Thursday, December 26, 2019

All the Time, No More

Thomas "Sleepy" Paulsley LaBeef died today at the age of 84. He was a true American original. A roots rock purist, LaBeef was rightly famed for touring relentlessly for decades and for carrying around a mental songbook of thousands of songs, any one of which he could play at a request or the drop of the proverbial hat, whatever backing band he had that night both awe-struck and terrified that they'd get something wrong in the obscure song. Over the decades Sleepy cut lots of sides with lots of labels, yet he never experienced the kind of large scale commercial successes enjoyed by his epic-named contemporaries. I can't speak to the measure of peace LaBeef went away with—I can only hope that he knew how the knocked-out crowds he played for felt rich, because he was wealthy: with talent, drive, and generosity. He'll be missed. If the Mount Rushmore of Rock and Roll Founding Fathers can fit another head, it's long past time to consider a re-size.

Here's an early rave-up from '57—dig the reckless intro:

I was fortunate to have witnessed Sleepy hard at work onstage at Fitzgerald's in Berwyn, Illinois on July 3, 2013 for the American Music Festival. One night of many:

Chris Willman's obit in Variety is here.


I'll add that Peter Guralnick's profile of LaBeef in Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians is a must-read for anyone interested in La Beef's life and the desire and struggle to make and play music for a living against great and growing odds. I'm a fan of all of Guralnick's writing, but this profile of an artist toiling in obscurity is my favorite piece of his, and a formative influence on my writing, in particular Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band. I wrote a little bit about the piece here.

Top photo via Arkansas Living

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Thoughts on home

I was raised Catholic, though somewhere during my college years I became an agnostic. I fell in love with and married a casual Jew, and we don't have kids, so late December's evolved into a pretty secular and occasionally isolated time of the year. Which is fine. For decades we drove east to Maryland to visit my parents and family during this week, but last year and this year we've decided to lay low in quiet DeKalb, stoke the virtual fire of Christmas songs, a modest tree, evening drives past the more bedecked local houses, seasonal drinks with our friends. This is not to say that I don't feel the pang of absence. Christmas is a strange time of the year, a culturally-authorized period in which you're meant to be cheery, generous, and grateful for family, when in fact those good intentions often cruelly bounce off of those who don't fit the mold. What I'm really thinking about here, I guess, is what home is and what home means, and about how many people define it in ways which is in opposition to the mainstream. The pro-family small-town Midwest, where we've lived for many years, casts a long (if polite) shadow over those couples, straight or queer, who've decided not to have kids, whose home may not feature on the front of Hallmark cards or in pop-up ads. And if you're alone, by choice or by unhappy circumstance, whether you're straight or queer, or cis-gender or non-binary, married or shackin' up or single, your choice of a home—or, let's face it, where you've anyway ended up despite those choices—is entirely yours, and, I hope, is as warm and comfortable and safe and contended as those golden-hued homes of your imagination, and in movies and television ads, that you've extolled as ideal. Home is where you make it, bah humbug, what you call and define it.

As I write this, dozens of flights at O'Hare and Midway airports have been delayed or cancelled because of heavy fog; visibility's at a quarter mile. Not fun for those stranded, or for their loved ones awaiting the arrival, but as a victim of airport delays and crossed-off flights, I'm guessing that more than one of those stranded folk are using the opportunity to reflect, however unconsciously, about family and home and the ways we strive to meet the standards of both, indulging our better angels and wrestling with our worst, no less human, impulses. Everything slows down right about now. I'm gonna take a deep breath, take walks, call my folks, talk to my sibs, reads books, cranks tunes, get into the city, drink and dine with Amy, ignore the magnetic pull of the calendar, and resolve to plug into home, which after all is a place that we carry around inside of us as much as a place where we open and close doors. Happy Holidays, wherever you are, wherever, and however, you're home.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Can't stop my brain from thinking


"I've gotten my teeth chipped from people who think it's okay to slam shit in my face and tackle me. I've stepped on a lot of broken glass. I've been air punching and caught a nail in my fist from the ceiling. I've bruised the fuck out of my knees, and will probably have really bad knees in 20 years."

That's Orville Bateman Neeley III. He made these remarks five years ago, so his scars have probably only deepened. His band OBN IIIs is here because you need them. The Austin-based rock and roll group's led by Neeley (he also raises roofs in Bad Sports) and their sound cuts through the muck and the blandness, helps you press re-set, and reminds you of the elemental power of two guitars, a bass, drums, and a howler, playing loud and singing desperately about desperate stuff. (Not just "feelings." Ideas, too.) They haven't released a full-length album since 2015 and I really hope they get back at it—because I want to see 'em live, and because at their best their songs plug in to something timeless: anger and release. Who wouldn't benefit from that right about now? These days, none our brains can stop from thinking.

I'm currently obsessed with the line "I think I'm in love with the girl who does my Tarot," in "Self-Hate," from the band's 2012's self-titled album. It's so evocative that the story's all there—it could've been the title of an instrumental. The girl's not described physically, only by what she does, so the attraction comes from what she promises, from her divination skills, or her skill at bullshitting, depending—the power she possesses to make or break his future. Who wouldn't fall in love with that? But the song goes one better by hanging around long enough for the chorus, where Neeley sings "Don't want to be in love with my self-hate," which is an adult and probably a wise thing to sing. Where does she fit in? As a way out of the self-hatred maybe, with those cards, that tantalizing future. If it all sounds a bit obscure for a rock and roll song, well, OBN IIIs were listening carefully to whatever playlist was in the van on the way to the studio. It rocks.

What I love about OBN IIIs' best songs is their refusal to wallow, to sink deeper into the morass of nihilism or negativity. It's there for sure—these guys are pissed and it shows—but they also know that rock and roll is a way out, that eighth notes can lead you up as well as down. "A lot of parts of my life are really slow, boring, and lonely, actually," Neeley said in 2014. "'No Time for the Blues' is basically me saying that I have nothing to complain about. Anytime I catch myself getting down about things, I remind myself I don't have time to be upset. I just need to keep doing stuff."


In a 2015 Austin Chronicle profile of Neeley, Tim Segall writes that "Classic rock radio and [Neeley's] parents' Columbia House cassette collection stayed in heavy rotation in the family car.

"'My favorite tape was that first Boston album,' he says. 'Then, by the time I was 6, I was really getting into the Beatles and Queen. I liked the Rolling Stones, too'."
Eventually, Kiss, AC/DC, and the Cars joined Green Day in Neeley's budding tape collection, followed by Metallica, Motörhead, and Black Sabbath in eighth grade. That year, he wrote his first song on guitar, while two years' worth of savings from washing cars and mowing lawns bought his first teenage drum kit. ("It had the worst cymbals I had in my life! They broke within the first month I had them!") A ticket to the Warped Tour in 2000 finally tipped him over into punk, even if most of its bands hardly appear in his recent musical diet.
I approve of those influences. Here's some video of the guys tearing it up in the studio in 2014:

Photo via Zac Sprague

Monday, December 9, 2019

Growing Up Action Jackson

Recently, my friend Dan Epstein mentioned that he’d had a G.I. Joe growing up; I told him that I’d been an Action Jackson kid. Had we known each other as kids, the battles lines would’ve been drawn! We didn’t actually meet until 2012, and because we have so much in common—we share a deep love of music, baseball, writing, and more—Dan suggested that we each write a piece about our childhood action figures. Here’s mine. You can read Dan’s “Growing Up G.I. Joe” here. Enjoy!


Sometimes in my dark bedroom at two in the morning I'll ask myself: How would my life had been different if I’d been a G.I. Joe kid?

The fact is, I was an Action Jackson kid. Produced by Mego starting in 1972, Action Jackson allowed kids to stage all manner of high-paced derring-do in the backyard or basement or rec room. He had Adventure outfits, Military outfits, Sports outfits. Depending on which costume set your parents bought, he could be a scuba man or a secret agent, work at a rescue squad or race with a snowmobile team. I don’t recall now how he infiltrated our split-level home in Wheaton, Maryland, or why I was given him and not the more popular G.I. Joe. Did I ask for it? I’m one of six children for whom my harried parents had to buy presents at birthdays and Christmas, so it was likely a cost issue. Like the Safeway-brand Cragmont sodas that my budget-minded mom bought, I’m pretty sure Action Jackson was cheaper.

He was smallish, about eight inches high, tinier than G.I. Joe, whose strapping physique I noted at the Toys ”R” Us or in ads and in the hands of my luckier friends. A. J. was moderately handsome, the George Lazenby of action figures, though I don’t know if that made an impression on me either way as an eight-year-old. His hair “mod styled,” he came clean-shaven or with a beard. I had the bearded model, and played with him for hours. I’d been reading through the Mack Bolan Executioner series of books by Don Pendleton, so I knew a thing or two about thrilling rogue play, and I’d send A.J. careening across the skies or engage him in hand-to-hand combat with all manner of imaginary foes.

Then the Jungle House materialized under the Christmas tree. A faux bamboo and leaf hut, propped on four stilts with rope-ladder access, the House featured a crow’s nest, a telescope, a secret weapons bench, a signal-light, a radio hidden behind a sliding bookcase (!), and a trap-door floor revealed with the surreptitious twist of a tribal idol head on the floor (!!). There was a scowling ape and a bamboo cage in which to hold him once captured. (Generally, A.J. would lure the predatory ape to the trap door, and….) I loved this play set. With its spears and “Zulu” shields and other obvious appropriation of tribal exotica, I see it now, affectionately, as a relic of its era, but to a kid mesmerized by Tarzan books borrowed from the school library and Tarzan television movies on long Saturday afternoons—air-conditioned stays against the oppressive suburban summer heat outside—the Jungle House was head-liftingly fun, a beacon to my imagination. In the cool of the basement I staged many humid jungle days and nights.

Yet lingering in the back of my mind was unsettling feeling that Action Jackson was a lesser action figure. Despite the commercials crowing that “bold adventure” was his game, he was clearly inferior to the taller, more righteously-outfitted G.I. Joe, and I unconsciously absorbed that. I, too, was clearly inferior to the bigger boys in school, the ones whose reach exceeded mine, who could approximate a “Kung-Fu Grip”, and though puberty was still a few years away, the playground popularity political boundaries were already gerrymandered, lines drawn between the haves and the have-nots. I was hardly feeling bold and adventurous on my way to Saint Andrew the Apostle School each morning, but with Action Jackson I could imagine.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I got into Action Jackson as his popularity was fading. In addition to having to compete with G.I. Joe, Action Jackson had to battle the National Association of Broadcasters. As the Mego Museum website recounts, the toy line suffered a “near-fatal disaster” in 1972, the first year they advertised on television. Mego hired Mel Hellitzer Advertising; Hellitzer was an “industry hotshot at the time, and he produced a terrific series of spots for Action Jackson, spots designed to put Mego on the map and attract a lot of attention.” Unfortunately, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) took note:
The television industry at the time was self-regulated by the NAB, which had certain guidelines policing content and claims made in commercials. Though we are by now used to seeing 3D Barbies skating and swimming and strutting down runways thanks to Reagan Era deregulation, the rules used to be much different. In the seventies, one of the cardinal rules of broadcasting was that toys and dolls could not be animated or otherwise presented doing things they did not actually do in reality. Of the spots Hellitzer produced, each one was almost entirely animated with stop-motion photography.
The site adds that the NAB pulled all of the television advertisements, a move that might have devastated Mego had the toy manufacturer not managed to pre-sell units from the first round of commercials. Classic Action Jackson: limited from the outset, hemmed in by sternly unimaginative bureaucrats, left to do only what he did. I was unaware of any of this at the time, obviously, yet in retrospect it makes a kind of grim sense. A.J. could never truly compete, but in my imagination he soared. He was mine, though I also intuited that he was lesser. I wonder now if my affection for underdogs, the marginalized, and those less popular began in my identification with Action Jackson. I didn’t only get by with him, we flourished together, even as I wondered if what I was playing with was an imitation, a pretender with a low ceiling. In 1974, the Montgomery Ward's chain sold an Action Jackson figure for the rock-bottom price of 99 cents. He had two right feet. I might’ve tried to make something heroic out of that.


Of course, I wonder if I’m over-interpreting this, a toy fatefully delivered to my childhood basement. Yet small, seemingly trivial events in adolescence can have lasting impact. In his story “Rose,” Andre Dubus writes, “We like to believe that in in this last quarter of the century, we know and are untouched by everything; yet it takes only a very small jolt, at the right time, to knock us off balance for the rest of our lives.” Whether I asked for him or he arrived unbidden, Action Jackson landed in my basement. Dwarfed by G.I. Joe, he was a legend in my mind.

Eventually I outgrew Action Jackson, and he disappeared from my life. I’d often play with him with my best friend Karl, and when Karl’s family moved to Illinois in 1974 a certain era ended. I can recall dressing the doll in a white lab coat sewn by my mom for a diorama I assembled for school—he was Thomas Edison, inventing stuff. Was there anything A.J. couldn't do? For years afterward I found evidence of Action Jackson strewn about the basement: a snow shoe; a black boot; a pistol. A year or so after the Jungle House was produced, the toy was retrofitted as a Planet of the Apes playset. It did much better business.

UPDATE: Unbelievably, he's back!

All images via Mego Museum.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

"Knowing I had to know"

There are some bands to whom I'll always return, and some writers. For the past week or so I've been savoring Tiny Love, the complete collection of Larry Brown's short fiction, just out from Algonquin Books. (Brown died in 2004.) Though I know all of these stories by heart, save for the six previously uncollected, I continue to marvel at Brown's talky and intimate language, his sparse but evocative narrative details, and his lovely, fucked-up characters—men and women, mostly men, caught between their good intentions and their demons, between the knowledge that what they're doing is messed up and their inability to stop messing up. Brown wrote about drunks and derelicts with genuine respect for their suffering and their regrets, dramatized them with humanity and dimension, and that, I think, is his great legacy, and that generosity of spirit is among the reasons why I return to his work. He wrote about his characters' excesses and indulgences—in drink, sex, solipsism, general disregard for the requirements of adulthood—not as romantic fuck-you's or decadent stays-against-The Man but as ambivalent, lived-in responses to low-ceiling fates, to the daily dramas and tragedies brought about by alcoholism, though I don't think Brown used that word too often when conceiving of or talking about his characters. He did struggle with alcoholism himself, and was honest about it to friends and interviewers, if not always with himself. He also had a remarkable ability to evoke the landscape of northern Mississippi as both external to and deep within the characters; they loved and breathed it as weather. And though Man versus Nature might be the well-worn way to describe his characters' dilemmas, the line between those men and women and the lovely though brutal, Naturalistic world they lived in was so narrow as to be invisible.

This time through I'm reeling at the novella "92 Days," the third section in his book Big Bad Love, published in 1990. Leon Barlow is a fiction writer who obsesses over his work (his writing, that is, not the work that he has to do, mostly painting houses, in order to earn the money he needs to survive), drinks and smokes too much, fights with his ex, sits in bars until closing time and then leaves those bars and awakens usually in his or a buddy's truck in a ditch, high in the hills, bruised, covered in mud and mosquito bites, every hour after leaving the bar a fading blur. After one typical rough night, Barlow wakes up, and starts writing a story about a "woman and a man with a little child going down a sidewalk late at night." He imagines that they're in New Jersey or somewhere like that, the street's dark, and it's raining. He wonders what's going through the little girl's head, a girl who didn't choose these parents or this life or this dark street, but now has to run to keep up.

The novella ends with a moving passage that reveals the deep affection Brown had for his characters, the genuine desire he had to somehow fix them, or if not that, to acknowledge them, and the tenuous distance he was able to put between these people he knew so well—with whom he drank nightly, whose addictive problems he shared—and himself as their clear-eyed chronicler. Writing and redeeming these marginalized, tough-to-like people was Larry Brown's reason for living, in addition to his wife and children.

The girl's hair "was long, brown, and her arm was stretched out in front of her as she held onto her mother's hand, and her feet were flying."
I kept that image with me, desperation, flight, fear.... I went to the refrigerator and got a beer. I sat back down at my machine. I had to find out what they were running from. I had to find out if the little girl was going to be safe. I didn’t know if she would be or not. But whatever it was she was running from, I knew I had to save her from it, and that I was the only one who could do it. They were running, running, the cars going by, and I could see the slippery sidewalks, and the lights in the stores, and I could see my mother and my father looking back over their shoulders at whatever was chasing us, and I ran as fast as I could, terrified, not knowing how it would end, knowing I had to know.
That startling, and inevitable, shift from the fictional to the autobiographical, the origin of the impulse to write, to attempt to make art, is profoundly moving, Brown at his honest best. He was aware that his stories, in their fierce reckoning with dejection and ugliness, were difficult for some to read, that they "hurt people too bad to read it. Because it was too honest. And too brutal some say. And the only way I can really defend myself against any of that is to say, ‘Well, yeah it’s brutal, but I think that it’s honest.’ And what I think you’ve got to do is share this experience with these people. That's what I’m writing about. That’s what the story is about. And you just can’t tack a happy ending on things."


Here's Brown on the inspiration he found in the bars in and around Oxford, Mississippi, an excerpt from Guy Hawkins's terrific documentary The Rough South of Larry Brown, portions of which can be found here.