Thursday, December 2, 2021

"Confession," after "Confession"


The folks over at Essay Daily run an annual Advent Calendar. This year they're featuring "cover essays," essays where a writer covers, gets inside of, or gives a take on another essay, making it their own. I covered Stuart Dybek's wonderful "Confession," which originally appeared in his chapbook The Story of Mist back in 1993 (a link to which is included with my piece).

~~

A few years back in my essay "Home" in The Normal School, I considered the idea of covering another writer's essay. I'm happy to have been given the opportunity to take a shot at it.




Saturday, November 27, 2021

On Get Back: "to wander aimlessly is very unswinging"


[SPOILERS]

Watching Peter Jackson's extraordinary if overlong documentary Get Back felt a bit like living a waking dream. As the Beatles began slogging through seemingly endless rehearsals, that vibe dissipated a bit. Such is the considerable, paradoxical charm of Get Back: rarely has tedium been this exciting to witness. Sifting through hundreds of hours of film, Jackson and his crew had some tough decisions to make: what to include that might capture the mood of a great pop band's rehearsals and recording sessions, what to exclude that would bog down the film. On the main I think that Jackson made good calls throughout; though I quibble with the multi-screen editing during the final rooftop sequence, I think in the end it worked well to dramatize the on-edge simultaneity of the performance, the arrival of the police, and the spontaneous reactions of the folks on the streets. The video and audio upgrades of the original film stock and the Let It Be film are superb: the Beatles are near and intimate, they sound great, and you've pulled up a chair next to them.

What I question is Jackson's lopsided approach to performance-versus-down time: though it was a joy to watch and listen to the well-known songs come into shape, I would have liked to have eavesdropped much more than we do on the Beatles as they warmly reminisced about the past or absently dealt with the very real present. A few conversations stand out for me: Paul remembering the band's '68 visit to India and the Maharishi was couched more as a bemused take on the guys' inability to "be themselves" while at Rishikesh, Paul and John laughing while recalling John's deferent, studious manner around the Guru. Typically, George demurs, thoughtfully remarking that the guys never really got it: “We went there to find our true selves, not to be ourselves.” Earlier, the guys crack themselves up while remembering substitute drummer Jimmy Nicol ogling the girls from his drum riser and simultaneously blowing the entrance to "She Loves You." They also seem to light up when discussing their years in Hamburg or while recalling early, nerve-wracking gigs. 

And the conversations about music and songs were at times more interesting than the songs that they were playing: at one point Paul is mulling over an arrangement, worrying aloud that certain chords have become passé, or as he puts it, so “two years ago,” like "drainies," or drain pipe trousers, a fascinating glimpse into the connections between a song and the culture into which it's born. (For his part, George disagrees with Paul.) And it was also fascinating, and hilarious, to learn that the emotionally burdened "Carry That Weight" began as a jokey song that Paul had written for Ringo to sing, a la "Act Naturally," about a guy with a hangover following a row with his wife! As for the "Get Back" project itself, it was sobering to see the lights in the band members' eyes dim whenever talk turned to practical, deadline-driven matters—is this a TV show, a live performance abroad, a new album?—as an air of listlessness and ennui overwhelmed the room. Even the organized, task-oriented McCartney looks lost more often then not. During these desultory conversations, the guys' avoidance of each other's eyes was as telling as the joyful eye contact made during spirited moments of performance.

The Beatles often played superbly in January '69 and it's a treat to hear Abbey Road and some future solo songs given a try-out, yet just as often their tossed-off cover songs, or the snatches of them we hear, and the ad-libs feel forced and self-conscious (though their rockin' rip through Gary U.S. Bonds's "New Orleans" sounded really good; I want more of that one). This is not entirely the group's fault—all bands to varying degrees need to warm up toward a collective pulse, and for the Beatles the conditions for playing, especially in the first part of the film, were less than inspiring—but I'm not sure we needed to hear quite as many rehearsals as we did at the expense of intimate chit-chat and conversations that might've been more revealing. (Perhaps Jackson and company used all of the valuable conversations t o which they had access, though I doubt that). The legend that the arrival of Billy Preston at the EMI studios improved the morale and mood of the sessions is here proven true: he's a delight to watch, whether he's genially jamming with the guys, adding warmth and richness (not to mention some grinning, funky syncopation) to their sound, or helping Harrison with his piano chords for his nascent "Old Brown Shoe." And the jam on Lennon's "I Want You" is fantastic—edgy, funky, and propulsive. Why has this track remained in the can? Preston's stylishly cool entrances into the studio alone are worth the price of Disney+.

~~

There's a bit of retroactive foreshadowing I found myself guarding against as I watched Get Back, and it was like trying to stop the weather. The end was near and the band members were on the verge of going in separate directions, but those poignant, complicated facts weren't yet fully present in January of 1969. Though at times the band—well, mostly Lennon—looked visibly grumpy having to change moods from shallow goofing to serious attention paid to arranging and recording, they clearly took things earnestly enough to muster up the collective will needed to get through the songs—but it seemed uphill for them. As the band's rehearsing "Oh, Darling," John gets the news that Yoko Ono's divorce has come through; he's clearly elated, and yet as he sang the line "I'll never do you no harm," I know that he did in fact hurt Ono later in their relationship. Such knowledge of future unhappiness adds a melancholy dimension to many of these performances. I nearly wept watching John and Paul playing off of each other during "One After 909," knowing that this was one of the last times they'd joyously vibe off the immediacy of the moment as they channeled their young, earlier hunger to get on top, or just to simply play some rock and roll. That they swung on the rooftop as hard, and as professionally, as they did is testament to their tightness as a band. By the second half of the show John's rocking and grooving as hard as I've ever seen him.

At the risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth, oh, how I wish a film crew had been on hand at EMI in the Spring of 1966 as the Beatles wrote, rehearsed, and recorded Revolver, the boundary-pushing, epoch-changing songs of which are greater than what the band half-committedly delivered in '69 as the sun was setting. At the same time, I can't help but think that within a few months they'd be playing superbly again on Lennon's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and "Come Together," and I childishly wish that they had tried to keep it together for a few more years of recording. I'd forgotten that during these sessions they'd taken a stab at John's "Gimme Some Truth" and that Paul had whipped out an early "Back Seat Of My Car," among other songs that would appear on solo albums. Imagine what full-band arrangements and recordings of those songs might have sounded like?

Yet the center clearly was not holding, and I'm trying to pull the universe back in by the edges—impossible, and precious. Let the boys wander aimlessly and un-swingingly to their inevitable gloomy future. I'll gratefully watch.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Get your arms together


Everything I need in a song today, or just about any day. I hope that you and yours have a sweet, restful, and rewarding Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Little things


The poet and translator Brooks Haxton taught briefly at the University of Maryland in the mid-1980s, en route to his long tenure at Syracuse. As a sophomore, I was a student in his Introduction to Creative Writing course. He assigned The Voice That Is Great Within Us anthology, which in 1985 already felt like a hippy, of-its-era relic to me, yet I ended up really digging it. For one assignment Haxton had us each choose a poem to memorize and recite to class; I selected Frank O'Hara's "A Step Away From Them" because I worshipped New York City and I loved the observant, alive, streetwise voice in the poem, still do. I can recite most of it to this day. Haxton, Mississippi-bred, was a demonstrative, somewhat odd presence in class, with his bulging bug-eyes and his manic, lopsided grin, the theatrical ways he read the poems and stories aloud. I remember that at least one woman in the class was turned off by his behavior, but her distaste was beyond my emotional ken at the time; I think she felt he was a little creepy, the way he'd talk frankly about sex, in his poems and in other work. I loved him and his angular, excited energy, and stoked a crush on him throughout the semester.

I wrote a bit about choosing that O'Hara poem a couple of years back, but I've been thinking more about Haxton lately as the semester, an overall difficult one, comes grinding to a close. What I most fondly recall was a single, small conversation I had with him on campus as we strolled the large green that sprawled at the foot of McKeldin Library. We were both heading to our respective classes, and I think we'd surprised each other on the way. I remember clumsily if earnestly raving to him about Jack Kerouac and The Beats, with whom I was still besotted, in particular Kerouac's Spontaneous Prose theory, which I perceived as a kind of holy writ. Haxton listened and smiled gently as I enthused, and I could sense then that his style in class was in fact a bit of a performance; here, with me, he was thoughtful, dialed-back. He agreed with me about Kerouac, but shared his skepticism of "first thought, best thought," and his feelings that revision, not spontaneity, was crucial in writing. I was crestfallen! And, naturally, I doubled-down and argued back. Revision wasn't sexy or punk rock; writing on speed at three in the morning was! Now, I know...then I was too young and cocky, my horizon only feet away, to understand, or to care. I smile when I think of how kind he was to listen to a kid on his way to class when he might've preferred to be alone, how kind he was to hear me out and to take the effort to gently steer me toward a more sophisticated way of thinking about writing, and art.

The little things. The conversation lasted maybe a minute, yet I've never forgotten it, and one teacher's patience with, and interest in, an upstart. I try and pay it forward.

Photo of Haxton by George Tatge

Friday, October 29, 2021

Movin' On, redux


The good folks at Scottish TeeVee have unearthed more vintage Super Rock performances: 1987 and 1988 shows at Club Slego in Rimini, Italy, both from the Robert Warren era. The band's supporting Fleshtones vs Reality in the '87 show, streaking through tracks from that album, and other "hits." An especially loose-limbed show, this gig features a rare tear through the Seeds' "Tripmaker," a song the guys didn't cover all that often. (In fact, Peter Zaremba had forgotten that they'd ever played it, until I mentioned it to him.)

Fleshtones shows became particularly covers-heavy by '88 during Warren and Gordon Spaeth's waning days with the band. Zaremba and Keith Streng were writing material for Powerstance, but given the alcohol-soaked wilderness years they were in without a label while enduring dwindling U.S. support, that eventual 1991 album must've felt like a mirage. So they opened up their well-worn and trusty Super Rock Bag and barreled through "Morgus the Magnificent," "Long Green," "It'll Be Me," "Let It Rock," "The Lonely Bull," "Tiger Man," "Ain't That Lovin' You, Baby," "I'm Movin' On," and others.

Turn it up in the Time Machine for sweaty rock and roll before rabid crowds, some vintage Spaeth/Zaremba onstage clowning, and a So long to Warren, who split the band shortly after the '88 show.

Club Slego, Rimini, Italy, June 5th, 1987

Club Slego, Rimini, Italy, May 6th, 1988

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Back home


I've long been a fan of Bobbie Ann Mason, whose short stories and novels, at one time consigned to the so-called "kitchen sink" school of Realism, dramatize the lives of people whose ceiling may be low and options relatively few, and whose everyday conflicts materialize in small homes in small towns, yet are, of course, no less profound for that. An elevator pitch for her oeuvre might be something along the lines of "Larry Brown minus the violence and baneful manliness," but that description would circumscribe both authors, and so wouldn't be terribly fair, though it is pretty accurate. With its unadorned language and quiet, uneventful resolutions, Mason's work illustrates the idea that an entire universe of moral decisions and personal disappointments, and a graphic blend of resentments and redemptions, exists in every town, population 2,500 or fewer. 

I finally got around to reading her memoir Clear Springs, which was published in 1999. Befitting the author, the book is autobiography that feels like fiction, as Mason's first-person voice and sensibilities are very similar to many of her imagined protagonists. I often half-seriously ask my students if we should be skeptical of any memoir that's written with quoted dialogue (that is, virtually every memoir) as any conversation from the past that wasn't recorded or filmed is reimagined. Thus opens the barn door marked Fictionalizing. Clear Springs reveals that Mason has long been an acutely autobiographical writer, and she clearly kept her fiction writer's toolbox open as she wrote this affecting portrait of generations of her family, the Mason's and the Lee's: the book's spiky with narrative details, full scenes, and a built-in dramatic purpose. As memoirs go, Clear Springs is certainly contrived—not fictionalized, I don't think, rather consciously arranged into a novelistic shape that's pleasing to read, if carefully composed. Like many autobiographies, Clear Springs, which begins as an account of Mason's early farm life in western Kentucky, her early reckonings with the vastness and pleasures of the imaginative life, her burgeoning love affair with books and reading, and her education and subsequent departure from and return to Kentucky, is finally a family memoir. Mason spends many pages outlining her family tree and wrestling with the implications of the severe limitations of the hardscrabble lives her parents, grand-parents, and great-grand parents endured, various absent or scandalous male figures, and the circumscribed lives of so many around her who were born into a rural life at near-poverty and felt forever tattooed by those facts. 


Clear Springs warms in its final third, as Mason, at this point in her life a celebrated author of several books, including a novel (In Country) that has been adapted by Hollywood, returns to her hometown (more or less) to live, wanting to be nearer to her family after decades of trying to shed them and the stigma she felt that she invariably shared. In the final chapters, Mason focusses on her mother Christy, who after her husband dies, grudgingly moves from the farm and homestead where she lived virtually all of entire life to a new home. As the memoir closes, Mason ends up with more questions than answers (a corollary to the quest of art itself, it seems to me) wondering on the implications of the stark emotional reticence she grew up with and the low ceiling of expectations her extended families grew up under, most of them ordinary farm folk who felt tethered to the land they both loved and silently feared, given its annual, indifferent doling out of tragedy and heartbreaks. Her musings on her mother's missed opportunities and her inevitable fate dovetails with affecting, and loving, portraits of her in her old age, and by the end Christy Mason becomes as dimensional and memorable as any fictional character her daughter imagined into being. This is partly because Mason has deep affection for her mother, and partly because by the end of the memoir she comes to identify with her so profoundly. Writing about one's family can be terribly difficult; to do the heavy lifting one must reimagine, must re-see, one's family as subject matter, not simply an unruly blend of lore and deeply felt memories, some acute, some abstract—a certain critical distance is necessary, and Mason manages that distance in her memoir without losing sight of the personal stakes for herself, as both a writer and a daughter. Mason never sacrifices self-interrogation or reflection for the gently pleasing shapes of her reads-like-a-novel book.

~~

In a fascinating passage near the end, Mason writes about her life-long tendency, in conversations, to shy away from her rural upbringing, working through the mild shame and embarrassment she feels as a  Southerner by alternating between retreating from her roots and trumpeting them as a means of baffling her supposed superiors into silence. "I have met people who left their country origins behind, seemingly with ease and good riddance, in favor of the delights of urban fellowship and opportunity," she writes. 
I have dared repeatedly to plunge in over my head, but with my country reserve, I can’t casually summon the knowledge I’ve gathered and jump into intellectual conversations; I can’t serve on a committee or run for office or feel easy at a cocktail party. The rural temperament still has a hold on me that I won’t let go.
Fascinating, then, and poignant, that she finds the way to express her past and her culture in fiction by imagining folks who look, sound, and feel just like members of her own family, her friends, and herself, and putting them through the paces of working through deeply recognizable conflicts and within plots that look like the action outside her Kentucky window. Luckily, Mason also felt that telling such truths while naming them in autobiography can be an equally valuable and artistically satisfying way out, and back in.
Family tree via Clear Springs

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Somewhere else behind

Dwight Yoakam's interpretation of Rodney Crowell's "Thinking About Leaving" appeared on Yoakam's 1999 compilation Last Chance For A Thousand Years: Greatest Hits from the '90s, and was released as a supporting single. The song's credited to both Crowell and Yoakam, though Crowell recorded the song first, in 1995, on his Jewel Of The South album, on which it's credited solely to him. His version is memorable—the song's so great, really, and so unbreakable, that only a willfully sabotaged version can harm it—yet relative to Yoakam's, his take sounds buttoned-up, slick, a bit safe. Yoakam respects the gorgeous changes and the melody of Crowell's original, but adapts the song to his style by dressing up the stately pace with a rich and sonorous guitar hook, a mournful pedal steel guitar (played by Gary Morse), and, via guitarist and longtime ally Pete Anderson's shiny yet warm production, a roomy arrangement that gives plenty of space for interpretation. Yoakam plays with the lyrics in places: love is now a "soft rope" that ties the singer down; a guitar isn't simply desired, it "owns" him; Crowell's life "strung out on the highwire lines" becomes in Yoakam's performance an "every morning" that "leaves somewhere else behind." Both singers are in bed with a woman, though Yoakam neglects to name his.

It's Yoakam's vocal that makes "Thinking About Leaving" his to keep. Yoakam is a deeply expressive singer, and I feel that, outside of his country music idiom, he's under appreciated. His voice is traditional, and ageless ("classic"), and he's capable of reaching tremendous depths within a fairly circumscribed genre, and moving among that genre's vocal and lyric requirements—what casual listeners might dismiss as clichés, what country fans call holy writ—he often makes moving and authentic discoveries. He rounds the corners of the inevitable changes in "Thinking Of Leaving" with such feeling and heavy-lidded world-weariness, as if the song's being composed as we listen and yet we know the story's as old as dirt, the mood moving between sadness, relief, loneliness, and happiness without fully resolving anything. Few singers can get around such a melancholy argument like Yoakam. Part of me wants to resist the song for its well-worn trope that a man naturally yearns for the road and the crowds and the women at the end of that road, yet feels reluctantly pulled back toward home by the loving embrace—that soft rope—of his partner. No one can tie me down, etc.. Yet Yoakam obliterates those banalities, singing, as the greatest singers do, with such deep sentiment—against sentimentality—that even a clichéd conflict can sound, and feel, as new as a fresh, healing wound.

Photo by Yoakam via Third Man Records

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Don't fence them in

Screen shots from Amyl and the Sniffers' terrific one-take live performance of their new album Comfort to Mefilmed on an Australian pier. Amy Taylor sang, roared, shimmied, jogged, ran sprints, danced alone, threatened to tumble into the sea, waved at passing boats. The band cooked behind her. Rock and roll as the sun sets. 









Tuesday, October 5, 2021

"NO words."

Tonight, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox play a Wild Card game to determine which team goes on to face the Tampa Bay Rays in the first round of the American League playoffs. In 1978, the Red Sox and Yankees faced each other in game 163, a season-ending tie-breaker; the Yanks defeated the BoSox to win the American League East Division. The stakes were a bit higher forty-three years ago. From No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing:
The Red Sox would draw within a run in the bottom of the eighth against closer Goose Gossage. Angell was watching the game from his customary place in the press box, but his heart was in the stands. Stirred by the game’s excitement, he abruptly moved from the press box to the “dark, ancient grandstand” along the first base line “among hundreds of clustered, afflicted rooters who had gathered behind the sloping stands for a closer look at the end of it.” “I’m in crowd with weak knees,” he scribbled in his notes. After Rick Burleson walked, Jerry Remy struck a drive to right field, where Lou Piniella, though blinded by the intense, late afternoon sun, snagged the ball on a hop, holding Burrelson at second. Jim Rice flied out to right, and Burleson moved to third. “Crowd is terrifically noisy,” Angell wrote in his pad, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with hoarse Boston rooters. Carl Yastrzemski strode to the plate with the tying run at third. “A whole season, thousands of innings, had gone into this tableau,” Angell wrote later. “My hands were trembling. The faces around me looked haggard. Gossage, the enormous pitcher, reared and threw a fastball: ball one. He flailed and fired again, and Yastrzemski swung and popped the ball into very short left-field foul ground, where Graig Nettles, backing up, made the easy out. It was over.” 

Angell’s game notes, scrawled in his ruled steno pad under high-pitch tension and alongside jostling fans, are barely legible. Deciphered, they reveal his deep and abject disappointment as a longtime Red Sox fan and Yastrzemski admirer. “yaz: it had to come to this—. . . Gossage in—WHAT A GAME! One of the great moments—.” 

He then writes: “POPS—Oh,—NO words.”

Angell eventually found the words. A week or so later, high above West Forty-Third or in the reflective stillness of his apartment, he took a wide-angle lens on the setback. “In the biggest ballgame of his life, [Yastrzemski] had homered and singled and had driven in two runs, but almost no one would remember that,” he wrote in “City Lights: Heartthrobs, Prodigies, Winners, Lost Children” in the November 20 New Yorker. “He is thirty-nine years old, and he has never played on a world-championship team; it is the one remaining goal of his career. He emerged after a while, dry-eyed, and sat by his locker and answered our questions quietly. He looked old. He looked fifty.” Angell quoted Emily Vermeule, a professor of classics at Harvard, who days after the game had written in the Boston Globe with Senecian stoicism, “The hero must go under at last, after prodigious deeds, to be remembered and immortal and to have poets sing his tale.” Angell understood this. “I will sing the tale of Yaz always,” he wrote, “but I still don’t quite see why it couldn’t have been arranged for him to single to right center, or to double off the wall. I’d have sung that, too. I think God was shelling a peanut.”
~~

Angell's notes of those final moments:

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Learning


The other night my graduate creative nonfiction writing workshop met to discus Alexander Chee's essay "Girl" and an excerpt from Margot Jefferson's Negroland. The conversation was lively and thoughtful, and for the first time since students and teachers returned to face-to-face meetings after more than a year of meeting remotely, our discussion transcended the imposition of mask-wearing. My seven students this semester are diverse, serious, and sharply intelligent and, as we discussed the essays, the physical space we were in seemed to widen outward; there were some charges of narrow perspective and some defense of camp, talk of the value of satire and the limits of the personal-as-political, reckoning with a delayed first-person pronoun via the first-person plural, with writing personally versus autobiographically, with Halloween as a metaphor, with the essayist opening up the fiction writer's toolbox. The conversation was mature and respectful, and renewed itself effortlessly. Best of all, I realized pretty early on that I was going to have to take a back seat, learning as my students held forth smartly and seriously about their lives, as they deflected off of the essays into valuable explorations of their own experiences, sometimes humorously, sometimes contentiously. As the hour-plus moved along, the conversation mimicked, in many ways, the unpredictability, fluidity, and surprises of the essay itself.

In the second half of the class we turned to two of the students' drafts, the ideas and issues of the first half leaning their shadows over the workshop in the best of ways. We were all wearing masks, our glasses fogged, our countenances neutralized, but for the first time this semester I barely noticed. This was in large part due to my students' seriousness and enthusiasm. But I was blessed with serious and enthusiastic students in virtual settings, too, yet conversations via Zoom are often hemmed in by the remote—in all senses of that word—flatness and the inherent disconnection among the participants. A physical room to where we are obligated to trudge and gather and will ourselves to speak really matters, the proximity of bodies its own charged language. I'm looking at you too, my favorite local dive bar. (Recently in the Chicago Tribune, Alison Brown wrote about the emotional toll of a year of enduring half-hidden faces.) Thank you science, but here's hoping that soon we'll be feeling unmasked not because we're comfortable being open while covered, but because masks themselves will be a thing of the past.


Top image via The Conversation

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Moon, clouds, stars, I want it all!


Amy Taylor makes demands—to be heard, to be seen, to be able to make her own choices on her own time. Even on occasions when her demands feel less urgent—to be let into a pub, say, or to be taken out to the country—each still feels as if it's accompanied by a gun to your head. Yet turn around and she's guffawing at the same time, pissed off, aggressive, but thrilled to be alive. Amyl and The Sniffers' new album Comfort To Me is a potent soundtrack to those demands, barreling forth with clamor and boldness, and it's one of the great rock and roll albums of the year.

A challenge for any riff-driven punk band is how to expand its ambitions while retaining its elemental power.  The Melbourne-based group—Taylor on vocals with drummer Bryce Wilson, guitarist Dec Martens, and bassist Fergus Romer—wrote and recorded Comfort To Me during the lockdown, wrestling with free time, a trans-oceanic production, and unexplored emotional and psychological vistas. In recent remarks, the band's cited influences from AC/DC and Wendy O Williams to current rap and hardcore. “A bunch of [the new songs] are classic and true to what we’ve done in the past, but we’re also exploring some new sounds and ideas,” Romer remarked to Louder Than War. “We’ve got some heavier, louder, and faster tracks than we’ve ever done before. There’s a complexity in how we’re playing and definitely in Amy’s lyrics; they’re a lot more political.”

The Sniffers' self-titled debut detonated in 2019, throwing sparks of mayhem, fun, and danger in every direction. (I wrote about that album's amazing song "Control" here.) The band's live show is famously stirring, the diminutive dynamo Taylor prowling and leaping from the stage in equal abandon, her band driving powerfully behind her. (I had tickets to see the band in Chicago last year; the show was postponed twice. Meanwhile, on October 5th, the band's streaming a full performance of Comfort To Me "in one take, on a slab of concrete in a suburban wasteland somewhere in Melbourne, Australia." Info here.) (EDIT: it was a blast.) The songs on Comfort To Me, though identifiably, ear-ringingly the Sniffers', aggressively push against the band's sonic walls, Taylor expanding her concerns to include national politics ("Capital"), the limits and pleasures of adolescence ("Snakes"), and the mess of romance ("No More Tears"). As always, Taylor's chiefly vibing off the power of self-expression and the autonomy necessary to establish her own boundaries, and to piss on her own territory. "I've got plenty of energy" she gleefully chants in the album's first track, the remarkable "Guided By Angels," because "It's my currency." Such energy hums through the album, a dangerous current sparking at both ends of the power line, from the unbridled urge to go out to dance and jump around to the nervy desire maybe get in some trouble, too. Freaks to the front! she invites her fans.

~~

Two songs on Comfort To Me powerfully demonstrate Taylor's emotional range. One is rollicking, irresistible, and brimming with joie de vivre, the other's pissed-off, embittered, and mournful—the album ricochets from one end of that spectrum to the other. "Hertz" is a great driving song about driving. She wants to rent a car, grab her friends, and hit the road, with the wind in her hair and the sun on her face. During this escape from the graffiti, grime, and toil of the city, everything delights her, from the mosquitoes buzzing past her to the employees at the fish and chip shop who "act like mates," and the music, a UK-flavored Post-Punk/New Wave martial-stomp, is as overjoyed as Taylor is. "Take me to the beach! Take me to the country!" Taylor demands, in what first sounds like a hijacker at your neck; the chorus revs up like an engine, and we're off. In interviews, Taylor's acknowledged that "Hertz" turned out to be a love song of sorts, the dawn of a new relationship about which she sings explicitly—in her fashion—in "Maggot." ("Come on maggot, put your maggots in me!" Hallmark, are you listening?)

The joys and freedom of that road trip, the pleasures of roaming the world with no purpose, are made complex by the hair-raising narrative in "Knifey," the record's other brilliant track. In this lament, Taylor describes the mounting frustrations she feels while alone on a walk, danger and violence lurking around her. The band slows things down here—if any Sniffers song can sound reconciled to anything, it's to the darkness at the center of "Knifey," a dirge relative to the band's faster tunes—and the spaces opening up allow Taylor to seethe about the simple pleasures denied her as a woman:

All I ever wanted was to walk by the park
All I ever wanted was to walk by the river, see the stars
Please—stop fucking me up

Sung by Taylor in a naked, plaintive voice, these lines are intensely moving, as is her grim recognition of the aggression she's obligated to act out when alone: "Out comes the night, out comes my kniefy, this is how I get home nicely." This is followed by a vulnerable confession, the album's emotional center: "I turn around and back track, because I ain't that tough." And yet, "Still, you fuck me up." What brutally stark realities. The safeguards she's forced to adopt, in conflict with the sinking and scary knowledge that her self-defense will likely be easily overwhelmed, inspire a fantasy in which Taylor herself fucks up her assailant, though it's only that, a fantasy. She confidently, if ruefully, admits at the end of the song that she's now "fucking tough," because she has to be. Though the last chord feels less resolved than resigned.

Listening to the heartbreaking "Knifey," you re-see that country side blissfully speeding past Taylor in "Hertz" and recognize how qualified that road trip was: she's out with a friend and future lover, traveling in numbers. "The moon, clouds, the stars," she gasps, "I want it all!" That she can't have it on her own without her knife getting her back home "nicely" (a fantastic, ironic spin on the language of good-girl decorum) is the unhappy, galling flip side to the joys and abandon of "Hertz." Listening, I'm put in mind (again) of the embittered complaints Sylvia Plath made in her journals: "Being born a woman is my awful tragedy," she writes. "From the moment I was conceived I was doomed to sprout breasts and ovaries rather than penis and scrotum; to have my whole circle of action, thought and feeling rigidly circumscribed by my inescapable femininity.” She adds,

Yes, my consuming desire to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, bar room regulars—to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording—all is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yet, God, I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night.

"I carry weapons; I'm a really paranoid person," Taylor recently acknowledged in New Musical Express. About "Knifey," Wilson added, "It’s a pretty hectic subject to talk about. It feels powerful when we play it." That three men are providing the music behind Taylor is poignant, and perhaps culturally important: "When we play 'Knifey' the boys all get around it," Taylor says. "It hits them up emotionally."

~~

"Music should be for everybody and about expressing ourselves,” Taylor remarked in New Noise Magazine. "Just a place that’s free of any kind of judgment to be whatever the fuck you want and to represent yourself." Punk AF. Taylor and her band make that space on Comfort To Me, grinning all the while at the intense and freeing pleasures that rock and roll can bring, even as soundtracking the more grim realities of what it means to be alive.


Amyl and the Sniffers photo by Jamie Wdziekonski

Friday, September 24, 2021

Sentiment, meet sound

The Voodoo Dolls, ca. 1992
Often, good rock and roll enacts its own argument; great rock and roll will attempt to subvert that argument. A song I love immoderately, the Voodoo Dolls' "The Good Part's Over," from their one and only album, 1993's Not For Sale, is a complaint about being alive and a tune that wants to put the lie to that complaint, at least for the two-and-a-half minutes it's around. The problem? Good stuff doesn't last, and that sucks. The solution? Turn it up. Yet a song has to finish, and the wrenching conclusion of "The Good Parts Over" only serves to prove the point that "It comes so fast, it goes so quick." A rock and roll paradox. Sentiment, meet sound.

The Voodoo Dolls were fronted by singer Cam Ackland, whose urgent and passionate vocals I've loved for a long time. (I wrote a bit about his earlier band, the Prime Movers, here.) Ackland really gets behind the pissed-off melancholy of the lyric here, you hear it in his voice, but his band—guitarist David Harrison, drummer Bruce Pierce, bassist Bob Martel, and guitarist Evan Shore, who wrote the tune with Ackland—won't let him get morose about it; they're too busy kicking ass. As usual, a blistering guitar solo adds a wordless voice to the singer's disillusionment, but of course neither guitar nor singer can solve the dilemma, as some blend of regret and wistfulness will always win out in the end. It's best to plug in, ride those thrilling chord changes, let the middle lift you high enough that a solution seems near, and then just cry at night, later, when you're alone and your ears are ringing.

The good news is that you can always lift the needle, turn up your stereo, and prove everyone wrong: the good part's just starting.

PLAY LOUD

Thursday, September 9, 2021

When I'm in chaos

For a recent road trip from Illinois to Maryland and back I put together a 740+ song playlist of Detroit and Detroit-area rock and roll. The Paybacks' three superb albums were on there, of course, and muscled their way up through shuffle-play with ferocious tenacity. I fell in deeper love with Wendy Case's songs on that trip. The Paybacks were one of the great rock and roll bands of the aughts, and the tuneful roar of their songs has weathered the fallout from that era well. Two tracks in particular, "If I Fell" from the band's debut Knock Loud (released in 2002) and "Can You Drive" from their second album, Harder And Harder (2004), struck me again with their powerful blend of swagger and vulnerability, a poignant, paradoxical itch in the human condition that Case excels in scratching. Much has been written about Case's extraordinary voice, which can travel the long road from hoarse and raw to honeyed and nuanced, sometimes in the same line. A powerful, explosive singer, she can howl like a guitar cranked through an overdriven amp, the rawness of it all especially moving when she's singing about emotional spaces where she's been left surprised and unguarded.

"If I Fell" sets the stakes: if I fall for you, will you fall for me? A hedge against lowered defenses. That's the game, and the guy she's singing to is firmly in her sights, and possibly up for it. She persuades him that though this is dangerous stuff, it's worth it to be singed rather than duck for cover. "Say my name," she sings to him in the song's hottest line, "you're gonna do it anyway." She knows he wants to try it, but he ain't convinced yet, so she offers:
Love is like strip poker
and you never know what cards you're going to draw
until you get it, and you might live to regret it
but it's better not to fight the only game you can never win
Who knows if her amped seduction works as last call arrives, but to my ears it would seem awfully hard for him to resist, given the singer's sexy playfulness, her cajoling insistence that he must want her, too, and her willingness to fall with him. The great Jim Diamond produced Knock Loud with Steve King and the band—joining Case on guitar are John Szymanski on bass, Marco Delicato on guitar, and Mike Latulippe on drums—which provide the raw, pummeling soundtrack to Case's winking pitch.

~~

Case had a raucous past, and she's been honest about her drug and alcohol abuse. Asked in an interview with The Center for Punk Arts about lessons learned from her early rough days, Case responded, "Lessons huh? Well... let's see..."
I learned how to run scrips on Chinese pharmacies, I learned how to break into a hotel room with a knife or a laminated bus pass and I learned how to tell when you are under surveillance by the man. I learned how to shimmy down drainpipes and fire escapes and I learned that jail sucks. What did it mean to me musically? Not much... I didn't start writing good music ’til I stopped doing drugs.
The astonishing "Can You Drive" (co-written with Delicato) sounds like a missive from those days, a desperate song about the limits of friendship, and how those limits can be tested under the duress of need. Here, the truths feel harder-won than on the edgy if comparatively upbeat "If I Fell." The singer's had a few beers and she needs a place to crash, so she asks him for help. They can walk. Or can he drive? "I'm just keeping it alive," she confesses to him. 

That "it" is the song's central mystery—the night? her high? her life?—and Case sings as if she needs the song to keep moving forward, or else. He's a got a girlfriend, but she could care less; she doesn't want to hear that noise, she came to play with the boys: she just needs a ride, the one thing that will keep it alive. In the song's middle—it feels like we're in the car now—things get gentler, and Case's vocals are just a marvel: shrugging in her beer, she sings that she thinks he'll do alright, whether that means getting her safely to wherever they're going, or something else, it's unclear, until the next line, where within a sliver of vulnerable candor in the dim interior light she admits that he looks good in the night. The way she sings the word "night," beginning with a growl and ending with a soft vibrato, is everything that's sensational about Wendy Case. Her band on this track (Syzmanski and Latulippe again, with recently departed Delicato returning to pitch in on guitar) knows enough to dial back the decibel levels and let Case work her way through the surprise on that ride. "In the night," she repeats again and again—before a powerful guitar solo takes the song to its end—while looking through that windshield, blurry with drink, aroused by the circumstances, at something maybe unexpected

It's an amazing song, one of Case's best. A decade ago she spoke to Beer Melodies about songwriting. “The best ones happen in a rush in about five minutes," she said. "Lyrics and music come together at once. It’s pretty awesome when that happens."
I just wish it happened all the time. Sometimes I’ll start with nothing but a song title and build on that. I only really write anything decent when I’m in chaos. So I wait around for the other shoe to drop ‘cause when I’m happy I write retarded cute happy songs. There’s got to be genuine passion.
In Case's hands, backed her extraordinary band, the passion in "If I Fell" and "Can You Drive" is as genuine as that often overwhelming feeling can get in rock and roll. Turn it up and learn something.

The Paybacks
~~

After the Paybacks called it quits a decade and half ago following the release of the terrific Love, Not Reason (which I hope will be reissued on vinyl one day), Case stepped away from music. She's reunited the band to play live on several occasions, and has been writing and recording new material recently with Brian McCarty in Royal Sweets. Different vibe. Same truths.

Middle photo of Case via Dick Altavista (flickr)

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Reclaimed

Clare, Illinois
Remains of the foundation of the Wilkinson Station, a train depot built in the late 1880s, operated through the 1940s, as a switching station and place for passengers and freight to exchange. The ruins exist in the Wilkinson-Renwick Marsh in Clare, Illinois.

Below is a photo of the original station, via the DeKalb County Forest Preserve District (from which I adapted the text above).

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

How did it feel?

As I wrote a bit about recently in my latest essay for The Normal School, I've spent a good part of the last few decades catching up with artists and bands that I was too provincial, scared, or otherwise tone-deaf to appreciate when I was in my late teens and early 20s. There were few bands back then that drove me off of the dance floor, and sometimes out of the bar, more than New Order and the Cure. Though I've never entirely warmed to either band, I've come to deeply respect the talent, nerve, and originality in each; pulling wide decades later has allowed me to appreciate their lasting and deep impression, and their sizable influence. But I won't hold back: I detested New Order's "Blue Monday" when it was released, and subsequently began popping up in every dj's arsenal at whatever bar my friends and I would drink and dance at. Its synthesized, processed, metronomic beat stood for everything I disliked about much '80s music, even that emanating from very cool scenes, and in the case of New Order, from the ashes of a highly original band. (It took me a while to come around to Joy Division, too.) I don't think that I minded the song's inherent darkness—a mood I'd often indulge in—rather I bristled at what I felt was its programmed aversion to messiness and spontaneity. I craved loud, sloppy guitars, stirring changes, indelible hooks in my rock and roll—I wasn't having Sumner, Hook and Morris's chilly approach to the stage, the antithesis to what I felt were the sonic promises made by rock and roll. Now I'm embarrassed, and I lament my stubbornness (read: immaturity), which didn't always put me in kind company with my friends and acquaintances, who likely were bored with my narrowness. Rightly so.

There was more brewing in my exaggerated distaste. On more than one occasion I recognized, with adolescent melodrama, that my dislike of New Order, the Cure, and others was often overpowered by my envy for those who loved that music, who danced to it at Poseurs, Cagney's, Back Alley Cafe, and the other D.C. joints that we haunted on the weekends, with genuine and joyful abandon, often, it seemed to me, coming alive before my eyes on the dance floor under black light and strobe while I mock-fumed in the corner, or at the bar in studied cool, all the while lamenting my inability to let go to the very music I was cold to. I didn't admit this to myself as much as I let it roil inside of me, yet another nameless, just-beyond-words discovery added to my overpowering emotional confusion at that age.

~~

Today in the car, I tuned in to Sirius's 1st Wave: Classic Alternative Rock channel, and "Blue Monday" came on. Nostalgia's a funny thing: though I don't think I'll ever fully warm to the song and the traditions it mined and trails it blazed—some part of taste, it seems to me, is inextricably lined in one's DNA—I melted in the memories. At once, the guys and girls dancing in my mind's eye weren't antagonists, or foils, but kids finding their true moments and joy on the floor, alone or in couples or threes, moving in whatever blend of adolescent miseries or triumphs, family dysfunction, romantic politics, and weekend drinking or drugging that drove them to the club and that tortured, or animated or inspired them, throughout the drudge of their week. The feeling was stronger than a fleeting song-as-time-machine memory: surprised, I mournfully recognized myself in those kids, the ones I rolled my eyes at way back then: we're all, then and now, dancing because we can, whatever the music is that's moving us. Nostalgia really means the deep desire to return to a home that no longer exists—that ancient, vexing paradox—and those kids' homes, both their complicated bedrooms and the dance floor with its bone-simple pleasures, became vividly clear to me as I idled in my car, in the lousy Hy-Vee parking lot, a thousand years later. So too did the opening verse of "Blue Monday" become clear, told, as I was now by those long-gone kids now firmly in middle age, how it did feel, and who they are.

Photo of Cagney's matchbox via eBay.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

End of August

We took advantage of a break in the heatwave to follow Puff around in the woods for the first time in a while. We're all ready to put August behind us.





Saturday, August 28, 2021

Charlie Watts, 1941-2021

"I hate leaving home." Charlie Watts once said. "I love what I do, but I'd love to go home every night."

It's beautifully appropriate, then, that Watts's final performance with his old band mates occurred as he played—air-drummed, really—from the quiet, secluded comforts of his own home. Watts loved playing music, but he might've loved being home with his family and his quirky accumulations even more. Rest in peace, Charlie.


Friday, August 27, 2021

Back at it

I taught in a classroom for the first time in seventeen months this week, the longest stretch I've experienced professionally sans students, including my sabbatical, since I started teaching in 1988. These first classes have been...tough, for students and for teachers alike. My university has sensibly mandated vaccines for all students and faculty members as well as mask-wearing in all buildings, and HEPA air filters have been installed in each classroom. Grateful as I am to my university's proactive concerns for its employees and students—"Protect the pack" is the phrase the school has adapted—the industrial-grade filters are very loud, even when set on low, and masked students are having great difficulty hearing me and each other. (The typical late-August heat and stuffiness in the rooms don't help matters.) Shy and softer-speaking students are adrift. Hearing-impaired students, already at a disadvantage unable to read masked lips, are now doubly blocked-out of discussions, which is unacceptable. My struggles teaching compare palely to those who are enduring work in hospitals, or long shifts in stores, factories, or in customer service suffer, let alone teachers facing all-day schedules K through 12, yet writ small the classroom reflects the vast difficulties that we're all enduring in the pandemic. My students and I did, and are doing, our best—as is the university—but the situation's rough. Perhaps a renewed, and renewing, sense of empathy might come as a result of all this.

Though teaching remotely has its considerable advantages, it's been great to get in front of students again, to vibe off off the collective energy, muted though it is, of a group of people eager to hang with each other and to think, talk, and write. I began my Creative Nonfiction 1 workshop by imitating a cluster that I'd produced earlier, to help the students generate material for subject matter. In my exercise, I'd found myself taking a detour from a subject that I'd hoped to explore toward something unexpected, different yet revealing, and hopefully more valuable in the long run. Here's hoping that this difficult semester takes an equally surprising turn for the better.

~~

I enjoyed some measure of normalcy a couple weeks ago during a brief solo cross-country drive to visit my parents and few close buddies, who I hadn't seen since 2019. On the way east I caught a Clippers game in Columbus, Ohio, on the way back a Mud Hens game in Toledo. Few in attendance were masked, and I tried to keep my distance, yet being outdoors, drinking a beer, enjoying a slice, watching competitive baseball, did wonders for my general psyche. Viva Minor League Baseball. Viva science. We'll get through this. 

Fifth Third Field, Toledo, Ohio

"Knothole Gang," Toledo

Huntington Park, Columbus, Ohio

Huntington Park, Columbus, Ohio

Photo of Reavis Hall via Northern Illinois University