Friday, August 31, 2018

Tale of Two Parks

Before last night's Chicago White Sox game I checked out the 114-year old, ten-acre Armour Square Park, which sits next to Guaranteed Rate Field (a name I still hate writing). Activity was low—no kids running around, no pick-up games; there were a few families strolling and plenty of folk streaming by the park on their way to the game—but noting the proximity of the vintage Armor Square Fieldhouse and the modest ball fields to a giant Major League park is a pleasure. I imagine that it would be pretty sweet to patrol the outfield in one of these parks, a glimpse of the White Sox's home flashing in your line of sight as you park yourself under a fly ball. Open-air bars along West 33rd Street were humming, a nice reminder that the much maligned 'hood around Sox Park (ah, that's better) is warmer and more hospitable than its undeserved reputation.

Guaranteed Rate Field, as seen from the batters box in the ball field in Armor Square Park

Guaranteed Rate Field, as seen from deep left field

Still, I can't help thinking about what might have been.


As for the game, well, continually impressive Sox starter Lucas Giolito cruised through five and then the bullpen imploded, that old story. Sitting in the second row of bleachers in Section 160, which afford a terrific view and game experience, I got to see a Mookie Betts homer land a few sections over to our right, and enjoy the Sox throwing around some good leather in the infield (the same couldn't be said of the Red Sox outfielders). The loss marked another victory for Boston, on their way to a possibly (likely) franchise-record in wins. Best of all, I got to take in an inessential but entertaining game, drink some fine Revolution beer, and swap hilarious and often enlightening stories with my buddies, great company that I'm always grateful to share.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Like a child

The opening paragraph from "To the Reader" in Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, published in 1957:
These memories of mine have been collected slowly, over a period of years. Some readers, finding them in a magazine, have taken them for stories. The assumption that I have "made them up" is surprisingly prevalent, even among people who know me. "That Jewish grandmother of yours . . . !" Jewish friends have chided me, skeptically, as though to say, "Come now, you don't expect us to believe that your grandmother was really Jewish." Indeed she was, and indeed I really had a wicked uncle who used to beat me, though more than once, after some public appearance, I have had a smiling stranger invite me to confess that "Uncle Myers" was a hoax. I do not understand the reason for these doubts; I have read about far worse men than my cruel uncle in the newspapers, and many Gentile families possess a Jewish ancestor. Can it be that the public takes for granted that anything written by a professional writer is eo ipso untrue? The professional writer is looked on perhaps as a "story-teller," like a child who had fallen into that habit and is mechanically chidden by his parents even when he protests that this time he is telling the truth.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Form & Theory, a lecture by Greg Cartwright

There are as many chord changes in this song as there are points, counter-points, and breakdowns in the couple's argument. "The problem here is we're both right." Cartwright's a master.

Reigning Sound, single (with Last Year's Men), 2011

Wednesday, August 22, 2018


DeKalb County, IL
Kingston, IL
Kirkland, IL
The Farmer's Inn. Pkg. Goods. Kirkland, IL
"Bar For Sale." Kirkland, IL.
DeKalb County, IL

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

God only knows... Satan knows...

Heaven...or Hell
1966 was a heady year for questing adolescents. Heaven and Hell? God only knows in July, but Satan knew what you did back in February.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Youth, discovery, sexuality, et al

Last semester a student of mine worshipfully rocked a Beyoncé Lemonade t-shirt to class virtually every other day. Years from now she'll discover that shirt in a box or in an old photo and the flood of feelings that will overcome her: in that moment she's enacting what someone experienced a year before her, five years before, a decade before, half a century before, and what someone will experience next year. What identified her and so graphically broadcast her attitudes and desires—what was uniquely hers in that heady era of highs and lows—morphs into a silhouette for—what?— youth, discovery, sexuality, that which we love and can't define, and so on. My Stones tour t-shirt is his Sub Pop t-shirt is her Lemonade. Your past is unique and special because it's yours, yet you act out the epiphanies, regrets, and losses of all those who came before you. A humbling and beautiful thing. Bittersweet. Nothing and somehow everything.

Detail of t-shirt via ModCloth.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Songs used to have stopping places

I love this passage in Bobbie Ann Mason's "Nancy Culpepper" from Shiloh and Other Stories. (It first appeared in The New Yorker on February 9, 1981.) The title character straddles eras, as so many found themselves doing during the tumultuous late 1960s: she's obsessed with a long-dead relative who shares her name, and she's hopeful to retrieve her grandmother's photographs, as she's afraid that otherwise no one will remember them or those far-away times; she's marrying Jack, a progressive man with a graduate degree and an interest in taking bold, abstract photographs who's angling for a draft deferment and about whom her conservative farming parents are skeptical.

This passage occurs the night of Nancy's hippie wedding in the Summer of Love. She's disconcerted: instead of organ music, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band played on a stereo, and she'd been "astonished by the minister's white robe and his beard and by the fact that he chain-smoked." During the after-party, someone "had taken down the poster above the fireplace and put up the picture of Sgt. Pepper—the cutout that came with the album. Sgt. Pepper overlooked the room like a stern father." 
     “What’s the matter?” a man asked Nancy. He was Dr. Doyle, her American History 1861-1865 professor. “This is your wedding. Loosen up.” He burst a balloon and Nancy jumped.
     When someone offered her a joint, she refused, then wondered why. The house was filled with strangers, and the Beatles album played over and over. Jack and Nancy danced, hugging each other in a slow two-step that was all wrong for the music. They drifted past the wedding presents, lined up on a table Jack had fashioned from a door—hand-dipped candles, a silver roach clip, Joy of Cooking, signed pottery in nonfunctional shapes. Nancy wondered what her parents had eaten for supper. Possibly fried steak, two kinds of peas, biscuits, blackberry pie. The music shifted and the songs merged together; Jack and Nancy kept dancing.
     “There aren’t any stopping places,” Nancy said. She was crying. “Songs used to have stopping places in between.”
     “Let’s just keep on dancing," Jack said.  Nancy was thinking of the blackberry bushes at the farm in Kentucky, which spread so wildly they had to be burned down every few years. They grew on the banks of the creek, which in summer shrank to still, small occasional pools. After a while Nancy realized that Jack was talking to her. He was explaining how he could predict exactly when the last, dying chord on the album was about to end.
     “Listen,” he said. “There. Right there.”
I love the image of Nancy straining to hear the fading chord of "A Day in the Life" and her weeping frustration with the lack of spaces between songs on Sgt. Pepper's, an intentional, and novel, decision the Beatles made during mixing of the album. The great Bobbie Ann Mason nails the headiness and disorientation of a certain moment poised between two eras. Of course it involves dancing.

A stern father...

Top photo via Pinterest.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Never lose that beat

Peter Zaremba (middle) and Keith Streng (right) signing with Red Star Records, with Marty Thau (back) and Miriam Linna (left), 1978.
40 years ago this month the Fleshtones trekked up Highway 9A to Blauvelt, New York and recorded their first, albeit aborted, album with legendary producer Marty Thau.

Here's the story, from Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtiones, America's Garage Band:
They met Thau at Ultima, what Lenny [Calderon, original drummer] would soon soon dub the “River of Fear Studio” (“His head was awash with lugubrious heavy metal imagery,” bemoans Peter). For a couple of weeks, the guys had to overcome any fears they might have, and make a great rock & roll record. “They were reasonably prepared,” Thau says. “They were where I thought they would be.” High-ceilinged, Ultima had the shape and vibe of an enormous rehearsal space, and Lenny marveled at the soundproof tiles and the giant Hammond organs, in the warm presence of beautiful vintage equipment that he remembered from his childhood. Peter, Keith, and Marek plugged in and swallowed hard

After two years of hesitant composing, Peter and Keith had a batch of songs, most of which had been stage-tested for several months, a year in some cases. They brought with them to Ultima one cover song, The Strangeloves’ “Cara-Lin” from 1965, and three originals: “B.Y.O.B.,” a shout-along ode to The House parties; the year-old “Judy,” Peter’s upbeat, childlike testimonial using Keith’s girlfriend’s nom de plume; and a new song Peter had just written, a propulsive four-in-the-bar anthem celebrating the radio sounds and homeland imagery that he grew up with, and that he was calling “American Sound.”

The band had to find a way to capture their sweaty, chancy onstage spirit onto magnetic tape, and the move from a cheering, beer-stained dancefloor to the friendless, analog domain was a challenge. “We were turned loose to recreate all the great sounds from all our favorite records in our record collections, all on the same song,” laughs Peter. He adds that “Marty was great about letting us add whatever junk we wanted to, no matter how superfluous. We added reverb from the amps, the ultimate 70s engineering sin, reverb from the board, and then reverb in the mix. But it still wasn’t enough. After a while it was hard to tell what we were listening to.”

From the control room Thau would ask, “How’s this?” Then he’d turn a small knob. “How’s this?”

The guys would shrug their shoulders. Good? I guess? 

During a break in the sessions, Peter told Andy Schwartz in New York Rocker that “what we’re trying to do in rock & roll now is bring it back to a level simple and infectious enough to dance to. Party music.” Above all the guys wanted their studio tracks to be propulsive, to really move. “We always made sure that everything was danceable,” says Lenny. “No matter how wild I got, I always kept things very danceable. I put this great disco beat on ‘Cara-Lin’ where I played two separate drum parts on top, one track of playing all over the drums and then one track of the high-hat disco drumming.” The Strangeloves’ “Cara-Lin” embodied everything that The Fleshtones loved about rock & roll: an archetype of groove and rhythm, put the song on anywhere in the world anytime and people will grin and move. The Fleshtones’ version was one of the high points of these sessions, Lenny’s darting drums dancing with Peter’s cheap, ham-fisted organ and Keith’s strident guitar creating an energetic rereading, replacing mid-60s frathouse chants with late-70s speed and punkish verve, finding as close to a punk/dance hybrid as The Fleshtones would in these early days.

But what were they capturing on tape exactly? Peter and Keith brought tunes into the studio as the sessions resumed, including two, “Shadow Line” and “Watch Junior Go,” composed literally on the way up to Ultima, “riding with Marty on Palisades Parkway,” as Keith remembers. “Shadow Line,” a moody, urgent number issuing from the wellspring of Peter’s imagination and muscled along by Keith’s psychedelic melody, was inspired by the Joseph Conrad story of the same name, a characteristic Conradian exploration of the thin line between adolescence and adulthood, innocence and responsibility. Peter, nearing his mid-twenties, was trespassing that line nightly.

“‘Shadow Line’ is about people who stayed up all night doing things,” says Peter. “I was with a bunch of people and we’d finish playing at four in the morning and go off to the Crisco, and this place is packed with all sorts of people. Fine citizens. I mean, these people are not burning the candle at both ends, these people are on fire. So we’d leave there at nine in the morning and we’d go up to the Cell Block. You sit in there and you're wondering, What the hell, I should have been asleep hours ago. Here’s this guy with chains wrapped around him, and that’s definitely beyond the shadowline.” Notable for the quickness with which it was put together, “Shadow Line” was an ambitious song, a plea from outsiders for understanding, and would do much to catapult the band’s career in the coming year. The guys felt that the song was seminal and they would re-record it three times within the next three years.

Also taking shape at Ultima were “Critical List,” Keith’s first song, to which he gave a weird, whiny, but effective lead vocal aided by Peter’s wailing harmonica; “Atom Spies,” a high-energy surf instrumental written by Keith and Marek; and “I’ll Walk By,” a middling Mersey Beat-styled tune from Peter that would see the light of day a quarter-century later. The band nailed two songs particularly well, veering close to the sweaty feel of a Max’s or Club 57 gig. “The Way I Feel” was a hilariously fast statement of purpose from Peter, articulating his desires to connect in the best way he knew how: an audience-embracing, call-and-response chorus and nonsense singing. The song is in many respects the most sincere that Peter’s ever written, a childlike, passionate sing-along set to a rocking beat, a hopelessly unhip marriage that he would spend the better part of his career defending—and The Fleshtones would be stubbornly, happily playing the song twenty-five years later. Keith’s “Comin’ in Dead Stick” was a companion tune to “The Way I Feel,” equally reckless in nature, breakneck in pace, and frank in attitude.

In local fanzines at the time the band was adamant in stating that the ratio of originals to covers on their debut would be low. “We’ll have maybe two covers at the most,” declared Keith. They had planned on recording “Cara-Lin” and Kid Thomas’ fabulous early-60s burner “Rockin’ this Joint Tonight,” an obscure cut that Gordon turned the guys onto and that they raved-up onstage, proudly aligning themselves with remote but impassioned black R&B when few New York bands beyond Blondie were embracing musical history across racial lines.

Indeed, Peter, Gordon, and Brian were relating to black R&B as intensely as they were to white 60s rock & roll, and Peter and Marek had begun to celebrate that in the discos. “Keith’s background was more like my own; we knew the better-known rock of the time,” Marek says. “But Peter, Gordon, and Brian were bringing in the Kid Thomas records, really zeroing in on a spirit that was there in the off-the-wall honkers and shouters that had influenced the white rock & roll that was coming out of Britain. The Shadows of Knight were imitating The Stones imitating Little Walter, but what Peter ended up doing was going back to the Little Walter.” That wasn’t that common in the New Wave scene, Marek notes, and “that was where The Fleshtones came out of.” The Fleshtones tore through “Rockin’ this Joint Tonight” at Ultima. The band flew and twenty-three year old Peter shouted and fiercely blew on his harmonica, an instrument that he was excelling at to a degree that surprised even him. His solos, respectful to Thomas’ wailing, were blistering and real, creating a sound that only further distanced the band from what was happening in New York, allowing Peter to escape his geeky white suburban background and lifting into something universal, a clarion call for fun and rock & roll.

The band ended up recording two more cover songs for the album. They discovered “Soul Struttin’,” a Bubblegum song by 1910 Fruitgum Co. on a shared album with The Lemon Pipers from 1968. The tune was as funky as the pop-conscious Buddah Records would get, but what was especially enticing was that Marty Thau had cowritten the track (with Tony Orlando, whose sister Thau eventually married). Thau had always liked the song and was pleased when the guys decided to record their rendition in tribute; it took them three versions before they were happy. The band was dividing their time now between Ultima and Blank Tape studio in Manhattan, where Thau brought in Alan Vega who took lead as The Fleshtones, wire-tight, played a memorable, atmospheric, psychedelic version of Suicide’s “Rocket U.S.A.” Vega growled and moaned his way through the taut song, and the utterly unique track could fit nowhere else on the album but in closing. “Recording with Vega was a great day, a cool memory,” marveled Lenny. “Being that close to Alan was really cool.” Peter cherished the experience, also: “Too bad we didn’t do a few of his other things as well.”

The Fleshtones spent the remainder of their brief time at Blank recording overdubs of vocals, handclaps, and various percussion. Thau had struck some rough mixes, volume presence, balance, and touches of EQ extras in the course of recording. All that was left was the final mixing, but the console knobs would soon be darkened by the long shadow of financial misery.

Thau had his own ideas, especially concerning Keith’s novice guitar-playing. “I tried to get out of Keith a certain guitar presence that was present in The Sex Pistols and The Ramones,” Thau says, “sort of bridging them between that classic Yardbirds place and what the punk sound of New York was about.” The basic tracks for “Cara-Lin,” “B.Y.O.B.,” “Judy,” and the re-titled “American Beat”—already earmarked by Thau as the band’s first single—were laid down quickly. Thau and the band were interested in translating their essential energy, and so the pace of the songs was quick, the performances wound-up tight, too tight in some cases. A certain drunken, sing-along recklessness is apparent in these tracks but it’s hard to tell whether it issued from nerve or nerves. Bum notes, microphone “pops,” brittle energy, and amateur spirit abounds.

The late Marty Thau's take on the band here.

The ill-fated album, Blast Off!, would eventually be released in several iterations down the years. "American Beat," the band's debut single, was released on Red Star in 1979. Never lose that beat: