Archive for the ‘book’ Category

Book Review: Feedback: The Who and Their Generation

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

I’ve mused before on these virtual pages about the uncomfortable – and arguably even tenuous – relationship between scholarship and rock music. Somehow the pairing just doesn’t seem natural, even though a significant portion of rock is intelligent, and (I imagine) some scholarly works are at least in part informed by a rock’n'roll sensibility. But in general, the two go together like…oh, pick your own metaphor; I haven’t had my coffee yet. Oil and water? That’ll do for now.

Still, I remain open and receptive to endeavors in that area. And that openness – wise or misguided; you decide – led me recently to Casey Harison‘s Feedback: The Who and Their Generation. This book seeks to place The Who into the author’s context of something he calls “Atlantic history.” For the purposes of his study, Harison constructs a cultural and geographical entity he calls the Atlantic; this region includes the United States (and presumably Canada, though it doesn’t figure into the narrative) and Western Europe (with a decided emphasis on England).

With that basic scene/premise set and accepted, Harison endeavors to place The Who into the context of social, historical, and even political trends throughout the second half of the 20th century. Fair enough, you might say. But he doesn’t stop there: the author widens his historical lens to place that narrative into the context of the last, oh, five hundred years.

What that means in practical terms is that readers find a discussion of Renaissance minstrelsy alongside a look at Pete Townshend‘s guitar playing. Harison draws some very interesting connections – and, you may be glad to learn – avoids making grand, sweeping hyperbolic assertions about The Who’s place in it all. But somehow the whole enterprise feels a bit overcooked, a bit of, dare I say, a stretch.

Based on his knowledge, his writing skill, and his ability to elucidate a point, I have enough respect for the author to believe that the genesis of this book was more than a case of Harison saying to himself one day, “Hey, I’m a history professor with a special interest in Atlantic history. And I also dig The Who. Now there’s a book idea!”

And to his credit, Harison devotes a good portion of the book’s 175 (or so) pages to a survey and analysis of what he calls the “crosscurrents of influence” between the USA and Europe. There’s plenty of interest within that topic, for both the scholarly-inclined and the general rock-fan reader (as well as the six or seven people who fall into both categories, ha), and Harison does not disappoint. He really does know his stuff. I’ll wager that Who fans reading this will learn some fascinating things about the history of the Western world, and that Feedback: The Who and Their Generation will spark new interest in The Who among sheltered academic types. And what’s not to like about those outcomes?

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Book Review: How to Talk to Rockstars

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

Like most writers, I read a lot. But I rarely read fiction; I think the last work of fiction I read prior to last week was Stieg Larsson‘s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. But when I learned that Alli Marshall – Arts Editor at Asheville’s altweekly Mountain Xpress – had published a new novel with a music journalist as its central character, I was intrigued, and happy to make an exception.

I quickly discovered that How to Talk to Rockstars is not a work of autobiographical fiction; the book’s Bryn Thompson bears only the most superficial resemblance to Marshall. But the author has clearly drawn upon her considerable experience as a music writer/journalist in the development of this story.

There’s not a great deal of what one could term traditional dialogue in the pages of How to Talk to Rockstars. Much of the book is given over to a sort of inner monologue, in which Bryn agonizes over an upcoming major interview. And while there are certainly fundamental differences between the book’s central character and myself, I found myself identifying with many of Bryn’s innermost thoughts.

The story arc – which Marshall unfolds in nonlinear fashion – concerns Bryn’s upcoming interview with a sort of singer/songwriter/rockstar, one with whom’s work Bryn is deeply enamored. The tension rises from the question: How far should I go in connecting with him? But mercifully, How to Talk to Rockstars is not some romance potboiler. It’s about deeper issues than that. The character lists a number of so-called “rules” to which a music journalist should best adhere. These rules are sometimes mere realizations of facts on the ground: you will not become great pals with the rockstar. Don’t try to impress him/her with your knowledge. Ask a penetrating question, then shut up and let them answer. And Bryn/Alli notes a rule that it took me some time to learn: when the interviewee finishes answering the question, let some silence hang in the air. Give them a moment, and as often as not, they’ll pick right up again, giving a deeper, more heartfelt, more thoughtful, more revealing answer than before.

How to Talk to Rockstars subtly points out the added perils of being a female in the male-dominated worlds of music and music journalism. Suffice to say that women interviewers must contend with a whole range of issues when conducting an interview – especially if it’s an in-person one – that are simply not part of the male journalist’s experience. From an ethical point of view, that’s neither right nor wrong; it’s simply how things are. And Bryn’s character never complains about the situation; she merely struggles to find the best ways to deal with it.

All of the characters are the products of Marshall’s imagination, save one. (A vignette involving meeting and chatting with Brian Eno seems likely drawn from actual experience.) And while ever-so-occasionally Bryn seems to be reaching a bit to impress the reader with the eclectic nature of her musical interests (a series of long name-checking lists that include hipster favorites), those lists serve to place her in a context with which readers in their 20s and 30s can best identify.

How to Talk to Rockstars breezes by quickly, and it’s a very enjoyable read. For those who have ever wondered what it’s like to interview notable musicians (and you do wonder, don’t you? Please?), How to Talk to Rockstars provides an illuminating window into the sometimes frustrating, occasionally boring, sporadically exciting and always unpredictable work of the music journalist. More importantly, the book also shines light on the human inner dialogue – full of self-doubt, recrimination, trepidation and just-plain-fear – with which anyone breathing can identify.

The national release of How to Talk to Rockstars is June 1, but author Marshall will host a local launch on Friday, May 15 at Asheville’s venerated independent bookstore, Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe. That free event begins at 7pm, and will feature “treats, live music, a reading and Q&A session.”

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Book Review: Geek Rock

Monday, April 13th, 2015

Rock’n'roll and scholarship make strange bedfellows. At first blush, the idea of approaching the work of rock bands from a scholarly point of view is patently absurd; such juxtapositions give rise to the aphorism (of indeterminate origin) “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” But it can be done – and successfully – if the writer has his or her feet metaphorically balanced in the two camps of popular music and academia.

That’s the chosen formula for the intriguing new title, Geek Rock: An Exploration of Music and Subculture, edited by Alex DiBlasi and Victoria Willis. Across a wide swath of scholarly essays, the book endeavors to characterize, examine and dissect what the editors term “geek rock,” a subgenre of rock music that places an emphasis on, well, being self-consciously intelligent.

As such, there are no Geek Rock essays expounding upon the literary antecedents of Ramones lyrics. The artists explored within Geek Rock are, one might observe, many of the usual suspects: Frank Zappa, DEVO, They Might Be Giants. But the collected essays also dig deep into obscure corners of rock/pop subculture, exploring the, um, geekiness of artists whose names will be unfamiliar to even the most inveterate rock fans (Darko Rundek, anyone? Bueller?).

The bulk of the artists covered in the eleven scholarly essays fall into that nebulous “indie” category; neither fish nor fowl, neither rock giant nor obscuro. Discussions of the work of The Mountain Goats, mc chris, Man…or Astroman?, The Magnetic Fields, and even Crash Test Dummies (remember them?) make up the bulk of Geek Rock.

Apparently there’s a rather rigid format to which scholarly essays must adhere (hey, I went to business school, so my experience with such is mercifully limited). I do recall from my high school years the experience of the “five paragraph essay”; an admittedly useful template for creating a brief examination of any given topic. My English teachers drilled the template into my consciousness, and to this day I can crank out a five-paragraph essay on nearly anything. (Once in college, tasked with coming up with one on the spot, I crafted a five-graf essay explaining how to open a door. I got an A-plus).

And though that essay/thesis template may be a useful guide for the crafting of scholarly essays, to casual readers it can come off as more than a little stilted. Such essays fill the pages of Geek Rock, resulting in a sometimes mind-numbing sameness to very disparate subject matter. It’s often a case of, “Now I shall tell you about blank. Here I am telling you about blank. Allow me to summarize my observations about blank.” You get the idea.

But if one can get past that, the essays are illuminating and thought-provoking even at their worst (and/or densest), and provocatively insightful at their best. Happily, most of Geek Rock‘s essays lean toward the latter. Of particular note is DiBlasi’s “Frank Zappa: Godfather of Geek Rock.” DiBlasi is not only a keen observer of Zappa’s massive catalog, he’s an insightful one who understands (as opposed to merely shrugging about) Zappa’s so-called Project-object, the philosophy that all of his output – records, live performances, interviews – are truly components of one single, large, unified work. To those who remain on the fence about Zappa’s importance, DiBlasi’s essay is recommended in the strongest terms.

And Ian Steinberg‘s thoughtful comparison/contrasting dissection of the work of DEVO and that of the early 20th century Italian Futurist art movement makes for irresistibly fascinating reading, even if one doesn’t fully buy into the author’s analysis. (It helps, I should think, if one has viewed Futurist art; certainly no great art scholar myself, I happened upon a Futurist exhibit less than a year ago at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. Absent that background, I would have had to refer to Google or Wikipedia to navigate my way through Steinberg’s essay with any sort of understanding.)

Sometimes, though, the topics wade far too deeply into the woods for the casual reader and/or non-scholar. Willis’ exploration of the Lacanian subtext of They Might Be Giants’ music is the sort of thing that won’t appeal to most readers, TMBG fans though they may be. The titles sometimes tell the story. If “’A Very Subtle Joke’: T.S. Eliot, J.D. Salinger, and the Puer Aeternus in God Shuffled His Feet” doesn’t scare you off by its title alone, then you’re a braver reader than I. (I did read it, but…wow.) Some of the essays bear the fingerprints of a too-earnest college student, shoehorning deep and arcane knowledge of their pet band into a scholarly box. The fit and finish aren’t always factory-smooth.

But what they always are is geeky, which, at the end of the day, in a delightfully meta sort of way, is the point.

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Back to School with Les McCann (Part 3)

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Continued from Part Two

I make the (not at all original) observation that many American musical forms seem to get more respect in Europe than at home. “That’s all right,” says Les McCann. “Ninety percent of the stations are playing the same thing every day. It’s about playing that number-one. And it’s songs, not really music. People talk about ‘rap music.’ I say, ‘Where’s the music?’ People have been talkin‘ on records ever since they were first recorded. You ever heard The Ink Spots? Early Eddie Harris? Ever heard of Les McCann? I’m talkin’ on my records. I’ve even got a record called Talk to the People. But every rapper I meet tells me they’re the greatest, they started all this. ‘I got the beat. These are my beats.’”

When I point out that his work has been sampled by quite a few hip-hop artists, McCann bristles. “Those guys who sample, they don’t know what they do. They’re not musicians; they’re technicians. It takes it to another place. I’m not calling it right or wrong, because it goes where it’s got to go.”

I mention to McCann that a yard sale purchase of Cannonball Adderley‘s Somethin’ Else LP changed my life. “That’s how it works,” he observes. “Some people say, ‘I just like what I heard when I was in high school.’ They hear something new that they enjoy, and it’s like, ‘What’s that?’ ‘It’s jazz.’ ‘Oh, I don’t like jazz.’ I say, don’t call it jazz. Just like it, and take it home with you.”

Something unclassifiable that many listeners liked and took home with them was the 1966 LP Freak Out, the debut record from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Inside the gatefold of the 2LP set, there’s a photo of – of all people – Les McCann with blues singer and harmonica player Paul Butterfield. The caption says the pair are “freaking out,” but there’s no further explanation. McCann laughs heartily at the mention of this. “Nobody ever believes me when I tell them about that!”

“It was a moment that happened,” McCann recalls. “I didn’t really know [Zappa] but I knew there was something he was looking for. As we talk about Invitation to Openness, it’s exactly the kind of thing that Frank Zappa did. He handed an instrument to everyone that walked into the room that day. There were more than three hundred people there, and he recorded it.” I note that the instruments assigned had nothing to do with a person’s ability to actually play them. “Half of ‘em weren’t even musicians!” McCann laughs. “And that was the beauty of it all; it was great. And I am sure that stuck in my mind as a great way to approach my music from a different angle, too. We’re all connected to each other. When something beautiful comes, expand on it. Take it to another place.”

Returning to his favored concept of life-as-school, McCann makes this observation: “The curriculum in this school is complete. There’s nothing that needs to be taught; nothing new that’s going to come around. We are all in school. And everything you think of is what you can have. Everything you think of – good or bad; I don’t care what you judge it as – it is happening. Period.”

Les McCann is a vocalist, a keyboard player, a painter, a photographer. He tends to view these various sides of himself as dimensions of the same creative and artistic impulse. “There’s one thing that’s same [in all of them], and that’s me. What mode we come out of and how we do it is a choice we make, maybe. Music is part of what I asked God to give me when I chose to be human and to have a great earthly experience: ‘Let me know what I need to do; take me to where I need to go.’”

“Sometimes,” McCann concludes, “we come in with different colors, different height, different sizes. We eat different food, we’re born in different places. That all accommodates the goal we’re looking for, and leads us to that. So you can’t go wrong. You can fight it, but it’s already in your DNA. My only message to the world is this: at all times, choose love above fear.” After I thank him for his insight, he laughs and says, “Now I’m gonna go smoke a joint and see if I can take it up a notch.”

Omnivore Recordings’ deluxe reissue of Les McCann’s classic album Invitation to Openness is available now. And McCann’s book documenting his lifetime of photography, Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann 1960-1980, will be released officially on April 19. McCann made an in-store appearance last weekend (March 28, 2015) in Los Angeles, showing slides from his book and telling stories about the old days.

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Back to School with Les McCann (Part 2)

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Continued from Part One

Among the most celebrated releases in Les McCann‘s extensive catalog, Swiss Movement is his 1969 live collaboration with saxophonist Eddie Harris. The album was controversial on its release thanks to its inclusion of “Compared to What,” a tune with lyrics that remain as provocative today as they were thirty-five years ago. In fact, a special “radio edit” LP of Swiss Movement clumsily bleeped out the offending lyrics.

The song’s lyrics might have hurt its chances for chart success, but McCann never worried himself about such matters. “It’s art. It sells, or it doesn’t sell. The word ‘abortion’ was not permitted to be played on the radio. And the station [that did initially play it] was fined $25,000 for playing the song.” Controversy or no, the single “Compared to What” ended up a million seller, as did Swiss Movement.

“I’ll tell you a shocking story,” McCann offers. “Six years before that record was made, when I first heard the song from Gene McDaniels (who wrote it) – he was a dear friend of mine, and he was in my band – I recorded it. But I knew that [recording] wasn’t it, but I wanted to keep that song. Whether I recorded it right or wrong, I know that at some point it’s going to come to me. So six or seven years later, it came to me. Onstage, at that very moment.”

So “Compared to What” wasn’t even on the set list for McCann’s Montreux Jazz Festival performance? “The band never made it to rehearsal!” McCann laughs. “Everything was spontaneous! Even the melodies for a couple of the songs: I’m telling a couple of the guys – trumpet players – and they’re scared to death! ‘Cause they didn’t know any of the songs. ‘Just do who you are,’ I told ‘em. And I trusted ‘em.”

He continues. “A great lesson for me was when guys came in and were writing everything down, and saying, ‘This is the way I want everything played.’ And we’d get to a big moment, times in my career when people wouldn’t show up for rehearsal, couldn’t make it to rehearsal. I’d get mad, and I’d say, ‘Let’s just play.’” Being in front of an appreciative audience no doubt helped. “In France and Switzerland, they loved me. I don’t know what it is, but from the very first moment I ever played there, they said, ‘you belong to us.’ Maybe,” he chuckles,” it’s because my name is Les.”

And his name is closely linked with what is known as soul-jazz. “I’m told that I was one of the first people the record companies put that title to,” McCann says. “The first album I did, on Pacific Jazz [in 1960], was called Plays the Truth. ‘Soul’ is just another word for feeling, and love. It’s all good. Soul is becoming aware of what’s inside of us. When you get passionate about something, you discover yourself.”

Cannonball Adderley is another figure closely associated with the soul jazz genre. One of Adderley’s basic beliefs was that jazz is the people’s music, that it can be boundary-pushing and innovative, but that it should be accessible, too. And that kind of philosophy is felt in much of McCann’s music. In fact, in Leonard Feather‘s liner notes for his 1961 LP In San Francisco, McCann is quoted as saying, “I want my music to hit the emotion of human beings.” He goes on to say, “If jazz is played so it can be accepted, it will be accepted.” Since that quote comes from near the beginning of his recording career, I ask him if he’d like to expand on his comment. His terse reply: “No.”

“That was then. I don’t go back, no,” he adds. “That’s what I said then; I’m not going to try and go back and figure out what I meant.” I press the subject a bit and ask if he agrees that music should be accessible. Again: “No. Don’t make no rules! Everything is already accessible. People say, ‘This is hard to play. This is hard to listen to.’ They have all these fuckin’ excuses. Shit. Give me a break! Just go do it. Find your heart, your passion. That’s the word. That’s soul, that’s love: everything that is the opposite of fear. We’ve all heard it a thousand, a million times. But we take a long time to heed the message.”

Not surprisingly, McCann has strong opinions regarding the current state of jazz. “Everything must change. And they’re trying to keep it the same. It won’t go nowhere; it died.” He observes, “Once you make a recording, it’s recorded that way: that’s how it is. And that’s the way that people who buy the records want to hear it.” That runs counter to the jazz aesthetic of never-the-same-way-twice. “Musicians understand that, but record companies are sayin’, ‘Fuck that. Make me some money!’”

“Jazz is dead,” McCann repeats. “We have to make it because we like it. I tell all the young people now, ‘If you’re really into it, it’s got to be a matter of life and death. If not, go find your passion.’”

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Back to School with Les McCann (Part 1)

Monday, March 30th, 2015

Invitation to Openness is not only the title of one of jazz great Les McCann‘s most celebrated albums (newly reissued; more on that later); it’s also the title of his new book of photography and essays. Throughout his storied career as a touring and recording jazz musician, McCann came face to face – in personal, intimate settings – with legends in music, film and public life. An accomplished amateur (though he’d effectively “go pro,” as well see), McCann shot countless photos in crisp black-and-white, capturing his subjects in a knowing manner that (for example) publicity photos often fail to convey.

And one of the book’s most striking qualities is its variety. McCann’s lens captures onstage photos, backstage photos. He includes posed shots, candids. His subjects are famous musicians and unidentified people. Comics like Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx are featured, as are photos taken at pro basketball games. Yet somehow, with all this diverse imagery, there’s a unifying aesthetic within the pages of Invitation to Openness. “Every artist, every creative project has a sequence,” McCann says. That gives the finished work flow and rhythm, he says. A project like his book, then, is “based on something you haven’t seen before. So you’re looking at [the raw material], assessing it: now what do I do with it? And maybe you can’t do it, so you get somebody whose eye you can trust.” And in this case, McCann had a pair of collaborators that he describes as his “corps of angels”: his longtime manager and confidante Alan Abrahams, and Pat Thomas, author of the book Listen Whitey: The Sounds of Black Power. “I took all of the pictures,” McCann says, “but then I put it in their hands.”

There was some healthy back-and-forth involved in the book’s creation. “I gave them all my pictures,” McCann recalls. “And they came up with about 700, I think. And then we narrowed it down to about 300 or so: ‘What do you think of these?’ ‘Yeah, I like that.’ ‘No, I don’t want that.’” McCann notes that initially, the project was to focus only on his photos of jazz musicians. “But my photographs are not just one thing, like my music is not just one thing. So they got the message.”

Some of the photos in Invitation to Openness are left to speak for themselves; others include McCann’s annotation. McCann writes that the book’s early 1970s photos of jazz great Julian “Cannonball” Adderley are some of his favorites. “There’s a little story that goes with that in the book,” he says. “It was the first time somebody picked one of my photographs, saying, ‘We’d like to use this.’ And they paid me for it.” But the Japanese magazine made an amusing error. “They put my name in there as ‘Les McCann Keyboard!’ I liked that, y’know? I’ve been all over the world, and people have called me everything.” Reflecting on fellow soul-jazz giant Adderley, McCann says, “I have nothing but fond memories of his joyful life, his joyful music, and his zest to be great. And [seeing him] was the first time that I went to a club and was totally blown away with everything I heard the band play.”

Asked if there’s a subject he missed the opportunity to photograph, McCann answers quickly: “God.” Pausing a beat, he wryly adds, “The day I met Jesus, he was in a hurry to get someplace.” After the laughter subsides, he continues. “I can’t think of anyone, no. ‘Cause I met everybody. I’m not talking about me being onstage and all that; I was put in a position to just be everywhere. Everything I ever wanted to do, I ended up doing ten times as much…stuff I didn’t even plan on. I came into this life with the beautiful understanding that I was ‘in school.’ I’m here to learn what this Earthly adventure is about. I might mumble and stumble, but the goal is to love myself. And then by loving myself, I’ll know how I want to love and treat everyone else. Because I truly love people, and everything that’s on this Earth.” He adds, “I’m not confused about it; not anymore.”

McCann’s 1971 album Invitation to Openness is a landmark release, as evidenced by the fact that it’s been kept in print and/or reissued so many times since its original release. The latest CD reissue, on Omnivore Recordings, is produced by Pat Thomas, and features a bonus track, a live reading of McCann’s signature tune, “Compared to What.” When I suggest that it’s one of his best releases, McCann is quick to correct me. “You can never say that; I don’t think you say that about any music. Because for me, it’s kind of personal. When I came to do [Invitation to Openness], I went into New York City and within one day I had told the producer what I wanted to do. And then organizing the people who’d be on the record – over fifteen people – and having them all in New York at once, it was a magic moment. The whole project was. So my special feelings and memories about it are about the session and the people.” He also notes that the album “was extremely well recorded. They captured the essence and ambience of what people were doing.”

McCann recalls his reaction at the Invitation to Openness session: “Oh my God: it really worked!” He says, “What you have to do is experiment. I’m creating 24 hours a day, and that’s the message I try to share with people. We came from creation; therefore, we are creation. It drives me crazy when people say [about themselves], ‘Oh, I wish I had a talent; I can’t do nuthin’.’ I say, ‘Shut the hell up. Get quiet, and look deeper into yourself. Not outside; look inside, and you’ll find everything you’re looking for.’”

“A song may live awhile, but as far as style, you can’t keep doing the same thing. That’s another reason I’m so happy about the idea I had for Invitation to Openness. I gave very few – if any – instructions. No rules; just play. Swiss Movement broke the door open for me: don’t lock everything into a set pattern. And that was very enlightening for me.

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Book Review: Mavericks of Sound

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015


There’s something endlessly fascinating about the creative process. And of course it’s not merely one process; it’s wholly unique for each individual. And because that’s true, conversations with those engage in creative output are often illuminating. David Ensminger clearly agrees: he’s compiled a book’s worth of his own conversations into a volume called Mavericks of Sound: Conversations with the Artists Who Shaped Indie and Roots Music.

A few of these names will be familiar to casual music enthusiasts (Merle Haggard and perhaps Billy Joe Shaver), but mention of the bulk of the artists interviewed will elicit furrowed brows or blank stares from most people. That doesn’t make them any less important; it’s worth recalling how influential artists such as The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, and Big Star were in their days, and it’s helpful to recall that none sold very many records or broke into the mass culture consciousness in a meaningful way. So the fact that the names interviewed in Mavericks of Sound are not well known is no detriment.

And so it is that may of Ensminger’s interview subjects are “cult” or “underground” acts. But to a man (and, much less often, a woman), the acts spotlighted in Mavericks of Sound are about expressing their own product of the creative muse. And nearly all are what one might call critics’ darlings.

They’re also pretty much all excellent interview subjects. It helps immeasurably that in Ensminger they have an intelligent interviewer; in fact he’s often more of a peer (on some or another level) with those he interviews. Occasionally that can result in a somewhat insular conversation, one in which the reader may feel that he or she has wandered into a deep conversation already long in progress. When both of the parties in a conversation are discussing theoretical concepts, dialectics, philosophy and such, Mavericks of Sound threatens to get a bit too egg-headed for the casual reader (present company included). But my advice is to force your way through those heady chats, as even when the subject matter gets a big dense and/or academic, there’s value to be found.

Interviews with Michael Gira and Jarboe (Swans) and Deke Dickerson are among the most revelatory of the twenty-two major interviews, and even the shorter pieces (Richard Thompson, Rob Younger, Wayne Kramer) are well worth reading.

I do have two criticisms of the book. First off, and relevant to the points already made, the lack of contextualization hampers wider enjoyment of the interviews. I understand that nearly all of the material as presented in Mavericks of Sound has been published elsewhere (in ‘zines or other periodicals), and that by definition, readers of the pieces in their original publications would have understood who these artists are and what they’re about. But in a book such as this, containing interviews that have taken place over the last decade and a half or so, it would be helpful if Ensminger had penned a brief introduction for each, with at least a thumbnail biographical sketch.

Secondly, since the pieces are (again, for the most part) being re-published, it’s reasonable to hold the author to a high standard of fact-checking. With that in mind, I ask, who exactly is Brian Seltzer* (sic)? And who is this guitarist Link Ray** (sic)? There are other less egregious errors, but those two – the first of which is made multiple times – are the most wince-inducing.

Ensmigner clearly knows his subject, and much much more (a fact that he makes sure to put on full display), and he’s a keen interviewer who (it seems) allows his interviews to follow interesting paths, rather than hewing to a predetermined set of questions. And if one can look beyond the dismissive tone occasionally taken with regard to a handful of other artists who are not interviewed in its pages*, Mavericks of Sound is indeed a bright and wide-open window into the creative process, and is thus recommended.

* Brian Setzer
** Link Wray

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Book Review: Who Did it First?

Monday, March 9th, 2015

Have you ever wandered into (or been drawn into) a conversation with a trivia master? Not to make outsized claims, but by some measures, I’m one of those guys. Many years ago – not long after the game Trivial Pursuit took off – I received as a gift a board game called Rock Trivia. But the problem was, no one would play the damn game with me. Even at that age (early 20s) I could spot mistakes in the answers printed on the cards. “Who first recorded the hit song ‘(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone?” Well, I’d answer, of course it was Paul Revere and the Raiders! The Monkees version came very soon thereafter. But of course the card read, “The Monkees.” I’m told it was no fun to play with me, as I would invariably contest the answers, heading to my bookshelf to provide substantiation for my own (“officially” wrong) response.

Happily, I’m much less insufferable now. No, really, I am. A few years ago I was involved for awhile with a group of people who gathered weekly to play Quizzo, a beer bar version of trivia. I served as the music and pop culture guy, the one to call upon when questions related to “dad rock” and whatnot came up. Luckily there were other team members who knew about subjects such as professional sports; my knowledge of (and interest in) such things is laughably negligible.

But my love of the minutiae of rock history remains. I can’t quote deadwax matrix numbers, but I know a good bit of music pop culture. And I’m always on the lookout for more. So I was pleased to discover a new book called Who Did it First? Great Rock and Roll Cover Songs and Their Original Artists. Across more than 250 pages, author (and well-known radio deejay) Bob Leszczak takes readers on a trip through time, covering (ha) several hundred well-known songs.

For each tune, Leszczak provides some basic information, clearly formatted: the composer, original artist, a cover artist, year of release, and chart positions (where there are any). Some of his listings are pretty obvious, ones that nearly any casual pop music fan could rattle off: Van Halen‘s cover of Roy Orbison‘s “Oh! Pretty Woman” is a good example of the obvious cover.

But there are plenty of less well-known examples, and in more than a few cases, the cover versions are worth seeking out. Also, there’s the reverse scenario, wherein the original wasn’t all that monster of a hit, but the cover scored on the charts. And there are a few ringer, examples where some unimaginative artist cut a whole album of covers (Rod Stewart, Elton John and some country artist whose name I’ve happily forgotten, I’m looking at you). Those covers serve as space-filling examples in a book that doesn’t need padding. There’s so much worthwhile and interesting material to discuss.

The author’s breezy alphabetical-order run through several hundred songs is trivia-filled and entertaining. And by its very nature, Who Did it First? Is the sort of book one can work through in small bites. It’s chock full of information, presented in a clear, concise and informative fashion.

Leszczak left out a few major covers, however. Badfinger‘s “Without You” is the first of these to come to mind. The Apple Records group released the song as an album track on their No Dice LP in 1970. Though it was a very good song, their version felt unfinished and raw. But no less a talent than Harry Nilsson fell in love with the tune, and recorded his own version in 1972; he scored a worldwide hit for his efforts. (Mariah Carey added nothing of value to the song in her own 1992 cover, but she got a hit with it as well). He also passes by Translator‘s great cover of the early (pre-fame) Beatles tune, “Cry For a Shadow,” and not once does he mention any off the immortal covers turned out by Mrs. Miller. (To his unending credit, Leszczak does discuss “Senator Bobby‘s” memorable cover of The Troggs‘ “Wild Thing.”

The book is not without its glaring errors, and those are of concern in a book that is meant to serve as a trivia guide. (Imagine if I had used it to contest one of the Rock Trivia answers, only for it to be discovered that the book was wrong! The shame! The horror!) Leszczak discusses Crowded House‘s classic tune “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and the subsequent cover by Sixpence None the Richer; both versions charted. But then he wanders off the reservation by mentioning Crowded House’s follow-up hit, a tune he calls “Something So Wrong” (emphasis mine). Funny choice of word: the actual title is “Something So Strong.”

A bit more egregious than a possibly typographical error is the author’s seeming unfamiliarity with one of rock history’s most notorious episodes. In his discussion of the Rolling Stones‘ “Sympathy for the Devil,” Leszczak notes that when the group performed the song at Altamont in 1969, “…a young girl was killed.” Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Rolling Stones – not to mention anyone who’s ever seen the Gimme Shelter film documenting the event – knows that Meredith Hunter was an eighteen year old African American male.

There are a few other, lesser, mistakes in Who Did it First?, but overall the book is reliably accurate, and a fun read. The reader will be able to spot instances were the author has conducted first-hand interviews with some of the artists involved (most notably Tommy James), because the entries for those songs are much longer than the sometimes cursory entries found throughout the book. And occasionally, Leszczak’s level of insight seems nonexistent, and sometimes the writing seems designed to do little more than fill the page. How else to characterize such comments as – for example, when discussing Bachman-Turner Overdrive‘s “Takin’ Care of Business” – “It’s a song that compares and contrasts the singer’s life to that of the average nine-to-five worker (letting the listener know that the life of a rock star is far better).” But such empty-headed faux-analysis doesn’t detract from the overall value of Leszczak’s book, and in fact it might elicit a few (unintended) chuckles. No harm done.

Significantly, Who Did it First? never presents itself as something it is not (say, a scholarly work), and its tone is designed for a casual reader, not a trainspotting boffin who can’t help but play gotcha! when reading it. Who Did it First? is a lightweight, fun and informative trip through rock’s history.

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Book Review: The Clash — The Only Band That Mattered

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

One of the exciting – and at the same time exceedingly frustrating – qualities of modern media is the disappearance of what we might call the gatekeeper. Time was, if you wanted to establish a platform for musical criticism (say, not unlike this blog), you had to go through channels. Those channels included editors and/or publishers who – the story went – would make sure that you possessed some level of skill. The idea was quality control: not just any clown could have a soapbox of his or her own. And it worked. But in the process, the variety of voices was undeniably muted. In practice, the arrangement meant that someone with all the necessary skills, but perhaps having a contrarian, unpopular, and/or heterodox point of view might not be given the means to express him/herself.

Of course the internet has changed that. Anyone with a blog can have a platform, and they can shout their thoughts from the rooftops (in a manner of speaking). The inevitable result of this death of the gatekeeper, however, is that quality control is a thing of the past. If someone makes an unfounded assertion, not only is it archived forever, but – assuming they understand a bit about how search engines work – it’s indexed nearly immediately by Google.

Because of all these new realities, and even though I am most certainly one who benefits from this no-gatekeepers set of circumstances – I still prefer the printed word. Books (and to a lesser extent, magazines) are created, for the most part, with many or most of the old safeguards in place. As such, all other things being the same (in theory at least), printed matter enjoys a higher level of quality control.

And the best example at hand of quality control in musical historical analysis/criticism is a new book, The Clash: The Only Band That Mattered, by Sean Egan. At first glance, at just over 200 pages, Egan’s book might seem to be a slim volume. But because of Egan’s deep understanding of his subject, and his keen, concise analysis, The Clash: The Only Band That Mattered is an important work.

I don’t employ that phrase lightly. Egan’s analysis is so much more than a song-by-song review of The Clash‘s corpus. In a sense it is just that, but what the author does here is to contextualize every song, every EP, every album with not only a full appreciation for who and what The Clash were and what they represented, but Egan contextualizes it all like few other writers could.

Relatively speaking, England is a small country. And while for a very, very long time the sun never set on the British Empire, by the post World War II period, the once mighty Great Britain had fallen on hard times. And while many writers have explored the socioeconomic situations that helped give rise to punk in the 1970s, Egan delves into the topic with the keen insight of a sociologist (which I believe he is not). Egan explores the tension between Britain’s welfare state and the unchecked power of trade unions, and the resulting all-but-stalemate situation in 70s England. And against this richly-woven tapestry of context, his history and analysis of The Clash affords the reader a much, much, much deeper understanding of the band and their music.

Egan is the truest of Clash fans, too, but this fact requires a bit of explaining here. A true fan is the sort who takes the time to understand and appreciate an artist’s work, but s/he is also one who doesn’t blindly applaud and accept everything the artist does. For example, a true Beatles fan is likely to concede (for example) that the group’s reading of “Mr Moonlight” is pretty dreadful; that “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” is a mildly entertaining throwaway; that for all its avant-garde bonafides “Revolution 9” remains somewhat unlistenable. And at the same time he or she can still assert that The Beatles are the greatest group of all time.

So it is with Sean Egan and The Clash. The author argues again and again as to the worth of much of The Clash’s music (including many tracks known only to the hardest of hardcore fans), but he is no Clash apologist. He dismisses much of the band’s work as slight, a good deal of it as shallow and opportunistic bandwagon jumping, and some of it as just plain forgettable. As a result of his clear-eyed approach to the band – and with all assertions backed up with plenty of here’s-why-I-say-that detail – his praising of The Clash’s best work is rendered all that much more powerful.

A central theme of The Clash: The Only Band That Mattered is that very early on, Joe Strummer and his bandmates effectively painted themselves into a corner. By staking out nominally pro-proletariat positions (but often quite poorly-thought-out ones), the group limited the directions in which their subsequent lyrical content might go. Their youthful, generally well-meaning pronouncements became difficult to live up to as they became rock stars. The result would be some quite uneven albums. Egan also explores the complicated inner dynamics of the band, including the reasons for Terry Chimes‘ (aka Tory Crimes) departure from the band; his return after Nicky (Topper) Headon was sacked, and – most significantly – the split between Strummer and Mick Jones that resulted in the de facto end of the group. (But even then, Egan goes on to point out a few redeeming qualities about the universally maligned post-Jones, Clash-in-name-only Cut the Crap LP.) Egan concedes early on that Paul Simonon was no great shakes as a bassist, going so far as to point out that on Clash albums, his parts were often played by others. But then the author highlights tracks on which Simonon’s bass work is exemplary and even the best thing about certain Clash cuts.

As rock history/analysis tomes go, The Clash: The Only Band That Mattered is essential reading. For those who don’t especially appreciate The Clash but who would like a better understanding of the society and economy of Margaret Thatcher-era Britain, the book is equally highly recommended.

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Book Review: British Invasion

Monday, January 12th, 2015

I’ve read countless books about The Beatles, about their fellow British Invasion (aka Beat Era) acts, and about the sixties from both musical and socio-cultural points of view. To say that the overall topic interests me is grand understatement. So I was intrigued when I learned of a new book called British Invasion: The Crosscurrents of Musical Influence. Having some familiarity with other works from the book’s publish (Rowman & Littlefield), I suspected that British Invasion wouldn’t be a pop-culture, general readership tome; no, I fully expected it to lean in a more scholarly direction. And that would be fine by me.

Author Simon Philo is a British citizen who – as he relates in the book’s introduction – first traveled to the USA many years ago. That inaugural visit lit a fire within him to better understand the ways in which British music of the 1960s influenced American music and culture. What an interesting idea, I thought: many books have looked through the lens from the opposite end, charting how The Beatles (and others) were influenced by such things as (a) the film The Girl Can’t Help It, (b) Bill Haley’s UK tour, and (c) records brought to Britain by merchant seamen landing at Liverpool docks (though this last one has been – if not debunked – shown to have happened much less often than many music chroniclers have claimed/guessed).

But considering how the music of The Beatles and other British groups influenced American music at the time (as opposed to in the grand scheme of things) is a topic that hasn’t been done to death. So Philo’s book is welcome. In the earliest chapters – truth be told, the best, most insightful ones among the book’s 150-plus pages – Philo outlines British pop music history, and he does so in a manner that places skiffle and trad jazz (the two biggest pre-rock musical sensations in postwar England) in their proper context. Philo displays a deep understanding of these forms and how they fit into the big picture.

As the story progresses, British Invasion focuses more than one might expect upon The Beatles. Yes, they were the biggest (and I’d say best) among the British musical exports of the era, but the bands that followed in their wake get perfunctory discussion in the book. Philo does a commendable job of outlining the American cultural scene into which The Beatles sprang in early 1964, debunking a few myths of his own (namely, that the country was in a deep depression post-JFK, and that The Beatles single-handedly rescued American consciousness from that malaise). But immediately after making a good case for his viewpoint, he writes (though in far more eloquent terms than I’m paraphrasing), “well, but yeah, they kinda did cheer things up.”

From there, Philo’s analysis is astute, and he makes all manner of useful connections. Still, he all but breaks down every single Beatles album, exploring its cross-cultural effects, and spends little time on the works of any other artists (save The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan). Granted, since the Beatles had the lion’s share of the hits, they do deserve full discussion. But the work of other groups (The Animals, for example) is perhaps deserving of a more thorough and nuanced analysis than it gets here.

Where British Invasion seems to falter is in its last third: while Philo is very careful to include citations for many of his quotes (and conclusions stated previously by others), toward the end of the book, he makes some serious mistakes. The author discusses (at some length) the genesis of the Byrds song “Eight Miles High,” and while he gets many of the details right, he cites Roger (Jim) McGuinn‘s fear of flying as the source from which his (McGuinn’s) lyric came. The thing is, it was Gene Clark who was uncomfortable in airplanes, and the song featured his lyrics (with help from David Crosby). McGuinn was responsible for the music.

And so on. In the most offhand manner, Philo unquestioningly repeats the long-discredited urban legend that mass murderer Charles Manson auditioned for The Monkees in 1965 (Manson was a guest of the United States Federal Prison System in the years 1961-67). And he seems to think that Abbey Road was met with roundly thumbs-down reviews upon its release (that sounds more like Let it Be). All that said, it’s only because of Philo’s overall careful and thorough approach to his subject that these lazy mistakes are so glaring.

That final third of British Invasion is actually the part in which Philo’s keen observations are the most significant. He discusses the “Britishness” of the Monterey Pop Festival; touches on the (discussed-ad infinitum) contrast between the Woodstock and Altamont festivals, and then breezily discusses the relationship between UK and American music from the mid 1970s onward. But he then jumps back to his own personal story circa 1981, neatly stepping over punk and new wave.

As scholarly works go, British Invasion is good on the merits (Philo strives to make as many original points as he possibly can, and nearly always hits the mark), but it falls down on the details (perhaps a looming deadline resulted in some glossing over of easily fact-checked errors). As a general audience reader, it’s a bit heady, lacking in any firsthand reportage (seemingly all musician quotes are sourced from the works of other writers) and occasionally getting pretty far into the academic weeds. But there’s enough straightforward analysis to make the required few hours spent with British Invasion most rewarding.

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