Archive for the ‘book’ Category

Book Review: Wounds to Bind

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

The 1960s music scene was populated with people who – if they survived – have tales to tell. First-hand witnesses to (or participants in) the social and cultural upheavals that changed the way we looked at the world; movers and shakers in the development of new and groundbreaking musical forms: those are the stories we enjoy reading.

With due respect to Jerry Burgan, one of several guitarists in folk-rock group We Five, his new book Wounds to Bind: A Memoir of the Folk-Rock Revolution is not a leading exemplar of those kinds of stories. This is not to say that his tale isn’t interesting; it most certainly is, and he (aided by coauthor Alan Rifkin) tells his story in brilliant detail, with much shade, light and color.

But the thing is, We Five are notable in equal parts for having one hit (the gloriously spine-tingling “You Were On My Mind”) and, it must be said, for being on the periphery — as opposed to being an active part –  of the scene. As worthy as “You Were On My Mind” was and is, the group didn’t write the song – Sylvia (Fricker) Tyson composed it. And Burgan didn’t come up with We Five’s inventive arrangement: guitarist/arranger Mike Stewart did that.

To his credit, Burgan never casts himself in the role of hero/protagonist: he never makes outsized claims as to his importance. Instead he places himself as close-proximity witness to the events that unfolded around him, and his recounting of the story maintains his sense of awe and wonder. Wounds to Bind isn’t a score-settling tome: Burgan has good things to say about (nearly) everyone with whom he worked. Still, Wounds to Bind does present one man’s perspective on the folk rock scene of the mid 1960s.

Burgan is at his rhapsodic best when writing about the arrangement and recording of “You Were On My Mind.” His (and Rifkin’s) written deconstruction of the song and its genesis serves to highlight the brilliance of the We Five version of the Ian and Sylvia tune. In fact, theirs is less a “version” and more a rethinking: in addition to changing the lyrics (for airplay), Mike Stewart and company created lyrical emphases that didn’t exist in the original, and added instrumental flourishes that made the song a timeless, transcendent piece of earnest folk-pop-rock.

Burgan’s recounting of his time on the road in Dick Clark‘s traveling revue is also a richly rewarding read. Of particular note are his characterization of Paul Revere and the Raiders, and his telling of a Thanksgiving episode in rural West Virginia. And Burgan rightly highlights the significance of having drummer John Chambers in the band in a time when mixed-race groups were highly unusual (to say the least). And his stories about We Five (by then on the downhill side of success) performing in front of ultraconservative audiences in Texas and Utah are well-told and (rare within the context of the book) simply hilarious.

The fact of the matter remains that We Five never capitalized on the success of their lone hit single. Near the book’s tail-end, Burgan recounts a recent conversation with Jerry Moss, co-founder (with Herb Alpert) of A&M Records, the label that released We Five’s music. Moss apparently has fond memories of the first We Five album, struggled to recall the second…and as for the third? Nothing. That same reaction likely holds true for even the hardest of hardcore sixties folk fans: nothing We Five did post-”You Were On My mind” got notice, and – based on Burgan’s telling of the story – not a whole lot of it was all that memorable anyway.

And therein lies the challenge in a book such as Wounds to Bind. The story that most people want to know about takes place within the space of a few years in the middle of the 1960s. But of course Burgan can’t just leave it like that; doing so wouldn’t make sense. So a chunk of the book (arguably a disproportionate amount) is given over to discussing events post-”You Were On My Mind.” Sadly, it gets less and less interesting – and farther from the core of the folk-rock story – as it goes along. Anecdotes about Burgan and his wife playing desultory gigs in Las Vegas and Reno are more than a little depressing, and his memories of Sammy Davis Jr., Jerry Van Dyke, and Gary Lewis are serious downers as well. And though Burgan makes no apologies for it – nor should he – the story of him moving into pharmaceutical sales seems to exemplify the “selling out” that so many sixties luminaries railed against.

That said, Burgan makes it clear that he – unlike pretty much every other figure from that era about whom I’ve ever read – was largely apolitical. And a guy’s gotta eat. So while no one’s questioning his life choices, a significant percentage of Wounds to Bind covers material that’s just not all that compelling.

Sad, too, are the fates met by all of Burgan’s ex-bandmates. Wounds to Bind does “solve” the “mystery” of whatever happened to vocalist Beverly Bivens, but that story might be met by most readers with a resigned shrug and a sigh. Surprisingly little is discussed about Burgan’s wife Debbie’s role as Bivens’ replacement in We Five (documented on the now-rare Return of the We Five and Catch the Wind LPs), beyond the author making clear again and again the Debbie didn’t much care for touring (or drugs).

Some mention is made of the 2009 compilation There Stands the Door, a best-of/rarities CD that shows We Five to far better effect than did their A&M releases, highlighting the fact that the group drew influences not only from folk (such as the group Mike Stewart‘s brother John was in, The Kingston Trio), but Tin Pan Alley and show tunes. That focus suggests that – had We Five held together and been better marketed by A&M, they might have had a shot at a place in the music scene not unlike Spanky and Our Gang achieved. But because A&M had their hands full with “adult” pop (The Tijuana Brass, Sergio Mendes’ Brasil ’66, The Baja Marimba Band), and viewed We Five as too far into the rock sound (ironic considering how little regard its members had for rock music in general), things never went that way.

At its best, Wounds to Bind is a fascinating memoir of an important time in music and culture. Unfortunately, at its worst, it’s simply not all that compelling. Many glaring errors (one moment The Raiders’ lead singer is named Marc Lindsay; the next’s he’s Mark Lindsay, then Marc again; that’s just one example of several I could cite) suggest that Wounds to Bind could have benefited from an editor’s careful once- or twice-over.

Verdict: a qualified recommendation. Parts One and Two are well-written, essential reading, and those who get that far will want to read the rest, but Part Three is downbeat and less rewarding for the reader.

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Book Review: The Next Elvis

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

There have been countless books written about Elvis Presley and/or the early years of Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. But a new book by someone who was there (for a time, at least) sheds some new light on the tiny yet famous and incalculably important label. Barbara Barnes SimsThe Next Elvis: Searching for Stardom at Sun Records is a quick, episodic trip through the period 1957-1960 at Sun Records. The author (then known by her coworkers at Sun as “BB,” short for her then-unmarried name) effectively replaced legendary figure Marion Keisker and worked as assistant to Sam Phillips for more than four years.

Viewed from one point of view, it can be said that during Barnes’ time at Sun, she was firsthand witness to the steady decline of the label: Elvis’ contract had already been sold to RCA; Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison both cut material for Sun and left for greener pastures; Jerry Lee Lewis‘ promising career effectively imploded in the wake of his marriage to his “almost fourteen year old” cousin Myra; and –as Barnes recounts in vivid detail – the promising talent of Charlie Rich was overlooked as not worth nurturing.

Barnes isn’t afraid to shine a light on the shortcomings of her boss and co-workers; she never does it from the standpoint of a dirt-disher; rather, as someone who knew these people as flesh-and-blood humans rather than iconic figures of pop culture history – she merely calls ‘em like she sees ‘em.

There’s a Mad Man-esque quality to Barnes’ reminiscences of her trips to the big (New York) and comparatively bad (Chicago) cities to take part in the old-boys networks of record company execs, mobbed-up jukebox companies, and the like; the sense of wonder experienced by the young Barnes (then in her mid-twenties) is palpable. Clear, too, is the impression that she was nobody’s fool, no pushover, no shrinking violet.

If you’ve ever read the (relatively brief) liner notes on the back of such treasured LPs as Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar! or Dance Album of Carl Perkins, you’ve read Barnes’ prose already. Her writing in The Next Elvis is every bit as clear and concise, but the book’s pace – a slightly choppy series of one- to three-page vignettes (the one-page “Sam Tells Me His Life Story” is an illustrative example) – feels a bit more like a manuscript than a finished book. Also – and, one supposes, befitting a Southern woman now in her late seventies or beyond – The Next Elvis has the feeling of a book that has left out some of the juicier bits.

A few characters from Barnes’ story leap off the pages, characterized by the author as in possession of more talent than their overall success might suggest. Billy Riley (aka Billy Lee Riley) is one; Jack Clement is another. And some of the characters – people you might think of as somewhat lovable – come off as just the opposite (Orbison is one, painted by Barnes as a deeply depressed figure). Of course Jerry Lee is every bit as volatile as one might expect. And The Next Elvis tells the reader more about the overlooked Jud Phillips (Sam’s brother) and his role in the label’s operations than any other book of which I’m aware.

Still, the author’s depiction of the man at the center of it all feels a bit too circumspect: Barnes seems to be trying mightily to walk the fine line between sketching a full and accurate portrait of Sam Phillips and honoring his memory by not going too far into the dark corners. To be fair, her characterization of Phillips (whose family cooperated to a great extent in providing images for the book) does suggest a divided, flawed man capable of greatness and its opposite, just like everybody.

The author’s work at Sun – or, more accurately, for Phillips International, an associated label – included the key responsibility of writing and laying out an industry tip sheet of sorts called Scandal Sheet. In this periodical, Barnes not only highlighted current Sun and Phillips International releases, but weighed in on worthy material put out by – gasp! – Phillips’ competitors. Such a broad-minded vision is all but unthinkable in the modern marketplace, but Barnes was a pioneer of this even-handed approach. It’s the sort of thing only a true fan of the music (and a gifted writer) could think of pulling off.

While it’s a worthy gambit to draw interested readers, the book’s title is ever-so-misleading as well: there’s little in Barnes’ written history that suggests anything along the lines of a talent search. More representative is the throwaway line about Sun staffers making an enemy of the postal carrier by refusing any and all unsolicited “audition tapes” sent in the mail. And though Barnes’ own tastes in those days often ran toward the harder rhythm and blues stuff, she makes it clear that Phillips’ failure to appreciate the importance of country music (not to mention his failure to anticipate its commercial rise) helped lead to the demise of the label’s best years.

The Next Elvis tells one person’s story of her experiences at Sun during an important period, and so for anyone with even the mildest interest in the history of rock’n'roll, it’s a worthwhile read.

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Book Review: One Way Out

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

The members of The Allman Brothers Band – and there have been many – tend to think of themselves as a jazz band. The onstage interplay owes, they argue convincingly, more to a jazz players’ aesthetic than to the comparatively aimless, noodling approach employed by a “jam band.”

That surprising fact was but one of the many things I learned reading Alan Paul‘s new “oral history” of the band, One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. This surprisingly engrossing book – I say “surprising” because while I enjoy large swaths of the ABB catalog, their history hasn’t interested me much beyond the all-too-brief Duane Allman days – draws the reader in and holds attention through the rocky, twisted path the group follows to the present day.

Causal fans (and for once, that term applies to me) tend to believe that keyboardist Gregg Allman and his guitarist brother Duane were the centerpiece of the band. But One Way Out argues forcefully – by the totality of its multi-person point of view – that the band was and remains much more than that. Bassist Berry Oakley, guitarist Dickey Betts and drummers Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson (Jaimoe) all contributed in their own significant ways to the band’s sound, personality, and aesthetic. The book explores the band’s history from its earliest days (in the form of the bands that would end up serving as “farm teams” for the original ABB) by quoting all of the available personalities involved. Alan Paul’s history with the ABB extends far back into the mists of time, so many of his interviews date back far as well. The author occasionally weighs in at key points (noting his contributions in italics) only to provide context where a direct quote won’t work as well. And as he notes in his introduction, when accounts vary – or stand in mirror opposition – he does his best to give both (or all) sides equal time, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions (or not).

The band’s history is so tumultuous – and some of its mid-period work so drearily uninspired – that readers may be cheering part-way through for the band to throw in the towel. But just when things look the darkest, some sort of turnaround takes place. Maybe it’s a half-hearted, cash-inspired one (see: the group’s Arista years), or maybe it’s thanks to the infusion of some fresh, new talent into the fold (see: the additions of Chuck Leavell, Warren Haynes, and Derek Trucks).

As best as he can, author (“editor” might be a better word) Paul alternates between featuring band member voices as fluidly as possible. But at key points in the story – most notably whenever Gregg Allman is in one of his frequent drug- and alcohol-related downward spirals – certain members seem to go silent. (By “certain members,” I of course refer to Gregg Allman.) It’s not difficult to envision in one’s mind’s eye a scene in which some or other member is recounting Gregg’s detachment from active membership in the band, while across the room, the keyboardist is staring at the floor, quietly and ineffectually mumbling. This is, however, the only characteristic of the book that can conceivably be termed a flaw. The book’s narrative style overall has the feel of being in a room with all the principals, each weighing in when they have something relevant to offer.

Those whose interest lay more with the intricacies of how the band worked in the studio might find One Way Out a bit shallow on that score; far more space is given over to exploring the interpersonal relationships among the band members, their crew (nominally considered equals to the band, but often not treated as such), and wives/girlfriend etc.

That said, the voices of most of the female characters (and nearly all of the crew) fade away mid-way through One Way Out. Judging from the manner in which the members are quoted, it would seem that around the time of Haynes’ first tenure with the ABB, the collective focus was placed (back) onto the music. The results as represented by their music tend to support this interpretation.

With the obvious exception of the departures of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley (and Haynes, though he’d return), when a member leaves the band, the collective voice portrayed in One Way Out makes it seem largely for the best. The wondrously talented Leavell is seen to have not been given a fair chance, and to have had certain factions aligned against him (fairly or not), dooming any chance of his long-term success within the ABB.

And when Dickey Betts finally leaves (did he jump or was he pushed?), many readers will breathe a sigh of relief, while never questioning the man’s talent. Those not deeply familiar with the band may well wish they had a bookmark in the form of a laminated “Rock Family Tree” a la Pete Frame to help them keep score on the who’s-in-who’s-out nature of the band, and especially in the earlier parts of One Way Out, it’s easy to lose track of whether a given quoted character is a player, roadie, friend, or something else. But in the end (and with some key exceptions), who’s saying what matters less than the overall collective thrust of the narrative.

As any book of this sort should do, One Way Out will renew the reader’s interest in revisiting long-forgotten tracks, and may lead them to explore material with which they hadn’t previously bothered. To that end, Paul helpfully appends the book with a critical rundown of the ABB catalog. Perhaps his decision not to present the catalog in chronological order might have something to do with a wish to avoid exposing just how lengthy a weak patch the ABB endured. But Paul argues convincingly for some lesser-known gems among the dross, and he isn’t afraid to call out the band for their ill-advised, lifeless product when doing so is warranted.

Essential reading for fans of this widely-loved band that calls itself a jazz group, One Way Out is also a fascinating read for anyone wishing to go deeper than the music of The Allman Brothers Band.

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Book Review: Power Pop Prime, Vol. 3

Friday, June 27th, 2014

Powerpop fans are in some ways like metal fans. They – or shall I say we – are hardcore fanatics of a narrow slice of the pop music spectrum, and the rest of the world looks on wondering what the fuss is all about: “What’s the appeal?”

I come here today not to try to win you over as to the joys of powerpop. (Well, maybe I do, but, whatever.) Instead I’d like to talk about a new book – third in a series, in fact – titled Power Pop Prime Vol. 3, 2000-2001 – A Pop Geeks’ Guide to Awesome: The Not Lame Years. (For our purposes, let’s call it PPP3.)

Written (or, more accurately: written, compiled and edited) by Bruce Brodeen, the new book is an idiosyncratic compendium of writings on the subject of, well, you guessed it. As with the first two entries in this ongoing series, PPP3 collects essays, interviews and reviews and adds in scanned images of all the NotLame catalogs Brodeen created and mailed back in the day. For the uninitiated, NotLame was a one-man label run by Brodeen, with the express mission of bringing worthy powerpop to the masses.

Okay, not the masses: more like the committed few. And I was one of those. Starting in the mid 1990s, those photocopied catalogs would show up in my mailbox every now and then, and while I only occasionally placed an order (online ordering was still in its infancy, and many of us had 14.4 kbps dial-up modems), I always enjoyed reading through the richly verbose catalogs.

In those catalogs, Brodeen would go on endlessly (or so it seemed) about the sublime joys of some or other unknown powerpop group. I recall thinking, “Wow. They can’t all be as good as he claims.” And in fact they weren’t. Some were hopelessly ordinary, despite Brodeen’s charming application of more superlatives than one might think possible. If I was hardcore (and I was/am) then Brodeen was whatever the hardcore-to-an-exponential-power would be.

Fully half of PPP3 is (again, like previous and future volumes) pages filled with generally high-resolution copies of those catalogs. And since they were really more than catalogs – think if them instead as huge treasure troves of mini-reviews – they do make worthwhile reading. Brodeen did indeed champion some really fine stuff that might otherwise have gone even more unnoticed than it did. For those who enjoyed the mail order catalogs but didn’t archive them for future reading, PPP3 and its companions are a delightful trip down powerpop memory lane.

But it’s the first half of the book that holds the wider appeal. Yes, the subject is and remains powerpop (if you’ve read this far and need a genre definition, think of it as hard-rocking, highly hooky-filled and melodic music, generally delivered in bursts of three to four minutes). But the first half contains some excellent sections on overlooked albums, artists and compilations. Certainly the lists betray the bias of their author, which is of course fine. And Brodeen is quite opinionated; as a critic (which he is, along with being a collector, writer, etc.), he should be. What this means is that he argues in favor of Owsley‘s second album The Hard Way as his best; I, on the other hand, find it lacking in hooks, and inferior in most every way to the man’s debut album. But that’s just inside-baseball quibbling. Brodeen does spotlight what is for me one of the criminally overlooked albums of the aughts (2000-2009), Starling Electric‘s Clouded Staircase. It’s essential listening for anyone who likes Pet Sounds, Guided by Voices and Teenage Fanclub: in fact it sounds like the nexus of all three.

Earlier editions in the PPP series were heavy on interviews, but those were less than they could be because they were straight transcriptions of email interviews. The same set of questions is posited to each artist, followed by the answers. A bit of editing – a skill at which Brodeen excels – could have made these more readable. Here in PPP3, however, there’s but one extended interview, and it’s with David Bash, founder/curator of the International Pop Overthrow festival series. It’s a fascinating conversation, and PPP3 is much stronger for including it rather than a pile of the canned interviews.

The market for books such as PPP3 is admittedly narrow, but for those who have been hipped to the joys of powerpop, it’s absolutely essential reading. But be warned: spend time leafing through it, and you’ll end up with a want-list that will almost certainly include some out-of-print music you won’t be able to find. Such is the fate of far too much great music in the powerpop genre.

Note: Vols. 1, 2, 7 and 9(!) in the Power Pop Prime series have already been published. The first two are sold out / out of print. Wait and you might miss out. Order here and nowhere else.

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Book Review: Bob Dylan, American Troubadour

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

Allow me to begin with some relevant disclosure: I’m much more a “music guy” than a “lyrics guy.” I can know the words to a song – sing along with them after a fashion, even – and not give much more than a passing thought to the meaning behind (or intent within) the lyrics. There are exceptions, to be sure: the lyrics to some song can bring me to tears with their button-pushing poignancy. But in general I tend to focus less on the overall meaning of a lyric, concerning myself instead with the emotional content conveyed within the instrumentation and tone of voice. Thing is, that approach often gets me to the same place as it would for someone who pays close attention to the words.

For some artists, of course, the lyrics are the thing. The music is secondary, or at least existing primarily to further the lyrical thrust. One such artist is Bob Dylan. Over the course of near-innumerable albums, Dylan has crafted lyrics that are endlessly pored over by those attempting to glean his intent.

And in that vein, there have been – as author Donald Brown notes in his new book, Bob Dylan: American Troubadour – several Dylans. There was first the interpreter and synthesist of the work of others (most notably the catalog of Woody Gurthrie). Then there was the “protest singer,” perhaps Dylan’s most celebrated guise. Then there was the Blonde on Blonde era “Judas,” the Dylan who went electric to the disgust of some of his “pure folk” adherents. From there it was the retreating singer/songwriter, then the iconoclastic stylist who produced a stunning run of 70s albums (the most notable of which remains Blood on the Tracks).

And then there was the (on its surface, at least) bizarre born-again phase, yielding what would – for a time – rank as Dylan’s weakest efforts (he do worse later). Then there was the wizened troubadour with nothing to prove, a relatively unambitious artist whose dashed-off production style betrayed lack of interest in, well, much of anything. And finally, there’s the Dylan of today, a sort of grand old man / card shark type who releases occasionally brilliant releases, and whose erratic releases each contain scattered gems.

Brown’s book is an ambitious project: attempting to analyze the lyrics of the artist whose every word – both in songs and interviews – has been picked apart already. There are many potential pitfalls in such a project: one can become too studied, resulting in a document that is so “scholarly” as to hold no interest for the less-than-hardcore reader. Or one can go overboard and make rash assertions: “This is what Dylan meant.”

But Donald Brown deftly avoids the ditches on both side of his road to understanding Dylan. While his analysis is keen and concise, he never goes so far as to assert that a lyric definitely means any one specific thing. But neither does he come off as tentative, which would also be at best unsatisfying and at worst boring. Brown’s approach is to set each album (or era) against the backdrop of what was happening in society, politics, public life, music and Dylan’s personal life, then examine key lyrics from music in that period. He then suggests what could be at work, and leaves it to the reader to make his or her own judgments. His skill in applying this approach – again and again, through Dylan’s more difficult works – is staggeringly impressive.

Brown makes some assertions that are a bit outside the box, but he backs them up with strong, reasoned arguments. As Brown would have it, the Christian phase of Dylan’s work is not wholly unexpected within the arc of his career overall; Brown points out that many examples from that period have a fire-and-brimstone, Old Testament feel that isn’t exactly new thinking.

More importantly, Brown takes down a peg some of Dylan’s most celebrated works, and suggests a contemporary reexamination of his less-loved releases. Brown – an unapologetic fan of Dylan’s work – never makes excuses for the weakest and most erratic pieces of Dylan’s output, but he does suggest that even within those albums lie some worthy tracks.

Brown never shies away from criticizing some of Dylan’s missteps – his uninspiring, unsatisfying collaborations with The Grateful Dead, to name one of the big ones – but he goes deeper, endeavoring to discover the motivations behind such moves. And his conclusions make all kinds of common sense.

Time spent with this highly readable book will almost certainly send readers back to rediscover Dylan’s work, and the reader will come away with a new appreciation for Dylan’s more popular material, as well. Highly recommended.

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Book Review: Joe Meek’s Bold Techniques

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

People like sensational stories. It’s an unfortunate fact, because the public’s focus on the superficial and lurid often obscures a deeper, nuanced story beneath. Barry Cleveland is not one of those people who is satisfied – or even interested – in the shallow, sensational stuff. Thank goodness for that, because his book Joe Meek’s Bold Techniques (newly reprinted in an updated second edition) instead focuses on the independent producer’s studio innovations, which is, after all, why Joe Meek is important.

Cleveland’s concise, conversational writing style is uniquely suited to a discussion of Meek’s studio techniques. What Meek did, in many cases, was to develop forward-looking methods of creating and adapting sounds, often bending the function of then-existing equipment to suit his ambitious goals. Not exactly a savant, Meek possessed considerable technical prowess, but was sorely lacking in other areas (to name one, he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket). So most discussions of what-he-did and how-he-did-it would tend to get fairly deep into the weeds of studio jargon and technical language. But in the more than capable hands of Cleveland (an accomplished musician in his own right), Meek’s story is told in a manner that the non-musician can understand and appreciate. Even if one has never set foot in a recording studio and has no idea what things like flanging, panning and multi-tracking are, a read through Joe Meek’s Bold Techniques will not only provide clear, understandable descriptions, but it will also help the reader learn why Meek’s work in the studio was so groundbreaking.

Meek was responsible for a lot of hits on the UK charts, especially in the pre-Beatles era. The Tornadoes‘ “Telstar” is far and away his most well-known production, followed closely by The Honeycombs‘ “Have I the Right.” But he produced quite a few other tracks, many of which are significant in their use of various studio wizardry.

Some writers have attempted to draw parallels between Meek and another deeply troubled studio genius, but the approaches of Joe Meek and Phil Spector differ greatly. Again, setting aside the sensational elements, a more apt comparison might be made – as Cleveland illustrates – between Meek and Les Paul, the man generally credited with the development of multitracking (sound-on-sound layering of recording tracks).

In addition to a historical run-through of Joe Meek’s career as a producer, Cleveland also goes into great detail – in the style of a forensic accountant – concerning the equipment Meek bought and/or had at his disposal, and the ends to which it was applied. Even here, Cleveland deftly balances the need to provide great technical detail with the goal of telling a good story that will hold the interest of non-techies.

Cleveland’s approach also involves extensive interviews with as many people as possible who were connected to Joe Meek. So as a result, the reader gets the perspective of fellow studio technicians, as well as studio musicians who worked with him. (The most notable of these is Ritchie Blackmore, who did some truly amazing work on a Meek production of The Outlaws‘ 1964 raver “Shake With Me.”) The author also draws upon interviews that Meek himself gave for a BBC documentary. Taken together, and supported and expanded by Cleveland’s keen analysis, the result is a three-dimensional portrait of Joe Meek and his pioneering work.

As an essential companion to his incisive track-by-track deconstruction and scrutiny of Meek’s 1959 recording I Hear a New World: An Outer Space Music Fantasy, Cleveland provides a streaming version of the album on his website, not in its officially released form, but instead as Meek had originally intended it. This undeniably idiosyncratic work remains highly evocative of the scenes Meek had in mind: when my partner heard “Entry of the Globbots,” she remarked – not having read the book or knowing the album’s background – “It sounds like like little guys marching on Mars, waving batons.” Bingo. A listener with a more musically studied ear might note similarities between parts of I Hear a New World with the work of Frank Zappa, Ennio Morricone, and The Residents, though Meek’s work is more accessible than two of those three (guess which).

Joe Meek’s Bold Techniques is highly recommended reading for anyone wishing to better understand how modern pop music recording techniques developed.

NOTE: Joe Meek’s Bold Techniques is available in both print and eBook versions by following this link.

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Book Review: Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

One need not dig very deep into the collected history of popular music to discover tales of artists who’ve been ripped off, gotten the short end of the stick, been robbed or gotten screwed. And for a long list of reasons – many of which have to do with our country’s history of racism – African-Americans share a disproportionate amount of the shelf space of those artists. Not to say that white artists didn’t get cheated regularly too, especially in the 1950s and 60s.

Huey “Piano” Smith is, in some ways, just another name on that long and shameful list. His authorship of some of pop music’s treasured titles – “Sea Cruise,” “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,” “Don’t you Just Know It” and a handful of others – is shared (in a legal sense) with others, and the saga of the ownership of his songs makes for a sad and demoralizing tale.

That tale forms the basis of John Wirt‘s new book, Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues. Charting Smith’s life and career form his beginning in New Orleans, Wirt paints a picture of a man seeming all too ready to place in his trust in the latest of a long line of so-called advocates — lawyers, business people, managers, promoters – each of which (the author makes plain) takes his cut and then pretty much splits. Repeatedly, Smith sours on said advocate, and then the legal machinations being anew.

And each time, nearly without fail, things work out in favor of the other guy. Wirt’s book is not an upbeat one: the book reads like a relentless parade of bad decisions, misplaced faith, and unscrupulous characters. And for his part, Smith doesn’t seem to be the sharpest guy around: he gets suspicious of those who might (might, I say) have his best interests at heart, while remaining unflinchingly trusting of those who (the story suggests) stand ready to exploit him at every turn.

Often Smith seems to get in the way of his own success. He comes off in the book as someone who can’t quite decide if he wants success in music or not (though it’s clear at every turn that he wants and deserves respect, something else entirely). Burned far too many times, the man largely gave up on his music career in favor of a life centered around his marriage and devotion to his particular brand of religion (he’s a devout Jehovah’s Witness). Over and over in the story, Wirt chronicles what at first looks like a good opportunity for Smith to work his way back to a secure place in the music business. And every time, he’s foiled, either by his own erratic and idiosyncratic (that’s my take, based on a reading of Wirt’s book) approach, or by people out to stick it to him for their own material gain.

The book tends in places to get a bit bogged down with the details (depressing as they are) of Smith’s many dealings with the judicial system, but in fairness to the author, therein lies the meat of the story. The book isn’t as much about music as one might like, but then Smith’s life story is not as much about music as anyone might like.

The story as laid out in Wirt’s book more or less peters out around 2005, and a quick Google search yields little more information about Smith’s current activities beyond the assumption that Smith remains among the living. (Unsurprisingly, there’s no official Huey Smith web site; if there were, no doubt it would be another case of someone else making money off the musician’s name.)

Writ does take pains to sketch out Smith’s importance as a musician and composer, and to quote the many artists who claim him as an influence. Dr. John (Mac Rebbenack) is mentioned and quoted frequently, as he drifts in and out of the periphery of Smith’s story.

In sum, Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues is recommended – it’s deeply researched and well-written – but potential readers are warned that Smith’s story is a frustrating, largely unhappy one. At the end of the book, Wirt suggests that Huey “Piano” Smith has come somewhat to terms with his lot in life, having found peace in his religion. The typical reader is unlikely to come away from the book feeling nearly as settled.

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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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