Monday, November 19, 2018

Timeless melancholy

Ellen Willis, at home, in music

I've been revisiting Out of the Vinyl Deeps, the terrific collection of Ellen Willis's (mostly) music writing published in 2011, again admiring Willis's intelligence and insights as they dovetailed with a genuinely sensual and physical response to pop music and the ideas in it. In December 1972 Willis wrote "Into the Seventies, for Real," a small piece reacting to a recent column by Ron Weiser in the Flash fanzine; Weiser complained that when rock and roll turned to Rock (and then into Art) in the mid- and late-1960s, some measure of rawness and authenticity were leeched out of the music. As early as the early 1970s there were some crowing that pop music had peaked in the early 1960s, when the dangerous stirrings of primal music in the previous decade were thrumming, still scary. Then the Beatles in Suits—and then the Rolling Stones merely ripping off Chuck Berry, and then Dylan's literary pursuits in song—spelled the end of all of this.

Willis's take on Weiser's take is predictably nuanced, and smart, moving between doubts about rock's so-called purity and the ways it was intellectually dull and excluded her, and and head-banging understanding that above all else rock should move us, literally, our of our blues. (Note Willis's pretty early use of the term "punk rock"—in The New Yorker!). "You get the idea," Willis wrote in her "Rock, Etc." column in the December 9, 1972, issue of The New Yorker. "We’re supposed to get back to the mythic crudity and crassness reputed to be at the heart of rock and roll before it was corrupted by meaning, sensitivity, taste, and the like."
The aestheticians of the backlash may overlap with the fifties-R&B nuts we’ve always had with us, but in general they take the spirit rather than the sound of fifties rock as their inspiration—particularly the Dionysiac illiteracy of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Punk-rock has become the favored term endearment. I have mixed feelings about all this. For one thing, the blood-'n'-raunch-forever approach to rock tends to degenerate into a virility cult. Besides, having lived through the fifties, I find it impossible to romanticize them. In spite of rock and roll, they were dull, mean years—at least for middle-class high-school girls. For all the absurdities of the counter-culture, it was better than what we had before; there’s something to be said for a little cosmic awareness, provided it doesn’t get out of hand. And if it hadn't been for the Beatles (I wonder, did Rockin' Ron despise Buddy Holly for wearing suits and glasses and looking like a school teacher?) we might never have developed the ind of consciousness about our shared past that allows a rag like Flash to exist. 

"Still," Willis pivots, "I do have a weakness for dedicated crudity and crassness." She cites Five Dollar Shoes, the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils, and Black Sabbath's Vol. 4 album as current music she's digging, half-bemusedly, half-seriously, that mines early, and timeless, rock and roll mayhem. "The genius of these songs," she observes, "is that they convert the residue of a decade’s aborted visions into the timeless melancholy of adolescence."
They remind me that the antisixties backlash is an anachronism even before it begins. Pretty soon, there’s going to be a new crop of kids, who, whatever they may inherit from the sixties, won’t know where it came from, or care—until, of course, they grow up and get self-conscious, like everybody else.

Friday, November 16, 2018

What it is

I'm a self-taught essayist. In graduate school I wrote and studied poetry. Twenty or so years ago I began growing dissatisfied with my poems and with poetry generally, and turned to writing prose, which I'd already done a bit of. I became obsessed with essays, a desire dormant in me, and among my first steps in catching up (ongoing) was to sit down and read Phillip Lopate's 1995 anthology The Art of the Personal Essay from front to back. I read and teach the anthology to this day. For all of the valid criticism of the book—it could've used more avante and experimentally lyric essays, for one, and more marginalized voices wold be nice in an updated edition—it remains, for me, an indispensable and frequently rewarding and surprising book. The introduction is stellar and a standard-bearer, and Lopate's choices of essays beautifully balance forms, subject, and autobiographical impulse, not to mention the centuries. What I learned early on in the classroom was how fun and valuable it is to teach essays in pairs—say, Virginia Woolf's “The Death of the Moth” with Annie Dillard's “Seeing," how close observation of ordinary things can yield an infinite world of sensations and ideas, especially helpful as I face the uphill battle of dissuading students from believing that they have to have experienced something conventionally "dramatic" in order to write an interesting essay. (Open your eyes in the morning and you have enough to write about.) Wole Soyinka's “Why Do I Fast?” paired with Walter Benjamin's “Hashish in Marseilles" can show how a hash trip and extreme fasting, widely disparate experiences, one born of intellectual curiosity and indulgence, the other from political injustice and protest, can open up similar doors of surreal and startling perceptions.

The other day I paired Plutarch's “Consolation to his Wife” (1st century AD) with William Hazlitt's “On the Pleasure of Hating" (early 19th century). I asked my students to imagine the essays fighting each other in a boxing ring or back alley: Which essay would win? And why? The conversation's always fun, and often illuminating, as my students debate the strengths and vulnerabilities of each essay, each of which offers a philosophy of how to live. How do we move through our days while grieving or dealing with ordinary setbacks: with consolation or hate? Ideal stoicism or lower passions? Deliberate remove or hot takes? What I especially love is the liveliness of conversation about essays that are hundreds and hundreds of years old, the issues raised in them as relevant to twenty-something lives as anything, the writers' act of writing and exploring part of a long tradition my students are engaging. When Hazlitt complains about a favorite painting fading from his imagination, the early joys it brought him dulled by the passage of time, my students substitute their own favorite song, video, or meme that's lost its luster. And the centuries dissolve. A student once dismissed Hazlitt as sounding like a "cranky blogger," and to a semester that description rings hilariously true and accurate to my classes. "The memorable not place- or time-bound," says Joyce Carol Oates. "It survives the occasion of its original composition." I wrote this on the title page of my copy.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Stomping & Tripping

I paid overdue respect to Roky Erickson last night at Lincoln Hall in Chicago. Erickson, who's had highly publicized bouts with mental illness in the past, and an up-and-down career, is something of a legend among rock and rollers. He was led by his guitarist to a leather high chair at the front of the stage, where he sat, virtually immobile and silent, when he wasn't signing, for the duration of the show. I'm not sure that his guitar was plugged in; I couldn't hear his playing, anyway, but it didn't matter. His physical presence coupled with the decades of strife almost visible around his face and ample body stole the show. Now 71, wearing a gray sports jacket, black pants, and slippers, gently smiling, Erickson gives the impression of a content, bearded Buddha, sitting patiently with his fingers laced together over his stomach as his lead guitarist, the show's emcee, announced the next song or tuned his guitar. Erickson's band is supremely tight and they play warmly; the rhythm section looks like they could gig in a Ten Years After tribute band if they wanted to, and that's accounting for their considerable chops and ensemble playing more than their hirsute, hippie appearance. Erickson, well, he sang and warbled and yelped, muttering a quiet "thank you" during the show only once (ignoring the thinks-he's-funny idiot in the crowd who yelled "Speech! Speech!" once or twice). The songs ranged from up-tempo rockers to blues-based ballads, and when Erickson was plugged-in emotionally, such as on "Starry Eyes," a wonderful tribute to his wife, he sang with honest depth, his eyes often shut against the mood; he seemed to belie his large body by mentally floating off and vibing with the songs as they were played. Quirkier and offbeat tunes "I Walked With a Zombie," in which Erickson spun a yarn without telling a story, "Johnny Lawman," and "Two-Headed Dog," and 13th Floor Elevators' classics "(I've Got) Levitation" and the inevitable closer "You're Gonna Miss Me" found Erickson alternating between leading the vocal charge, his eyes alight, and letting the songs' infamy do most of the work for him. He left without an encore, shuffling off the stage with the aid of the guitarist who'd walked him on earlier, his legacy assured and his present still charged.

During the show Lincoln Hall projected a swirling psychedelic light show on a large screen above and behind Erickson and his band, and it felt as if the display had been percolating since White Mystery's storming opening set. I'm a fan of Miss Alex White & Francis Scott Key White, two Chicago siblings who raised the roof last night with their powerhouse glam rock roll funk lo-fi blues. Miss Alex plays charged and stirring riffs and screechy Hendrix-like wails on a sunburst Rickenbacker, and wore a black latex bodysuit and white platform boots, her red hair teased in a 'fro. White Mystery's songs are sexy, anthemic, and a little dark, rousing but, yes, mysterious, too. The band has been on the road with Rocky Erickson for two weeks and though clearly amped to be playing in front of a home crowd, the duo showed a bit of road burn, at least relative to the electrifying show of theirs I caught at The House in DeKalb a few years back. Francis Scott Key White gave the impression of someone who'd slept through sound check and woke up just in time to forget to button his pants but still man the drums, chugging behind Miss White's righteous riffing. At the end of the set, the drummer and guitarist switched places, a standard move of the theirs; while he mumbled incoherent poetry into the mike, she sat behind the drums but still kept riffing on her guitar as she thumped a four-on-the-floor with the bass drum. A perpetual motion machine, White Mystery. At the end of the set Miss White sweetly informed the crowd that her parents were in attendance. (Her mother Diane White is a celebrated Chicago photographer; among other accolades she shot iconic photos at the infamous Disco Demolition at Comiskey Park in 1979.) It's that kind of homey, bro-and-sis charm coupled with the band's nervy eroticism—a crowd-pleaser was the tune "Fuck Your Mouth Shut"—that ignites and moves this band. I highly recommend you do the White Mystery thing in your town if you haven't.

Monday, November 5, 2018

No Place I Would Rather Be

My book about Roger Angell's baseball writing career, No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and Life in Baseball Writing, is out in May with University of Nebraska Press. You can pre-order the book now from Amazon. I couldn't be happier to have landed with a Press that not only boasts an excellent list of baseball and sports books, but that also reissued Angell's first two books, The Summer Game (first published in 1972) and Five Seasons (1977).

Please spread the word about the book to anyone and everyone you know who's a fan of Roger Angell or of baseball writing—or, really, of great, artful, and memorable writing period. Here's a description of the book:
Legendary New Yorker writer and editor Roger Angell is considered to be among the greatest baseball writers. He brings a fan’s love, a fiction writer’s eye, and an essayist’s sensibility to the game. No other baseball writer has a through line quite like Angell’s: born in 1920, he was an avid fan of the game by the Depression era, when he watched Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit home runs at Yankee Stadium. He began writing about baseball in 1962 and continued through the decades, lately blogging about baseball’s postseasons. 
No Place I Would Rather Be tells the story of Angell’s contribution to sportswriting, including his early short stories, pieces for the New Yorker, autobiographical essays, seven books, and the common threads that run through them. His work reflects rapidly changing mores as well as evolving forces on and off the field, reacting to a half century of cultural turmoil, shifts in trends and professional attitudes of ballplayers and executives, and a complex, discerning, and diverse audience. Baseball is both change and constancy, and Roger Angell is the preeminent essayist of that paradox. His writing encompasses fondness for the past, a sober reckoning of the present, and hope for the future of the game.
And some pre-pub blurbs:
“The game of baseball best represents our country’s soul, and no one has chronicled its beauty better than Roger Angell. With only class and eloquence, Roger’s insights have taught us all—starting with sport and extending to humanity.”—Joe Torre, Hall of Famer and four-time World Championship manager of the New York Yankees and MLB’s chief baseball officer 
“Roger Angell is an American treasure. Fans of baseball and the craft of writing will enjoy this inside look at one of the all-time best.”—Tom Verducci, author of The Yankee Years and The Cubs Way 
“Joe Bonomo’s immensely enjoyable book examines Angell’s baseball writing through the decades, shedding welcome light on the forces and events (both in the game and in Angell’s life) that shaped him into the greatest baseball writer of the post–World War II era. It’s an absolute must for any Angell fan and for anyone who digs great baseball writing in general.”—Dan Epstein, author of Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s 
“Joe Bonomo has curated an enjoyable journey through the career and work of Roger Angell, the godfather to generations of outsiders who set out to bring a fresh perspective to baseball coverage. If you’ve ever immersed yourself in Angell’s prose and wondered where his incisive wit, ear for dialogue, and attention to detail came from, or wished to trace the development of recurring themes throughout his oeuvre, No Place I Would Rather Be is well worth your time.”—Jay Jaffe, author of The Cooperstown Casebook and a senior writer for
Moe info coming over the next several months about readings, etc.
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