From Classics and Swing through Psychedelia, Funk and 21st Century Angst
News books by musicians and their chroniclers about all kinds of music
Fifty years ago, the “Summer of Love” triggered hype and hand ringing over hippies, drugs and emerging mores. Big anniversaries are inevitably greeted with more hype—as nostalgia mongers capitalize on memories and myths—as well as hand ringing and, occasionally, serious reflection.
There’s a good bit of reflection in Danny Goldberg’s In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea (Akashic Books). Nostalgia too, not from the perspective of a participant in the events of ’67 but from a teenage observer in New York, feeling the vibes and watching the world tilt on a different angle. For Goldberg, ’67 was the milestone toward his career as rock critic and, later, music executive (he currently represents Steve Earle). The heady ideas that surfaced in 1967 inspired and continue to move him, but, as he concedes, by 1968 the light had already dimmed, Haight Ashbury was a slum and LSD was laced with speed. Bad trips abounded.
While Goldberg speaks of a “metaphysical unity” in the ‘60s counterculture, he is candid about divisiveness and sectarianism, barely held in chick until that shared anticipation of changing the world sputtered. Before long Yippies squabbled with hippies, pacifists with bomb-makers, anarchists with entrepreneurs, and those who sought enlightenment through LSD argued with partygoers looking for kicks. Eventually, when drugs were criminalized, only criminals had drugs (LSD was legal through 1966). Promoting heroin addiction was more profitable than fostering a new consciousness of reality.
Rock music, of course, is a thread running through Goldberg’s account, and yet, although he doesn’t explore this, rock also fractured into audiences at arm’s length from one another. And yet, though the dream appeared to end, what Goldberg describes as a “mystical experience” for many participants continues to reverberate a half century later in everything from the environmental movement to the push for organic food.
Also of interest:
America 51: A Probe into the Realities that are Hiding Inside “The Greatest Country in the World” (Da Capo Press), by Corey Taylor
Being lead singer for Slipknot and Stone Sour doesn’t necessarily endow you with wisdom, but I’ll hand it to Corey Taylor: I love the vivisection he conducts on these Disunited States in America 51. He spares no one and nothing: neither the rubes who think Trump is looking out for them nor the PC busybodies who whine about “micro aggressions” as big corporations undermine everyone’s macro. As Taylor points out, the latter only helped to spur on the former. “We have become the very reason for our downfall,” he insists, a society of selfie-obsessed dummies who feel entitled to spout off on any subject, whether they know shit or not. “Ultimately, at some point, if we want this country to get on better footing, we need to find some common fucking ground,” he concludes. It won’t be easy.
Cowboy Song: The Authorized Biography of Thin Lizzy’s Philip Lynott (Chicago Review Press), by Graeme Thomson
Thin Lizzy’s frontman-songwriter Phil Lynott couldn’t help but stand out in 1960s Ireland. With a father he never knew from British Guiana and a wild tear of an Irish mother, he was a black kid growing up in a white working class setting. He was tough but romantic at heart—and as Irish in his soul as anyone. Cowboy Song is an excellent biography, placing Lynott’s music in the context of his environment. His lyrics were suffused with Irish mythology as well as a painful sense of loss resulting from his unknown father and largely absent mother. While condemning drug use for others, Lynott condoned it for himself, claiming, as an artist, a need for “extremes.” Drug abuse cut his life short in 1986.
Fats Waller (University of Minnesota Press), by Maurice Waller and Anthony Calabrese
Fats Waller was, by all measures, a sizable contributor to early jazz. The prodigy pianist authored many hits in the 1930s, some of which survive as standards (“Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Honeysuckle Rose”). He was also a man of prodigious appetites (hence his moniker) for food, booze and sex. In the ‘70s his son Maurice, writing with freelancer Anthony Calabrese, penned a memoir of his life. Fats Waller, now reissued in paperback, reveals a man who used humor as leverage, laughing at the racism he encountered and the banal pop tunes he was occasionally forced to record. He was a clown who nonetheless took seriously his role as an African-American cultural figure and longed for acceptance at Carnegie Hall. Waller wore himself out touring, including places as far afield as Milwaukee.
Glen Miller Declassified (Potomac Books), by Dennis M. Spragg
At the close of 1944, bandleader Glen Miller, serving in World War II as commander of the Army Air Force Band, boarded a cargo plane in England and was never heard from again. His disappearance gave rise to bizarre conspiracy theories and fake news from almost the start. In Glen Miller Declassified, music historian Dennis M. Spragg dispatches all of those wild rumors but still can’t identify precisely what happened. Miller’s plane was never found and probably lies in the junkyard of war wreckage covering the floor of the English Channel. Sifting through the specifications of the ill-fated plane and government archives, Spragg speculates that icing caused by changes in the weather, coupled with human error, were at bottom of Miller’s death.
I Am the Wolf: Lyrics & Writings (Da Capo Press), by Mark Lanegan
Not every author merits a preface by John Cale and a forward by Moby. Mark Lanegan is less than a household name but any casual fan of ‘90s rock has heard him sing the lyrics for Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age. Although most of the grunge era’s songwriters don’t deserve to have their words collected between hard covers, Lanegan is an exception. I Am the Wolf collects poetic lyrics filled with expressions of pain, addiction and spiritual yearning written in sharply clipped rhymes. Little wonder Nick Cave counts himself a fan and that Moby could write of the theme running through Lanegan’s lyrics: “that the world is sad, that the world is unknowable, and that the world has hurt and will hurt you, but there’s also an unspeakable luminous beauty in the world.”
The Invisible Man: The Story of Rod Temperton, The “Thriller” Songwriter (The History Press), by Jed Pitman
It was an unlikely climb: Rod Temperton, fish cannery worker in small town England, became Michael Jackson’s songwriter. British journalist Jed Pitman traces that ascent via Temperton’s late ‘70s disco band, Heatwave, which caught the ear of producer Quincy Jones. He’s a gushing fan, but writes with clarity as he describes the “complicated harmonies and arrangements” and “hooks that could catch a shark.” Temperton was a self-effacing Brit happy with obscurity who admits to little more than a run of good luck. Temperton died in 2016.
Toscanini: Musician of Conscience (Liveright), by Harvey Sachs
Verdi and Brahms were still composing when Arturo Toscanini took up his baton and he lived long enough to conduct an orchestra on television. Musician of Conscience is the second Toscanini biography by Harvey Sachs, its publication explained by a newly uncovered batch of personal letters and other documents casting light into his personal life. With all that new information, Toscanini still looks like a serial philanderer with political convictions who chose exile over serving Mussolini’s regime. His many years in the U.S. were profitable. He became the world’s best-known classical musician and naturally drew criticism from professional elitists such as Theodor Adorno. Writing with sympathy for his subject, Sachs effortlessly combines the personal with the artistic and the commercial.
Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge (Picador), by Daniel Rachel
Eric Clapton, probably in a drug-addled rage, attacked “wogs” and “Pakis” from stage at a 1976 concert. Racism seemed an odd charge against a musician who molded his music from African-American influences, yet his irresponsible remarks fueled Rock Against Racism, an international campaign against bigotry in popular music. As recounted by British musician Daniel Rachel, RAR soon tapped into the disenfranchised attitude of punk rock and the rising popularity of reggae. It inspired the “2 Tone” ska revival led by integrated bands. Less successfully, it sought to turn rock musicians and fandom into a force against Margaret Thatcher. Walls Come Tumbling Down is largely an oral history of RAR and its offshoots. Several of the interviewees will be familiar names to fans of ‘80s British rock, including Lloyd Cole and Billy Bragg. Many participants went on to politics—a couple of them made it to the House of Lords.