Wrapped Up in (Music) Books

The music bio bookcase in Spare Oom — I am actually in one of these! And yes, that is a Groot doll and Ezra Bridger’s light saber.

Over the last month or so, I’ve been making a significant dent in my music bookcase in Spare Oom, and I’m happy to say I’ve got it under much better control now. Only the bottom shelf is full of Books To Be Read now, and I’m being harsh in culling what I no longer want to keep. This of course will give me more room for newer purchases! And the circle goes round and round…

Right now I’m on a binge of punk and post-punk bios and histories, having just finished John Doe and Tom DeSavia’s Under the Big Black Sun, and I’m currently reading its sequel, More Fun in the New World. I’m probably going to dig through a bunch of the trades after that.

I love reading things like this because I’m such an obsessive music fan. I was never one to be part of any ‘scene’ (I was way too broke to be part of one anyway), but I always like learning about their histories. For instance, in the Doe/DeSavia books, I learned that the death of LA punk in the early 80s wasn’t just the encroachment of hard drugs like heroin, but also due to the arrival of frat bros and skinheads from Orange County wanting to start shit during Black Flag shows. [This second point is confirmed by multiple musicians in both books, who saw it firsthand.] The scene died because it wasn’t fun anymore and because outsiders appropriated it into something unlikeable.

It’s things like this that make me rethink my own musical history, Walk in Silence-style. Ian Underwood’s Smash! (about the 90s punk resurgence) made a good point about the fact that there were rarely any decent punk bands in the late 80s because the scene was so dead and/or dangerous. This would, in turn, explain why my experience with college radio at the time was almost exclusively post-punk, new wave, industrial, experimental and often Eurocentric, with a hefty cornucopia of unconventional hard-to-label bands in between. I do remember the punk bands of the time, but they were few and far between, and often super-local.

It would also explain the 90s in pretty much the same way: the resurgence of American punk with Nevermind and Dookie (among numerous other albums and bands) competing with the newly-minted Britpop/Madchester scenes. And moving further, the eventual mainstreaming of alternative rock by the mid 90s, mixing sounds from both sides of the Atlantic with a splash of easier-on-the-ears alt.rock like Collective Soul, Dishwalla and Third Eye Blind. And like the original LA punk scene, the early-to-mid 90s alt.rock scene was a lot more inclusive, from Bikini Kill and the riot grrl scene to the trip-hop sounds of Tricky and Portishead.

And even then, the frat bros entered the scene like cockroaches, injecting their testosterone into it all, thus Marilyn Manson, Korn and Limp Bizkit and so many other ‘alternative metal’ bands with down-tuned guitars and grinding bass riffs. (As someone who worked at a record store in the late 90s, I can definitely confirm that most of the purchasers of meathead metal were in fact the bros, with many of the alt.rock stations then following the money.)

Which, in response, brought in a wave of twee music from Belle and Sebastian, Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver. Inject the sounds of late 90s/early 00s techno into that and you’ve got chillwave. Inject reverbed guitars and you’ve got the next waves of shoegaze. Add a bit of proggy nerdiness and you’ve got post-rock.

Everything in circles. Everything influencing and inspiring everything else. Despite the ups and downs and the explosions and implosions of the music industry, there are influences and inspirations between bands, fans and musicians that feed the next waves. And the interesting thing is that often they aren’t aware of it happening; a lot of it really is all about ‘hey, this sounds kind of cool, I think I can play something like this.’

[Note: if you’re curious about which book I’m in, I donated a silly suggestion for Michael Azerrad’s Rock Critic Law. Look for the one featuring Joey Santiago.]

Welcome Back My Friends to the Show that Never Ends

So recently I’ve been reading David Wiegel’s The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock and enjoying it immensely.  Things I’ve learned:

–It’s evident that a few members of Yes either quit or were canned due to insufficient pretentiousness levels.  Tony Kaye was an adequate keyboardist that didn’t play flourishes and got the boot early on.  Rick Wakeman quit out of boredom, and the fact that he had no frigging idea what Jon Anderson was singing about half the time.  Steve Howe actually kind of likes Tormato, their 1978 album that nearly no one else likes, including the rest of the band.  Chris Squire’s bass was, not surprisingly at all, mixed loud, front and center on their first albums.

–Van der Graaf Generator were well-loved, even if their music made no damn sense at all.  The same goes for The Soft Machine.

–Robert Fripp is a genius guitarist…but no one knows what the hell he’s trying to play.

–Greg Lake had an ego about the size of Great Britain.  Keith Emerson not as much, but close.  Carl Palmer just wanted to play his drums.

–Keith Emerson’s famous stage shtick of sticking knives in his keyboard to get sustained sound was originally courtesy of some old Army knives from a roadie named Lemmy Kilmister.

–The guys in Rush write great songs, but they’re kinda sorta meatheads.  Singer Geddy Lee didn’t always know what the hell drummer Neil Peart’s lyrics were going on about, just that they were virulently Libertarian.  [This political bent seems to have faded into the background around the same time Geddy started playing synths on the albums, interestingly enough.]

–The more members Genesis shed, the poppier and more famous they became.  Keyboardist Tony Banks said if they’d called it a day when Peter Gabriel left, they’d have had a significantly smaller fanbase.

–Most bands, when interviewed by Creem magazine in the 70s, would make these wildly erudite but utterly vacuous proclamations about how progressive rock will change the world.

–Marillion singlehandedly brought back prog in the 80s by saying ‘Screw you, we’re going to play this stuff anyway.’

Seriously, though, it’s a fascinating (if slightly sarcastic) read if you’re a fan of the genre.  One of the pleasant surprises is that he does briefly touch on the less famous prog bands, including a handful of non-English bands from Italy and elsewhere.

 

It’s a Mad Dog’s Promenade, So Walk Tall (Or Don’t Walk at All)

I just recently finished reading my first book of the year, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.  It’s quite the lengthy tome, and if you’re familiar with his music (particularly his early epic-length songs like the one above), you’ll feel right at home with his life story.  His long-format musical storytelling fits right in with his literary storytelling.

I’ve mentioned it here before, but one of the most common threads I see in a lot of music biographies is the musician’s moment of how the hell did I get here?, especially when they’re put in an unexpected situation.  In Johnny Marr’s book Set the Boy Free, his moment was when he was jamming and talking personally with Paul McCartney about the breakup of the Smiths (Macca’s words of wisdom for him: “That’s bands for you.”).  For Bruce, it was the moment he was on the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame stage, with Mick Jagger on one side and George Harrison on the other, singing ‘I Saw Her Standing There’.  And the most interesting part of that tale thread is that, more often than not, they didn’t climb up their Marshall stack and yell ‘Top of the World, Ma!’.   They just smiled and laughed stupidly at their incredible stroke of luck, and kept doing the only thing they know how to do best, and that’s play music.

Bruce Springsteen has always been the Champion of the Working Man sort of singer, and Born to Run makes sure you know that.  A sizable portion of the book — at least half –is dedicated to repeated returns to New Jersey to see old friends, visiting his sisters and parents, and bringing up three kids.  He may not be the Troubadour that people make him out to be, and he frequently reminds the reader that that’s not his aim, to be the next Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan.  He’s just a storyteller who knows how to tell a good story about the blue collar man and woman, the people he grew up with and still connects with to this day.

[If I had one complaint, his writing does hint just a tiny bit at being a newbie, as I can see some of the usual writing habits that nag us all when we start out.  He relies on hyphenated phrases, ellipses and ALL CAPS more than he should.  That said, however, I’m not going to shoot him down for it.  I’m just as bad in my rough drafts.]

It’s definitely a fun read, though.  Well worth picking up!

 

Side note: I chose the above music and title, as it’s one of my favorite early Bruce tracks from his second album.  It’s a lovely piece, and I used “Mad Dog’s Promenade” as the name of my radio show my sophomore year in college.  I also put that there to note that there’s more to Bruce than just the hits we all know, and he’s one hell of a solid musician and songwriter…the deep cuts from his albums are often just as fascinating and imaginative.

[Year]: The Year [Something Happened]

savage 1966

I’ve been reading a few rock history books lately, and it seems the current trend is to focus on a single year and focus on its events chronologically.  It’s meant to put the music in some sort of context; it’s very similar to what I’d originally wanted to do with the Walk in Silence project.  The focus of these books is to not only explain how these groundbreaking songs and albums were recorded but why.

Jon Savage’s 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded is a great example of this.  It not only focuses on the back end of the British Invasion, changes in fashion, and the ups and downs of politics, it also comments on the public and governmental reactions to each, both in the US and the UK.  Nearly all the events of that year informed or influenced events that happened soon after.

Andrew Grant Jackson’s 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music (yay, fellow Emersonian!) does a similar job, showing how pop music of the time — not just rock from both sides of the Atlantic, but the soul of Motown and Stax, and the country of Nashville and Bakersville — but the ever-rising tension of politics, war, race, and gender.

A third interesting example is David Browne’s Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970.  The title format is flipped, but the story is the same, this time focusing on the public hangover of the late 60s and four bands that influenced the start of what would be the bipolar decade of music, one side embracing lite-rock and the other embracing Bacchanalian excess.

Another is David Hepworth’s 1971: Never a Dull Moment – The Year that Rock Exploded.  I haven’t read that yet, but it promises to be interesting…the Beatles may have broken up, but in their place we were given, Bowie, Led Zeppelin, post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd, and more.  Not to mention John, Paul, George and Ringo being able to express themselves in ways they couldn’t have as a group.  In short, rock had ceased to be a ‘pop’ element and came into its own as an art form and a self-supporting music genre.  Given that 1971 is my birth year (yep, I’m an old fart at 45, folks, but I’m still rockin’), I’m looking forward to giving this one a read.

 

While I am a bit amused at how often this book trend has been popping up lately, they’ve all been fun reads.  Too often I’ll hear a song on the radio and completely forget its place within the bigger history of music and what was going on in the world at the time.  These books definitely offer a lot of that insight that you don’t always hear on the radio.

What are the current music history books you’ve read that you’ve enjoyed?