that was maintained throughout, not just on this tour but for the rest of the decade as well. So the Who toured in continuing comfort, and their audience (like all rock audiences in this time) became increasingly irrelevant, except as a means of footing the bills. The bonds between band and fan were severed now; in a world without true connections, only shallow symbols remained. The moment to replace them had passed. The tour closed in Chicago with Townshend demolishing two guitars at once, battering the ruins of one with another until both shattered into tiny splinters. They had played to more than 700, 000 fans
A bit later, Marsh chronicles the vexed tour that the Who endured to support Quadrophenia. These '73 shows were beset with technical difficulties, particularly corrosive (and violent) bickering among band members, and Daltrey's curious decision to pedantically explain the context and meaning of the songs from the narratively-murky Quadrophenia before the band would play them. The alienated crowd seemed further away than ever from the stage. "As even Roger Daltrey could see, this situation couldn’t last forever," Marsh writes.
“If they want to bust that frustration bubble, they’ve got to show their feelings,” Daltrey said. “One day they’re all going to get so bored, they’re gonna go out and smash windows. Then we’ll have a whole new rock era.”

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...