Mar 292011

Paperback edition of Josh Wilker's Cardboard Gods

One day last year I was paging through an issue of Entertainment Weekly when I arrived at a spread they run every few issues, containing about 4 pages of gift ideas. It’s the sort of seemingly paid marketing/alluring editorial hybrid feature that typically bugs me, but EW does it so well. It’s rare that I don’t read that section without briefly considering purchasing some fancy electronics item that feeds into my deep sense of nostalgia. The people who put together that section have a remarkable knack for knowing what feeds the emptiness of a middle-aged, middle-class man’s consumer life. How I miss the days of being so excited over the release of a new Elvis Costello record that I was once willing to follow my friend’s idea of breaking into his friend’s parents’ extremely permissive house to listen to our new purchase over a bone, I think to myself. Next thing I know I’m seeing if I can justify dropping $299 on an mp3 player/clock radio that’s in the form of a Close ‘N Play phonograph.

One day a book recommendation caught my eye, an actual, affordable hardcover book. Maybe it was part of one of these marketing-driven spreads or maybe it was part of the book reviews section—after you’ve read EW for a while it’s easy to lose all distinctions between marketing and editorial. Whatever. The book was called Cardboard Gods, by someone named Josh Wilker. The review read, in part:

A baseball-loving loner deciphers his complicated childhood through his old box of trading cards. . . . Wilker’s book is as nostalgically intoxicating as the gum that sweetened his card-collecting youth. [Grade:] A —Entertainment Weekly

There was no need for excruciating self-analysis and consideration of this item’s ability to fill The Void. I put a big lower corner dog ear on that page of the magazine (ie, my “important point to revisit” dog ear rather than the smaller placeholder one at the upper corner of where I left off reading) preparation for my next trip to the “library.” I re-read the review a few more times, each time getting more excited at the prospect of revisiting my own life as a baseball card collector, solitary baseball board-game player (and more importantly, manager and league commissioner), and generally desperate kid who was in need of the power provided by the sport’s over-arching history and frequent periods of anticipation (ie, what non-baseball lovers call “all the boring parts”). A couple of days later, without hesitation, I picked up a copy of Cardboard Gods and proceeded to tear through it, cover to cover, in the course of a weekend.

The book was everything I could have imagined, with color reproductions of a mid-’70s–era baseball card kicking off each chapter’s meditation on what that player’s card meant in the lovingly dysfunctional childhood world of its author. It was so much fun to tap into another kid’s relationship and chew on life’s inner meanings while contemplating baseball cards of the likes of Rudy Meoli, Mike Kekich, and Mike Cosgrove (no, not that one). This wasn’t some thumbsucking attempt by Wilker to explain away his life according to an in-vogue branch of pop psychology or the agenda of a “special interests” group, as is too-often the case these days. This book was nice and messy—and truly personal, the way we were more comfortable being in the Do Your Own Thing 1970s. In the words of fully satisfied moviegoers of my youth, I laughed and I cried.

Soon after reading the book I found Wilker’s Cardboard Gods blog and became a regular visitor there. I wrote him a gushing e-mail and over the course of a few e-mail exchanges learned that he was also a music obsessive. Baseball: check. Music: check. Good egg? Highly likely! A few weeks ago I read that Cardboard Gods was being released in paperback. I wrote Wilker and asked if he’d consent to a Rock Town Hall interview that would attempt to further bridge the relationship between baseball and music and their roles in the predominantly male means of sharing personal information. Good egg that he is, Wilker was all for this chat. If you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend checking out Carboard Gods, both in book and blog form. Batter up!

RTH: The Cardboard Gods blog preceded your book, right? (I was late to the party, learning of your book before being directed to the blog.) Was there a turning point in writing the blog that you realized you actually could organize a full-blown memoir through the prism of your card collection?

Josh Wilker: For most of my adult life I have been on the lookout for things that might develop into a book, a habit that has almost always crushed the life out of whatever it is that might have otherwise developed organically if I just gave it some space to grow. And I started the blog as an anti-book in a way, since I’d just finished several years working on a novel that I wasn’t able to sell and I was a little discouraged and just trying to have some fun. That said, I think I had the feeling almost immediately, like a tug on the end of a line, that there was something going on with the baseball cards, but I consciously tried to put thoughts of a book aside for a while and just have fun and go wherever the cards wanted to go.

RTH: Baseball in the mid- to late-’70s, like the world of your childhood, experienced a latent period of counterculture-rooted self-awareness. As a boy were there certain players who best represented your family’s new world? Were there other players you felt represented the “square” world your family was leaving?

Mar 082011

There’s been a lot of talk about oversaturation in the rock bio market so let’s just cut right to the chase here. Once and for all…what is the Greatest Rock Biography? It can be based on any criteria you wish (insight into the artist’s psyche or creative process, the arc of the rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-redemption story, snorting a line of ants or the “Mud Shark Incident”) but no matter what your basis is, please show your work.

Mar 072011

Blah blah blah...

For god knows what reason a recent issue of Rolling Stone has a cobbled together piece on The Clash. I love The Clash and for years read everything I could on them, but there came a point when I could no longer stomach another hashed-over exercise in myth-making. Tell me something I don’t know already, maybe even some details on how particular records were made. Instead, as this Rolling Stone article does, it’s more of the same-old, same-old: band members from broken homes, The 101’ers, Keith Levene and the London SS, the dawn of Thatcherism, idealism of The Clash contrasted with the nihilism of the Sex Pistols, Bernie Rhodes, the sprawling blah blah blah of London Calling, etc. Enough! The same goes for another one of my favorite bands, The Beatles.

I’m finishing a biography of Elvis Presley, written by one of his Memphis Mafia cronies. I think this is the first Memphis Mafia memoir I’ve read. His close personal friends shed new light on the man. Last night I read about the time he smoked pot. For me, at least, there may be plenty more to learn about the King. I feel the same way about Bob Dylan. Until I see a police report and photos from his motorcycle accident, I hold out hope for learning new details about this great artist.

For what favorite artist would you like to see a moratorium placed on new biographies? Is there anything new you may learn about one of these artists? Perhaps a fellow Townsperson can revive your interest in reading a new biography on said artist. For instance, if anyone can tell me a single new thing about The Clash that I don’t know already, I’ll promise to finish reading this boring Rolling Stone article.

Mar 012011

Mach schau practioner Roy Head appears, briefly, in a book I’m currently reading, Elvis: My Best Man, by George Klein with an old college friend and musical mentor, Chuck Crisafulli. I thought of Townman hrrundivbakshi when I read the following passage. Rather than share it with him alone or post it on my damn Facebook page, beneath the all-important photos from the life of a 47-year-old, white, middle-class man, I invite all of you to admire the following tale of Mach schau! Continue reading »


Keef’s Life

 Posted by
Nov 102010

That's life!

Last week, as I set Keith Richards‘ memoir, Life, cowritten by novelist and friend James Fox, on my nightstand each night after an hour’s worth of reading I couldn’t help but reflect on the back-cover photograph of a gleefully shambolic Keef, in a pose very similar to the one atop this post. “It must be nice to see yourself in this way,” I thought, “and think, Yeah, that’s the shot for the back cover of my memoir!

This is probably why I can’t stand having my picture taken. I’m nowhere near as comfortable in my skin as Keef is in his. His comfort with himself also comes out in the writing of this book, which is laid back, down to earth, sometimes rambling, a bit self-satisfied, and surprisingly sweet. Who would have thought Keef was so into cuddling? There’s a brief bit in which he discusses all the women of Mick Jagger who inevitably end up crying on his shoulder. He tops it off with something to the effect of, “No one thinks of me as ‘Uncle Keith,’ but that’s a side of me.” Continue reading »

Nov 072010

I just finished reading Lavinia Greenlaw‘s The Importance of Music to Girls, a memoir of her years between the early ’60s to the early ’80s. She does a very nice job of describing the development of her musical and style interests, and the parallel understanding of her self. In a chapter entitled, “Separation and Contrast,” which starts with a quote by Goethe from A Theory of Colors, she describes this sea change of a clip by The Jam from 1977’s Marc show:

While Bolan lounged on a fluffy pink throne, the Jam posed rigidly – black suits, white shirts, black ties, black-and-white shoes – in front of a plain black background. Clean-shaven, short-haired, and with emphatic estuary accents, the Jam played “All Around the World,” and here was a speeded-up, pared-down sound that I knew could take me farther and faster than any boy in his car. Bolan cooed and drawled but the Jam shouted: “All around the world I’ve been looking for new…” I was looking for new and it lay in such collisions and detonations and two-minute songs, and in a new kind of color.

I was shocked when I watched this clip. What a perfect embodiment of a shift in English music! And one that clearly influenced Ms. Greenlaw’s sense of the world and herself. She describes shifting from an early adolescent world of discos and bright colors to a greater understanding of some of the contrasts in England at that time.

Did you have an experience or experiences like this? Were there music, films, or videos that made you realize that the world was fundamentally different than you thought and therefore your sense of self was as well?

I look forward to learning more about you.

Oct 042010

One could make a strong case that Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange has had a significant impact on the literature scene (vocabulary, style, etc.). And I think many of us would agree that Stanley Kubrik‘s movie also has lasting cultural significance. But what about that novel’s impact on music? As recently mentioned in a recent RTH post, Heaven 17 is the name of a band referenced in the novel and in the movie. Other bands have also acquired their “eemyas” from characters or vocabulary in the book (see “Devotchka,” “Moloko”). The Echo and the Bunnymen label out of Liverpool was named Korova, in reference to the club, Milkbar. And The Libertines have a song called, “Horrorshow.” Blur also referenced the look of the movie in their video, “The Universal.”

Can you think of other A Clockwork Orange references in music? Are there other novels that have had an effect on Rock (eg, J. G. Ballard’s “Crash.”)?

*chepooka = nonsense in the Nadsat argot.


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