Caught by the River

The Music Book Reader Bulletin

Andy Childs | 28th January 2017

Andy Childs is back with another round-up of music book recommendations:

2016 was a demanding year for the conscientious music book reader. It seems that the despairingly high number of musicians and artists who passed away was almost matched by the number of music-related books that hit the shelves. And as if to emphasise the vitality of this genre, the Penderyn Music Book Prize, now in its third year, appears to have taken on a higher profile and boasts a number of must-read tomes in its current long-list for 2017’s award. Of the twelve books listed I can vouch for Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, Barney Hoskyns’ Small Town Talk, Ray and Caroline Faulk’s The Last Great Event: When The World Came To The Isle of Wight, and Paul Morley’s The Age of Bowie (probably the most eloquent, if not the most thorough Bowie book rushed out in the wake of his sad demise). I haven’t read either Sylvia Patterson’s I’m Not With The Band or David Toop’s Into The Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and The Dream of Freedom but I’m told, by one of the esteemed judges, that they are worth exploring.

One other book on their list that I have read is Testimony (William Heinemann), Robbie Robertson’s hefty, considered memoir. It’s engagingly written, stuffed full of amusing anecdotes, and structured very artfully to position Robertson close to the very centre of rock’s beating heart in the 60s and 70s. Famous names abound throughout, including – of course – Bob Dylan, with whom The Band had a musical relationship that yielded a body of work that we’re still discovering, delightedly, to this day. For that, and The Band’s first three albums alone, Robertson – also a great guitarist by anyone’s standards – deserves his spell in the spotlight. The early chapters in the book are, for this reader, the most entertaining and revealing. The process by which The Band members originally assembled one by one as Ronnie Hawkins’ backing band, The Hawks, is peppered with colourful stories: encountering a testy Ray Charles in the studio, guitarist Roy Buchanan’s werewolf complex, playing a club in Fort Worth with no roof and owned by Jack Ruby, meeting Sonny Boy Williamson, and the larger-than-life character of Ronnie Hawkins who in his own rough-and-ready way mentored each member of The Hawks. The idea of him persuading Garth Hudson’s conservative parents to let their narcoleptic son forsake a career in classical music for a life in Hawkins’ band, as described here, is surely one of rock’s more unusual, and fortunate, encounters. If Hawkins was the first major influence on Robertson’s career then Bob Dylan was arguably the most significant. Outgrowing the confines of Hawkins’ repertoire The Hawks backed Dylan on his infamous first ‘electric tour’ and then, ensconced at Big Pink in Woodstock they became The Band, subsequently recording the Basement Tapes with Dylan as well as a string of albums of their own, two of which, Music From Big Pink and The Band, were genuinely groundbreaking in their style and content. There is obvious fondness and respect in Robertson’s recollection of his time with Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm, but as is now well-known, the combination of drugs and alcohol rendered the wayward triumvirate of Danko, Manuel and Helm unpredictable, and at times unproductive. In Robertson’s telling, he had to assume a degree of control and assert himself as a somewhat reluctant leader in order to keep The Band afloat. Certainly he became the main songwriter and as a result earned more money than the other members. This – and Robertson’s reluctance to fully partake in the self-destructive aspects of the rock’n’roll lifestyle that the others indulged in – seems to have been the root cause of the acrimonious breach, mainly between him and his ‘brother’ Levon Helm, that eventually split the band. As inherently talented as they undoubtedly were as individuals, the three outlaws in The Band lacked the business acumen and career-perspective that Robertson had, and outside of The Band’s collective strength they, Levon Helm’s brief acting career nothwithstanding, under-achieved. Robertson on the other hand, a seemingly voracious networker and ambitious to a fault, has shaped a relatively successful career for himself. He was already forging alliances and embarking on solo work whilst The Band was still extant, which put him in good stead for a post-Band future. For a book of such length it’s odd, to say the least, that it ends just after The Last Waltz concert in November 1976. There is no mention of Robertson’s subsequent association with either Martin Scorsese or David Geffen, and he offers no real explanation as to why there was so much unresolved animosity directed his way from Levon Helm. Their estrangement prevented a full Band reunion in later years and along with the deaths of Manuel, Danko and eventually Helm himself, constitutes a sad finale to the story of a band that can truly be seen to have re-shaped the direction of rock music in the late 60s.

Robertson’s fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell – musically fearless, emotionally wide open and honest, contemptuous of the music business, and in David Crosby’s words “as humble as Mussolini” – has always divided critical opinion. Over the span of her fifty-year-long career she’s often tested the resolve of her audience as well. She and her music remain, however, impossible to ignore, and whenever she graces us with a new album, it somehow subtly manages to shift the perspective we have on most other female singer-songwriters at the time. A much-needed autobiography has been mooted several times, but her recent illnesses have obviously taken their toll, so it could be a while yet before we can read her in full flow, rather than in just the sporadic interviews she has given over the years. A couple of such conversations are contained in Reckless Daughter: A Joni Mitchell Anthology (Constable), edited by Barney Hoskyns, which is otherwise a collection of casual album reviews, concert notices and opinion pieces that Barney has selected from the archives of Rock’s Back Pages, his now-vast online repository of music journalism. Inevitably with such a format, there is some needling repetition whenever the preface to a review or interview includes a potted history of Mitchell’s career, and a lot of the reviews are short, critical and, in the case of the aptly named Michael Gross, writing for Swank magazine, uncomfortable. Not included though (thankfully) is the infamous Rolling Stone review of The Hissing Of Summer Lawns that stupidly declared it “the worst record of the year”. A lot of well-respected scribes are represented here along with a handful of hacks, the latters’ writing as much of an illustration of how music journalism has developed stylistically over the last five decades as any real insight into Mitchell’s art. We get a variety of views about what Mitchell and her songs are about; what inspires and motivates her. But it’s the aforementioned interview excerpts – mainly Barney’s unpublished interview from 1994 and Dave Di Martino’s excellent Mojo piece – that tantalisingly reveal the spirit and intellect behind the music. We must wait for her autobiography, but a comprehensive, authorised biography, ideally written by Barney himself, wouldn’t go amiss. Two short pieces included early on in the book are by Geoffrey Cannon, who was the only recognisable rock critic on a national daily paper in the late sixties, and whose weekly Guardian column was essential reading for me. I have a file of cuttings of his work that still has the feel of first-hand reporting from the vanguard of rock music in the same way that Ralph J Gleason’s writing did.

As an academically wayward student captured by rock music in the mid-to-late 60s and interested in the way it was being chronicled, Ralph J Gleason was, for several formative years, as important a figure in my cultural life as could possibly be. I never really knew of him or read him as an astute and authoritative writer of jazz, which he was for the San Francisco Chronicle and Downbeat magazine beginning back in the early 50s. I discovered him when the magazine he co-founded, Rolling Stone, rapidly became imperative reading, and his book Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound opened the door, tantalisingly ajar for what seemed like years, to another world. Ralph J Gleason, having already founded the first jazz magazine in America – Jazz Information – in 1939, was in his late 40s when he and Jan Wenner launched Rolling Stone, and became an unlikely champion of the new wave of unruly, anarchic and unapologetically experimental bands on the west coast of America who were re-aligning the boundaries of rock music. A familiar if anachronistic figure at concerts and dances in his trenchcoat and smoking his pipe, it would have been like encountering Jack Hargreaves at Middle Earth over here. But Gleason was, above all, a music fan with no prejudices. He could recognise great, important music when he heard it and he was a dedicated and supportive champion for all of those bands. At long last his seminal writing in both jazz and rock music is being made available again in two new books: Conversations In Jazz: The Ralph J Gleason Interviews and Music In The Air: The Selected Writings of Ralph J Gleason (both Yale University Press). The former is as useful a jazz primer and a testament to Gleason’s interviewing skills, whilst the latter book re-confirms to me why I found him such a compelling and inspirational voice all those years ago.

In The Train Kept A-Rollin’: How the Train Song Changed The Face of Popular Music (Soundcheck Books), author Spencer Vignes quotes Peggy Seeger: “If you don’t like trains you probably don’t like music either”, and then presents a strong argument to suggest that if you like music you can’t avoid the subject of trains. If not, as he suggests, the first book to explore the relationship between trains and music – for Norm Cohen’s Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong takes that honour – it is certainly the most wide-ranging book we have on the subject. It’s also an enjoyable read – well-researched, chatty in style and unpretentious, and if it darts haphazardly, albeit chronologically, back and forth across the Atlantic, it does so with the enthusiasm of a trainspotter rather than the ordered, analytical approach of a musicologist. Some of Vignes’ stories are fairly well-known – Elizabeth Cotten writing Freight Train when she was just eleven years old, the origins of Midnight Train To Georgia, Paul Simon writing Homeward Bound on the platform at Widnes station for example – but all re-told here with with added research and extra flourish. American railroads and trains naturally have a more romantic and myth-laden image to us Brits but we seem to be more obsessive about them and Vignes has flushed out an impressive and eclectic array of UK train-fanatic musicians to prove the point. Ray Davies, Graham Parker, Matt Johnson of The The, OMD, John Illsley (Dire Straits), Squeeze, Status Quo, Chas Hodges, Pete Brown, Rod Stewart and Roger Daltrey (the latter two, along with Neil Young, owning extensive model railway set-ups; Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra had them too!) all profess a love of trains and a natural urge to write and sing about them. As rail travel here and in the U.S. has become more mundane and soulless we’ve perhaps already lived through the golden age of railroad songs. Spencer Vignes would certainly like to think not but it’s hard to imagine a modern day song about trains to equal the likes of Smokestack Lightning, Mystery Train, Steve Goodman’s City of New Orleans or even Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express. An engaging read is considerably enhanced by the inclusion, at the back of the book, of a list of two hundred well-known and not-so-well-known train songs, as well as a chapter in which a lot of the people interviewed for this book pick their favourites. Ample scope for anyone to make up their own compilation to accompany them on a train journey with this book open in front of them.

Lastly, honourable mentions for two books that miraculously shine a new light on their respective subjects: This Is All A Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of The Grateful Dead by Blair Jackson and David Gans and I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir (as told to, and probably unscrambled by, Ben Greeman). And to finally end this music book round-up, a rich, provocative and enthralling brick of a book from Greil Marcus. Real Life Rock (Yale University Press) is a compendium of Marcus’ renowned column of cultural observations that first appeared in New West magazine in 1978 and can now be read online at Pitchfork. For dunderheads like me who often find his long-form books impenetrable and the connections he makes within them spurious, bite-sized Marcus, as represented here, is a revelation. Lucid, biting, funny and of course impossibly eclectic, he’s writing disciplined focused singles here as opposed to lengthy, hard-to-digest albums. Real Life Rock is the perfect bed-side book for the serious music book reader.

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