Saturday, February 27, 2016

Something Good

At last, something good to talk about. Let's start with the FAQs.
PINK FLOYD FAQS (by Stuart Shea, 2009) and THE WHO FAQS (by Mike Segretto, 2014) are two in a series of 30+ 300-to-350-page books published by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard, in which writers try to tell you more about your faves than a mildly interested fan would already know.
If you're a rabid fan, you might not find all that much new here. So the secret then is to do the job with a little style and a sense of humor. Shea and Segretto have both.
Shea does a great, detailed job -- in part because he admits up-front that he's not the world's biggest Pink Floyd fan. He thinks their post-Roger Waters studio albums are no big deal, and their albums before DARK SIDE OF THE MOON are criminally overlooked by most so-called fans. I'm OK with that.
Shea also has little use for Floyd tracks like "The Great Gig in the Sky," "The Final Cut," "One of My Turns" and "The Trial" -- some of my favorite Floyd songs ever. I'm OK with that, too.
Because one of the ways Shea Does The Job is to point out the overlooked stuff -- in fact he has several lists of great overlooked tracks that a sometime-fan like me should look into -- all from Floyd albums before DARK SIDE.
Shea thinks there's a ton of great stuff hidden away on the Floyd's early movie soundtracks. He also thinks there's a fair share of hideous garbage on MEDDLE and ATOM HEART MOTHER and UMMAGUMMA. Pointing those awful tracks out makes for good comedy.
Segretto points out lots of great lost Who songs, too -- it was especially nice seeing "Zelda" and "Melancholia" mentioned. You can hear excellent demos of those songs on Pete Townshend's SCOOP.
And I am loving the long lists of great forgotten gems from the '60s and '70s, best Who solo albums, etc.
Overall, both books are good solid value for the money, if you're a fan of either band.
ROCK CHRONICLES (Second Edition, 2015, general editor David Roberts) is a sort of triumph of design and layout, in which a couple dozen contributors give you short histories of 250 top rock acts -- accompanied by beautifully-reproduced photos, band-membership timelines, mugshot photos of the most important members, etc. You probably don't want to see pictures of some of these folks -- look anyway. Rock and roll is a hard road.
This is definitely a ROCK encyclopedia -- it starts with AC/DC. Abba ain't in here. Which makes it a mystery when A-Ha turns up a few pages later. I assume Elton John and Paul McCartney were too big to ignore. So why no Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Janet Jackson? If this isn't a "pop" encyclo, fine, but they should have said so. I don't get what their dividing-line is.
I could bitch a lot about who they left out, so let me bitch some more: Soft Machine, Can, Magma and Popol Vuh are all in here. So why not Gong? Or Amon Duul II? Richard Pinhas? There are also Japanese and Chinese bands here I'll bet no one in the States has ever heard of.
To get a little more obvious -- why isn't Joan Jett in here? Also not included: John Mellencamp, Bonnie Raitt, The Rascals, Janis Joplin, Rod Stewart (he was a rocker for awhile, here only mentioned while he was with Faces), Sly and the Family Stone.... You see what I mean about not knowing where their cut-off is?  
Iron Butterfly hasn't released an album since 1976, so why are they in here? Why Moby Grape and not It's a Beautiful Day?
There are sometimes TOO MANY photos of the bands performing or backstage -- do we really need double-page spreads on Kiss, Alice Cooper, AC/DC, Guns 'n' Roses, Black Sabbath, Scorpions, etc., when the editors could have fit in more band bios?
I don't know if I learned much new, but the book looks very good and it reads smoothly. The band histories -- though brief -- are detailed and accurate. This is a pretty good place to start, if you want to learn more about any of these folks.
There are occasional typos here and there. The only "major" error I found was the mugshot photos were shuffled-up in the entry on Men at Work.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Two more misses

Ray Davies' AMERICANA (2013) is a disappointment, thin and surfacey.
It does in its haphazard way recount The Kinks' adventures touring throughout the States from the days of the British Invasion, through their "re-conquering" of the colonies around the time of "Lola," to their apparent peak in popularity in the late '70s and early '80s, on into the '90s, and even into the 2000's -- when Ray has his Ultimate American Experience: He gets shot during a robbery.
But Ray jumps all over the place, some of his stories are rushed, others get more detail than they deserve, and Ray can't always tell you why he did some things. Davies has been acclaimed in the past for his powers of observation, shown in places like the details in the lyrics of his mid-'60s British hit "Waterloo Sunset." But by the end of this book you don't feel like you've met Ray, and he seems almost like a mystery to himself. He has no insight into the things he did or why some things happened, or really why he's had this long love affair with the U.S., beyond some American songs he heard in his childhood.
There are good things in the book: One chapter is a diary Ray kept during the SLEEPWALKER tour of the U.S. in 1977, and it's worth reading. The band's whole period with Arista Records is pretty well described by Ray, as is their late-'60s experience with Reprise, and their early-'70s "rock-opera" period with RCA.
But when Ray explains how his band fell out with Arista and ended up with MCA, I'm not sure I believe him. Ray just sounds too clueless. He's at a complete loss about how things happened.
Though getting shot in New Orleans is sort of the framework that the book is built around, it takes awhile to learn what happened, we get the details in bits and pieces -- and it's like Ray does his best to take most of the drama out of it.
There are parts of the book that are written with real affection -- usually about former road managers and advance-publicity-team members and "minders" who have died along the road. Ray's first wife, Rasa, who provided nice vocal harmonies on some Kinks hits up through the late '60s, is mentioned by name exactly once -- the rest of the time she's referred to as "the ex-wife." Chrissie Hynde is mentioned a couple times, only once by her full name.
Maybe I expected too much. I like The Kinks. VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY is a charming album in its acoustic, low-key way. LOW BUDGET is a solid, no-frills rock and roll album with sometimes hilarious lyrics. There's half a dozen great tracks on ONE FOR THE ROAD -- I prefer those live versions of "Victoria," "David Watts," "Misfits" and "Celluloid Heroes" to the studio originals. There's half a dozen great should-have-been hits on THE KINKS KRONIKLES.
But some people maybe shouldn't write books. Or they should get some help. I wonder if anybody read this before it was printed -- I kind of doubt it, because the sentence structure isn't always solid, some words are dropped here and there, and bassist Andy Pyle's last name keeps getting spelled two different ways.
Am I an idiot to expect emotional depth from rock and roll songwriters when they write books? Ray's personality seems paper-thin and distant here, not at all the warm, eccentric feeling you get from Kinks albums.

Wendy Leigh's BOWIE (2014) attempts to cover David Bowie's life in 275 rather-large-print pages, and doesn't do the man justice. The book is mostly about Bowie's sexual adventures -- about how many people he took to bed, how few people could resist him, how well-endowed he was, how many drugs he took. The music is distinctly secondary.
The book reads like it was cranked out in a couple of weeks. It's thin and surfacey, lighter than a PEOPLE magazine profile, and reading it didn't make me like Bowie any more or make me want to investigate his music any further.
There is a LONG list of people Leigh interviewed to write her book -- Bowie apparently wasn't one of them. There is a LONG list of magazine and English-music-weekly articles Leigh relied on for background. There is a pathetic attempt at a discography that is merely a two-page list of album titles. Would it have been so hard to include the titles of the songs that were ON those albums?
I was interested in learning more about Bowie's Berlin period and what was going through his mind during LET'S DANCE, not to mention what he'd been doing for the last 25 years -- but the book was so numbing that I gave up by then.Was it just that Bowie was willing to do anything, try anything, say anything, to be famous? Leigh doesn't even note that it took Bowie two years of work and a change of record companies before "Space Oddity" finally broke through to be a hit in the States.
I know there have been a lot of Bowie bios that tell only parts of his story. I haven't read any of them. I picked this one up because he'd died and I wondered if I'd missed anything important. This book doesn't make me want to find out.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Movie-ing 2

That Bowie bio and that Ray Davies memoir are gonna have to wait, because I've found something better....
David Thomson's NEW BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM (Sixth Edition, 2015) is 1,150 pages of film biographies, accomplishments, opinions and trivia, and it is the best reference book I've read since Richard Cook and Brian Morton's great PENGUIN GUIDE TO JAZZ (1992).
Back in the day, English film critic Leslie Halliwell used to come out every year or two with an updated HALLIWELL'S FILMGOERS' COMPANION, a huge book full of lists of movies alphabetized by actor, director, writer, etc. -- a constantly updated look at what was happening in movies and who did it. Halliwell died in the 80's or 90's, and it looks like Thomson took over for him.
But Halliwell used to just list movies a person helped with, then add a brief description of their career, maybe a quote or a funny story or great lines from their films. Thomson does all that and more, including an ongoing narrative complete with completed films and dates of release, plus opinions about the person's work, details about their background, and a critical overview.
And Thomson ain't shy about expressing his opinions.
And it's clearly Thomson's book and no one else's -- he includes entries on overlooked figures, people who helped him gain a growing appreciation of films, folks I guarantee you've never heard of, people probably nobody but their FAMILY has ever heard of.
And he makes it all informative, funny, charming, sometimes moving.
Thomson has little use for most of the films released in the last decade or so. And I'm OK with that.
He may be a little too convinced of the greatness in films of the past. I'm OK with that, too.
He adores actors and actresses -- the longest entry I've found so far is on Cary Grant. The entry on James Stewart's pretty lengthy, too. And Thomson goes on for a couple pages on novelist, screenwriter and critic Graham Green. Critic Pauline Kael gets a nice write-up.
Thomson can be brutal on directors. Nobody's more to blame if a movie goes bad than the director, right? So Thomson can go on for pages about Howard Hawks, John Ford, Frank Capra, Sam Peckinpah (both positive and negative). But when he comes to a current director like Richard Donner (SUPERMAN, the LETHAL WEAPON movies), it only takes him three sentences to sum-up Donner's work.
If you're a movie fan, this is great stuff. You're sure to learn a lot, and look at some actors and films in a new way. And Thomson isn't afraid of the dark stuff -- like, for instance, how Jean Harlow died. Or Joan Crawford's later years. Or Orson Welles's career. And there are others that are just as tragic, that seem just as large a waste of talent.
Not everybody in current films is bio'd in here, not every actor or director mentioned gets a write-up. That would need a book twice as big. But it'll keep you busy for awhile if you're a movie fan.
And the unique, personal way Thomson's written it is a good model for me as I work on my strange-music review book (up past 32,000 words now).
If you're a movie fan, check this one out. You'll hardly ever hear me say this: This book is WORTH $30.
And by the way, apparently Thomson has been doing these dictionaries and updates since 1976....
Rock and roll could use an encyclopedia as detailed, well-written, and open as this one is.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Write on....

That book about Strange Music that I've wanted to write since age 22 might actually get done within my lifetime. I've made more progress on it in the last two weeks than I have in five years. I'm somewhere past 27,000 words written, now. Maybe a third to halfway finished.
If all goes as planned, I expect LISTEN TO THIS! will review progressive-rock albums I loved (or hated) back in the day, some very off-the-wall noise I've reviewed here (Cromagnon's CAVE ROCK, Borbetomagus, etc.), and that batch of prog I went through a few years back only to be disappointed when I discovered that a lot of it ... kind of sucked.
Even though I've got some big blank spots, I've heard a lot over the years and I haven't given up yet, so I ought to put all that listening-time and money-spent to good use.
My biggest problem was I couldn't seem to organize what I knew into a format that I could work with, that would allow me to write what I wanted, so the book would sound like me and not just like any other record-review book out there.
A couple weeks ago, I figured out a format that would work, and I've been working with it ever since. For me, a lot of these albums are tied up with memories, old friendships, and good and bad times, so you can trust a lot of that will get into the book.
So far, I have over 300 albums either reviewed, mentioned or at least listed -- everything from DARK SIDE OF THE MOON to ZERO TOLERANCE FOR SILENCE (don't know that one? Good luck....). Hopefully I'll be able to add more as I continue writing. Plus I've got stuff at home that I still haven't given a fair listening to yet....
I'll keep you posted as this project continues. Mentioning it here is part of my plan to force myself to keep working on it. I've seriously wanted to do this at least since I started reviewing off-the-wall music for newspapers, so....

If I slack off on the Strange Music book, I have other projects to keep me writing.
I've been working since September on a second GAS NAZI book. I'm about 25,000 words in. Things have changed a bit at my job in the past couple of years, and hilarious and outrageous new atrocities happen there every week, so as soon as I have enough to fill up another Kindle e-book, I'll let you know.
While I was on vacation from the blog, I was still writing. Last spring I wrote a LONG sort-of "family history" for an old friend back home in Idaho, and from that I hope to do a growing-up memoir called WHEN YOU WAKE UP that traces my growing up from age 11 on -- back to the days when I discovered music and books and that I could maybe write a little. Everything seemed much more magical then. And I can remember 45 years ago better than I can remember last week. So. I'm about 20,000 words into that one.
I hope these books aren't just an attempt to write I-I-I -- I like to think there's more to them. If there wasn't, I wouldn't write them. These e-books aren't making me rich (yet), but at least I feel like I'm accomplishing something, not wasting my life and my talent. If I'm full of shit, nobody's told me so yet. (Here's your chance, Crabby....)
I'll keep you posted on all this stuff, and definitely let you know when the books are done and available for sale. I'd still love to "retire" and write for a living....

COMING SOON: I've bagged another batch of books, including a Bowie biography and a memoir by Ray Davies of the Kinks. I'll report on these soonest....

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


I read a lot during the six months I was away from the blog, and when I couldn't find any promising books on rock&roll, I read a lot about movies.
I started with movie reviews written by Pauline Kael, who covered movies for THE NEW YORKER from the mid-'60s to the early '90s. I'd recommend all of her books, each of which features hundreds of in-depth reviews. Which one you should start with depends on what period you're interested in.
DEEPER INTO MOVIES, REELING, WHEN THE LIGHTS GO DOWN and TAKING IT ALL IN cover movies from the early '70s to the early '80s. HOOKED and STATE OF THE ART cover the mid-'80s, when there wasn't much exciting going on. MOVIE LOVE covers the early '90s as Kael's career wound down. 5,001 NIGHTS AT THE MOVIES has thousands of capsule-reviews of older films. And Kael wrote half a dozen more books I haven't gotten to yet.
If you've ever wondered how a particular effect worked on the screen, or how some movies worked and others definitely didn't, or if you're just a big movie fan, Pauline Kael's your critic. She'll tell you How and Why, as well as How Good -- and she even has a great time writing-up some truly awful turkeys.
Nobody ever wrote in as much depth and detail about movies as Kael. Only Roger Ebert came close.
It's too bad she's not around today. I bet she'd be stunned at how much MORE money is wasted on movies now -- and how sometimes even big-budget movies only play in theaters for a week or two before they vanish in the blink of an eye and then they're out two or three months later on Cable and Dish and DVD and Blu-ray.
She probably wouldn't be surprised at the amount of weak, lame trash that's out there. Or at how most movies these days seem to be sci-fi action-hero fantasies and zombie invasions and stupid comedies. There were plenty of bad movies back in her day, too.

Rock&roll could use a history like Peter Biskind's EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS: HOW THE SEX, DRUGS AND ROCK AND ROLL GENERATION SAVED HOLLYWOOD (1998). This long, densely detailed book follows the movie careers of the wave of young writer-directors who hit Hollywood in the late '60s and did their best work into the early '80s -- guys like Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Towne and Paul Schrader.
These are the guys who put together movies like THE GODFATHER, JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, STAR WARS, THE EXORCIST, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, TAXI DRIVER, NASHVILLE, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, AMERICAN GRAFFITI, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, APOCALYPSE NOW, E.T. -- films that made it interesting to go to the movies for about a decade.  
Brian DePalma appears several times in this book, but I think he gets kind of short-changed. He was a big mover and shaker in this period, and he's not followed in as much detail as the others. There's rather too much about Schrader, I thought -- and I could have lived without all the detail on the careers of Dennis Hopper and Bob Rafelson, but they helped get the ball rolling. There is also a lot of material on Warren Beatty, who was a big deal at the time.
But here's the thing all of them had in common: Nearly every single one of them had a personal-life that was a train wreck. There's some truly appalling behavior outlined in this book, and I'm not even talking about the heavy drinking and drug abuse and infidelity. Friedkin, Bogdanovich, Hopper and Coppola especially treated their Significant Others like shit. Friedkin apparently treated everyone badly. Much of the book reads like a relationship nightmare. Was it worth it, just to get a few good movies made?
Some of these guys are still at it. Scorsese is still crankin' out good stuff, after a few tough years here and there in the '80s and '90s. Spielberg is still doing Academy-Award-nominated films, but even he had his flops and setbacks along the way.
But some of them sank -- Friedkin and Bogdanovich were basically done by the early '80s. Hal Ashby (SHAMPOO, COMING HOME) lost his grip, dropped out, got cancer and died. Lucas's marriage fell apart. Spielberg got divorced then re-married.
I wish this book had followed these guys on through the '80s, because it ends at a real down point for most of them. Some of them survived to do more solid work, like Scorsese's GOOD FELLAS, Spielberg's THE COLOR PURPLE and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, Lucas with the Star Wars sequels and the Indiana Jones movies (with Spielberg). Maybe they were never quite as great again, but they're hangin' in there, most of 'em.
God knows I'm no expert on movies, especially CURRENT movies -- I think the last movie I saw in a theater was TITANIC -- but you could learn a lot about how movies and movie people work from this book and any of Pauline Kael's.
Reporting as solid, detailed and open as Biskind's could do "rock journalism" a lot of good. Not to mention rock and roll memoirs....

Monday, February 8, 2016

What I meant to say was....

Here's the thing about rock-star memoirs: You may get a Here's What Happened, but you might not get a Here's What It Felt Like. I'm not sure why that is, though I think the truth might be in a twist on something Greil Marcus once wrote about Van Morrison:
If he could explain his songs, he wouldn't have had to write and sing them.
Rock fans reading a rock-star memoir already have a pretty good idea of what happened. What they want to know is what it felt like. And sometimes the rock stars can't tell you. Not in any depth, anyway.
For me, the best rock-star memoir is still Keith Richards' LIFE -- not because it was such a great book, but because by reading it you can pick up some of the feeling of what it's like to play guitar for the Rolling Stones. Keith lets you in on what it's like to create great songs like "Jumping Jack Flash." He puts you inside Nellcote in France while the Stones are recording EXILE ON MAIN STREET. He gives you some of the rush of writing and recording basic tracks for "Happy" in just three hours.
Those were the best parts of the book, for me. That's what I was reading it for.
Now I read that Keith had a ghost-writer, and I think that helped him -- how else is Keith supposed to remember what happened back in the '70s, eh?
John Fogerty had a co-writer to help pull together his FORTUNATE SON, and so you get a little feel for what it was like to record "Proud Mary" and those early Creedence Clearwater Revival albums.
Again, that's the best part of the book -- not the endless lawsuits or John's '70s depression, or how true love saved him. Though those details make his story an inspiring one.
The weakest rock-star memoir I've read is Eric Clapton's CLAPTON. His life story has all the ingredients for a GREAT memoir -- but Eric didn't get much of it down in his book. By the end of the '70s, it's like he was bored. And Eric would be the first to tell you that he ain't that exciting a guy.
Pete Townshend's WHO I AM isn't much better. Again, lots of great material here -- but Pete ended up skimming over a lot of it, even though it's a huge book. Elvis Costello had some of the same problems in his UNFAITHFUL MUSIC AND DISAPPEARING INK. I kept thinking he tried to cover too much.
I'm not a big enough Tom Petty fan to try reading his memoir. I'm not interested enough.
I would have liked to see someone try to dig more out of Chrissie Hynde than we got in her RECKLESS: MY LIFE AS A PRETENDER. I was at least expecting more bare, passionate emotion about some of the things she went through.
But if Chrissie could have written a book that summed up her thoughts and feelings back in the day, she probably never would have had to form the Pretenders, and we never would have heard all their great songs. You make what art you can create. Hynde is a singer-songwriter-guitarist. It was silly for me to expect that her book would be as emotionally affecting as her best music.
I think rock-star memoirs are great. I also think most of them aren't worth the $30 bookstores and publishers are charging for them these days.

I hesitate to call music by artists I enjoy "average." I think you should hear the Tedeschi Trucks Band even if I think their new album LET ME GET BY only has one knockout song on it, and only one other that will grow on you. The rest I think are OK, maybe better if you're a fan -- but nothing that will change your life. And it's hard for me to say that.
I spent $18 I couldn't really afford on their CD -- the vinyl album was $35! I wonder how much of that cash they'll get. I'm keeping the CD, though I don't think it was worth $18. That's just too much. What's the solution to this? Download the best stuff and let the others go...?

Good news for any creatives out there: Check out Austin Kleon's STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST (2012), a short pep-talk of a book for writers, musicians, painters, bloggers, photographers -- anybody who tries to create something new and different. I can't see why it wouldn't work as an inspiration in almost any job.
The book lays out in about 100 pages 10 simple pieces of advice for creatives, along with a lot of other practical, down-to-earth, common-sense tips that maybe you never thought about. If you've got a huge project of any sort staring you in the face -- whether it's for your paying job or your own satisfaction -- you need to read this book.
It's short, personal, punchy, perfect. Some parts are so inspiring that you'll laugh with joy. One graphic outlines the seven steps any major project goes through -- and it's so truthful and so funny that I laughed 'til I cried.
You can read it in an hour or less, and it will make you look at any new project in a whole different way. Get it.

I'm 20 pages into Paul Theroux's DEEP SOUTH (2015), and I already think he's the best travel writer in the world -- and God knows I've tried to read a bunch of others. Nobody else has Theroux's sense of humor, his clear eye for description and detail, his sense of storytelling. He is the best. Only John McPhee can match him for putting scenes and scenery in your head. Only Tim Cahill comes close in the real-life comedy department.
I've tried many other travel writers -- Redmond O'Hanlon, Colin Thubron, Bruce Chatwin all have their fans, and I'm sure they're good, but I can't get into them. J. Maarten Troost has some great jokes, but it's sort of a good thing his books are short.
Theroux is the man. Wonder if he'd consider co-writing an autobiography with some rock star? David Bowie would have been a good subject....

WHY WE WRITE ABOUT OURSELVES, edited by Meredith Maran, rounds up 20 memoirists like Pat Conroy, Anne Lamott, A.M. Homes and others, and has them talk about writing memoirs -- why they do it, what they get out of it, the rewards of it and the prices they pay.
Conroy says writing about his family (in books like THE PRINCE OF TIDES and THE GREAT SANTINI) has almost destroyed it -- but it was a train wreck to begin with. Conroy says anything that has ever happened to you is your property -- and you should use it. Homes talks about learning she was adopted and about when her biological parents came looking for her -- the whole experience ended up in a memoir. Lamott tries to be nice to everyone she writes about, and has gone as far as changing names and incidents to keep people she knows from getting upset. Sometimes that wasn't far enough.
If you write memoirs or are addicted to them, this is also an inspiring book, and I might have a longer review of it later.

Possible upcoming topics:
* Is Obamacare working for anyone?
* How living in the U.S. now is almost like living in Russia.
* And more reviews, of course.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

They'll get by....

If the Tedeschi Trucks Band would put together a whole CD full of upbeat, stomping, party-worthy songs like "Anyhow," "Made Up Mind," "Down in the Flood," "Crow Jane" and "Come See About Me," I'd be a fan for life.
Their newest, LET ME GET BY (2016), is not that album.
But it's not bad at all.
It opens with the best track, "Anyhow," which starts with a stately piano theme and then just keeps building for six minutes -- and by the time the horns kick in it's a total freakin' knockout, the best thing I've heard in months, and the best use of horns in a rock band that I've heard in years.
I just wish the rest of the album was as good. It's not BAD -- when they hit a song just right, they're amazing. But I think when TTB doesn't absolutely nail a song, then you get a couple tunes that are OK, a couple that grow on you, and some that are just sort of average. Several probably sound better in concert.
This was especially true on their last album, MADE UP MIND, which included the knockout title song, the dramatic guitar showcase "The Storm," a kind of sloppy rocker called "Whiskey Legs" that grew on me, and a lot of fairly mellow stuff that I found easy to ignore. I called TTB "a Southern-Rock Fleetwood Mac" then.
I apologize. And though I still think there's a tendency to smooth off some rough edges here in an attempt to expand their audience, there's nothing here that's "too mellow." There's plenty of Susan Tedeschi's Bonnie Raitt-like vocals, lots of Derek Trucks's excellent guitar -- in fact, the whole band gets a chance to show what they can do. They have a big sound -- and they should, there's a dozen of them in the band now. And the results are sometimes unexpected.
The title song has great forceful choruses. "Crying Over You" has a lead vocal by Mike Mattison, and it's a nice break with some cute "ooh-ooh-ooh" choruses. The "Swamp Raga" for guitar, flute and harmonium is pleasant -- but to me it sounds like a 1968 Moody Blues outtake, something that might have been included in the more noodling parts of "Legend of a Mind." It's not bad, but it's not what you'd expect from this band. Some of the same feeling returns in the jam at the end of "I Want More," but with electric guitar added.
But the "Swamp Raga" works beautifully as a set-up for "Hear Me," a gorgeous, yearning, mournful almost-lost-love song that is the next-best-thing here. This could almost be a hit on current "smooth easy-listening" radio for grown-ups. But it's a better song than that.
"Don't Know What it Means" has enjoyable sing-along group-vocal choruses and a nice a-capella ending. It's also the second of two songs in a row that sort of address current issues, I think. "Right on Time" has an almost-'30s-music-hall sound. It could almost be a different band.
The other three songs are just kind of average, though the instrumental work and vocals are solid. They just don't jump out at me.
I wish I could be more positive -- the good stuff is really good, it's just that most of it didn't knock me out. I'd still go see TTB live and expect to be blown away. I'll also be waiting for a best-of, though it may be awhile before that happens. The Derek Trucks Band was on RCA, MADE UP MIND was on Sony Masterworks, and the new album is on Fantasy. Is this an indication that their CDs don't sell as well as the record companies would like? I don't know -- but these guys have a lot of talent. I'll still be listening in the future, and hoping for more knockouts like "Anyhow."

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Chrissie and Phil

Ground rules: When it comes to music and books, I have some pretty obvious biases, and I'll admit them. I'm easily bored. I want people to get to the point and not waste my time. I have no patience for BS. I want real emotion expressed directly and clearly. If you're gonna get arty and clever, it better be worth the trip. And I want to know everything.

I wanted to love Chrissie Hynde's RECKLESS: MY LIFE AS A PRETENDER (2015). After all, this woman's first album (PRETENDERS, 1980) helped get me through 1980 without going nuts. And she's done some great stuff since -- "Message of Love," "Talk of the Town," "Birds of Paradise," "Back on the Chain Gang," "2000 Miles," "Time the Avenger," "Don't Get Me Wrong," "Human," "I'll Stand By You," etc.
But RECKLESS is a little thin as a Pretenders memoir -- Hynde's memories of the band take up less than half of the book, and the book ends with the deaths of guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon in 1982.
It's as if she didn't think the rest of her career was worth writing about, or she didn't want to be bothered. She touches on her relationship with Ray Davies of The Kinks and their constant arguing, but she never gets to her marriage to Jim Kerr of Simple Minds, or how Hynde pulled her band back together for her comeback LEARNING TO CRAWL. There's a photo of Meg Keene, who wrote "Hymn to Her" on the GET CLOSE album, but Hynde never gets close to talking about that album.
This is disappointing. Everything after 1982 is summed up in a very brief two-page "Epilogue." Did Hynde maybe see she'd have to write another 300 pages to cover the rest of her career?
The first two-thirds of RECKLESS covers Hynde growing up in Akron, Ohio, getting in trouble in school, chasing rock stars and "tattooed love boys" (and getting abused by them), going to Kent State University (she devotes a chapter to the shootings there in 1970 when she was a student), and later going on to London and Paris, hanging out with and working for Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood in their London clothing boutique at the start of Punk, living with music journalist Nick Kent, writing for the NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS for a year, and much more. Drinking and sleeping with Iggy Pop! Trying to steal Lemmy's drummer from Motorhead when she started The Pretenders!
Some of this is written with depth and real affection. She doesn't back away from the more sordid details. There's a lot of drugs, a lot of drinking, a fair amount of sex. Her account of The Pretenders on the road is about what you'd expect. But it all goes bad so quickly.
By the end, with the drug deaths of great guitarist Honeyman-Scott and Hynde's former boyfriend Farndon, the book becomes distant, depressed, sad.
The book's dust-jacket mentions that we're lucky to be living in "a golden age of rock star memoirs." Hmmm, maybe. But how many of them are really that good? How many of them really have the emotional depth you'd hope for, based on these musicians' great songs of the past?
A co-writer could have gotten more out of this story, maybe could have prodded Hynde to remember more, in more depth. By the end, the things she maybe doesn't want to write about are the things we want to know.
And half this story is still waiting to be told.

Science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick has had a helluva career since dying back in 1982. He's been quite a cult figure for the last decade or so. All of his SF novels from the '50s and '60s have recently been reprinted in flashy new Vintage paperbacks. Even half a dozen mainstream novels he couldn't get published at the end of the '50s have made it into print. His fans love the gritty, earthy, real-life details in many of these books. The gritty day-to-dayness of it all is what often makes him a bore, to me.
Exceptions: Dick's THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRICHT (1964) is one of a kind, an amazing, dark, sinister novel that really will turn your mind inside-out. A MAZE OF DEATH (1970) focuses on colonists who die one by one on an evil alien planet as they search for their versions of God. None of the questions the novel raises are ever answered. Short stories like "Frozen Journey" and "Faith of Our Fathers" will also pop your eyes wide open.
It's been years since I read THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE (1962) -- I can hardly remember anything about it. But I bogged down early in MARTIAN TIME-SLIP (1964), DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? (1968), the anti-drug A SCANNER DARKLY (1977), and VALIS (1981) -- though I did read the long section from Dick's "Exegesis" at the end. The complete version of this Bible-like account of Dick's early-1974 experience with a strange light and an alien voice speaking inside his head was published as the huge EXEGESIS a few years back.
Seeking a way back into Dick's work, I ordered and read Paul Williams' ONLY APPARENTLY REAL (1986), a short biography and sections of a days-long interview that Williams held with Dick back in the mid-'70s, parts of which were published soon after in ROLLING STONE. I loved Williams' writing about The Beach Boys' SMILE album back in the '60s, and his BACK TO THE MIRACLE FACTORY includes more fine writing about The Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Nirvana, The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Liz Phair, and many more. I figured if Williams was a big Philip K. Dick fan, there must be something there worth finding.
The interview is lengthy, but rather than focusing mainly on his experience with that strange light and the voice inside his head (which is touched on), Dick keeps circling back to an incident in November 1971 -- in which local dissidents allegedly broke into his house and blew open a safe housing Dick's financial records and manuscripts ... an incident that police thought Dick did by himself to gain attention from local authorities.
Would PKD have destroyed his own home just for some "attention"? Williams leaves that question open, but Dick can't stop talking about the break-in and everything surrounding it. He admits he hung out with some odd people, people heavily into the drug culture, even some extremists. Dick was a little extreme himself -- and a few years later, after supposedly using speed and psychedelics for years, Dick would argue violently against all drug use in A SCANNER DARKLY.
Throughout the interview, PKD is totally down-to-earth, very straightforward, not at all a raving nut-case. Just a modest, normal guy who some pretty weird stuff happened to.
As a reader, you end up trying to psychoanalyze Philip K. Dick, who was actually a pretty odd character. And just like in his novels, none of the questions that are raised are ever answered.
Williams adds a timeline of the key events in Dick's life -- the 30-plus novels he wrote, the four marriages, the several emotional collapses. Even more valuable is a list of all those novels, and when and where they were finally published up through 1986.
What sticks with me is a description from A SCANNER DARKLY: Looking in the mirror, a drug-addicted police investigator is trying to go straight and can't see himself clearly. All he sees in the mirror is a vague blur. Despite his caginess and his game-playing with reality, Philip K. Dick at least came across as if he saw himself clearly.

Monday, February 1, 2016

I'm Back!/John and Elvis

Hey folks. I'm back, now more than ever. I've had my break since last summer -- tonight my best friend convinced me that I shouldn't just throw away something I had such fun with, that I got so much enjoyment out of. And of course she's right. So.
I'll try to update here once or twice a week, or more often if there's something I want to mouth off about.
Nice to be talkin' to 'ya again.

Read a couple of rockstar autobiographies last week -- John Fogerty's FORTUNATE SON (2015) and Elvis Costello's UNFAITHFUL MUSIC AND DISAPPEARING INK (2015). If you're a big Creedence Clearwater Revival fan, you might want to pick up Fogerty's book. He doesn't exactly tell you where he got that "swamp rock" sound for Creedence back in the '60s, but there's some great stories in the book anyway -- and some stuff that will drive you crazy, like it almost did to John.
All the big money from all those big hits that John and CCR had in the late '60s and early '70s, ALL of it, went to Fantasy Records and its president Saul Zaentz, who (Fogerty's theory) used it to finance movies like ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST and AMADEUS. Fogerty and his bandmates got almost none of it.
Fogerty fought this for years, trying to get at least SOME of the money from his songs back, only to have Zaentz counter-sue him for slander (for "Zanz Can't Danz") and for plagiarizing his own songs when Fogerty released "The Old Man Down the Road." (Zaentz owned the rights to all those old CCR songs, ya see.)
As if this weren't bad enough, Fogerty's bandmates were real dummies. John told them early (by the time of "Proud Mary") that he could perform all the band's parts and vocals himself, and WOULD, unless they did the songs the way he wanted. He knew how they should sound. On their own, with no coaching, they were pretty sloppy. Lazy. The other members of CCR included John's brother Tom, and John's insistence on Doing It Right caused jealousies that went on for years.
So. The other band-members were on this million-dollar gravy train, and all they could do was complain about it. For years. And they lost most of their money too.
Fogerty isn't out to settle any old scores. He's such a modest, down-to-earth, no-BS, Just Plain Folks kind of guy that he just lays out the details for you. He doesn't want to hurt anyone's feelings. He just puts the info out there and lets you decide. The story of "Fogerty's Revenge" -- CCR's MARDI GRAS album, when the other guys in the band shared the songwriting under a democracy they demanded -- is laid out here in all its ugly detail.
Maybe the high point of the book is when Fogerty gives up, years after CCR breaks up -- and lets go millions of dollars he was owed and cheated out of. The moment sends him into hysterical laughter after a decade of arguing and paying lawyers.
The rest of the book is about how true love saved him. If you've ever heard or seen any of his interviews, he's such a modest guy that it's impossible not to take his book as the literal just-spell-it-out truth.
I just wished there were more -- more depth about those ugly old days. This is one of the worst rock and roll stories I've heard -- right down there with Badfinger's in terms of cheating and sleazy business practices. John had a co-writer who helped pull the book together, but I think his co-writer could have gotten more depth out of him.

Elvis Costello's UNFAITHFUL MUSIC maybe tries to do too much. There are some great stories here, too -- about the high days of Punk Rock and New Wave. I was very interested in EC's angry early days as a recording artist for Stiff and CBS -- I wanted to know more about his GREAT recording of Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding."
But Elvis tries to tell his story, his parents' stories, his grandparents' stories. He's all over the place.
It was worth trying -- Costello can write. But maybe his project was too big.
The crunch came for me when EC tries to recount that infamous moment in Cleveland (I think), when -- in a drunken bar fight -- he allegedly tossed around racial slurs about Ray Charles and other black performers he'd worshiped for years.
Elvis admits he'd been drinking heavily for years by then.
He doesn't quite recount that incident. He touches on it, then caves in. Then he faces a point that he thinks all writers of autobiographies eventually face: When they suddenly realize that they "really aren't that keen on the subject."
But he goes on. For another 300 pages.
A better editor would have gotten a better, possibly even shorter story out of Elvis, and would have gotten the details out of him when it came to the crunch.
If you're a big EC fan, you might want to look at this. I didn't think it was worth the $30, even if it was an autographed copy.