Sunday, October 13, 2019

Free to sing my song

The Stones in '65
On September 6, 1965, two days after concluding a brief but frenetic Irish tour and less than a week away from a swing through Germany and Austria, the very busy Rolling Stones gathered at RCA Studios in Hollywood, California and swiftly recorded four songs, "I'm Free," "Blue Turns To Grey," "Gotta Get Away," and "Lookin' Tired." The last of these, an uptempo blues, was never issued, while "Blue Turns To Grey" and "Gotta Get Away" became album tracks that were never played by the band onstage. Only "I'm Free" had much of a life after these sessions. The song was first released on Out Of Our Heads in the U.K. on September 24, 1965, then issued in the U.S as the b-side to "Get Off My Cloud" and on December's Children (And Everybody's). The performance has always sounded under rehearsed to my ears. Charlie Watts (aided and abetted by session musician James Alexander on tambourine) makes a very rare mistake leading into the third eight-bar bridge ("so love me, hold me..."), and the line "I'm free to sing my song though it gets out of time" sounds like a response to the band's playing. Yet led by Mick Jagger's cool and the sunny drone of Keith Richards's guitars and Brian Jones's organ, the song imparts a laid-back cockiness, a blend the Stones pulled off like few others. I'm free any old time to get what I want, Jagger sings-sneers, and that presumably means the song itself, which the band owns at the end despite their tentative playing. Jagger's free to choose whom he pleases, the perk of a pop star, and who's to stop him? The song's assurances don't need an amped-up band to hype or defend them; this easygoing performance will do nicely, thanks.

Out Of Our Heads (1965)

Yet beneath the song's studied cool lies the irony that the band was hardly at liberty—just take a glance at their exhausting mid-decade recording and touring commitments—and was going to find the limits of personal and social freedoms tested graphically throughout the decade. Four years later, the song still obviously had something to say to the band, and they unearthed it for the free Hyde Park concert on July 5, 1969, Mick Taylor's first public appearance with the band. The Stones would go on to perform "I'm Free" several times on their infamous 1969 tour of America, dropping the tune in and out of the set list. The crunchy guitars and loose groove give plenty for Jagger to sing on top of, his claims to agency no less privileged as the noisy decade closes down.



~~

I was reminded of all of this as I reread Stanley Booth's epic and incomparable The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, an account of that '69 tour that culminated in the the disastrous Altamont show, at which Booth was vividly present. Among the many threads Booth pulls through his book is the relevance of "I'm Free" as a social statement, as a boast with teeth. "The song, written by Mick as a declaration of sexual independence, now seemed to be about many kinds of freedom," he writes, the decade closing in him. Later, he's between shows at Oakland and San Diego, the book's narrative momentum building ominously, and he reflects, "The days were starting to have a uniform strangeness; they all took place in the dark, we lived from dark to dawn. Each night we went someplace new and strange and yet similar to the place before, to hear the same men play the same songs to kids who all looked the same, and yet each night it was different, each night told us more. In three days, the Stones had played to nearly eighty thousand people. None of the shows had been without problems, and yet the screams got screamed, the sweat sweated, the shows done. That might be the whole point, the only victory might be in simple survival."
Or so it might seem if Mick didn’t keep leaning out over the stage each night, singing, as if it were a Sunday School song, “I’m free—to do what I like, justa any old time—and I ain’t gonna give you no bullshit—ain’t gonna give you no lies—we’re free—you know we all free.” It never sounded true. If it were true, true just once, if ever you had the feeling that you could let go, jump up, sing “Honky Tonk Women,” dance, do what you like, without the fear of a cop’s club or [Allen] Klein’s mop-handle against your skull—that would be a victory. As long as Mick kept saying “we all free,” that was what he had to achieve. If he wouldn’t say that, if he’d settle for less, then maybe victory would be easier; maybe there was a simpler and easier victory. Maybe.
Altamont, '69
Maybe. The band arrives at Altamont, and Booth's sitting on an amp onstage for the show, a witness to the chaos and the collapsing of civility and one man's liberty. Jagger's claims in "I'm Free," suspect to Booth throughout the tour, sour in the face of violence and menace, and grew in irony as the band successfully downplayed their role in the nightmare. Booth describes Jagger exhorting the unruly Altamont crowd: "After a moment he went on briskly, 'Well there's been a few hangups you know but I mean generally I mean ah you've been beautiful—'in a lower tone—'you have been so groovy—aw!' (brisk again) 'All the loose women may stand and put their hands up—all the loose women put their hands up!'" He adds, "On this night no one would think of playing 'I’m Free,' though that had been the whole idea of the concert, to give some free glimmer to Ralph Gleason’s rock-and-roll-starved proletariat and to get away from the violence of the system, the cops’ clubs, Klein’s mop handle."
The biggest group of playmates in history was having recess, with no teachers to protect them from the bad boys, the bullies, who may have been mistreated children and worthy of understanding but would nevertheless kill you. The Stones’ music was strong but it could not stop the terror. There was a look of disbelief on the people’s faces, wondering how the Stones could go on playing and singing in the bowels of madness and violent death. Not many hands were in the air, and Mick said, “That’s not enough, we haven’t got many loose women, what’re ya gonna do?”
Meredith Hunter, stabbed to death by a member of Hells Angels, experienced the limits of freedom in a harrowing and irrevocable way; his murderer turned freedom upside down and shook out its noxious dredges. In a span of a few years, the tone of Jagger's lyrics had moved from petulantly boastful to grimly sardonic.

Recently, Booth spoke about the Stones and his book with Nathan Wilcox on the Let It Roll podcast. Wilcox mentioned that Booth had talked about "I'm Free" over and over again in the book, wrestling "with the implications of it, and them playing it." He asked Booth to talk a little why the song "sort of stuck in your craw that whole tour."
Booth: Well, I mean, "I'm free" is an enormous thing to say, it's a very...it's a huge declaration.... 
Wilcox: Yeah, he's declaring freedom that he can't have. 
Booth: That he can't have, that nobody can have, certainly not under those circumstances. I mean Mick, I know him, he's my friend, we've known each other forever, but he has written some very bad songs, and he's quite willing to do them, you know?
~~

Scroll ahead thirty years. The Stones are touring the globe on their enormous Voodoo Lounge Tour that begins in January in Mexico City and ends in August in Rotterdam, Holland. Between July 23 and 26 they duck into Estudios Valentim de Carvalho in Lisbon, Portugal to record a handful of songs, including a reworking of "I'm Free." Brian Jones's been dead for nearly three decades. Mick Taylor's long gone. Bassist Bill Wyman is out, Daryl Jones is in. In the studio, the band's joined by longtime side musicians Chuck Leavell on keyboards and Bernard Fowler and Lisa Fischer on backing vocals. Eager to give the next inevitable concert album a twist, the band is re-recording old tunes and a few blues covers in quiet, acoustic-based arrangements, their take on a "unplugged" release. (In According to the Rolling Stones, Watts remarked that the resulting album, Stripped, is "the best-played record we've made for years," citing in particular the rework of "Not Fade Away" as "fantastic.") This take on "I'm Free," cut thirty years after the original, rolls smoothly, without much point, impressively played given the fact that the band hadn't been featuring it on the tour. Watts and the band now roll effortlessly into and out of the bridge, Leavell's organ and Fowler and Fischer's vocals contributing a lilting swing to the song. The guitar solo, played bitingly in the original, meanders, half-interested.

What's at stake? Not much. Culturally irrelevant, the performance encounters little that pushes back against it, the freedoms that Jagger sings about now permanently his, in no danger of being snatched away by the establishment, The Man, a clinging girl, mom and dad, whoever Jagger was nose-thumbing when he first sang the song at the age of twenty-one, the age of many of the students in my classroom. In '95, a millionaire many times over, secure and positioned and surrounded my creature comforts, Jagger may well have been considerably freer than during his band's first few years, but his boasts of independent liberty and taking-what's-mine sneer are affected, applied like stage makeup, essentially meaningless in that there's little in his public life, at least, to argue against his bragging. He's playacting at swagger, with none of the dangers of earlier decades at his heels. Criminal? Hardly. A good tune's a good tune, goes the old song. The band's allowed to play and release whatever they want. I can buy it, listen to it, or not. That it's impossible to hear the same things in these two versions of "I'm Free" says a lot about the Rolling Stones and the passing of time, and yet right now someone is writing a song or a rap or a street poem, banging a tune together with a band or a lone guitar or a mixing board, and boasting about grabbing at freedoms just out of their reach, feeling not safe but endangered, and dangerous. Free to sing their song, get what they want, that old story which matters tremendously every time and everywhere it's told. The journey that will change that song's meaning among shifting contexts will start anew. What will the next thirty years have to say about that?

Stripped (1995)
~~

I can't resist: in 2006 a handful of DJs and musicians, including Moby, DJ Shadow, and Jellybean, remixed "I'm Free" in support of the Stones' Beacon Theater show, and, unsurprisingly, the song soon found its licensed way into other money-making endeavors. It was used in a U.K. commercial for a Renault SUV and, most ironically, in a television commercial for the Chase Freedom credit card, the word "freedom" now laboring under the weight of numerous definitions and promises, not the least of which of being a future of sunny potential shackled to debt.

I'm free to do what I want any old time. At what cost?



The Stones in '95






Top photo of the Rolling Stones, 1965, Masons Yard by Gered Mankowitz via Taschen

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Desire, struggle, and acceptance

Jerry Lee Lewis turns 84 today. Here's a triptych.


She Still Comes Around (To Love What's Left Of Me) (1969)


In Loving Memories: The Jerry Lee Lewis Gospel Album (1971)


Mean Old Man (2010)

Saturday, September 28, 2019

And on the other side of town...

Dave Alvin and John Prine
Two songs. Two fucked up couples. And two wildly different fates.

Such is the human condition. The great songwriters John Prine and Dave Alvin have made careers by weaving their stories with a fiction writer's eye for detail and for the great themes of being alive as dramatized in ordinary folk leading ordinary lives. I first heard Alvin's "Wanda and Duane" the mid-1990s via Marshall Crenshaw's rollicking version on his album Marshall Crenshaw Live...My Truck Is My Home. It's pretty clear what drew Crenshaw to the song, who knows a good one when he hears it: the title couple's characterized so memorably and artfully with just a few trenchant details, and the whole sorry story swings.  

Their tale: Wanda meets Duane in a bar "next to an industrial park." He doesn't dig her clothes but "she felt real good in the dark." After only a few dates they shack up at Duane's place ("on the second floor next to the 605 freeway"), and fuck all morning, afternoon, and evening. Alas, he soon gets sick of her voice, she of his breath, and the final act dawns much sooner than either hoped or expected. They give it a try: she joins a gym and thinks of stepping out, but doesn't have the nerve or the courage to act; he smokes three packs a day and falls for the girls in his dirty mags. She thinks: Maybe someday I'll blow out that door and I won't blow back again—he thinks: Maybe someday I'm gonna jump out this window and I won't say goodbye when I leave. The kicker:
Well, ain't it a shame, but there ain't no one to blame
when love just slips away and only the lovers remain
So the names have all been changed to protect Wanda and Duane
Meanwhile, on the other side of town you'd be forgiven if, peering nosily into the window of another joint, you figured you're watching another couple go under. He bitches that she don't like her eggs "all runny," thinks crossin' her legs "is funny," scoffs at money, and gets down like the Easter Bunny. Her turn: nope, they haven't gotten it on in a long time, and one day she caught him sniffing her underwear. Oh and he drinks beer "like it's oxygen." His turn again: she thinks that his jokes are cheesy, and get this, movies about convicts turn her on; she puts ketchup on her breakfast and swears like a sailor when she shaves her legs. But he's a "whacked-out weirdo and a love bugged junkie." When his paycheck arrives he howls at the moon.

Yet unlike Wanda and Duane, neither is gonna ever let the other go:
In spite of ourselves we'll end up a-sittin' on a rainbow
Against all odds, honey we're the big door-prize
We're gonna spite our noses right off of our faces
There won't be nothin' but big ol' hearts dancin' in our eyes
I love these two songs immoderately: each is funny, sad, brutal, and hummable. What more can you ask for in a song? "Wanda and Duane" appears on Alvin's second solo album Blue Blvd, released in 1991, and in his gruff manner, Alvin sings about the couple with affection and knowing sympathy. (Check out Crenshaw's live version if you like your vocal with some sweetening.) He seems baffled but shruggingly OK about the couple's fate, recognizing the way men and women pull apart in mysterious but sorrily inevitable ways. Their story's sad, but so common it's like the weather: if you don't like it, wait, and the sun will be around eventually, and then gone again. It's that elemental, that unavoidable. That humbling.

Meanwhile, Prine and his partner Iris Dement sing in the first-person, and their rustic intimacy makes the couple's love-against-odds all the more graphic and beautiful. "In Spite Of Ourselves" is, I feel, one of the great love songs of our era. It's the title track of and sole original on Prine's terrific album of duets he released in 1999—he also sings with, among others, Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood, Melba Montgomery, Emmylou Harris, Dolores Keane, and Patty Loveless—and so effortlessly catches, in its wry details and characterful touches, a partnership strengthened by the pull of opposites, a winking recognition that bitching and moaning and pulling faces at your partner's shitty habits might mask a genuine tenderness and frankly vulnerable admission that you want and need that person beyond all else. Love: it's complicated. As in so many of the great songs, Prine and Alvin sketch a dimensional portrait of men and women in just a few words, a clutch of smart, catchy phrases, and a melody, and by the time the chorus comes 'round again the second time, the discoveries inside are only bigger and even more affecting. "Wanda and Duane" isn't a love song, though it's kind of an anti-love song; anti-heroes abound in "In Spite of Ourselves," but they'll both improbably ride into that sunset together, snortin' and cussin' but lovingly side-eyeing all the way. Life is surprising and funny and unpredictable, and these songs sing that so well.



~~

Here's the great pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Green's instrumental version of "Touch My Heart" (written by Aubrey Mayhew and Johnny Paycheck, and first cut by Ray Price in 1966, who had a hit with it; Paycheck cut his version a year later). It's got lyrics, yet not here. Take a listen. What story, what messy life, do you hear this song scoring?

Friday, September 27, 2019

"Why are they so happy?"

Redd Kross
DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—"These guys are too happy! Why are they so happy?" That's drummer Dale Crover in Born Innocent, a (hopefully) forthcoming Redd Kross documentary, quoting a member of Nirvana skeptical of Redd Kross' undeniable joie de vivre under swirling colorful lights. That brand of irrepressible fun and funny hook-laden glam pop rock and roll was on loud display last night at The Metro in Chicago. What a blast these guys are, and what showmen—they're why I go out to see bands. Dipping into albums spanning their long career, Redd Kross offered tight but swinging songs, supremely well played, that call to my mind the loudest and best of Cheap Trick and Hoodoo Gurus with grinning irony and irresistible energy. Bass player Steve McDonald, resplendent in a natty white suit and matching bass, looks a bit like Sebastian Bach and plays his long-hair like an instrument, leaping about as if on marionette strings. His Rock Star Poses are part of the fun: campy and ironic but, like everything this band does onstage, filtered through bottomless affection and the desire to have, and to spread, a lot of fun. Older bro Jeff played slashing rhythm guitar when he wasn't solo at the mike, delighted at and drifting within his own songs, singing one tune through a sheet of spangly fabric. Lead guitarist Jason Shapiro got sounds out of his Les Paul that ranged from blissy Frampton to ethereal organ to riffing Ace Freheley, and like the others couldn't seem to wipe the grin off his face. Drummer Crover nailed things down with muscular aplomb.

The exquisite "Jimmy's Fantasy" soared, and material from the band's latest, Beyond The Door, rang out as sharply and memorably as anything they've released, especially "The Party Underground" and "Fighting," the melodies' sheen nearly peeling off from the band's hi-watt wattage attack. My fave performance of the night was "Stay Away From Downtown," from 2012's Researching The Blues, the hooky, singalong chorus of which is as much a party invitation as a warning. But the supreme highlight was the band's glorious cover of the Beatles' "It Won't Be Long," which they slowed down a bit, the melody revealed as all the more aching for that small twist in the arrangement, an old song made new, its promises as urgent on the floor of the beery Metro as they were in the EMI studios nearly sixty years ago. You're coming home, indeed.

~~

Redd Kross opened for the venerable Melvins, a band I respect but who aren't my thing; I'll leave commentary to those who genuinely dig them. (The bands are together on an "Escape From L.A. Tour." Bassist McDonald played with Melvins, as does Crover; manful double-duty for both—McDonald changed into a new, equally splendid, suit for his second job.) The intense Buzz Osborne gets ferocious, mammoth tones from his guitar—imagine the roar of a collapsing mountain—yet I was as interested in the girl in front of me who braved the duration of the bro-bullying mosh pit as I was in the songs. The night was made sweetly, gloriously complete when Jeff McDonald and Shapiro came back onstage at the close of Melvins' set; teasing first with a couple bars from KISS' "Do You Love Me," the bands ripped into an absolutely stomping version of "Deuce" (here they are in Santa Ana, CA a couple weeks back). Crover nailed the show shut with the opening staccato of "Love Gun," which, alas, the super group onstage left unplayed. What a fun, loud night.





Thursday, September 19, 2019

Prolonged and glittering

In honor of Roger Angell's 99th birthday, a paragraph from his piece "La Vida," which appeared in his 1988 book, Season Ticket. “Baseball is not life itself, although the resemblance keeps coming up. It’s probably a good idea to keep the two sorted out,"
but old fans, if they’re anything like me, can’t help noticing how cunningly our game replicates the larger schedule, with its beguiling April optimism; the cheerful roughhouse of June; the grinding, serious, unending (surely) business of midsummer; the September settling of accounts, when hopes must be traded in for philosophies or brave smiles; and then the abrupt running-down of autumn, when we wish for—almost demand—a prolonged and glittering final adventure just before the curtain. 
I made certain to give Roger the last word in my book, No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and Life in Baseball Writing:
I’m not retired, which is good. So I’ll keep at it. There will always be obituaries. At my age you write a lot of farewells.

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Saturday, September 14, 2019

Minor griefs, cont'd

For a few years after high school I worked at Baskin-Robbins in Rockville, and then later Bethesda, Maryland. I dreaded the weekend afternoon shifts, always packed with customers in the warm months. Occasionally I remember, with not a little shame, a man who used to stop in—though stop in was a delicate proposition for him, as he'd only enter the store if there were no children present. On more than one occasion we'd watch as he'd walk slowly past the large store window, peer in to make sure that no children were inside (the odd grown up was fine, it seemed), shuffle toward the door, and then literally grimace in pain when an unexpected small child would bound toward the store ahead of a parent or friend. He'd beat a hasty retreat, but linger on the sidewalk, his hands in the pockets of his ill-fitting coat, and wait, with a pained expression on his face. Naturally, his weirdness became fodder for us bored and resentful teenage employees. Some of us (though not me) would openly taunt him and jeer at him, immobile on the sidewalk as if mired in glue, but I confess to silently, childishly hoping that a rambunctious kid would suddenly appear after he'd steel up the courage to enter the store. The plainest way I can express it now is that I got off on his suffering. I was less cruel to him outwardly than some of my co-workers (and some of the customers, if I'm remembering correctly) but still I'd hate to see what my face betrayed whenever he'd show up—the four o'clock weirdo—and any measure of sympathy I might've held gave in to the much stronger, indulgent desire to rubberneck this man's strange problem. I don't think that I'll ever forget the look on his face as he loitered outside—some blend of desire, embarrassment, and genuine suffering. He really—he merely—wanted some ice cream, but for whatever reason couldn't bear to buy, let alone eat, it if kids were present. At the time we self-righteously diagnosed him as a deviant, a kind of anti-pedophile who fetishized young kids by rendering them toxic (though we were hardly this objectively "smart"-sounding in our gossiping). He looked mean but also helpless about it, and so became a butt of our jokes. Decades later I don't know what possessed this man, why he couldn't enjoy a simple tasty diversion among children, but now I'm regrettably and I think eternally sorry for him and his obvious inability to live in the world the way the world offered itself. Maybe he was a grouch, or worse a sorry and cruel man, but he was also weirdly tender and mild in his manner—yet in my childish imagination I never allowed for any other possibility but "freak." Maybe he was sad and deeply ashamed of his compulsion, and couldn't control it, was far more innocent than we imagined. Maybe he wanted to be able to be around kids, but I'll never know. I never let him in.


Photo via Villa Skaar.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

That unseen wall

I've been listening to a lot of Edwin Starr lately. Most bio sketches will observe that Starr never received the level of fame and recognition that he was due; it's true that, although everyone knows "War," not everyone knows Starr's name—he's not on par with the Smokey Robinsons and the Marvin Gayes in Tamla Motown iconography. But his voice and interpretive skills were among the strongest and most enduring that the label ever featured. A ferocious singer with controlled yet extraordinary dynamics, Starr possessed vocals that were frightening in their righteousness and power. He died in 2003.

These days I'm obsessing over the track "Time" from War & Peace, released in 1970 (co-written by Starr with Richard "Popcorn" Wylie and Wade Marcus, it was also issued as a single as the follow-up to "War")The arrangement, propelled by the peerless Funk Brothers, is a sonic illustration of form nearly conquering content. The song begins with a chiming, and charming, tick-tock over a metronomic hi-hat; horns enter in the fifth measure playing descending notes until Starr enters, looks around with disgust, and commands "Well, well, well, well well well." Pummeled by a driving, headlong, full band rush into the first verse, that clock up on the wall's destroyed—though its looming presence is never absent from the song.

Oh let me tell ya. An emboldened Starr refers to the time of the second-hand moving implacably on the clock face, yes:
Time is the one thing everybody feels
It just expires with no regards to years
but also to the time of eras and moods and movements:
They say time can bring about a change—listen!
But I ain't see a doggone thing
"That's what they tell me: It takes time," Starr laments, his patience growing thinner with each verse. The problem?
"It's in the answer," that's what people say
But it looks like peace is getting further away
"Together we stand, and divided we fall / But we are still divided by that unseen wall" is one of the great lyric couplets of the late 60s/early 70s, a devastating comment on both the potential that time offers and the speed at which time is wasted, the unseen wall created by the spin of the earth and the bigotry and short-sightedness of the folks spinning upon it. This is a seriously pissed-off song, Starr's ferocity echoed in the relentless tambourine and the fiery backing vocals, clamoring for their own attention. Starr reaches for some measure of optimism in the last verse, but it burns to a crisp, really, under the white-hot heat of his performance. Like so many great songs, the content can't bear the form, which consumes it with its own urgency. ("How much time will it take?" the song pleads.) It's amazing that the musicians cut something this combustible without burning down the studio. A positively stirring recording, it will stand as one of the most powerful songs of its era. We can't solve time, but I'm tempted to give a victory of sorts to Starr.


~~

I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that War & Peace also includes the song to turn up when you've gotten the bitterness out of your system and you're ready to party. Starr's rip through Little Willie John's "All Around The World" (an absurdly fun and funky arrangement that the Fleshtones taught me via their 1981 cover) is the perfect antidote to the grim recognitions in "Time." Fuck the clock on the wall, tomorrow will never come as long as the joint's rocking. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Wait

Given the immediacy of contemporary life—connecting on Skype across oceans in a millisecond, drones bringing food to your front door, Spotify and Wikipedia offering the largest music collection and encyclopedia, respectively, at your fingertips, instant downloads, and the rest—it feels almost morally important to get stopped every once in while at a train crossing. Happens fairly regularly in town and, though it can be mighty annoying, there's something humbling and perspective-shifting in being required to wait, to be still, to not move, to not proceed. You're in a different zone of nowness, one in which a large moving object impedes your path and there's no click or ESC button or scrolling away to save you. It sucks, and it's also marvelous.

Friday, August 30, 2019

A measure of something

The Outnumbered, ca. 1985
Sometimes a song's hook gets in your head and stay there, but not only for a that summer or that long-ago semester or that exotic vacation, but for good. The chorus of the Outnumbered's "I Feel So Sorry Now" is one of those hooks. I came across the band's terrific debut album sometime during my first year as a DJ at WMUC at the University of Maryland. I liked the label, Homestead, which had released great records by Dogmatics, Salem 66, Naked Raygun, the Flies, and Windbreakers, but also some noisy stuff that I didn't dig; happily, the Outnumbered's album was on the lo-fi, playfully reckless janglepop side of the spectrum. And I loved the album's title, Why Are All The Good People Going Crazy, which echoed my and my friends' righteous indignation at all things.

And yet I recall little of the album now but for the chorus of the opening track, which soon after I first heard it I'd hum disconsolately to myself on campus between classes, or heading over to my girlfriend's, or aimlessly walking or driving around. If rock and roll is fun songs about sad stuff, then "I Feel So Sorry Now" is Exhibit A. I played the song weekly on my radio show; the chorus got in me, stuck around, and scored my days and nights as graphically as If I'd written it myself. The four-bar, five-word-cum-singalong phrase became a kind of musical theme for my interior movie, a refrain that'd recur when I felt lonely, regretful, blue, or hopeless—in other words, just about every other day. The chorus disengaged itself from its own song and became a micro-song, all four notes and five seconds of it. Yet what's remarkable to me is that still, thirty-plus years down the line, this refrain will sound in my head in moments of duress, or panic, or emotional anxiety—shitty feelings that are hardly limited to one's twenties—a snippet of melody so deeply ingrained that it's virtually in my DNA, inseparable from my character. Musical skin that was somehow grafted on, and took. I could sing this chorus aloud and the phrase would identify me as surely as my driver's license or blood type.


This is only to say that I marvel at all of this. But why this (admittedly great) tune? Why this chorus of this song written by some record-reviewing college student down in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois? (Jon Ginoli, who wrote the song. later decamped to San Francisco and formed Pansy Division.) Who knows? Right song, right time, right sorry kid who was open to rock and roll's beautiful tendency to sing what you can't yet say, what you can only feel, to provide a recurring theme song to your interior life. I remain in awe of random melodies, sounds, and words becoming as deeply personal—and permanent—to us as our own names and body types, finally, down the years, having little to do with the source song or artist or band anymore. I'm certain that I'll find myself humming this modest, enormous chorus until my dying day. Thanks, Jon.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

No Place I Would Rather Be


If you're a fan of baseball and of the greatest living baseball writer, I hope that you'll consider my book No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing as a complement to the dog days of summer. Available at Amazon, IndieBound, and directly from University of Nebraska Press.

Some praise:
"A rich adventure."—Tom Hoffarth, fartheroffthewall.com 
"[No Place I Would Rather Be] offers a look behind the scenes of a remarkable career in a changing field."—New York Post
"In 2014, Roger Angell was in Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame to receive the J. G. Taylor Spink Award "for meritorious contributions to baseball writing." Joe Bonomo's book offers an infinite number of reasons why this honor was richly deserved. It is a book worth reading."—Richard Crepeau, New York Journal of Books 
"Of the recent books I have read about baseball, Joe Bonomo's book chronicling the career of Roger Angell, No Place I Would Rather Be is one of the best, not only for Bonomo's considerable writing skills, but also for his compelling portrayal of Angell's erudition and unique focus on the 'lesser and sweeter moments' of the sport he loves."—Jill Brennan O'Brien, America Magazine 
“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 Wa
“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 FanGraphs.com

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Unresolved

The Delta Sweete is one of my favorite Bobbie Gentry albums, and hands down my favorite of her album covers. The image of Gentry superimposed over a dilapidated backwoods shack is both of its era and timeless, a graphic illustration of the complications of homesickness, and the album's interested in that uneasy blend of sentimentality and realism. I wrote a few years ago in The Normal School that because The Delta Sweete didn’t match the commercial success of Gentry's debut Ode to Billie Joe, it’s remained a sadly underrated Americana original, an imaginative collection of linked songs about the tensions of Southern life near the close of a tumultuous decade, the bulk of it written by the Mississippi-bred Gentry. (Paired with her 1970 album Local Gentry, The Delta Sweete was reissued in 2006 by the Australian label Raven, and again last year as part of the mammoth and long overdue compilation The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters). The liner notes promised a concept of sorts, narrative songs concerning “the dust, the fragrance, the molasses, grits and grit, the love, sorrow, and the humor of the Delta country…the people, young and old, bad and good, from Monday to Sunday.” Producer Kelly Gordon and arrangers Jimmie Haskel and Shorty Rogers seemed to have had in mind a kind of pop-rococo storyscape, a yoking together of genteel and melancholy steamboat-era strings and brass with earthy, bedrock rural balladry, blues, and soul—a fascinating and illuminating blend of styles.

As with the majority of Gentry's music, the album's mysterious, and not altogether easy to dip into; there's not a killer tune like "Ode to Billie Joe" to anchor the album; rather, the tone's ruminative, kind of distracted. Generally singing low in her register and closed-miked, Gentry chases down ideas. I love the album for that blend, which is echoed in the album cover. (The photograph's credited to both Gordon and George Fields.) A pensive Gentry looms over the ramshackle, leaning structure, both present in the moment and beyond time, recollecting and revisiting. What's the look in her eyes? Regret? Relief? Acceptance? Or something else destined to remain unresolved? It's a beauty of a composition, striking but eternal, both weird and comforting. The very image of nostalgia, that perpetually conflicted desire to return to a place that really only exists in our heads and hearts, the complications smoothed over by the passage of time and the distance between now and then. What we swear we won't miss often ends up consuming us. Cue Gentry's take on "Tobacco Road," below.




Gentry, back cover

Monday, August 19, 2019

Let Me Teach You How


DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—I've been listening to and going to see Reverend Horton Heat since the 1990s, but there'd been quite a gap between my most recent show and last night's at Brauer House in Lombard. I was pleased to see that a road warriors Jim Heath and Jimbo Wallace—complemented by a new (to me) drummer and a visiting keyboard player—can still pack a joint on a Sunday night in the 'burbs, and though the lines of eternal touring and fun are showing on Heath and Wallace's faces, they performed with the same chops, humor, and aim-to-please spirit that they displayed the last time I saw them, many years ago. Heath's leaner, Jimbo's a bit fuller, and they give the impression now of gently-aging blues musicians, playing because they love to play, they love the road, and because they can fill a house on an off night. Heath's dialed back the manic sermonizing and devilish joking a bit, replacing it with an almost intimate pas de deux between his face and his guitar: he's playing as well as I've ever seen him play, the boisterousness now leavened with the eyes-closed bliss of his running leads and extended solos. (He still cracks the odd joke.) I don't know much about Heath's personal life nor how autobiographical his songs are, but you can't convince me his first and truest love isn't his gorgeous orange Gretsch 6120.

The band balanced cuts from their latest album Whole New Life ("Got It in My Pocket," "Hate to See You Cry," "Ride Before the Fall") with road-tested classics ("Psychobilly Freakout," "I'm Mad," "I Can't Surf," "Big Red Rocket of Love," "Jimbo Song," "Let Me Teach You How to Eat," the still righteously rocking "400 Bucks"), a ripping cover of "Ace of Spades" and a fun dash through "Viva Las Vegas." They played for nearly two hours, pausing for an intermission. Drummer Arjuna "RJ" Contreras, who's played in the band since 2017, is a blast: always grinning or pulling faces, he looks like a Michelin star chef and plays with real swing and power; during his "solo" late in the gig he strolled the stage, sticks in hand, and played Jimbo's prone bass, a few beer glasses, and the stage monitors as well as his own kit. About Lance Lipinsky, the keyboard player, I should say little. Though he's clearly a gifted player, his showy playing felt gimmicky to me, the last thing that this band of old veterans needs. When Heath announced that Lipinsky had played Jerry Lee Lewis in the Million Dollar Quartet, I pretty much knew what was coming: stagy playing and corny mannerisms with some solid boogie woogie riffing, though to his credit he didn't kick his stool away. (With his exaggerated pompadour he struck me as a cross between Dennis Quaid as Lewis in Great Balls Of Fire and Jean-Ralphio Saperstein from Parks and Recreation, which didn't help things.) Anyway it was my problem: props to Heath for changing things up after a few decades, and the crowd seemed to really dig Lipinsky, who knows how to play to a crowd, though his playing was unfortunately mixed low.

Mid-set, at the finish of a reworked "Five O Ford" (from 1994's Liquor In The Front) Heath looked over at Jimbo and mouthed, "What happened?" He was half-grinning, and I couldn't quite read the moment: was he frustrated by a problem-riddled performance? The song sounded great to my ears. More likely he was was asking how they can still be reinvesting this stuff so well after all these years? At the show's close, Heath announced that Jimbo was celebrating his 30th year with Reverend Horton Heat, and mock-generously offered that Jimbo would be posing for photos. The phones came out, and Jimbo looked pleased. The two hugged it out on stage, a lot of years and miles between them. Afterward I did something I rarely do. I waited until Jimbo came my direction as he was leaving the stage and, waiting my turn, shook his hand, patted him on the shoulder, and said "Congrats." I'm always down to honor Rock and Roll Lifers. Next stop: Iowa City. Then Omaha, Kansas City, St Louis, Oxford, Alabama....










Saturday, August 17, 2019

Tripping with Ellen

In the latest issue if Ugly Things, Glynis Ward speaks with Ellen Sander, a Vermont-based reporter-turned-poet who in 1973 published Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties. I certainly knew Sander's name well, as music writers I admire often cite her, but I'd never read her book until recently. (A couple of months ago Dover reissued an augmented edition of Trips; I read my university's library's copy of the original book, lamentably absent of a chapter on Plaster Caster added to the reissue.) Writing for high-circulation magazines such as Life, VogueSaturday Review and smaller publications as well, Sander was an informed, turned-on, clear-eyed reporter of the late-1960s music scene, her writing both objective and deeply personal, a blend that's catnip to me. I heartily recommend the book if you're interested in on-the-ground descriptions of rock and roll as it was in the process of becoming Rock, its mythology exploding as folk musicians and second-wave pop artists (Beatles, Dylan, Stones, Byrds, et al) were in the throes of both rolling back the limits of pop music and questioning their songs' cultural value.

In the preface, Sander admits to some disbelief that the book ever came into being. "I was merely the collector of anecdotes, the detective of revealing details, the nibbler concocting a fest of my favorite adventures, and everyone's pet road story," she acknowledges. Goaded by her pal David Crosby into collecting the pieces into a book, she soon recognized that her journalistic work told a wider story. "The result is not meant to be a reference work, comprehensive in its scope, or a rigidly detailed history," she writes. "It is a story of a time, parenthesized by ambivalence and apathy, yet bursting with energy, humor, adventure, a search for the ultimate high, a generation with an irrepressible vision, its art and artists and its audience, the substance of its statement. Most importantly, it was written in the period it describes, though published shortly after. What I have given to it—and received from it—is a sampling of the esprit of the rock and roll Sixties, a smattering of the personalities, and impressions of the impact as events were happening."

A bit later she writes:
To all the makers of myths and music and the wonderful madcap scenes surrounding them, the dazzling highs and the inevitable come-downs and the things learned in between, what follows is a love letter to you and the times we lived together. There. was a significant change in awareness during these times, and we are all of us more sensitive to one another today.  
Ellen Sander
Sander wasn't afraid to write about her own fandom and drug use, nor about the loutish behavior of some bands. At the shuddering close of "Can I Borrow Your Razor in Minneapolis," her account written for Life magazine of traveling with Led Zeppelin a U.S. tour, she's assaulted by "two members of the group" who rip her dress off of her, one of the most graphically disturbing things I've read about Rock entitlement and misogyny, and the story deserved to be printed at the time. Sander had grown close to the band in the mutually respectful, professional way that a traveling reporter can, the assault all the more confounding and heartbreaking, if grimly unsurprising, because of that. The closing sentence is striking: "If you walk inside the cages of the zoo you get to see the animals close up, stroke the captive pelts, and mingle with the energy behind the mystique You also get to smell the shit firsthand." In under forty words Sander captures the allure and darkness of rock stardom, especially as experienced by females. I doubt I'll ever forget the passage.

In "Teenism in the Fifties," another terrific read, the observations she makes about being a teenager in the 1950s, though era-specific, are eternal in their mix of frustrations, awe, and righteousness. "One day, in 'hygiene' class, the girls were shown a film on menstruation," she writes. "The same day, in 'shop,' the boys saw a film on V.D. The next day we all saw a film of Hiroshima together. I learned to menstruate and live in terror of the Bomb the same week."
The mushroom cloud flared, it rose and crested in magnificent bursts of fire and power. It was one of the most movingly beautiful sights any one of us had ever seen. Our minds broke in terror and awe. We walked out of the auditorium changed children. Our pants were hot and we were full of paranoia. The cycle of anger, fear, and rebellion had started. We’d had our illusions busted and it was only the beginning.
Later in the essay:
It struck some of us that it was their world and we didn’t care much about admittance to it. There had to be a better way and we had to find it. We looked in other directions. The only thing specifically and exclusively for us was that rock and roll. 
We trembled on the brink of self-awareness while TV, movies, rock and roll, and other media were introducing us to the shudderings of the world. The music grew louder, raunchier; dancing grew crazier and our bodies and minds convulsed in a rapturous motion that was both an escape from, and a direct response to, the precarious spasms of events. We were a generation cut off from the past by total absorption with the present. And our parents thought surely that it was a phase, that we would outgrow it.
~~

My favorite passage in the book comes in "Trips! Lights! Fantastic!", Sander's report on the late-60s L.A. scene. I'm always on the lookout for great definitions of rock and roll, which is a notoriously hard thing to categorize. Ostensibly writing about the Byrds, but by extension all rockin' bands, Sander lands on a brilliant analogy, one I'll probably always visualize when I'm turning up and grooving to some reckless R&R song that sounds as if it might fall apart in the next measure:
There was once a kiddie cartoon in which a bulldog was furiously chasing down two magpies who tormented him. They flew out a twenty-story window and he tore after them in rabid pursuit. He leaped over the windowsill and continued chasing them, hundreds of feet up in the air. All of a sudden he screeched to a stop, looked down, and growled, “This is impossible!”—at which point he went plummeting down to disaster. It’s about the same with a rock and roll group.
Sander today

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