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.

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

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."

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