Thursday, March 30, 2023

The wonder of it all, baby

Wherever the song takes me, want to come along?

Few songs bring me back to my childhood as powerfully as Wings' "Listen To What The Man Said," released as a single in 1975. Such an effortless sounding song had to labor a bit, as it turns out: the tune would come alive when Paul McCartney played it on piano for others to hear, yet the ideal group take remained stubbornly elusive at Sea-Saint Recording Studio, in New Orleans. Eventually, with sweetening by Traffic guitarist Dave Mason and a sublime saxophone solo from L.A. Express' Tom Scott, the band perfected a bright, gently rocking arrangement, buoyant on its own cheery confidence. Pop sweetness has a long expiration date, but the band ended up using the first take, rightly sensing magic in the performance.

Here's what I feel about the song nearly half a century later:
If I stare too long as "Listen To What The Man Said" plays I might burn my retina.

Regular exposure to "Listen To What The Man Said" might cure someone of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Roy Carr and Tony Tyler once described the song as "High Pop." I hear "High Sun."
"Listen To What The Man Said" was a number one hit on Billboard and was all over the radio through the summer of '75. Jubilant, radiant, uplifting, the song's an irresistible blend of McCartney Active Ingredients: optimism in a hook-laden singalong, semi-obscure lyrics that sound great, maybe even profound, as a cheerful, addictive melody eddies them to and fro, indelible Linda-and-Laine backing vocals during an ecstatic chorus that feel like nothing less than stop-time footage of blooming flowers. McCartney and his band, rounded out with guitarist Jimmy McCulloch and drummer Joe English, produced a recording that is eternally warm to the touch, both song and weather. Prediction: a long, sunny afternoon.


I've been thinking lately about a metaphor in Robert Vivian's "Thoughts on the Meditative Essay," published in 2012. The "primary focus" of a personal essay, Vivian writes, "is not the self,"

though it uses the self and all that it has to give as a kind of booster rocket that, once the prose reaches certain insights, is jettisoned or spent, much like shuttles that are launched into outer space as we see those burning hoops fall back into the pearly clouds after they have done their proper work of achieving escape velocity.
A great image. I'm not a music journalist. I'm an essay writer who writes mostly about music, and my way into music is nearly always autobiographical. Hundreds of years ago Samuel Butler said that "every man's work is always a portrait of himself," and, yeah, that colors my writing about music. When I explore a song, an album, or a show, I usually keep my first-person POV front and center, threading the music through the fabric of my own experiences, and vice versa—however trivial or dramatic, mundane or confessional—either in the moments I'm listening or, more often, through the tangle of my past. Yet nearly every autobiographical writer must at some point answer the eternal question posed by the appealingly skeptical Joanna Polley, below, in her sister Sarah's probing documentary Stories We Tell. In her film, Sarah Polley investigates, among other things, mysteries and absences involving her mother's love life and the profound affects it might have had on Sarah herself.
Good question, Joanna. Otherwise asked: can you get past yourself, already? Every piece of writing begins in the dark inside a writer; hopefully they can bring something out into the light that moves them beyond the merely personal. I don't expect that a reader, friend or stranger, will take an interest in my life, yet I hope that they might care to stick around to see where a song might take me. I feel, perhaps too deeply, that being profoundly moved by a song is subject matter unto itself, and so I want to see how, when moved, I might move through a song as it soundtracks my days. 


Hearing "Listen To What The Man" on Washington D.C.'s WPGC and later on my older siblings' copy of Venus and Mars (we had the 45, too) was nearly overwhelmingly pleasurable when I was a kid, less a daily sugar rush than a sonic shot of Vitamin D in an air-conditioned rec room in the middle of the suburbs. The song featured on a ceaselessly reviving inner-soundtrack to my solitary walks and bike rides, allowance strolls, basketball shoot-a-rounds, lounging at Wheaton Public Pool with the light diamonding off off the water surface. Family trips: rides on Funland amusement park at Rehoboth Beach against the dark Atlantic, hanging out in front of a Ben Franklin on a hot afternoon in rural Coldwater, Ohio. Saturdays with This Week In Baseball, my sister dancing in the basement... "Listen To What The Man Said" informed it all, in the air above my head. I couldn't wait to hear the song again the moment it ended, that poignant, half-time orchestral coda beyond my ken yet no less intriguing for that.

I'm guessing that the lyrics had something to do with all of this, too, though for me at age nine the words were no different in weight than the rhymes in the children's books I'd read only a few years before. "My stuff is never ‘a comment from within'," McCartney said about the song in 1988 in his fan club magazine Club Sandwich.
Basically I’m saying: ‘Listen to the basic rules, don’t goof off too much.’ But if you say ‘The Man’, it can mean God, it can mean ‘Women, listen to your man’, it can mean so many things. Later I did a song with Michael Jackson called ‘The Man’ and again, it’s quite nice leaving things ambiguous: I’m sure for Michael, probably ‘The Man’ meant God.
More recently, in 2016, asked again about the song's lyrics, McCartney said,
There are many answers to ‘Who is the man?’ In one way, you could say the man would be as the expression—‘You’re the man!’ Another way to look at it is that every religion has a leader who they consider to be ‘the man’. And his teachings are generally very positive. I like the idea that I leave it to the people to decide who, in their minds, is the man…".
Such optimism surely cut through the song as I listened as a kid, made me feel as warmly embraced as the melodies and McCartney's honeyed vocal, the very sound of hopefulness. That I can't divorce the song from the era, from my childhood, is immaterial to me as I listen now, so firmly embedded in my bone marrow is the song's tablature. Yet (I guess) I must steel myself against the siren song of nostalgia, that sop that dresses up as insight and passes as an argument. 

There are a handful of songs that I listened to obsessively during the early months of the pandemic lockdown that I can barely listen to now because the rush of feeling, associations, and graphic memories overwhelms me. They are hot to the touch. The poet Adrienne Rich once described her early use of formalism as a "strategy—like asbestos gloves, it allowed me to handle materials I couldn't pick up bare-handed." I haven't yet located a pair of gloves resistant enough to the emotional turmoil those songs revive in me, and I can't approach writing about them yet lest I tumble into pure, wordless sensation. 

McCartney, long derided by his critics for treading in shallow waters, has a knack for arousing surprisingly deep emotional responses to his listeners. Dig the joyful bridge in "Waterspout," cut in 1977 during Wings' London Town sessions but unreleased—"Only love can get you at it / and in a minute you will find yourself swimmin' in it." Gooey stuff, and also a heady evocation of lucky-in-love that's hard to surpass and might even put a smile on a McCartney hater's mug. He's plugged in, Sir Paul, and still manages to mine affecting currents. 

Perhaps someone during the pandemic listened to "Slidin'," a gem from McCartney III written and recorded during the lockdown and released at the end of 2020, and was sent by the quasi-psychedelic chorus—
I'm sliding, gliding through the air
I can see my body through windows in my hair
I'm sliding, gliding through the air
—someone who needed to feel a slide and glide out of the oppressive lockdown, for whatever reason. The song entered their DNA, and in a half century it might be impossible to listen to without the pulls and pangs of the mythic summer of 2020,  but they don't care to sift the longing for objectivity, the nostalgia for critical thinking, they want to turn to the person next to them and talk about the wonder of it all.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

No Place I Would Rather Be

My book about Roger Angell's writing career is now out in paperback
It's currently 40 degrees and cloudy in Chicagoland, and there's a rumor that the baseball season starts in a few days. One certainty is that on April 1 University of Nebraska Press will release the paperback edition of No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing, for which I've written a new epilogue on the occasion of Roger's death last year at the age of 101.

If you're interested in the career of baseball's greatest writer who had an historic through line from Babe Ruth to Mike Trout, who wrote with a fiction writer's eye for detail and story, and who remained a besotted yet skeptical fan of the game in its ups and downs, I've got you covered.

From the epilogue:
If I was startled to hear of Roger’s death, it was because he’d been living his life so fully that the prospect of its ending had seemed remote, even as he lived beyond his hundredth year. Shortly after I heard the news I watched the Chicago White Sox host the Boston Red Sox. Boston’s starter, the veteran Rich Hill, pitched well but ran into some difficulties in the middle innings. The Chicago announcer commented that Hill looked unhappy on the mound, and I instantly wondered—as I have countless times—what Roger would’ve made of the now-aggrieved Hill’s countenance as he stared down potential trouble. It just as swiftly occurred to me, with a pang, that we’ll never again enjoy a new observation—a new sentence—from Roger. His immense observational and writing gifts aside, there doesn’t seem to be much room for long, languid, patient takes on baseball, where knowledge, amusement, curiosity, and skepticism blend, where the writing seems as boundless as the game itself. The great themes in Roger’s baseball writing—the desire for community and attachment, the capacity and value of caring, the vagaries of luck—are eternal, and transcended the game. Simply put, Roger elevated the game of baseball; no one before or since has written about it as attentively and as thoughtfully, and with such droll literary panache. He loved baseball. He was endlessly enthused by its joys and disappointed by its disappointments, finding a cherished place there. The long seasons will go on, but something irreplaceable is now gone.
You can order directly from Nebraska here, or hit the usual joints. Please spread the word!

Thursday, March 16, 2023


Crate digging, 45s, and the random ways that records are passed down
"The world is governed by chance," novelist Paul Auster once observed. "Randomness stalks us every day of our lives." This is true, and there's no more delicious proof of that than in a used record store when I'm elbow-deep in a box of records. where artists, bands, labels, genres, and decades collide in capricious ways. As pleasurable and sanity-saving as it is to peruse an alphabetized or otherwise well-organized bin of records, I most dig being able to hunker down on the floor with a flimsy box of records grouped, if via any principle at all, by chance, the bizarro equivalent of peripheral browsing in a brick-and-mortar library, only the Dewey Decimal's been replaced by the Chaotic Haphazard as I shuffle through and among scattered surprises, both of the upgrade and the never-seen-that-one-in-the-wild variety. This can certainly happen as I'm streaming online, alert to the revelations popping up in someone's playlist, but it doesn't compare to finding an obscure seven-inch treasure, forking over a buck or three, bringing it home, cleaning it, and spinning....

A couple of days ago I was hanging out at Record Wonderland in Roselle, Illinois, a regular stop for me. The owner Steve usually hauls out his latest 45s when I'm there. This time I noticed a through line among the stacks of records he'd boxed up: the name "Herm" scrawled across each label.

Herm it turns out, used to DJ high school dances in the Pittsburgh area in the 1960s and 1970s, and he recently moved to the Chicago area. Steve got wind of Herm's large and diverse collection, visited Herm, who's now in his seventies, at his home, and bought his entire collection outright. "He didn’t have a player when I visited him," Steve told me, "but when I asked him about the titles I didn’t recognize, he seemed to remember them pretty well and accurately tell me what genre they were." He added that Herm only wanted to sell the whole collection, not piece by piece. "I almost didn’t make an offer, but there were some rare garage stuff like The Sonics that I couldn’t resist." 

For a DJ, Herm kept his records in remarkable shape, the only "blemish" among the collection being his large, black-ink tags often inexplicably penned over the name of the record label, all assertively bearing the weight of his ownership. I generally don't mind writing on labels, unless they obscure more than they evoke—they're  catnip to my imagination, a scrawled first name or a random number that opens up all possibilities and narratives as to previous owners and the arbitrary lives of the records themselves. As for Herm, I'd just as soon know only a little. He "signed" his records in an attempt to ward off thieves who might want to walk home with a slab of vinyl or two: if you were a stranger, friend, or sibling, Herm could prove that you'd five-fingered a record from his collection. Stealer beware!

As for the happenstance—or the "Hermenstance," if you will—of my recent finds, to my delight 'ol Herm and I shared taste in a wide variety of music. I came away from the store with a handful of cool singles—a tiny percentage of what Steve's selling. It's fun to imagine that these were among the very 45s Herm brought with him to some Pittsburgh-area high school's all purpose room. Sounds that were alive in a teen club or an auditorium or a house party decades ago hundreds of miles away now reverberating in my house, echos across generations just above our heads. Soul to R&B to garage to pysch and back again—believe me, these random tunes provided enough of an energy boost to get and to keep a teen party going. And they will tonight, too (minus the teenagers).

So time travel back with me back to the late '60s, to a Friday or Saturday night in Pittsburgh or West View or Wilkinsburg PA. The night's getting started, Herm's hunched over his turntable. Get out on that dance floor!

Hang on, Herm's gotta flip this one over:

Saturday, March 11, 2023

"I wanna blow my mind"

The Brothers Three dropped an insane, one-off single in 1969
In 1968 the Isley Brothers—O'Kelly, Rudolph, and Ronald—left Motown Records for their own, revived, T-Neck label, eager to capitalize on the success of their 1966 hit "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)" and to gain some measure of artistic control over their work. They scored big with their first release: "It's Your Thing" was a number one hit on Billboard's R&B Chart, and reached the number two spot on the Hot 100, selling nearly two million copies. The follow-up, "I Turned You On," also performed well. But their next release gave the fullest indication that the brothers were now firmly behind the wheel and steering the down some wild alleys.

In the liner notes on the back cover of the Isley Brothers' boldly-titled album It's Our Thing (1969), O'Kelly Isley proclaims, "We want to do our own thing on records. We feel that we have a sound and a thing that is new, and we want to do it all on our own."
When we were with Motown we learned an awful lot. Like things about production, arranging, and even more about writing. We always wrote songs, but when we went to Motown we stopped writing. I mean they have such great writers over there, why should we try and beat them?
Rudy added, "Groups like the Beatles and the Stones, they do what they want to. What they feel is important to them. Through a lot of their work entirely new aspects of music have opened up. These areas can accommodate that many more artists so it has a way of broadening the outlook of the music scene." Ronald breaks the news: "We have a group called The Brothers 3. They're what they call 'psychedelic soul,' and we expect great things from them."

Ed Ochs pulled aside the curtain in a small item in his "Soul Sauce" column in the June 7, 1969 issue of Billboard:
But I don't think anyone, casual Isley fans or die-hards, were quite ready for "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out." Recorded on January 3, 1969 at Town Sound Studios in Englewood, New Jersey, the tune's a sprawling, unruly, trippy statement-of-purpose, utterly of-its-era and yet movingly transcendent. Occupying both sides of the 45 (which I've edited together from my copy, below), "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out," though mid-paced, is manic, nearly overheated, with excitable, out-of-tune horns, distorted, fuzz-laden guitar leads so sharp they could cut, power chords, dreamy backing vocals they feel imported from another, far more safe, song, and an unhinged lead vocal that threatens to take the whole thing down. The arrangement's brutally simple, and the brothers play loud—imagine Blue Cheer as the Isley's backing band. The raw guitars and bass move stubbornly among a few chords, so closely that they evoke a drone of sorts which powers the song forward like some giant figure taking purposeful, pounding strides, landing on the earth with righteous thuds. The image at the top of this piece is the picture sleeve of the French pressing of the single—whoever was in charge in the design department there felt those reverberations, also. Yet another contact high.

The lyrics match the music's primal directness:
I'm so tried of running this race
I'm so tired of doors slamming in my face

It ain't my dream, it ain't my game, it ain't my thing

I'm so tried of trying to be a millionaire
I don't seem to be getting anywhere

Just like the birds I wanna, I gotta be free
Free as the birds and the bees
Relax my mind, I wanna take my time
I wanna blow my mind
Are you ready for that? the singer asks near the end, directing the question to the Isleys' fans and anyone else who might be listening (and feel threatened). The complaints against capitalism and a miserly society are timeless, yet here they originate from specific cultural places, lousy ones at that: the Isley's are writing, singing, and performing as Black men looking for a hit with mainstream America while turning up the psychedelic faders to trippy levels, loudly proclaiming their rights to a new way of perceiving everything. They'd achieve sustained success and secure their considerable legacy in the following years, of course, but in the summer of '69, with loud reverberations of racist, socio-economic, and cultural shots fired in the air over their heads, felling some of their brothers and sisters, the Isley's were adrift, yet ready, and anxious, to course correct.

This song's pissed-off, the anger expressed directly and clearly in the lyrics finding an unruly spirit in the rocking performance; divorced of social context, the brothers morph into silhouettes. The horns and braying vocal feel inevitable, wildly expressive: how can you bitch about these things, and demand other things, without fearing the loss of control? In The Fire Next Time James Baldwin observed that “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.” That the Isley's maintain control of this careening track is testament to their genius in the studio, of course, but also to their commitment to the song's demands for liberty: sometimes you gotta threaten to turn stuff over, make a thing teeter until it might collapse. The song is not not goofy and over the top, and I suppose that it might be easy to hear it as time- and date-stamped, as a vintage curio of late 1960s ether, wearing the fashions of the time. But that would miss the point: those dopey "la la la la la"'s in the background sound like ironic anti-fairy tales by the end of the record, the "trip" is a real one, and the lyrics are depressingly relevant more than half a century later. 

"Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out" is so graphically expressive, pulsates with so much passion, nutty, dark humor, and bold, uncomplicated desires that it's a wonder the needle stays on the record when it spins. Play Loud.

The Isley Brothers in 1969 (detail from The Brothers: Isley album)

Monday, March 6, 2023

That's what everybody else does

The Leaves' 1965 single "Too Many People" howls as powerfully as ever
There's a short list of songs that have never lost their urgency for me. Near the top is "Too Many People" written by Bill Rinehart and Jim Pons, released as the Leaves' debut single on Mira in July of 1965. (It was reissued a year later, and rerecorded for their first album.) Though the band is best known for their trippy streak through "Hey Joe," a song later recorded by Jimi Hendrix, they occupy a permanent place in my heart for the disdainful, cocksure, extremely rocking "Too Many People."

Drop the needle: the song sounds pissed off about something right from the start, the complaint issuing from a bent harmonica phrase played by John Beck. The full band—Pons on bass, Rinehart on lead guitar, Robert Lee Reiner on rhythm, Tom Ray on drums; Beck adds tambourine—arrives impatiently moments later. The opening bars feel uncomfortable, too, an angry, churning blend of loud guitars playing rudimentary, obsessive A and G chords, Ray's stubborn snare emphasizing the backbeat, Beck's aggressive tambourine winding through it all. Five bars in, a cool, heavy-lidded gang vocal enters repeating the title phrase, stretching the last over two-plus bars, the deep sigh of an offended adolescent. If the band had decided to sing only the title phrase, turning the song into a quasi-instrumental, its loud complaints would still be well-taken, so tightly wound up is the arrangement, the sound of someone outgrowing their hand-me-downs, busting at the seams.

Then Pons sings—demands, really—the first line:
Too many people are trying to change me
Too many people are looking to rearrange me
and the grievances come into sharp focus, the sullen, teen-in-a-bedroom title phrase morphing into genuine outrage with a complex world—at chafing limitations, expectations, the plummeting ceiling of possibilities that a young person faces. Like an escapee, the song insistently darts forward—from the opening harmonica scowl to the churning rhythms to the sung title phrases to the pointed vocal—reaching its peak in the intense 12-bar middle, where Pons climbs onto his poor-man's soapbox and snarls an anti-litany. "But the last thing I'll ever do to prove that I'm a man like you," he promises, as Rinehart goads him on the guitar,
is to work from nine to five trying to keep myself alive
and have to listen everyday to everybody's jive
and concentrate my time on simply trying to make a dime
and agitate my mind on trying to make our values rhyme
At the menacing chord change to D ("But the last thing..."), the song stands up straight and balls its fists, serious now, Pons singing as if the words were coming to him at the moment, so rawly authentic is the performance. The passage is incendiary, demanding to be heard, impossible to ignore. And now the agitated arrangement, the indignant guitars, Beck's excitable tambourine make sense: the song was waiting for Pons to translate a voiceless, angry mood into something vivid and precise, and nameable. "Protest songs" were in the air—and his vocal is among the greatest and most evocative of the era, a hair-raising, pulse-quickening howl from suburban Los Angeles. The fangs still show nearly sixty years down the line.

Second verse, same as the first: too many things, the oppressions mounting, stuff he's got to do—fill in the blanks here with draft board, work, school, hair cut, church, fate, whatever's plaguing you today—, the bags he's gotta run through pushing him to the edge. And the last thing he'll ever do, he promises again, is worry ("because that's what everybody else does") or wear a suit and tie, "when I'd rather sit and die." There are implied exclamation points at the end of every phrase Pons barks. A frantic 12-string guitar solo leads to the inevitable vision of people doubling and tripling as the song fades.
The Leaves in 1966
John Beck's on the floor; Jim Pons is above him; clockwise from Pons: Tom RayBobby Arlin (who replaced Rinehart); Robert Lee Reiner
Adolescent stuff, yeah, and no less poignant and eternal for that. Pons's utter conviction lifts the song from teen angst to something meaner, more grown-up, threatening, even. Bobbie Ann Mason has said that "Rock and roll is about desire, about wanting something better," adding, "My understanding of the rock and roll dream is that a kid in an isolated place or a small town or an underprivileged world could transcend it somehow." The kid raising a voice and taking a stand in "Too Many People" is a silhouette, and we all fit into the outline at some time or another during our lives, the frustrations taking different sizes and weights over time but originating in the same lousy place.

There are a handful of rock and roll songs that I'd run through a wall for—Johnny Thunder's "I'm Alive," Rod Stewart's "(I Know) I'm Losing You," the Buzzcocks' "What Do I Get," the Ramones' "I Just Want To Have Something To Do," Charlie Pickett and the Eggs' live version of the Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action." Countless spins later, I find "Too Many People" as impossibly exciting and profoundly moving as I did the first time I heard it, decades ago on the essential Rhino Nuggets compilation. Unruly vibes were moving in a million directions at once in '65. James Osterberg was in Ann Arbor, Michigan drumming and cussing in the Iguanas when "Too Many People" was unleashed, a couple years away from assembling from used auto parts the Psychedelic Stooges with Dave Alexander and the Asheton brothers. The line from sunny LA to gray Detroit is ragged, the line is there.


And dig the Leaves on local TV in 1966. Even miming the tune they threaten to bring the house down, grins, guffaws and all.