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 among 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: