Generally Eclectic Review

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

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

“Talking To Girls About Duran Duran” by Rob Sheffield (Dutton Books)

Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield’s latest set of remembrances has attracted much more attention in the mainstream press than most music-oriented books. This may well be because, despite its outward appearance, “Talking To Girls About Duran Duran” isn’t really a music book. It is, rather, a series of short essays about growing up in Boston during the 1980’s to a constant backdrop of the music being played on the radio during this much-loved (by some), much-reviled (by others) era.

Each of these 25 essays is named after a specific new wave, hip-hop, or pop record of the period. In some cases, the song plays a defining role in the essay. In others, it is barely mentioned. In a few cases, songs other than the one that supplied the essay’s title perform a more significant role in the telling of Sheffield’s story. The titles and artists serve as themes, as reference points, which situate his reminiscences in time and mood, as guides to where Sheffield’s head was at any given time.

Thus, we learn about Sheffield’s relationship with his sisters (who recur throughout the book) as he tells us about his musical encounters with Duran Duran (who bookend this collection by being the focus of both the introduction and the final essay). He tells of his sexually frustrating experiences dancing with girls as an exchange student in Spain, represented by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “Enola Gay”. In two of my favorite chapters, we discover him working on a garbage truck in an essay entitled after Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (for reasons which would take too long to explain here), and spending an idyllic summer driving an ice cream truck, which very tangentially connects to “Purple Rain”. Indeed, the connection is definitely tangential in a few other cases as well. These, however, are balanced by essays that directly connect to the artist or song under discussion. Perhaps the most entertaining of the latter is Sheffield’s look at the virtually forgotten one-hit wonders Haysi Fantayzee.

I might surmise that the reason I so thoroughly enjoyed reading this book is that I can easily relate to the concept of phonograph records as the essential soundtrack to my own life, albeit two decades earlier. While I would never get around to writing my own Sheffield-inspired memoirs of my own defining era, the 1960’s, I can imagine which songs and vital performances would figure into it – “Runaway”, “Running Scared”, “Pipeline”, “California Sun”, “96 Tears”, “Pushin’ Too Hard”, and so on through the psychedelic era. While reading this book, I felt a kinship to Rob Sheffield, a man I’ve never met, almost as if he and I were brothers, born eighteen years and a world apart.

Or perhaps I simply enjoyed the book because Rob Sheffield is a lively and engaging writer, a fellow who has overcome much of his teenage angst, yet who can still relate to it and can express his fears and small triumphs with both humor and poignancy. Anyone who enjoys true-life coming-of-age tales, whether the reader is able to relate to ‘80’s pop music or not – I hereby confess it’s not really one of my favorite decades – will have a good time with this book.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

“Neil Young: Long May You Run by Durchholz and Graff // “When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening To Van Morrison" - Greil Marcus

Neil Percival Young and George Ivan Morrison will both turn 65 this year, Young on November 12, Morrison on August 31. In an earlier era, 65 was synonymous with “retirement age”. Of course, many people retire at a younger age nowadays, but neither Young nor Morrison shows signs of calling it quits. True, Neil Young has been devoting much of his time and energy to looking back, documenting his many decades in the business. Morrison has slowed down somewhat, though he headlined a folk festival in Canada just this month (August). Still, both seemed poised to carry on for some time to come.

Nevertheless, 65 remains a landmark age, a time appropriate for critics and historians alike to start the process of summarizing and saluting the careers of artists who have made a major impact on the musical world, as both Young and Morrison have done since the 1960’s. These two books illustrate two very different approaches to the art of the hallowed-figure-of-rock career retrospective, though neither is exactly the hagiography one has come to expect from such tomes. The truth is, neither Neil Young nor Van Morrison has made it easy through the years for writers to follow the development of their artistic timelines in a logical manner. Both have reputations for being cantankerous, unpredictable, and eccentric in their own ways. They do what they wish to do, expectations be damned.

Of the two, Neil Young has had by far the greater commercial success and the greater influence on subsequent artists. Thus, it’s not surprising that he’s the one who has been given the oversized-coffee-table-book treatment. I must confess that I have not read any of the previous full-length treatments of Young’s life and career (there would appear to be at least eight earlier books), but authors Durchholz and Graff tend to rely mostly on two of them - Neil’s father Scott Young’s “Neil and Me” and Jimmy McDonough’s “Shakey”. There are also quotes from papers and magazines strewn throughout the text. No doubt these two books could be considered the definitive sources to date. Scott Young was not “just” Neil’s father, but a prominent Canadian author and television/newspaper journalist, while McDonough interviewed Neil Young extensively before the artist decided not to authorize the book after all.

It is often the case that biographies relying heavily on previously published works are regarded as slipshod hackwork. Of course, this attitude assumes that the reader is familiar with all of this previously published work, and that the authors of the later books have nothing new to offer. I personally found much here that was new to me. But beyond that, Durchholz and Graff get high marks for their arrangement and interpretation of the facts, and for their well-reasoned critical commentary on the artist and his art. Since Neil Young’s recording career has been littered with false starts and abandoned projects, indicating that he himself has not always been happy with his work, it is only fitting that Durchholz and Graff are also unafraid to occasionally find artistic fault with the music under consideration. Thus, we may consider this a “critical biography” as well a history.
However you wish to look at it, the book tells the story of Neil Young in compact, readable form, covering everything from childhood to his first recorded work as lead guitarist for a Winnipeg band called the Squires, through his days in Toronto with the Mynah Birds (which also featured Ricky James Matthews, later to find stardom as funk icon Rick James), Buffalo Springfield, the various comings and going with Crazy Horse, the equally frequent comings and goings with David Crosby, Steven Stills, and Graham Nash (a series of collaboration almost doomed to failure considering the nature of Young and Stills’ relationship in Buffalo Springfield), various genre explorations (from electronics to swing) with a range of collaborators, recordings with top Nashville players such as the late Ben Keith, his political songs and statements, his benefit causes (often related to the illnesses of Young‘s sons), all the efforts to represent Young’s musical history through a series of reissue repackagings, all culminating in Young’s role in the development of the fuel-efficient Linc/Volt automobile. Virtually every recording session is described in loving detail. If it was a significant aspect of Neil Young’s life, it’s covered here, even when it sheds a less than favorable light on the man himself.

The narrative is supplemented by sidebars detailing various people and events in the Neil Young saga. This results in a few instances of repetition, as topics mentioned in the text occasionally reappear in the sidebars. In addition to the text, there is a fascinating array of high-quality illustrations spread throughout the book, virtually on every page – performance photos, artwork, album covers, 45 RPM picture sleeves, posters, concert programs, ticket stubs. Even if one already knows everything there is to know about Neil Young, the book will impress your friends as it rests on your coffee table. There is also an illustrated discography, which could have been improved by personnel listings.

If “Neil Young: Long May You Run” is a tribute in the form of a Big Statement, “When That Rough God Goes Riding” is a much smaller, more narrowly focused statement. Greil Marcus has long been recognized at one of the Greats of contemporary music journalism, as witnessed by the number of other writers who have referenced such classic Marcus books as “Mystery Train” and “Lipstick Traces”. (Incidentally, 2010 also marks Greil Marcus’ 65th birthday.) “Rough God” (the title comes from a Van Morrison song which paraphrases William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”) is not on this level of accomplishment (and I doubt it was intended to be), but it’s a fascinating, beautifully written little nugget in its own right.

On the upper-left corner of the dust jacket, the publisher has classified the book as “Music/Biography”. A biography it is not. The details of Morrison’s first couple dozen years are briefly sketched in the book’s first few pages, concentrating on his early influences and his days with the Northern Irish band, Them. Beyond this point, there are just enough biographical details sprinkled here and there to provide a context for Marcus’ musico-philosophical musings. The book lacks enough technical matter to classify it as a musicological analysis. If pressed for a term to classify the book, I would need to call it “an appreciation”, and a rather impressionistic one at that.

Marcus’ writing style is, as always, filled with quotable lines and delicious phrases, so many that it would be a disservice to single out one or two. (This no doubt reads like a cop-out, but it would be better for the reader to come upon them in their intended contexts.) His opinions on Morrison’s songs and performances often break with conventional wisdom. He very much dislikes “Brown Eyed Girl”, which he considers to be Morrison’s “least convincing” record; he dismisses the song “Moondance” as “TV-commercial jazz”; actually, I find that one a valid observation. But his discussions of most of the performances he chooses to discuss at length are very well thought-out, sometimes rather quirky, but by and large far from capricious.

One of the aspects of Morrison’s performance style Marcus spends considerable time with is what he refers to as the “yarragh”. Once again, this is a Yeatsian concept, thought of as a haunting, sorrowful cry which can be detected in much Irish balladry, whether sung or written as poetry. It is Marcus’ contention that when Morrison indulges in repetition of words and lines or wordless moans/interjections, it is part of his quest for the yarragh. It is what makes Morrison’s art distinctively Irish. This is Marcus at his best. At his worst, he devotes one 10-page chapter to 16 albums recorded between 1980 and 1996, considering every one of them as not worth devoting time and energy to take seriously. On the other hand, several chapters are devoted to performances hardly anyone has ever heard, available only on bootlegs or in the memory banks of concert attendees. Marcus is such a fine writer, one eagerly reads his commentary on these as well.

The Neil Young book will doubtless appeal to fans, but is just as likely to win converts to his music. The Marcus book will appeal almost exclusively to hard-core Van Morrison fans. But if you want to encounter a great popular-music historian writing near the peak of his powers - music writing as literature - "When That Rough God Goes Riding" is for you as well.

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

“Lightnin’ Hopkins: His Life and Blues” by Alan Govenar (Chicago Review Press)

Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins (1912-1982) has been dead for 28 years, but remains an iconic figure among blues fans, including many who were not yet alive during his lifetime. To many people, Hopkins represents post-WW2 down-home blues at its purest level of authenticity, even when played on his instrument of choice, the electric guitar.

But how much do blues fans really know about Lightnin’ Hopkins, and exactly how far removed was he from the “taint” of show business, or the modernization of urban influences? Part of the reason we think of Hopkins as a bastion of rural Texas blues values is the mythology which has grown up around him. As Alan Govenar, a greatly respected chronicler of the Texas roots-music scene, makes clear in this first-ever full-length biography of the man from Centerville, Lightnin’ Hopkins in large measure created and disseminated his own myth.

To be sure, this hardly makes Sam Hopkins unique among bluesmen of any period. Not many blues artists from earlier eras have left us autobiographies in which they explain themselves and their art, though many have been interviewed and documented by collectors and historians. But even autobiographies cannot be relied upon; Big Bill Broonzy comes to mind in this regard. Many interviewees have been known to answer straightforward, fact-seeking questions with colorful tall tales, relating “experiences” which they think people would like to hear, or which they feel would fit the interviewers’ preconceived notions. Not enough documentation was done during the early, pre-war era of the blues, making it difficult for authors to check for accuracy or multiple views of the same events.

Lightnin’ Hopkins may have come from a slightly later era, when one would have hoped hard documentation would have replaced the gushing admiration of colorful stories. But even so, he first came to the fore when white blues collectors still had not yet done crucial research, and were all too ready to make suppositions based on insufficient knowledge mixed with stereotypes. Thus, Hopkins was able to get away with painting ever-changing word portraits of his life. Couple this with the fact that little documentation was done of African-American music (and life in general) during Hopkins’ younger years in rural Texas, and you have mythmaking opportunities galore. Alan Govenar makes a valiant effort to separate fact from fiction, to make sense of the contradictions, to follow the complex arc of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ life and career, to fill in as many gaps in the record as he can. Holes remain, and most likely always will. Nevertheless, this book strikes me as a fair, unbiased, and believable, providing unprecedented insight into the life and music of an enigmatic, self-made mystery man.

Not surprisingly, the weakest part of the book is the section dealing with Hopkins’ younger, rural years. Govenar has interviewed a few relatives and childhood friends, but by and large the trail has gone cold, particularly since Lightnin’ claimed to have left home to become a traveling musician at age 8. (He subsequently had very little schooling and remained functionally illiterate his entire life.) We find him receiving encouragement from Blind Lemon Jefferson, followed by a stint accompanying singer Texas Alexander in the years after the latter’s period of relative recording stardom. But Hopkins really emerges musically in the big city, Houston, where he spent most of his adult life. He originally performed for strictly segregated black audiences, and indeed had several Top 10 hits on the r&b charts in the late 1940’s and early 50’s. He continued thereafter to present himself differently to black ghetto audiences, with whom he felt comfortable and could identify, than with the white audiences who came to dominate the last 20-plus years of life. Govenar suggests that experiences with record companies, folklorists (including the influential Mack McCormick, who is portrayed in a most unflattering light), bookers, etc. led Hopkins to mistrust most of the white people he came into contact with. (Arhoolie Records’ Chris Strachwitz was a refreshing exception.) The combination of lack of education and mistrust led him to demand payment-in-full for every song he recorded as soon as he finished recording it, either refusing to sign contracts which could potentially have brought in considerable, much-needed royalties, or to ignore without a second thought those contracts he did sign.

Hopkins was a bristly fellow, one who enjoyed his alcohol rather too much, who gambled away what little money he earned from his music, who had a very violent streak, and a very highly developed ego. He spent (by his own reckoning) a dozen or more stretches in jail for assault and related charges. But with the right people, he could be a bosom friend and companion, in particular with the woman he called his “wife”, who actually had a legal husband and children with whom she continued to live at night while spending her days with Hopkins. His dislike of travel early in his career, followed by a virtually disabling fear of flying once he realized that he could make far more money on the road than in the bars of Houston’s Third Ward, held back his career. But his distinctive recording style and highly mannered give-the-audience-what-they-want live performances eventually made him prosperous well beyond his expectations. Govenar follows these developments in an easy-to-read, yet highly detailed manner. In particular, there is much detailed information about most of Hopkins’ recording sessions, beginning in 1946 as half of the recording duo of Thunder and Lightnin’ (with pianist Wilson Smith; it was this nom-de-disque, supplied by a record company, which resulted in Sam Hopkins becoming known as “Lightnin’).

Govenar’s portrayal is eventually a sympathetic one. Despite Hopkins’ difficulties as a person, his music and artistry far transcend his personality and defy easy analysis. I rather wish Govenar had spent more time discussing which portions of Hopkins’ improvised lyrics were indeed spontaneously generated and which were built from traditional, floating-verse sources. But this is a biography, after all, neither a musicological tome nor a study in poetics.

Because he recorded for so many labels and was subject to so many reissues and repackagings, Hopkins’ discography provides special challenges for researchers. However, Govenar includes a list of Lightnin’s sessions, complied by Andrew Brown and Alan Balfour, that is probably as complete as one can get. A full discog, listing all reissues, remains for another day.

In all, this is a very successful and satisfying book, which will appeal greatly to blues fans, and could reach a wider audience a

Labels: , , , , , , ,