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! 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.