Thursday, July 28, 2022

Transparencies, ctd.

While driving home to DeKalb from Geneva after a Kane County Cougars game—a 25-mile drive through small towns and farmland—I was struck by an unbidden moment where the past settled on top of the present like a transparency. We had the White Sox game on AM radio and as we headed west away from Chicagoland the reception cut in an out, that phenomenon itself a relic of sorts in the era of satellite radio. It was dark out but close enough to dusk that I could make out silhouettes of barns and farm buildings as we sped past and—in a confluence of the crackling radio, the mild summer night, and the rural abstract out the windows I was dropped into my family's Gran Torino station wagon as we drove west across Ohio in the summer of 1978. I felt that date because I was no longer listening to a White Sox/Rockies game, I was listening to a Cincinnati Reds on WLW in the midst of Pete Rose's epic hitting streak. I don't know what precise game we had tuned in that night—it was likely in mid- or-late July, and so near the end of the streak—but as I'd followed Rose's feats at home, in Maryland, I knew that the stakes were high, and higher still with each game. I listened with hyper attention and looked out the window as Rose took an at-bat or two, and eventually got his hit, the streak continuing impossibly, and I imagined Rose sprinting to first and rounding the bag as outlines of barns played on the passenger windows competing, or complementing, the tableau. The rest fades. We arrived at my grandparents' house, in Coldwater, Ohio, later that night. We stayed for a week or so. I played with my older siblings on train tracks and at the small public park. Rose's 44-game hitting streak ended on August 1. He went 0-for-4 against the Atlanta Braves.

The narrowing of that four-and-a-half decade gap of time to a few moments was nothing short of breathtaking, yet of course banal and common. I'm grimly aware that if I'd watched this scene in a movie—a man coming home from a ball game driving past cornfields and farms, listening to a game on the radio and magically brought back to a moment when he was a kid listening in the dark in the family car to an historic game of baseball—I might've rolled my eyes at the predictability, the sentimentality, and the Americana cliche of it all. I guess this is why we risk corn in storytelling, and why I'm trotting out yet another note on memory and nostalgia, my own dubious streak. Another of life's surprise gifts, which feel in short supply these days. And the Sox won, 2-1.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Any scene of childhood

This morning I was spending some time on Google Street View, cruising down some blocks of my adolescent neighborhood in Wheaton, Maryland, when I was struck again at the magic tricks that memory plays. There are the woods behind the long-gone Equitable Bank where my friends and I drank beer on Friday nights during the football games; across the street there's the parking lot next to that apartment where in my my parents' station wagon we forced down some wide-mouth Mickey's and chased them with fistfuls of barbecue chips, provisions for the accidental poor-man's donuts I laid down on the wet grass. Funny how much more vast the stage sets are when I replay these events, the woods larger, the trees taller, the parking lot dramatically lit, the donuts endlessly spiraling into endless laughter, the suburban corners everywhere shadowed with charged potential.

Nothing new here, no news. You know the story. If we weren't playing Springsteen in the car on our boom box, we were playing him in our heads, his songs—or whatever band or singer's songs scored your nights—soundtracking these minor shenanigans that grew epic in the retelling, soaring from verse to bridge to chorus as if they're our songs only. Those long nights of teenage rebellion and the testing of limits occurred last weekend, somewhere, and will again this weekend, somewhere else—and years from now when those actors return to those stages they'll be struck, too, by how small the sets are, how tacky the props, how underwhelming the lighting, each tasting their own unique bittersweetness.

For years I've taught George Orwell's "Such, Such Were The Joys," a torturous, dryly confessional essay about Orwell's years at the St. Cyprian prep school. Semester after semester I've watched my students grapple with the essay's ending, where Orwell imagines visiting the school after many years away, and where he lands on this inevitable discovery:

I think I should only feel what one invariably feels in revisiting any scene of childhood: How small everything has grown, and how terrible is the deterioration in myself!

We debate the words invariably, terrible, and deterioration, and the students gamely attempt to locate themselves in the shoes of an older man (Orwell was in this thirties when he wrote the essay) who's reckoning with the vagaries of memory, not to mention trauma. The students are also, but under less weight, their futures ahead of them. Their collective brow furrows, their face turns solemn, but the recognition of Orwell's epiphany is, of course, beyond them. They'll have to wait a while before it rings true.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

The way it goes

"Born To Lose" is a perpetual motion machine between defeat and swagger
Had Johnny Thunders not died in New Orleans in 1991 at the too-young age of 38, he would've turned 70 yesterday. Occasioned by that sad realization, I heard the Heartbreakers' immortal "Born To Lose" on a loop in my head all day.

As thrilling as the song is, the opening ten seconds may top everything in it. What sounds like a false start is probably deliberate, Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan evoking unhappiness, ugliness, and sourness all at once—a loser misfit wearing an itchy sweater that doesn't fit. Nolan clears the disenchantment enough to count in Walter Lure (guitar) and Billy Rath (bass), and the song roars into life, item #234,989,000 in rock and roll's Fun Songs about Sad Stuff file. Thunders's desperate vocal, both confessional and self-mocking, is answered by his signature lead lines, only here his guitar evokes demented fun house clowns. "The city is so cold," he complains,
And I'm so sold
That's why I know
Nothing to do
I've nothing to say
Only one thing that I want
It's the only way
Living in a jungle
It ain't so hard
Living in the city
It'll eat out, eat out your heart
That's why our hero is born to lose. Or is it born too loose? The band had it both ways on L.A.M.F.'s initial German release (the first of the album's multiple iterations), printing "loose" on the back cover and "lose" on the label:

Subsequent reissues have occasionally swapped the words' places, but more often than not "lose" appears on both sleeve and label, and some lyrics and fan sites winkingly split the difference as "Born To(o) Lo(o)se." I hear both words whenever I jam the tune, a sonic transparency laid one on top of the other—and that's perfect, it seems to me, the two words so close phonetically and, given the right unhappy context, so near in meaning, too, each evoking a hardscrabble existence on the margins where excess of sex and drugs—or simply the fact of being born into a body whose parts rattle around and threaten to fall apart—conspire only to numb or deaden, and to breed self-contempt and a grim understanding of one's place in the fucked-up cosmos. 

Even if you strip the song of Thunders's unhappy fate, I've always found "Born To Lose" very moving: it's a raucous, righteously-rocking ode to loserdom, an anti-anthem shorn of self-pity (though I acknowledge its seeds of the junkie romance that Thunders often traded in). The song's funny, in a louche, ironic street way, but also really affecting. The last line of the chorus slays me with its earnest major-minor melody lifting ever so slightly (in some mixes aided the third time around by Rath's extended-hand bass line in the previous bar), signaling to my ears both weary acceptance and resolute celebration. I'm born to lose. I'm born too loose. The night's young! I know: it's just a hook, but Thunders's intentions, whatever they were, don't necessarily affect what I and so many will forever hear in that infinite space between song and listener. That chorus is a perpetual motion machine between defeat and swagger. Could've been Thunders's epitaph.

Long curious about the lose/loose dynamic, I've for decades apparently misheard Thunders's answer to the chorus's title phrase: I'd always thought that Thunders sang—bellowed—"I can't hear it!" when, if the vast majority of lyric sites are to be trusted, he's really exhorting his charging band with "I said hit it!" 

Which is, of course, the same thing. Play really loud, we'll wake up tomorrow.

Photo of Thunders by Beth Herzhaft via Beth Herzhaft Photography

Saturday, July 2, 2022

Hello, hi, Ty again

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—Last night I attended my first show in three years. I was grateful to ride back in to town with Ty Segall, who's delivered for me so often in the past. 

Segall and his Freedom Band—Emmett Kelly on guitar, Mikal Cronin on bass and keyboards, Charles Moothart on drums, Ben Boye on keys—played Thalia Hall in Chicago, and it felt like a homecoming: every Segall show I've seen, acoustic or electric, produces the same trippy, friendly, ultimately ecstatic mood that builds and crescendos, Segall leading his band across a spectrum of sound and moods. Throughout the night a guy in front of me, tripping balls or maybe not, seemed to leave his body and ride Segall to the ceiling and back. Individual songs stood out: "My Lady's On Fire," "Orange-Colored Queens," an epic, moving "Sleeper," a stomping "Love Fuzz," among others. Yet a Segall show can also feel like one protracted song, the blend and wash of the arrangements unifying the at-times chaotically different parts. 

This was a night about sonic textures. Segall began the show solo, stage-left with his acoustic; after a few songs, so whisper-quiet in places that the back-bar conversation competed, he was joined by Kelly on another acoustic. The two faced off at opposite ends of the stage for a few more songs, producing a folky, gently rich prelude to the full band, who eventually emerged to let rip the middle, thickly-loud and groovy section of the show. Longtime mate Cronin and Boye produced on keyboards heavy layers of ambient psychedelia during and between numbers, some passages of which felt like songs in and of themselves. Kelly and Segall's tandem playing was vivid, divided as the guitarists were on opposite ends of the stage. Kelly's leads soared, yet were kept tethered to this world by Segall's hefty rhythm playing; Kelly obliged with his ballast to Segall's ascending solos. Symbolically centered, drummer Moothart kept everything grounded, a look of spacey but determined concentration on his face, his style moving from nimble free-jazz to four-on-the-floor stomp, sometimes in the same song. While his bandmates jammed, he tightened down the bolts. It took me a few songs to connect with last night's performance, but once I did I elevated and remained aloft. A good Segall full-band show gives the impression of lighting a Chinese sky lantern: you have to be patient while the heat fills the paper balloon, but once the density lowers and the lantern rises, the borne-up feeling is liberating. Now you're along for the ride.

Segall doesn't talk much—a "Hello," a "Thanks," and an endearingly awkward twirl-and-bow before his encore is all the stage presence he needs with a catalogue as vast and deep as his. His personality emerges from his performance. Segall seems most alive as he plays, strumming his acoustic or ear-splittingly mauling his electric. He often solos in a push-and-pull with feedback that you can practically see come lurching from his amp. When he takes the mic to sing, he does so through his thick curtain of blonde hair, his face and its mood completely obscured; when he solos, he's truly on stage, bathed in cones of purple or gold light. Segall's released so many albums and he tours so often that you can hit a show of his and, if you haven't listened to his latest two or three releases, you might not recognize much in the setlist. I haven't listened to his latest, Hello, Hi, a whole lot yet, but I know and love the lead single "Saturday," a highlight last night, one of those tunes that galvanized the crowd which, amoeba-like, moved imperceptibly closer to the stage. 

"I feel OK on Saturday," Segall sang, we all sang. I woke up today, a Saturday, with the song in my head, and I felt even better. To drink again in a crowded venue packed with lively strangers, to feel amplified noise in my chest: these are simple but sublime pleasures that have been denied me and millions of others for so long. I'm back finally, hesitantly, and hedging, and I'm grateful. I stood three-or-so deep from the stage as I like to do, which put me at the edge of a spontaneous poor-man's mosh pit which heated up now and again. One guy unintentionally kicked me hard on my shin before I shoved him back into the pit. This morning I woke up with a bruise I was very glad for.