Ted Templeman: A Platinum Producer’s Life in Music – Ted Templeman as told to Greg Renoff (2020)
When one of the most successful producers and executives in the seminal years of the rock generation writes a memoir, you read it. Ted Templeman delivers the goods with A Platinum Producer’s Life in Music, a no-nonsense sprint through the labyrinth of a music business discovering itself. Finally, here is a book that covers the process of the artist. Templeman takes you into the studio, behind the scenes; working with seminal artists such as Van Morrison, Van Halen, Eric Clapton the Doobie Bros., Aerosmith, Nicolette Larson, Carly Simon and more. We’re privy to their methods, idiosyncrasies, unique talents, fears and aspirations. The producer’s many tasks – father confessor, ship’s captain, musical interpreter, sonic guidepost, and sometimes fellow partier – are unfurled in a very entertaining read.
Templeman was also a major executive during his decades working at Warner Bros. during the company’s, and especially the label’s halcyon days. The stories of working within the studio system in the wild and crazy 1970s through the eighties into the nineties is covered with a keen eye. There are so many great stories and so much to learn on how the business thrived and imploded, the hits and the misses, the parties, the awards shows, the inner fighting, et al. We get to the bottom of the battles within the Doobies and Van Halen from Templeman’s perspective. which I found here to always be fair and measured.
I was also jazzed to learn that the author was a member of the sixties pop group, Harper’s Bizarre, another angle on the music business that helps frame an extremely fascinating life in the business of music.
Levon: From Down in the Delta to the Birth of The Band and Beyond – Sandra B. Tooze (2020)
Although it pulls no punches, Sandra Tooze’s Levon is a love letter to one of the signature drummers and dynamic vocalists in rock history. Levon Helm is every bit the southern gentleman, hospitable down-to-earth non-nonsense professional as much as he is the emotionally neglecting, grudge-holding, ill-tempered, recalcitrant substance abuser. Tooze’s Helm, though, is not the mercurial sort – from his barely teen years playing the southern blues circuit, first on guitar and mandolin and then his most well-known instrument, the drums, and later as one of the most recognizable voices of an era – he remains oddly, even enviably, unchanged by any circumstance, from tragedy to fame.
Helm’s life unfolds in heroic fashion; traveling North America and then the world, first in Ronnie Hawkins’ Hawks, which would, like almost all of his musical enterprises, become his own, and eventually, historically, blessedly The Band. Having reviewed fellow founder, Robbie Robinson’s memoir, Testimony here in 2016, but thus far not Helm’s 1993 version of the story, This Wheel’s on Fire, it was interesting to learn the well-known disputes – mostly coming from Helm – on songwriting and publishing rights. Helm would never forgive Robertson for, as he sees it, ripping him and the other members of The Band off and for calling it quits in 1978 for all of them.
Surprisingly, perhaps my favorite parts of the book delve into Helm’s post-Band years, especially the second iteration of the famed quintet, now a quartet with several guitarists, that would continue on until some members became casualties of the road, its excesses and isolations.
Not forgetting what is important, Tooze fills the book with observations and firsthand accounts of what made Helm worth writing and reading about, pointedly his preternatural musical talents that he never abandoned and continued to celebrate until his last breath.
Objects in the Mirror – Thoughts on a Perfect Life from an Imperfect Person – Stephen Kellogg (2020)
Full disclosure: I met the author, veteran singer-songwriter, Stephen Kellogg when he was conjuring this project. The first thing he asked me; “How do you write a book?” The query wasn’t from the usual place of intrigue writers get from young would-be authors or even a rhetorical jab at the craft from someone who cannot fathom such an arduous waste of time. Kellogg was genuinely curious. He’s a great songwriter. He’d led a fairly successful band called The Sixers in the early aughts and when we first spoke he was well into a solo career. There would soon be a film produced on his maddening touring schedule mixed with the time he makes for his family – wife and four girls – that you can catch on Amazon streaming. I was charmed enough by Stephen’s story to pen two features on him in this paper. I should also point out a blurb I sent Stephen upon perusing the manuscript prior to publishing appears on its back cover.
Nevertheless, I read about forty of these music books a year and only a dozen make it into Rock Reads in the late-spring and the holiday season, so I shan’t waste your time or mine on a book I don’t think is truly a great read and adds to the pantheon of so many wonderful tomes on the subject of music and musicians.
Kellogg doesn’t just fill the pages with tour and studio stories, although they’re here, but instead offers rare and vulnerable insights into what it means to be a young man, husband, father, and citizen of the world in the dawning decades of the twenty-first century, while also making music. These observations, which are weaved into much of his songs and broached on stage – Stephen is an engaging aural storyteller – make this one of the most unique portraits of an artist out there.
Objects in the Mirror, like its musical counterpart, is emotionally wrought and intensely relatable. You’ll laugh and cry and learn something about the human experience. Pretty good for someone who was clearly unaware when he started how to write a book. He did. And it’s really good.
Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom – Peter Guralnick (1986)
What may well be the finest book on music, at least pop music, and at the very least soul music, Peter Garulnick’s Sweet Soul Music is a rich tapestry of living history and firsthand anecdotes wonderfully researched and told in an enchanting and seminal volume. One cannot stress enough the importance of this document in the realm of American music; from the southern African American experience – the musicians, entrepreneurs, influence – of arguably its most potent period.
Tracking the birth, dreams and evolution of soul music from blues to doo wop to gospel and finally rhythm and blues, along with the incredible talents and visionaries that transformed the lilywhite pop charts into a dynamically diverse, sometimes dangerous and always entertaining landscape, this, indeed, is the story of America – a rags to riches tale of prescience, compromise and determination from Memphis to New York, Mobile to Los Angeles. A complete history of dozens of luminaries, specifically Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Otis Redding, and many more, along with the men and women behind Atlantic Records, Stax Records and Muscle Shoals are covered from top to bottom.
Working on the volume from the late seventies into the eighties, Guralnick was able to conduct interviews with the main contributors to this groundbreaking art, many of them long gone now; putting you on the road, in the studio, and inside the boardroom for the successes, failures, infighting, and overcoming of incredible odds, including racism, territorial battles and the toppling of social and cultural barriers.
Got my copy of Sweet Soul Music from my podcast partner (Underwater Sunshine), lead singer and main songwriter for Counting Crows, Adam Duritz, whom I met during several interviews for this very publication years ago. He calls it “the finest book on music I have ever read.” And I thank him for the gift and find myself hardly in a position to argue with him. It is an incredible piece of work and should be on the shelves of every modern music lover.
Dave Marsh is simply one of the great rock writers of the past half-century-plus. His work for the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and his books, specifically on the subjects of Bruce Springsteen and The Who, are required reading in the genre. But what Marsh does with one song, and a song as inane, controversial and important as “Louie Louie” is beyond laudable. There are passages in this book that sing. It is a veritable thesis on the power and purpose of rock music for his, mine, yours, and future generations. The core of the work is the song, but at its core, it is a book about the majesty of what three chords and garbled lyrics can do to those of us discerning enough to heed its call.
In Marsh’s hands the history of “Louie Louie”, originally written by soul singer-songwriter Richard Berry in 1955, which he based on Jamaican rhythms and R&B roots, later made famous by the Kingsmen in 1963 (also recorded at the same time by the much more successful Paul Revere & the Raiders, despite the fact that the Kingsmen stole the day), becomes the philosophy of rock and roll. Stories of the hundreds to thousands of ensuing cover versions are page-turning ecstasy for anyone who loves the incestuous intrigue of the music business, especially in its burgeoning days of mob ties, radio payola scandals and teenage lunacy. Worth the price of the book is the story of Rockin’ Robin Roberts. Who? Exactly.
Marsh brings it home with this book. It is funny, poignant and a masterwork in music and cultural study. And just like “Louie Louie”, damn fun.
Raising Hell: Backstage Tales from the Lives of Metal Legends – Jon Wiederhorn (2020) (Reviewed by Chris Barrera)
As long as rock and roll has existed, musicians have pushed the limits, all in the name of fun. Raising Hell is made up entirely of first-person anecdotes from the world of metal, testimonials of living life in the fast lane. It also deftly recounts the struggles to make it at any cost, while overcoming countless obstacles, some ridiculous or dangerous, others in true absurd Spinal Tap tradition. Self-inflicted wounds are prevalent, of course. Hijinks often come across as simply criminal behavior; sad and pathetic and not as funny in the telling as they may have been in the doing. More than one subject admits that they dodged bullets, literal and figurative, in their pursuit of the next high or extreme thrill.
Despite clever chapter titles culled from classic tunes such as “Die with Your Boots On”, “Highway to Hell”, and “Girls, Girls, Girls”, the majority of the stories come from next-generation bands like Death Angel, Misery Index, Municipal Waste and Goatwhore. These groups never achieved the super stardom that their forefathers attained, so for these individuals their excesses were in accordance with lifestyle choices, without wealth or massive adulation as fuel for the fire or as excuses for their outrageous activities.
Kudos to author Jon Wiedorhorn for assembling an abundance of fresh material. His earlier book, Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal (with Katherine Turman) was filled with the well-known stories of Ozzy Osbourne, Cliff Burton, Randy Rhoads, and Mötley Crüe. Fans of the lesser-known bands will happily enjoy hearing from their heroes. For others without a “rooting interest,” the stories can best be digested in small bits to avoid redundancy and disinterest, as tales of group sex, throwing up and television smashing can become quickly banal.