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!”
Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone by Michael Bradley, Omnibus Press, 2016
The Undertones’ most famous song, though not their biggest hit, is Teenage Kicks. It belongs to an elite group of timeless rock and roll tracks that perfectly capture adolescent consciousness. I remember hearing it on the radio when I was all of 22 and being gripped by a distinctly regretful tristesse. I would never again experience the pure existential joy of those years. Is it about sex? Sure, but it’s also about the best party you ever went to, and the best band you ever saw, and the greatest night of your life that seemed to just keep going and going until the sun came up and you stood waiting at a cold bus stop, smoke in mouth, still a little stoned, thinking that this life thing was going to be pretty good if the last 12 or so hours were any indication. By 22, I could already feel a sense of disappointment creeping in.
It’s all there in Teenage Kicks, a song that John Peel liked so much that he spun it twice in a row the night it debuted on his BBC show in 1978. He later insisted that it be played at his funeral. And it was, putting everyone in tears at the close of the ceremony in 2004.
So who were the authors of this masterpiece? They were five Irish lads from Creggan Estate in Derry, the city where the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ began in the late 60s. The Undertones formed in the mid seventies, only a few years after the Battle of the Bogside, Operation Motorman, and the Bloody Sunday murders. Creggan, incidentally, is adjacent to the Bogside so none of the members were in any way sheltered from the events of the period.
Which raises an intriguing point about The Undertones. As bass player Mickey Bradley reiterates regularly in this fine memoir, Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone, they were not a political band.
Unless they were.
The absence of politics in their lyrics in the context of late 70s Derry is a statement in itself. They had all grown up in this ferociously tense atmosphere. Bradley mentions in passing being asked to leave a classroom because a British helicopter was trying to land on his school’s soccer field while being fired on by the IRA. Nobody brushes that off entirely. Thus, the music of this band is political because it rejects sectarianism of any kind for a world of girls, cars, perfect cousins, mates called Jimmy, and good weather. It’s always raining in Derry, or at least it always is when I go, but one of their songs is sunnily titled, Here Comes The Summer. Derry was, like many cities gripped by strife, a socially conservative place. The generation The Undertones represented didn’t ask to be born there. When they rebelled, it wasn’t with anger but against anger, as Eammon McCann notes in the 2002 documentary about the band. The Undertones’ first album is a protest record that counters hate and war with the promise of fun.
Their stance, or anti stance, wasn’t entirely uncontroversial. While they had a loyal following in their hometown, they were also seen as tall poppies or as they say in Derry, ‘complete wee-ankers.’ The band were regularly heckled and egged onstage there after their initial success. The lead singer, Feargal Sharkey, was a particular target. He had, as a child, been a much decorated choir singer and Feis Ceoil champion. As a member of The Undertones, he had to get around town in a green parka because so many people were spitting at him.
Michael Bradley begins with their early years, playing Stones and Lindisfarne (!) songs to bored boy scouts and fellow students at school. I liked the rendering of the blues idiom in Derry patois. Feargal sings that old favourite, “Shaker Money Mikker”. When they began their legendary residency at the Casbah (Kias-bah, that is), where Derry’s small punk scene coalesced, the original songs began to make an appearance. They caught the attention of Terri Hooley, the legendary Belfast record store owner and label boss, who released the first version of Teenage Kicks. John Peel played it twice in one night and the rest is history.
Except that the history of The Undertones is by no means a standard rock and roll story. Teenage Kicks did not make the top ten but a later single did. Nobody got into drugs, nobody got ripped off too badly, and nobody seems to hold any grudges. If you are expecting the inevitable scene where Feargal Sharkey’s massive ego is too much to bear for the rest of the band, you will be disappointed. He comes across as hard working, slightly eccentric, and amazingly modest in Bradley’s account. They released four albums, toured a lot, ran out of puff, and called it a day. The Replacements, they aint.
One of the many unexpected pleasures of this band is their second album, Hypnotised. The first self-titled record is classic early punk rock, beautiful in its own way but still in the thrall of the Ramones, Dolls, and so on. Second albums aren’t easy for any band but perhaps even less so for this generation of punk pioneers. The moment was passing quickly and it was often hard for these groups to find a way forward. Not so The Undertones. Without abandoning any of the energy of the first release, the songs were better written and better played. My Perfect Cousin (their only top ten single), Here Comes Norman and See That Girl are just some of the highlights of this gem.
Michael Bradley tells their story with humor and warmth. There is no score settling, no ridiculous claims of utter originality, and no pretense about the band’s place in rock and roll history. If anything, one is left wondering if he realizes just how good The Undertones were. The early scenes in Derry are hilarious. It’s essentially The Commitments in a war zone but even Roddy Doyle couldn’t have come up with the scene where they first encounter Feargal singing – in blackface!
The account ends at the precise moment in 1983 when they are late for their final gig in Kildare. Feargal went on to have several hits before becoming an important figure in the world of public policy around UK music and the arts. The guitarist brothers, John and Damien O’Neill, formed That Petrol Emotion and had several hits in the late 1980s. The author, Michael Bradley, became a bike courier. The band reformed without Sharkey in 1999 and continues to this day with another Derry native, Paul McLoone, on vocals.
I saw them in Derry a few years ago. The hall was filled with ageing punks, mods, and skinheads. In a nearby pub after the show, I sat at a table with a group of original fans all now in their 50s. The talk was of old friends, legendary parties, classic gigs, and that night when, you remember…
Teenage dreams are hard to beat, indeed.
Teaser: A series of scenes when the inscrutable Derry world view combined with the impenetrable Derry accent proves challenging for the people they meet in the outside world. Look at the cover of Hypnotised for a preview of what happens when these punk rock hobbits leave the shire.
How To Listen To Jazz by Ted Gioia, Basic Books, 2016
I like it when writers recommend music. Right now, I’m listening to Nicole Mitchell. I found her name on a list of contemporary jazz musicians at the back of Ted Gioia’s new book How To Listen To Jazz. She was the only one with ‘flute’ beside her name so I was curious.
Sounds good, so far. I’m hearing stringed instruments, Mitchell’s flute, and some extraordinary bass work holding it all together. The music sounds, to my ears, vaguely North African but there are blue notes all over the place. The next song sounds like what I now know to be ‘Hard Bop’ – more on this later.
Towards the end of How to Listen to Jazz, Ted Gioia quotes Whitney Baillet’s description of the form as the ‘sound of surprise.’ That might be as close as anyone is ever going to come to describing jazz. But then, this might be true of all art. A great painting changes the way you see the world the same way a great book might change your mind about something. The first time you heard Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solo in Little Wing, it was a surprise. So what makes jazz surprises so special? I think it goes back to the description. Jazz doesn’t have elements of surprise. It is the surprise. As Gioia points out, no one goes to a classical concert to be surprised. Amazed, challenged, intrigued maybe but perhaps not surprised. I can’t decide what I think about rock and roll. It’s there but there is a distinct tension in jazz between the structure and the possibilities that might be unique. No wonder Jean Paul Sartre liked jazz. If Gioia is right, there is no more existential music.
Ted Gioia is the author of many worthy books on music. I came across his study of Delta blues a few years ago in the library at work. I thought I was in for yet another retelling of the Robert Johnson story with special guest stars. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He provides a plausible chronology and some of the most intelligent commentary I have ever read on the subject. I was surprised to then find out that he usually wrote about jazz. His History of Jazz is as informative as it is provocative. He has the knack of telling an oft’ told tale in a fresh way that raises interesting questions. It took me months to read it because I had to keep jumping up to put on CDs – always the mark of a good music book.
And so it was with How To Listen to Jazz, his latest, following a book on jazz standards from a couple of years ago that is sitting in the pile by my beside. Time to move it up a few places!
Gioia starts this one by tackling the tricky notion of ‘swing’. Treme viewers will recall Clarke Peter’s character Chief Lambreaux telling his musician son that younger players can’t ‘swing’. It’s one of those elements that can be easily discerned but is difficult to describe. He attributes the ‘swinging’ quality of a great jazz ensemble not so much to the beat itself but to the level of cooperation within the band. There is a perception of jazz players as honking narcissists but for Gioia, the greatest musicians are the greatest listeners. And if you have ever played with a musician who can play but not listen you’ll know exactly what he means.
He refers to ‘an uncanny degree of give-and-take, but with a kind of quirkiness that resists specific definition.’ It’s a lovely description and, in reality, the basis for any decent music made by any group of people. You have to listen, you have to respond, but you also have to tell your own story. Miles Davis has a reputation for being ‘difficult’ but he clearly had this ability. In fact, it is probably true to say that this, perhaps even more than his actual playing, was the source of his genius. The best of his albums – In a Silent Way comes to mind – are like wonderful conversations. Perhaps this is where music and the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber cross paths. Jazz happens when people really meet each other. Gioia says that they work together while ‘insisting on their own prerogatives.’ It occurred to me that the same might be said of a great soccer player. The champion can do both perhaps where the talented amateur is only capable of one or the other.
In the second chapter, however, he focuses on the individual musician. He uses the word ‘intentionality’ to describe the way jazz musicians approach phrasing. They mean it, man! When John Coltrane blows a note, there is nothing the least bit accidental about the manner in which it is played. It might start off quietly before rising in volume or it might be a quick blast. Same note, totally different effect. Later, in a section on pitch, Gioia tells the story of Sidney Bechet giving a saxophone lesson to a journalist in the 1940s. “I’m going to give you one note today. See how many ways you can play that note – growl it, smear it, flat it, sharp it, do anything you want to it. That’s how you express your feelings in this music. It’s like talking.” There’s Buber again.
But this book is called How To Listen to Jazz, so what’s his advice? Don’t listen to the notes themselves, listen to how they are played. This is possibly the difference between jazz and European or ‘classical’ music. There has been endless speculation over the years about the exact nature of the ‘African’ sensibility in African American musical styles. Blues critics like Paul Oliver and Samuel Charters have researched and written extensively on the connections. Clearly, the African music that came with the people transported for slavery did not conform to any familiar system. Gioia says that Duke Ellington thought that Jazz was a marriage between European systems of music and African folk traditions. What does this mean? Thought and feeling? The ‘swing’ factor? They are difficult questions but ones that are dealt with in a concise and thoughtful manner in this book.
There is another great piece of advice from Gioia in this department: Listen to the bass. I always tell people who say they are tired of The Beatles to put on headphones and just listen to Paul’s bass playing. It’s like hearing the whole band for the first time again. In jazz, the bass is a good place to start when you are starting to discern the structure of a song. Gioia, by the way, is terrific on structure. Many people find jazz, particularly post war jazz, alienating because it’s hard to follow. This book makes it very clear what happens in most jazz songs, even the freakiest free jazz freakout you can imagine. That said, he also emphasizes that spontaneity is one of the most striking features of the form. The ‘sound of surprise’ again, but with some kind of a map.
Gioia then tackles the complex history of jazz and the question of whether or not it really was born New Orleans. Yes, it was, he says, but it grew up in Chicago and New York, and Kansas City, and California. I really liked this section. The history of jazz is fascinating but circuitous. Gioia tells it well. His breakdown of the different styles is masterful. People who say they don’t like jazz often offer a caveat like, ‘I like some big band stuff’ or ‘Miles is okay’. There is a tendency to dislike jazz because one particular style doesn’t appeal. That really is like dismissing rock and roll out of an aversion to, say, Prog rock. ‘No, I heard part of a Gentle Giant song once, rock and roll’s just not my thing.’ No one would say that but many people do when it comes to jazz. Gioia breaks down the various styles so neatly that I would defy anyone to read through this section and not reevaluate their relationship to this music. For example, I now have reason to believe, based on my love for certain mid 50s jazz albums, that I am a ‘Hard Bop’ man. This can be like one of those social media quizzes. What jazz genre are you?
I discovered jazz in Japan when I lived there in the early 90s. There was a record store near where I worked with an enormous bargain section made up entirely of the stuff. I bought a Charlie Mingus compilation one day out of curiosity. I can still remember the first time I listened to the opening few bars of Pithecanthropus Erectus. It was so… surprising! Yes! Then I discovered Eric Dolphy and a whole bunch of other people that completely transformed the way I listened to music. I have never thought of myself as a hardcore jazz fan but albums like John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Dexter Gordon’s Go are now as precious to me as my favourite rock and roll records. It can happen to you! If you are curious, and feel like it might be time for a swim in the jazz surf, the flags are out and Lifeguard Ted Gioia is on duty. You are in good hands here.
The Sun and The Moon and the Rolling Stones by Rich Cohen, Spiegel and Grau, 2016
Rich Cohen says that Generation X ‘gets’ the music of the 1960s’ artists in a way that the baby boomers never will. I love that idea! It’s probably a difficult claim to substantiate but I often find myself at concerts singing along with artists of this era while nearby retirees scratch their salt and pepper beards. At a Brian Wilson show last month I was astounded by how few people in the audience recognized the classic Honking Down The Highway. I’m joking, of course, but Sail On Sailor, which really is a pretty good song, got almost no reaction either. Cohen says it has to do with perspective. Keith Richards attributes it to the fact that people Cohen’s (and my) age have never lived in a world without the Stones – “the sun and the moon and The Rolling Stones”, says the humble guitarist, providing Cohen with a great title for his new book on the band.
A book about The Rolling Stones presents something of a quandary to both writer and reader. What does one say about this band that isn’t already part of one of the great Rock and Roll myth cycles. The Stones were badass compared to The Beatles? The Sixties ended at Altamont during Under My Thumb? Exile on Main St was badly reviewed at the time (it really wasn’t – check for yourself) but is the greatest record ever made? There are almost as many books about the Stones as there are on The Beatles. This formidable library now includes Keith’s bestselling autobiography Life. Mick Jagger tells Cohen that Richards didn’t write it and probably hasn’t read it either. I wasn’t crazy about Life, to be honest, and this made me laugh out loud, as the kids say.
Rich Cohen is a well regarded non fiction writer who has covered topics like Jewish gangsters, the Chicago Bears, and his grandfather who invented Sweet and Low. He is also, along with Mick and Marty, a co-creator of HBO’s Vinyl TV series. He is a massive Stones fan but his formidable skills as a journalist are on show here and he manages, amazingly, to find some fresh angles on ‘The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in The World’. Sam Cutler, incidentally, made that comment at Hyde Park in 1969, as a joke because the band had sounded so awful in the soundcheck.
Cohen caught my attention early in his book when he identified the precise moment that the Stones ‘sold out’. The idea of any band ‘selling out’ is a tricky one but I suppose many Stones fans would point to the period where the band became something of a nostalgia act in the early 90s. Others might suggest that Some Girls was a bit too commercial though, in retrospect, it’s just a great album. Old hands and garage fans might even shake their heads at Their Satanic Majesties Request as the end of an era for the band. Cohen’s moment is unexpectedly early. He believes the band lost its edge when they fired Ian Stewart and became a five piece. Yes indeed, that was 1963, a year before their first album appeared. It is a claim that paints Rich Cohen as either the ultimate organic coffee swilling hipster or just a writer making a broader point. Assuming the latter is true, the real suggestion here is that the Stones began to slide when they stepped away from their blues club beginnings. This in turn leads to his contention that the blues are the source of The Stones’ best music and that they are at their best when this is on show.
Hard to argue, although I might say that I think this is a slightly Keith-centric argument. Mick’s soul affiliations can’t be discounted. Out of Our Heads is a monster of an album which, for me at 13 in 1979, doubled as an introductory course on 60s R’n’B. Listen to Keith’s first solo album, Talk is Cheap. That is the Stones without Mick. Murkily great in its way but lacking the Solomon Burke bonhomie that only Mick can provide. Black and Blue is the most underrated Stones record. Go listen to it right now. I’ll wait. Tell me if I’m wrong about the Soul soul of the Stones.
But back to Cohen’s book. He begins in 1994 on assignment for Rolling Stone Magazine, covering the Voodoo Lounge tour. But this isn’t Almost Famous. Instead he retells the band’s story from the beginning up until the mid 70s when his interest in their music seems to wane. He doesn’t turn a lot of new ground but I enjoyed hearing it all again. He interviewed people like Paul Jones,from Manfred Mann, who provided some witty insights on those early blues days. He covers the first American tours, the drug busts, Morocco, Altamont, and their period in the south of France with verve and superb storytelling skills. I thought he was particularly good on Brian Jones.
Keith Richards is rather unpleasant about Brian in Life and, of late, no one else has had anything nice to say about him. Whatever he was like personally, he was a key figure in the early period and Cohen’s attention to the blues aspect of the band makes for a thoughtful assessment of his contribution.
But what does it all mean? What is Cohen trying to say about the Stones? The band has been the subject of several impressive studies. Stanley Booth’s True Adventures of the Rolling Stones is one of the best books ever written on any band. Zachary Lazar’s Sway, a novel, might be the most frighteningly accurate thing ever written about them. The Sun and The Moon and The Rolling Stones works because Rich Cohen is a talented writer with a particular take. I think a subtitle like ‘Generation X and the Stones’ might have served here. Those of us hovering around the mid century mark have indeed grown up with this band. I was born in the Aftermath, started school with Sticky Fingers, came of age with Some Girls, and entered the adult world on Steel Wheels… I’m sorry, that’s unforgivable but I can’t delete it. I just can’t. Anyhow, if you feel like reconnecting with this band, read Cohen’s book and for heaven’s sake, listen to Black and Blue again.
Teaser: Paul Jones of Manfred Mann reveals the greatest conspiracy theory in Rock and Roll. All I’m saying is that it involves Delbert McClinton and an early Beatles track.
Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America by Jesse Jarnow, Da Capo, 2016
There is something existential about the Internet. Its essence is exactly what it is while you are using it. Turn away for a few moments and it changes, leaving few traces that it was ever anything else. I taught a course recently that involved placing the Internet in a historical context. The students, most of whom can’t remember a world without smartphones let alone the web, were nonplussed. It used to suck and now it rocks while continuing to move from sucking to rocking. It is almost as though the technology somehow erases its own past for fear that the endless novelty of it all will be revealed. No past, no future. This isn’t like those other inventions that got old and boring, weighed down by their tedious histories. This one will stay young forever!
But the Internet is no different to the printing press, the telegraph, or television. It does have a history with real people and actual places. It will get old. Possibly the most striking feature of Jesse Jarnow’s new book, Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, is the decidedly historicist take on cyberspace.
History occurs when chronology meets geography. When stuff happens, it happens where it happens. In the mid 1960s, the Pentagon invited the top US academics in the burgeoning computer science field to decentralize the vast amounts of security and sundry information in their increasingly important computer systems. The result was something called the Arpanet that was set up to get the various mainframes talking to each other. So, that was the thing that happened. The ‘where it happened’ is the good part. Berkeley University, mid sixties. While Mario Savio was outside talking about actual revolution, the virtual one was starting inside. Over in Haight Ashbury, across the bridge, Wavy Gravy, Peter Coyote and the other Diggers were challenging received ideas about private property, sexuality, and personal hygiene. And, most significantly according to Jesse Jarnow, Timothy Leary was getting stoned. Really stoned. Oh, and a garage band called The Warlocks were playing their first gig at a pizza place in Menlo Park. More about them later.
Narcotics were popular long before 1965. Nineteenth century Romanticism was fueled by opium, twentieth century Modernism ran on coke. Jean Paul Sartre took so much mescaline that he was having flashbacks involving talking lobsters for years. But in 1943, Albert Hoffman, a Swiss chemist, came up with something he called LSD. He took some, got on his bicycle, and rode, hopefully not in traffic, into history.
Jarnow begins with Hoffman and Aldous Huxley, who was more of a mescaline man but did take a tab on his deathbed. He died on the same day as JFK and CS Lewis, which must have made things very trippy when he got to heaven. A couple of years later, Ken Kesey, in a spectacular act of procrastination while trying to follow up One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, went on the road with The Merry Pranksters. The bus was called Further and was driven by amphetimised motormouth and Beat hero, Neal Cassady. Somewhere along the way to the New York World’s Fair, they stopped at a lake and dropped acid. It’s in the documentary, Magic Bus, and it is funny. Kesey had already tried LSD, of course, as a guinea pig at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital. There’s footage of this too. Also funny.
Eventually, Kesey and crew returned to California and began running ‘Acid Test’ parties. A party needs music and The Warlocks, fresh from their tour of suburban pizzerias, were available. They had a new name though because another band, on the east coast, was called The Warlocks. The new name was The Grateful Dead. The other band changed their name too. They became The Velvet Underground.
At the Acid Test and subsequent hallucinatory soirees, The Grateful Dead became acquainted with the man behind all that LSD. Oswald Stanley, a would-be ballet dancer from a posh Kentucky family, produced an estimated 10 million hits of acid in his long career. He also became the Dead’s soundman and archivist. The ‘Bear’, as he was known, is the reason there are so many pristine live Dead recordings from the late 60s. But it is also true to say that an LSD revolution needs a lot of LSD. He did his best and has been called the ‘Henry Ford of hippies’.
Back in cyberspace, things were changing too. In 1969, a student at UCLA sent the first email to Stanford University. The message read, ‘lo’ instead of ‘login’ because, naturally, the system crashed after two letters. Stanford, at the southern end of the San Francisco Bay or ‘Silicon Valley’, was a hot bed of computer science activity at the time. The researchers were really young, really smart, and really keen on tripping. They were listening to The Grateful Dead too and this is where the going started to get weird, as Uncle Hunter might have put it.
As the acid drenched, paisley shirted 60s drifted into the Watergate drenched, leisure suited 70s, these computer dudes (with occasional dudette) took shelter in what Jarnow calls ‘Deadland’, the Grateful Dead’s breakaway state of narcotic bliss. The computer scientists now had the technology to communicate in cyberspace. And what did they talk about? Yes, their favourite band. Many early emails included messages like ‘Are you guys still seeing them at Winterland next month?’ They also involved requests like, “Can you send me the Fillmore East tapes?” Free music on the Internet? Impossible!
In the mid seventies, SAIL (Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) sought to create an operating system where information could be organized through associative key words to enable ‘online’ searches. Obviously, this was the right direction and the first thing to be ‘posted’ was the complete lyrics of The Grateful Dead. Many of SAIL’s researchers were Deadheads and more than few were hardcore trippers. Down the road in Palo Alto, two guys named Steve were working on something big. They liked acid too but preferred Dylan to the Dead.
But what does it all mean, man? The web has come, at least in theory, to represent an egalitarian network where ideas (and a lot of free music) are shared. That sounds like a Grateful Dead show, doesn’t it? You can make new friends, shop, talk, complain, fall in love, and build a unique identity. That’s what Deadheads did. And do.
Jesse Jarnow is making a case for the LSD community, in general, and the Deadhead community, in particular, as prototypes for the contemporary Internet. It’s a huge call but he builds his case magnificently here. If you are shaking your head skeptically as you read my blog, I promise you won’t be after a couple of hundred pages.
You’ll notice that I have carefully negotiated my way around the phrase ‘long strange trip’ so far but Heads is an epic. Jarnow starts with Hoffman on his bicycle in 1943 and finishes up with the Occupy movement nearly 70 years later. His tone is agreeably wry. LSD is a funny drug and odd things happen when people take it. He is thus more in the school of Wolfe than the Malibu mansion of Didion here.
Heads is a fun book, if predictably loopy at points. It’s not really about music despite the focus on the Dead. His interest in the band seems to be mainly cultural. He spends far too much time on Dead wannabes like the tedious Phish and on charlatans like Terrence McKenna but these are minor quibbles. If you are looking for the link between LSD and the Internet or have ever been curious about the whole Grateful Dead thing, you must read this book. If you’ve already joined the (micro) dots, know how many times they played Dead Star, had a stall selling crystals on Shakedown Street and see your life in terms of pre and post 1995, then you are probably quoted and don’t need to read it.
Teaser: Too many Dead connections to mention. Keith Haring, Al Gore, a café in Katoomba, 9-11, Bernie Sanders, Wikileaks. It’s all the same story, man.
The Grateful Dead on the Festival Express Tour, somewhere in Canada. This is an old blues song. The Dead’s 40 minute ‘space jams’ can be a bit ponderous for the uninitiated. They are at once an overrated and underrated band. This is lovely moment where their folk side is on full display.
This, however, might be more representative!