Sunday, October 28, 2018

No matter what they say

Stooges, '72
"Every great work of art has two faces, one toward its own time and one toward the future, toward eternity." Lester Bangs

Iggy and the Stooges, timeless in the Fall of 1972:
Anytime I want I got a right to move
No matter what they say
Anytime I want I got a right to move
No matter what they say
I got a right, I got a right to move
Anytime I want, anytime
I got a right, I got a right to move
Anytime I want
Anytime I want I got a right to sing
No matter what they say
Anytime I want I got a right to sing
No matter what they say
I got a right, I got a right to sing
Anytime I want
I got a right, I got a right to sing
Anytime I want
12" (Bomp, 1991)

Photo by Mick Rock via Morrison Hotel Gallery

Friday, October 26, 2018

Not knowing how to say it

I love this passage in Karl Ove Knausgaard's Inadvertent, the latest in the "Why I Write" series from Yale University Press. (The book was translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey.) Discussing his own epic My Struggle series of autobiographical novels, Knausgaard acknowledges that in order to write he had to let go, to "abdicate as king of myself," as he puts it, and let "the literary, in other words writing and the forms of writing, lead the way."
That is also the method employed in writing this essay. I have written literary texts for thirty years, and for twenty of them I have done it full-time; in short, I have spent my entire adult life writing. This means that I know a great deal about what it is to write, and about why I do it. Yet despite this great knowledge, I have been sitting in front of my screen for three days, not knowing what to say—or rather, not knowing how to say it. And as soon as I got started, by writing that the simplicity of the question was treacherous, my pathway through the material took a certain direction, excluding all the other possible paths, so that only what I am writing now could be written. This is what became accessible, not all the rest. And perhaps even more important: I still don’t know what lies ahead, what to say, where this essay is going. 
This is so because I have to hit upon it inadvertently, or it has to hit upon me. It is one thing to know something, another to write about it, and often knowing stands in the way of writing. Make it new, Ezra Pound said—and is there any other way to do that than to let everything we know about something fall away and regard it from a position of defenselessness and unknowing?

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Sick and tired of hearing things

Lennon and Harrison during the recording sessions for Imagine, in 1971.
Recorded in May of 1971 as the Nixon administration was arresting over 13,000 anti-war protesters and the National Guard was subduing riots, John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth" has lost none of its drive or bite in the ensuing half century. The spat-out lyrics about "uptight short sided narrow minded hypocritics," "neurotic psychotic pigheaded politicians," "condescending mama's little chauvinists," and "schizophrenic egocentric paranoiac primadonnas" may have originated for Lennon in the late-1960s, early-1970s, but they cut across time and space, skewering every generation's sad parade. We've seen versions of each of those types lately, from Capitol Hill to FOX News to reality television to a stand-in for a "yellow-bellied Son of Tricky Dicky" in the White House. As was always the case with Lennon, when the feeling is real, the words and his voice rise to the occasion, authenticity and sincerity carrying the day, feelings not always present in his songs from the 1970s, slippery as he was among identities and ideologies. (From the opposite side of the spectrum check the gorgeous "Oh My Love" from the same Imagine sessions, a world away sonically and emotionally from "Gimme Some Truth," yet no less urgently felt.)

To my ears what feels even more relevant than Lennon's timeless lyrics is George Harrison's startling slide-guitar solo, a wailing of anger, resentment, and frustration that scores what I've heard in my head just about every day for the last two years. In this song, as in so much great rock and roll, it's the wordless moment that articulates the most.

Photo via Tumblr

Friday, October 19, 2018

Home and ruin

"Leaving a house for the last time, we can be tempted into an odd fantasy," Brian Dillon writes in In the Dark Room: A Journey in Memory. "We start to see it as a sort of ruin; or rather as a pair of ruins, one of which exists only in our imagination."
The other is the real space in which we drift about, disconsolately or impatiently, depending on the circumstances of our leave-taking. Our vision of the house splits in two: we see it as we imagine it once was, and in its present state. The latter image is just a ghost of the former. Leaving the house in which one grew up, the chasm between the two times seems especially deep. But haven’t we missed something? What gets repressed, as we prepare to go, is not the space itself, but how it felt to live there. The house is only ever what we make of it, and remake, from day to day: to live in a house means ceaselessly refashioning it, reimagining, forgetting and recollecting a place that never stops changing, even if (as is the case in my own family home) we’re rarely tempted to redecorate or rebuild.
On rare occasions you read a book that feels as if it were written for and at you. Dillon's is that book for me: remarkable writing on memories of houses, things, photographs, bodies, and places. Highly recommended.

Image via Storyblocks.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Learning a secret language

In the prologue to The Mansion on the Hill, his deeply researched and absorbing book about the intersection of music and commerce, writer and reporter Fred Goodman describes high school summers in the early 1970s when he toiled in a kitchen in a camp in the Poconos, "dirty work but a great paying gig at sixty dollars a week." There wasn't a lot to do during the long evenings; sometimes he and his buddies would drive the two or so hours into Manhattan, where'd they likely be served in the bars. But usually they stayed put in the mountains and engaged in age-old behavior. "We’d just sit around the dilapidated shack we lived in behind the kitchen, getting loaded on whatever we could lay our hands on and listening to records. Among eight guys there were four stereos and over two thousand albums in that bunk: the bare necessities required for two months away from civilization. Music—rock and roll—was far and away the most discussed topic. (Girls and drugs were tied for second.)"
As great as the music was, the ongoing conversation was really about something more than solos and songs. Listening to rock and roll was learning a secret language. There was something conveyed by the attitude of the bands and their records that stood apart from the music, and the way you spoke that language told people how you felt about the world. When you first met someone, the conversation turned immediately to music because once you knew which bands a person listened to, you knew if you were going to get along. 
It was a lot like administering a psychological test. First you’d check to see if the basic language was there—the Beatles, the Stones, and the British Invasion bands; Motown and Stax; the San Francisco groups; Dylan. After that, you’d probe special interests for signs of sophistication or character flaws. For instance, a passion for a perfectly acceptable but lightweight group like Steppenwolf showed a certain genial rebelliousness but suggested a lack of depth; a girl who listened to a lot of Joni Mitchell could probably be talked into bed but you might regret it later; a single-minded focus on the Grateful Dead and the New Riders of the Purple Sage was a sure sign of a heavy dope smoker; anyone with a record collection that traced the blues further back than John Mayall and the Yardbirds was an intellectual. It was, I recall, a remarkably accurate system.

For many years I'd begun each semester by asking my students to fill out an index card with their name, email, phone number. etc. And I'd always ask them to list whatever song they were singing to themselves as they walked to class that day. You could make a song up if you have to, I said, but I'm pretty sure you were humming a tune as you walked to class. Their responses more or less broke down the same across the years: always surprisingly high number of "classic rock" songs, a lot of indie bands and hip hop, the previous summer or fall's indelible Big Hit, a local "my boyfriend's" or "my girlfriend's" band or three, occasional classical or jazz, an occasional song or band I'd never heard of. One or two students would cheekily admit that there were singing a song that they'd written, or try to stump me. I'm pretty sure some of them did make up a song.

I stopped this practice a few years back, regretfully. I hadn't really needed to collect info cards for a while anyway in the digital age, yet I'd come to prize this glimpse into my students' music tastes, overhearing their interior mix tapes that scored their walks around campus and down hallways. Now, I try and eavesdrop on their conversations before and after class when they get down to talking about what they're listening to, what they love or hate. I should maybe bring back my old-school index cards and the secret language my students' songs spoke.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Owens's suburbs

I can't remember where or when I first encountered Bill Owens's fabulous photographs of suburbia. They spoke to me in a head-lifting way: though Owens was photographing individuals, families, and communities on the other side of the country from me (northern California), his images were very close to my adolescence, in its regimented lawn-carpets, faux natural interiors, refrigeration-will-save-us pantries, and block parties. David Halberstam, from his introduction to Suburbia's overdue and heralded 1999 reissue, says, "I think [Owens's work] succeeds for two main reasons."
One is that Owens, in the best and most natural way, found himself a part of a major social movement and shrewdly understood that something emotional as well as physical was taking place around him. The second reason is that he did not—unlike all too many Americans of that period, particularly those with an artistic sensibility—condescend to the people who were part of the migration. Altogether too many social critics, themselves secure citizens of the middle class for several generations, mocked the new suburbs, particularly the outward uniformity of the homes, as if that uniformity reflected a spiritual uniformity inside. lnstead Owens wisely respected the sense of liberation the suburbs represented to those arriving there. "I find a sense of freedom in the suburbs...," he quotes the head of one family. "You assume the mask of suburbia for outward appearances and yet no one knows what you really do." What comes through is Owens’ empathy for the people he photographed.

Images via Suburbia: Bill Owens Photography.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Playoffs!

And fearless predictions! From frightful Wild Card games to the World Series, part analytical, part gut. I, again, have no horse in the race, but I like the idea of a Milwaukee History Lesson in the NLCS, and Cream City's a great baseball town. Here's to taut, well-played games.

Yankees > As

Cubs > Rockies

Astros > Indians
Red Sox > Yankees

Brewers > Cubs
Braves > Dodgers

Red Sox > Astros

Brewers > Braves

Red Sox > Brewers in 6

Image via "The Fans Are on the Field! A history of celebratory field-storming in baseball, from the 1920s to today." (Slate)