The Rolling Stones Off
by Mark Paytress (Omnibus Press). This hefty 450-page volume is devoted
to little but quotes from (and, sometimes, about) the Rolling Stones,
spanning 1960 to 2003. Arranged chronologically, they're mostly drawn
from contemporary sources; i.e., if it's in the section of 1978
material, the quote was likely uttered at the time, or close to it.
Because it's mostly the Stones in their own words, you shouldn't expect
anything in the way of a story or insight. However, Mark Paytress did a
fine job in assembling the quotes, both in terms of digging up sources
commonplace and obscure, and in provided some linking text that makes
the context of these utterances clear. It's not ground zero for
learning about the Stones' history, but if you are a committed fan,
it's a quite valuable and enjoyable trawl through their back pages.
Some of the topics covered are, naturally, on pretty familiar ground
even for the general rock fan: the Altamont festival, the creation and
recording of some of their classic songs, the death of Brian Jones, the
mega-tours they launched in middle age. Hardcore fans might even
recognize some of the specific quotes. But there's a lot of relatively
seldom-aired material as well: there are few other places, for
instance, in which you'll read Mick Jagger acknowledge the specific
influence of the Velvet Underground's first album on "Stray Cat Blues,"
or diss Patti Smith at length. Juicy gossip about their personal sex,
drugs, and business activities is also here, but the focus is,
thankfully, more on their music, performing, and artistry. And while
it's true the sections on their early years are the most interesting
(and covered in the most depth, with more attention granted the 1960s
than any other decade), it's actually a decent read all the way
through. For Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have always been
entertainingly quotable on a wide range of topics -- in fact, many of
their post-1980 quotes are more memorable than many of the records they
made during that period.
John, by Cynthia
Lennon (Crown). Although Cynthia Lennon, the first wife of John Lennon,
wrote a memoir in the late 1970s, she dismisses it in this later volume
as "a superficial, lightweight book." Presumably that means she
considers this one, published about 25 years later, as a much more
serious and definitive endeavor. That it is, though as far as what it
reveals about Lennon and her marriage to him, it might say as much
between the lines as it does in the text itself. Clearly she loved him,
and he her, once upon a time, and not as much. Perhaps inadvertently,
however, the portrait that emerges is not of a happy relationship, but
of a man of wildly uneven temperament, and a wife who was perhaps too
forgiving of his faults and inconsiderate behavior. And, it must be
said, a wife who didn't seem wholly clued in as to her husband's
artistic gifts and inspirations, at one point citing "All My Loving" as
a song John wrote specially for her, though it's fairly common
knowledge that Paul McCartney was the sole author of that classic. All
that said, there are some good, if perhaps a little rose-colored,
stories of the complicated character John Lennon was in the late 1950s
and early 1960s, when the couple were at their closest. And even if her
memory doesn't get everything right, there can be little doubt that
John—in contrast to his sometimes saintly image—treated her shabbily
when he left her for Yoko Ono in 1968, and did not participate in the
upbringing of his and Cynthia's son nearly as much as he should have.
Cynthia Lennon acknowledges this, without seeming to blame him as much
as most women would. Disappointingly, there's not much about the
Beatles' music or John's songwriting here. But it's a worthwhile look
at certain sides of Lennon's character from someone who was intimate
with him almost as long as Yoko Ono was, written in an acceptably
Lennon Revealed, by Larry Kane (Running Press). As a news and television reporter, Larry Kane interviewed the Beatles and John Lennon on numerous occasions. His first Beatles-related book, Ticket to Ride, focused on his travels with the group during many of their mid-'60s American tour dates. This follow-up concentrates on his interactions with John Lennon, whom he interviewed and spoke with on several occasions from the late '60s onward. While this book also draws upon numerous fresh interviews with Lennon's friend and family (including Yoko Ono), it's not as much of a revelatory study as Kane himself seems to believe. There's a good amount of material that will already be familiar to many fans of Lennon and the Beatles, which is inevitable when delving into a subject that's already been so heavily scrutinized. The perspective, too, is on the generous side; some of Lennon's faults are detailed, but usually with the attitude that for all his flaws, he was a remarkable human being who gave much to the world. True enough, though targets of his occasional scathing nastiness, or his poorly treated first wife and their neglected son, saw a rather less flattering side of the man than many of the voices in this book did. Kane does get stories and opinions from some figures who haven't often been asked about Lennon, though some of these associates were very much on the periphery of his orbit. And like numerous commentators, he tends to overstate John's role in the Beatles and diminish the considerable contributions of the other three. Ultimately it's for serious Lennon fans and not one of the definitive accounts of his personality, puffed out by a final chapter devoted to dozens of letters by admirers of the musician testifying to his significance. As a significant bonus, the book comes with a DVD of a fairly interesting TV interview Kane did with John Lennon and Paul McCartney in May 1968: the disc also includes an interview with Kane (about writing Lennon Revealed) done shortly before this volume was issued.
John Lennon: The New York Years, by Bob Gruen (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). Photographer Bob Gruen often took pictures of John Lennon and Yoko Ono during the couple's time as New York residents, from the early 1970s until Lennon's death. Many of the photos that he took during this period are in this attractively designed, near-coffee-table-sized volume, along with a good amount of text by Gruen detailing his memories of working with Lennon. For the photos alone, this is worth it for Lennon fans, capturing him on stage, in the studio, at home, and on social occasions. As you might expect from someone who was a friend as well as a professional associate, the writing is on the affectionate side, emphasizing Lennon's most positive qualities. Still, there are a good number of stories here that haven't been recycled ad infinitum, like Gruen's memories of the rooftop session that produced the famous photos of John wearing a "New York City" T-shirt, as well as one of Lennon and Ono's final photo sessions just days before John's death. Gruen also reveals that it was he who put on Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde album at a 1972 party in a futile attempt to drown out the sounds of Lennon making love to a woman other than Yoko in an adjoining room, while Ono sat humiliated with other guests. It doesn't pretend to be a biography or a definitive character study. It's just one friendly collaborator's appreciation, and as such, particularly in combination with Gruen's high-class images, it's a successful memoir of certain sides of Lennon's later life.
The Final Days of John Lennon, by Robert Rosen (Quick American Archives). The basis and genesis of this book were most peculiar, and compromise its value as a document of John Lennon's final years, though it's still of some use. In the early 1980s, Rosen was given diaries that Lennon kept, but they were stolen from him before he could copy and transcribe all of the information. As the author admits, this book does not contain any actual material from the diaries, and is instead reconstructed from his memory of them. Inevitably, then, this can't be considered a wholly accurate historic record. If there's any truth to them at all, however, it does paint a sometimes disturbing picture of the last part of Lennon's life, one very much at odds with the public image he cultivated of a content househusband. Instead, we're presented with a temperamental, moody guy whose relationship with Yoko Ono was strange and troubled; who loved their son, but could be impatient and difficult with him as well; and whose insulation from much of the outside world was driving him into an unhealthily hermetic existence. It's not all tabloid fodder; there's also some insight into how he started to regain his songwriting muse, the recording of Double Fantasy, and some good times and good vacations he did manage to fit into his family life. The writing is more readable and less judgemental than you'd expect from a book with a sensationalist angle, but it can't be accepted as a wholly reliable account of this phase of Lennon's life.
Memories of John Lennon, by Yoko Ono (editor) (HarperEntertainment). As part of the flood of books issued to coincide with the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's death, Yoko Ono oversaw this compilation of more than 70 short pieces by public figures and associates who knew and admired the musician. As can be expected from any officially sanctioned project of this sort, these memories accentuate the positive, and don't go too heavily into the more controversial and unsavory aspects of his character (of which there was no shortage). For light reading if you're in the mood to appreciate Lennon's considerable accomplishments and influence, it's not bad, though it's uneven, depending very much on the contribution. Several of the celebrities who participated offer little more than a bland paragraph or three; while the concept of what James Brown has to say about Lennon sounds interesting, for instance, the reality of the three sentences he dashed off is quite forgettable. In that light, it's unsurprising that some of the most interesting sections are by relatively unsung men and women who got to know Lennon, briefly or otherwise. His personal assistant Elliot Mintz, for instance, might not be a household name, but does have recollections of substance, not all of them saccharine (like John telling him to get rid of a one-night stand in Los Angeles, and an awkward Christmas between Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney, Lennon, and Yoko Ono in the late 1970s). Likewise for Ritchie Yorke's account of John and Yoko's peace campaigns in Canada at the end of the '60s; Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner's piece on interviewing Lennon at great length right after the Beatles breakup; and Klaus Voormann's observations, coming from someone who knew John from the Beatles' Hamburg days through his solo years. To get to the juicier bits, however, you have to wade through filler like Bono's "chapter," which is just a drawing of Lennon that he made as a 12-year-old.
John Lennon: All I Want Is the Truth, by Elizabeth Partridge (Viking). Although you wouldn't necessarily guess from a glance, this semi-coffee-table-sized John Lennon biography is aimed toward young readers, not adults. If intelligent pre-teen readers are looking for a decent overview of his life, however, this does a good job, embellished by numerous photos of Lennon from childhood through the Beatles era and beyond. The large-print text is basic but not simplistic, traveling through his troubled upbringing; his rise to fame with the Beatles; his passionate and sometimes turbulent relationships with his two wives and Paul McCartney; and his final years as a New York resident. While there's barely anything here that won't be familiar to longtime fans of the Beatles and Lennon, for a young reader relatively unacquainted with the history, it's a well-researched and balanced account. Unusually for children's biographies, too, it does not smooth over the rough edges of its subject's character, duly documenting his talent and humanitarianism, but also covering his shortcomings and problems. It's pretty realistic given its young demographic audience as well, discussing not just rock'n'roll, but also some sex and drugs in unsensationalistic terms (though of course there's much more on those topics in other books should readers wish to find them). As for any content that adults buying this for kids might want to scan, there's not much, but some of the photographs are rarely printed, particularly from Lennon's early years.Surf Movie Tonite! Surf Movie Poster Art, 1957-2004, by Matt Warshaw (Chronicle Books). The surf movie genre hasn't produced many notable cinematic achievements, oriented as it is toward action shots of surfers and waves, sometimes embellished by flimsy plots. As a byproduct, however, there have been many interesting posters used to advertise them, sometimes boasting quite artistic design, and at others bearing at least historical significance. There's not much text by author/compiler Matt Warshaw in this volume, devoted mostly to color poster reproductions. Refreshingly, however, Warshaw does not champion the movies themselves as works of art, taking the more realistic view of them as expressions of the popular culture of the surfing cult. In fact, he goes as far as to summarize the surf movie as "a perpetual groundswell of cinematic mediocrity." After a fairly brief but witty overview of the surf movie style and its history, most of the pages are taken up by those high-quality poster repros, divided into sections for "first-wave surf movies (1955-1967)," "second-wave surf movies (1968-1982)," "Hollywood goes surfing (1959-2004)," and "surfing videos and DVDs (1985-2004)." Warsaw occasionally supplies background information in paragraph-long captions, but largely lets the images speak for themselves. There's quite a bit of variety in those, from low-budget early ones that are little more a step above gig posters (often listing the specific California coastal venue at which the films will be shown) to quasi-psychedelic efforts and cheesy exploitative commercial ones. The main constants are waves and action shots, and combined with the sense of capturing the rather lowbrow expression of the sport, they'll be treasured by many serious surfing enthusiasts.
Rolling Stones and the Making of Let It Bleed, by Sean Egan (Unanimous Ltd.). While the absence of first-hand interview material with any of the Rolling Stones other than Bill Wyman is unfortunate, otherwise this look at the making of one of their most well-regarded albums is well written and well researched. There are quotes and stories from several who were involved in the recording or with the Stones in the '60s, the memories of Al Kooper and engineer George Chkiantz being the most valuable. The heart of the 200-page volume, however, is author Sean Egan's detailed examination of each of the tracks. In addition to supplying critical analysis of all of the album's songs, he also looks at what's known about what motivated Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to write them, drawing in some of the tumultuous events from their personal lives and relationships as context. Although some of these tales have seen print elsewhere, this ties together a lot of inside dope on how the material was constructed and shaped in the studio. It also addresses important side issues like the role of producer Jimmy Miller, session guitarist Ry Cooder (and whether Richards ripped off his style/licks), the contributions of various outside musicians (such as Merry Clayton, who sang on "Gimme Shelter"), the uneasy transition between Brian Jones' departure (and subsequent death) and replacement Mick Taylor's entrance, and how unissued alternate versions of some of the cuts sounded. Also, interestingly (at least in relation to how many "making of classic albums" books are presented), Egan is not one to gush unanimous praise on the record. He hails certain songs as milestones, critically points out flaws in others, and even acknowledges that other Rolling Stones albums from the period might have the edge in certain respects.
Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting, by Brett Milano (St. Martin's Griffin). Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting is a wholly accurate title for this collection of stories about the explorations of niches in the world of record collecting, and portraits of the people who do the collecting. As with Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity, millions of serious music fans will recognize much of themselves in these sketches of collectors whose love and appreciation of popular music spills over into neurosis and even mania. This is real life, however, which makes the depictions somewhat gentler and more affectionate, though Milano writes with appropriate wry humor. Some of the people he documents are real-life celebrities, and here's your chance to feel like you're hanging out, albeit briefly, with Peter Wolf, Peter Buck of R.E.M., Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Jeff "Monoman" Conolly of the Lyres, and cartoonist R. Crumb as they discuss how they got into their obsessions and various specialties. Just as much time, however, is devoted to more regular guys (and even a few women, a rarer species among over-the-top collectors) who have carved out arcane, voluminous goldmines in sub-genres like disco, bad novelty records, Olivia Newton-John, and British folk-rock. There are plenty of ludicrous anecdotes for hardcore accumulators to identify with, like the extreme measures (and several thousand dollars of expenses) that Conolly undertakes to find an original copy of a 1960s Portuguese EP by ex-Searchers lead vocalist Tony Jackson. The only serious complaint about Vinyl Junkies is that you wish it was longer, which speaks well of the author's treatment of a subject that too often gets bogged down in nerdy detail.
Elvis By the Presleys: Intimate Stories from Priscilla Presley, Lisa Marie Presley, and Other Family Members, by David RItz [editor] (Crown). As the companion book to a 2005 TV special, DVD, and CD, this is a sort of combination of memorabilia illustrations and oral history quotes from intimates of Elvis Presley. Even if you take the semi-deification of Elvis as a given in authorized projects like this, you'll likely be disappointed by the shortage of interesting content in this not-inexpensive ($24.95) book. Much of it consists of photos of Elvis and his personal effects, and while the Elvis photos aren't bad, pictures of items like "cigars from Elvis's personal collection" and "Ellvis's American eagle belt buckle" will appeal only to fetishists. And there are a lot of those kind of illustrations -- so much so that the 240 pages only takes a couple of hours or so to whiz through, particularly as the text is in large print. As for that text, there's not much that will shock or even surprise, focusing on memories of Graceland and the relationship between Presley and his wife, Priscilla Presley. Elvis's grosser excesses and flaws are not totally glossed over, but the tone is usually borderline worshipful, often along the lines of "he was hell to put up with as times, but he was so gifted and wonderful that it was worth putting up with it." Here and there are quotes or illustrations of real interest -- a handwritten lengthy January 1963 letter from Priscilla to Elvis, her recollection of the meeting between Presley and the Beatles, and reflections of the overall peculiar dynamic between the pair. He did, after all, start to court her when she was an underage fourteen year-old; kept her in his home, without deflowering her, until their 1967 marriage; avoided sex with her after the birth of their daughter shortly afterward; and held hands with her affectionately as their divorce degree was signed. But this is too skimpy a read to recommend as one of the central Presley books.
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Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd, by Nick Mason (Chronicle Books). Along the lines of the Beatles' Anthology, According to the Rolling Stones, and Bill Wyman's Rolling with the Stones, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason produced a coffee table retrospective of his own supergroup, illustrated with a wealth of vintage photos. It's a little more modest than the above-mentioned tomes, but still impressive, with about 350 pages of text documenting the band from its tenuous mid-'60s inceptions (as almost a side hobby of university students) through their ascendance to the upper reaches of superstardom in the '70s and their fractious squabbling (and only intermittent music-making) from the early '80s onward. Unlike some other rock'n'roll autobiographers, Mason has a likably humble tone, putting himself lightly down when the occasion warrants, and not appearing to try and re-create incidents he doesn't fully remember. There's quite a bit about the creation of their studio albums, though Syd Barrett fans might be mildly disappointed to find that the very early recordings aren't described in quite as much detail as some of the famous '70s ones. There's also a lot about their work in film and their struggle to evolve from a standard touring band to one with a much more elaborate (and more widely attended) stage show. Too, Mason seems conscientious about trying to portray conflicts with attention to various of the principals' points of view, not just his own; indeed, he even interviewed some close Floyd associates (at times quoting them in the text) for corroboration, as well as having Roger Waters, David Gilmour, and Rick Wright look at the manuscript for feedback. The only mild criticisms to put forth might be that there's unavoidably not as much about the group's songwriting as some might like, since Mason was not as prominent a composer as some other members of the band. Also, it seems like an inordinate proportion of the commentary regarding the band's later days is devoted to the details of how they set up their stage show and managed their tour logistics -- a reflection, perhaps, of how much relatively less of interest there is to say about the music they made in the 1980s and 1990s.
Lollipop Lounge: Memoirs of a Rock and Roll Refugee, by Genya Ravan (Billboard Books). Though she never broke through to wide stardom, Genya Ravan was active on the rock'n'roll scene from the early 1960s onward, first as lead singer of one of the first all-women rock bands (Goldie & the Gingerbreads), then as the lead singer of Ten Wheel Drive in the early 1970s, and then as a solo artist and producer on the fringe of the new wave in the late 1970s. Even if you've barely or never heard of her, you might be interested in her entertaining memoir. For one thing, it documents the rock'n'roll experience from two unusual angles: that of an actual Polish refugee escaping the concentration camps of World War II for emigration to a life in the United States at the age of seven, and then as a woman functioning in traditionally male-associated roles within a heavily male-dominated rock'n'roll scene. In addition, along the way, she had memorable close personal and professional encounters with a pretty astonishing number of more famous people, including Richard Perry (a bandmate and boyfriend in the early 1960s), the Animals and the Rolling Stones (Goldie & the Gingerbreads lived and worked in England for a while in the 1960s), Lou Reed, and the Dead Boys (whose first album she produced). The journey also involved some sexual abuse, sexual experimentation, substance abuse, and struggles with exploitative managers and labels. It's all recounted here with a straightforwardly honest and (when appropriate) humorous feel, whereas in other hands it might have fallen into the self-pity or self-importance too common to rock autobiographies. As a minor complaint, it will be obvious to anyone with even a decent knowledge of rock'n'roll history that Ravan is conflating and confusing some of the chronology of what happened in what order; it's obvious that Goldie & the Gingerbreads couldn't have toured with the Rolling Stones in 1963, for instance. That doesn't seriously interfere with enjoying the book, but it really wouldn't have taken that much effort for an outside eye to straighten some of the sequencing out.
Rock Around the Clock: The Record That Started the Rock Revolution!, by Jim Dawson (Backbeat Books). Published on the fiftieth anniversary of "Rock Around the Clock"'s 1955 ascent to the top of the charts, this is a fun, well-researched book entirely devoted to the history of this groundbreaking rock'n'roll hit. There had been other rock'n'roll hits before Bill Haley and His Comets took "Rock Around the Clock" to #1; there had, indeed, already been another recording of the song. But Haley's "Rock Around the Clock," when all's said and done, was indisputably the first truly massive rock'n'roll hit, and the record that more than any other announced the arrival of rock'n'roll as an unstoppable force of musical and social change. The history of both the song and the recording is more involved and complicated than even many rock historians realize, and Dawson goes through its evolution in great (but witty and highly readable) detail. It's not well known, for instance, that there were a couple records titled "Rock Around the Clock" from the early '50s that contained elements that might have influenced the song Haley recorded; that there were lyrical similarities to "Rock Around the Clock" in blues, jazz, and R&B records dating back to the 1920s; that there were, and continue to be, disputes over who wrote the "Rock Around the Clock" Haley recorded; that the song Haley recorded had actually been cut, and first released, by Sonny Dae and the Knights; that Haley originally did the song as a B-side, in two hurried takes that had to be edited together; and, finally, that Haley's version had been just a small hit upon its initial release in 1954, only storming to #1 after its use in the film Blackboard Jungle. Dawson covers all of this and more, as well as looking at the song's international impact and the sad descent of Haley and the Comets from stardom in the late 1950s. It's not a long book, but it doesn't need to be longer than 200 pages, and also includes plenty of reproductions of original labels and record sleeves related to the song's history.
Magical Mystery Tours: My Life with the Beatles, by Tony Bramwell with Rosemary Kingsland (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press). A boyhood friend of most of the Beatles, Tony Bramwell was a personal assistant to Brian Epstein and the Beatles for virtually their entire career as a recording act, eventually working on some of their promotional films and promoting records for Apple. Unlike some of the other people who were reasonably close to the Beatles' inner circle, he's written a memoir that at least doesn't skimp on length, running over 400 pages. It doesn't have as many explosive revelations as one would expect given that length, and actually the text could have been trimmed by quite a bit, as much of it summarizes major events in the Beatles' lives that almost anyone interested enough to buy this book will already know by heart. Yes, there are some fairly little-known stories recounted here, like how the Beatles dubbed the soundtrack of their Shea Stadium concert film and the trip to Los Angeles at which Paul McCartney (accompanied by Bramwell) fell in love with his future wife. It's more valuable, however, for Bramwell's perspective on the Beatles (and Epstein) and their personalities than it is for the hard information, which contains quite a few chronological jumbles/conflations and factual mistakes. (Those aren't all mistakes only visible to Beatlemaniacs, either; even people who don't own a Beatles record might be able to tell you that the White Album track "Mother Nature's Son" was not considered for Abbey Road but rejected, as Bramwell writes here.) For what it is, however, it's a genial, likable read, giving some insight into the group's motivations and quirks from someone who actually was often there. The mood does, however, turn uncomfortably sour when Bramwell discusses Yoko Ono's influence on John Lennon (which he does at length). It's interesting that Bramwell recalls that their affair started much earlier than is commonly stated, but his portrayal of Ono as a villainous near-witch of sorts seems tilted toward the extreme. There's a little, incidentally, on Bramwell's post-Beatles activities as a promo man in the record business, but most of it's dedicated to the years in which he was at the Beatles' service.
Meet the Beatles: A Cultural History of the Band That Shook Youth, Gender, and the World, by Steven D. Stark (HarperEntertainment). This is not an overview of the Beatles' career (though there's much information about their basic evolution and accomplishments), but a study of how they both reflected and affected their times, and how they continue to impact culture several decades after their split. As marginal books about the Beatles phenomenon go, this is very well-written, with a lot of research and carefully considered opinions. Is it really necessary? That's questionable, even if it does strive to be something other than an ordinary bio or history of the band, and draw upon some obscure information and connections. Although many of the author's themes are not often explored with such thoroughness - the Beatles' egalitarian and favorable treatment of women in their songs, their contribution to flexibility in gender roles, their unapologetic use of drugs as a creative stimulus, their precise relationship to the counterculture -- these are topics which have been assimilated by millions of Beatles fans, if not at such conscious depth as they're plumbed here. Stark did interview many people directly and indirectly involved with the Beatles, from little-quoted former girlfriends to plain old ordinary American fans, but while some of those observations are interesting, they're rarely quoted at length. Although most of the deductions are right-on, there are also occasional feelings where it seems that evidence is being stretched to fit some of the postulations. For instance: yes, the Beatles did treat women kindly in general in song, but so did some other rock songwriters, and they weren't as unique in this respect as the text seems to suppose. It's a hard-to-categorize book, and while an enjoyable and highly accessible read, perhaps best suited toward the general Beatles fan who wants something of an offbeat primer to their significance, rather than more committed ones who have already thought through these issues at length.
The Unknown Paul McCartney: McCartney and the Avant-Garde, by Ian Peel (Reynolds & Hearn). Although Paul McCartney is known to the public -- not without justification -- primarily as a highly accessible pop-rock songwriter, he's done a surprising amount of experimental, avant-garde music during his career. This unusual book is wholly devoted to that aspect of McCartney's work, which the artist has usually given a far lower profile than his standard releases, to the point of often issuing it under pseudonyms. House music, trance, musique concrete, vegetable sounds, feedback, and more have all been explored by McCartney since the 1960s, though even devoted fans remain unaware of much of this output. Ian Peel covers every corner of McCartney's efforts in these tributaries, from his legendary unreleased Beatles sound collage "Carnival of Light" (devised in early 1967 for an event at the Roundhouse in London, and played in public only once) through obscure solo excursions. Those include his easy listening album as Percy Thrillington; his collaborations with Youth as part of the Fireman; his Liverpool Sound Collage album; music made with Yoko Ono, Super Furry Animals, and Nitin Sawhney; ambient sounds at exhibitions of his art; and even the odd bits of Wings and solo Paul McCartney records that went way off his usual path. Peel researches all of this with considerable thoroughness, to the point of detailed description of tracks only available on websites. Though he didn't interview McCartney himself, he did talk to several of his collaborators and associates in these projects, as well as dig up some pretty obscure McCartney quotes from various sources. The book isn't for every McCartney fan, and perhaps not even for most McCartney fans, as many such fans will have little taste for (and perhaps even dislike) the musician's avant-garde endeavors, so far afield are they from his most popular stuff. For more specialized tastes, though, it's a window into a side of McCartney that the public seldom sees, and written far more accessibly than many such studies are.
Keith Richards: Satisfaction, by Christopher Sandford (Carroll & Graf). Quite a few books about the Rolling Stones, and a few specifically about Keith Richards (duly noted in the bibliography), preceded this one. Was it necessary? Not really, though it's a pretty serviceable, thorough compendium of the basic facts and stories that have circulated about the Rolling Stones guitarist (and, by extension, close to a history of the Rolling Stones themselves). The tone that Sandford takes will not be to everyone's taste, with a bent for the dramatic and sardonic. But the book does cover the trail of Richards's musical and personal life from childhood and the halting formation of his band through their rocket ride to stardom, his well-documented struggles with the law and substance abuse, and his eventual assumption of senior rock'n'roll statesman status as the band coasted (very profitably) on its laurels from about 1980 onward. Quite a number of little-known incidents and anecdotes are related along the way, and Sandford did do a good number of first-hand interviews, though these were mostly with people on the periphery of Richards's core story (and certainly don't include any with actual members of the Stones). The point does get expressed rather more than it needs to that for all his hard living and dalliances with decadence, Richards is just a regular geezer, family man, and music nut at heart. It also seems as though his role in the Stones might be overemphasized at least a little here -- one gets the impression that Richards was the primary composer of most of their material, and Mick Jagger more someone who added touches than an equal collaborator, which is not a position most other surveys of the band take.
John, Paul & Me: Before the Beatles, by Len Garry (Collector's Guide Publishing). Len Garry was part of early lineups of the Quarrymen, the skiffle group that evolved into the Beatles. He played tea chest bass in their young days, fronted by John Lennon, and was still aboard for the first year or so that Paul McCartney was in the group as well. This is his story of those days, and while it's fairly entertaining for Beatlemaniacs, it couldn't make great claims as either a book or a piece of history. For a great deal of it consists of re-created conversations among the band -- so much so that it seems like a fair amount of poetic license in the storytelling must have been inevitable. Too, although Garry writes reasonably well, the text is riddled with typos and misspellings, though the inclusion of photos (both of the Quarrymen and of sites where they hung out) softens the blow. For those very familiar with the Beatles story -- who will comprise the huge majority of those who bother to seek out such a relatively obscure Beatles-related volume -- there won't be many great revelations. What this does do is convey something of the feel of growing up in Liverpool in the mid-1950s, and also how the Quarrymen were, at their very beginning, just as much (if not more) a way for a gang of normal mischievous teenage friends to have fun as a serious musical enterprise. That changed quickly shortly after McCartney joined, of course (and more so after George Harrison joined, though Garry was out of the band by then and didn't get to know Harrison well). Bound into the back cover is a bonus interview CD in which Garry and fellow original Quarryman Pete Shotton talk about Liverpool and the old days. It's kind of rambling and hard to follow in places, though, and the sound quality isn't so hot, as it was recorded while the pair were wandering around their old Liverpool haunts.
Lillian Roxon: Mother of Rock, by Robert Milliken (Black Inc.). Lillian Roxon was most famous as one of the first rock critics to reach a wide audience. She made her name in this field in the late 1960s in magazines and newspapers, and as the author of Lillian Roxon's Rock Encyclopedia, the first truly worthwhile rock'n'roll reference book. She was an unusual and somewhat tragic figure -- older than the great majority of both the musicians she was writing about and the other early rock writers, and also given to workaholic behavior, a somewhat unhappy personal life, and weight and health problems that contributed to her death in the early 1970s. Her achievements were substantial, but it's debatable whether her life was full and rich enough to merit a full-length biography -- or whether this book, which is likely to be the only such attempt, does that life full justice. Roxon actually came to rock criticism fairly late in her professional career; she was in her mid-thirties by the time she was making a mark in the still-infant discipline, and had already worked for quite some time as a journalist who didn't specialize in music. Much of the book, then, discusses her early life, work, and bohemian activities in Australia, sections that are not likely to be of much interest to rock fans -- and are only passably interesting at best on its own terms. Moving to the New York, and then into rock criticism almost inadvertently, her role as part of the rock'n'roll world makes for the book's most interesting reading, but comprises less than half of the text. More focus upon this period, and more of a context for how the world of rock criticism came of age and how she was one of its leading figures, would have benefited the treatment a lot. Too, about a third of this 350-page book is devoted to reprints of "selected writings" of Roxon's, most of those taken from her rock encyclopedia -- a book which makes, to be blunt, for a much more interesting read than this one.
Jimi Hendrix: The Man -- The Magic -- The Truth, by Sharon Lawrence (HarperEntertainment). As a young United Press International reporter, Sharon Lawrence was a friend of Jimi Hendrix in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Her book combines straight biography with her own memories of the musician. It was well received upon its publication by some critics who were, perhaps, unaware that Hendrix's music in particular had received far more in-depth treatment in several previous books. For although this does have interesting first-hand memories (among them her contention that he committed suicide) and some new research, it's neither the definitive Hendrix biography, nor even one of the better books about the man. Its most serious flaw is the relative shortage of specific description of Hendrix's music and recordings, or the stories behind their construction. That's not simply the nitpicking of a music geek, not when albums like Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold As Love are granted a mere two or three sentences of discussion -- total -- in the text. It would be fair enough to evaluate this as primarily a study of the man and his life, but even there it has some problems. Although Lawrence did interview more than 250 people for the book, many of them had peripheral or lesser connections with Hendrix, and many of the quotes extracted from those conversations are blandly superficial. There is also an attitude struck that almost no one beside herself had Hendrix's best interests at heart, with Hendrix's father Al, stepsister Janie, and ex-girlfriend Monika Dannemann (who was with Hendrix when he died) coming in for especially vicious criticism. It's no doubt true that Jimi wasn't treated well by many of his associates, but the way in which the author attacks some of those who've laid claim to his legacy, and praises Hendrix in an almost hagiographic tone, makes one question whether her view is ideally balanced. It's most interesting when she remembers some of her discussions with Hendrix (and his tense trial for drug possession in Toronto, at which she testified), and the book does plow through the depressing, confusing posthumous legal haggling over his estate in detail. It's more a supplemental source of information for Hendrix fans, however, than something that should be turned to as the primary biography.
MUSIC BOOK REVIEWS: SPRING 2005
Chronicles Volume One, by Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster). The much-anticipated first installment of Bob Dylan's autobiography was on the one hand more revealing and personal than many readers were expecting, yet on the other about as enigmatic as most other aspects of his public image he's projected since the beginning of his career. Although the title might lead you to think the book covers the earliest part of his life, it's nothing as straightforward as that. In fact, the volume's structure is downright peculiar, focusing almost exclusively on three separate intervals of his life: the months following his arrival in New York City in the early 1960s, the early-'70s era in which a somewhat adrift Dylan cut albums like New Morning, and the preparation of his 1989 record Oh Mercy. What's more, the text jumps back and forth between those eras, with virtually nothing in the way of connecting context. Within this strange framework, there is a lot of detail about his life and perspectives, often related in a surprisingly plain-spoken, linear fashion, though not infrequently cast in a more rambling, less reader-friendly style. By far the most interesting segments are the ones on his early career on the folk circuit in Greenwich Village, in which Dylan is, for once, seemingly forthcoming on matters like his goals and musical influences (several of which few would have guessed). It's fascinating, for instance, to read him remembering hearing Robert Johnson for the first time; rave about how much he liked Roy Orbison's "Running Scared"; discuss how much the Bertholt Brecht-Kurt Weill collaboration "Pirate Jenny" influenced his songwriting; and cite Johnny Rivers' "Positively Fourth Street" (!) as his favorite all-time cover of one of his songs. The early-'70s section is cursory in comparison, but not without its intrigue, particularly when he admits in so many words that he was musically going through the motions to some degree at this time. The jump to the Oh Mercy era is puzzling -- it's not a juncture of his career that most listeners would count among his more important or noteworthy, though he throws in intermittently absorbing observations. The prose is uneven, sometimes sparkling with a poetic incision on par (though not at all the same in nature) with some of his lyrics, at others going off into tangents that can be patience-trying. There's nothing, be warned, about many of the topics readers will be most eager to hear him discuss: his move from folk into electric rock'n'roll, his controversial embrace of Christianity, Blood on the Tracks, or his relationship with Joan Baez. For all the riveting nuggets strewn throughout the book, there's also the feeling that Dylan's being as cagey as ever in his decision about what to show the public and what to hide, and as reluctant as ever to talk about his life without throwing up some smoke and mirrors.
Blowing the Blues: Fifty Years Playing the British Blues, by Dick Heckstall-Smith & Pete Grant (Clear Books). Dick Heckstall-Smith is best remembered for playing saxophone with the blues-rock groups Colosseum, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, and the Graham Bond Organization, though he played a lot of more jazz-oriented music as well. Admittedly there isn't a huge audience for autobiographies by relatively obscure figures such as these, but as such books go, this is far above the average. Unlike many such autobiographers, Heckstall-Smith actually writes extremely well, with a clear intelligence, a humorous wit, and an analytical (yet far from dry) perspective on the difficulties of being a respected musician without tasting more than the fringes of commercial success. Few musicians, in fact, have written so frankly and interestingly of the complicated mechanics of how bands work (and break down). Heckstall-Smith has a lot to say about how bands are led (well or badly), how material is crafted, and how pressure is dealt with (both ineffectively and effectively), illustrating his points with specific stories from the bands in which he worked. It's a little disappointing that there isn't more specific information on the actual music, songs, and records of his three most celebrated bands, but it doesn't bug the reader too much, since there are few other books of this kind that go into the way a band operates with such insight. And it's not academic or theoretical jargon by any means: there are plenty of good road stories (such as the time Heckstall-Smith caught VD from a married woman on an American tour, which is told in a much funnier way than you'd expect), as well as anecdotes about collaborators with higher profiles than Heckstall-Smith attained (Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Graham Bond, John Mayall, and Jon Hiseman of Colosseum). The biggest drawback is that the book's on the short side: Heckstall's part of the text occupies 160 pages, and though it does cover the most interesting part of his career (ending in the early 1970s), it would be good to know more in particular about his unusual decision to go back to university to study social science. The updated 2004 edition of the book adds about 75 pages of text from his latter-day manager Pete Grant covering Heckstall-Smith's subsequent work, and unfortunately these aren't too necessary: not only was Heckstall-Smith a less important musical figure during this era, but the section is patchily organized and not too exciting to read. Also in the updated edition is a seven-song CD of previously unreleased material on which Heckstall-Smith played, most of it from the later part of his life, with the exception of a lo-fi live broadcast of "Only Sixteen" by the Graham Bond Organization in 1965.
Young Gifted & Black: The Story of Trojan Records, by Michael de Koningh & Laurence Cane-Honeysett (Sanctuary). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Trojan Records and its associated labels were responsible for much of the greatest reggae music to be issued in the UK. Such is the veneration with which Trojan is held by reggae collectors that a whole book was devoted to the label. Yet while this volume is well researched and clearly written, its appeal is going to be mostly limited to the devoted collector, and not as strong for the general reggae enthusiast. One reason is that Trojan, unlike many labels, really wasn't a laboratory of sorts for developing specific sounds through the traditional means of talent scouting and studio recording. Much of its product was actually recorded in Jamaica and placed with Trojan for British distribution, which doesn't mean the music wasn't any less impressive, but does mean that Trojan wasn't as hands-on in its creation as many more conventional labels are in the music they issue. Also, the focus of the text is a little rambling, roving between behind-the-scenes accounts of how Trojan got set up and thriving as a business, and stories about the records and artists themselves. Finally -- and this is the most important point to consider, if you're looking for a standard history -- the portion that actually reads like a regular book only occupies a little more than a third of the volume. Fully half of the space is occupied by a huge discography of Trojan's releases, and some of the rest is taken up by sections featuring specialized lists, record recommendations, and brief profiles of Trojan's subsidiary labels. So it's more a reference guide than a general interest book, and not really either. It does, however, come with a nice bound-in CD of twelve 1968-77 cuts from Trojan releases, including tracks by significant artists like the Maytals, the Ethiopians, Dave Barker, Bob Andy, Keith Hudson, Ken Boothe, I-Roy, and Susan Cadogan.
Being Frank: My Time with Frank Zappa, by Nigey Lennon (California Classics). For a few weeks in the early 1970s, Nigey Lennon toured with Frank Zappa, ostensibly as an understudy guitar player, though the main reason she seemed to be there was to provide him with companionship, including sexual relations. She also hung out with him off and on over the next few years, at one time living in his basement/work room for a few weeks, and while they did some work together on an album of her music, that record did not see release. That might be scant basis for a memoir, and indeed it's not too long, running only about 150 pages. Yet for what it is, it's pretty good. Lennon writes in a clear and entertaining style, even if many phrases are italicized for emphasis for no good reason. There are a good number of fairly funny stories about Zappa's peculiarities and life on the road (and at his home), and some insight into his personality, musical tastes, and work habits. While it's made clear that the relationship was a highly sexual one, those looking to dive in for that particular dirt might be a little disappointed, as the writer alludes to large and eccentric appetites on the part of Zappa, but doesn't get into a whole lot of specifics. Nor does it name many names in talking about Zappa's band and associates, though it seems Frank inspired both enormous respect and some fear and resentment. What's missing, perhaps, is some critique or assessment of the ethics of a well-known rock musician inviting a 17-year-old fan on tour under the pretext of her being part of the show, and immediately installing her as his concubine, though Lennon seemed a highly willing partner in the shenanigans. The selected discography is too perfunctory to be of much use, and while there are some small photos spread throughout the text, several of these actually date from long after the 1970s (and none actually show Zappa and Lennon together).
The Original Marvelettes: Motown's Mystery Girl Group, by Marc Taylor (Aloiv Publishing Company). The Marvelettes were an important Motown hitmaking group, if not quite in the top tier of the label's roster. Their history has indeed often been mysterious, due in part to numerous personnel changes, and also in part to a lack of information given out about the members in their official publicity while they were together. That might seem to have the makings of a good story, but there's still the feeling after reading this that it's not quite interesting enough to merit a full book, or at least didn't make a particularly interesting book in these hands. Their basic history is covered in a fairly thorough and well-written manner, but lacks spice, giving way too often to matter-of-fact detail. Some of the Marvelettes are interviewed (though one of their two primary lead singers, Wanda Young, is a notable absentee), as are some of their Motown associates. But there really isn't too much in the way of exciting stories about the writing and recording of the songs, especially as there aren't many primary interviews with the producers and songwriters who worked on the group's best material. Although the records are described in depth, this isn't done in the most colorful of manners, particularly when Taylor walks through albums track-by-track. There are points of interest for fans of the Motown sound, such as explanations of why exactly members left the Marvelettes; how much they did contribute to Motown getting established commercially in the early 1960s, before their fortunes were surpassed by fellow Motown girl groups Martha & the Vandellas and the Supremes; songwriting controversies about "Please Mr. Postman" (whose writers eventually got the credit for a hit soundalike, Dee Dee Sharp's "Mashed Potato Time") and "Playboy" (which Marvelette Gladys Horton says she wrote herself, despite what the credits say); and the sad drug-related decline of Wanda Young. As to why exactly Motown didn't fully push the group and sustain their momentum after the early 1960s (despite a brief return to commercial grace later in the decade), that still remains something of a mystery.
MUSIC BOOK REVIEWS: WINTER 2004-2005
Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf, by James Segrest & Mark Hoffman (Pantheon Books). A full-scale biography of Howlin' Wolf was long overdue prior to the appearance of this 2004 volume. There's no faulting the research involved and the data gathered, as the authors interviewed many, many surviving musicians and professionals who knew and worked with the Wolf, as well as quite a few family members. There are also quite a few quotes from Howlin' Wolf himself, taken from other sources. For all its praiseworthy detail, however -- there are literally about a thousand footnotes -- as something to read, it could have been better constructed. The text often leans heavily on extended quotes that are rambling or repetitious of other commentary by either the authors or other interviewees, and sometimes could have been handily summarized and streamlined in the name of improving readability. As a result it's not the smoothest read, or always the most engaging. Still, it does shed a good deal of light on his little-known childhood and young adulthood. Particularly revealing are the accounts of a rough upbringing that saw him bounced between families and often deprived of parental support or affection, and the twenty years or so during which he honed his craft as a heavily Charlie Patton-influenced Southern bluesman before finally making his recording debut in the early 1950s. His prime years in the '50s and '60s as an innovative electric blues artist at Chess Records get the most attention, and while it's sometimes hard to keep track of all the comings and goings in his band, his recording sessions and releases are thoroughly and enthusiastically depicted. There's also a good deal about the complex personality of the Wolf -- barely literate, proud, professional and gentle beneath a tough exterior, almost workaholic in his appetite for live performance.
Nina Simone: Break Down & Let It All Out, by Sylvia Hampton with David Nathan (Sanctuary). Sylvia Hampton, along with her brother David Nathan, ran the Nina Simone fan club in Britain, and knew the singer from the mid-1960s until her death more than three decades later. This book might disappoint those looking for a conventional biography, however. While some basic details of her life and music are given, it's more a memoir of Hampton and Nathan's own personal experiences and relationships with the mercurial Simone, whom they often saw backstage, socially, or in their semi-professional capacity as fan club organizers. It's not without its value for those looking into insights into the vocalist's complicated personality; it's just not much of a place to find in-depth details of, for instance, her recording sessions or American career. As for Simone's character, the portrait that emerges frankly isn't that appealing, perhaps less so than the authors realize. Although not generally known, she suffered from a bipolar condition, and would often throw tantrums or hurt those close to her without undue provocation. Hampton and Nathan felt it was worth enduring periodic abuse for the privilege of being around such a genius artist, though readers might feel that their devotion often led them to be taken advantage of by a haughty and sometimes selfish woman. While she might not come off as such an appealing person, there are some insights into Simone's feelings about audiences, civil rights, and her impossible-to-pigeonhole artistry, though there's the sense that a rigorous biographer would have offered a more in-depth and less forgiving portrait. The appendices include interviews with family members and musical associates, and a 35-page essay by Nathan that, finally, gives detailed attention to her music and recordings. Neither this book nor Simone's own autobiography, however, really offer a satisfyingly well-rounded portrait of her life and music.
The Making of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, by Tony Barrow (Omnibus Press). The world abounds with peripheral special-interest Beatles books, and you won't find many as specialized or bizarrely peripheral as this ultra-slim book about the making of their 1967 film Magical Mystery Tour. For one thing, it really is slim, looking more like an especially deluxe souvenir program you might pick up at a special screening of the film than a proper book. With just 60 pages, much of it them given over to photos, it hardly justifies its ten-pound asking price, as nice-looking as those photos and the layout are. As for the text, Tony Barrow was well-positioned to observe the haphazard making of this pretty slapdash and poorly received television film, since he was working as a press officer for the Beatles at the time, and was present for much of the filming. His account of the on-the-fly production is entertaining and well presented, but there's really not much in the way of astonishing inside information, particularly as the whole book can be read in about an hour or two, rather like a long magazine article. It's not even entirely by Barrow, getting padded out with some extended quotes from others who were present for some of the shooting, whether in the capacity of journalist, actor, or fan (there's also a page by film editor Roy Benson). The photos, mostly of the Beatles on location during the filming (in both color and black-and-white), are good, including some infrequently seen images. These aren't enough, however, to make this a worthwhile addition to all but the most fanatical Beatles fans' collections.
Scissors and Paste: A Collage Biography of Dusty Springfield, by David Evans (Britannia Press Publishing). This strange and unsatisfying book grew out of the author's research for liner notes to a Dusty Springfield box set. In the course of the research, he was given many press cuttings and clippings; when his liner notes were unused, he used quotes of Springfield that had appeared in the media from the 1960s onward as the basis for this trim (144-page) volume. It's not the most promising approach to a Springfield book, even one that's something of a scrapbook in nature. For it ended up as a huge bundle of Springfield quotes, connected by the author's own commentary, which attempts to provide context for her observations. The author's portions, sad to say, are so indulgent as to be barely above amateur level, with annoyingly chatty speculation as to Springfield's motivations, inner psyche, and feelings that draw in dull and irksome digressions and asides about his own worldview. We learn more about Evans's own feelings about aspects of British and American life, psychology, and maturity -- and, you know, they're not very interesting. Any value for Springfield fans lies in the quotes, which do cover many facets of her life and music, over several decades. At their best, they can be pretty good reading, as when she discusses how her early solo records were produced in Britain in the mid-1960s, or how the album Dusty in Memphis came about. But many of the quotes are rambling, and might have benefited enormously from a little tightening in the editing and, more importantly, straightforward linking text to frame what she's saying instead of being nearly irrelevant. What's worse, the sources for the specific quotes are not cited, although they're listed in one gulp of a paragraph in the acknowledgements.
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