Somewhere, buried deep within my summer to-do list, is a low-priority item to re-tally my Blur collection. The collection includes all physical items of audio and video (still haven’t pulled the trigger on that elusive laserdisc) as well as promotional items and reading materials focused on the band. I’m already eagerly awaiting a stateside release announcement of Graham Coxon’s forthcoming autobiography, so I can put it next to Alex James’ first book. Also, this reminds me that I need to get my hands on Alex James’ second book (the one about cheese).
On a recent trip to Ohio, I stopped into one of my favorite massive independent (there really should be no other kind, and before long there likely won’t) bookstores and discovered the On Track series by Burning Shed publishing. To my shock, Blur were one of the first artists included. Essex musician Matt Bishop took on the enviable unenviable task of writing about every song Blur have ever released and likely some they haven’t.
The first comprehensive song-story book I ever owned was Niall Stokes’ U2 compendium, which Thunder’s Mouth Press released in the interim between Zooropa and Pop. At the time, I didn’t know I would ever write about music and place (ostensibly) for a living, but needless to say, it was inspirational. Every song does have a story behind it – an ethos would no doubt inspire Continuum to start the 33 1/3 series in 2003. Even the most obscure B-sides and demo tracks may have more interesting stories than the biggest hit. When I first read Into the Heart, I had a rudimentary understanding (at best) of what B-sides even were.
Bishop’s book on Blur has been enjoyable thus far. My lack of musical theory background does hinder it at moments where the musician-author gets fanboyish and technical over Graham Coxon’s chords and swerves, but I have nothing but love and respect for anyone willing to take on a task as unforgiving and headache-inducing as writing comprehensively about every single one of a superstar band’s recordings. And that’s coming from ME.
What I love most about going through Bishop’s vignettes has been how it’s given me a new lease on just why I like accumulating Blur materials. I never sprang for the 21 box, as I already owned most of the albums and, being in grad school, I couldn’t justify the expense on CD’s. A decade later, YouTube’s rampant monetization has made an endless rabbit hole of obscure recordings available at the push of a button. That being said, it’s overwhelming when you have literally anything better to do with your time, especially away from a keyboard or off of your phone. I still feel like I’ve heard less than half of Blur’s recordings, and I’ve been a fan for over 25 years. I’m fine with that, though, because I’m learning new things on almost every page of Matt Bishop’s book. As much as a handful of my favorite bands are less known, I love being a Blur super-fan, because there are always more recordings and more material out there to discover. I can’t even imagine what Beatles completists must go through.
Take, for example, an alternate, rocked out version of “Far Out,” which was, for at least a decade, available only via the 1999 “No Distance Left to Run” DVD-single (oh right…they made those, didn’t they?) and file sharing piracy. I knew that “Far Out” was recorded late in the Parklife sessions and remains the only Blur album track on which Alex James sang lead, but I didn’t realize they recorded any other version of it. The 1994 release was a cool aside but hardly an album highlight. The 1999 alternate version release is something else entirely. As off-kilter as this can be at times, I still love it:
Bishop also goes into details about the Parklife recording sessions based off of Steven Street’s camcorder footage, which disappeared from YouTube after being posted many years ago. Fortunately, somebody downloaded the footage from STreet’s website and re-uploaded it to YouTube, so I will embed it here. As I say about any streaming audio or video, enjoy it until it disappears again.
Like a lot of academics who prize their reading (for fun) time, I have a habit of starting approximately three books in the process of finishing one. This is generally because I spend a lot of time in bookstores, and I can’t help that publishers have been loading shelves of late with enticing new non-fiction with enticing new covers. The University of Nebraska Press did masterfully to release a burst of dormant endorphins in the recesses of my Gen-Y brain with the cover to Brad Balukjian’s mid-2010’s travelogue, The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife. The artwork mimics the 1986 Topps baseball card packs to a T, and the book’s descriptor immediately clicked as something almost directly curated to my interests. The author’s bio on the back cover also revealed a kindred spirit: a history lecturer who owns a VCR. Also, I just saw that this book found a publisher after 38 rejections, so, more relatability right there.
Regarding the book itself, I am of several minds. To be fair to Balukjian, there is an ember of jealousy in me that he got to be the one to both have this adventure and splatter his personality all over these pages. I did wince at moments, remembering my own experiences being shut down or ignored by potentially pivotal interview subjects. His persistence and fearlessness in engaging even distant relatives of certain players is hard not to admire. He also responsibly acknowledges some ethical dekes on his part, including lying about wanting to buy a rich-person golf-munity home in Southwestern Florida on the chance of running into the notoriously elusive Carlton Fisk at the clubhouse. One of my favorite moments in the whole book (perhaps showing my hand as a researcher forced to operate under late capitalism) came at the end of that sequence, when Balukjian’s fib gets him a free fine-dining lunch. I’m sure there were some embarrassing moments of explaining his presence somewhere (or being escorted out) that he may have omitted, but the candidness of Brad’s research methods were highly relatable and educational, as much as they would likely not stand up to IRB scrutiny.
I have been critical in the past about the insufferable Gen-Y/Millennial propensity to find an audience for their premature memoirs by using some pop-cultural Trojan Horse. Two that spring to mind are the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson and Jack of All Trades. The former uses Calvin and Hobbes to tell Joel Schroeder’s story, and the latter focuses on the same subject matter as Balukjian, albeit more tragically, insufferably, and self-effacingly on part of Stuart Eisenstein. Neither are essential, but I’d still recommend both if you’re anywhere near my demographic.
A positive spin on this came at various moments when Brad reached into his long-term battle with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which usually thickened the narrative and helped contextualize his level of dedication to an array of subjects. Also, OCD is an over-used catch-all term by people who really don’t understand much about it. I was unfortunately in that group until reading an old acquaintance’s zine about his adult life with the illness, ceasing outright to use the term casually. I would imagine this book would do the same for a reader with a similarly myopic understanding.
I won’t deny that Balukjian could have kept some of his personal tangents to himself, but I acknowledge it would be hypocritical of me as a someone who encourages writers to “put their personality into their writing.” A generation of Americans who don’t remember life before Reality TV have been conditioned to expect some type of highly personal juice (e.g. mental health and/or sex confessionals) woven into a project’s greater DNA. The publisher may have had a hand in nudging Balukjian to include those asides, and I may be in the minority to say so, but whenever he diverted from the lives of his baseball cards, I couldn’t avoid getting distracted.
Whether or not the personal expose superstructure is your thing, I’m not going to throw stones at Balukjian. It’s easy to criticize an abstraction (millennial memoirs-in-disguise) when you ignore a couple of wider, sadder realities. Nostalgia is certainly a helluva drug (as reflected in my usage of a nearly-two decade old Chappelle’s Show reference), and it’s nothing that ’80s babies can claim. Shit; one of the first pop songs most of us remember learning the lyrics to was “Kokomo,” a song that effectively sound-tracked the Baby Boomers’ descent into, to quote Todd in the Shadows, “sad, paunchy middle age.” It also put Mike Love into the driver’s seat of Beach Boys, Incorporated , whose brand for the past three decades has been reminding old people about how great their adolescence was and trying to get young people on board.
One thing I wish Balukjian had expanded was asking that inevitable question of what happened to baseball cards. At least twice he gives cursory nods to a cocktail of overproduction, the rise of the internet, and a declining interest in Major League Baseball (that 1994 strike was a real kick in the teeth, and not just because it inspired Fox to give Joe Rogan his first sitcom job). He includes one glimpse of a more critical discussion in the epilogue, when former Topps factory employees mention “outsourcing” before changing the subject. The Jack of All Trades documentary approached the question more centrally, including an amazingly thoughtful interview with Jose Canseco about how much trading card manufacturers steered the resale market in the pre-internet age. None of Balukjian’s subjects here, both the wonderfully hospitable and enthusiastic (e.g. Jaime Cocanower, Garry Templeton, Randy Ready) and the less so (e.g. walking brand/enigma Carlton Fisk, the embattled Doc Gooden, and notorious asshole Vince Coleman) had much to say about trading cards. Many of them were still involved in baseball coaching and player development, some lamented the game having changed in broad terms, but none really offered any further insights into just how and why things changed so much in the ’90s (the decade most of them retired).
As Sports Illustrated reported recently, Major League Baseball is inching their way toward drastic adaptations which may be necessary to ensure the Great American Pastime isn’t some hollow shell of itself by its “200th birthday” in 2039. Granted, the 1839 birthdate and Abner Doubleday mythology were cooked up by the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939 to help breathe life back into baseball following a prolonged identity crisis on the heels of the Great Depression. Again, millennials aren’t the first generation preyed upon with a nostalgia-laced breadcrumb trail.
Baseball cards are a real relic of Gen Y childhoods, partially because Major League Baseball was something that got “taken away” from many of us. As in other major American sports, owners spent the ’90s strong-arming cities into building expensive new stadiums for them with taxpayer money, ticket prices skyrocketed to the point that the only people who could afford tickets were rich transients (pick a random MLB broadcast and count the people behind home plate dicking around on their phones), and, echoing what happened in the ’60s, Basketball, Football, and Hockey all produced a bumper crop of flashier stars. Also, even the stars had a playing schedule that didn’t jive with people who would have to start struggling to remain in the middle class (up to seven home games a week, versus one or maybe two for other sports). Your Juan Sotos and Fernando Tatis Jr.s aren’t going to save the game, especially because YouTube and gambling apps have made it ridiculously easy to be a casual fan. If Garrett Cole and Steven Strasbourg were Pokémon, the card industry would have a visible revival on the horizon, but alas.
Then again, crazier things have happened. There are still boomers in horse-blinds who assume nobody under 60 listens to music on vinyl anymore. Nobody can predict the future, especially not Brad Balukjian, who has no problem stirring up a fun cocktail of pasts here: his OCD-affected personal and professional life, the sordid (and wholesome) trials and tribulations of more than a dozen different people who were lucky enough to earn Major League paychecks in 1986, and all the places around the country where those lives intersected or didn’t. I never really appreciated this about baseball cards during their peak and glut in the early ’90s, but thinking on books and documentaries on this era, adult me appreciates how card packs were a great equalizer. Every player, no matter how hot-shit they thought they were (or how valuable Beckett decided their card was), was given the same amount of space as Don Carman or Rance Mulliniks. I was not expecting to emerge from this book with a lifelong respect for Garry Templeton, who I’m not sure if I had thought about in 30 years, but here we are. Therein lies the magic of oral histories and the reminder that everybody has a story to tell.
Check out Brad Balukjian’s Instagram for a catalog of photos from his road trip that weren’t included in the book. Just scroll back for a bit.
I just received word that my review of Playing with Tigers: A Minor League Chronicle of the Sixties, George Gmelch’s memoirs of his stint in pro baseball, is now published in the Oral History Review. My blurb will be available in the new I was fortunate to nab this book for review while at the Oral History Association meeting in Minneapolis. While not giving too much away (though my review alludes to plenty), the most fun I had while reading the book came from remembering so many assorted ballplayers’ names that hadn’t crossed my mind since I was a kid. I mention this in the review, but details had to be cut for time, space, and relevance.
Two of these were Gar Finnvold and Dana Kiecker, both of whom were pitchers in the Boston Red Sox organization in the early 1990s. One of my early baseball memories was watching Finnvold pitch a 7-0 complete game shutout for the AA New Britain Red Sox. Because of the internet, I can definitively say this was in 1992, and with a little more digging, I could probably find a date, too. Anyway, he finally got the big call-up in 1994, and never notched a Win despite losing four games before being injured in time for the Players’ Strike to end the season. He spent two more years with Pawtucket before either being released or calling it quits. Today, he sells real estate in Florida. As for Kiecker, I don’t have many specific in-game memories. I did, however, own his Fleer ’91 card and I always thought he had a funny, apt name for a pitcher. I vaguely remember watching a Red Sox game sometime in 1992 and hearing the announcers talking about how Kiecker was working some job for UPS that required him to wear a suit. I was confused because I was young and I didn’t know how the world (and pro baseball, as a strange microcosm thereof) worked. Thanks to the internet, I was able to find this retrospective piece the Boston Globe wrote about him in 2004. He’s doing fine.
Unlike many of the players mentioned in Playing with Tigers (including Gmelch himself), Finnvold and Kiecker had their respective moments in the sun. So many young men passed through the professional baseball underworld without making so much as a blip on the organization’s radar. In some cases that Gmelch had to work through in order to write this book, players don’t even have accessible extant records of their careers at all.
What I’m trying to say is: if you grew up watching baseball, then you will love this book. The academic and research-related reasons I enjoyed it are in my review, which you can access via the link here.
Just checking in to you let you all know that I just had a new review published in the Feminist Geography journal Gender, Place, and Culture. I had the opportunity to write about Roshanak Kheshti’s challenging and very interesting book Modernity’s Ear: Listening to Race and Gender in World Music.
Did Alexis de Tocqueville anticipate the internet in 1835?
Long answer, “no” with a “but.” Short answer, “yes” with an “if you think about the internet more conceptually and we’re talking about the metaphysical and social dynamics rather than literal mechanics, sure.”
Anyway, I was looking for some quotable quotes in the late-70’s abridged edition of Democracy in America, which I recently purchased in my favorite bookstore on the planet (Capitol Hill Books), landed on this, and thought “wow, that’s pretty much where we are today.”
The artisan readily understands these passions, for he himself partakes in them: in an aristocracy, he would seek to sell his worksmanship at a high price to the few; he now conceives that the more expeditious way of getting rich is to sell them at a low price to all (p. 170).
In America, parties do not write books to combat each other’s opinions, but pamphlets, which are circulated for a day with incredible rapidity, and then expire.
In the midst of all these obscure productions of the human brain appear the more remarkable works of a small number of authors, whose names are, or ought to be, known to Europeans (p. 173).
Who said we ever needed the internet to have internet culture?
Seriously, if you’re ever in DC, visit Capitol Hill Books before doing anything else at all. Well, maybe get hydrated first because it’s a sauna there, but then visit this store. It will make you love books even more than you already thought you did, and the gentrification/development going on in Eastern Market is making me worried, and all those museums and monuments up the street aren’t going anywhere.
Cultural forms, particularly popular music, offer a utopian possibility of unity through a shared cultural expression. The examples of [Johnny] Hallyday and the Fête [de la musique, every June 21st] mirror the dichotomy between the two. One could observe that the French rocker creates a unified audience for his music through a homogenization of sounds and styles and that the Fête stresses the diversity of musical cultures while combining cultures… The paradox between these positions is that music (and other forms of culture) can serve to promote singularity and plurality.
The above quote comes from page 7 of Jonathyne Briggs’ Sounds French: Globalization, Cultural Communities, and Pop Music, 1958 – 1980. This book is one of the best synopses of any nation-state’s popular culture I’ve read, and is absolutely essential for anyone interested in learning about the development of pop music in France. It’s already been incredibly helpful in my understanding of the framing of punk music against France’s popular and sociopolitical culture as I work on going through my recordings and notes from this summer.
Of course, there are so many avenues through which to explore this. The companion site to Briggs’ book provide links to various songs he alludes to, such as “Rock and Roll Mops” by Henri Cording (Salvador) and his Original Rock n’ Roll Boys (1956), largely credited as the first proper French “rock n’ roll” single. As Briggs writes, Henri Salvador did not take rock n’ roll seriously, and made a novelty song aimed at capitalizing on what he thought was a trend (not completely unlike Bill Haley did with “Rock Around the Clock”), but the song did begin a (protracted) slippery slope of rock n’ roll legitimacy in the French language. The first thing I thought of while reading this was how Plastic Bertrand provided the same type of parodic cornerstone for French-language punk music with “Ça plane pour moi” (1977). Granted, Bertrand’s song was more tongue-in-cheek, but it remains one of the most recognizable French-language songs in the Anglo-Saxon world. Tell me I’m wrong.
While I have yet to publish anything on it (academically or on here), I will encourage a greater focus on non-Anglo-Saxon punk culture, because it would afford us a more nuanced understanding on the conditions that spread it, as well as (very importantly) challenge a long-held single-story that particular socio-political environments were necessary for it to grow. More to come.
One of the final R.A.S. shows ends in violence as Neo-Nazis infiltrate the crowd. Paris, 1984. (Photo courtesy of Philippe Roizes, all rights reserved)