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.”
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?
Weigel 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.
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!
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.
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…
I 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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
One 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.
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.
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:
When 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.
Where 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!
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.
Jennings 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.
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.
Teasers: The whole story behind If I Could Read Your Mind; his early days as a singing sensation in Orillia, Ontario.
Otis 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.
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.
Gould 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.
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.
If 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.
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:
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)
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.
I 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.
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.
The 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.
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!
Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon by Peter Ames Carlin, Henry Holt, 2016
First the bad news.
In the late 1980s when I was a DJ on college radio, I heard a rumour from a musician who came by for an interview. He said that he’d heard about a legendary singer from the sixties who had sought the services of an up and coming LA band. He had asked them to back him on a song for his forthcoming album. The legend’s stock was not particularly high at the time and they were happy to lend their current street cred to his record. He arrived and immediately began ordering them around and complaining after each take. It was clear that he didn’t have anything written but was hoping that a song might come out of a jam session. Eventually, the band played a song that they had been working on. They hadn’t recorded any demos but it had a name. The legend was interested in the song but the band had decided that it would be on their next album. The sessions didn’t produce anything further and eventually he left, seemingly unhappy with the results. They hadn’t been that impressed with him either and forgot all about it. Then his album appeared. It was a massive seller. They noticed that their song was on it. He had used the recordings they’d made that day and hadn’t even changed the title. The words and music were credited to him alone. They phoned him up and his response was: “Sue me, see what happens.”
It should have been obvious to me but there was no internet in those days and just about every legendary sixties artist was staging some kind of a comeback that year. I remember hoping that it wasn’t John Fogerty! It wasn’t. It was Paul Simon and the band was Los Lobos. The song was All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints from his Graceland LP.
Question: Who would rip off Los Lobos?
Answer: The same guy who has been pulling similar stunts since, wait for it, the late 50s.
So, it turns out that Paul Simon isn’t a great guy. Peter Ames Carlin has set himself a difficult task in Homeward Bound. His last book was an excellent biography of Bruce Springsteen, a much easier subject I suspect. Paul is a complicated, not to mention litigious, guy, which might explain why this is the first major biography of a superstar who has been recording for decades.
Incidentally, I am a fan. A big one. My initial Simon and Garfunkel freak out may have even come before my first Beatles thing. Do teenagers still go through these phases? I have owned all their albums on all of the successive formats along with bootlegs, DVDs, and so on. I only say this to make it clear that I’m not using the review to trash the man. His music has meant an enormous amount to me as it has to millions of others.
Homeward Bound therefore, is not easy reading. Within 80 pages we learn that before he had even left high school, Paul had sued his first record company and made a solo deal behind the back of his best friend, Arthur Garfunkel. As Tom and Jerry, they had scored a regional hit with a song called Hey Schoolgirl. When a follow up failed to chart, Jerry, aka Paul, went solo without mentioning it. Artie, who really must be a saint, took it all in his stride. Five years later they were back together for the folky Wednesday Morning, 3AM album. It was a flop and Artie was once again sidelined while Paul went to England. When producer Tom Wilson put some folk rock spice in the mix of Sounds of Silence and released it, Paul found success, but again with Artie. And that was an issue. Art’s voice is thing of beauty and Paul’s isn’t. He had broken up the band and had no desire to play music with his old friend. The problem was that they sounded so good together.
It didn’t last long. Around 1970, Art’s involvement in the Catch 22 film proved too much for Simon’s fragile ego. He went solo, sank into depression when his first album only sold 2 million copies, and finally phoned up Artie to appear with him on the second ever episode of Saturday Night Live. “So, you came crawling back?” he said. The reunion lasted for one glorious song, My Little Town.
Carlin works hard to tell Paul Simon’s story without turning him into the villain of the piece. I’ve never read a music biography like this one. I felt like I was reading Great Expectations as rendered by Philip Roth. Or The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz as reimagined by Brett Easton Ellis.
It’s not really what you want in a book about a musician you admire, is it? If you are a fan, you’ve probably clicked away from this review and have no intention of going near this book. But wait! There is good news too.
If not exactly a hagiography (ahem), Carlin’s book is an excellent source of information about Paul Simon’s recording career. He explains, in detail, the early years when Paul recorded as Jerry Landis, Paul Kane, and True Taylor. Similarly, he explores Simon and Garfunkel’s first recordings and Paul’s long lost ‘Songbook’ album which he recorded in England. He goes through each of the Simon and Garfunkel records, song by song, commenting on the arrangements, the lyrics, and the performances. I went back and listened to all of them while I was reading. Until someone writes a Revolution in the Head type book about the duo, this will do just fine. He then applies the same microscope to the albums of Paul’s post Garfunkel career.
Many Simon and Garfunkel fans have only a passing acquaintance with Paul’s solo albums. I’m one of them. But this book got me listening to them, some for the first time. I was pleasantly surprised! There are gems on all of them. He didn’t forget how to write great songs after Artie left though one can’t help imagining what they would have sounded like with his curly headed pal in the mix. For a tantalising taste of what might have been, listen to the two of them singing Paul’s American Tune on the 1982 Concert in Central Park LP. Magic.
On the Bridge Over Troubled Water album, Simon had used tracks by an Andean folk band called Los Incas to create El Condor Pasa. On his first solo album, he worked with a group of Jamaican musicians from Jimmy Cliff’s band to develop Mother and Child Reunion. He eve went to American Studios in Muscle Shoals to draw on The Swampers for a few of the songs on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. In all cases, he recorded the sessions and then returned to New York or LA and overdubbed himself on vocals to finish the song. He is far from the only musician to work this way but his unwillingness to give credit where it was due is exceptional.
I suppose this is the crux of the story. Paul Simon is a gifted songwriter with a wonderful musical imagination. But to what extent has he, on occasion, exploited the generosity of his colleagues and collaborators? Carlin isn’t putting him on trial in this book but a pattern does emerge. I had no idea that he wrote Red Rubber Ball with Bruce Woodley of The Seekers. And neither did anyone else because Paul took Woodley’s name off the writing credit. He did the same thing with Woodley’s contribution to the Simon and Garfunkel song, Cloudy. Of course, Bruce Woodley went on to write the eternally annoying ‘I am Australian’ so perhaps he got what he deserved. But then there is Martin Carthy’s arrangement of Scarborough Fair. The story is well known though, as Carlin shows, Simon did try to make amends.
And that brings us to Graceland. This is where the book really takes flight. What a story! Graceland was an album that I loathed with an almost exquisite fervour when it appeared in 1986. It sounded like BMW coke music, the kind of thing Gordon Gecko would have in his car. Man, the 80s were awful. Don’t let anyone tell you differently, kids. Simon predictably ran into trouble when he went to South Africa and recorded with a group of mbaqanga musicians that he first heard on a cassette that he forgot to give back to Heidi Berg. Before he even got around to his usual shenanigans with writing credits, he was in trouble with the ANC and found himself on a UN blacklist of musicians who had broken the embargo against working in South Africa.
Carlin explains what happened in great detail and Paul Simon comes off looking pretty good. He understood the ban but assumed that it was all about performing, rather than recording. He did refuse to apologize, which didn’t help matters. The ANC, noble institution that it was, turns out to have been very unreasonable when it came to musicians. Johnny Clegg, no less, had great difficulty with them over a tour of England. And if the founder of Juluka had trouble negotiating with the ANC then what chance did a man of Paul’s temperament have? He had the support of many prominent anti apartheid activists including Miriam Makeba and Hugh Maskela who toured with him. There is a theory that the popularity of Graceland played some role in the close of the Apartheid era. A documentary called Under African Skies is worth watching if you are curious. One person not impressed was Miami Steve Van Zandt who tried to redress what he considered Paul’s transgressions with his ensemble piece, Sun City. They met just once and Paul told Steve that his friend Henry Kissinger had told him that the ANC were Soviet backed communists. Miami Steve said, “Fuck you and your friend.” Steve did manage to get Paul Simon removed from an AZAPO assassination list but that’s another story.
Ezra Pound once said, ‘I am old enough to make friends’. He was talking about Walt Whitman, I’m talking about Graceland. I listened to it again a few days ago, prepared to sit on my hands if I felt like breaking something. Funny thing is, it’s a great album. What sounded overproduced in 1986 now sounds like depth. It’s a BIG record with all kinds of elements. I know I won’t convince everyone but it is a kind of masterpiece, the vision of a great artist realised in full. The African songs are wonderful but there is also a great track with Rockin Dopsie, the Zydeco artist. Sure, he forgot that they were playing an old song of Dopsie’s when it came to the credits but still…
It’s clear that Peter Ames Carlin and his publishers had no desire to mess with Paul Simon. There are some gaps here and there where the legal department might have felt that discretion was the better part of valour. His personal life is outlined but not many of his friends, wives, or lovers were, it seems, willing to go on the record. Paul Simon certainly didn’t cooperate and neither did Art Garfunkel. The strength of the book is Carlin’s ability to arrange almost 60 years of interviews and press material into a compelling narrative. He is also, as I have said, damn good on the man’s music. He writes with enviable precision about Paul’s various musical passions including batucada, West African rhythms, doo wop, rockabilly, folk, and so on.
Behind the story is one question: What the hell is Paul Simon’s problem?
He’s a talented musician who has, for more than half a century, continued to produce critically acclaimed and highly commercial music. Who else can say that? Bob Dylan? Neil Young? David Bowie? Leonard Cohen? That’s heady company. So why is he so cranky? Paul Simon isn’t an evil man but he would appear to be a very difficult one, not to mention one who is strangely uninterested in any kind of artistic integrity when it comes to working with other musicians. So what does Carlin conclude? There seems to be two main possibilities:
- He is short, about 5′ 2″. I know this is ridiculous but when he was 12, despite being a talented baseball player, he was relegated to a league for short kids. It comes up a lot in the book. Artie’s height seemed to bother him. Watch the clip of their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Art, twisting the knife, says, “It’s mike height, that’s what split up this group.” Ouch. Mind you, I’m not making light of this situation. I understand that it can be a real sore point but then again there are a lot of six footers around who haven’t written Bridge over Troubled Water. Plus, he is hardly the only diminutive rock and roll star.
- His father was disappointed in him. Yes, the standard Freudian problem. Louis Simon was a jazz musician who never really got there and continued to belittle Paul even after his extraordinary success in the sixties. He thought Paul should have been a teacher. Better hours but…
If you have any interest in Paul Simon, you should probably take a deep breath and read Homeward Bound. I heard the other day that Art Garfunkel has written his memoirs. I might read them but then again I might just put on Bookends and imagine that Old Friends isn’t supposed to be ironic.
Teasers: His tangled up and true relationship with Bob Dylan. His role in the early years of Saturday Night Live. The whole Carrie Fisher thing. The story of Kathy Chitty who figures in several of his songs. The identity of Tom in The Only Living Boy in NYC. (Okay, it’s Artie!)
Raggedy folk glory from ’66:
You Know What You Could Be: Tuning Into the 60s by Mike Heron and Andrew Greig, riverrun 2017
Mike Heron and Andrew Greig’s book, You Know What You Could Be: Tuning Into the 60s might appear from the cover to be a ghostwritten or co-written memoir of the former’s career. It isn’t, though it does include a lengthy section at the beginning by Mike Heron that recounts the early years of the band. The core of the book, however, is Andrew Greig’s own memoir of growing up in the late sixties with The Incredible String Band providing the soundtrack and a spiritual path.
I was a bit perplexed by this format as I began the book. Mike Heron’s section is fascinating. His memories of the Scottish folk scene of the early sixties are vivid. Readers of Colin Harper’s Dazzling Stranger will already be aware that this period represents one of the great gatherings of talent and unique characters in popular music. Locals such as Bert Jansch, Alex Campbell (one of the drunken revelers in Dylan’s hotel room in Don’t Look Back -not the dude who threw the glass though), and Hamish Imlach mix with mythic figures like Anne Briggs in the legendary folk pubs of Edinburgh. At the semi rural home of Mary Stewart, the folk community mixes with the mountain climbing set. Rose Simpson, in fact, met Robin and Mike in the house after an unsuccessful attempt on Ben Nevis. Mary’s children appear on the cover of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, considered by many to be their finest album.
The first incarnation of ISB included Clive Palmer, another great British folk eccentric. He left after the first album and headed for Afghanistan before returning to the music world as a sort of cult musicians’ cult musician. If you’ve never heard Sunshine Possibilities by his Famous Jug Band or any of the early Clive’s Original Band (COB) records, the time has come! Mike Heron was an early fan who ended up playing with him in the trio that became The Incredible String Band. The story of their trip to London to record a demo for Elektra is wonderful and partially explains Clive’s plastic coat on the front of at least one version of the LP.
Just when I was getting ready to hear about the recording of my beloved The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion album and the time that Paul McCartney declared The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter the most important record of the year, the narrative came to an abrupt end.
Suddenly we’re back in Scotland in the mid sixties. It’s raining and Andrew Greig is at school. He discovers the Incredible String Band, has his mind blown, forms his own freak folk outfit, and becomes a poet. I enjoyed the stories but I kept waiting for Mike Heron to come back. Then the penny dropped.
Andrew Greig is not a rock journalist. He has written many books of poetry, a few novels, several books on mountain climbing, as well as a memoir about his friendship with the Scottish poet, Norman McCaig. He is a literary writer and thus his memories, musical and otherwise, of the 1960s are assuredly delivered. There is also a discernible subtext here and it relates to what is perhaps the most enduring legacy of The Incredible String Band. Andrew Greig heard the whisper of freedom in these endearingly loose records. The 1960s in Scotland was not, he observes, all that different from the 1940s. Men went to work, women stayed home and ironed sheets. Even Mike Heron’s father, the head of English at George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh, finds it hard to come to terms with Mike’s decision not to become a chartered accountant.
The Incredible String Band bring colour and light to the young Andrew’s dour existence in Fife. He and his friend George form a band called Fate & ferret. They write their own songs and go as far as meeting with Joe Boyd in London. Boyd is, of course, the John Hammond of English folk rock. His good taste brought, in addition to ISB, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Fairport Convention, and many others to the recording studio. In Greig’s memoir, he is friendly with them but not particularly interested in their music. Their initial meeting with him does lead to a gig opening for John Martyn at Les Cousins. Not bad for a high school band!
There are a number of books on The Incredible String Band that will provide a chronological account of their musical journey. Rob Young’s take on their career in Electric Eden is particularly good. But You Know What You Could Be is something different. Surely a band’s story must include their audience to some extent. Without going all ‘trees falling in the forest’ here, the effect of the music is often as significant as the music itself. Most rock and roll biographies will trace the influence of their subject on subsequent acts but what about the ordinary fans whose lives are changed, sometimes dramatically, by the music? Clearly, no one wants to read a whole book of Led Zeppelin fans cooing about Knebworth or, worse, a Deadhead memoir (there are many, if you do!) but I like what Greig has done in this book.
He has explained the real power of The Incredible String Band in a manner that wouldn’t be feasible in a straight biography. For most of us, our favourite bands exist in a dreamscape with a great soundtrack. We may see the band live or even meet the members but, as Yeats says, it is the dream itself that enchants us. You Know What You Could Be is a book about music, imagination, and the freedom to do exactly as you please. Who could ask for more?
(*The Band’s performance at Woodstock didn’t go over that well either. The Dead were booed apparently. No shame in struggling to identify the elusive zeitgeist of half a million wet hippies!)
Teasers: Wish you’d seen The Incredible String Band live in 1968? I sure do! Andrew Greig did and he has the writing chops to put you in the front row. I find many of the concerts I see these days far too formulaic. These chaotic evenings sound glorious!
Best song ever about insomnia!
Kill ’Em And Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride, Spiegel & Grau 2016
Rick Moody wrote a review of this book in which he suggested that African American writers bring something different to books about African American musicians. Somewhat predictably he was taken to task for even daring to suggest such a thing. I read Moody’s review in the NY Times and then I read George Saunders’ response in The New Yorker. George Saunders’ article might have seemed justified but I now wonder if he had read McBride’s book. If you followed this small controversy at the time and have since read the book, try rereading the review and its follow up. It’s Moody who seems reasonable and Saunders who sounds like he’s missing the mark.
To some extent, Kill ’Em And Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul is as much about the latter part of the title as it is about the former. Somewhere in the book, McBride makes the interesting observation that America can only handle one African American superstar at a time. There is a meteoric rise followed by a spectacular fall that clears the way for the next contestant. There are examples aplenty to support this thesis in popular music. I immediately thought of Sam Cooke, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, and the proto Michael Jackson, Frankie Lymon. McBride draws Jackson himself into his discussion of James Brown. There was a strong connection between the two. When the former child star was up on charges and his career was in free fall, Brown deployed Rev. Al Sharpton to stand by him. Sharpton was initially reluctant and McBride’s story of how Brown finally compelled him to go to LA is a good one. Jackson, for his part, stood by James Brown to the bitter end. Sadly, he only outlived the older man by a couple of years.
But at its heart, this book is pure Southern Gothic. It kicks off with McBride being warned to watch himself in a diner as he researches James Brown’s early life in Georgia and South Carolina. His late night meeting with Brown’s cousin on a back road puts the book in Midnight in the Garden of Evil territory. Brown never really left the South. His extensive network of friends, business associates, ex wives, children and cousins is the stuff of a humid multi generational blockbuster. Though he died more than a decade ago, his family continues to fight over the crumbs of his estate while lawyers get rich. Bleak House, as rendered by Tennessee Williams.
I enjoyed the part where McBride acknowledges that he didn’t want to write the book at all but needed the money following an expensive divorce. He tried to pass the project off on to Gerri Hirshey, the Motown chronicler of note, but the publisher wanted James McBride, a black musician and writer. That was the perspective the publisher had in mind. It’s what Rick Moody was referring to and what Saunders and others completely misconstrued.
I have only ever been a casual fan of James Brown. Like everyone else, I have owned Live at the Apollo in at least four formats, along with a greatest hits collection purchased during a brief teenage Mod phase. I saw him once too. In the mid 80s he played the Ontario Place Forum in Toronto with its revolving stage. It was a strange show. He did about five songs. Two of them were It’s A Man’s World. Then he came out with the cape, etc, for an encore. You guessed it, It’s A Man’s World one more time. I walked out of there like Robert Bly with a six-pack.
While I was reading the book, however, I listened to some of his early albums with the original Famous Flames. His stage show and distinctive delivery is so famous that it is easy to forget that he began as a prodigiously talented soul singer. Unlike so many other singers of the period, he did not begin singing in the church. After a stint in reform school, he sang with a small harmony group. One thing led to another and he scored an early hit with Please, Please, Please in 1956. It doesn’t quite fit, does it? That’s the year Elvis went national. What was James Brown, a figure of the 60s and 70s, doing on the radio in 1956? It is this seemingly incongruent and off kilter aspect of Brown’s career that McBride draws out.
James McBride’s provocative account of Brown’s career makes one thing clear. The self styled Godfather of Soul does not fit easily into the received story of rock and roll. Motown makes sense. The Beatles drew from Motown. Chess makes sense. The Rolling Stones found something there. But James Brown’s legacy, in rock and roll at least, is less obvious. The story of his upstaging of the Stones is famous. Keith Richards has said that trying to follow him was the dumbest thing the band ever did. Brown, by some accounts, begat funk which begat disco. Okay, but we’re still talking about tributaries that exist outside of the rock and roll critical river. James McBride’s point here is never stated explicitly but his meaning is clear. James Brown is central to the African American experience of popular music. The standard Elvis – Beatles – Bowie – Punk – and so on story is arguably a very white one that, while not excluding black music, does sideline it. Elijah Wald explored this theme in his book How The Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll a few years ago. James Brown’s story is certainly illustrative of it. If you’re shaking your head, think about this: The Beatles have appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone more than 30 times. James Brown, one of the key innovators in popular music, has appeared twice. The first time, in 1989, was well after his heyday and the second time, 2006, was after his death.
Brown’s struggles, musically and personally, are detailed here through intimate interviews with family, friends, and business associates. At the end of his life, his world collapsed in the grand Faulknerian manner. I couldn’t help thinking about Poe too. The story of James Brown’s body in the mausoleum on his daughter’s lawn, the same daughter who sued him for a the royalties of a songwriting credit he gave her when she was a toddler, was right out of Tales of Mystery and Imagination.
McBride himself tasted literary stardom a few years ago with his memoir, The Color of Water. He is a formidable prose writer who has also worked as a professional musician. It’s not surprising that this book made so many ‘best of’ lists for 2016. As one era in the White House ends and we await the full implications of the one that will follow, McBride’s story of a man who scored his first hit in 1956 couldn’t be more relevant. The search for the soul of America is ongoing.
Teaser: Pee Wee Ellis, Brown’s tenor sax man, explains in technical terms the late 60s transformation of James Brown’s sound from soul to funk.
Testimony by Robbie Robertson, Deckle Edge 2016
For any other five musicians, the name might have seemed pretentious.
They almost called themselves The Honkies.
So, yeah, The Band.
They didn’t make that many records – six actual studio albums, if you exclude Islands, an outtake-laden contract filler. Five if you take away the ‘oldies’ album, Moondog Matinee, not that I would. Their reputation would seem to rest then on about fifty original songs. But of course it doesn’t. There are live albums and several famous collaborations with Bob Dylan. Collectively and individually, their western Ontario (and Arkansas) faery dust can be found on all kinds of great records. It’s there on Jesse Winchester’s first album, Muddy Waters’ brilliant Woodstock Album, a wonderful Ringo Star track called Sunshine Life For Me, and Bobby Charles’ almost unbearably beautiful self titled 1972 record. Rick Danko and Levon Helm recorded with Lenny Breau in 1961. Garth Hudson and Levon are there on Mercury Rev’s Deserter Songs 35 years later. There are plenty more and they are all worth hearing if you are a fan. Except the Robertson – produced Neil Diamond record, maybe. Up to you.
Guitarist and principal songwriter, Robbie Robertson, has added to a big pile of pre Christmas rock and roll memoirs with Testimony. Anyone who has seen the film, The Last Waltz, knows that Robbie can tell a story. He was never a powerful singer but he has a terrific speaking voice and great timing. Listen to his spoken word work on Hal Wilner’s Meditations on Mingus. Get his voice in your head before you start to read. You won’t be sorry!
Robbie has taken on something of a challenge here. The Band has already been well served in print. Across The Great Divide by Barney Hoskyns is perhaps the best book ever written about a single group. Likewise, Greil Marcus’ essay about The Band in his collection Mystery Train is just about as good as rock and roll writing gets. Robertson also has to contend with band mate Levon Helm’s 1993 memoir This Wheel’s On Fire. And this is where things get really tricky for him.
There is a perception among fans and critics alike that Robbie is somehow the villain of the piece. Helm claimed, in interviews and in his book, that the songs were far more collaborative than the publishing deal would suggest. Robertson has since been painted as tight fisted, overly ambitious, and ruthless by critics who have taken Helm’s line. Testimony is not a response to the charges but it does suggest that the truth is probably a lot more complicated than the simple Paul vs John, Mick vs Keith rock critic shorthand would suggest.
Robbie begins with his own vivid memories of postwar Toronto. The ‘I was born’ section of a musical memoir can be deadly but Robertson handles it like a novelist. He is blessed, if that’s the right word, with an unusual childhood. The son of a Mohawk mother, the young Jaime Robertson discovered that the man he called dad was not his father at all. Instead, it turned out, he was the son of a Jewish wideboy called Alexander Klegerman who had perished years earlier in a car accident. Robbie sought out Klegerman’s brothers and was soon enmeshed in a family whose, ahem, business interests somehow made them associates of the Volpe family. If you’re from Toronto, nuff said!
Robertson is particularly good on his early days with Ronnie Hawkins and the evolution of The Hawks. His growing friendship with Levon is at the heart of these sections but he also brings Hawkins, the sort of Dumbledore figure in The Band’s story, to life in all his manic glory. Slowly, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and the arch eccentric, Garth Hudson of London Ontario, make their way into the Hawks. The band conquers Yonge St and all its young women. They play dives at Wasaga Beach, they play dives on the Mississippi. Robertson was 16 when he joined up. When The Band’s first album appeared in 1968, they had been on the road since the late 50s. The Beatles’ Hamburg period is, at least according to Malcolm Gladwell, an important factor in everything that followed. There is a special ingredient in The Band’s music that is sometimes hard to identify. Robbie’s wonderful evocation of the band’s early years provides an important clue, I believe. The threads of rockabilly, rhythm and blues, pop, blues, and a country ballad or two are all part of the fabric of The Band’s sound.
And the sound was there early. The received wisdom has always been that it all came together in the months they spent making tapes in the basement with Bob Dylan in 1967 . That seems likely until you hear a recording called The Stones that I Throw by Levon and the Hawks from 1965. There is no doubt that Dylan looms large in The Band’s story but the magic predates their association with him by several years.
Speaking of the Nobel Laureate, Robbie is very good on the 1966 tour. There has been so much written about it that I wondered if he would bother spending too much time there. He does and manages to provide a unique perspective. Dylan is one of a long series of ‘father figures’ in Robertson’s life. He never actually says this but Ronnie Hawkins gives way to Levon who gives way to Dylan who gives way to Albert Grossman who gives way to David Geffen who gives way to Martin Scorcese. Dylan’s intelligence and absolute cool headedness in every situation impresses the young guitarist as he ducks flying objects night after night on the ‘Judas’ tour.
The Basement Tapes period is then outlined in some detail along with Levon’s return to the fold. This period too has been the subject of a virtual library that includes Sid Griffin’s Billion Dollar Bash, Barney Hoskyn’s recent Small Town Talk, and Greil Marcus’ loopy Invisible Republic. Robbie doesn’t attempt to tell the whole story but instead provides a few personal memories. He goes into more detail about the sessions for Music From The Big Pink and even attempts, unsuccessfully, to explain the lyrics of The Weight. Twice.
Following the section on the first album, the tone of Testimony shifts in a subtle way. Rick Danko manages to break his neck in a car accident before their first tour and Richard Manuel’s drinking starts to make an impact. Then Levon Helm discovers heroin. Robbie Robertson is a gentleman. He doesn’t scold or preach but the sense of a lost opportunity is discernible in the folds of his prose. I doubt that anyone will ever top this band’s first two albums but I think Robbie feels as though the records that followed could have been a lot better. He doesn’t think much of Cahoots, for instance. While it isn’t perhaps on par with its three predecessors, an album with Life is a Carnival, When I Paint My Masterpiece, and The River Hymn still must rank as one of the ten best albums of the 1970s.
He’s an upbeat guy and the final section of the book is filled with witty stories about life as an A list rock and roll star in the 1970s. He and David Geffen – in what must be surely the most sympathetic depiction of this guy ever – take Robbie’s wife, Dominique, and Joni Mitchell to France for the weekend. The holiday is later immortalized in Joni’s song, Free Man in Paris. It was Robbie who convinced Bob Dylan to jump ship at Columbia for Geffen’s Asylum Records. It didn’t last but Planet Waves, the only full studio album collaboration between The Band and Bob, was certainly worth the journey.
But there isn’t that much detail about The Band in this period. The tours come and go, the Northern Lights album is released, and then it’s time for The Last Waltz, where the story ends. The Hawks’ sections of the story are so richly imagined – and lengthy. But the chapters that follow The Band’s initial success in 1968 are almost like a coda. It seems to me that Robbie’s memories of The Band in its heyday aren’t all that sunny. Fans looking for a detailed chronology will find a much clearer one in Hoskyns’ Across The Great Divide.
This is something different, an unusual rock and roll memoir where the paucity of information functions as a kind of subtext. Robbie hasn’t come to terms with The Band and has perhaps been stung by his ‘Yoko-isation’ by fans and critics. I enjoyed Testimony enormously but this is perhaps a more melancholy book than the author intended.
Teasers: Robbie’s solution to being stranded in Perth, Australia. Hint – it involves twins! The Band’s set at Woodstock – they were supposed to close the whole thing until Hendrix’s manager stepped in! Some interesting stuff for techies on his guitar sound, recording techniques and so on.
And a rare Robbie Robertson lead vocal on one of my favourite songs by The Band, Out of the Blue:
The Sun and The Moon and the Rolling Stones by Rich Cohen, Spiegel and Grau, 2016
Rich Cohen says that Generation X ‘gets’ the music of the 1960s’ artists in a way that the baby boomers never will. I love that idea! It’s probably a difficult claim to substantiate but I often find myself at concerts singing along with artists of this era while nearby retirees scratch their salt and pepper beards. At a Brian Wilson show last month I was astounded by how few people in the audience recognized the classic Honking Down The Highway. I’m joking, of course, but Sail On Sailor, which really is a pretty good song, got almost no reaction either. Cohen says it has to do with perspective. Keith Richards attributes it to the fact that people Cohen’s (and my) age have never lived in a world without the Stones – “the sun and the moon and The Rolling Stones”, says the humble guitarist, providing Cohen with a great title for his new book on the band.
A book about The Rolling Stones presents something of a quandary to both writer and reader. What does one say about this band that isn’t already part of one of the great Rock and Roll myth cycles. The Stones were badass compared to The Beatles? The Sixties ended at Altamont during Under My Thumb? Exile on Main St was badly reviewed at the time (it really wasn’t – check for yourself) but is the greatest record ever made? There are almost as many books about the Stones as there are on The Beatles. This formidable library now includes Keith’s bestselling autobiography Life. Mick Jagger tells Cohen that Richards didn’t write it and probably hasn’t read it either. I wasn’t crazy about Life, to be honest, and this made me laugh out loud, as the kids say.
Rich Cohen is a well regarded non fiction writer who has covered topics like Jewish gangsters, the Chicago Bears, and his grandfather who invented Sweet and Low. He is also, along with Mick and Marty, a co-creator of HBO’s Vinyl TV series. He is a massive Stones fan but his formidable skills as a journalist are on show here and he manages, amazingly, to find some fresh angles on ‘The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in The World’. Sam Cutler, incidentally, made that comment at Hyde Park in 1969, as a joke because the band had sounded so awful in the soundcheck.
Cohen caught my attention early in his book when he identified the precise moment that the Stones ‘sold out’. The idea of any band ‘selling out’ is a tricky one but I suppose many Stones fans would point to the period where the band became something of a nostalgia act in the early 90s. Others might suggest that Some Girls was a bit too commercial though, in retrospect, it’s just a great album. Old hands and garage fans might even shake their heads at Their Satanic Majesties Request as the end of an era for the band. Cohen’s moment is unexpectedly early. He believes the band lost its edge when they fired Ian Stewart and became a five piece. Yes indeed, that was 1963, a year before their first album appeared. It is a claim that paints Rich Cohen as either the ultimate organic coffee swilling hipster or just a writer making a broader point. Assuming the latter is true, the real suggestion here is that the Stones began to slide when they stepped away from their blues club beginnings. This in turn leads to his contention that the blues are the source of The Stones’ best music and that they are at their best when this is on show.
Hard to argue, although I might say that I think this is a slightly Keith-centric argument. Mick’s soul affiliations can’t be discounted. Out of Our Heads is a monster of an album which, for me at 13 in 1979, doubled as an introductory course on 60s R’n’B. Listen to Keith’s first solo album, Talk is Cheap. That is the Stones without Mick. Murkily great in its way but lacking the Solomon Burke bonhomie that only Mick can provide. Black and Blue is the most underrated Stones record. Go listen to it right now. I’ll wait. Tell me if I’m wrong about the Soul soul of the Stones.
But back to Cohen’s book. He begins in 1994 on assignment for Rolling Stone Magazine, covering the Voodoo Lounge tour. But this isn’t Almost Famous. Instead he retells the band’s story from the beginning up until the mid 70s when his interest in their music seems to wane. He doesn’t turn a lot of new ground but I enjoyed hearing it all again. He interviewed people like Paul Jones,from Manfred Mann, who provided some witty insights on those early blues days. He covers the first American tours, the drug busts, Morocco, Altamont, and their period in the south of France with verve and superb storytelling skills. I thought he was particularly good on Brian Jones.
Keith Richards is rather unpleasant about Brian in Life and, of late, no one else has had anything nice to say about him. Whatever he was like personally, he was a key figure in the early period and Cohen’s attention to the blues aspect of the band makes for a thoughtful assessment of his contribution.
But what does it all mean? What is Cohen trying to say about the Stones? The band has been the subject of several impressive studies. Stanley Booth’s True Adventures of the Rolling Stones is one of the best books ever written on any band. Zachary Lazar’s Sway, a novel, might be the most frighteningly accurate thing ever written about them. The Sun and The Moon and The Rolling Stones works because Rich Cohen is a talented writer with a particular take. I think a subtitle like ‘Generation X and the Stones’ might have served here. Those of us hovering around the mid century mark have indeed grown up with this band. I was born in the Aftermath, started school with Sticky Fingers, came of age with Some Girls, and entered the adult world on Steel Wheels… I’m sorry, that’s unforgivable but I can’t delete it. I just can’t. Anyhow, if you feel like reconnecting with this band, read Cohen’s book and for heaven’s sake, listen to Black and Blue again.
Teaser: Paul Jones of Manfred Mann reveals the greatest conspiracy theory in Rock and Roll. All I’m saying is that it involves Delbert McClinton and an early Beatles track.