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, 
"[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

Sunday, August 25, 2019


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

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

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

A Day at the Park

There are few things more fun than a spontaneous, I'm-hitting-a-game-today decision, which I made yesterday following Monday night's White Sox-Astros rain delay. The impromptu 3:40 game time assured a thin turnout, but I wasn't there to see the fans (though the guy in front of me keeping score provided entertainment with his shirt alone, pictured below) but to again see Sox starter and Future Hope Dylan Cease, this time taking on the Astros' newly-acquired Zack Greinke. The Sox lost 6-2 and the game was particularly frustrating in that the pitchers' duel that I'd hoped indeed materialized—only a first-pitch homer by George Springer and Jose Altuve's muscled line-drive homer gave the Astros' their thin lead through most of the game—but Sox catcher Welling Castillo was charged with three passed balls, two of which resulted in Astros runs, and the Sox couldn't touch the trio of relievers following Greinke's departure.

Anyway, the weather was beautiful, my seats were superb, and the beer tasted great. Cease pitched well (six innings, five hits, two earned runs), I saw a loud, patented Jose Abreu run-scoring double, and my DeKalb buddy Kevin Goldstein, who's the Astros Director of Pro Scouting, emerged from his office perch to hang with me for a couple of late innings. (‪Also: cheers to the White Sox and Guaranteed Rate Field for playing Rufus and Chaka Khan’s "Tell Me Something Good" during replay reviews, which makes the process somewhat bearable.) All in all a good, late-summer day at the park. But the best part occurred before the game....


In September of 2016, Chicago-area artist and Founder and President of Arts Alive Chicago Cyd Smillie unveiled "The Leather, The Wood & The Dream," a striking mural along both walls of the 35th Street viaduct running beneath the train tracks just west of Guaranteed Rate Field. A continuation of the previous summer's "Baseball Rules" project, the mural came to life with the assistance of over three-hundred volunteers. Approaching the park, I'd driven the viaduct countless times, but yesterday finally walked it and paid closer attention to Smillie's work. It's a marvel: playful, affectionate, smart, colorful in all senses of the word, the paintings capture a blend of eternal-and-urban baseball history, a dimly-lit art gallery a block away from the park. Hanging with it up close, as loud cars and cheerful, ballpark-headed fans moved past me, turned out to be the highlight of the day. Photos and some mural details here:

Sunday, August 11, 2019

City by water

I live just beyond Chicagoland, and in all my years here have never taken a Chicago lake and river tour, dismissing it foolishly as toursit-y. With my wife's sister in town, we redressed that today, and I never realized how much I wanted to do it until I was out on the water and gazing back at an improbable cityscape. The last-leg trip along the interior river was the coolest—gliding past hulking buildings and under the din of sturdy bridges—that sensation of moving on water so different from driving or walking. There's something eternal about it, a kind of movement outside of time. I could've used some earplugs—our tour guide was loudly amplified and allergic to moments of quiet contemplation—but that might just have been me.

With all due respect to the aforementioned, well-versed guide, the best moment came near the end when a rogue two-person kayak cut recklessly in front of our boat on the river. "Gotta paddle faster!" our ship's captain commanded over his mic, then, when the kayak was safely on the other side of us, he barked loud enough for the whole Riverwalk to hear, "That was really stupid."