"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Book It, Bucko

Anyone need a last-minute baseball book ideas for the holidays? Looking back on 2005, there are some good ones to choose from. Our pals Will Carroll, Jon Weisman and Steve Lombardi all released books. I also liked Howard Bryant’s “Juicing the Game,” Baseball Prospectus’ “Mind Game,” Steven Goldman’s “Forging Genius,” “The Hardball Times: Baseball Annual, 2006” (which features an article on the ’05 Yanks by yours truly), Stephen Borelli’s “How About That!,” “The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers,” and Matthew McGough’s “Bat Boy.” I didn’t get around to reading Jerry Crasnick’s “Lisense to Deal,” but it looked like an engaging read too. In addition, Alan Schwarz’s “The Numbers Game,” and Buser Olney’s book about the Yankees were both released in paperback.

I never got a chance to write a review of McGough’s charming memoior of being a bat boy for the Yankees in the early nineties, but that wasn’t because I didn’t like it. I thought it was very well-realized, and think it’s an ideal holiday gift for fans of any age. (As an aside, I love the memoir genre. Two other classic coming-of-age books if you haven’t read them are Willie Morris’ “North Toward Home,” and Nat Hentoff’s “Boston Boy.” )

Okay, bouncing a little all over the place here, I found Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” very stimulating, and John Feinstein’s latest page-turner, “Next Man Up,” is a good read about the current NFL. I don’t follow football too tough these days, but Feinstein’s book really gave me an appreciation for how much anxiety and tension there is in the pro game. Oh, and although it didn’t come out this year, I’ve been meaning for some time to mention Bobbito Garcia’s picture book, “Where’d You Get Those?” is a terrific visual and oral history of sneaker-collecting in New York from the 1960s through the mid 80s. It’s perfect for anyone interested in kicks, hoops and hip hop.

Now for those of you who like to cook, may I suggest Marcella Hazen’s “Essentials of Italian Cooking,”–a perfect book for anyone interesting in Italian food. Also, the latest book from America’s Test Kitchen ranks up there with “The Joy of Cooking” for the must-have food bible.

Here is Marcella (from one of her earlier books) talking about the simplicity and directness of Italian cuisine:

Music and cooking are so much alike. There are people who, simply by working hard at it, become technically quite accomplished at either art. But it isn’t until one connects technique to feeling, turning it into the outward thrust of that feeling, that one became s musician, or a cook.

The good Italian cook is an improvisor, whose performance is each time a fresh response to the suggestion of an inner beat.

Those who set out to become accomplished Italian cooks have at least one advantage over others—there are no acrobatic movements to execute, no intricate arabesques to master. Italian cooking produces some of the most delectable food in the world, with astonishingly simple means.

…Cooking, like life itself, flows out of the experienced past, but belongs to the unique moment in which it takes place. From one occasion to the next you will not find vegetables at the identical stage of ripeness or freshness. No two cloves of garlic, no two bunches of celery, no two peppers in a basket have exactly the same flavor, no cuts of meat duplicate precisely the texture and tenderness of those of another day. Each time you being your ingredients together, your own hand falls with a different cadence. The objective in good Italian cooking is not to achieve uniformity, or even absolute predictability of result. It is to express the values of the materials at hand, and then unrepeatable intuitions of the moment of execution.

All this does not mean there are no rules. Of course there are rules. There is structure to Italian cooking just as there is structure to the music of a dance…

Marcella is very specific about those rules in her books, but she also encourages us to learn them, abide by them, and then break them. Jacques Pepin, whose autobiography, “The Apprentice,” I consumed in a few sittings, is another chef who stresses simplicity and experimentation in the kitchen. As he’s grown older, he’s said on his most recent PBS-show, his tastes have gotten simplier not more complicated. My mother is Belgian so I grew up with a kind of hearty French Bistro style of cooking, which is why I love Italian and many Asian cuisines: they are about fresh ingredients simply put together. You don’t have to master fancy techniques to try it yourself.

I guess when it comes down to it, I love things that are straight-forward, elegant, yet bold, and nourishing in their simplicity. I love it in writing, in filmmaking and music, and in cooking too. All parts of my life, really. Of course, there are some artists whose technique I admire a good deal–a William Faulkner or Martin Scorsese, and I also love wordy writers like Roger Angell and Pauline Kael too–but more often than not, I’m most impressed with artists like Edward Hopper or John Huston or James Agee or Al Hirschfeld, who work extremely hard at making things look effortless, clear, simple.

Speaking of which, I just finished reading Peter Guralnick’s fascinating biography of the gospel/soul singer Sam Cooke, “Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke.” I didn’t know much about Cooke going into it–other than his most famous tunes, “Wonderful World” (aka “Don’t know much about history…”), “Send Me,” “Chain Gang,” and “Twistin’ the Night Away.” Having just finished writing a book about Curt Flood, the time period and subject matter was immediately compelling, and though the book is probably best suited for real music nerds (at 650 pages, you’d better be interested in the details of every recording session Cooke was ever involved in), it is a fascinating portrait of a man whose style was succint, intimate and emotional:

If you listen to his lyrics,” [said] Herb [Alpert’s] songwriting partner Lou Adler, “they’re very conversational. And it’s something that he always expressed. He said, ‘If you’re writing a song that you really want to get to people, you’ve go tot put it into a language that they understand.'” Although he was an avid reader of poetry, his rhymes were more a matter of feel than formality. “It didn’t matter if it was a real rhyme or not,” said Alder, ‘[as long as] it felt right. I’ve seen him pick up a guitar and, you know, almost talk to you in the way that he was writing. And maybe it’s a song lyric that he’ll never use. But it sounded good when he was doing it.”

A friend of mine who is a walking encyclopedia of pop music history described Cooke as being “as smooth as chocolate cake batter.” Cooke was raised in the world of gospel music, crossed over to R&B, and then to pop. He was a drop-dead lady killer. Cooke wasn’t edgy like Jackie Wilson or James Brown or even Little Richard. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of Nat King Cole and Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier as black entertainers who could be true to themselves and yet reach a mainstream (i.e. vanilla) audience. Cooke was ambitious, extremely self-aware, at turns both charming and enigmatic. Even as a teenager, Guralnick writes:

He was, in a sense, what they wall wanted him to be, providing girlfriend and friends, causal acquaintances, mentors, and fans with the sense that they were “the one,” that however little time he might have available for them, all of his attention, all of his intellect, emotion, and charm were theirs for that moment. That was undoubtedly the key to him remarkable ability, both onstage and off, to communicate a message as sincere as it was convincing. And yet at some point inevitably he disappeared, he would vanish into a world on his own—whether the unexplored vistas that reading revealed to him, the vast territory of his unrealized ambitions, or a vision of the future that none of them vouchsafed. For the most part he did it with a grave that minimized resentment, and few doubted that he would get where he was going–but they all felt his absence at one point or another, the elusiveness, the gulf between his apprehension of the world and their own.

Jerry Brandt, an agent with the William Morris agency, remembered:

You could never get what you wanted from him. You know, it’s that elusive thing you fell in love with [but] could never touch. He’d let you see it, it’s there—but it’s not yours. Endearing and heartbreaking at the same time. He didn’t reveal anything to anybody.

He had the ability to call out your name in a roomful of fifty people and make you feel like you were the only one. It was amazing. He was a woman’s man, but he could totally capture men, sometimes in a sexual way—but the mend didn’t know why. He could make the audience do anything he wanted, stand up, sit down, fall down, they would follow. He was a man about town, wherever that was. And if he was fixed on something to do, he was going to do it, no matter what you said. [Any problem with jealous husbands?] I didn’t see it. If there was, I should have been one of them.

In 1964, just a few months before his death–Cooke was murdered in a sordid incident with a groupie in a seedy Los Angeles motel–Cooke was out of tour. Jackie Wilson was the other headliner. Cooke was about ready to leave his hard-touring days on the road behind him; he had his own record label, and was interested in promoting new acts, as well as persuing an acting, and nightclub career. Labled as “The Biggest Show Ever,” the tour pitted Cooke’s mild-mannered stage show against Jackie Wilson’s hyped-up performance. It was not the first time Cooke and Wilson squared off, but Cooke proved that sometimes, less is more:

From the start, it was an incendiary combination. Every one of the supporting acts was capable of eliciting oohs and ahs from the crowd, but it was the two stars of the show that everyone came to see. They had not been out together since their original Supersonic tour in the spring of 1959, when Sam’s insistence on closing the show, not to mention Jackie’s spectacular showmanship and a recalcitrant band, had sabotaged both Sam’s performance and his pride in a way that had taken a long time to get over. Now, with a polished rhythm section of his own and the crowed-pleasing theatricality of the Upsetters, Sam felt confident not only of his abilities but of his capacity to fuck with Jackie’s head, if necessary, just like Cassius had fucked with Sonny Liston [Cooke was good friends with Clay and can be seen in the ring after Clay defeated Liston to win the heavyweight title in February of ’64].

They opened in Mobile, and once again billing was a subject of contention, but this time, Alex said, he and Sam cam prepared. “We had a clause in the contract about closing the show, and the very first night, Sam killed them, he just destroyed the house. So Johnny Robert’s [Jackie’s burly road manager, who had started out as an enforcer for the New York Mob] came up to me and said, ‘what about Sam opening one night and Jackie another?’ I said, ‘Okay.’ He said, ‘Let’s talk to Sam.’ I said, ‘You don’t have to talk to Sam. Trust me.’ So the next night in Knoxville Sam opened, and he just destroyed them, and Jackie came on, and after about three songs they started leaving. I went to the dressing room and [busted out] laughing. I said, ‘Sam, they dismissing themselves.'”

Night after night, it was the same. Jackie tried every trick in the book, J.W. said. “He would drag it out. He would have all the broads come up and kiss him.” He would take off his shirt, work himself into a frenzy, do the splits, lie down on the edge of the stage. But then Sam would come out, J.W. said with relish, and “he would put the whip to them.” By the time they reached Charlotte, Jackie was ready to hang out the white flag. “Man, you’re killing me,” he said to Sam. “You got me coughing up blood. What the fuck did you do?”

…”Sam started singing million-seller after million-seller on my ass. I couldn’t get over that.”

The funny thing is that I don’t actually own any Sam Cooke records. (My record pal says he’s going to make me a mix, of both his gospel and pop records.) But did this: last weekend I went to a Holiday part for Emily’s work and asked the DJ to play “Send Me.” He did, followed by “Chain Gang,” and although there was a lot of commotion in the room, I sat at our table, momentarily lost in my own world, ignoring the small talk and listening to the smooth simplicity of Sam Cooke.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver