Archive for the ‘book’ Category

Book Review: The Evolution of Mann

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Lately I’ve been mulling the age-old question: what makes a bandwagon-jumper? Pop music’s history is filled with examples of bands and solo artists who have adopted stylistic u-turns in a naked bid for the commercial brass ring. Perhaps The Bee Gees are the most celebrated example: though they started out as a Beatles-lite sort of act in the 60s (and proved they could rock when backing Ronnie Burns; see Nuggets II for proof), they jumped on the disco bandwagon and reaped serious financial rewards for their trouble.

And then there are the artists who are constantly changing if only to amuse themselves. David Bowie and Neil Young have both built careers around stylistic reinvention, and both were (often but not always) rewarded with both commercial success and critical plaudits.

Such career reboots – of the commercial or artistic kind – are far less common in the jazz idiom. But the jazz artist who first comes to mind when one thinks of hopping from style to style is flutist Herbie Mann. Biographer Cary Ginell (also author of an excellent Cannonball Adderley bio, part of the same Hal Leonard Jazz Biography Series) takes a look at Mann’s long and storied career in the punningly titled The Evolution of Mann: Herbie Mann and the Flute in Jazz.

Though Ginell was lucky enough to have interviewed the flutist extensively several years ago (Mann passed away in July 2003), he steered clear of the sort of over-familiarity that leads to hagiography. Ginell is an unapologetic fan of Mann the man and Mann the innovator, but he doesn’t make outsized claims about the flutist’s musical abilities. No, in fact, he quotes many of Mann’s former associates as being somewhat unimpressed with his chops, his ability to improvise. But none of that takes away, Ginell argues (and I would agree) from Mann’s accomplishments. What he did do was establish the flute as a legitimate instrument in jazz, and the flautist (as opposed to a player who seconds on flute) as a legitimate jazz player. For that alone he should be honored.

Moreover, Mann’s endless restlessness did result in some pretty fine music. Herbie Mann at the Village Gate (1961) is an exemplar in the soul jazz subgenre, and Memphis Underground (1968) is an incendiary set that features both Larry Coryell and the waaay-out-there guitar sounds of Sonny Sharrock.

Mann wasn’t always admired – much less taken seriously – by his peers, but he was known for crowd-pleasing, and for paying his sidemen atypically well. But back to the question of bandwagon jumping: Mann was an early proponent of the bossa nova movement that swept the USA in the very early 60s, but because of label delays and other factors, his releases came out later than, say, the Getz/Gilberto stuff. And others – notably Adderley –were well into the soul jazz bag before Mann was. As such, Mann was often criticized for following trends rather than setting them.

But, he might well have asked, what’s so bad about that? Mann was always more interested in making the fans happy. He adopted a rock star persona (one look at the cover of 1971′s Push Push makes that clear), with all the groupie-excess that connotes. By the 70s he had hitched his musical wagon to the disco train, and while his credibility took a big hit, he sold lots of records, and lots of concert tickets. And he doubtless got laid a lot.

Ginell charts Mann’s rise and fall (and sort of post-fame rise) with a reporter’s eye, drawing on interviews with those who knew him best, most notably selected sidemen and Mann’s third wife. Ginell recounts how, in Mann’s waning years as he dealt with prostate cancer, the flutist re-engaged with the ethnic sounds most dear to him. And in reconnecting with his earlier Brazilian musical bent (plus the music of his Eastern European roots), Mann – intentionally or not – made a final compelling case for his stature as an innovator in what we now call world music.

Ginell never paints his subject as a hero or a world-class musician, but he makes a strong case for Mann’s importance thanks to his popularization of his instrument, and for his role in the mainstreaming of ethic sounds into the fabric of American pop and/or jazz.

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Book Review: Experiencing Jazz

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

As part of my expanding odyssey of discovering the art form called jazz, I bought a book in December 2012, a title called Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz, by John Szwed. It was good, but left me feeling that the task of guiding a novitiate (one such as myself) into a greater appreciation of jazz could have been done better.

So I was quite intrigued when I received a list of new offerings from Scarecrow Press / Rowman & Littlefield. That list included Michael StephansExperiencing Jazz: A Listener’s Companion. Seeing that it was a hardcover at just shy of 500 pages, I figured that it would provide a more comprehensive overview than did the earlier title. At least the potential was there, I surmised.

And I was right. Stephans is a jazz drummer with an impressive musical pedigree of his own, having shared the stage with a long list of notables. He’s also a teacher at the college level, and his conversational, informal tone avoids the stuffy, academic approach from which too many of these sorts of books suffer.

While taking pains to offer disclaimers that his early chapters do not represent anything like a comprehensive history of jazz, Stephans does an admirable job of charting the form’s genesis, rise and development. And he does it all in about 45 pages. As such, it’s a breezy survey that never dwells too long on any one subject. While a reader well-versed in jazz history might find it wanting, it’s quite effective at achieving its stated goal of providing a potted history (my words) of jazz for the newbie.

It’s after this series of introductory chapters that Stephans really gets to what seems to be his true focus. After discussions of functions and forms, and big vs. small bands, Stephans devotes a chapter each to the instruments employed in jazz. These chapters include trumpet; trombone; tenor sax; alto sax; soprano and baritone saxes; clarinet, flute and bass clarinet; piano; bass (acoustic and electric); drums; other percussion (vibraphones etc.); guitar; and vocals. In each, Stephans breezes through the instrument’s development within the jazz idiom, discusses major artists in each, provides a survey of current artists, and spends a few grafs on young up-and-comers. Each chapter includes a brief Q&A with one current artist (the same questions are posed to all players).

It’s a lot ot take in, but a tome with the ambitious goal of providing a single-source introduction to jazz can be nothing less. The reader will come away hungry to sample those artists with whom s/he was previously unfamiliar, and I’m certain that was part of Stephans’ goal. If there’s a criticism of Experiencing Jazz, it’s the ever-so-slightly too-reverent tone the author takes when discussing currently living (or recently passed) musicians, most notably those with whom he’s either worked or conversed. In some of those cases, the reader might squirm – but just a bit – as Stephans tells us just what a wonderful human being so-and-so sax man truly is. But as I say, it’s a minor criticism, one with which many other readers might well disagree.

As a very successful attempt to draw interested parties into the world of jazz, Experiencing Jazz is highly recommended.

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Book Review: Lunar Notes

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Lunar Notes is not a Great Book, nor do the requisite few hours spent with it reveal anything that suggests the author’s intention that it be so. What it is is a look into one man’s experiences as a member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band during their most musically fertile period.

In this slim and fitfully revealing volume, Bill Harkleroad – re-christened, as were most Magic Band members, with a new moniker, in his case Zoot Horn Rollo – tells the story of his joining, being in, and eventually leaving Beefheart’s employ. Zoot Horn Rollo was named by Rolling Stone as one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time (#62).

Beefheart (born and sometimes known as Don Van Vliet) was a man who defined idiosyncratic, and contemporary reports strongly suggest that he was a demanding, sometimes vicious taskmaster, often engaging in emotional manipulation to get what he wanted out of his musicians. Harkleroad/Rollo’s account is very much in line with this view, though he does seem to hold back on revealing (or finds himself unable to reveal) what one assumes are even more lurid anecdotes. The reader comes away with the impression that Rollo and his bandmates all fell victim – to varying degrees – to some sort of musical Stockholm Syndrome. Throughout Lunar Notes, Rollo re-asks the why-didn’t-I-just-leave-then question, and his answer may or may not satisfy readers. He didn’t make any money and received little in the way of compositional or creative credit. But simply put, from his standpoint, the music made staying worth it.

Rollo takes the reader through the recording processes that created such revered works as Trout Mask Replica ( a classic, but one of the most “difficult” albums one can imagine) and Clear Spot, explaining the circumstances under which the music was created. Beefheart is portrayed throughout as a man of considerable talents, almost none of which were conventional. He is not shown to have had any fixed ability on any musical instrument save harp (harmonica); his compositional approach through this period often consisted of whistling parts to a band member whose job it would then be to transfer that semi-abstract aural concept into musical notation. Zoot Horn Rollo’s role was originally as The Magic Band’s guitarist, though as time progressed, he fell into this added transcriptionist role.

Beefheart – as Rollo draws him – seemed almost wholly free of the constraints that pop music might apply upon a musician: the songs were often in three different keys at once, and in two or three different time signatures. How that worked in practice cannot effectively be described in words, though Rollo/Harkleroad gamely tries. Though the author does a fine job of explaining things in a manner that doesn’t require deep musicological background, it’s absolutely necessary to have some familiarity with the actual music for much of the book to mean much of anything.

Of course, for the adventurous listener, time spent with any of Beefheart’s albums from Safe as Milk through Clear Spot is time well spent, so making a listen to those a requirement of enjoying Lunar Notes isn’t unreasonable. But to those who don’t appreciate Beefheart’s music, Lunar Notes will be of limited interest.

But, I should add, there are gems here, even for the non-Beefheart fan. Zoot Horn Rollo tells stories –albeit brief ones – of interacting with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, a number of jazz greats including Ornette Coleman, and – no surprise here — Frank Zappa. In fact most of the players who came and went through Beefheart’s orbit had some connection to Zappa; many played in his bands before, during or after their stints in the Magic Band. And that says something about those musicians’ ability and flexibility, because the working methods of Zappa and Beefheart were quite different. Though both were notoriously difficult taskmasters, Zappa brought a musically sophisticated approach to songwriting and arranging; Beefheart, on the other hand, was almost a savant. His method of arranging seems to have involved forcing the musicians to keep playing a song – sometime for hours on end, in rehearsals over a course of many months – until he liked what he got out of them. This, as opposed to instructing or even suggesting what they should play.

Lunar Notes was cowritten by Billy James ( aka Ant-Bee), now an Asheville NC resident and respected associate of many progressive and avant garde musical personalities worldwide. The book was first published in the late 1990s, subsequently going out of print for many years. The 2013 reprinting features the original cover (complete with laughably hyperbolic blurb from The Simpsons creator Matt Groening) in a slightly different shade of purple, but is otherwise the same as the original book. No new content or updating has been added.

Judging by Lunar Notes, Zoot Horn Rollo is a man of solid if unexceptional storytelling abilities; reading Lunar Notes is the the equivalent of spending three or four hours with a really good musician who has some interesting stories to tell, but who doesn’t bring the insight of an actual writer to bear upon the story. Yet owing to the dearth of written material on Beefheart, that’s still enough to make Lunar Notes worth reading for anyone with an interest in the music of Captain Beefheart.

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Book Review: Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Friday, December 13th, 2013

Imagine that you’ve just sauntered into a dimly-lit if friendly- vibed barroom. You’ve positioned yourself at a barstool and settled in to enjoy a leisurely drink to cap off a long day. A guy next to you offers a cordial hello, and you respond in kind. You like your space, but you’re not averse to a bit of idle chit-chat, and so the two of you engage in some good-natured discussion.

As is your wont (see, you’re more like me than you in this scenario, so stay with me), the subject soon turns to music. Specifically, music history. More specifically, the whole where-did-stuff-originate debate. Your uh-oh meter budges just a bit from its zero position, and you silently hope this doesn’t turn into some huge discussion. You just came in for a quiet drink, after all, right?

You know a good bit about pop music history, but you’re no walking encyclopedia. Nor, as it happens, do you care to be one. But this guy, he knows it all. And while on some level – several levels, really – you admire the heck out of the sort of person (the British call these characters “anoraks”) who can quote matrix numbers for obscure 45rpm singles, you have your limits of tolerance. He can make his point and back it up with facts, but then he should, well, y’know, shut up. Or at least let you have a moment to digest all the data he’s dumped on you.

The thing is, you find yourself agreeing with him on all points. How could it be otherwise? He truly does know his stuff. But there’s something fatiguing, almost tiresome about the manner in which he piles it on. Piles. It. On. So at the conclusion of your discussion – it does end, eventually – you come away a bit unsure about what to make of the whole thing. This guy is a true scholar, and you have absolutely no reason to dispute even the tiniest of his points. And even though you were essentially on the same side in this non-argument, you found the whole episode exhausting.

Now let’s return to the real world.

The promotional one-sheet accompanying Larry Birnbaum‘s Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ‘n’ Roll characterizes the book as “[a]n essential work for rock fans and scholars.” I have no disagreement as to its suitability for the latter, but do wonder about its appeal to the former. The depth and breadth of Birnbaum’s research and knowledge is stunning – and that’s putting it mildly. Pick any song you like from rock’n'roll’s earliest days; pick a song that you consider a sort of template for much of what came after. Birnbaum’s here to tell you ( and show you, and show you, and show you) that, as the old book says, there’s nothing new under the sun. His scholarship gets into “coon songs” (yes, they were/are called that) and minstrelsy, and he traces that song – you know, the one you’re sure was written in 1952 – back to 1823. Or something. And backward beyond ’23, it gets a little murky. Okay, I’m exaggerating for effect, but only ever-so-slightly.

It’s all nearly too much to take. The amount of information he serves up is so massive, the delivery so relentless, that you may find yourself as I did, having to put the book down and let out a big, theatrical sigh after a few pages. I’ve had Before Elvis on my nightstand for more than four months now, and while I admire it to a great degree, I simply can’t easily bring myself to get through it. Were it laid out in a more encyclopedic fashion – rather than a seemingly unceasing narrative stuffed to the max with information – it might be a five-star reference book, essential for anyone who ever seeks to divine the source(s) of rock’n'roll’s obscure, oft-undocumented past.

I mean for all this to be a positive recommendation, but one of the most targeted and qualified kind. You have been warned.

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Funny You Should Mention It: Howard Kaylan’s Shell Shocked (Part Three)

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: One area you didn’t spend a lot of time on was the studio sessions. You didn’t avoid them, for sure, but neither did you get into deep detail about the recording.

Howard Kaylan: That’s the most boring shit in the world! I can tell you, but it doesn’t matter. To the reader, it’s news to them. And they don’t give a shit about it.

For instance, I can tell them – and I tried to, a little bit – but I don’t know anything about microphones, whether I’m singing into a Sennheiser or a Neumann. And nobody gives a flying fuck. This is not a music book, in those respects. Not at all. Do you really want to know the difference between a fifteen-hour Roy Thomas Baker session and a one-hour Todd Rundgren session? Do you really?

There was actually a whole bunch of that crap in the later chapters, because I was trying to amalgamate the 80s into a chapter, the 90s into a chapter. It wound up being cursory name dropping; it sounded like a list of people that I knew, and it was just stupid: “I went over to Ray Manzarek‘s house…” Well, who the fuck cares?! And so Jeff was like, “We’ve got to lose sixty pages; where do you want to lose ‘em?” So I said, “Let’s cut out the shit that we don’t need. How about that?”

BK: Technology has fundamentally changed the way that artists interact with fans. I’d suggest that the internet allows a kind of interchange with fans that doesn’t require a followup visit to the doctor for a penicillin shot. We’ve gone from fan clubs and groupies to Facebook. You and Mark Volman have always been, I think, more accessible than a lot of artists thanks to your radio shows and so forth, but I’m interested to know your thoughts on the kind of communication you have with fans, admirers, and fellow musicians on Facebook and social media.

HK: I like to think it’s pretty good. For instance, I was running a campaign before the summer tour where I told people that if they sent me their copies of Shell Shocked, I would sign them and send them back. All I wanted from them was a self-addressed stamped envelope, the book, and the postage. And I told them what the postage would be in every area of the globe. I got a Post Office box, and waited for the copies to come in.

And you can’t believe the stuff that I received. It’s been amazing: not only have I gotten hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books to sign (which is great), but among all the great people out there, there are some that still just don’t get it. I had a guy send me a postal-card size envelope with $8 in stamps on it. I went back on to Facebook after a couple weeks and said, “Guys! I can’t buy your postage. I’m losing money on this. I’m trying to be a nice guy. But if it’s gonna cost me six dollars plus an envelope to send this shit out to you – when it’s Amazon discounted I see only $3 on each book – then I’m losing triple. What are you doing? Please!”

So once I shut that happy little campaign down, I think the only interaction is going to be Facebook and Twitter for this guy.

BK: I saw that post in which you wrote, basically, “Don’t send me other stuff. If you don’t send correct postage, I’m keeping the book.”

HK: See, you got the joke, and you laughed. But if you saw the comments that followed, you know that many people didn’t.

BK: Right. So I commented, asking if it was okay to send eight dollars in loose pennies.

HK: Right! It was those four people who pissed me off, rather than the 106 “likes.” And when people ask me to sign it, “To the greatest guy I ever met, sorry you beat me playing pool in 1978,” I want to say, “I didn’t play pool with you in 1978 and I don’t know who you are.” Or, “To my best friend Jimmy.” You’ll be lucky if I don’t spell it with a “G” at that point.

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Funny You Should Mention It: Howard Kaylan’s Shell Shocked (Part Two)

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: I’ve read a lot of Jeff Tamarkin‘s work, and I’ve had a long conversation with you. So one of the things that impressed me about Shell Shocked is how perfectly it reflects what I expect to be your “voice.” He’s essentially invisible, which I’m sure was the plan. Can you tell me a little bit about working with him, and what his role was?

Howard Kaylan: Jeff did the index. A Herculean task; I would have never been able to do that.

And he was valuable. I didn’t have an agent; he did all that kind of stuff. And even more importantly, I knew he was the guy. I knew when I first spoke to him. This really got started about a year and a half ago or more. He did a sort of update interview with me for MOJO. A column and a half or something. And at the time we did the interview, he said, “Wow, you’ve got a zillion of these stories. Jeez; you ought to write a book.” And I said, “Funny you should mention it.” because I had written four chapters about a year and a half earlier, and I just put ‘em away. Because even though I was encouraged early on – by an agent, Paula Guran, and a client of hers, a sci-fi writer by the name of John Shirley, one of the original cyberpunks – I started to write it as a how-to. Or a how-not-to. It was originally called How Not to Be Me. And after writing about four chapters of that, it was like writing a punk rock album: “Those days are gone; I have no business doing this. I have nothing to protest.” I had no more business dispensing advice than other people do. Preaching is just not in my wheelhouse.

So I put the thing on the shelf. But I told Tamarkin that I had done exactly that, and he said, “Well, that’s interesting as hell.” And I told him the reasons I didn’t complete it: (a) I’m really a procrastinator. And (b) I need to get paid.

This is a business where everybody does stuff on the back-end, and never gets paid for anything. And I knew better, after having written My Dinner With Jimi. I knew better because working with Harold Bronson – after we had the initial indie 30-minute film that was just the dinner portion – I knew what that was gonna be like. And I was right, all down the line.

So I told Jeff that what I really needed was a swift kick in the butt every now and then. And a check and a deadline usually meant that. And he said, “Well, I’ll do it.” And I said, “Okay!”

And there wasn’t anybody more suited to it. Because I know a lot of writer guys. Tamarkin was the guy; I knew his work. I read the [Jefferson] Airplane book. I knew how well-spoken-of it was in the business. He took fuckin’ five years to write it.

I didn’t have five years. But I knew in that case he had interviewed a thousand people, and in my case – and I stressed this the first time I talked to him – he wouldn’t be interviewing anybody. The only person he’d have to deal with is me. And I didn’t want to do it like an interview; I didn’t want to answer questions. I didn’t want to speak it into a recorder, or dictate it into a software program. The only way I could do this – in my own fucking voice – was to put a blank page in front of me. And by the time the signal got from my brain to my fingers, my self-editor would have known exactly what to do.

Because I am a raconteur; I know these stories backward and forward. They are my life. They are all these episodes; my life still works in episodes. I still see things that way, in chapters.

So when I would go out on the road in the summer, I would write a chapter or two a night. Mark [Volman] drove through the night, and we’d listen to Frank Sinatra on Sirius 71. I would write chapters in the dark, on an iPad. I would send them to Jeff, and he would ask me dumb things, like, “Are you sure the name is spelled like that?” And he’d correct me on things that I was really wrong about: “You didn’t leave Toledo on a Friday night, because you played a show. You had to have left on a Saturday.” And if I ever got contentious about it, I would go into daily diaries, which I have kept since 1968. And Jeff would go to his two unrelated sources to corroborate things. He refused to put his name on anything that wasn’t checked and double-checked. And I needed somebody to pull things together, to make sure it was in the correct form.

I turned the thing in when the tour ended, and that’s kind of when his work started. Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, as he says, but it’s really a whole lot more than that. And when the publisher threw the index [project] on him…there should have been some sort of Congressional Medal of Honor for that!

BK: Immediately after I finished reading Shell Shocked, I read something called Louder than Hell: The Defintive Oral History of Heavy Metal. It’s an interesting study in contrasts, having just read your book. Both books are full of unflinching, unvarnished, unapologetic tales of sex and drugs, but you’re likeable and for the most part those characters are not. Why do you think that might be?

HK: Hey, man. I never said I was likeable. I keep reminding people reading this book, as I rediscovered myself, what an asshole I was. A total dick.

Maybe everybody made those mistakes growing up. But when you realize it, if you don’t cop to it, then you’re really a jerk. And you’re writing some kind of lie.

I’d like to think everybody writes like that; I would like to think I’m really reading Keith [Richards] when I read things I know his co-writer said. It was done so brilliantly in that case; the guy got his voice and his rhythm…it was such a beautiful job that I didn’t care.

Click to continue…

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Funny You Should Mention It: Howard Kaylan’s Shell Shocked (Part One)

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

Autobiography or no, Howard Kaylan is an engaging, colorful character. His life story is full of highs and lows, but his highs and lows were set against the backdrop of being on one of the 1960s more popular bands (The Turtles) and then as part of the mad ensemble known as Frank Zappa‘s Mothers. In the 70s with his musical partner Mark Volman, he made a series of subversively wonderful albums as Flo and Eddie. And his activities before, after, between and behind those mileposts are all fascinating as well.

Kaylan put pen to paper a number of years ago and wrote the screenplay for what would become My Dinner with Jimi, a delightful slice-of-60s film that got critical kudos but didn’t do boffo box office. That experience taught Kaylan a few things, but the best thing (for us fans) that he learned was that a full autobiography would be well-received. And so with renowned music journalist Jeff Tamarkin (Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane), he wrote Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo & Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc… I spoke with him about the book.

Howard Kaylan: Have you read it?

Bill Kopp: Of course I have! I wouldn’t waste your time if I hadn’t.

HK: Oh, you’d be surprised.

BK: I’ve read a number of musician memoirs, and quite a few of them seem to have an agenda of some kind. Either they’re some sort of therapy – a kind of get-it-all-out catharsis – or they’re an opportunity to settle scores. Shell Shocked is neither of these. Your goal seems to be nothing more than to tell your story, and – if I might say so – to entertain. Do you think that’s an accurate perspective?

HK: Yes…but (he said hesitantly). When you put all of those things together, I think my perspective is based on “yes, I want to tell the truth.” But is there vengeance in it? Hopefully not maliciously, but there’s vengeance in truth, sometimes, when you call people out for things they’ve done. People have assigned that trait to a book – of being malicious – when [the author is] just trying to, as you say, set the record straight.

It encompasses so many of those things, as well as getting it off my chest. But it is therapeutic. That having been said, it opened up a lot of dark doors. And I had a choice; I’m still at that crossroads. You can either close the door and back away and go [cackling laugh] like Danny Kaye or something. Or you can remember what you saw behind the door, and – even all these years later – try to address it.

So to that end, yeah, I’m in therapy here. But I think it’s a good thing. I don’t think you could interact with as many people as I have over the years and not throw yourself into a situation where you either have huge regrets, or where the people have come back into your life and turned the tables on you.

BK: I mentioned score-settling. When you and I spoke several years ago, we talked a little bit about Ted Feigin and White Whale. Knowing what I know about that story, and based on your comments then, I might have expected you to paint a more negative portrait of him in the book. But you didn’t. I’m not saying you pulled punches, but you maybe didn’t exploit opportunities to go for the throat.

HK: You know why? I think I realized – once the pot smoke cleared a little bit – that yes, they were thieves and probably [connected with the] mob, all those things. But…they were so bad at it that you’ve gotta give ‘em their props. They were that bad at it to have a hit record right out of the box! And then keep it going, somehow, for five and a half years.

Nino Tempo and April Stevens helped. Or maybe Kenny O’Dell. But basically it was us [The Turtles] for five and a half years. And yet as much as they took, we were always – as I say in the book – “the boys” to them. So as much as they always thought we were the naïve little punks who’d never discover what they did, there was a certain fatherliness there, I think. I don’t know; maybe I just needed that so badly that I projected it onto a lot of people. But they were among the people who sort of became parental to us. Because we had nobody that could rein us in.

All the managers that we had were crooked, and we busted ‘em for it constantly. And even though we tried to get out of our White Whale contract several different times, we managed to stick with them even when we could’ve gone elsewhere.

Click to continue to Part Two…

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Book Review: Beatles With an A

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

‘Tis the season for two things, at least: the annual holidays, and new Beatles-related products of note. Just this week, for example, the long-awaited (and delayed) release of the 2CD set On Air, a collection of BBC radio broadcasts (music and banter) from the band’s early days. As for me, since I have the (cough) unofficial 13CD set that includes all the music on this set (plus 1993′s Beatles at the BBC plus hours upon hours more), I’ll wait for the 3LP vinyl release later this month. Still, a must-have in some form.

There’s also the new book by acclaimed Beatles scholar Mark Lewisohn, Tune In, the first in a planned volume of titles under the All These Years banner. Lewisohn endeavors to combine all known sources and his own research to construct a definitive history of the foursome. A hardcover at 944 pages, it’s bound (heh) to be exhaustive. And at less than US$25, it’s a steal. I’m sure I’ll pick it up soon.

But in the meantime, I’d like to shine a light on a lesser (if at all ) known book about The Beatles. It’s a hardcover sort-of graphic novel called Beatles With an A: Birth of a Band, by Mauri Kunnas. What makes this work by a Finnish author/illustrator different from damn near every other book on the band is its singular approach: it’s a hardcover comic book.

Perhaps not for very small kids, though. The cover depicts John, Paul, George and Ringo crossing the street Abbey Road style, but the street’s in Hamburg’s seedy Reeperbahn red-light distruct. Flip the book over and you’ll see two more characters in the procession: Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe. In episodic narrated-fairytale style, Kunnas chronicles the band from Ringo’s birth (against a backdrop of Luftwaffe shellacking Liverpool whilst a liverbird atop the Liverpool Town Hall shouts, “Missed me, shitface!”) through the release of their hit, “Please Please Me” / “Ask Me Why.” In the penultimate frame, George Martin speaks via intercom from the control room into the studio: “Congratulations, fellas! You have just recorded your first chart-topper!” And indeed they had.

Focusing on the band’s pre-fame days in a sly and irreverent style (and not shying away from Brian Epstein‘s fixation upon of John), Kunnas makes liberal use of corny in-jokes and hokey wordplay, but it’s all done in good fun. And though he boils the story down to fit into seventy-odd pages, it’s clear he has a deep and nuanced understanding of The Beatles, their story, and their cultural importance. But he doesn’t let that knowledge get in the way of having fun.

Occasionally the fun is a tad mean-spirited: “Brian had one awkward habit. Often of an evening he would have a terrible urge to go to the toilet. However, only the public conveniences in Liverpool would do.” To be fair, that characterization isn’t too wide of the mark, and Kunnas isn’t aiming for delicacy, but there are parts of the book that might make some readers shift uncomfortably in their seat: “Did he have to put it like that?” But Kunnas’ keen eye for details (he credits Lewisohn for “some very useful observations”) makes Beatles With an A: Birth of a Band a worthwhile read. And a fine gift, too, especially for the Beatles fan in your life who has everything. Because he or she probably doesn’t have this, yet.

Available for US$26.20 + shipping at

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Album Review: Woody Guthrie — American Radical Patriot

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

Most Americans know the name Woody Guthrie. What they know of him beyond that – and/or their opinion on what he means to popular culture and music – varies widely. He’s an often misunderstood character, and as so often happens, human tendency toward a sort of reductionist thought tends to try and simplify him, to distill his essence down to a short wiki entry.

His body of work is an inconvenient presence to that sort of approach. The man wrote at least 3001 songs (that’s how many that have been officially catalogued by his official foundation) and there were certainly more. He recorded extensively, as well. And a new compilation brings together a thematically linked set of recordings dating mostly from the 1940s and 50s. Woody Guthrie: American Radical Patriot collects for the first time in one place all of the Library of Congress recordings Guthrie did with historian Alan Lomax, his Bonneville Power Administration songs; demos he did in hopes of supporting public health initiatives to combat venereal disease; and songs to support the WWII war effort. Six CD document that material, and a detailed annotation guides the listener along.

The sessions with Lomax are a rich combination of stories, songs and story-songs. In a small studio, the two men sit (with occasional sips of liquor), and Lomax – employing the polite fiction that the two had only just met – asks Guthrie to reminisce about his life as a youth in dust bowl Oklahoma, his move to California, and myriad other topics. For his part, Guthrie recounts jokes, tells heart-rending stories of death, and regales Lomax with vivid slice-of-life tales.

And quite often – sometimes without prompting, sometimes with encouragement from Lomax — Gurthrie sings and plays songs. His own tunes occasionally, but as often as not, songs he learned from others. Traditional songs adapted to his style, these tunes include “Greenback Dollar” and “The Midnight Special” (the latter written and popularized by Guthrie’s friend and another of Lomax’s session subjects, Huddie Ledbetter aka Lead Belly).

Guthrie sings of love, of his god (“Jesus Christ,”) of American folk heroes and antiheroes (“Billy the Kid.” “Pretty Boy Floyd”), and of the struggles between the haves and have nots (“The Jolly Banker”).

The last of these leads toward a discussion of a question given deep coverage in the pages of American Radical Patriot‘s stunning book: was Woody Guthrie a Communist? Evidence is presented, and in the end the reader/listener is encouraged to make his/her own decision, but the liner essay author (Bill Nowlin, though one has to look hard to find the modest author’s name or credit) clearly believes – and argues convincingly – that Guthrie was in fact a “commonist” rather than a member of any sort of organized school of thought. Guthrie’s own half-jesting words on the subject: “I ain’t a communist necessarily, but I have been in the red all my life.” Nowlin suggests Guthrie was a sort of quasi-Christian socialist, and the songs in general support that view. More than anything else, he was a champion of the common man, of the downtrodden, the voiceless.

Though amazingly plain-spoken and a voice who articulated the persona of the American common man, Guthrie was indeed complicated. His views often changed. Early on he used the N-word, until taken to task by a radio listener. (He immediately stopped using the offensive term.) His views on the glories of American frontier expansionism led him to paint a negative portrait of Native Americans in one of the songs he cut for the BPA (“Roll On Columbia,”) though Nowlin suggests — again, convincingly so — that had Guthrie been called out on this, he likely would have rethought and rewritten the lytic.

Too, he was decidedly anti-war until the sinking of the USS Reuben James by the Germans in 1941. Guthrie went on to serve in the quasi-governmental Merchant Marines, and later the US Army. He recorded many anti-fascist songs including “Reuben James” and “Whoopy Ti-yi, Get Along, Mr. Hitler.” American Radical Patriot collects those tunes as well. While at first glance Guthrie’s populist sentiments might seem at odds with the idea of recording in the employ of the Federal government, closer inspection shows that it’s not at all inconsistent. Guthrie saw the federal government as a counterweight to some of the more anti-populist tendencies of state governance; in many ways he’s the polar opposite of the misguided, mean-spirited and short-sighted 21st century so-called “tea party” mentality.

The new set also includes innumerable goodies, but here’s a rundown of the most significant among these. First, there’s a DVD including a 99-minute documentary film Roll On Columbia; eleven of Guthrie’s songs are included. The liner notes – in a chapter entitled “The Bonneville Power Administration Recordings” — tell the story of one man’s heroic stewardship of films (including Guthrie’s music) that were ordered destroyed during the dark days of McCarthyism.

Though it’s of practical use to very few people, the set also includes a 10” 78rpm disc. The record includes an alternate recording of “The Biggest Thing that Man Has Ever Done” (originally cut for the BPA) and a flip-side recording of Bob Dylan covering Guthrie’s “VD Blues.”

The physical package itself is beyond amazing. Housed in a hardcover package designed to look and feel like an old-time “record album,” American Radical Patriot may well be the – from a visual/tactile aesthetic point of view – one of the most impressive box sets ever put together. The 60pp book (not a booklet!) bound inside is essential reading, though readers are advised against attempting to do so while listening ot the CDs. And if all that three-dimensional stuff isn’t enough, an e-book (also available on Disc One as a PDF, and in hard copy form for a nominal additional charge of about $13.50) presents a much longer and more in-depth version of the book included in the physical set.

As a cultural icon, Woody Guthrie, his oral histories and his music are all exemplars of the best qualities of the American experience. That a package such as American Radical Patriot is created to honor him is one of those why-didn’t-they-think-of-this-before things. But here it is. Simply essential.

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Book Review: Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker

Monday, October 14th, 2013

If you’ve been living and paying any attention to the human condition, you understand that people are complicated. We’re inconsistent, unpredictable, messy creatures. And even if one focuses on the “special” ones – those who excel at one thing or another, who are led up as exemplars of some sort – what’s inevitably found are flawed characters.

So it was with Charlie Parker. “Bird” is rightly honored as one of the most important names in jazz – specifically bebop – but wow, was he one messed up character. Writing a book that honors the first argument yet faces up to the second is no easy task, but with Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker, Chuck Haddix has hit a home run. Drawing on exhaustive research, Haddix has written a life-to-death biography that shines a bright light into the dark corners, while never ignoring the high points of the saxophone player’s life and work.

Who was Charlie Parker? Well, as Haddix’s portrait paints him, he was both a virtuoso and a thoroughly unprofessional musician. He was a doting lover and an incurable philanderer. He was a cheat, a liar, and a man who (sometimes) honored his word. He was a visionary bandleader and a guy who couldn’t hold his bands together. He was a lifelong abuser of heroin and alcohol, and a sick man who routinely self-medicated when “legitimate” medicine seemed not to help him.

But above, below and around it all was the music. Haddix charts the arc of Parker’s relatively short life and career (the man died in his early thirties, though the doctor who pronounced him dead judged him to be in his fifties) is a manner that puts the music first, yet weaves Parker’s personal and professional life into the mix to create a deeply textured portrait of the man.

The world of jazz (in the post WWII era especially) was a fairly small community. So it is with Haddix’s story that we find Parker interacting, Zelig-like almost, with nearly every “name” artist in jazz. But of course Bird was no bystander: he was often at the center of what was happening. He consistently both amazed and infuriated his contemporaries, most notably (though for different reasons) Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. And even though Bird is centrally about Parker, the author’s storytelling provides insight onto the character and demeanor of those who rotated into (and out of) Parker’s orbit as well.

Haddix is never sentimental, rarely rhapsodic, yet never clinical and sterile in his storytelling. So while Parker’s early demise is charted from the beginning as largely inevitable, the author avoids hamfisted foreshadowing and simply gets on with his detailed story.

One need not be a jazz fan to appreciate Bird; even at less than 200 pages, the book touches on so much American postwar cultural history that it’s essential reading for anyone interested in 20th century America. Perhaps the only criticism of Bird is its lack of a discography, but of course that can easily be found elsewhere. Adorned with thorough research notes and a stunning cover, Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker is highly recommended.

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