Thursday, April 30, 2020

"Touch Me, Baby"

In my latest for The Normal School: A Literary Magazine, I write about the nearness of record buying, rock and roll shows, and other physical intimacies that have been taken from us.

Opening graphs:
Reckless Records, Wicker Park, Chicago. I’m sitting on the floor, wrist-deep in crates of 45s. Folks walk past, chatting; I overhear one couple rehashing an odd dinner party from the other night, three kids exclaiming over finding a record that their dad likes. They move past me, knees at my eye-line, sometimes pausing and standing inches away from me, rifling through a bin of LPs, in a tableau that’s very difficult to imagine now. 
As I write, vast swaths of the country are under stay-at-home orders. Social distancing has become the surreal norm. Streets and grocery stores in my small town are quiet, semi-filled. My local record store, Green Tangerine, closed a few weeks ago. The last time I’d visited, a couple of days before the Coronavirus fears and a new way of living settled upon us, the employee at the register offered the use of a hand sanitizer and disposable plastic gloves moments after I’d entered. “My boss says we have to,” she explained from the opposite end of the store.
Weeks earlier, I’d been engaged in a favorite pastime at a few record stores in Chicagoland and up in Rockford, regular joints that I hit every couple of months as new crops of used 45s and LPs arrive. What the last couple of weeks have illustrated to me in stark clarity is the thinginess of crate diving, and how badly I miss the pursuit, the presence of hands that have held these records before me—from the original owner to the scores of others who may have owned them, played them, loved them, lost them, to the record store proprietors themselves. (Somehow, it had never occurred to me how rough of a time a germaphobe must have in a used record store or thrift shop.) I’m prohibited now from leisurely flipping through a box of 45s or a bin of LPs at my favorite stores or somewhere out on the road, looking for that long-sought b-side or rare mono pressing, alert to the surprises that any motley assortment of vinyl might deliver me on a lucky day. I might come upon a record I hadn’t seen in decades, say, or a picture sleeve unique to a U.K. release, maybe a dare purchase of a beat-up, scratched single, or a record issued on that subsidiary label that I think was based in Memphis (I think) or which design or mod colors on the label I just really dig. I deeply miss this poor-man’s treasure hunting, where fifty cents might land me a seven-inch that I’ll cherish forever. I find myself pausing in the middle of the afternoon, sniffing the air for the musty scent of thrift shops, eyeing my boxes of records unhappily, wishing I could toss in a few more records to keep the party going....
You can read the full essay here.

For an appropriate soundtrack, check out my recent visit with Michael Newman on Hinky Dinky Time with Uncle Michael on WFMU's Give the Drummer Radio, where I spun and talked about my recent 7-inch vinyl finds before the lockdown.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Happy Birthday, Highway to Hell

My 33 1/3 book on AC/DC's Highway To Hell is ten years old. A decade on, the album's blend of riffs, humor, and attitude still delivers like few R&R albums do. 

Jesse Fink, author of the acclaimed Bon: The Last Highway, called it "One of the five most important books about AC/DC." So raise a toast, crank it up, and get your Bon on, if you haven't!

Monday, April 27, 2020

Overheard on the flipside

Spencer Davis Group, Jack Reno

The Spencer Davis Group, "I Can't Get Enough Of It" (b-side, 1967)

Jack Reno, "You're Gonna Have To Come And Get It" b-side (1967)

Friday, April 24, 2020

Alone, not lonely

I've been taking more walks lately, an escape from the hemmed-in ennui of these strange times. Privileged in this way, I'm grateful that I can get outside, stroll along the modest river in town toward and into the large park, where I can follow an "alternative trail"—years ago someone, well, many people actually, took the liberty of carving a quieter path in the woods that runs windingly parallel to the official, paved trail—, gaze at the creek, or simply sit on a bench and enjoy the sun and birds, the occasional jogger or fellow enthusiast giving wide berth. What I wasn't expecting was the way these park visits have brought me back to earlier woods. Growing up in suburban Washington D.C., I was very fortunate to live a short walk away from the sprawling Wheaton Regional Park, where I'd lose myself for hours, with friends and my siblings and also, even more pleasurably, on my own, walking the dark paths beneath enormous trees, playing, or later in my ironic teens, goofing on the playground slides and swings and Old MacDonald Farm. I caught fourteen sunfish at Pine Lake with my buddy Bill Pino; we tossed them back, but that number has become mythic in my inner boasting down the decades. Mostly I remember the quiet trails, the birds above and the various woodland animals scurrying about, living their own parallel lives with intense, other-language purpose and a grand and humbling refusal to acknowledge my existence. I liked being a kid in these hours, away from chores at home or stomach-churning playground politics, before puzzling crushes on girls took dominance without my authorization, when I could vibe on being alone but not lonely.

Via the miracle of Google Street View, above, I'm brought right back to the corner of Nairn Road and Hermitage Avenue in Wheaton, Maryland, the dark, inviting entrance to my woods.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Lopate on Lounging

I'm finding the writing of Phillip Lopate a great balm in these pandemic times. His skepticism, humor, and self-effacement are tonics against the global anxiety we're all manifesting while locked down at home. Yet, as with almost everything I read—or watch or listen to—these days, I'm finding particularly ironic notes that were unintended by the writer. In his terrific essay "A Passion For Waiting," in Against Joie De Vivre (1989; reissued by Nebraska in 2008), Lopate confronts his distaste for hanging around in for long hours bars and coffeehouses. Now: what a luxury to chide oneself for! The hours that some are able to spend lounging around in public, drinking, holding forth, or cultivating a loner persona, and which Lopate laments that he lacks the constitution for, now seem to be, absurdly, a kind of Golden Era, even though the stay-at-home orders we (well, most of us) are following are only weeks old. Many details in books and movies and songs—road trips! sold-out shows! Happy Hour!—now cast in sharp relief the communal freedom of movement and gathering that until mid March I took for granted.

Anyway, Lopate wrote his essay in the 1980s, a time when he was living and teaching in Houston, affecting a man-about-town, bachelor lifestyle. "One of the things for which I chastise myself most often is that I have never learned to sit around bars or cafes for hours, just being a regular," he complains. "I envy people who can, because they seem somehow effortlessly to be able to make themselves part of a community—and in big cities, any sense of fellowship is at a premium." On occasion, Lopate will gaze through through the window of his corner Irish bar at "the laughing patrons" and "once or twice a year I even make myself go in, nursing a beer and gazing at the ball game while trying to imbibe the atmosphere." Here Lopate makes a characteristic turn toward the contrary: "But as soon as some stranger who has had a few begins to tell me his life story, covering me with undeserved tenderness one moment and arbitrary scorn the next, I can't help thinking about making my getaway. And, of course, the barfly can see that in your eyes, no matter how far gone he is."

Also typical of Lopate is his anxiety that he was born in the wrong century and thus he's missed the real thing, in this case the coffeehouse "as it throve in its legendary prime, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries," not the joint "as it crops up now, with its fly-in-amber air of studied indolence." London coffeehouses, he reminds us, "played an immense role in the intellectual life of that time: the latest plays, satires, political pamphlets were circulated, discussed, sometimes even written there, the witty remarks of a Swift or Goldsmith were sparked there, and quickly made the rounds; Addison and Steele's newssheets, Tatler and Spectator, sprang from the concentration of coffeehouse life."

Those first issues of Tatler and Spectator were "subdivided according to the coffeehouse from which their intelligences were ostensibly gathered: political news from one establishment, literary talk from another, religion, fashions, and so on, from still others. In those days not only layabouts but the most vitally active, prolific members of society frequented coffeehouses. It was your social duty and pleasure to spend a portion of the day there; you knew you could expect to meet your friend at such-and-such an inn between certain given hours." Lopate marvels—and here the pang of our current situation is graphic—"How few of us have the opportunity to see our good friends daily!" And also, he adds, our "enemies, rivals, and indifferent acquaintances," as well.

Famously, Lopate is constitutionally unable to remain happy with himself; though it's more accurate to say that he's most comfortable with his own ambivalence. His essays are shot through with skepticism and bolts of self-interrogation, which has led some readers to assume that Lopate is a grouch (and some critics, too; the New York Times review of Against Joie De Vivre was titled "An All-Out Assault On Fun"). I've never felt this way. Lopate is simply, complexly, human, leavening whatever pleasures and joy he experiences with the very realistic, sobering notion that this too shall pass, that the native state of the human is some blend of frisson and doubt. "But even when I try to dawdle [in a coffeehouse], with the assistance of a book or newspaper, my impatience forces me to get up after an hour and ten minutes at most," he laments. "Apparently I lack what Walter Benjamin called 'that passion for waiting, without which one cannot thoroughly appreciate the charms of a cafe'." 

Lopate ends the essay with a balanced take on his sensibility, at once nostalgic for a time he never experienced and accepting of his own cynicism, recognizing with a sigh that "intellectual camaraderie and self-forgetful cooperation" probably constitute the "high-water mark" in his romanticizing of coffeehouses. "But having said so may idealized things about them, I have to admit that I would probably have been just as uncomfortable hanging around in them."
For one thing, I lack the Sitzfleisch, the sitting power. It would also be difficult for me, knowing my competitive nature, to spectate in loud brilliant groups, waiting to insert an occasional bon mot of my own through the fumes of conversation. Even if the Algonquin circle were to be revived tomorrow, with a chair for me, and if the talk were particularly sophisticated and bitchy, l would probably feel too threatened to stick around for long. I suspect I have more interest in regretting these roundtables of intellect as something the contemporary world has deprived me of, than in actually joining one if given the chance.

Vintage coffeehouse photo via Pinterest

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Sh-Boom to Super Rock:
10 LP's that made an impact on me

On Facebook I recently complied a list of the ten albums that have impacted me the most. I've gathered them here, and added some links. Unsurprisingly, most date to my adolescence and teen years, that period when music gets in and stays, soundtracking a day or a summer and telling you stories you haven't caught up with yet. Next week this list would likely change, but it's all variations on a theme, isn't it?

1.) 20 Years Of Rock 'N' Roll (1973)
I'm going way back for number one, a no-brainer and among the earliest albums I remember falling in love with. I'm not quite sure how this compilation ended up in the Bonomo rec room, but I spun it to death for many years. I was a kid when it came out, and I can't understate the effect that the album's epic blend of doo wop, girl group, rock and roll, R&B, AM pop, garage, soul, and gospel had on me. I also recognize now that this album hugely influenced my lifelong definition of rock and roll: that is, something that transcends the tyranny of taxonomy, labels be damned! I can't claim that as a kid I understood the darker currents and complex emotions underneath the irresistible, radio-friendly surfaces of some these songs, especially on sides three and four, yet everything got in me and has permanently stayed there, soundtracking my adolescence, and articulating much of what I didn't yet understand, a veritable life's education in 30 songs. To go from "Sh-Boom" to "Super Fly" in one afternoon was quite a trip!

2.) 20 Rockin' Originals! (1973)

I'm sticking with cut-rate comps for my second of the 10 albums that have most impacted me. The "two platters" of this Pickwick bargain bin album were in high rotation in the family rec room when I was a kid, and like the Dick Clark comp, the songs spanned styles, eras, and grooves, Fats Domino and The Big Bopper to Dusty Springfield and Ray Stevens (!). I was semi-convinced that the woman on the cover was actually Loretta Switt from M*A*S*H*, gone undercover. The irresistible blend of street doo wop, pre-Beatles radio pop, rockabilly, and the hangover-vibe of the Champs' "Too Much Tequila" was as much of an education and a head trip for me as any album I fell I love with as a kid. Formative, too. Points docked for including the tracks Jerry Lee Lewis re-recorded for Smash, but when bottom-line Pickwick was in charge, you couldn't have it all!

At one point, one of my older brothers dropped the record and chipped off a piece—photographic evidence below—rendering two Bill Haley cuts forever unplayable, but, hell, they were easy enough to find!
3. Beatles For Sale (1964)

I'm cheating a bit here, as I, like most Americans in the 70s, didn't own Beatles For Sale but rather Beatles '65 and Beatles VI, between which the tracks from Beatles For Sale were divided. But no matter the source, the opening triumvirate of "No Reply," "I'm A Loser," and "Baby's In Black" is not only my favorite sequence on any Beatles record, but are three of my favorite Beatles songs, period. As a kid down in the basement, listening to this album for the first time, I felt the ceiling lift, and possibilities expand exponentially. Knowing that the harmonies on the chorus of "Baby's In Black" were going to come back later in the song was my first experience of Joyful Return in pop music. Like most Beatles albums, the pleasures of this album—which was written on the fly, knocked out during a grueling touring schedule, and covers-heavy—never wane, and renew themselves year after year.

This is also my favorite Beatle album cover, though Rubber Soul is a close second.

4.) Soul Men (1967)

One day when I was 12 or 13 I was bumming around at a garage sale in suburban Maryland, eyeing the Mack Bolan paperbacks and (surreptitiously) vintage Playboy's when this album, sitting in a crate below the table, caught my attention. I was instantly taken with these two cool-looking dudes in their sharp tailored suits striking righteous poses; the mod avocado-green graphics sealed the deal. I bought the album for a quarter, brought it home, and it's safe to say this scratchy introduction to the brilliance of Sam Moore and David Prater, the Stax Sound, and the ensemble playing of the MGs utterly changed my life. I can't say that I understood all of the moods and emotions and ideas that these two men sang so searingly and beautifully about, but I somehow understood anyway, so transcendent was their singing and performances. It remains one of my all time favorite albums, eleven songs of desperation and redemption sung and played with poise and grace, somehow both rough and tender. And it rocks and grooves like little else.

These days, I'm taking to heart "A Rich Kind of Poverty" and, especially, "The Good Runs The Bad Away," hoping, believing, that in this crisis that's as true a notion as Sam & Dave and their band make it feel.

5.) "Live" Full House (1972)
This is one of the first albums I bought with my own money, at long-gone Backstreet Records in Wheaton, Maryland. Today it sounds as righteously smoking and as dangerously fun as it did to teenage me. Recorded terrifically, this is a master class in live album sequencing, the breather that is the incendiary cover of "Serves You Right to Suffer" the only pause in the party. I could've included on this list several live albums that I dug in my teen tears, but this one has held up the best, and it's an album that I return to often, and that, top to bottom, delivers every listen. During this current crisis we're in, listening to the roar of an elated, packed house and a band at their peak primed to send them all night is, well, bittersweet beyond measure.

6.) L.A.M.F. (1977)

Sometimes you hear a record for the first time at just the right time: I have vivid memories of tooling around suburban Washington D.C. in the mid-80s with my buddies Steve and Bill in Steve's enormous '75 Pontiac Gran Ville Brougham as this album cranked from the boom box in the back seat. L.A.M.F. remains a sublime rock and roll album to my ears, still fresh and reckless-sounding decades on. Despite, or because of, the dysfunctions plaguing the band members before, during, and after the recording of the album, the songs are propelled with purpose and a desperate urgency, all grins and hooks and decadence. Only later would I learn about the strife and the darkness of addiction that the album evokes, and scored. This '84 remix was the first version of the album I heard, and remains my favorite; subsequent mixes watered things down to my ears. Here's to great riding-albums! I know you've got yours.

7.) The Records (1979)
In compiling a list like this, I necessarily discard three contenders for every album I select, yet I keep coming back to those records that got in me and stayed there. To wit: the Records' remarkable debut (pictured here is my original, a U.S. pressing in all of its promo glory), which I listened to endlessly after discovering it via "Starry Eyes" on WHFS 102.3 FM in Bethesda, MD when I was a teenager. A near-perfect blend of pop hooks, memorable melodies, dry humor, heart-sending harmonies, and slashing guitars, the album ruined me for most power pop that followed it (and much that came before it!). Along with REM's first two albums and The Best of Booker T. & The MGs, I have vivid memories of this album on permanent rotation in the mid-80s as I drove around campus of University of Maryland, in and about Maryland and Washington D.C., visiting my girlfriend, riding with buddies, or, more often, just aimlessly on my own, Will Burch and John Wicks' amazing songs leading the way.

8.) The Beat (1979)
This gem is one of the few rock and roll albums I own that I consider virtually perfect: songs, sound, and attitude. The stirring riffs, anthemic choruses, chiming, slashing guitars, and rocking power pop blend of amped joy and minor-note melancholy never fails to send me. Paul Collins recently remarked, "Kids still want to bust loose, they still want to have fun and jump up and down and let themselves go wild. They also love to sing and dance and we all want to fall in love and be in love and have love in our lives… Rock n’ roll can still save you. You just have to look harder for it now." If you've been fortunate to see Collins and his band(s) of late, then you know that he still can plug into the spirited songs and sound of this legendary album forty years after its release.

9.) Sound Affects (1980)
This is my favorite Jam album, and I feel it's their best, though I know many like-minded friends who argue passionately for Setting Sons or All Mod Cons, both great records that I also dig. What I love about this album is its elemental, stripped-down approach: relative to the mouthfuls on the previous two albums, the lyrics are practically epigrammatic, sketched in ("That's Entertainment" excepted!) and the music is, for the most part, similarly bare and unadorned, yet all of it's typically thoughtful and righteously rocking. Like sonic flares, songs come in bursts on this record, which also feels the most "live" of any Jam recording. I return to it often, and have for decades, and it never fails to move me, literally and figuratively.

10.) Hexbreaker! (1983)
I've written about this band at length, so to paraphrase Peter Zaremba, saying more would be not only superfluous, but unnecessary. Viva Super Rock!