Classic Rock Review

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Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs Of A Rock ‘N’ Roll Survivor by Al Kooper (2008)


Review Al Kooper has been rightly called the “Forrest Gump” of rock and roll. Throughout the 60’s and 70’s he seemed to turn up as a producer or band member with the right group of musicians until he either checked out of a band (the first electric Bob Dylan tour in 1965) or was thrown out (Blood, Sweat and Tears).

Over the course of 40 years he’s amassed an amazing amount of experiences that he’s collected in Backstage Passes and Back Stabbing Bastards. This is the third edition of his music biography first published in 1979, then updated in the mid-90’s, and now reissued covering 1998 to the present. “BP&BB” reads very much like a long-form interview you’d see in Rolling Stone (when it was good) or Mojo (always good). While he’s never quite gone beyond cult figure status on his own, behind the scenes he’s worked with some legends, most notably Bob Dylan and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Dylan pops up at various times throughout the book and Al’s stories about him are alternately revealing but mostly hilarious.

It was Dylan who gave Kooper his “calling card” to rock stardom when he overruled producer Tom Wilson and turned up the organist on “Like a Rolling Stone”. The organist was Kooper, who’d BS’d his way onto the session and only jumped on the organ (an instrument he couldn’t turn on let alone play) when Mike Bloomfield showed up and shattered Kooper’s guitar hero dreams just by tuning up. That session would be both a blessing and a curse for Kooper, who got a ton of session work from producers looking for “that Dylan sound” but left Al wanting something more substantive musically. Enter Dylan, who dragged him onstage at the legendary Newport Folk Festival when he went electric.

Al sets the record straight on that show and has a much different version of the event than the history books because he was right here. He was also “right there” when Bob went to Nashville to record “Blonde on Blonde”. Al’s relationship with Dylan has certainly evolved over the years and from his stories you get the impression that Bob’s been doing everything he can to run away from his legacy instead of embracing it.

From there, he joined the Blues Project until they imploded. Organized and performed at Monterey Pop, then formed Blood Sweat and Tears until he was ousted by their drummer following their debut album. That might be the end of the story right? Wrong! Taking the phrase “if you can’t beat `em, join `em” to heart, he became a staff producer at CBS Records under “Captain Clive” Davis. His first project would be the legendary “Super Session” album with Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills. Kooper’s work with “Bloomers’ is a case of missed opportunities, when things were good with him they were very good. They would produce 3 albums together but Mike could be exasperating to deal with. He only appeared on ½ of “SS” and “The Live Adventures”, leaving suddenly midway through both due to chronic insomnia and/or a heroin addiction that eventually took his life.

After leaving CBS, he relocated to Atlanta with the idea of forming his own record label (ala` Phil Walden at Capricorn Records). While scouting local talent he spotted a guitar army from Jacksonville and “Sounds of the South’s” first artist was Lynyrd Skynyrd. LS seem to have a love/hate relationship with Kooper. While grateful for producing their first 3 albums (as well as hits like “Free Bird”, “Gimme 3 Steps” and “Sweet Home Alabama”) his production methods seemed to soften the powerhouse sound they had live. It’s no wonder he was immortalized as “Mr. Yankee Slicker” in the song “Workin’ for MCA”.

The one story I wished he’d expanded on was playing with Jimi Hendrix on “Electric Ladyland”. They’d met at Monterey Pop and Al received one of Jimi’s Strats as a thank-you for his work. That guitar would prove to be more trouble than it was worth later on.

The last 10 years have been something of a rough road for Al. He became an associate professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, became a grandfather, and endured a long recovery from a debilitating eye disorder. But he’s still out playing live (with his academic colleagues no less!) and his dry wit is still there, can’t wait for volume 4!

Review The reviewer that tagged Al Kooper as the rock ‘n roll version of Forrest Gump hit the nail on the head. It’s the exact thought I had as I finished the book. He had an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time.

Al Kooper was there whenever something monumental was happening in rock music – whether it was Bob Dylan, Monterey Pop, the Rolling Stones, the Tubes, Lynyrd Skynryd and so on. His discography is stunning! He has played on records by and/or produced a tremendous number of musicians – and not “nobodys”, people like Dylan, the Rolling Stones, BB King, Skynyrd, Rick Nelson, Gene Pitney, Judy Collins, The Who, Taj Mahal, George Harrison, Tom Petty etc… I can’t think of anyone who has this kind of discography! This book is entertaining, informative and well-written. It has to be in the all time top 5 of books written about Rock ‘n Roll. It’s also inspirational. Al Kooper makes no bones about not being the most talented player on the block – he had to “fake it till he could make it.”

This book was fetching upwards of $300 when it was out of print, so I was thrilled to see it revised and back in print. It’s all here – inter and intra band conflicts, stories of the road – both the “glamour” (not much) and the boredom (plenty), drugs, women, the music industry, club owners etc… It’s clear to me that Al Kooper must have a strong personality – he has some good musical vision (e.g. the horn band Blood Sweat and Tears was his concept). He also clearly rubs a lot of people the wrong way, and had numerous falling outs with band mates, women and business people. This probably cost him a lot – both in reputation and money/success. I would love to see a book detailing other people’s opinions of Al – I have read articles/interviews in Goldmine Magazine and Al was definitely controversial.

In his autobiography Al comes across as honest and a good guy, but it’s clear to me that he, like many rock ‘n rollers was very self-absorbed and probably couldn’t see himself objectively in many situations. Either way – get this book, it’s a must read!

May 6, 2013 Posted by | Book Backstage Pass and Backstabbing Bastards by Al Kooper | , | Leave a comment