Thursday, November 26, 2020

Happy Thanksgiving!

...also known in Chez Newman Bonomo as Opening Day of White Russian season. Thankful for so much, and hopeful that you and yours find peace, rest, and pleasure today as we near the end of an extraordinarily tough year for so many. Stay safe and sane! đź’–

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Stories, etc.

"I have confidence in my eye." 

So writes Luc Sante in "Instantaneous," a small essay in his terrific new book Maybe The People Would Be The Times, a collection of his recent magazine, journal, and blog pieces. "Instantaneous" explores the powerful allure of photographs, long an interest of Sante's. He posits a "John and Mary," imaginary fellow enthusiasts with equally keen eyes, presuming that if they were debating "Bordeaux vintages or minor Augustan poets or alternate takes of 'Koko,' we could each cite authorities to back us up, could refer to a history of opinions, could generally act as though there was such a thing as an objectively correct view. You can’t do that with snapshots, and you never will be able to do so."
The snapshot forces everyone who sees it to make an authority-free decision, and—if an explanation is sought—forces everyone to become a critic, in the best sense of that word. Everyone who looks at a snapshot can become an exemplary critic, one who doesn’t generate pull quotes or ritually invoke boldface names or rely on a mess of filters. Historically, the snapshot was a great equalizer, allowing people of all classes to make pictures, and once again it is a great equalizer, forcing everyone to think for themselves.
And yet, the one in possession of the snapshot, for whom the image holds sentimental value, the thinking is of a far different order than of someone picking up the snapshot in thrift store or an estate sale, gazing at strangers. Our family photos matter because the they tell, or evoke, or hint at stories that have undergone generations of revisions before and after the image, but are read only by the members themselves. To a stranger, the family snapshot is a riddle, or a kind of puzzle piece; there may or may not be pieces around to complete the picture. The sentiment (or sentimentality) that my family pictures produce in me is of untold value—to me, and my closest friends who may generously sympathize, or put up, with me. 

In "Other People's Pictures" later in the book, Sante explores this disconnect between the cherished personal attachment to family photos and the disinterest they provoke in passive onlookers. "If I look at my family photos hard enough I start to see them as types," he writes, "distinguishable from the great mass of their anonymous kin only by a few threads of oral tradition, of which I am the custodian. They are nothing much as pictures, really, barely worth a pause while digging through the crate for the outliers and the beautiful accidents."
If they were released from my hands they would merge into the photographic sediment—the endless numbers of dull family snapshots, inert group scenes, pro forma portraits that flow sluggishly through the low-level secondary markets of the world. Each of those is a marker, the living trace of a human who may otherwise survive only as a census entry, or not even that. We cannot discern their accompanying stories, and we can’t do anything for them. They are specters. They live in the photographic sediment as in a bardo, suspended within the world, still visible but very gradually being absorbed into the dirt that constitutes our past. 
That's my sister in the photo above. She's thirteen. She's posed beneath the maple tree in our front yard on Amherst Avenue in Wheaton, Maryland. Behind her, just in front of our Gran Torino station wagon in the driveway, is a small crabapple tree. The photograph was taken in May. 

Already your eyes are glazing over. I don't expect you to care about this image as I do, and yet I'm baffled by your apathy. Maybe you'll acknowledge that it's a pretty photo, that the trees are gorgeous (maybe you'll say "nice"), and that it captures Spring in all its glory. What I see is of unfathomably greater dimension than that: my sister's stories, mine, the history of my birthdays, which occurs in May, and of years of attendance at Saint Andrew the Apostle church, where I believe Jane is going on this day, or has returned from, the windows of my neighbor's house behind which lay the far unknown, the station wagon and memories that spool forth of long family drives to western Ohio, Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, occasionally New York City. Transparencies atop transparencies atop transparencies, urgently felt, much of which is beyond my ability to adequately describe. As a custodian of this photo—and many others, as I've unofficially dubbed myself archivist of my family's cache—I hold it above the "photographic sediment" where so many nameless snapshots end up, and in my hands the photo hums, a perpetual motion machine, telling stories eons away from your capacity to understand, or to care. On a precious day that's an affront. Every day it's mundane.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Rock and roll over and over again

When my younger brother Paul and I were kids we were gonzo KISS fans, coming of age right at the band's mid- to late-1970s peak. Alas, we could never seem to pool enough allowance money together to be able to afford memberships in the coveted KISS Army—the perks of which taunted us from the advertising inserts in Rock and Roll Over, Love Gun, and KISS Alive II—but we were true fans, young enough to giddily, innocently enjoy the stomping riffs and cartoon camp, but old enough to reckon with our disappointment and skepticism the morning after the broadcast of KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. (I finally jumped ship after Dynasty, Paul stuck it out through Music from "The Elder," God bless him.) When Paul moved out of our parents' house a few years after I did, he took with him our KISS albums—first into Washington D.C, then out to San Francisco, then over to Manhattan, and finally to Berlin, where he lives and cranks them to this day.

So I've been lately restocking my KISS albums on vinyl. I recently re-purchased Rock And Roll Over, the band's 1976 follow-up to their career-making Destroyer, and was looking forward to seeing the above, a drawing of the album cover rendered by some nameless besotted kid. "Includes awesome crayon drawing of album cover from previous owner, didn't want to split them up :)," the Discogs seller wrote, and that sold me. What I love about this drawing, in addition to its gleefully amateur quality, is its agelessness: I don't know when this drawing was made. Sometime in the '00s, '90s, '80s? 70s? The charming, school-notebook lined paper isn't terribly old, I don't think—no yellowing, no brittleness—but it might've been lovingly preserved. I'm guessing that it was recently made, but I'm not sure. I could send it over to forensics, but I'd rather have fun imagining. I'm terribly charmed, moved even, at the excitement that KISS brought—brings—to kids, and that I can't date this drawing to a particular decade. There's no time- or date-stamp detail, and that's the point: for all of KISS' of-the-era 70s bombast, there's something eternal about their appeal to kids who are running up to their teen years, hungry for the band's blend of comic book energy and theatrical spectacle. I can rock out to "I Want You" now as I did when I was eleven, and somewhere the eleven-year old who lovingly drew this is rocking out too. Or was, and is now looking back. Smiles down the decades. 

I just hope that he or she doesn't miss the drawing too much. Hey if you drew it and you're reading this, message me. I'll get it back to you. It deserves to be in the hands of its owner, no matter how old he or she is, or isn't.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

A nation of countless

The Windbreakers: Tim Lee, left, and Bobby Sutliff
Some songs decline to age well. The music we listen to and obsess over when we're younger doesn't always keep apace with us as we move on. Last night I pulled out the Windbreakers' second album, Run, which was released in 1986, and was happy to discover that it holds up quite well, though I was nervous as the album neared the end. The closer "Nation Of Two" is one of those songs that was nearly unbearable for me to listen to when I was in my early 20s, devastatingly sad as the song is and so settled into my marrow it had become in a bout of depression. The song feels even weightier, and greater, to me now.

Written by Tim Lee—whose songs were always darker and more bitter to my ears than his partner Bobby Sutliffe's jangly-if-at-times-melancholy pop tunes, which I also love—"Nation Of Two"'s jaded, world-weary outlook is summarized in its chorus: "In a nation of two, citizenship for few." That discovery looks melodramatic on paper, yet at the time the two lines spoke to me as if they were an ancient text. Embedded in Lee's torturous melody and head-hanging arrangement, the chorus arrives as a brutally sad epiphany, and the song hardly able to bear the weight of it all. I was afraid that I'd be embarrassed, now, by the song's agonies; when the album was released I was having yet another intense period of romantic trouble and, having loved the band's debut album, I snatched up Run and quickly sunk into the abject miseries of "Nation Of Two." At the time the chorus felt like a flame held to my fingers, and I listened warily—that had, of course, as much to do with my narrow emotional perspective as it did the song's emotional power. The feeling's so melancholy and defeated that it feels as if the song's slowing down in its final third, the musicians surrendering at last to dejectedness; hell, it can barely get out of bed, and it's late afternoon. Yet the moving guitar solo, stridently insisting on lifting us all out of our pathetic, solipsistic blues, yet wounded, also, breathes life back into things, if only to admit defeat at the end. (The songs' five minutes long but, depending on the neediness and self-pity in my mood, could feel as if it was a half hour.) The clarity of decades and a happy life have served not to diminish the song, but to firm it up—it's as powerful a statement of heartache and loneliness to my ears now as it ever was. If it's a bit over the top, well, so are you when you're miserable.

The song's woe-begotten melody and visceral performance—by Lee, Sutliffe, and producer/musician ace Mitch Easter—carry the sentiment into the eternal places where all affecting art resides, a room where a freshly heart-rended twenty-something, someone in their 80s, and I can sit, listening, nodding our heads in identification, scattered across decades and united in song.

Friday, November 13, 2020

The brain is a room

So science proves what we knew all along: when he hear our favorite song we're throwing a party in our head. French researchers say studies on the brain reveal that "many people go into pleasure overload when their favorite tunes start playing."
Researcher Thibault Chabin and a team at the UniversitĂ© de Bourgogne Franche-ComtĂ© examined the brains of 18 people who regularly get these chills when listening to music. After answering a questionnaire about how much pleasure they get from music, each volunteer received an EEG brain scan. 
“Participants of our study were able to precisely indicate ‘chill-producing’ moments in the songs, but most musical chills occurred in many parts of the extracts and not only in the predicted moments,” says Chabin in a media release.
This all occurs in the orbitofrontal cortex, the region involved with emotional processing, "as well as in the supplementary motor area and the right temporal lobe, which handles auditory processing and musical appreciation on the right side of the brain."
All these regions work together to help humans process music, stimulate the brain’s reward centers, and release the “feel good” hormone dopamine. When you combine these reactions with the pleasurable anticipation of hearing your favorite chord strike in a song, the result is a tingly chill. This is a response that indicates greater connectivity in the cerebrum.
Chabin adds: “What is most intriguing is that music seems to have no biological benefit to us. However, the implication of dopamine and of the reward system in processing of musical pleasure suggests an ancestral function for music."
Study authors believe this inherited function tied to music may reveal the brain’s ability to predict future events. As humans wait for something they know is coming, the brain releases more dopamine.
Which is all well and good as I'm awaiting the guitar solo in "I Saw Her Standing There." When I know what's coming, and when what's coming is deeply pleasurable, I can virtually feel my kicking into gear, fooling me into believing that I'm elevating. Yet the brain's hard at work when I'm listening to devastatingly sad songs, too, and how much pleasure is at work then, when we sink into melancholy listening to those songs that soundtrack a bad break up, or griefs of other kinds. In a 2019 article in Psychology Today, Shahram Heshmat writes "At the biological level, sad music is linked to the hormone prolactin, which is associated with crying and helps to curb grief," adding, "Sad music tricks the brain into engaging a normal, compensatory response by releasing prolactin. In the absence of a traumatic event, the body is left with a pleasurable mix of opiates with nowhere else to go. Prolactin produces feelings of calmness to counteract mental pain." 

In addition to the release of prolactin, Heshmat outlines other reasons why we're, sometimes perversely, attracted to listening to sad songs, including the bittersweet indulgence of nostalgia, the experience of empathy, mood regulation, and the ability of a sad song to provide us with an imaginary friend. ("Music has the ability to provide company and comfort," Heshmat notes.) So there's a shiver in the brain there, too, when the chorus or bridge comes and with it an image in our brain that we wish we could shake, of others, or ourselves, behaving badly, the song a kind of theme to regret. 

The brain is a room and in that room stand all of our selves, the one leaping with joy and fist-pumping, the one slouched and blue. Both turn up the song so loud that the rafters in the room quake.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Favorite 45s, Part 2

Over at Facebook I've been posting some my favorite 45s from my collection over a ten day period. Here are days six through ten:

Day Six

From the The Jam's astonishing run of singles from '78 to '80, this is about as perfect and as powerful as a story-song gets. Weller's details are evocative, chilling, and sorrowful. I'm always amazed to realize that the song's only four minutes long: it feels twice that length in its cinematic sweep.

Day Seven

1966 was an astonishing year for music, each week bringing new tunes more mind-bending or hip-moving than last week's, but this is a high-water mark among high-water marks. The ferocious playing on it never fails to amaze me. #PlayLoud in a controlled environment.

Day Eight

This insane fuzztacular stomp needs little commentary. Turn it up and blow your mind. #InTheRed

Day Nine

My favorite Hollies song, and among my favorite songs of the era, period. Glorious, curious, in love with the world, and like so many songs now, resonant in strange ways in these strange times.

Day Ten

There were a lot of contenders for this last day. I won't bore you with the over-stuffed contenders list, but Lennon's "Instant Karma" was in the running because like so many I'm here for that right about now. But I decided to go with this supremely cool '69 dance floor burner because we all need to let loose and have fun these days, too.

Friday, October 30, 2020


Several years back my Mom turned 80. The family celebrated with a picnic at Wheaton Regional, the park a mile or so from my parents' house. A couple of hours in, after the cake and the celebrating and the food, people started wandering off. The August day was pretty, and nieces and nephews and siblings explored the park, looking at the rides, the petting zoo, the miniature train that still moves charmingly through the grounds, a mainstay from our childhood. At one point, two of my older brothers, John and Jim, left to check out Pine Lake where we used to hang as kids. I left a bit later to join them, and I was halfway down the path when I spotted them on the way back. An ordinary moment in an ordinary day, yet the way my bothers were silhouetted on that path, their heads down, talking quietly to each other—at once transported me to the past. John and Jim are older than me by eight and seven years, respectively, and when we were younger that gap felt enormous, a chasm across which I'd strain to hear echoes of forbidden conversations, or on the far side caught fleeting glimpses on their faces describing emotions I'd heard about but hadn't experienced, a kind of foreign language their countenances spoke. Now, of course, the differences in our ages is a non-issue, yet I was startled at how quickly I devolved back into the yearning younger brother, the familiar chill or tingle in my chest reminding me of how I'd felt as if I'd never catch up with them and their tall friends and their adult behavior and bell bottom jeans. I don't know what brought on this: something in the way they held their bodies on that path, the way they walked, the animation between them as if they were sharing a secret. I was back in my bedroom, trying to eavesdrop on their conversations—of course lurid in my imaginations—that they muttered to each other on the opposite side of the wall. Older siblings are always standing in a room before you are, having sussed out the surprises there and now playing it cool as you catch up, breathless and embarrassed, the perpetual motion machine of feeling that you've missed something. I guess that that dynamic never truly dissipates. Anyway as soon as it arrived, the moment left, and we were middle-aged men again, standing in the woods waiting to be spooked by the past in surprising and unnerving but not unpleasing ways.

Image: Woods Path by Julie Tremblay

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Favorite 45s, Part 1

Over at Facebook I've been posting some my favorite 45s from my collection over a ten day period. Here are days one through five:

Day One

This one's a no-brainer, one of my cherished singles and among my favorite songs of all-time. I crank it when I need the reminder, which is more and more often in these strange, dark days

Day Two

Another all-timer for me, from the all-too-brief "Nashville A Go-Go" tradition. This one's got one of my favorite couplets:

"Daddy preached Fire and Brimstone
And Mama did The Monkey all night long"

A conflict as old as the bible, that.

Day Three

Call this rockin' Gentry & Cordell-produced Bo tune a novelty, or an attempt at riding the late-60s "roots rock" revival. Either way it's got cool attitude to spare. #BoKnows

Day Four

Sam and Dave reached the heights many, many times in their extraordinary career, but to my ears they never topped this, quite simply one of the greatest and most sublime love songs ever waxed. I always say if you want to know whether the one you're with is "the one," play this song—your response to it will tell you everything you need to know.

Day Five

Because some days call for a cheery, mindless garage stomp in the face of toxic everything. Hell, most days call for that. I learned this 30+ years ago via The Fleshtones' brilliant "Kingsmen-like Medley." The band had expressed their love of the a-side, "Hide and Seek," to songwriter/producer extraordinaire Richard Gottehrer, who responded, "You guys like this stuff? I got a whole bunch of this junk lying around."

Monday, October 26, 2020

On Bruce

I was honored to be invited to talk about two of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs, "Tunnel of Love" and "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)" for Springsteen: Writers' Favorites, a three-hour special produced by Paul Ingles for the PRX media company in advance of Springsteen's new album Letter To You. I'm in absurdly good company: Anthony DeCurtis, Ashley Kahn, Holly Gleason, Jim Fusilli, and Holly George-Warren also discuss their favorite Bruce tracks.

You can listen to the full show here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

How it Feels [re-post]

Re-posting this piece I wrote on the occasion of Tom Petty's untimely death three years ago. He would've turned 70 today. 


"Mourning a musician you've never met is inevitable and complicated. I can't say that I'll miss Tom Petty, the man; I never knew him. His family, friends, band mates, and musicians who've played with down the years—one in the same, at the end of the day—will miss him, and I feel awful for their grieving that begins today, and will never really end."

What I and millions more are grieving is the end of a generous and supremely gifted musical career, a career that gave deep pleasures to so many in so many different ways  during so many eras. Petty will never write or sing another song. That hits keenly today. I didn't pay close attention to his career from the late 1990s onward, but his songs will stay very close to me. It's always been my impression that Tom Petty was the Great Leveler. Put a handful of music fans of different stripes in a room—a Rockabilly obsessive; a garage rock hound; a Punk/New Waver; an MTV kid; an Indie Rock stalwart; a millennial streaming Classic Rock into Hip Hop back to 60s AM hits; college kids raiding their parents' music collections; drunks, stoners—and I'm pretty sure they'd agree on Tom Petty. His greatest songs were formalist gems that were so true and clear-eyed about what it meant to be alive that they cut across bias, taste, and generations, as all great popular art does. I hope that he knew this. I hope he knew how it feels.

The timing of one's fandom is crucial. I was a teenager by a few months when Damn The Torpedoes came out in the fall of 1979, and his songs—the hits, especially—scored that year and the next in graphic, indelible ways. The backing vocal on "Refugee" sounded exactly like a friend's voice, the same timbre and tone; Petty and his band were familiar already. And when I'd listen to the mumbling verses in "Here Comes My Girl"—so masculine in their bitter, shrugging defenses and talky inarticulation, on guard against powerful sentiment and emotional surprise—and then the lyrical melody bloom in the chorus, Petty, moved, singing at the top of his register, the room and the song lighting up with her and her presence, I had everything laid out before me, a lot of which I'd experienced but hadn't named: crushes; love; lust, the power of intimacy; looming adulthood; surrendering; all in one song. Thanks, Tom Petty, for this song and so many others.

My buddy Marty owns a cabin in West Virginia overlooking the Cacapon River. We'd fantasize about inviting Petty to hang with us for a weekend—jamming to tunes; drinking beer and smoking weed; laughing; busting on politicians and talking rock and roll; just hanging out. So many fans have adolescent fantasies like this, but with Petty we could actually picture it, see him in front of us hanging onto the deck, peering into the trees below, a half grin on his face, making some crack, the way we couldn't imagine Keef or Prince, or even Bruce. We knew, somehow, that we'd all get along, that he'd put his fame and fortune beside him and just chill. Ridiculous, I know. But his songs and low-key demeanor made the fantasy tantalizing, asked that we keep him close to us. We'll miss you, Tom. Rest in Peace.

Sunday, October 18, 2020


Our foster kitten has been Googling while we're not looking. I don't know if I should be worried. Can anyone help me break the code?

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Nothing changes

The last several years have been stormy for Lydia Loveless. Bumps in the road have been well documented: her split from her husband and bandmate Ben Lamb; a messy entanglement with and departure from her longtime label Bloodshot over sexual harassment allegations; a move from her native Ohio to North Carolina. It's tempting to call her great new record her "divorce album," the latest attempt in an unhappily long tradition of an artist working out marital woes in song and lyric, but that would be limiting. Daughter does begin with the line "Welcome to my bachelor pad" and closes with "Carolina lost my identity, or it's coming in the mail, either way I'm not the same, and it isn't just a change of place," yet in between, Loveless sings about loss and disappointments, gains and setbacks, in eternal ways, moving from her own private travails to sketch out a persona that morphs into a silhouette of rueful longing, cut with cynicism and humor. As all great artists do, she moves from experience that begins in the dark to a shared understanding of what makes all of us get up in the mornings, uncertain that today's going to be any better than yesterday.

Working with a basic lineup of Todd May and Jay Gasper on guitars and bass and George Hondroulis on drums, Loveless moves between her guitar and keyboards, nudging melancholy lyrics into the shape of melancholy songs. The alt country twang of the earlier records is gone—there's a pedal steel on only two tracks—but if the edges of her sound have been smoothed, the cowpunk propulsion tempered, the stuff she sings about's no less urgent and raw. She occasionally ups the tempo to fight the odds, as in "Never," in which she drolly identifies not as a liberated woman but as a "country bumpkin dilettante" who carries pain around; the song's upbeat against the confession, but doesn't really solve anything. What's she pushing against? Folk whom she's wronged, or been wronged by, navigating between the poles of the one who hurts and who's hurt. Often it sounds as if she's singing to herself, as in the opener "Dead Writer," where she acknowledges "I don't want to disappoint you anymore"—but who's the you? Another, or the bumpkin in the mirror? Daughter is a sad album, spiked with sorrowful imagery, and, as always, Loveless's voice, which is both assertive and vulnerable, sometimes in the same line, gives that sadness dimension and gravity, reminds us that though sadness is an abstract zone, at its most genuine it's earthbound. 

"Dead Writer"'s interest in art and legacy signals one of Daughter's chief concerns: work, the value it brings against the lofty promises it makes. A trio of songs addresses the dilemmas of a singer who's never shied away from singing about her vocation (see among others "Paid" from her debut The Only Man). In the lyrically clever "Wringer," she laments "I want to be a symphony but I'm just a singer, and all that singing ever does is run me through the ringer." In "Can't Think," she asks, "Why can't I just close the door and let the work be the reward," repeating that question later and wondering why her notebook and instruments won't allow her to be "more than yours." In the closing "Don't Bother Mountain," she sings, "I've been patiently taking my time, or I'm just lazy, your guess is as good as mine"—and the whip-lash of that burns every time I listen. The arrangement of "Can't Think" plods and move sideways, frustrated, the phrase the work is the reward repeated like a hopeful mantra.

The title track is the album's standout, and one of the greatest songs Loveless has written. She's singing, again, to a man who's made present by his absence, who's taken off or been chased off, it's unclear, but for whom the singer still has some hope. "I wanna be a part of you," she sings, but it's not enough, there's too much between them still. Then the kicker: "If I gave you a daughter would you open up?" She repeats the question later, adding, "would it be enough?" The question is enormous and also fragile, and the music is tentative, gently searching, the honesty in the proposition so hot that it has to be approached carefully lest it combust. "Daughter" is a frightfully adult song, if an adult can be someone so scared of yet hungry for communion that she stands on the outside of things, wondering. And of course an adult is that someone, whose honest skepticism is as well-worn as anyone else's courage. We have Loveless' five albums to prove it.

In "Love Is Not Enough," she implores someone to tell her how it feels "to always see everything in a major key." I'm not surprised that she has trouble imagining what that feels like. A few years back I wrote, "Every note Lydia Loveless sings sounds as if it's in a minor key."  The final words of Daughter are "everything's changed," and of course I don't believe it. Loveless will keep writing songs that stubbornly, painfully, yet with wry humor make it back to that point before—ever the adult—she has to start all over again.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Jerry Lee turns 85

Jerry Lee Lewis turns 85 today. In recognition, I spoke with Paul Ingles over at PRX about Lewis's tumultuous career, oversized talent, and considerable legacy. Tune in to hear music critics Anthony DeCurtis and Mark Kemp weigh in on The Killer, as well. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

"With that kind of music"

Two paragraphs from two books I'm currently reading:

"Sam tried to imagine Grace Slick bellowing out at the enemy."
With that kind of music, why didn’t the North Vietnamese just lay down their weapons and get stoned? If they had understood English, maybe the music would have won the war. But now, listening to “All You Need Is Love,” she realized how naive the words were. Love didn’t even solve things for two people, much less the whole world, she thought. But it wasn’t only the words. Sometimes the music was full of energy and hope and the words were just the opposite. Emmett had said rock-and-roll was happy music about sad stuff.
"Almost everything of interest in New York City lies in some degree of proximity to music." 
If you are in your teens or twenties—and who isn’t—pretty much everything you do apart from your day job has something to do with music. And it isn’t even just the permanent soundtrack on your stereo and in your head. The music is your spur. You were led to the city by music. You were fourteen or fifteen and wanted to crawl inside the music. The music was immense, an entire world immeasurably different from the sad one you were born into. If you could figure out how to get in, the music would suffuse you. You wouldn’t even need an instrument: you would become one with the music and it would pour from you like light through gauze.
The first passage is from Bobbie Ann Mason's novel In Country, the second from the title essay of Luc Sante's new collection. Mason was writing in the eighties, Sante in the 2010s, yet both were looking back to the early 1970s. Sam, whose father was killed in Vietnam, is eager to learn and know more about the war so she peppers local veterans with questions. Music threads its way through the novel, and here, having learned that soldiers routinely grooved to rock and roll while in country, Sam tries to imagine how songs might've changed things—politically, culturally—before giving in to ruefully to the truth. Sante's writing about the magic mayhem of New York City, pre- and post-Punk, when songs scored everyone's daily lives with urgency and a kind of magic-ball prophecy, flash-lighting dark corners and opening doors that Sante and his buzzing twenty-something friends didn't even know were there, let alone closed. His reckoning—of his, and our, aging, of the perils of excess, and of general cultural obsolesce—comes a bit later in the essays. But it comes.

Sunday, September 27, 2020


Like so many others beleaguered by the pandemic, noxious politics, and stay-at-home guidelines, we've been watching—and rewatching (and rewatching)—The Great British Baking Show as a balm against daily strife. While enjoying the second episode of the series's third season in which vicar's wife Sarah-Jane "freestyles" her plaited bread and suffers for it, I was waiting for something that never came. I'd remembered her embarrassed confession on-camera that she couldn't manage even a simple three-strand plait of her daughter's hair, much to her shame. And I remember her crying as she said this and, later in the episode, reckoning with her self-perceived failures as a Mum. Turns out that I'd invented this bit of narrative; she had mentioned her lame plaiting skills, but never upbraided herself for it in the weepy manner I'd remembered. I'd taken her bit of self-mockery and turned it into a story in which she'd allowed her meager motherly talents to get under her skin and define her as a poor mother. It's interesting to me what grows in the mind. Flannery C'Connor wrote that "A story really isn't any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind," and I guess that was what I was doing with Sarah-Jane: letting her story hang on and expand—except what I wrote was fiction, steering her story into places it hadn't gone (as edited for television, anyway). I took her small confession where I wanted it to go, into melodrama, a mother-daughter dynamic rich with pathos. I was surprised when that scene didn't play out as I watched last night, but then I was struck by where the imagination goes, adding rooms to a story as one adds rooms to a house. This is how fiction works, obviously, but this is also how our day-to-day minds work, thickening memories with sentiment they don't have, building up dramas in our head, adding dimension to our ordinary days by allowing events to lead to stories which expand and hang on, blurring the line between nonfiction and fiction, between fact and desire. What the imagination wants. Anyway, I wish Sarah-Jane and her daughter well, wherever they are.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The people who listen to "People Who Died," cont'd

Periodically, I check in at 3 Chord Philosophy to scan the comments on The Jim Carroll Band's "People Who Died." (1,526 viewers have weighed in since I uploaded the song; my visits in 2018 and last year are here and here.) I'm fascinated by the community that forms out of, and as, YouTube comments, a gathering place akin, at times, to an intimate party or a group of strangers around a merch table at a club: commiserations, sighs, shy one-off responses or testimonials. Amidst the typical show-offy, tone-deaf, and/or "[whatever show or movie] brought me here" comments are unusually candid replies from grieving folk who've recently lost a loved or or who've been laboring with loss for years, and who hear, and rock out to, Carroll's frank litany of senseless or otherwise confounding deaths, and find release, or at least something to identify with. And with the Covid pandemic, a new tragic voice has entered the room. As long as this song's heard, it'll speak.