100bookshelf: Robert Hilburn, Corn Flakes with John Lennon

Robert Hilburn, Corn Flakes with John Lennon

Once upon a long, long time ago, I was sent out this book to have a read and review. Then there was all this real life stuff and 100b was pretty much abandoned, book reviewing and all. Many apologies to all involved and I’d almost call it too late to bother, but a deal is a deal. Plus, I just found out that this book will be newly available in paperback in October, so I’m going to call it better late than never.

The book in question is Robert Hilburn’s Corn Flakes with John Lennon (and Other Tales From a Rock’n’Roll Life). Hilburn was the LA Times rock critic from, well, pretty much the days when rock criticism was invented, until just a few years ago. Corn Flakes is a personal account of his long and impressive career. According to the book jacket, at least.

There’s a lot of great things about Hilburn’s writing and ideas, but this is most definitely not a “highly opinioned and deeply personal look at rock ‘n’ roll”, as the wikipedia put it. For such an accomplished and distinguished writer, Hilburn just doesn’t seem comfortable when he is his own subject. And while his book describes some very unique encounters with some of history’s biggest rock stars, this is not a tell-all account of scandalous goings-on. I can’t imagine why this book is masquerading as something it’s not – even the full title is a bit misleading – when what it is is a lot more interesting.

Although Hilburn feels awkward when writing about his own place in this story, he really shines – as you’d expect from a rock critic – when discussing his ideas about rock’s history and future. And that there is what this book is really about. Hilburn takes us on a little journey through rock, starting with his childhood love of Elvis, through the discoveries of his most beloved music: that of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, up through to Jack White. And through examining each artist – their music, philosophies, song-writing styles, and – almost most importantly – their reaction to celebrity, Hilburn creates his definition of what makes an artist or specific music truly important.

But perhaps what is most interesting about this book is actually its underlying question of what the future of rock holds. Hilburn wonders how long rock can go on and how long he (or one) can be a part of it all. He describes his frustration with the lack of a uniting figure in current rock, in the way that Michael Jackson once was, but does mention a few artists he finds promising enough to potentially fill that role: Arcade Fire, Conor Oberst, and mainly, Jack White. Unfortunately for us, he doesn’t go into too much detail with his thoughts on these artists; I’d really like to have read them. But he does make a very interesting point about how the role of celebrity, as it is today with its tabloid culture, has become such a painful idea to so many that there may never be another Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. Are artists are now too wary of the machine to become fully involved in it, to go through with being a voice that will unify the small specialist audiences that the listening public has become?

To me, this is what’s really interesting in Corn Flakes and something I myself have spent a lot of time thinking about. It’s occurred to me that Justin Timberlake may be the closest thing we’ll have to another Michael Jackson (neverminding the musical similarity), simply because he has huge crossover appeal. Of course, artists like Gwen Stefani, Rihanna, Snoop Dogg, Coldplay, and Kylie Minogue all have similar appeal – but as much as I enjoy them all, they’re none of them the new Michael Jackson. I don’t feel like any one of these artists really has all that much to say, musically or socially. Coldplay claims to, but not everyone’s convinced about that, myself included – and I find it telling that Coldplay is not mentioned in Hilburn’s book among those acts that have the potential he’s looking for.

Anyway, I’m not going to answer that question here in this post – even Hilburn couldn’t in a whole book – but it is an interesting discussion and I think Hilburn has some intriguing things to say about it. Corn Flakes has some flaws, but is well worth the read – I’ll be considering some of Hilburn’s ideas and the questions he poses for a long time to come.

John Lennon – Instant Karma

100bookshelf: Michael Gray, Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search Of Blind Willie McTell

Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes: In Search Of Blind Willie McTell

I’ve been meaning to post about this one for a long time, because Michael Gray’s Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes is not just one of my favorite music books, it’s one of my favorite books in general.

Blind Willie McTell is by far my favorite of those old-time blues men, though I don’t know when and why that happened. Something about his voice and songs just captured my imagination and hasn’t let go. But, just like all the others, there’s very little known about McTell and the casual listener had no where to turn (other than questionable ‘facts’ scattered about the internets) for information.

Until Michael Gray, Bob Dylan scholar, decided to take on this enigmatic man, that is. Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes goes, exactly as the title says, ‘in search of’ Blind Willie. That means that this is not a biography exactly – it’s also the story of the author’s journey to find what is, essentially, a musical needle in a haystack. He meets some very interesting characters, uncovers some weird stories, travels through and to places tourists don’t usually go, and – along the way – finds out some amazing clues to who Blind Willie McTell really was.

Oddly for a music book, I don’t want to say too much and give anything away. But if you’re interested in the blues, or a side of American life we don’t normally see, or both, this book is one of the best you’ll ever find. Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes is a beautiful portrait of a time and place – both past and present – as well as a fascinating glimpse into a most mysterious man.

Blind Willie McTell – Statesboro Blues

100bookshelf: John Lennon

John Lennon, In His Own Write

I started my life as a Beatles freak way back when I was just a young Bean, and I devoured everything about them I could get my hands on. Somewhere along the way, I discovered that John Lennon had written books as well and I’ve loved them ever since.

Lennon’s two books, In His Own Write (published in 1964) and A Spaniard In The Works (1965) are fiction, though I’m not sure I could categorize them as short stories exactly. They’re surreal and nonsensical, but definitely satire. Not for readers who swear by political correctness, Lennon poked fun at just about everything and everyone, long before shows like Arrested Development and 30 Rock finally let us laugh at everything that was supposed to be sacred.

The mid-60s were the years Lennon really started playing around with his art, and the definition of art in general, and it shows in these two collections. It’s clear how much he loved playing with words and their meanings and his enthusiasm is infectious – even when his ‘stories’ make no sense at all, they’re funny as hell.

Get both books in one volume here at Amazon (UK).

John Lennon – Give Peace A Chance

100bookshelf: Yes Yes Y’all … 

Yes Yes Y'all

I always say that what I love about music history is that it’s really the history of people. Yes, technically all history is, but music history is not about presidents or kings or generals, it’s about regular people who make a change, try something new, go their own way. Almost every music story begins with someone(s) just like you or me and an idea. They figure out how to do it and everything changes with them – sometimes just the flow of popular culture for a small group, sometimes the direction of a whole society. Music may not be the only thing responsible for those changes, but it moves and inspires people to make the difference, big or small, like nothing else.

Which is why my very favorite music writing is always oral histories. There’s nothing quite like hearing about events from the people who were there, who created and witnessed those events, in their own words. Yes Yes Y’all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-hop – The First Decade (edited by Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn) is one of the very best. This is the story of hip-hop from the very beginning, back before it was even an idea. Starting with the inspirations, people, and events that lead up to hip-hop’s beginnings, Yes Yes Y’all takes you through the street parties and entrepreneurial endeavors that started it all, shows the gradual creation of the genre as we know it now, explains controversies and tensions within the early hip-hop community, and introduces you to every person involved along the way. It really is quite an achievement, and creates such a vivid picture, you honestly do feel like you’re there, experiencing this remarkable time alongside the people who created it. I sincerely hope The Experience Music Project continues the story into hip-hop’s second decade someday.

Funky Four Plus One – That’s The Joint

100bookshelf: Paul Morley, Piece by Piece: Writing About Joy Division 1977-2007

You might wonder why you would need a collection of journalism by one single writer, entirely about one single band who were only around long enough to make two studio albums. Even to me, it sounded like it could be a bit much. But this book is so much more than it appears to be and it’s one of my very favorite music reads.

Just so you know where we stand, I should admit that I am, much like Paul Morley, totally biased about Joy Division. They are, at the very least, in my (unwritten) Top 5 Best Bands Of All Time and Unknown Pleasures is perhaps the greatest single album I’ve ever heard. I can’t deny it: I’m the target audience for Morley’s collection. Even so, Piece by Piece isn’t just an opportunity for both author and reader to fawn over a personal favorite. This is the story of a band (and, in part at least, a label), told from pretty nearly the inside, since Morley was involved with Joy Division before they were even called Joy Division, and shows their growth from a sort of wannabe punk band to a creative force still to be reckoned with today. And though the band itself was only around for a few years, Morley’s writing continues to investigate their influence on – and importance to – both music and himself for over a quarter of a century.

But “piece by piece” does not just refer to the gradual evolution of a band and their place in history, and is not just a literal reference to written articles. This collection is only partially about Joy Division and Factory Records and Tony Wilson and whoever else. It’s Paul Morley’s story as well, and is far more personal than the title, taken literally, conveys. Piece by Piece is a 30-year journalistic journey in which Morley finds his way as a writer, finds his way as a person, and discovers that this one band and their two magnificent albums will always be with him as a source of comfort, intrigue, and inspiration.

Joy Division – Isolation

100bookshelf: Pamela Des Barres, I’m With The Band

Pamela Des Barres is now very well-known for having been a prominent groupie to some of music history’s most famous (or infamous) rock stars during the cultural explosion of 1960s California, but her book I’m With The Band is a far more innocent affair than that reputation implies. Unlike some of her groupie contemporaries, Des Barres makes no claims to having been the inspiration behind classic songs and does not hold museum exhibits of related, ahem, works. It may sound funny to say this about someone who has had her memoir published, but I never get the impression that Des Barres is trying to draw attention to herself or inflate her own importance in the story she has to tell.

If you’re looking for a book full of juicy (read: dirty) tidbits about famous stars, I’m With The Band will be a disappointment. Though it is interesting to hear another side to the outrageous stories about bands like Led Zeppelin, Des Barres isn’t looking to just spill the dirt. Her story is of a young, impressionable – you might even say naive – young girl who got swept away by the music and excitement of a new culture and found herself right in the middle of it. Involved (not all romantically) with musicians as diverse as Frank Zappa, Gram Parsons, The Byrds, and Jimmy Page, Des Barres gives a unique peek into the world of the 1960s cultural revolution.

I have no real proof of this but I kind of suspect that there’s a lot of people out there who have dismissed I’m With The Band as not a ‘real’ music book. Fair enough really, because it’s not. Although, like Almost Famous‘ Miss Penny Lane, the music is the center of Des Barres’ story – what pulled her into, and kept her part of, the world she describes – this book is about people, not music. No other book has given me such a clear picture of a time and place, about the people who took part in something now legendary, what their lives were like at the time, and how they all fit together to create a movement important enough for us to read about today.

Led Zeppelin – Whole Lotta Love

100bookshelf: Mötley Crüe, The Dirt

Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band is, despite my initial assumptions, a really great music book. Even if you haven’t read it, I’m sure you’ve heard the stories about the band hanging out with Ozzy Osbourne, snorting ants and whatnot. Yes, it’s all in there and it is indeed all pretty outrageous. Which makes for a good giggle, and the occasional turned stomach – all perfectly good reasons to read a book if you’re feeling up for something trashy.

But never underestimate The Crüe. The Dirt is more than just sensational ant-snorting. I finished the book with a much better appreciation of where 80s ‘hair-rock’ fits into music history and how it came to be what it was. I’ll admit that, although I love it, I still can’t take that kind of rock completely seriously – but I do understand it better now. And I definitely never expected to find The Crüe (or most of them) oddly endearing; once you get past the drinking and the groupies and the drugs, you get into the regular stuff that makes them human and that stuff is, much to my surprise, way better than all the insane backstage antics.

   Mötley Crüe – Dr. Feelgood