Thursday, October 31, 2019

In the books

I have grave reservations about the state of Major League baseball and the dubious folk in charge, but I also got out to the park this season and enjoyed myself at, the major and minor league levels, and wrote a book about the greatest living baseball writer. And yet....

So, last night it was simply nice to reflect on the pleasures and disappointments of a long season. Here are my Dad, brother Phil, his son Matthew, and me at Washington Nationals game on Father's Day in 2006 at RFK Stadium. (A young Ryan Zimmerman, in his second year, hit a game-winning homer.) Three generations of ball fans: my Dad lost both the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Washington Senators in his life, so last night’s championship was sweet indeed. Phil and his son are baseball nuts and, amazingly for a born and bred Marylander, Matthew’s a lifetime Astros fan. Not a good night for him; he and his dad fought for the lucky spot on the couch all night. He’s off to college next year.

Congrats Nats. And I’m happy for you, Dad! 

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Bah Hallows

When I was a kid—eight or nine—I went out trick or treating, trailed by an older brother and his friends. My brother warned me not to run too far ahead. I of course ignored him. No more than three houses away from my own on Amherst Avenue, at the corner, a couple of older kids wearing stocking masks jumped out from behind a tree, grabbed me and threw me down, snatched my candy and bolted. I remember my brother running to me, and laughter, but the rest of the night is lost to memory. In my many retellings down the years, to friends and acquaintances and to the ceiling at two in the morning, I ran to my bedroom soon after the incident and, embarrassed and scared and ashamed and also angry, though I'm not sure I admitted to that response yet,cried the night away. I've never gone out for Halloween since. I tried the next year, but my hands cramped up and I could barely hold the plastic jack-o-lantern basket by its handle. I told everyone that it was too cold out. In fact, I was scared.

None of this maters or is important to anyone but the spectators in my interior cinema house, which oddly entertains the same guys every night. What's interesting to me is how over the decades I've likely amplified the incident, the way memory does. Van Gogh urged artists to "exaggerate the essential and leave the obvious vague." Scary proposition, that, when one's more interested in self-mythologizing than in telling the truth. The essential that I've exaggerated is Poor Joey, assaulted on Halloween, scarred and unable to continue darting down dark streets for candy; the obvious I've left vague is that the incident was likely less harrowing than I've made it out to be, is, in fact, hackneyed. It occurred, and it sucked, but was no more than harmful than any other act of juvee misbehavior suffered by unlucky kids everywhere. I used it as a pitying excuse to call attention to myself every October, and what's strange and not a little unnerving is that I now identify as a Not A Halloween Guy. I still love giving out candy at the door (though sadly the demographic in our neighborhood now skews toward retirees or the near-to, not young families), still turn up "Monster Mash," but I gave up on Halloween parties in college and later, and hardly revel in this time of year as millions of others do, virtually and otherwise. It's become a perverse identity, likely bound to issues I have with socializing, joining, wearing costumes—integral, melancholy aspects of my personality, all.

Careful what you wish for, Poor You, as you mythologize your origin story. You might end up missing a lot of fun as you grow to recognize the limits of self-pity. Bah Hallows.

Sad Pumpkin by Michelle Milla via flickr.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Ignore everything

Really, little needs to be written about the Rolling Stones anymore (Mike Edison's forthcoming book excepted!) yet I'm always open to surprises, and when the most recent unbidden Stones immersion called unto me, I obeyed.

I've been re-reading Keith Richards's superlative Life, struck again by its humor, honesty, and surprisingly clear-eyed take on the epic sweep of his experiences. Dope was Richards's religion, or the religion that chose him. From the late 1960s to roughly 1980 Richards was a functioning heroin addict, the drug like the weather around him, both a taken-for-granted presence, easy to ignore, and the very atmosphere necessary for his survival. He writes about his addiction as one might write about living with a physical handicap, or tending a large estate for a living: it was his defining identity, and his job, and he took it seriously and not without some measure of self-reflection. Maintaining as lifestyle. Richards's passages on dope's appeal and its sly but ultimate stranglehold on him, and his various attempts to turn it away for good (but how do you keep out the weather?) are among the greatest that I've read in the long tradition of drug literature written by musicians. That image of the purest of pure dope in the safe behind the wall, and Richards waking up with bloody fingernails after having spent the night clawing the wall to get at that phantom safe, while remembering none of it, is chilling, and only one of several harrowing episodes he confesses.

But I was also reminded that Richards's best writing in Life comes when he holds forth on his other consuming passion. I'm always on the lookout for great definitions of notoriously-hard-to-define rock and roll, and Life delivers. On the mystery of rhythms and evocations in song:
There’s something primordial in the way we react to pulses without even knowing it. We exist on a rhythm of seventy-two beats a minute. The train, apart from getting them from the Delta to Detroit, became very important to blues players because of the rhythm of the machine, the rhythm of the tracks, and then when you cross onto another track, the beat moves. It echoes something in the human body. So then when you have machinery involved, like trains, and drones, all of that is still built in as music inside us. The human body will feel rhythms even when there’s not one. Listen to “Mystery Train” by Elvis Presley. One of the great rock-and-roll tracks of all time, not a drum on it. It’s just a suggestion, because the body will provide the rhythm. Rhythm really only has to be suggested. Doesn’t have to be pronounced. This is where they got it wrong with “this rock” and "that rock.” It’s got nothing to do with rock. It’s to do with roll.
Great stuff. Writing about his band's peak years in the late-1960s and early-70s as songs came pouring out, sinewy and dimensional, Richards boasts, "We felt then that it was impossible that we couldn’t come up with something every day or every two days that was what we did, and even if it was the bare bones of a riff, it was something to go on, and then while they were trying to get the sound on it or we were trying to shape the riff, the song would fall into place of its own volition."
Once you’re on a roll with the first few chords, the first idea of the rhythm, you can figure out other things, like does it need a bridge in the middle, later. It was living on a knife edge as far as that’s concerned. There was no preparation. But that’s not the point; that’s rock and roll. The idea is to make the bare bones of a riff, snap the drums in and see what happens. And it was the immediacy of it that in retrospect made it even more interesting. There was no time for too much reflection, for plowing the field twice. It was “It goes like this” and see what comes out. And this is when you realize that with a good band, you only really need a little sparkle of an idea, and before the evening’s over it will be lat beautiful thing.
He describes the composition of his signature song, "Happy," as purely accidental—most of the band weren't even around to cut it, as the unbidden song came in a burst. "Great songs write themselves," Richards remarks. "You’re just being led by the nose, or the ears. The skill is not to interfere with it too much. Ignore intelligence, ignore everything; just follow it where it takes you. You really have no say in it, and suddenly there it is: 'Oh, I know how this goes,' and you can’t believe it, because you think that nothing comes like that. You think, where did I steal this from? No, no, that’s original—well, about as original as I can get. And you realize that songs write themselves; you’re just the conveyor."

Ignore intelligence. That phrase should be emblazoned on guitar cases everywhere. "When you’re listening to music, you can tell how much calculation has gone into it and how much is free-flow," he continues. "You can’t do the free-flow all the time. And it’s really a matter of how much calculation and how little you can put into it. Rather than the other way round."
Well, I’ve got to tame this beast one way or another. But how to tame it? Gently, or give it a beating? I’ll fuck you up; I’ll take you twice the speed I wrote you! You have this sort of relationship with the songs. You talk to the fuckers. You ain’t finished till you’re finished, OK? All that sort of shit. No, you weren't supposed to go there. Or sometimes you’re apologizing: I'm sorry about that. No, that was certainly not the way to go; Ah, they're funny things. They’re babies.
Let's eavesdrop on Richards ignoring intelligence while letting "Happy" happen:

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Where we want to be

"Much is expected of the World Series," said Roger Angell.

This year I feel as excited about a Series matchup as I have in a long time. Stellar pitching down the rotation, stout defense, and potentially explosive bats on each side. I'm pulling for the Nationals for my long-suffering Dad and MD/DC friends' sake, though I can see the Astors taking it, also. (I've got friends on that side of the aisle, also.) I can't predict an October marvel like the sixth game of the '11 Cardinals/Rangers World Series, in which the Rangers were twice one strike away from winning the Championship—Angell's excitable game notes below—but we can expect a well-played, competitive series. 

Nats in seven.

Read all about Angell's World Series writing in No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Old news

Yesterday in my creative nonfiction workshop a student offered that the ending of Joan Didion's essay "In Bed," felt clichéd. We'd been having a lively discussion, and he seemed hesitant to bring up the observation. I got it. These are accomplished essays we're reading; some of them are "famous." How can they be clichéd? I found myself at first hesitant to agree with my student, but then realized, on site, well, yeah, sure, we're all big fat clichés, Joan included. That is: our discoveries and epiphanies, those cloud-parting moments that startle and sometimes redeem us, and that drive us to write or exclaim to our friends or take a solitary walk or stare at the ceiling were experienced by someone else yesterday, a decade ago, a hundred years ago.... We're all really just enacting the myth journey of humankind, with tweaks here and there given our cultural or gender identities, perhaps, or membership in groups—say, family—with rapidly shifting definitions. But even those twenty-first century identities will soon be stepping through the same old stories.

In the essay Didion's describing one of her debilitating migraine headaches, and the "usefulness" that follows the agony once that agony lifts: a reawakening to the beauty of the ordinary, ignored world. "For when the pain recedes, ten or twelve hours later, everything goes with it, all the hidden resentments, all the vain anxieties," she writes.
The migraine has acted as a circuit breaker, and the fuses have emerged intact. There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria. I open the windows and feel the air, eat gratefully, sleep well. I notice the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. I count my blessings.
Cliché? OK. The paradox of art-making, I guess: what's old feels new. The blessed relief for Didion and the surprising revelation that pain might have a use beyond torturing us sure didn't feel hackneyed to her when she experienced them, and, moved, felt compelled to write about it. Here's another cliché: all clichés originate in head-lifting moments from somewhere in the eternal past. And though my experience is no more unique than yours, my epiphanies feel like breakthroughs, sudden insights, that are mine only. Until I look around. But still, it keeps us writing, talking, rushing to someone to share the news. That old cliché.

Photo via pinterest.

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 an in-joke. Yet led by Mick Jagger's cool and the sunny drone of Keith Richards's and Brian Jones's guitars and 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 lay 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. Speaking on camera during that Irish tour, Brian Jones described fame as a "first-class ticket" and then lamented, "On the other hand, there's not much physical freedom. We have to choose very carefully where we go, where we socialize, where we go for holidays, because of our peculiar sort of success." 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. (Jones died on July 3.) 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!'"

Booth 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'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.

Stripped (1995)

What's at stake? Not much. Floating pleasantly atop its cultural irrelevance, 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?


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 contradictions and 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