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

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Through the eye of a Beatle

I'm recently obsessed with "Fifteen Hundred Miles (Through the Eye of a Beatle)" by the Frost, a late-60s Detroit band I wrote a bit about here. Written and sung by bass player Don Hartman, the song appears on the band's third album, Through The Eyes of Love (1970); it had been recorded live at the legendary Grande Ballroom in Detroit the year before for the band's second album, Rock and Roll, but didn't make the cut. There's so much I dig about this of-the-era track, yet much of it's just beyond my grasp. It's a fantastic driving song—that is, it's a great song about driving that's great to drive to—and in its laudatory air, it's kind of a tribute song, and kind of a novelty song, yet it's greater than those two limiting tags might suggest. I emailed Hartman at his website for some insight, but I haven't heard back; perhaps one day he can enlighten me as to just what he was trying to get at with this song. 

What's it about? Let's examine: 
1) Take a ride
2) "Do you wanna go?"
3) "C'mon, c'mon"
4) A hundred miles high
5) You won't come down
Standard period stuff. A rockin' road trip. Or a drug trip. Both? Are we cruising through the desert at dawn or the verdant paradise of our minds? Then the kicker:
Fifteen hundred miles through the eye of a Beatle
Say what? What does this mean? (Check the back cover and label; it's not a typo, we're not driving around in a VW.) Have we somehow inhabited a Beatle and are seeing things through his eye? (Which Beatle?) Or have we mainlined enough of their songs that we're elevating now to cruising altitude, aiming for a horizon as endless as the last chord of "A Day in the Life"? A road trip soundtracked by the "White Album" and endless "Paul Is Dead!" debates? Is the Beatles music blasting in the car our delivery system, and are the drugs coursing through us allowing us some measure, some rarified glimpse, of a Beatle's Perspective? And what will we see through his eye? What's curious is that there are no explicit, or, for that matter, even implicit, references to the Beatles beyond the song title. No lyrics punning on famous Beatles songs, no passages echoing famous Beatles melodies. Few clues. Just a trip. Through the eye of a Beatle.

As you can see, all I really have are questions. But any way you read it, the song kicks ass: a driving (pun intended), fuzz-guitar, amped-up acid rock blast that could not have been written, or likely even conceived of, a few years earlier, not only because at the dawn of the Seventies the Frost were plugged into new radical sonic and cultural currents, but because the Beatles wouldn't have yet achieved the kind of God-like status that vouchsafed a fifteen-hundred mile trip through the winding roads, ebbs and flows, and major and minor notes of their consciousness (though they were getting awfully close). 

The version recorded at the Grande was eventually issued by Vanguard. It's a minute shorter, faster and rawer, uncluttered by the arrangement that the band wrote for Through the Eyes of Love, in a way more direct, yet lacking the kind of end-of-the-decade, Rock Music Will Save Us grandiosity that the song, and its ostensible subject, demands. I love both versions, and I hope I never get to the bottom of them.

Photo of the Frost via City Pulse.