A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel by Slim Jim Phantom, Thomas Dunne, 2016
In his memoir A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel, Slim Jim Phantom, the drummer in the Stray Cats, makes the following observation: “There were quite a few rock guys in our school and neighboring town who could play faster and harder than I could. None of them had any fashion sense…”
Black slacks. Blue suede shoes. Put your cat clothes on. Flat top cats and dungaree dolls. Clothes are a big deal in the music Slim Jim plays.
Rockabilly is perhaps the most enduring of all rock and roll subcultures. Its origins are murky and earlier than generally thought. The name, a portmanteau of rock and hillbilly, suggests something that might sound like Workingman’s Dead or The Gilded Palace of Sin. Of course rockabilly sounds nothing like either of those records.
I’m happy to argue (you buy the drinks – I’ll talk) but I think rockabilly began in 1927 with Jimmie Rodgers. His first Blue Yodel, better known as T for Texas, has crept into the repertoire of many a rockabilly band for good reason. It has all the basic elements. It’s an up-tempo blues sung like a country song. A number of Rodgers’ subsequent hits have the same quality. But the key moment for rockabilly and American music in general might be the day in 1930 when he sat down with Louis Armstrong and recorded Blue Yodel Number 9. Number 9. Number 9…
Louis Armstrong’s records with the Hot Five and Hot Seven are as eclectic as they are brilliant. Yes, he is laying the foundations of jazz but that foundation also supports swing, jump blues, and rock and roll. The fact that he and Jimmie Rodgers could hear the symbiosis in their work is significant because the next important chapter in the rockabilly story belongs to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.
Western Swing as played in the 1930s by Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, The Light Crust Doughboys, and Milton Brown represents a rich period in American music. It’s swing played on strings. The cowboy hats and corny lyrics are deceptive because this is jazz. And it is why rockabilly doesn’t sound like New Riders of the Purple Sage. There is a jazz sensibility in early rock and roll that stretches back to Lindy Hoppers of 1930s and Cab Calloway at his most frantic. When Sam Philips made his questionable assertion that he could make a million dollars if only he could find a white man who sang like a black man, he might have had someone like Nat King Cole in mind. Elvis – and perhaps more importantly, Scotty Moore and Bill Black were channeling something else that day at Sun Studios. They were playing blues but they were playing it the way jazz artists play it. They were swinging it around, slowing it down, speeding it up. Listen carefully to the ‘Sun Sessions’ and you can hear the whole history of American music. In rock journalese, Louis Jordan meets Hank Williams, Lionel Hampton jams with Gene Autry with T-Bone Walker on guitar. Or something like that.
Rockabilly never went away either. Very few people heard it outside of the south in the first place but, as someone once said of the Velvet Underground, everyone who did formed a band. A slight exaggeration perhaps – but certainly all of The Beatles held this genre in high regard. They covered a lot of rockabilly songs. Watch the Let It Be film. When the going got tough, the tough jammed on Carl Perkins’ numbers.
But they weren’t alone. As Slim Jim Phantom notes in his memoir, Blind Faith covered one of Buddy Holly’s most smoking tunes in Well Alright and The Who did Summertime Blues. CCR, the biggest selling band of the late sixties, were a rockabilly band, no more and no less. Their blues excursions aren’t a patch on their rockabilly moments. Jimmy Page is a better at rockabilly than blues and so is Keith Richards. They might talk about Buddy Guy but their best moments say Cliff Gallop, in Page’s case, and Chuck Berry in Richards’. Head Stray Cat Brian Setzer said that when he first met Keith, the guitarist picked up an old Gretsch and played a letter perfect version of Elvis’ Baby Let’s Play House. Setzer later became one of Robert Plant’s many Page stand-ins in The Honeydrippers. Many of the great guitarists of the 60s and 70s started out playing this kind of music. Robbie Robertson, Jimi Hendrix, Richie Blackmore, Alvin Lee, and Jeff Beck all began as twangy sidemen. Even Robert Fripp started out playing in a band called The Ravens. Robert Fripp! I’ve always maintained that Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited is essentially a rockabilly record and he seems to drift back to the genre regularly. Listen to Dirt Road Blues on Time Out of Mind.
Dylan, The Beatles, The Stones, and Led Zeppelin. Rockabilly is the secret hero of Rock and Roll’s many stanza’d Howl.
Which brings me to The Stray Cats, a band featuring vocalist and twangmaster Brian Setzer and ably rhythm sectioned by his Long Island high school chums Lee Rocker and our author, Slim Jim Phantom.
Slim Jim (real name James McConnell), Lee Rocker (Drucker) and Brian Setzer came together as teenagers with a mutual interest in rockabilly. They were all playing in other bands. The side project, as so often happens, began to attract attention and the other bands disappeared. It’s Slim Jim’s book but Brian Setzer was part of a late 70s New York new wave band called The Bloodless Pharaohs. You can probably download a box set and footage of every show they ever did now but in the 80s I found one of their songs on a compilation album and did a victory lap around a record store. They’re not mentioned in this book. Slim Jim, it must be said, has a big heart but little interest in that sort of detail.
Slim Jim’s implied and occasionally stated assertion that The Stray Cats single handedly revived rockabilly doesn’t hold up. It wasn’t part of the music mainstream in America in 1980 but it wasn’t a non-entity either. Slim Jim and the boys might have got something happening in Long Island but The Blasters were weathering gigs with Black Flag in California in the late 70s. A ferry ride away in NYC, Robert Gordon had already recorded two absolutely stellar rockabilly revival records by the time Slim Jim bought his first jar of Royal Crown.
Over in England, rockabilly was alive and well. The Shakin’ Pyramids’ sizzling debut, Skin ‘Em Up, appeared a year before The Stray Cats’ first English record. You can laugh about Shakin’ Stevens but there is some great rockabilly on his first couple of albums. Matchbox is not much remembered these days but they released their first album in 1976 and scored a big hit with the classic Rockabilly Rebel in 1979. The Stray Cats are easily the most successful revival band but they are only part of the story. Slim Jim doesn’t mention it but the whole reason they left the cozy club scene of Long Island for London was to join a movement already in play.
But this isn’t to slight Slim Jim or his book. The Stray Cats were the real deal and, to be honest, better musicians than most of the English revival guys. The competition was a bit stiffer in the States. While they never enjoyed anywhere near the success, The Blasters and The Paladins were hard to top.
But back to Slim Jim. He is probably best on the early years. The memoir hops around a bit but the basic story of their move to England and the space they found within the immediate post punk scene is of great interest. Rockabilly always seemed to be just below the surface in early English punk. Malcolm McLaren had run a shop for Teddy Boys called Let It Rock on the King’s Road before changing the name to Sex and, well, you know the rest. The Sex Pistols recorded a couple of Eddie Cochran songs. The Clash looked like a rockabilly band for a while. Billy Idol sang about a club blasting out ‘maximum rockabilly’ in Generation X’s Kiss Me Deadly. Tom Petty noted that “rockabilly music was in the air” in King’s Road on the Hard Promises album. The Stray Cats arrived in a city ready for their look and their sound. They somehow skirted the slightly moldy atmosphere of, say, The Polecats, and became a band most people could agree on.
Remarkably, ‘most people’ included not one but all of The Rolling Stones. In 1980, Keith and Mick could hardly bear to be on stage together but they turned up with the rest of the band one night to see The Stray Cats open a show in a crummy London pub. The idea was that they would sign with Rolling Stone Records and that Mick and Keith would produce their first album together. Like that was ever going to happen! It didn’t but they did do a series of dates opening for the old boys in America. Bill Wyman was still in the band then and he was, and is, a rockabilly fanatic. Remember the Willie and Poorboys album? A little overproduced but full of heart. Slim Jim played on the b side of a single apparently.
The Stray Cats ended up on Arista Records in the capable hands of Dave Edmunds who produced all of their best work. Edmunds is a rockabilly legend who scored a hit in the late 60s as part of Love Sculpture with an instrumental called Sabre Dance. He then went solo in 1972 with a stunning rockabilly album called Rockpile, not to be confused with the band he later formed with Nick Lowe. There was no one better qualified to produce The Stray Cats and the album was a great success in England. Songs like Runaway Boys and Rumble In Brighton became big hits there but the band were still virtually unknown in America.
Luckily, MTV had just appeared and, come the moment, come the band. The Stray Cats looked cool. All of them, all the time. The clothes were vaguely 50s style with some Ted additions and a punk overlay that made them look somehow contemporary. MTV was perfect for them. TV in general worked pretty well for the Stray Cats and an early appearance on a now forgotten show called Fridays made them stars in the States.
There was a lot going on in the early 80s. The music industry was enjoying the last few years of prosperity before everything went shit-shaped in the late 90s. There was a lot of money and, it would seem from Slim Jim’s account, a lot of cocaine. The period has a more or less deserved reputation for excess and overproduction but the sheer size of the industry had some benefits. There was room for a band like The Stray Cats in among Madonna, U2, Bruce Springsteen, and the other superstars of the period.
Their moment, however, was brief and no sooner is Slim Jim married to Britt Eckland and walking his dogs in Hollywood than the band is making its last album. Interesting stuff but the timeline in this book is very difficult to follow. Slim Jim will note that he has been sober for five years on one page and then be found having a bump of coke with Lemmy on the next. Either Slim Jim simply told the stories as they come to him or the book was ghost written by Peter Hoeg. Probably the former.
His post Stray Cats life has been slightly less exalted but no less busy. He appeared in Clint Eastwood’s Bird, remembering his co star Forest Whittaker as ‘the guy in Fast Times’. Yeah, I’d forgotten he was in that too. He also tells a hilarious story of an incident that took place while he was filming one of his two scenes. I won’t spoil it but it involves a very angry Clint Eastwood.
He opened a bar and music venue called The Cat in Hollywood, toured and recorded with a dizzying number of other bands, got back together with The Stray Cats, broke up with them again. He was here in Melbourne last Thursday. Slim Jim still gets around.
What does one say about a memoir like this one? It’s a bit of mess in terms of chronology and anyone looking for a detailed account of The Stray Cats’ career will want to look elsewhere. In fact, there’s not much about The Stray Cats at all. I would have been very curious to hear about the recording of those early albums and what it was like to work with Dave Edmunds. Perhaps Brian Setzer will cover that if he ever writes a book. There is a bit about their sound but never enough to really satisfy. Just when you think he is about to double down on the band that made him famous, he’s back in a club with Michael J Fox or someone.
But this is not a book without merit. For one thing, Peter Hoeg notwithstanding, I am convinced that he wrote it. That might sound silly – his name is on the cover – but, as I have said before, I doubt that a lot of these rock and roll memoirs are written (or even read) by their subjects. I could name three very recent and notable examples but I’ll be kind. For now! This is most definitely Slim Jim Phantom and if you fancy an evening with a guy who has had a remarkable life that has brought him into contact with the cream of rock and roll, blues, and beyond, this book is worth reading. It is also frequently funny as hell. Michael Jackson appears out of nowhere with Elizabeth Taylor in tow and whispers to Slim Jim, ‘I really like that song about the cat.’ Our hero ends up in the dark with Jerry Lee Lewis and a groupie. Keith Richards throws everyone out of his dressing room while Slim Jim is in the toilet. The drummer has to come out and face the enraged Stone who sits him down and feeds him narcotics. Clothes are a big number in this book if male rock and roll style is your thing. Slim Jim always tells us what people were wearing and details the evolution of his own look. Much is made, for example, of a polka dot scarf that he receives from Keith Richards in a trade. Without giving too much away, Britt is annoyed because Slim Jim ends up with a tatty cotton affair while Keith gets a silk one from her collection.
So Slim Jim Phantom leaves us with a memoir that won’t trouble the Pulitzer folks but might improve your spirits on a long flight or a rainy day at home. You might even find yourself hauling Rant n’ Rave out of an old crate for another spin. Meanwhile another rockabilly revival is either imminent or underway. In the immortal words of Joe Clay, ‘don’t mess with my ducktail.’
Teasers: Slim Jim’s Rules of Rock and Roll are a highlight. Number Four is: “Always wear something around your waist that has nothing to do with holding your pants up.” Noted!
This TV appearance launched them in America. Still gives me chills:
Dave Edmunds and The Stray Cats:
Jimmie and Satchmo:
These Are The Days: Stories and Songs by Mick Thomas, Melbourne Books, 2017
I’m sure Mick Thomas gets tired of hearing this statement:
‘Weddings Parties Anything changed my life!’
But I might be able to impress him with my story.
“No really, Mick!”
In 1990, I was living in Toronto and had no interest in Australia. I knew that Sydney had the Opera House and Melbourne was the other city. That was about it. Less than four years later, I was living in Carlton, barracking for the Saints, and knocking back pots of VB at Young and Jackson. What happened?
Weddings Parties Anything happened.
My cousin Tim invited me to see them one night at a venue called The Siboney Club in Toronto’s Kensington Market. He promised me that they were like the ‘Australian Pogues’. It wasn’t easy to summon that up but I went along. I remember a furious version of Knockbacks in Halifax and the religious experience that resulted. If you’ve seen enough live shows, you’ve had this happen. Something snaps and you become a fan. A really big fan.
I moved to Japan soon after with a 90 minute cassette of their music. Melbourne had begun to loom large in my imagination. Songs like Under The Clocks, Roaring Days, and Brunswick were calling me in a southerly direction. I took a short vacation there in 1992 and walked up Johnson Street singing Manana, Manana. Back in Japan, I played my 90 minute cassette for a woman from Melbourne. We got married and moved to Carlton.
I’ve spent nearly a quarter of a century in Mick Thomas’s city. Weddings Parties Anything ceased trading about 15 years ago but Mick has continued to build on his repertoire as a solo artist. If you stopped at WPA, you’re missing some of his finest moments. Melbourne still figures in his songs and I still see the city through his eyes. That said, my life has begun to drift towards the northern beaches of Sydney of late but the 90 minute cassette will come with me when I finally head up the Hume for good.
Mick Thomas’s book, These Are The Days: Stories and Songs is beautifully presented with sharp photos and reprints of tour flyers and posters. If you leave this book on your coffee table, your guests will pick it up and start reading. They’ll be happy and you won’t have to entertain them. Win win! The photos frame the chapters, each of which is based around a particular song from either WPA or his solo years.
He begins with The Lonely Goth, one of many standout tracks on the Dust on my Shoes album, his first without the band. The song is the kind of story that Mick tells so well. A Goth kid in a small town hangs around the war memorial, shocks his grandmother in the chemist by buying black nail polish, and corresponds with a Goth girl from a nearby town he met at a Marilyn Manson show. If Mick wrote crime novels, he’d be Elmore Leonard. His characters breathe. The listener can not only picture them but can hear them. Recently, I read Jock Serong’s brilliant new novel, The Rules of Backyard Cricket. I kept thinking of Mick Thomas’s mastery of voice. Then I noticed that Serong is thanked at the back of the book. I pictured the two of them sitting together in the Mona Castle Pub in Seddon, not talking but just listening.
I was particularly struck by the chapter on Sisters of Mercy. This song from Weddings Parties Anything’s Roaring Days album was written in response to a nurses’ strike in the 1980s. In 2012 he was invited to play it for a large group of nurses at a strike meeting in the Melbourne Convention Centre. This chapter might have been a straightforward story about the song and how things never change. But it wasn’t. Instead, Thomas talks about a critique he’d copped in another setting for overdoing the emotional dimension of a song about asbestos poisoning. He was accused of emphasising the victimhood of the sufferers instead of celebrating their fighting spirit. The charge seemed terribly unfair and few singers would have the courage to revisit such a hardline dressing down. Mick then finds himself playing Sisters of Mercy for the striking nurses and choking back tears so as to avoid a repeat of the asbestos song episode. He manages it but only just. My own eyes grew a bit misty reading this chapter. The idea of a singer at a strike meeting in these cynical times is itself moving!
I was going to say that Weddings Parties Anything is the biggest Australian band to have missed out on the big time but that’s a pretty competitive field. They are a cult band but it’s a big cult. For a different sort of musician, this sense of ‘there but not there’ would be unbearable. The story of their song Monday’s Experts is a case in point. Many years ago now, a sports commentary television show called Talking Footy used the song. For most bands this would have been a lucky break and for Mick it should have been some extra cash in his pocket. But the TV station squirmed around on paying royalties, claiming it wasn’t the show’s ‘theme’ so the rules didn’t apply. I used to watch it occasionally. It was the theme. When Mick asked politely if they might be willing to pay for it, they immediately replaced his song with a similar and wholly inferior one. Don’t be a musician, kids!
Fortunately, Mick isn’t a bitter man or least he doesn’t sound like one here. He seems to have enjoyed the ride and never lost the desire to write songs. This doesn’t always happen when I finish musicians’s memoirs but I wanted more. I particularly would like to hear more about the early days of the band. The chapter on Away Away provides a tantalizing chronology but I need details! I think another book is in order but for the time being this wonderful collection will do just fine.
Teasers: The lyrics and guitar chords for every song! Jim Dickinson says that no one wants to hear a short song about cannibalism! A frank discussion of dysentery and marital discord in Turkey!
All is Given: A Memoir in Songs by Linda Neil, University of Queensland Press, 2016
Ed Kuepper’s version of Phil Jones and the Unknown Blues’s If I had a Ticket is a gem. His masterstroke on this track is the use of a single violinist who unearths a sort of eastern atomosphere in the minor key of the song. The garage groove of the original gives way to a desert caravan jam. It’s a remarkable performance. The violinist is an Australian writer called Linda Neil. Her new book is called All is Given: A Memoir in Songs and it’s a gem too.
It feels more like a collection of songs than a linear memoir. There is certainly a narrative thread here but it is largely thematic, like an LP perhaps. Linda Neil is a wanderer and a listener. The book starts with a party where she is, Coleridge style, prevailed upon to listen to a story. We don’t hear the tale but the stage is set for a memoir where her story will be woven with those of the people she meets. This is not a standard musician’s memoir. The ‘songs’ in the title are largely metaphorical. Nick Hornby she ain’t.
The relationship between travel and music is subtle and deeply personal. While listening to a raga musician stumble over a scale and give up, Neil recognizes that she has done the same in music and in life but that travel is somehow the answer. She likens it to ‘the thing in music that shrinks inside the thing that grows’. Music itself is in the background but music as metaphor grounds the narrative as we follow her through China, India, Nepal, Mongolia, Paris and Sydney.
In Kathmandu, she meets Gabriel who will become ‘her Gabriel’ but that’s in the future. The story is about a chance meeting and the discovery of a recording studio. Travel, at its best, is spontaneous. A few hours spent in the company of an intriguing stranger, finding something that you weren’t looking for, getting lost and not really minding, are all part of the nomadic life Neil celebrates.
I was reminded, at points, of Patti Smith’s M Train. Linda too has a unique and unconventional view of the world. Like Patti, she tells her stories in a self-deprecatory tone that is never alienating or pretentious. It is easy to imagine standing in a long line at an Indian train station, chatting to her about weather, food, books or, indeed, music. She manages to capture the rhythms of travel in her prose. Many writers attempt this trick; very few pull it off.
Whether it’s a story from her childhood in rural Queensland or a conversation with a guitar player in Paris, there is the sense that the richness of the experience is in the experience itself rather than the location. Her approach to travel is slow and thoughtful. On an early trip, her luggage disappears after a flight to Kolkata and she falls in with a group of volunteers at Mother Teresa’s mission there. The real adventure was supposed to take place when she headed south from that city but it is the afternoon spent in the mission that she remembers.
In Sydney in the early 90s, she heard Ed Kuepper’s The Way I Made You Feel on the radio and thought, ‘that needs a violin, my violin’. A little while later she ran into Ed himself on the streets of Newtown while on her way to Social Security. She mentioned her idea and gave him her number. It’s easy to imagine Ed Kuepper often fielding offers of this sort but, remarkably, he called her a few months later to play on his version of The Loved Ones’ Sad Dark Eyes. Neil became a regular member of his band and can be heard on a number of his albums. As a longtime Waterboys fanatic, I consider myself a connoisseur of the rock and roll fiddle. Her work with Ed must be heard. Start with Kuepper’s Character Assassination, a wonderful LP from the mid 90s.
Her violin playing is like her writing, filled with travel tales and experience. She is classically trained but her style has absorbed many different sounds and rhythms from her journeys. The album on her Bandcamp site, Beautiful on the Inside, feels like an extension of the book. The lightness of touch, the evocation of spirit, and the sheer warmth is as present in the music as it is in her storytelling.
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.
Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Schuster 2016
I had a strange experience on my way to see a Bruce Springsteen show one summer evening in 1984. I was standing on the southbound platform of Sheppard Station in Toronto waiting to meet a friend called Cam. We were both fans and agreed that this was probably going to be the event of the summer, if not the year.
A train came and went, leaving just me and one other person on the platform. I could see he was trying to get my attention but I was a city kid, used to such entreaties. This guy was muttering to himself and playing with a broken watch. I looked down at the platform, hoping Cam would appear on the next train.
The crazy guy on the platform had said my name. I looked up and realized that this was a guy called William who had once been my best friend. We had lived in the same apartment building when we were kids and started school together. Every year we attended the same summer camp. Then we drifted apart. William’s prodigious drug intake and increasingly odd behavior had proved too much for me in our mid teens. After one too many frightening episodes, I’d had enough. I heard late he’d moved to the west coast.
He was in terrible shape. He had put on a lot of weight and his teeth were green. I should have done something but I was 18 and well out of my depth. We chatted briefly but he was making little sense. Cam appeared and I said goodbye. As the train was pulling away, William smiled and waved from the platform. Cam was talking to me about Springsteen and I put my old friend out of my mind.
The show changed my life. Bruce played for nearly four hours and it never stopped getting better. Johnny 99 nearly finished me off. Because The Night did. Towards the end, he played No Surrender. I was still getting to know the Born in the USA album and hadn’t taken much notice of this particular song. Bruce dedicated it to Miami Steve who had recently left the E Street Band. After hours of almost unbearably excellent rock and roll, I guess I was overwrought. The song suddenly brought William back to me. And hard. I pictured him smiling and waving. Tears started rolling down my face. The sunglasses went on and I quickly lit a cigarette (you could do that then!) and pretended to cough a bit. I was mortified, of course. I was 18!
The release of Bruce’s new autobiography, Born To Run – like that show in 1984 – is an event I have been looking forward to all year. He has been pretty well served by biographers. Dave Marsh’s Glory Days was required reading in the 80s and, more recently, Peter Ames Carlin’s Bruce is of a high standard. If you haven’t read David Remnick’s New Yorker article from last year, you need to immediately!
But this is Bruce himself. He is articulate in interviews and his gift with language has never been in doubt. Many of his songs involve narratives, sometimes personal, but what would a book length Springsteen ‘song’ look like? As it turns out, pretty good. This man can write. At times, particularly in the early sections, it occurred to me that he had a distinctly ‘American’ style of the old school. Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel came to mind. So did James T Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy. The scenes with his father place him a very long tradition in American letters.
That said, this is a tricky book to categorise. It is a long way from, say, Elvis Costello’s recent memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink. Elvis was focused on the music itself. He dutifully takes the reader through the highlights of his career (there are many, it would seem from the book) and lays out the path of his artistic journey. Bruce doesn’t exactly ignore the music but there is no sense in which this book is an annotated discography.
Born To Run is also miles away from Keith Richards’ engaging if slightly tiresome Life. There are no ‘then the groupies brought more coke’ moments or anything even approaching that kind of rock and roll story. At some point in the late 70s, Jimmy Iovine invited Bruce to the Playboy Mansion. No one, surely, would have begrudged a young rock and roll star an evening with Hugh and his pals but Bruce declined. No thanks, Jimmy, it’s just not me.
So what’s in this mysterious memoir? Well, you know how Bruce’s exuberant stage presence sometimes seems at odds with his darker lyrics? And you know how even his more upbeat songs always seemed to have an element of sadness? It turns out that Bruce has suffered from depression since the 80s. It is by no means the sole subject of his book but it is certainly notable. He’s very honest about it. Many musicians, particularly of Springsteen’s stature, might have been tempted to somehow mythologise such a condition. His account doesn’t spare the reader and it makes for uncomfortable reading at points. He admits to being a difficult person, a control freak, a loner, and someone who found commitment almost impossible until the timely appearance of his second wife, Patti Scialfa. It is clear that their marriage has not always run smoothly and that he feels his shortcomings as a parent very deeply. In other words, Bruce is human. He has dealt with an all too common illness in depression and is not any more the boss of his fate than anyone else.
At first I wondered if I would have been better off not having read this book. His music remains important to me and his concerts are still mind blowing. Do I really need to associate his songs with the lived experience of a man I’ve never met? We’ve all had music soured by a revelation or too much information. Adam Raised A Cain, an album track from the Born To Run LP was, during a particularly difficult time in my life, the only song I could listen to. It kept me sane and spoke directly to my situation. Clearly, as I now know, it is one of many songs about Bruce’s relationship to his own father, Doug Springsteen. I might have resented the intrusion on my reading of this song except that I didn’t. The point is that Bruce’s music is intensely personal. Many artists dash off rhyming couplets in the studio while the horn section is smoking outside. These songs mean nothing to them but become treasured by fans. The older I get, the more I suspect that many of my favourite artists don’t actually invest much of themselves in the lyrics of their songs. I think Bruce does and I believe that his book makes this clear. That extra element in his songwriting that can hit so hard is Bruce himself. That’s what I heard that night in 1984 when he played No Surrender. He was talking about his friend in a way that perfectly articulated my feelings about mine.
So what else do we learn? A few interesting items are revealed but here’s one that struck me: Bruce, it would appear, has a lot of affection for The River LP. He spends a lot of time on this album in the book. He rejected the original Bob Clearmountain mixed single LP because he wanted something a bit more ragged and more representative of the true E Street Band sound. There are personal clouds over most of his other classic albums but The River appears to be a record where he feels he got it right.
I think he got it right in this book too. If you’re a fan, you are already halfway through it. Even if you aren’t, you might still find much to admire here in the early chapters. He was a working musician in New Jersey for ten years until Born To Run launched him to stardom in 1975. His depictions of the twilight world of working class America and the ‘other’ 1960s in decaying Eastern seaboard bars make for a great read. In this manner, it is a poignant book for an election year in the US. Especially this one!
Teasers: Frank Sinatra’s birthday party with Bob Dylan in attendance; Less about Clarence and Miami Steve than you might expect, but a lot about Danny Federici and Vinny Lopez, original E Streeters with their own stories. Also, Bruce’s take on his ’80s image – “I looked…gay!”
Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth John Szwed, Viking 2015
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Billie Holiday sounds a bit like those boats. She drifts back from the beat and takes whatever time she needs to tell her story. It is almost her signature. But this was more than merely style. The substance of her art was the raw humanity of that voice. We’re all a bit behind the beat, as Nick Carraway reminds us. That’s what I hear in Billie Holiday.
There are two chapters about the way she sang in John Szwed’s new book, Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth. It was never a strong voice and her range was barely one octave. Teddy Wilson, with whom she made so many great records, said he preferred Barbara Streisand when asked about Billie later in life. Barbara Streisand! I mean, really! Billie herself was ambivalent about what she famously called her ‘old voice’. But that old voice was as much a wonder of the 20th century as F. Scott’s novel. She sang and she spoke at the same time. The French call this ‘diseuse’. Szwed claims that it is what gives her songs so much warmth.
The subtitle of the book, the musician and the myth, is appropriate. Szwed works hard to separate the two and explore the musical rather than the personal. And this isn’t easy. Her life was a sad one, a really sad one. The temptation to explain the pathos of her singing in terms of the lousy childhood, the drug addiction and so on is great. Very few writers have managed to avoid the black hole of biographical fallacy when writing about Billie. Hence, a book that looks at her music on its own terms instead of as an expression of her ‘tortured soul’ is a welcome addition to writing about Billie and about jazz in general. Writers such as Elijah Wald have recently called out the standard ‘blues’ biography as a racist white fantasy. This book avoids the overemphasis on ‘otherness’ and is far more informative for it.
As if to make this plain, the first section deals with the ‘myth’ and, specifically, the autobiography Holiday produced in 1957. Lady Sings the Blues was much read at the time but is a book that has always been considered fictitious. He points out that she was forced to suppress the sections that dealt with many of her friendships and romantic relationships. Orson Welles, Charles Laughton, Tallulah Bankhead, Elizabeth Bishop, and several other notables threatened legal action if they were mentioned. Billie’s problems with heroin and her troubles with the law were both well known by the 1950s. No one wanted to be publicly associated with her. The book then became a hodgepodge of stories that emphasized her troubled life. Szwed suggests that the book isn’t fictitious, just incomplete. Like all biographical writing, it reflects the values of the period in which it was written. There is a glut of rock and roll memoirs on the shelves in bookstores at the moment. The selling point is, of course, the opportunity to hear the ‘true’ story from the horse’s mouth. Billie’s autobiography is a reminder that the ‘truth’ is no simple matter.
The second section, The Musician, begins with a chapter called ‘The Prehistory of a Singer’. In setting the stage for her career, Szwed reaches back to the minstrel shows of the 19th and early 20th century. There is no more complex period in American music with regard to race. And it lays the foundations for all the complexity to come. If you feel like sending yourself down a moral rabbit hole in regard to the music you revere, read Love and Theft by Eric Lott or Where Dead Voices Gather by Nick Tosches. In this book, Szwed notes that Billie herself had to ‘black up’ occasionally in her early days. Confused? Welcome to American music!
This chapter also highlights her high level of musicality. A classical musician who spent an afternoon with her at the piano thought that she was the most intelligent listener he’d ever encountered. She didn’t read music and did not write songs as such (discussed in another chapter) but like so many of the great jazz artists, she had an intensely musical aura. Watch the clip below. Emotional? Sure. Physical? Yes. Spiritual? Absolutely.
Billie’s first two recordings were with Benny Goodman. She also worked with the Basie band and there found a musical soul mate in saxophone genius, Lester Young. He named her Lady Day, she called him Prez, as in President of the Sax. But her most dramatic association was with Artie Shaw. There is a movie waiting to be made about their tour of the American south in the late 1930s. Black singers with white bands weren’t that unusual but they didn’t normally head to Georgia or Alabama together. Billie had to be escorted everywhere by the toughest members of the band. Shaw insisted she be treated equally in hotels, restaurants, and at the venues they played. This caused no end of trouble and eventually Holiday simply quit. She cited the fact that getting a sandwich or going to the bathroom always turned into a ‘major NAACP production’ on the tour.
There should be a warning on the cover of this book: Beware – you will feel compelled to read passages aloud to family, friends, and total strangers. It’s that sort of book. Fascinating facts and compelling stories fall off the page. You will also need access to her recordings. Szwed covers a lot of songs here and I’m pretty sure you will want to hear all of them. A top read for fans and novices alike.
Teasers: Strange Fruit – the whole damn story! The time Rita Hayworth got really angry with Orson Welles! Tallulah Bankhead’s throwdown to Peggy Lee! Billie Holiday, babysitter!
Watch this. Billie and Lester Young together again after years apart. They were both gone within 18 months. Heartbreaking clip.