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24 December 2015

Books About Music 2015

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I am am avid consumer of books about music, and keep meaning to start a blog or Tumblr on the subject. I don’t know if that’s going to happen – other fish to fry – but I’ll take a moment to say a few words about the genre and comment on some of what I read this year.

Oral histories are my personal favorite – e.g. Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil, We Got the Neutron Bomb by Brendan Mullen, REM: Talk About the Passion by Denise Sullivan, The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting by Jim Walsh, etc. – because  the people who were involved in or at least witnessed a particular scene or phenomenon tell the story themselves. And, the points of view come from far and wide, as opposed to just from one person, who might have an agenda. Bill Graham Presents is the exception that proves this rule. In that book, which is credited to Graham (“My Life Inside Rock and Out”), the quotes seem to have been compiled by Graham’s people, possibly with an eye towards aggrandizing the subject. Mostly, however, oral history is a great way to avoid revisionism or at least put the different sides of the story out there. It can’t be easy to massage a bunch of interviews and historical magazine quotes into a coherent narrative, but the best examples of this genre make it look that way.

Memoirs, which are – ostensibly – written by the artist, have their charms because you get to know the person on some level. Who wouldn’t want to hear Keith Richards (“Life”) ramble on for five hundred pages? Books like Chronicles by Bob Dylan and Just Kids by Patti Smith are bona fide works of art. X-Ray by Ray Davies is a little odd, but also approaches this level. Of course, as noted above, memoirists have agendas. Mike Doughty (“The Book of Drugs”), for example, wants us to know that he hates his former bandmates in Soul Coughing, and makes the case for their being terrible musicians and/or terrible people. And, Levon Helm uses “This Wheel’s on Fire” to have a go at Robbie Robertson, who may have it coming. In addition, autobiographers don’t always focus on the most interesting parts of their careers/lives. In “A Cure for Gravity,” Joe Jackson turns off the spigot right when his career starts to take off, which might have been the right artistic choice, but I’m waiting for Volume 2.

Straight biographies are my least favorite, because the author usually has to drum up some kind of thesis and then fit the events of the artist’s life to that thesis. That’s not always what happens, but it happens enough. And, most biographies take a linear approach, which can start to feel formulaic. Sylvie Simmons’s biography of Leonard Cohen is pretty amazing, though, with an assist from Cohen’s way-more-than-usually-interesting life. And then, you couldn’t access some of the most important stories without well-researched bios like Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family and their Legacy in American Music, and Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life.

There is less variation in the business book space. The aforementioned Bill Graham Presents – a diabolically entertaining oral history of the coming-of-age music business of the 60s and 70s – strays from the tried and true, but mostly we get standard non-fiction narrative. Not that I’m complaining! My all-time favorite is Mansion on the Hill by Fred Goodman, but Frederic Dannen tells us where the bodies are buried in his essential primer, Hit Men. Add to this list The Song Machine, about how hit-making has evolved in the 21st century:

 

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook

Even people who know a thing or two about the music business may be surprised by the extent to which producers and other behind-the-scenes players have taken over. Or, should I say, the extent to which “artists” are NOT involved in their actual music. Even people like Avril Lavigne – who are supposedly projecting their own attitudes and personal styles – are really just characters created and controlled by their puppeteers. The artists are there to sing and dance and go to parties, while a bunch of Scandinavians write the songs, play the instruments – if there are instruments involved, which is decreasingly likely – and turn the knobs. And, as it turns out, there are almost no exceptions to this rule. If you have a hit, it was probably engineered by some super-producer who’s calculating his (not her) way to the top of the charts. Even Taylor Swift – who, if I’m not mistaken, hangs her hat on the “singer/songwriter” designation – used Max Martin to effect her crossover from country to pop with 1989.

I don’t pass judgment on these developments, except to admonish people who take undue songwriting credit. This mercenary tactic reflects the fact that the real money’s in the songs, not the performance. Colonel Tom Parker certainly knew that , which is why Elvis – who wasn’t a songwriter – shares credit for “Heartbreak Hotel” and “All Shook Up.” Today’s artists still want credit because of the money, obviously, but there’s also the credibility. Namely, you’re more credible if you’re a songwriter, and not just a “song and dance man.” To my thinking, real songwriters put in so many hours – and invest so much psychic energy – that it just doesn’t seem right to dilute their share just because someone described a scene or suggested a word. Of course, since I self-identify as a songwriter, you’ll have to take my point of view with a grain of salt.

 

Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes

My parents gave me Tom Petty’s fifth album, Hard Promises, for Christmas in 1981 on the recommendation of my guitar teacher. Like many of us, I was immediately seduced by the Byrds-y jangle of the descending 12-string figure in The Waiting, which is still one of my favorite songs. From there, it was a quick jump back to Damn the Torpedos – a perfect album – and the first two, which contained undeniable masterpieces like Breakdown, American Girl, I Need to Know, and Listen to her Heart.

I also liked Long After Dark, the more-of-the-same follow-up to Hard Promises, whose You Got Lucky was nevertheless an MTV hit.  I got tickets to see Petty at the Universal Amphitheater on that tour in 1983. When we arrived at the venue, there was a mobile sound desk where our seats were supposed to be. The next thing we knew, we were being ushered toward the orchestra and into the second row, from which vantage we enjoyed the set list on the left. I’ve seen him a bunch of times since – at the Forum on the Southern Accents tour, for example, and at the Pacific Amphitheater with Bob Dylan – but that first show has been hard to top (see setlist).

In light of this history, I was excited about the forthcoming Petty biography when I heard about it. First, although Conversations with Tom Petty by Paul Zollo was pretty great, there has never been a far-reaching, critical look at Petty’s life. Second, it was written by Warren Zanes of the Del Fuegos, a real rock musician who knows what he’s talking about. Finally, the word on the internet was that Zanes had access to everyone, including Petty and Stan Lynch: there would be revelations, insight, etc.

The big news, of course, was Petty’s late-career heroin addiction, which is harrowing, but I was most interested in the Stan Lynch stuff. Lynch, I always thought, was a fine drummer and singer who held it down admirably on those classic first albums. In reality, though, he was the punching bag/scapegoat for producers – including Jimmy Iovine – when they weren’t getting what they wanted from the Heartbreakers. Apparently, they’d bring in other drummers, still not get what they wanted, and eventually ask Lynch back. It’s enough to drive a guy crazy! That sort of nonsense, coupled with the fact that he wanted an expanded creative role, led to a parting of the ways, the story of which hasn’t been told until now. It’s debatable, but the straw that broke the camel’s back may have been the time Mike Campbell’s wife and kids tried to foil Lynch’s back-of-the-bus orgy plans; Campbell didn’t speak to his bandmate for years. On the lighter side, there’s Lynch’s anecdote about going to see Frank Sinatra with Bob Dylan, which enlivens pages 202-203 and is itself worth the price of admission.

Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello

I read an article once in which Elvis Costello and Tom Waits interviewed each other. Waits talked in his usual way, while Elvis communicated in a language I couldn’t follow. At the time, I assumed I wasn’t smart enough to understand him, but I have the same challenge with some of his lyrics, which tend to dance around a subject, like he’s being elusive or just hinting at something. For example, here’s the first verse of Beyond Belief, the first song on Imperial Bedroom (1982):

History repeats the old conceits
The glib replies the same defeats
Keep your finger on important issues
With crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues
I’m just the oily slick
On the windup world of the nervous tick
In a very fashionable hovel

Maybe he’s just a grandiloquent – “pompous or extravagant in language, style, or manner, especially in a way that is intended to impress” – kind of a guy? There’s plenty of evidence for that, including the above and the way he dresses and the title of his book.

On the other hand, how can you criticize a guy who loves songs and champions songwriters? As definitive proof, I submit this monumental moment from his TV show Spectacle, in which the great-but-obscure Jesse Winchester blows everyone away:

There’s also a scene in Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink where he generously distributes props to T-Bone Burnett, Peter Case, Bob Neuwirth, and Victoria Williams. He not only names names, but also songs (“Peter Case sang his great song ‘I Shook His Hand’ then passed the guitar to Bob Neuwirth, who gave us Annabelle Lee…”) and lyrics. [As a side note, I would love to read a book about guitar pulls: the circumstances/settings, the combinations of songwriters and their attitudes/behaviors, the songs that come out and in what order and why, etc. I’ve heard a showstopper about Guy Clark, and could myself contribute the story of the night Ryan Adams, Caitlin Cary, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, and Jim Lauderdale passed an evening at the 11th St. bar in the East Village after taping a tribute to Gram Parsons for Sessions at West 54th.]

I revisited Elvis’s catalog while reading Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink and fell into a mild obsession with Brutal Youth, which came out in 1994 but may be my favorite album of 2015. I like every song, but I really like Kinder Murder, 13 Steps Lead Down, Sulky Girl, and Favourite Hour. The first three are super-catchy rock songs with great energy – I’m always trying to write songs like that, and it’s not as easy as you’d think – and Favourite Hour is a piano ballad with a complex, engaging melody. I don’t have a read on the words, which is probably as it should be, since lyrics are not meant to be decoupled from the other elements that make up a song.

The book has been criticized for jumping around in time confusingly, and going too much into family history. Those are fair criticisms – I skipped a few sections – but those who soldier on will be rewarded with a history of the Attractions, one of the all-time great backing bands, along with endless anecdotes from a colorful life. For example, the time when he and Bob Dylan walked through the wrong door at some arena and found themselves locked out of the building. They had to walk around to the front!

He’s humble about Dylan, and acknowledges his limitations when he starts working with the likes of Burt Bacharach and The Brodsky Quartet. I respect the fact that he works his ass off in those situations – even learns to read and write musical notation – and generally acquits himself like the real deal that he is. The sum total of my experience with Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink is that I’ve been reborn as an Elvis Costello enthusiast, and even laid out $100+ to see his solo show at the Masonic next year.

Reckless by Chrissie Hynde

Much has been made of the gang rape in Reckless. Rather than condoning such a horror, Chrissie Hynde seems to be using that experience as an example of the reckless behavior that is a recurring theme in her life. Here’s what she said on Fresh Air, in one of those painfully awkward exchanges that Fresh Air fans cherish:

“You know, no one dragged me into the park in the middle of the night with a gun at my head and forced me to do anything. I went off with these guys of my own volition and, you know, I shouldn’t have. I mean, I was stupid to do that, but I did it, so.”

Chrissie Hynde’s book focuses on her early years, but her early years are INTERESTING. She was at the Kent State shooting, for example, and made the Malcolm McLaren/Sex Pistols scene in late 70s London. She always wanted to be in a band, she says, but it takes forever to make that happen, to the point where even I wondered if it would ever happen. I can’t help thinking her ambition was less about the actual music and more about the spirit that underpins the music. In other words, the attitude.

Her attitude was on display in March 1984, when I saw The Pretenders at the Universal Amphitheater. James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon were dead, and Back on the Chain Gang was a hit: it wasn’t the original band, and the leftovers had gone mainstream. But the audience – including the naked guy who jumped on stage – didn’t seem to mind. That probably reflects the moment in time, but also the particular energy that Chrissie Hynde has always embodied and comes by naturally, as we now know from Reckless.

 

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon

I know less about Kim Gordon’s music than Tom Petty’s, Elvis Costello’s, and Chrissie Hynde’s. I was never into the noise thing, although I like the more tuneful side of Sonic Youth. I saw them one Halloween in the late 80s at the Warfield, and again at The Bridge School Benefit at Shoreline in 1991. That was not Sonic Youth’s best show, as evidenced by the fact that they smashed their instruments and were basically booed off the stage. You can hear that infamous performance, but I myself would rather not go there. Here’s my tweet on the topic, which was re-tweeted by @KimletGordon herself:

One takeaway from Girl in a Band is that Kim Gordon’s marriage did not end well. We already knew that, of course, because she and Thurston Moore were an indie rock “it” couple, and their breakup had something in common with that of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins: they were supposed to make it! But they didn’t, and we now know a thing or two about how that played out within the band:

“My about-to-be-ex husband and I faced that mass of bobbing wet ­Brazilians, our voices together spell-checking the old words, and for me it was a staccato soundtrack of surreal raw energy and anger and pain: Hit it. Hit it. Hit it. Hit it. I don’t think I had ever felt so alone in my whole life.”

Another out-of-left-field peculiarity concerns Danny Elfman, whom she dated in high school. This is completely meaningless but delightfully random; when I take the time to think about it, I envy people whose high school classmates turn out to be raving eccentrics. I mean, I grew up in Los Angeles, and my classmates are accomplished, but none of them formed Oingo Boingo, much less wrote Dead Man’s Party and Weird Science and the theme from The Simpsons.

Finally, Gordon fulfills a rock-and-roll obligation by directing a few choice words at Courtney Love:

“No one ever questions the disorder behind her tarantula LA glamour — sociopathy, narcissism — because it’s good rock and roll, good entertainment! I have a low tolerance for manipulative, egomaniacal behavior, and usually have to remind myself that the person might be mentally ill.”

But Girl in a Band is not about gossip, and it’s only nominally a “rock memoir.” Really, it’s more about art school and No Wave and New York City and having a paranoid schizophrenic brother. You read it not so much to learn about how certain songs or albums were made, but rather to explore an aesthetic or even an approach to life. Much is written about how cool Kim Gordon is, and it’s all true.

So, what should I read next?

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