Joe Bonomo‘s literary work includes everything from editing a book of interviews with Greil Marcus to a history of The Fleshtones to an analysis of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell. His latest book is the essay collection Field Recordings from the Inside, which in turn encompasses a host of Bonomo’s cultural interests, from Greg Cartwight to Lester Bangs. Aaron Gilbreath conversed with Bonomo about his new collection, his work for The Normal School, and why the essay is a great form for writing about music.
You’ve written a number of books about musicians, from Jerry Lee Lewis to The Fleshtones. How did this new book Field Recordings from the Inside come together? Did you write them with a unified project in mind?
Big thanks go to Steven Church, my editor at The Normal School. He asked me five years ago if I’d consider writing music essays for the magazine twice a year. Over time, I saw how the essays were coalescing into something, which I hadn’t been thinking about consciously, and after adding a few other music pieces I’d written for other places the book came together.
This book details your deep, complex relationship with music. Having read so much of your work, I think of you as a writer who loves music, rather than a music writer, and the essay form allows your wide-ranging mind to connect dots in ways others don’t see, like the confluence events on the morning Sylvia Plath took her life and The Beatles recorded Please Please Me. Tell me about your relationship with the essay form: how did it start? What about it suits you and music?
I’m a self-taught essayist. I wrote poems in graduate school—my thesis and dissertation were collections of poems—but sometime in the late 1990s, very naturally, I began writing what I now see as early essays but at the time felt like prose versions of the poems I was writing. I’d become really dissatisfied with my own poems, so the move over to prose—to paragraphs and to an extended exploration with language that poetry wasn’t giving me, or that I wasn’t finding in poetry, anyway—was inevitable. So I started catching up, reading, reading, reading essays, centuries’ worth. I’m still catching up. It helped that, around the same time, I began teaching creative nonfiction at Northern Illinois University, and so my reading fed my teaching, which fed my writing, which fed my reading, etc.
I think that the essay is a fantastic vehicle for writing about music. You can chase the essence of a song or a performance as far as it will take you, while being mindful of including or touching on historical information and social context. In an essay I can search for reasons or explanations as to why a song or an album or a show affects me so deeply, or why it doesn’t, without having to worry about finding an “answer” or coming to a conventional conclusion. I love what David Lazar said recently in an interview, “When I become interested in an idea, I want to know what I think about it—so I write essays.” That’s a great argument for and defense of the essay. I just love, love the genre. It’s so bendable and infinite in shape and possibility.
You write such clear beautiful sentences, like when you say about a Beatles knock-off record: “This much I understood as the album spun around and around: Kings Road were the weary substitute teachers of pop music.” How important are sentences to you in relation to the themes or ideas of the essay? Do you read poetry now as a prose writer?
Thanks. I love sentences, because when I start a sentence—this one, for example—I have no idea how long or complex, or how abbreviated or simple it will be. The unpredictability of a sentence is thrilling. And again, the essay, as opposed to a journalistic or academic piece of writing, is open to everything, and can be wild in allowing dissent or digressions, surprises. Aldous Huxley’s remark that the essay’s a “literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything” is virtually scripture for me.
I don’t read much poetry now, in the odd journal or magazine that comes to the house. My wife’s currently translating the poems and letters of Antonia Pozzi, an Italian poet who died in 1938, so I’ve been reading her stuff, which was terrific, really passionate, dark and urgent.
As we learn in the book, music taught you, or marked, many essential things about life. It taught you about death. It taught you about sex, about the darkness of the human spirit, your adolescent fears, self-doubt, brotherhood, unrequited crushes and gender normative behavior. Is there anything you wish music had taught you sooner, or at all?
No, because it’s really a process of catching up to music. I tend to look for art in art and not in rock and roll, but rock and roll works the same way in that a great song or show or album can articulate what you’re feeling, often before you can, and really change things for you, return you to the world somewhat altered. Especially in adolescence, when you’re trying to make sense of so many new ideas and feelings and moods and sensual stuff, and then, boom, a song comes on the radio or TV or via a passing car or you see a band and suddenly things are clearer, or at least now have a melody and hook. No less overwhelming or confusing or maddening but now it has form and shape. It happened to me when I was 12, 13, and it’s happening to a 12 year-old and a 13-year old now. So, music teaches what you didn’t know you knew. This goes for protest/socially aware songs and albums, too. The best ones express for you what you were wrestling with but which newspaper articles or school text books or shouting people on TV or late-night conversations among friends aren’t quite managing to do.
You are able to articulate a fan’s experience and feelings about music in a way that nails it and I’ve never been able to put into words. You’re keenly aware. Like how about your siblings’ musical influences you say, “Such influence is a kind of weather through which you walk, daily, until, yeas later, you recognize what stuck to you, what you can’t rub off, what you carry with you eternally.” And: “Music enters us in many ways, through dreams, through spectacle. And through fear.” Are there people whose writing about music you read and think, Wow, I wish I could do that!? Or at least, your favorites?
Of course, too many to name. I hesitate to list them because I’ll leave someone out. I’ll talk about Lester Bangs, an early and ongoing influence, probably the largest influence for me. Talk about sentences! His best work still amazes me, and I’ve been reading him for thirty years. He was able to get into songs and albums and shows in such a way as to make it personal—deeply personal, often—but at the same time urgent for his readers. He wrote with such passion and caring that his emotional attachments to the music were rarely, to my ears, indulgent, or even when they were indulgent it was that indulgence—his over-attachments—that were the point, anyway. Look how much music can move us! he cried. Or disappoint us! He was among the greats.
I’ve also long admired Greil Marcus’s brain, if not his entire music collection. The connections he hears and sees among songs and culture and history are often startling, and fresh. Peter Guralnick’s profiles and biographies were illuminating for me in terms of how to bring musicians and how they live, what they do on the day-to-day level, alive on the page. Nick Tosches’s early fiery stuff, especially about mid-century rock and roll, was essential, the nerviness and confidence in his voice. John Kordosh, at CREEM, who just died. Patti Smith writes about music wonderfully, evocatively, but with an ear to the body, always. I was blown away recently by the late Jim Dickinson’s memoir I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone and the ways he wrote, in that great Southern vernacular and taste for the dryly absurd, about early rock and roll. That’s a great book.
But for me Bangs is the icon. My way into a song is usually autobiographically, and Bangs shows how you can weave your life, a song, its context and history, and the writing can be meaningful beyond personal experience, beyond “this matters because it matters to me.” He fails, sometimes, and that’s good, too. And he was funny as hell.
You do some on the ground reporting for your stories about Greg Cartwright and Larry Brown’s massive Hank Williams screenplay. What’s your history with journalism? And as a writer who does deep research to write your essays, do you enjoy reporting?
I have no background in journalism. The essay tells me what I need to do, and where to go. That said, it’s fun to choose a subject that will get me on the road and in a new town. I wanted to read Larry Brown’s screenplay about Hank Williams for years, so I figured, Why not do it and write about it? So heading down to Oxford, Mississippi and seeing Brown’s old haunts and interviewing and hanging out with his son Shane and visiting Brown’s old, virtually untouched writing room was absolutely wonderful, and important for the essay. Talking to Greg Cartwright on the phone for a long time and then diving into his career, and thinking about record-collecting. Great stuff. As you know, when you’re writing, the essay either crankily stalls or withers or grows bigger and bigger, and sometimes research adds dimension. I have a new essay coming out about the Rolling Stones’ Exhibitionism, and going to see it in Chicago and writing about the experience wasn’t enough—I needed to research the band’s early career, Chess Studios, music films and documentaries, some museum theory, etc. All part of the fun. I’m hoping in my Normal School pieces to move between personal essays and more research driven, on the ground stuff. We’ll see. The writing will tell me what I need to do or where I should go.
You drove 650 miles to read Larry Brown’s screenplay, but you regularly go to Chicago to see shows. What were some recent favorites?
The Detroit Cobras really delivered at Brauer House, in suburban Lombard, and the recent New Bomb Turks and Bad Sports shows at Empty Bottle in Chicago were terrific rock and roll, loud, urgent, hooky, desperate. Lydia Loveless played here in DeKalb at The House a couple years back and she was sublime. In August, a friend of mine scored tickets to Green Day at Wrigley Field. They’re a great rock and roll band, but I’d had no interest in going to see them after they got massively popular in the 2000s. But I couldn’t pass up the chance. They were fabulous. They worked really hard to make the 40,000 or so there feel that Wrigley was a small theater. I was way the hell up in the right field deck but close to the stage, and was surprised at how good of a time I had. That show happened a week or so after I saw the Cobras at a small joint in front of dozens of people. An equally good rock and roll show for vastly different reasons.
As you mention in the book, you skipped an early Dead Kennedys show. Are there other shows you still regret missing?
Plenty. I’m a bit of a fameist, and I tend to be less interested in a band once they’ve graduated to arenas. That said, I wish I’d gone to see Tom Petty. Back in the day, my big regret was the Replacements. For many, many reasons I resisted them at the time, and now I desperately wish I’d gone to see one of their reckless, beautiful, trashy shows in the 1980s. I also regret not seeing punk shows when I lived in the Washington D.C. area in the ‘80s. I saw Government Issue a couple of times, and they were ferociously good. But I was a Mod, and so I gravitated toward bands that came out of blues-based R&R and R&B; locally, that meant the Slickee Boys and Switchblade and Young Caucasians, and like bands coming down to D.C. from New York and Boston. I preferred grins to nihilism, I guess, but it was part posing—as a lot is when you’re in your late teens and early 20s—and I realize now that I was just scared or intimidated to go see hardcore shows. A shame.
By page 57 of the book you had over 23,000 songs on your iPod, which would take 50, 24-hour days of listening to hear in their entirety. Right now, what songs are you listening to repeatedly?
I’ve been listening to the Replacements’ great live album recorded at Maxwell’s in ’86—making up for lost time! And Petty. And Bodeco, a great, 1990s swampy/Bo Diddley-esque groove band out of Kentucky that helps me press re-set, the new Flamin’ Groovies and Regrettes albums and the late, lamented Devil Dogs. The Easybeats. I listen to a lot of vinyl, too: lately a lot of blues, Magic Sam and Muddy, Bo Diddley, early Godfathers and Jam singles, the Ramones and the Beatles and the Beat, Arthur Alexander, Grand Funk and the Byrds, and on and on….
In your book you talk about everyone from Elvis Costello to Elvis Presley, Sam and Dave to The Clash. Are there certain bands that you feel are painfully overlooked? Or others you hope to write about one day?
I think it might be interesting to write about music that I dislike, to see where that takes me, without being arch or ironic or snarky. Roger Ebert was a master at writing intelligently and maturely about stuff he didn’t care for. I also have thought that it’d be cool to choose a random week on Billboard’s Top 40 from a few decades back and see what story, if any, the top charting singles might tell about the era and/or about my memories of the era. Sometimes a one-off Top 40 hit, a summit never approached by the artist again, can tattoo you in a way you can’t rub off. Hello, “Hot Child in the City”!
Your story about Troy Hess’s obscure and fascinating niche country song “Please Don’t Go Topless Mother” is not only about the carnage of the music industry, it celebrates the novelty songs that fall into the cracks in all musical genres, the songs crate hunters unearth but the rest of the world never hear much about. It’s a fantastic essay. Are there other obscure songs that you hope to write about one day, or have tried to unsuccessfully?
Thanks for the kind words. That essay was a blast to write.
When I was a kid my family somehow came into possession of “Dance the Slurp,” a 45 produced by the 7-Eleven Corporation. 7-Eleven was cashing in on the dance craze trend, I guess. The song is a riot, studio session musicians gamely playing a tune about a Slurpee, complete with someone providing “slurp” sounds as percussion. The 60s twist vibe and big, blaring horns and Farfisa organ are fantastic, completely irresistible to me growing up. I still love the song, and I think it’d be fun to write about it, track down the writers and performers, talk about it in context of novelty songs of the era. I cherish the 45 in my collection, and like so much else it’s been on YouTube for years. It was famously sampled by DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist in the late 1990s.
What other albums that still need the 33 1/3 book treatment?
I’ve always felt that one of Elton John’s albums from his peak era would be interesting to read about—the Seventies excess and the move to album rock and FM radio, Bernie Taupin’s sometimes ridiculous, of-the-era lyrics. I think that the Jam deserve a book, maybe All Mod Cons or Sound Affects, and also the Wattstax soundtrack album. And more blues and R&B in the series, please, maybe Howlin’ Wolf’s rocking chair album or Bo Diddley’s debut?
You went to piano lessons as a kid. At any point in your life, did you consider becoming a musician?
I also took drum lessons at Saint Andrew the Apostle. But I hated the nerves that came with playing with the school band. I was already shading toward mild introversion and I didn’t like being on a stage, hated it, really.
My claim to fame as a musician occurred entirely in my own head. When we were kids in the mid-1970s, my younger brother Paul and I created an imaginary Beatles-era band called J.P. and the Writers, two Americans, my bro and I, and two Englishmen, “Bruce Richards” on bass and “Hal Stevens” on drums. Paul and I wrote songs—dozens of them—and recorded them down in our basement on cheap plastic guitars and a Sears drum kit, playing into a desktop tape recorder. I’d get poster board from Dart Drug and make album covers, front and back, and sometime lyric booklets. I wrote fake Rolling Stone Record Guide entries on us. We even made a live album recorded at Madison Square Garden using static from a walkie talkie to simulate the crowd. We were “together” from 1964 to 1970, and then had solo careers for a few years before reforming in 1975 through ’78. I have a lunch box full of the tapes and all of the album covers downstairs. Twenty years ago I started converting the tapes digitally but got sidetracked. The whole thing is hilarious, looking back, and pretty ambitious for a couple of pre-teens. Some of the songs aren’t bad, especially as we “matured” in the 1970s. I’ve got to write about it all someday. Paul is a musician and DJ in Berlin under the name Snax, and he lists J.P. and the Writers on his discography.
In the excellent book How to Write About Music, you said you “prefer to think of ‘music writing’ as writing, period.” To other music fans who want to write about music, what can you say about the form?
In terms of writing essays about music, I’d urge writers not to lead the writing toward some point or argument they want to make in advance, but to let the writing lead them, and always be open to surprise, especially where self-interrogation might lead to some vulnerability or confession. Translating a song—the experience of hearing, being moved by it, not its lyrics or god-forbid its “theme”—is almost always a surprising activity, if you’re writing honesty and intimately.
As a professor, do you incorporate music or music writing into your teaching? How do students respond?
I don’t, really. I occasionally teach Lester Bangs’s Village Voice piece on New Year’s Eve, along with Charles Lamb’s New Year’s essay, but generally I don’t have much room for music writing in my classes and workshops.
Any old rock n roll photos from your teens or twenties that you want to share here? Like, young Bonomo with wild glam bangs or dressed like Duff McKagan?
Nothing that good. This probably says it all. 2:35. Bliss in suburbia. I’m the right, with my brother, Paul. You could say this was a formative moment.