Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

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Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Friday, May 19, 2006

Chuck McCabe "Uncle Rhythm's Cosmic Riff and Gig Guide"

Chuck McCabe is a veteran singer/songwriter/guitarist/banjoist who has worked in a variety of musical settings over a forty-year career. His experiences range from rock to bluegrass to folk, not to mention a brief moment of glory in a polka band (see Chapter 22, "Best Banjo in Dubrovnik"). He has, it would appear, seen it all and done it all. In this 1993 memoir (still in-print), he shares a few of his misadventures with unsuspecting readers who merely thought they had heard it all.
McCabe is a fine slice-of-life songwriter with a talent for delineating character. This talent carries over to his prose as well. Although he refers to "Uncle Rhythm's Cosmic Riff and Gig Guide" as a "How-Not-To Book For a Career in Music", his musical career is more of a setting, a backdrop, an explanation for how he chanced across the strange cross-section of humanity who figure in his stories.
I use the word "stories", although the incidents described herein are ostensibly true. In an era when one lying author unwisely endorsed by Oprah has cast doubt in the public mind on the credibility of all non-fiction, it's easy to read a book of this nature and think, "This stuff couldn't possibly be true." On the other hand, truth being - as they say - stranger than fiction, could anyone possibly make up the story of the hijacked bakery truck? I guess if McCabe tells us this stuff is true, we'll simply have to take his word for it!
This is essentially a collection of vignettes, rather than a coherent, chronological memoir. McCabe credits Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, and Garrison Keillor amomg his most prominent inspirations, and the influences show. But McCabe is a skillful writer in his own right, whether tongue-in-cheek (as in the opening chapters, with their dead-on glimpses of the music industry and its habitues) or dead-serious (as in Trickle Down," which traces the author's growing disillusionment during the 1960's and '70's; or "One for the Kid," a touching tale which juxtaposes McCabe's penning of a song for "Sesame Street" with a child caught in the middle of a domestic tug-of-war.
I happen to be from roughly the same generation as McCabe and spent enough years as an Irish folksinger/musician to be able to identify with some of the happenings and people represented here. I fully sympathize with the owner of an Orange Country nightspot who destroyed the tape recorder he was using for background music, rather than pay ASCAP the licensing fee they demanded. (McCabe doesn't specify ASCAP, but I recognize their tactics. I had a similar run-in with a rep from that organization, who caused a little-old-lady bar-owner to tearfully shut down the only traditiional-Irish seisiun for miles around, because she couldn't afford to pay for the license ASCAP demanded so that a few of us could gather together once a month to play 100% uncopyrighted traditional material.)
Yet even though we come from the same background, I was never one for alcohol and drugs. These substances play a major role in several of these tales, which may explain why my reminiscences aren't nearly as, er, colorful as McCabe's. Not all the stories are about music, by the way, as illustrated by "Marine Corps Birthday," about a particularly rowdy time in Tijuana. (True, a banjo DOES play a small, but key role in this story.) The low point of McCabe's wretched excess is retold in a hilarious encounter with Hoyt Axton and his band.
By the way, I scored a 90 on the Quiz, even though I am fanatical about music. I did, however, become a critic. (See Chapter 13 if this paragraph makes no sense.)
Occasionally, the humor falls flat. "Yes On No" is a satirical plea for more negativity in the world. Unfortunately, it bounces from topic to topic so often that the concepts don't have a chance to develop.
OK, so Chuck McCabe isn't Jonathan Swift. No matter, he does just fine being Chuck McCabe. It's an easy read and an entertaining one, with finely-tuned prose and a strong sense of you-are-there. In the end, one is left with the impression that despite consuming way too many drugs (fortunately living to tell the tale), Chuck McCabe is a pretty nice guy after all, even if he did spend a little too much time with bad companions along the way. I'd love to see him write a follow-up to bring us up-to-date on his exploits.
The book was self-published, and is available from Amazon or directly for $12.95 (including s+h) from Woodshed Productions, 15466 Los Gatos Blvd. Suite 109-161, Los Gatos, CA 95032. An excerpt appears at http://chuck-mccabe.com/book_unclerhythms.html

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