Thursday, September 30, 2021


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.


Thursday, September 9, 2021

When I'm in chaos

Wendy Case's songs for The Paybacks find hard truths in uncompromising R&R
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 hard truths.

Middle photo of Case via Dick Altavista (flickr)

Sunday, September 5, 2021


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).