Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Remembrance of Seasons Passed

It took me a while to get around to the liner notes to the Baseball Project Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails. Liner notes, who needs them? But whaddayaknow, the very first sentence about the very first song, pointedly entitled "Past Time," called my big worry by its rightful name: "Nostalgia can be deadly, and often delusional."

The leadoff of that song, "When Campy Campaneris played all nine positions in a game," hooks me every time, in part because the "when" is swallowed, turning what might be a sad look back at the thrilling days of yesteryear into a history lesson. When the chorus surveys the border between the skeptical and the fuzzy-wuzzy--"So long ago/So long. Pastime/Are you past your prime?"--it becomes manifest that Scott McCaughey and Steve Wynn mean to join the sizable cohort of our secular intelligentsia for whom baseball is American mythos at its richest.

Though McCaughey and Wynn may be nostalgic, they're not delusional, much less anything like deadly. This is a relief, because both have worked musical bohemia long enough to be in the nostalgia business themselves. After wearing out his Lou Reed impression in the Dream Syndicate, Wynn proved a tireless alt-rock journeyman, and since 1990 has turned out album after respectable album in a drone-prone guitar-rock mode that became ever more dispensable as ever more guitar-rock was recorded. McCaughey's Young Fresh Fellows, who were never as funny as funny fellows hope they are, morphed in the late '90s into a permanent floating pickup band called the Minus Five whose in-jokes and one-offs were an object lesson in the stylistic stultification of pop-leaning alt-rock obsessives. Both cater to the same post- post-collegiate professionals and hangers-on who think Mission of Burma reunions are a great way to get rid of your disposable income, long may it wave. Not that there's nothing of interest in these guys' catalogue--Wynn's "Heroin"-like "Amphetamine" and McCaughey's Wilco-enacting "The Days of Wine and Booze" are more forward-looking, musically, than any Baseball Project tune. But as the two old-timers are certainly aware, that's the point. Musically, the Baseball Project is an excuse to set good tunes to a rousing four-four.

This task is never as easy as scoffers believe, but like jazz drummers who have too much *music* in them to just sit there just laying down a backbeat, alt-rockers who've struggled to develop their technical and conceptual chops often feel cheapened by it. What takes the taint off this collection--12 of 13 tracks flat-out hummable by my count, excepting only the Mark McGwire apologia "Broken Man"--is that they won't hook anyone who doesn't know who Campy Campaneris was. (Twenty-year leadoff man, loads of steals, lousy OBP.) Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails--announcerese, I should mention, for line drives and bloop singles--may be too esoteric for most of the alt-rock audience. But it's esoteric in a democratic way--accessible in theory, especially given the forward motion of its guitar-rock, to millions of baseball fans who don't know the Smithereens (faves of guitar-slinging righthander Jack McDowell, here dubbed "The Yankee Flipper") from Yo La Tengo (alt-rock demigods slipped into "Past Times" because they named their band for how Latino ballplayers say "I got it"). McCaughey was born in 1954, Wynn in 1960, and a few of these songs honor their lost youths--Curt Flood battling the reserve clause, Sandy Koufax retiring at the top of his game, Fernando Valenzuela contemplating racism and hero worship in Spanish, and best of all a misty one about memory, family, and physical decay called "Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays." But though one about Papi and Manny, or maybe Mariano Rivera quietly praising Jesus and getting past his beloved nephew's death, might have been nice, themes range from hard-drinking turn-of-the-(20th)-century slugger Big Ed Delahanty, swept over Niagara Falls at 36, to "The Closer," a tribute to the relievers Wynn-the-annotator calls "the ultimate outlaws in a gentleman's game." "All my heroes had colorful names and a bad attitude," he sings, "short-lived fame and an even shorter fuse."

Sound familiar? Just hope they don't die before they get old. By following their noses as fans and sports historians, McCaughey and Wynn adduce many rock and roll dilemmas on their baseball album. Both pastimes were designed for young men, after all. So there up against Sandy Koufax with his Beckettian "I must go on, I can't go on" is the even greater pitcher Satchel Paige, an MLB rookie at 42, advising young guns, "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you." Like so many musicians, Big Ed Delahanty and Mark McGwire drink and do drugs, to escape the road and enhance performance respectively. The mad perfectionist who snarls "Ted Fucking Williams" broods about the adoration of Mickey Mantle like Kanye West fuming over lost Grammys. And while resisting golden-ageism with some steel, the Baseball Project does leave open the possibility that the game is past its prime--just like rock, which these fiftyish pros who coulda shoulda been stars take retro for the occasion.

The chance to go retro with a free pass from the corn police was probably one of the things that attracted these bohemian lifers to an album of baseball songs. Nostalgia is deadly, any good postpunk knows that, but with baseball, somehow, you're allowed to let down your guard. Though hipsterdom's burgeoning anti-jockism has cut into the tendency, America's game is a permissible way for postpunk guys to get cozy with America's past, not to mention their own. Blessed with a visceral aversion to nostalgia, I've found I'm not immune myself--visions of bubblegum cards danced in my head when the Baseball Project and a work of art to be named later moved me to finally pick up Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer, the most renowned baseball book of all time. I'd put it off for two reasons--the title seemed fatally soft, and it was about the 1952-53 Brooklyn Dodgers I'd rooted against as my beloved Yankees overcame them in the World Series. Right, I'm a leftist who's a Yankee fan--wanna make something of it? What's important is that just because I was a kid from Queens I knew these guys well--daring Jackie Robinson and his shooting star inheritor Joe Black, handsome Duke Snider and swarthy Carl Furillo and horse-faced little Billy Cox. With the competitive passions of boyhood a memory, I found myself entranced by their backstories and touched by their varied fates. I found myself not nostalgic, cross my heart and hope to die--just contemplative and, damn it, interested.

"Snider loses his ranch, Furillo gets screwed and goes bitter, Newcombe gets drunk, Campanella gets paralyzed . . . " Too cynically, that's how protagonist Hog Durham sums up Kahn's masterwork to his paramour Pansy Puckett in the work of art I'll name now, Donald Hays's unknown 1984 baseball novel The Dixie Association. There are many baseball novels, and as a young idealist I used to hope one of them might literally prove The Great American Novel--the title of Philip Roth's tall tale of a third major league, a scabrously funny piece of Terry Southern-strength satire that incorporates some lore but is basically phantasmagoric. That's how it plays at being a great novel, baseball step aside. Also victim to literary dreams are Robert Coover's even more phantasmagoric Universal World Baseball Association, Inc. and Bernard Malamud's patently allegorical The Natural.

The Dixie Association, which I learned about from a lookback in The Oxford American, is no less a fantasy except at one crucial level--its surface. On the surface it's a realistic narrative, the story of an unlikely team's pennant-winning season in an imaginary minor league. More than any of the lions just named, Hays knows baseball; he knows it almost as well as Kahn. His description of a perfect game by spitballing Little Rock Red Jeremiah "Chief" Eversole over the all-white Selma Americans on Police Night at Patriot Park is both gripping pitch by pitch and a love song to popular aesthetics, as even the Selma fans applaud Eversole's "endurance, control, determination, and intelligence"--and even Eversole, an angry loner who hates everything Selma stands for, tips his cap in return.

Fortunately, Hays's realism doesn't run too deep, because in the end what I admire most about The Dixie Association is the blatancy of its wish fulfillment. The Little Rock Reds are the dream team of baseball's secular intelligentsia from their one-armed Marxist manager-proprietor to his farmers' co-op handing out produce in the parking lot to his profit-sharing roster, which includes outlaws and Indians, young blacks named Atticus Flood and Genghis Mohammed and Cubans of varying ideologies, a knuckleballing right-wing drunk and an outfielder named Bernstein and woman brought in for defensive purposes in the late innings. Narrator Durham is a bank robber turned literary adept with a home run swing and a prose style steeped in Deep South palaver and Raymond Chandler: "three spitters that came down like the law on a poor man," "His clothes were cheap and loud, the kind a color-blind half-wit might wear." Much sport is made of the local Christianists, among them a politician named Schicklgruber who's undone by an orgy-club scandal. There are a parole officer named Mantis and Selma players named Bilbo and Stennis. There are uncomplimentary depictions of an academic cocktail party and a French restaurant. A Jewish laywer saves the day. And in the end the good guys win and the ex-con not only gets the girl but has the sense to keep her.

You could accuse Hays of sentimentality because the good guys win, but though The Dixie Association does ponder the passing of agricultural values, there's little nostalgia in it. Big-hearted and full of fun, it's too busy making up a present it never pretends will last. Little Rock isn't about to tolerate a Communist team two years running, so the young prospects will move on up and the old misfits will trudge to the next square hole. Literary lions like Roth and his lesser earn their pride by sacrificing baseball content to their vision of the dark undertow of American life--not just acknowledging that undertow but immersing in it and marking it with purple. For them, mythos must be exposed as phantasmagoria. Hays just writes one of those stories where survivors survey their options and pick one, with the understanding that power remains in the pockets of the powerful and sometimes options don't work out. Hog Durham downplays Jackie Robinson's courage and Joe Black's rehab and Carl Erskine's deep love for his Down's syndrome son because diminished expectations are part of his survival strategy.

Roger Kahn's nostalgia counterposes glory days against options that don't always work out. The Baseball Project's is more organic--old stories so great you feel like the present can never match up. "Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays" begins with a "best day ever" with McCaughey's dad at Candlestick Park, moves on to Mays booting a ball against Oakland in the 1973 World Series, and can only end with Mays's legendary catch against Vic Wertz the year McCaughey was born--remembered in fuzzy black-and-white, which is how I saw it on Peter Drezner's television set. In all three the fog lifts and the sun comes out and McCaughey gets to recapture his memory for just the length of a verse. This seems to me a forgivable self-indulgence. You're allowed to cherish fond memories of your father if you have them, which most of us do, and to honor your heroes even as you regret their inevitable failures. Turns out the darkest undertow of American life was one literary lions barely imagined: a delusory avarice to which baseball succumbed big-time, rock and roll too--though not like the captains of finance hiding billions in their pockets. But when Mariano Rivera comes in in the ninth this April, I'll be praying on every pitch.

Barnes & Noble Review, Mar. 16, 2009