Saturday, July 31, 2021

At home

I've been swimming again for the first time in many years. When I entered the pool at the local YMCA a few weeks back and began laps, I felt instantly at home, as if entering through the doors of a long-vacated safe place. I took to swimming easily as a kid, taught, I think, mostly by my dad at the public pool, with my sister pitching in. If I had official lessons—which seems logical—I don't remember them now. Rather, I remember my dad's large arms and hands holding me afloat in blue water under a sunny sky as I began paddling. (An image reoccurs: me swimming toward my smiling dad as he's kicking his legs in the water as the melancholy "Nadia's Theme" plays. I haven't figured that one out, yet.) I loved swimming (though not competitively), filling my lungs with air and then skimming the floor on long sweeps down a pool's length, coming up for air, repeating. My wife, who I taught to swim, likens me to a river otter. I do feel purely, innately creature-like in the water, with little permeable boundaries except the obvious—I can't breathe, I have to fight not to float, I exhaust myself and have to rest, etc.. These facts mean there's a finite time that I can spend in water. Yet when I'm there I feel placeless, and the very gesture of the crawl stroke feels ancient yet familiar.

Boundaries of a different sort describe another place where I've aways felt at home: the dive bar. Let me wander into a small, dark, not necessarily old, joint, sit on a rickety stool near the door (on which, preferably, there's a diamond window), allow my eyes to adjust, order a round of cold cheap beer and a shot, control a killer jukebox for a dozen or so songs, and I'm at peace. If there is a TV, it's on but low, hopefully tuned to a baseball game, if we're in season. (In my beloved pub the Oasis, in Rockford, Illinois, the TV's busted, and hangs dark from the ceiling gathering dust.) I'll make small talk if I'm in the mood, but I'm usually not, preferring to gaze into my beer as my own company, and follow the current of my my thoughts. Here, I feel comfortable, whether I'm a regular who the bartender knows or whether I've ducked in to this appealing looking place in a city I'm visiting for the first time. I'm careful to guard against over-valuing the buzzed epiphany, trusting that, as the afternoon or evening lengthens, any worthwhile philosophizing I might mutter to myself will be replaced by simple grooving to a good song on the jukebox.

I'm all too aware that romanticizing bars can be dangerous. A decade ago I wrote about my attraction to bars and drinking, and my wariness of both, in "Barfly on the Wall," an essay for Junk: A Literary Fix; revisiting the piece, I'm struck by how little my attitude has changed, and how my discovery near the end of the piece feels even more urgent to me now. "I’d like to think that I’m in recovery, but I’m not so sure." I wrote. "Addiction to romanticizing, addiction to sentimentalizing, can be dangerous lifetime habits. As an addict is wary of his next sip, her next pain pill, so am I wary of the next indulgent slip into idealizing, because it could be fatal to what I might call the Mature Life."

While an addiction to romancing debauchery is certainly better for my physical and mental health than actual debauchery, it poisons in a different way: I can place a dive bar on a pedestal high enough that all I really see is its appealing shape, its blurring borders in Ideal Land, the pretty wink of neon signs. Romanticizing a bar is like falling for the Platonic promise of model homes at new housing developments, or the house façades on a movie set. The crisp front walk and neat green hedges, the clean white paint and trim, the shimmering bay windows present the family within as cast by Woods-Were-Once-Here Corporation. When we walk into a stranger’s home we know the odd smells and psychological histories, the muttering corners and emotionally weighted heirlooms, actual realities, the flawed families inside not reading from scripts, but improvising daily.

The limitations of indulging bar romance are considerable, then. I guess one can over swim, but the excesses of that pastime aren't nearly as corrosive as overstaying, by years, one's welcome at the corner joint. 


What of the connections, if any, between swimming in a pool and drinking in a bar? Both allow me to feel innate and untroubled when I'm on the road—we love visiting local Y's in whatever towns we're staying in on long road trips; hitting a good dive in a strange city, I feel uncannily at home. Both allow me some measure of solitude in public; both encourage the kind of pleasant, essayistic ambling of the mind from thought to observation and back again; both create a kind of cocoon for me to be present and apart at the same time. I won't indulge in more symbolism or psychological insights than my predilection for pools and dives deserves, except to admit to a certain ambivalence recognizing that, though I'm a social creature, if an introverted one, and a happy, solid husband and a friend to my friends, I often find my most authentic self in my own head.

Photo of pool via iStock; photo of International Bar in New York City by yours truly

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Puts me in my world

A stack of 45s landed mysteriously in my family's suburban basement sometime during my childhood. Likely they were a pre-packaged gift my parents bought on a whim at, say, Korvettes, or perhaps one or three of them came into our possession via neighbor kids. All I knew was these singles arrived as a kind of sonic miracle, and were a blast to jam and to dance around to, and it turned out they were my gateway drug into a lifelong love affair with music. A decade or so ago my younger brother Paul burned a handful of them onto a CD-r as a gift for the family; our childhood party included Ted Taylor's "Honey Lou," Little Milton's "If Walls Could Talk," Ohio Express' "Roll It Up," Joe Tex's "Wicked Woman," Vik Venus's "Everybody's On Strike," Deodato's "Also Sprach Zarathustra"—what a bill! Among the particularly irresistible tunes were Charles Spurling's "Popcorn Charlie" and Jean Knight's "You Think You're Hot Stuff," yet the flip side to Knight's was the number that really got my and my brother's attention. With its humor, sublimely funky bass line, winking, knowing background singers, and wickedly catchy chorus, "Don't Talk About Jody" was pure catnip, sending us around the basement dancing and laughing. Now I can attach names to the musicians who delighted us, who played a tight arrangement so loosely: Jerry Puckett supplied the infectious funky guitar riff; William Laverne Robbins played bass; drummer James Carey Stroud held everything down with cool aplomb. The song was cut at Malaco Studios in Jackson, Mississippi, and Wardell Quezergue arranged and produced. These names and places mean a lot to me now.

Of course what I was too young to get beyond an understanding of who made these cools sounds was the singer's sexy confidence, her proud, dug-in defense of her man, the one "we girls know can satisfy," whose goodness, fidelity, and dependability—his dimensional, lasting sex appeal—put flashier guys to shame. And yet, somehow, much of that joy, swagger, and confidence came though to me anyway, years before the words, and my own maturity, caught up to the groove. Before my perspective widened enough to understand the playfully aggressive sexual politics at work in the song, its movement, catchiness, and joie de vivre were already saying a lot to me—I just didn't have the language to translate it into anything other than joyful movement. And I didn't need to. My kid perspective isn't cringy now when I listen to the song, and love it evermore, as is sometimes the case when you take stock of the naiveté and innocence of your childhood take on things—rather, it adds layers to the song, still. How does music do this?

I recently found "Mr. Hot Stuff," on which "Don't Talk About Jody" appeared, released on Stax in 1971, and now can listen to and truly embrace the breadth of Knight's gifts, from her fun and funny funk to her dead-earnest and powerful ballads; "A Little Bit Of Something (Is Better than Al Of Nothing)"—wow. Because we had the 45, we never saw the album—but I bet we would've had a hell of a rollicking response to the original, fabulous cover, too!

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Time will go and you're free

Yesterday was gray and rainy, the perfect weather to further indulge in one of my favorite records from the past year. 11:11, the Kundalini Genie's latest release, is a mind-bending trip of heavy psychedelia, a soundscape journey into interior states propelled by loud, fuzzy guitars, mammoth drumming, and airy vocals in dreamy arrangements, the sound saturated and reverb-rich. Chord changes come as if moving underwater, keyboard flourishes arrive like glimpses of high-flying birds, cymbal crashes move in slow motion, drum fills spill unhurriedly like men gamboling on the moon. I'm new to the Glasgow, Scotland band, and was in a local record store when an employee played this album. Crate digging, I found myself swallowed by the opening track, "Mantra," its blend of sitar, rock and roll backbeat drumming, and loud, driving, searching guitars riding atop a drone for seven astonishing minutes. I was utterly transported by the experience of listening—as the best music does, it altered the environment I was in—and after the full album played I bought it on the spot.

The epic sound on 11:11 is created by Robbie Wilson, the primary songwriter, on guitar, bass, drums, percussion, keyboards and vocals; Jack Getty and Jason Shaw pitch in on guitar, bass, and vocals. (A larger collection of Genie musicians come and go, and fill out the sound on stage). The tradition the band mines is clear, and has been maintained before them in various textures since the second half of the 1960s in numerous psychedelic and neo-psychedelic bands and movements. To my ears, the clearest source on 11:11 are the trippy, guitar-heavy songs John Lennon wrote and recorded with the Beatles in the April and May of 1966. "Tomorrow Never Knows." "I'm Only Sleeping." "Rain." "She Said She Said": these psychedelic masterpieces are sonic templates for Wilson, who filters Lennon's passive, dreamy plugged-in perceptions through his own harmonic sensibilities, drenching them in contemporary, but sympathetic, production and presenting them new again. (His voice sounds uncannily like George Harrison's in places, too.) Lennon and Harrison's guitar sounds in particular seemed to have really galvanized Wilson: 11:11 is a deceptively loud album, or sounds great when cranked, anyway. 

My favorite song on the album is "Sunrise," a dimensional, and surprisingly moving, track. For all of Wilson's gentleness, there's an icy remove to much of 11:11, the songs' dwelling in interior states and extended, languid musical passages bordering on late-Pink Floyd styled self-absorption—gorgeously rendered absorption, it must be said. But the seven-minute "Sunrise" feels different. It begins against a characteristic lazy strum and yawning pace with an invitation from the singer to dig his mind, to lose the sense of temporality, as he does in his nightly "silver dreams," until the morning brings sun, a freeing journey of colors and textures. Against spacey keyboard washes and epic reverb, the last verse appears:
'Cause when I lay down in my bed
I never feel as though I'm alone
'Cause all my friends, they're in my head
And I know they'll never let me down
So just leave me alone flying up in the sky, don't you know
I'm happy there...can't you see?
It's everything you want, you just have to believe
It doesn't matter how long, 'cause time will go and you're free
And then you'll see...
For all of the song's irresistible, narcotic-like entreaties, that line about friends stops me: the singer will never feel let down by his friends because they exist only in his head, where he's happy though eternally alone, defining that peace in part by the faithfulness of his friends who aren't truly there with him. The paradox is startling, and melancholy, sharp-edged in the midst of the pillowy dreamscape that the song conjures. It's brilliant, powerful stuff, and surprising, and like the best discoveries in a song, it subtly changes, or puts in revealing context, everything you heard before and after it.


Robbie Wilson
Is the end result solipsism or is it Oneness that the singer drifts slowly toward? "Sunrise" doesn't satisfyingly answer that question, though Wilson, in a recent inteview with Klemen Breznikar at It's Psychedelic Baby Magazine, explored the possibilities and the difficulties of the ego. "Basically my understanding of ego is that it’s your lens through which you experience the material and sensory world," he said. "Having said that, I, like everyone else, have it within me to be extremely egotistical. A trait you need to be in touch with to be able to create good art. That said, like anything, it’s a tool to be used and put away when you’re finished with it, (I believe), and so it can be dangerous.If you let yourself get carried away it can cause all sorts of problems, you need to be able to take it off like a jacket at the end of the day or you’ll spend your life in a constant struggle to satiate it, which of course, by it’s very nature it never can be."
...Do what you can, if you even make one small change to improve your life, the lives of those around you and the planet, then you’re doing it. The only issue is consistency, you have to consistently be able to ‘take off your ego’ and try to act from a position of empathy consistently, it’s not enough to do a few good things. You have to make it part of you. When you do that, things happen, there’s a force like gravity in the universe, maybe it’s karma, that notices that and suddenly doors are open that were once shut, a path starts to reveal itself and you know it’s what you have to do. It doesn’t have to be massive, just something. It has to be you. No one else can.
He adds, "Psychedelic by the very definition of the word (Psyche: ‘the human body, mind or spirit’. Delos: ‘the bring forth, to manifest’) means the human spirit manifest, and so the type of people who are attracted to it are often people who are aware of this, and the infinite variations of it in their own personal lives and viewpoints."

Though thoughtful and articulate in his songs, Wilson chooses to give the English philosopher Alan Watts the last word on 11:11, literally. The final song—the epic "You Had It All"—closes with a two-minute snippet of a recording of Watts, date and source unknown. As the musicians hold and gently riff on chords on a keyboard, Watts espouses on birth, death, and the infinite oneness of all creatures—"And wheresoever beings exist throughout all galaxies, it doesn't make any difference, you are all of them"—ending with amazement at the fact that humans need not be aware of this miracle: 
You don't have to know how to shine the sun, you just do it. Like you breathe. Now doesn't it just astonish you that you are this fantastically complex thing? And that you are doing all of this and you never had any education in how to do it? Never learned, but you're this miracle? The point of it is, from a strictly physical, scientific standpoint, this organism is a continuous energy with everything else that's going on. And if I am my foot, I am the sun.
Watts's generous and startling way of seeing the universe and the unity of all creatures moving through it, arriving as it does at the end of the album as a kind of clarifying dawn, marks 11:11, a remarkable collection of songs about the human spirit that evoke the furthest edges of insight and invite us along on the journey.

Photo of Wilson via Psychedelic Underground Generation

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Surprise, Surprise

Few popular artists have guarded their public image as rigorously as has Paul McCartney. In the countless interviews he's given over the past fifty-plus years, he's been careful to present a demeanor that is part optimistic, part innocent, and part humble, with the odd winking cockiness for seasoning. Fans have rolled their collective eye at the routine anecdotes McCartney hauls out for each and every interview. To his immense credit, he shares each story as if he's telling it for the first time or the interviewer may be hearing it for the first time, yet the problem with a charming person who's confident in his charm is that it becomes difficult to determine when he's bullshitting you. His charm follows from his sincerity, or it seals off candor.

My favorite moments in director Zachary Heinzerling's engrossing, highly entertaining series McCartney 3,2,1, airing now on Hulu, come when McCartney looks genuinely astonished or startled; unsurprisingly, those reactions occur not during a well-worn story, but during the breakdown of studio tracks, the most compelling and irresistible moments in the series. Rick Rubin and McCartney huddle over the mixing board like kids playing with a cool toy on Christmas morning, and, listening to a Beatles or a solo recording, McCartney's quite literally in the moment; though he's presumably heard these songs countless times, he reacts more candidly and unguardedly than he does during the sit-down interview portions (as amiably "off the cuff" as they appear, given, again, McCartney's legendary charm). These are glimpses into McCartney vulnerability that we don't see that often. He's humbled a bit. I love when, during a playback of "Another Girl" from Help!, McCartney reacts to the fuck-ups in his lead guitar playing—botched notes that I've smiled at since I was a kid—and is forced to acknowledge for a second that a Legend messes up for all to hear. Watch his face during these scenes—the breakdowns of "And Your Bird Can Sing" and "A Day In The Life" are also great passages—and you'll see not only fondness and joy as he listens to his band's superb ensemble playing and inventiveness, but affection for his and his band's mistakes, also. 

A component of McCartney's appeal has long been his self-deprecation, yet that modesty often feels affected ("The Beatles were a good little band, weren't they?"), part guarded deflection, part-Northern self-effacement. A great exchange occurs after Rubin and McCartney have listened to "Another Girl." Rubin—who must've had a difficult time deciding which pose to take with McCartney; ultimately, he vacillates between seasoned pro and gushing, wide-eyed fan—assures McCartney that keeping his guitar mistakes in the final master of the song was a bold move. McCartney shrugs. They really had no choice, he says, given their pressing studio schedule.

Rubin: That's real!

McCartney [chuckling]: That's real alright. 

Rubin: It adds to the energy of the track, it's so cooking, oh he can barely even play it! You know what I mean? Like, it's running away.

McCartney [returning to the board]: OK, I'll go with that explanation. [takes a beat] I wish I had you in school. "No, he didn't make a mistake, he's just enthusiastic." Yeah.

Roger Angell once observed that baseball players, even all-stars and veterans, enjoyed not only talking about their accomplishments, but about when things went wrong on the field, the inevitable mistakes and comic disasters being an equal ingredient of the game they love. The moments in 3,2,1 when McCartney grins at an old-fashioned screw up are among the most pleasing, and, yeah, charming in the series.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

A tree grows

Last May, in what felt like the dawning of an abyss, we planted an Eastern Redbud in the back yard. Happy to report that 14 months later tree and planters are doing well.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Places I could take you to

The Frost (clockwise from top, Gordy Garris, Don Hartman, Dick Wagner, Bob Rigg)
I'm in a Detroit rock-and-roll deep dive of late, and I've been listening to the Frost's debut album, Frost Music, released in 1969, yet another in a long line of records that should be better known. The Frost grew out of the ashes of the Bossmen, a covers-only outfit; after a personnel shift they changed their name to the Frost, started scribbling their own tunes, and moved from their native Saginaw a hundred miles southeast to Detroit where, to put it mildly, the action was. Frost Music's legacy probably suffers from the band's swift implosion a few years later, their label Vanguard's anemic distribution and promotion, and the blinding wattage thrown by contemporary Motor City bands the Stooges and the MC5, whose epic albums are, of course, the standard bearers for tough, righteous, mold-shattering Detroit rock and roll. All three bands shared stages together, yet history will likely consign Dick Wagner's band to the category of "Also-ran." 

A shame, because Frost Music is a terrific, lively album, of its era yet surprising, too, bursting with rich, guitar-driven songs stuffed with melody and hooks. When the Frost hit the studio in New York City, they arrived with a clutch of original songs that they'd been playing live for more than a year—according to David Carson in Grit, Noise, & Revolution, Wagner had been inspired by the originality of Blood, Sweat, and Tears, which he'd auditioned for—and the performances are assured but loose, moving between formal structures and freak-out guitar improvisations. Wagner's best material evokes Raspberries/Rundgren-styled power pop, psychedelia, and prog rock. Everything's amped-up, yet producer Sam Charters never sacrifices nuance for decibels. 

Four songs in particular have gotten inside me. In the terrific, radio-ready opener "Jennie Lee," Wagner's moving melody, changes, and dramatic chorus are yanked into freaky places by his wailing guitar, its psych edge scoring the song's complaint about the titular woman's squareness, or her drugged-out oblivion, it's hard to tell ("Where is your mind?") Or maybe she broke his heart and split. Either way, bass player Gordy Garris's excitable eighth notes underscore the urgency.

"Mystery Man," released in an edited version as a single (which was, alas, only Big In Detroit) is a remarkable song. The opening a cappella chorus belies the darkness of the lyric in which the singer admits to closing himself off from others, his feelings hidden away, until he's nothing but a shadowy figure to those around him. The guitars (Wagner on lead, Don Hartman on rhythm) simultaneously crunch and wail, and their forceful entrance after the opening changes the mood entirely, moving the song from winsome to edgy. Wagner's tenor vocal is very affecting—it sounds as if he's singing about a bad trip: a "magic carpet ride" once inspired him to share his epiphanies and ideas with another ("you"), but afterward his mood darkened, any appeal that generosity and openness had now replaced by something sinister, or sad, at least. As in the best songs on Frost Music, the guitar interplay between Wagner and Hartman do much of the story telling, and it's both moving and melancholy to me that the singer's once-bright plans and sought-for future can now only be articulated by wordlessness. When the a cappella returns near the end, it's been stripped of its innocence and sounds as if it's fighting inside of a bad dream. Powerful stuff. How was this song not played across the country on every late-night FM station?

"Baby Once You Got It" is a simple but propulsive chant-along that I can imagine really rocked joints like the Eastown Theater, or the Grande Ballroom, where the Frost were quite popular. 

The album's closer is in many ways the record's signature song, a potent blend of rocking sensibility, aching melody, and cultural commentary. The singer's had it with the bummer of the person he's hanging with, who offers only overcast weather and who always laughs at the singer's arguments, or tries to take apart his mind and tell him what to do. But who are you? the singer asks, and why should I believe you? Whether the "you" is a friend, a lover, Dad, The Man, or a shitty, lo-rent hallucinogen, the point's clear: I'm my own person, and these beautiful, searing guitar leads will take me where I need to go.


The Frost disbanded after two more albums, Rock and Roll Music (1969), half of which was recorded live, and Through The Eyes Of Love (1970). Close your eyes and pretend you're at the Grande:

After the Frost called it quits, Wagner became a prized and hard-working session guitarist in the 1970s and '80s, playing with Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, KISS, and many others artists and bands. He died in 2014. In a 2012 interview with It's Psychedelic Baby Magazine, Wagner explained the Frost's dissolution in terms painfully familiar to most band break-ups. "Everyone had their own agendas," he admitted. 
Keeping a band together is very hard. You’ve got to have the same purpose. All the guys in the band gotta have the same dream. If they don’t it doesn’t work. It's very difficult keeping bands together. You try, you do your best, but sometimes it doesn’t work.
Thankfully, they left behind some highly original and affecting music.