Diary of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star by Ian Hunter, Omnibus 2019
There is a problem with rock memoirs and it isn’t that most of them are windy ghostwritten doorstops put out for fast cash at Christmas time. No, the real issue is that they are all severely teleological. Readers of Keith Richards’ Life will have noticed that he doesn’t spend a lot of time on Their Satanic Majesties Request, beyond pronouncing it ‘a load of crap’. Exile on Main St gets pages and pages. Sticky Fingers seems to take up half the book. What’s the difference? Well, in retrospect, Exile and Sticky Fingers are two of the greatest records in popular music and high points for western civilization. Their Satanic Majesties Request, if not quite a load of crap, is a rare misstep in Keith’s long and glorious career. The narrative thus moves backwards. Keith Richards might tell the story chronologically but the emphasis is on what is considered valuable now.
“Load of crap,” says guitarist, NOW!
So what’s the alternative? If Mike Love had written at length about the MIU Album in his book – wait, he did, bad example! Okay, what if Robbie Robertson had given as much time to Islands as he did to Music From The Big Pink? That might have been interesting but would have seemed odd to all but the most devoted Band fans. The whole point of these memoirs is to explore those moments when the magic happened, not the ones in between.
So imagine a real time book by a major rock star written before rock and roll history had been Rolling Stoned, Mojo’d and Pitchforked into a series of ‘greatest of all time’ lists and canonical albums. Yes, imagine that, for a moment.
What if I told you that this book existed?
Ian Hunter’s Diary of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, first published in 1974, was written on a series of A4 note pages as his band, Mott The Hoople, toured the US at the end of 1972. Earlier that year, the hit single, All The Young Dudes, had revived a band on the verge of breaking up. Now they were hoping they could build an audience in the US. They might even get as big as Brownsville Station!
It is the painstaking detail of this book that builds the tension, and that tension is its power. It is filled with the minutiae of day-to-day tour life – taxi rides, flights, hotel rooms, soundchecks, shows, repeat. It doesn’t glamourize life on the road but it doesn’t go all gonzo either. Ian Hunter comes across as such a normal guy that more than a few times I had to remind myself that I was reading something written by a man I consider something of a genius. He is neither unusually virtuous nor deeply flawed. He loses his temper and makes plenty of dubious observations about women. But he also shows genuine concern for his band mates and the fans that approach him in every city. This is not a comic book version of rock and roll. There aren’t any epic nights of drug fueled bacchanalia or legendary scenes with multiple groupies. Instead, Hunter worries that he is gaining weight and wishes he didn’t always have to share a room with Verden Allen. He phones his wife, Trudy, every night and occasionally has too many beers.
The gigs were chaotic. Mott The Hoople rarely seemed to be on top of the bill. Instead they shared shows with bands like It’s a Beautiful Day, Flash Cadillac, and New Riders of the Purple Sage. At one point, they have a dispute with Bloodrock about who will go on first and then end up not going on at all. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine Ian Hunter considering them competition but that’s part of the charm of his account. Bloodrock were on the way up. It is 1972 as it was, rather than how we see it now. The ‘Mott’ album and his solo career were all still to come. Bands were coming and going all the time. All The Young Dudes is a rock solid classic song now but in 1972 it was just another single that was doing rather well. Nothing was guaranteed and, in this book, the reader gets an authentic glimpse of a rock and roll band working their tails off to hold their place at the table.
The most endearing passages are about what the band called ‘Shawn Pops’, their rhyming slang for pawn shops. In every city, they sought out these establishments to procure vintage American made guitars. Hunter makes the rather prophetic observation that these guitars are going to become extremely valuable as less expensive Japanese made instruments become more common. Little did he know that Nixon was in China around that time negotiating for even cheaper guitars! The pawn places were often in the dodgier parts of town and sometimes they had trouble convincing taxi drivers to take them. Once in the shops, they bargained with the grumpy owners and ended up with old Teles, 20 dollar Mosrites, and a slew of dirt cheap Gibson Juniors. The idea was to sell them at a profit back in England but you get the feeling that they kept most of them. I think you’ll read this book, if you haven’t already, so I won’t spoil the story of Hunter’s famous Maltese Cross guitar.
Bowie makes a few cameo appearances as does Keith Moon but this is by no means a litany of ‘then I met…’ stories. The main characters in the book are the members of Mott, their manager Stan, and the people they meet in motels and backstage along the way. I was interested in the glimpses of Mick Ralphs, a loner according to Hunter, who was terrified of flying and seemed to suffer greatly throughout the tour. Ralphs soon left to form Bad Company but Hunter doesn’t dwell on whatever tensions were present in the classic line up of Mott. Again, there is nothing teleological here because obviously he had no idea what was going to happen next.
The reason I’m reviewing a book that appeared 45 years ago is that it has been reprinted, though not for the first time, and now includes some additional material to contextualize the original release and to give Johnny Depp an opportunity to pour love on Ian Hunter in the introduction. It is commonly considered one of the best books ever written about rock and roll but is not always easy to find in between printings. Grab it while you can and settle into your time machine. It’s a bumpy ride but like all great journeys, it ends with a party and a long flight back to England.
Teasers: Ian Hunter as critic. What does he think of Jethro Tull? What does he think of John McLaughlin? What about Zappa’s experimental tapes? And his favourite band of all time? Buy the book!
All in the Downs by Shirley Collins, Strange Attractor Press, 2018
Jazz ruined her first marriage. Her husband loved it; she didn’t. He played it so much that one night she lost her temper and threw a tea cup against the wall. His love for jazz extended to inviting young jazz musicians to stay with them at their house. Some of these people had drug habits and one day a couple of East End heavies came to the door. Someone owed them money. Shirley Collins wrote them a cheque. Then she wrote a note to her husband. No more jazz; no more jazz musicians. Goodbye.
This was in 1970, by which time Shirley Collins was a famous folk musician in England. She was still mistaken for Judy Collins occasionally by confused interviewers but she had been recording since the 50s and, along with her sister Dolly, made a number of fascinating and well received records. Ten years later, her career was winding down and she had begun a series of jobs as an administrative assistant in various government offices. From the early eighties until she retired in 1995 she worked in offices, typing and filing. In the early 90s, a young co-worker crankily observed that he was stuck working with a bunch of old ladies who had never done anything but work for the government. Shirley said this wasn’t the case. She had been on television, played the Royal Albert Hall and the Sydney Opera House. He apologized. And so he should have!
Why was one of the great figures of the English folk revival typing up council meeting minutes in the 1980s? I imagine Kate Bush coming on the transistor radio in the lunchroom and Shirley looking around to see if anyone noticed how indebted the younger singer was to her. But, sadly, by this stage, Shirley couldn’t sing. She suffered from a condition called dysphonia, otherwise known as ‘marrying someone from Fairport Convention’ syndrome. It started when her second marriage, to former Fairport bassist Ashley Hutchings, disintegrated in the late 70s. The other famous folk sufferer was, yes, Linda Thompson. It’s no joke, of course. The condition, which is still not fully understood, shut down the careers of both these talented performers.
With Ashley Hutchings in the early 70s
She did make an amazing comeback in 2016 at age 81 with the album ‘Lodestar’. Listen to it and then stop moaning about getting old. This is her ‘Blackstar’. All of those fallow years did nothing to dampen her originality and exquisite taste in ancient English songs. Her voice has deepened slightly but, as with her best work of the 60s and 70s, there is a timeless quality to her delivery. There’s no real comparison with any of her near contemporaries. She’s nothing like Sandy Denny or Maddy Pryor or Linda Thompson or anyone else in the folk rock box. On the other hand, she’s not like Peggy Seeger either. I always think of John Clare when I listen to her music. Her England is rural and wild but threatened by enclosure. There are Romany families on the road and a few old Luddites here and there.
The interesting thing about Shirley Collins is that she was always immersed in English folk music without ever succumbing to the almost Stalinist orthodoxy of people like Ewan MacColl. He doesn’t come off very well in the book. An account of a disturbing ‘#Me Too’ moment with him is followed by a hilarious description of him sitting astride a chair at a folk club with eyes closed and a hand to one ear, presumably making sure that the singer on the floor wasn’t performing a song written more than 20 kilometers from where the singer was born. Such were the strict parameters of the English folk politburo of the early 60s. You can imagine what MacColl thought of Donovan!
Collins performed traditional material but was always open to innovation. MacColl’s puritanical approach has always struck me as slightly pathological. He wanted to collect, control, and dominate. Shirley Collins simply loved the music. She also realized that it could be preserved without putting it on a shelf in a jar. Her famous 1964 collaboration with Davey Graham, ‘Folk Roots, New Routes’, is a good place to start. Graham, who wrote the instrumental Angi and was a great influence on Jimmy Page, was the definition of far out in the early sixties. He was ostensibly a folk musician but was incorporating outlandish open tunings (he more or less ‘invented’ DADGAD, for instance) and Moroccan rhythms into his sound. Together they recorded English folk songs and, according to many critics, created a key album in the English folk rock story. Some, like Rob Young, the author of Electric Eden, suggest that it is actually the starting point for the genre.
But let’s talk about ‘No Roses’, the greatest album Fairport Convention never made. Except that they sort of did. Most of the ‘Liege and Lief’ era members (only Sandy and Swarbs don’t appear) turn up somewhere on this 1971 album. I’m not going to suggest that it is the equal of that record but if you love ‘Liege and Lief’ and are frustrated by all of the Fairport albums that followed, I might be your new best pal for suggesting this one, if you’ve never heard it. Richard Thompson, Simon Nicol, Ashley Hutchings (it was his group, the Albion Country Band backing her), and Dave Mattacks all appear on the record, along with members of the Young Tradition, Maddy Pryor, sister Dolly, Lal and Mike Waterson, and the awesome Nic Jones. I found out about this record reading Electric Eden and it has become a great favourite.
Shirley and Dolly 1940
Collins devotes space to both of these records, of course, and to her life among the stars of English folk rock. But the book is far more than a litany of meetings with remarkable guitar players – she did have tea with Jimi Hendrix – or a bitter rant about the music business – something that would be entirely justified in her case. She was born in 1935 and regards her childhood memories of Sussex as the beginning point of her love for English folk culture. I found myself sinking happily into a pre digital world that wasn’t all that different from John Clare’s, in some ways. She weaves a number of folk songs into the narrative. All of them are of interest and there is nothing pedantic in her descriptions. Her knowledge of the tradition is wide. There was a time when men and women roamed England collecting songs from anyone they could find. This was the raw material for the folk revival. Collins describes this process and gives credit to those involved. I was particularly impressed by her admiration for the Romany singers whose contribution is sometimes forgotten and whose descendants remain subject to terrible discrimination.
Where singers like Sandy Denny, Vashti Bunyan and, to a lesser extent, Anne Briggs have become cult figures, Shirley Collins is, to my mind, still wildly under appreciated. She was awarded an MBE and declared a national treasure by Billy Bragg but I feel like she isn’t accorded her rightful street cred. Listen to ‘Anthems in Eden’, a 1969 album with Dolly. You think you’ve heard Freak Folk? This really is folk music and it is freaky stuff, by any measure. You can read all about how it was made in her book. All in the Downs is an endearing and thoughtful memoir for fans and novices alike.
Teasers: Sometimes your heroes are jerks in real life. Shirley isn’t vindictive but there are some devastating portraits in this book. If you’re a fan of Ashley Hutchings…
There’s not a lot of old footage of Shirley available but this is from a 1970s BBC documentary:
Voices: How a Singer Can Change Your Lifeby Nick Coleman, Jonathan Cape 2018
“Yeah, but he’s a terrible singer.”
And then they always intone a nasally ‘how does it feeeeel?’ just in case I don’t know that song or haven’t recognized that Dylan doesn’t sing like Sarah Vaughan.
If you’re a Dylan fan, you know this scenario. It’s so predictable that it barely registers. I’m never sure what to say, other than the obvious: Compared to whom? Bob is always singled out for something fairly unexceptional in rock and roll. It’s as though everyone in popular music has a great voice except Bob. Sure they do…
I’m listening to Mazzy Star’s first album right now as I write because I was listening to the Cowboy Junkies this morning. I was listening to Townes when I thought of the Cowboy Junkies. Townes, Margo, Hope. None of them are brilliant singers in any technical sense but then, what does that mean? I love their voices and would listen to all of them sing the phone book before I would waste 10 seconds listening to a lot of people who are considered ‘great’ singers. So would you!
The only terrible singer in rock and roll
My son is that age where he is appalled by other people’s bad taste and lack of knowledge about music. Some kid in his class has never heard of Hendrix and prefers some rap star anyway! Another thinks Ariana Grande is better than Janis! My message to him is to respect others’ taste in music. If it brings them joy, it’s okay. I’m stating the obvious but your taste in music is simply that: your taste in music. You might have some authority because you’ve heard a lot of stuff but the fact is that music either moves you or it doesn’t. There isn’t a scale by which we can measure a rock and roll band’s aesthetic value. The Stooges are great but they are not objectively better than The Monkees (I want to qualify that sentence so badly that my teeth are aching. I can’t stand The Monkees).
Musical taste is personal. So what? Well, In Nick Coleman’s Voices: How a Singer Can Change Your Life, he suggests our response to the voice might be the most personal of all our tastes. This intriguing new book is a meditation on singers and singing. His contention is that we can be objective about instrumental music to an extent but voices are too embedded in our consciousness to be anything but a zero sum game. We like them or we don’t. When we were babies we heard voices. We didn’t understand the words but we got very good at hearing what they were expressing. Love, frustration, humor, concern, and anger were all conveyed to us initially through the sound of a voice. Thus our response is primal. If people had only played tenor saxophones to us from birth we might feel the same way about woodwinds. Not a bad idea!
The book is built around a series of categories that form the chapters. One or two singers might be the main exemplars of something like ‘Accent’ (Mick Jagger and John Lennon) but Coleman uses a broad range of examples to illustrate his point. At the end of each chapter, there is a section called ‘Grace Notes’ where he looks at specific songs that have this quality (Waterloo Sunset for ‘Accent’) Some of the other categories are ‘Identification’, ‘Soul’, and ‘Croon’. Ronnie Spector, Wilson Pickett, and, interestingly, Gregory Isaacs respectively get a lot of attention in those chapters.
Because singing and our response to singers is demonstrably close to our hearts, the book is personal. Coleman makes it clear that he is speaking from a particular context (East Anglia) and as someone of a certain age. At 58, he is part of that little group that slips between the boomers and GenX. He came of age listening to prog and had his mind blown by punk. His story about hearing Anarchy in the UK for the first time is funny. His story about a friend having a panic attack listening to Joy Division’s Closer (Anguish) is harrowing. The 80s did little for him although he adores Hounds of Love (Croon). Coleman is a thoughtful listener with a vast knowledge of popular music. I always judge a music book by how many times I stopped reading to listen to something. It took me a long time to get through this one.
Sophisticated and Restless
The real power of Voices, however, is in Coleman’s enviable ability to describe the sonic quality of the voice in music. He digs deep into the implications of the performance and finds hidden elements in a wide range of songs, both familiar and obscure. In the ‘Sophistication’ section he draws out something akin to restlessness in Joni Mitchell’s Song for Sharon. I have to say that the discussion of Joni’s work here struck me as far more insightful than anything in the most recent biography. Marvin Gaye’s voice is explored under the banner of ‘Vulnerability’ with his singular Here My Dear album as an example. Coleman compares this strange record to Rogier Van der Weyden’s 15th century masterpiece, The Descent from the Cross. The painting (see below) uses a frame to call attention to its own limitations: the cosmic dimensions of the event defeats its human and artistic capacity. Coleman sees Here My Dear in a similar light. Gaye’s voice suggests that there is simply too much to express. That is, according to Coleman, the very definition of vulnerability.
Things get very interesting indeed in the final chapter on Rapture and Psalms. Van Morrison’s career is compared to Bede’s reluctant singer, Caedmon, the singer who nonetheless finds his voice and his song. Coleman hears something of this rapture on the Moondance album, in particular. A discussion of the Psalms is followed by a consideration of ‘voices in the wilderness’ and the rather surprising example of John Lydon and PIL’s Metal Box. Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey album is also covered here. Bob Dylan makes an appearance in the Grace Notes section of Rapture and Psalms. Coleman doesn’t bother too much with Dylan (or Neil Young, intriguingly) in this book but it makes sense that the laureate would turn up in this section. I thought something from Slow Train Coming might be covered but Coleman talks about No More Auction Block and Blind Willie McTell, two songs that are probably not familiar to the sort of person who does lame imitations of Bob but are well worth hearing!
Clearly, I enjoyed Voices but I have one serious bone to pick with it. Here it is: Steve Marriott is a better singer than Paul Rodgers, Long John Baldry, Tom Jones, Phil May, Roger Daltrey and all the other British singers mentioned in this section. Marriott is a locomotive among Mini Coopers here. No one in rock and roll even comes close. Coleman, however, reduces him to someone who was okay in the sixties but really sucked in Humble Pie. Meanwhile, I’m supposed to believe that Rod Stewart was some kind of soul god. Dude, please.
You see! It always gets personal with voices. If you think Coltrane is overrated, we can talk. If you think Billie Holiday is overrated, I’m outta here. This is a fascinating book that will force you into entrenched positions like mine on Marriott but also demand that you think a bit about them. It is also a book that tries to understand what it is about music and humans. Yes, he drifts into a brief discussion of brain chemistry; the new black for books about anything at all, but fortunately concludes that it doesn’t really answer any questions about music.
The epilogue to this book is terribly sad. If you’ve read his previous book, The Train in the Night, you know that he has essentially gone deaf, a cruel fate for a music critic and someone with Coleman’s obvious passion. There is some good news, mixed with some setbacks here. I was particularly moved by the section where he recovers some of his hearing and devours as much music as he can in case it doesn’t last. A reminder for all of us perhaps that there are a lot of songs to get through in this life. Music, as Coleman rightly points out, is a complicated pleasure and it’s one that we should never take for granted.
With that in mind, who are your favourite singers and why? For the Coleman challenge, pick a particular song and try to describe the sound of the voice itself. Not easy!
Teasers: The best defense of Mick Jagger’s voice you will ever read. John Lennon’s loathing of his own voice – plus the truly primal scream of his Twist and Shout. Also, Frankie Miller, a truly underrated voice.
Also discussed in the book, of course! Roy Orbison:
Tom who? Rod who? Steve Marriott in The Small Faces:
Woman* Walk The Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives by Holly Gleason (editor), University of Texas Press 2017
It is 1987. Lucinda Williams sits at the bar of the Palomino Club in North Hollywood. Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller are there too, swapping tour stories nearby, while Candeye Kane sets up on stage. What a picture. I feel like I’ve waited years to catch a glimpse like this of Lucinda Williams. No one has ever written a serious biography or a book about her music. The feature articles I’ve read over the years have, predictably, focused on her personal life and her reputation as ‘difficult’ in the studio. If that’s true, I hope she stays difficult because her last few albums have been these remarkably spare but utterly evocative dreamscapes. I can maybe think of three other records in my collection that match Ghosts of Highway 20 for atmosphere. Time Out of Mind, maybe? On The Beach? Kind of Blue?
‘Difficult’ sounds like what happens when a musician who happens to be a woman demands that her record sounds like what she hears in her head. Imagine how ‘difficult’ the three artists behind the albums above were during the recording sessions. The normally arch-mellow Daniel Lanois smashed a dobro in frustration after a day of dealing with Bob Dylan during the Time Out of Mind sessions in New Orleans. Bob really is difficult in the studio and this is well known. But it’s not the important part of the story, is it? Lucinda Williams is, for my money, creating better music than just about anyone on the planet at the moment. She is a gifted writer, a brilliant performer, and her albums get better and better. Why isn’t she on the cover of those rock magazines so beloved of men my age? Look at the credits for Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. Tony Joe White, Bill Frisell, Ian McLagan for heaven’s sake. It’s a MOJO reader’s wet dream!
The answer is pretty clear. A cover story featuring Bob or The Beatles will sell, cover stories about women do not, apparently. It’s depressing but true. Despite the pioneering efforts of writers like Lillian Roxon and Ellen Willis, writing on popular music is still dominated by, if not actual men, a male aesthetic around what is valuable in rock and roll, blues, country, and so on.
The image of Lucinda in the Palomino comes from a new book called Woman Walk The Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives. It’s a collection of personal essays curated and edited by Holly Gleason, a journalist and songwriter in her own right. I will confess that I only picked it up because I noticed that there was a piece about Lucinda written by Holly herself. But when I scanned the table of contents, I was intrigued. Lil Hardin? Wanda Jackson? Rita Coolidge? Sure, Dolly, Loretta, and Barbara Mandrell are in there but you’ll be surprised by the list. KD Lang but no Patsy Cline? Okay, but wait a minute: What’s Lil Hardin doing in there?
Louis and Lil
Lil was the second Mrs Louis Armstrong but more significantly, she was an important early jazz piano player and a songwriter who wrote ‘Just For A Thrill’ – a hit for Ray Charles, Louis’s ‘Struttin’ with Some BBQ’, and ‘Bad Boy – recorded by Ringo, Mink Deville and others. She was also a key member of the game-changing Hot Five band led by Louis. Her connection to Country music might seem tenuous though she did play piano on Jimmie Rogers’ Blue Yodel No. 9. The author of the essay, Alice Randall, is a novelist and songwriter who grew up in Detroit in the 60s. She explains why Lil Hardin appealed to her more than the obvious stars of her hometown – Diana Ross et al. Randall was the first African American woman to write a number one country song – Trisha Yearwood’s ‘XXXs and OOOs’. She calls Lil a trailblazer and makes a very convincing case for a musician who should be far better known.
A similar though very different essay later in the book comes from Kandia Crazy Horse, a songwriter and musician, who relates deeply to Rita Coolidge on the basis of their shared Cherokee background. Coolidge is another woman who doesn’t appear in MOJO often enough despite her association with Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, Hendrix, and many others, besides her one time husband, Kris Kristofferson. Kandia Crazy Horse’s vision of rock and roll history led her to name her first album Stampede (Buffalo Springfield fans will get this reference) and reconfigure the late 60s story so that Native American musicians are given their due and recognized for their heritage. Jimi Hendrix is well known to have Native ancestry but what about Ronnie Spector? I didn’t know that!
‘Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right’. Rita Coolidge stuck in the middle.
The second half of the book deals with more recent artists and will probably appeal more to country fans who are better acquainted with artists like Terri Clark and Kasey Musgraves. That said, none of these pieces is without some interest for the general reader. A collection of essays that simply made the point that the music business is difficult for women would be redundant. It’s pretty clear now that Hollywood is hell on earth for female actors and corporate life probably isn’t any easier. The music business has always been a nasty place generally but always much worse for women. Country music seems like a genre where women have always had more or less equal billing – compared to say, Prog Rock – but it’s complicated. Tyler Mahan Coe’s podcast, Cocaine and Rhinestones, is an excellent corrective here. Listen to the episodes on Loretta Lynn and Jeannie C. Riley. Find out what happened to Garth Brooks when he presented TNT with a music video depicting an abused wife fighting back. Banned! Truly.
Kandia Crazy Horse
This collection doesn’t shy away from pointing out the hypocrisy and the often blatant sexism at work in the music industry but there is more here than a series of polemics. The real theme of the collection is inspiration. Reading through, I was struck over and over by the impact music can have in people’s lives. Ronni Lundy’s essay on Hazel Dickens outlines Lundy’s own startling journey and the way in which Dickens’ music turned up at key moments. She didn’t find the music, the music found her. It is something that many of these writers come back to in this book. I don’t have much interest in The Judds but I was struck by Courtney E. Smith’s story of how she bought their Greatest Hits cassette on a school visit to New York and fell asleep listening it every night of the trip. I have similar stories and so do you. It’s that sort of book and one well worth reading even if country music isn’t your thing.
Meanwhile, I happened to read yesterday that Lucinda is at work on a memoir. Stay tuned!
*To Grammar Enthusiasts: It is indeed Woman and not Women in the title. At first I thought it was a sly reference to Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘Rights of Woman’ but it is, in fact, the title of an Emmylou Harris song.
Teasers: Taylor Swift’s high school essay about Brenda Lee – more interesting than you might expect! Tanya Tucker as disruptive punk rock force – a convincing case! And some good reasons why Linda Ronstadt is cool.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Teasers: The whole story behind If I Could Read Your Mind; his early days as a singing sensation in Orillia, Ontario.
Trouble In Mind: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Period – What Really Happened by Clinton Heylin, 2017
Baby Boomers will find this excruciatingly funny but the first Bob Dylan song I ever heard on the radio was When You Gonna Wake Up. It was the fall of 1979 and I had just started Grade 8. Despite what appears, in retrospect, to be an enormously creative run of three wonderful records – Blood on the Tracks, Desire, and the wildly underrated Street Legal – Bob Dylan wasn’t someone much discussed among junior high students at the time. I spent most of my days at school talking about music but the topics were rock vs disco, whether or not punk was cool, and what to make of the keyboard sounds on In Through The Out Door.
But I liked When You Gonna Wake Up. I heard it on my clock radio in the morning and the chorus was in my head all day. I had no idea what the song was about but it stuck with me. Yeah, when are you going to wake up?
The point in a musician’s history when a fan first discovers their work is crucial. I picked up on Neil Young when he released Rust Never Sleeps. Great album. I discovered The Rolling Stones about the time that Some Girls appeared. Pretty good record. But when Bob Dylan appeared on my teenage horizon line, he had just converted to a particularly strident form of evangelical Christianity. When I saw him a couple years later in 1981, the rumour was that he wasn’t playing any of his old songs. He did, as it turned out, but they were all but unrecognisable. I remember a big hippie dude passing me a joint and shaking his head. ‘This is just shit,’ he said, as Bob mauled one of his classic songs on the stage of Maple Leaf Gardens.
It was thus with great interest that I read Clinton Heylin’s new book, Trouble In Mind: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Period – What Really Happened. Yes, it’s the most garbled title of the year – but within its covers is a detailed chronology of the most surprising transformation in all of those in Dylan’s long career. He had been an earnest folksinger, a speedy folk rocker, a sort of Thoreau style woodland bard, a Countrypolitan gent, a complete mess, a stadium rocker, a raggle taggle gypsy and whatever the hell that was on Live at Budokan. Somehow the end of his second decade in the music business led him to the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, an evangelical organisation that still has centres all over the world. The story is that someone threw a silver cross on stage during the 78 tour and he pocketed it. A few days later he took it out and had a profound spiritual experience.
I’ll start with a mild criticism of Heylin’s book before I get to its many virtues. Heylin is not a Christian and does not seem to have much knowledge of the faith and its history. He is out of his depth. Unfortunately, I am too. I would have liked far more detail on Bob’s conversion and the particular brand of born again Christianity he embraced. I gathered it was vaguely in the ‘end is near’ category but I found myself doing some heavy googling for further clarification. I would have also been interested in how it all ended. Did he break with the Vineyard people? Heylin barely mentions the Infidels album. The title alone was surely worth some discussion, not to mention the sudden disappearance of overt Christianity in his lyrics. If you are in search of a book that probes the spiritual content of his conversion, this isn’t it.
Heylin, however, makes up for his lack of theology with a real passion for this music. The book is by far the most measured and thoughtful consideration of the material Dylan recorded and performed in his Christian period. The political implications of evangelical Christianity in the US and Dylan’s centrality in the counter culture have perhaps skewed the critical reaction to the three albums he released between 1979 and 1981. Heylin tells their stories and listens to them with fresh ears.
The first, Slow Train Coming, is surely one of Bob Dylan’s finest moments. After a dry spell in the early 70s, Bob began to write from a more personal place. His ability with imagery remained but he left behind the Beat babble for lyrics that seemed to come from a deeper source. The older I get, the more difficult I find it to listen to the raw pain on 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. Street Legal (1978) is, for me, on par with Neil Young’s Time Fades Away. It sounds like a ragged cry of bewilderment. Slow Train thus sounds like an answer, of sorts. The songs are beautifully constructed and feature little of the obfuscation that Dylan was so well known for at the time.
It took me years to finally sit down and listen to the second album in the series, Saved. The original cover art was confronting and the stridency of the Christian messages stung critics who felt as though they’d allowed him a free pass on one religious record already. The negative reviews in retrospect seem to be all about discomfort with the lyrics and the context of the album, rather than the music. I wonder how many people, like me, went running home to listen to it after hearing John Doe’s version of Pressing On in Todd Haynes’ film, I’m Not There. I suspect many found a far better album than they expected. I sure did!
Shot of Love, the final record in the triptych, remains a classic example of Dylan’s occasional, or not so occasional, self sabotage. There is a long list of great songs that Dylan has left off albums. Imagine not finding a place for Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind in the mid sixties! The original vinyl release of Shot of Love did not include Groom’s Still Waiting At the Altar though it has been restored on subsequent releases. Caribbean Wind didn’t appear on any record until the first bootleg series albums were released in the 90s. Luckily, he did manage to include Every Grain of Sand but, as has been the case before and since, there was a much better album available that he chose not to release. It’s maddening but that’s Dylan, I guess. Daniel Lanois smashed a dobro on the floor of the studio while they were recording Oh Mercy together. I wonder if that happened when Dylan told him that he didn’t want to include Series of Dreams.
Clinton Heylin is something of a rock star himself in the field of music journalism. His exhaustive two volume Songs of Bob Dylan belongs on your shelf next to Revolution in the Head. He has written books on Van Morrison, The Velvet Underground, mental illness in rock and roll, Bruce Springsteen, punk, and one of the definitive biographies of Bob, Behind The Shades. His first book was an edited collection of Dylan’s sermons on the Slow Train tour. He is clearly fascinated by Bob and, in particular, the Christian period.
It’s fair to say that this is a book for hardcore Dylan fans. It’s a little hard to imagine the general reader finding Heylin’s concert by concert, studio session by studio session account terribly engaging. I am a reasonably big fan and I found myself drifting at times as he detailed the subtle differences in the performances of particular songs from night to night. That said, at least he avoids the sort of lazy generalisations writers usually throw at Dylan’s conversion and the music that resulted. Heylin simply lays out the evidence and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions.
Here are some of mine:
Bob Dylan deserved the Nobel and perhaps some kind of military award for courage. It was one thing to go electric in 1965. The folk boom was over and he was hanging out with Alan Price. Folk rock was cool and Dylan was cool when earnest folk singers were starting to look a bit square. But in 1979, becoming a born again Christian was not cool. The Jesus freaks, the folk mass, and the Quaker pacifist street cred of the sixties and early 70s had given way, in popular culture, to conservative TV evangelists like Oral Roberts and the cretinous Anita Bryant. Musically, 1979 was the year of the Talking Heads, The Police, Elvis Costello, Throbbing Gristle, and many others who represented a changing of the guard, as Bob might say. His near contemporaries Pink Floyd released The Wall that year and seemed to capture something of the zeitgeist of the coming of Thatcher and Reagan. It was morning in America all right, just not a very nice one. If Bob Dylan was Jackson Browne or Bruce Cockburn, he might have found new purpose in protesting against nuclear power or Reagan’s criminal behavior in Central America but, of course, Bob Dylan is predictably unpredictable. While his contemporaries came to terms with their pasts and presents with varying degrees of success, Bob launched a tour where he played no old songs whatsoever and interspersed the new material with lengthy sermons about the coming apocalypse.
The audiences were not particularly receptive. ‘Jesus loves your old songs too’ was a common banner seen at the shows but that was a jovial sort of response. Generally audiences booed, interrupted the singer with cries of ‘Lay Lady Lay, Bob!’ before walking out. Concerts were canceled due to poor ticket sales and he was lashed by the critics who resented what they saw as a complete betrayal of their own salad days in the sixties.
This was a shame because, as Heylin points out, Bob was performing perhaps the best shows of his career. His commitment to the material was 110%. The band was tight and there was none of the sloppiness or indifference so characteristic of the mercurial singer in his live performances. There are clips galore on YouTube and the latest edition of the Bootleg Series is a remarkable document of a performer who was clearly emptying the tank every night.
My admiration for Bob grew as I followed him through this period in Heylin’s book. He is fearless and his integrity is beyond question. I seriously doubt that any other rock and roll musician, particularly of his generation, would have had the balls to do what he did in the early 80s. Bob’s output since then has been, to say the least, uneven. I think that, like the 1966 tour, the gospel shows burned him out. In fact, I would go so far as to say that he never really recovered. There have been many highlights since then and albums like Time Out of Mind and Tempest are among his best. But Slow Train Coming, Saved, and to a lesser extent Shot of Love, may represent some of his final unguarded moments. He is famous for his masks but they were all down on these records. He had experienced something profound and was mocked and reviled for sharing it with his fans. Who would blame him if he shut up shop? If you are one of the many Dylan fans who have always found the Christian period off putting, this book will almost certainly change your mind. But beware, like Bob, you might get some very mixed reactions when you put on Saved at your next dinner party!
Teasers: John Lennon’s answer song to Gotta Serve Somebody. The ex Beatle was astounded that Bob Dylan had become a Christian and detailed his objections to religion in a song called Serve Yourself that almost ended up on Double Fantasy. What he doesn’t mention in the song is that he and Yoko, at the time, were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on astrological charts, of all things. Yep, that Christianity stuff sure is irrational…
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tom and Jerry
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.
Paul Simon stretches to play a conceited music industry insider in Woody’s Annie Hall.
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…
“A Simple Desultory Philippic? What does that even mean?”
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!)