Thursday, August 23, 2012

You, me and Lester

On her blog, Jessica very kindly mentioned a gooey rant I wrote and she published in Hit It Or Quit It 12 years ago about about my intensely personal reader/writer relationship with the works of one Lester Conway Bangs.

I've been thinking a lot about Bangs lately because like Maria Bustillos asserts for herself in the New Yorker, Lester really taught me how to read , as well as teaching me about 5000 things I've seemingly since forgotten about writing.

Lester Bangs by J.R. Nelson originally published in Hit It Or Quit It #15, Spring 2000

"The politics of rock n' roll, in England or America or anywhere else, is that a whole lot of kids want to be fried out of their skins by the most scalding propulsion they can find, for a night they can pretend is the rest of their lives, and whether the next day they go back to work in shops or boredom on the dole or American TV doldrums in Mommy n' Daddy's living room nothing can cancel the reality of that night of the revivifying flames when for once if only then in your life you were blasted outside of yourself and the monotony which defines most life anywhere at any time, when you supped on lightning and nothing else in the realms of the living or dead mattered at all."
Lester Bangs on the Clash, NME, December 1977

Icons must be dead. Of course they must. It is the nature of worship to snatch meaning from death and attach it to the corresponding lack of meaning in life. Death sells. Death reinvents. Death gives the mundane a biblical aspect. After all, nothing inspires worship like a feverish life extinguished; entire religions, the movies, jazz, rock music; much of the fanatical energies these arts inspire are derived from the intense worship of certain living beings and the intense vacuum their deaths leave on true believers. We like to think that the dead and willfully silent go on speaking to us somewhere far above the sound and fury of the living, where we can always hear their echo.

The name Lester Bangs might not mean anything to you. He wrote about rock music for 14 years, from 1969 to 1982, most notoriously for Creem, the great rock magazine of the 70's. He wrote two books, one a short paperback/quick pic bio of Blondie and one a joint effort with Paul Nelson about Rod Stewart. He wrote hundreds of articles, thousands of record, film and book reviews, picture captions, interviews and hundreds of pages of philosophical screeds in the form of novels never published, in addition to recording a few of his own musical compositions with pick-up bands. He died in 1982 at age 33 of a heart attack brought on by the complications of having been a drunk and drug addict for most of his adult life. Some of his best writing was collected in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, a posthumous collection published in 1988 which is currently rated #77,521 on the overall sales list at the Barnes and Noble website. By the time this issue of Hit It Or Quit It goes to print, Jim DeRogatis' long-rumored biography of Lester should be on bookstore shelves. Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic is a well researched but poorly written book with the hilariously unfair task of any biography: sum up a complex life in 256 pages. But aside from a some amazing pictures, a great bibliography and the (unlikely) effect of bringing Bangs to a larger public, I don't particularly care for or about DeRogatis' book at all, and this isn't meant to be a review of it. Lester Bangs lived a sad life, and his own writing tells the story better than any biography could.

But Lester Bangs is the writer that dared me to find my own voice, and so I do care. I purchased my first copy of Psychotic Reactions some seven years ago, when I took the train to Chicago from my sleepy college town near Springfield IL with the sole intention of seeing a trilogy of movies. As you can imagine, a person who takes a five-hour train ride to see some movies has a pretty pathetic existence. Not having anything better to do or anyone to talk to, I ended up reading the entire book on the train ride back. Right away I began reading bits of it to my friends, amazed at Bangs' sense of humor and how he treated rock & roll "gods" like punching bags. In the midst of a fanzine piece celebrating the horny adolescent sounds of the Troggs, he imagined killing James Taylor in retribution for the egotistical ugliness of super-stardom in the rock world. In another legendary series of "profiles" he traded barbs with Lou Reed about music and drug abuse and the price of fame, plainly indicting both his hero and himself as suffering the same diseases. His record reviews could be unsparing, his tone often scathing and self-righteous.

Compared to the flattering fluff pieces about rock stars I had spent my teenage years reading, Bangs' analysis of bands and records and what they meant was astute, often hostile, and shockingly self-aware. I began to fall under the spell of the incredible presence of his writing, the twists and turns of his prose style, the great digressions and tirades that untied and unified countless theories he spun from the music. Thematic musical connections, political statements, literary lyrical analysis, intensely biographical personal interludes, made up bits of fiction (one of my favorites involved Lester interviewing President Thieu of Vietnam about Jethro Tull) and a vivid sense of the poetry and horror of human nature all coalesced into his rambling sentences. But there was something else there too, beneath the surface. Bangs frankly stated over and over again how a worthy higher truth eluded him, teased him and how that in turn led to constant disappointment, and more unanswerable questions. His writing is full of embarrassment at this disappointment; apologies and asides to readers and to himself are scattered throughout his prose like land mines. All writers should apologize profusely for indulging their pretensions, and I have come to that conclusion largely from reading Bangs' work.

Another conclusion I've come to from reading Lester Bangs is that you and I are united by our record collections and too little else. While I've been reviewing records in one form or another for nine years now, more often than not in the last few months I've sat down to write a review and been tempted to just laugh and call it all a sham. How could I sit down and write about what amounted to the same stack of 15 shitty CDs yet again? Lester Bangs changed the way I listened to every record I had ever heard and led me to seek out hundreds more on my own. He made epic demands of records and more often than not found them wanting in starkly personal terms. On the other hand, where he found beauty or pain or any real emotion, he could build a veritable home of words. Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, the Stooges Fun House, P.I.L.'s Second Edition, Nico's Marble Index, the works of the Velvet Underground, Albert Ayler, the Clash, the MC5, Captain Beefheart, Ray Charles, Richard Hell, Suicide, Ornette Coleman, Black Sabbath, Kraftwerk and many more were his gifts to me. Could I have heard any of my current obsessions in the same way-- Fugazi, Los Crudos, the Locust, Elliot Smith, Scott Walker, Joan of Arc, Dillinger Four, the Alkaline Trio, Discount, the Roots, Neutral Milk Hotel, Pedro the Lion, Cat Power, the Get Hustle, Gogogo Airheart, Black Heart Procession, Slaves or Orchid without Lester's words echoing around in my head somewhere? Probably. Could you love any of these artists without ever having picked up this magazine? The answer is obvious. So why do we do this? Why do I do this? Why am I ranting at you about a writer who died almost twenty years ago, a man who spent much of his life writing about bands like Wet Willie? An obnoxious, self-righteous drunk who died at a young age of little more than a lack of common sense? Worse yet, why am I ranting to you about my own fears in the guise of writing about Lester Bangs?

The search for truth is a stupid mission to tie up with writing about rock music. Rock is all about lies and illusions; and to an it has to be in order to set our emotions free. Manufactured poses, distorted intentions, a million basement dreams brought kicking and screaming to life, lots of sex, money and hooch to tempt away talent and piss-poor role models trying to walk the road with any earnestness. I think that a lot of the people we write about (and for) in this magazine want to cut through all the numbing bullshit that fucks up the world. We just have to be careful where we look. I am often guilty of extreme and ugly hero worship, just like Lester. Some people are equipped to deal with the world, to confront it with some inner reserve the rest of us lack. Others of us are chipped at by everything until there is nothing left. You can be a shell, or you can be a corpse, or you can be an icon, but you are still gone. Something has swallowed you. I need strong people around me because I clam up, am afraid of my feelings. The taste of life is just too rich sometimes, like cake icing. Either I project my desires on somebody or hide out, behind other people's records or fashion or whatever else I can brew up to defend myself with in the battle versus death or boredom or growing up or whatever lies at the end of this life. Faith is a terrible risk in this digital, ironic age, and a record collection is a often a paltry cathedral.

You should still read Lester Bangs' words because they will affect you in an intimate way. He wrote and responded with absolute love and hate and pity to what he saw and heard, because he refused the distance of cheap irony. He wrote to and for everyone the world tries to smooth over and make bland, and he did it better than almost anyone. Before he died, I think Lester knew how crazed his search was and how alive that made him and I can only hope he was aware of how well the words he wrote gave life to the ideas he cherished. But, you have to draw a line somewhere. There is a picture of Lester playing live at CBGB's in the early 80's, looking pale as a ghost, wearing a t-shirt that reads "Freedom or Death"? Which one did he end up with? I still feel cheated that I never got to meet Lester Bangs, although I probably wouldn't know what to say to him if by some miracle I did get that chance. Heroes are funny that way. They don't respond, even if you spend years of your life writing to them in the grave. I love Lester Bangs and what he wrote so much that even approaching the truth about all these questions has left a little bit of me dead inside forever, and there is only one thing I can do. Sup on the revivifying flames wherever I can find them, and carry on. So don't anybody try and wave good-bye.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Only Milkshake George Jones Ever Drank



It's only been a year or so. Had you given up on me?


Flu onset: Tuesday, October 4 late PM, after Dmitry Samarov's reading at Myopic.

Symptoms: Viagra Falls emerges from my nose at the store. Bike ride home quickly becomes a despondent forced march of muscle ache-y despair.

Medication taken: none.

Amount of sleep acquired: roughly 3 1/2 hours.

Dreams: Oliver Platt and I are working in a record store, and there are thieves in every section, but he keeps yelling at me to make sure nobody steals the Hawkwind CDs. He doesn't have to, as this seems overwhelmingly important. I, meanwhile know that I must attempt to pilfer a huge bottle of Viagra that Platt is hiding in the kitchen of the store. The kitchen looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, and the boner pills are impossible to find. Platt is irate when the Hawkwind CDs disappear.

Possible relation to real life: For some reason, I had watched Love and Other Drugs (Fox 2000 Pictures, 2010) two nights previous. I found the film a grievous, if typical, abomination of romantic Hollywood idealism. Watching Jake Gyllenhaal caress and nip at Anne Hathaway's rack to the strains of Billy Bragg and Wilco's Woody Guthrie clusterfuck is more than even a war criminal should be forced to endure. And millions of Americans paid for the honor! Also, I once worked in a record store. I own Hawkwind recordings.

Wednesday October 5

Symptoms: headache, chills, mild fever, tissue piled everywhere, green lung cookies

Medication: about a pint each of chicken noodle and red borscht soup from the deli down the street, two packets of Theraflu.

Amount of sleep acquired: 9 hours

Dreams: My family is throwing a birthday party for me at the trailer in Carrier Mills, Illinois where I lived for a few years with my Mom in the late 70's. The trailer is filled with flowers and huge piles of garishly frosted birthday cakes but no presents. I am disgruntled. Then my Uncle Stu informs me that the guest of honor is George Jones, who has come to sing for me. George Jones seems dangerously thin and attired in an outfit that wouldn't be out of place in a Dangerous Toys video. He looks good. I keep asking his manager (who seems to be Courtney Stodden, if not a ringer for Courtney Stodden) if Jones is sober or not today, and she assures me that he is, although every time he tries to sing, white foam pours out of his mouth and nose, and collects around him as if he's an overloaded washing machine. I keep telling him that he is America's greatest living singer, and that this foam is totally unacceptable. He seems to feel bad, shrugging and foaming over again and again. He doesn't actually appear to be drunk. To reward George Jones, I give him two or three pieces of birthday cake. Suddenly his hair, still in that mighty comb-over helmet he has maintained for decades, is green as a leaf. I ALSO feel bad, because his manager keeps attempting to engage me in very explicit acts of sexual congress behind the couch, which is where my family is sitting, expecting a performance by George Jones, and this opportunity is both creepy and mildly titillating. The dream ends with me showing George Jones a picture of himself drinking a milkshake and asking for a performance of "The Grand Tour" that never comes.

Possible relation to real life: George Jones IS my favorite singer. I also like cake and milkshakes and sexual congress.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

World Series Five Year Anniversary (Re-mix)

Five years ago today, the White Sox won the World Series in Houston. Mike and I watched it at the United Center, and then, needless to say, I got a little nuts with the celebration, including a psychotic blog rant the morning after. I called people I hadn't spoken to since 1993. I bought multiple hats and t-shirts. Baseball. It makes us do, and say, stupid things.

I spent most of the Series working at the bookstore, turning on and off the radio broadcast, depending on what was happening on the field. I was horrified I'd miss something, and terrified I'd hear something, losing my mind every ten minutes. Putting on my Sox cap, taking it off, hiding in the basement and driving my co-workers nuts with a tangle of irritable facial tics and anguished moans. Also there was some unmitigated boasting when Clemens left Game 1, and a booty dance on the front counter when Konerko hit the grand slam in Game 2. Customers were afraid of me, as I was acting like a drunken Jerry Lewis, somewhat.

Best of all, I'll always have the memory of walking home with my cheap AM radio headphones in my ears, thumb glued to the on/off switch, hearing Rooney and Farmer call Podsednik's Game 2 walk-off bomb. After the shot, Farmer just laughed. He couldn't even speak to wrap up the game. If you live above that one Pawn Shop on Divison St., I'm sorry I woke up you, your dog, and your long-passed relations with my howls. I just couldn't believe that a guy playing for my team had hit a walk-off home run in a World Series game. It was one of my happiest moments on earth, so cut me some slack.

Anyway, here is the rant, slightly re-mixed this morning with a few extra jabs. I am a Sox fan, after all, and we never forget.

"To the White Sox family I have known...today is for you. To my Mom, who loved Carlton Fisk nearly as much as I did, and bought me my first Sox shirt and cap from the Montgomery Wards catalog, today is for you. I love you. We deserve this. To Brian Trembley, the first Sox fan I ever met in 1982, and your dad Gary who let us watch games on SportsVision, today is for you. To Mike Meyer and his dad Dave, Congratulations. To Eric Dever and your step-dad Pete, White Sox diehards back in the day: today is for you. To the old guy I met two years ago and spent four innings talking to on the concourse in 2004, who grew up in Niles and has lived and died with the White Sox for years: today is for you and your sons. To the pitching staff of Blaul Motors of the Crystal Lake American Little League, who idolized the Sox, congratulations. Today is for you. As little boys, we saw Bob James throw 100 MPH smoke for the Pale Hose at County Stadium in Milwaukee. Remember? We deserve this day. To my 5th Grade teacher Mr. Szucs, congratulations. To Mr. Hawkinson, my favorite English teacher in High School, today is for you. To the old crazy dude who stands every night by the White Sox bullpen screaming his head off, waving a t-shirt and causing a ruckus, congratulations. To Jake Austen, to Todd Price, to Darcy, to Jeremy, to Martha, to Chuck at the baseball card shop who ripped me off countless times, I'm a world champion. Those Bo Jackson cards you charged me so much for are worth sawdust these days, and hopefully you're having a last drink at the Crystal Lake Holiday Inn bar, wishing the Cubs weren't such dogshit and wondering how I'm feeling. I'm feeling pretty fucking good, motherfucker. To Scott Browne, to Mr. Weller, to Buck Weaver and Shoeless Joe Jackson, Beltin' Bill Melton, Moose Skowron, Minnie Minoso, Wilbur Wood, Luke Appling, Nellie Fox, Luis Aparicio, Ted Lyons and Billy Pierce, to Britt Burns and Tito "Fucking" Landrum, to Scott who has taken me to so many games over the last few years to all the Sox freaks I have known, we deserve this; to all the Sox haters, bow down; to the dozens of strangers I have bored senseless with batting line-up gibberish and pitch selection dissection, today is my day. My team and my baseball family have reached the promised land at last. I'll see you all downtown at the parade."

Friday, May 14, 2010

Welcome Chicagoist peeps!

Hi, new friends and podcast listeners. I barely update this thing anymore, but PRETTY PLEASE follow me on Twitter?

You can also get at the Hit It Or Quit It podcast, and check out Gossip Wolf at the Chicago Reader for more of my insanity. Yo!

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Big Kahuna = little gills.

I wrote the following piece a few years ago, for a popular radio show. It is the most personal thing I've ever written, and they ultimately passed on it.

When the most personal thing you've ever written is professionally rejected, your ego suffers. Your writing skills and your very life itself seem somehow invalidated. I freaked out, and avoided writing anything for a few years. That shit happens.

Looking back now, I'm very proud of this story, because it is the story of my life. I have two mothers who raised me, and I am very proud of them, and I did my best to represent them here. My adopted TV father is the focus of the story, but he is peripheral in the way only representative absentee parents can be.

Have you ever suffered personal devastation by reading the New York Times? I was at work early one Monday, wasting time on the Internet, when I read the following headline: Peter Jennings, Globe-Trotting Correspondent and ABC News Anchor, Is Dead at 67. Before I knew it, I was emitting a violent thunderstorm of tears and snot. Is there a gracious way to deal with a family loss at your work desk? I did what seemed honorable; I went to hide in the company bathroom.

When I reemerged, the collective office decorum was altered. As I marched back to my desk, a heavy, awkward silence dominated, and eyes were constantly moving in my general direction. I sat down at my work station and slowly typed a letter of condolence. Then I went straight into my boss’s office. I need to leave for the day, I said. There has been a death in the family. His blessing was swift and unequivocal. I was told, in fact, to go. Now. I gathered my things, blew my nose, made sure the letter was safely in my pocket, took the elevator down to the lobby, and headed straight for the local ABC News affiliate, several blocks away.

What my co-workers could not understand was that I was mourning the death of a world famous newsman, beloved by many tens of millions of television viewers, who had also helped me to define my life. A newsman that I was related to in absolutely no real way, at least according to my company’s bereavement policy by-laws.

When did I first lay eyes on Peter Jennings? Racking my brain, I can remember him on ABC before he was an anchorman, on assignment in London, wrapped in a raincoat in front of Big Ben, looking assured and cosmopolitan. The first non-toy item I ever gave a damn about owning for myself was a raincoat, so that I could dress convincingly like Peter Jennings. I remember his voice, the melodious purr of unmistakable authority that was so difficult for me to emulate at the time. My family was living in a trailer in a rural Southern Illinois town. I was 6 years old.

I used to come home every day from school and take off my t-shirt and jeans, and put on a sport coat and clip-on tie. I was inspired by my idol. But when began I to manifest his broadcasting style in public, problems quickly arose. I would probe unsuspecting random strangers, at the grocery store, as to the credibility of President Reagan’s foreign policy. I would pontificate on the President’s recent Supreme Court nomination, in an unbiased manner, at Pizza Hut. In short, the poor souls I accosted thought I was a deeply weird child and wanted me to leave them alone. I was just too busy hectoring them with factoids about Speaker of the House Tip O’ Neill to really notice.

In my opinion, I was extremely fortunate to be an only child. I never wanted it any other way. Based on a series of candid discussions over the years with my parents, they more than share in this assessment. I can’t blame them. By the time I was 10, I was constantly organizing election night roundtable discussions in my mind with the invisible David Brinkley and Sam Donaldson across the room. My folks had the patience of saints! No surprise, as my biological mom was a cop, and my other mom, her life partner, was a junior high school English teacher. With those kinds of day jobs, they were used to dealing with the unhinged.

After 1982, when the moms and I moved to the Chicago suburbs, and away from our extended family in Southern Illinois, I didn’t have many male role models at all, outside of school and boring neighborhood dads. I had an absentee biological father whose only contact with me were legally required child support payments to my mother and a series of Christmas presents obviously purloined from hotel bathrooms and gun show kiosks. So, in addition to feverishly inspired idolatry, cold biological fact comes to the heart of the Peter Jennings Matter. Simply put, I needed a man regularly in my life; preferably an extremely glamorous man, well versed in public policy and just the click of a remote button away.

Over the years, I found many occasions to spend quality time with him… or should I say, current events found us quality time to spend together. Network news anchors are on the air the longest when the worst possible things are happening in the world. When Peter Jennings was at his desk, reporting a plane bombing, or violence in Beirut or an earthquake on the west coast that canceled the World Series and killed hundreds of people, he and I were together. I was as big a baseball fan as you could possibly imagine, and I didn’t want innocent people to die, but I had family priorities. On the rare Saturday morning when a neighborhood kid would actually come to the doorbell, I can remember hearing one of my moms say, with a tragic sigh, “I’m sorry, Brian. J.R. can’t come out and play today. There’s breaking news in Libya.”

In this way, I grew up with Peter Jennings always around. He made me feel safe by giving me useful and constantly updated information about national security threats. He was the STAR WARS defense shield between the rest of the world and me. He spoke to me with respect, just like he did with Yasser Arafat. He never told me to clean the bathroom, or walk the dog, or to clean the garage. He had great style. He was my Halloween costume ten years in a row.

When I got older, my devotion to him took on less-awkward traits. I still favored his taste in suits, but only for special occasions. I still had his haircut, perfectly manicured like Japanese shrubbery, but that was out of habit. I finally joined speech team and found friends of my own that weren’t reporting live from the U.S. State Department.

Regardless, when I was in high school, as the Soviet Union collapsed and the first Gulf War unfolded, I watched almost every moment Peter Jennings was on the air. No matter how tired I was, or what my friends wanted to go out and do, I watched. I still didn’t like to leave his company if I didn’t have to, but that didn’t last much longer. My rapid gravitation towards heavy metal music and burgeoning interest in beer and fine ass probably had something to do us suddenly breaking apart. The big news was MY life, and Peter Jennings couldn’t help me with that. By the time I entered college, just before Clinton was elected, I barely paid any attention to the news. I didn’t even own a TV anymore.

A few years later, when he was least on my mind, I saw him Peter Jennings in person, at a bookstore in downtown Chicago. I was idly flipping through a magazine, killing time after work, when I noticed a crowd in the fiction section. When I wandered over, there was a small group, and sitting alone, at a table, reading aloud, was Peter Jennings. After what seemed like just a few seconds, he was finished. The crowd applauded politely. He readied to leave, and as he walked through the store, I followed. People looked at him and then away, then quickly back in delighted recognition. I was surprised at how different he looked to me than I expected he would, how quickly he had aged, how fast all these clich├ęs were hitting me all at once. At the last second, before he got in the revolving door, I said "Mr. Jennings! Mr. Jennings!" I stuck my hand out to shake his hand, and he turned and took it. My mind was immediately cleared of anything to say, so I blurted out, "You’re the only man in America my mother trusts." He gave me a brilliant smile and said, "well, you tell her thanks from me, son". Then I watched him walk away.

On the day he died, I didn’t know with to do with the letter I had written, or who I was supposed to give it to. So I walked into 300 N. State, and up to the directory, found the floor for ABC News and took the elevator. When it opened, I walked over to the nearest person, a young woman, and asked if she worked for ABC News. Yes, she replied. "I need to give this to someone real" I replied, holding the letter up to her like an arrest warrant. "It’s my memorial to Peter Jennings, who I loved like a father". Her eyes flickered to the letter in my hand and back to me. She took it. "How did you get in here", she asked? Her eyes were kind, but I could see a distinct question in them, and it said: I am currently evaluating your very obvious lack of sanity. Instead of answering her question, I walked swiftly back to the elevator.

As I exited the building, escorted by two security guards, I felt my own grief begin to lift, at least for the rest of that particular day. How was I to know that in the next few months my mom would fight a battle with cancer, that my long-running romantic relationship would end in a fiasco I had created; that my adult defenses were dropping one by one to shambles? Here is what the letter said:

To the ABC News team: This morning I had to run out of my office and into the bathroom and bawl for a good five minutes. How to explain? I've been a news junkie my whole life. I had no real father figure and Peter Jennings was urbane in a way that I longed to be from a very young age. He was my hero. How else to put it? I think I understood the dangers of the world as a child better than most of my peers, and he was the best defense against the worst of those dangers that I could imagine. That might sound quaint or silly, but he has remained in that role, one of the most precious in my life, until now. I can't imagine another journalist will ever make me feel that way again. I don't know if I can write and do justice to my feelings about this man. I just know that the next time everyone in America gathers around their TV sets to watch as a tragedy occurs with hideous speed, as one invariably will, I suspect I will feel just a little bit lonelier than I ever have before. I'm very sorry for your loss, and for mine. Yours truly, J.R. Nelson Chicago IL

Monday, March 08, 2010

I made a fire and watching burn thought of your future

So the kinda-about John Hughes thing I wrote…I found it. Another lost piece, this time for HIOQI in 2002. I was on an anti-80's kick…and who knew it would get so much worse over the years? The Faint was just the beginning, it turns out.

Actually, I was on an anti-nostalgia kick. Or just a kick. This was written on the fly, "last minute for an issue that's going to press-style", so take it easy on me, eh? The style is an oh so obvious homage to Jay McInerney, I know. And the thematic elements practically beat you over the head. And Donnie Darko seems to loom large in there, somewhere. Fuh.

The Eighties Never Ended. You Did.

The 1980's are back with a vengeance, you've realized, and the basic synchronicity of this fact now emerging in every seemingly important facet of your life is disquieting, the acquiescence to it and embrace of it by others is making you want to wretch, although you are trying your best not to pass judgement. It started meekly enough: pretty much every rock band you've gone to see in the past six months has an instrument that makes either a squawk or a beep. Rock music in the 70's did NOT squawk or beep. Moaned, maybe. Or shuffled. Boogied. The 90's didn't squawk or beep much, either, unless you were into techno. But you weren't, and rock pumped. Thrashed. Made a grind. Ground you into dust. Regardless: squawk, squawk, squawk. Beep, beep, beep. Thump, thump, thump. These are the sounds that fill your ears right now, and you can't help but feeling that they are sounds from the past.

This has been happening for a long while, and you were kind of amused at first, even a little glad to play along, to go and see bands that prickled and connected with this nostalgic part of you. In fact, just recently, at a party where you were DJ-ing, you played "Relax" by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and then "Some Like It Hot" by the Power Station, right in a row, partly because you honestly like both songs, but mostly as an experiment, to see what would happen. People stopped dancing immediately. This was not exactly the desired effect, but you let both songs play all the way out, and then gave up the booth to the hip-hop dude, trying your best to ignore the audible sighs of relief from the dancers around you. At least they had liked the ESG and New Order songs. Then again, you knew they would. ESG and New Order were already in the record collection of everyone at that party, in addition to hundreds of new records from new bands that sounded just like them. This was obvious by the way the kids at the party were dressed, which made you wonder why you'd bothered playing any records at all. But then, you were dressed like they were and you probably had the exact same records. So, why not play the fucking songs?

But that's not all, not nearly the end of it. A brief film clip of Ronald Reagan, giving a press conference in the East Room of the White House, showed up on your TV the other night, hidden deep in the recesses of late night cable for you to find. What he was saying doesn't matter so much. What matters is that later, much later, your ears burned red with shame because for a nanosecond, and really nothing more than that, you loved him again like you once had in those long ago years, loved him completely and blindly. Trusting in his voice for that instant, you had totally fallen under his spell again. But after you had blinked a few times and really thought about him, he was just another illusion from two decades past, a brown suit and Brylcreem man in a long, unceasing parade of other men, the president of your united childhood. They passed quickly, those feelings of love and shame, because you feel asleep in your chair.

In what is obviously a dream, everything a candy coated red, white and blue, you are playing. It is the summer of 1983 or '84, and there is no school. You're in your front yard, the neutral brown house on Sheffield Drive, playing with your Star Wars toys, under big trees. There are other kids around, but you don't hear or see them. There is a murmur, though, a human sound slowly getting louder, spreading across the clean suburban lawns. Front doors are opening and cars are stopping in the street. You're flying an X-Wing Fighter through the air above your head, making the ship do mighty swoops, when you see white trails splitting the liquid blue sky past your hand, and hear the crushing roar of the rockets. They are not from your toy spaceship. You know what's coming next because this is what happened at some point of every dream you ever had when you were a child, and your heart starts to hammer in your chest. Thump, thump, thump. Dimly at first, low mournful wails rise above all sound, growing louder and shorter and higher in pitch. The sirens, rusty yellow civil defense sirens at the tops of water towers and every tall building, are squawking to life. Time is short. Ten minutes, maybe. People start to run inside their houses, but yours is locked, blank, empty, and your parents are nowhere to be found. You are in a desperate frenzy now, running from house to house, street to street, lungs burning with effort, trying to get inside anything, garages or tool sheds, following the other children, but they're so much faster than you, and doors close before you can get to a safe kitchen or living room. The horrible certainty of what is to come keeps you running: the flash that will roast your retinas and take your sight, the inevitable, inescapable wall of fire that will cook your flesh alive and and turn your arms and legs to cinders, the invisible radiation, the long winter of ash and smoke that will never end. The news has shown you the certainty of these horrors over and over, drilled them into your head since before you learned to speak, and in your childish mind, the news never lies.

The inbound missiles are within sight before you know it, and because there is no better place to die than your own front yard, you watch their fearsome arc to earth, until the huge red hammers and sickles are right above your head. But instead of dying from instant heat death, you are amazed to find yourself in the auditorium of your junior high school, surrounded by risers filled with your classmates, who, implausibly enough, are singing the same song, in one clear and united voice. It is "Head Over Heels" by Tears For Fears, and it sounds ridiculously perfect, almost frighteningly so, as if the Leon J. Lundahl Junior High School Fighting Lions were really the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in disguise. You are invisible, so you don't have to sing along, are free to glance into faces forgotten long ago or crane your neck and look up to the roof of the auditorium, which is as clear as glass. You see the missiles exploding into fiery mushrooms thousands of miles high, right above the heads of you and your classmates, but you are safe here. In the way of dreams, it is certain that their song, and nothing else, is protecting you. But before their song ends, before you read anything in their faces, or start to sing along with their perfect sound, the ceiling becomes a normal roof and the bombs disappear. The entire class blooms into their adult selves and keeps on aging right in front of you, just like in time-lapse movies, growing elderly and decrepit every single one, bright voices papery near-silent whispers, but no song now, and you are awake in your chair.

Later that day at work, after those dreams are mostly forgotten, the Tears For Fears song booms in your ears. No matter where you go, the hook turns your brain into pudding because it is so banal and so lovely. You get an MP3 of it and put it on repeat at your desk, and play it for co-workers. Hey, remember this? They kind of laugh and move on. Not everyone has an innate respect for the banal and lovely, but the song becomes your four-leaf clover. You listen to it about 25 times that first day, and even more as the week progresses, over and over again. It must have fused with your DNA, somehow found a friendly spare helix to coil with, because eerily enough, you can't remember having heard Tears For Fears as a kid. How did it get in your head? You didn't listen to the radio much or have MTV back then, so music was something you inherited from your parents. For lack of anything else you listened to your Mom's tapes: Eagles, Gordon Lightfoot, and Fleetwood Mac's Rumors. Honestly, your childhood was one of extreme meekness, even more geeky than this emerging adult Tears For Fears fetish might first indicate. In other words, when you were ten, you thought Huey Lewis and the News were very cool, but had no money to buy their records.

Here are a few facts that should neatly sum up your 1980': the first record you bought with your own money was the Ghostbusters soundtrack, favorite TV show was Knight Rider, favorite athlete was Harold Baines, favorite video game was Pitfall. You knew more about the President's cabinet that most other kids, or even most of your parents' friends. Of course, this list of crap doesn't do that decade any real justice, much less sum up even your small part in it. For instance, your Mom's Dorothy Hamill haircut lasted most of the decade, through untold cycles of fashion, and it's still the way she appears in your mind's eye, still the first vision you cling to when afraid, because back then, in the 1980's, fear loomed large in your world, a mighty and immobile fact of life. In fact, fear is most of what you remember from that time. Russians. Red Dawn fantasies of running into the woods. Imminent fantasies of hot nuclear death, obviously. Even if the other kids were outside playing, or were watching TV for the joy of it, you had to make sure nothing went wrong in the world, so you watched TV for hours at a time. Morning cartoons were often interrupted by adult news: the British invasion of the Falklands in 1981, the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, the invasion of Grenada, airline hijackings in Tel Aviv, the bombing of Libya, the shooting down of Korean airliners. You were the only kid who didn't mind the news, were probably on better terms with news anchors than you were with the Smurfs, anyway. There was an Evil Empire to be watched. If the missiles should ever be launched from their silos, there would be plenty of time to hide, and in front of the TV you would know instantly, even before the yellow sirens sounded. There would be time. The news kept you abreast of trouble, and so you would endlessly sit through episode after episode of Alf and St. Elsewhere and Head of The Class, ever watchful.

Obviously, yours wasn't the 1980's of ankle boots, tube tops and hot pink lipstick. But being poor and uncool made you covet material goods so far above and beyond normalcy that a part of you never recovered. A BMW when you were old. Every video game ever made. Every Swatch watch ever made. Every everything. You wanted it all. You'd seen Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous many times and were deeply embarrassed to be without riches. This wasn't the same fear as dying from the fire of a Russian-made AK-47, it was more subtle and difficult to comprehend, but you saw it in the faces of adults every day. It was their special adult fear, the fear to compete, to have more than their neighbors and their relatives, and it would infect you in the years to come. The desire for glamour whether cheap or expensive would never go away. This, you think, is what people in bands have in mind when they reconsider the 1980's and attempt to remake it in their own image, even when they're just clinging to kitsch, especially when they're clinging to kitsch. They can wrap their minds around the unshakable ugliness staring you right in the face, and see as still water the fear still running like a current through your dreams.

Sure, your 28 year old cousin traded commodities in the Manhattan of the 1980's…made a miraculous fortune on junk bonds, ate at fusion restaurants, had mutually satisfying oral sex with short-haired representatives of both sexes, looked suave wearing a a skinny baby blue tie with a pink Lacoste shirt to various nightclubs well-known as impossibly hard to get into, voted for Mondale/Ferraro out of a fleeting pang or two of duty to his rapidly dissipating sense of post-collegiate liberalism, drove a DeLorean and went to prison for fraud; basically for a while there was Jay Gatsby Part II, a cocaine-leaned dynamo, lifestyle supercharged by copious amounts of readily available credit and a utilitarian Midwestern grudge. But now close your eyes to picture the 1980's as they really happened and mostly what you see is Grandpa Nelson dying alone at his house in Grantsburg, Illinois. You weren't there, but you're certain he was watching Hee Haw, a show you made sure to tell him over and over again just exactly how much you hated. He was clutching at his chest with fingers outstretched, thinking this was indigestion again. Take the time to look inside his body; see his heart literally exploding, his veins becoming empty tunnels, oxygen all gone, his favorite pipe falling unlit and settling harmlessly in his lap. Four days later, your Aunt Ruth, your Grandpa's sister, went to sleep in a nursing home in Ames, Iowa and never woke up. It was her night of nights after wasting away slowly over the decades, her mind surrounded by a permanent fog, her wrists grown thin and brittle like reeds. Aunt Ruth likely never laughed at the multifaceted and hilarious familial machinations of the Cosby Show or felt nervous twinges of sympathy for the endlessly rifting upper-middle class families of Thirtysomething. Aunt Ruth wasn't the TV sort. During the entire decade she never once heard the pre-fab party metal crunch of Twisted Sister or tasted the saccharine oil slick of New Coke.

The only time you and Aunt Ruth had shared a pop culture moment of any kind is when your twin sister had made her take the two of you to see the Breakfast Club earlier that summer. Aunt Ruth, of course, repeatedly nodded off most of the way through the movie. Repeatedly jolted from sleep by the crying and yelling on the huge screen, random flashes of light from raccoon eyes dripping makeup on cue and the glint of braces on white adolescent teeth crossing her face, she hadn't seemed to enjoy it much. Why were all the kids in the movie crying all the time, doing nothing but yelling at adults, she had asked that day, just after the three of you had left the theatre. Neither you nor your sister could honestly answer that question and didn't really bother to try, uselessly shrugging your shoulders in response. Truth was, you both felt good, empowered, and Aunt Ruth's dumb questions were the furthest things from your minds. A new and intoxicating tightening had begun in your chests, a feeling almost approaching smugness, for this particular movie had secrets to bestow on you and your sister. You felt like you knew a good deal more about the endless sea of older kids waiting for you in high school and beyond, about how they acted towards each other when you weren't around, and how they talked about their own parents. This presentation of symbols you could read on the movie screen, just like subtitles, was tantalizingly prescient knowledge. After all, there were distinct teenage roles to be filled: a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal, and you and Sis were both so eager to fill even just one of them. Who knew which one would be yours? The Breakfast Club. It had shown you so much! It wouldn't be long now. Marvelously alive in the stabbing glare of a sun grown bright from dead movie theatre darkness, fates for the young and old having been already long decided, there was nowhere else to go now but, up, down or away.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

I don't care what you think, Unless it is about me

I was just scanning Twitter updates on the Oscars, and because Molly Ringwald and Matthew Broderick were on the broadcast tonight for a memorial about John Hughes, who died this past year (a few days after Michael Jackson in fact...remember him?), I got to thinking. I didn't really mourn either one of them when they croaked, for complex personal and aesthetic reasons that are too burdensome (and tiresome) to go into here, but the "mourning concept" is too rich a scab for any writer to leave unpicked, and so I went picking.

I wrote a piece for Hit It Or Quit It a long time ago about John Hughes and growing up in Chicagoland in the 1980's (with cameos from my junior high school choir, Ronald Reagan, my grandmother, global thermonuclear war and Tears For Fears) that I'm really very proud of. But, I couldn't find that article on the internet anywhere, and the death of hard-drives past seems to have lost it to the mists of history. Instead, I found something I wrote for a thing my friend Adam Gnade did about "Who could possibly Be The Next Nirvana"...and I thought I'd share. It's only on the Jimmy Eat World Press page these days, of all places, which seems ironically significant somehow. This piece was written just before and published, apparently, on 9/11/2001, which throws any irony contained in what I wrote into overdrive, especially when it comes to the end of eras, epochs, and corresponding aesthetic bookmarks. 9/11 was the true end of the Nirvana era, I think, although it don't truly know how to qualify that. It didn't happen a day before that, is all I know. Here is the piece, written when I was 27 (note the reference to Insound within, and take all of this with a throat-blocking grain of salt)...


Adam, after examining this question from a myriad of angles, I have decided that Nirvana was actually indie rock's Nirvana, if you look closely. Uh, that was too easy a quip. I'm not trying to be a snot here, Adam ... honest. I'll try again, even though I'm not sure what you are asking. Are you asking if a band "we" (the supposed underground) can respect will ever top the charts again and who that band might be? Since I'm not sure, I'll try to answer all of the questions in my head right now by not answering any of the questions you asked. *Cough*. You'll see.

Back to Nirvana for a second. An interesting case they were, no? They radiated something ... something ... something. Too bad Kurt Cobain gave me (and a few million or so others) a specific, basic feeling I could seemingly only get from him. Too bad I can't remember right now what that feeling was, exactly. Something mighty wicked, something smack between ultimate fun and a crushing sickness where our burdened true hearts too often live. They spoke my language and then they gave me a vegemite sandwich. Thanks, guys! Too bad they don't exist anymore, ain't it? Those Nirvana boys. I really miss their kind around these parts. They always were a special case. Looking back, I keep thinking that Nirvana was like a strike of lightning that flashed out of the sky and touched earth for a micro-second, burning our retinas so that we didn't really see them until the very micro-seconds after they was gone. Can something that potent strike twice?

Were Pearl Jam smart (or unethical) in using MTV and Lollapalooza to break their first record, and then turning right around and rabidly dumping the "big rock" concepts of videos and high $$ tours (once they had an audience in the mazillions to buy their records and pay for those tix, o' course)? They seemingly couldn't abide the ethical quandary their own band presented, which is typical to rock and roll. Of course, by KNOWINGLY fudging most of the old indie/mainstream lines they made millions! A genius tactic that was pillaged by countless bands, who hid their guilt in the judge's robe of success. Rage Against the Machine very nearly did the same thing. In fact, Eddie Vedder got to keep all of his cake and is still eating it, although his portion keeps getting smaller every year. Now all Pearl Jam really has left to do is fade away. Nirvana rather famously burned out instead of fading away and became legends in the process, which made them a far different animal from Pearl Jam, who are just a band. We can get a Pearl Jam anywhere. A dime a fucking dozen. Where do the Nirvanas really come from? Do they come from the primordial soup of indie rock or somewhere in our collective will?

Back to topic, which was who will be the "next" Nirvana, not a reminiscence on the old one that already came and left. Who will come busting out from the underground, whip the heads of the youth with righteous rage and set cities on flame with rock and roll? I think the whole point is dishearteningly moot right now. As far as the personal universe of the "individual listener" is concerned (as opposed to the business interests of labels or the aesthetic interests of artists themselves, two subjects the 'zine world and other rock critics stupidly focus on), the underground and mainstream just aren't that different these days, when it comes to what listeners are looking for, and have always been looking for: a good groove and a steaming heap of self-pity. Mainstream and underground alike, that is what rock music provides. Even the sense of celebration in love songs is based on self-pity ...I mean, do you hear that brand new beat? Oooh, I love you, baby. Let's get it on! Look at those hip-huggers. Whoo! The singer sounds so happy. Am I really feeling this good? As good as he is? I'm not, am I? No. I'm dancing to this and smiling, but I feel kind of bad. Songs sing just their stupid selves, after all, unless they and their makers wipe the old dross away on an epic scale. Or, as a great poet much more succinctly said, in the lines of his own dross-wiping hit song, "oh well, whatever, nevermind."

I'm not sure they ever really were that different, our old rival teams the underground and mainstream, despite what we want to think. Rockers get laid and rockers get paid, and we listen in to a little bit of the transaction. Or, they don't and we won't. Or they don't and we do anyway 'cause they rock regardless and that failure endears them to us. Oh, well. Whatever. Nevermind. You and me reading Insound WANT the mainstream and the underground to be on a different track, so we make up differences at all hours and therefore keep our brains zooming ahead in the passing lane of the highway instead of in the drudged up traffic jam where, if we look closely, At The Drive-In, Linkin Park, Sum 41, the Get Up Kids and the Strokes are riding in the backseat of a (very) moldy lemon right next to us, sharing secrets, smiles and jokes, and having a fine time with the multitude.

The kids that are watching MTV right now, even the ones who have no idea why they're looking there and what they're looking for outside of bouncing boobies and commercials for skin care products and blazing beats, those who come across the Get Up Kids and major-label punk and post-emo balderdash by accident, these kids are looking for the very same things as the hipster hordes packing Brownie's and the Empty Bottle and Meow Meow and CMJ and Plea for Peace every night, working at college radio when they can and doing zines on the weekends. And these two worlds are colliding together a bit too often right now, meaning that the Cobain big bang is too recent, I think, and the time since "creation" has been too short. Lightning and big bangs! Sounds absolutely primordial, doesn't it? Like we're just starting on the beginning of this road? Don't despair, friends. There is a Republican idiot mugging for cameras in the White House, lots of rock bands are wearing eyeliner and playing droopy keyboards, and the term "Star Wars sequel" ain't just referring to a movie anymore. Does it sound like any other decade you remember? Depends how old you are, I suppose, but I think you'll agree that we got a long time to go before the worm turns. So excuse me if I refrain from speculating on who or when, exactly, the next Nirvana might come.

Right now, we've got to keep our shit close to the fucking vest. We've got to wait for our Minor Threat and our Replacements and our Husker Du and our Mission of Burma and our Butthole Surfers before another Nirvana comes along. Or, maybe I'm wrong and rock bands will never pass this dim vale again, and "Nirvana" next time will be a twenty-one year old kid from Brooklyn with two CD's; "Nevermind" and the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Ready To Die." Maybe Gang Starr made Nirvana obsolete when they were still around. Shit, I dunno. You probably already think Radiohead is the next Nirvana, and are tired of reading this senseless monkey babble. We're all wrong and we're all right, because the underground has no group soul. Only all of us.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Omar Vizquel Goes Up to 11

White Sox fans had to watch Omar Vizquel make nifty inning-crushing double plays for nearly a decade (1994-2004) as the perennial Gold Glove winning shortstop of the Cleveland Indians. Now we're going to get to see him do his very best impression of White Sox legend Luis Aparicio this season for the Pale Hose.

Literally.

The White Sox retired Aparicio's number 11 shortly after his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984, but today Vizquel and the Sox announced that he will wear number 11 this year in honor of his fellow Venezuelan shortstop. Doesn't Vizquel's tribute to the 75 year old legend put some warm fuzzies in your mitt?

Unfortunately, in Omar Vizquel the White Sox are getting a player who is basically as old as Luis Aparicio. Sox manager Ozzie Guillen made a joke earlier this season about accidentally calling Vizquel kid: "I don't want to say kid -- he's almost the same age as me." Ha. Ha ha. Oh crap.

But, although Vizquel will eventually get to the Hall behind some creamy career numbers and fancy glove work (11-time Gold Glove winner, 2700 career hits), his best days are far behind him. Despite plenty of team statements to the contrary, the Sox have invested $1.375 MIL in Vizquel as an extra coach to the watch-through-your-fingers-if-you-dare-round-robin tournament they currently have as an "infield". With Gordon Beckham moving to second base from third to make way for new arrival Mark Teahen and Alexi Ramirez seemingly having miniature carrots for fingers at short, Vizquel is going to have some mentorin' to do, as well as filling in as a utility man.

Vizquel is a class act. He's also the Roger Daltry of aged utility infielders. He'll still give you what he's got everyday if you really want it. Do you?

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

A Putz In the Hand Is Worth Two in the Bush


Would you like my bonechips?



Baseball is tricky, especially when, as a baseball franchise, you appear to conduct your damn business without a lick of common sense. The difference is that some franchises ride a stunning lack of logic to victory. Or despair and victory, in back-to-back seasons. White Sox fans know a few things regarding these patterns.

Omar Minyana, GM of the New York Mets, must feel like that dead Kardashian OJ lawyer Dad guy: surrounded by utter crazy. His friends were bat-shit crazy, and his kids are bat-shit crazy. After a solid half-decade of historic meltdowns, player tantrums and bad signings, it's rather surprising Minyana isn't playing keytar in a Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre Showband somewhere west of Tuscon.

And now come conspiracy-grade flying accusations of deception/brutal incompetence from new White Sox signee J.J. Putz regarding an elbow he injured last year last year with the Mets. Apparently, the Metsies not only DIDN'T GIVE J.J. THE STANDARD PHYSICAL, team officials told him not to disclose the severity of said injury to the media. It's not a stretch to suppose the Mets wanted to protect Putz' status as trade bait as long as they could. Or maybe, like everyone else, they just hate the New York sports media.

Anyway, the White Sox signed Mr. Putz a few months back to try and shore up their bullpen, a typical "fingers crossed/low shell-out and hope for impact" move Sox GM Kenny Williams is known for (ahem, Freddy Garcia). He's been a dominating pitcher in years past but lost his mojo last year playing in Queens. Now he's apparently made a recovery from surgery, and he's in like flynn in our pen. Yay?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Do you like me? Do you really, really like me?

Hi, friend! If you know me well, you know that I'm the manager at Myopic Books here in Chicago. If you have visited the store recently and had a good shopping experience, I'd like to ask a favor of you.

Do you have a Yelp account? If so, and you like the store, write a nice review of us, pretty please? There is a kreepy kustomer griping on our Yelp page because we kicked him out of the bookstore a few weeks ago. Why? He was using a bar code scanner on our merch, and we don't allow that for a bevy of reasons. It's sleazy, distracting to other customers, and sleazy....just general bottom-feeding. So, after refusing him his purchase, we gave him the heave-ho. Now he's made it his personal mission to make us seem like a crappy group of people. We aren't, right? This guy is bogus! He even mentions stealing from another local business that he doesn't like. We don't want people like that shopping in here, and we're usually pretty nice to people who don't try to dick us over.

So, will you help us counteract this dude's campaign of hate? Leave us a nice review on our Yelp page here, if you feel so inclined. If you hate us, that's cool too. Just don't leave a review. Kidding!