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


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.
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