Sunday, March 29, 2020


Scenes from a quieter town. Above, the statue of longtime DeKalb band conductor Dee Palmer at the empty Hopkins Park bandshell named after him. Below, a town and campus quieted by stay-at-home.

Friday, March 27, 2020

For real

In May I was a senior at the University of Maryland; in August I was teaching freshmen at Ohio University—three short months between being a sometimes half-attentive English major to being the teacher laboring to get that kid's attention. My graduate T.A. cohorts and I had had a smattering of training—a three-day intensive with the Director of Freshman Composition on what to expect in a Freshman Composition course, with the emphasis on You Really Can't Predict A Thing—and, wow, there I was: a beautiful Monday morning in quiet, sweet Appalachia, where I'd lived for only a week or so, having alighted from the bustling and cosmopolitan Washington D.C. suburbs, walking into a classroom in an old building to face twenty-five students, all of whom were only a few years younger than me.

To say that I was petrified would be severely understating things. I bolted upright at 3 a.m. virtually every night for weeks that quarter, panicking with a blend of fear, imposter syndrome, and desperation. Teaching freshman composition to half-attentive students was paying my way through graduate school, and for that I was grateful, but that gratitude did little to assuage my sickly fears. All these years later I still feel a nervous flutter in my gut in the moments before I walk into a classroom, and that's a good thing, but nothing quite like what I suffered those first couple of quarters at Ohio University. It turns out, happily, that I love teaching. But it took a while for me to recognize that. That I woke up trembling and managed to march into a classroom three times a week and teach amazes me now.

These memories are returning this week as I'm remote teaching for the first time in my three-decade career. I've come to prize the classroom, the literal space where a handful of students, ranging in age from their twenties to their fifties, and occasionally beyond, gather twice a week to talk, react, think, quarrel, be bored, be thrilled, be resentful, be grateful, be rude, be gracious, remain stubbornly resistant to surprise or bravely open to it. A classroom is a special space, and I'm extremely grateful that I've been allowed to teach in one, learning as much from the students as they are, hopefully, learning from me and the many, many books we read and discuss. Happily, I've never lost the excitement of being a student, and I vibe on the unique energy that students bring. I still vividly recall sitting in a college classroom among strangers, and then friends, bored or riveted, concerned one day with flirting with the girl next to me or mentally assembling the opening set of my campus radio show, and then willfully ignoring all of that the next class if I'd surprised myself into caring about the text we're discussing, bobbing on top of an excited conversation, though shy, maybe lost in the inability to express my thoughts but amped nonetheless to try.

Now, I'm teaching at my desk, in my writing/music room, via Zoom. The moments before the first class began, the butterflies came back; this time I was dependent upon a technology I'd never used before (and about which I've been skeptical for years). Yet when my students' faces began popping up on the screen one by one, my heart melted, There they are! They were sitting in their old bedrooms, or their current apartments, and I could see the stuff of their lives behind them—posters on the wall, plants, propped and hanging guitars, old dressers, a tiny kitchen, cats everywhere—adding poignancy to the whole thing. Despite the occasional tech glitch or three, the sessions have gone well; we all know each other now and each other's work. The conversations, I hope, been productive and valuable for my students.

Yet the energy that I try to send into a room and the energy I subsequently feed off from the students are radically different, and considerably lesser. We're all simply gazing at a flat screen, away from the dimensional intimacies of the classroom, where our bodies as well as our minds were; physical tics and sidelong glances between buddies and laughter and outfits and buttons on book bags are now sublimated to a grainy screen image. Though Zoom is proving to be a decent substitute for face-to-face teaching, I long for the day when my students and I can gather again in a place, not a computer, pad, or phone. As I write, that day seems mythical.


Heeding the advice of online guides and tutorials, I've been keeping up my daily routines during this crisis, as has Amy, who's also remote teaching, literally in the next room on her laptop as I'm teaching in my room. I wear my full-on teaching costume, head to toe, which, granted, isn't all that far off from what I wear when I head out to the local bar, but routine is deeply valuable to me. Edie Falco, who played Carmella Soprano, admitted in an interview that she'd forgotten to wear her character's many rings as she got into costume in preparation for filming The Sopranos' infamous final scene at a New Jersey diner. About that shot, she said, "It was a very big emotional thing. We couldn’t believe it was actually done. We were hugging and kissing, it was like 3 in the morning. We wrapped, I was walking my way back to my trailer. I felt my pocket, I put my hand in my pocket and all of Carmela’s rings, her engagement ring, you know, she had like 45 rings. This is her marriage to Tony that she wore like a statue on her finger."
I forgot to put them on. I forgot to put them on for that final scene. I finally went up to Ilene Landress, who was the producer, at like 3:30 in the morning, sweat dripping down me I was like, “We gotta redo the last day.” Anyway, she just said, “Forget it. Don’t worry about it.” I was sure that that would work its way into the meaning of the final scene. It never did but I had a pocket full of her engagement ring, and her wedding ring. She never wore them in the final scene.
Elsewhere, Falco has said that wearing those rings had always been crucial to her in helping her embody Carmella, get fully into character. I get that, which is why I was worried that I might feel slightly "off" teaching remotely if I weren't wearing what I normally wear, even though the students are only seeing my head and shoulders. How much of teaching is a variation on method acting, getting into the role? I've never really had to think about that before. Who knows. I just look forward to the day when my students and I can gather in a room again together, for real.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Abandonment, revisited

For the past decade or so I've been photographing various abandoned buildings in and around DeKalb County. In the last couple of weeks, some unexpected gravitas and layers of poignancy have visited these photos. Guarding against ruin porn and romanticism, I've been attracted to the emptiness of these places, of structures heading back to the world, of the absence of people and industry and the transparent-overlay of their stories on top of the imagery. Depending for how long this new era of distancing and sudden absences lasts, I may never look at these photos, or abandoned buildings in quite the same way. Some measure of the news we're in is that I can't tell if I'm being precious here.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Touch, Ctd.

I've been thinking about Richard Rodriguez's great essay "Late Victorians," which first appeared in Harper's Magazine in 1990, then two years later in Rodriguez's second book, Days of Obligation. In the mosaic-style piece, Rodriguez "interrogates the landscape" around him, in his case the gay community in San Fransisco at the dawn of the AIDS crisis. He weaves observations about architecture, friendship, weight rooms, loss, bath houses, grief, interior design, pop culture—a string of points along which he hangs his overarching argument, one that brims with loss as well as hope: he is alive because he is not living. Stung by this paradox, Rodriguez considers irony upon irony around him, among them that the muscles that preening, mirrors-gazing weightlifters build is really a "parody of labor, a useless accumulation of the laborer's bulk and strength"; that the gay communities' rehabbing of the Victorian houses in the Castro district is an inside-out takeover of a structure long associated with heteronormative behavior, a home meant for reproduction and the spawning of generations of family. Society's condemnation of queerness "forced the homosexual to find his redemption outside nature," Rodriguez writes dryly. Thus, "The impulse is not to create but to recreate, to sham, to convert, to sauce, to rogue, to fragrance, to prettify." The complacencies of the barren home, he writes a bit later.

The essay gets deeply personal when Rodriguez considers his dear friend, César. A native skeptic, Rodriguez shyly avoids the bath houses where César makes nightly, blissy visits enjoying a "paradise" among welcoming men in a "region of complete acceptance." Yet you go home every night alone, Rodriguez protests to his friend. I go home satisfied, César corrects him. The tragedy, of course, is that César likely contracted the AIDS virus in the baths. "It was then I saw that the greater sin against heaven was my unwillingness to embrace life," Rodriguez admits in the essay's most powerful discovery. That Rodriguez writes as a devout Catholic feels less urgent than that he's writing from the point of view of an emotionally reserved man, an introvert, someone who is suspicious of beauty and sensuality and the shallow promises they make. And so: he doesn't live. And so: he survives, but at what cost?

In the essay's moving conclusion, Rodriguez, attending yet another funeral for an AIDS-stricken friend, shifts his tailbone on a hard pew, alone, a "barren skeptic" and an "inheritor of the empty mirror," the understanding presented not with bitterness but with a kind of rueful understanding. This rings graphically with me today as we collectively stare into weeks, if not months, of sudden isolation, of brutal withdrawal from physical contact within communities built to foster such contact, whether it's movie theaters and grocery stores or classrooms or rock and roll clubs. The context of Rodriguez's epiphany is more tragic than what the majority of us are experiencing now, thankfully, yet those skeptics among us (ahem) may be forced into making discoveries analogous to Rodriguez's. His "unwillingness to embrace life" was his choice, however a pained one, while our new normal, where we are defining togetherness in radical, baffling ways, has been thrust upon us.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020


There's a somewhat glib comment pinging around these days about how introverts are built for self-isolation, "social distancing" being so integral to their makeup. I confess that I've added my assent to this idea as it pinged around, yet I'm equally concerned for those natively inward who might painfully discover how much they, in fact, thrive off of the company of others. Everything is strange and feels a bit counter-intuitive right now. I'm struggling with learning how to remotely teach my creative writing workshops (though I recognize how privileged and lucky I am that I have a job that allows me to work from home, and neither are Amy and I burdened by a sudden need for childcare, and so aren't suffering that level of immediate stress.) I so miss my students—their casualness and energy, their cynicism and discoveries, the bunker mentality that they forge over a long semester (or two), their personalities forging, ebbing, at war, at peace. As always, I feel grateful that I'm around them, leading where necessary, following their lead whenever I can, and this sudden lurch away from the intimacies of the classroom is wrenching. Dan Chiasson recently wrote a beautiful, sobering piece lamenting the shut down of college campuses, and one graph in particular resinates with me: "And so the idea of calling [the semester] off, cutting it short, could mean that a student might face violence at home sooner than she’d anticipated. It could mean, for an immunocompromised person, the fear of a reunion with her daughter or granddaughter."
I keep thinking especially of students who are in love, and who may be in love in ways not permitted in their homes or communities. The person you became infatuated with last Thursday is now suddenly going to be on the other side of the world. I think of students whose identities needed the entirety of spring to play out. What will they face when sent abruptly home? They’d just got started.

What's contributing to the uncanny, spooky feel these days is less that we're experiencing that very rare thing, a global phenomenon, when what's happening in South America and Europe is happening, and matters, here, in real time, than the fact that, locally speaking, everything outside the window looks pretty much the same: there are fewer cars, maybe, but they still glide past; car doors open and shut down the street; construction crews are out, God bless them; the newspaper's delivered; food trucks idle in the pre-dawn behind Jewell; the sun is out; the garden needs tending to. But look closer: the Y is shuttered; restaurants and bars and venues are closed to patrons; campuses are emptied. All looks the same, but everything feels off, and the economic suffering will be incalculable. Something invisible is pressing on us that we're reckless to ignore, though we can't see it. Around the world, as I write, the notion of togetherness is being radically redefined. Get in touch with family and loved ones, text or email or call your friends, especially those you haven't in a while. I have no idea how I'll feel, literally and figuratively, in a few months when I read back these sentences. But now they feel urgent.

As usual, I've turned to music for solace. Who knows how to define what Todd Rundgren was doing with Utopia in 1980—parody, satire, genre-fiddling—but however fun and glib the message, delivered with a half-grin and a knowing wink, playing off of early-60s decorum and "Moon/June" coding, Rundgren lays it bare, and his simple statement is a brutally graphic one now. I just want to touch you. Do you want to touch me, too?

Photo CC BY 2.0 by Josep Ma. Rosell via Flickr

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Still reigning

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—"We haven't done this together in seventeen years!" proclaimed Reigning Sound bass player Jeremy Scott, looking fondly at his bandmates. 

Band launches into next song. Clanging false start.

Scott, to the audience: "Remember that seventeen-years-thing I said?"

Such was the warm looseness of a terrific Reigning Sound set at Sleeping Village in Chicago's west side. The band's original lineup—Greg Cartwright, Greg Roberson, Alex Greene, and Scott—is playing a brief swing of midwest dates (Milwaukee the night before, then onto Detroit), and showed little signs of rustiness. Pulsating but loose, urgent and restrained, the set highlighted Reigning Sound's underrated greatness, Cartwright's songs (about which I've held forth before here and here), so moving in their heart-stopping, evocative changes and melodies, finding a lived-in home in his bandmates' supportive playing. Though they've decades worth of long nights among them, they played with ferocity and precision, save the one or two fuckups and good-natured responses, the desperate ballads and stomping four-on-the-floor rave-ups charting the wide interval that these wonderful players roam in their music. They played mostly songs from their first three albums, this lineup's outstanding calling cards, throwing in a rockin' cover of Adam Faith's "I Don't Need That Kind of Lovin'." Grins, laughter, sweat, shut-eyed bliss—the guys in Reigning Sound ran the gamut of responses to the songs that they played, vibing on the packed club and the intimate room. And they warmly received well-wishers (a few bearing drinks) after the show, congregating on the floor in the front of the stage.

My favorite sequence came when the transcendent "I'm So Thankful," played in an upbeat arrangement unfamiliar to me, segued into "Since When," a darkly gorgeous song that illuminated the room. Both tunes are from the band's first album, and both sounded as fresh and surprising in their tenderness, truths, and stark beauties as they did in 2001. I'm so grateful.
l-r, Scott, Cartwright, Roberson


Saturday, February 29, 2020

"Men with broken hearts"

RCA Victor art director Robert Jones and photographer Les Leverette won a Grammy Award in 1966 for Best Album Cover Photography for Porter Wagoner's Confessions of a Broken Man. In 1997, Leverette described the photo shoot for radio host and cultural activist Art Menius: “[Producer] Bob [Ferguson] called me and explained the idea of doing an album cover with Porter dressed up as 'Skid Row Joe'—washed out, tired, drunk, if you may. He’s a bum."
We agreed to go down to the steps at the back of the Ryman [Auditorium] one afternoon so that the sun would be away, and it would be nice, soft lighting. Knowing the fact that this was a sad album—recitations, men with broken hearts—and knowing that Ektakrome film in the daylight will give you a kind of blue cast when you are away from the sun, especially late in the day, I chose to use that. That doggone cover went on to when the Grammy for Album Cover of the Year from NARAS, much to everybody’s surprise. The first time a Nashville photographer ever won that award.
Confessions of a Broken Man (1966)
I can't confirm that Leverette also took the iconic photo for the cover of The Cold Hard Facts of Life, which followed in 1967. That and the image on the cover of The Bottom of the Bottle (1968, photographer unknown) tell a story that skirts melodrama and camp while remaining in touch with the very real sorrows at the origin point. Of the era.

The Cold Hard Facts of Life (1967)
The Bottom of the Bottle (1968)

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Random revolutions per minute

Swung by the local record joint after teaching the other afternoon. There are few activities I love more than digging through a box of gently-, sometimes passionately-, loved, cheapo 45s, my fingers holding vinyl the original owner held, way back whenever, what I find dependent on the day and the store's stock, a wholly random take on styles and eras and sounds and moods. Anyway, three dollars and seven cents later I walked out with a nice little stack. Here are a few from the haul:

This group's only hit was the goofy novelty song "Martian Dance," in1963. I much prefer the moody flip-side, although I'm not sure that the melodrama's any more convincing. It makes for riveting listening, though.


A bit scratchy, yeah, but I love it, too. Anyway, I think if I let this scorcher rip a few more times it'll blast away the dust and grime, even the stuff deep in the grooves. What a rocker.


I love the dramatic dynamics in the chorus, those plunging strings scoring the singer's heart-rending discovery. Few could deliver emotional shocks like Pitney. Cheers to the great Charlie Foxx and Teacho Wiltshire for the funky, four-on-the-floor arrangement.


In '71 I was too young for these lyrics to mean anything to me, but it wouldn't have mattered with that melody and that arrangement. When I'm in the mood for that gentle, sunny, AM radio vibe—though there's some groovy gruffness here, too—the scent of Lemon Pledge in the air on a Saturday morning, the whole day ahead of me....

Friday, February 21, 2020

Then the lights go out

Bruce Springsteen has written stacks of powerful lyrics down the decades, but to my ears among the most moving moments in any of his songs is the wordless passage near the end of "Tunnel of Love," the title track of his 1987 album. The thirty-or-so seconds are beautiful but heartbreaking because, as uplifting as the music is, it's dragging with it all of the sadness and regret and confusion that comes before it, making it almost unbearably bittersweet. "The lights go out and it's just the three of us," he sings, "you, me and all that stuff we're so scared of"; a verse later, the grown-up acknowledgement: "You've got to learn to live with what you can't rise above." The music that follows slays me because no matter how many times I listen, I never know for certain from where it originates. Is the singer, reduced to melody now that he's said in words all he needs to, climbing aboard that gorgeous melody, uplifted by love that transcends the problems he's just sung about; or is he singing gamely, willing himself a pretty, affecting melody in the hopes that it will deliver him? Or maybe it's the saddest of all things: a surrender to defeat that's sung beautifully, a last-ditch hope or a rueful lesson that even the prettiest song can't fix.

I love overhearing the conversations that songs engage in over time. "Tunnel of Love"'s especially poignant, to my ears, played against the powerful ending of "Thunder Road," from Springsteen's 1975 classic Born To Run. In that song, feverish promises between the singer and Mary are everywhere, like wild flowers in a front yard. There's not much of a melody—the singer's too busy catching up with his words—and that makes the few changes all the more powerful. She's dated loser juvees and gear-heads, seen through their bullshit. The singer's idling outside of her house now, and all the saving he can promise her is beneath his hood; yeah, it's probably a metaphor, too—this kid's pretty poetic. And he sings one of the hottest lines in a Springsteen song: "My car's out back if you're ready to take that long walk from your front porch to my front seat." He knows that he's her type, but he also knows that after other guys drop her off they peel away before she gets to her front porch. Not him. "Mary, climb in," he offers, "It's a town full of losers, I'm pulling out of here to win." 

What follows is one of the most well-known, and oft-played, passages in any Bruce tune, a feverish drama that he's recreated for decades on enormous stages around the world. Like much of early Bruce, the passion with which his band plays and with which he sings—it sounds like he can't do anything else but howl it at that moment—transcends the potential corn and cliche of the doomed young lovers, authenticity obliterating the banality as the song barrels forward. Played against the wordless passage in "Tunnel Of Love." a dozen rocky years later, the rousing ending of "Thunder Road" sounds less like a ballsy, confident promise than a wide-eyed kid's fantasy. This song in this car will take us anywhere we need to go, he assures her. But what neither of them see yet is that "Tunnel of Love" lies just beyond the curve in the dark, where melody, so buoyant in our youth, becomes weighted down by years and bad decisions, by ideals turned cynical, until the struggle to lift it, or be lifted by it, is a brand new, no less urgent song to sing. 

I wonder if Bruce will write the third act. In his terrific 2016 memoir he essayed the difficulties of his four-year marriage to Julianne Phillips, unease evoked in Tunnel of Love, and of course has enjoyed a long and fruitful marriage to Patti Scialfa. Yet he's an artist natively tuned to the ways our hearts and dreams betray us, not to mention the songs that score those losses, and I bet he's still working on the tune that will track down hair-waving, porch-dancing Mary and that nameless woman in the tunnel, and discover what final destinations their fraught journeys took them to.

Top photo, "In The Tunnel of Love, Riverview Amusement Park, Chicago, 1943," via weheartit.

Monday, February 17, 2020

And now you want me back

The other day as I listened to "There Might Not Be Crying In Baseball. But What About Cheating?", a segment on NPR's 1A, I became righteously and predictably angry, but something unexpected happened, too: by the end of the segment my love for baseball was renewed.

I should qualify that my love for the game of baseball was renewed, not my love for the sport, which is run by men and women who continue to annoy me in many ways—from the lukewarm punishments meted out to the Houston Astros players involved in the cheating scheme to the pathetic "apologies" issued by many of those same, politically-careful players, from continued intrusive and unnecessary changes shoehorned into the game to the millions of dollars moving from fat-pocketed owners to various right wing conservative groups and politicians. (And don't get me started on replay.) Yet while listening to the segment's host and guests—1A host Todd Zwillich, Yahoo Sports' Mike Oz, the Athletic's Mark Carig, and Astros lifer-fan Tony Adams, who documented the scandal via YouTube clips and whose suffering was practically visible in the air during the discussion—the old tug of the game strengthened. By the end of the half hour was I forced to admit to myself that I might not stay away from the game this season quite as much as I'd predicted I would.

As I listened, a stray comment from Darrin Jackson, of all people, came to mind. Jackson is the color analyst with play-by-play man Ed Farmer on Chicago White Sox radio broadcasts; I've been listening to this pair for years. As a player "DJ" enjoyed uneventful stays with seven teams, posting a career .696. OPS, slugging .403, hitting 80 home runs, collecting 317 RBI, and hitting for an average of .257. He was a top ten Defensive WAR player twice, yet in 1989 was fourth in errors made; the season before inking a sweet contract (for two-million dollars, with the Toronto Blue Jays, in 1993) he was first in Double Plays Grounded Into and fourth in overall outs made. No need to dig any deeper in Baseball Reference's stats trove: DJ was, in short, an above-average player who managed to parlay limited skills into a twelve-year professional baseball career (including a stint in Japan). My favorite kind of player. During White Sox games, DJ will often comment that as a hitter who recognized his limitations, he'd stand at the plate and, against virtually every pitcher, plan on seeing a fastball; he would then adjust to whatever pitch came at him, based on its speed and movement and spin. This approach is hardly novel; in fact, it's standard. Sit "dead red," and adjust. 

Hard at work. Good luck with that.
The fact that a batter at the Major League level can hit anything well still astounds me, given the elite skills of most pitchers: a ball is coming at you at 95 miles and hour and in the split-second of its journey might dart and dip or swerve, break or rise, lose speed or seemingly gain speed, and you've got to swing a heavy bat and try to make contact. Good luck with that. That Jackson was able to make contact over a dozen years against future Hall of Fame pitchers and other hurlers only slightly less gifted, often enough to earn rewards and steady contracts, is a beautiful, even a moving, thing. And he did so by expecting heat, and adjusting. In other words, by guessing and making a change on the fly, a necessary evil in the beautiful game endured by batters age twelve, twenty, forty-two, and every age in between, in back yards and college fields and maybe Yankee Stadium—a necessity born of athleticism in its truest sense, which seeks not perfection but a testing of skills against the body's limitations. Several Astros players tried to sidestep this by cheating. 

Give me poor DJ, flailing at the plate, failing often, while cashing a million-dollar paycheck and providing for himself and his family in perpetuity. Cheers to him. I'd rather see a batter stalking to the dugout after being fooled by a pitch than standing on second, having cheated for an unfair advantage; call me perverse. Players will take every advantage they can get on the field. Why do we—fans and players—need anything more? The challenges faced by hitters like Darrin Jackson and hundreds of others like him at the MLB level—chalk up my renewed love for this to naiveté or sentimentality or preciousness. Tell me that I have no idea since I'm not out there facing the game's elite pitchers, often several a game. Call it want you want. I call it my love for the game. I'll stoke it at every college, Minor League, and, yeah, MLB game I listen to or attend this year. 

I'll give the great Eric Burdon and the Animals the last words.

I know you’ve been
Oh, yes you have.
And now you want me back.

Photo of homeplate via 123RF; Darin Jackson baseball cards via eBay (Padres) and via Kronozio (Mets)

Saturday, February 15, 2020


Several years I experienced an epiphany when I realized that there really is no such thing as "the good old days." (I'm speaking for myself here, not for repressed individuals or communities.) Much of what I'm experiencing right now I'll look back fondly on in the future, so the "good old days" are really, well, today. Of course, when we gaze back we tend to repress or otherwise look away from the ways that we've suffered, or made others suffer, or experienced shame or acted awfully, but even setbacks or bad behavior can come to be viewed with a kind of rueful affection, The trick, of course, is to recognize all of this in the moment, that what's happening now, even if it's shitty or boring, a fate that I'm cursing or am resentful of, I'll probably come to covet in the future, might even feel its absence as a profound loss. Nostalgia's the engine for all of this, that pernicious desire to return to a home that exists mostly in our fanciful re-telling of it, but that's ok. I'll try and balance that into the mix, as well. Of course what's happened is that now I've arrived at the end of this recognizing that my thoughts feel both incredibly profound and deflatingly cliched, an end-to-end trip that most insights travel. Anyway, it's a daily thing, keeping the surprise of the epiphany fresh.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

High on a low life

In their book Teenage Confidential, Michael Barson and Steven Heller write that “Good and evil make themselves evident in real life not as absolutes, but as gradations along a virtually infinite continuum. The American mass media, however, has always operated most comfortably when presenting clearly etched polarities to its consumers."
So it has always been with the teenager in American pop culture. There are good teenagers and bad teenagers, and being just a little bit bad is rather like being just a little bit pregnant—in America, you are either pure a newfallen snow or you carry an indelible taint.
It's obvious which end of the spectrum Billie Joe Armstrong's been singing to since Green Day formed in the late 1980s. The vast majority of his songs chronicle, and are valentines to, the fucked-up, marginalized, dislocated teenagers in all of us. With their new album Father Of All Motherfuckers, Green Day sings again to that disaffected group, but also capture their collective heartbeat in the amped-up, hook-y, riff-y, delirious fizz of the album's sound, part Glam, part dance club, part pop, part speed. The rock and roll on this album streaks by in a blur—it's over in under a half hour—and so feels like a single night of fun, compressed, mythic, high on sensation with ideas an afterthought, over before it starts. The album's surface effects—processed vocals, synthy handclaps, tinny drums, bright falsettos, keyboard squeaks, a sample of Joan Jett's "Do You Wanna Touch Me" in "Oh Yeah!"—twinkle and clink like glasses on a bar top, but the loud guitars and urgent, anthemic choruses throughout remind you that this is a rock and roll record. Green Day wanted to make an album for you to dance to first, think about later. I don't know about you, but that came just in time for me. overburdened by shitty news about shitty men and women behaving like entitled kids and ruthless bullies, news generally ignored by the band here, in favor of a vibe that says, Hop in the car, we're heading out to the 'burbs for a house party where everybody's a star. Don't look at the newsfeed until the morning.

Armstrong's influences are varied. A couple of the tunes ("Fire, Ready, Aim," "Take The Money And Crawl") sound like he grabbed a guitar after seeing the Hives live or revisiting that band's epic The Black And White Album, and cheers to that—the choruses and sharp riffs ring in the ear like the best of Sweden's finest. Armstrong led the record's hype with the breathless announcement that the songs reflect "The New! soul, Motown, glam and manic anthemic. Punks, freaks and punishers!" Though the album's a clarion call to the dance floor, any mid-60s Motown vibe is buried underneath, surfacing in subtle, syncopated lead-backing vocal arrangements, especially affectingly in the chorus to the otherwise downbeat "Graffitia." There are other surprising musical nods: I hear the pop gallop of Katrina and The Waves' "Walking On Sunshine" (itself channeling the Supremes) in the frothy yet desperate "Meet Me On The Roof" and the melody in "I Was A Teenage Teenager" suggests the joyfully ascending line in Dexy's Midnight Runners' "Come On Eileen." (Perhaps I hear that reference because Dexys and company scored my mid-teen years.) In the aforementioned "Graffitia," the line "Are we the last (long) forgotten" calls to mind the rousing "Never To Be Forgotten" by Bobby Fuller Four. The Father Of All Motherfuckers cover samples the hand grenade imagery of the artwork for American Idiot, and in the great "Sugar Youth" Armstrong sings the line "I got a feeling and it's dangerous" to the same lyrics, cadence, and melody in American Idiot's "She's A Rebel"—less an unoriginal cop of his past than a recognition that he struck a chord the first time around, and a decade and a half later the chord is still sounding.

Despite the effervescent surface and snappy sounds of Father Of All Motherfuckers, darkness pulses underneath; the album feels light and purposeless, but it isn't. Armstrong can't help but see hopelessness and jadedness around him. (One of the more affecting lines on the album comes in the form of a question that poses a paradox: how high is your low gonna get?) The characters in his songs—half autobiographical stand-in, half face in the crowd—are always a despondent step away from oblivion and carelessness, high school losers who "will never, ever, ever fuck the prom queen." Armstrong still possesses a direct line to the feeling of the chaos of being sixteen; the album's best song, "I Was A Teenage Teenager," begins with a simple declaration against a plaintive, pre-Beatles melody— "I don't want to freak you out but I cannot lie"—and then to a simple but chilling question—"So who is holding the drugs?" The moment arrives as the album's first half ends, and the song's the album's hinge, a mid-paced, catch-your-breath tale of a a young kid, or an adult who can't shake lose, or who's chasing, the promises of youth, "full of piss and vinegar," "an alien visitor" whose life's "a mess" and who thinks that "school is just for suckers." That kid is poised at the door between a party of sweaty good times where we forget the world for a few hours and dance, and a dark room of despair and ennui and possible self-destruction. The song doesn't tell where they go, what direction they choose, but the choice is graphic. So it always is with the teenager. For the half hour that Father Of All Motherfuckers lasts—that's shorter than your favorite sitcom—Green Day turns it up and in their eight-notes and downstrokes and handclaps and singalong choruses, on fast songs and slow ones, lets the party lights blind us. We'll regain our vision soon enough. Then it's time to listen to the album again.

Kids: January 26, 1991, Downey, California. Photo by Murray Bowles. Via TIME.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The greatest purpose

Booker T. Jones
The title that Booker T. Jones gives his new memoir, Time Is Tight: My Life, Note By Note, is apt: the book chronicles his life as one of the great musicians of the post-World War II era as music notes tell a story, evocatively, mysteriously, and sometime surprisingly. Time Is Tight is not a conventional chronological tale; it moves nonlinearly, from Memphis to LA to New York and back again, across decades, as Jones recalls, anecdote by anecdote, his rich and sometimes rocky professional and personal lives, letting the music he remembers and conjures shape the story in an associative way, the way a song works. This is very much a musician's story; as someone who doesn't play or write music, I felt at times that I was on the outside looking in as Jones meticulously explains a song's chord sequences or a player's virtuosity (there are actual music charts in the book's appendix). That's hardly a complaint, though I wish I was more fluent in the language. In this way, his memoir reminds me of Chris Stamey's recent autobiography; two musicians from disparate backgrounds and aesthetics united by their awe-struck love for the formal beauties of notes and songs.

I admit that before I began to read Jones's book in earnest, I turned to the passage where he describes the writing and recording session for Sam & Dave's sublime "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby," a song I've obsessed over for years and consider one of the greatest love songs of our time. Jone's account of the session does not disappoint, and is characteristic of the sweet, and surprising, surrender to art he was blessed to experience throughout his career. He's in his office, struggling with a melody, when he hears some chords coming from Dave Porter and Issac Hayes's office next door. "This was something different," he writes. "I lost concentration on what I was working on. Right next door to me, a true song was being written, and I could not take my attention away from it."
A picture formed in my mind of a man committed to his woman to the extent depicted in the song. This was why we were here. This was why I studied music and what we were dedicated to. Depicting life and love in its most beautiful state. This was one of the greatest purposes of music.
Jones continues, describing Steve Cropper, "Duck" Dunn, and Al Jackson, Jr.'s ensemble playing, nodding to each other as the groove came into shape, with Hayes on piano. Stepping into the arrangement, Jones added some Hammond B-3 organ, "a longing, wistful line that threads its way into the song's fabric from the inside." Indeed.

"There was a respite after the first verse," he continues, "a quieting, where all the elements settled down for the second verse, as if the song’s mood and place was established, and now it could relax for this next part." Sam Moore "sang his heart out," and when the chorus came, when the song's simple but profound truths and discovery arrive, "it came as a relief, a release, deliverance in the power of love." Jones adds, "That feeling was experienced by all involved in the recording and never forgotten."

Nor by this listener. I'd been waiting a long time to read an evocatively-written account of the recording of that remarkable song, and I'm so grateful that Jones delivered. I highly recommend Time Is Tight for its sweep over decades of music making, pausing in narrating, and delighting in, crucial moments like this one.

Photo of Jones by Erik Carter via The New York Times

Friday, January 31, 2020

All noise is interesting

I like where Ellen Willis lets herself go in "Stranger in a Strange Land," her "Music, Etc." column that ran in the December 27, 1969 issue of The New Yorker. (It's gathered in Out of the Vinyl Deeps.) Writing from Colorado Springs, Colorado, "an uptight military reservation" where she's hanging with members of the local radical community and enjoying the mountains and fresh air, Willis notices that her music listening is being affected by her new, sky-high environment. "My reactions to music, and to rock in particular, have always been very much influenced by the context in which I hear it—by the place, by the people, by the medium (records, radio, dances, concerts), and by the variety of music available at any given time," she writes. Her "usual context" had been New York City, where she was becoming "increasingly selective about what I wanted to hear and less and less patient with sounds that did not immediately reach out and grab." In Colorado, she was surprised to see that her feelings about rock music had changed considerably. "I have new needs that music can fulfill, and some of the old needs are at least temporarily absent. Right now, I am closer to the ecstatic blues freaks at the Fillmore East than I have ever been before. And though I will never really be where they are—and don’t particularly want to be—I’ve learned some important things about music and about my own head."

In particular, Willis found herself attracted to what she called "pure noise," a Rocky Mountain High of sorts that she wasn't prepared for. "Although I am by now means completely uncritical," she remarks, "I am more willing to follow a song where it leads and suspend judgment for a while," adding, "practically all noise is interesting in some way." When she first arrived in the West, she'd been listening to an album, "doing a little creative drumming with a pencil and an album cover," when she recognized with a start that she'd been grooving to Vanilla Fudge’s The Beat Goes On, which, she acknowledges, "must be one of the worst albums ever made." And yet: "At the same time, I realized that it didn’t much matter; I felt like drumming anyway." Further revelations follow:
In the past couple of months, I have begun to enjoy the Crosby, Stills, and Nash album, which I had dismissed as too polished, too sentimental, and too soft, in the Simon and Garfunkel manner. Now the romanticism of songs like “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “Marrakesh Express” doesn’t bother me; if anything, it strikes me as a positive quality. I am also more receptive to white blues. I couldn’t listen to the Blind Faith album in New York; now I listen to it fairly often.
However buttoned-up is Willis's tone, this is good critical advice, it seems to me: let your environment guide you, especially if it leads you to strange and surprising places. I can't quite get on board with Willis about CSN, yet I love the image of the New Yorker music critic rocking out to the Fudge, mildly embarrassed, resisting, or at least reassessing, her critical urges, and having fun all the same.

Vanilla Fudge, getting under her skin

Photo of Willis via Forward; photo of Vanilla Fudge via Ultimate Classic Rock via Fulton Archive/Getty Images

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Rock and roll is dead? A rebuttal.

I read Dominic Green's "The Year The Music Died" in The Critic, a tough go as it was hard to focus with my eyes rolling toward the ceiling so often. Green's argument: "To anyone with ears, it’s clear that rock completed its natural development decades ago and has been fading away ever since. Popular music retained by right the cultural centrality it had assumed in Western societies in the nineteenth century, a right prolonged by the ubiquity and wealth of the twentieth-century entertainment business. But the music, like most of its successful practitioners, was a haggard and stupefied ghost, mechanically repeating its youthful glories."
Even the fans admit that Rock was rotten in the Eighties. Naturally they blame the adults: for not producing enough little rockers as the baby boom ran out, for the deindustrialisation that dissolved the class systems of Detroit and Liverpool, for the geopolitical bungling that pushed up the price of oil and vinyl singles, or even for inventing the compact disc. The material explanation is true, but incomplete. Rock died because it had played out its natural span—not three minutes, but the three-step dance of all Western art forms: classical, romantic, modern.
Green cites the Clash's London Calling and Bruce Springsteen's The River as albums that bookend the brief period when rock and roll perished. London Calling and The River are "magnificently vital and varied" still, Green observes, as both albums "set rock’s classical virtues, the economies of songwriting form and the small-group sound, in the romantic and programmatic format of the double album. Modernism in its expansive mood, these records are monumental summaries. They are stylistically retrospective, immersed in their history as surely as the national historians of the nineteenth century were in theirs. Yet they are optimistic that immersion in the past will allow them to recover the pagan energy that will, as Ezra Pound said, 'make it new'."

Yet Green goes on to argues that, though both London Calling and The River distilled and updated rock and roll's best qualities into epochal works, as a result both the Clash and Springsteen discovered that they had little left to express that might trade on the gains made on those albums. As Green puts it: "To their credit, both Springsteen and The Clash sensed that in successfully reviving the spirits, they had killed themselves off. Both acts quickly tried to revive themselves."
In the space of a year, The Clash went from producing one of rock’s best albums to one of its very worst. Two days after [John] Lennon’s killing, they released Sandinista!, an addled and pretentious triple-album whose main significance lies in anticipating three of the worst trends in Eighties music: white rap, paper-thin production, and attempted revivals of rock’s cooling corpse with shots of what would shortly be sold as “world music”. Their last album, Combat Rock (1982) was an agreeably absurd Vietnam costume drama with lashings of rockabilly and a cameo from Alan Ginsburg.
As for The Boss, Green feels that Springsteen's legendary Nebraska, which he dismisses as "a set of generally miserable acoustic demos," indicated that Springsteen was "apparently having second thoughts about becoming a stadium parody of his earlier self," adding, "He then surrendered to his management and became a wealthy and futile stadium clown."

Sandanista! one of rock and roll's "very worst" records? Springsteen post-The River is a "futile stadium clown"? (Even as a self-described fameist, I grant that Springsteen's exhaustive and spirited stadium shows are hardly futile.) I won't engage Green on the absurdity of those two claims, but I'll push back on his claim that rock and roll died in 1980. He's baiting me and other readers here, and he found his hook, but he suffers from the tyranny of taxonomy and his definition of rock and roll is too narrow. Anyway, I won't waste time listing the many brilliant, challenging, "making it new" bands and artists who have created and played urgent and culturally valuable rock and roll in the last four decades. My problem with Green has to do with his academic insistence that unless rock and roll albums and songs somehow engage with "the great Western youth revolt which began with Romantic poets and revolutionaries, ruined European civilisation as its children rallied to fascism and communism, and then played out its final stage as radical entertainment in America," those albums and songs lack value. Yet consider the bands and artists who were explicitly or implicitly inspired by the Clash —from Fugazi, Hüsker Dü, and the Mekons to Sleater-Kinney, Public Enemy and Green Day—and by Springtseen—Steve Earle, Dave Alvin, the Hold Steady, Silver Jews—and you can virtually see the linkages from the urgencies of London Calling and Ihe River to the urgencies in so much music that came after. And, like you, I hear and experience rock and roll in small clubs every year, where bands of kids get up on stages and bash out their dilemmas and problems and revolts in the form of radical entertainment for audiences of hundreds or of dozens, on weekends and weeknights. 

Rock and roll may have disappeared from the national conversation, Billboard, and awards shows, but that doesn't mean it's not being discovered, rediscovered, detonated, and moving men and women now—mattering deeply to them now—in clubs and at basement shows, and in bedrooms and apartments. I'd like to ask Green if, as he cites, both the Clash and Springsteen were inspired and emboldened by the music they loved and that preceded them, why can't that occur with those artists inspired by Strummer and Bruce and, down the line, generation to generation? Can't rock and roll matter on daily basis still? Is Green's bar too high? Mine too low? If innovation and synthesis must be the highest attributes of rock and roll, then a lot of fun and emotional experience will be left behind.


Here's the great Lester Bangs, who, though he wasn't strictly a rockist, knew a thing or two about the genre, writing in the same era that Green cites as rock and roll's official time of death: "What is more American than the garage band? Call up a bunch of your buddies, get some six-packs or some weed, plus a guitar or two, a bass or drum kit, and you’ve got instant fantasies about instant stardom."
Of course, at certain times and places, fantasy and reality have intersected, and that is part of what rock is all about. Given that the greatest garage bands could barely play, we may assume not only that virtuosity has nothing to do with the form, but also that the utopian dream of everyman an artist can come true right here, in our suburban land of opportunity—the ultimate proof that rock & roll is the most democratic and all-American of art forms.
Characteristically, Bangs nails something eternal: in this case, the unquenched call to make music, to make rock and roll, whenever and wherever the impulse. That urge—faced right now in basements with guitars and in living rooms with GarageBand and on busses with music-making apps and in clubs via openers and headliners alike—that urge is rock and roll, and that urge is what matters, whether the music is making headlines or not, whether it's reshaping the past in startling ways or bringing tears to the eyes of fans of a cover band somewhere on a Thursday night. 

Photo of CBGB stage via Flickr; photo of Lester Bangs via San Diego Reader.
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