Thursday, July 26, 2018

Ether in the shape of a space ship

The Stones in '67
I love reading "on the ground" accounts of writers struggling to make sense of what's around them as it's happening. In the heady late 1960s, a perceptive and open music fan was overwhelmed by newness on virtually a weekly basis. I've been re-reading Paul Williams's great Outlaw Blues, a 1969 gathering of his writing at Crawdaddy! magazine, and his take on the Rolling Stones in 1967 is still one of the smartest and most intuitively right pieces on the band's sound that I've ever read.

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

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

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

Sunday, July 22, 2018

All stories are personal

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

A song from the old days

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 16, 2018

File: Rock & Roll, definitions of

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Aerial Tour Instrumental

The sky's variety of blue, the darting clouds, the bright sun: the flight from Portland to Chicago yesterday cast a spell.

Here's a minute of video I shot before we began the descent toward Chicago. This only gives a feeling for the dimensions of the clouds and the way light gave the whole sky the feel of a dreamy, complex structure.

Mount Hood, about 50 miles east-southeast of Portland.


And of course on the other, grayer end, the always hair-raising, just-in-the-nick-of-time landing at Midway Airport in Chicago. Buildings. Buildings! BUILDINGS!! Runway....

Midway, a neighborhood joint.

Top photo by Amy Newman

Sunday, July 8, 2018


My younger brother and I had just purchased KISS Alive II with our allowance money. My older brother's friend looked at the inner gate fold sleeve and said, "It looks like World War III!"

Everything you need to know about why KISS ruled when you were eleven.

Image via Why It Matters

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Wanna Be a Big League Batter?

I haven't availed myself yet of Stan the Man's sage advice; I'll probably wait for the dark of winter to spin this May of 1963 album, when my baseball joneses are bad. I have a feeling that the Hall of Famer's wisdom is stronger than the water damage and the vinyl's clicks and pops. Cost me fifty cents to find out, courtesy of a Salvation Army crate dive, not the friendly folks at Phillips 66.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Sunday, July 1, 2018

"High on drugs? Not us, baby!"

Here's some more rare Fleshtones footage via OnTourProduction from the short-lived Andy Shernoff Era, a March 1989 show at Green Parrot in Neptune, New Jersey, on the Jersey Shore. The band runs through "Moon Dawg," "I've Gotta Change My Life," and "The World Has Changed." Shernoff is characteristically rooted, but mugs a bit for the camera at one point, and a grinning Keith Streng loosens him up at the end of "Change My Life."

I like the moment when Peter Zaremba responds to a barked-out request for "High on Drugs" by Streng's side band Full Time Men: "High on drugs? Not us, baby! Not this generation, not this situation. We can't do that." He adds, "Not in public."

Ken Fox would join the band in a little over a year, bringing high leg kicks.

Peter Zaremba, Andy Shernoff, Keith Streng


Bill Milhizer


Shernoff, Milhizer, Zaremba