Tuesday, June 26, 2018

To make the lights flash off and on

Chris Stamey

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.
And here's a beautiful and evocative passage about songwriting:
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.

No comments: