Archive for the ‘book’ Category

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 back-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.

To be continued…

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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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Best of 2014: Books

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

Musoscribe isn’t strictly a music features, interviews and reviews blogzine; because I am constantly reading at least one book – and because as often as not, it’s a music-related book – I review several books each year. 2014 has been no exception (and there are three more on my desk right now for future review). These four are my favorite new music-related books of this year.

Who Killed Mister Moonlight? by David J. (Haskins)
The story of goth-rockers Bauhaus could have no better chronicler than the witty and deeply thoughtful David J. The bassist for that band (and then Love and Rockets, and then a reanimated Bauhaus) tells that story, but in some ways it’s merely the backdrop for Haskins’ larger story. Readers will come away with a better understanding of what Bauhaus was all about, and – perhaps more importantly – an appreciation for the role each member played in bringing it all together. Haskins’ unnerving forays into the occult make uncomfortable reading, but you’ll likely not be able to put the book down until you’re finished.

One Way Out by Alan Paul
There are many ways to tell a tale. Alan Paul‘s approach is perhaps not unique, but it is certainly well-suited to his subject matter. When one is dealing with a story as sprawling as that of The Allman Brothers Band, it’s inevitable that there will be at least as many perspectives as there are characters in the story. It’s a mark of Paul’s skill that he weaves those disparate (and sometimes polar opposite) perspectives together into a cohesive narrative. One Way Out might not make all camps happy (Gregg Allman wrote his own book, for example) but the author seems not to have an ax to grind; he stays out of the way and lets the key figures tell the story.

Joe Meek’s Bold Techniques by Barry Cleveland
Barry Cleveland is an innovative musician in his own right; coupling that background with his well-established writing/editing skills, his knack for research, and his insatiable curiosity, this book explores the work of Joe Meek. Pointedly not focusing on Meek’s personal problems and the more sensational and lurid aspects of his story, Cleveland instead points the reader in the direction of Meek’s undeniably forward-thinking work in the recording studio. That Meek succeeded at all seems against all odds, but the author helps the reader understand not only why he did, but how. A fascinating read.

The Evolution of Mann by Cary Ginell
Part of author Cary Ginell‘s literary mission in life seem to be to rehabilitate certain jazz figures, ones who – for one reason or another – fall more into the “popular” category. As such, his biography of flautist Herbie Mann is right in line wit those goals. Mann is often thought of as a genre-jumping opportunist, but as Ginell illustrates, Mann was an early exponent of what we now know as world music. And he was no dilettante: his forays into other genres were fueled by genuine interest. An excellent guide into the flautist’s work and deep catalog.

More best-ofs coming tomorrow.

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Book Review: 108 Rock Star Guitars

Monday, December 8th, 2014

There have certainly been rock-related coffee table books before; some of the best and most notable ones include The Beatles Anthology. And among ones that focus more on imagery than text, Hipgnosis’ Storm Thorgerson has done some excellent ones. Among books that focus more on instruments, Andy Babiuk‘s peerless Beatles Gear is among the best.

There’s a new entry in this category: Lisa S. Johnson‘s 108 Rock Star Guitars. Originally published in hardcover in 2013, the weighty book is now available in a full-size softcover edition. (The softcover results in a lower price, but otherwise there’s noting cheap about this book: color reproduction and binding are all absolutely top-notch.)

Johnson’s photographic approach means that you won’t find many straight-on, full-frame shots of your favorite rock star axes. Instead, Johnson uses what I can’t help but call an “arty” approach to her subjects. Often owing to the demands presented to her by the session – say, the road manager gives her ten minutes post-show to snap her pics in a dimly lit backstage room – many of Johnson’s photos are moody, impressionistic close-up detail shots.

As the author explains in her introduction, she shot many of these guitars in the era right before film photography effectively ended. She credits the vibrant colors to the Kodak film she used, stock specially designed for effective use in low light. Later shots are all-digital, but Johnson doesn’t indicate the medium used on specific photographs.

Each photo section comes with some brief, anecdotal text. Sometimes it concerns the experience of getting to shoot the guitar; other times, it’s some interesting background information about the particular axe’s history. Johnson provides enough technical info – gauge of string used, type of aftermarket pickups that retrofit the guitar in question – to tantalize guitar tech-heads, but probably not enough to satisfy them. (That’s not her goal here.)

The author is clearly a rock fan (no c&w, r&b or jazz players’ guitars here), and her choices of guitars to feature are driven by her musical taste. As a result there are a fair number of metal/hard rock instruments displayed, and guitars such as, say, hollowbody Rickenbackers are in short supply. A few bass guitars and notable acoustic guitars are here, too. And – perhaps owing to the lack of budgetary constraints upon many of these rock stars, there are a large number of custom luthier jobs, greatly modified guitars, and fine exhibits of excellent back-from-the-dead repair work.

108 Rock Star Guitars is – like its subjects and their owners – not without eccentricities. The author makes a point of explaining why she chose the number 108; the explanation might be described as a bit “woo-woo.” And for reasons known only to the author (and perhaps her publisher), the guitars in the book are ordered by the names of their owners. But their first names. So we start with Ace Frehley (KISS) and end with Zakk Wylde (Blizzard of Ozz and a bunch of other bands I don’t care about).

And occasionally Johnson gets her facts wrong: not only does she consistently misspell Adrian Belew‘s first name, she tells the reader that the guitarist was in King Crimson in the 1970s. Um, no*. And while a routine bit of fact-checking would have preempted both mistakes, readers won’t (and shouldn’t) approach 108 Rock Star Guitars as a work of history. It’s a lovely book full of amazing photography of storied instruments. And viewed within those terms, it’s wholly successful. It might make a great gift for the guitar lover in your life, too, unless s/he’s into jazz or country instead of hard rock, in which case you might hear questions like, “who the hell is Phil Collen?”**

*1981-1984, 1994-1997, 2000-2004, and 2008-2013.
** one of two lead guitarists in Def Leppard.

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Book Review: Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

It’s often unfortunate when a writer with an axe to grind pens the history of one of music’s great historical figures. It borders on tragic when such a work – often with its own very narrow point of view – slips into popular consciousness as something approaching a definitive history. It happened with Albert Goldman‘s trashy biographies of Elvis and John Lennon, and it happened again with Stephen Davis‘ 1985 book Hammer of the Gods. That book focused almost solely on the legendary bad-boy antics and decadent lifestyles of Led Zeppelin.

While few would argue that the lurid episodes described in Hammer of the Gods were cut from whole cloth, the truth was perhaps less sensational than the book made it out to be. In all likelihood – if the true stories of other bands are any indication at all – many of the most salacious stories described in Hammer‘s pages involved the roadies more than the band members.

No matter; the point is that the music is what brought most readers to that book and ones like it; you wouldn’t have waded through No One Here Gets Out Alive if you didn’t dig the music of The Doors, now would you?

So it’s refreshing to have a book about Led Zeppelin that focuses more on the music and the personalities of its members. Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin is exactly such a book: editor Hank Bordowitz has taken on the massive task of digging up (and getting clearances for) dozens of interviews with the four members of Led Zeppelin. And unlike, say, The Beatles Anthology text – an essential work – Led Zeppelin on Led Zepeplin takes the band at their word, but in real-time.

What I mean is that each of the interviews compiled in this book is presented in its original form, not reconstituted with the benefit of hindsight. No, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant (and to lesser degrees, John Paul Jones and John Bonham) are here in print giving their answers to (largely) intelligent questions posed by rock journalists of the day. So there’s no how-will-history-view-this attitude presenting itself in their answers. Other than Bordowitz’s brief and useful introductions, each of the interviews provides the reader with a clear picture of what the men in Led Zeppelin were thinking and saying when they thought and said it.

The band members take themselves seriously, but not too seriously. They were just about the biggest band on the scene in those days, but – especially when chatting with the better music journos of the day, the ones they trusted – they are candid and forthright. They laugh off or dismiss a great deal of the hype that surrounds them, yet they’re not afraid to discuss how they see themselves and their music fitting into the big picture.

It’s entertaining to gain a sense of the individual personalities, and to better understand each of their relationships to the band and the myths that surround it. Fascinating, too, is to read contemporary discussions about their post-Zeppelin endeavors. Interviews about The Firm, for example, would otherwise fade into the mist: I mean, how likely would one be to dig up an interview with Jimmy Page in which he discusses his work with (Plant nemesis) David Coverdale? Placed here in the context of the overall Led Zeppelin story arc, such content is much more illuminating and worthwhile than it would otherwise be.

What Bordowitz has done with Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin is create a narrative that uses the band’s own words to chronicle their history in a way that deftly navigates between hagiography and pot-boiler. By steering clear of both of those dubious approaches, Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin sticks to the stuff that’s most important. If you want to read about mud sharks and the like, there’s always Hammer of the Gods. But if you want a window into what made Led Zeppelin worth all of they hype that surrounded them, Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin is an excellent place to begin.

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Book Review: Who Killed Mister Moonlight?

Monday, November 24th, 2014

David J (Haskins) came to fame as a member of goth-rockers Bauhaus, and went on to success with Love and Rockets, solo releases and sideman duties with such greats as Jazz Butcher (Pat Fish). Along the way, he experienced and/or witnessed firsthand some great stories. As it happens he is a masterful storyteller, with a keen memory, a self-effacing manner, and a dry wit.

And as the latest happy product of those aforementioned qualities possessed by David J, we have his new book, Who Killed Mister Moonlight? Bauhaus, Black Magick and Benediction. I just finished reading a pre-publication copy of the book, but save for the lack of spine text, UPC and ISBN code, the book seems completely finished and expertly edited. David J. divides his history into three parts: the first (covering 1979-1983) deals with the back story, formation and quick rise of Bauhaus, the group most well-known for “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Here David J guides the reader through the early days of the band, highlighting the very collaborative creative process through which they created some highly-regarded albums.

And there are plenty of hints – foreshadowing, really – of the problems that would eventually engulf the group. Though David J was not the band’s putative “leader,” his role was clearly greater than might have previously been suspected. Erratic, idiosyncratic, enigmatic, mercurial: those are all adjectives (mine, not David J’s) that could well be applied to Bauhaus front man/singer Peter Murphy. Though Haskins never says so – in fact, I suspect he doesn’t even think so – the evidence suggests that Murphy’s primary contribution to the group may have been more stylistic and sartorial than musical.

The second part covers a much longer span of time: 1984-2004. This period saw Bauhaus splinter, with Love and Rockets rising from the debris. And while Bauhaus would reform (and attempt to reform) multiple times, Haskins’ other activities – musical and otherwise – are of equal interest. Again with the foreshadowing, the author hints at his growing fascination with the occult. And eventually he gets right into it; those chapters are among the book’s most lurid, downright weird, and yet quite fascinating.

The third section of Who Killed Mister Moonlight? concerns itself with the period 2005-2006, the time during which Bauhaus mounted its highest-profile reunion to date. By David J’s recounting, we shouldn’t look for a future Bauhaus reunion, but his other ventures are creatively rewarding enough that he’s worth keeping an eye on nonetheless. It might have been interesting had Haskins spent a bit more time discussing his musical adventures outside of Bauhaus and Love and Rockets, but it seems clear that Who Killed Mister Moonlight? places the focus where the author wants it to be. Overall, it’s a compelling read, with just enough celebrity run-ins to make it worthwhile even for those who have little knowledge (or even interest!) in Bauhaus. Recommended.

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Book Review: Vinyl Lives On

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

Florida-based author/journalist James Goss digs his vinyl. Though he never writes about his own interests or collection, his abiding fascination with the medium of vinyl records shines through loud and clear in his writing. His first two books on the subject – Vinyl Lives and Vinyl Lives II – offered profiles of many of the more notable independent record shops that have endured through the years and/or popped up in the wake of vinyl’s mini-resurgence. Goss’ knowing questions elicited illuminating responses from the shop owners, and that raw material – deftly combined with his own research and existing knowledge – resulted in some very interesting pieces.

That format is used in Goss’ newest book, Vinyl Lives On: Profiles of Musician Collectors and Record Store Owners. As its title makes plain, this book enjoys a widening of Goss’ scope to include collectors of note. And while a good chunk of Vinyl Lives On still focuses upon indie shops (happily, their number has been growing since publication of Goss’ earlier books), the chapters devoted to profiles of collectors provide a balance and an added level of insight.

Goss’ interview/profile of Henry Rollins is in itself worth the price of admission. Rollins is an unfailingly rewarding interview subject, and Goss’ experience was clearly no exception. The subject of record collecting clearly stuck a chord with Rollins; his numerous quotes are unceasingly interesting, shedding light on his voracious appetite for music (and other recorded material) across a wide array of genres.

Some of the author’s profiles of other collectors are marginally less interesting, but that has as much to do with what they have to say (or don’t have to say) as anything else. Goss’ chapters on Bill Frisell and Billy Vera both focus more on overall biographies of the musicians, so their interest in vinyl represents a smaller part of the content.

Not to focus too greatly on form versus content, but two points deserve mention here. First, Goss’ series of books – though published under the imprint of Aventine Press – are for all intents and purposes self-published works. This does show through in the relatively simple cover art and (to my mind, anyway) questionable choices of font and type size. But those issues are largely matters of taste, and don’t appreciably affect the quality of the books one way or another.

The second point is more substantial. Though Vinyl Lives On and its predecessors aren’t published by a major or well-known house, Goss’ books have obviously received a much more thorough editing than is the norm these days. I’ve read innumerable books these last few years, and am relentlessly barraged with syntax errors, factual mistakes, poor and inconsistent spelling. Goss’ comparatively humble books have virtually none of these issues: they’re well-written and expertly edited. For a writer/editor, reading works filled with mistakes can be an especially distracting experience. With Vinyl Lives On and its earlier two volumes, readers are free to focus on the content, well-presented as it should be.

James Goss’ Vinyl Lives On makes it three-in-a-row for my recommendation.

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