Thursday, January 31, 2019

At what cost

On the one hundredth anniversary of Jackie Robinson's birth, it's worth revisiting Roger Angell's unsettling 2013 memory of Robinson in a "mid-game moment at the Polo Grounds in June or July of 1948," the infielder's second year in the Major Leagues. Angell was at the Polo Grounds "sitting in a grandstand seat behind the third-base-side lower boxes, pretty close to the field, there as a Giants fan of long standing but not as yet a baseball writer."
Never mind the score or the pitchers; this was a trifling midseason meeting—if any Giants-Dodgers game could be called trifling—with stretches of empty seats in the oblong upper reaches of the stands. Robinson, a Dodger base runner, had reached third and was standing on the bag, not far from me, when he suddenly came apart. I don’t know what happened, what brought it on, but it must have been something ugly and far too familiar to him, another racial taunt—I didn’t hear it—that reached him from the stands and this time struck home.
From his vantage point Angell couldn't hear Robinson either, but noticed that "his head was down and a stream of sound and profanity poured out of him. His head was down and his shoulders were barely holding in something more."
The game stopped. The Dodgers’ third-base coach came over, and then the Giants’ third baseman—it must have been Sid Gordon—who talked to him quietly and consolingly. The third-base umpire walked in at last to join them, and put one hand on Robinson’s arm. The stands fell silent—what’s going on?—but the moment passed too quickly to require any kind of an explanation. The men parted, and Jackie took his lead off third while the Giants pitcher looked in for his sign. The game went on.
Angell can't remember who won or lost the game, but that image of a beleaguered, exhausted, pushed-to-the-limit Robinson on the field—an "infinitesimal mid-inning tableau"—remained with him for decades, "quickly resurfacing whenever I saw Jackie play again, in person or on TV . . . and then again on the day he died, in 1972."
He was fifty-three years old but already white-haired and frail. We all knew his story by heart, of course, and took a great American pride in him, the very first black player in the majors: a carefully selected twenty-eight-year-old college graduate and Army veteran primed and prepped in 1947 by Dodger President Branch Rickey, who exacted a promise from him that he would never respond, never complain, never talk back, no matter what taunts or trash came at him from enemy players out of the stands.
This small, nearly soundless moment that Angell witnessed was replayed over many games in Robinson's career, in far less hospitable places than upper Manhattan. An observer, Angell sees this but can only store it away, and then report, and reflect. Robinson was a remarkably courageous man.

Angell adds: "He did us proud, but at a cost beyond the paying."

Jackie Robinson, first baseman of the Brooklyn Dodgers, returns an autograph book to a fan in the stands, during the Dodgers' spring training in Ciudad Trujillo, now Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, on March 6, 1948. (AP Photo)

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Trapped and free

As I write this it's nineteen degrees below zero in DeKalb, up six whole degrees from this morning. I've been teaching Robert Vivian's Cold Snap As Yearning, having providentially discussed the title essay just the other day. In it, Vivian describes a snow day when he was eight years old in rural Nebraska, and the joyous liberation that we all know and love. "School had been canceled," he writes. "The city shut down to its minimum capacities, nothing moved on the road outside our house, no lone figure made its way anywhere except in rooms similar to ours, shuffling like us in wool socks and slippers, like us simultaneously trapped and free inside our homes."
The radio was on, announcing shut-downs. The Czech Society would not meet at five o'clock; the girls' choir at Duchense Academy would reschedule for practice for Thursday the fifteenth, weather permitting—call for further details. The litany was endless, and very delicious. How could you argue with the perfection snap? On a day like this you stay inside and sleep in, read a book, or otherwise laze about the house, looking at pictures or soaking in the bathtub. Everything else is frozen and dead. It is a brief and necessary quarantine.
He begs his mom to let him out in the snow, and she eventually relents, He dresses "like an astronaut" and heads for a power plant at the far end of the park across from his house—a continent-sized journey for an eight year-old in the snow. He finds a spot near a chain-link fence and hunkers down, on his back. A couple decades later, he writes:
How often do we know we are alone, not the alone of self-pity and  pathos, but the shattering alone in a place that is placeless, in a world beyond our knowing? I am eight years old and know nothing, and it takes my breath away; and then something is revealed to me in the cusp of cold wind through branches, though I cannot say what it is. Silence and cold and wind blowing, the via negativa of coming briefly to the end of my chain, not straining at all in felt emotion: the zero where I become nothing in watching the blanked-out sky, the whisper of the wind through branches that are the difference between seeing and being.
Time to head back home, and "hauled back to the world of the living by one tiny, invisible thread" Vivian's "conscious again" and dying for some cocoa, his wool mittens chafing his wrist. The actual world, where our imagination has less currency. The inevitable: "I squirm and discover that this much snow and this much cold is suddenly unbearable:"
whatever spell I was under is broken, it's over now, broken, time to go home, dry my things by the fire, try to remember what just happened, though it will take twenty years to make any kind of sense of it, one moment of eternity where l stood outside time and gazed at the sky and found it unbearably peaceful because I was not myself or anyone in the snow but a witness to what I still do not have the words to say.
I say goodbye to all that. I heard the monosyllabic moan of nature and found there was a place for all of it, my breathing, those branches, the cold and the snow, the sky beyond them white in every molecule, that all of these are still valid now and forever though the meaning is not clear. In fact there is no meaning but emptiness, and this emptiness saves me for one split second of my life that will carry me for years—has carried me, in fact, to this very sentence at the beginning of the new millennium.

Monday, January 28, 2019

"No more honest trash": Cohn, ctd.

More on-the-ground reporting from the great Nik Cohn in Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock, first published in 1970. The argument that the Beatles did more harm than good to rock and roll is an old and, depending on your quarters, sacrilege stance. Here's Cohn making the argument on the cusp of the 1970s. Characteristically, his writing's arch and sweepingly general, yet authentic, and stuffed with evocative (maybe even persuasive) details. He begins with a killer description and defense of the energy in pop and rock and roll: "In the end, the way I like it best, pop is teenage property and it mirrors everything that happens to teenagers in this time, in this American twentieth century," he observes.
It is about clothes and cars and dancing, it’s about parents and highschool and being tied and breaking loose, it is about getting sex and getting rich and getting old, it’s about America, it’s about cities and noise. Get right down to it, it’s all about Coca Cola.
When they started, the Beatles were about that, too, Cohn remarks, and "they had gimmick haircuts, gimmick uniforms, gimmick accents to prove it. They were, at last, the great British pop explosion and, even when their songs were trash, you could hear them and know it was mid-twentieth century, Liverpool U.S.A., and these boys were coke drinkers from way back."

Spiked with Scotch, cheers, but point well taken. Yet of course the Beatles changed and, "because they were so greatly worshipped by the rest of pop, almost every group in the world changed with them. Thereafter, there was no more good fierce and straight-ahead rock ’n roll, no more honest trash."
At least, with the Beatles, there remained a certain wit and talent at work but, with their followers, there was nothing beyond pretension. Groups like Family and the Nice in England, or Iron Butterfly or the Doors in America, were crambos by their nature and that was fine—they could have knocked out three-chord rock and everyone would have been content. But, after the Beatles and Bob Dylan, they’ve turned towards culture and wallowed in third-form poetries, fifth-hand philosophies, ninth-rate perceptions.
Cohn adds: "It is hardly their fault, you could hardly blame them directly; but the Beatles brought pop to its knees." He ends with a brilliant cinematic moment involving the great songwriter and producer Bert Berns who, Cohn feels, "summed them up better than anyone. One afternoon, halfway through 1965, he sat in a decaying West Hempstead caff and looked gloomy over a picture of the Beatles. Then he shook his head in infinite sage sadness, "Those boys have genius," he said. "They may be the ruin of us all."

Friday, January 25, 2019

Sex, and danger, and secret magic

I love reading on-the-ground reports of early rock and roll. These paragraphs from Nik Cohn's introduction to his Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock, first published in 1970, capture the heady thrill of one kid's immersion in sound and spectacle. Cohn grew up in Ireland, and as he puts it, rock was the main reason he left. "My own raising had been in the Protestant section of Derry, where Bill Haley and Elvis were not mentioned. Then one evening  I’d gone astray; found myself on the fringes of Bogside, the Catholic slum. Across the street I had heard Little Richard singing Tutti Frutti on a coffee-bar jukebox. Watched the local teen hoods—Teddy Boys, they were called—with their duckass haircuts and drainpipe jeans, jiving in plain day. Had my first glimpse of sex, and danger, and secret magic. And I had never been healthy since."

More than a decade on, Cohn wonders what was so "overwhelming" about the Teds. "Glamour, yes, and wildness. But something else besides, which stirred me even deeper—the force of self-invention."
By all the logics of birth—religion, politics, economics—these boys were nothing. Papist scum, delinquent flotsam and jetsam, with no future or hope. Yet that wasn’t the way they strutted. Through the power of rock, they seemed transformed into heroes. In every flash of fluorescent sock or velvet cuff, every leer and flaunt of their pompadours, they beggared the fates. Made reality irrelevant. 
It was a seductive picture.
It was, in fact, irresistible. Cohn was ten-years-old at the time—remember ten-years-old—a self-described "weakling, class clown, mamma’s boy, and all-around loser," and these Teds—more precisely their daring and preposterous self-assurance scored by the liberating, dangerous mania of Little Richard—amounted to Cohn to "nothing less than a second coming."

Here comes the kicker: "From then on," Cohn continues, "I had no space or patience for my real self. What consumed me was a movie: Nik Cohn, Man or Myth?" I'm moved by Cohn's description of his new birthright, and the sudden lurches in his identity. You can hear the gears moving. He didn't know the words "politics" or "low ceiling" at ten, but he felt them. Cohn's book is full of errors, and in his introduction he acknowledges as much, claiming that what he was after when writing the book in the late 1960s was not accuracy but "guts, and flash, and energy, and speed." And we can dryly remind ourselves that his adolescent epiphany was vouchsafed in part by his privilege, both of gender and race. But that doesn't detract from the force in the palpable details of his very political awakening.

Here's the new dilemma: If Cohn's self isn't real, or if his real self is subjugated, erased, by this new spectacle of a future and the joyful sounds elevating and narrating it, then what's left? If you've found a new, surprising way to resist all the logics of birth, then what lies ahead? That delicious problem is what rock and roll creates. "Easy enough to snigger now," Cohn sighs, "from this safe and sober distance."
At the time, however, my belief was absolute, unquestioning. I lost myself in Elvis, whom I took as my personal saviour. Hoarded pulp fanzines, publicity glossies, scratched and warped old 78s. Snuck into banned films and stole dirty books.
Cohn, 2011

Photo of Portsmouth Teddy Boys, 1955 via The Edwardian Teddy Boy; photo of Nik Cohn via The New York Times

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Minor Griefs

Today in class I called on a student sitting next to me in the circle. She had obviously zoned out, and, flustered, took a requisite glance down at her book before admitting that I'd caught her off guard and could I come back to her. Hardly a thing, and yet during the end-of-class writing as the students were drafting in their notebooks I thought back to a time in college. During her Modern Lit course, Dr. Susan Lombardi called on me to respond to a fellow student's observation. I'd zoned out, thinking probably of what song I'd lead off my radio show with that week, and in the panicky moment that followed I realized that she'd asked me to respond because the student had said something, thoughtful I'm sure, about a comment I'd made a while earlier. The professor was pleased at the discussion, and rightly felt that I'd be pleased also that my observation had inspired another student. I stared at my teacher dumbly, looked down, asked her to come back to me, and glimpsed what I was sure was a shadow of disappointment on her face. This small and insignificant humiliation was compounded by the fact that earlier that semester I'd naively, and no doubt incorrectly, used the word "Deconstruction" in class, and in the hallway a few days later Leonardi stopped me and invited me to her office because she had a book on Postmodern theory she thought I might like. I never went, for a million petty reasons.

I've always wanted to apologize to Dr. Leonardi for my lameness in class, for my ungenerous response to the respect she showed me. I went so far as to compose an email to her years later, and discovered that she'd left academia and was living somewhere in northern California. If my student were to track me down in the future and apologize for her utterly insignificant distracted moment in class, I'd assure that I knew just how significant it felt to her.

Above: Pierre Bonnard, Children Leaving School (ca. 1895)

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Hot Stove

My buddy Charlie sent me this surprise gift, a perfect snow-day diversion. After lunch Amy and I rolled the dice and played a swift inning, getting into game shape. I was the home team, and induced two pop outs and struck out a batter, leaving a runner, who'd singled, on base. In the bottom half my team took advantage of shaky starting pitching: a lead-off single, two wild pitches, each advancing a runner, a two-run homer, a single, a walk, another single scoring the runner from second, a pop out, and merciful (for Amy) strike out. After an inning of play, 3-0 Joe.

Game was then interrupted by a nap.

Pitchers and catchers report in two and half weeks. Allegedly.

Friday, January 18, 2019

The little (7-inch) things in life

On the occasional weekend in the early 80s my high school buddies David P. and Steve N. and I would head down to the long-gone bar The Company in Georgetown, in Washington D.C.. (As David reminded me recently, they never carded.) There, local singer and songwriter Dennis Jay would set up a couple rickety tables near the back on which he'd stack numerous boxes of old 45s next to a turntable. The place was a quasi-Mod hangout on these nights—it may have been advertised as such, the DJ specializing in 60s R&B, Northern Soul, and Who/Kinks/Small Faces jams—and in the dark I'd secretly admire the sharper-dressed guys, those who genuinely leaned into the period look and style, removing their parkas after having alighted from scooters parked out front on M street. I'd wear a skinny tie and thrift shop sport jacket, trying my best.

I went to The Company less for the scene than for the music. Jay was an older guy, quiet and unassuming with a shy smile, a slight physique, and thinning hair, but he exuded timeless cool, not the least of which for his encyclopedic knowledge of rock and roll and rhythm and blues. (I equated him in this way with Weasel, my favorite DJ at WHFS who I listened to daily.) He eventually began to recognize me and my friends (though perhaps I'm embellishing this in my memory) and knew sometime after we'd arrived that I'd request the song that I came for, the Kinks' "I Need You," a tune I was obsessed with but hadn't been able to track down despite countless visits to local record stores, used book stores, and thrift shops. I'll never forget the knowing look in the DJ's eyes, and the thrill of hearing the opening, slashing chord on that lovingly weathered 45 as it played, the room dark but the song almost visible in its energy and groove, a crackling perpetual motion machine that made my beery night. Those weekends with the Kinks' 45s were indelible. I play them again and again in my head.

The other day, after teaching, I dropped in to my local record store, got down on the floor with a bunch of dusty boxes, spent an hour and six bucks, and came home with a clutch of random singles that will give me deep pleasures for the rest of my life (seen below). This bulletin is nothing more than a reminder at the miraculous 45: three or so minutes of guaranteed life enhancement.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Waiting for the all-clear

Dawn Marrano's "Fallout," excerpted from her essay "The Half of It" and reprinted in In Brief, is a terrific evocation of mid 20th-century nuke paranoia, with references to "clouds over Nippon" and Hoovers. But "The memorable not place- or time-bound," Joyce Carol Oates notes. "It survives the occasion of its original composition." Marrano's really writing about family, belonging, and desire, eternal subjects.

Bomb-spooked, Marrano's father is digging a fallout shelter in the back yard, and she's instructed to tell her friends that he's building a swimming pool. No problem! Marrano revels in her new-found neighborhood popularity and the tantalizing possibilities of living underground, until the inevitable occurs: national paranoia recedes, the shelter's no longer needed, and Marrano's intimately imagined life and her childlike reckonings of what shelter really means are whisked away. Here are the final paragraphs:
I, of course, was too young to appreciate [her parents'] predicament. All I knew was that we had a hole in our backyard big enough to inter a woolly mammoth or two, but nobody was ever going to swim in it. By the time I learned the truth of the matter, though, it was too late: Word about the pool had made the rounds, and my name had already shot to the top of the playmate popularity charts. 
When my mother wasn't looking, I'd lie on me ground with my head over me lip of the pit, drawing in its mysterious, raw smell. The earth was dark and sodden; twisted roots appeared from unknown sources beyond our backyard walls. They reached into the great hole like fingers, seeking. I imagined my family together in the shelter with the roots folded around us, eating Campbell's soup, telling stories, waiting for the all-clear. 
Then one day without any notice, my father filled the pit in again: broken cinder blocks, broken tools, broken lawn furniture, yard trimmings. Dirt, then sod.
I love those roots emerging from beyond "backyard walls," a kind-of surreal anti-suburbia, and that brutal move from Campbell's soup to cinder blocks. The essay ends with a cutting and powerful admission: "After that, l think a part of me stopped counting on much of anything."

Photos via Timeline (top and middle) and via Pinterest (bottom)

Monday, January 14, 2019

I Lied

I've always been interested in songs that tell us what we didn't know we knew. They usually come to us in early adolescence, age 12, 13, 14, when the world's getting complicated, adults looming and oppressive, social politics maddening, and the body going its own crazy way. How to keep up? Songs often score those days poignantly, and because they get into us as we were developing, a physical and psychological sweet spot of sorts despite the chaos, they never really go away.

Today the dB's great "I Lie" came on shuffle, and it delivered me back to a different time in life. Things are complex for much different reasons in your early 20s, and the songs that soundtrack those years are no less bittersweet than the ones that move and confound you in junior high. When the dB's The Sound of Music came out in 1987, I was solidly in my college DJ groove, excited because I liked the early dB's records, especially Like This, and we were all happy that Peter Holsapple (above) and company had finally graduated to the big-time of I.R.S. Records. The album let me down a bit, mostly because of the production, against which it sounded like the band was fighting, eager to re-discover the loose-limbed sound of their early, more quirky records. "I Lie" was a single, if I'm remembering right, but I didn't have high hopes for its chart life given how utterly morose and downcast the song was, a dirge relative to the band's more idiosyncratic poppy stuff. I didn't like the synth beds or the processed drum sound, which even then I grimly recognized as necessary part of the sonic landscape if one was shooting for a million-seller. The dBs' winsome drummer Will Rigby, who always seemed to play onstage with a grin, didn't wear it well to my ears, but I knew it likely wasn't his call. 

Holsapple in 1987
Yet something in the mournful song hit me very deeply, and I played it often while driving around or on my Walkman on campus between classes, and today I realized that Peter Holsapple, in his hangdog way, was singing something that I couldn't admit to myself. I lied: to my girlfriend, to myself, sometimes to my teachers. Not earth-shattering stuff, yet when I hear the song now I realize that the melancholy and chill in my chest I felt when I listened to it at the time was the residue of a hopelessness, a discovery that I'd never be able to admit some things to myself, was just too scared and weak to, and that I'd have to wait until a song took me there, a coward's route that feels now very much like what being 21 felt like. I see my students in my classes and talk to them, and I know that many of them are struggling with the same painfully pleasurable thing, streaming, YouTube replaying, or dropping the needle: this song is saying what I won't or can't say, and isn't it a great song?

In "I Lie" what I especially love, as is the case with countless other songs, is the turn in the bridge.  Holspapple sings in the verses about all of the deception he directs at himself and others because she left him, but if he had a new girl he wouldn't lie. I sure understood that. Yet the bridge and its dark-night-of-the-soul minor key tells the truth as he wonders, Why don't I want you? Who's this "you?" The first girl or, more distressingly, the second one, the one who's supposed to fix everything? How awfully perfect: I don't want the person who I'm supposed to want. Substitute for "the person" any goal, really: sound like one's twenties? (Or later?) The sad and beautiful "I Lie" fades out with the singer asking the same, despondent question of another: why don't you want me? Man, life's a mess. Add recreational drug and alcohol abuse, the demands of work, scanning the room for identities that will fit right, and the ever widening horizon of life's small and large injustices and it's a wonder we survive at all.

I did. In song, Peter Holsapple was just braver than I was.