Cause when I’m sad, I slide

Shock and Awe by Simon Reynolds, Dey Street Books, 2016

y450-293I don’t really understand the concept of comfort food. Nothing that requires a trip to the supermarket and/or actual cooking could provide me with any real comfort. However, I do have some sense of what it might mean in terms of a musical diet. I’m not talking about ‘guilty pleasures’ here. I never feel guilty about the music I like. This is macaroni and cheese music, reliable old stuff that doesn’t challenge but does satisfy. It might not change your life but it reminds you of just how good it can be.

For me, Glam is comfort music. There is no more reliable record in my collection than The Slider by T Rex. It’s not my favourite album by any stretch and I wouldn’t even call myself a huge fan of the band. But when I’ve had a bad day, there’s nothing like that opening riff to Metal Guru. I’m slightly too young to recall glam as such but I was around for it. Maybe it was on in the background, maybe it was Suzi Quatro on Happy Days. I’m not sure but I feel as though it represents something fundamental to me as far as rock and roll goes. I was, thus, very keen to read Simon Reynolds’ new book on the matter, Shock and Awe.

c57ed113b64d0051b1941ec1f7d0f383This is, arguably, the first major study of the genre. There are other books on the subject. Philip Auslander’s Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Pop Music is a thoughtful take on it and Dandies in the Underworld by Alwyn Turner is an informative, if brief, account too. However, the Simon Reynolds treatment is of another order altogether. He has previously written on hip hop, nostalgia, post punk, and rave. He is not simply a fan with flare. All of his work mixes critical theory with extensive research. This isn’t rock and roll, this is serious!

He begins with Marc Bolan, the dreamy ex Mod whose reinvention as an acoustic Syd Barrett in Tyrannosaurus Rex is one starting point for the glam genre. Another is Beau Brummel, the Regency clothes horse who shined his shoes with champagne. There is also Oscar Wilde whose paradoxical (were they?) pronouncements on superficiality read like a mission statement for the period.

Reynolds also looks into the etymology of the term ‘glam’ which is, of course, short for glamour. The word was originally associated with magic and the occult. David Bowie fans will know that Aleister Crowley is mentioned by name in the song, Quicksand. Glam famously revives the 50s and to a lesser extent, the 20s. I would add the Blavatsky scented 1890s too.

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Young Mod Dreaming

But back to Tyrannosaurus Rex. The funny thing about this duo – Bolan and Steve Peregrine Took (replaced by Mickey Finn on the fourth album) – is that, although they sound like a freak folk band, folk music isn’t at the heart of the sound. It’s something else. Yes, it’s rockabilly. I know it’s a stretch but look at two of the song titles on the first album. Hot Rod Mama, Mustang Ford. It’s a bit hard to imagine The Incredible String Band doing songs about classic American cars, isn’t it?

I suppose this is an important point for me because it defines what I love about Glam music. It’s beautiful, simple, rock and roll. Glam is not prog or psychedelia though it has some aspects of both. It is closer in spirit, if not always in sound, to 1950s style rock and roll. It redefines it, speeds it up, slows it down and adds crazy chords to it. But the greasy stuff is still the point of reference. The anxiety is in the influence of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent rather than the glam practitioners’ immediate predecessors, Hendrix et al.

Fifties rock and roll is there if you look for it. The Cat Crept In by the lesser known band Mud comes to mind immediately. Suzi Quatro, who Reynolds contextualizes very well here, is another example. David Essex’s Rock On, T Rex’s I like to Boogie, and Drivin’ Sister by Mott the Hoople are other possibilities. In fact, Mott The Hoople’s metamusical commentaries like All The Way From Memphis and The Golden Age of Rock and Roll all reference the early period of the music. It’s worth remembering too that Bowie claimed Ziggy Stardust was inspired by a conversation with Vince Taylor, the English rocker best known for the original Brand New Cadillac.

So what was going on in the early 70s? Musically speaking, a lot of stuff,  including prog, singer song writers, country rock, boogie rock, art rock, hard rock, soft rock and so on. As the punk year of 1976 drew closer it became increasingly clear that the centre couldn’t hold. A whole bunch of bands and genres were going to be swept away. So goodbye Foghat. I’d be happy to argue about this over a Guinness but I think glam was punk in the womb. The term punk rock was being batted around in the early seventies to describe everyone from Bruce Springsteen – a huge influence on Bowie’s post Ziggy period incidentally – to Alice Cooper, a band that gets a fair bit of space in Reynolds’ book. If punk was a rejection of the sixties’ values, it seems to me that they had already been comprehensively rejected by Bowie, Bolan, Ian Hunter, not to mention Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and The New York Dolls.

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That’s what my book about glam might look like. Simon Reynolds has a slightly different take. He doesn’t deny the clear line from glam to punk but he is far more interested in the journey from glam to post punk. I really enjoyed reading this book but I wasn’t always with him when he was talking about the music itself. What I like about Bowie’s Ziggy period is Mick Ronson’s guitar playing. I hear great rock and roll, Reynolds hears string arrangements. They are both there so it is a matter of taste, I guess. As with his earlier book Rip It Up and Start Again, he seems to be primarily interested in the non rock and roll influences and elements in popular music. In that book, he seemed to be suggesting that a lot of high concept early eighties bands were somehow more exciting than the punk bands that preceded them. To each his own, but for those of us who were teenagers when pretentious ‘post punk’ was evolving into banal ‘new wave,’ 1977-style punk sounded pretty good.

05fb533c59a79d37f5df368b60ff87f4Similarly in Shock and Awe, Reynolds sees glam as part of a long tradition that stretches back to old Hollywood and reaches up to Lady Gaga. I don’t dispute this but, for me, it’s the killer riffs and the sheer three chord fun of it that makes it my comfort music. Slade, who Reynolds rightly suggests have been unfairly forgotten, are wonderful purveyors of power pop. They don’t have to be anything more. The Sweet are The Monkees of glam but at their best are a joyful reminder of good times and warm summer evenings.

Reynolds’ book must be read. It is well researched, beautifully written, and comes from the heart. Despite my misgivings about his approach to Bowie’s music, I believe he has written the definitive account of the man’s early career. Glam, like many musical genres, is difficult to define and impossible to date. This book will challenge your ideas about the period and the artists mentioned. It will get you listening to some albums you may not have heard. I’m now stuck on Cockney Rebel’s first two records. You might start listening to Alice Cooper again for the first time since junior high. You might check out early Sparks. You might see Queen in a different light. No, really!

This book is up for the Penderyn Prize. I think it will win.

Teasers: If you thought you couldn’t dislike Don Henley any more, wait until you hear his views on The New York Dolls. Kiss, and in particular their drummer, are dismissed in one brutal paragraph so don’t worry, you won’t be compelled to revisit Hotter Than Hell.

He lived in America

james-brown-searching-for-the-real-kill-em-leave-james-mcbride_0002Kill ’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.

826-2I 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-brownJames 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.

jamesbrown132011McBride 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.

Bearing The Weight

51gcnn2e1-l-_sx336_bo1204203200_Testimony by Robbie Robertson, Deckle Edge 2016

For any other five musicians, the name might have seemed pretentious.

They almost called themselves The Honkies.

So, yeah, The Band.

They didn’t make that many records – six actual studio albums, if you exclude Islands, an outtake-laden contract filler. Five if you take away the ‘oldies’ album, Moondog Matinee, not that I would. Their reputation would seem to rest then on about fifty original songs. But of course it doesn’t. There are live albums and several famous collaborations with Bob Dylan. Collectively and individually, their western Ontario (and Arkansas) faery dust can be found on all kinds of great records. It’s there on Jesse Winchester’s first album, Muddy Waters’ brilliant Woodstock Album, a wonderful Ringo Star track called Sunshine Life For Me, and Bobby Charles’ almost unbearably beautiful self titled 1972 record. Rick Danko and Levon Helm recorded with Lenny Breau in 1961. Garth Hudson and Levon are there on Mercury Rev’s Deserter Songs 35 years later. There are plenty more and they are all worth hearing if you are a fan. Except the Robertson – produced Neil Diamond record, maybe. Up to you.

Guitarist and principal songwriter, Robbie Robertson, has added to a big pile of pre Christmas rock and roll memoirs with Testimony. Anyone who has seen the film, The Last Waltz, knows that Robbie can tell a story. He was never a powerful singer but he has a terrific speaking voice and great timing. Listen to his spoken word work on Hal Wilner’s Meditations on Mingus. Get his voice in your head before you start to read. You won’t be sorry!

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Robbie and Levon looking sharp at Forest Hills in ’65 while Bob contemplates the ghost of electricity

Robbie has taken on something of a challenge here. The Band has already been well served in print. Across The Great Divide by Barney Hoskyns is perhaps the best book ever written about a single group. Likewise, Greil Marcus’ essay about The Band in his collection Mystery Train is just about as good as rock and roll writing gets. Robertson also has to contend with band mate Levon Helm’s 1993 memoir This Wheel’s On Fire. And this is where things get really tricky for him.

There is a perception among fans and critics alike that Robbie is somehow the villain of the piece. Helm claimed, in interviews and in his book, that the songs were far more collaborative than the publishing deal would suggest. Robertson has since been painted as tight fisted, overly ambitious, and ruthless by critics who have taken Helm’s line. Testimony is not a response to the charges but it does suggest that the truth is probably a lot more complicated than the simple Paul vs John, Mick vs Keith rock critic shorthand would suggest.

Robbie begins with his own vivid memories of postwar Toronto. The ‘I was born’ section of a musical memoir can be deadly but Robertson handles it like a novelist. He is blessed, if that’s the right word, with an unusual childhood. The son of a Mohawk mother, the young Jaime Robertson discovered that the man he called dad was not his father at all. Instead, it turned out, he was the son of a Jewish wideboy called Alexander Klegerman who had perished years earlier in a car accident. Robbie sought out Klegerman’s brothers and was soon enmeshed in a family whose, ahem, business interests somehow made them associates of the Volpe family. If you’re from Toronto, nuff said!

r1274_fea_robbie_b-6159b441-955d-4f3a-bcef-1a4d8f090b35Robertson is particularly good on his early days with Ronnie Hawkins and the evolution of The Hawks. His growing friendship with Levon is at the heart of these sections but he also brings Hawkins, the sort of Dumbledore figure in The Band’s story, to life in all his manic glory. Slowly, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and the arch eccentric, Garth Hudson of London Ontario, make their way into the Hawks. The band conquers Yonge St and all its young women. They play dives at Wasaga Beach, they play dives on the Mississippi. Robertson was 16 when he joined up. When The Band’s first album appeared in 1968, they had been on the road since the late 50s. The Beatles’ Hamburg period is, at least according to Malcolm Gladwell, an important factor in everything that followed. There is a special ingredient in The Band’s music that is sometimes hard to identify. Robbie’s wonderful evocation of the band’s early years provides an important clue, I believe. The threads of rockabilly, rhythm and blues, pop, blues, and a country ballad or two are all part of the fabric of The Band’s sound.

And the sound was there early. The received wisdom has always been that it all came together in the months they spent making tapes in the basement with Bob Dylan in 1967 . That seems likely until you hear a recording called The Stones that I Throw by Levon and the Hawks from 1965. There is no doubt that Dylan looms large in The Band’s story but the magic predates their association with him by several years.

down-in-the-flood-3Speaking of the Nobel Laureate, Robbie is very good on the 1966 tour. There has been so much written about it that I wondered if he would bother spending too much time there. He does and manages to provide a unique perspective. Dylan is one of a long series of ‘father figures’ in Robertson’s life. He never actually says this but Ronnie Hawkins gives way to Levon who gives way to Dylan who gives way to Albert Grossman who gives way to David Geffen who gives way to Martin Scorcese. Dylan’s intelligence and absolute cool headedness in every situation impresses the young guitarist as he ducks flying objects night after night on the ‘Judas’ tour.

The Basement Tapes period is then outlined in some detail along with Levon’s return to the fold. This period too has been the subject of a virtual library that includes Sid Griffin’s Billion Dollar Bash, Barney Hoskyn’s recent Small Town Talk, and Greil Marcus’ loopy Invisible Republic. Robbie doesn’t attempt to tell the whole story but instead provides a few personal memories. He goes into more detail about the sessions for Music From The Big Pink and even attempts, unsuccessfully, to explain the lyrics of The Weight. Twice.

tumblr_nqezrsdnlr1rcdxrqo1_500Following the section on the first album, the tone of Testimony shifts in a subtle way. Rick Danko manages to break his neck in a car accident before their first tour and Richard Manuel’s drinking starts to make an impact. Then Levon Helm discovers heroin. Robbie Robertson is a gentleman. He doesn’t scold or preach but the sense of a lost opportunity is discernible in the folds of his prose. I doubt that anyone will ever top this band’s first two albums but I think Robbie feels as though the records that followed could have been a lot better. He doesn’t think much of Cahoots, for instance. While it isn’t perhaps on par with its three predecessors, an album with Life is a Carnival, When I Paint My Masterpiece, and The River Hymn still must rank as one of the ten best albums of the 1970s.

He’s an upbeat guy and the final section of the book is filled with witty stories about life as an A list rock and roll star in the 1970s. He and David Geffen – in what must be surely the most sympathetic depiction of this guy ever – take Robbie’s wife, Dominique, and Joni Mitchell to France for the weekend. The holiday is later immortalized in Joni’s song, Free Man in Paris. It was Robbie who convinced Bob Dylan to jump ship at Columbia for Geffen’s Asylum Records. It didn’t last but Planet Waves, the only full studio album collaboration between The Band and Bob, was certainly worth the journey.

But there isn’t that much detail about The Band in this period. The tours come and go, the Northern Lights album is released, and then it’s time for The Last Waltz, where the story ends. The Hawks’ sections of the story are so richly imagined – and lengthy. But the chapters that follow The Band’s initial success in 1968 are almost like a coda. It seems to me that Robbie’s memories of The Band in its heyday aren’t all that sunny. Fans looking for a detailed chronology will find a much clearer one in Hoskyns’ Across The Great Divide.

ceef11632c0331051b97cbdfc9946ec0This is something different, an unusual rock and roll memoir where the paucity of information functions as a kind of subtext. Robbie hasn’t come to terms with The Band and has perhaps been stung by his ‘Yoko-isation’ by fans and critics. I enjoyed Testimony enormously but this is perhaps a more melancholy book than the author intended.

 Teasers: Robbie’s solution to being stranded in Perth, Australia. Hint – it involves twins! The Band’s set at Woodstock – they were supposed to close the whole thing until Hendrix’s manager stepped in! Some interesting stuff for techies on his guitar sound, recording techniques and so on.

 

And a rare Robbie Robertson lead vocal on one of my favourite songs by The Band, Out of the Blue:

The Best Pot

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Waiting For Buddy Guy by Alan Harper, University of Illinois Press, 2016

Let’s start with a quiz.

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 1. Which album do you prefer?

a) John Mayall and the Blues Breakers (the ‘Beano’ album with Clapton) 1966

b) The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (first album on Elecktra) 1965

2. Which is the more representative blues album?

a) John Mayall and the Blues Breakers (the ‘Beano’ album with Clapton) 1966

b) The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (first album on Elecktra) 1965

The first question is relatively easy. You own both of these albums. You prefer one to the other.

The second question seems easy. One of these albums is closer to the ‘real’ sound of the blues than the other.  Of course, this is where it gets tricky.

The obvious answer is that, in 1965, Paul Butterfield was better placed to present a more authentic blues record. He was, as the first track on the album asserts, ‘born in Chicago’. He came up in the West Side clubs, learning to play harmonica from legendary harp men like Little Walter. And, I hear you ask, didn’t the band include Sam Lay and Jerome Arnold, otherwise known as Howlin’ Wolf’s rhythm section? Yes, it did. So it’s the real deal, isn’t it? The Blues Breakers album, on the other hand, might be a great record but it’s really just talented English white kids trying to sound like Chicago bluesmen. Right?

Yes, but that could describe the Butterfield record too. Elvin Bishop (yup, the guy who fooled around and fell in love), Mike Bloomfield, and Paul himself were blues-obsessed white kids too, just like Eric Clapton. So the argument becomes not only one of authenticity but also of race. That’s not to say it’s the weary question of whether or not ‘a white man can sing the blues’ but rather one about the nature of genre, its sources and its definition.

51bgbxsimblSo let’s throw another log on the equation. Those two albums appeared within six months of each other in the mid 1960s. Hoodoo Man Blues by Junior Wells was released at about the same time. Surely this knocks it out of Wrigley Field. Bloomfield and Clapton are great blues players but compared to Buddy Guy? Butterfield is one of the great harp players but, senator, he’s no Junior Wells. Case closed then. Well, maybe. Hoodoo Man Blues departs, quite dramatically at points, from the electric ‘country’ style associated with Muddy Waters, Wolf, and others. Listen to the first track, Snatch It Back and Hold It. It sounds a lot more like Papa’s got a Brand New Bag than Two Trains Running. Look over the track list. There’s a Kenny Burrell song on there! It’s a sophisticated and beautiful record but is it the blues? The ‘real’ blues?

This trapezoidal question is something of a thread in Alan Harper’s deceptively straightforward memoir, Waiting for Buddy Guy. For the record, I prefer the Butterfield album. Harper opts for Mayall. Feel free to add your pick and why in the comments section. I have no idea which one is a better ‘blues’ album and with Junior Wells in the mix I have even less idea, especially after reading Harper’s take on it. Fear not though, he provides an answer of sorts on the last page of the book. More on that later.

In 1979, Alan Harper did something we all wish we had done at some point in our lives. He went there. The ‘there’ in this case was Chicago and for a blues fan from England, it was exactly where he needed to be. He got to the Windy City just in time. It’s true that 20 years earlier, in 1959, he would have seen the original Chess stars at the height of their powers. Even 1969 would have been pretty good, particularly if Hound Dog Taylor was in town. But compared to 1993, when I stopped by to find one or two tired bands cranking out Hoochie Coochie Man, 1979 sounds pretty good. He hung out, went to Sunnyland Slim’s birthday party, went broke, and went home. He returned in 1982 and did the interviews that make up the bulk of this book.

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Drummer Fred Grady and Alan Harper in 1979, outside the B.L.U.E.S club, Chicago

The story functions as a night tour of the Chicago blues world as it stood in the early 80s. The title is a wry reference to the Checkerboard Lounge, a blues venue owned by Buddy Guy himself. The guitarist draws in punters by putting his name on the bill but almost never actually gets up to play. Alan Harper spends most of the book popping in, ordering a drink, and, yes, waiting for Buddy Guy.

While he waits, he comes across other creatures of the night world. He gets Johnny Littlejohn to sign an LP, interviews Carey Bell and his son, guitarist Lurrie. He tries to interview Junior Wells, who won’t comply unless he gets 10% of the action. There is an evening on the town with Louis Myers and a glimpse of the menacing Left Hand Frank. The early eighties was a difficult period for Chicago and its signature music. The city was slowly dying of Reaganomics while the musicians tried to work out how to move the blues forward.

The little known Lefty Dizz stuck with me after I finished reading the book. In a shiny red suit, carrying a guitar case, Lefty tells Harper that he has been drunk since he got back from Korea. Keeping in mind that this is 1982, that’s notable even among blues players. Lefty Dizz is a legend for those who saw him and a rumor for those who didn’t. His small batch of recordings are poorly produced and, apparently, don’t in any way represent his impact on stage. The one or two YouTube clips don’t give much away but it is said that the Rolling Stones sought him out when they visited in the 1970s and jammed with him for three nights. Old hands say that he was a better guitar player than Buddy Guy but blew every opportunity handed to him by drinking too much and being notoriously unreliable. He was once hired to play his own birthday party and missed the gig. At the risk of falling into yet another blues cliché trap, I sometimes think that guys like Lefty are the embodiment of this form. The jazz critic, Albert Murray, maintained that the music wasn’t the blues itself but an escape from that melancholy state. Lefty Dizz wasn’t playing the blues, he was playing in spite of the blues!

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Lefty Dizz

Harper doesn’t ask Lefty about his views on the great Butterfield/Mayall/Wells question but they do discuss the shift in the genre’s fanbase. No one wants to put a date on this but at some stage, the original audience of Chicago blues, the African American residents of the city, drifted away and were replaced by white university students. That’s a vast generalization but one echoed to this day by practitioners of the form. When Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray brought a new audience to the blues in the 1980s, it was a predominantly white one. Young African-American music fans were somewhere else completely. There is a point in the story where Harper is driving through Chicago with Elisha Blue and Lurrie Bell listening to Grandmaster Flash’s 1982 hit, ‘The Message’. It’s a poignant moment. It wasn’t the novelty song it might have seemed at the time. It heralded an entirely new chapter in pop. Sadly, it had little to do with the styles played by the two men in the car.

So, back to the prickly issue of authenticity and race in the blues. Harper interviews Bruce Iglauer, founder of Alligator Records, whose mission was to present ‘new’ blues bands in the post Chess era. His roster in those days was pretty impressive. Koko Taylor, Magic Slim, Otis Rush and Lonnie Brooks were all on his label. He kicked off in the 1970s with Hound Dog Taylor’s first album with the Houserockers, one of the great records of any genre. Iglauer, in 1982, felt as though his audience was a small group of white specialists. He couldn’t get his music played on any mainstream radio stations playing rock and roll for a largely white audience and had even less luck with RnB stations.

mi0001717164There is a suggestion, raised a couple of times in the book, that the southern, Jim Crow Mississippi sources of the early Chicago sound are simply a different listening experience for black audiences. Possibly this is why the black audiences that have stuck with blues apparently favour the smoother, more urban sounds that white devotees of the genre, like me for instance, find dull and overproduced. So where does that leave us? What’s authentic now? The rough hewn sound of Muddy’s earlier sides or the slick lines of ZZ Hill, an artist credited with bringing blues back to its original audiences in the early 80s? Harper admits that he had never heard of ZZ Hill in 1982.

The whole issue is linked to a much wider discussion of African American identity and its relationship to American identity in general. Elijah Wald addressed the question in relation to pre War styles in his 2005 book, Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. Harper’s book is less didactic but he doesn’t shy away from the problem. Instead of trying to provide an answer to an impossible question, he finishes with a Zen-like parable. Back in England, he meets an elderly potter and puts this dilemma to her:

You see an antique Chinese bowl for sale in one shop. It is beautifully crafted but no more so than an almost identical one made by a contemporary master in another shop. They are the same except that one is a thousand years old and therefore more ‘authentic’. Which one do you buy?

The elderly potter laughs and says;

‘You must choose the better pot.’

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“No, I’ll tell YOU what the blues is!” James Cotton and Buddy Guy at the Checkerboard Lounge in the early 80s.

Teasers: Bruce Iglauer’s many brushes with blues death. A mouth watering list of all the gigs Alan Harper saw in the 1980s. Sigh. I’ve already spoiled the ending so I won’t tell you what happens when Buddy Guy finally turns up!

I’ll take Magic Sam’s West Side Soul album over them all! (That is Sam. He’s playing Earl Hooker’s guitar for some reason.)

Don’t Mean a Thing…

gioia-cover-How To Listen To Jazz by Ted Gioia, Basic Books, 2016

I like it when writers recommend music. Right now, I’m listening to Nicole Mitchell. I found her name on a list of contemporary jazz musicians at the back of Ted Gioia’s new book How To Listen To Jazz. She was the only one with ‘flute’ beside her name so I was curious.

Sounds good, so far. I’m hearing stringed instruments, Mitchell’s flute, and some extraordinary bass work holding it all together. The music sounds, to my ears, vaguely North African but there are blue notes all over the place. The next song sounds like what I now know to be ‘Hard Bop’ – more on this later.

Viola solo!

Towards the end of How to Listen to Jazz, Ted Gioia quotes Whitney Baillet’s description of the form as the ‘sound of surprise.’ That might be as close as anyone is ever going to come to describing jazz. But then, this might be true of all art. A great painting changes the way you see the world the same way a great book might change your mind about something. The first time you heard Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solo in Little Wing, it was a surprise. So what makes jazz surprises so special? I think it goes back to the description. Jazz doesn’t have elements of surprise. It is the surprise. As Gioia points out, no one goes to a classical concert to be surprised. Amazed, challenged, intrigued maybe but perhaps not surprised. I can’t decide what I think about rock and roll. It’s there but there is a distinct tension in jazz between the structure and the possibilities that might be unique. No wonder Jean Paul Sartre liked jazz. If Gioia is right, there is no more existential music.

Ted Gioia is the author of many worthy books on music. I came across his study of Delta blues a few years ago in the library at work. I thought I was in for yet another retelling of the Robert Johnson story with special guest stars. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He provides a plausible chronology and some of the most intelligent commentary I have ever read on the subject. I was surprised to then find out that he usually wrote about jazz. His History of Jazz is as informative as it is provocative. He has the knack of telling an oft’ told tale in a fresh way that raises interesting questions. It took me months to read it because I had to keep jumping up to put on CDs – always the mark of a good music book.

And so it was with How To Listen to Jazz, his latest, following a book on jazz standards from a couple of years ago that is sitting in the pile by my beside. Time to move it up a few places!

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Johnny Hodges

Gioia starts this one by tackling the tricky notion of ‘swing’. Treme viewers will recall Clarke Peter’s character Chief Lambreaux telling his musician son that younger players can’t ‘swing’. It’s one of those elements that can be easily discerned but is difficult to describe. He attributes the ‘swinging’ quality of a great jazz ensemble not so much to the beat itself but to the level of cooperation within the band. There is a perception of jazz players as honking narcissists but for Gioia, the greatest musicians are the greatest listeners. And if you have ever played with a musician who can play but not listen you’ll know exactly what he means.

He refers to ‘an uncanny degree of give-and-take, but with a kind of quirkiness that resists specific definition.’ It’s a lovely description and, in reality, the basis for any decent music made by any group of people. You have to listen, you have to respond, but you also have to tell your own story. Miles Davis has a reputation for being ‘difficult’ but he clearly had this ability. In fact, it is probably true to say that this, perhaps even more than his actual playing, was the source of his genius. The best of his albums – In a Silent Way comes to mind – are like wonderful conversations. Perhaps this is where music and the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber cross paths. Jazz happens when people really meet each other. Gioia says that they work together while ‘insisting on their own prerogatives.’ It occurred to me that the same might be said of a great soccer player. The champion can do both perhaps where the talented amateur is only capable of one or the other.

John_Coltrane_-_Blue_TrainIn the second chapter, however, he focuses on the individual musician. He uses the word ‘intentionality’ to describe the way jazz musicians approach phrasing. They mean it, man! When John Coltrane blows a note, there is nothing the least bit accidental about the manner in which it is played. It might start off quietly before rising in volume or it might be a quick blast. Same note, totally different effect. Later, in a section on pitch, Gioia tells the story of Sidney Bechet giving a saxophone lesson to a journalist in the 1940s. “I’m going to give you one note today. See how many ways you can play that note – growl it, smear it, flat it, sharp it, do anything you want to it. That’s how you express your feelings in this music. It’s like talking.” There’s Buber again.

But this book is called How To Listen to Jazz, so what’s his advice? Don’t listen to the notes themselves, listen to how they are played. This is possibly the difference between jazz and European or ‘classical’ music. There has been endless speculation over the years about the exact nature of the ‘African’ sensibility in African American musical styles. Blues critics like Paul Oliver and Samuel Charters have researched and written extensively on the connections. Clearly, the African music that came with the people transported for slavery did not conform to any familiar system. Gioia says that Duke Ellington thought that Jazz was a marriage between European systems of music and African folk traditions. What does this mean? Thought and feeling? The ‘swing’ factor? They are difficult questions but ones that are dealt with in a concise and thoughtful manner in this book.

There is another great piece of advice from Gioia in this department: Listen to the bass. I always tell people who say they are tired of The Beatles to put on headphones and just listen to Paul’s bass playing. It’s like hearing the whole band for the first time again. In jazz, the bass is a good place to start when you are starting to discern the structure of a song. Gioia, by the way, is terrific on structure. Many people find jazz, particularly post war jazz, alienating because it’s hard to follow. This book makes it very clear what happens in most jazz songs, even the freakiest free jazz freakout you can imagine. That said, he also emphasizes that spontaneity is one of the most striking features of the form. The ‘sound of surprise’ again, but with some kind of a map.

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Clifford Jordan and Charlie Mingus, in conversation

Gioia then tackles the complex history of jazz and the question of whether or not it really was born New Orleans. Yes, it was, he says, but it grew up in Chicago and New York, and Kansas City, and California. I really liked this section. The history of jazz is fascinating but circuitous. Gioia tells it well. His breakdown of the different styles is masterful. People who say they don’t like jazz often offer a caveat like, ‘I like some big band stuff’ or ‘Miles is okay’. There is a tendency to dislike jazz because one particular style doesn’t appeal. That really is like dismissing rock and roll out of an aversion to, say, Prog rock. ‘No, I heard part of a Gentle Giant song once, rock and roll’s just not my thing.’ No one would say that but many people do when it comes to jazz. Gioia breaks down the various styles so neatly that I would defy anyone to read through this section and not reevaluate their relationship to this music. For example, I now have reason to believe, based on my love for certain mid 50s jazz albums, that I am a ‘Hard Bop’ man. This can be like one of those social media quizzes. What jazz genre are you?

I discovered jazz in Japan when I lived there in the early 90s. There was a record store near where I worked with an enormous bargain section made up entirely of the stuff. I bought a Charlie Mingus compilation one day out of curiosity. I can still remember the first time I listened to the opening few bars of Pithecanthropus Erectus. It was so… surprising! Yes! Then I discovered Eric Dolphy and a whole bunch of other people that completely transformed the way I listened to music. I have never thought of myself as a hardcore jazz fan but albums like John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Dexter Gordon’s Go are now as precious to me as my favourite rock and roll records. It can happen to you! If you are curious, and feel like it might be time for a swim in the jazz surf, the flags are out and Lifeguard Ted Gioia is on duty. You are in good hands here.

 

 

Biggest.Jazz.Fan.Ever.

https://i0.wp.com/ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51HLiPXsa5L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgMurray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues by Albert Murray and Paul Devlin (Editor), University of Minnesota Press, 2016

It’s entirely possible that when Albert Murray died in 2013 at the age of 97, jazz lost its biggest fan. That sounds like a huge call but after reading this book, I think it can be made.

Murray Talks Music is a collection of unpublished interviews, and a few short pieces. For any other writer, this might make for a slight volume but Albert Murray clearly didn’t do slight. These are all of considerable weight. His observations on jazz, blues, art, aesthetics, race, and literature come fast and furious here.

So who is this Albert Murray? If you haven’t heard of him you will wonder where you have been after you’ve read a few of these interviews. He was a jazz critic, possibly the greatest ever, a novelist, and a biographer. His first book was published when he was 54 years old, following a career in the American military. Along with his protégés, Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, he co-founded Jazz at the Lincoln Centre.

And he was the biggest jazz fan who ever lived. This is a man who possessed such a fine understanding of the form that he was treated like an equal by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jo Jones and many others. The discussion – interview isn’t the right word – with Dizzy Gillespie is remarkable. The trumpeter is completely relaxed. Even the friendliest of musicians, and Dizzy was pretty friendly, are wary of interviewers. There is more than a little pressure to get things right and not misrepresent their music, their colleagues, themselves. Dizzy trusts Murray and talks openly about his career and the people he played with, particularly in the early days. It’s without doubt one of the most satisfying exchanges between a musician and writer that I have ever read.

https://i2.wp.com/www.newyorker.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/100517_r19622_p646-963-1200-22164656.jpgHis love of jazz goes far beyond his vast knowledge of the music and its players. For Murray, jazz is the purest form of American art. Like the country itself, it is about innovation and improvisation. Jazz music, he says, is the sound of a restless nation pushing against boundaries and frontiers. It is also, for Murray, an African American art form. Some of his critics, notably Terry Teachout, have suggested that he underrated white jazz artists but Murray’s views here are far more complex. His position was that the race problem in America is one of definition and artificial lines. America for Murray was an idea, rather than a geopolitical or economic entity. He believed that African Americans were the ‘real’ Americans because they arrived from Africa with no language and no culture. They absorbed the culture of America and practiced it in its purest form, untainted by a sense of Europe as a center. They were thus able to create jazz, the greatest and perhaps only truly American art form. His first book, The Omni Americans (1970), a response to Patrick Moynihan’s damning 1965 report on the state of African Americans, suggests that the way forward could be in a redefining of American culture, to recognize the contribution of everyone involved, rather than any one group. Sadly, this probably still seems overly idealistic almost 50 years later. However, while pondering this, it occurred to me that the blues heritage of Mississippi and Chicago are now institutionalized in a manner that would have seemed unlikely even 25 years ago. When I visited Maxwell Street, Chicago, in the early 90s, the market was closed and there was no sign that this was one of the crucibles of American music. It is now heritage listed, the market has reopened, and tourism has revived what was a very depressed neighbourhood. Richard Daley’s son, of all people, made this happen! It would be lovely to think that we might one day say that music provided the groundwork for a real change in race relations in America.

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Jazz man?

Albert Murray’s own influences are of great interest as well. Though best known as a jazz critic, he was also a novelist who thought deeply about literature. Again and again, he makes reference to novels like The Magic Mountain and the ideas of Andre Malraux. Now there’s a name you don’t hear much these days! Intriguingly, he doesn’t seem to have had much interest in African American literature. He never mentions figures like CLR James and is dismissive of Zora Neale Hurston. Toni Morrison even gets a quick brickbat for Tar Baby. As far as jazz in fiction, he seems to be only impressed by one American writer: Ernest Hemingway. Yup, Papa’s staccato sentences and uncluttered phrasing has a distinct jazz sensibility according to Murray. I have read similar things about Eliot’s early poetry. Murray, like others, links jazz to Modernism at points. I would have been curious to know his thoughts on the Beats, surely the most jazz influenced of all writers’ circles. I also wondered what he thought of Walter Mosely. But then I spent the whole book wanting to ask Murray questions.

 

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Albert Murry and Ralph Ellison

But what about Ralph Ellison, you ask? Good question. They were lifelong friends and their correspondence is collected in Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. I ordered a copy – you can borrow it when I’m finished! Though it’s never stated, I had the feeling that Ralph was possibly not the jazz fan I might have imagined and that perhaps Albert Murray played Ezra to his TS in this area. Make it new and put some jazz in that book!

The final interview is a transcript of a radio program that he did with the combative critic, Stanley Crouch. Probably the most remarkable aspect of it is how deferential Crouch is to Murray. But then Crouch is controversial because he rejects most of the rhetoric around race and music in America. Crouch is a formidable critic and a force of nature in interviews but he remains a Murrayite.

The long discussion with Wynton Marsalis that opens the book is riveting. I’ve always enjoyed reading interviews with the trumpeter. He is highly articulate, passionate, and opinionated. There is a widely held perception that he is something like the active political wing for Stanley Crouch’s program. I now believe that the program might actually be Murray’s!

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With Count Basie

So, you might ask, what did the biggest jazz fan in history listen to? Clearly, The Count and The Duke were his guys. He saw Ellington as a major composer on par with Beethoven, except that he thought Ellington was better. The Count seems to pull more at his heartstrings though and is the musician that best illustrates his theory of the blues. I won’t spoil it here. If his love for these two figures seems conventional it is probably because Murray created the convention. He makes a good case too. I only wish he had lived long enough to take down Adam Gopnik, after that thuggish dismissal of the Duke in the New Yorker last year!

It’s hard to believe that Murray never played music. Most music writers, it must be said, are frustrated musicians. I certainly am! Murray does admit to tinkering with bass at one time but certainly never at a level he himself would have rated. Reassuringly, he says that music writers don’t need to be able to play music, they just need to be able to listen to it! It’s a good point and, if it is true, there is no doubt that this man was the Art Tatum of listeners.

Teasers: A masterclass in fact checking as Murray cross examines trombonist, Don Minor on the beginnings of the Basie band; Dizzy and Albert reveal the BeBop creation story. Hint: it all started with Earl Hines.

Jo Jones laying it down with Coleman Hawkins. For Murray, Jones was THE jazz drummer.

 

Seasoning the food of love

https://i2.wp.com/images.macmillan.com/folio-assets/macmillan_us_frontbookcovers_1000H/9780374277901.jpgEvery Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in a Musical Age of Plenty by Ben Ratliff, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

I’ve just celebrated, if that’s the right word, one of those ‘milestone’ birthdays, the ones that end in zero and send you into all kinds of generally pointless reflection. Out of the rubble of regret and mourning for my lost youth came an idea. I would try to listen to something new every day. This isn’t some kind of mid life crisis where I start listening to current pop or rock and roll. I try to listen to new bands but I always feel like Mr Jones. I can hear something is happening but I don’t know what it is. No, the idea was that I would listen to albums, bands, or songs that I had simply hadn’t heard. So, for example, I listened to Hot Rats the other day. I had never heard it and now I have. I listened to an Eric Dolphy record called Out To Lunch and Joao Gilberto’s self titled ‘white album’ from 1973. I can hear you screaming, ‘what you’ve never heard that album?! Why am reading your blog?!’ Relax, I’ve heard it now.

A handy book appeared around the time I made this momentous decision and it is called Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in a Musical Age of Plenty by Ben Ratliff. The premise of the book is this: We have access to an enormous amount of music at the moment but what do we do with it all? How can we handle the sheer weight of, say, every Fela Kuti album? It’s changed everything. When I think back to the mid eighties and the time and energy I spent trying to hear, just hear, Big Star… Ok, I’m showing my age and being boring!

He acknowledges the obvious problems with this much access. Writers like Nicholas Carr have suggested that the internet is turning us all into shallow readers and I suppose the same argument could be made about listening. Ten seconds of a Burundian guitar player, back to Blonde on Blonde for a few bars of Absolutely Sweet Marie, hmm, I’m going to listen to that Roger McGuinn solo album that Petty plays on now. And so on. Every Song Ever is thus a self help book of sorts for distracted listeners.

His twenty chapters are based around specific elements in music. But this isn’t like one of those old LPs which explains music theory in a ‘fun’ way. He avoids, for the most part, formal music terms and looks instead at elements like ‘Slowness’ and ‘Speed’ where he considers the effect of tempo. He makes the interesting observation that music should never be too fast for dancing. He also dismisses the idea that speed is a mark of virtuosity, noting that speed is instead ‘like a sweater on a dog at a show’. It’s nice but it’s the dog that’s being judged.

nusrat-fateh-ali-khanThe chapter on ‘Transmission’ is particularly interesting. He quotes the 19th century writer Evard Hanslick who wrote that ‘music mimics the motion of feelings’. This rather romantic idea was dismissed by the formalist critics of the early 20th century who tried to quantify the effects of music with elaborate theory and somewhat pseudo scientific ideas about our relationship to it. Ratliff points to the Sufi tradition and the wildly spiritual music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan as evidence that the place where music comes from is no simple matter. John Lennon’s performance of Julia, one of his great moments, is mentioned here too.

The chapter on ‘Space’ poses an interesting question: ‘When you listen to music, do you want to feel that you are in a particular kind of physical structure or landscape? A cathedral, a cube, a club, a desert, a marketplace?” If I was enjoying the book before this point, I was completely captivated by this idea. I thought immediately of John Bonham’s drums at the beginning of Where The Levee Breaks. Even without knowing the story behind the recording, the sound is evocative spatially. You can hear the place as clearly as the drums and it is exactly where you want to be. Paul Horn’s Taj Mahal album came to mind too. And then I thought about all of the famous studios and what the Stones achieved by recording Wild Horses in Muscle Shoals.

The book certainly got me thinking about some of my favourite songs and how they are so much more than just a riff or an evocative set of lyrics. There is a chapter on ‘Closeness’ that seemed to define what I love about The Everly Brothers 1960s output. The chapter on tone seemed to contain a clue to the religious mysteries of Buddy Holly. Even individual instruments were brought to mind. Why do I love the flute so much? Is it something to do with ‘density’?

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/d/d4/Teatroreal.jpg/220px-Teatroreal.jpgBut the other aspect of this book is the examples that he uses to illustrate his various claims. The book is not long, 272 pages, but it will take you weeks to read because you can’t help tracking down the songs and albums he mentions. They are threaded through the text and featured in a list at the end of each chapter. Hence the serendipitous appearance of this book as I vowed to listen to more unfamiliar music. In the ‘Slowness’ chapter, I discovered Dadawah’s Peace and Love album, some magic mid seventies reggae. The ‘Discrepancy’ chapter yielded Willie Colon’s Lo Mato album from 1973. The improvisation chapter alerted me to the music of Derek Bailey, an avant garde guitarist, and Paco De Lucia’s scorching 1975 En Vivo Desde el Teatro Real album. So much good stuff. I ended up keeping a notebook nearby so I could make a list of albums, both known and unknown, to listen to later. It’s that kind of a book.

Ratliff’s tastes are, to say the least, catholic. One minute he is dealing with the volume at a Jerry’s Kids (the hardcore band, not the telethon) show, the next he is providing a context for Steve Reich’s Four Organs. One of the things I considered in the lead up to my ‘milestone’ birthday was the melancholy fact that there was great music out there that I would never hear. I will try my best but there are only so many hours in my remaining days. Wow, what a grim sentence! Anyhow, this book was very reassuring. If I can’t hear everything, I can at least listen a little more deeply and make sure that none of those hours are wasted.

Teasers: Lovely analysis of Curtis Mayfield’s guitar style, the Italian word for the way Bing Crosby sings, and the idea of ‘ownership’ in music.

People, what d’ya think about that?

https://media.spincds.com/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/265x/9df78eab33525d08d6e5fb8d27136e95/1/9/1966.jpg1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, Jon Savage, Faber and Faber 2015

1966 began for me on a Sunday morning in May. ‘Walking My Cat Named Dog’ by Norma Tanega was on the transistor radio at the nurses’ station and my mum was no doubt sleeping. I was down the hall with a bunch of other babies. We were talking about The Kinks. No we weren’t. My memories don’t begin for another four years or so but like second wave feminism, the gay rights movement, radical black politics and rock rather than pop, I am a product of 1966.

We’re all turning fifty this year. Me, ‘The Ballad of Green Berets’, ‘Dead End Street’, ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’, ‘Snoopy and the Red Baron’. How are we faring? Some of us better than others!

1966:The Year the Decade Exploded by Jon Savage won the Penderyn Prize, a now annual award given to books about music and sponsored by a Welsh distillery. It’s a great idea and this year’s shortlist says a lot about the quality of contemporary books in this genre.

The publishing industry seems to be invested in individual years at the moment. Where once a book might have been called something grand like ‘The End of Medieval England’, it is now, ‘1485’. The focus will be on the events of that year and the writer will seek to establish those events as turning points or tipping points, as Malcolm Gladwell would have it.

https://i2.wp.com/www.blogcdn.com/www.spinner.com/media/2011/02/barry-sadler-456-020511.jpgAt the moment on my coffee table, there are books called 1607 (James Shapiro’s follow up to 1599), 1966, Detroit 67, and a novel by Garth Risk Hallberg called City on Fire which appears to be set entirely in 1977 although it’s 900 pages long and I’m only halfway through it. It might be 1979 when I finish. Or 2017. On my kobo, there is a book by David Browne called Fire and Rain that is all about 1970 and one from a few years ago called 1968 by Mark Kurlansky. They are all of interest but when ‘1996’ appears, don’t expect a review. I didn’t like anything about that whole decade.

Anyone remember the Rankin Bass animated special ‘Rudolph’s Shiny New Year’? Part of the story involves a visit to an archipelago called The Islands of Last Year. Every year has its own island. At this rate, every year will soon have its own book too!

The danger here is overemphasis. It says ‘1966’ on the cover so whatever happened that year will have to be more significant than anything that happened in 65 or 67. Jon Savage generally avoids this trap by starting each story where it actually began and noting how it progressed in 1966. He still has to make the case that this was the key moment. Sometimes this falls a little flat. It’s hard to not to see the Watts Riots of 1965 as a more significant tipping point for African Americans in the 60s than anything that happened in 1966. Savage more or less acknowledges this but works very hard to make a case for ‘66 as the year that civil rights started to go militant. He runs the same line with student politics in California. I couldn’t help but think that 1965 had a better claim in both cases.

I felt the same way, at points, about the music. Savage suggests that 1966 is the year that pop became rock. I’ve often made similar claims for my birth year. I sleep in a t-shirt that says 1966 and features a picture of Mick Jagger. The funny thing is that song by song, it does pale a bit in the face of, again, 1965. I kept thinking that I preferred other singles by the Stones, the Beatles, the Kinks, and the Who than the ones from that year. But I hear you crying, “what about Blonde on Blonde, Something Else, Aftermath”?! Good question. Dylan barely surfaces here. The Beatles are quiet too. How can this be? The answer is in Savage’s approach to history writing.https://i1.wp.com/images.npg.org.uk/800_800/3/2/mw60732.jpg

He doesn’t spend much time on albums because he is trying to present 1966 as it appeared in 1966. The rock album was, arguably, born that year but the significance of that birth was still a year away with the release of Sgt. Pepper. In retrospect, there is no doubt that 1966 looks pretty good for music. Revolver, Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds are usually in the top ten of any list of greatest albums but Savage is keen to avoid that kind of retrospection. It’s one of the strengths of the book but it raises questions about history and historiography that are just too damn big to cover here. The point is that 45s still dominated the market in 1966 so it makes sense to look at them, rather than albums. There has probably been enough yap about those records anyway!

The book moves through the year chronologically and thematically. May, for instance, is about women and the earliest stirrings of second wave feminism. This structure works very well and the attention to detail is impressive. He looks at magazine articles, news events, films, documentaries, radio broadcasts, and novels from the period to create a vivid and accurate picture of each month. I was reminded slightly of Franco Moretti’s vast reading project where he read every single crime novel in a 10 year period so that he could make a real, rather than speculative, determination about the genre.

https://i2.wp.com/cps-static.rovicorp.com/3/JPG_400/MI0001/515/MI0001515370.jpgSome of these chapters are more convincing than others. His evocation of homosexuality in 1966 is particularly well done. The Tornados ‘Do you come here often?’, is widely thought of as the first ‘gay’ pop song – for those who missed the subtext of Tutti Frutti and countless other 1950s singles. Joe Meek, the legendary producer of this song, had begun his long slide into the madness that would end in his death in 1967. Like Brian Epstein, he led a secret life and had been subjected to arrest and blackmail attempts over the years. The laws were changing but it was still a difficult time to be gay in England. The chapter also picks up the story of San Francisco in that year. The Gay rights movement, in most people’s minds, begins with Stonewall in 1969 but Savage shows that it was already crystalising in 1966.

It’s ridiculous to criticize a writer for stuff that isn’t in the book. I once read a review of Ashley Kahn’s study of A Love Supreme where the critic mainly moaned that Impressions was a better album. Okay, maybe (not) but the book was about A Love Supreme! So here I go:

I loved this book and I think Jon Savage is a real historian. Compared to many music writers who rely on clichés about the 1960s, he has used primary sources exclusively here and produced a very significant book. However, I couldn’t help thinking that a section or two on events and music outside of the UK and the US would have really closed the deal. I kept waiting to hear about the following: Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in that year; the formation of Os Mutantes in Brazil; the music scene in Toronto that produced so many big stars; the extraordinary pop scene in Cambodia. I don’t want to be like the grumpy Coltrane fan but the world was, in McLuhan’s terms, becoming a https://americasouthandnorth.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/osmutantespng.png‘global village’ by 1966 and most of the events in the UK and US were mirrored in other places. Others may be able to point to music related events in Africa or even the Middle East. Please point!

 

But this is minor quibble about a major work. Jon Savage’s book on the Sex Pistols, England’s Dreaming is a key text on that band and the period in general. I suspect that 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded will become one of the definitive books on the 1960s and, hopefully, will set a new standard for the writing of rock and roll history.

Teaser: Too many to list but Savage is particularly good on Dusty Springfield and Andy Warhol.

 

Poets with Guitars

Lives of the Poets (with Guitars): Thirteen Outsiders Who Changed Modern Music Ray Robertson, Biblioasis 2016

 The Doubleman, a 1985 novel by Australian writer Christopher Koch, is remarkable for its gothic depiction of postwar Hobart and its lysergic portrayal of 1960s Sydney. Koch, better known for The Year of Living Dangerously, wrote The Doubleman as an indictment of the period. His 1960s are meant to be unpleasant and sinister. The funny thing is that he blows it. He doesn’t tear down the myth. In fact, if anything, he makes Sydney in that period far more appealing than it probably was.

How does a top shelf writer like Christopher Koch manage to sabotage his own intentions in a novel? Well, this is one of the great ‘unintended consequences’ stories in modern writing and it all has to do with music. Koch is a good writer. In fact he is such a good writer that he was able to do something very unusual in The Doubleman. He created a band, a folk rock outfit called The Rymers, and he described their sound. Brilliantly. This isn’t easy. Listening to music is an intensely personal experience. One person listens to The Eagles and hears his own youth, his romantic yearnings and the sound of better days. Another hears, well, The Eagles. So describing an imaginary band’s imaginary music in a plausible fashion is not easy. Koch gets it right. His band sound something like an Antipodean early Fairport Convention. I could hear them while I was reading the book and I can still hear them. There was no band like that in Sydney in the 1960s. If there were, I’d have all their albums and a poster in my kitchen. Koch was trying to do a Joan Didion number on the Australian 1960s. It didn’t work. The music was too good. Sorry Chris, great book though!

Many novelists attempt this trick. Not many get there. Novels about rock and roll bands usually fall in a great big heap when the writer tries to describe the music. I’m happy to be corrected on this one. Please drench me in the names of credible rock and roll novels. I can think of three. The Doubleman is one, Paul Quarrington’s Whale Music is another. The final and greatest of all is Ray Robertson’s 2002 novel, Moody Food.

Ray’s novel is set in the late sixties too. The music is audible throughout the story. He doesn’t do the novel-as-MOJO article jive thing. It’s a novel like Henry James might have written, if he had been a Moby Grape fan. And it ‘sounds’ right. The music he describes is the music his main character, Thomas Graham, would have made.

His latest book, Lives of the Poets (with Guitars), is a collection of essays about his favourite musicians. So now he is describing real music by real people. He does it very well. In fact, he does it so well that it is sometimes distracting. I read literature for well-chosen words and beautiful sentences. Those sometimes appear in books and articles by music writers but not all that often. I’m not being critical here. East is east, west is west. Rock writers arrange the facts in interesting ways, literary writers tell compelling stories in an artful manner. Ray does both here.

The first essay on Gene Clark sets the tone (and the volume, ha ha!). Clark is a notable cult figure. His album No Other can sit comfortably next to a whole bunch of other ambitious and brilliant albums that were completely ignored when they appeared. Clark’s sad tale is a staple of magazines like MOJO and Uncut but Ray tells it in such an affecting manner that it felt as though I was reading it for the first time. This musician’s musical journey was an unusual one that spanned several decades. Ray uses his considerable storytelling abilities to give his music a cohesive frame. This would be insupportable if the music wasn’t described with such clarity and detail. I could hear these albums as I read. That’s impressive.

The essays that follow don’t disappoint. The depth of his blues knowledge in the section on Canned Heat’s Alan Wilson particularly impressed me. If rock and roll is hard to write about, blues is nearly impossible to describe without using a lot of vaguely racist clichés. Ray avoids them all. Wilson, a figure as talented and as tragic as Jimi, Janis, or Jim, is largely forgotten these days. The essay is both a moving story of a lost legend and a reminder that the blues is much more than a tired rehash of Sweet Home Chicago in the White House or something that can only be played in a shack in the Mississippi Delta.

I want to keep going. I want to talk about how cleverly Ray depicts Ronnie Lane’s legendary circus tent tour and how well he nails Chris Hillman’s issues with Gram Parson’s legacy. I want to query the absence of Alex Chilton and celebrate the inclusion of Hound Dog Taylor. It’s that kind of collection. Read, listen, discuss over pints of Guinness, repeat.

Teaser: If you have ever met Ray, even briefly, you already own Willis Alan Ramsay’s classic self titled album. He would have insisted. If you haven’t met Ray or somehow managed to hear this album on your own, make sure you are sitting down when you do. Hear the album, that is.

No Wave Goodbye

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Girl in a Band  Kim Gordon, Dey Street, 2015

This is a sad book. Unlike so many rock and roll memoirs, it is not a litany of drug related deaths or missed opportunities. Sonic Youth’s key members, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelly, and the author of Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon, are alive and well. Their now defunct band has an enviable legacy. They never sold out, never released a seriously bad record, and can rightly claim to be one of the most important acts of the last few decades.

So why is it such a sad book? If you have ever been through a divorce, you will recognize a lot of familiar stuff here. If you haven’t been, well, this is what it’s like.

Throughout the band’s existence, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon were one of the great couples in rock and roll. They were also the coolest. Kim was intelligent, beautiful, and she played bass, for god’s sake! Thurston was tall, friendly in a shy sort of way, and played guitar like a man possessed by punk rock demons. They shared a loft in New York and were as well connected in the art world as in the music one.http://assets.rollingstone.com/assets/1994/article/are-you-xperienced-19941006/183398/large_rect/1422321104/1401x788-85841396.jpg

But ultimately the marriage didn’t last. After nearly 30 years, he met someone else and it all ended in an uncool, tawdry fashion. Kim Gordon is not angry. It’s not that kind of book. She’s just sad. Okay, maybe she’s a little angry.

Fortunately, the entire book is not about this sad event. It’s a memoir and a really good one. I read it in two sittings. I had to go to work!

Kim Gordon was born in 1953 which puts her in that interesting demographic of people who were teenagers at the end of the sixties. They were there but not like someone like Neil Young who was born in 1945 was there. On the other hand, they are still boomers with all of that generation’s manic energy and fearlessness.

In 1969, Kim Gordon was going to high school in LA. The Manson Murders would have been discussed over egg salad sandwiches in the school cafeteria. She knew someone who was friends with Bruce Berry, later Neil Young’s roadie and the subject of Tonight’s the Night. What comes through in her story is that Sonic Youth’s groove owes something to their shared understanding of that period. She and Thurston are old enough to have caught the whole ‘break on through’ vibe but young enough to recognize how quickly it could turn into ‘take it easy’. For them the sixties isn’t a nostalgic past but the beginning of something. She mentions Thurston’s love for The Stooges and acknowledges, like everyone else, the importance of the Velvet Underground. As Victoria Williams once put it, they ‘were too young to be hippies, missed out on the love’. Their sixties was not mop tops and flower power but rather Manson girls, riots, and bands like the MC5. She notes that the song, ‘Death Valley ’69’, a collaboration with Lydia Lunch from their early days, is about her own experience of the time.

The No Wave movement in New York also made a significant impression on her. Sonic Youth, in her estimation, are closer to this genre than punk or grunge, which, of course, they, in part, inspired. The deconstructive ethic of the mid seventies New York art scene remained an influence on Sonic Youth to the end.

The story of her teenage years in LA, her move to New York, and her relationship with Thurston, make Girl in a Band a natural companion to Patti Smith’s Just Kids. I hope now she writes another one in the M Train mode. Finishing the book makes you feel like calling her up for a chat. As with Patti, her voice gets in your head and you miss it when you are finished.

File:Sonic Youth live 20050707.jpg I am not a hardcore Sonic Youth fan. I saw them once, opening for Neil Young, and I have two or three of their albums. The wonderful thing about this book is that it doesn’t matter. She has so many interesting things to say about art, about her friendships with people like Kurt Cobain, her experiences as a woman in the blokey world of alternative rock, motherhood, and her brief time as a fashion designer. I suspect that even readers who had never heard of Sonic Youth would be charmed by her story. That said, fans will relish the detail with which she outlines how certain songs came to be written. She is clearly inspired by the books she reads and she mentions many of them. Keep a pen handy.

Girl in a Band, like Patti’s books, is a breath of fresh air for readers of rock and roll memoirs. In a genre too often dominated by score settling, windy claims of glory, and adolescent self justification, Kim Gordon’s book is, yes, a little sad, but it is also intelligent, readable, and much more than simply a recount of a band’s progress.

Teasers: Her take on Courtney Love. The tour with Neil Young. Kim on The Carpenters.