Archive for the ‘book’ Category

Book Review: The Clash — The Only Band That Mattered

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: British Invasion

Monday, January 12th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Best of 2014: Books

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

More best-ofs coming tomorrow.

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Book Review: 108 Rock Star Guitars

Monday, December 8th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: Led Zeppelin on Led Zeppelin

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: Who Killed Mister Moonlight?

Monday, November 24th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: Vinyl Lives On

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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