Classic Rock Review

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Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn (2013)

9780316194754_custom-d61d20fe8fe383002eab0887dc0c0c3b42773dcf-s6-c30From amazon.com

“He is what the land and the country are all about, the heart and soul of it personified…”. Bob Dylan.

“It’s called country music and western music, but the truth is it’s American music. It speaks in story about America in a way that speaks to all of us, north, east, west, and south.” Richard Nixon at a White House concert.

With the holiday gift giving season fast approaching, there’s no surfeit of books on musical artists. Books on Charlie Parker, The Beatles, Duke Ellington, Robert Plant, Jimi Hendrix, and no doubt others will be on the bookshelves. But certainly one of the best is Robert Hilburn’s book on Johnny Cash.

Hilburn began this book in 2009 when Cash’s manager told him “only about twenty percent” of Cash’s life had been told. While previous books on Cash put his life and music in some kind of perspective, Hilburn takes a slightly different approach. He reveals not just Cash’s life in and out of music, but why Cash matters. This book is a penetrating look at the man behind the “Man in Black” myth. And Hilburn never lets the myth get in the way of the facts. He has known, interviewed, and simply talked with Cash during his long (50 years) music career. Using interviews from both the past and present Hilburn has gone deeper into Cash’s life, and has shone a light on both the real Johnny Cash and his music.

The book is broken into five parts, each dealing chronologically with a specific period and events from that period of Cash’s life. Events like Memphis and Sam Phillips, Columbia Records, the tune “Big River” and pills, June Carter, drugs and Carnegie Hall, Folsom Prison and marrying June, losing the muse, Rick Rubin, and the final days are just a few of the many headings of events in the five parts chronicled in this book. There’s 16 pages of b&w photographs from throughout Cash’s life, including an early photo of Cash in his Air Force uniform playing a fiddle. And another photo from 1980, of Cash and his wife facing away from the camera–her arm around Cash’s waste–his hand squeezing her buttock. Also included are 5 pages of a “Guide To Recordings And DVDs”, 16 pages of Source Notes, and an Index.

The book begins early in Cash’s life in Dyess, Arkansas and his rural 1930’s upbringing. From there Hilburn, in a no nonsense, straightforward writing style, constructs Cash’s life not only as a musician, but as a man with human failings, wracked with guilt. But also here is Cash “the practical joker”, the man who wanted to buy his parents “…a nice place so they could have modern utilities…”, the man with pressures in his personal life (which in one instance led to Cash’s love song “I Walk The Line”), and the man who abused narcotics (and the price he paid for that). But Hilburn also notes Cash’s other “addictions”–reading scripture everyday, his devotion to music, and a man who cared about his fans (Cash, learning of fans who had traveled far to see his concerts, would pay their room and board). As Marshall Grant said of Cash–“He’d give you the shirt off his back, and if he was straight, everything else he had in his possession.”

Hilburn also notes Cash’s guilt at not being a better father and husband. Roseanne Cash was very helpful, giving Hilburn a better look at her father–even to the detriment of Cash and the family. Cash was in a never ending circle of “wicked behavior” and then deep repentance. Cash wanted to redeem himself so others might feel they too could be redeemed. But there was also the father who named his daughter after pet names for his wife’s breasts–“Rose” and “Anne”. The author also weaves the Carter family into the picture and the their effect on Cash both musically and personally. He also reveals that June Carter had failings of her own to deal with.

In tandem with a detailed look at Cash the man, Hilburn has also delved extensively into the music side of Cash–using the same straightforward clear prose. For me the book is at its best when Hilburn goes into detail about the business side of Cash’s life. He essentially begins with Cash going to Memphis and hooking up with Sun Records, and continues with his early recordings and hits, leaving Sun and signing with Columbia Records, Cash admitting that some of his albums weren’t very good, recording gospel albums which took the pressure off Cash to write more secular songs (and hopefully hits), the many concerts he gave (including of course the Folsom Prison concert which Hilburn attended), being dropped by Columbia and not doing well on the Mercury label, worrying that his music would be forgotten, the fact that the 70’s and 80’s were not a good time for Cash, that Cash wrote approximately 1,000 songs, and his meeting Rick Rubin at a time when Cash felt his career over.

The book begins to wind down with Cash returning home because of his worsening Parkinson’s Disease, and the passing of June Carter–as Rick Rubin said at the time–“I didn’t know if he was going to make it past this.” But not before Cash recorded a large cache of songs with Rubin as producer/facilitator, including “The Man Comes Around”, and “Hurt”. Hilburn gives the reader enough details that help put Cash’s music in a much clearer light–from both Cash’s and his fans perspectives. Nothing seems romanticized–everything rings sure and true, interesting, and informative. Having such attention to detail brings both parts of Cash’s life into a sharper focus than in previous books.

While some previous books have done a good/adequate job with Cash’s life story, none have really put everything in such clear terms–his life outside of music, and the music itself. Its Hilburn’s leaving aside the myth, his attention to detail and his unflinching way of laying everything out–good and bad–that makes this book the one to read if you’re interested in a look beyond the “Man in Black.”

“His most enduring legacy is that his message continues to spread.” John Cash, son of Johnny Cash.

December 28, 2013 Posted by | Book Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn | , | 1 Comment

Michael Walker On Rock Stars And ‘What You Want Is In The Limo’ (2013)

Photo of Robert PLANT and LED ZEPPELINFrom LATimes.com

By Christine Rendon
July 26, 2013, 10:12 a.m.
The year 1973 was a wild ride — three wild rides, actually, according to “What You Want Is in the Limo.” The book by Michael Walker details the tours of three enormous rock bands — Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, and the Who. Groupies, jets, managers, buses, crystal balls of cocaine: Walker’s got a backstage pass to them all.

Walker, the author of “Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock-and-Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood,” will be reading from “What You Want Is in the Limo” at Book Soup on Saturday at 4 p.m. He spoke to us via phone about his new book.

One of the bands you focus on is Alice Cooper. You wrote that he had a great rapport with the press. How did that come about?

The band had a meeting early on with a publicist named Pat Kingsley. And Pat Kingsley went on to become the most powerful Hollywood publicist in history, but back in 1970 or whatever it was, when Shep [Gordon], Alice Cooper’s manager approached her, she was just a publicist starting out. She met with the band, and said, “Shep, tell the guys to step outside for a few minutes.” And she said to Shep, “Look, five guys named Alice Cooper, I don’t know what to do with that. You give me one guy named Alice Cooper, that I can sell.” So Shep went out into the hallway and said, “One of you guys has to be Alice Cooper.” And the guy that got the nut was Vincent Furnier — he was already the lead singer, but everything they did going forward would concentrate on him and the Alice Cooper character because it’s an easier story to sell to the press. There’s a band that was working the press from day one. In the ’73 tour Shep had the road manager tell the rest of the band they weren’t welcome at press conferences anymore because they didn’t know how to get good press, they didn’t know what to say. So Alice became the personal superstar and they kind of got left behind.

Why do you think Led Zeppelin had a bad relationship with the press? You say their music didn’t resonate with Rolling Stone?

The big rock critics at Rolling Stone venerated the ’60s bands a lot: Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, the Jefferson Airplane — all the great ‘60s bands were what they knew, what they approved of. They did not approve of Led Zeppelin at all.

The fan age of Led Zeppelin was far younger than they were accustomed to and Led Zeppelin was commercially successful independent of them. Here comes Led Zeppelin who, in their opinion, is doing pretty crass music — crass, commercial, just unredeeming. They thought the music was bombastic, simplistic, it was way too derivative of stuff that had already been done and better by bands they liked.

Simultaneous with Led Zeppelin’s arrival around 1969 and 1970 was the rise of the FM radio. FM radio hadn’t really existed before, at least for promoting rock ‘n’ roll, and it came on in a big way. Led Zeppelin very insidiously courted FM radio; they didn’t court the rock press, they just went completely around them. They got their album on the radio without the help of the press.

The third thing that hurt Led Zeppelin was they signed with Atlantic Records for what was at the time a very large amount of money, a $200,000 advance I think, and therefore they were a hype band. Back in those days that mattered –the fact that they extracted such a large amount of money out of Atlantic Records, they were automatically suspect.

what you wantRobert Plant cultivated his stardom very, very carefully and really, really wanted it. Robert Plant was way too earnest, and that’s kind of what also killed it. Because reporters want to be in on the joke, and Alice Cooper let them in, he basically said, “This is all ridiculous, we couldn’t get arrested three years ago, now we have the No. 1 album in the country. You do the math.” He was a really charming guy, I interviewed him for the book, he’s hilarious, he knows exactly what to say.

You write that in the 1960s, the music industry was free and open, while in the 1970s the industry refocused to being more about money and consumption. What do you think caused this shift?

That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write about the year 1973 — I think it is a dividing line between the values and culture of the 1960s and the 1970s. What interested me about that year is that the ’60s aren’t quite over yet.… At the same time the decade the ‘70s would become wasn’t quite invented yet; it was starting to get there, you’re seeing signs of it. So you have this year that’s got one foot in the ‘60s and one foot in the ‘70s; I thought it would be interesting to take three bands that were formed in the 1960s and were helping define what the 1970s would be.

In the late ‘60s, Woodstock happened, and no one had really known how big the audience was for rock music until that show — 300,000 people show up on a side of a hill in New York: it opened everybody’s eyes. What had been a cottage industry, the record business back then, it didn’t sell that many albums… in the early ‘70s record companies began to consciously go after money in ways they had not before.

There was another thing…the second half of the baby boom generation was coming of age in the early 1970s — 18 million people had been born in 1957, which made them 16 in 1973; all of the sudden teenagers have allowances and part-time jobs and they’re buying albums as never before. There’s also a change in attitude, when the big money started coming in, people at the record companies began to realize how big this business could be and it changed things.

Also, the drug menu was changing. In the ‘60s it had been marijuana and acid, drugs of inclusiveness and sharing; cocaine was coming in in 1973, and that was the opposite.

In the book you mentioned that one of the music PR firms displayed a crystal ball of cocaine.

Yeah, that was Gibson & Stromberg in L.A., it was a cut crystal ball — the only rule was you couldn’t take it with you. You couldn’t scoop it up and use it later that night.

Can you explain how women were involved? This time in history they seem caught between the sexual revolution and this male-dominated industry.

I very much wanted to include what women were doing on these tours and how women were being treated in the industry at that time — and it turned out there was more involvement than I thought. There were women publicists who weren’t fantasizing about sleeping with Robert Plant, they were there to work for him. There was Mary Beth Medley, the right-hand to road manager Peter Rudge, and she ran the tours as much as he did. Women were not just being groupies, they were working it. There’s a part of that in the book.

Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times

December 22, 2013 Posted by | Book What You Want Is In The Limo by Michael Walker | , , , | Leave a comment

The Beatles: All These Years Vol 1 (Published October 29th, 2013)

41tcK1TR6eL__SY346_Covers the period till the end of 1962 and nearly 1,000 pages. Bet this is quite good.

Tune In is the first volume of All These Years—a highly-anticipated, groundbreaking biographical trilogy by the world’s leading Beatles historian. Mark Lewisohn uses his unprecedented archival access and hundreds of new interviews to construct the full story of the lives and work of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr.

Ten years in the making, Tune In takes the Beatles from before their childhoods through the final hour of 1962—when, with breakthrough success just days away, they stand on the cusp of a whole new kind of fame and celebrity. They’ve one hit record (“Love Me Do”) behind them and the next (“Please Please Me”) primed for release, their first album session is booked, and America is clear on the horizon. This is the lesser-known Beatles story—the pre-Fab years of Liverpool and Hamburg—and in many respects the most absorbing and incredible period of them all. Here is the complete and true account of their family lives, childhoods, teenage years and their infatuation with American music, here is the riveting narrative of their unforgettable days and nights in the Cavern Club, their laughs, larks and adventures when they could move about freely, before fame closed in.

For those who’ve never read a Beatles book before, this is the place to discover the young men behind the icons. For those who think they know John, Paul, George, and Ringo, it’s time to press the Reset button and tune into the real story, the lasting word.

From amazon.com

I first heard of this project almost 10 years ago. I already had two of Mark Lewisohn’s books on the Beatles: Recording Sessions and The Complete Beatles Chronicle. I knew they were books which were objective, yet with an eye for everything interesting and humorous. When the news came out that Lewisohn was writing a complete biography, I waited anxiously for its publication. And waited. And waited…. as it got pushed back ever further. Well, finally it’s here; and the waiting was all worth while.

‘Tune In’ tells the story of the years before Beatlemania, weaving together the biographies of four boys from Liverpool who grew up with a shared passion, to play music. They each found ways of working towards realizing their dream; in fact, it’s about the only thing they did work at, since nothing else seemed to be interesting to them. Their paths gradually came together, first John, then John and Paul, then John, Paul and George and finally, a few months before this part of the story ends, John, Paul, George and Ringo. Lewisohn cleverly constructs the book chronologically, bringing the stories together rather than dealing with each person separately. This gives the book a ‘real time’ feeling, in which events are recounted as they occur. This sense of immediacy is one of the book’s biggest strengths; no other biography (and I’ve read many) gives the reader such a sense of being there, almost as if watching the story unfold in front of you.

Lewisohn’s greatest attribute is his willingness to take the trouble to get it right. He makes sure that he not only finds the best sources, he sets them out in extensive footnotes. Where there is not a definitive source, he says so; there is no reciting of rumor, gossip and biased opinion as fact. His objectivity is admirable, for although he is a fan of The Beatles’ work, he does not gloss over their human weaknesses and foibles. This is a warts and all account, but never loses sight of the fact that every experience and every character trait is part of what made them so iconic as a band.

There are surprises. One of the most intriguing questions for me has always been why The Beatles first contract with EMI (George Martin’s organization) was dated 2 days before Martin ever saw them; Lewisohn solves the mystery and it isn’t at all what I was expecting. He answers the questions about why Pete Best was replaced and whether ‘Love Me Do’ was pushed into the charts by Brian Epstein. However, the revelations are not the reason for reading the book. The quality of writing is the main attraction here. This book is always hugely entertaining, even fascinating. It’s witty without being pretentious, sad without being maudlin and affectionate without being sentimental. As this part of the story ends, you find yourself feeling uplifted and eager to read about what happens next.

Ah, there’s the rub. The book ends just as The Beatles are about to make history- not just pop music history, but history-book history, as one of the most important cultural influences of the second half of the 20th century. Mark Lewisohn is working on it. I’m already waiting for it.

September 21, 2013 Posted by | The Beatles All These Years Vol. 1 | , | Leave a comment

God Save The Kinks by Rob Jovanovic (2013)

God-Save-the-KinksFrom The Telegraph

In the early months of 1967 we had the Beatles’ Penny Lane and Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks. Even in a year extraordinary for its harvest of good songs these two stood out: who could imagine writing a hit about everyday people doing ordinary things in a Liverpool street? Paul McCartney did.

Who would know rush hour at a London railway terminus was the stuff of pop dreams? Ray Davies, the only songwriter sharp-eyed, witty, angry, sensitive and skilful enough to vie with the Beatles at turning home-turf goings-on into songs that would still be in rude health half a century later.

Nostalgist and ironist, he was the consummate minstrel of humdrum consolations – hymning the old-fashioned working-class house as Shangri-La, leading The Village Green Preservation Society and lampooning the Dedicated Follower of Fashion.

The Kinks didn’t have the winsome charm of the moptops or the cunningly nurtured outlaw chic of the Rolling Stones. Ray and his brother Dave, pretty-boy somewhat-unhinged lead guitarist, were often at war. Ray is a difficult man: difficult for colleagues, wives, his brother and above all himself.

Rob Jovanovic’s book begins with a harrowing and very graphic account of a July day in 1973. Ray’s wife had left him and taken their two daughters, he had just played a terrible concert, he had overdosed on drink and drugs and stumbled into a hospital saying: “My name is Ray Davies. I am lead singer of the Kinks. I am dying.”

He doesn’t die but the book is never quite so healthy again. The Davies brothers were not involved. The author didn’t speak to either of them. That needn’t matter, but it does mean that a lot of effort is required to conjure up scenes and make the characters live. That doesn’t happen nearly enough. Instead, as occurs in all but the very good rock biographies, any chance of a compelling narrative is too often lost in thicketry of details of tracks, recording days, sidemen and outriders.

Mentioning the two best books about the Beatles – Philip Norman’s meticulously researched Shout! and Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald’s brilliant song-by-song analysis – is setting the bar very high but one does yearn for just a little of the virtues of both.

The author isn’t old enough to have been around in the Sixties, which is not his fault, but in order to explain and animate the Kinks he needs to conjure up the times and the peculiar cultural stew that provoked so much good music. Sentences like: “Fashion designers like Mary Quant and Paco Rabanne, models such as Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, as well as hairdressers and make-up artists, were part of the new zeitgeist – popular icons, even stars” hardly get you there.

The early chapters about the young brothers’ lives with their large family in their small north-London house have all the facts but aren’t well written enough to draw you in.

As for the songs, one would love a more telling account of what went into them. This is not a churlish gripe. Listen to John Wilson’s Mastertapes radio interview with Ray Davies last year and hear how very interestingly he talks about his work.

Many Kinkswatchers will come to this book with a special advantage – in the past couple of years Julien Temple made two documentaries that were on BBC One, one about Ray, one about Dave, that really takes you to the centre of Kinksdom. Ray’s is fairly well trodden territory but beautifully done. Dave’s is absolutely compelling – he was the guitarist who, age 16, on You Really Got Me gave the world the power-chords soon copied by the Who and everybody else; he put a sitar-like sound on to See my Friends before George Harrison ever did anything Indian for the Beatles.

These days, having suffered a stroke, he is an almost unrecognisable but very sympathetic spiritually inclined figure. He says his brother was a nightmare but that may have been all to the good, it made him be himself.

God Save the Kinks doesn’t make attractive reading. Theirs is a tough story. It isn’t a tale of sweetness and light, there was too much fighting and too many cock-ups. After a mayhem-filled, shambolic mid-Sixties tour of the United States at the time when they might soon have taken the place by storm, they were banned from returning. Ray Davies has always been rather hazy as to precisely why and Jovanovic hasn’t produced any more clarity. Financially it was a setback but creatively it was probably a blessing. It kept them here to produce their best work.

This book does contain a lot of good material but it isn’t well served. Unlike gazing on Waterloo Sunset, reading it is certainly not paradise.

June 16, 2013 Posted by | Book God Save The Kinks by Rob Jovanovic | , | Leave a comment

The Beach Boys Heroes And Villains: The True Story Of The Beach Boys by Steven Gaines (1995)

heroes-villains-true-story-beach-boys-steven-s-gaines-paperback-cover-artFrom amazon.com

There’s something to be said for trashy biographies, as long as a reader is somewhat prepared to take what he or she reads at less than face value. “Heroes & Villains” has undeniable readability, throws up some arresting caricatures that must bear some proximation to the subjects described, and is more lurid than mean-spirited in its design.

But you really wonder about factual accuracy with a book about a group of pop music giants that manages to misspell the names of Jimi Hendrix, Glen Campbell, and Sam Cooke. That’s a rock, country, and soul trifecta for those keeping score, not to mention Campbell was briefly a member of the Beach Boys’ touring band. Or how about a book that is ostensibly about the Boys but spills more ink about the bodyguard who had an affair with Brian Wilson’s wife than it does on Al Jardine or Bruce Johnston, actual members of the band?

At least Gaines throws in a kind mention of Bruce Johnston’s classic “Disney Girls (1957),” which was nice for this fan to read. It’s more notable because there’s not much attention in this book to the Beach Boys music, other than their earliest, career-making singles, “Good Vibrations,” and the Pet Sounds album. He skims over so much there’s no mention of such classics as “Wendy,” “Do It Again,” “Little Honda,” “Come Go With Me,” “All Summer Long,” and “Good Timin’.” There’s nothing said of “Kokomo” either, though since the book was published in 1986, two years before that final number-one hit was released, you can’t blame Gaines for missing it. (If only the Beach Boys had.)

The advantage of Gaines approach is you do get drawn in, right away as he begins by recounting the last hours of Dennis Wilson’s troubled life, then back-pedals to the abusive Hawthorne, CA household where frustrated songwriter Murry Wilson browbeats and, at times, just beats his three sons into becoming the closest answer America ever had to the Beatles. Murry is one guy you can’t worry about being too unfair with, and to his credit, Gaines attempts to separate fact from fiction with this nasty fellow.

But the book sags notably once the band’s career takes off. Gaines can’t really focus on the music, or even on the band’s upward trajectory or its influence on popular culture. His interest is exclusively on What Went Wrong. As a result, this reads at times more like an autopsy report than the history of a band so successful it became an institution. Unlike Gaines’ Beatles book, “The Love You Make,” there’s no narrative thread to sustain the story. The most wretched lowpoints are thrown up one after another with minimal context.

There’s fun to be had here, with a character list right out of Dickens, everyone seemingly scrambling to be more messed up than the next. Brian and Dennis Wilson are obvious centers of attention, as is a manager who apparently got the bright idea of moving America’s Band to the Netherlands just so he could have a cozier place to be with his boyfriend. A succession of managers, wives, girlfriends, and hangers-on create an environment so chaotic and dysfunctional you are hardly surprised when the Manson Family drops in for an extended stay.

Brian’s ’70s excesses prompts one funny question from Gaines, “how a 240-pound, unwashed, emotionally-disturbed man could wind up with three women fighting over him?” The answer of course, is money and fame can blind a lot of people. The problem is, in a different way, it blinds Gaines, too, making him look less at the Beach Boys as confused mortals than as depraved gods making a gorgeous mess of their Mt. Olympus.

Unless you have some personal stake in the Beach Boys, and many do, there’s probably more to like in this book than not, provided you don’t take it seriously. The bitter recollections of hangers-on don’t really make for a definitive story, though the claims made in “Heroes & Villains” are the kind any serious biographer will need to address, which is more a good thing than not. I liked reading it more for entertainment than illumination, but I needed to take a shower when I was done.

June 15, 2013 Posted by | Book The Beach Boys Heroes And Villains: The True Story Of The Beach Boys by Steven Gaines | , | Leave a comment

My Cross to Bear by Gregg Allman (2013)

Gregg-Allman_cross-to-bearFrom amazon.com

This memoir written by Allman with the help of Alan Light, takes in all the important periods and changes, both good and bad, in Allman’s life.

The many photographs (mostly b&w some color) are both interesting and add depth to Allman’s writing. The end papers are pretty cool too. Reading portions of this book brought back some good memories of seeing the ABB live, when both Duane Allman and Berry Oakley were alive. Once the band started a tune, they were an unstoppable juggernaut, capable of taking a song anywhere-and they did. They were a true band-everyone was an equal-and they played their a*#es off. I wish someone would collect all the tracks by the Allman Joys, Hourglass (both albums) and the 31/st of February, into one neat box set. That would be pretty cool.

The death of Gregg Allman’s brother, Duane, and it’s effect on Allman, runs all through this book. Basically, after writing about early family life (he doesn’t like to be called Gregg-rather Gregory) and their early bands, the story really begins in Los Angeles, after the brother’s bands Allman Joys (there’s a photograph of that band which is a good example of the intensity of Duane’s playing, at the head of Chapter Three) and the later Hourglass, has come apart, Allman learns that Duane is back in Florida, putting together (“Two drummers? Sounds like a train wreck”. G.A.) a band. Needing a songwriter/vocalist, Gregg hitchhikes back to Florida to meet, and subsequently jam with the boys. Something clicks, and soon Duane surprises Gregg with a new Hammond B3 organ-along with a few very fat “cigarettes”.

From that point Allman writes about their search for a band name (Gregg wanted Beelzebub), with the majority of the band settling on the Allman Brothers Band. Allman also writes about the band’s use of magic mushrooms (which is how a mushroom ended up as part of the band’s logo), and the ensuing jams that took place. In the early days the band would play anywhere and anytime, and Allman notes that they had a limited number of songs, so they began to stretch them out into long jams in order to fill out a set-much to people’s delight. In a short time the band began playing larger indoor venues and large festivals.

Allman describes the backstage/between concerts happenings, especially with the many available women-so many that their road manger would hand out lists of “consent of age” laws for each state to every band member. He also writes about the band’s continuing drug use-marijuana, mushrooms, cocaine, and heroin-and alcohol-among others. The brothers exploits with the Selective Service are interesting too. Luckily (for him) they lost Duane’s paperwork-so he didn’t “exist”, and Gregg took more drastic measures-which brought back memories of those times.

Some of the low points Allman writes about are the brothers growing up without their father (who was killed by a hitchhiker he picked up), the profound effect his brother Duane’s death had (and still has) on him, the stabbing/killing of a promoter by a band associate, and the difficulties of being away from home. But one of the major points is Allman’s testimony (for full immunity) against Scooter Herring, a friend who scored Allman’s drugs, which sent Herring to jail for 75 years (which he didn’t serve), and how his actions broke up the band. But he also writes that after Duane’s death (and Berry Oakley’s) the band was floundering, with no real direction, but the other band members saw Allman’s testimony against a “brother” too much to handle, and it shattered the band for a number of years.

A portion of the book is devoted to his meeting and marrying Cher. He writes about Cher giving him her phone number (while she was on a date with someone else), her need for attention, and her lack of vocal (“…if you don’t like it, f*#% you”. Cher) ability. Starting out producing a record for Cher, it soon became an album by the both of them (“That record sucked, man”. G.A.) under the moniker Allman and Woman-which was panned by almost everyone. And it’s nice (and telling) to hear Allman write about, and own up to that less than stellar recording. But differences in personality, and Allman’s continued drug use brought the marriage to an end in 1979.

Allman also writes candidly about his attempts to become drug free, and when he was finally free of various substances-his heavy drinking. Along the way he fights his alcohol usage (finally freeing himself), contracts Hepatitis C, has a liver transplant, and continues to make music. But he also talks about some of the good things that have happened to him (and the band)-their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, his participation in the on-going reunion of the Allman Brothers Band, his well received latest solo album, and (most importantly) his family and sobriety.

Not being an autobiography (in the truest sense), Allman is free to zero in on certain events and periods of time that are the most important (to him) and fascinating to fans. His conversational style of writing is easy to digest, but there are obscenities throughout the book when Allman talks about particular points. This memoir is written from the vantage point of someone who has lived through both the highs and lows in life, and if not totally triumphant, Allman has come out the other side alive to talk about it. This is a good, penetrating, look inside the life of a fine musician and a basically shy person-who has shared a number of both good and bad periods in his life. After reading this book, you’ll be thankful (as Allman is) that he is alive, and that we can still listen to that world weary, soulful, bluesy voice. “My Cross To Bear”. Indeed.

June 4, 2013 Posted by | Book My Cross to Bear by Gregg Allman | , | Leave a comment

According To The Rolling Stones by The Rolling Stones (2003)

AccordingToStonesFrom amazon.com

The recent publication of “According to the Rolling Stones” to coincide with the Forty Licks Tour, is classic Stones-style media manipulation. Looking back over their career & my collection of Stones videos, books & CD’s, it is obvious that once again Jagger (& to a lesser extent, Richards) are attempting to revise their personal history and somehow cleanse themselves of their bad-boy image. This particular effort is the penultimate revision of a well-documented history.

From the outset, the choices made by the books’ editor (Dora Lowenstein, daughter of the financial advisor to the Stones, Prince Rupert Lowenstein) as to whom to include make it obvious this will be a trip thru the past brightly. The single most glaring omission is that of Bill Wyman; yes, he’s not currently a Rolling Stone, but one would think that 25+ years as an official Stone would count for something.

Obviously, Dora & Co. didn’t agree. Other omissions include Mick Taylor (only the spark for the finest Rolling Stones guitar interplay recorded), Andrew Loog Oldham (even Jagger/Richards admit they probably never would gone beyond the Crawdaddy Club without ALO), Bobby Keys (Keith’s best friend for many years & the leader of the Stones horn section since 1969) and the Stones women, past & present.

Marianne Faithfull & Anita Pallenberg were considered adjunct members of the Stones for many years, most of them the most productive and artistically satisfying of their career. The list of those Missing In Action could also include dead, but on-the-record Stones members such as Brian Jones and (especially missed!) Ian Stewart who was the original founder with Jones of the band. Stewart knew where all the bodies were buried, and never failed to take the Jagger/Richards egos down a peg or 10. Ian’s contributions to the Stones legacy are glossed over at best.

Instead, in the tween-chapters essays, we have represented two journalists (one of whom has no claim to any contact with any Stone at any time), Peter Wolf of J.Geils Band, Sheryl Crow, Prince Rupert and Ahmet Ertegun. Needless to say, their contributions tend more towards the sycophantic than the enlightening.

Many excellent photos, a number of them full-page, are reproduced here, but again, almost none of Wyman, and very few of those in the inner circle. The majority of the photos are (in descending order) Richards, Jagger, Watts & Wood. Poor Ronnie, although a Stone now since the mid-70’s, is still attempting to rationalize the fact that he has almost never been giving song-writing credit even when he was the primary catalyst of a riff.

The main pleasures of “According to the Rolling Stones” are hearing Charlie Watts speak out openly, especially concerning his period of substance abuse in the 80’s. He analyzes and philosophizes on many aspects of the Glimmer Twins collaboration, as well as the contributions of some of the more ignored members of the organization. It’s as much a pleasure to read Charlie’s words, as it is to hear his lovely, economical drumming.

Ronnie is his usual entertaining self, & Keith comes up with some classic quotes as usual. Jagger’s contribution is to once again prove what a jerk he’s become in the past 20 years. “Exile on Main Street” not a good album? Apparently Sir Mick thinks the sound too muddy. I hate to mention this, your Lordship, but you did start out as a blues band, after all. “Exile” is one of the greatest blues albums ever recorded by anyone.

The Mick of 1962 thru 72 would have adored this album. Just goes to show….(and of course, we all know what Mick’s solo work has sounded like). Mick is quoted at one point as justifying the Stones later work by saying “as long as it works live, that’s all that matters”. Keith, on the other hand, offers that he can’t stand playing such recent dreck as “Emotional Rescue” or “Undercover of the Night”. At least someone in the band still has some musical integrity left!

So there it is. “According to the Rolling Stones” won’t change anyone’s mind about any of the band members, although Mick & Dora might wish it would. I am just praying, that we, the “peeps” in the audience, won’t be subjected to a 50th Anniversary Tour/Commemorative Book. The thought of a 70 year old Sir Mick wiggling his geriatric fanny is really too grotesque to bear!

May 30, 2013 Posted by | Book According To The Rolling Stones by The Rolling Stones | , | Leave a comment

John by Cynthia Lennon (2006)

johnFrom amazon.com

I’ve been a fan of the Beatles since the first night that they were on Ed Sullivan in 1964. I could not be more in the Beatles camp without needing medication.

Actually some people think I do need medication over my Beatles fixation, but never mind. The reason I say this is so that you’ll know whose “side” I’m on.

The most recent histories of the World’s Greatest Band (this one and “The Beatles: The Biography” by Bob Spitz) are more reliable as general retellings than most of the previous dreck we’ve gotten, with the possible exception of Phillip Norman’s, excellent “Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation.” In fact, most of the previous general histories we’ve got on the Beatles have been garbage–being either authorized fan-club/teenie-bopper raves, or idiot kiss-and-tell scandal tomes (like “The Love You Make: An Insider’s Story of the Beatles” which paints the Beatles as victims and jerks simultaneously).

In fact, even “Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles” by the very odd Geoff Emerick (who, despite having been in on the most important of the Beatles recording sessions seems to have entirely missed the point) is pretty good.

So we’ve got an excellent crop of fairly recent Beatles books out now. So what? Well, I think that for those of you who want to understand the Beatles story on a gut level, this is one of the must-have volumes.

Cynthia Lennon is honest in this volume on the level that her famous ex-husband always claimed to be, and generally wasn’t. The feeling I get as I read this volume is that, for an autobiography, the book is unusually truthful. I suspect we’re getting about 75% of the truth, and 99% of the truth as Cynthia saw it (understanding the distinction in those two points is critical in reading autobiography). Her portrait of John is unflinching and to the point when she speaks of the events she witnesses. It is also solid from the standpoint that a lot of the action that occurred in and around the Beatles circle happened just off of Cynthia’s radar, and she tells us plainly when she was off stage. It is interesting that she seems honestly bemused by so many of the events that occurred in her own life.

The portrait of the “Cynthia Era” Lennon that emerges is the one we always suspected was the truth: that John was a funny, warm, intelligent person–usually. We also see the Post-Yoko John, and the bizarre head changes that Ono put John through.

Cynthia suggests that the changes in Lennon’s temperament were symptoms of drug abuse, and I’m certain that was a contributing factor, but she either doesn’t see or leaves us to read between the lines about the influence that Ono had over Lennon. I suspect that she’s being kind; the combination of Ono’s machinations, and Lennon’s emotional and intellectual vulnerability were a frightening force, and changed John completely. In fact, the immediate post-Ono Lennon seems more like a cult adherent than a drug casualty, and that was, the way it seemed to fans like me at the time.

Lennon switched from the affable (if temperamental) head Beatle to a surly, smug, unsmiling but silly media manipulator who was more than delighted to exchange creative credentials for media attention. As Cynthia points out, “He never smiled and he took himself so seriously.”

Best of all, Cynthia asks the ultimate question about Lennon, ‘How could he be so interested in world peace, and so uninterested in making peace with his own son?”

Cynthia also seems aware that McCartney, who has received bad press in the last few years for having the bad taste to remain (Quelle Horreur!) popular and mainstream, is a talent in his own right, and half of the Beatles songwriting legacy. Cynthia is also aware that the Beatles were a band, an organism of four men, not John Lennon and three other guys. It was nice to hear someone say this; the other Beatles have gotten short shrift since Lennon’s death.

Of course, a central part of the “Lennon Problem” is carefully discussed here; Lennon wanted a divorce from his wife. In the early 21st century that situation is considered sad, but with the current 50% divorce rate it might also seem unremarkable. In the late 1960’s it was scandalous, and the way Lennon dealt with his ex-wife and child we even worse.

You won’t learn a lot about how the Beatles music was made here, Cynthia wasn’t allowed in that part of her husband’s life (no big deal there, how many of you reading this take your spouse to work?), but you will learn a lot about who John Lennon was, and how he mutated into the media-hungry self-righteous maniac he became in the 1970’s. Best of all, Cynthia still loves John, and despite the degree that he wronged her, she leaves us room to do so as well.

May 29, 2013 Posted by | Book John by Cynthia Lennon | , , | Leave a comment

John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman (2008)

tumblr_m9j5xqMnob1qaouh8o1_400From amazon.com

Most beloved public figures have many facets — some of them nasty, some of them pleasant and admirable. Most biographies either focus on the good, or the bad.

But fortunately, Philip Norman is making a valiant effort to show, if not all of John Lennon’s facets, then as many of them as possible. Having explored the Beatles and their impact on a generation, Norman narrows his focus down to “John Lennon: The Life” — and he does a superb job unearthing the many details, relationships and differing faces of this much-lamented rock star. We’ll never get a John Lennon autobiography, but Norman does a pretty good job of getting inside his shaggy head.

John Lennon was born into an incredibly stormy marriage (which broke up soon after) and raised by his loving, strict Aunt Mimi, though he was something of a hellraising trickster as a child. The one blot: the tragic, shocking death of his mother Julia.

Of course, everyone knows what happened later — after a brief stint at art school, Lennon became part of a band with an ever-shifting name, and started working on pop songs alongside Paul McCartney. Though briefly devastated by the death of a bandmate, Lennon quickly rose to fame and fortune when the renamed Beatles became not just a hit band, but a new way of life for the youth of Britain, and then the entire world. Hit album after hit album poured from the Beatles, along with the usual rock-star intake of drugs, sex and occasional PR disasters.

But Lennon’s interests began to stray in more spiritual directions, and as his marriage to the sweet-natured Cynthia fell apart, he met and fell in love with eccentric Japanese artist Yoko Ono. Suddenly he was devoting himself not to pop hits, but to experimental numbers, “bed-ins” and sitting in bags, and using his world-wide celebrity for the furtherance of peace. While this lifestyle didn’t quite tame Lennon’s wild side, it led to new focuses in his life — until it was tragically cut short.

You have to hand it to Philip Norman. While most biographers tend to portray Lennon as a hippie saint or a hopeless jerk, he tries very hard to find a happy medium that encompasses all of Lennon’s personality: a flawed man who had a boatload of issues and could be both cruel and kind. While he gets a bit worshipy in the latter parts of Lennon’s life, Norman does a pretty good portraying both the musician and those around him in a realistic, compelling light.

Additionally, Norman gives as much careful attention to Lennon’s youth as he does to the Beatlemania and John/Yoko years — in particular, his relationships to his mother, Aunt Mimi, Paul McCartney and the delicate artist Stu, as well as the months and years as a struggling young musician. There’s lots of pop psychology, but it works.

In he meantime, Lennon’s life is carefully framed in the political and social climes of the time — the post-war fifties, colourful psychedelic chaos of the 1960s, and the later, grimmer times of the Vietnam War. Politicians, pop art, Liverpudlian slang and changing societies are all explored in detail, and Norman has the perspectives of a lot of people who actually lived in the time and knew Lennon — his wives, his sons, his bandmates, and even his Aunt Mimi (and she gets a LOT of words in).

He also injects a wry sense of humour into the story (Lennon’s aunts turning up at a Beatles performance) as well as a steady, sometimes evocative writing style (“The room reeked of stale beer and wine, and was lined in dusty velvet drapes…”). At the same time, there’s some pretty shocking allegations here, such as the claim that Lennon may have been inadvertently involved in the death of his bandmate, but Norman avoids tabloid journalism by explaining why he doubts Lennon actually did any of that.

Lennon himself is a colourful mosaic of seemingly contradictory qualities — he could be mean-spirited (mocking the disabled), wild, kindly, romantic, neglectful, vibrant, brilliantly unconventional and craving a spirituality that’s hard to get when you’re filthy rich. As seen by Norman, much of his personality seems to be based on the fear of loved ones dying and leaving him, but we get glimpses of dozens of different sides to his psyche.

“John Lennon: The Life” attempts to accurately portray one of the twentieth century’s most unconventional and beloved pop stars, and for the most part, Philip Norman does a brilliant job.

May 29, 2013 Posted by | Book John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman | , , | Leave a comment

Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson by Peter Ames Carlin (2007)

400000000000001009403_s4From amazon.com

Review Beach Boys fans read this excellent book at their peril.

There are a very few good vibrations in the story of Brian Wilson and his group, but there’s no shortage of extremely bad vibrations. By the end of the book you may feel you’re heartily sick of each and every drug-addled, money-obsessed, talentless washed-out Beach Boy with the exception of Brian himself. These days they’re a living, breathing embarrassment. They sue each other perpetually, and Al Jardine and Mike Love now tour America with rival bands claiming to be the Beach Boys.

Pity rich pop star Brian Wilson. First he was bullied and humiliated by his father, the repulsive Murray Wilson. Later he was bullied and harrassed by Mike Love. Years after that he was taken prisoner by a deranged psychiatrist who bullied him 24 hours a day. What all these people wanted was – more hit songs! More! Another million seller! Now!

The exhilaration of making hit record after hit record quickly became a relentless treadmill. Brian was the sole creative force in the group. By the age of 22 he was composer, lead singer, bass player, arranger and producer. After two years of that he had his first breakdown and quit touring. The wave crested in 1965 when everything was working out – they’d fired Murray as manager, Brian stayed home and wrote more hits and the group toured.

But then he began to change. Within three years there was “Pet Sounds”, the still astonishing single “Good Vibrations”, and then the disaster of “Smile”, Brian’s increasing psychological problems, and by 1968 the Beach Boys were pulling crowds of 200, hopelessly out of fashion. The 1960s was a very fast decade.

During the next 20 years (!) Brian was not a functioning human being. His colossal intake of drugs and food was in inverse proportion to his tiny output of songs. The whole sorry saga makes for gruesome reading. “As Carnie remembers, her father began most of his days with a dozen eggs and an entire loaf of bread” and for dinner “he’d eat his entire steak in two bites”. From the late 60s to the mid-80s the other Beach Boys were perpetually dancing around trying to get Brian to lay more golden eggs for them.

They tried anything they could think of, including tough love (pretending to fire him from the group). They ended up hiring a 24-hour-a-day showbiz psychiatrist to rescue him, Dr Eugene Landy. And before you could say “medical ethics” Brian had started writing songs again but they were credited to “Wilson/Landy”. So the Beach Boys sued the psychiatrist.

The grim story does have a kind of happy ending though – after trudging through this (always well-written and readable) catalogue of unhappiness we arrive at the year 2001 when Brian, now married to Melinda Ledbetter (who sounds like one of the few really nice people in the whole book), finally – 34 years later! – finishes “Smile” and even performs it live on stage to universal acclaim. As you finish the book you think “Enough – I don’t ever want to read another word about these horrible people or about poor tormented Brian – I just want to listen to their beautiful music”.

And in some ways I’m sorry I did read this book. It’s strange to admire the Beach Boys’ great mass of brilliant music so much but to dislike them all as human beings, except Brian of course. You don’t dislike him, but you do pity him. I don’t believe the author intended to perform hatchet jobs on all these people, he just let the awful facts speak for themselves. And now I’m hoping the remaining Beach Boys won’t sue me for this review.

Review What makes this particular biography unique is the fact that it was written with the consent and participation of Brian Wilson. Trying, as it would seem, to set the record straight, or at least correct some of the falsehoods perpetuated by his physician/guru Eugene Landy, who purportedly had a very strong influence on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story.”

Peter Ames Carlin explores the history of the Beach Boys through their leader (at least for the first decade) and he writes as an obvious fan of the group and their music.

In writing of Brian’s gradual coming apart, he give amples time and space to the other members of the group, who in Brian’s absence, continued to write and record some of the Beach Boys best and most creative albums. Yes, “Pet Sounds” is a masterpiece, but what about “Sunflower,” “Friends,” “20/20?” These albums stand on their own as fantastic contributions to the world of music.

Mental illness is a grey area, and thankfully, Carlin doesn’t put Brian on the couch and try to dissect why he is the way he is. Of course, Brian’s relationship with his father, his wife, and the other band members is looked at, but Carlin doesn’t attempt to explain away what is essentially a state of being, a creative mind that buckled under the weight of the world.

I haven’t read any other Beach Boy or Brian Wilson biographies, so I can’t compare or judge based on what isn’t here. On it’s own, this book provides an extremely insightful look at one musical genius and the history of the Beach Boys through that lens.

Obviously, for any fan of the group, for anyone who truly appreciates the Beach Boys legacy and not just their “fun in the sun” albums, this is a great book.

May 29, 2013 Posted by | Book Catch a Wave: The Rise Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson by Peter Ames Carlin | , , | Leave a comment