Without giving too much away, this isn’t about Ben Irving as much as it is about the worlds and times he inhabited, and I am still consistently amazed at the things I discover about them. For reasons both personal and professional about which I will go into more detail in Issue One, I’ve decided to self-publish the Ben Irving chronicles, and I’ve decided to do it (mostly) away from the internet.
Those of you who have been following this site for a while may be familiar with who Irving was. If not, feel free to take a look back through the archives so far. Postcards from Irving will take these rabbit holes of research on the man, his music career(s), and his travels and expand upon them with each issue. My plan is to publish and mail out Postcards from Irving quarterly – once per season – with occasional bonus issues or collaborations. I will try to announce/preview each new issue on this website, and still include occasional nuggets from the archives.
Will this Cost Anything?
The ‘Postcards from Irving’ zine/newsletter will be free indefinitely from the date of subscription for anybody US-based, and back issues will be available for $1 each. In order to help offset costs of printing and mailing down the line, I will also be accepting donations. A small donation will get you a shout-out in ‘Postcards from Irving’ and my undying gratitude.
If you are outside of the United States and would like to subscribe to Postcards from Irving please get in touch via the form below or on Instagram.
How to Subscribe
If you would like to have fun and keep it analog (aside from reading about it online here), then direct all correspondence to POSTCARDS FROM IRVING, P.O. BOX 1309, MT. PLEASANT, MI 48804. You are welcome to (1) send me a postcard or letter requesting to subscribe or (2) pay for back issues/donate to the project with well-concealed cash.
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A colleague recently tipped me to a Bloomberg Media article about radical cartography, focusing on an interview with Bill Rankin. Before I moved to Michigan from Tennessee, I would never have considered that some people and agencies would consider the latter to be a part of the Midwest. According to Rankin’s aggregate map (below), the region stretches from Ohio to the Rockies, though I don’t know if people who live in the Plains region universally consider their states as “Midwestern.”
In my mind’s eye, I consider Pittsburgh to be the Eastern gate into the Midwest region from Appalachia, which separates the East and Mid-Atlantic from the Midwest and South. Of course, having lived in Syracuse for several years, I consider Western New York to be part of the Midwest, too, and it barely even registers on Rankin’s rendering.
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.
“[Greg] Dulli’s a Catholic boy blessed with a filmmaker’s sense of story, a robust, overly industrious voice that can’t quite stay on key, sexual hang-ups for days, and the seeming conviction that he may, in fact, be black.” – Joe Gross on the Afghan Whigs in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (4th Ed), 2004.
For a substantial portion of my twenties, I lived with venerated guitarist and session musician J. Tom Hnatow. We met because I needed a room when I moved to DC, he had a room to let, and we both loved Tom Waits. He spent a lot of time on the road, but whenever he was home, we would, predictably enough, bullshit about music. To this day, whenever I listen to the Afghan Whigs, I occasionally remember the first thing Tom said when I brought them up: “It must have been no fun at all being in that band.” I trusted Tom then, and I still trust him now, given his pedigree from years of hard-scrabble touring and babysitting various collaborators with various addictions.
Though the Afghan Whigs emerged from Cincinnati at the height of the hair metal/scuzz-rock era, which their long-lost debut album reflects, there was always something different about their scuzz. Their first album on Sub Pop, Up In It was just as problematic as it came out in 1990 as if it had dropped last year (despite the term not having dissipated into popular discourse from the academic bubble yet). However, Greg Dulli’s blatant love and admiration for Miles Davis and Billie Holiday made listeners wonder how serious he was about the band’s whole “track-marks and rage” persona. Bob Gendron did a good job demystifying Dulli’s story in his 33 1/3 book about Gentlemen, the Afghan Whigs’ 1993 major-label debut which frequently centerpieces any listicle about “bands who actually got better when they sold out (imagine that)”.
First of all, I think that ideology is flawed, considering how my favorite record of 1998, the Afghan Whigs’ swan song 1965, is sandwiched in between two other records by underground artists who generated their finest work using major-label machinery*. Of course, there was no rhyme or reason to how or why certain music of the Nineties has aged better than most. It feels like a lot of the most timeless shit from the 80’s went against aural and production trends (fucking saxophones…), but the timeless shit from the 90’s were about purposefully bucking whatever was popular and giving LOTS of love to your pop forebears. 1965 isn’t even the only “apart-from-indie-and-punk” album named after the authors’ birth year to top one of my favorite-albums lists this decade**. Maybe it was the sudden floodgates of cultural-text access which the internet had opened, but both Greg Dulli and Tim Wheeler both seemed like they would have had a hell of a time being able to experience their birth years as adults. I often waver on this about my own year of birth.
Either way, the Afghan Whigs’ completing their transition to noirish R&B made 1965 a perfect title. The cover featured Ed White walking in space outside of the Gemini 4 less than one month after Dulli was born. Though it take a few glances to notice it on the cover, he was attached to the spacecraft via an umbilical cord – entirely to symbolize Dulli’s own introspection about his birth following extensive treatment for clinical depression. Granted, what the hell do I know? I’ve only met Greg Dulli once – briefly – in 2007 at a Dinosaur Jr gig in New Orleans. He told me that he and Mark Lanegan were bringing their Gutter Twins project to DC that March, welcomed me to New Orleans, then went outside to smoke. Maybe he isn’t as complicated as we imagine he is, or at least no more complicated than anybody who’s made a career out of writing songs about fucking and fucking up.
To wit: 1965– perhaps the album that I’ve listened to more times than any record ever made. I’m unsure why that is, outside of the fact that I love it, the CD has always found its way into my car(s over the years), and it puts me where I need to be when I’m in a place I want to avoid. I did first hear it at that pivotal point in my adolescence, when “Something Hot” made it onto the radio while sounding nothing like anything else on the radio. I also took a major coming-of-age trip to New Orleans in 1998 and was still reeling from that six months later when the album came out. I remember buying my used copy of the CD, opening the booklet and seeing that they had recorded part of it in NOLA. The album definitely feels like the pulse of the Northernmost Caribbean City, dribbling in Creole voice samples and steel-pan drums over “Citi Soleil” and nodding to “some old boy who lives Uptown” in “Crazy.” There’s a moment in “Neglekted,” just short of the 3-minute mark, when a key change drops and releases the song into a gorgeous lounge, full of smoky background vocals and a suddenly ebullient protagonist, floating through it all.
Like many bands who became my favorites in high school, the Afghan Whigs split up around that time, too. Given the demons that seemed to permeate the band’s aesthetic, it wasn’t a big surprise. Within a year and change, Dulli had returned as the Twilight Singers, which at first felt like the unfinished business of a guy who had scrubbed his old garage-punk band of all grunge influence. Within a few years, Greg’s buddy Ted Demme died, he scrapped his solo album, and he poured his noirish melancholia into what would become my favorite album of 2003. After spending a decade channeling his middle-aged angst into the Twilight Signers project, he reunited the Afghan Whigs and, in the past decade, has released two very good new albums (with a third on the way). Imagine that.
*Ween in 1997 and The Dismemberment Plan in 1999; the latter had been dropped before the album came out, but they used that Interscope money-fountain to record it.
**Ash’s 1977 also earns that esteem from me for 1996.
I hope you all had a great April. Mine was incredibly busy with a lot of projects in the pipeline. Hopefully I’ll have a few new announcements soon.
For now, enjoy this flyer I found in an old Spain folder this afternoon. I don’t remember the occasion, but I have reason to believe that somebody from CGT handed it to me in Madrid 18 years ago today.
I tell ya – this modern society a select few have built has got me jerkin’ back and forth between thinking “Maaaan, what a beautiful world” and “we’re all deep into de-evolution, everything is controlled by morons.” Well, once again, I’m back in the crate of the Not-By 30-Day Music Challenge monster I created toward the beginning of the COVID era, and yet again it is my birthday month. So, prepare yourselves to get sloppy while fighting that uncontrollable urge with the…
I had another idea that I may unveil this coming summer provided the usual suspects I know are still engaged with these song-a-day challenges then. But for now, go ahead and download this, share it with your friends, and hashtag it #NotByDEVO to guarantee good times.
If you’re curious, someone on the internet there’s a photo of me dressed up as Mark Mothersbaugh (or Bob, or Gerry, or Alan, technically) for Halloween in 2010. I even made my own energy dome. My best friend dressed up as Thor (bear in mind this was a year before the first Marvel movie for that character came out), and that January we put on a variety show called ‘Ragnarok’ where I hosted one segment in character as Mothersbaugh. Five years later, my friend hit me up, practically freaking out when they announced that the music for Thor! Ragnarok (2017) would be done by Mark Mothersbaugh. Life imitates art imitates full circles, sometimes.
I scanned these photos with the impression that Irving took them both at Marineland, a marine life expo located on Highway A1A between St. Augustine and Daytona Beach. According to the manager behind Marineland’s social media accounts, the first photo (of a trainer with a gator) was not taken there, but the second photo, which features a dolphin jumping for a treat in a tank with spectators, absolutely was.
This certainly creates more questions about where Irving may have snapped a photo of a trainer with a Gator. I wonder if the St. Augustine area had any accessible “gator experiences” at the time. It may have been at Gatorland, which has been called such since 1954, but that was far down the road in Kissimmee.
Marineland, especially in the last two decades of Florida’s pre-Disney era, was a well-established attraction. The cover of the Marineland guide, which I’ve scanned into JPEG format and will share below, along with a few other highlights from the program, has become an enduring image of Florida’s pre-Mickey tourist trade.
The guide’s opening salvo is particularly interesting, especially because it begins with a reference to Mohammed. The reference was hardly inaccurate (given the can-do attitude that permeated throughout Florida’s post-war attractions), but something tells me a program for a popular tourist destination on Florida’s space coast (ghost to ghost) would not open with a Mohammed anytime this century.
Click to enlarge the above pages and check out their sales pitch to visitors! Read about how new and exciting Oceanariums were at the time. I’ve also cropped and enlarged the “Gull’s-eye” view of the park, which appears to be facing south, looking at the Porpoise Stadium under the Marineland sign.
It’s still difficult to tell exactly which of the Oceanariums (Oceanaria? …It’s not a word I tend to use much in conversation or writing) Irving’s photo of the clever jumping dolphin was taken in. The Porpoise School tank at the foot of those blue bleachers would make sense, but according to the program, the Circular Oceanarium had dolphin shows as well.