Looking for a celebration of music in words to while away your lazy summer days?
Testimony – Robbie Robertson (2016)
The story of The Band is arguably the most mysterious and incomplete of any rock group from the golden era. This is mainly due to two contributing factors; during its time The Band did very little press, lived, recorded and mostly maneuvered outside of the capitals of the entertainment business, and in the convening years many of its members painted conflicting histories and then subsequently three of the five members died.
Into this quixotic history comes the much-anticipated memoir of its titular head and main songwriter, Robbie Robertson, who not only co-founded the group and composed the bulk of its songs but ultimately splintered it.
Testimony is aptly titled. Robertson writes as conversation, a homespun storyteller putting you in the room, on the stage, and inside the action; all the while unfurling his version of how things went down from a unique perspective. From his neophyte days as a teenager getting a fast-track rock and roll education on the road with the inimitable Ronnie Hawkins, all the way through the famous Martin Scorsese directed version of The Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz, Robertson is our guide through what would become the seminal moments in rock.
And although it may seem at times that the author is merely name-dropping or happens to “be there” in a bizarre Forrest Gumpian manner, Robertson did indeed wander into almost every significant event during the second wave of rock and roll. It is truly amazing how much Robertson has seen and affected in his travels all over the world with Dylan and Hendrix and Muddy Waters and the list is way too long to broach here.
If nothing else, Robertson’s absentia from alcohol and hard drugs allows his perspective to be the most if not trusted at least exceptional of these types of autobiographies. But despite his mostly tea-totaling (there are copious amounts of weed and hash usage), you get no overt judgments here; beyond his wincing paragraphs dealing with his bandmates’ heroin addictions, which are as harrowing as they are heartfelt.
Robertson could have been more detailed about some of the more beautifully crafted songs of the era, since he was the one who penned them, and provide us a tad more insight into Bob Dylan’s most creatively controversial and secretive period, and it is odd that anything after the end of The Band is omitted, including his years of film soundtrack work and solo endeavors, as well as assisting many young acts along the way and his work in the building of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Perhaps a sequel is planned.
Spoiler alert: The bombshell here is that Robertson, despite mounds of evidence to the contrary, writes he had nothing to do with the disintegration of one of the most groundbreaking and influential musical acts to ever grace a studio or a stage. In fact, his revelations of the final days of The Band certainly put into question a few of the myths that surround it, if not creating a few more along the way.
Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece – Donald Brackett (2016)
With his intriguing Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece, author Donald Brackett has decided to completely avoid providing grist for the mill that has never failed to effectively churn since the death of the English pop diva. The tabloid train wreck that was Amy Winehouse’s very public romantic affairs and fatal substance abuse usually casts an impressive shadow on what was a rather furiously creative redux of the female-as-spokesperson art-form best framed by classic American jazz edicts. Back to Black, both the album and the book, rectifies this quite forcefully.
Brackett gets right to the point; Winehouse was a brave and underrated artist, keenly instinctual with melody and a master of image. She seemed to either methodically or haphazardly fall into brilliant partnerships with talented collaborators, producers and musicians. This culminates spectacularly at the apex of our heroine’s musical journey in the making of the 2006 hit album with vast contributions from innovative soul machine, the Dap-Kings providing requisite musicianship and auteur, Mark Ronson, who guides Winehouse’s aggressive fabric-tearing of her carefully crafted first album, which she would all-but disown in order to better rebuild a raw and unrepentant pop masterpiece.
Brackett also does a fine job of helping a new generation understand the foundation on which Winehouse’s album and aura are built; the tradition of the diva from the world of showbiz and soul and funk and rock. There are also rightful nods to the controversial genius that is Phil Spector and his ingénue Ronnie, and her explosive Ronettes, which are given their just due here.
There are many villains in the Winehouse story, many of which are stirringly depicted in the 2015 Oscar-winning documentary Amy. Here, there are just as many heroes, who assist, cajole and humor the artist in finding clarity in her art. And if at times the author is a tad gushing—something all of us authors writing about rock and roll have to endure as criticism—he achieves our ultimate goal; he backs it up with gusto.
But, I think, in the end, Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece works as a fair introduction into the artist for those of us who may be on the fence about the legacy of someone who had a shorter time in the spotlight than many of her “27-Club” brethren, like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. Although, as the history of rock and pop has taught us, masterpieces can be achieved over many years or with just one swipe at greatness.
In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs – Edited by Andrew Blauner (2017)
Let me start off by simply stating that this is a fine idea. And it is executed here spectacularly. There are some essays in In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs that absolutely sing and none of them fail to enlighten the music that inspired their writing.
Coming to mind quickly, now having read an advanced copy some months ago; Maria Popova’s Cold War era rich, “Yellow Submarine” is a tour-de-force and would make a crackling screenplay, “I’m a Loser” by Gerald Eary, whose African-American experience lends new cultural touchstones to the group that invented dozens, Peter Blaunter’s deconstruction of the constructionist brilliance of the Beatles and George Martin in “And Your Bird Can Sing” twists an otherwise stagnant narrative, as does “She Said She Said” by Alec Wilkinson, whose prose is as musical as the song he highlights, and my old buddy Chuck Klosterman’s “Helter Skelter” enhances many of the myths surrounding the song and the stellar achievement that is the White Album it hails from.
And these are just off the top of my head while scanning the table of contents. There is a gem in every one of these amazing essays, which manage to explore so many unguided aspects of The Beatles it is almost miraculous; especially when considering it is arguably the most written about of any musical subject known to us.
And that is where this volume works; in us. There is no story that fails to relate; nor one that does not enhance the listening experience of these songs and the songs in which they connect either in year or era or album or circumstance.
I can only hope that Blue Rider Press continues this tradition with another band or act and allows me a voice in it. I was honored to just read these pieces and I hope to read more and more of them.
Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong: The Life & Music of Randy Newman – David & Caroline Stafford (2016)
The best compliment I can give this book is that it reads as pithy and quirky and insightful as a Randy Newman song. Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong: The Life & Music of Randy Newman, only the second known complete biography of one of America’s finest songwriters and film composers, provides us the snappy prose to go with the lyrical brilliance. And that is saying something.
The Staffords’ work is easily accessible and eminently readable. This, as they point out from the very top, is not a complicated, controversial or even inspiring life. Yet, the music, lyrics, and career of Randy Newman reflect all of those things and more. Beyond even the music is the Newman legacy, reaching back to the dawn of American film history with his uncle, Alfred, who composed over 200 Hollywood films and conducted music for such luminaries as George Gershwin, Charlie Chaplin, and Irving Berlin.
Unlike Kevin Courrier’s equally readable Newman bio, which takes us through many of the singer/songwriter’s reoccurring themes and this method of sheathing himself in the armor of many characters to present his sordid and humorous tales of social injustice, lascivious mischief and cultural inequities, Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong provides insight into the man and his times, his personal journey from a peripatetic childhood through years of uneven popularity and finally mega Hollywood film successes.
The lasting worth of the Staffords’ efforts is that there are loads of fun stories here. Newman may have not encountered the usual weirdness that is so prevalent in so many of the rock lives studied in dozens of similar biographies, yet his career arc and the roads traveled are quite unique, and provide as much insight into his brilliantly skewered world view that inform so much of his best work. I also enjoyed the extended review of his film score career not present in previous bios that were published long before this era of Newman’s canon unfolded with his Oscar-winning run with Pixar.
The fact that there are not more literary tributes and/or treatises of Randy Newman’s incredible work as both a composer and lyricist is appalling, but it is nice when one does emerge it is done with the proper tone and dedication.
Born To Run – Bruce Springsteen (2016)
Review by Chris Barrera
For close to half a century, Bruce Springsteen has told his story through the music and words of his songs, creating characters who were struggling to make it in a world of hardship, loneliness and doubt. With the release of his autobiography, Born To Run, the Boss shows that his life was indeed the source material for these tales of weariness, loss, desire, and ultimately salvation and triumph.
The myth was true. Springsteen grew up in poverty, his sister got pregnant at seventeen, and his father, a laid-off factory worker, suffered from mental illness that made any semblance of a normal home life nearly impossible. A bandmate was the first guy to die in Vietnam from his blue collar hometown of Freehold, NJ. On his own at nineteen, Bruce’s belief in the healing powers of rock and roll truly saved his life. The big reveal of the book is that Bruce himself has suffered from depression and debilitating anxiety for forty years, and his epic shows were often the only times he felt completely at ease and normal.
Springsteen is a great raconteur, and the book is told with extreme detail, wit and self-deprecation. Bruce does not shy away from anything, and he touches on every important moment in his life, including the early days in Asbury Park, the triumph of his seminal 1975 album, Born To Run, the managerial conflicts that almost killed his career, the super stardom in the 1980s, a failed marriage, his days out of the limelight building a family, the 9/11 terror attacks and their aftermath, the grand return of the E Street Band, and the deaths of band members Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons.
In his later years, Bruce has increased his musical output, perhaps sensing that the end is quickly approaching and he wants to get as much done before time runs out. Approaching seventy, this book is his warts and testament, an enjoyable read, and one that has a cinematic quality that could be a great mini-series. A must for any Bruce Springsteen fan, young or old, Born To Run serves as an historical document of an American life of success, built on hard work and belief.
Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff – Michael Nesmith (2017)
Hey, the “Smart Monkey” wrote a book. And it’s good. It’s really good. Funny. Insightful. At times surprising. Other times when it is not-so, it still manages to not to succumb to being a rote rock and roll tell-all whine into banal retrospection.
No one had to have a favorite Monkey that “revealed your inner self more readily” like with The Beatles and all that; “Well, if you like Paul it means…” But if I did have a favorite among The Beatles knock-off fake network television ’60s band, The Monkees it was Michael Nesmith. He always seemed to me during those shows to not only be going through the motions but bursting through the fourth wall to reveal how utterly silly all of it was, not unlike the Jim character in the American version of The Office, looking at the camera in “that way” whenever things would go sideways.
In many ways this is how Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff goes, a fourth-wall demolishing look at one man’s weird journey through the music, movie, publishing, charity and generally creative industries trying like hell to keep his spiritual nature and most of his sanity intact.
Nesmith takes us through his unique childhood, raised by a single mother who would also go on to invent liquid paper and quickly growing into a man who is drawn inexorably towards music and later entertainment, and still later The Monkees. His description of seeing The Beatles for the first time on Ed Sullivan, a story told by just about everyone who played in a rock band from the late 1960s through the late ’70s, is surprisingly fresh. His brushes with fame do not seem anecdotal. If anything they provide the story with a gravitas that eventually returns to later inform his journey.
Nesmith also embraces the writer inside the actor/musician (and later inventor himself, as he would do with music television and later his role as ground-floor negotiator for MTV). He cleverly subtitles it a Riff, a musical term for instinctual creativity that he reprises throughout the narrative. This coupled with his giving surnames to the anomalies of his time in and around the biz like Celebrity Psychosis and Hollywood Mind along with his profound license with the country music trope, The High Lonesome to best describe grief and confusion, added much to the proceedings.
Everything is here for those who care not so much about The Monkees, Christian Science or the lasting effects of LSD, but enjoy a damn good yarn.