Architecture Critic Paul Goldberger Examines the Ballpark, including Cincinnati’s, in New Book

You can tell a lot about the vibrancy of a big city by the way it treats its ballparks

BY STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / MAY 13, 2019 

AC1_Goldberger2

(Photo of Paul Goldberger by Michael Lionstar)

Major League Baseball, it isn’t just about winning or losing. It’s also about how architecturally significant your ballpark is.

That’s the theme of architecture critic Paul Goldberger’s new book Ballpark: Baseball in the American City. A contributing editor at Vanity Fair who won a Pulitzer Prize for his criticism while at The New York Times, he explained in a telephone interview why he became interested in the ballpark as a subject. “It’s part of American public space,” he says. “We should look at it that way, along with looking at it as a home for the game.”

Goldberger’s book, which was published May 14, sees ballparks as indicators of how cities develop and sustain their aesthetic values. For better and worse…

And in that regard, Cincinnati can be proud of having an early example of the best. From 1902-1911, the Reds played at the great but virtually forgotten Palace of the Fans. A trendsetting example of a ballpark built with concrete, it was noteworthy for a grandstand that looked like a Classical Era temple. Greek and Roman-style Corinthian columns separated sections; the top was crowned with a decorative pediment. (The Reds are honoring the Palace of the Fans in their current 150th season.)

In his book, Goldberger calls it “the exuberant classical folly that had one of the shortest existences of any noteworthy 20th-century ballpark.”

In conversation, he elaborates: “It was clearly one of the first ballparks that tried to make a strong architectural statement. When they were beginning to be more architecturally assertive, most tried to do it on the outside, which faced the city, and the stands didn’t look all that different than the stands you’d find in other places. But Palace of the Fans inverted that. It had a relatively ordinary exterior, but when you looked at the stands from the field, you could see it was a very ornate building.”

In the 19th century, the ballparks being built in big cities reflected similar values to the new civic parks and spacious cemeteries that were also being established — people wanted green space, a piece of the countryside, amid population growth, industrialization and the attendant pollution. That’s why ballparks are usually called “parks” or “fields.”

After a period of wooden ballparks that too often burned down, baseball teams started building more permanent structures in their city core. A successful inner-city ballpark became as much a source of urban pride as a department store, a new high-rise office building or a stylish theater. They represented humane modernity in the first half of the 20th century.

Goldberger establishes their Golden Age as beginning in 1912, when exciting, colorful and populist steel and concrete ballparks with a street presence “fully hit their stride.” The first to open that year was Cincinnati’s Redland Field in the West End (its name later became Crosley Field), which replaced Palace of the Fans and stayed in use until June 24, 1970. The others were Tiger Stadium in Detroit and Boston’s Fenway Park. Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field followed in 1913; Chicago’s Wrigley Field in 1914.

“In some ways, Crosley’s most important part of history is in it beginning night baseball,” Goldberger says. “But if it was only that, it wouldn’t be put in that part of the book.” (Crosley Field hosted the first night game in the MLB on May 24, 1935, illuminated by newly installed lights.)

He acknowledges those parks had shortcomings, which ultimately led to all but Wrigley Field and Fenway Park being torn down. But Wrigley and Fenway may be the most admired ballparks still in use today — icons of urban architecture.

“We’ve seen how sensitive renovation can make them more useful without destroying their basic qualities, and that probably could have happened to Crosley many, many years ago if somebody wanted to,” Goldberger says. “But that ship sailed a long, long time ago.”

What replaced Crosley — the dreadful Riverfront Stadium/Cinergy Field — was an example of ballpark architecture at its worst, the “concrete donuts,” as Goldberger calls them, that popped up in the 1960s-70s to house both baseball and football teams. Cut off from their surroundings and often encircled by parking lots, they were as much scars on their cities as the new expressways that brought suburbanites to their games.

“There was an awful lot of big, bold concrete architecture in those days,” Goldberger says. “It looked powerful and strong, and some people found it very exciting. And they did have the allure of the new. You can understand why those buildings were attractive initially. And so was the idea that a place could accommodate baseball and football. It took a long time to figure out that if you do that, you compromise both sports.”

While he believes the new generation of more human-scale ballparks that seek to complement their urban surroundings (Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards started the trend in 1992) is a good thing, he’s cautious about calling them “retro.”

“There are some things about those parks that absolutely look back to traditional parks: the slightly eccentric quality of them, they’re baseball only and not multisport, have a lot of public space and they try generally to have seating oriented to be as close to the playing field as possible,” he says.

Less good, he says, is that most of these stadiums leave as big of a footprint as their predecessors — the big concrete donuts — because they have club lounges, skyboxes, large locker rooms, training facilities and a long list of other things that make the space larger.

Cincinnati’s current Great American Ball Park, which opened in 2003, is one of those fields. Goldberger says that “it’s a very decent ballpark and vastly better than what it replaced, but never has had for me the kind of magic of a few of the other new ones.”

Another thing that differs from newer ballparks and those from the Golden Era is their branding — many sell naming rights to corporations. “Those commercial names can change so fast it’s hard to keep track,” Goldberger says, adding that several switched as his book was going to press.

“It does symbolize an even greater commercial intervention in the culture,” he says. “Also, they keep changing it. It makes you yearn even more for Palace of the Fans. There’s something so lovable about that.”

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Nils Lofgren Discusses His Latest Work: A Collaboration with Lou Reed

Five previously unreleased songs the duo wrote in 1979 form the centerpiece of Lofgren’s latest album

 MAY 10, 2019/ CINCINNATI CITYBEAT

MUSIC1Nils Lofgren Photo Carl ShultzNils LofgrenPHOTO: CARL SHULTZ

Not only is Nils Lofgren a Rock singer/songwriter whose headlining career stretches back almost 50 years — first with his band Grin and then under his own name — but he has also been a dazzling guitarist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band since 1984. Further, he joined Neil Young’s band, Crazy Horse, for some crucial 1970s recordings, and has recently rejoined the group to play with Young on new concert dates and an in-the-works album.

Lofgren has won accolades — and fame — for his work with those giants, as well as for his solo work. But it’s surprising to learn just how much another of his collaborations, a lesser-known and lesser-celebrated one, has meant to him, spurring a just-released solo album.

In 1979, he and Rock icon Lou Reed wrote 13 songs together. They separately released eight of them on their respective albums, but five fell by the wayside. Now, those five form the centerpiece of Lofgren’s new album, Blue With Lou. Lofgren and his band — including his brother Tom on guitar and keyboards — will perform in support of the album at Memorial Hall on May 15 as part of the venue’s Longworth-Anderson music series. Lofgren will also perform other songs from his extensive catalog.

He is exuberant about those “lost” Reed collaborations finally reemerging.

“We had this fabulous magical writing experience, where all of a sudden we had 13 songs that we wrote together,” Lofgren, speaking from his Arizona home, recalls of collaborating with Reed. “Immediately on our respective albums, Lou used three of them and I used three, and over the next few releases I put two more out. The other five I always thought, in the back of my mind, that Lou would call and say, ‘Hey, why don’t we take a look at those songs we wrote that haven’t been used yet?’

“When Lou passed (in 2013), which was very sad and upsetting, in the back of my mind was this seed that said, ‘Man, you’re the only person that can now share these five songs that nobody heard.’ ”

Those five songs are “Attitude City,” “Give,” “Talk Thru the Tears,” “Don’t Let Your Guard Down” and “Cut Him Up.” Additionally, Blue With Lou contains Lofgren’s new version of their song “City Lights,” which Reed had first released in a different arrangement on his 1979 album The Bells.

Besides “City Lights,” Reed had released “Stupid Man” and “With You” on The Bells. Lofgren recorded three of their collaborations on his 1979 Nils album — “A Fool Like Me, “I Found Her” and “I’ll Cry Tomorrow.” Lofgren subsequently recorded their song “Life” on his 1995 album Damaged Goods and “Driftin’ Man” on 2002’s Breakaway Angel.

The loss of Reed obviously permeates the new album’s six collaborations, although the songs themselves are very rocking and vital. The six other songs on Blue With Lou are new Lofgren solo compositions, recorded mostly live in the studio by him and his band. They can rock hard, too (“Rock or Not”), but some also address losses — of Tom Petty (“Dear Heartbreaker”) and of Lofgren’s and his wife Amy’s beloved dog Groucho.

The original idea for the collaboration with Reed came at the suggestion of producer Bob Ezrin, who was working with Lofgren on Nils and had produced Reed’s 1973 masterpiece Berlin. Lofgren had first shown Ezrin some early written drafts of songs he had prepared.

“It was his suggestion to get us together,” Lofgren says. “Rather than me go after upgrading lyrics that we thought were subpar, we thought, ‘Let’s see if we can get a great lyricist interested,’ and magically it turned out to be Lou. We went by and visited him at his (New York) recording session, and he was surprisingly open to it and friendly. Lou said, ‘Come to my apartment and let’s get into this.’

“Unbeknownst to me, he was a big NFL football fan. I just happened to walk in on the beginning of a Redskins-Cowboys game, and he said, ‘I’m a big Dallas Cowboy fan. Do you mind watching the game with me while we talk?’ I said, ‘You got to be kidding me. I grew up in the D.C. (District of Columbia) area. I’m a Redskins fan and the Cowboys are our most hated rival.’ So we both saw that as a great icebreaker.”

Energized by that meeting, Lofgren prepared a cassette of 13 songs he had been working on — he had melodies, titles and some lyrics he didn’t like — and sent it to Reed. After about three and half weeks had passed, Lofgren’s phone rang at 4:30 a.m. An excited Reed said he had written full lyrics for all the songs.

Lofgren recalls the conversation: “He said, ‘That’s why I called at this hour, because I’m excited. And if you’d like, I’ll dictate them right now.’ I said, ‘Man, that’s incredible. Let me put on a pot of coffee.’

“I wanted to seize the moment, so I got a pad and pencil and we spent another two hours on the phone. I took very careful, meticulous dictation. He was very patient with me; he would repeat the lines if I wasn’t clear with them, until I got every single thing he wrote accurately.”

Lofgren had been counting on having plenty of time this year to work on recording Blue With Lou and rehearsing for the tour. But old friend Young intervened by asking him to come to Colorado to record his new album with Crazy Horse, and then maybe tour in August and September.

“(Young) called and said, ‘Look, I’ve been writing and I got all these songs I like. I know you’ve got a record coming out and its bad timing, but can you get to Colorado and record for a couple weeks?’ ” Lofgren says. “It was bad timing. The decision would have been no to just about anyone else, but with Neil it was a joy and honor.”

Meanwhile, the E Street Band has been on hiatus while Springsteen pursued his extended Broadway engagement in 2017-18 and planned his upcoming solo album Western Stars. But just last week, Springfield announced he had new material for an E Street Band project.

This interview with Lofgren occurred before that news broke, but I asked him about the possibility of a new E Street Band tour.

“There’s no bigger fan than me,” Lofgren said, “and I hope there’s another chapter down the road, but I can’t ‘what if?’ myself with anxiety. I’ve got to do 19 great shows in the next four weeks, so that’s enough to bite off right now.”


The Nils Lofgren Band plays May 15 at Memorial Hall. Tickets/more information: memorialhallotr.com.

Remembering Andre Williams (1936-2019)

Wild Men of Rock Live in Houston

Andre Williams, Archie
Bell, Roy Head, and Little Joe Washington descended upon Houston’s Continental Club on Sept. 3 and
proceeded to tear some shit up.

Andre-Williams

By Steven Rosen / BLURT / 9-26-2011

At age 74, Andre Williams (pictured above) is just coming
into his own as a Great American Singer. He’s part Leonard Cohen and part James
Brown, capable of expressing in the most impassioned way possible his primal
needs of the moment, yet also willing to step back with cool romantic, poetic
demeanor and consider the effect his words of love have on his enthralled
audience.

Take, for instance, the version of “Let Me Put It In” he performed,
with backing from Allen Oldies Band, at Houston’s
funky, spacious Continental Club, where he headlined a “Wild Men of Rock” revue. Looking dapper and calm in a white
double-breasted suit, wearing a smiling Buddha-like countenance as well as a fine
mustache, he introduced the song to his fans, many college age or just modestly
older, with an aside about past trouble with police trying to perform it.

Then he intoned the song’s title pleadingly, softly
promising that “I’ll buy you a car” to his imaginary subject. And then, WHAM!
He screamed out the title line, again and again, as if it was the only thing
that mattered in the world. He dropped to his knees as the band slashed out its
supporting rock with all the power it could muster. It was soul music, raw and
unpretentious, and the crowd pushed forward to the stage as if pulled by a
giant magnet. And then Williams let up, returned to his quiet pleading, looking
slightly amused at his power over the masses. And then he did it all again. It
was pure dynamism and he knew it.

He was the headliner of this show, and was treated like
royalty. When he eventually left the stage, after “Mustang Sally,” the band
offered him shouts of “Hallelujah.” Williams has been around rock and soul’s
edges for a long, long time. He recorded for Michigan’s Fortune Records in the 1950s, his
songs having enough of a naughty edge (“Jailbait”) to not get much airplay then
but to appeal to collectors today. He wrote a couple 1960s classics (“Shake a
Tail Feather” and “Twine Time”) for others, fell into hard times in the 1980s,
and then started to find his way back in the 1990s.

Often working with bluesy punk-soul acts on songs that
sometimes had sexually explicit lyrics, he developed a cult following. He has
used that to grow in popularity, through a series of fine Bloodshot albums and
even a book, Sweets and Other Stories. What’s
critical to know about Williams is that, unlike Blowfly or Clarence Carter
vamping through “Strokin,’” Williams “dirty” material isn’t a smutty joke. It’s
his take on the rawness of real life and sexuality’s place in it. He just omits
the jive and politeness. As a result, the tunes he performed in Houston, like “Agile, Mobile and Hostile,” “Bacon Fat” and
Goin’ Down to Tijuana,”
come off as serious as a heart attack. They’re soul tunes without compromise.

But, then, there’s also a detachment that lets you know he’s
the artist working the crowd. For example, with a smile on his face, looking
cool, calm and collected, Williams stood on stage while the band (“four of the
best motherfuckers I’ve ever played with,” he announced) worked through a
pleasant instrumental turn. At the right moment, Williams stepped forward,
hands gesticulating like a serene conductor, and sang “Pussy stank/but so do marijuana,” It’s beyond criticism.

Of the others on the bill, the diminutive, gray-dreadlocked
and -bearded Little Joe Washington, who opened, is a Houston favorite, a blues
guitarist who slowly works up his energy to show off some dazzling, tricky
guitar work. And Archie Bell, a Texan whose Drells had a couple classic
dance-tunes-with-attitude-hits in the 1960s like “Tighten Up”, does a solo act
now where he doesn’t mind letting you know how hard he’s working. His voice
wasn’t the best, but he handled the crowd well and was proud he can still do
it. “I’m 67 years old and I still know how to ‘Tighten Up,”’ he announced at
one point, and the words were inspirational to the older members of the
audience who were there because they “Can’t Stop Dancing” (the title of another
Drells hit). And he also did “Mustang Sally.”

One of Houston’s favorite sons and a soul-shouting wild man, Roy Head of “Treat Her Right” fame, supposedly was appearing to perform from a new album – his first of new
material in decades. He was the night’s second act. But he did nothing to
promote it nor were copies for sale, so it remains a mystery if that album is
out there or not. Head, at 68, obviously is a little older and slower (and
bigger) than the thin gymnast who memorably did splits and tossed and turned
about like a jumping bean on television appearances in 1965, when “Treat Her
Right” was a hit. He wore a green paisley shirt and sweated as much as he
smiled, apologizing for a frog in his voice between songs. But it didn’t
noticeably diminish his volume as he squealed and roared his way through the
likes of “Lucille,” “Just a Little Bit” and “She’s About a Mover” as the Allen
Oldies Band pushed him on.

He also did some scary-thrilling microphone-twirling toward
the band and crowd – scary because an advance in the local arts paper warned
he’s been known to have faulty control and once almost robbed a watching critic
of his family jewels; thrilling because he kept control. Considering that
Head’s forte is rootsy, sweaty, roadhouse rock, it was surprising he tackled
Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page.” It wasn’t maybe the best kind of song for his
persona, but there was honesty when he sang “Here I am, back on the road
again.” You felt for Head. He was still doing it.

By the way, Head took a break before finishing with a
no-holds-barred “Treat Her Right,” and his son Sundance came out to sing a few
blues-rock standards with the Allen Oldies Band behind him. And wouldn’t you
know it? One was “Mustang Sally.” Three times in one night. That’s wild,
indeed.

The Visual Side of the Vinyl Shop

“Queen City Records: Record Stores of Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky” captures the essence of local indie record stores via photography and interviews

BY STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT /
 DEC. 12, 2017
Cover1213Mike Spitz Cassie Lipp HB11

 

Growing up on Grand Vista Avenue in Pleasant Ridge, Mike Spitz would often visit Everybody’s Records, a neighborhood and city institution for lovers of recorded music since 1978.

“I discovered Everybody’s from walking down Montgomery Road to go to other stores,” he says. “My middle brother Paul was really into records and got me hooked on it — he’s six years older. And my older brother had a lot of Beatles records, so they influenced me. I just started buying a lot of my early records at Everybody’s and my interests grew. I still have most of them today.”

Spitz, age 50, has been living in Los Angeles since 2000, so remembering the favorite record stores of his Cincinnati youth — he also has kind words for ones that have not survived, such as Norwood’s Record Theater and the Wizard and Ozarka outposts near University of Cincinnati — may seem purely an exercise in nostalgia.

But it isn’t. He’s turned it into a new book, Queen City Records: Record Stores of Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky. It debuts this weekend with signings at two stores featured in the book — 2 p.m. Saturday at Everybody’s and 4 p.m. Sunday at Jet Age Records in Newport. Both will also have live music — 1:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Spitz’s initial printing is just 250 books; he’ll do more as needed.

A photographer when not busy with his full-time job as a licensed clinical social worker/therapist specializing in the problems of children and teens, Spitz’s book portrays the environments of 13 existing record stores (plus one that recently closed) as sometimes funky and cluttered, sometimes chic and art-designed. He worked on it during visits here to see his family.

The stores featured in the book include several long-established ones — Everybody’s, Northside’s Shake It Records, Clifton Heights’ Mole’s CD & Record Exchange, Newport’s C&D Record Bar and Latonia’s Phil’s Records.  Then there are the newer ones — Bellevue’s Torn Light Records, Loveland’s Plaid Room Records, Covington’s Hail Dark Aesthetics, Oakley’s MetaModern Music, Newport’s aforementioned Jet Age Records, Black Plastic Records in Northside and Over-the-Rhine, downtown’s Herzog Music and Over-the-Rhine’s Shakespearean-named Another Part of the Forest. Also included in the book is Newport’s Sugarcube Records, which recently closed. Sometimes used vinyl is all they sell, but many shops also sell CDs, cassettes and music-related ephemera such as turntables, band T-shirts, books and magazines, concert posters and even bobbleheads of favorite rockers.

Of the 14 stores profiled in Queen City Records, nine have opened since 2010 (including Sugarcube). Three profiled in the book have opened just this year and a fourth (Morrow Audio in Florence) opened too late for inclusion. They have benefitted from the vinyl revival, which has increased the popularity and prices for both used and new vinyl records.

They have also provided Spitz’s book with currency. “There would have been less stores to take pictures of,” he says. “There are new businesses following that resurgence.”

This isn’t Spitz’s first book featuring record stores. In 2015, he published (via Rare Bird Books) The Record Store Book, featuring 50 in the L.A. area. It received national distribution and exposure. But he actually started on the Cincinnati project first.

“In 2011, I got this idea to do some kind of book about storefronts,” he says. “I had seen a book about the storefronts of New York that was very nice. So I thought maybe I’d do a book on those of Los Angeles. But it seemed too broad, too big. So I thought about how I could narrow it down to something more specific.

“Well, I like record stores and I remembered Everybody’s and thought, ‘Why don’t I try that?’ I went home for a visit and went to Shake It, Everybody’s, C&D and Mole’s and took pictures of those four stores.”

But he also thought he should do something larger — if not record stores of the world, then at least of Los Angeles. Among other benefits, he could fit the work around his daytime therapist job.

That resulted in the first record store book, which also featured interviews with record store owners by writer Rebecca Villaneda. “Then we started thinking, ‘Why don’t we do Seattle, Portland, Chicago or New York?’ ” Spitz says. When that idea fell through, he figured he already had begun a Cincinnati project, so why not finish it?

He wound up doing additional photos of the four stores he had photographed in 2011, as well as new ones.

To do interviews and provide history, Spitz hired writer Cassie Lipp, a 2016 University of Cincinnati graduate and also a CityBeat contributor. She responded to an ad that a UC journalism professor had sent.

“I go to record stores all the time since 2012, my first year of college,” Lipp says. “I was writing a paper for my Rhetoric class on Bob Dylan at the time and I went to Everybody’s Records and bought some Dylan records. I thought, ‘Hey, this counts as homework, doesn’t it?’ After that, I started exploring record stores.”

One thing Spitz had learned from doing the Los Angeles book is that he couldn’t just feature storefronts, as his original inspiration — Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York — did. “It’s what’s inside the store that’s more interesting,” he says.

For those stores that have been around awhile, “they’ve created this nostalgic ambiance for you,” he says. But newer stores can be different. “Some of the newer boutique-y younger stores are tidy, clean, neat and just focus on new stuff. They’re trying to establish something different about them, something unique.”

So what did he find inside Cincin- nati record stores?  Some examples from the book:

• At C&D Record Bar, established in 1957, owner Dave Heil stands in front of shelves full of 45 rpm records while holding an old Andy Williams LP called Lonely Street, in which the late Pop crooner is on a sidewalk, leaning against a building in what looks to be a forlorn part of town.

• At the connoisseur-ish Mole’s CD & Record Exchange, which started on Short Vine in 1974 and moved to Calhoun Street after Dean Newman bought it in 1989, Newman stands behind the counter, proudly wearing a T-shirt with the image of the late guitar god Tommy Bolin and propping up an album by Prog Rock band Spock’s Beard.

• Hail Dark Aesthetics is as much a cabinet of eerie curiosities, or oddities, as a used record store — one photo shows a doll baby’s head atop an animal horn with a stuffed squirrel holding an acorn nearby.

• At Jet Age, which opened this year, the look is spare and retro-modern — there’s a red Formica table and chairs near a coffee bar. The listening station features a turntable with a bright red, futuristic-looking base.

“Having done the first book, I know what works and doesn’t work,” Spitz says. “Usually I don’t know what the store is going to have in it, so I go in with a clean slate. But I tend to gravitate toward the same things. With images of people looking through records, the person has to be interesting. I take pictures of tapes, records — always used records out of the shrink-rap. And if I can, I try to get a shot of somebody who’s not just an old crusty record collector. I really try to break the cliches of record stores.”

He also had an eye for the unusual. “With Hail Dark Aesthetics, what other store has dead animals on the wall?” Spitz asks. “You can’t ignore that — it’s what’s unique about the store. For Jet Age, I made sure to get the Formica table and a shot of the coffee sign in the back.”

“And I always want to get a shot of the manager or the owner,” he continues. “You always get a guy like Dean Newman (of Mole’s) — the older guy, store’s kind of cluttered, very nice but tough veneer. And then the newer stores have the young hipster types with the tattoos. And then you also have the cynical guy whose business is not doing well and he’s pissed off at the world.”

There was one like that in L.A., Spitz says, and also in Cincinnati.

You might call record stores a labor of brotherly love. No less than three sets of brothers own one locally — Darren and Jim Blase of Shake It, Terry and Robert Cole of Plaid Room and Kevin, Tom and Mike Schraer of Jet Age. And there are two women owners — Iris BookCafe’s Julie Fay, who has kept the adjacent Another Part of the Forest open since its founder and her business partner, Mike Markiewicz, died in 2014; and Marilyn Kirby, who has run Everybody’s, with loyal employees, since 1978.

Writer Lipp found her story inspiring. “She was a single mom raising two young sons when getting her record store off the ground,” she says. “She said some of her friends and people working in the music business would help her with her store and her family. I felt that was a neat story, how everybody came together for her as a community.”

That may be the key lesson from the photos and stories that comprise Queen City Records. Each indie record store is a community unto itself.

Queen City Records will soon be available at select record stores and Joseph-Beth Booksellers at Rookwood Pavilion, as well as from mikespitz.com.

A Cincinnati Gallery’s Relationship with Pop Art Pioneer Richard Hamilton

 BY STEVEN ROSEN / OCT 5, 2011 / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT

 

At Carl Solway Gallery in the West End, on a wall by a stairway leading up to his office, is a small but heartfelt tribute to the British Pop Art pioneer Richard Hamilton, who died last month at age 89. 

On the wall is one of Hamilton’s prints: “Kent State,” based on a photographic image he snapped from his television set during news coverage of the 1970 killing by Ohio National Guard troops of four university students on their campus. Next to it is a photograph of Hamilton with that print.

Solway knew and supported Hamilton. When the artist made his “Kent State” series in 1970, Solway immediately bought 35 to display and sell. And later he initiated and published a small edition of one of Hamilton’s quirkier Pop artworks, 1989’s “Epiphany.” It is an enlarged “joke button” — cellulose on aluminum — reading in blue lettering against an orange background: “Slip it to me.” 

This edition was inspired by an earlier version — a one-off giant button — that Hamilton did in 1964 and that has a fascinating history. He had come to Pasadena to see the now-famous Marcel Duchamp retrospective at Pasadena Art Museum. While in Los Angeles, he visited Venice Beach and became delighted by a button at a joke shop. Sensing its wit wasn’t that far from Duchamp’s own humorous conceptualism, he had his “Epiphany.” It was Solway’s idea, two decades later, to create the edition for an art fair. Hamilton produced 12 (plus two artist proofs). Solway sold them for $10,000 each — it took years, but he found buyers for all. Recently, one resold at auction for $270,000.

While Hamilton maybe isn’t that well known in Cincinnati, or even to the American art world in general (a major U.S. retrospective opens next year), it’s all one more example that in Solway’s long career he has worked with many of the pioneers of Pop and subsequent movements in post-war Contemporary art. Next year, he celebrates his 50th year as a gallerist.

As much as anyone, Hamilton can lay claim to creating Pop. His 1956 collage entitled “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?” assembled images cut from magazines to create a dizzying and disorienting mix of commercial imagery turned into art. On a the wrapper of a lollipop extending from a bodybuilder’s crotch is the word “POP” — a reference to Tootsie Pop but also the start, many believe, of one of art’s greatest movements. Hamilton also designed the Beatles’ “white album.”

 

Solway first became acquainted with Hamilton in early 1970, when he visited him in his London studio. Solway’s Eye Editions had just successfully worked with John Cage, so he suddenly had access to great artists. Hamilton discussed a problem he had with an earlier screenprint, 1964’s “Five Tyres Abandoned,” in which he had first had tried to create an embossed relief showing tread-pattern changes through use. But he couldn’t figure out how to accurately draw the geometric changes from a single perspective and settled for something less.

“So I said, ‘Richard, a computer can do that,’ ” Solway recalled. “He said, ‘Can you find a computer company in America I can work with?’ We (Solway and assistant Jack Bolton) actually did find somebody in Boston, and Richard came to the States and worked with this company and actually finished it. It was called ‘Five Tyres Remoulded.’ ” 

Solway says that was one of the first artworks to be created by computer. Although Solway didn’t publish the resultant print portfolio, Hamilton thanked him in print. “I had for years around here all the punch cards in great big boxes,” Solway recalled. “I gave them all to Yale because they wanted a set of prints.”

The Triumphant Andre Williams

andre

After decades of struggle, R&B artist Andre Williams finds his way back

SEP 8, 2010 
CINCINNATI CITYBEAT

Rock & Roll and Rhythm & Blues have their legions of foot soldiers — men and women who played a role in the recording, writing, producing and/or performing of great old songs but, for whatever reason, never became known outside their tight-knit world.

Yet, as the decades go by and the music retains its staying power, a surprising number attempt to step out of the shadows and create a career — however late it might seem — as a creative artist whose work matters. And they hope that, to paraphrase the title of the first track on Andre Williams’ new Bloodshot Records album That’s All I Need, their time will come.

Williams, 73, has been one of those foot soldiers. His nickname, “Mr. Rhythm,” was given to him by Redd Foxx way back in the early 1950s, when the two performed at the same club in San Diego.

Williams went on to make sometimes-salacious R&B records like “Bacon Fat,” “The Greasy Chicken,” “Jail Bait” and “Loose Juice” for independent labels, especially a classic pre-Motown Detroit company called Fortune. He also helped Motown founder Berry Gordy get his start, produced Ike Turner, did live shows with Little Willie John, managed Soul singer Edwin Starr (“Agent Double-O-Soul”) and wrote a couple of 1960s dance classics for others — “Shake a Tail Feather” and “Twine Time.”

Williams also slipped into drugs, alcohol and homelessness in the 1980s. It was a struggle to survive but he managed to do so and, starting in the mid-1990s, he began to record again on small, hipster labels with retro sensibilities, often supported by younger Rock musicians steeped in Garage Rock/R&B history, like The Dirtbombs and The Sadies. A young Jack White even played on one of his records. Williams remerged as everything bands like The Cramps and Detroit Cobras idolized.

And, slowly, Williams began to build a reputation as a performer with an expressive voice that walked the line between talking and singing, giving his songs a kind of monologue-like authenticity. He also started to finally get known for songs with a sleazy, raunchy in-your-face element, like “Can’t Take ‘Em Off” and “Pussy Stank (But So Do Marijuana).” He became the subject of a documentary and more recently published a short-story collection, Sweets, that has won praise from writer Nick Tosches.

While that leadoff track, “My Time Will Come,” on his new album addresses the future, Williams believes it has now arrived.

“ ‘My Time Will Come’ is exactly what’s happening now — my time came,” Williams says. “Now I feel like I’m in the middle of what I was struggling to accomplish. After all the people I met, all the struggles and trauma I’ve been through, the drugs and alcohol and bad experiences, I was able to come through alive and well. My time has come.”

But with this growing success has come a change. That’s All I Need, co-produced in Detroit by Williams with a tight group of seasoned Blues/Rock/Soul musicians (including Motown guitar great Dennis Coffey) isn’t as, well, nasty as some of his efforts.

In fact, at times — like on the title song, “There Ain’t No Such Thing As Good Dope,” “Amends” or “Cigarettes and My Old Lady” — Williams can wax philosophical in a streetwise, life’s-lessons-learned way. Sort of like Gil Scott-Heron with a nod to Howlin’ Wolf. He can also pack some political wallop, like his knock at the self-righteousness of the religious right on “America”: “Just because you don’t see me on Sunday/Sitting down on the front-row pew/That don’t mean I don’t like America/I like America, too/Just like you.”

Williams seems to want to make a major statement.

“You put your finger on it,” he says. “I felt this time I wanted to write about some struggles I have seen and been through. I wanted to do it for my grandkids. I wanted to give them something they can go back to and be proud to have it in their house. I wanted to leave them some substance. These songs are not fantasies; that’s why this is so different.”

That’s not to say there aren’t funny elements in this album’s songs — Williams likes humor. And it doesn’t mean he’s forsaken his past, either. He’s proud of it.

“Those are my entertaining songs,” he says of his back catalog. “Those are the songs for after I get done telling about the realistic side of life. You’ve got to slide some humor into it, and the humor is the sleaziness.”


ANDRE WILLIAMS performs in the Southgate House’s Parlour room Thursday with The Goldstars and Eric Stein. Go here for show and venue details.

How Cincinnati’s King Records Gave Soul/Blues Performer Syl Johnson his Start — and his Name.

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BY STEVEN ROSEN / BLURT /2010

There are those who believe Syl Johnson’s reputation isn’t commensurate with his musical accomplishments.

And fortunately for the 74-year-old Chicago blues and soul singer/guitarist/producer  —whose fascinatingly long career includes the R&B hits “Different Strokes,” “Come On Sock It to Me,” “Concrete Reservation,” “Dresses Too Short,” “Is It Because I’m Black?” and the original hit version of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” — one of his true believers is the Chicago-based archivist record label Numero Group.

On Oct. 19, it is releasing a combination four-disc/six-LP boxed set called Syl Johnson: The Complete Mythology, focusing on his solo career from 1959-1977 (excluding his already well-documented work for Willie Mitchell’s high-profile, Memphis-based Hi label in the early 1970s, where he first recorded “River”).

Four years in the making, it includes 81 tracks from the Federal, Cha-Cha, Tmp-Ting, Special Agent, Zachron and especially Chicago’s Twilight/Twinight labels, where his hits like “Sock It To Me” and “Different Strokes” have gone on to be sampled by a who’s who of contemporary rap and hip-hop. The set also contains a 52-page booklet, scholarly notes on his recording sessions and facsimiles of his two Twinight LPs, Dresses Too Short# and #Is It Because I’m Black?

Johnson, by the way, is still very active touring and producing. But he took some time recently to talk on the phone about his musical roots. Born in Holly Springs, Miss., as Sylvester Thompson, he moved to Chicago where he and his two equally musical brothers started carving out careers in the lively 1950s blues scene. He worked with the likes of Elmore James, Billy Boy Arnold, John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells and Jimmy Reed.

“There was this (Chicago) label Veejay, and I was there there making a session with Jimmy Reed,” Johnson recalls. “He used to be a drunk and we’d wait on him to get his whiskey and stuff and we’d be sitting round the studio. I was showing how I could sing, and somehow Vivian Carter (the label co-owner) heard me and said to (her brother) to get this young boy to sing. He told me to write a song, put it on a dub and bring it.”

And Johnson — still known as Sylvester Thompson — did that. Except, as he was walking down the city’s fabled blues-music center, South Michigan Avenue, with his record, he saw another record company. It was a branch of Cincinnati-based King Records, an R&B/blues music giant of the day. “And there was a guy there named Ralph Bass and I gave him my dub — it was song called ‘Teardrops,” Johnson says. “And he wouldn’t let me go. He said, ‘We’re King Records, a big company; we have James Brown.’”

So he recorded it properly for King subsidiary Federal, and then went on to record other sides for the company. While nothing became a hit, the King experience was notable because the label’s president, Sydney Nathan, ordered his name changed on the records. “He said, ‘Sylvester Thompson sounds like a governor or something.’ So he changed it. He said that will be a stage name – like B.B. King or Satchmo. So Syl Johnson it was.”

All these years later, Johnson has but one regret. “I thought it should have been Sly,” he jokes.