Friday, November 30, 2018

Take another look: The Magic Plants' "I'm a Nothing" (1965)

You better take another look, girls
I've been jamming lately to "I'm a Nothing," by New York City's The Magic Plants, a 1965 stomper which I discovered years ago on the I'm a No Count compilation in the inestimable Teenage Shutdown! series. Who says that a garage rock and roll song can't be smart, or needs more than three chords to sustain an argument? The singer, snotty in the best garage style, pitches his vitriol at the gullible girls mooning for the Rock Stars manufactured by fan magazines, pretty in make-up and long hair, out of reach on the movie screen and in limousines. Yet the man underneath the trappings of pop fame is a disgrace, a nothing. Sung in venomous first-person, the song wages war against the formulaic pop star and the fans who send blind adulation his way.

"I'm a Nothing" was a regional one-and-done for the Plants, two members of which went to form the far more remunerative Left Banke. After a bit of research—kickstarted by this post at the great Garage Hangover—I discovered that I"m a Nothing"'s songwriter, Mike Wexler, is still around and, to my utter amazement, lives in my town. I asked him about the song. "What was I thinking about 54 years ago?" Wexler says. "The way-back machine suggests a starry-eyed kid hitting the great white way in search of fame and fortune and finding a den of thieves, con artists, and hopelessly sad groupies." He adds, "At least the groupies were honest." In all-too-familiar fashion, the producers at World United added their names to Wexler's writing on the flip side of the record, "on the chance we actually made some money, assuring me it was all part of the business. As far as I know, no promise went unfulfilled. No lie proved too demeaning. Verve pressed a few copies, how many is unknown, but there was no push."


Here are the uncompromising lyrics:
I'm the one that you see on the movie show
The type that you hear on the radio
The one that makes you really scream
The one that you always see in your dreams
You write your name all over my car
Just because I'm a long-haired star
But I'm a nothing 
Take away my crazy long hair
Take that silly makeup off my face
You better take another look, girl
I'm a disgrace
I'm a nothing 
I ride around in your limousine
Sign my name in your fan magazine
You think that there's something that I'm tying to prove
But baby that's not part of my groove
Once was true, now it's a drag
Baby, that's just not my bag 
Take off the silly makeup
Take away my crazy long hair
Baby, take just one more look
Now you don't care about a nothing 
If you'd ever take a good look at me
Baby, you'd cry at the things you'd see
A normal average unconcerned guy
So get them stupid stars out of your eyes 
You carried this game now way too far
I don't like to be a sex symbol star
"I'm a Nothing" seethes with righteous garage nerve, but the sneer and decibels belie the song's origins. "The truth is, at that time, I was actually a folk singer working the Village, a la Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, etc.," Wexler says. "I have a truck load of good songs never heard by anyone. 'I'm A Nothing' was a part of my act and delivered entirely as parody, including the vocal inflections, a satire on the prevailing culture of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Peter [Schekeryk, Wexler's manager] heard it one night and thought it would pass easy as genuine." Wexler adds that there were no "magic plants"—band members so-named, that is—"just me and Tom Finn doing a little backup singing. We used to stand on street corners and harmonize Beatles tunes." Schekeryk did manage to arrange an audition for Wexler at Elektra Records for Paul Rothchild, who'd heard Wexler perform at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, "but then the label started making changes, emphasis to Blues and groups like the Doors." When Wexler later inquired, the tapes were, apparently, "quote-unquote lost."

Parody or satire, turn it up, this is the real thing:

The Magic Plants, "I'm a Nothing," single (1965)
Words and music by Michael Wexler

Monday, November 26, 2018

Some kind of peculiar miracle

Dial, 1956
The other I picked up a book at the music library on campus, then ducked into the Jack Arends Art Building and walked the hallways. It was late in the afternoon so classes weren't in session, but handfuls of students were working in studios, painting or working with wood or metal. I stopped into an empty auditorium hall and was sent back my days as an Art History student as the University of Maryland (I minored; now I wish I'd double majored). The feeling swept over me: the queasy thrill of a first day in, say, Modern European or Contemporary Art; the giant screen; scoping out the unfamiliar students, someone I might know, the cute loner girls with oversized canvas carriers; the knowledge that I'd be introduced to so many artists and works that I didn't know and didn't know that I was so thirsty to know.

I'll never forget my 19th Century European Art teacher telling us the first day of class, "We won't look at any art in this class." Wha?? we wondered, the oddness of his remark cutting through our affected irony. "We're going to look at reproductions of art." Oh, I get; and it stuck. You'll have to go into D.C. to look at actual art, he said—which I started to do, in head-lifting pleasure. (I recall a favorite trip in here.) I remember my contemporary art class fondly, and a particular favorite who cut through the reproductions to really enter me, among Joan Mitchell, Franz Kline, and de Kooning, was Philip Guston, whose mid-1950s paintings staggered me. My introduction to abstract expressionism, Guston's work affected me so deeply in all of the cliched ways: it felt like a foreign language, and so was a little frightening; it re-presented the world to me; it was utterly baffling and at the same time familiar. His paintings created a parallel universe wherein I understood texture and design as natively as I understood hunger and grief, and graphically introduced to me a new way of seeing things; abstraction, essence, nonfigurative, inside-out, otherworldly: all of the mean descriptors miss the point. His paintings were both the thing and the definition, somehow both pre- and post-language. I can say with certainty and with a thrill, still, that my life was never quite the same after experiencing Guston's colors, impasto, and monumentality. Nor was the world I looked at.

 The Mirror, 1957

 'for m.', 1955

A few remarks from Guston:
When I see people making "abstract" painting, I think it's just a dialogue and a dialogue isn't enough. That is to say, there is you painting and this canvas. I think there has to be a third thing; it has to be a trialogue. 
The painting is not on a surface, but on a plane which is imagined. It moves in a mind. It is not there physically at all. It is an illusion, a piece of magic, so that what you see is not what you see.

Painting seems like some kind of peculiar miracle that I need to have again and again. 
To paint is a possessing rather than a picturing.
Philip Guston

Saturday, November 24, 2018


Charlie Gillett, from his introduction to The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, first published in 1970: "The city’s sounds are brutal and oppressive, imposing themselves on anyone who comes into its streets. Many of its residents, committed by their jobs to live in the city, measure their freedom by the frequency and accessibility of departures from it."
But during the mid-fifties, in virtually every urban civilization in the world, adolescents staked out their freedom in the cities, inspired and reassured by the rock and roll beat. Rock and roll was perhaps the first form of popular culture to celebrate without reservation characteristics of city life that had been among the most criticized. In rock and roll, the strident, repetitive sounds of city life were, in effect, reproduced as melody and rhythm.
The above photo, via Underwood Archives, is titled "Teenage Rock 'n' Roll Fans" and was shot on February 23, 1957 in New York City on 44th Street, as fans were "restrained by police as they line up to see disc jockey Alan Freed and the movie, Don't Knock The Rock." Two months later on April 6, an AP photographer captured one of the most iconic images in rock and roll, below, an "unidentified teenager" losing her mind and her body at an Elvis Presley concert at the Arena in Philadelphia. (Photo via Flashbak.) Among my favorite rock and roll images, few shots top these two moments which, though well known, beg yet another view. Look at her body, somehow both rigid and fluid, out of control and in charge, a saint being assumed by the devil's music. Positively (anti) Pentecostal. How could she not have been permanently altered, emotionally and physically, by this? Man, I'd love to know who she is, to find her, and to ask her, at the risk of sentimentality: what did it feel like? And the two girls next to her, keeping it together, look as if they're both fighting decorum, pity, embarrassment, and not a little envy: wow look at her, it's scary, she's gone, do I want to go too?

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Reading Joyce on poor-man's speed

Cutting across campus yesterday: a confluence of the gray weather, chill, and looming academic buildings brought me right back to McKeldin Library, at the University of Maryland, where as an undergrad I took a course in Joyce and Yeats; we ended the semester with a couple weeks devoted to Ulysses. Blessedly, my teacher assigned Harry Blamires's indispensable The Bloomsday Book to help us through Joyce's epic. I worked in the division of Non-Print Media (a quaint name!) at Hornbake Library, and in the hours before my shift started I'd enter McKeldin—gray and dusty, the oldest library on campus—head upstairs to the fourth floor, wind my way through seemingly endless stacks of musty books, and select a tiny desk in a tiny carrel in front of a tiny window. McKeldin was built in the late 1950s and wasn't renovated until two years after I'd graduated, so at the time felt, to me, ancient and catacomby with its narrow aisles and hushed stacks. I'd pop a couple of No-Doz, my usual lunch or dinner substitute, open Blamires's book, read a chapter and orient myself, and then dive head-first into the corresponding adventure in Ulysses. The movement from Ramires' dry, helpful summaries to Joyce, well, it was a leap from one language to another, thrilling and exotic and urgent. There was nothing quite like these afternoons for me as a student, lost in the richness of characters' interior worlds in a foreign city rendered so tactile it might've been outside; not even the hours I'd spend as a DJ on my radio show at WMUC compared. When I finished, the afternoon light straining through the old old window, it would be dusk, and I'd stumble out of McKeldin and gaze at the long, sweeping McKeldin Mall: night coming on, guys and girls coupled or solo against the cutting wind, my head Joycean and speeding and reeling, the landscape altered. I was 21 and I felt eternal. These hours spent with Ulysses at a cramped wooden desk in front of a narrow window overlooking campus remain among my most cherished and transformative reading experiences. A close second: a few years later at Ohio University in Athens, in graduate school, reading for the first time Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury with the peerless Dr. Dean McWilliams, and walking home after the late-May seminar, following an inevitable detour at The Union or Tony's, my bars of choice, to where I lived in the blighted west end of town and honeysuckles honeysuckles everywhere as I reckoned with Quentin and Benjy and Caddy, oh Caddy....


Coming down the steps in Reavis Hall yesterday, on my way to teach, a girl coming up the opposite way stumbling slightly, her head down, deep in a book. Timeless stuff.

McKeldin Library (pre renovation)

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 was 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, out of our blues. "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." (Note btw Willis's pretty early use of the term "punk rock"—in The New Yorker!)
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 very interested in 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

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—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).

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:
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.