At the beginning of 2016, I wrote about five of the books about music I read in 2015. Three of them were memoirs (Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello, Reckless by Chrissie Hynde, and Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon), one was a biography (Tom Petty by Warren Zanes), and one was about the business of songs (The Song Machine by John Seabrook).
By coincidence, I recently read another five books about music: four memoirs (Set the Boy Free by Johnny Marr, Testimony by Robbie Robertson, Not Dead Yet by Phil Collins, and Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen) and one collection of newspaper columns about song origins (Anatomy of a Song by Marc Myers).
In keeping with what could be an annual tradition, here are my reactions in reverse chronological order:
Anatomy of a Song by Marc Myers
Anatomy of a Song was a gift from my brother-in-law, who also appreciates this sort of thing and may be waiting for me to finish so he can dive in himself. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read oral histories of forty-five classic songs from Chapel of Love to Losing My Religion? As I noted in last year’s post, I’m a fan of oral histories, e.g. Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Bill Graham Presents; I like the unfiltered and occasionally clashing perspectives, which paint the stories in the shades of gray they deserve.
The centerpiece of the collection may be Joni Mitchell’s Carey. That’s because the author tracked down the titular Cary – to whose name Joni added an artistic “e” – and interviewed him about the time he spent with her on a Greek island in the wake of her break-up with Graham Nash. The song was written as a birthday present, and presented for the first time in the cave they shared. Cary claims he “wasn’t blown away,” which is exactly what you’d expect a “mean old daddy” to say when one of the world’s great artists gives you a song for your twenty-fourth birthday.
You never know where the thrills are going to come from in a book like this. There’s nothing new about You Really Got Me – every human knows that Dave Davies slashed his amp with razor blades to get that distorted sound – but I was fascinated to discover that the Righteous Brothers almost didn’t cut You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ because they thought it was better suited to a different type of sibling group, e.g. the Everlys. They avoided what would have been a legendary blunder, and Lovin’ Feelin’ went on to become the most-played radio song of all time. If that’s not enough, it supposedly inspired Brian Wilson not to quit the music business, which is a huge deal when you consider that Lovin’ Feelin’ came out in 1964 and Pet Sounds followed in 1966.
Set the Boy Free by Johnny Marr
Johnny Marr’s Set the Boy Free is, quite simply, one of my all-time favorite music memoirs. Steven Patrick Morrissey was the lyricist in The Smiths and a genius in the sense that no one – and I mean no one – uses words like he does. But Johnny Marr, who wrote the music and played guitar, is no slouch either. In fact, he’s incisive and hilarious. Some of my favorite sentences:
On Michael Jackson:
“His death was tragic, but of course I didn’t like Thriller, I was in The Smiths.”
“They just weren’t cool enough to be musicians and not good enough to be footballers.”
On his prog aversion:
“I didn’t like old-looking guys playing flutes or anything to do with dragons and robes.”
On his personal style:
“It was at this point that I succeeded in cultivating one of the most radical hairstyles that I or any man has probably ever worn.”
More generally, I liked the character he portrayed: curious, enthusiastic, committed, serious but low-key, etc. If he’s to be believed – and it’s not hard to believe – the Smiths drama came from elsewhere. Marr is fastidiously kind to Morrissey: he never calls him crazy, and seems to genuinely regret the end of their close personal friendship, not to mention a creative partnership that might not have peaked. Johnny Marr, it seems, just wants to make music, which is what he was trying to do when mysterious factors derailed the band and what he continued to do after the band dissolved.
In an unexpected development that touches on my personal interests, we learn that Johnny Marr is one of those rare musicians who doubles as a distance runner. After many years of leading a more “traditional” lifestyle – i.e. taking drugs and not exercising at all – he caught the bug and worked up to 10-20 miles before gigs with Modest Mouse, which sounds ambitious to me, since I always found it incredibly difficult to exercise on tour. My dream is to run a half marathon with Johnny and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, who’s supposedly graduated to ultra distances.
The great thing about Twitter is that you can tell people when you like their book. I wasn’t trying for and didn’t expect a response when I mentioned Johnny Marr in a Tweet – honestly, I just wanted to spread the word – but @Johnny_Marr is an attentive user, and made my day by engaging with me, albeit briefly. Needless to say, I’ve been describing what follows as a “conversation:”
Testimony by Robbie Robertson
Robbie Robertson takes an approach that leads me to believe he has been bored/frustrated by a few music memoirs himself. Instead of belaboring his childhood – that portion of any life story that must be endured – he intersperses it with entertaining, edifying scenes from his early education with Ronnie “The Hawk” Hawkins. Then, miraculously, he calls it quits at the end of The Band. Unlike most musicians, who ascribe equal importance to this so-so solo album and that humdrum collaboration, Robbie sticks to what matters most. (Although, it might as well be noted, Robbie’s second career as a film composer for Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Casino, Gangs of New York, etc. could make for an interesting sequel.)
It’s tempting to read Robbie’s book as a companion piece to Levon Helm’s This Wheel’s on Fire. Levon’s book ties with Mike Doughty’s as the angriest memoir I’ve ever read, and most of that anger is directed at Robbie. According to Levon, Robbie took sole credit for The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and many other classics when he should have credited the entire Band. The Band did share one royalty stream – the publisher’s share – but Robbie retained the writer’s share when he was solely responsible for words and melody. Which leads us to the brink of a dangerous songwriting rabbit hole: what is a song? Words and melody, of course, but what about harmony and rhythm and cowbell and whatever else? Let’s not go there, except to say the Levon might have favored a broader definition than Robbie.
Robbie highlights one song they definitely wrote together – Strawberry Wine, which appears on Stage Fright – and repeatedly emphasizes how hard he tried to get Levon to collaborate. Larry Campbell reports a similar experience in a recent interview in American Songwriter: “What I can tell you is, I’ve written a few songs with Levon, and writing with Levon, my experience was, he wasn’t gonna do any labor where writing a song is concerned.” (This dynamic is on display in a scene from Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm, in which Campbell cannot for the life of him engage Levon.) On the other hand, Levon gave Campbell song-improving input: “And then we sat and had a discussion about the subject matter, and just by kicking the stuff around with him, a guy who came from that, from what I was tryin’ to say in the song, I went back and completely re-wrote the song.” For Campbell, that input merited a co-writing credit, but for Robbie maybe not so much.
I don’t mean to sound like a Robbie Robertson apologist. Even in his own book, it reads unsavory when he buys out Richard’s and Rick’s publishing while they’re strung out and and in no position to make good long-term decisions. And if you watch The Last Waltz – which I did for the Xth time recently – it plays like the Robbie Robertson show. Why is he in every shot? Finally, some of the guests, e.g. Ronnie Hawkins and Neil Young, lavish attention on him, as if it’s “his night” and not “their night.” I don’t know if Robbie took the reins by necessity – because Levon, Richard, and Rick were on drugs and Garth was a musical genius and couldn’t be bothered – or because he’s a control freak/malevolent actor; the truth is probably somewhere in between. From the standpoint of a longtime fan and fellow human, I’d just like to have seen them reconcile before Levon’s death a few years ago.
Not Dead Yet by Phil Collins
Like many people who listened to music in the 80s, I grew weary of Phil Collins. You Can’t Hurry Love and In the Air Tonight were one thing, but Sussudio and One More Night went too far. Still, there are lots of interesting things about the man, beginning with the fact that he started out as the drummer in Genesis when it was at its most Prog. I know little of that eccentric corner of the rock-and-roll circus and enjoyed learning about it, especially as it pertained to Peter Gabriel taking the stage in his wife’s dress and a bespoke fox head. Without warning the band! There’s also a harrowing section late in the book about Phil’s alcoholism, which almost killed him in the 2010s.
While never a fan of early Genesis or Phil Collins solo, I connected with Genesis’s self-titled 1983 album. The experts at AllMusic don’t love this one – they give it three starts compared to 4.5 stars for Abacab (1981) and 4 for Duke (1980) – but there’s nothing wrong with catchy tunes like That’s All and Illegal Alien. I experienced that tour at The Forum and the big production worked for my teenage head, even the spooky lighting for In the Air Tonight and the canned “I got out all the old records…then put them back” routine that introduced a set of tunes from the early 70s or maybe a medley.
Phil had two careers, which is helpful in a music-memoir situation. Still, the book loses steam at the end of his incomparable solo run, when it becomes more about being best friends with Eric Clapton and writing songs for Disney movies. Although, now that I think about it, the Tarzan soundtrack is responsible for my one and only Phil Collins story. Sometime in 1999, I stopped by SIR Studios in NYC to visit my friend Mark Lennon, who was one of four backup singers in the group hired to perform I’ll Be In Your Heart at some kind of corporate shindig. At one point, while catching up with Mark during a break, I wondered aloud: “Is Phil around?” The way I remember it – which may not be quite right – Mark pointed down and to my left, identifying a small man in a newsboy hat who turned out to be Phil Collins. He’d been standing right next to me the whole time!
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
Born to Run reminds me of Life. Everyone was talking about the Keith Richards book in 2010, and the Bruce Springsteen book was all the rage in 2015. But superstars don’t always make the best memoirists, if only because we already know so much about them and their points of view. Some of my favorite memoirs are by less-heralded band members, e.g. Andy Summers and Johnny Marr (see above). The great thing about Bruce’s book, though, is that he conveys his over-the-top excitement about and commitment to playing rock and roll music. That, and the stories about his musical beginnings, which are the heart and soul of any rock memoir but particularly compelling in this case.
Bruce is the kind or rock star you feel like you could be friends with: larger than life but still down to Earth. Peter Case told me a story about Bruce just showing up to one of his club dates and introducing himself. More viscerally, Bruce befriended my childhood best friend when he was dying of cancer in his early 20s and even showed up at the funeral, which strikes me as above and beyond the call of duty and just plain awesome. That’s the Bruce we meet in Born to Run, and in recent interviews like episode 773 of the Marc Maron podcast.
I was a teenager at the height of Bruce’s popularity in the Born in the USA era, and had friends who were DEEP into that record. I liked the music but grew weary of most of the songs – Born in the USA, I’m On Fire, Glory Days, Dancing In The Dark, My Hometown, etc. – which were everywhere at all times (like those of Phil Collins, Hall & Oates, Heart, and The Cars). I was on the bubble, you could say, but still accepted a last-minute invitation to the 1985 extravaganza at the LA Memorial Coliseum. What I remember from that night is the acoustic opening of The River, which tipped me off to the power of acoustic music to stir the soul. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’ve been chasing that feeling as fan and performer pretty much ever since.