All posts by sobsey

The Tobacconist, Vol. 1

I sometimes think I’m still covering the two blue teams around here. I watch them, I think about them, I care about them, I talk about them. I’ve been quite appalled by the NCAA for years, and have once or twice sworn off college sports. But when you do that, you abandon these young athletes who are out there on the courts and fields. They don’t care about the corruption around them; they’ve just come to play; and in their passion and pride they alone are responsible for lifting their sports out of the surrounding mire. What dignity and value big-time college sports have owes entirely to the people playing them, and we owe them gratitude and attention.

More locally, Duke and UNC are our greatest gift. To wake up in Durham or Chapel Hill every winter morning and know that we possess the most profound and potent energy source in college basketball is to feel unbelievably lucky. What we have here is something to celebrate, delight in, protect, and promote, as New Orleans does with its parades and Barcelona does with its Gaudí. So here’s some of that. Continue reading The Tobacconist, Vol. 1

Advertisements

Chrissie Hynde: Rock & Roll & Reading, Friday 9/15

Hynde Book Cover

What: Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography reading with live rock & roll.

When: Friday, September 15, 7:00 p.m. Free!

Where: Global Breath Studio, 119 W. Main St., 3rd Floor, Durham, NC.

Who: Adam Sobsey and “The Pretend Pretenders,” a band assembled just for the occasion.

Why: The recent publication of my biography of Chrissie Hynde, the legendary leader of the Pretenders.

A bit of background: In 2014, I was asked to contribute a biography to the American Music Series, edited by the venerable Raleigh-based music journalist David Menconi and published by University of Texas Press. I chose Chrissie Hynde, whose Hall of Fame band the Pretenders — best known for their tough- and melodically-minded pop-rock songs from the late seventies and early eighties, like “Brass in Pocket” and “Back on the Chain Gang” — are still very much alive and well, with a superb album out in 2016 and a recent US tour with Stevie Nicks. Hynde is an extraordinary and unique figure in pop music: she has an iconic voice and signature style; she’s “a self-possessed idol with no real forebears; a complete original who has trail-blazed for countless musicians [yet] has no true musical descendants,” as I put it in my book.

My musical biography focuses on Hynde as, above all, a great and greatly underrated songwriter. I hear her life through her music: from her well-publicized, Hindu-based vegetarianism to her complex feminism to her staunch commitment to motherhood. A review at Pop Matters called the book “gloriously comprehensive… I doubt there will be a need for another Hynde biography for some time as a result of the quality of this one.”

On Friday, I’ll read from the book, including excerpts about individual Pretenders songs, and the “Pretend Pretenders,” a quartet of excellent musicians from Greensboro, will play the songs. It will be great fun, perhaps illuminating, and there will be beer. Afterwards, I’ll have copies of the book available for purchase at a discount and signing.

For additional background, check out this Pretenders Spotify playlist I made for the book’s publisher or my preview of the Pretenders’ show in Durham last November. The webpage for the book itself is here.

The Pretend Pretenders and I hope to see you Friday!

ObScott: on the life and music of the late Scott Miller

 

Scott2Steps
Scott Miller recording Two Steps from the Middle Ages, 1988. Photo by Robert Toren.

On the Loud-Fans listserv in the 1990s, it was common to refer to Scott Miller as “Our Scott.” This usage was mainly to clear up any confusion with another Scott Miller, whose alt-country band called the V-Roys were popular at the same that Our Scott Miller’s band, the Loud Family, was active. The name Loud Family could cause confusion, too, because it was borrowed from the subject of a somewhat infamous reality TV show from the 1970s called An American Family. Our Scott Miller was multiply obscured, sometimes by his own choices. Even the praise he got from America’s foremost rock critic, Robert Christgau, in 1990, called him “a prototypical eighties artist: serious, playful, skillful, obscure, secondhand … rendering the ostensibly public essentially private.” (Another critic called his music “obscurantist pop.”)

That same year, Our Scott joked that “Erica’s Word,” the catchy 1986 single by his previous band, Game Theory, had only managed to earn them “national obscurity, as opposed to regional obscurity.” And he never relinquished the notion. On a Loud Family album released in 2000, pointedly named Attractive Nuisance, Miller sang of his own “willful obscurity” (summoning the rock-critical cliché “unjustly obscure”) and then quit making records. Thirteen years later he killed himself. He had just turned fifty-three.

Over the last couple of years, the revival label Omnivore Recordings has been re-releasing Game Theory’s entire catalog, all of it out of print since shortly after the band broke up at the end of the 1980s. Two months ago, Omnivore delivered the final Game Theory album, 2 Steps from the Middle Ages (1988), bringing the project to completion. That was followed, earlier this month, by another nominal Game Theory release: Supercalifragile, a crowdfunded album of songs derived from recorded fragments, notes, and ideas Our Scott was kicking around (including that title) just before he died, intending to make what would have been the first new Game Theory album in a quarter century. He had gone so far as to contact members of his old band. The project was revived by his widow, who enlisted pop maestro Ken Stringfellow to oversee a posthumous LP, something more than a tribute but less than a true Game Theory album, a sort of speculative assembly of a ghost’s ephemera, and with an initially ghostly presence, too: Supercalifragile has not yet been publicly released, only privately distributed to fundraising campaign backers. (The rough mix of one of its songs is on YouTube.) A few of the dozen or so musicians who helped write and played on the album are famous enough to draw limited outside attention to it, but mostly as a curio. With the Omnivore series complete, future opportunities to write about Our Scott will be few. Following the life, the afterlife, too, is coming to an end.

Continue reading ObScott: on the life and music of the late Scott Miller

Visiting Denis Johnson in Idaho

I was an MFA writing fellow at the University of Texas while Denis Johnson was teaching in the program. Denis saw a production of one of my plays and liked it, and we got to know each other a little. In the summer of 2002, I happened to be driving to Idaho and Denis invited me to visit him at his home in the panhandle. Before I drove up from Moscow, a few hours south, I asked him if there was anything I could bring. Some half and half, please. It was a half-hour drive to the nearest store from the Johnsons’ house.

The property bordered on a federal wilderness area on one side and Canada on another. Denis told me to look for a gate and a sign that said “Doce Pasos North.” The reference, he explained, unnecessarily but as a sort of formal declamation, a diplomatic laying-aside of the entire matter, was to the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. “I used to be quite the drinker,” he said, in a way that was at once offhand but definitive, understatement so laconic that it seemed intended to draw a vast pandemonium into a plainly marked but remote container. (I think he also told me he liked the name’s homophonic resemblance to John Dos Passos.)

Parked outside the house was a large vintage Cadillac convertible. Denis had bought it while he was in Texas, the crowning accessory to a general re-costuming he had undertaken when he was teaching there (cowboy hat, boots). It was a great car, he said, he’d always wanted a car like that, although he allowed that this collectible was now up in the weather of northern Idaho and was I interested in buying it. He was willing to give me a good deal and he had a price already in mind. About a decade earlier, when Jesus’ Son came out, I was talking about the book with a colleague who said he liked it but sniffed in it something of a put-on. In Idaho, Denis told me: “I wrote it because I needed money.” Continue reading Visiting Denis Johnson in Idaho

A New and Unique Region of Hell: Notes on the ACC basketball season

Since I stopped covering local college basketball for the Indy I’ve begun each late autumn telling myself I was done with college basketball. The NCAA is outmoded and corrupt; the whole big-money contraption puts outrageous pressure on kids, who don’t get any of the money and are made to take the fall when the systems around them fail; the NCAA is hopelessly outmoded and corrupt; we’re enabling rageaholic coaches like Frank Martin and Larry Eustachy (and so many other ones who don’t make the news because their exorbitant rage is normalized by the environment); college sports are provincial to a dangerous and stupid degree; the NCAA is hopelessly outmoded and grotesquely corrupt. And then every year I wind up getting interested. Well, I live in Durham, North Carolina, the son of a UNC professor and the husband of a woman with three degrees from Duke. Even LeBron James just said, in so many words, that the Duke-Carolina rivalry is one of the very greatest in sports, and I’m a sports person. I will never be done with college basketball.

Continue reading A New and Unique Region of Hell: Notes on the ACC basketball season

On Vin Scully

I said I’d write something about his last broadcast if I had a baseball-writing gig. But what’s a gig anyway? Money? As a character in one of my own short stories says: “Oh, brother. If money is all you ever think about, you’ll always make just enough to need more of it.”

Anyway, a handful of people said they’d read it if I wrote it, so this is for that handful of people. I said it would be “the best.” It’s not. It’s just the best I can do today. I didn’t make any notes during the broadcast. Consider these my notes, summoned and misquoted from memory — which is so much of what Vin did for sixty-seven years: activate (but not misquote) memory while attending to the demands of the moment on the field. I wrote them quickly and didn’t really edit them. Well, you can’t edit a broadcast, either.

Continue reading On Vin Scully

Eligible Dentist: Gene Wilder and Grace

Facebook: Alice Cooper

I searched for the television show Eligible Dentist online and got exactly one result, from IMDB: “A failed TV pilot about a recently widowed dentist who must take care of his three kids (1993).” If you don’t click further, the cast list goes like this: “Dylan Baker, Jill Clayburgh, Francis Dumaurier (See full cast & crew).”

Eligible Dentist — surely one of the worst-named TV shows of all time — was actually a sitcom vehicle for Gene Wilder, who passed away late last month. I was a Production Assistant on the show, which never aired. It was my first job out of college, and I got it because as an undergraduate I was a friend of the stepdaughter of the show’s Executive Producer, David Seltzer. Seltzer wrote (or perhaps rewrote), uncredited, the screenplay for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), and he and Wilder had been close ever since.

Seltzer is probably best known for writing the horror movie The Omen (1976). When I asked Seltzer, after he hired me, how he had gone from the wacky Willy Wonka to the satanic Damien, I recall him answering, “The head of my studio said to me, You know The Exorcist? I said, Of course. He said, Write me one of those.”

In order to get the job, I called Seltzer every week for a month, as instructed by his stepdaughter. David’s busy, she said. Keep calling. Seltzer was busy because, unbeknownst to me, Eligible Dentist had in fact already shot its “failed TV pilot” before I was hired. The pilot, and the show it introduced, was evidently a whimsical semi-fantasia — naturally befitting Wilder’s presence and career, of course — in which Wilder’s character, a recent widower, was “living a double life,” according to Seltzer in a recent interview (conducted, as it happens, by a college classmate who once acted in a play of mine). In the episodes, he would be followed around by and interact freely with his recently deceased, beloved wife as if she were still alive, while also conducting his daily orthodontic and personal business — including being pushed back into “dating” by his friends and colleagues. (I do not have a memory of the widower having three children to raise on his own, as IMDB’s description of Eligible Dentist has it.)

According to Seltzer, the premise for the show arose during a lunchtime conversation with Wilder, who told him offhandedly about a conversation he’d had the previous night, as he did on most nights, with “Gilda.” Gilda Radner, the wife with whom Wilder “shared a soul,” Seltzer said, had been dead for three years. It was Seltzer’s idea to make Wilder’s recurring paranormal experiences with her the conceit for a television show, which NBC Productions bought in 1992 or early 1993.

The pilot “was great,” Seltzer said; “Gene and I loved the tone.” It was shot in the spring of 1993. The NBC executives saw it, heard from Seltzer that the second episode “was going to be all in dance. Gene was a wonderful dancer,” Seltzer said. The legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp was to be involved. Probably quite alarmed, NBC scrapped not only the pilot but most of the fantasy and whimsy behind it. An actor or two was replaced (including Jane Adams, as I recall, who popped up playing drugged-up or spaced-out weirdos in later movies like Wonder Boys and Little Children). New scriptwriters were brought in. Seltzer, a movie man who had little or no television experience, was in the midst of regrouping when he hired me, and he was probably not in the greatest of moods about this regrouping since it of course involved not just new personnel but, more dismaying, a vitiation of his and Wilder’s original vision for the show.

Eligible Dentist was based at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Long Island City, Queens. For my new job, I had a reverse commute, taking the subway out of Manhattan in the morning and back in at the end of the day. For the first few weeks, in midsummer, there was almost nothing to do. The new crew was being arranged; things well over my head were being put in place. I went into Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens at nine, hung around the office, and left at five. I was given easy, boring tasks by the Line Producer, who ate McDonald’s for lunch every single day but didn’t look unhealthy except that he had the hunched shoulders and froggish face of the perpetually put-upon, one of those constitutionally dour people who doesn’t need to be. But perhaps that’s what made him a good Line Producer: expecting things to go wrong, because they always did. Eligible Dentist went wrong. Eligible Dentist had already gone wrong before I got there, and it was doomed.

Continue reading Eligible Dentist: Gene Wilder and Grace

Prospects Are Bullshit

It can be so fun to read baseball writing with hindsight. I went back to the Baseball Prospectus 2015 Annual (for which I wrote a team essay and some player comments) and had a look at Andy McCullough‘s essay on the Kansas City Royals, which it turned out I had not read even once. That I had not read it says something about what even professional baseball writers tended to think about Kansas City’s chances going into 2015: better to read about other teams first. The Royals weren’t likely to be good again.

McCullough’s essay argues that the Royals will be good again 2015. So he has gotten it exactly right. It doesn’t matter if he has his causes wrong, because who can know about causes, really? Essentially, he’s arguing that the James Shields trade—which was front and center in my world back in 2012-13, when I was still covering the Durham Bulls (Tampa Bay’s Triple-A affiliate)—was a great trade for the Royals no matter how Shields ended up pitching (which was not better than pretty decently) or if he left after his contract was up (which he did). McCullough suggests that Shields’s mere presence on the team, for as long as it lasted, and in multiple ways, had a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats effect, and the the waters were likely to stay high after Shields was gone.

So now the Royals are two wins away from a World Series title.

When a writer gets it right, especially in the face of a lot of people thinking he’ll turn out to be wrong—Baseball Prospectus’s staff had Kansas City finishing fourth in the five-team American League Central—you take the other things he thinks very seriously, and McCullough thinks “prospects are bullshit.” This is the axis of his essay about the Royals: that prospects are bullshit. I am a (former) minor-league beat writer who has been writing about prospects since 2009: watching them, interviewing them, assessing them, building narratives around them. The opinion that prospects are bullshit gets my attention. Yet the attention it gets from me is that he’s absolutely right. McCullough is absolutely right. They’re bullshit. Not the players themselves. The players, including (especially) minor-league players, whether they’re on PEDs or not, are the most authentic part of baseball. Most of them are doing the best they can to make themselves major leaguers. (Note: Wil Myers was not doing the best he could when he was in Durham). What’s bullshit is the more abstract notion of prospects, which is essentially an invention of writers: entities writers can evaluate in terms of future production. Doing this is a fool’s errand, a mug’s game, and it becomes more foolish and more mugging—as in, mugging for the camera, the internet, the book—as the gap between the majors and minors widens.

McCullough is careful (and kind) to add that “prospect writers aren’t the problem. They can only work with the materials they have,” and “those materials are bullshit.” I appreciate this defense of writers, of me. You’d expect a writer to mount this defense—we protect our own—but I don’t think it’s true. Prospect writers are the problem, or a large part of it. Almost every case we make has to be overstated. We have to try to see things no one else sees, so we see things that aren’t there, or things that are there now but almost surely won’t be later. Even the best experts in the world are usually wrong most of the time: scouts, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus; usually wrong. This is what we should say about ourselves: we’re usually wrong. I run across professional evaluators all the time, and it amazes me how much more they appear to think they know than they actually do, or ever can. What we ought to do, as a matter of professional discipline, is throw up our hands and say, well, best guess. Even a blind squirrel.

Baseball players will often say that the game has a way of humbling them. If only it would humble the rest of us, too.

Headhunter Carignane 2012

IMG_0359I think the delight is in finding something no one seems to have found. It’s so hard to do that anymore, whether you’re trying to or not. One of the constant disappointments of the new world we live in, online and off, is how little unexplored territory remains. This isn’t just the romance of being the first one down the unknown river, although there is that. It’s wanting some privacy, places and things that aren’t poked and prodded until they’ve lost their shape, nor beset by noise. I’m writing a biography of a musician who has just published her own memoirs. It’s an enjoyable project and I’m seeing and saying things that I don’t think have been said about or by her, but part of me just wants to leave her alone. Facticity is our abiding condition, or factitiousness. I’m not sure.

On Friday, we were on our way up to Virginia to visit my wife’s family and stopped to get coffee in Richmond at a pleasant place my wife knows, not far off the interstate. It’s also a little grocery store—the kind, my wife points out, downtown Durham sorely needs—and they sell wine. We wanted to show up at the folks’ place with a bottle or two. Nothing fancy, just wine we could drink with dinner (which turned out to be steak and lobster, yikes). I picked out a wine from southern France whose producer I didn’t recognize. Part of the fun of traveling is that I find wines by importers whose wines don’t find their way to North Carolina, so there are hundreds of bottles I’ve never seen before. In our good but somewhat insular market, I see the same wines over and over again. The Roussillon was $12. I remember nothing else about it.

Then I passed the closeout bin and saw, amid the junky prosecco (prosecco being, in my opinion, pretty much inherently junky), a bottle with a funny-looking label bearing the name “Headhunter.” In our peculiar marketing era, a name like that (and a funny-looking label) can belong to a tiny handmade thing or to a mass-produced, assembly-line product, with equal likelihood, because we’re running out of names as surely as we’re running out of unexplored territory. Hence the spate of horrendous band names in recent years, even (or especially) around here: I Was Totally Destroying It, Hammer No More The Fingers; I’ll stop there. (Actually, I won’t: we had a recent nano-dustup in Durham when a restaurateur announced that his new place would be called “Hattie Mae Called Me Captain.” People objected because Hattie Mae was apparently the black housekeeper or nanny who fed the white restaurateur scrambled-egg-and-jelly sandwiches when he was a tyke, but hardly anyone objected on the grounds that it was a terrible, terrible, unsightly, ungainly name no matter its provenance. He withdrew it, as he should have. Had he just called it Hattie Mae’s, or even Hattie’s, and kept his mouth shut about it, probably no one would have complained. But an ugly, pretentious name like that demanded an explanation, and it was the ugliness and its explanation that got his fingers hammered.)

I looked at the back of the bottle, where the real information is, and discovered that Headhunter was very much a tiny handmade thing. “100% Whole Cluster Old-Vine Carignane from Mendocino,” it says. “65 Cases Produced.” And not much else. Reading that, and “Alc. 13.0% by vol.,” I was sold. All of the above is code for: small-production wine, probably made by young people, using a light hand in the cellar. This description fits what Jon Bonne, the San Francisco wine writer, has called “the New California Wine,” and although there is plenty to quibble with, ideologically speaking, in what that term represents, there is mostly a lot to like and support. The wine, after closeout discounting, was $16. Sold.

You can look up whole-cluster and Carignane if you want to. I can even try to describe the Headhunter, but what could really be stupider than tasting notes? My sister-in-law did not like this wine at all. My sister-in-law doesn’t drink much wine and knows very little about it. When I told her there were 65 cases of Headhunter Carignane 2012, she asked me if that was a lot or a little. If you give the wine (not that you’re likely ever to find it) to someone who doesn’t drink much wine, be prepared for that person to dislike it. It isn’t oaky, or big and blowsy, or usual in any way. I’m not even sure I can say I liked it, although I drank it happily. The wine appeared to be more than merely unfiltered. Instead of a bunch of sediment at the bottom, it had tiny little particles floating all in it, which did not affect its drinkability (and also a lot of sediment at the bottom). It was not “green,” as is often said of “hipster” wine. It was very grapey, sort of foot-stomped and backyardy, in a way that made me want to drink it in a Berkeley backyard at about four in the afternoon. I believed the “old-vine” claim, because there was something about it that struck me as, how do I put this, mature meets immature: young winemakers making an early-career wine out of old fruit.

Well, what could be more pleasurable than turning out to be right? I discovered that Headhunter Carignane 2012, which we drank most of, was the very first vintage produced by a husband and wife team in northern California, and that the reason it was in a Richmond, Virginia wine shop despite having yielded just 65 cases is that the couple comes from Virginia. This made me very happy. I was also happy to discover that their other wine, an Albarino, was produced in a similarly tiny quantity. I was happy to learn that I was drinking the first vintage they ever made, out of the last bottle in a closeout bin in their home state—something far from home and also close to home, and about to vanish. It was the last of its kind, and here I am the first to say something about it. I’m so glad that I get to do this.

I’m looking forward to the next wines these people produce, although I am unlikely ever to see them. I doubt it’s sold in North Carolina. It will never make its way into the wine column I write for a mostly unread magazine in a small enclave of the state. But I’m so happy for the winemakers, and for me. And I find that even though I opened this bottle five days ago and there’s still a little wine left in it (that is too oxidized to drink by now), I can’t abide the idea of getting rid of the bottle. We drove it home from Virginia and it’s sitting on the kitchen counter, like a lucky charm.

Bring Me the Head of Jake Arrieta

I’ve been thinking a fair amount lately about the Durham Bulls team of 2009, the first team I ever covered. Not the best, but certainly the most interesting player on that team, was Justin Ruggiano. Ruggiano was a decent player — by which I mean one of the thousand best in the world — who needed to get out of the Tampa Bay Rays organization in order to make a few million dollars in the major leagues. I think I learned more about the difference between the majors and minors from watching him play, and from talking to him, than from any other player I covered in six years in Durham.

It wasn’t just that “half this game is ninety percent mental,” as the famous Danny Ozark or Yogi Berra baseball axiom has it. It had something to do with attitude, and personality, and with taking it personally. I’ll probably write more about that, and Ruggiano, later, but the reason I do so now, as nothing more than a preface, has to do with the first time I saw attitude and personality and taking it personally in true action on a baseball diamond. It was something that happened between Justin Ruggiano and Jake Arrieta in 2009. Continue reading Bring Me the Head of Jake Arrieta