Him of the Dudes

61qtFrTBIQL._AC_UL320_SR210,320_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.

tumblr_p0w6y1y2c21vjfs5ho6_250

“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!

imagesIt 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.

11416_mottthehoople_alltheyoungdudes

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.

wilf-ianThe 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.

412edb4766ea9db2d8d78d25e00817a7

Mick Ralphs

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.

ian_hunter_bed

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!

Wings To The Mind

39660539Metaphysical Graffiti: Rock’s Most Mind Bending Questions by Seth Kaufman, OR Books, 2019

Seth Kaufman’s Metaphysical Graffiti poses some important questions in the first few chapters:

1. The old standby – Beatles or Stones?

Kaufman says that this is a trick question and that the answer is always Led Zeppelin. He also establishes the subject of the book by exploring the implications of this question. What is your response? Why?

2. What’s wrong with Billy Joel?

It turns out that your dislike of his music might be predicated on something more than just good taste. More on this to come.

3. Does Rush suck?

I attended Geddy Lee’s alma mater in Toronto, Newtonbrook Secondary School, for one year in the early eighties. I can tell you right now that Kaufman would have ended up in the trunk of some dude’s Camaro if he’d ever posed that question around there. And this is his point. Fans of the band adore them. No one else does. It’s a zero sum game. Seems a bit obvious, doesn’t it? But he makes the point that this is not the case with all bands. A lot of acts, maybe most acts in rock and roll, have casual fans. You can probably think of a half dozen bands that you don’t mind but would never count as one of ‘yours’. I feel this way about Lynyrd Skynyrd. We’re not exactly friends but I won’t change the station if Tuesday’s Gone comes on. I might even pick up their first album someday. Who knows? Rush is not this kind of band. Nobody, according to Kaufman, has a casual relationship with them. You adore them or you run screaming from the party when someone puts on Red Barchetta.

The question, and this is one for discussion, is whether there is something innately divisive about Rush. Kaufman makes a pretty good case that there are elements that are deal breakers for anyone who isn’t a big fan. Yes, Geddy’s voice is one of them. The Ayn Rand thing is another. I’m going to stop talking about Rush, just in case any old Newtonbrook kids are reading.

5299

I will admit that I was put off initially by the chapter headings. Beatles vs Stones? C’mon. Why not both, comrade? Billy Joel? Honestly, who cares? Rush? It seemed like I woke up to Tom Sawyer every morning on FM radio for about a year. Enough! But then I started reading and an entirely different book emerged.

lenjag

Beatles or Stones?

We live in an age of strident opinion where the number of forums to express them are almost boundless. YouTube comments are hilariously predictable. One guy says, ‘This was real music, not like that Bieber shit today.’ Another guy says, ‘I’m sorry but Robin Trower is better.’ Then someone comes in and says, ‘I’m 12 and I love this music.’ There is usually then a punter who gives a long well reasoned argument about why something is ‘objectively’ better than something else. Then someone says, ‘The bass player is my uncle.’ We all have access to everything and we are all experts. But music is slippery. Getting beyond your emotional response to a song or singer or band usually drifts into statements like, ‘He’s technically brilliant,’ or ‘They have sold more records.’ And those sound a bit hollow to me.

Kaufman’s book is essentially about aesthetics, something we used to be a lot clearer on before post modernism. We might have broken down some of the rigid power structures behind ideas of objective beauty but we seem to have also lost some of the language required for a real discussion about art.

R-8912552-1471333418-2661.jpegKaufman thus goes old school by establishing some parameters for these discussions. The Billy Joel chapter is surprisingly interesting. He argues that ‘authenticity’ is a key part of the rock and roll story and that it might even represent an empirical notion (I’m ducking for cover now). He then tests songs like Only The Good Die Young against it. He’s as fair as anyone could be about this song but he determines that there is something fundamentally inauthentic about it. His son challenges him by bringing up The Carpenters as an analogous pop act. ‘Listen to Superstar’, Kaufman says. ‘It’s not her song but she absolutely fills it with her own pain.’ Billy’s pain in Only The Good Die Young, he points out, is more elusive. His writing seems to be missing a sense of what Heidegger called ‘Dasein’, a German word that translates as ‘being there’ or ‘presence’. There’s nobody home in his songs and that is a serious matter for a singer songwriter.

I would add that one of the main problems with that song is the identity of the speaker. I gather that it’s supposed to take place in Little Italy between a tough guy Romeo and a cloistered Juliet.  So why is Romeo then such a complete ignoramus about Catholicism? Who is this guy and why is he is trying to convince her to give up her virtue with flawed theology? Yikes, what an awful song. Give me Rod singing Tonight’s The Night any day for that sort of thing. He keeps it simple and direct. Or something. Anyhow, the point is that there is something missing from Billy Joel’s songwriting and that something is authenticity.

In a later chapter, he looks at ‘audacity.’ He establishes, pretty much beyond question, the importance of this quality in rock and roll before testing it out on, of all things, concept albums. He acknowledges that the line between pomposity and audacity is pretty thin in the genre but that the best of them – SF Sorrow, Tommy, and his favourite, Tull’s Thick As A Brick – contain enough meta-narrative and/or irony to dodge the charge of being overly high minded. I suppose my own question is more about where audacity slips into absurdity or even bad taste. Guns ‘n’ Roses were certainly audacious but were also, at least to my mind, entirely charmless.

c5e5cbdad32c44690e3954d3615420edKaufman avoids sounding like Simon Frith by keeping the tone of the discussions humorous and often self-deprecating. His experience as a ‘recovering’ Deadhead will resonate with anyone who has flirted with this band over the years. Ann Coulter’s identity as a deadhead and her contention that the band has a considerable alt right following has presented the faithful with some difficult questions. Kaufman rightly points out that Coulter is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Grateful Dead paradoxes. “Would it still be a Dead concert if the Deadheads didn’t turn up?” he asks. If I ever teach philosophy again, that is going to be on the exam!

One of the chapters is called ‘The Best Song You’ve Never Heard’. I assumed that this would either be a Searchers b-side or a philosophical inquiry into the nature of obscurity in rock and roll. Instead, he actually comes up with the goods. You have never heard this song and it is remarkable. It’s also on YouTube but you won’t hear the title from me. No Spoilers!

The book ends with a defense of rock criticism and an examination of David Lee Roth’s much quoted contention that rock critics like Elvis Costello because they look like Elvis Costello. I can’t remember why I decided to read this book but it was a refreshing change from leaden rock memoirs and ‘scientific’ books about brains on music, etc. Exhausted by online arguments about rock and roll? Perhaps you’d like to start winning a few of them. Seth Kaufman’s book will give you some ammunition but more importantly, it might get you thinking about what you mean when you say ‘Stones’ or ‘Billy Joel is terrible’ or, even more daringly, ‘Rush sucks’.

Seth-Pic-1

Seth Kaufman in front of that building

Teasers: He tests the old theory that drummers make the band. Hard to argue! He also establishes why the rise of DJ culture as a musical force makes people nervous. Lots of fodder for discussion here.

Ever noticed that this sounds a bit like Pinball Wizard? No, me either. Good pick up by Seth Kaufman. Listen to the whole song before you say, nahhhh.

The Skylark

SHIRLEY COLLINS2240All 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!

370403

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.

7988770699da46d4a86c6dbfd6f9d091

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.

R-2740479-1485270900-2270.jpegBut 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.

little-evacuees

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.

images-uploads-gallery-Shirley-Collins-P.C-Eva-Vermandel-shirley_008_10-300-dpi-1476886381-640x519

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…

From Lodestar:

There’s not a lot of old footage of Shirley available but this is from a 1970s BBC documentary:

Till Human Voices Wake Us

51BstXKYFmL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Voices: How a Singer Can Change Your Life by 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!

5ed8074b392014cc1c44c46b2032d387--rolling-thunder-music-concerts

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-kinks-waterloo-sunset-pye

Accent!

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.

oywfdutov8qjls3kv9yp

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.

550px-Weyden_Deposition

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!

a33b7264cdeb00dce14f30040c249076--steve-marriott-small-faces

Steve Marriott

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.

nick-395704

Nick Coleman

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:

Any Woman’s Blues

9781477313916Woman* 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.

1*aCFB17bK1IjdmmC4yOu9xQ

Lucinda Williams

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?

0dcac704a93931f33cef5ec687522e91

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!

87635e1ed6814594e46da641d6d32743

‘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_-_20150828144559573

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.

 

 

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

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

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

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

bce5eac95222b26f0c23b196b8dcdbf5

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

lat-cashpic-la0004244653-20131011

Old Gods at Sun Records on Union Avenue.

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

mgscarlastudio

Booker T, Duck Dunn, Steve Cropper, Carla Thoma

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

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

MLK in Memphis

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

afterdark_alexchilton

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

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

 

A Childlike Vision Jumping Into View

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

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

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

XXII._Piece_of_My

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

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

mel4

Mel Lyman or ‘God’, to his pals

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

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

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

chamaeleon-church-rare-dj-only-pop-psych-lp-1968-chevy-chase_2640462

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

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

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

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

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

van-morrison-boston-common-1968

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

Madame George 1968, from Astral Weeks:

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

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