About sturdeeroe66

I am a writer who likes to read.

Jangly notes from a very small island

https://i1.wp.com/cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0197/1326/files/9781775540892_In_love_with_these_times_e7226c3e-30f4-4532-901e-63d99ac03d29_grande_large.jpgIn Love With These Times: My Life with Flying Nun Records by Roger Shepherd, Harper Collins NZ, 2016

I once asked Kim Salmon to explain the extraordinary flowering of early punk in Australia. I’m from Toronto after all, just up the road from New York. We had a few notable bands in this era but nothing on par with The Saints, Radio Birdman, or indeed Kim’s outfit, The Scientists. He had no idea. But he did offer his own experience as a possibility. The Scientists’ early sound, he told me, was based on what he thought punk might sound like after reading about it in a six month old issue of the NME. There were no punk records in the shops in Perth or Brisbane. Early Australian punk avoided being derivative because no one had actually heard the music.

How’s that for a theory? Isolation breeds original music. There should be some great music coming out of places like Reunion Island then. Well, ever heard of Rene Lacaille? And what about Dunedin on the south island of New Zealand? That should be a veritable wellspring of creativity in music. According to Roger Shepherd’s new memoir, In Love With These Times: My Life with Flying Nun Records, that is exactly what it is.

https://i2.wp.com/www.audioculture.co.nz/content/images/4758/wysiwyg_full_clean4.jpg

The Clean

The Clean, The Chills, The Verlaines, Tall Dwarfs, Sneaky Feelings, and The Bats are hardly household names but they are all associated with the influential ‘Dunedin Sound.’ Roger Shepherd notes that, in the early 80s, Dunedin bands went in for reverb, drone, and jangle (without the jingle). Sound familiar? Fans of LA’s Paisley Underground scene will recognize the same brushstrokes but might be surprised to note that some of these New Zealand bands got there first or least at the same time. Listen to Sneaky Feelings’ ‘For Pity’s Sake’ from the 1982 ‘Dunedin Double’ compilation EP if you don’t believe me. Michael Stipe, it should be noted, credits the sound as a major influence on REM’s early albums.

Roger Shepherd founded Flying Nun Records in 1981 while working in a Christchurch record store. The most interesting sections of the book are in the first few chapters where he describes the excitement of punk’s initial stirrings in New Zealand. He tells a funny story about a friend who in 1976 predicted that the future of popular music was something he called ‘Space Rock’. Three weeks later, a new issue of the NME proclaimed the arrival of punk. Space Rock would have to wait. Hopefully for a long time!

Shepherd almost accidentally started the company by releasing two singles (‘Ambivalence’ by The Pin Group and ‘Tally Ho’ by The Clean) in 1981. He saw a lot of bands and thought that other people should hear them. Compared to, say, Mushroom Records’ Michael Gudinski or someone like David Geffen, Shepherd is a modest fellow indeed. It only occurs to him that he is the owner of Flying Nun when he meets someone in a pub claiming he is instead. It takes him years to get up enough nerve to quit his day job. This is a long way from SST Records being infiltrated by the FBI. But still, these chapters are like snapshots of a lost world in rock and roll. From the four track recorder in someone’s living room to the surprise entry into the national charts, there has never been a time like the pre internet early 80s for tiny record labels.

https://i0.wp.com/cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0197/1326/files/BIKES.jpg

The Verlaines

The gap between mainstream and ‘alternative’ music was far more pronounced than it would be ten years later. The major labels in the 1980s were so powerful and so rich that it was almost impossible to challenge them in the market. Anyone feeling sad about the more recent disruption of the record industry by online piracy might reflect on the effect of this stranglehold on music. Labels like Flying Nun were fighting a real David and Goliath battle with the majors in those days. New Zealand radio was filled with the same bathwater that everyone was subjected to in the early eighties while volunteers packed envelopes with little heard but gloriously creative 45s. Roger Shepherd is far too humble to say so but he, along with his many counterparts all over the world, were revolutionaries. The overused word ‘alternative’ really meant something in those days. When The Eagles Junta was in power, small labels kept us safe!

Speaking of politics, New Zealand in 1981 was experiencing one of its more dramatic moments. A controversial tour by the South African rugby team, the Springboks, divided the country sharply. The protests were enormous and several games were actually stopped. It’s not a overstatement to say that the international attention that the protests brought to the situation in South Africa was a significant step towards the end of Apartheid. Shepherd weaves this story into his own. He doesn’t overdo it but there must be some connection between New Zealand’s birth as a liberal minded nation on the world stage and the sudden appearance of so much great rock and roll.

https://architectureboogie.files.wordpress.com/2016/06/018d8-1464203620722.jpgIn the late 80s, Flying Nun Records relocated to Auckland before it was more or less taken over by Australia’s Mushroom label in 1990. Roger Shepherd moved to England where he was eventually pushed out of the label completely when Mushroom itself was taken over. In 2010, he regained control of the label with the help of fellow Kiwi Neil Finn. By this time, Flying Nun Records was recognized in New Zealand as a national treasure that deserved to survive.

Throughout the book, Roger Shepherd seems curiously removed from the music itself. His intentions were, and remain, to distribute music that he enjoys. That said, he says very little about the music. The book certainly has its moments. His descriptions of Chris Knox on stage as the lead singer of Dunedin Sound ur band, The Enemy are vivid and compelling. The story of how Flying Nun inadvertently released a bootleg of The Fall is of interest too. But there is still a book to be written about the ‘Dunedin Sound’. Roger Shepherd is a likeable guide to his label’s history but a scene that can produce so many bands playing so much deep music requires a far more thorough investigation.

Teaser: The story about the stolen cactus with narcotic properties, the enema kits, and the missing ginger ale is sufficiently weird to remind you that we’re talking about New Zealand here, after all.

 

 

Biggest.Jazz.Fan.Ever.

https://i0.wp.com/ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51HLiPXsa5L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgMurray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues by Albert Murray and Paul Devlin (Editor), University of Minnesota Press, 2016

It’s entirely possible that when Albert Murray died in 2013 at the age of 97, jazz lost its biggest fan. That sounds like a huge call but after reading this book, I think it can be made.

Murray Talks Music is a collection of unpublished interviews, and a few short pieces. For any other writer, this might make for a slight volume but Albert Murray clearly didn’t do slight. These are all of considerable weight. His observations on jazz, blues, art, aesthetics, race, and literature come fast and furious here.

So who is this Albert Murray? If you haven’t heard of him you will wonder where you have been after you’ve read a few of these interviews. He was a jazz critic, possibly the greatest ever, a novelist, and a biographer. His first book was published when he was 54 years old, following a career in the American military. Along with his protégés, Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, he co-founded Jazz at the Lincoln Centre.

And he was the biggest jazz fan who ever lived. This is a man who possessed such a fine understanding of the form that he was treated like an equal by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jo Jones and many others. The discussion – interview isn’t the right word – with Dizzy Gillespie is remarkable. The trumpeter is completely relaxed. Even the friendliest of musicians, and Dizzy was pretty friendly, are wary of interviewers. There is more than a little pressure to get things right and not misrepresent their music, their colleagues, themselves. Dizzy trusts Murray and talks openly about his career and the people he played with, particularly in the early days. It’s without doubt one of the most satisfying exchanges between a musician and writer that I have ever read.

https://i2.wp.com/www.newyorker.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/100517_r19622_p646-963-1200-22164656.jpgHis love of jazz goes far beyond his vast knowledge of the music and its players. For Murray, jazz is the purest form of American art. Like the country itself, it is about innovation and improvisation. Jazz music, he says, is the sound of a restless nation pushing against boundaries and frontiers. It is also, for Murray, an African American art form. Some of his critics, notably Terry Teachout, have suggested that he underrated white jazz artists but Murray’s views here are far more complex. His position was that the race problem in America is one of definition and artificial lines. America for Murray was an idea, rather than a geopolitical or economic entity. He believed that African Americans were the ‘real’ Americans because they arrived from Africa with no language and no culture. They absorbed the culture of America and practiced it in its purest form, untainted by a sense of Europe as a center. They were thus able to create jazz, the greatest and perhaps only truly American art form. His first book, The Omni Americans (1970), a response to Patrick Moynihan’s damning 1965 report on the state of African Americans, suggests that the way forward could be in a redefining of American culture, to recognize the contribution of everyone involved, rather than any one group. Sadly, this probably still seems overly idealistic almost 50 years later. However, while pondering this, it occurred to me that the blues heritage of Mississippi and Chicago are now institutionalized in a manner that would have seemed unlikely even 25 years ago. When I visited Maxwell Street, Chicago, in the early 90s, the market was closed and there was no sign that this was one of the crucibles of American music. It is now heritage listed, the market has reopened, and tourism has revived what was a very depressed neighbourhood. Richard Daley’s son, of all people, made this happen! It would be lovely to think that we might one day say that music provided the groundwork for a real change in race relations in America.

http://i.imgur.com/ugyXwqi.jpg

Jazz man?

Albert Murray’s own influences are of great interest as well. Though best known as a jazz critic, he was also a novelist who thought deeply about literature. Again and again, he makes reference to novels like The Magic Mountain and the ideas of Andre Malraux. Now there’s a name you don’t hear much these days! Intriguingly, he doesn’t seem to have had much interest in African American literature. He never mentions figures like CLR James and is dismissive of Zora Neale Hurston. Toni Morrison even gets a quick brickbat for Tar Baby. As far as jazz in fiction, he seems to be only impressed by one American writer: Ernest Hemingway. Yup, Papa’s staccato sentences and uncluttered phrasing has a distinct jazz sensibility according to Murray. I have read similar things about Eliot’s early poetry. Murray, like others, links jazz to Modernism at points. I would have been curious to know his thoughts on the Beats, surely the most jazz influenced of all writers’ circles. I also wondered what he thought of Walter Mosely. But then I spent the whole book wanting to ask Murray questions.

 

https://i1.wp.com/www.jerryjazzmusician.com/pics/ellis1.jpg

Albert Murry and Ralph Ellison

But what about Ralph Ellison, you ask? Good question. They were lifelong friends and their correspondence is collected in Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. I ordered a copy – you can borrow it when I’m finished! Though it’s never stated, I had the feeling that Ralph was possibly not the jazz fan I might have imagined and that perhaps Albert Murray played Ezra to his TS in this area. Make it new and put some jazz in that book!

The final interview is a transcript of a radio program that he did with the combative critic, Stanley Crouch. Probably the most remarkable aspect of it is how deferential Crouch is to Murray. But then Crouch is controversial because he rejects most of the rhetoric around race and music in America. Crouch is a formidable critic and a force of nature in interviews but he remains a Murrayite.

The long discussion with Wynton Marsalis that opens the book is riveting. I’ve always enjoyed reading interviews with the trumpeter. He is highly articulate, passionate, and opinionated. There is a widely held perception that he is something like the active political wing for Stanley Crouch’s program. I now believe that the program might actually be Murray’s!

https://i0.wp.com/newarkwww.rutgers.edu/ijs/cb/images/murrayBASIE.jpg

With Count Basie

So, you might ask, what did the biggest jazz fan in history listen to? Clearly, The Count and The Duke were his guys. He saw Ellington as a major composer on par with Beethoven, except that he thought Ellington was better. The Count seems to pull more at his heartstrings though and is the musician that best illustrates his theory of the blues. I won’t spoil it here. If his love for these two figures seems conventional it is probably because Murray created the convention. He makes a good case too. I only wish he had lived long enough to take down Adam Gopnik, after that thuggish dismissal of the Duke in the New Yorker last year!

It’s hard to believe that Murray never played music. Most music writers, it must be said, are frustrated musicians. I certainly am! Murray does admit to tinkering with bass at one time but certainly never at a level he himself would have rated. Reassuringly, he says that music writers don’t need to be able to play music, they just need to be able to listen to it! It’s a good point and, if it is true, there is no doubt that this man was the Art Tatum of listeners.

Teasers: A masterclass in fact checking as Murray cross examines trombonist, Don Minor on the beginnings of the Basie band; Dizzy and Albert reveal the BeBop creation story. Hint: it all started with Earl Hines.

Jo Jones laying it down with Coleman Hawkins. For Murray, Jones was THE jazz drummer.

 

Seasoning the food of love

https://i2.wp.com/images.macmillan.com/folio-assets/macmillan_us_frontbookcovers_1000H/9780374277901.jpgEvery Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in a Musical Age of Plenty by Ben Ratliff, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

I’ve just celebrated, if that’s the right word, one of those ‘milestone’ birthdays, the ones that end in zero and send you into all kinds of generally pointless reflection. Out of the rubble of regret and mourning for my lost youth came an idea. I would try to listen to something new every day. This isn’t some kind of mid life crisis where I start listening to current pop or rock and roll. I try to listen to new bands but I always feel like Mr Jones. I can hear something is happening but I don’t know what it is. No, the idea was that I would listen to albums, bands, or songs that I had simply hadn’t heard. So, for example, I listened to Hot Rats the other day. I had never heard it and now I have. I listened to an Eric Dolphy record called Out To Lunch and Joao Gilberto’s self titled ‘white album’ from 1973. I can hear you screaming, ‘what you’ve never heard that album?! Why am reading your blog?!’ Relax, I’ve heard it now.

A handy book appeared around the time I made this momentous decision and it is called Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in a Musical Age of Plenty by Ben Ratliff. The premise of the book is this: We have access to an enormous amount of music at the moment but what do we do with it all? How can we handle the sheer weight of, say, every Fela Kuti album? It’s changed everything. When I think back to the mid eighties and the time and energy I spent trying to hear, just hear, Big Star… Ok, I’m showing my age and being boring!

He acknowledges the obvious problems with this much access. Writers like Nicholas Carr have suggested that the internet is turning us all into shallow readers and I suppose the same argument could be made about listening. Ten seconds of a Burundian guitar player, back to Blonde on Blonde for a few bars of Absolutely Sweet Marie, hmm, I’m going to listen to that Roger McGuinn solo album that Petty plays on now. And so on. Every Song Ever is thus a self help book of sorts for distracted listeners.

His twenty chapters are based around specific elements in music. But this isn’t like one of those old LPs which explains music theory in a ‘fun’ way. He avoids, for the most part, formal music terms and looks instead at elements like ‘Slowness’ and ‘Speed’ where he considers the effect of tempo. He makes the interesting observation that music should never be too fast for dancing. He also dismisses the idea that speed is a mark of virtuosity, noting that speed is instead ‘like a sweater on a dog at a show’. It’s nice but it’s the dog that’s being judged.

nusrat-fateh-ali-khanThe chapter on ‘Transmission’ is particularly interesting. He quotes the 19th century writer Evard Hanslick who wrote that ‘music mimics the motion of feelings’. This rather romantic idea was dismissed by the formalist critics of the early 20th century who tried to quantify the effects of music with elaborate theory and somewhat pseudo scientific ideas about our relationship to it. Ratliff points to the Sufi tradition and the wildly spiritual music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan as evidence that the place where music comes from is no simple matter. John Lennon’s performance of Julia, one of his great moments, is mentioned here too.

The chapter on ‘Space’ poses an interesting question: ‘When you listen to music, do you want to feel that you are in a particular kind of physical structure or landscape? A cathedral, a cube, a club, a desert, a marketplace?” If I was enjoying the book before this point, I was completely captivated by this idea. I thought immediately of John Bonham’s drums at the beginning of Where The Levee Breaks. Even without knowing the story behind the recording, the sound is evocative spatially. You can hear the place as clearly as the drums and it is exactly where you want to be. Paul Horn’s Taj Mahal album came to mind too. And then I thought about all of the famous studios and what the Stones achieved by recording Wild Horses in Muscle Shoals.

The book certainly got me thinking about some of my favourite songs and how they are so much more than just a riff or an evocative set of lyrics. There is a chapter on ‘Closeness’ that seemed to define what I love about The Everly Brothers 1960s output. The chapter on tone seemed to contain a clue to the religious mysteries of Buddy Holly. Even individual instruments were brought to mind. Why do I love the flute so much? Is it something to do with ‘density’?

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/d/d4/Teatroreal.jpg/220px-Teatroreal.jpgBut the other aspect of this book is the examples that he uses to illustrate his various claims. The book is not long, 272 pages, but it will take you weeks to read because you can’t help tracking down the songs and albums he mentions. They are threaded through the text and featured in a list at the end of each chapter. Hence the serendipitous appearance of this book as I vowed to listen to more unfamiliar music. In the ‘Slowness’ chapter, I discovered Dadawah’s Peace and Love album, some magic mid seventies reggae. The ‘Discrepancy’ chapter yielded Willie Colon’s Lo Mato album from 1973. The improvisation chapter alerted me to the music of Derek Bailey, an avant garde guitarist, and Paco De Lucia’s scorching 1975 En Vivo Desde el Teatro Real album. So much good stuff. I ended up keeping a notebook nearby so I could make a list of albums, both known and unknown, to listen to later. It’s that kind of a book.

Ratliff’s tastes are, to say the least, catholic. One minute he is dealing with the volume at a Jerry’s Kids (the hardcore band, not the telethon) show, the next he is providing a context for Steve Reich’s Four Organs. One of the things I considered in the lead up to my ‘milestone’ birthday was the melancholy fact that there was great music out there that I would never hear. I will try my best but there are only so many hours in my remaining days. Wow, what a grim sentence! Anyhow, this book was very reassuring. If I can’t hear everything, I can at least listen a little more deeply and make sure that none of those hours are wasted.

Teasers: Lovely analysis of Curtis Mayfield’s guitar style, the Italian word for the way Bing Crosby sings, and the idea of ‘ownership’ in music.

I told him I wasn’t eskimo

41yZ8LtlJSL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of LA Punk, John Doe with Tom DeSavia and Friends, De Capo 2016

John Doe, like most Californians, is from somewhere else. So is Exene Cervenka, his bandmate and former spouse. John is from Baltimore, Exene from Florida. Both, oddly, were born in Illinois. Yes, the ultimate LA punk band, X, was formed by two Southerners from the Midwest.

But California has always been more about the idea of California than the state itself. Outsiders, from the original settlers to Jim Morrison, brought their imaginative sense of the west coast with them. The pure products, like Brian Wilson, go crazy. But then, so does everyone else. As James Ellroy says about the city, you ‘come on vacation and go home on probation’.

Under The Big Black Sun is a strange book in many ways. It’s not about X, despite the title it shares with their 1982 album. It’s also not about John Doe, despite his name on the cover and various contributions. He and Exene certainly haunt its pages but are by no means the main characters. It’s not an oral history in the style of Legs McNeill’s Please Kill Me though it contains many voices. There is already an oral history of LA punk from 2001 called We’ve Got The Neutron Bomb. This collection covers some of the same ground but the use of the essay form makes for a very different book. For one thing, Under The Big Black Sun is not exclusively about music. To some extent, it is a snapshot of Los Angeles at the end of a long period of decline. The seventies (and indeed, the sixties) are ending but the former governor Reagan is waiting in the wings for his turn as president. LA will rise in the 1980s and become a kind of staging ground for the cultural shift to neo liberalism and hyper consumerism.

https://i2.wp.com/9rm52pnjcvdzcxx3.zippykid.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/John-Doe-Exene-Cervenka.jpgSo this is an unfamiliar LA, a city of derelict apartment blocks filled with misfits who are making films, writing poetry, and forming bands like The Go Gos. It’s a night place where a bunch of disaffected kids come together and try something different. All of them had grown up in the Watergate 1970s and the slow death of the 60s dream. Like their counterparts in New York, London, Sydney, and Toronto, they weren’t interested in the bloated rock music on the radio so they made it new. Henry Rollins says that history is filled with moments where someone stands up and says ‘Fuck this. No seriously, fuck this.’ This is what happened in LA in 1977.

Not much stuck. Aside from The Go Go’s, whose moment was brief, none of the bands in this story went very far. X made four stellar albums, followed by a few less stellar ones. The Blasters set a high standard for roots music and promptly broke up. Black Flag are well known but are hardly anyone’s idea of a mainstream act. There is no Blondie, no Talking Heads, no Ramones and no Patti Smith in this story. Instead this is a beautiful moment in rock and roll history that remains preserved by its own obscurity.

X is probably the least known great American band. The combination of poetic lyrics, Exene’s persona and voice, Billy Zoom’s hot rockabilly licks and John Doe’s Cosmic Country soul makes for a remarkably eclectic sound. Some critics have called them the punk rock Doors. But those are lazy critics. Ray Manzarek produced their first four albums and there are occasional references but X is a far more interesting unit. The Band maybe, if you are looking for a 60s equivalent, not so much in sound but rather in vision and depth.

Like all truly great bands, they have their own sound and comparisons don’t really add much. Nor do narrow boxes. I don’t think the punk label served X well but it is possible to see, perhaps, a road not taken for that genre. In another universe, punk might have continued to grow in more interesting ways. I often wonder why so few bands took up The Gun Club’s thrilling use of delta blues and deep south imagery. The vision of punk in Under The Big Black Sun is a long way from the subsequent ‘hardcore’ scene of mid 1980s. In fact, many of the contributors in this book bemoan the end of the initial punk period in LA as it descended into violence, monolithic rhythms, and male posturing.

Alley Cats, The Plugz, Black Flag, Descendents, The Reactionaries @ a teen post in San Pedro 1979.Punk began in LA as the music of the outsider. There is a fine essay by Teresa Covarraubias of the band The Brat, about the scene in East LA and the contribution of Latino bands like The Plugz – who once backed Bob Dylan on Letterman. Yes, Los Lobos makes an appearance here. They once opened for PIL. What happened? Guess. It involves saliva. Her essay ends, however, on a sad note about the night that a local hall, The Vex, was destroyed by the violent suburban punks who began to dominate the scene in the early 80s. They were, for the most part, white and male. The diversity of the early scene didn’t last long. When the bullyboy skins from Orange Country turned up, women too drifted away from what had been a remarkably progressive moment in rock and roll.

Jack Grisham of the band TSOL gets right of reply here and, in an articulate and fiery essay, outlines the experience of the suburban punks who took the ‘destroy everything’ slogan very literally indeed. In some ways, the book is a series of elegies for a lost time. Chris D. of the Flesh Eaters describes a moment of truth when he walked in on John Belushi and Derf Scratch of the band Fear snorting coke. He resented the intrusion of celebrity culture and the tired inevitability of it all. That’s the moment it ended for him. Others point to the closing of clubs, the death of the Germs singer, Darby Crash, the ‘success’ of X, and the rise of bands like Black Flag.

Other essays, like Mike Watt’s stream of consciousness style story of the band The Minutemen are surprisingly touching and sad. He describes his first meeting with bandmate D. Boon, who died young in a traffic accident:

I met d. boon some three or so years after coming to san pedro, ca, from Norfolk va, when he jumped out of a tree and landed on me in peck park, thinking I was a friend of his, nicknamed eskimo – I told him I wasn’t eskimo…

The sheer oddity of this meeting is a veritable mission statement for the zeitgeist that produced LA punk.

There is much to be discussed in this book and many old albums to dig out while you are reading it. Everybody has periods in history they would like to visit – Paris in the 20s, Greenwich Village in the early 60s, and so on. I’ve added LA in the late 70s. I want to go over to East LA with my new friends John and Exene and catch The Plugz at the The Vex. Afterwards, I want to go to a party at the Canterbury and finish up at the Tropicalia where Tom Waits will stumble out and advise me to stay in school. You had to be there. You wish you had been but Under The Big Black Sun will do nicely as a substitute.

Teaser: Dave Alvin describes what it was like for a rockabilly band to open for Black Flag and describes the various items thrown at the stage that remain embedded in his 1964 Telecaster.

X in the studio with Ray Manzarek in attendance.

Before the Orange Country invasion…

Ceaselessly into the Past

billieholidaybyjohnszwed9780670014729

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.

https://i0.wp.com/i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/03242/BillieHolidaymicro_3242443b.jpgAs 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.

 

 

People, what d’ya think about that?

https://media.spincds.com/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/265x/9df78eab33525d08d6e5fb8d27136e95/1/9/1966.jpg1966: 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.

https://i2.wp.com/www.blogcdn.com/www.spinner.com/media/2011/02/barry-sadler-456-020511.jpgAt 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.https://i1.wp.com/images.npg.org.uk/800_800/3/2/mw60732.jpg

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.

https://i2.wp.com/cps-static.rovicorp.com/3/JPG_400/MI0001/515/MI0001515370.jpgSome 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 https://americasouthandnorth.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/osmutantespng.png‘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.

 

Poets with Guitars

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.

No Wave Goodbye

https://i0.wp.com/cdn2.thelineofbestfit.com/media/2014/Kim_Gordon_-_Girl_in_a_Band.jpg

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.http://assets.rollingstone.com/assets/1994/article/are-you-xperienced-19941006/183398/large_rect/1422321104/1401x788-85841396.jpg

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.

File:Sonic Youth live 20050707.jpg 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.

 

 

 

When Flo and the jams were kicked out

 

https://files.list.co.uk/images/2015/03/04/Detroit-67-LST162957_b.jpgDetroit 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.

https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/f2/28/99/f22899e2a4d50a8bd973155623650cc0.jpgDetroit 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!

https://i0.wp.com/www.posters.ws/images/841549/diana_ross.jpg https://i0.wp.com/media2.fdncms.com/metrotimes/imager/a-brief-look-at-mc5-singer-rob-tyners-gra/u/blog/2325124/tyner.jpg“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.

https://i2.wp.com/annarborchronicle.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/johnsinclair2.jpg

John Sinclair

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.

https://i0.wp.com/www.detroitartistsworkshop.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/09/mc5-big.jpg

The coolest photo ever. The MC5 in action.

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!

 

 

To feel the cool night breeze…

 

https://i1.wp.com/ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51UJuwCaBkL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgSmall Town Talk by Barney Hoskyns, Da Capo Press 2016

Woodstock didn’t happen in Woodstock. It happened somewhere else but it is true to say that Woodstock did happen to Woodstock. The small town in upstate New York remains one of those curious tourist stops that is more about a time than a place. Contemporary Haight Ashbury is another that comes to mind. There are places in the world where we visit other decades and many of them are good examples of hyper reality, as defined by Umberto Eco and others. They are idealized simulacrums of the past, not unlike Disneyland’s Main Street USA.

Which doesn’t make them bad places to visit at all, just odd if you start thinking too much. Best to enjoy them as the portals to better days, better music, and the simple pleasures of a well rolled joint on a summer evening.

Enter Barney Hoskyns. If you have read any or all of his books, you know that disappointment is unlikely. His study of Tom Waits is probably only matched by Jimmy McDonagh’s Shakey in the music biography stakes. The powdery pleasure of his Hotel California, the sandy sweep of Waiting For the Sun, and the masterful Across The Divide, the best book ever on The Band, all put him in the running for greatest living something. He says interesting things about bands you love and makes you consider again the ones you don’t. He tells a good story, knows his stuff, and, book by book, changes the way you think about rock and roll.

Small Town Talk, like Hotel California, is about a place where music happened. The place is Woodstock, New York, and some of the little nearby hamlets. Naturally, Dylan is front and center here. It was here that he cut his hair, fell off his motorcycle, played with the kids, recorded the Basement Tapes, and hung around looking extraordinarily cool in the late 60s. There is a cartoon reproduced in the book that sadly I can’t find online. It depicts Dylan coming off his bike and thinking, ‘country rock!’ Yes, I know he probably didn’t invent the genre but he invented something in Woodstock and a lot of bands used it. From The Beatles to Fairport Convention to every other band that got it together in the country, Dylan and The Band created an atmosphere that remains one of the more influential and desirable in rock and roll.

https://i0.wp.com/65.media.tumblr.com/27829924ba1994de4219e7fd2c8470cf/tumblr_nc5zqaDpCF1qalx0to1_500.jpg

Dawn of the Wilburys

The stories have been told so many times that I did wonder what Hoskyns could possibly say about Woodstock in this period that would surprise me. Sid Griffin covered the recording of the Basement Tapes in detail in Million Dollar Bash and Greil Marcus gave us the metaphysical implications of those recordings in The Old Weird America. Hoskyns himself bested both of these accounts in Across The Great Divide.

His angle is a clever one. It’s the story of Woodstock based around the life of a major figure of the time who happens not to be a musician but Dylan’s dear old landlord, Albert Grossman. I know what you’re thinking. That bastard! The cranky American from Don’t Look Back with the hot wife who appears on the cover of Bringing it all Back Home? Yes, that guy, and there is a lot more to him than you might expect. He’s not Allan Klein or the Colonel. There was a genuine love of music and a real connection with his various clients. His relationship with Janis is examined in some detail here. Hoskyns doesn’t say it but it seems clear that Grossman never fully recovered from her death.

https://i1.wp.com/mediastore.magnumphotos.com/CoreXDoc/MAG/Media/TR7/d/6/8/d/PAR293424.jpgHe thought that she was something truly special. And he was right! Anyone else noticed that Janis seems to be out of fashion at the moment? What’s that about?

Jimi turns up in Woodstock too, on the run from his own thuggish manager and the experience of fame, literally and figuratively. Van Morrison shows up, records two or three classic albums, decides he hates the place and moves to San Francisco. Dylan gets tired of finding hippies in his bed and moves back to NYC. The various members of The Band take self destruction up to unheard of levels and Paul Butterfield pops in for drink. John Martyn finds Beverly talking to Dylan and behaves very badly.

The challenge for Hoskyns is an obvious one. How to maintain the story after everyone of any interest has left. A book about Woodstock from say, 1960 – 1975, would have been okay but would have consigned the whole thing to the ‘sixties’, which we already know is just a simulacrum. So he brings it up to the present in the guise of Simone Felice who carries the flame around there these days. But he still has to keep things going in the mid to late 70s and the 80s. So we get a sad coda for Richard Manuel and a lot of Todd Rundgren. Todd is not my cup of tea but there is much of interest here about his connection with Grossman and his time in the town.

Which brings us to Bobby Charles whose song provides the title and whose eponymous 1972 album is the greatest thing you may not have heard, although a lot more folks know it these days. It is an album that features members of The Band and in a funny way feels like the delivery of the promise of the Basement Tapes and the whole damn period in Woodstock. Hoskyns recognizes its significance and pays proper respect to this chaotic man and his brilliant record.

I’m not a reviewer and this isn’t a book review. If you feel like revisiting all of this and are prepared to dig out Stage Fright, His Band and the Street Choir, and possibly a few Mercury Rev records, you know what you have to do.