Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth John Szwed, Viking 2015
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Billie Holiday sounds a bit like those boats. She drifts back from the beat and takes whatever time she needs to tell her story. It is almost her signature. But this was more than merely style. The substance of her art was the raw humanity of that voice. We’re all a bit behind the beat, as Nick Carraway reminds us. That’s what I hear in Billie Holiday.
There are two chapters about the way she sang in John Szwed’s new book, Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth. It was never a strong voice and her range was barely one octave. Teddy Wilson, with whom she made so many great records, said he preferred Barbara Streisand when asked about Billie later in life. Barbara Streisand! I mean, really! Billie herself was ambivalent about what she famously called her ‘old voice’. But that old voice was as much a wonder of the 20th century as F. Scott’s novel. She sang and she spoke at the same time. The French call this ‘diseuse’. Szwed claims that it is what gives her songs so much warmth.
The subtitle of the book, the musician and the myth, is appropriate. Szwed works hard to separate the two and explore the musical rather than the personal. And this isn’t easy. Her life was a sad one, a really sad one. The temptation to explain the pathos of her singing in terms of the lousy childhood, the drug addiction and so on is great. Very few writers have managed to avoid the black hole of biographical fallacy when writing about Billie. Hence, a book that looks at her music on its own terms instead of as an expression of her ‘tortured soul’ is a welcome addition to writing about Billie and about jazz in general. Writers such as Elijah Wald have recently called out the standard ‘blues’ biography as a racist white fantasy. This book avoids the overemphasis on ‘otherness’ and is far more informative for it.
As if to make this plain, the first section deals with the ‘myth’ and, specifically, the autobiography Holiday produced in 1957. Lady Sings the Blues was much read at the time but is a book that has always been considered fictitious. He points out that she was forced to suppress the sections that dealt with many of her friendships and romantic relationships. Orson Welles, Charles Laughton, Tallulah Bankhead, Elizabeth Bishop, and several other notables threatened legal action if they were mentioned. Billie’s problems with heroin and her troubles with the law were both well known by the 1950s. No one wanted to be publicly associated with her. The book then became a hodgepodge of stories that emphasized her troubled life. Szwed suggests that the book isn’t fictitious, just incomplete. Like all biographical writing, it reflects the values of the period in which it was written. There is a glut of rock and roll memoirs on the shelves in bookstores at the moment. The selling point is, of course, the opportunity to hear the ‘true’ story from the horse’s mouth. Billie’s autobiography is a reminder that the ‘truth’ is no simple matter.
The second section, The Musician, begins with a chapter called ‘The Prehistory of a Singer’. In setting the stage for her career, Szwed reaches back to the minstrel shows of the 19th and early 20th century. There is no more complex period in American music with regard to race. And it lays the foundations for all the complexity to come. If you feel like sending yourself down a moral rabbit hole in regard to the music you revere, read Love and Theft by Eric Lott or Where Dead Voices Gather by Nick Tosches. In this book, Szwed notes that Billie herself had to ‘black up’ occasionally in her early days. Confused? Welcome to American music!
This chapter also highlights her high level of musicality. A classical musician who spent an afternoon with her at the piano thought that she was the most intelligent listener he’d ever encountered. She didn’t read music and did not write songs as such (discussed in another chapter) but like so many of the great jazz artists, she had an intensely musical aura. Watch the clip below. Emotional? Sure. Physical? Yes. Spiritual? Absolutely.
Billie’s first two recordings were with Benny Goodman. She also worked with the Basie band and there found a musical soul mate in saxophone genius, Lester Young. He named her Lady Day, she called him Prez, as in President of the Sax. But her most dramatic association was with Artie Shaw. There is a movie waiting to be made about their tour of the American south in the late 1930s. Black singers with white bands weren’t that unusual but they didn’t normally head to Georgia or Alabama together. Billie had to be escorted everywhere by the toughest members of the band. Shaw insisted she be treated equally in hotels, restaurants, and at the venues they played. This caused no end of trouble and eventually Holiday simply quit. She cited the fact that getting a sandwich or going to the bathroom always turned into a ‘major NAACP production’ on the tour.
There should be a warning on the cover of this book: Beware – you will feel compelled to read passages aloud to family, friends, and total strangers. It’s that sort of book. Fascinating facts and compelling stories fall off the page. You will also need access to her recordings. Szwed covers a lot of songs here and I’m pretty sure you will want to hear all of them. A top read for fans and novices alike.
Teasers: Strange Fruit – the whole damn story! The time Rita Hayworth got really angry with Orson Welles! Tallulah Bankhead’s throwdown to Peggy Lee! Billie Holiday, babysitter!
Watch this. Billie and Lester Young together again after years apart. They were both gone within 18 months. Heartbreaking clip.
1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, Jon Savage, Faber and Faber 2015
1966 began for me on a Sunday morning in May. ‘Walking My Cat Named Dog’ by Norma Tanega was on the transistor radio at the nurses’ station and my mum was no doubt sleeping. I was down the hall with a bunch of other babies. We were talking about The Kinks. No we weren’t. My memories don’t begin for another four years or so but like second wave feminism, the gay rights movement, radical black politics and rock rather than pop, I am a product of 1966.
We’re all turning fifty this year. Me, ‘The Ballad of Green Berets’, ‘Dead End Street’, ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’, ‘Snoopy and the Red Baron’. How are we faring? Some of us better than others!
1966:The Year the Decade Exploded by Jon Savage won the Penderyn Prize, a now annual award given to books about music and sponsored by a Welsh distillery. It’s a great idea and this year’s shortlist says a lot about the quality of contemporary books in this genre.
The publishing industry seems to be invested in individual years at the moment. Where once a book might have been called something grand like ‘The End of Medieval England’, it is now, ‘1485’. The focus will be on the events of that year and the writer will seek to establish those events as turning points or tipping points, as Malcolm Gladwell would have it.
At the moment on my coffee table, there are books called 1607 (James Shapiro’s follow up to 1599), 1966, Detroit 67, and a novel by Garth Risk Hallberg called City on Fire which appears to be set entirely in 1977 although it’s 900 pages long and I’m only halfway through it. It might be 1979 when I finish. Or 2017. On my kobo, there is a book by David Browne called Fire and Rain that is all about 1970 and one from a few years ago called 1968 by Mark Kurlansky. They are all of interest but when ‘1996’ appears, don’t expect a review. I didn’t like anything about that whole decade.
Anyone remember the Rankin Bass animated special ‘Rudolph’s Shiny New Year’? Part of the story involves a visit to an archipelago called The Islands of Last Year. Every year has its own island. At this rate, every year will soon have its own book too!
The danger here is overemphasis. It says ‘1966’ on the cover so whatever happened that year will have to be more significant than anything that happened in 65 or 67. Jon Savage generally avoids this trap by starting each story where it actually began and noting how it progressed in 1966. He still has to make the case that this was the key moment. Sometimes this falls a little flat. It’s hard to not to see the Watts Riots of 1965 as a more significant tipping point for African Americans in the 60s than anything that happened in 1966. Savage more or less acknowledges this but works very hard to make a case for ‘66 as the year that civil rights started to go militant. He runs the same line with student politics in California. I couldn’t help but think that 1965 had a better claim in both cases.
I felt the same way, at points, about the music. Savage suggests that 1966 is the year that pop became rock. I’ve often made similar claims for my birth year. I sleep in a t-shirt that says 1966 and features a picture of Mick Jagger. The funny thing is that song by song, it does pale a bit in the face of, again, 1965. I kept thinking that I preferred other singles by the Stones, the Beatles, the Kinks, and the Who than the ones from that year. But I hear you crying, “what about Blonde on Blonde, Something Else, Aftermath”?! Good question. Dylan barely surfaces here. The Beatles are quiet too. How can this be? The answer is in Savage’s approach to history writing.
He doesn’t spend much time on albums because he is trying to present 1966 as it appeared in 1966. The rock album was, arguably, born that year but the significance of that birth was still a year away with the release of Sgt. Pepper. In retrospect, there is no doubt that 1966 looks pretty good for music. Revolver, Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds are usually in the top ten of any list of greatest albums but Savage is keen to avoid that kind of retrospection. It’s one of the strengths of the book but it raises questions about history and historiography that are just too damn big to cover here. The point is that 45s still dominated the market in 1966 so it makes sense to look at them, rather than albums. There has probably been enough yap about those records anyway!
The book moves through the year chronologically and thematically. May, for instance, is about women and the earliest stirrings of second wave feminism. This structure works very well and the attention to detail is impressive. He looks at magazine articles, news events, films, documentaries, radio broadcasts, and novels from the period to create a vivid and accurate picture of each month. I was reminded slightly of Franco Moretti’s vast reading project where he read every single crime novel in a 10 year period so that he could make a real, rather than speculative, determination about the genre.
Some of these chapters are more convincing than others. His evocation of homosexuality in 1966 is particularly well done. The Tornados ‘Do you come here often?’, is widely thought of as the first ‘gay’ pop song – for those who missed the subtext of Tutti Frutti and countless other 1950s singles. Joe Meek, the legendary producer of this song, had begun his long slide into the madness that would end in his death in 1967. Like Brian Epstein, he led a secret life and had been subjected to arrest and blackmail attempts over the years. The laws were changing but it was still a difficult time to be gay in England. The chapter also picks up the story of San Francisco in that year. The Gay rights movement, in most people’s minds, begins with Stonewall in 1969 but Savage shows that it was already crystalising in 1966.
It’s ridiculous to criticize a writer for stuff that isn’t in the book. I once read a review of Ashley Kahn’s study of A Love Supreme where the critic mainly moaned that Impressions was a better album. Okay, maybe (not) but the book was about A Love Supreme! So here I go:
I loved this book and I think Jon Savage is a real historian. Compared to many music writers who rely on clichés about the 1960s, he has used primary sources exclusively here and produced a very significant book. However, I couldn’t help thinking that a section or two on events and music outside of the UK and the US would have really closed the deal. I kept waiting to hear about the following: Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in that year; the formation of Os Mutantes in Brazil; the music scene in Toronto that produced so many big stars; the extraordinary pop scene in Cambodia. I don’t want to be like the grumpy Coltrane fan but the world was, in McLuhan’s terms, becoming a ‘global village’ by 1966 and most of the events in the UK and US were mirrored in other places. Others may be able to point to music related events in Africa or even the Middle East. Please point!
But this is minor quibble about a major work. Jon Savage’s book on the Sex Pistols, England’s Dreaming is a key text on that band and the period in general. I suspect that 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded will become one of the definitive books on the 1960s and, hopefully, will set a new standard for the writing of rock and roll history.
Teaser: Too many to list but Savage is particularly good on Dusty Springfield and Andy Warhol.
Lives of the Poets (with Guitars): Thirteen Outsiders Who Changed Modern Music Ray Robertson, Biblioasis 2016
The Doubleman, a 1985 novel by Australian writer Christopher Koch, is remarkable for its gothic depiction of postwar Hobart and its lysergic portrayal of 1960s Sydney. Koch, better known for The Year of Living Dangerously, wrote The Doubleman as an indictment of the period. His 1960s are meant to be unpleasant and sinister. The funny thing is that he blows it. He doesn’t tear down the myth. In fact, if anything, he makes Sydney in that period far more appealing than it probably was.
How does a top shelf writer like Christopher Koch manage to sabotage his own intentions in a novel? Well, this is one of the great ‘unintended consequences’ stories in modern writing and it all has to do with music. Koch is a good writer. In fact he is such a good writer that he was able to do something very unusual in The Doubleman. He created a band, a folk rock outfit called The Rymers, and he described their sound. Brilliantly. This isn’t easy. Listening to music is an intensely personal experience. One person listens to The Eagles and hears his own youth, his romantic yearnings and the sound of better days. Another hears, well, The Eagles. So describing an imaginary band’s imaginary music in a plausible fashion is not easy. Koch gets it right. His band sound something like an Antipodean early Fairport Convention. I could hear them while I was reading the book and I can still hear them. There was no band like that in Sydney in the 1960s. If there were, I’d have all their albums and a poster in my kitchen. Koch was trying to do a Joan Didion number on the Australian 1960s. It didn’t work. The music was too good. Sorry Chris, great book though!
Many novelists attempt this trick. Not many get there. Novels about rock and roll bands usually fall in a great big heap when the writer tries to describe the music. I’m happy to be corrected on this one. Please drench me in the names of credible rock and roll novels. I can think of three. The Doubleman is one, Paul Quarrington’s Whale Music is another. The final and greatest of all is Ray Robertson’s 2002 novel, Moody Food.
Ray’s novel is set in the late sixties too. The music is audible throughout the story. He doesn’t do the novel-as-MOJO article jive thing. It’s a novel like Henry James might have written, if he had been a Moby Grape fan. And it ‘sounds’ right. The music he describes is the music his main character, Thomas Graham, would have made.
His latest book, Lives of the Poets (with Guitars), is a collection of essays about his favourite musicians. So now he is describing real music by real people. He does it very well. In fact, he does it so well that it is sometimes distracting. I read literature for well-chosen words and beautiful sentences. Those sometimes appear in books and articles by music writers but not all that often. I’m not being critical here. East is east, west is west. Rock writers arrange the facts in interesting ways, literary writers tell compelling stories in an artful manner. Ray does both here.
The first essay on Gene Clark sets the tone (and the volume, ha ha!). Clark is a notable cult figure. His album No Other can sit comfortably next to a whole bunch of other ambitious and brilliant albums that were completely ignored when they appeared. Clark’s sad tale is a staple of magazines like MOJO and Uncut but Ray tells it in such an affecting manner that it felt as though I was reading it for the first time. This musician’s musical journey was an unusual one that spanned several decades. Ray uses his considerable storytelling abilities to give his music a cohesive frame. This would be insupportable if the music wasn’t described with such clarity and detail. I could hear these albums as I read. That’s impressive.
The essays that follow don’t disappoint. The depth of his blues knowledge in the section on Canned Heat’s Alan Wilson particularly impressed me. If rock and roll is hard to write about, blues is nearly impossible to describe without using a lot of vaguely racist clichés. Ray avoids them all. Wilson, a figure as talented and as tragic as Jimi, Janis, or Jim, is largely forgotten these days. The essay is both a moving story of a lost legend and a reminder that the blues is much more than a tired rehash of Sweet Home Chicago in the White House or something that can only be played in a shack in the Mississippi Delta.
I want to keep going. I want to talk about how cleverly Ray depicts Ronnie Lane’s legendary circus tent tour and how well he nails Chris Hillman’s issues with Gram Parson’s legacy. I want to query the absence of Alex Chilton and celebrate the inclusion of Hound Dog Taylor. It’s that kind of collection. Read, listen, discuss over pints of Guinness, repeat.
Teaser: If you have ever met Ray, even briefly, you already own Willis Alan Ramsay’s classic self titled album. He would have insisted. If you haven’t met Ray or somehow managed to hear this album on your own, make sure you are sitting down when you do. Hear the album, that is.
Girl in a Band Kim Gordon, Dey Street, 2015
This is a sad book. Unlike so many rock and roll memoirs, it is not a litany of drug related deaths or missed opportunities. Sonic Youth’s key members, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelly, and the author of Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon, are alive and well. Their now defunct band has an enviable legacy. They never sold out, never released a seriously bad record, and can rightly claim to be one of the most important acts of the last few decades.
So why is it such a sad book? If you have ever been through a divorce, you will recognize a lot of familiar stuff here. If you haven’t been, well, this is what it’s like.
Throughout the band’s existence, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon were one of the great couples in rock and roll. They were also the coolest. Kim was intelligent, beautiful, and she played bass, for god’s sake! Thurston was tall, friendly in a shy sort of way, and played guitar like a man possessed by punk rock demons. They shared a loft in New York and were as well connected in the art world as in the music one.
But ultimately the marriage didn’t last. After nearly 30 years, he met someone else and it all ended in an uncool, tawdry fashion. Kim Gordon is not angry. It’s not that kind of book. She’s just sad. Okay, maybe she’s a little angry.
Fortunately, the entire book is not about this sad event. It’s a memoir and a really good one. I read it in two sittings. I had to go to work!
Kim Gordon was born in 1953 which puts her in that interesting demographic of people who were teenagers at the end of the sixties. They were there but not like someone like Neil Young who was born in 1945 was there. On the other hand, they are still boomers with all of that generation’s manic energy and fearlessness.
In 1969, Kim Gordon was going to high school in LA. The Manson Murders would have been discussed over egg salad sandwiches in the school cafeteria. She knew someone who was friends with Bruce Berry, later Neil Young’s roadie and the subject of Tonight’s the Night. What comes through in her story is that Sonic Youth’s groove owes something to their shared understanding of that period. She and Thurston are old enough to have caught the whole ‘break on through’ vibe but young enough to recognize how quickly it could turn into ‘take it easy’. For them the sixties isn’t a nostalgic past but the beginning of something. She mentions Thurston’s love for The Stooges and acknowledges, like everyone else, the importance of the Velvet Underground. As Victoria Williams once put it, they ‘were too young to be hippies, missed out on the love’. Their sixties was not mop tops and flower power but rather Manson girls, riots, and bands like the MC5. She notes that the song, ‘Death Valley ’69’, a collaboration with Lydia Lunch from their early days, is about her own experience of the time.
The No Wave movement in New York also made a significant impression on her. Sonic Youth, in her estimation, are closer to this genre than punk or grunge, which, of course, they, in part, inspired. The deconstructive ethic of the mid seventies New York art scene remained an influence on Sonic Youth to the end.
The story of her teenage years in LA, her move to New York, and her relationship with Thurston, make Girl in a Band a natural companion to Patti Smith’s Just Kids. I hope now she writes another one in the M Train mode. Finishing the book makes you feel like calling her up for a chat. As with Patti, her voice gets in your head and you miss it when you are finished.
I am not a hardcore Sonic Youth fan. I saw them once, opening for Neil Young, and I have two or three of their albums. The wonderful thing about this book is that it doesn’t matter. She has so many interesting things to say about art, about her friendships with people like Kurt Cobain, her experiences as a woman in the blokey world of alternative rock, motherhood, and her brief time as a fashion designer. I suspect that even readers who had never heard of Sonic Youth would be charmed by her story. That said, fans will relish the detail with which she outlines how certain songs came to be written. She is clearly inspired by the books she reads and she mentions many of them. Keep a pen handy.
Girl in a Band, like Patti’s books, is a breath of fresh air for readers of rock and roll memoirs. In a genre too often dominated by score settling, windy claims of glory, and adolescent self justification, Kim Gordon’s book is, yes, a little sad, but it is also intelligent, readable, and much more than simply a recount of a band’s progress.
Teasers: Her take on Courtney Love. The tour with Neil Young. Kim on The Carpenters.
Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul Stuart Cosgrove, 2015
“I have some rights of memory in this kingdom.”
I feel a bit like this about Detroit. I grew up in Toronto and have only visited the Motor City once or twice but my grandmother was born there and my father often spoke about family connections in Michigan. Of course the Detroit that he visited as a child in the late 40s was a different place to the city Stuart Cosgrove describes in his new book, Detroit 67:The Year that Changed Soul.
Detroit, when my dad visited, was the embodiment of the Dream as it stood in the mid 20th century. The cars, like the ambitions, were large, ornate, and obscenely comfortable. As the last of the independent automotive companies were absorbed by the big three, enormous personal wealth and top heavy management structures supplanted the creative spirit of the car industry. From the southern states came African American migrants in search of a better life and relief from Jim Crow. No one could have foreseen the next chapter and no one in 1948 would have recognized the city described in this book.
Detroit 67 begins with a long section outlining the day to day activities and troubled internal relations of The Supremes. The Motown gossip is here – yes, Berry Gordy was involved with Diana Ross – but the focus is on Florence Ballard who will, in Cosgrove’s account come to embody, not only the move by Motown Records towards a more corporate model, but also the decline of Detroit itself. The story then shifts rather abruptly to John Sinclair and the beginnings of the MC5. The connection, at first, seems tenuous. Sinclair hated Motown, though he had once shopped in Gordy’s unsuccessful record store for obscure jazz sides. The MC5 were about as far removed from The Supremes as would be possible in one city.
Part of the challenge he has set himself in this deceptively ambitious book is to make that connection. The Supremes spent 1967 appearing on network TV, shaking hands with Lyndon Johnson, visiting Vietnam vets in hospitals, and playing Las Vegas and mainstream venues like New York’s Copacabana. John Sinclair and the MC5, on the other hand, spent the year hounded by the police, the FBI and right wing extremists. The MC5 occasionally played on bills with lesser Motown acts but not The Supremes, of course. Berry Gordy loved duets. Imagine the Rob Tyner/Diana Ross version of It Takes Two. A missed opportunity for sure!
“It Takes Two” Diana Ross and Rob Tyner
So how does he bring it all back home? Where does The Supremes’ 1967 cross paths with John Sinclair’s?
In July of that year, riots broke out in Detroit. The mainstream media referred to them as ‘race riots’. Some African American commentators said it wasn’t a riot, it was a rebellion. The sixties began in Detroit over those three days. Motown, the dominant cultural force in the city, suddenly seemed quaint and a bit naive. Luckily, for Berry Gordy, Norman Whitfield turned up to drag the record company into the new world of post JFK, post MLK, and post Hendrix at Monterey America.
Sinclair and the MC5 had been political for some time but the riots seemed to lead Sinclair, at least, into the murkier world of underground radicalism, culminating in the formation of the White Panther party and the attempted bombing of a CIA office in Detroit.
Berry Gordy fired Florence Ballard and was himself ‘fired’ by Holland Dozier Holland, the songwriting and production team who had spun so much gold for him. He didn’t move the whole show to LA for another five years but the writing, as they say, was on the wall for Motown’s relationship with Detroit. Like everyone else, he got the hell out of Dodge after the riots and the city was one step closer to those abandoned library photos so beloved of Facebook users.
So what does it all mean? Well, to begin with, the book isn’t about Motown Records or The MC5 although there is plenty of information about both if you are curious. It isn’t really, despite the subtitle, about soul music. It also isn’t, as many reviewers seem to believe, about Florence Ballard or even The Supremes. No, Flo’s depressing rags to riches to rags story is a metaphor here for the year itself. Cosgrove is writing about the American Dream and her story is emblematic for a period when it began to run out of puff for most people. The riots, the Vietnam war, the increasingly grim situation for many African Americans despite the civil rights period, and the growing economic downturn that is destined to hit the working class hardest, are all contained in Flo’s sad story. Cosgrove is a stylish historian and this all works very well indeed.
Detroit 67:The Year that Changed Soul is the first book in a trilogy. The next one is titled Memphis 68 and will no doubt focus on Stax Records and MLK’s assassination. Motown, known for its dreamy harmonies and occasionally syrupy lyrics, was a far darker place than Stax. Berry Gordy loved the idea that his company was like a family. Of that, there is no doubt! Particularly if the family name is Macbeth or Borgia. Meanwhile, at Stax, a generally happy group of performers and studio musicians produced a body of music that was anything but light.
Go figure! And go read this book!
Teasers: The truth about Tammi Terrell, Marvin Gaye, and David Ruffin. Finally!