Lord, I Can’t Change

by Alexander Nemerov

© Bill Yates 2016 all rights reserved
We are excited to be publishing a new photo book this fall by photographer Bill Yates called “Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink”. I want to say thanks here to Bill and everyone who has supported Bill’s work over the past couple of years and those who have joined us the past three weeks at the Kickstarter to bring this book to life. Bill is just wrapping up the very successful Kickstarter (still 3 days left — please join us) and it seems a perfect time for Fall Line’s first post on Medium. As a way to say thank you and ‘get your juices flowing’ about the book I sought and got the permission of writer Alexander Nemerov to publish here the beautiful essay he’s written for the “Sweetheart” book. We are also fortunate to have an introduction to the book written by Richard McCabe, the Curator of Photography at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans. But, we have to hold a little something back so you’ll have some surprises when your book arrives. Here is Alexander’s truly poetic essay and a few photos from the book to go with it. Thank you again for all the love and support you have shown.

-William Boling, Publisher and Editor, Fall Line Press

c Fall Line Press 2016

Light and skin make the atmosphere. The light is beautiful and soft — not the harsh light of journalism and exposé, but a delicate mixture of the camera’s flash and the darkness. We see far into the shadows, and the shadows cross back into the light, gently touching shirts and coats and gathering between the fingers of hands.

The soft light is a kind of skin. It seems there is no sensuous difference between the skin and the light that lets the skin be seen. It is all warm, or feels warm, the right temperature for the fall and spring but right somehow even for the winter, when the rink was “colder than hell,” as Bill Yates recalls. Enclosed under one roof, the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink is a unity in space and time — the bodies made of light, and the rink itself, from wood grain to Pepsi signs, as thick and substantive as a body. Adolescent sweat steams from the walls.

The place turns on curves. From the pom-poms and roller wheels to the bellbottoms and locks of curly hair, from the bare midriffs and flouncy shirts right up to the scalloped soda banners in the rafters, the rink revolves around curves. Girls in jeans and halter tops, adolescent boys preening shirtless and pouty-breasted in the parking lot. Curves to hold and embrace and kiss and admire, there in the close quarters amid the Pepsi splashes on the swept and sticky floor. So much so that the photographer’s own closeness to the scene — blending in, becoming a part of the ambience, noticed, accepted, ignored, for about seven months that he photographed there in 1972–1973 — becomes a kind of curve. Very close, drawn in, Yates circulated around the bending kissers and juking skaters. He had taken a U-turn when he first saw the place, observing it out of the corner of his eye as he drove by on East Broadway, and that reversal marks the photographs’ own sudden and sympathetic changes of direction.

© Bill Yates 2016 all rights reserved

The music spins, too. The rink was loud with the sound of a band and, when the band was taking a break, with recorded music on LPs. The Beatles, Rod Stewart, the Allman Brothers, “no doubt some slow dance music as well,” Yates remembers. “It was definitely Rock and Roll, Southern Rock, high energy. Yes, loud.” Outside, fields of strawberries and tomatoes and groves of oranges grew silently, ripening right to the edge of the parking lot as guitar riffs and licks floated over the acres of fertility. Out in that lot, the blond boy with the schnapps holstered at his waist looks like a lantern-jawed gunslinger, a rock outlaw, his square bottle of liquor the same as his baby face. A tropical bush flares behind him, pendant to his stolid bulging and flexing. Maybe he had hardly been photographed except for school pictures and special photo days at Sears, but here the generic snapshot backdrop of lazy streams and bright skies becomes a jagged spike of overgrowth. He looks like a singer on an album cover.

Trying to recall that era, I remember that once not long ago a friend gave me a choice of CDs from his extensive collection of live concert bootleg recordings. Most of my friend’s collection ran to The Grateful Dead and Phish, not to my taste, but one recording in his carefully annotated catalogue struck my eye: a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert recorded live in Cardiff, Wales, in 1975, with a sound quality grade of A+. I picked that concert and it has never let me down. The music is as clear as day, and the band’s performance is no-nonsense and inspired. And there is something else about it — something that connects it especially to the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink.

Ronnie Van Zant, the lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd, had such a sense of history. “This next one is an old Blues tune,” he tells the Welsh crowd before one song. “I reckon everyone’s had the Blues a time or two. Lord knows I’ve had my share.” Before another number he gives a brief history lesson: “Let me tell you a story about an old man from America that’s probably done more for country music than anybody in the United States or in the world for that fact, in my opinion. His name was Jimmy Rodgers and he did a song in the 1920s called ‘Gimme a T for Texas and a T for Tennessee,’ and we’re going to do it for you now.” And before closing the show with “Free Bird,” Van Zant offers a tribute to a more recent southern band, placing Skynyrd in another historical lineage: “We’d like to play a song for Gregg Allman, Duane Allman, Berry Oakley, the Allman Brothers, a band from the South that I think got us here.”

© Bill Yates 2016 all rights reserved

If Van Zant had a sense of history, Yates did as well. He was born in 1946 in Jacksonville, Florida — Van Zant was also born in Jacksonville, in 1948 — and Yates knew the times in his own way. His draft number was about to come up in 1967 when he volunteered for the Navy, serving stateside until 1970 as an aviation maintenance clerk at a naval air station in Jacksonville. Originally stationed in Memphis, Tennessee, where he underwent boot camp, he was there on April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Happening to be on leave in the days afterward, and knowing that only uniformed personnel were allowed on the road for a while after the killing, he donned his uniform and drove his car on a dazed journey all the way to Little Rock, Arkansas, before turning around, wondering where he and the country were going.

When Yates went back to college in 1970 (he had previously flunked out), he studied photography with the professor Oscar Bailey, pouring over Bailey’s photography books. The great photographer of child labor Lewis Hine (1874–1940) was among those who made an impression on him. And although Yates did not know that Hine had visited Tampa in the early years of the twentieth century, when he made photographs of the city’s cigar-makers and messenger boys, he absorbed the master’s empathic style, making it a part of Sweetheart. Some of the skaters, he thinks now, were descendants of the city’s Cuban and Spanish working class, the very kids who rolled the cigars in Hine’s distant time. Hine, Yates might have said, was an old man from America that’s probably done more for the photography of children than anybody in the United States or in the world for that fact, in my opinion.

© Bill Yates 2016 all rights reserved

But the skaters were not as canny about history as Ronnie Van Zant or Bill Yates. They could not necessarily place themselves in time in the same way. But what they did know — and what Yates portrays so beautifully — is that it is the world they do not know that makes them who they are. Unseen forces, changing times, the abstractions of history — boring things, really, things to skip in the more hurried thrall of living one’s life — drive them to this place where they are themselves. Nameless forces, and their powerlessness before them, shape the grace and dignity of their persons, down to every last bicep and derriere.

The skaters could not realize that their Tampa would become part of the Disneyification of Florida that was just then starting. They could not know that the old rink itself would burn down later in the 1970s. They could not know that Yates, after using some of these photographs to get into the Rhode Island School of Design in 1973, would put the images away for forty years, so that the adolescents of 1972–73 would one day be lifted from boxes and plastic sleeves to experience a new light on their skin, the retrospective illumination of history.

Funny that they party like they sensed all this. This is their last bash — they enjoy themselves like there’s no tomorrow. But their dance is not desperate, and it disdains the name of catastrophe. Instead it unfolds in casual declarations of being that bid a flip defiance to destruction. Momentarily spared the ash and incinerating fumes that laid waste to everything around them, they glory in the good sense of having retreated to the shabby shelter the world has left for them.

© Bill Yates 2016 all rights reserved

Van Zant said it best: “Lord, I can’t change.” As the Old South began to vanish, his lament in “Free Bird” (released in 1973) is not only that he must follow his nature and leave a good woman, but that he cannot change with the times. He is powerless to make himself over into an image of the new south that the age will require. He will be forever out of step, lost in a previous world, not out of ideological choice (that is a simpler view, the racist’s stark refusal to adapt) but because he knows no other way. His poetry arises from this fact. The forces that he cannot understand are upon him.

Maybe that is why the crouching skater-boy is so poignant. Staring at the photographer, charismatically handsome as he puffs on his cigarette, he too is a lone visionary of his moment. Like Van Zant and Yates, he does not document change so much as enacts it, creates it, you might say lives it. Transiting across the scuffed floor, he leaves a lovely ball of cloud in his wake — here one moment, gone the next. And he seems utterly self-possessed in the knowledge that he will disappear, perhaps even in the realization that he is disappearance itself, come to earth.

© Bill Yates 2016 all rights reserved

An element of chance makes him appear otherworldly. Yates had run out of film that night for his preferred camera and had switched to a Leica or Nikon. If he had not brought along one of those 35mm cameras, the skater-boy would not exist. And even then he would not exist if Yates had not happened to turn around, see him, and take the boy’s picture just as he passed by. Like some rare phenomenon of nature — Half-Dome, in an image made by Ansel Adams with a sole remaining exposure high above the Yosemite Valley floor — the boy comes into view by sheer luck and photographic insistence. And caught on camera, he signals to us from mysterious realms unaccustomed to being seen. Natural wonders, gods of slated stone, spindrift cumulus manifesting in a miracle: the boy has the providential feeling of a natural wonder, a thousand-year comet slinging round its rare orbit in the night sky. Or of something more supernatural — a zephyr blowing the goddess to shore in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

Except here, patrolling his own pleasure, the boy is left only the private sacrament of himself. No greater mythology attends this lord of his own disappearance. He smokes who he is. And his shuttling in space achieves an aimless grace.

Alexander Nemerov, April 2016