Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World by Billy Bragg, Faber & Faber, 2017
Imagine a genre in popular music in which the most famous band is made up entirely of high school kids with virtually no musical experience. Now imagine that this band only ever plays a handful of gigs, never releases any records, and disappears after a few months. Then imagine that the genre more or less disappears from the public imagination while the band changes it name and becomes a cornerstone of popular culture. It doesn’t make sense, does it? Or maybe it does if you’re talking about skiffle music and a band called The Quarry Men aka The Beatles.
But let’s try another scenario. It’s 1954 and a group of young musicians are struggling to finish a recording session. One of them, the guitar player, picks up his guitar and starts mucking around with an old blues song. The producer hears something he likes and asks him to play the song again, this time with the band. The result is, in today’s parlance, a game changer. Popular music takes a sharp turn. The cultural landscape of the entire nation shifts.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Elvis, Scotty, and Bill messing around with Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s That’s Alright Mama and managing to invent rockabilly. But in the same week, far away in England, an almost identical scenario took place. In this case, the guitarist was Lonnie Donegan and the song was Rock Island Line. Rockabilly and Skiffle, distant cousins, born within hours of each other. Why? History is where geography and chronology meet. What was happening in Memphis that spawned rockabilly? What was happening in London that tossed up skiffle? The music historian, Peter Gurlanick, provides the answer to the former in his recent biography of Sam Philips. In a new book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, Billy Bragg – yes, that Billy Bragg – tells the lesser known story of the latter.
I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that rock and roll historians need to start talking about jazz and that jazz historians need to find a place for rock and roll. Not long ago, I had another look at The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, a book that I read endlessly as a teenager. The early chapters make a lot of noise about blues and country but seem to skim over jazz. Duke Ellington, it should be recalled, always regarded rock and roll as a form of jazz. And he liked it! One of the many intriguing points about skiffle is that its basis wasn’t in folk or country but in trad jazz.
The English trad jazz story is itself fascinating and Bragg does a great job telling it. It all started with a record collector named Bill Colyer who went off to the army in the 1940s and came back to find his little brother Ken listening to his records and playing guitar. Colyer’s records, and this is critical, were a mix of early New Orleans stuff like King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, along with people like Blind Blake. In the mind of these fans, blues was at the heart of the jazz they loved so why wouldn’t they listen to Blind Lemon Jefferson. Naturally, they recognised that rural blues artists, songsters, and jugbands like Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers used different instruments but to them it was all part of the same story.
When Ken Colyer and similarly inclined folks like Chris Barber began to play early jazz live, they broke up their sets with ‘breakdowns’ where they would pick up guitars and play songs by Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Lonnie Johnson (an influential musician who deserves some kind of revival). Robert Johnson had yet to be rediscovered at this stage, as incredible as that seems. The breakdown sets allowed them to rest their tired embouchures and introduce other songs to their audiences. As so often happens, the other thing became the thing. These sideshows brought people like Lonnie Donegan and Alexis Korner out front with their guitars. As rock and roll landed on the shores of England, guys out front with guitars looked like money to the boys on Denmark Street. The age of skiffle had arrived.
Why didn’t they just call it blues? Billy Bragg addresses this in the book. Apparently, when asked for a name for the members of his brother’s band that had just recorded some guitar based music – Bill Colyer said, ‘The Ken Colyer Skiffle Band’. Skiffle is an old American word for rent party so the association with good times and gutbucket blues is there. But apparently he just couldn’t bring himself to use the word ‘blues’ to describe English music. It offended his sense of authenticity. I wonder what he thought of the Stones’ first record.
Speaking of The Stones, did you catch the name Alexis Korner back there? Yes, it’s the same guy whose Blues Incorporated band featured a drummer called Charlie Watts with guest stars, Brian Jones and Mick Jagger. He began his musical career replacing Lonnie Donegan in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen and was an architect of the skiffle sound. Later, it was his collaborations with Cyril Davies that laid the foundations for British blues. Now that’s a career!
Billy Bragg’s point in this book is devastatingly simple and very difficult to dispute. By 1964, British acts dominated the Billboard charts in America. From The Beatles through to Billy J Kramer, every one of these acts had begun as a skiffle band. All except Petula Clark. She didn’t start as a skiffle band. Bragg’s contention is that when Lonnie Donegan had a big hit with Rock Island Line, a whole bunch of kids were hit by two revelations.
The first was that a lack of talent didn’t disqualify you from music glory. This isn’t to say that Donegan wasn’t talented but he played three chords on guitar and told his story in a voice that would have sounded untrained and raw to kids raised on crooners. It was, as Billy says several times, a similar phenomenon to punk. No suburban kid with a guitar aspired to form a band like ELO. The Clash’s music, on the other hand, sounded like the kind of noise you and your friends could aspire to making without being doomed to certain failure. Of course Jeff Lynne of ELO was himself one of those kids who saw Lonnie Donegan on television and thought, ‘I can do that!’ So there you go.
The other revelation was that English kids could sing American songs. This is significant because without this understanding, it is unlikely that the British blues boom would have occurred in the same manner. It was as though Lonnie Donegan gave a whole generation permission to sing whatever they wanted to sing. And, of course, British blues became a genre in itself that, in turn, shaped the future of American blues.
It was observations like this that Billy Bragg caused a minor storm with an article in The Guardian about skiffle in 2013. He was trying to suggest that ‘Americana’ music could be traced back to England. His evidence had to do with The Animals’ decision to record House of the Rising Sun and the impact this had on Bob Dylan. The real point he was making was that skiffle has been unfairly written out of rock and roll history. The article was typical Bragg fare, earnest and provocative.
Nonetheless, this earnestness provoked Pokey Lafarge, and he took Billy Bragg to task in a Ted talk. He said something to the tune of: “Don’t let people like Billy Bragg tell us that our music came from Britain.” Billy replied on social media that he had said no such thing. At the Womadelaide Festival of 2014, Billy approached Pokey backstage and suggested a beer and chat. Pokey, still affronted, turned him down. Billy then suggested that they have an exchange of views in print. Pokey sourly walked away, leaving Billy and his olive branch to wilt in the South Australian heat.
Billy Bragg is an old punk rock warrior and a sort of George Orwell style English patriot. Pokey, on the other hand, sounds like he needs to update his manners software. He also seems to have missed the deeper irony of the argument. The musical exchange between the UK and Ireland and America is ancient. The ‘old timey’ music that makes up some of Pokey’s repertoire can be traced back to the Ulster Scots and others who arrived in America in the late 18th, early 19th century. To Pokey and everyone else, I recommend the book, Wayfaring Strangers by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr. It’s a brilliant antidote to any overly nativist ideas about music history.
If you’ve never listened to skiffle, Billy presents the genre in great detail, picking out the notable from the forgettable. Ever wondered about the song ‘Maggie Mae’ on The Beatles Let It Be album? The original was the biggest hit of a Liverpool outfit called The Vipers. One of the issues for skiffle bands in the studio was the tendency for older producers to top up their sound with strings and other embellishments. The Vipers, fortunately, found a young producer who correctly noted that their rawness was part of their appeal. He simply recorded them, live on the floor. That young producer would use a similar strategy with another band from Liverpool a couple of years later. His name was George Martin.
This is a top read. Billy Bragg is a very capable writer who has done an enormous amount of research. He covers a lot of ground here and, setting skiffle in context, he has provided a comprehensive history of British popular music, in general, between 1945 and 1960. This is also a social history that made for very interesting reading as the British election unfolded. Skiffle, the rise of rock and roll, John Osborne and the Angry Young Men, Pop Art, and the CND movement are all part of this story. And Billy Bragg, as his fans know, has exactly the right voice for the job.
Teasers: A possible explanation of the line, ‘Look at those cavemen go’ from David Bowie’s Life on Mars; the possibility that this book will get you listening to British trad jazz. It’s good stuff. Ken Colyer, Chris Barber, Acker Bilk! Legends!
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry recently collaborated on an album called Shine A Light. They recorded the whole thing live in railway stations and hotels as they traveled southwest from Chicago to LA on trains. Great album to listen to while reading the book!
A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel by Slim Jim Phantom, Thomas Dunne, 2016
In his memoir A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel, Slim Jim Phantom, the drummer in the Stray Cats, makes the following observation: “There were quite a few rock guys in our school and neighboring town who could play faster and harder than I could. None of them had any fashion sense…”
Black slacks. Blue suede shoes. Put your cat clothes on. Flat top cats and dungaree dolls. Clothes are a big deal in the music Slim Jim plays.
Rockabilly is perhaps the most enduring of all rock and roll subcultures. Its origins are murky and earlier than generally thought. The name, a portmanteau of rock and hillbilly, suggests something that might sound like Workingman’s Dead or The Gilded Palace of Sin. Of course rockabilly sounds nothing like either of those records.
I’m happy to argue (you buy the drinks – I’ll talk) but I think rockabilly began in 1927 with Jimmie Rodgers. His first Blue Yodel, better known as T for Texas, has crept into the repertoire of many a rockabilly band for good reason. It has all the basic elements. It’s an up-tempo blues sung like a country song. A number of Rodgers’ subsequent hits have the same quality. But the key moment for rockabilly and American music in general might be the day in 1930 when he sat down with Louis Armstrong and recorded Blue Yodel Number 9. Number 9. Number 9…
Louis Armstrong’s records with the Hot Five and Hot Seven are as eclectic as they are brilliant. Yes, he is laying the foundations of jazz but that foundation also supports swing, jump blues, and rock and roll. The fact that he and Jimmie Rodgers could hear the symbiosis in their work is significant because the next important chapter in the rockabilly story belongs to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.
Western Swing as played in the 1930s by Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, The Light Crust Doughboys, and Milton Brown represents a rich period in American music. It’s swing played on strings. The cowboy hats and corny lyrics are deceptive because this is jazz. And it is why rockabilly doesn’t sound like New Riders of the Purple Sage. There is a jazz sensibility in early rock and roll that stretches back to Lindy Hoppers of 1930s and Cab Calloway at his most frantic. When Sam Philips made his questionable assertion that he could make a million dollars if only he could find a white man who sang like a black man, he might have had someone like Nat King Cole in mind. Elvis – and perhaps more importantly, Scotty Moore and Bill Black were channeling something else that day at Sun Studios. They were playing blues but they were playing it the way jazz artists play it. They were swinging it around, slowing it down, speeding it up. Listen carefully to the ‘Sun Sessions’ and you can hear the whole history of American music. In rock journalese, Louis Jordan meets Hank Williams, Lionel Hampton jams with Gene Autry with T-Bone Walker on guitar. Or something like that.
Rockabilly never went away either. Very few people heard it outside of the south in the first place but, as someone once said of the Velvet Underground, everyone who did formed a band. A slight exaggeration perhaps – but certainly all of The Beatles held this genre in high regard. They covered a lot of rockabilly songs. Watch the Let It Be film. When the going got tough, the tough jammed on Carl Perkins’ numbers.
But they weren’t alone. As Slim Jim Phantom notes in his memoir, Blind Faith covered one of Buddy Holly’s most smoking tunes in Well Alright and The Who did Summertime Blues. CCR, the biggest selling band of the late sixties, were a rockabilly band, no more and no less. Their blues excursions aren’t a patch on their rockabilly moments. Jimmy Page is a better at rockabilly than blues and so is Keith Richards. They might talk about Buddy Guy but their best moments say Cliff Gallop, in Page’s case, and Chuck Berry in Richards’. Head Stray Cat Brian Setzer said that when he first met Keith, the guitarist picked up an old Gretsch and played a letter perfect version of Elvis’ Baby Let’s Play House. Setzer later became one of Robert Plant’s many Page stand-ins in The Honeydrippers. Many of the great guitarists of the 60s and 70s started out playing this kind of music. Robbie Robertson, Jimi Hendrix, Richie Blackmore, Alvin Lee, and Jeff Beck all began as twangy sidemen. Even Robert Fripp started out playing in a band called The Ravens. Robert Fripp! I’ve always maintained that Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited is essentially a rockabilly record and he seems to drift back to the genre regularly. Listen to Dirt Road Blues on Time Out of Mind.
Dylan, The Beatles, The Stones, and Led Zeppelin. Rockabilly is the secret hero of Rock and Roll’s many stanza’d Howl.
Which brings me to The Stray Cats, a band featuring vocalist and twangmaster Brian Setzer and ably rhythm sectioned by his Long Island high school chums Lee Rocker and our author, Slim Jim Phantom.
Slim Jim (real name James McConnell), Lee Rocker (Drucker) and Brian Setzer came together as teenagers with a mutual interest in rockabilly. They were all playing in other bands. The side project, as so often happens, began to attract attention and the other bands disappeared. It’s Slim Jim’s book but Brian Setzer was part of a late 70s New York new wave band called The Bloodless Pharaohs. You can probably download a box set and footage of every show they ever did now but in the 80s I found one of their songs on a compilation album and did a victory lap around a record store. They’re not mentioned in this book. Slim Jim, it must be said, has a big heart but little interest in that sort of detail.
Slim Jim’s implied and occasionally stated assertion that The Stray Cats single handedly revived rockabilly doesn’t hold up. It wasn’t part of the music mainstream in America in 1980 but it wasn’t a non-entity either. Slim Jim and the boys might have got something happening in Long Island but The Blasters were weathering gigs with Black Flag in California in the late 70s. A ferry ride away in NYC, Robert Gordon had already recorded two absolutely stellar rockabilly revival records by the time Slim Jim bought his first jar of Royal Crown.
Over in England, rockabilly was alive and well. The Shakin’ Pyramids’ sizzling debut, Skin ‘Em Up, appeared a year before The Stray Cats’ first English record. You can laugh about Shakin’ Stevens but there is some great rockabilly on his first couple of albums. Matchbox is not much remembered these days but they released their first album in 1976 and scored a big hit with the classic Rockabilly Rebel in 1979. The Stray Cats are easily the most successful revival band but they are only part of the story. Slim Jim doesn’t mention it but the whole reason they left the cozy club scene of Long Island for London was to join a movement already in play.
But this isn’t to slight Slim Jim or his book. The Stray Cats were the real deal and, to be honest, better musicians than most of the English revival guys. The competition was a bit stiffer in the States. While they never enjoyed anywhere near the success, The Blasters and The Paladins were hard to top.
But back to Slim Jim. He is probably best on the early years. The memoir hops around a bit but the basic story of their move to England and the space they found within the immediate post punk scene is of great interest. Rockabilly always seemed to be just below the surface in early English punk. Malcolm McLaren had run a shop for Teddy Boys called Let It Rock on the King’s Road before changing the name to Sex and, well, you know the rest. The Sex Pistols recorded a couple of Eddie Cochran songs. The Clash looked like a rockabilly band for a while. Billy Idol sang about a club blasting out ‘maximum rockabilly’ in Generation X’s Kiss Me Deadly. Tom Petty noted that “rockabilly music was in the air” in King’s Road on the Hard Promises album. The Stray Cats arrived in a city ready for their look and their sound. They somehow skirted the slightly moldy atmosphere of, say, The Polecats, and became a band most people could agree on.
Remarkably, ‘most people’ included not one but all of The Rolling Stones. In 1980, Keith and Mick could hardly bear to be on stage together but they turned up with the rest of the band one night to see The Stray Cats open a show in a crummy London pub. The idea was that they would sign with Rolling Stone Records and that Mick and Keith would produce their first album together. Like that was ever going to happen! It didn’t but they did do a series of dates opening for the old boys in America. Bill Wyman was still in the band then and he was, and is, a rockabilly fanatic. Remember the Willie and Poorboys album? A little overproduced but full of heart. Slim Jim played on the b side of a single apparently.
The Stray Cats ended up on Arista Records in the capable hands of Dave Edmunds who produced all of their best work. Edmunds is a rockabilly legend who scored a hit in the late 60s as part of Love Sculpture with an instrumental called Sabre Dance. He then went solo in 1972 with a stunning rockabilly album called Rockpile, not to be confused with the band he later formed with Nick Lowe. There was no one better qualified to produce The Stray Cats and the album was a great success in England. Songs like Runaway Boys and Rumble In Brighton became big hits there but the band were still virtually unknown in America.
Luckily, MTV had just appeared and, come the moment, come the band. The Stray Cats looked cool. All of them, all the time. The clothes were vaguely 50s style with some Ted additions and a punk overlay that made them look somehow contemporary. MTV was perfect for them. TV in general worked pretty well for the Stray Cats and an early appearance on a now forgotten show called Fridays made them stars in the States.
There was a lot going on in the early 80s. The music industry was enjoying the last few years of prosperity before everything went shit-shaped in the late 90s. There was a lot of money and, it would seem from Slim Jim’s account, a lot of cocaine. The period has a more or less deserved reputation for excess and overproduction but the sheer size of the industry had some benefits. There was room for a band like The Stray Cats in among Madonna, U2, Bruce Springsteen, and the other superstars of the period.
Their moment, however, was brief and no sooner is Slim Jim married to Britt Eckland and walking his dogs in Hollywood than the band is making its last album. Interesting stuff but the timeline in this book is very difficult to follow. Slim Jim will note that he has been sober for five years on one page and then be found having a bump of coke with Lemmy on the next. Either Slim Jim simply told the stories as they come to him or the book was ghost written by Peter Hoeg. Probably the former.
His post Stray Cats life has been slightly less exalted but no less busy. He appeared in Clint Eastwood’s Bird, remembering his co star Forest Whittaker as ‘the guy in Fast Times’. Yeah, I’d forgotten he was in that too. He also tells a hilarious story of an incident that took place while he was filming one of his two scenes. I won’t spoil it but it involves a very angry Clint Eastwood.
He opened a bar and music venue called The Cat in Hollywood, toured and recorded with a dizzying number of other bands, got back together with The Stray Cats, broke up with them again. He was here in Melbourne last Thursday. Slim Jim still gets around.
What does one say about a memoir like this one? It’s a bit of mess in terms of chronology and anyone looking for a detailed account of The Stray Cats’ career will want to look elsewhere. In fact, there’s not much about The Stray Cats at all. I would have been very curious to hear about the recording of those early albums and what it was like to work with Dave Edmunds. Perhaps Brian Setzer will cover that if he ever writes a book. There is a bit about their sound but never enough to really satisfy. Just when you think he is about to double down on the band that made him famous, he’s back in a club with Michael J Fox or someone.
But this is not a book without merit. For one thing, Peter Hoeg notwithstanding, I am convinced that he wrote it. That might sound silly – his name is on the cover – but, as I have said before, I doubt that a lot of these rock and roll memoirs are written (or even read) by their subjects. I could name three very recent and notable examples but I’ll be kind. For now! This is most definitely Slim Jim Phantom and if you fancy an evening with a guy who has had a remarkable life that has brought him into contact with the cream of rock and roll, blues, and beyond, this book is worth reading. It is also frequently funny as hell. Michael Jackson appears out of nowhere with Elizabeth Taylor in tow and whispers to Slim Jim, ‘I really like that song about the cat.’ Our hero ends up in the dark with Jerry Lee Lewis and a groupie. Keith Richards throws everyone out of his dressing room while Slim Jim is in the toilet. The drummer has to come out and face the enraged Stone who sits him down and feeds him narcotics. Clothes are a big number in this book if male rock and roll style is your thing. Slim Jim always tells us what people were wearing and details the evolution of his own look. Much is made, for example, of a polka dot scarf that he receives from Keith Richards in a trade. Without giving too much away, Britt is annoyed because Slim Jim ends up with a tatty cotton affair while Keith gets a silk one from her collection.
So Slim Jim Phantom leaves us with a memoir that won’t trouble the Pulitzer folks but might improve your spirits on a long flight or a rainy day at home. You might even find yourself hauling Rant n’ Rave out of an old crate for another spin. Meanwhile another rockabilly revival is either imminent or underway. In the immortal words of Joe Clay, ‘don’t mess with my ducktail.’
Teasers: Slim Jim’s Rules of Rock and Roll are a highlight. Number Four is: “Always wear something around your waist that has nothing to do with holding your pants up.” Noted!
This TV appearance launched them in America. Still gives me chills:
Dave Edmunds and The Stray Cats:
Jimmie and Satchmo:
You Know What You Could Be: Tuning Into the 60s by Mike Heron and Andrew Greig, riverrun 2017
Mike Heron and Andrew Greig’s book, You Know What You Could Be: Tuning Into the 60s might appear from the cover to be a ghostwritten or co-written memoir of the former’s career. It isn’t, though it does include a lengthy section at the beginning by Mike Heron that recounts the early years of the band. The core of the book, however, is Andrew Greig’s own memoir of growing up in the late sixties with The Incredible String Band providing the soundtrack and a spiritual path.
I was a bit perplexed by this format as I began the book. Mike Heron’s section is fascinating. His memories of the Scottish folk scene of the early sixties are vivid. Readers of Colin Harper’s Dazzling Stranger will already be aware that this period represents one of the great gatherings of talent and unique characters in popular music. Locals such as Bert Jansch, Alex Campbell (one of the drunken revelers in Dylan’s hotel room in Don’t Look Back -not the dude who threw the glass though), and Hamish Imlach mix with mythic figures like Anne Briggs in the legendary folk pubs of Edinburgh. At the semi rural home of Mary Stewart, the folk community mixes with the mountain climbing set. Rose Simpson, in fact, met Robin and Mike in the house after an unsuccessful attempt on Ben Nevis. Mary’s children appear on the cover of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, considered by many to be their finest album.
The first incarnation of ISB included Clive Palmer, another great Scottish folk eccentric. He left after the first album and headed for Afghanistan before returning to the music world as a sort of cult musicians’ cult musician. If you’ve never heard Sunshine Possibilities by his Famous Jug Band or any of the early Clive’s Original Band (COB) records, the time has come! Mike Heron was an early fan who ended up playing with him in the trio that became The Incredible String Band. The story of their trip to London to record a demo for Elektra is wonderful and partially explains Clive’s plastic coat on the front of at least one version of the LP.
Just when I was getting ready to hear about the recording of my beloved The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion album and the time that Paul McCartney declared The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter the most important record of the year, the narrative came to an abrupt end.
Suddenly we’re back in Scotland in the mid sixties. It’s raining and Andrew Greig is at school. He discovers the Incredible String Band, has his mind blown, forms his own freak folk outfit, and becomes a poet. I enjoyed the stories but I kept waiting for Mike Heron to come back. Then the penny dropped.
Andrew Greig is not a rock journalist. He has written many books of poetry, a few novels, several books on mountain climbing, as well as a memoir about his friendship with the Scottish poet, Norman McCaig. He is a literary writer and thus his memories, musical and otherwise, of the 1960s are assuredly delivered. There is also a discernible subtext here and it relates to what is perhaps the most enduring legacy of The Incredible String Band. Andrew Greig heard the whisper of freedom in these endearingly loose records. The 1960s in Scotland was not, he observes, all that different from the 1940s. Men went to work, women stayed home and ironed sheets. Even Mike Heron’s father, the head of English at George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh, finds it hard to come to terms with Mike’s decision not to become a chartered accountant.
The Incredible String Band bring colour and light to the young Andrew’s dour existence in Fife. He and his friend George form a band called Fate & ferret. They write their own songs and go as far as meeting with Joe Boyd in London. Boyd is, of course, the John Hammond of English folk rock. His good taste brought, in addition to ISB, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Fairport Convention, and many others to the recording studio. In Greig’s memoir, he is friendly with them but not particularly interested in their music. Their initial meeting with him does lead to a gig opening for John Martyn at Les Cousins. Not bad for a high school band!
There are a number of books on The Incredible String Band that will provide a chronological account of their musical journey. Rob Young’s take on their career in Electric Eden is particularly good. But You Know What You Could Be is something different. Surely a band’s story must include their audience to some extent. Without going all ‘trees falling in the forest’ here, the effect of the music is often as significant as the music itself. Most rock and roll biographies will trace the influence of their subject on subsequent acts but what about the ordinary fans whose lives are changed, sometimes dramatically, by the music? Clearly, no one wants to read a whole book of Led Zeppelin fans cooing about Knebworth or, worse, a Deadhead memoir (there are many, if you do!) but I like what Greig has done in this book.
He has explained the real power of The Incredible String Band in a manner that wouldn’t be feasible in a straight biography. For most of us, our favourite bands exist in a dreamscape with a great soundtrack. We may see the band live or even meet the members but, as Yeats says, it is the dream itself that enchants us. You Know What You Could Be is a book about music, imagination, and the freedom to do exactly as you please. Who could ask for more?
(*The Band’s performance at Woodstock didn’t go over that well either. The Dead were booed apparently. No shame in struggling to identify the elusive zeitgeist of half a million wet hippies!)
Teasers: Wish you’d seen The Incredible String Band live in 1968? I sure do! Andrew Greig did and he has the writing chops to put you in the front row. I find many of the concerts I see these days far too formulaic. These chaotic evenings sound glorious!
Best song ever about insomnia!
These Are The Days: Stories and Songs by Mick Thomas, Melbourne Books, 2017
I’m sure Mick Thomas gets tired of hearing this statement:
‘Weddings Parties Anything changed my life!’
But I might be able to impress him with my story.
“No really, Mick!”
In 1990, I was living in Toronto and had no interest in Australia. I knew that Sydney had the Opera House and Melbourne was the other city. That was about it. Less than four years later, I was living in Carlton, barracking for the Saints, and knocking back pots of VB at Young and Jackson. What happened?
Weddings Parties Anything happened.
My cousin Tim invited me to see them one night at a venue called The Siboney Club in Toronto’s Kensington Market. He promised me that they were like the ‘Australian Pogues’. It wasn’t easy to summon that up but I went along. I remember a furious version of Knockbacks in Halifax and the religious experience that resulted. If you’ve seen enough live shows, you’ve had this happen. Something snaps and you become a fan. A really big fan.
I moved to Japan soon after with a 90 minute cassette of their music. Melbourne had begun to loom large in my imagination. Songs like Under The Clocks, Roaring Days, and Brunswick were calling me in a southerly direction. I took a short vacation there in 1992 and walked up Johnson Street singing Manana, Manana. Back in Japan, I played my 90 minute cassette for a woman from Melbourne. We got married and moved to Carlton.
I’ve spent nearly a quarter of a century in Mick Thomas’s city. Weddings Parties Anything ceased trading about 15 years ago but Mick has continued to build on his repertoire as a solo artist. If you stopped at WPA, you’re missing some of his finest moments. Melbourne still figures in his songs and I still see the city through his eyes. That said, my life has begun to drift towards the northern beaches of Sydney of late but the 90 minute cassette will come with me when I finally head up the Hume for good.
Mick Thomas’s book, These Are The Days: Stories and Songs is beautifully presented with sharp photos and reprints of tour flyers and posters. If you leave this book on your coffee table, your guests will pick it up and start reading. They’ll be happy and you won’t have to entertain them. Win win! The photos frame the chapters, each of which is based around a particular song from either WPA or his solo years.
He begins with The Lonely Goth, one of many standout tracks on the Dust on my Shoes album, his first without the band. The song is the kind of story that Mick tells so well. A Goth kid in a small town hangs around the war memorial, shocks his grandmother in the chemist by buying black nail polish, and corresponds with a Goth girl from a nearby town he met at a Marilyn Manson show. If Mick wrote crime novels, he’d be Elmore Leonard. His characters breathe. The listener can not only picture them but can hear them. Recently, I read Jock Serong’s brilliant new novel, The Rules of Backyard Cricket. I kept thinking of Mick Thomas’s mastery of voice. Then I noticed that Serong is thanked at the back of the book. I pictured the two of them sitting together in the Mona Castle Pub in Seddon, not talking but just listening.
I was particularly struck by the chapter on Sisters of Mercy. This song from Weddings Parties Anything’s Roaring Days album was written in response to a nurses’ strike in the 1980s. In 2012 he was invited to play it for a large group of nurses at a strike meeting in the Melbourne Convention Centre. This chapter might have been a straightforward story about the song and how things never change. But it wasn’t. Instead, Thomas talks about a critique he’d copped in another setting for overdoing the emotional dimension of a song about asbestos poisoning. He was accused of emphasising the victimhood of the sufferers instead of celebrating their fighting spirit. The charge seemed terribly unfair and few singers would have the courage to revisit such a hardline dressing down. Mick then finds himself playing Sisters of Mercy for the striking nurses and choking back tears so as to avoid a repeat of the asbestos song episode. He manages it but only just. My own eyes grew a bit misty reading this chapter. The idea of a singer at a strike meeting in these cynical times is itself moving!
I was going to say that Weddings Parties Anything is the biggest Australian band to have missed out on the big time but that’s a pretty competitive field. They are a cult band but it’s a big cult. For a different sort of musician, this sense of ‘there but not there’ would be unbearable. The story of their song Monday’s Experts is a case in point. Many years ago now, a sports commentary television show called Talking Footy used the song. For most bands this would have been a lucky break and for Mick it should have been some extra cash in his pocket. But the TV station squirmed around on paying royalties, claiming it wasn’t the show’s ‘theme’ so the rules didn’t apply. I used to watch it occasionally. It was the theme. When Mick asked politely if they might be willing to pay for it, they immediately replaced his song with a similar and wholly inferior one. Don’t be a musician, kids!
Fortunately, Mick isn’t a bitter man or least he doesn’t sound like one here. He seems to have enjoyed the ride and never lost the desire to write songs. This doesn’t always happen when I finish musicians’s memoirs but I wanted more. I particularly would like to hear more about the early days of the band. The chapter on Away Away provides a tantalizing chronology but I need details! I think another book is in order but for the time being this wonderful collection will do just fine.
Teasers: The lyrics and guitar chords for every song! Jim Dickinson says that no one wants to hear a short song about cannibalism! A frank discussion of dysentery and marital discord in Turkey!
All is Given: A Memoir in Songs by Linda Neil, University of Queensland Press, 2016
Ed Kuepper’s version of Phil Jones and the Unknown Blues’s If I had a Ticket is a gem. His masterstroke on this track is the use of a single violinist who unearths a sort of eastern atomosphere in the minor key of the song. The garage groove of the original gives way to a desert caravan jam. It’s a remarkable performance. The violinist is an Australian writer called Linda Neil. Her new book is called All is Given: A Memoir in Songs and it’s a gem too.
It feels more like a collection of songs than a linear memoir. There is certainly a narrative thread here but it is largely thematic, like an LP perhaps. Linda Neil is a wanderer and a listener. The book starts with a party where she is, Coleridge style, prevailed upon to listen to a story. We don’t hear the tale but the stage is set for a memoir where her story will be woven with those of the people she meets. This is not a standard musician’s memoir. The ‘songs’ in the title are largely metaphorical. Nick Hornby she ain’t.
The relationship between travel and music is subtle and deeply personal. While listening to a raga musician stumble over a scale and give up, Neil recognizes that she has done the same in music and in life but that travel is somehow the answer. She likens it to ‘the thing in music that shrinks inside the thing that grows’. Music itself is in the background but music as metaphor grounds the narrative as we follow her through China, India, Nepal, Mongolia, Paris and Sydney.
In Kathmandu, she meets Gabriel who will become ‘her Gabriel’ but that’s in the future. The story is about a chance meeting and the discovery of a recording studio. Travel, at its best, is spontaneous. A few hours spent in the company of an intriguing stranger, finding something that you weren’t looking for, getting lost and not really minding, are all part of the nomadic life Neil celebrates.
I was reminded, at points, of Patti Smith’s M Train. Linda too has a unique and unconventional view of the world. Like Patti, she tells her stories in a self-deprecatory tone that is never alienating or pretentious. It is easy to imagine standing in a long line at an Indian train station, chatting to her about weather, food, books or, indeed, music. She manages to capture the rhythms of travel in her prose. Many writers attempt this trick; very few pull it off.
Whether it’s a story from her childhood in rural Queensland or a conversation with a guitar player in Paris, there is the sense that the richness of the experience is in the experience itself rather than the location. Her approach to travel is slow and thoughtful. On an early trip, her luggage disappears after a flight to Kolkata and she falls in with a group of volunteers at Mother Teresa’s mission there. The real adventure was supposed to take place when she headed south from that city but it is the afternoon spent in the mission that she remembers.
In Sydney in the early 90s, she heard Ed Kuepper’s The Way I Made You Feel on the radio and thought, ‘that needs a violin, my violin’. A little while later she ran into Ed himself on the streets of Newtown while on her way to Social Security. She mentioned her idea and gave him her number. It’s easy to imagine Ed Kuepper often fielding offers of this sort but, remarkably, he called her a few months later to play on his version of The Loved Ones’ Sad Dark Eyes. Neil became a regular member of his band and can be heard on a number of his albums. As a longtime Waterboys fanatic, I consider myself a connoisseur of the rock and roll fiddle. Her work with Ed must be heard. Start with Kuepper’s Character Assassination, a wonderful LP from the mid 90s.
Her violin playing is like her writing, filled with travel tales and experience. She is classically trained but her style has absorbed many different sounds and rhythms from her journeys. The album on her Bandcamp site, Beautiful on the Inside, feels like an extension of the book. The lightness of touch, the evocation of spirit, and the sheer warmth is as present in the music as it is in her storytelling.
Shock and Awe by Simon Reynolds, Dey Street Books, 2016
I don’t really understand the concept of comfort food. Nothing that requires a trip to the supermarket and/or actual cooking could provide me with any real comfort. However, I do have some sense of what it might mean in terms of a musical diet. I’m not talking about ‘guilty pleasures’ here. I never feel guilty about the music I like. This is macaroni and cheese music, reliable old stuff that doesn’t challenge but does satisfy. It might not change your life but it reminds you of just how good it can be.
For me, Glam is comfort music. There is no more reliable record in my collection than The Slider by T Rex. It’s not my favourite album by any stretch and I wouldn’t even call myself a huge fan of the band. But when I’ve had a bad day, there’s nothing like that opening riff to Metal Guru. I’m slightly too young to recall glam as such but I was around for it. Maybe it was on in the background, maybe it was Suzi Quatro on Happy Days. I’m not sure but I feel as though it represents something fundamental to me as far as rock and roll goes. I was, thus, very keen to read Simon Reynolds’ new book on the matter, Shock and Awe.
This is, arguably, the first major study of the genre. There are other books on the subject. Philip Auslander’s Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Pop Music is a thoughtful take on it and Dandies in the Underworld by Alwyn Turner is an informative, if brief, account too. However, the Simon Reynolds treatment is of another order altogether. He has previously written on hip hop, nostalgia, post punk, and rave. He is not simply a fan with flare. All of his work mixes critical theory with extensive research. This isn’t rock and roll, this is serious!
He begins with Marc Bolan, the dreamy ex Mod whose reinvention as an acoustic Syd Barrett in Tyrannosaurus Rex is one starting point for the glam genre. Another is Beau Brummel, the Regency clothes horse who shined his shoes with champagne. There is also Oscar Wilde whose paradoxical (were they?) pronouncements on superficiality read like a mission statement for the period.
Reynolds also looks into the etymology of the term ‘glam’ which is, of course, short for glamour. The word was originally associated with magic and the occult. David Bowie fans will know that Aleister Crowley is mentioned by name in the song, Quicksand. Glam famously revives the 50s and to a lesser extent, the 20s. I would add the Blavatsky scented 1890s too.
But back to Tyrannosaurus Rex. The funny thing about this duo – Bolan and Steve Peregrine Took (replaced by Mickey Finn on the fourth album) – is that, although they sound like a freak folk band, folk music isn’t at the heart of the sound. It’s something else. Yes, it’s rockabilly. I know it’s a stretch but look at two of the song titles on the first album. Hot Rod Mama, Mustang Ford. It’s a bit hard to imagine The Incredible String Band doing songs about classic American cars, isn’t it?
I suppose this is an important point for me because it defines what I love about Glam music. It’s beautiful, simple, rock and roll. Glam is not prog or psychedelia though it has some aspects of both. It is closer in spirit, if not always in sound, to 1950s style rock and roll. It redefines it, speeds it up, slows it down and adds crazy chords to it. But the greasy stuff is still the point of reference. The anxiety is in the influence of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent rather than the glam practitioners’ immediate predecessors, Hendrix et al.
Fifties rock and roll is there if you look for it. The Cat Crept In by the lesser known band Mud comes to mind immediately. Suzi Quatro, who Reynolds contextualizes very well here, is another example. David Essex’s Rock On, T Rex’s I like to Boogie, and Drivin’ Sister by Mott the Hoople are other possibilities. In fact, Mott The Hoople’s metamusical commentaries like All The Way From Memphis and The Golden Age of Rock and Roll all reference the early period of the music. It’s worth remembering too that Bowie claimed Ziggy Stardust was inspired by a conversation with Vince Taylor, the English rocker best known for the original Brand New Cadillac.
So what was going on in the early 70s? Musically speaking, a lot of stuff, including prog, singer song writers, country rock, boogie rock, art rock, hard rock, soft rock and so on. As the punk year of 1976 drew closer it became increasingly clear that the centre couldn’t hold. A whole bunch of bands and genres were going to be swept away. So goodbye Foghat. I’d be happy to argue about this over a Guinness but I think glam was punk in the womb. The term punk rock was being batted around in the early seventies to describe everyone from Bruce Springsteen – a huge influence on Bowie’s post Ziggy period incidentally – to Alice Cooper, a band that gets a fair bit of space in Reynolds’ book. If punk was a rejection of the sixties’ values, it seems to me that they had already been comprehensively rejected by Bowie, Bolan, Ian Hunter, not to mention Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and The New York Dolls.
That’s what my book about glam might look like. Simon Reynolds has a slightly different take. He doesn’t deny the clear line from glam to punk but he is far more interested in the journey from glam to post punk. I really enjoyed reading this book but I wasn’t always with him when he was talking about the music itself. What I like about Bowie’s Ziggy period is Mick Ronson’s guitar playing. I hear great rock and roll, Reynolds hears string arrangements. They are both there so it is a matter of taste, I guess. As with his earlier book Rip It Up and Start Again, he seems to be primarily interested in the non rock and roll influences and elements in popular music. In that book, he seemed to be suggesting that a lot of high concept early eighties bands were somehow more exciting than the punk bands that preceded them. To each his own, but for those of us who were teenagers when pretentious ‘post punk’ was evolving into banal ‘new wave,’ 1977-style punk sounded pretty good.
Similarly in Shock and Awe, Reynolds sees glam as part of a long tradition that stretches back to old Hollywood and reaches up to Lady Gaga. I don’t dispute this but, for me, it’s the killer riffs and the sheer three chord fun of it that makes it my comfort music. Slade, who Reynolds rightly suggests have been unfairly forgotten, are wonderful purveyors of power pop. They don’t have to be anything more. The Sweet are The Monkees of glam but at their best are a joyful reminder of good times and warm summer evenings.
Reynolds’ book must be read. It is well researched, beautifully written, and comes from the heart. Despite my misgivings about his approach to Bowie’s music, I believe he has written the definitive account of the man’s early career. Glam, like many musical genres, is difficult to define and impossible to date. This book will challenge your ideas about the period and the artists mentioned. It will get you listening to some albums you may not have heard. I’m now stuck on Cockney Rebel’s first two records. You might start listening to Alice Cooper again for the first time since junior high. You might check out early Sparks. You might see Queen in a different light. No, really!
This book is up for the Penderyn Prize. I think it will win.
Teasers: If you thought you couldn’t dislike Don Henley any more, wait until you hear his views on The New York Dolls. Kiss, and in particular their drummer, are dismissed in one brutal paragraph so don’t worry, you won’t be compelled to revisit Hotter Than Hell.
Kill ’Em And Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride, Spiegel & Grau 2016
Rick Moody wrote a review of this book in which he suggested that African American writers bring something different to books about African American musicians. Somewhat predictably he was taken to task for even daring to suggest such a thing. I read Moody’s review in the NY Times and then I read George Saunders’ response in The New Yorker. George Saunders’ article might have seemed justified but I now wonder if he had read McBride’s book. If you followed this small controversy at the time and have since read the book, try rereading the review and its follow up. It’s Moody who seems reasonable and Saunders who sounds like he’s missing the mark.
To some extent, Kill ’Em And Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul is as much about the latter part of the title as it is about the former. Somewhere in the book, McBride makes the interesting observation that America can only handle one African American superstar at a time. There is a meteoric rise followed by a spectacular fall that clears the way for the next contestant. There are examples aplenty to support this thesis in popular music. I immediately thought of Sam Cooke, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, and the proto Michael Jackson, Frankie Lymon. McBride draws Jackson himself into his discussion of James Brown. There was a strong connection between the two. When the former child star was up on charges and his career was in free fall, Brown deployed Rev. Al Sharpton to stand by him. Sharpton was initially reluctant and McBride’s story of how Brown finally compelled him to go to LA is a good one. Jackson, for his part, stood by James Brown to the bitter end. Sadly, he only outlived the older man by a couple of years.
But at its heart, this book is pure Southern Gothic. It kicks off with McBride being warned to watch himself in a diner as he researches James Brown’s early life in Georgia and South Carolina. His late night meeting with Brown’s cousin on a back road puts the book in Midnight in the Garden of Evil territory. Brown never really left the South. His extensive network of friends, business associates, ex wives, children and cousins is the stuff of a humid multi generational blockbuster. Though he died more than a decade ago, his family continues to fight over the crumbs of his estate while lawyers get rich. Bleak House, as rendered by Tennessee Williams.
I enjoyed the part where McBride acknowledges that he didn’t want to write the book at all but needed the money following an expensive divorce. He tried to pass the project off on to Gerri Hirshey, the Motown chronicler of note, but the publisher wanted James McBride, a black musician and writer. That was the perspective the publisher had in mind. It’s what Rick Moody was referring to and what Saunders and others completely misconstrued.
I have only ever been a casual fan of James Brown. Like everyone else, I have owned Live at the Apollo in at least four formats, along with a greatest hits collection purchased during a brief teenage Mod phase. I saw him once too. In the mid 80s he played the Ontario Place Forum in Toronto with its revolving stage. It was a strange show. He did about five songs. Two of them were It’s A Man’s World. Then he came out with the cape, etc, for an encore. You guessed it, It’s A Man’s World one more time. I walked out of there like Robert Bly with a six-pack.
While I was reading the book, however, I listened to some of his early albums with the original Famous Flames. His stage show and distinctive delivery is so famous that it is easy to forget that he began as a prodigiously talented soul singer. Unlike so many other singers of the period, he did not begin singing in the church. After a stint in reform school, he sang with a small harmony group. One thing led to another and he scored an early hit with Please, Please, Please in 1956. It doesn’t quite fit, does it? That’s the year Elvis went national. What was James Brown, a figure of the 60s and 70s, doing on the radio in 1956? It is this seemingly incongruent and off kilter aspect of Brown’s career that McBride draws out.
James McBride’s provocative account of Brown’s career makes one thing clear. The self styled Godfather of Soul does not fit easily into the received story of rock and roll. Motown makes sense. The Beatles drew from Motown. Chess makes sense. The Rolling Stones found something there. But James Brown’s legacy, in rock and roll at least, is less obvious. The story of his upstaging of the Stones is famous. Keith Richards has said that trying to follow him was the dumbest thing the band ever did. Brown, by some accounts, begat funk which begat disco. Okay, but we’re still talking about tributaries that exist outside of the rock and roll critical river. James McBride’s point here is never stated explicitly but his meaning is clear. James Brown is central to the African American experience of popular music. The standard Elvis – Beatles – Bowie – Punk – and so on story is arguably a very white one that, while not excluding black music, does sideline it. Elijah Wald explored this theme in his book How The Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll a few years ago. James Brown’s story is certainly illustrative of it. If you’re shaking your head, think about this: The Beatles have appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone more than 30 times. James Brown, one of the key innovators in popular music, has appeared twice. The first time, in 1989, was well after his heyday and the second time, 2006, was after his death.
Brown’s struggles, musically and personally, are detailed here through intimate interviews with family, friends, and business associates. At the end of his life, his world collapsed in the grand Faulknerian manner. I couldn’t help thinking about Poe too. The story of James Brown’s body in the mausoleum on his daughter’s lawn, the same daughter who sued him for a the royalties of a songwriting credit he gave her when she was a toddler, was right out of Tales of Mystery and Imagination.
McBride himself tasted literary stardom a few years ago with his memoir, The Color of Water. He is a formidable prose writer who has also worked as a professional musician. It’s not surprising that this book made so many ‘best of’ lists for 2016. As one era in the White House ends and we await the full implications of the one that will follow, McBride’s story of a man who scored his first hit in 1956 couldn’t be more relevant. The search for the soul of America is ongoing.
Teaser: Pee Wee Ellis, Brown’s tenor sax man, explains in technical terms the late 60s transformation of James Brown’s sound from soul to funk.
Testimony by Robbie Robertson, Deckle Edge 2016
For any other five musicians, the name might have seemed pretentious.
They almost called themselves The Honkies.
So, yeah, The Band.
They didn’t make that many records – six actual studio albums, if you exclude Islands, an outtake-laden contract filler. Five if you take away the ‘oldies’ album, Moondog Matinee, not that I would. Their reputation would seem to rest then on about fifty original songs. But of course it doesn’t. There are live albums and several famous collaborations with Bob Dylan. Collectively and individually, their western Ontario (and Arkansas) faery dust can be found on all kinds of great records. It’s there on Jesse Winchester’s first album, Muddy Waters’ brilliant Woodstock Album, a wonderful Ringo Star track called Sunshine Life For Me, and Bobby Charles’ almost unbearably beautiful self titled 1972 record. Rick Danko and Levon Helm recorded with Lenny Breau in 1961. Garth Hudson and Levon are there on Mercury Rev’s Deserter Songs 35 years later. There are plenty more and they are all worth hearing if you are a fan. Except the Robertson – produced Neil Diamond record, maybe. Up to you.
Guitarist and principal songwriter, Robbie Robertson, has added to a big pile of pre Christmas rock and roll memoirs with Testimony. Anyone who has seen the film, The Last Waltz, knows that Robbie can tell a story. He was never a powerful singer but he has a terrific speaking voice and great timing. Listen to his spoken word work on Hal Wilner’s Meditations on Mingus. Get his voice in your head before you start to read. You won’t be sorry!
Robbie has taken on something of a challenge here. The Band has already been well served in print. Across The Great Divide by Barney Hoskyns is perhaps the best book ever written about a single group. Likewise, Greil Marcus’ essay about The Band in his collection Mystery Train is just about as good as rock and roll writing gets. Robertson also has to contend with band mate Levon Helm’s 1993 memoir This Wheel’s On Fire. And this is where things get really tricky for him.
There is a perception among fans and critics alike that Robbie is somehow the villain of the piece. Helm claimed, in interviews and in his book, that the songs were far more collaborative than the publishing deal would suggest. Robertson has since been painted as tight fisted, overly ambitious, and ruthless by critics who have taken Helm’s line. Testimony is not a response to the charges but it does suggest that the truth is probably a lot more complicated than the simple Paul vs John, Mick vs Keith rock critic shorthand would suggest.
Robbie begins with his own vivid memories of postwar Toronto. The ‘I was born’ section of a musical memoir can be deadly but Robertson handles it like a novelist. He is blessed, if that’s the right word, with an unusual childhood. The son of a Mohawk mother, the young Jaime Robertson discovered that the man he called dad was not his father at all. Instead, it turned out, he was the son of a Jewish wideboy called Alexander Klegerman who had perished years earlier in a car accident. Robbie sought out Klegerman’s brothers and was soon enmeshed in a family whose, ahem, business interests somehow made them associates of the Volpe family. If you’re from Toronto, nuff said!
Robertson is particularly good on his early days with Ronnie Hawkins and the evolution of The Hawks. His growing friendship with Levon is at the heart of these sections but he also brings Hawkins, the sort of Dumbledore figure in The Band’s story, to life in all his manic glory. Slowly, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and the arch eccentric, Garth Hudson of London Ontario, make their way into the Hawks. The band conquers Yonge St and all its young women. They play dives at Wasaga Beach, they play dives on the Mississippi. Robertson was 16 when he joined up. When The Band’s first album appeared in 1968, they had been on the road since the late 50s. The Beatles’ Hamburg period is, at least according to Malcolm Gladwell, an important factor in everything that followed. There is a special ingredient in The Band’s music that is sometimes hard to identify. Robbie’s wonderful evocation of the band’s early years provides an important clue, I believe. The threads of rockabilly, rhythm and blues, pop, blues, and a country ballad or two are all part of the fabric of The Band’s sound.
And the sound was there early. The received wisdom has always been that it all came together in the months they spent making tapes in the basement with Bob Dylan in 1967 . That seems likely until you hear a recording called The Stones that I Throw by Levon and the Hawks from 1965. There is no doubt that Dylan looms large in The Band’s story but the magic predates their association with him by several years.
Speaking of the Nobel Laureate, Robbie is very good on the 1966 tour. There has been so much written about it that I wondered if he would bother spending too much time there. He does and manages to provide a unique perspective. Dylan is one of a long series of ‘father figures’ in Robertson’s life. He never actually says this but Ronnie Hawkins gives way to Levon who gives way to Dylan who gives way to Albert Grossman who gives way to David Geffen who gives way to Martin Scorcese. Dylan’s intelligence and absolute cool headedness in every situation impresses the young guitarist as he ducks flying objects night after night on the ‘Judas’ tour.
The Basement Tapes period is then outlined in some detail along with Levon’s return to the fold. This period too has been the subject of a virtual library that includes Sid Griffin’s Billion Dollar Bash, Barney Hoskyn’s recent Small Town Talk, and Greil Marcus’ loopy Invisible Republic. Robbie doesn’t attempt to tell the whole story but instead provides a few personal memories. He goes into more detail about the sessions for Music From The Big Pink and even attempts, unsuccessfully, to explain the lyrics of The Weight. Twice.
Following the section on the first album, the tone of Testimony shifts in a subtle way. Rick Danko manages to break his neck in a car accident before their first tour and Richard Manuel’s drinking starts to make an impact. Then Levon Helm discovers heroin. Robbie Robertson is a gentleman. He doesn’t scold or preach but the sense of a lost opportunity is discernible in the folds of his prose. I doubt that anyone will ever top this band’s first two albums but I think Robbie feels as though the records that followed could have been a lot better. He doesn’t think much of Cahoots, for instance. While it isn’t perhaps on par with its three predecessors, an album with Life is a Carnival, When I Paint My Masterpiece, and The River Hymn still must rank as one of the ten best albums of the 1970s.
He’s an upbeat guy and the final section of the book is filled with witty stories about life as an A list rock and roll star in the 1970s. He and David Geffen – in what must be surely the most sympathetic depiction of this guy ever – take Robbie’s wife, Dominique, and Joni Mitchell to France for the weekend. The holiday is later immortalized in Joni’s song, Free Man in Paris. It was Robbie who convinced Bob Dylan to jump ship at Columbia for Geffen’s Asylum Records. It didn’t last but Planet Waves, the only full studio album collaboration between The Band and Bob, was certainly worth the journey.
But there isn’t that much detail about The Band in this period. The tours come and go, the Northern Lights album is released, and then it’s time for The Last Waltz, where the story ends. The Hawks’ sections of the story are so richly imagined – and lengthy. But the chapters that follow The Band’s initial success in 1968 are almost like a coda. It seems to me that Robbie’s memories of The Band in its heyday aren’t all that sunny. Fans looking for a detailed chronology will find a much clearer one in Hoskyns’ Across The Great Divide.
This is something different, an unusual rock and roll memoir where the paucity of information functions as a kind of subtext. Robbie hasn’t come to terms with The Band and has perhaps been stung by his ‘Yoko-isation’ by fans and critics. I enjoyed Testimony enormously but this is perhaps a more melancholy book than the author intended.
Teasers: Robbie’s solution to being stranded in Perth, Australia. Hint – it involves twins! The Band’s set at Woodstock – they were supposed to close the whole thing until Hendrix’s manager stepped in! Some interesting stuff for techies on his guitar sound, recording techniques and so on.
And a rare Robbie Robertson lead vocal on one of my favourite songs by The Band, Out of the Blue:
Waiting For Buddy Guy by Alan Harper, University of Illinois Press, 2016
Let’s start with a quiz.
1. Which album do you prefer?
a) John Mayall and the Blues Breakers (the ‘Beano’ album with Clapton) 1966
b) The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (first album on Elecktra) 1965
2. Which is the more representative blues album?
a) John Mayall and the Blues Breakers (the ‘Beano’ album with Clapton) 1966
b) The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (first album on Elecktra) 1965
The first question is relatively easy. You own both of these albums. You prefer one to the other.
The second question seems easy. One of these albums is closer to the ‘real’ sound of the blues than the other. Of course, this is where it gets tricky.
The obvious answer is that, in 1965, Paul Butterfield was better placed to present a more authentic blues record. He was, as the first track on the album asserts, ‘born in Chicago’. He came up in the West Side clubs, learning to play harmonica from legendary harp men like Little Walter. And, I hear you ask, didn’t the band include Sam Lay and Jerome Arnold, otherwise known as Howlin’ Wolf’s rhythm section? Yes, it did. So it’s the real deal, isn’t it? The Blues Breakers album, on the other hand, might be a great record but it’s really just talented English white kids trying to sound like Chicago bluesmen. Right?
Yes, but that could describe the Butterfield record too. Elvin Bishop (yup, the guy who fooled around and fell in love), Mike Bloomfield, and Paul himself were blues-obsessed white kids too, just like Eric Clapton. So the argument becomes not only one of authenticity but also of race. That’s not to say it’s the weary question of whether or not ‘a white man can sing the blues’ but rather one about the nature of genre, its sources and its definition.
So let’s throw another log on the equation. Those two albums appeared within six months of each other in the mid 1960s. Hoodoo Man Blues by Junior Wells was released at about the same time. Surely this knocks it out of Wrigley Field. Bloomfield and Clapton are great blues players but compared to Buddy Guy? Butterfield is one of the great harp players but, senator, he’s no Junior Wells. Case closed then. Well, maybe. Hoodoo Man Blues departs, quite dramatically at points, from the electric ‘country’ style associated with Muddy Waters, Wolf, and others. Listen to the first track, Snatch It Back and Hold It. It sounds a lot more like Papa’s got a Brand New Bag than Two Trains Running. Look over the track list. There’s a Kenny Burrell song on there! It’s a sophisticated and beautiful record but is it the blues? The ‘real’ blues?
This trapezoidal question is something of a thread in Alan Harper’s deceptively straightforward memoir, Waiting for Buddy Guy. For the record, I prefer the Butterfield album. Harper opts for Mayall. Feel free to add your pick and why in the comments section. I have no idea which one is a better ‘blues’ album and with Junior Wells in the mix I have even less idea, especially after reading Harper’s take on it. Fear not though, he provides an answer of sorts on the last page of the book. More on that later.
In 1979, Alan Harper did something we all wish we had done at some point in our lives. He went there. The ‘there’ in this case was Chicago and for a blues fan from England, it was exactly where he needed to be. He got to the Windy City just in time. It’s true that 20 years earlier, in 1959, he would have seen the original Chess stars at the height of their powers. Even 1969 would have been pretty good, particularly if Hound Dog Taylor was in town. But compared to 1993, when I stopped by to find one or two tired bands cranking out Hoochie Coochie Man, 1979 sounds pretty good. He hung out, went to Sunnyland Slim’s birthday party, went broke, and went home. He returned in 1982 and did the interviews that make up the bulk of this book.
The story functions as a night tour of the Chicago blues world as it stood in the early 80s. The title is a wry reference to the Checkerboard Lounge, a blues venue owned by Buddy Guy himself. The guitarist draws in punters by putting his name on the bill but almost never actually gets up to play. Alan Harper spends most of the book popping in, ordering a drink, and, yes, waiting for Buddy Guy.
While he waits, he comes across other creatures of the night world. He gets Johnny Littlejohn to sign an LP, interviews Carey Bell and his son, guitarist Lurrie. He tries to interview Junior Wells, who won’t comply unless he gets 10% of the action. There is an evening on the town with Louis Myers and a glimpse of the menacing Left Hand Frank. The early eighties was a difficult period for Chicago and its signature music. The city was slowly dying of Reaganomics while the musicians tried to work out how to move the blues forward.
The little known Lefty Dizz stuck with me after I finished reading the book. In a shiny red suit, carrying a guitar case, Lefty tells Harper that he has been drunk since he got back from Korea. Keeping in mind that this is 1982, that’s notable even among blues players. Lefty Dizz is a legend for those who saw him and a rumor for those who didn’t. His small batch of recordings are poorly produced and, apparently, don’t in any way represent his impact on stage. The one or two YouTube clips don’t give much away but it is said that the Rolling Stones sought him out when they visited in the 1970s and jammed with him for three nights. Old hands say that he was a better guitar player than Buddy Guy but blew every opportunity handed to him by drinking too much and being notoriously unreliable. He was once hired to play his own birthday party and missed the gig. At the risk of falling into yet another blues cliché trap, I sometimes think that guys like Lefty are the embodiment of this form. The jazz critic, Albert Murray, maintained that the music wasn’t the blues itself but an escape from that melancholy state. Lefty Dizz wasn’t playing the blues, he was playing in spite of the blues!
Harper doesn’t ask Lefty about his views on the great Butterfield/Mayall/Wells question but they do discuss the shift in the genre’s fanbase. No one wants to put a date on this but at some stage, the original audience of Chicago blues, the African American residents of the city, drifted away and were replaced by white university students. That’s a vast generalization but one echoed to this day by practitioners of the form. When Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray brought a new audience to the blues in the 1980s, it was a predominantly white one. Young African-American music fans were somewhere else completely. There is a point in the story where Harper is driving through Chicago with Elisha Blue and Lurrie Bell listening to Grandmaster Flash’s 1982 hit, ‘The Message’. It’s a poignant moment. It wasn’t the novelty song it might have seemed at the time. It heralded an entirely new chapter in pop. Sadly, it had little to do with the styles played by the two men in the car.
So, back to the prickly issue of authenticity and race in the blues. Harper interviews Bruce Iglauer, founder of Alligator Records, whose mission was to present ‘new’ blues bands in the post Chess era. His roster in those days was pretty impressive. Koko Taylor, Magic Slim, Otis Rush and Lonnie Brooks were all on his label. He kicked off in the 1970s with Hound Dog Taylor’s first album with the Houserockers, one of the great records of any genre. Iglauer, in 1982, felt as though his audience was a small group of white specialists. He couldn’t get his music played on any mainstream radio stations playing rock and roll for a largely white audience and had even less luck with RnB stations.
There is a suggestion, raised a couple of times in the book, that the southern, Jim Crow Mississippi sources of the early Chicago sound are simply a different listening experience for black audiences. Possibly this is why the black audiences that have stuck with blues apparently favour the smoother, more urban sounds that white devotees of the genre, like me for instance, find dull and overproduced. So where does that leave us? What’s authentic now? The rough hewn sound of Muddy’s earlier sides or the slick lines of ZZ Hill, an artist credited with bringing blues back to its original audiences in the early 80s? Harper admits that he had never heard of ZZ Hill in 1982.
The whole issue is linked to a much wider discussion of African American identity and its relationship to American identity in general. Elijah Wald addressed the question in relation to pre War styles in his 2005 book, Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. Harper’s book is less didactic but he doesn’t shy away from the problem. Instead of trying to provide an answer to an impossible question, he finishes with a Zen-like parable. Back in England, he meets an elderly potter and puts this dilemma to her:
You see an antique Chinese bowl for sale in one shop. It is beautifully crafted but no more so than an almost identical one made by a contemporary master in another shop. They are the same except that one is a thousand years old and therefore more ‘authentic’. Which one do you buy?
The elderly potter laughs and says;
‘You must choose the better pot.’
Teasers: Bruce Iglauer’s many brushes with blues death. A mouth watering list of all the gigs Alan Harper saw in the 1980s. Sigh. I’ve already spoiled the ending so I won’t tell you what happens when Buddy Guy finally turns up!
I’ll take Magic Sam’s West Side Soul album over them all! (That is Sam. He’s playing Earl Hooker’s guitar for some reason.)
Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Schuster 2016
I had a strange experience on my way to see a Bruce Springsteen show one summer evening in 1984. I was standing on the southbound platform of Sheppard Station in Toronto waiting to meet a friend called Cam. We were both fans and agreed that this was probably going to be the event of the summer, if not the year.
A train came and went, leaving just me and one other person on the platform. I could see he was trying to get my attention but I was a city kid, used to such entreaties. This guy was muttering to himself and playing with a broken watch. I looked down at the platform, hoping Cam would appear on the next train.
The crazy guy on the platform had said my name. I looked up and realized that this was a guy called William who had once been my best friend. We had lived in the same apartment building when we were kids and started school together. Every year we attended the same summer camp. Then we drifted apart. William’s prodigious drug intake and increasingly odd behavior had proved too much for me in our mid teens. After one too many frightening episodes, I’d had enough. I heard late he’d moved to the west coast.
He was in terrible shape. He had put on a lot of weight and his teeth were green. I should have done something but I was 18 and well out of my depth. We chatted briefly but he was making little sense. Cam appeared and I said goodbye. As the train was pulling away, William smiled and waved from the platform. Cam was talking to me about Springsteen and I put my old friend out of my mind.
The show changed my life. Bruce played for nearly four hours and it never stopped getting better. Johnny 99 nearly finished me off. Because The Night did. Towards the end, he played No Surrender. I was still getting to know the Born in the USA album and hadn’t taken much notice of this particular song. Bruce dedicated it to Miami Steve who had recently left the E Street Band. After hours of almost unbearably excellent rock and roll, I guess I was overwrought. The song suddenly brought William back to me. And hard. I pictured him smiling and waving. Tears started rolling down my face. The sunglasses went on and I quickly lit a cigarette (you could do that then!) and pretended to cough a bit. I was mortified, of course. I was 18!
The release of Bruce’s new autobiography, Born To Run – like that show in 1984 – is an event I have been looking forward to all year. He has been pretty well served by biographers. Dave Marsh’s Glory Days was required reading in the 80s and, more recently, Peter Ames Carlin’s Bruce is of a high standard. If you haven’t read David Remnick’s New Yorker article from last year, you need to immediately!
But this is Bruce himself. He is articulate in interviews and his gift with language has never been in doubt. Many of his songs involve narratives, sometimes personal, but what would a book length Springsteen ‘song’ look like? As it turns out, pretty good. This man can write. At times, particularly in the early sections, it occurred to me that he had a distinctly ‘American’ style of the old school. Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel came to mind. So did James T Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy. The scenes with his father place him a very long tradition in American letters.
That said, this is a tricky book to categorise. It is a long way from, say, Elvis Costello’s recent memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink. Elvis was focused on the music itself. He dutifully takes the reader through the highlights of his career (there are many, it would seem from the book) and lays out the path of his artistic journey. Bruce doesn’t exactly ignore the music but there is no sense in which this book is an annotated discography.
Born To Run is also miles away from Keith Richards’ engaging if slightly tiresome Life. There are no ‘then the groupies brought more coke’ moments or anything even approaching that kind of rock and roll story. At some point in the late 70s, Jimmy Iovine invited Bruce to the Playboy Mansion. No one, surely, would have begrudged a young rock and roll star an evening with Hugh and his pals but Bruce declined. No thanks, Jimmy, it’s just not me.
So what’s in this mysterious memoir? Well, you know how Bruce’s exuberant stage presence sometimes seems at odds with his darker lyrics? And you know how even his more upbeat songs always seemed to have an element of sadness? It turns out that Bruce has suffered from depression since the 80s. It is by no means the sole subject of his book but it is certainly notable. He’s very honest about it. Many musicians, particularly of Springsteen’s stature, might have been tempted to somehow mythologise such a condition. His account doesn’t spare the reader and it makes for uncomfortable reading at points. He admits to being a difficult person, a control freak, a loner, and someone who found commitment almost impossible until the timely appearance of his second wife, Patti Scialfa. It is clear that their marriage has not always run smoothly and that he feels his shortcomings as a parent very deeply. In other words, Bruce is human. He has dealt with an all too common illness in depression and is not any more the boss of his fate than anyone else.
At first I wondered if I would have been better off not having read this book. His music remains important to me and his concerts are still mind blowing. Do I really need to associate his songs with the lived experience of a man I’ve never met? We’ve all had music soured by a revelation or too much information. Adam Raised A Cain, an album track from the Born To Run LP was, during a particularly difficult time in my life, the only song I could listen to. It kept me sane and spoke directly to my situation. Clearly, as I now know, it is one of many songs about Bruce’s relationship to his own father, Doug Springsteen. I might have resented the intrusion on my reading of this song except that I didn’t. The point is that Bruce’s music is intensely personal. Many artists dash off rhyming couplets in the studio while the horn section is smoking outside. These songs mean nothing to them but become treasured by fans. The older I get, the more I suspect that many of my favourite artists don’t actually invest much of themselves in the lyrics of their songs. I think Bruce does and I believe that his book makes this clear. That extra element in his songwriting that can hit so hard is Bruce himself. That’s what I heard that night in 1984 when he played No Surrender. He was talking about his friend in a way that perfectly articulated my feelings about mine.
So what else do we learn? A few interesting items are revealed but here’s one that struck me: Bruce, it would appear, has a lot of affection for The River LP. He spends a lot of time on this album in the book. He rejected the original Bob Clearmountain mixed single LP because he wanted something a bit more ragged and more representative of the true E Street Band sound. There are personal clouds over most of his other classic albums but The River appears to be a record where he feels he got it right.
I think he got it right in this book too. If you’re a fan, you are already halfway through it. Even if you aren’t, you might still find much to admire here in the early chapters. He was a working musician in New Jersey for ten years until Born To Run launched him to stardom in 1975. His depictions of the twilight world of working class America and the ‘other’ 1960s in decaying Eastern seaboard bars make for a great read. In this manner, it is a poignant book for an election year in the US. Especially this one!
Teasers: Frank Sinatra’s birthday party with Bob Dylan in attendance; Less about Clarence and Miami Steve than you might expect, but a lot about Danny Federici and Vinny Lopez, original E Streeters with their own stories. Also, Bruce’s take on his ’80s image – “I looked…gay!”