Thursday, December 24, 2020

Thoughts on home, ctd

This time last year, I wrote about my and wife's decision to stay put for the holidays after decades of traveling east to visit family and friends. "This is not to say that I don't feel the pang of absence," I wrote. "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.

I didn't know, of course, that I was writing that on the cusp of the deadliest year in United States' history. My musings last year now feel quaint, if not archaic. In 2020 the very definition of home has been radically challenged and reimagined, those with homes—to hunker down in, or to mournfully avoid—and those without forced to reckon with a new understanding of what behind closed doors means. Because we'd made the decision to eschew Christmas/New Years traveling, staying put is relatively easy for us, but I feel for those for whom flying or driving from home to home is a profound and crucial emotional component of their lives; for many, the occasion is the only time to see family and friends. And I feel for the malcontents, too, and, more seriously, the members of dysfunctional families for whom "the holidays" are torture—even those folk, forced now to stay home, may face a startling renewal of the desire for familial intimacies, even the faking of them. Home's pull is surprisingly strong; it reaches across miles and through bolted doors.

I and millions of teachers lost the classroom this year, a second home of sorts for our students. What began as a novel, if enforced, twist to pedagogy—the delight of seeing my students' faces pop up one by during those first few weeks of Zooming; the genuine and serious attempt the vast majority of them made in a difficult situation—soon became a chore. I won't be teaching in the classroom until Fall 2021, yet that's hardly guaranteed, and face another semester at home reimagining this second home. The parallels are unhappy: as students can't enjoy communal experiences of the classroom, many can't enjoy the familiarities and comforts of holiday homes. We're all in the same situation, yet that kind of "community" really doesn't deliver. We want to hug, probably even those of us allergic to them; we want to hang out in bars and restaurants; some of us might even be pining for odoriferous rest stops on long drives. Picturing being at a rock and roll show, elbow-to-elbow with other sweaty folk packed into a small, loud room, feels like science fiction, if only because I can't envision a point when it will be reality again. 

And so: we're home, mandated to travel as infrequently as possible, an awful situation for many, yet perhaps an occasion during which we can take stock of what a home is, or can be, or might be, or should be—for those of us fortunate enough to have one, and for those who, for whatever reason, again find themselves on the outside looking in. As I write this, it's frigid in northern Illinois, and I think of those for whom home is a far less sturdy proposition than it is for most. If you can, donate to a local food bank, or to front-line medical workers. I have no idea what I'll be writing a year from now. Let's hope that whatever it is I write from a place, and you read in a place, that we again call home in all of its warmth, safety, and doors to a welcoming, and welcomed, outside.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The way you perceive things

Keith Streng
In 1992, writer and former musician Holly George-Warren wrote “Into the Abyss" (published in the November/December 1992 issue of Option, reprinted three years later in Rock She Wrote: Women Write about Rock, Pop, and Rap, edited by Evelyn McDonell and Ann Powers). In it, she discusses the prevalence of drug use in rock and roll—from booze and weed, to junk and hallucinogens—talking to a number of musicians about how drugs have affected them and their bands over the years. Johnny Thunders's travails and ultimate demise cast a long shadow across the words. 

Among Chris Mars, Lydia Lynch, Bob Mould, and Bootsy Collins, George-Warren spoke to the Fleshtones' Keith Streng (George-Warren is married to former Fleshtones bass player Robert Warren, who left the band in 1988). When he spoke with her, Streng was a good six years away from his own sobriety, and had a couple decades of alcohol and drug abuse behind him. His comments comprise a triptych of sorts one might title The Appeal, the Effect, the Danger.

“I did acid back in high school and that changes you forever, and the way you perceive things.”

“It’s a real social thing, playing guitar in front of people. Everybody’s there to drink, get high, and watch a band, so it’s good to get into that mode of thinking, that atmosphere. I like to drink before shows—but you don’t want to go onstage too drunk; you just want to be loose and do a good show. Partying is inherent in rock ’n’ roll.”

“I was using Ecstasy before it became illegal. I love it. On some road trips I’d do it every night for twelve nights in a row. It was great to play on, to party on, to come up with ideas. I also love speed, but the problem with speed is that it doesn’t last forever. It’s a wonderful drug; you're amplifying every cell in your brain, your body. You can do it for days and days, but when you finally say, ‘I’ve got to become normal,’ it hurts. It’s a hard drug.”

There was still a long road between those comments and Streng's bottoming out. He spoke candidly to me about his alcoholism and heroin addiction for Sweat. He's one of the survivors.

Still from 2020 video of Streng's cover of Johnny Thunders's "I'm A Boy, I'm A Girl" 

Monday, December 21, 2020


I tend to seek out or remain open for moments of bliss when I'm at a show. This can come inside of a highly anticipated moment—a favorite song, say—or it can come as a surprise—in a new song, or in a gesture a band member makes onstage or someone makes right in front of you. The feeling in those moments is a kind of communal sonic saturation that's difficult replicate anywhere else.

Andi Coulter gets that, too, as she considers proto No Wave, a movement I never warmed to. She writes interestingly about noise in rock and roll in her provocative new 33 1/3 book about Suicide's debut album. Alan Vega and Marty Rev's confrontational lo-fi punk sound buried blues changes and pop desires deep beneath feedback-drenched ambient electronica. They were wildly avante, ahead of the curve even in 1970s downtown Manhattan, and hugely influential. "Suicide’s goal was to create communication," Coulter writes. "Noise for them is not merely a shock tactic, but engagement."
Noise is often categorized as the distraction, the production of sound that we actively seek to avoid. Noise is an unwanted sound. Today, there is no shortage of think pieces warning us of the dangers of constant noise as we become an ever-more distracted culture. 
She adds, "Though it may sound counterintuitive, the same mindfulness that silence brings is exactly what listeners experience when engaging with Suicide’s noise. In an extreme noise show an audience becomes momentarily transfixed in the experience. If the sound is so punishing that all one can think about is relieving the pain, this leads to a kind of ever-presentness within the sound." Instead of music as escape—Suicide were known to lock the doors of a venue to trap the audience inside—this type of music "specifically offers no back door to alleviation."

What a killer hook, righteous riff, or heart-sending change in change under stage lights can do for me, industrial atonal noise can do for others. "There is something alluring about being sonically overwhelmed," Coulter observes. "Without the fear of real danger, experiencing the potentiality of fear allows us to rethink the limits of possibility."
Suicide’s danger was self-contained, and as such, they shattered both musical expectations and social boundaries. Before a note was played, audiences would be negatively primed seeing a “band” consisting of only two members and no guitar. Couple this with a sonic onslaught of distortion and sprinkle in a caged-animal frontman who decides the division between stage and spectator is irrelevant. It is the perfect storm for contained chaos.
This kind of live experience creates "an impersonal intimacy—one that allows for a potentiality in powerlessness." Noise music doesn't shock so much as it "allows for a deeper understanding of one another as individuals." 

Turn it up, if you're so inclined.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Rock steady: 4 bands, 1 story

Doug Brod's terrific They Just Seem a Little Weird: How KISS, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, and Starz Remade Rock and Roll does what all successful music books do: finds the pulse of an artist or a band and then tunes in the larger vibrations happening all around them. In this case, Brod tells the complex story of four bands, KISS, Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, and Starz, that form a sonic and cultural constellation beginning in the mid 1970s and never truly leave each other's orbit. 

Man, he's spending an awful lot of time on Gene Simmons's solo album, I thought as I read the Introduction, until I realized that, like a lens focusing, that's Brod's modus operandi; he's drawn to sometimes surprising moments of synthesis. Simmons's solo album features members of each of the four bands; Brod spends the rest of his book detailing the many ways these bands, their members, and/or their associates collided in studios, stages, and hotel rooms. Among countless examples: Cheap Trick recorded their debut in the Record Plant in New York City, where a bit earlier KISS had recorded Destroyer, Aerosmith Rocks, and Starz their debut, similar producers, engineers, and managers in the heady mix. The bands met and re-met in various iterations, and in differing degrees of admiration and rancor, for decades. Brod must've affixed a giant, police investigation-style evidence board on his wall as he wrote, the connections between and among the bands, in studios and boardrooms, and among management, radio, promoters, and fans, having created a thick web. Frankly, it was hard for me to keep track of all of the ways these bands intertwined down the decades. That Brod's dogged flow chart of a book is as readable and narratively appealing as it is is testament to the author's considerable writerly and research gifts for gathering up the many pieces and assembling the puzzle. 

What was it about these four bands that spoke to Brod? "For one thing, all of them are just a bit . . . different," he writes late in the book in an insightful passage. "So were a few other American bands at the time. Alice Cooper, the Tubes, and Sparks, to name three, all trafficked in theatrics and humor."
But with the exception of Cooper’s, their music was too brainy and their appearance too outré to garner any lasting mass success. The kids didn’t want their rock in quotation marks or, in the case of Sparks’ Ron Mael, a Hitler mustache.

The kids were, however, "ready to embrace maximum exaggeration. KISS might have seemed like supernatural comic-book beasties, but anyone could tart themselves up to look just like them (and many still do), in defiance of peers who’d mock the band and, by extension, their devotees."

The two studs and two duds in Cheap Trick did nothing if not upend the traditional notion all members of a band had to look cool to be cool. Aerosmith, with striped unitards, flouncy scarves, and gonad-squishing dungarees, took typical hard-rock chic to its logical illogical extreme. As for Starz, they were ultimately an endearing composite—KISS and Aerosmith fighting to the death armed with Cheap Trick’s pointed hooks—spangled perpetual openers punching the clock for rock and roll.

The metaphor I walk away from the book with is of the four bands as close but squabbling siblings: KISS and Aerosmith the older, bossy twins; Starz the gifted middle child clamoring for attention; Cheap Trick the laid back little brother with attitude and a cynical sense of humor. Unsurprisingly for me, the true heroes of the book is the band from Rockford; they've made their suspect career moves, to be sure, yet their jaded humor, endless gigging in whatever venue would have them, and shoulder-shrugging modesty in the face of industry indignities are appealing, and appealingly narrated (especially when Bun E. Carlos's holding forth). KISS and Aerosmith come across exactly as you'd expect. (As I look at the book's sources and notes, it appears that Brod didn't obtain access to members of Aerosmith, the few folks he didn't directly talk to for this supremely well-researched book. As a consequence their presence in the book is relatively muted.) I wasn't terribly familiar with Starz—though I was happy to learn that an earlier version of the band, Fallen Angels, had released one of the first songs I fell in love with as a kid, a cover of "Just Like Romeo and Juliet"—yet their story is sadly familiar: they had the looks, chops, live appeal, and management to break big but it never happened for them on the scale of the three other bands. Their ongoing intersections with those bands make for a rich, multi-leveled story and reveal the seemingly infinite interconnectedness among musicians, producers, management, and bookers. Amidst petty jealousies mixed with genuine admiration, friendly rivalries developed among the bands, who alternately opened and headlined for each other, appeared on each other's records, and/or co-wrote (or attempted) songs with each other. 

Brod's as interested in the legacies of these four bands, and of the influences they had on younger musicians. Among the folks he spoke with are Sebastian Bach (Skid Row), Kim Thayil (Soundgarden), Ginger Wildheart (Wildheart), Gary Cherone (Extreme), Robert DeLeo (Stone Temple Pilots), Ken Stringfellow (Posies), and Steven McDonald (Redd Kross and Melvins), nearly all of whom shared a love of the bands from adolescence onward, coming of age in an era when spectacle, sleaze, excess, and humor came in equally potent measure on the radio, the turntable, magazines, and television. Brod quotes Jonathan Daniel, of Candy and Electric Angel and later a manager of Fall Out Boy, Panic! At the Disco, and Green Day, who acknowledges that "all it took was one magazine’s promotional effort to introduce him to KISS and Aerosmith and set him on a career path."
Creem had an offer where if you subscribed you got either Destroyer or Rocks,” he recalls. “So that, for me, is the link between those two records, because I got Destroyer and my friend got Rocks. Then we taped each other’s records.” Which led to his discovery of Starz. "I bought Starz because it had the Rock Steady logo on it. And then Cheap Trick opened for KISS. So they’re all super-connected."
I think of Brod's book as companion of sorts to Michael Walker's What You Want Is in the Limo: On the Road with Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, and the Who in 1973, the Year the Sixties Died and the Modern Rock Star Was Born. Although Brod brings the four bands up to date by its finish, the roots of their connectedness took in the mid- and late-70s, and his book's a "finish" to Walker's look at Rock Stardom in the early-70s. The decade—sprawling, excessive, gross, and beautiful—gave us a loud spectacle of arena-ready, over-the-top bands, some of whose songs birthed Classic Rock, others of whose songs radio ignored. In telling the story of KISS, Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, and Starz, Brod provides a detailed time- and date-stamped journey back to a time when bands could be a little wild, a little weird, sell millions of records, and, if not precisely remake rock and roll, can guarantee a future of like-spirited bands.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Watch this: American Beat '86

Once again ScottishTeeVee has disinterred a relic of a bygone Super Rock era, this time the full “American Independence Day Celebration” show on July 4, 1986 at the Klubfoot, in Hammersmith, London. The Fleshtones sprint through a fairly typical set of the era ("Screamin' Skull," "Legend of a Wheelman," "Watch This," "Return to the Haunted House"), play a clutch of songs ("Treat Her Like a Lady," "Way Down South," "Too Late to Run") that they'd record a few months later for Fleshtones Vs. Reality, offer one rarity ("High on Drugs"), and among the cover songs, feature Otis Williams's "Panic" and the Fever Tree's "San Francisco Girls" that intrepid Fleshtones fan and Next Big Thing honcho Lindsay Hutton would issue as a limited-release fan club single later in the year. 

At this point, the Fleshtones were still smarting from the negative reactions in the U.K. press to their initial visit a few years earlier. "The show was well-attended," I wrote in Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band, "but the band’s hostility toward England remained dogged. 'We received our Independence Day show, especially the reaction in the press, as a bitter disappointment,' Peter said." 
Some journalists were on the Fleshtones’ side. Nick Jones attended the show and recalls that near the end of the performance The Fleshtones led “a trail of happy smashed punters out of the dancehall down the rather elegant stairways into the foyer, out of the front doors, out into the smeared neon rush of Hammersmith Broadway traffic speeding past, and down the entrance stairs leading to the subterranean maze of tunnels.” The paisley pied pipers literally enjoyed an English following on this sunny day. “I regained some semblance of consciousness in the band’s hotel bar awhile later being interrogated by The Beastie Boys, who to my complete and utter amazement seemed to have heard of me,” Jones continues. “I can remember looking around and seeing the smiling faces of Peter, Keith, and Bill, etc., and all their happy entourage chattering, laughing and grooving about the bar—and probably thinking to myself that this was indeed rock & roll paradise, and that absolutely nothing else ever needs to happen again.” 
Jones added, “I don’t think anything else ever did.” 

A raucous version of "Land of 1000 Dances," which the band didn't play all that often, leads to the show closer—"American Beat," naturally. You can see the Fleshtones depart the venue at the end of the video, Part Two of the evening commencing. 

 Can you hear the American sound? They did, and now we can again.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Sound Affects @ 40

40 years ago, The Jam released their brilliant Sound Affects. In my latest for The Normal School, I take a long look at an album that's never left my head or my heart.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Super Vindicators hard at work

ScottishTeeVee has once again posted a Super Rock gem, a full (maybe) Fleshtones show at Nightmoves in Glasgow, Scotland, from November 3, 1983. The Fleshtones were in Europe at the tail end of supporting Hexbreaker!, and they dip into that album as well a bag of covers. They open with "New Scene," then barrel through the Standells' "Try It," "Screamin' Skull," "Legend of a Wheelman," the Split Ends' "Rich With Nothin'," The You Know Who Group's "Roses Are Red My Love," "Shadow-line," "The World Has Changed," the Ventures' "2,000 Pound Bee," "The Dreg," "Stop Fooling Around," "Super Vindicators," Marvin Gaye's "Baby, Don't You Do It," Edwin Starr's "All Around The World," John Lee Hooker's "Burning Hell," Crazy Elephant's "Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'," and the Sonics' "Boss Hoss."

The band's on hysterically good form this night: during "2,000 Pound Bee," Peter Zaremba and Gordon Spaeth engage in some sort of ritual dance involving drum sticks, before covering drummer Bill Milhizer and his kit entirely in a black drape emblazoned with a devil during "The Dreg" (Milhizer's eventually rescued by a sympathetic roadie); during "Stop Fooling Around," Zaremba knocks his organ completely off of the stage and then wears the legs of a broken stool around his neck; during an extended "Vindicators," Zaremba and Spaeth drag two floor toms onto the stage to pound, the job eventually taken over by a couple of well-oiled, enthusiastic fans who the guys have to finally drag off; an intense ten-minute "Baby, Don't You Do It" is stripped to its bones and ends with the band striking their patented Powerstance pose (originated on this very tour), while "All Around The World" is played mostly on the beery floor, where Zaremba and the band literally get the crowd down. Frustratingly, the video cuts out after "Boss Hoss" as the band starts another tune, so who knows when in the hell this show actually ended.

I love that this insanity was recorded, yet, as always, a Fleshtones show is best documented in-person and on-the-ground, where if you're standing three-deep at the back bar you may end up having the best spot of the night if only because Zaremba shows up next to you and performs a third of the show there. As it is, Zaremba's off stage plenty, his voice booking through the dark club, a reminder that a Fleshtones show is truly dimensional, untenthered to the stage itself. Enjoy some Super Rock madness at its best.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

On grief

The month John Lennon was murdered my grandmother also died, these two losses the first I'd feel keenly, though each grief originated from a very different source. My family visited my mom's parents in the small town of Coldwater, in western Ohio, for a week each summer, trips I cherished, yet I felt as if I knew John better, or was closer to him, anyway. My immersion in the family copies of the "Red" and "Blue" albums affected me as profoundly as any expression of intimate family love. When my grandmother died, my mom wept openly on her bed, among the first displays of unbridled emotion I'd seen her surrender to; after Lennon was murdered, I gathered in my sister's bedroom with one of my brothers, the three of us wet-eyed and stunned into silent disbelief. 

All of those tears commingle now in memory as my first headlong descent into the strangeness of grief. Neither loss was as personal as losses would come for me later, of course. I knew my mom's mom well, and loved her, but from the reserved distance that most children choose; I didn't know Lennon personally but knew and possibly loved him as deeply as anyone, it seemed. The man who sang "There's a Place," "No Reply," "Help," "Strawberry Fields Forever," Imagine," "Watching the Wheels" was now gone, bizarrely. I learned about the shooting on the radio in my bedroom as the news interrupted the Monday Night Football game I was idly listening to, and I learned about my grandmother's death in that awful moment in my parents' bedroom, where my mom sat with her face buried in her hands. In the following weeks I wordlessly pieced together how I was supposed to feel. One thing was oddly clear to me and that was that my response to Lennon's death was as sharp as my response to my grandmother's, one person I knew personally, one I didn't. What should have been a wide gap between my reactions was in fact uncomfortably narrow, and if you'd asked me in the months that followed which death was harder for me, I'd have answered you honestly only after I was sure that my mom was out of earshot. In retrospect, this is unsurprising: as a teenager I didn't know how to deal with intimate family loss, a rawly grieving mom, the profound weight of generations, but I knew how to deal with the loss of beloved if distant pop music figure, one who gave me countless hours of pleasures. I now forgive myself for my unspoken allegiance to the memory of John Lennon over the memory of Frances Mueller. At the time it was a vivid if puzzling lesson in the irrational nature of grief. 

By 1980, Lennon was an enormous figure in my life, looming as large as any friend or family member. The year before, I read, and subsequently clipped, an article in the "Style" section of the Washington Post about rumors the Beatles were going to reunite for a concert for the Vietnamese Boat People. This so-called news filled me with joy, and my friends and I thrilled to it that morning on the blacktop at St. Andrew the Apostle as we gathered to file in to classes. By this time I knew Beatles songs, and many Lennon solo songs, by heart, their lessons as potent and valuable as any I'd learn in school, in church, or around the family dinner table. After Lennon's death, as we all remember, his songs were everywhere, what my older brother's friend cynically (and correctly) dubbed "The Dead Lennon Factor" sending Double Fantasy up the charts. The tinkling of the bell at the start of the suddenly ubiquitous "(Just Like) Starting Over"—the irony of the title obvious to me, though I didn't know that word yet—now tolled for the onset of something other than a a pop song: the arrival of death and grief, personal and cultural, and the start of adulthood, or anyway my fumbling attempts at describing it.

Top photo by Bob Greun; bottom photo by Dad? Mom?

Friday, December 4, 2020

Larger than Life

For a long time I found it impossible to divorce KISS songs from the era in which I fell in love with them. A fourth and fifth grader during the year Destroyer and Rock and Roll Over were released, I came of age as a fan the next couple of years with Love Gun, Alive II, and Ace Frehley's solo album. I can call up in memory numerous songs from the mid- and late-1970s, be surprised by them online, or revisit them via archived digital copies of Billboard, and through they may import me back in time in either a nostalgic or an unpleasant way, no songs feel quite as inextricably linked to the age I heard them as KISS songs did. I can listen now to, say, "Cat Scratch Fever," which was released a few weeks prior to Love Gun, and though very much of its era, the song never feels quite as time- and date-stamped for me as "Christine Sixteen" or "Calling Dr. Love." Ditto Heart, the Eagles, Hall and Oates, Peter Frampton, any number of artists whose songs were all over the radio in 1976 and '77. Granted, those bands weren't wearing make up, spitting fire onstage, and pouring their blood into vats of red ink to illustrate their own line of comic books, yet a song's a song, a transistor radio at the public pool's the great leveler. KISS lived in another realm for me when I was a kid, larger than life, as much fantasy as sound. As such, the band was both elevated from their context—after KISS surpassed Slade, Alice Cooper, and the New York Dolls in outrageous spectacle, nobody was doing what KISS was doing—and imported deep into my DNA, where no other band lived, not even the Beatles. In his terrific memoir No Regrets, Frehley acknowledges that following the massive success of Alive and Destroyer, the band noticed younger and younger face-painted fans showing up at their shows, and Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley (and their accountants, presumably) were eager to play to them and pry many dollars from their parents. Frehley, for one, felt that such pandering was a death knell to his rockin' band. I was one of those kids. 

I turned my back on the band shortly after Dynasty was released in the spring of 1979; a newly minted teenager, I began looking for other, less childish rock and roll, a journey that led me from FM hard rock to New Wave to Punk and Indie, where I live today. A confession: for many years afterward I neglected KISS, which is odd because for a stretch there they were my absolute favorite band, an obsession shared with my younger brother. Marveling at the noise and spectacle of the songs and album art on Destroyer and Rock and Roll Over, we quickly bought Alive!—I'd remembered the radio hit from the year before, "Rock and Roll All Night"—which was the gateway to the band's first three albums, which my brother and I grew to love as much as Love Gun. I never saw KISS live, and, as I've written recently, could never seem to scratch together the allowance money to enlist in the KISS Army, but I truly loved the band and their songs—they were rocking, fun, and funny. Yet by the early 1980s I was done with them. Their songs stayed in the bottom drawer along with with my junior high essays and report cards. Sure, I'd occasionally play them with buddies or on my college radio show for ironic kicks, and I dug the grinning ways bands like Redd Kross, Hoodoo Gurus, and others subtly and not so subtly mined KISS for sources, but KISS failed to move me much after the 1970s (with the exception of Alive! and Frehley's songs and solo album which I've continued to love and crank since '78). The makeup-free era, the pandering MTV songs, the diminished cultural importance, my growing love for garage and punk rock all conspired to slot KISS in The Past, the Adolescent Past at that, where the songs I'd loved so much failed to transcend my childish immersion in them. 


Then in the early aughts I was in New York working on my book about the Fleshtones and hanging with my brother in his apartment in the East Village, when he pulled out our beloved KISS albums that he'd salvaged from our childhood. Through our tearful laughter and shared, intense nostalgia, we rocked into the small hours, much to the chagrin of his neighbors below, and the songs came back to me, shorn finally of their trappings from my childhood, stripped free of the makeup and costumes, as it were. I began to hear them again with fresh ears. They sounded enormous. Enough time had passed from my childhood that the songs had been freed from my memories, and I could again hear a young, smart, ravenous band and marvel at the blend of hard rock and theatricality we were lucky at the time to be deliriously blinded by. Lyrics that I thought were lame beyond repair now sounded evocatively, struttingly of-the-era. The hooks, the humor, the bad ass riffing, the gang choruses, Frehley's solos—wow, it turned out that KISS was a damn good rock and roll band in the 70s, before crass commercialism and lesser instincts took over, derailing the band's early hunger and primal drives as the spectacle grew brighter and brighter. Hey, a riff's a riff. Over the years I've been gathering on vinyl the KISS albums that I'd turned my back on, grooving again to "Room Service" (Dressed To Kill), "King of the Night Time World" (Destroyer), "I Want You" and "Take Me" (Rock and Roll Over), "Got Love For Sale" and "Almost Human" (Love Gun), "Larger Than Life" (Alive II). 

And the loose, swaggering, loosely bluesy "Got To Choose," a song I'm hearing for the first time all over again. 

Photo via San Francisco Chronicle.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Down at the Rock and Roll Club, 2012-2020

For kicks I've gathered some photos that I've taken at shows over the past decade or so. We all miss live gigs dearly; looking through these images brought a bit of the beery, ear-ringing rush back to me. I'm an amateur (at best) photographer. I lack the photo journalist's access and higher-end gear. These were taken with variously crappy phones, in always-tricky lighting, a beer or three in, usually as I was jostled, rammed, or otherwise flying about as the band held forth. Hence the iffy quality of many of these, a feel to them that I like, as the blurry or inelegantly composed photo at a rock and roll show feels more like a memory and less like a promo shot. I try to catch on a musician's face or in her gesture images that feel like the moments we're in, a tableau of attitude and sound, and hopefully I'm minimally obnoxious to those around me as I'm doing it. "Onstage, you're three seconds ahead of life," Keith Richards wrote. Camera in hand, I'm playing catch up. There's as always a bit of luck involved, both of the good and bad kind; plenty of photos I took at some of my favorite shows down the years just didn't come out well. Here's to being down at the rock and roll club again, soon. (The above photo was snapped, from the ground, at a Hives show at The Vic, in Chicago, on June 30, 2012.)

Detroit Cobras, Brauer House, Lombard IL, August 18, 2017

Detroit Cobras, Brauer House, Lombard IL, August 18, 2017

The Fleshtones, WFMU's Monty Hall, Jersey City NJ, July 22, 2016

Guitar Wolf, Beat Kitchen, Chicago IL, September 3, 2016

The Hives, The Vic, Chicago IL, May 21, 2019

The Hives, The Vic, Chicago IL, May 21, 2019

The Longshot, Black Cat, Washington D.C., May 25, 2018

Lydia Loveless, The House Cafe, DeKalb IL, September 17, 2015

Nashville Pussy, Brauer House, Lombard IL, May 25, 2019

Nashville Pussy, Brauer House, Lombard IL, May 25, 2019

Paul Weller, The Vic, Chicago IL, June 17, 2015

Real Kids, Empty Bottle, Chicago IL, May 25, 2015

Redd Kross, The Metro, Chicago IL, September 26, 2019

Reigning Sound, Beat Kitchen, Chicago IL, July 27, 2013

Roky Erickson, Lincoln Hall, Chicago IL, November 9, 2018

The Sonics, Double Door, Chicago IL, February 27, 2014

Ty Segall, Empty Bottle, Chicago IL, June 22, 2015

Ty Segall, The Vic, Chicago IL, April 8, 2018

White Mystery, Lincoln Hall, Chicago IL, November 9, 2018

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! 💖

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 Université de Bourgogne Franche-Comté 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.