Saturday, June 30, 2018
—Greil Marcus, from "Top 40 Nation," in Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads
A random week from the summer of '65, ever mind business, religion, or college:
Photo of teenager via National Museum of American History.
Friday, June 29, 2018
|The Jim Carroll Band|
"It's accessible to kids," Carrol said about the song in 1980, adding "It's like an elegy but it's not sentimental." Four years later, he remarked that "People Who Died" is a "about, you know, stolen possibilities, about people who died young before they could fulfill their promises, you know?" The song will last, and continue to move listeners and challenge them to face their own grieving, callousness, or befuddlement in the face of loss.
Here's a small sample:
On a related note, check out my interview with Mark Slutsky, who for three years curated the emotional and psychological terrain of YouTube comments at his late and lamented Sad YouTube.
Image of Jim Carroll Band via YouTube.
Tuesday, June 26, 2018
So many rock memoirs are burdened by the need to dig dish and get juicy. Chris Stamey shrugs off those expectations in his fascinating, thoroughly readable A Spy in the House of Loud: New York Songs and Stories, which could've simply been titled Stories about Songs. Stamey admits that the book began as an attempt to write an annotated songbook, a kind of guide to listening and understanding his music, but as those considered songs gave way to anecdotes, and those anecdotes to sturdy metaphors and large-picture insights, the book grew.
A native North Carolinian, Stamey followed his muse (and childhood friend Mitch Easter) to New York City in 1977. Moving inside of a Winston-Salem/Manhattan/Hoboken axis, he recounts his many stints playing in bands, including the dBs with Gene Holder, Peter Holsapple, and Will Rigby, and producing, meeting, hanging, and/or working with a veritable who's who of late-1970s/early-1980s NYC musicians, from famous Bowery regulars and downtown No Wavers to Jack Bruce (of Cream) and Van Dyke Parks, from R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe to obscure avant-garde performers, spanning stylistically the angular pop of Sneakers and the dBs to experimental piano pieces and Great American Songbook suites, with a lot stuffed in between. Absent from his account is Mudshark-type sexual gossiping, or many tales of drug use for that matter; introverted and temperamentally reserved, Stamey was far more interested in his private (read, quiet) romantic relationships, and the formal and mysterious dynamic of making music, all of those combustive personalities and their damaged lives on the periphery, lining up for their Please Kill Me mugshots. As a musician, producer, and fan, Stamey was around for all of it and hung out at all the legendary bars and venues, but, gifted with perspective and an inner-rudder that seemed to steer him straight, he takes the high road. In that, A Spy in the House of Loud is that rare 70s/80s NYC rock memoir, a gently erudite, funny, curious, thoughtful, and self-effacing book about music-making first, and scene-making second.
Happily, Stamey is a terrific writer: his sentences are concise and syntactically clear without sacrificing depth, his details are well-chosen throughout, and he has a knack for landing on metaphors that feel organic, not forced, and that do what a metaphor should: return us to the world refreshed, having been offered a slightly different angle on an everyday or an oft-told subject. ("A ordinary object slightly turned is a metaphor of that object," Wallace Stevens said. Stamey gets it.) Here he is on the conceptual possibilities of the 45 single, recalling Television's landmark "Little Johnny Jewel." Stamey starts down a well traveled road—"In the fall of 1975, everything changed"—but then deviates down a side path. "With albums, you often feel like someone is trying to sell you something: a concept, an attitude, a haircut, a concert ticket, a marketing plan," he observes.
With singles, someone is trying to tell you something: They are urgent, brief, to the point, a horseback ride across enemy territory with a crumpled-up of paper in a back pocket. And in the days if vinyl 45s, the brave little discs underwent a kind of torture to get their message across: A needle scratched the music into spiraling lacquer furrows on an aluminum disk, which was then given electroshock treatment until the grooves had been rendered onto metal plates that could squeeze our multiple copies of encoded plastic pucks with big holes punched in their centers.Stamey employs this kind of figurative language throughout the book, but it rarely becomes precious or overdone. I'm not a musician, and my eyes glazed over occasionally when Stamey tutored on chord changes, jazz phrasing, amplifiers, and the like—this is a seriously gear-y book, and there's a snippet of sheet music at each chapter heading—but I imagine that most guitarists will find his annotations and discourses to be catnip. He has a knack for exploring minutiae—particularities of the recording process, for example—in such a way that's both close-up and wide-screen. Here he is on the wonders of stereo recording:
Songs like the Drifters’ “Spanish Harlem” were ﬁlled with the sound of rooms, but hearing is a more mysterious sense than vision. When listening to a recording, you have to “hear around corners,” to imagine the room that the notes are bouncing off of. All sorts of factors are involved in reproducing this: the types of microphones, their positions, the way the signals are processed, left-right assignments in the stereo image—all these let producers paint not only with combinations of pitch, timbre, and rhythm but also with careful amounts of both real and artificial reverberation effects. This results in a sensory dislocation:Your eyes are seeing the wallpaper in your living room, but your ears are hearing a space in London or Los Angeles, or perhaps a room that exists only in dreams. If you listen hard enough, your real room falls away, and you ﬁnd yourself in the other.... [T]hat alchemy—of finding a sound, a room, a combination of tones, a space that can fill and fascinate and transport the imagination—remains an essential attraction for me.
.... Phil Spector had done marvelous things with mono room sounds in the early sixties, sonically implying vast spaces, but mono was a constricted palette.... I myself liked stereo, which really presents the ear (and brain) with three sources of information from sum and difference: the left channel, the right channel, and the ghost center image of sounds mutual to both.
Oh, that delicious feeling of having a song brewing. It was like nothing else. I would leave my apartment in the blinding, treeless sunshine of a Hoboken morning, get the bus into Port Authority on the west side of Manhattan, grab a cup of coffee at Le Bon Pain, and stride across midtown to wherever that day called me, all the while standing stock still in that parallel dimension of songwriting as the melody and lyrics percolated up and around my consciousness. This dualism would continue throughout the day and into the next as I peered sideways into creativity’s realm, picking through the thousand musical and lyrical options until reducing the song down to its most sparse and necessary components. Each time, there was that certainty that this song was going to be the best one ever. And it was secret knowledge: I might be surrounded by dozens in a subway car, or talking to a sales clerk in a bookstore, or doing an interview at the record label, but I was the only one who knew that, simultaneously, this music was being born. Drunk on this strange, subtle elixir, I would imagine I knew how it must feel to be a secret agent assigned to a mission in a foreign land, as I maintained my facade of normal activity, all the while impatiently counting the minutes until I could return to a private space and transcribe or record this encrypted “message in a bottle” that had been fermenting, then formulate a way to ﬂoat it out into the world. There was also the excitement of anticipation, the delusion of inevitable triumph, as my ego would balloon and I would imagine the hero’s ticker-tape parade one day—hearing back from my peers, accepting congratulations from all sides at having ﬁnally written the song, the single tune that would crystallize all I had tried for in the hundreds that came before it. Each such creative adventure was backlit by such new hope.A central metaphor that Stamey returns to several times in his book originated in the most storied of places, CBGB, where there was a pinball machine "in the corner...that was farthest from the stage,"
and when the band playing was bad, uninteresting, or both—which, to be honest, was not so rare an occurrence—many of us would end up there. Of course, no other realizations ever seem quite as profound (at the time) as those that come at the end of a long night at a bar. But when a skilled player like Dee Dee Ramone nudged it just the right Way, making all the lights go off at once, I would see that old pinball machine as a metaphor for what great rock records should do: trigger some kind of instant deep-brain response, bypassing the critical facilities, beyond analysis. Just neurons flashing all over the place. And these were the kind of records we all wanted to make; we wanted the skilled hands to create more of the rare enablers of sonic euphoria. We wanted to shove the machinery. To make the lights ﬂash off and on.This is as terrific a description of rock and roll as I've read in a long time.
Stamey's great on individual bands and artists, too, writing always as a fan, often a wide-eyed one. His description of R.E.M. captures their initial rush of appeal perfectly. Referring to the rise of college radio, he writes, "It was as if universities had been harboring an audience who had been waiting for years to hear a band that was neither their parents’ boring jammers nor the window-smashing, gobbing UK punk crew. R.E.M., who were not ashamed of their literacy and romanticism and whose cover graphics connected with university art-department tropes, became this band, an answer to these music fans' prayers."
Like all good music writing, Stamey's description sent me back to my records. I pulled out the early R.E.M. albums, which I hadn't listened to in a while, and, sent again by the majestic arrangement of "Pilgrimage" and the weary epiphanies of "Perfect Circle," I was happy that Stamey had reminded me of why I'm grateful that R.E.M. was the band that scored my heady, mystifying late teens. Prayers, indeed.
Images from A Spy in the House of Loud. Photo of Stamey at desk by Gail Goers.
Saturday, June 23, 2018
This was the Fleshtones' first year playing without a horn section, down to the lean and mean—and far less costly—four piece that they've rocked since. They were a year away from recording with Paul Johnson in his basement in Brooklyn, a process that re-energized and refocused the band, and got them back to basics. Here, they bid adieu (for a while, anyway) to their Celebrity Producer Era.
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Painter Duncan Hannah's remarkable new book 20th Century Boy: Notebooks of the Seventies, chronicles what Gillian McCain drolly describes as "the adolescence that most of us wish we had." Born in 1952 and raised in Minnesota, Hannah attended art school, then transferred to Bard and then to Parson's, in downtown Manhattan, in the early 70s, just as the city was both declining into a social morass and ascending in shabby glamour. Hannah seems to have been blessed with amazing luck: he shows up at a concert, and ends up backstage partying with his rock gods; he drinks and drugs excessively, winding up in predictably dangerous and dire situations, once in an abandoned apartment hundred blocks north of where the party started with no recollection of how he got there, yet survives again and again; he creates defiantly unfashionable art (representative illustrations and painting in a heavily Abstract era) but meets the right people, and ends up making a living. His twenties was an extraordinary crash course in alcoholic depths and plucky providence, presided over by what Hannah calls his guardian angel. If you want a mad dash into Downtown NYC as Glam ruled and Punk was stirring, artists were thriving in low-rent lofts, and larger-than-life personalities seemed to pop up on every corner, party, and dark dive bar, you will inhale 20th Century Boy.
In preparing them for publication, I removed a lot of extraneous detritus. I didn't do a lot of navel gazing, as many diarists do, so I didn't have that to contend with. I noticed, at the time, that mostly it was girls who kept journals, and they generally wrote only when they were upset. I was determined not to do this. I tended to write from jubilation. I wrote these at night, in bed (if I was in any kind of shape to write), or in the morning, over coffee. I didn't write every day, and as life accelerated I would miss notating chunks of experience. Indeed, 1979 hardly gets a look in at all. I don’t know why. I’ve changed some of the names to protect the innocent, and also the not-so-innocent. The grammar and spelling have also been corrected, as my slipshod grasp of English composition leaves something to be desired.The book's early diaries are marked by long, narrative passages, as if Hannah was conscious of the story he was living, and making; the later entries are far shorter, often impressionistic, less episodic. His addictions were growing by this point, and no doubt the blackouts were more frequent. How Hannah recalls as much as he did in a state of near-continual inebriation and forgetfulness is also somewhat dubious, but, again, the art is in the shaping.
|DH with Craig Gholson (left) at CBGB|
Hannah and Jim Carrol shared an editor, and Carrol's Beat Punk jittery ghost floats in and out of the book, in the staccato prose and epiphanic wooziness, such as in this entry from February 1976:
It’s already springtime, tweet tweet. Nick [Hannah's cat] got his balls cut off at the vet on Tenth Street. I waited for him at the Lion's Head. (He’ll take a ﬁshtail, turn it into a ﬁsh scale.) Meaney’s got a friend of a friend who got castrated by some S&M guys last week. Eric got mugged when he was high on downers. Guillemette Barbet got her cameras stolen. E. S. Wilentz’s Eighth Street Bookshop burned down. There’s a full moon all this week that’s got all the ghosts and skeletons jittery. It gets crazy around here, and none of us have stuntmen to ﬁll in for us.Carrol and Hannah also shared a love of music, and pulsing throughout 20th Century Boy is the sound and spectacle of rock and roll, Hannah's second great passion after art. His description of Iggy Pop's drunken collapse at the Academy of Music on New Years Eve 1973 and of Bowie's New York City debut at Carnegie Hall are epic; throughout, his memories of shows and gigs are shot through with the sheer joy of fandom. Hawkwind bores him, but the New York Dolls, Roxy Music, and Mott the Hoople thrill him. Describing listening to the Velvet Underground's Loaded and the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle in a September 1970 entry, he marvels, "...fantastic. Such a rich wealth of music coming out. It’s where we get our messages, our subversive directions. It’s the soundtrack to our lives. The centerpiece to all this action. Ties us all together."
There was a small crowd in front of the Fifth Avenue Hotel on Tenth Street. We were on the east side of the street, looking at the back of a large ﬂatbed truck. That’s where the live music was coming from. From under the partition I could see rolled-up Levi’s and Frye boots. I ran around to the front, maybe four people deep from the lip of the stage. It was the Stones themselves! They threw a press breakfast party for all the NYC journos inside Feathers restaurant, whose windows face Fifth. The scribes were reportedly pissed off that the Stones hadn't shown up at their own press party to promote their extensive summer tour, only to have them roll right up in front of them and begin to play. I caught the end of their ﬁrst number, then they raced into the next. They looked appropriately scruffy in denim and worn leather, good shag haircuts, Mick's lips, etc, Their backdrop was a giant eagle with jet engines (drawn by one of my favorite illustrators, the German Christian Piper). Then the skies broke, and the rain came down in earnest. Police cars began to arrive. The truck began to drive slowly off, a gaggle of kids racing behind it. I ﬁnally saw the Stones!
20th Century Boy is a wild, mostly thrilling and engrossing chronicle of a thoughtful, talented, and fortunate boy's journey through one of modern Manhattan's most storied eras. If you dig the 1970s and its art and music, you'll love Hannah's in-the-moment accounts. The New York Times found Hannah recently and wrote about him here and here. Please Kill Me featured him in an article here.
For what it's worth, my favorite detail in the book is David Bowie drinking Schaefer Beer at an after hours party in Larry Rivers's loft on East Fourteenth Street following a Roxy Music show in 1974. He probably had more than one.
Saturday, June 16, 2018
I think he was 23 of 60-plus pitches in terms of strikes, which is not a good ratio. Just continue to get back to the drawing board, work through his side work, get back and hopefully try to get in a position where he’s commanding the fastball and able to use his secondary pitches. … He has had a few tough ones.All of this is normal for a player in the minor leagues, where he's expected to struggle as he faces increasingly elite competition on his way, hopefully, to the bigs. What's different now is the nearly obscene amount of scrutiny such a player faces. When I was a kid and I heard on the radio or during a broadcast or read in the paper that a player was being "sent down" to the Minors, down may as well have been Antarctica. He'd vanish off the radar: I'd rarely hear about him again, let alone follow his daily progress, until the day he was promoted back to the Major League team. If he never made it back...well, see ya. He'd be banished from my daily knowledge of the team, maybe make an appearance in a dream or an unbidden memory a decade on. When a player I really liked, Ruppert Jones of the far-away Seattle Mariners, was injured during the 1978 season, I called Ken Beatrice, a radio sports talk show host on Washington D.C.'s WMAL, for an update on his status. Beatrice didn't have an iPad in front of him, a tab open to MiLB.com. He probably made up something, and went on to a more interesting caller. I hung up the phone, and continued imagining where Jones was, and what he was doing.
Things are vastly different now. I read about Kopech's struggles in the Chicago Tribune, can track his AAA efforts pitch-by-pitch online, can an even watch the Knights play on television, a development unheard-of when I was a kid. There is a massive amount of attention paid to all levels of professional sports now, and a demotion to the Minors—which might as well have been an actual farm for all I understood when I was twelve—is no longer an escape into obscurity. There are bright lights everywhere, now. Little about my comments here is new, yet I'm still occasionally startled by how unprecedented media coverage is in this century, and of how we're unable to gauge its impact on the future.
Monday, June 11, 2018
I often felt that Anthony Bourdain's best television shows, especially in his most recent series Parts Unknown, were essayistic. He led with a curious, questing persona, embodied by both his gregarious, ambling body and his thoughtful voice-overs, and he often allowed in the deeply personal, and at times confessional. Witness his deep despondency in Sicily, and his honest recounting of his addictions, among other bracing autobiographical moments. He was skeptical, hungry for knowledge, and always seemed open to surprise (of the blissful and the despairing varieties), to some measure of self-interrogation, and to the infinite, often surprising, usually joyous connections among disparate people and cultures. (He was, of course, a heck of a writer, too.) Food, as it was with M.F.K. Fisher, was the door opening onto the human condition.
He'll be missed.
Sunday, June 10, 2018
Infinite Tuesday, Michael Nesmith riffs on the riff. "Anecdotes and riffs are true things, even though they seem loose and unscientific," he observes. "In music the deﬁnition of a riff is essentially broad. A riff is not necessarily a repeating phrase, like the guitar intro to “Paperback Writer,” even though it may have started there."
Read Infinite Tuesday if you want similar essaying of Celebrity Psychoses, the Hollywood Mind, the nature of reality, the limits of epistemology, and video technology. You'll likely be disappointed if you're looking for a breakdown of the various mixes and takes of "Valleri" or much gossip about The Monkees and the band running around goofily in it. Nesmith decidedly keeps his gaze above the horizon, where his philosophical thoughts and ruminations gather.
A riff by deﬁnition is not written or defined before it is played or sung or said. It is of the moment. It can be an added string of notes between a refrain and a verse, or a made-up phrase across the top of a series of chords, as in a jazz performance, but the critical distinction is that riffs are real-time, happening pre-thought in the moment, and many times a surprise. It might even be a wisecrack, if it’s insightful enough.
A good riff can embody and express the essence of a song or a melody in just a few notes, the same way a quick anecdote can frame an actual event, making its spirit clear even to those not resent at the event. Truth works in this way—it is illuminated through the metaphor, the parable, the anecdote, and the riff. It is terse, clear, concise. The truth reveals the spiritual facts of life. A notable aspect of riffs and anecdotes is that they only happen once and never repeat. They are sui generis.
The ephemeral nature of a riff points, for some, to insubstantiality, but for others this is timelessness, an essential nature of the riff, the spontaneous and sudden appearing, then disappearing, of the genuine article, a quick wink that lets everyone know that the universe is watching out for us.
Riffs take readiness and practice, as does truth-telling. Silence is the gold standard because spaces in a riff count for just as much as what is spoken. When W\what is said is true, there is a ring to it that is like no other sound. It is a real sound, an actual sound, a sound that makes one turn their head, but its substance is spiritual, beyond the sense fences, the walls and clatter that hide so much.
Saturday, June 9, 2018
Here's the opening graph:
“Maybe I’ve lost too many brain cells from too many Slurpee-induced brain freezes.”You can read the full essay here. You can subscribe to The Normal School here.
That’s my brother Phil. I’ve asked him and my other siblings if they can recall how “Dance the Slurp,” a 1966 promotional single released by the 7-Eleven chain of convenience stores, ended up in our house in Wheaton, Maryland. “If I’m the one who first acquired it, I don’t remember how or when,” he admits. None of my other brothers or my sister can remember, either, but the journey wouldn’t have been very far. There was a 7-Eleven less than half a mile from our house on Amherst Avenue, and, over many years, we ducked in to escape the sticky summer heat, and to load up on cherry or lemon-lime and cola Slurpees, wads of gum, fistfuls of comics and magazines. The 7-Eleven was a regular stop on my solitary Saturday afternoon allowance walks, yet I too don’t know how it ended up in the house. For many years it was on high rotation on the Bonomo family turntable.