Hangin’ down in Memphis all the while (two new books about the other music city, USA)

61VRgUNrJ+LMemphis ’68: The Tragedy of Southern Soul by Stuart Cosgrove, Polygon, 2017

The original Memphis is 15 miles south of Cairo in Egypt. It was the capital about three thousand years ago and is now a popular stop on the tourist trail. Like many ancient cities, it was filled with temples dedicated to an array of deities, some well known to this day, some obscure, and and and some whose sole memorial is a name engraved in a barely translatable language.

Its namesake in Tennessee is a site that predates European settlement by at least a millennium. The Chickasaws had been there for hundreds of years when Hernando De Soto came by in the 1500s. They were still there when Andrew Jackson founded the city and named it after the Egyptian place 300 years later. It was clearly an appealing place to settle, that famous bluff walked by Johnny Cash’s lost love, raising a few eyeballs before she continued down the Mississippi River. Like the original Memphis, its economic life was based on a large river and its fortunes have always been tied to it. In the ancient city, the number of different temples for different gods is probably explained by the proximity to the river. The population was always in flux and visitors came and went, leaving behind items of their cultural baggage.

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The Egyptian Memphis lost influence through the usual series of economic and political changes that constitute history. Memphis, Tennessee can also seem like a city of the past. The name evokes a much earlier period in American history. Riverboats, jug bands, WC Handy, Furry Lewis, Sun Records, and Otis Redding come to mind. Only New Orleans tops it as a staging ground for the old romantic America. But here’s an argument starter: In terms of diversity and influence, Memphis is by far the most important musical hub in America. Blues, RnB, Rockabilly, Soul, and Rock and Roll all thrived in this city. Try to imagine Elvis coming from any other city in the US. It’s not easy, is it?

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Old Gods at Sun Records on Union Avenue.

Stuart Cosgrove’s latest book, Memphis ’68: The Tragedy of Southern Soul documents the year from which many believe the city never fully recovered. Otis Redding’s death in December 1967 has long been acknowledged as the beginning of the end for Stax Records. The assassination of Martin Luther King on the balcony of a Memphis motel four months later devastated the whole country and seemed to suck the life out of a town already reeling from the first stirrings of the globalized neo liberal economics that continue to depress the American South. Martin Luther King was in town to support a strike by the city’s sanitation workers. Memphis had a long history of corrupt local politics, and a longer history of racism. The term segregation only begins to describe a city so divided that each community barely realized the other was there. The sanitation workers were invisible despite providing an essential service. Martin Luther King made his famous ‘I have been to the mountaintop’ speech at a rally for them the day before he died.

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Booker T, Duck Dunn, Steve Cropper, Carla Thoma

Strangely enough, the situation in wider Memphis was not reflected within the walls of 926 East McLemore Ave. Stax Records was, briefly anyway, a complete anomaly in the city. It is one of the great ironies that the white guitarist, Steve Cropper, wrote In the Midnight Hour with Wilson Pickett in a room at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was murdered three years later.  I don’t know how many different accounts I have read of this period at Stax Records but I’m always moved by the story. There is something fairytale-like about this small space in Memphis where music was important and race wasn’t. It didn’t last, of course, but for a moment there, right under the noses of the racist power elite in Tennessee, a wonderful model for desegregation was developing.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Mason Temple, Memphis, TN, April 3, 196

MLK in Memphis

 

Memphis ’68 is the second in a proposed trilogy that includes last year’s Detroit ’67 (reviewed here in April 2016) and next year’s Harlem ’69. Cosgrove is a great storyteller and this book is a deserving winner of the 2018 Penderyn Prize for books about music. Though it is, broadly speaking, a social history, music is at its centre. Cosgrove has a deep and longstanding love of soul music that he combines with an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre’s artists, songs, and labels. Because of the dramatic nature of MLK’s assassination and the resulting riots, he faced a real challenge here telling this well-known story in a fresh way. His account of The Invaders, a Memphis version of the Black Panthers that included at least one Stax musician in their ranks, adds another layer. The month-by-month assessment of 1968 in Memphis is done through the stories of both musicians and ordinary citizens of the city. As with his Detroit book, the effect is immersive and engaging.

index1Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music’s Hometown by Robert Gordon

Robert Gordon is a Memphis native who was seven in 1968 and remembers seeing tanks on the streets after the assassination. His love for his hometown is well documented in books like the sensational It Came From Memphis and Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion. He has also made a number of films about Memphis musicians. Blues fans will be familiar with his biography of Muddy Waters, Can’t Be Satisfied. All of his books are on the syllabus. You must read them.

His latest is a collection of articles, reviews, liner notes and unpublished pieces called Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music’s Hometown. I read it immediately after finishing Cosgrove’s book and it makes a fine companion. If the heady tale of Memphis’ most dramatic year is dinner, this is a rich dessert followed by lovely whiskey.

Gordon is, by his own admission, a member of the Peter Guralnick school of music writing. His knowledge of music is deep but the musicians fascinate him too. These pieces put you at the table with the subjects. The article on Jeff Buckley’s final days is a case in point. The singer’s tragically short career has been dissected and rehashed many times but this piece is revelatory. Buckley was searching for something in Memphis and Gordon was fortunate enough to spend some time with him while he made his last recordings and absorbed some of the musical atmosphere of the city. It’s a poignant article. Honestly, while I was reading it, I felt the same way I did when I heard he had died that day in 1997. I also went running to my CD shelves to find my copy of Sketches of My Sweetheart the Drunk. You will too!

R-2022034-1427477643-9161.jpegBut most of the pieces here deal with Memphis musicians. James Carr, a soul great that has never had anywhere near the recognition he deserves, is profiled. His story is another sad one. He recorded the original, and by far the best, version of Dan Penn’s Dark End of the Street on Goldwax Records in 1967. It should have set him up for a lifetime’s career in music. Instead, he battled terrible mental health problems and substance abuse issues until his death in 2001. Gordon’s interview presents him with the almost Lear-like pathos of a delicate soul unraveling. This is something of a pattern in these essays. The brilliant Jazz pianist Phineas Newborn Jr suffered numerous nervous breakdowns after his initial success in the late 50s and even had his fingers broken in a bar one night. Gordon interviews his mother here and profiles his brother Calvin. Jerry McGill, a Sun Records recording artist and the subject of one of Gordon’s films, is another hard luck story albeit one with a mildly happy ending.

The spirit of Alex Chilton hangs over many of these tales and he is the subject of a long meditation towards the end of the book. Like Flies on Sherbert, an album produced by another Memphis deity, Jim Dickinson, is either a drunken mess or a sophisticated deconstruction of Memphis music, depending on your perspective. Gordon is a fan and maintained a long, though not always friendly relationship with the mercurial singer. Chilton’s sometime collaborator Tav Falco is also profiled here. Falco’s story is a reminder of the vibrant arts scene in Memphis in the 70s.

It would be tempting to finish by saying that, like Memphis in Egypt, Memphis Tennessee is now simply an open air museum that trades on past glories. While there are many temples to old gods – Graceland, Stax, Sun Records, and Beale Street, I suspect that Memphis can’t be consigned to ancient history just yet. Somewhere in those streets, the next Alex Chilton or James Carr or Steve Cropper is practicing guitar and dreaming about writing another chapter in the musical history of this remarkable city.

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“Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round”

Teasers: Martin Luther King was talking to a musician just before he died. He was making a request. Find out which song in Cosgrove’s book.

 

A Childlike Vision Jumping Into View

9780735221345Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan Walsh, Penguin 2018

Where to start? How about a bit of trivia? In the summer of 1968, Van Morrison was looking for a drummer. Now think for a second. Who is the most famous drummer ever from Boston? Yes! You’ve got it! Moulty, the one-handed timekeeper from The Barbarians! Moulty, who told the story of his pipe bomb mishap in an eponymous 1966 single! That guy auditioned for Van Morrison. The Irish singer was not impressed by the hook-handed drummer’s warlike style and the relationship ended there.

Or what about this one? The story of Van Morrison’s break with Bert Berns’ Bang Records is well known but I didn’t know that after Bert died suddenly in 1967, Van was at the contractual mercy of a minor gangster called Carmine ‘Wassel’ DeNoia. He might have been small time but his father was the model for Nicely Nicely in the musical, Guys and Dolls. His son, not so nicely, broke a guitar over Van’s head. It’s possible that Morrison only moved to Boston to hide from the thug. Eventually, Wassel demanded twenty big ones in unmarked bills to sever his connection with the singer. The drop had to be made in a dark underground carpark. No, really…

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Jeff Barry, Bert Berns, Van, Janet Planet, and the son of Nicely Nicely, 1967

Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan Walsh is a fascinating book that places one of the most celebrated albums of all time in a particular time and space: Boston, 1968. Van Morrison’s album was, as you are no doubt thinking, recorded in New York with Jay Berliner on guitar and Richard Davis on bass, neither of whom are from Boston. But this was not Van’s band and the Belfast native was not living in New York at the time. He had spent the previous year in Massachusetts, playing gigs and writing the songs that would appear on Astral Weeks and Moondance. Walsh recreates that period in Boston and makes the case that some elements of the record’s atmosphere might have something to do with a particularly dramatic summer in that city. Walsh’s story is akin to a longform version of an episode of This American Life in its rich detail and wholehearted embrace of the uncanny.

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Mel Lyman or ‘God’, to his pals

Let’s start with Mel Lyman and the Fort Hill Community. Mel was the harmonica player in Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band, which also featured Geoff and Maria Muldaur. He appears at the beginning of Murray Lerner’s film Festival, chatting amicably with the interviewer but, from my perspective, making no sense whatsoever. Somehow, this guy became the leader of a cult that continues to this day. In 1968, the group was everywhere in Boston. They published a popular newspaper called Avatar, made films, hosted gigs, and appeared on television. Lyman made the cover of Rolling Stone and Mark Frechette, a member of the community, appeared in the film Zabriskie Point before ending up in prison for armed robbery. The Rolling Stone magazine feature tried to pin the ‘east coast Manson’ label on Lyman and hinted at dark deeds behind the walls of its properties in the Roxbury neighborhood of the city. The truth seems to be more Sponge Bob than Jim Jones. Mel’s sprees involved indulging in large quantities of chocolate fudge, which cost him his teeth. Former members have also complained that his astrological work was flawed. He moaned about being God and what a drag it was but he was no Manson, fortunately.

1860_Cottrell_Cornhill_Boston2Walsh points out that Boston already had some form in the occult game. The city had been a hotbed of spooky fun during the great age of American spiritualism in the late 19th Century. The Fox Sisters opened a branch of their New York operation there in the 1870s. According to Walsh, one of their first customers was former first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln. She had already visited pioneering ‘spirit photographer’, William Mumler over on Washington Street for a photo of her with Abe’s ghost. The Boston Planchette, a prototype of the Ouija board, appeared in the 1860s. Walsh makes an interesting, if somewhat tenuous, connection between the spiritualist Edgar Cayce and the rise of the progressive ‘free form’ FM format on the legendary WCBN. Radios appear throughout Van’s lyrics and they often have a slightly mystical resonance. Watch the clip of Caravan from The Last Waltz where he begins to riff on the idea of The Band as a radio. Walsh doesn’t suggest there is a direct link – there is a significant and much earlier radio in 1967’s TB Sheets – but late night FM was an important part of Van’s life in Boston and radio seems to have been imbued with a certain spiritualist quality in that city.

But 1968 was also a key year for The Bosstown sound. The label might have been an industry driven attempt to steal some of San Francisco’s thunder but the bands were real and the music still sounds pretty good. What’s remarkable is that many of these bands have an ethereal proto prog fabric that transcends psychedelia. Ultimate Spinach, named for an acid trip mishap with a green felt tip marker, Earth Opera, who recorded on Elektra, and Chamalaeon Church, featuring a drummer called Chevy Chase. Dismissed at the time by the rock press as bubblegum, a lot of these records sound anything but, in retrospect. Peak Impressions by The Freeborne is a good example. It’s ambitious, melodic, and beautifully recorded.

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Chevy Chase staring out from 1968 (3rd from the left)

Walsh’s point is that Van arrived in Boston on the heals of his career with Them and subsequent hit single, Brown Eyed Girl. He emerged to record Astral Weeks. What was he hearing? What was happening there? How does one get from from ‘laughing and a’ running’ to ‘venturing in the slipstream’? Walsh is not suggesting that Astral Weeks should henceforth be placed in the ‘Bosstown Sound’ bin at the record fair but he does present a convincing case for the influence of those bands. A quick glance at the schedule for the legendary Boston Tea Party venue in the summer of 1968 places the ‘Van Morrison Controversy’ playing on the same stage as legendary Boston bands like Bagatelle and The Apple Brotherhood Society. Another band that Van ran into around the traps was the earliest version of the J. Geils Band – and therein hangs a tale…

61RDVfU4P6LWalsh builds his book around a search. He’d heard that Peter Wolf (of the J. Geils Band) had a reel-to-reel tape of a performance by Van Morrison from the summer of 1968. The show was at a venue called The Catacombs and it featured Van on acoustic guitar backed by his bass player, Tom Keilbania, and John Payne who later played flute on Astral Weeks. The rumour is that the tape contained early performances of the songs on that album along with things like Moondance and Domino. The story has always been that Berliner and Davies were more or less improvising in the recording sessions for Astral Weeks. Keilbania has maintained that the ideas on the record were developed during the summer of 68 in the gigs they played in Boston. Critics are always banging on about rosetta stones in rock and roll but this would be the real deal. So what happens? Does Walsh find the recording? You’ll have to read for yourself. No spoilers here but don’t bother hitting up your favourite source of bootlegs. It aint there. Yet…

I thought Walsh’s Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 was a top read. He takes the story in a number of Bostonian directions. Tim Leary, Ram Dass, the Boston Strangler, Titicut Follies, and James Brown’s dramatic show in the wake of MLK’s assassination are all in the frame. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could have been an unwieldy story indeed. Walsh maintains his focus, returning regularly to the album at the center of the story. The result is a snapshot of an American city in one of the most turbulent years in recent history, along with an entirely credible back-story to an album that is never far from the top on any list of essentials.

While reading, you’ll track down some of the Bosstown bands and listen to some Jim Kweskin albums. You’ll revisit late Them, early Van, Astral Weeks and Moondance. But more than anything, you’ll pine for THAT recording of Van in The Catacombs.

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Teasers: What happened to Mel Lyman? Did he really die in 1978?.

Madame George 1968, from Astral Weeks:

Madame George, 1967. The book is about what happened in between:

If you skip to the 2:30 mark, you can marvel at how this likeable but daft fellow ever came to lead a cult:

 

 

 

 

Prog Spring

51aTJiGeEcL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock by David Weigel, WW Norton & Co, 2016

In the summer of 1954, Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, had a dream. “I need an American kid who sounds German.”  Luckily, a young truck driver named Emerson Presley had decided that he was going to make a triple album for his mum. He came by with a full orchestra and his moog synthesizer, recorded it, and left with the acetates. A few days later, Sam called him back and asked if he’d like to make some more music. Emerson turned up and was paired with some local players, a guy with an 11 string bass and another fellow with a 22 piece drum kit. They spent a few days mucking around, mostly playing hot country and jump blues. Sam was frustrated. This wasn’t what he was looking for at all. One day, during a break, Emerson sat down at his moog and started to play a piece from Bach’s Musical Offering. The other guys joined in while Emerson began to improvise a story about a mythical Elf kingdom over the music. “Wait!” yelled Sam, “that’s it! That’s the sound!”

 “I think that Prog rock is the science fiction of music.”

-William Shatner

David Weigel’s new book, The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock begins on a cruise ship. It’s the ‘Cruise To The Edge’, featuring Yes – get it? – and some cover bands. It sounds like a bad joke. A Prog Rock cruise? No, really! A large group of men and their either long-suffering or very patient wives on a cruise for fans of the most overblown popular music ever created. One guest talks rapturously about a one on one with Carl Palmer. Others debate the relative merits of Gentle Giant and Camel or boast about the rare pressings of Brain Salad Surgery they have acquired. Use your imagination to summon up David Foster Wallace’s essay about cruise ships and then add in a couple of early Genesis albums. Not easy, is it?

emersonlakepalmer0Weigel manages to produce a serious history of Prog without turning it into Das Kapital. He is a big fan but he also understands that there is something innately funny about the genre. Pomposity was one of its hallmarks in the manner that nihilistic aggression was part of punk. That is to say, it was pompous but unapologetically so. Naturally, Prog became something of a punchline. This was, after all a genre where one band (Magma) made up its own language (Kobaian). Rock critics hated it. They took the first few albums on their own merits – Lester Bangs liked Yes’s first album, for example – but shot each subsequent release down like wooden ducks on the midway. Remember that these writers, for the most part, found Led Zeppelin pretentious. Imagine what they thought when Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII turned up for review. When Emerson Lake and Palmer released Trilogy in 1972, Robert Christgau wrote: “The pomposities of Tarkus and the monstrosities of the Mussorgsky homage clinch it–these guys are as stupid as their most pretentious fans. Really, anybody who buys a record that divides a composition called “The Endless Enigma” into two discrete parts deserves it.” Still, for a little while, Prog went over like horses with the record buying and concert attending public. The most popular band of today wouldn’t dare to dream of selling a tenth of what a lesser Kansas record would have in the 70s.

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Sonja Kristina

The first challenge for an author of this sort of book is deciding what Prog is, and what it isn’t. There really is no possibility of including everything that might be conceivably considered Progressive Rock. Google ‘greatest prog albums’ and see what happens. There were two Miles Davis records on one list I saw! A truly comprehensive study really would start to look like Das Kapital. So, Jethro Tull make the grade but Horselips do not. Are there any Irish prog bands? Hawkwind is in, ELO is never mentioned. Rush features prominently as a ‘second wave’ Prog act but Supertramp doesn’t turn up. For the most part, Weigel sticks to the obvious examples of ELP, Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson. There are some interesting detours to acts like Curved Air, featuring Sonja Kristina who was in the original London cast of Hair with Martha Hunt. She might also be the only woman ever in Prog Rock but I’m not sure. Certainly no other woman appears in this book aside from one or two disgruntled ex wives. He also briefly covers Gong, founded by Melbourne native Daevid Allen, and the Greek band, Aphrodite’s Child featuring Vangelis and Demis Rousos. Fans of Van Der Graaf Generator can relax. They are there!

61r34SB-E2L._SY355_The next big challenge is finding a starting point. Weigel begins with The Moody Blues, Procol Harum, The Nice, and Pink Floyd. He mentions The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper which I think may have given permission for some of the high concept psychedelia that followed. The Who’s Tommy, The Small Faces’ Odgen’s Nut Gone Flake, and The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle come to mind. I was surprised that The Pretty Things’ SF Sorrow didn’t rate a mention. Weigel more or less settles on The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed and King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King as the point of lift off. Naturally, some of the other bands had false starts. The first Genesis album is a lot closer to Cucumber Castle than most Prog fans would care to admit. Just over two years later, they recorded Supper’s Ready, a 23 minute masterpiece or nightmare, depending on your perspective. Either way, it is Prog’s answer to The Wasteland. How’s that for a big call?

The Show That Never Ends is engaging and fast paced. Weigel’s writing provides just the right amount of detail for both fans and the Prog curious. He is good on personalities. Greg Lake’s monstrous ego, Rick Wakeman’s oddly endearing love of beer, Robert Fripp’s singular musical vision and extraordinary frankness, and, of course, the littlest Machiavellian, Phil Collins’ legendary charm. He makes a case for the best albums – early Yes, selected Crimson, first ELP – and points out the shortcomings of the worst – yup, Asia. He acknowledges that the whole thing more or less collapsed on itself in the late 70s when it became a target for punk rock fury. If only we’d been able to see John Lydon’s record collection! The snarling dead end kid went home and listened to Caravan! Who knew? By the time Yes reformed to punish us all with Owner of a Lonely Heart in 1983, Prog was finished.

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Or was it? I had no idea that Voivod went Prog or that Marillion had such a long career. And what about this Steven Wilson guy, a contemporary of the grunge generation who eschewed Black Sabbath for Genesis? I think Weigel could have made more of the Prog influence on eighties music in general. XTC and Kate Bush are the obvious examples but conceptually speaking I think a lot of bands were drifting back to BIG ideas by the early to mid 80s. Please don’t send hate mail but Sandinista comes to mind…

rs-91072-16793138-16793140-largeI must admit that, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull aside, I have never been a great fan of this stuff. While reading the book, however, I discovered some wonderful King Crimson albums I’d never heard and finally picked up Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom. I even spun Emerson Lake and Palmer’s first record one night. Lucky Man brought back good memories of summer camp in the 1970s. I was struck by a sense that this music was more a part of my childhood than I thought. However, Gabriel-era Genesis remains too freaky for me. I have a complicated and slightly scary story about why I don’t listen to them but I’ll save that for when Peter Gabriel writes a memoir.

As I was finishing the book, I put on Fragile by Yes for the first time in nearly 40 years. My 13 year old son walked past. He stopped and listened to Roundabout for a few seconds. ‘What is this, Dad? It’s really good.’ He’s probably right but it was once so easy to become jaded about this music. If you feel the need to listen to Prog Rock with fresh ears, let The Show That Never Ends be your guide.

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Teasers: The hilarious story of Rush’s disastrous interview with Barry Miles where Alex Lifeson suggested that socialism was what was wrong with England in the late 70s. He was, as fans know, a massive Ayn Rand fan. Miles’ reaction is priceless.

Be scared by Genesis all over again…

The Plastic Pallenberg Band

41zWMFlh6jL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Dreaming The Beatles by Rob Sheffield, Harper Collins, 2017

In 1970, the Rolling Stones broke up amid personal and professional differences. Mick Jagger taught his fiancée, Bianca, to play keyboards and went on tour. Keith formed the Plastic Pallenberg Band with Anita and undertook a radical form of psychotherapy…

John Lennon once suggested that the Stones were always two months behind the Beatles. It’s a comment that will drive Stones fans nuts but the truth is that during the sixties everyone was two months behind the Beatles. Bob Dylan might have been working on his own schedule but he still couldn’t resist parody/homages like I Wanna Be Your Lover and Fourth Time Around. Even when he was reacting to them, as some have suggested was the case with the stripped down John Wesley Harding in the wake of Pepper, he was still in their orbit.

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Not so influential

There’s an old saw about The Velvet Underground suggesting that very few people saw them but those that did all formed bands. The same thing applies to The Beatles except that thousands and thousands of kids saw them and millions more heard them. As Rob Sheffield points out in this fascinating new book, Dreaming The Beatles, they were the most influential band in rock and roll history except when they weren’t. The Plastic Pallenberg Band line appears early in the book and made me laugh out loud, as the kids say. Folk Rock, yes; concept albums, yes; wives in bands, no. Of course Yoko squealing in a bag and Linda’s startling lack of musical talent probably weren’t a good starting point. If either had taken up with, say, Sandy Denny, things might have been different.

Another book about The Beatles? I hear your collective sigh. Most of us of a certain age – those who were starting kindergarten when The Beatles were hammering out Maxwell’s Silver at Abbey Road – started with a tattered library copy of Hunter Davies’, 1968 book The Beatles before moving onto Philip Norman’s Shout. Some of us secretly read Albert Goldman’s demolition of John or waded through George’s strange I Me Mine. The best thing I read in those days, and this is mentioned in the acknowledgements of this book, was Greil Marcus’s essay about them in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. I lost count after that but I suspect that I have read at least two dozen books about The Beatles as a band and a whole bunch of others about the individual members. Most recently, I devoured Tom Doyle’s Man on the Run in about two sittings. Paul in the 70s. Cool!

There are standouts, of course. Ian McDonald’s 1994 Revolution in the Head is a masterpiece. I love Barry Miles’ biography of Paul, Many Years From Now, but if you’re a John person, you might not like it. Mark Lewisohn’s In Tune from 2013 is so comprehensive that it is hard to imagine that anyone will ever top it. So then why would Rob Sheffield, a Rolling Stone writer and the author of a moving memoir, Love Is A Mix Tape, bother? Surely, it has all been said.

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He was in another band before this one…

Yes and no. One of the interesting things about The Beatles is that they have been reinvented in every decade. The baby boomers were the first fans and have always assumed that they, and only they, experienced The Beatles. They had a joke in the seventies about a kid in a record store saying ‘I didn’t know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings’. This was hilarious but Generation X did learn about The Beatles through Wings. There was also the spectacularly awful Sgt Pepper movie in 1978 starring the Bee Gees (and Peter Frampton) as the band. We got the music on long forgotten compilations like Rock and Roll Music, Reel Music, and songs released as singles for the first time in the 70s.  My first Beatles purchase was a 45 of Got To Get You Into My Life that turned up in 1976. Helter Skelter was on the flip side, presumably to cash in on the TV movie of that same year about the Manson murders. There is a scene in the film where a reporter comes into the office and pulls out the White Album. I watched the movie and I wanted to hear that record!

Dreaming The Beatles picks up on this generational aspect. Gen X had to contend with a lot of baggage when they discovered the band. Sheffield says that listening to The Beatles in the 80s was like eating ice cream while weird older men lectured you about the history of ice cream. In the 90s, however, The Beatles seemed to find a new audience among the post grunge kids. The Anthologies appeared, and Backbeat, a so so film with an incredible soundtrack established the fabs as protopunk warriors. In the 2000s, the baby boomers retired and abandoned the band for that Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach album. Just joking, of course. The internet became a means to collate the enormous amount of Beatles information and the albums were finally remastered properly for release on CD. Just recently, Ron Howard’s intoxicating documentary, Eight Days A Week, put the early Beatles into a visual frame for a generation raised on YouTube and social media posts.

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“Revolver!”

But Dreaming The Beatles is more than simply a retrospective of The Beatles’ continuing legacy. This is also a free floating, deeply personal discussion of the band and their music. There are a whole series of standard Beatles arguments. John or Paul? Rubber Soul or Revolver? Beatles or Stones? Beatles or Dylan? Is the White Album a masterpiece or a mess? Did Yoko break up the band? Which album is actually their last? Is their solo stuff any good? The remarkable thing is that kids are still having them. In another life, though not so long ago, I was a high school English teacher and spent more than a few double periods moderating these debates. This is a band that their grandparents revered! Try to picture a group of kids in the late 70s arguing about Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. It’s the same time frame but it didn’t happen. We were talking about, well, The Beatles.

All of these discussions are covered here in chapters with intriguing titles like ‘The Importance of Being Ringo?’ and ‘The Mystery Inside of George’. He dedicates a whole chapter to the song Ticket To Ride where he contends that Dylan didn’t get anywhere near it until at least Blood on the Tracks. How’s that for an argument starter? Girl is apparently better than Just Like A Woman. Yeah? Bring me another Guinness. Let’s get into it!

Of course, there are lots of versions of The Beatles to argue about too. Everyone has a favourite Beatles stage. The author, Rob Sheffield, is a mid period Rubber Soul/Revolver guy. I’m partial to the later Abbey Road/Let It Be/early solo stuff epoch. Others love the Mop Top years. If the band’s actual story has been covered ad nauseum, the nature and variety of Beatles’ fanhood is still a open topic.

980xOne of the threads holding the book together is a series of reflections on the relationship between John and Paul. The chapter with the best title, Paul Is A Concept By Which We Measure Our Pain, is a heartfelt essay on the John/Paul dynamic and its wider implications. “Every drama queen John needs a Paul to sweep up after him. It’s tough for two Johns to be friends, which is why Johns find themselves entangled with Pauls who disappoint them.” Wow. The Beatles as a model for Transactional Analysis. Sheffield says, movingly: “For John, Paul was the boy who came to stay; for Paul, John was the sad song he couldn’t make better.” They couldn’t escape each other. In 1975, John said, “If I took up ballet dancing, my ballet dancing would be compared with Paul’s bowling.” The obvious Fred Flintstone reference aside, he was spot on and Paul’s bowling is still being compared to John’s dancing.

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This might be chiefly a book for fans. Unless you are the sort of person who actually owns ‘A Toot and A Snore in ’74’, you might find Sheffield’s level of devotion to this band slightly worrying. On the other hand, it is an enviably well written book padded out with humourous asides and fascinating trivia. Even casual fans of the band will find much of interest here. The chapter on the Paul is Dead phenomenon will appeal to students of popular culture. I suppose I liked reading a book written from the perspective of another ‘I didn’t know he was in a band before Wings’ GenXer. His own tales of becoming a fan in the late 70s brought back a lot of memories. This is a book about The Beatles but it is also a meditation on fanhood, friendship, and the role of music in our lives. Highly recommended.

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Teaser: A fascinating intermission devoted to cover versions and tributes. Ready your streaming service! If you like this book, his recent book on Bowie is also worth reading.

You’ve seen it before but you should watch it again:

 

 

A Ghost from a Wishing Well

9780143199205When I was 17, my dad introduced me to his new girlfriend, a woman called Anne. She was in her 40s and was in the habit of punctuating everything she said with one of those smoker’s laughs that sound like a cough. When my dad went into another room to take a phone call, she asked if it was true that I liked music. I said it was. She told me that ‘Gordy’ Lightfoot had written a song about her. Really, I said, which one? Sundown, she told me. Isn’t that about a prostitute? I asked. When my dad returned, Anne said, ‘I think your son just called me a hooker.’ It was awkward.

Sundown is a heavy song. It was always on the radio when I was growing up in Canada in the 1970s but I never took much notice of it. When I began to listen to Lightfoot more seriously as an adult, I was struck by its darkness. The singer pictures this woman in various outfits and is filled by jealously and self loathing. In the end, alcohol is his only refuge. There is something oddly vulnerable about it. The singer seems powerless and doomed. Even his veiled threats – you better take care – sound hollow.

And it turns out that the song was not an ode to my dad’s girlfriend. In Nicholas Jenning’s new biography, Lightfoot, we learn that the song is almost certainly about Cathy Evelyn Smith. Sound familiar? Yes, the same woman who went to jail for her involvement in John Belushi’s death at the Chateau Marmont. If you have read Robbie Robertson’s memoir, you may remember her in connection to Levon Helm but that really is another story.

Gordon-Lightfoot1Where I come from, Gordon Lightfoot is bigger than…well, just about anyone. Put it this way, a lot of Canadians who wouldn’t know a Neil Young song if one backed over them could probably easily name 10 Lightfoot songs. I remember my grandfather throwing Gord’s Gold into the 8 track player and letting it play over and over all day. I can also remember the Canadian bands I loved in the 1980s name checking him in interviews and playing his songs in encores. He played Massey Hall every year to audiences that included Bay Street lawyers, Scarborough tow truck drivers, hippies, punks, Social Studies teachers, and glad handing politicians. He could have run for Parliament, he could have been crowned king.

However, the living legend status is something of a consolation prize for a singer whose viability as a recording artist came to crashing halt in about 1980. He kept making records but people stopped buying them. I own everything he released up to and including Endless Wire, which appeared in 1978. I had never even heard of the follow up, Dream Street Rose or any of the subsequent records before reading this book. I suppose there are superfans that would snort at my amateurishness here but the sales figures tell the same story. Thanks for all the great songs, Gord. Here’s your gold watch. The man was 42!

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Lightfoot is a solid, chronological account of Gord’s life and work. It is a respectful and workmanlike book – rather Canadian, really! There are no startling revelations or particularly original insights. Instead, Jennings strives to build the character of the man through a number of significant episodes. Lightfoot is a very private fellow with a certain reputation for difficult behaviour. He has been married many times and has had troubles with alcohol. Jennings draws a picture of a hard working and shy man who couldn’t have been less temperamentally suited to stardom. He grew up in Orillia Ontario, a town probably not so different to Hibbing Minnesota. Unlike Hibbing’s favourite son however, Gord was never headed for Malibu via New York. I was interested to learn that throughout his long career he has always lived in Toronto. He spent years living on Alexander St, behind Maple Leaf Gardens, before moving to Rosedale. These days, he lives on Bridle Path, a glamorous address by Toronto standards but hardly Malibu.

1817Jennings explores Lightfoot’s relationship with Bob Dylan in some detail. Dylan is a fan, no question. There is a small group of songwriters that Dylan admires. He is generous but fickle on this topic in interviews. Sometimes he mentions John Prine, sometimes it’s Jimmy Buffett (no, really, he said that once) but the name that consistently comes up is Gordon Lightfoot.

Lightfoot has taken a different path from Bob in many respects. He was never the voice of a generation or a rock god. He never partied at the Factory or fell to pieces in the back of a Rolls with John Lennon. Gordon Lightfoot’s career has been comparatively low key. In the flashy dramatic world of popular music, there has always been something subtle about him. His albums, particularly the early ones, are quiet affairs. A small band, some strings here and there, and minimal overdubbing. I used to wish that Bob Johnston had produced at least one record for Lightfoot in the sixties. Are we rolling, Gord? But, maybe I’m happy that he didn’t. His 1970 Sit Down Stranger album, quickly renamed If I Could Read Your Mind after its most famous song, is a case in point. To me, this album is what Self Portrait should have been and is perhaps a glimpse of what Dylan had in mind. It was recorded in LA but there is a distinctly Nashville sensibility to it. It’s easy to see why Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash were such fans. The songs are beautifully written and unobtrusively performed. From MOR to Outlaw Country to the Laurel Canyon songsmiths, this was a masterclass in showcasing your work.

But back to Dylan. Bob doesn’t always work well with others and his relationship with Gord had always been cordial, if guarded. When the Rolling Thunder Tour pulled into Toronto in early December of 1975, Gord was asked to play the second last set in the program. He played The Watchman’s Gone and Sundown. Try to imagine following that on a Toronto stage. Bob Dylan might have been the only person on earth in those days with a chance but I’m willing to bet that his set was something of anti climax. Anyone who was there is welcome to correct me!

After the show, everybody, and I mean everybody, went back to Gord’s place in Rosedale. The party was legendary. Mick Ronson was there, trading stories with Ronnie Hawkins. Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez were avoiding each other while all eyes were on Scarlet Rivera. Then that lovable scamp Bobby Neuwirth threw his leather jacket into the fireplace and filled the whole house with black smoke. What a fun guy. See if he’s available for your next soiree.

Meanwhile, Bob and Gord had retreated to the parlor to jam. The wildest rock and roll party in Toronto history was unfolding downstairs but Dylan and Lightfoot were quietly exchanging songs. Oh, to have a decent recording. Alas, there is only a fragment of Lightfoot singing Ballad in Plain D, of all songs. Lightfoot is a remarkable man but the fact that he knew the words to Ballad in Plain D might just make him some kind of superhero. In any case, as Jennings points out, neither man was there to party. This was a summit meeting. Everyone has seen Bob’s exchange with Donovan in Don’t Look Back. This was not like that.

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“Hey Roger, he knows Ballad in Plain D!”

I suppose Jennings uses this episode to highlight the depth of Gordon Lightfoot’s commitment to songwriting. Sometimes, while reading, I had the sense of a man who might have preferred playing to a crowd of receptive regulars at his neighborhood pub to touring the world as a superstar. In one telling episode that took place in the 1970s, Gord signed on with a famous agent who managed a number of mainstream stars at the time. He wanted to take the singer to the next level where he would be on television, headlining regularly in Vegas, and selling zillions of records on the back of duets with divas, etc. After a few days, Lightfoot got cold feet and asked him to tear up the contract. He didn’t want to be Kenny Rogers or Tom Jones. Instead, he started taking the Toronto subway to the gym because he felt bad about the environment.

Nicholas Jennings had some access to the occasionally prickly singer while he was writing the book. It’s hard to imagine that such a modest and private man will ever write a memoir so this might be as close as we get. If you are a fan, don’t forget to read Dave Bidini’s utterly brilliant Writing Gordon Lightfoot too. There you go, you can ask for both for Christmas and spend Boxing Day on the couch reading while everyone else watches college football.

Meanwhile, Gordon Lightfoot will no doubt be playing his annual gig at Massey Hall and releasing a new album this year. Last week he was in Peterborough donating his canoe to the Canoe Museum there. A Canadian legend? You bet.

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Teasers: The whole story behind If I Could Read Your Mind; his early days as a singing sensation in Orillia, Ontario.

 

This is the love crowd, right?

images-2-2f78bca4-0134-46db-a0f6-3f3ff897e67eOtis Redding: An Unfinished Life by Jonathan Gould, Crown 2017

Is it possible that Otis Redding’s performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival is one of the great moments in the history of western culture? Fifty years ago, in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, long after Hugh Masekela’s endless set put everything behind schedule, a 25 year old from Macon, Georgia came onstage and blew everyone who had played before, and just about everyone who was yet to play, off the stage. Jimi Hendrix felt it necessary to light his guitar on fire. Bob Weir reckoned he’d seen God. Such was the Otis effect.

Bob Weir isn’t far from wrong. Otis’s performance, fortunately captured on film, is transcendent. It’s the best Springsteen show you’ve ever seen mixed up with a sort of soul review version of King Lear. It’s what every band tries to do onstage. It’s emotional but seamless. It’s ragged but never sloppy. Otis makes a personal connection with the audience, row by row, seat by seat. There is a clip of him singing ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ at the end of the review. Make sure you are sitting down.

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“I liked that guitar, Otis!”

California was good to Otis. A few months later he wrote Dock of the Bay on a houseboat in Sausalito. He should have stayed. Instead, he went back to his punishing touring schedule and died in a plane crash on December 10th of that same year. All that energy, all that extraordinary talent that was on show at Monterey, disappeared in an instant.

Jonathan Gould’s new biography, Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life begins with his appearance at the festival, backtracks to his early life, and finishes with the slow demise of Stax Records in the 1970s. It’s an appropriate ending. Many, including guitarist Steve Cropper, have stated that Stax was never the same after Otis died. This is by no means the first book to link the Memphis record label’s decline back to his death. Otis was instrumental to its rise and embodied its spirit. Gould acknowledges this but suggests that Otis’ story is much more far reaching than the rise and fall of a record label.

Consider this: Otis Redding was born in 1941, making him an almost exact contemporary of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But if The Beatles sprang from a Victorian industrial port city, Otis was born into another 19th century altogether. Georgia, in 1941, remained segregated at all levels of society. Many of the most severe Jim Crow laws were still in effect. Those that weren’t, were still there in spirit. The civil rights movement wasn’t even on the horizon. Just over 25 years later, at the end of his short life, Otis was living in a very different America. His life spanned a period of significant change. In fact, by 1967, the era-defining civil rights movement was giving way to Black Power and more militant figures were replacing the soon to be assassinated Dr King. There is a moment late in the book where Otis is being interviewed by Life Magazine and is interrupted by Rap Brown, a figure that would have been unimaginable ten years earlier, let alone at the time of Otis’ birth. That said, when Otis decided to buy a farm outside of Macon in the mid sixties, he still had to make sure that the mainly white residents of the community would be comfortable with his presence. He told his manager that he didn’t want a cross burning on his lawn.

otis-redding-w-microphoneGould weaves Redding’s story into the broader narrative of African American life in the mid 20th century. His generation of singers, including his occasional rival James Brown, followed the examples of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke who had both worked hard to maintain control over their careers. The young Otis had to prove himself several times in new neighborhoods when the family moved for work in the 1950s. The man that emerges in this book is no pushover and this is not the story of how a black entertainer was ripped off by unscrupulous white men. From the beginning, Otis chose the people around him carefully and, for the most part, avoided the usual pitfalls musicians encounter when their music begins to make money.

But this was still America in the sixties and Otis was consigned to the R&B market and long tours on the ‘Chitlin Circuit’. In his lifetime, he was far more popular in Europe than in America. The Rolling Stones were early fans and John Lennon named him as his favourite singer in a mid sixties interview. His first number one single in America was ‘(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay’ which reached that position on March 16 1968, almost 4 months after he died.

Gould is very good on the nuts and bolts of Otis’s various business relationships. Almost in the manner of Franco Moretti’s exacting work on the history of the novel, Gould uses detailed examples from contracts and booking arrangements to illuminate the precise nature of these relationships. This in turn puts some meat on the bones of the social context of the story. Redding’s association with his white manager, Phil Walden, is examined closely and functions as something of a metaphor for the changes that were taking place in the wider society. It is well known that Jimi Hendrix came under increasing pressure from African American activists to avoid using white backing musicians and managers. It’s an open question as to whether Otis would have been subjected to similar pressure. He had already shown a distinct lack of interest in politics – but then so did Hendrix.

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Steve Cropper, Genius

From my perspective, Gould is better on social history than music. When I read a music biography, I want to finish with a deeper sense of the subject’s body of work. This, I’m afraid, did not happen. His background material on minstrel groups, the blackface phenomenon, and southern gospel is concisely delivered and appropriate to his narrative but it’s all familiar material. I was surprised initially at his dismissal of an early recording by Redding called ‘Shout Bamalama’. Yes, it’s a blatant Little Richard rip off but it is still a glorious piece of music. Gould treats it like embarrassing juvenalia. I wonder if he realizes that it has been covered by Eddie Hinton, Jim Dickinson, and The Detroit Cobras. They liked it!

Astonishingly, he seems unhappy with Otis’s body of work at Stax Records. His underlying point appears to be that Stax was essentially an amateur operation run by a hayseed – Jim Stewart. Over and over, Gould points to instances where he believes Redding’s career was mishandled. Most surprising is his unstated but obvious contention that Otis would have been better off with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic like Wilson Pickett. Pickett recorded at various studios including Fame in Muscle Shoals but his sound was created at Stax.  The Fame recordings are magic, of course, but they were an attempt to recreate the Stax sound. I can see the point he is making from a management perspective but I seriously dispute that the vast amount of Otis Redding’s output would have sounded better with the Swampers at Fame or Chips Moman’s crew at American Studios. Different perhaps, but better? Better than ‘Cigarettes and Coffee’ from The Soul Album? Listen to the beginning with Packy Axton’s sax and Wayne Jackson’s trumpet on top of Al Jackson’s drums.  Then there is a perfectly timed restrained guitar lick from Steve Cropper just before Otis starts to sing. In 12 seconds, the 3am atmosphere of the song is established.  Could Jerry Wexler do better? I doubt he would have thought so. There is a clip below. Listen to it. That is the Stax sound and it’s right up there with Chartres Cathedral and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos as far as I’m concerned.

Gould does acknowledge in the afterword that his perspective on Stax Records might be quite different to that of Rob Bowman, Robert Gordon, and Peter Gurlanick, who have all written books on the subject. The difference is that they like the music. He lost me when he dismissed Eddie Floyd as a ‘journeyman’. A few years ago, I saw Floyd, who is no longer a young man, take the roof off a St Kilda venue and send it frisbee-like into Port Phillip Bay. He may not be Gould’s cup of tea but he is no journeyman. I also dispute that Steve Cropper’s guitar work is ‘limpid’ on Redding’s version of ‘A Change is Going To Come’ or any other song. Ever.

unnamed-6If you’ve already read the standard Stax Records books (see my list below), most of which cover Otis at great length, there are still many good reasons to read A Life Unfinished. The research is impeccable and perhaps it is time for a serious biography that goes beyond the music and addresses the wider implications of Otis Redding’s time on earth. Gould works hard to penetrate the somewhat mysterious inner life of the man. This is by no means some kind of iconoclastic Albert Goldman style biography but we are certainly left with a sense that there was a lot more to Otis than the genial image projected by his music.

I like a music biography that sends me charging to my stereo or laptop to hear a particular version of a song or an album that I’ve henceforth ignored. This didn’t happen but perhaps Gould felt that book had already been written – and he’s right. If you’re after an account of Otis Redding’s life that skips the myth and aims to deliver the man himself along with the period he lived in, this might be the one.

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Teasers: Otis and James Brown; Otis and Aretha; Otis’ serious brush with the law just as his career was taking off.

The Greatest Moment in Western Culture:

The evidence:

Further Reading on Stax Records, Otis, Southern Soul, etc:

It Came From Memphis by Robert Gordon (2001)

Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick (1999)

Soulsville USA by Rob Bowman (2003)

Respect Yourself by Robert Gordon (2015)

Nowhere To Run by Gerri Hirshey (1994)

Say It One Time For The Broken Hearted By Barney Hoskyns (1998)

Dreams To Remember by Mark Ribowsky (2016)

Waltz Across Texas

51UiZMez29L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Pickers and Poets: The Ruthlessly Poetic Singer-Songwriters of Texas by Craig E. Clifford (Editor), Craig Hillis (Editor), Texas A&M University Press, 2016

Let’s start with an activity. Go over to your collection of LPs and/or CDs. Take every one by a Texan artist out and put it on the floor. Unless I am mistaken there should now be a big mess. Blind Lemon Jefferson, DRI, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Scott Joplin, T-Bone Walker, Guy Clark, Janis Joplin, Waylon Jennings, 13th Floor Elevators, a Tejano compilation, Sir Douglas Quintet, Bob Wills, Pantera, Ornette Coleman, and, wait a minute, you own a Pantera record? Notice how many are on the floor. It’s remarkable. Now tidy them up and come back to hear about a new book, Pickers and Poets: The Ruthlessly Poetic Singer-Songwriters of Texas.

All over the world there are regions in other countries that were once independent nations. Mercia, Java, Burgundia, Venice, Sikkim, and Galicia are just some of the ghost states that linger in the wider federations to which they now belong. Texas is another such place. From 1836 until 1846, the Republic of Texas had its own president and was recognised by many other countries including its big neighbour to the north, the United States.

Is this why so many of your records come from Texas? Perhaps it is. When Willie Nelson grew weary of Nashville in the late 60s, he grew his hair, started smoking industrial amounts of weed, and, to really make his point, threw his battered guitar in the pickup and moved to Austin. He crossed a border; he emigrated. Yes, I know he was from Texas originally but the point is that Austin, though only a long day’s drive from Nashville, represented another place entirely, another country – with all the implications of that phrase.

Pickers and Poets is not a comprehensive history of Texas music – it is, rather, a series of short essays about the state’s song writing tradition as it has played out since the late sixties. The extensive blues tradition in the state is not part of this book, nor is Texas jazz – an amazing story – or the wondrous Tejano music. Most of the artists profiled here could be classified roughly under the ‘Americana’ banner. The book is set out more or less chronologically beginning with figures like Steven Fromholz, Michael Martin Murphey and on up to contemporary songsmiths like Hayes Carll. In between, we meet such familiar figures as Kinky Friedman, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and James McMurtry. Willie Nelson gets two pieces.

51+rAwg9P2LI was sold when Willis Alan Ramsay turned up in one of the first essays. In the chapters that follow, it becomes clear that many songwriters continue to hold him in very high esteem. He recorded exactly one album in 1972. It sold poorly and disappeared almost immediately. But what a record! You’ll recognise one song on it. Yes, Willis Alan Ramsay wrote Muskrat Love and, what’s more, it’s a great song. His version, that is. He also wrote Angel Eyes, a song that you will either play or wish you had played at your wedding.

But it’s Townes Van Zandt who haunts almost all of the essays. He never had anywhere near the success he deserved and his story is not a happy one. However, his influence is beyond question. He was never a Nashville identity but many of his songs are standards on the Opry stage. It’s arguable that the entire Americana scene is his creation. Big call? Okay, but flip through the pages of No Depression and try to imagine a world where Townes had never existed. It’s not easy. I would argue, as many have, that his influence is comparable to Bob Dylan’s.

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Blaze, Townes, and Rex (as in Rex’s Blues)

Townes was a hard living character indeed and as Steve Earle has observed, a terrible role model. His friend and partner in crime, Blaze Foley is mentioned in many of the essays. Blaze was Townes’ Townes, the embodiment of Kris Kristoffersen’s Pilgrim character and the ultimate cosmic country gypsy. Willie, Waylon, Tompall Glaser and Billy Joe Shaver are famous for the ‘Outlaw’ brand of country. Blaze was the pure product. And then some. His casket was covered in duct tape before he was buried. Beat that Gram Parsons!

If you are curious about the Folk/Country/Americana scene that has developed in Texas over the past half century, the book does a good job of creating a viable chronology. The original generation – Jerry Jeff, Townes, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, and so on – were essentially folkies inspired by Bob Dylan but well versed in honky tonk, Western Swing, and sometimes bluegrass. Willie was a Nashville insider who brought a modern country sensibility with him, not to mention a whole pile of talent scouts who sniffed change in the air. The hippie/redneck/trucker/shitkicker scene around the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin wound down in the early eighties but songwriters continued to gravitate to the small city. The next generation, which included Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, and many others regarded Nashville with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Successive waves have included talented Texans such as Ryan Bingham and Sam Baker.

lucinda-2The introduction includes a cringe-worthy explanation of why so few women are included but the chapter devoted exclusively to them is perhaps the best in the book. There are also chapters on newish singer songwriters like Kacey Musgraves and Terri Hendrix in the last section of the book. The whole thing, at times, seems edited by committee so perhaps they forgot. The chapter on Don Henley (yes, from Texas, shame about his anaemic music) was mercifully brief but still too long for this reader. The sections on figures like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams contained far too much general information that is already widely available. The chapter on Rodney Crowell, on the other hand, was fascinating. Guy Clark seemed underplayed throughout the book though the essay by Tamara Saviano bodes well for her recent biography of the man. But these are just quibbles about an engaging and informative book. Any book on music that I have to put down so that I can listen to an artist or album that I don’t know gets high marks from me. It took me weeks to get through this one! Discovering David Rodriguez alone was worth the cover price.

If for some reason, you didn’t end up with many records on the floor in the activity at the beginning of the review, this is required reading. For folks who are still tidying up, there might be, believe or not, still some gaps in your collection. Poets and Pickers might help to fill them.

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Teasers: Both of the editors have written doctoral theses on Texas music. The analysis of lyrics and lyrical traditions in the book are truly insightful.

Willie Nelson on The Midnight Special, introduced by Captain and Tennille!