MUSIC BOOK REVIEWS: WINTER 2000-2001
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The Beatles Anthology, by the Beatles (Chronicle Books). About five years after the Beatles history video project Anthology, and the three-volume double CDs of rare/unreleased material that accompanied it, the book component of the Anthology extravaganza was issued. Like the Anthology video, it was devised as a way for the Beatles to tell their story in their own words, with occasional contributions from a very select few friends/collaborators. So although The Beatles Anthology bears the byline "by the Beatles," this is in fact not a standard text narrative but an oral history, largely comprised of extended quotes by Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, produced especially for the book. Filling in the volume are a ton of vintage quotes by John Lennon (who of course, having died in 1980, was unable to contribute fresh observations), as well as occasional bits from longtime road manager/assistant Neil Aspinall, publicist Derek Taylor, and producer George Martin, along with even more occasional soundbites of 1960s quotes by McCartney, Harrison, Starr, Brian Epstein, the Maharishi, and even Stuart Sutcliffe. As a visual work, The Beatles Anthology is mighty impressive: the oversized coffee table book contains hundreds of photos, many rarely or never before seen, exquisitely reproduced and laid out. As a written document of the Beatles' experiences, the volume is also extremely impressive, though not without its flaws. For most readers, the flaws will be minor or unnoticed, as the group speaks with considerable candor, intelligence, and insight about all aspects of the Beatles' lives: the music, recording, touring, infighting, volatile business affairs, Liverpool childhoods, cultural impact, and more. For the Beatles expert, much of the stories and facts will be very familiar. Yet it must be conceded that even the Beatlemaniac will probably find anecdotes and perspectives that they have never come across before, whether it's George Harrison talking about how "Within You Without You" was cobbled together from elements of a Ravi Shankar piece, or Paul McCartney reflecting at length upon why Harrison might have gotten fed up with McCartney's tendency to dictate what George should play on guitar. It's 350 pages of great entertainment on that level, but if you've read a bunch of Beatles bios and autobios, and seen the Anthology video, you'll know much of it, and in fact recognize some quotes as having been taken from those sources verbatim or near-verbatim. The Beatles do go into some testy matters that were glossed over or entirely omitted from theAnthology video, particularly their breakup and Phil Spector's role in the production of Let It Be. Unavoidably, of course, the perspective is skewed toward their bias, particularly as some key characters -- pre-Ringo drummer Pete Best, Yoko Ono, Allen Klein, and others -- have no say at all. It's also an unavoidable problem that Lennon's vintage quotes cannot benefit from the perspective and depth that the surviving trio of Beatles' contributions were allowed to reach. Yes, it's a hugely enjoyable and valuable book, one that actually justifies its huge ($60) list price. Just be aware that it only presents a few (albeit the most important) sides of the story, and not all sides of the incredible tale of the Beatles' career.
The Beatles Files, by Andy Davis (CLB). From 1963-69, the Beatles were frequently photographed by the Daily Mirror, one of Britain's most popular newspapers. More than 400 of these pictures, the majority previously unpublished, are reproduced in this slim (150-page) coffeetable hardback volume, with accompanying text by Andy Davis. Sure, this is for the hardcore Beatles fan; there are better pictorial-oriented books on the group, and the narrative consists of basic commentary on the circumstances of the photos, with skeletal outlines of their major career developments. For what it is, though, it's not bad. The photos are reproduced well, and are often hard or impossible to come across elsewhere. Some of the images are pretty cool: the Beatles with Gerry & the Pacemakers, Brian Epstein, and Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas sitting on a low wall in 1963, for instance, or Paul McCartney conducting the Black Dyke Mills Band in 1968 with Martha his sheepdog (the Martha that inspired "Martha My Dear") at his side, or a sad-looking Pete Best in his Liverpool home in 1965. There are also some seldom-printed quotes and press extracts (often taken from the Daily Mirror) in the text, giving a sense of how the Beatles' actions and accomplishments were received and critiqued by the media at the time. It can easily be read in a night, and isn't a bad supplement to a large Beatles library, though there aren't many photos of the group members after 1967 (and only one from after 1967 including all four members), as they'd stopped playing live and become less accessible to photojournalists.
The Beatles Unseen Archives, by Tim Hill and Marie Clayton (Dempsey Parr). There are 600 photos, and almost 400 pages, of the Beatles in this glossy-stock, large-format paperback, spanning their entire recording career, and also venturing a little into their solo years. Taken from the archives of the British Daily Mail paper, many are from negatives never previously printed. In truth, though, a lot of the images are familiar to even mild Beatles fans, whether or not these are the exact same photographs they've seen before: filming their movies, touring the world, marrying, getting busted for drugs, and so on. The images are reproduced well and are fun to look at, but there aren't too many rare or unusual finds that really stick out. Highlights include the Beatles touring a snowy Washington, DC on their first US visit, dressed up in costume for a Magical Mystery Tour launch party, George Harrison packing at his family's Liverpool home before the first American tour...nothing too extraordinary in other words. There are captions and small paragraphs of text throughout, but these are very cursory, and probably tells most Beatles admirers nothing they don't already know. Not a bad thing to have, and easy to get through in a night, but not one of the more essential photo-oriented studies of the Beatles to hit the market. If you want something similar with more entertaining text, there's Andy Davis' Beatles Files, taken from the archives of another British paper, the Daily Mirror; it's a much slimmer volume, but the writing goes into the circumstances behind the photos with more depth.
Michael Bloomfield: If You Love These Blues: An Oral History, by Jan Mark Wolkin and Bill Keenom (Miller Freeman). Except for about five years in the mid-to-late 1960s, Michael Bloomfield wasn't that prolific a recording artist. Also, although he achieved some fair sales with his albums with Al Kooper, the Electric Flag, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, he really wasn't that big a star either. So is there enough material to justify a full-length oral history of the man, fully based around extended interview quotes from those who knew him (with a few of Bloomfield's own observations thrown in from archive interviews)? When it's as well done and interesting as this volume is, the answer is an emphatic yes. The authors accumulated memories from dozens of people who knew Bloomfield, for a night or for decades, usually from first-hand conversations (supplemented by some material from outside sources), including a good many important musicians and industry people with whom the guitarist crossed paths. The illustrious list includes Carlos Santana, Elvin Bishop, Al Kooper, Barry Goldberg, Nick Gravenites, John Hammond Jr., Charlie Musselwhite, B.B. King, Butterfield keyboardist Mark Naftalin, Butterfield drummers Billy Davenport and Sam Lay, Maria Muldaur, Bill Graham, and Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. The stories are interesting enough in and of themselves: of the young Bloomfield becoming an acolyte and friend of Chicago bluesmen in the early 1960s when very few Whites were in the audiences of blues clubs, innovating hard electric blues-rock with the Butterfield Blues Band and as a sideman to Bob Dylan on Highway 61 Revisited, and making fitful attempts to reach beyond the blues-rock template with the soul-rock-psychedelia of the Electric Flag and his Super Session album with Al Kooper. What also emerges, however, is the portrait of a sensitive, intellectually formidable, yet troubled man unable to make the most of his talents, particularly in the 1970s, when medical and drug problems seem to wear down his resiliency and drive. The book also illustrates how Bloomfield's influence was greater than is apparent from his (at times quite impressive) discography, inspiring musicians such as Dylan and numerous San Francisco psychedelic bands not only with his skill, but also his generous and humorous spirit. It's good absorbing reading, its appeal not solely limited to Bloomfield devotees, effectively augmented by a thorough critical discography and a bound-in CD of seven rare electric and acoustic recordings from 1964.
Follow the Music, by Jac Holzman & Gavan Daws (FirstMedia). Co-author Jac Holzman founded Elektra Records and ran the label until 1973, in which time it had grown from a tiny esoteric folk and classical company to one of the most successful indies of all time, famous for recording Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Tim Buckley, Love, Fred Neil, Tom Paxton, the Stooges, the MC5, Paul Butterfield, and above all the Doors. This uneven but generally absorbing semi-autobiography follows the oral history format: there is no authorial prose, just quotes, ranging from brief to massive, from Holzman and dozens of Elektra artists, staff members, and peripheral figures in Elektra's evolution. For anyone with more than a passing interest in sixties rock and folk, there's a mountain of interesting stories about the records and lives of the Doors, Collins, Butterfield, and most of the notable Elektra roster, including not just their flagship artists but also relatively little-known ones such as Judy Henske, Kathy & Carol, and Joshua Rifkin. A frustration is that readers with a real wide interest will find the distribution of print to Elektra cult artists uneven: there's just a little on Fred Neil, Tom Rush, and the Dillards, for instance, and virtually nothing on Clear Light, David Blue, and Eclection, to name a few examples. Also, there's more ink than some would like on successful but less hip seventies musicians like Bread, Harry Chapin, and Queen. Holzman needed a superhuman drive to build his company into an industry power, and although some unflattering aspects of his character and controversial incidents are discussed, a hagiographic tone sometimes seeps through. In addition, some of the business-oriented details of the story, such as the build-up of distribution and negotiations behind the eventual sale of Elektra to Warner Brothers, will lose readers that aren't curious about the financial side of the record industry. These reservations, however, are far outweighed by the wealth of illuminating inside anecdotes and observations. Too, these are underscored by subtle reminders of how the kind of personal, maverick, taste-driven record-making that Elektra excelled at in the sixties would largely vanish in subsequent years. The 2000 paperback edition of Follow the Music, incidentally [ISBN # 096612210-0], comes with a bound-in CD of 26 songs by Elektra folk, blues, and folk-rock artists of the 1950s and 1960s, including Judy Collins, Phil Ochs, Tim Buckley, the Incredible String Band, the Dillards, Judy Henske, and Fred Neil.
Red Dust and Broadsides, by Agnes "Sis" Cunningham and Gordon Friesen (University of Massachusetts Press). From the 1930s through the end of the twentieth century, Sis Cunningham and Gordon Friesen were social activists and political radicals. The married couple made their biggest impact by founding and producing Broadside, the topical folk song magazine that provided exposure in the 1960s for new singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Malvina Reynolds, Janis Ian, Eric Andersen, and many others. This is their joint autobiography, and those who are interested primarily in their musical activities might be disappointed to note that only about a tenth of the 350-page volume focuses on the Broadside years. Their lives prior to the 1960s were not dull at all, involving growing up in hardship in the rural Midwest, working in left-wing political and art organizations while withstanding considerable harassment in the post-Depression era, and living in harsh poverty in New York City after World War II, due in large part to journalist Friesen getting blacklisted for his politics. Yet the book is not as exciting as their story most likely was. The writing is jumpy -- due in some, but not entire, part to the narrative voice alternating between Friesen and Cunningham -- and there is a great concentration upon folksy but mundane incidents from their early lives in particular. Given its length, the text unaccountably gives little or no coverage to some of their most interesting and trying experiences; you have to read editor Ronald D. Cohen's detailed afterword to get a clearer picture of the key turns of events in their lives. It's like a somewhat raw record of their recollections that would have taken more focus, or more of a writerly eye, to really make their times compel the reader. That's unfortunate, because there are accounts of twentieth century American radicalism here -- Communist organizing during the Depression era, the Green Corn Rebellion during World War I, and the terrible life-threatening indigence suffered by many of the inner-city poor during the supposedly prosperous 1950s -- that are all but buried by mainstream history. As for the coverage of Broadside, there are some interesting anecdotes and perspectives of the perennially struggling but very influential magazine. Yet even here, one senses that a whole bookful of incidents that could have been related for the Broadside years alone are just given the basic tour, with little specific stories or memories on the community the couple helped anchor, and the recordings Broadside produced.
This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, by Levon Helm with Stephen Davis (A Cappella Books). Helm, drummer and frequent vocalist in the Band, tells the story of the group from his viewpoint in this autobiography (reissued in 2000 by A Cappella Books), which also includes some coverage of his career as an actor, childhood, and post-Band projects. His anecdotes of growing up in humble circumstances in Arkansas are folksy and not so gripping; the narrative gets going properly when Helm joins Ronnie Hawkins' backing group in the late 1950s. This is the band that, with a series of personnel adjustments, would become the Hawks, who would become the Band, and Helm delivers a bunch of raisin'-hell-on-the-road stories before they hook up with Bob Dylan in 1965 and begin their transformation into more serious artists. Actually Helm left the group for a couple of years in late 1965, discouraged by the boos for Dylan's early live electric performances, so the coverage of the era leading up to the formation of the Band proper is a little patchy. It's the late-1960s Band era, of course, that gets more ink than anything else. Helm has a lot to say, most of it interesting, about the group's teamwork and creative process. He also has a lot to say, much of it controversial, about the problems that quickly led to their creative decline and dissolution, specifically citing Robbie Robertson. Make no mistake about it: Helm feels that Robertson took way too much songwriting credits and publishing for the Band's original material than he deserved, disenchanting the other members and dampening their incentive to write after the Band's second album. He's also bitter about Robertson's decision to kill the Band by retiring from touring for The Last Waltz, a movie that Helm participated in grudgingly. And for good measure he adds a lot of criticism of The Last Waltz director Martin Scorsese, and original Band manager Albert Grossman. Throughout the text, there are supplementary extended quotes by fellow Band member Rick Danko, producer John Simon, and some other people that knew Helm, somewhat impeding the flow even as they add valuable perspectives. Helm does offer a valid viewpoint that doesn't quite lose its cool, and contrasts interestingly with the attitudes of Robertson toward the Band's past. Barney Hoskyns' Band biography is a more critical, objective, and well-written portrait of the group, but Helm's autobiography is a worthwhile supplement to that volume.
2000 MUSIC BOOK REVIEWS
Backstage Passes: Life on the Wild Side with David Bowie, by Angela Bowie with Patrick Carr (Cooper Square Press). Angela Bowie, the wife of David Bowie for the first half of the 1970s, delivered this salacious memoir of her times with the star; she would have likely done so sooner had not the terms of her 1980 divorce settlement prohibited her from not discussing the marriage in the media. Angela was something of a star herself, not so much for her own acting and singing talents as for her outlandish behavior and numerous liaisons, sexual and otherwise, with fellow celebrities. She did play an important role in the rise of her husband to international stardom by boosting his self-confidence, helping to develop the theatricality and bisexuality in his presentation, and performing various quasi-managerial roles, ranging from doing the cooking and getting him to bathe regularly to helping to get rid of and hire his actual managers. This was done, she writes, with the understanding that David would reciprocate by helping her become a star actress once he had become a pop music giant. This, of course, did not happen, Angela ascribing much of this to David's self-absorption and emotional distance in general, and to his cocaine addiction in particular. By far the most interesting parts of the book are the tales from the early days in their relationship, when David Bowie was assembling the parts for his Ziggy Stardust persona, with his wife's help; there are details, for instance, on how the Spiders from Mars were formed and how Bowie wrote songs that appeared on his early albums. David, however, to a large part disappears from the narrative after mid-1973 or so, when his drug use increased and he moved to the United States (without his wife), the couple leading increasingly separate lives before separating for good a few years later. David's diminishing role makes way for numerous saucy tales of encounters with other legends -- sometimes flattering, sometimes nasty, sometimes both -- including Lou Reed, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Rod Stewart, and Mick Jagger. Angela also has harsh words for early Bowie managers Ken Pitt and Tony Defries (and it should be pointed out that Pitt's own memoir of his experiences with David Bowie, ThePitt Report, gives readers a much different perspective than Backstage Passes does). No doubt some of the chronology is scrambled and details inaccurate; for instance, she places one incident with an out-of-control Keith Moon in 1979, the year after his death. As tell-all books go, this is far from the worst or the best. The writing is clear and often intelligent, and as expected the parade of recollections of her bisexual affairs and meetings with hangers-on of the glam scene get wearisome in such a large measure. Originally published in 1993, and reissued by Cooper Square Press in 2000.
Get a Shot of Rhythm Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story, by Richard Younger (The University of Alabama Press). Is there enough to the life of early soul singer Arthur Alexander to merit a book-length biography? Just about, though even at 200 pages it's stretched to the limit. Although his name isn't too familiar to much of the public, Alexander's blend of RB, pop, and country was both important to setting the format for early soul music, and a big influence on British Invasion bands. In particular, the Beatles covered his composition "Anna," and also did a few other songs from his early repertoire in their live and radio sets ("A Shot of Rhythm Blues," "Soldiers of Love," and "Where Have You Been"), while the Rolling Stones made "You Better Move On" the centerpiece of their first EP. In addition, musicians and producers involved in Alexander's early recordings later became essential to the southern soul sound. Alexander himself, however, was a bit of a withdrawn enigma, fading from the charts by the mid-1960s, and artistically sputtering out by the end of the decade, due both to less impressive material and personal problems (including substance abuse). Younger did get to talk to Alexander at some length before the singer's 1993 death, and also tracked down an impressive number of the people who worked with him, either briefly or extensively, at some point between the early 1960s and early 1990s. The thing is, Alexander did not record prolifically, and by 1966 had gotten his best work out of the way on his first dozen singles. Nor was he an especially loquacious or revealing interview subject. So the text is earnest in intent, and always thorough in research, yet sometimes mundane in content, only of interest to manic soul fans or those extremely familiar with Alexander's music. It's a competent job, though, and certainly of use to those who want a glimpse into one of the more interesting secondary figures of 1960s soul and pop. The narrative does pick up some momentum in the final sections, when Alexander's heartening and successful comeback is stopped, literally, dead in its tracks by the singer's death shortly after the release of his 1993 album Lonely Just Like Me, his first album in twenty years.
No More Sad Refrains: The Life and Times of Sandy Denny, by Clinton Heylin (Helter Skelter). Sandy Denny was the finest British folk-rock singer of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and this is a good, though not flawless, biography. Some might find it a bit of a choppy read because it, like Heylin's Bob Dylan Behind the Shades, mixes conventional narrative text by the author with extended, paragraph-long block quotes by his interview subjects. That does give a lot of people who knew Denny the chance to speak at length, though, and Heylin tracked down many of her key friends and associates, including producer Joe Boyd, members of all the important bands she sang with (Fairport Convention, Fotheringay, the Strawbs), peers from the second-most important British folk-rock band (Pentangle), Linda Thompson, and even Pete Townshend. While Denny's stints in Fairport Convention and Fotheringay, as well as her 1970s solo work, get the most attention, Heylin covers her professional career from its beginnings in mid-1960s London folk clubs and little-known solo recordings, through to her death in cloudy circumstances in 1978, when she was only in her early thirties. Heylin has made a career of his own of in-depth research and analysis that many would find arcane, and there are details aplenty (related in a very readable fashion) about her recordings and live gigs, as well as her songwriting, her choice of cover material, and the controversial circumstances under which she left Fotheringay for a solo career. What's more surprising are the revelations about her tumultuous personal life, which found her battling insecurities about her talent and lovers, and also becoming a serious alcoholic. It's an interesting and often sad story, particularly her final days, in which -- as has only recently been disclosed -- her husband (and bandmate) Trevor Lucas took their daughter away from Denny and left for his native Australia, fearing that Denny was proving to be an incompetent mother.
Race with the Devil: Gene Vincent's Life in the Fast Lane, by Susan Vanhecke (St. Martin's Press). There was a prior, and fairly good, biography of Gene Vincent by Britt Hagarty (The Day the World Turned Blue) published in the mid-1980s. Inevitably, this goes over some of the same territory in its overview of the rockabilly star, who despite relatively slight chart success became a mythic figure due to his unforgettable stage posture and the brilliance of his best records. The key difference -- a difference that is both good and bad -- is that Vanhecke opts for a more colorful prose style than Hagarty did. While this invests the story with more drama (particularly for the more casual reader) than Hagarty's more straightforward fact-oriented account does, it also makes the text less rewarding for those who are primarily concerned with learning what Vincent did and what his music sounded like. Vanhecke takes some poetic license and writes the most wrenching sections -- when Vincent suffers the accidents that smash his left leg and kill his friend Eddie Cochran, in particular -- in melodramatic prose, written as if she's inside Gene's thoughts at the exact time of the incidents. There's also a great deal of reliance upon re-created conversations, though these, presumably, are based upon the numerous interviews with Vincent's associates that she did conduct for the book. The basics of his meteoric rise to fame with the original Blue Caps and his swift fall from the charts, rebirth as an expatriate tour draw in Europe, and excruciating physical decline in the last years of his life are here. However, there's not as much of a sense of what his music and records sounded like, and his artistic progression (and stagnation), as there should be. Extensive verbatim recounts of several of his radio interviews are valuable for historical perusal, yet are somewhat at ease with the rest of the text flow-wise. There are plenty of volatile touring stories and perspectives on the manic moods of a man who underwent much pain and depression, and could be capable of both great generosity and thoughtlessness. If you care about Vincent, though -- and his best music was so phenomenal that he's worth caring about -- you should pick up both this and the more thorough (if more prosaic) Hagarty bio for the most complete portrayal possible.
Road Stories and Recipes, by Don Nix (Schirmer Books). As a session musician, producer, songwriter, and occasional solo artist, Don Nix was an interesting but peripheral figure of rock in the 1960s and early 1970s. He was original sax player for the Mar-Keys, worked on the Memphis scene as a producer at Stax Records, and eventually made little-known albums under his own name. Not much to build an autobiography around, you might think, but actually this is a pretty entertaining memoir of life on the rock and soul margins. For one thing, at one time or another Nix managed to cross paths with many of the huge names in the business: George Harrison (he organized the choir at the Concert for Bangladesh), Elvis Presley, Leon Russell, John Mayall, Jeff Beck, Booker T. & the MG's, bluesman Furry Lewis, Freddie King, Albert King, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, and others. More important, Nix is a pretty good storyteller. If you've read Al Kooper's Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, you'll be reminded of that book's mix of interesting little-known anecdotes with a sly wit that revels in the absurdity of the music industry: the weird characters, the underhanded business practices, the exhaustion of life on the road, the peculiar tics of those fortunate or unfortunate enough to have become big stars. Nix may be something of a poor man's Al Kooper in that the book is not quite as funny and the events and music he participated in not as monumental. But it has its share of moments, as when he recounts the devastating poverty in which Furry Lewis lived in the 1960s, and a tense jam session between Russell and Simon in which he and two onlookers felt "like the Three Stooges at a funeral." Admittedly it's on the slim side, the last 60 pages of the 225-page volume dedicated to actual recipes by a few dozen of Nix's musician friends, some of them pretty famous (the musicians, that is, not the recipes). No doubt it'll be hard to find in future years, and if sounds like something you'd enjoy, you'd be advised to grab it off the used shelves before it disappears.
Stoned, by Andrew Loog Oldham (Secker Warburg). This memoir by the Rolling Stones' first and most famous manager (and record producer) is the first of a planned three-part autobiography. Even though it only covers Oldham's life through early 1964, it's hardly slim, running 350 pages. And it's not, strictly speaking, an autobiography. It's more of an oral history quotes collection, without a linking narrative text. Oldham himself takes half or more of the space with his own extensive memories, but there are also lengthy quotes by dozens of people that knew him, including several noted fellow managers and producers, as well as musicians like Pete Townshend and Gene Pitney. This will probably not rate as the most interesting installment of the trilogy, primarily because the Rolling Stones do not enter the volume until just over halfway through the book. That still leaves plenty of stories about Oldham's youth and his entry into the entertainment business via an apprenticeship with fashion designer Mary Quant and publicity work for several early British rock artists (including, briefly, the Beatles in 1963). It's undeniable, though, that the tome really picks up steam when Oldham meets and signs the Stones in early 1963, leading to numerous entertaining stories about their early tours and recordings. The author also has insights into the group's personalities at the time -- he is definitely critical of Brian Jones, though respectful of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards -- and has some great anecdotes about how he pressured Jagger and Richards to begin writing original material, and got his feet with them as their producer despite no experience in the studio. The Rolling Stones themselves did not contribute quotes to the book (although there are occasional quotes from the band taken from other sources), which is probably the chief flaw of the work. It could also be said that Oldham's own prose gets a bit flighty at times, and that the most interesting part of his career -- the mid-1960s, when the Stones became huge international stars -- will inevitably make the sequel superior. Nonetheless, for anyone who cares about the Stones -- or, indeed, about 1960s rock in general -- this is a stimulating, entertaining read, albeit one that might have been better had the first half of the book been edited down.
There's Something About Jonathan: Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, by Tim Mitchell (Peter Owen Publishers). Jonathan Richman is the kind of artist that listeners tend to be extremely devoted to, or entirely ignorant of. There's not much in-between with him, so it's unsurprising that a full-length biography of the man is very much something that will primarily be appreciated by hardcore fans, rather than casual appreciators or general rock listeners. It's certainly very thorough, from his early days with the original Modern Lovers through the end of the 1990s, covering each of his albums in detail. It's not exactly the most objective of accounts; Mitchell offers hardly a discouraging word about any of Richman's songs and recordings, nor does he criticize any of Richman's numerous about-face decisions regarding which bandmates to hire and which styles to pursue. There's certainly a lot of detail, the meticulousness of which will lose all but the most avid Richman fans at some point, with much of the text devoted to play-by-play rundowns of particular shows (presumably Mitchell is a prolific tape collector), or accounts of when he played where or what interviews he did and what he said. Even taking all that into account, it's presented readably, and Richman cultists -- who will, after all, provide much of the volume's reader base -- will likely be thrilled at the level of scholarship that's gone into the book. In particular, it clearly breaks down and describes the murky early 1970s days of the first Modern Lovers lineups, in which the band passed through a confusing web of label associations, unreleased album sessions, and demo recordings, eventually dissolving as Richman dissociated himself from his early songs. Along the way there are some nifty stories about his fleeting interactions with the Velvet Underground, Gram Parsons (yep), John Cale, Kim Fowley, and Patti Smith, though these become less frequent as Richman's music becomes more low-volume, positive, and insular. There are no first-hand interviews with Richman himself, unfortunately, but the author did get some accounts from many of the musicians he's recorded and performed live with, making up for that shortfall to a significant degree.
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