Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dogs and Boxing Gloves

I was going to write about buying boxing gloves, which is quite a trip here, but realized the real reason behind writing about that is a dog.

The one steady place for me to buy gloves in New York is G & S Sporting Goods, way down on Essex Street, south of Delancey, real Lower East Side stuff. It’s still a fairly grubby area, with the Seward Park projects a few blocks south. Walking around there is very much an “old New York” vibe, but don’t let the graffiti and grime fool you. I couldn’t afford a Port-A-Johnny in that neighborhood; most people couldn’t. Manhattan has gone so haywire that even the rare grubby neighborhoods like this are outrageously over-priced. The only people living there on the cheap are in the projects or "20 immigrants in a two bedroom apartment" set-ups, which is true of all white Manhattan now. (And a waste of time trying to explain to anyone under the age of 40 that working-class white people used to live all over Manhattan, once upon a time.)

But G & S is down there, so once or twice a year, I get on the F Train to Delancey and walk down a few blocks. It’s a great old store, only a store-front and storage area in the back, featuring mostly boxing equipment: gloves, head gear, shorts, shoes, bags. And a large selection of baseball hats behind the counter, which I’m guessing are big sellers with the neighborhood kids. And a smattering of other sporting goods that apply to city life: basketballs, baseball gloves and bats, small things like that. Stores like this don’t exist most places in NYC – they don’t exist much anywhere, the kind of small, quiet, neighborhood place where you walk in and deal directly with the owner, who is always there and never a prick.

It’s not that I seek out places like this – it’s just that it’s hard to find good boxing gloves in Manhattan. You can buy shitty Everlast gloves at any Modell’s. Their top of the line bag glove goes for about $45 and just sucks: bad padding, lousy fit, doesn’t last more than a few months. There used to be a good martial arts store by the Midtown South police station in the high 30s where I could get good gloves, but they closed down 2-3 years back. And there’s another martial arts store in the West 40s, but I got bad gloves and service from those folks and won’t be going back. I haven’t tried Paragon, the big indie sporting goods store just north of Union Square on Broadway, but I only like buying jock straps there for some reason, just don’t like the place.

So, it’s down to G & S. I’ve bought some bad gloves with them. Just went through a pair where the left hand, something about the way my hand sat in the glove, my left index knuckle had been fucking killing me for months, literally arthritic type pain. I thought it was an aging issue with me, and my hands in general felt stiff the past few months. Little did I know it was the gloves. I bought a 16 oz. pair of their best gloves, at $65.00, this past visit. Been using them for two weeks now: pure heaven. My hands feel great, knuckle is totally healed, and no more will I buy anything less than their best pair of gloves. It should be a once every 9-12 months visit – I box three times a week, not every day, but I do hit hard, so these things wear out over time.

But what gets me most visits down there is the dog. He wasn’t there last time, which has me worried. But his picture was. It’s this old, mangy mutt who wanders around the store, an ancient dog: fat, white and old around the eyes. Tail always wagging. Kind eyes. Just a great dog for petting and saying hello to. His picture has him in a Mets sweater with matching black Mets cap with blue brim. It would figure a dog like that has a Mets fan for an owner. Usually that’s a woman who’s there, not sure if she’s a relative (wife, sister, or what) to the owner, or just some woman who lives in the neighborhood and likes bringing her dog around there to visit.

All I know is I usually walk in there, and a few seconds later, I’ll hear a scratching on the floor behind me, and there will be that old mutt, wagging his tail shyly and raising his head to be petted. The woman always gives the same warning: “If you pet him, awls he’s gonna’ do is bawk at ya.” Which is true, once you stop petting the dog, he starts in with these nervous little yaps. But she shushes him, and he eventually goes back to his place by her on a chair in the corner.

I always note my interactions with dogs in New York because I miss having one, having always had a family dog back in PA, before the era of cats descended upon our family. Funny thing happened to me though in my early 30s. I started noticing that every time I went home, I would get sick. Not full-on sick – “beginnings of a cold” sick. And I’d sometimes notice the same visiting my friend C in West Chester, PA, with three dogs in the house. I’d later realize I had somehow developed allergies to animal hair – much worse with cats, but still with dogs, too. When I go back to PA now, unless it’s warm weather with open windows, I find myself on sinus medicine after the second day of my visit. I don’t like this – anything that messes with my health I’m against.

But what to do. I’d say at this point in my life I’d rather go petless and healthy than get a dog or cat, and deal with constant sinus issues and the medications that go with them. Besides which, the landlord is staunchly anti-pet. Which is OK by me. Cats are surely out, and I can’t figure having a dog in a studio apartment with me at work all day – just doesn’t seem fair or right for the dog.

So when I get a chance to pet a dog, I’m on it. On the street when I’m sweeping. In a dog-friendly bar. Man, there’s nothing like having a good dog around when you’re getting drunk. They somehow “get it” that you’re getting inebriated and tag along for the short, joyous journey. I have good memories of taking my own dogs for walks after dark back home, the night air in the cemetery, the dog over-joyed to be out and about, the feeling of no one else around and the quiet. This was especially good in winter when everyone gets cabin fever and needs to get out. You can’t walk cats, just not the same thing.

But seeing that tired old hound in G & S Sporting Goods always reminds me of my second dog, Butch. The first, Smokey, was a big black Collie mix, and I learned dogs are on some higher plain as I’d abuse the shit out of that dog as a toddler (tail yanking being the worst), and he only nipped me once or twice, sensing I was a small child and treating me as such.

But Butch was special. Look at him. Nothing special. It was how he came to be. My mom grocery-shopped at the Acme, at the bottom of town in Ashland. The store is still there, save it’s changed hands and is now Boyers, a slightly rundown local chain market. (New Yorkers, think C Town.) The memory is stuck somewhere in the back of my mind, but it’s there in some gray cloud I can’t pull it from, the night we found Butch. It felt like winter, must have been 1970 or 1971. Don’t think it was snowing, just cold.

This doesn’t happen as much back there, but back then, people used to abandon animals in the parking lots of places like this. Of course, it takes a real scumbag to do something like this, but I can assure you, this type of thing happens all the time all over the world. People simply dump off their domesticated pets somewhere where they can’t find their way back home and leave them to fend for themselves. Just the worst kind of shitbag people you find in the world.

Well, one winter night, Mom was at the Acme, and saw this tired old dog in a cardboard box by the ice bins. Shaking, cold, afraid … clearly abandoned. An older dog, too, which made no sense. But Mom could tell you tons of things about this topic. She’s helped out a local no-kill animal pound that is constantly over-flowing with abandoned pets, just never enough room to keep them around. The place is never less than capacity – been that way for decades. So when we were growing up as kids, Mom would always be taking in strays, which would invariably show up in the neighborhood, and she’d feed them with food we had for the family dog, invite them into our home for a few days, and usually give them to this local pound she favored over the SPCA which quietly euthanized dogs and cats it no longer had room for. (This is a terrible thing, but happens all the time … just a hard reality of strays and the assholes who abandon and don’t properly spay pets.)

She saw Butch, left for dead on a winter’s night in a supermarket parking lot, and she brought him home. Immediately, we could sense the dog was loving and a wonderful pet. He looked like shit: beat-up, tired and lost. But we took him in. And he turned out to be that one dog I’ll always remember above all others, maybe because of the timing (Smokey was around before I was born, so Butch was my real childhood dog). But he was just the kindest dog. The one after him, Duffy, was a sparkplug, a bit of a wild dog in comparison, but that was also because he came around in our teen years, and we treated him like a nut, so he responded accordingly. Not a bad dog … just not as good as Butch. (Duffy was so excitable that if I would say “Wanna” … that fucking dog knew I was going to say “wanna go for a walk” and he’d get nuts. The ecstasy that dog would go into when I finally got around to pulling out the walking leash …

I briefly described his passing in a previous post about Grandma – just a terrible early morning that is burned in my mind. But it’s worthwhile for me to remember the whole story, Mom pulling this doomed, poor bastard from certain death and giving him a safe, loving home for the rest of his days, which was only about three or four more years from that night. May seem like goofy, sentimental nonsense to some people, but think about it, not everyone does this. I know when I see strays walking the streets around here, I let them be … because I just don’t have the time to coax them back to the apartment, feed them, and put them up for X number of days or weeks before I can move them on (to what would probably be certain death at a city pound). I did this once with a three-legged cat in a very cold Bronx winter (recounted here), but that was a one-time only thing I just couldn’t avoid. A three-legged cat abandoned in the Bronx? Shit. How much harder does it get than that?

So I think about a lot of things when I see dogs on the street, and the mutt down at G & S in particular. Things that are gone, or on their way. And things that still hang around, against the odds, but I’m glad as hell they’re still with us. Especially when it comes time for me to hit things and not ruin my hands.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Alex Chilton

Alex Chilton died this past week, apparently from a heart attack at the age of 59. I strongly doubt most people under the age of 40 know who he was. And I’d have almost as hard a time finding people my age and older.

But a lot of people did know who The Box Tops were and surely recall 60s pop hits like “The Letter,” “Soul Deep” and “Cry Like a Baby.” Chilton sang lead for the band, don’t think he wrote those songs, but I’d wager that’s how most people know him.

When The Box Tops broke up, he moved onto Big Star in the early 70s, a band that went absolutely nowhere in their time. It might be hard to believe that as the band became legendary long after their demise (surely beginning around the time I spent in college in the mid-80s, thanks to The Replacements having the song “Alex Chilton” that scored big on the indie scene at the time).

You’d think everyone knew about Big Star back then. But not quite. I recall discussing this with my newspaper editor in the mid-90s, who had been writing about music in Baltimore when Big Star was around. His recollection, roughly: “They were born over-hyped. Next Beatles and shit. Badfinger was the next Beatles, and they went belly-up. Didn’t leave much hope for these guys.”
I can’t vouch for the hype, but he was right about their fate. Beatlesque pop bands, no matter how good they were, just didn’t break through in the 70s. Kids’ tastes had morphed into hard rock, folk rock, prog or frilly pop aimed at pre-teens. Even a band as great as Roxy Music didn’t cut it in America at the time because no one knew how to classify them. The Raspberries were the most successful of the power-pop bands of the 70s, and they were by no means huge. Their lead singer, Eric Carmen, was much more successful going solo with “All by Myself” … and the reality is, that song is as good as anything The Raspberries did, and better in its pop sense and Carmen’s desire to craft a major hit that would fit in with the times (as opposed to rehashing a 60s pop fantasy, which they were great at).

No fucking way was Alex Chilton going to do that! And that might be why far more people know who Eric Carmen is, and no idea who Chilton was. He surely tried with Big Star, a band I knew nothing about throughout the 70s. I suspect their real fans numbered in the low thousands. I never heard all of Big Star’s first two albums until around 1990, when I bought that single-disc compilation of both, and of course it blew my mind with how good it was. (Their third, Sister Lovers, was comparatively bleak and depressing compared to the first two pop albums, so bleak it sat in the can unreleased for a few years. I guess it was Chilton’s version of “All by Myself” … his version being songs like “Holocaust” … title indicative of a ballad suggesting someone sitting in a bathtub of cold water with a razor ... not the kind of shit that inspired lighters flickering on in the audience.)

I’ll often cite Graham Parker as an example of a recording artist who marred his career because of his attitude towards record labels and executives. Not in any artistic sense, but marred in the sense of taking the shitty way the business operates personally, and letting that hold him back from recognizing it is a business and has to be worked at as such to succeed on a certain level, no matter how talented you are as a musician. Talented artists who make a name for themselves, but have a combative/negative view of the people trying to sell their product … just don’t make it past a certain level.

Which, I gather, suits most of these artists fine so long as they can make a living. But also prevents them from acquiring legendary status or lasting profits (which make a lot more sense as you age). They become cult artists, without fail, critically-acclaimed and putting out consistently good material. But simply artists not a lot of people know about, save for a dedicated fan base.

Such was Alex Chilton’s fate. After Big Star split up, he went through what many consider a dark period of the 70s through the mid-80s. But damned if my favorite solo albums of his, Like Flies on Sherbert and Bach’s Bottom, didn’t come out in that time. He was seriously fucking around with pop music structure at the time. I read a review of Sherbert where the writer chastised Chilton for being unprofessional, but that was the point. He could play better than that – he was purposely skewing the music to sound like it was coming apart at the seams. Imagine a soul band playing a frat party in the 60s in the deep South, late at night, everyone, including the band, drunk off their asses, and the band falling through one song after another, barely able to play. THAT was the sound and vibe he got on those records, and to me, it still sounds fascinating, what he was getting at. Of course, all of this stuff went totally unheralded at the time, and I’m not quite sure how the guy made a living.

And all this happened quietly. If you were a fan at the time, Christ, you deserve a medal, because you were there with very few people. I came in during his mid-80s renaissance, when he hit slightly bigger with the EPs Feudalist Tarts and No Sex, and then the album High Priest. As far as I’m concerned, this was his golden age. Moved to New Orleans, fell in love with the music, added it to his repertoire of pop and soul. I can’t recall which came first, The Replacements song with his name, or these recordings. (A little research: those recordings were 1985-87; the song “Alex Chilton” came out in 1987.) The albums had a lot of covers mixed with the originals, but he played them so well. I got particularly stuck on the song “No Sex,” about AIDS, with the chorus: “Can’t get it on or even get high/Come on, baby, fuck me and die/No sex/Not anymore.” That song nailed the mid-80s in every way possible: a perfect pop moment -- I liken that to the times the way most people do something like "Hip to Be Square" by Huey Lewis and the News. And “Come by Here” -- a cover of an old gospel song that sounded great with his white Memphis soul shading on it.

I’d see him play in New York a few years later, I think 1989 or 1990, at The Knitting Factory when it was that small living-room size space on Houston Street. I note this, because I got there early with brother J, who was visiting from PA to see Chilton play that night. I was pretty unafraid to approach musicians I was going to see at a show – had a fun time earlier that year hanging out with Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper at The Ritz pre-show, while Mojo laughed it up over brother J’s K Mart worker horror stories.

Well, we got to The Knitting Factory way too early, by about two hours, but it was a functioning bar, so we decided to hang out and have a few beers … as it turned out, sitting right next to Alex Chilton while he had a beer and a smoke. An arm’s length away. But there was just something about the guy that said, “Don’t approach me.” Wouldn’t even call it unfriendliness – he just put out the vibe that he didn’t want to be bothered. And I was learning that talking to many of these guys pre-show wasn’t some magical experience; they often had no warmth and wisdom to impart. Not sure why I thought they would, save for being raised in the age of rock gods and the bullshit aura we attached to them. Even when it was removed, and you were sitting next to a cult artist in a bar in New York, it still felt intimidating.

He was known for being cantankerous and moody, but I have to say, he put on a joyous show that night, half of it was oldies he was clearly having a blast playing, and instead of yelling at the soundman who kept screwing up, he worked out instructions to sing to the guy during his cover of “Volare” to help him get the right sound mix – it was pretty funny stuff. If 100 people showed up at The Knitting Factory, the place was packed, so the place was jammed, ecstatic, and I got the vibe Alex Chilton could do no wrong when he played New York.

That time in his musical career means more to me than Big Star, because I was there for it, and it played such a direct role in my life. That matters to me, because I feel like a half-assed hack writing anything about Big Star or his early solo career. The truth of the matter was I missed the boat on that shit, as did just about everybody else, and it feels a bit hollow to me now to go back and reclaim that music, despite the fact that it is well worth reclaiming.

An old college friend left a comment here that the death of Chilton brought her straight back to those college days, people she knew and The Replacements song, and I know that vibe, because that song in particular does sound very much of its time. If you were a kid in college and aware, it perfectly defines a certain vibe that is long gone, for us as adults and as a specific time in music. I can’t say it depresses me or that I long for it. The odd part is The Replacements have become almost as faded as Chilton’s legacy. Fans of the band from the time and Westeberg's solo career would disagree … but that's what I'd call a shrinking fan base, and is there anybody else out there? I strongly doubt it. And like Chilton, Paul Westerberg seems to be fond of the “fuck it” attitude, maybe even perfected the art form in his time, but as noted, you do that, it sort of freezes you in time as a recording artist. The artist and his fans age, and we move along with him, buying the albums, and keeping track, but, honestly, no one else seems to give a shit. We somehow stay stuck in that minor period of fame even while we move forward. And that present reality makes me feel a vague sort of sadness, as opposed to the good memory of “Alex Chilton” the song. In boxing, muscle memory is training your body so much that your muscles just respond accordingly, better and faster, as you endlessly repeat the training. That song feels like muscle memory!

That wasn’t my last minor scrape with minor fame and Chilton. I didn’t buy any of his stuff through the 90s and beyond, but was glad to see Big Star and then The Box Tops reform, play live and pick up some new fans along the way. That was a very cool thing to see happen, but something odd happened to me in the late 90s. I was part of an internet group that was heavily into music via a DJ’s show in New York. One of my posts to that group was about finding a CD that was nothing but 60s pop-rock artists recording jingles for Coca Cola radio commercials – I’m not even sure if I still have the disc. But I remember mentioning The Box Tops as one of the bands being on the disc.

A year or two passes. One day, I get an email from a stranger … who turns out to be a member of The Box Tops who read the post online doing an internet search for those Coke jingles they recorded back then. (My email address was my screen name.) He was overjoyed that these recordings existed, had heard rumors that they did, but never could track down the CD on which they appeared. (What I had was a bootleg, but I think the CD was officially released a few years after that.) If I’m not mistaken, I sent him the disc, or at least a copy of it – can’t recall, but I just went over to my CD drawer and couldn’t find it.

What I remember most about the email exchange was the way he described the band at the time, flush with success, acting like rock stars, in New York to play that night, and they got called into the studio by their manager to do this silly-assed Coke jingle that no one wanted to do, but they rolled along with it, in their frilly pop-star duds, just a bunch of kids making fun out of what could have been a drag on their time off while touring. And I sent this CD to him while the band was rehearsing again as the reformed Box Tops for some reunion shows. So I can guess that he brought this CD to rehearsal one day and blew everyone’s mind. From the way he described Alex Chilton, it sounded like they were all on the same page, having a blast, and simply enjoying the act of playing music together again after decades apart.

And maybe that’s where this should end, pretty much where it began. I tend to feel a big question mark when I ponder Alex Chilton and his life, but I honestly didn’t know the guy, came to a lot of his music after the fact, and the stuff I didn’t rang really true to me at a time in my life when music does that. I’ll probably go on a jag now and bust out all those discs to get re-acclimated now that I’m thinking of him. Used to think that was a half-assed thing to do, but the sooner the guy’s music lives on, the better.