Electric Review

Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms

The Wide Open Eyes of the World

Chronicles: Bob Dylan Digests Himself

The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia & An Interview With Michael Gray

Suze Rotolo On Dylan

Music Writer Kathleen Mackay

Blood Idioms: the Art of Johnny Cash

Tony Bramwell On the Beatles

Ray Charles

Fletcher Henderson & the Big Band

The Grateful Dead: Lyrics

A FREEWHEELIN’ TIME. A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties. Suze Rotolo. Broadway Books.

Every hard-core music fan knows Suze Rotolo as the “girl from the record cover” – that beautiful innocent golden-haired woman who walked arm-in-arm with a young Bob Dylan down a snowy New York street, the poet and his girl walking into the perfection of some infinite dawn.

Basically, that photograph by Don Hunstein from the cover of Dylan’s “Freewheelin’” album embodies what the 1960s were about for so many kids searching for truth and a better way. Like Kerouac’s gentle Beat Generation beacon “On The Road,” Dylan’s “Freewheelin’” was the start of the musical revolution that many thought would swell so big it might actually alter the molecular structure of the universe.

Sadly, the war in Vietnam rolled into the way of that revolution, but the importance of this musical movement on the holy fabric of our culture should not be underestimated – for the artistry of Dylan and The Beatles and the Stones forever changed how we perceive the sound of ourselves.

And strolling through the center-streets of our collective journey was none other than Suze Rotolo – when we first met her, she stood there beside Bob Dylan, his companion and sweet muse. And now, some 40 years later, she stands alone: An artist driven by a delicate and precise vision now moving head-long through the mystical vortex of her own road.

In A Freewheelin’ Time, we are privileged to get an intimate glimpse into a bright and complex woman who has something unique to say about a truly important moment in modern history.

As a reviewer, my biggest complaint with books about the 1960s is that they tend to cover the same ground – staid and predictable, barking the same line with the same tired voice. But here, Rotolo is able to dissect a tiny piece of the 1960s by using a place as her knife (in turn separating itself from other “studies” of the period).

In Freewheelin’ Time, Rotolo uses the streets of Greenwich village to tell her story and the story of a world-wide cultural awakening, telling the story of countless searchers who were all looking for salvation and way beyond the slow-thinking imperialistic concepts of a long-dead era.

And Rotolo writes:

“The forbidden had always had allure for me. Growing up, I remember overhearing my parents whisper the name Carlo Tresca, together with the words anarchist and anti-Communist. I had no idea who Tresca was, but the fact that he was talked about sotto voce never made me forget his name. He was something illicit, an outlaw; and I was immediately curious….”

Many Dylan fans will want to use this passage to unlock the mystery of  ‘what Suze saw in Bob’ – but for myself, I read this as a statement about why the 60s’ revolution happened and why its many inter-connected components came to take center-stage.

Simply, the decade of the 1960s was about a universal curiosity that stole the heartbeat of the youth. In the blink of an eye, kids at the four corners of the world became curious about music and literature and art and ideas. Suddenly, eyes were awakened and nailed wide open: Now on the path, looking for God and the reason why; and now on the path, gone far beyond time, seeking an answer to these sacred mysteries of the light.

Today, many nay-sayers take the position that our fascination with the decade of the 1960s is more about nostalgia than substance. But as Rotolo so eloquently affirms, this period is actually about innocence yielding to wonder (and the insatiable hunger for personal enlightenment):

“We were a passionate lot, dedicated to whatever it was we were doing. And cool and hip as we might have been, or thought ourselves to be, we truly believed it was worth the effort to shake things up…The new generation causing all the fuss was not driven by the market: We had something to say, not something to sell.”

As you read this memoir and become friends with Suze Rotolo, you will likely be consumed by the majesty of a sensitive young woman whose beauty and insight captured the heart of a young poet named Bob Dylan.

And when you read the snippets of Dylan’s letters to Rotolo (set against Rotolo’s incisive narrative), you will understand how deeply in love the two were. Yes, for a few fleeting years, Dylan and Rotolo were on a journey to realize themselves amid the community of a million other hearts just like theirs – lonely and haunted, drunk on the moment, hungry for more.

And there they set out, down the streets of the Village, with Kerouac be-bopping in the distance, with Ginsberg howling in the alley, with Corso puffing his cigarettes and coughing across the shadows. And there they set out: The young couple now arm-in-arm, with a gentle snow falling on the wide open eyes of the world.

Order from amazon.com.

by John Aiello

MILLION DOLLAR BASH. Bob Dylan, the Band, and The Basement Tapes. Sid Griffin. Jawbone.

Music fans rejoice! 2008 has been slow so far, as the dire state of world-affairs over-shadows most everything on the entertainment front. In spite of this, Bob Dylan’s fans now have something very compelling to focus on – namely, Sid Griffin’s captivating examination of Dylan’s collaboration with the Band circa the summer of 1967 (when the tracks for their famed “Basement Tapes” record were laid down).

Here, Griffin, who is an esteemed writer and musician, captures the very essence of this historic recording, tearing thread from fabric until the core of Dylan’s vast poetic consciousness is revealed.

In Million Dollar Bash, readers will be greeted with an authoritative reference on a record that created the persona known as the ‘bootlegger’ (since Dylan refused to release this music for years, fans had to resort to circulating pirated tapes – this phenomenon which literally spawned an underground industry that’s still alive today).

Basically, Bash is about peeling away the musty layers of mystery which surround “The Basement Tapes.” Accordingly,Griffin does a tireless job of dissecting the songs one-by-one in an effort to give long-time music-historians a ‘record of the record’ that’s been drowning in the scent of its own myth for over 40 years.

In addition, new and incisive interviews with the likes of Robbie Robertson and Roger McGuinn shed light on the tremendous energy Dylan brings to the studio (as we come to understand just how much his work has inspired the people he’s  played with).

I guess some might see a book premised on a 40 year-old record as ‘old news,’ but in reality, Million Dollar Bash is one of the most important music books to come along in a while.

Simply, “The Basement Tapes” summed up the musical journey of Rock’s first full decade while simultaneously reconnecting Dylan with his own sweet poetic vision. It was quite a meaningful moment for students of the art form. And Million Dollar Bash was written to explain the reasons why.

Order from amazon.com.

by John Aiello

BOB DYLAN – THE NEVER ENDING STAR. Lee Marshall. Polity.

The challenge for any writer setting out to do a book on Bob Dylan is quite a difficult one – for just how do you make a man who has been the subject of hundreds of articles and books and studies fresh and new and vital again? Simply, whatis there left to say?

Well, as University of Bristol Lecturer Lee Marshall shows us, plenty is left to say about Dylan and his many personas. In his compelling study, The Never Ending Star, Marshall manages to cover some new ground and unearth some new lines of thought – no easy task when you’re talking about a man who has literally owned the air-waves since the early 1960s.

However, even though Marshall’s book is rooted in the deep historical importance of Bob Dylan, he still is able to artfully deconstruct Dylan’s post 80’s catalog in order to show that, as an artist, the man has actually grown since the days he wrote and released the holy-trinity of rock-and-roll albums (“Bringing it all Back Home;” Highway 61 Revisited;” and “Blonde on Blonde”).

As Marshall shows us, even though the critics haven’t always adored Dylan’s post-60’s styles or praised his contemplative road-shows, his personal vision has never wavered – no matter the era, Bob Dylan has remained hell-bent on debating the mysteries of this earthly life through pearl-drops of music and song.

Yet, going a step further, Marshall has elected to take a unique point-of-view, deconstructing the myth of Bob Dylan by discussing him in the context of “Rock-and-Roll Star” with a message.

And while many long-time Dylan fans might bark and cringe about their leader being labeled a “star” (as in master entertainer), Marshall’s premise nonetheless opens up many compelling arenas of thought; namely: If Dylan had not been blessed with the ability to play music and fill concert halls, would his poems and pieces be as well-received? And would his message be as accessible to a mass audience?

Above all else, Dylan is a poet who sings his creations, and readers should remember that Dylan’s work is but an extension of the Beat Generation movement which preceded it by a decade (his rock-and-roll show this natural metamorphosis this concert extending the spoken-word-Jazz-readings that played out in Jack Kerouac’s head during those solitary nights when the cadence to “On The Road” was sharpened into a full-blown symphony).

Here, Lee Marshall is able to take one of the most relevant artistic figures of the last century and put his work into an original sociological context which will enlighten both new and old fans alike.

In sum, Marshall has created an inventive and captivating study of Dylan that not only looks at his folk years but also examines his current face – thus bringing musicologists a present-day picture of a brilliant writer and tireless innovator whose star has never stopped rising.

Order from amazon.com.

by John Aiello

BOB DYLAN: INTIMATE INSIGHTS FROM FRIENDS AND FELLOW MUSICIANS. Kathleen Mackay. Omnibus Press.

Given the staggering amount of commentary that has been published on Bob Dylan, it now takes a special manuscript with some special moments to stimulate meaningful interest in this dynamic man of song. Basically, it comes down to a single bluntly-placed question – “what else can you teach me about Dylan that I don’t already know?”

Well, Kathleen Mackay’s text actually does teach us a few new things, revealing some meaty nuggets that will hold the attention of long-time Dylan fanatics. In essence, Mackay’s study succeeds for two reasons: Her considerable talent as a journalist and her unique ability to create a documentary in book form.

In Intimate Insights, Mackay takes her cue from the brilliantly conceived Scorsese documentary “No Direction Home,” using interviews and observations from Dylan’s contemporaries as a means to penetrate the armor of the mysterious poet and reduce his myth to human size.

Rather than pontificating on what the songs mean (who, really, is ever going to know except Dylan himself?), the author uses a graceful series of interviews with musicians like Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Springsteen and Maria Muldaur as the vehicle that carries her audience into the head of this magical writer whose songs came to captivate the whole naked heart of the world:

“I’ve never been that comfortable around him,” confesses Kristofferson. “I have the greatest love and respect for him. But I have no idea what’s going on in his head. He’s a very nervous guy…Dylan is an artist, and when he performs he goes into a zone. If you’re serious and pay attention that’s what you have to do.” (Page 93).

Even though there is a sparkling amount of new information here, what should stop readers dead in their tracks is the way the voices of Dylan’s peers tear down the media-honed perceptions of the man, leaving this clear picture of a musician hunkered down on his own road, moving to the windy-beat of his own conscience.

Simply, who you’ve read about in the papers isn’t the real Dylan at all; instead, he’s more William Blake and Hart Crane than he is Little Richard or Elvis.

“I don’t ever remember him ever delivering what they believed he delivered, or what they think he’s going to deliver now, “ notes former Hawk’s guitarist Robbie Robertson in one especially compelling passage. “He certainly had a way of saying something that everybody felt, a way of phrasing it and condensing it down. But people have a fictitious past in mind about him.” (Page 105).

Intimate Insights is filled with jewels like this (not to mention a segment which features Dylan being interviewed by Bono while Van Morrison chats along in real time) — the people who know Dylan best painting a picture of a shy and poetic spirit on a personal quest to enlighten the muses of his own mind with secret moments of self-discovery (a theme that, once again, continues the path of the “No Direction Home” film).

And just like in the Scorsese epic, the lesson seems clear – don’t let your own need to make Bob Dylan “understandable” cloud the perfections of reality: The songs, just like Shakespeare’s great dramas, speak for themselves.

And nothing more needs to be said.

Order from amazon.com.

by John Aiello

Ten Minutes With Music Writer Kathleen Mackay

From the Editor: Kathleen Mackay is known in music circles as journalist of impeccable character who has the flair for capturing a moment or idea in vibrant and graceful prose. Her latest book, “Bob Dylan: Intimate Insights From Friends and Fellow Musicians” (reviewed above) continues her signature style – unlocking another wall of vaults, affording us deeper knowledge into the enigmatic song-poet whose words now define the intersecting paths of myriad generations. “Intimate Insights” is quite a different kind of biography in that it tells Dylan’s story through the eyes of his friends and contemporaries (through the eyes of those who know him best). Accordingly, we come to learn things about the man that only friends know, witnessing the creation of a picture that is meant to honor the musician while simultaneously illuminating the consciousness of his audience. In the following interview, Mackay puts herself on the other side of the ball for a few moments and answers questions about herself and her work – the undeniable candor that marks her journalism now come alive in the way the author looks at her own life in relation to the subjects of her stories.

Can you tell readers a bit about your background?

Yes, I’m a journalist and I’ve written widely on both the arts and culture.  My articles have appeared in places likeTimePeopleRolling StoneThe Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.  Over the years, I’ve interviewed many major figures in entertainment and in the arts. Also, when I was 25, Fantasy Records’ Ralph J. Gleason [the esteemed Rock critic who wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1960s] asked me to write the liner notes of a jazz album by Mongo Santamaria called “Watermelon Man.” I actually grew up in Venezuela, and went to prep school in Canada.  As an American living in Venezuela, music was incredibly important to young people. It was our link to the States. And although we didn’t have Top 40 radio, we had records we brought down from the States (remember those 45s?) and had great parties, dancing and listening to great music. I began my career at 16 as a journalist for the only English newspaper in Venezuela, The Daily Journal, writing mostly about music.

Your book on Dylan is quite unique in that in looks to solve some of the mystery surrounding the poet (and his consciousness) through the observations of his contemporaries. What was the genesis for this book and how exactly did you get the idea to write it?

I got the idea to write it after I read Dylan’s book “Chronicles.”  I thought “Chronicles” was very disjointed and as an autobiography I felt it was not very revealing.  While some reviewers thought I got my idea from “No Direction Home,” I had already written my book proposal before I ever heard about the PBS film from music critic Bob Santelli. As I set down to write “Intimate Insights,” I wanted to tell Dylan’s story chronologically, something “Chronicles” does not do.

What was the reception like when you approached musicians like Kristofferson and asked them to tell you about the real face of Dylan? Were they immediately open, or initially suspicious?

Kris Kristofferson and his wife Lisa could not have been nicer.  Kris was very open, although he admits about Dylan, “I have no idea what’s going on in his head.” I think there was a general consensus among the musicians I interviewed that Dylan is a one-of-a-kind musician and has been a positive force in music since 1961. They have a lot of respect for him, and shared so many wonderful and insightful memories.

Did anyone refuse to contribute or be interviewed for the book?

Yes, Tom Paxton and Roger McGuinn did not want to be interviewed for reasons they kept to themselves.

Did you approach Dylan for an interview?

Yeah I did: I approached him in the early stages of my book proposal. I actually did not expect him to want to do an interview, but I asked.  His manager cited the fact that Dylan is working on his own books (such as sequels to “Chronicles”) as the reason for declining my request.

Has the Dylan camp commented on the book at all? (Or have you learned of his reaction through the long winding fingers of the music-world grapevine?).

I have not heard about Bob’s personal reaction. But that is actually good: If there was anything problematic or inaccurate there, I’m sure I would have heard right away. So no news is good news at this point.

Obviously, you have broad knowledge of pop music and of Dylan. In light of this fact, what did you learn that was new and that you didn’t already know about the man?

I did not know about his early experiences backing up Bobby Vee before he went from Minnesota to New Yorkin the early 60s.  And I didn’t know Dylan had asked Rosanne Cash out, and seemed attracted to her.  Rosanne told me this had occurred after the 1992 anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden. Rosanne was single at the time, as was Bob. I learned little details like this about Bob’s life, things that only friends can reveal, and these details were fun to discover. Each interview I did revealed something new.

In your work as a journalist, have you ever crossed paths with Dylan?

Yes, I met Bob when I covered “The Last Waltz” concert for People Magazine in 1976 in San Francisco.  At the rehearsals for the concert, I befriended Ronnie Hawkins, who took me backstage and after the concert. We were the first to arrive at a post-concert party at the Miyako Hotel, and I ended up sitting at a table with Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Hawkins and Ronee Blakely.  Hawkins was singing, “The guilty undertaker sighs/The lonesome organ grinder cries…” [Lines from the Dylan’s 1966 classic, “I Want You”].

When/how did you come to find your way to Dylan’s music and what has his impact been on your own personal journey as a writer?

I first heard Dylan in 1964 when I was a teenager, and I was incredibly moved by his poetry, lyricism, humor and musicality.  I responded viscerally to the way he combined the influences of Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Rimbaud with the blues, folk and rock. It was only as I grew older that I saw what was going on, recognizing how free the folk world was with sharing lyrics and revising songs. Then it all started to make sense how he created the magic. As a writer, Dylan introduced me to  “Shoot the Piano Player” by Truffaut; to the music of Charles Aznavour; to the political passion of Pete Seeger; and to the joy of the Carter Family’s singing…my debt to him is simply enormous, as each of these artists has contributed to my sensibility and my love of music – and life.

Why another book about Dylan? Why did you write this one and how do you hope to touch your audience with it?

I felt I could reach the people who could not wade through 600 pages of Christopher Ricks’ “Visions of Sin,” or 400 pages of Howard Sounes’ biography on Dylan, I wrote it for the readers who found “Chronicles” confusing. I did not set out to write an encyclopedic reference, but an accessible, enjoyable book that brought to life not only Dylan, but his friends as well.

As you step back from the book for a moment, do you think it says what you set out to say? And is the picture it paints a fair representation of Dylan the poet and Dylan the musician?

Yes. I’m thrilled by the people my book has touched, especially fellow author Doug Marlette. Doug is remembered as the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and the author of two excellent novels about the South.  After my book was released, Doug wrote me a “fan letter” and we began an email friendship. A month after I received his letter, he was tragically killed in a single-car accident in Mississippi.  I miss him so much.  As a writer, you never know who you will touch….

by John Aiello

The Poet of These Times

THE BOB DYLAN ENCYCLOPEDIA. Michael Gray. Continuum.

Bob Dylan EncyclopediaMichael Gray is known among music fans as a scholar of grace, beauty and precision whose musings and analysis on Robert Zimmerman (AKA Bob Dylan) have enlightened us for decades. From the first printing of Gray’s Song and Dance Man, it was apparent that this writer had keen insight into (arguably) the most important songwriter and performer of the past century.

Here, Gray presents another indispensable installment for Dylan fans: An encyclopedia of Dylan’s life detailing the lives behind the songs and the faces behind the ghosts — an encyclopedia stitched together by the invisible thread of ghostly faces who came to cross the poet’s path during the last 50 years.

Gray first saw Dylan perform in England during the legendary 1966 world tour with The Band. And since that time he has been driven to help a world-wide fan-base discover the core of this mystic who has somehow been able to define a multitude of generations, chronicling the stale passage of time with the blood-bloom-melody of music and words.

Encyclopedia is a bold undertaking that pierces its target at the center-heart of the bull’s eye. The book traces Dylan’s life in music event-by-event, person-by person, major song by major song. And it is a thrilling ride, indeed, Gray providing traditional encyclopedic sketches of Dylan’s great body of work, each morsel of information presented in an alphabetized form — A through Z.

Individual readers will testify to different high-points. Personally, I came to be captivated by Gray’s remarkable understanding of Dylan’s songs (and song-construction). Take, for example, this passage centered on the little-know Dylan classic “Farewell Angelina:”

“‘Farewell Angelina’ seems to introduce surrealist language with a bang, in a new way for Dylan, whereas by the time of Blonde on Blonde he has adjusted that language almost out of recognition. In this sense ‘Farewell Angelina’ stands alone. Where Blonde on Blonde works as a sort of contemporary Technicolor surrealist movie, ‘Farewell Angelina’ seems like a black and white 1940s surrealist short…”

(Page 222)

Also remarkable is how Gray is able to confirm lifetimes in a few sparse sentences. The material on Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac is of extreme importance to the road Dylan walked down. Accordingly, Gray details this period in striking terms, images and facts chiseling at the mind of the reader, cutting swathes of light across the eye until you sit back and say, ‘Yes, ah, yes, I see it now!’

Simply, without the Beats, Dylan would have met with much more resistance and probably would have had a narrower window through which to capture an audience. In turn, Gray is able to make this point most subtly, but with certainty, serving to illuminate the motion of decades in a few short pages.

Alas, this is exactly why Mr. Gray has come to be known as the absolute authority on Bob Dylan’s language: Placing the man in context with his work and with his world, Gray’s unique style teems with Blake-born images — at times breath-taking, at all times compelling.

Encyclopedia has all the majors players and moments here (and many of the minor ones as well), documenting just how vast Dylan’s contribution to American music and culture has been. At this point, the call to Dylan fans is quite clear: if you buy one book this year on the rock-and-roll icon, this one better be it.

Scholarly, deep and erudite, Gray is simply on-point with everything he says as he deconstructs Bob Dylan and his music, softly touching on the souls of all those significant faces alive and dead who helped to shape the poet of these times.

Order from amazon.com.

by John Aiello

An Interview With Michael Gray

This interview was conducted with Michael Gray on September 9, 2006, during his tour of the United States and San Francisco in promotion of the Dylan Encyclopedia. In person, Gray reads much the way his books do: Multilayered and poetic, evincing his statements with a mix of sharp metaphor and bittersweet memory – the lines ultimately calling to mind the work of the very same poet he has followed faithfully for over 4 decades.

Tell me a bit of your background.

Well, I was born on Merseyside in 1946. My father was a river pilot (in fact, in my paternal family there were many seamen). My mother’s father was one of the early airmen who flew in both World War One and World War Two. I was very lucky in that I knew all four of my grandparents when I was growing up. Public school [in America this is akin to a private school program] eventually led to me to the University of York. Looking back, the public school experience was very Philistine – I mean, at the time if you liked art you were regarded as the lowest of the low. [The study of] English at that time was very dangerous, as writers were thought to be on the socialist side – dangerous in many ways. I did well in school though, in spite of all that….

And when did music begin to impact your consciousness?

Rock and Roll hit me in 1956 when I was about 10 years old. I grew up on the music of Little Richard, on Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee, Roy Orbison. I bought a lot of records and immersed myself in their music. Actually, the birth of the Beatles merged with the end of my public school program; I guess I was in the right geographical area for the Beatles boom. In reality, the Beatles were just one of many groups like that around at the time. I wasn’t really knocked out by their music; honestly, I thought it rather crude. It sounded like an amateurish regurgitation of old music to me.

And how did you find your way to Bob Dylan’s music?

I was at the University of York, in the autumn of 1964, and I first encountered Dylan as part of the university culture. A girl I was quite keen on insisted I listen to this singer and she lent me a copy of Another Side – which is how I started following him.

Were you captivated right away?

In the beginning I had a problem with his voice. It actually took awhile for me to realize that his voice was a superbly nuanced instrument. However, I had no trouble with the lyrics; in my mind Dylan’s work was complex and multilayered, capable of bearing the weight of the same kind of scrutiny as Keats or George Eliot.

It must have had a great impact on you since you have written about it so effectively for so many years.

Yes, as I heard more of Dylan’s work I came to want to write about it at length. That’s how my book “Song & Dance Man” came about. I wrote that book in a cottage in North Devon in Southwest England. I had a wife and a new baby and wrote the study while teaching English in a high school in a town called Barnstaple. This was the period 1969 through 71 and Dylan had gone country. At the time, Blonde on Blonde seemed so far away. The problem I encountered with my book was in finding a way to tackle the material with the same critical tools I had been trained to use on literature in school, while being careful to keep in mind that I was dealing with records. This was about music, too, and not just words on the page. These were lines and lyrics dictated by other rhythmic considerations (and not just the rhythms of words themselves). In the end, “Song & Dance Man” ended up being the first critical study of his Dylan’s work, and to complete it I had to construct a new way of handling the material, one which recognized that these were in fact songs,and not just words on the page

Have you ever crossed paths with Dylan, or perhaps interviewed him?

I have met him, but never interviewed him. In 1978, he toured England with a huge ensemble band. Other than his appearance at the Isle of Wight in 1969, it was his first time in Europe in 12 years, since his tour with The Band and his motorcycle accident. It was quite a strange time. It was the height of the British Punk scene and the songs of this old hippie shouldn’t have been of any real interest at all. At that time, if you were 30 or older the youth was telling you that you should be lined up against the wall and shot. [laughing] The record business at that time was in the hands of very young people…and as far as Dylan was concerned, no one knew what he would sound like or be like. He played 6 nights in this barn-of-a-place called Earl’s Court. I went to each performance with a different person….

So how did you meet him?

On the morning of the third performance a publicist for CBS Records called and said: “Bob wants to know if you want to come by and say hello tonight?” Of ourse I said “Yes!”). That night he was very Bob Dylan: Standing back behind a curtain wearing dark shades. He looked very ’66 — not quite as thin, but with the same wild hair. Jack Nicholson and Bianca Jagger were waiting in the wings to see him, and I was behind them, standing with my 9-year-old son. It ended up that Dylan had liked a piece I had written about him in Melody Maker. I think all this was his way of encouraging me while avoiding actually giving an overt thumbs-up to my book…

The Encyclopedia is truly a work of amazing depth and stunning historical insight. How long did its creation take?

The Encyclopedia took one very hard year to write. A minority of the book is reshaped from “Song and & Man III” (which took most of 1990s for me to write). The idea to write the Encyclopedia was born in wanting to create a critical analysis in a more accessible form. I wanted the book to be people-centered so that it would be of interest to on many different levels in many different contexts.

Looking at Dylan’s last two records – ‘Love and Theft’ and ‘Modern Times,’ do you think he is on course musically?

I can’t rush to judgment yet on Modern Times, since I have only heard it four times and that is not enough for me to formulate a complete understanding of the record. My initial impression is that there are a couple of gorgeous songs on the record, namely “Nettie Moore” and “Working Man’s Blues.” With Dylan’s albums, I usually see what’s missing before I come to appreciate what is there. But Love and Theft – I adore that record. I adore it’s multitude of voices and its many sounds….

by John Aiello

Of Related Interest

CHRONICLES. Volume One. Bob Dylan. Simon and Schuster.

In my opinion there has never been a good book chronicling the life of Bob Dylan. In retrospect, the closest thing to a good read will be found in Clinton Heylin’s reference Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions 1960-1994.

However, even Heylin’s book is marred by gross over-editorializing. In truth, virtually every book on the subject of Bob Dylan comes to take the form of ponderous analysis or over-written biography – the latter leaning heavily on those authors’ own prejudices, opinions and speculations. To quote Elvis Costello, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Reading Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan is like drinking a cool glass of water in the middle of a desert. Aptly (and unsurprisingly), the work most resembles Woody Guthrie’s “Bound for Glory.” Ultimately, both books are less about the chronology of biography and more about getting inside the head of a genius.

In this book, Dylan is not beyond letting his muse run wild for pages on end, connecting fact with fiction, truth with imagination, the result a spectacular sampling of vintage Bob Dylan writing that any true aficionado will quickly recognize.

“Chronicles” illuminates three points in Dylan’s life/career. The first describes his arrival in New York City during the winter of 1960. The second and third chapters find Dylan at two different points in his career, rejuvenating his muse with two of his many (but in these cases, less celebrated) “comeback” albums (1970’s New Morning and 1989’s Oh Mercy).

The tone of these early years is fascinating and infectious. Here, Dylan mixes memories, tall tales, observations and a whole lot of amazing writing to put you in his head and in his shoes.

The New York City of Dylan’s memory is slushy with blizzard streets and teeming with characters, both famous and obscure. Dylan actually corroborates much of what is already known to us about this era. Always one to pay tribute (his first original recorded composition after all was “Song To Woody”), Bob spins tales and lets rip anecdote after anecdote about many giants of music, framing them all as heroic and noble figures. For example, he takes an entire page just to sing the praises of Roy Orbison — every sentence sounding as if it should be the epitaph on Orbison’s tombstone. Dylan also does not omit his early muse, Suze Rotolo. And for a man who has teased the press since day one, much of this section (indeed the entire book) is revelatory and refreshing.

The analysis of “New Morning” and “Oh Mercy” are no less fascinating. In the course of describing the events leading up to “New Morning,” Dylan offhandedly explains the reasons for the notorious “Self Portrait” and “Dylan” albums (now the truth can be told! He knew exactly what he was doing!). Meanwhile, the story of “Oh Mercy” documents (among other things) the giant chasm between the writing and the recording of an album. Musicians will perhaps get more out of this section than the lay person. It is truly fascinating material.

By the last page of Chronicles, Bob Dylan comes off a million different ways – deeply human, humble, very funny, very wise. In short, this is a beautiful and graceful book by a beautiful man, and one of the greatest artists of our times. Even casual fans will want to stay tuned for Volume 2.

Order from amazon.com.

by Michael Goodman


Michael Goodman is a musician living in New York City. He has opened for Jonathan Richman, played with Sebadoh’s Jason Loewenstein, and appeared many times on the progressive radio stations WFMU and WUSB. He also has one of the largest song-poem collections in the world, and his library of Beatle-related literature takes up an entire bookcase in his NYC apartment. Reach him at michaelmayham.com.

CAN’T BUY ME LOVE. (The Beatles, Britain and America). John Gould. Harmony Books.

After 45 years and all the history that the Fab Four waded through, it takes a special book to warrant another Beatles review. Simply, what can yet another book tell us that we don’t already know about the band that forged the road for all the other rock and roll movements that ensued?

Well, Gould answers those questions in the first few pages of his book, guiding us through a story of cultural upheaval as he records the intellectual journeys of myriad generations:

“The historic reversal of fortune transformed not only the political relationship between the two great English speaking nations, but the unique cultural relationship between them as well. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, unimpeded by the need for translation, the dynamic and democratic sensibility of American popular culture had exerted a powerful influence on the imaginative lives of the British people, with American styles and American products dominating the British market for music and films. The Beatles themselves were a product of this influence, which intensified sharply in the years after World War II…”

Can’t Buy Me Love is basically the biography of the Beatles, and it captures the band from point of genesis to point of demise (taking us from Liverpool to London and across the ocean to the shores of the great Americas, with stops at all ancillary points in between).

However, this is much more than a reference trying to capitalize on the dead memories of a once great rock band. Instead, Gould takes a different approach, striving to place the Beatles ascension in the greater context of the world. Here, instead of just breaking down the Lennon- McCartney relationship for the umpteenth time, the author looks to set the faces of these song-poets against the volatile times in which they were living.

Consequently, what we have here is a cultural record of both America and Britain during their most tumultuous (and their most creative) periods. Look at when the Beatles were born: The band rose in the midst of Castro and Viet Nam in the midst of Kennedy’s assassination and the free-speech movement, rising on the heels of Kerouac and Ginsberg and the Beat Generation – a band hell-bent on making a statement for the youth of the world:

“For the Beatles, as it would be for millions of other young people in the United States and Britain who were introduced to it over the next few years, pot would serve as the key to a secret garden. It divided up the world the way their movie did, the way their fans did, the way every aspect of youth culture did: Between those who knew what was happening, and those who hadn’t a clue.”

(Page 254)

Readers can expect a comprehensive ride with this book; some “twenty years in the making,” Can’t Buy Me Love offers a unique exploration of the Beatles from one of the great music writers of our era. And while you will get the full story of the band and its body work, you will also receive a history lesson of sorts – this statement of our life and times told through the four voices that would change the course of the music forever.

Recommended to Beatles fanatics and casual listeners alike – as stated above, this isn’t only the Beatles story, it’s the story of a cultural revolution that, in many ways, is still ongoing.

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by John Aiello

LENNON AND MCCARTNEY. Together and Alone. A Critical Discography of Their Solo Work. John Blaney. Jaw Bone.

Nearly 40 years after they split up, the Beatles still continue to compel an amazing amount of interest among music fans. Simply, the Lennon-McCartney by-line is the gold-standard in songwriting – along with Bob Dylan’s catalog and the work of Elvis Presley, it serves as the heart-core of rock and roll and the barometer by which all other bands will be measured.

Here, Beatles historian John Blaney looks at these two seminal songwriters under a different kind of microscope: Rather than re-exploring the Beatles lore, he looks at the solo work of the famed songwriting duo, taking readers on a journey through the afterlife of the Beatles (showing that the work that Lennon and McCartney produced as members of the Fab-Four was but a precursor to the significant roads they forged on their own).

Talk about an impossible challenge: If you’re a songwriter and you’ve already taken the world by storm with arguably the greatest rock band that was — where do you go next? Step back from the myths for a second, and look at it from the Lennon-McCartney side of the ball: No matter how good you are it’s never going to be as good as the Beatles.

In this well-written and exhaustive study, Blaney looks at the solo careers of Lennon and McCartney decade by decade, analyzing their records in the context of their respective ‘bodies of work’ instead of as a step-sister to their history with the Beatles. Accordingly, Blaney leaves no stone unturned, gouging through the surface into the gut of these records, looking at the major works and the minor throw-aways, careful to place the records in the context of both the artist and the times in which they lived.

Record collectors and Beatles aficionados will be amazed at the breadth of this work, as Blaney has included information on both recording dates and production personnel so as to allow readers to become intimate with the minutiae that creates the essence of rock and roll history.

In addition, you’ll find a picture of each of the songs and records both Lennon and McCartney made subsequent to their careers with the Beatles – a deep and layered treatise that not only teaches us about some very important music, but also shows us that the death of the Beatles was also the birth of two independent artists who, in many ways, equaled and then eclipsed their brilliant 1960’s canon.

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by John Aiello

Blood Idioms: On the Legend of Johnny Cash

JOHNNY CASH. The Biography. Michael Streissguth. Da Capo Press.

JOHNNY CASH Original portrait by Eric Ward, © 2006. All rights reserved.

JOHNNY CASH
Original portrait by Eric Ward, © 2006.
All rights reserved.

Johnny Cash left quite an indelible mark on the face of American music, as players as diverse as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Doctor John, Lou Reed and Doc Pomus were influenced by the poetry and sweet cadence of Cash’s persona – that big black diesel-stained voice as haunting as the train whistles which would become the metaphoric signature of his sound.

Cash’s death in 2003 left an absolute void in the artistic heart of the landscape, as his music and presence seemed to personify the growth of myriad idioms; certainly, it was Cash who was responsible for the media’s eventual acceptance of country music as a respectable form of cultural expression.

In Cash, Michael Streissguth (instructor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse and author of two other books on Cash) presents a biography of depth and grace as he tells the tale of the mysterious ‘man in black’ who shook the world off its hinges with his deep dark hungry anguished songs of the hidden Americas.

In essence, what makes a biography worthwhile, what elevates it to the point of being necessary for the fan to read, comes via the new information it imparts. And when you are dealing with a seminal figure like Cash, you have to say something new – after a half-century in the public eye, reams have already been written about him and his fans pretty much know the breadth of the story.

Thus, the challenge for the biographer is in being able to say something about that gray space between the man and his music, trying to cut away skin and bony flesh and expose the taste of his soul. And Streissguth succeeds here because his obvious passion for the subject has led him to delve deeply into the Cash-lore as he identifies each of the historical links and pares the myth into digestible bite-sized portions:

“There’s little evidence that Cash and Dylan spent much time together after their first contact, beyond the meeting in Hammond’s office that Cash later described. But the 1964 festival, which Dylan hung around for all three days leading up to his headlining performance on the final day, gave them some time to compare notes. After Cash’s set, he and his troupe had to shove off for Nashville for a session before commencing a tour through the Midwest, but before he left, Cash and Dylan set up at a local motel. They spent the night taping songs with Joan Baez and her sister and brother-in-law, Mimi and Richard Farina…”

(Page 119)

In this biography, Streissguth writes in a clear, compact and evocative style, creating a time portal of sorts that allows us to look at the whole of Cash’s amazing career in a chronological frame. As we move slowly through the book, we see how the early Memphis years and his rise to world-wide fame opened a door unto new creative roads (Gospel; the Folsom Prison tour), only later to provide a pathway to the self-destructive addictions that very nearly poisoned his family and killed him.

What’s best about Streissguth style is the way he paces the story: Rather than take the highpoints and write the easy material into book length, he instead carefully looks at the big and small moments of the Cash legend, dissecting the life of a man we would come to know intimately through the songs he sang from the gentle throes of the stage.

However, what’s most enthralling about this book is intertwined in the passages about Cash’s wife, June (who died in the spring of 2003, just a few short months before Johnny’s death):

“June, though, was very philosophical that week. Abloom in a cotton dress and large slouching sun hat, she pulled Roseanne close to her and told her how happy she had been with Cash. For a moment, it was as if June was saying goodbye, but Roseanne dismissed the thought, chalking it up to June’s unconventionality…”

(Page 280)

As even casual observers know, Cash and June Carter seemed destined – rather, they were meant – for each other. Cash loved his wife so much that, when she died, his will and spirit severed; simply, the vital wheel of his heart was gone and he seemed to not to want to go on.

Now, when we look back and listen to Cash’s old love songs to his wife and read about their relationship, we can almost hear train whistles mourn the distance, blowing through the sacred taste of their kisses: The singer peeling back his mask, fingering the layered castles of the woman’s hair, readjusting the shadowy claws across the cold porcelain see-through mirrors of her skin:

“Early in the morning on the day of her surgery, June went into massive cardiac arrest and was placed on a respirator. Her brain was no longer functioning. On May 12, her husband allowed the respirator to be removed…[as]…Cash remained close…During the nights he stayed in the hospital, he struggled to sleep because of his worry, so every few hours, a nurse would push him in his wheelchair down to her side…”

(Page 281)

Johnny Cash’s final record is drenched in the sound of falling tears, these love songs raw as the taste of blood itself. And when we heard them, we were paralyzed by their beauty, by the way they made us want to weep. At that point, Cash seemingly laid down his guitar and retreated, seeking the peace of closed eyes.

What more is left to say?: Johnny Cash was truly a master musician whose whole story is told in the lines of one million songs whose life story is now eloquently retold in Michael Streissguth’s beautiful biography.

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by John Aiello

Cash On Film

JOHNNY CASH: The Man. His World. His Music. Cherry Red Films. Distributed by MVD.

Even after his death, Johnny Cash’s stature has not faded — his myth firmly and undeniably in place, this unquenchable heartbeat of our American landscape. Today, fans remain hungry to know more about the famed man in black whose voice throbs and echoes across these train-tracks in the distance. In this new documentary from Cherry Red Films,long-time devotees will be rewarded with an assortment of new portraits of Cash spanning different tour-points dating back to the late 1960s. Rare clips of Cash sans his mask are interspersed throughout, and they provide a revealing picture of a man who was such a vital and enduring influence on so many songwriters and cultural icons that followed in his footsteps. Even though the core of this video is made of music (sterling renditions of classics like “Ring of Fire” and “Jackson” are flanked by unforgettable duets with old friends Bob Dylan and Carl Perkins), the real gold is found in the ‘quiet’ breaks in between performances – Cash depicted taking a long deep breath, gabbing with friends and family, musing on those lost moments where great artists find their only solace. This DVD is likely to appeal to both long-time fans and to those younger listeners curious to find out just how the original Highwayman came to demand legend status: More than a greatest hits collection, it provides a record of Cash at his most introspective – a film record of one the great tongues of American song.

Running time: 90 minutes.

by John Aiello

Magical Mystery Tours: My Life With The Beatles. Tony Bramwell. With Rosemary Kingsland. Thomas Dunne Books.

For hard-core fans, there are three kinds of Beatle books out there: specialty references that boggle the mind with the most minute details of a particular area of Beatleology (“The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions,” “The Beatles Gear”); heavily researched biographies which chronicle virtually every phase of the band’s all-too-brief career (Phillip Norman’s “Shout,” The Beatles own “Anthology”); and, lastly, memoirs from ‘insiders’ or people who worked or were affiliated with The Beatles and who are now sharing their memories.

Tony Bramwell’s My Life With The Beatles falls into this last category, narrated in the first person with a strongLiverpudlian flavor, it spans The Beatles’entire career, from North England dance halls through those acrimonious days at Apple.

Tony Bramwell’s name will be vaguely familiar to some Beatlefreaks: he was the production manager at Apple Records, and he is seen as the smiling Keith-Richards-looking guy holding a sign in the “All You Need Is Love” broadcast (NOT to be mistaken for Tony Barrow, the Beatles press agent for the 1965/66 tours).

Ultimately, Bramwell’s book proves to be an interesting addition to the vast library of Beatledom. For instance, Bramwell claims to have known John Lennon, Paul McCartney AND George Harrison separately, before any of the future Beatles had even met each other. Further, he places himself on the scene of such momentous occasions as the first meeting of Lennon and McCartney (where he just happens to be walking by with George Harrison in tow!), the audition of Harrison on the top of a double-decker bus, the naming of the Beatles, Brian Epstein’s discovery of the Beatles(and so much more). Throughout, My Life refuses to conform to standard Beatle’s lore (in one passage, Bramwell says that it was Lennon, not McCartney, who was the most gung-ho about hustling their second-rate compositions to other artists).

However, the book truly begins to succeed when we come to Bramwell’s descriptions of the early days at the Cavern Club. Understandably, this seems to be an idyllic period for him, and the feeling is infectious – even for veteran Beatles’ fans.

Having slowly built up the story, he breezes over the moptop years, skipping big chunks of the Beatles career and it’s “milestones” as we know them. For this period, the book mainly concentrates on Bramwell’s work with Brian Epstein, and a clear picture of the man and his complexities emerges. One surprising and memorable moment in My Life is tied to Epstein’s empathetic meeting with James Baldwin. Also entertaining are the accounts of Epstein trying to woo Marianne Faithful and Alma Cogan. As this passage documents, Bramwell had great affection for the man. Similarly, he has nothing but high praise for the efforts of George Martin.

However, Yoko Ono is not so lucky. Hilariously, Bramwell cannot resist spewing venom at Lennon’s second wife at every available chance. Because of his zeal for this mission, these gossipy passages actually tend to be quite entertaining , as are the chapters detailing his work with Phil Spector and the whole Apple era in general. This is not just because the stories are so funny or outrageous, but also because Bramwell knows how to spin a spicy story, punctuated with razor-sharp Liverpool wit.

Even though the chronology of My Life takes some sudden jumps and even though some material seems to be missing, there are definite nuggets of trivia here to satisfy most Beatle aficionados (case in point: apparently the Sgt. Pepper LP was to have film clips made for every song, ala “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” Or that McCartney is rumored to have tossed months – maybe even YEARS – of unopened weekly pay checks into a box ).

In the end, My Life is a fast and fun read. Although not recommended for the uninitiated looking for a first Beatles biography, this book is for those diehard Beatlefreaks who will no doubt find it a welcome addition to their already over-flowing libraries.

Order from amazon.com.

by Michael Goodman


Michael Goodman is a musician living in New York City. He has opened for Jonathan Richman, played with Sebadoh’s Jason Loewenstein, and appeared many times on the progressive radio stations WFMU and WUSB. He also has one of the largest song-poem collections in the world, and his library of Beatle-related literature takes up an entire bookcase in his NYC apartment. Reach him at michaelmayham.com.

An Interview With Tony Bramwell

Tony Bramwell is widely known in music circles for the time he spent working behind-the-scenes with The Beatles during the super-group’s magnificent rise to stardom.

Make no mistake, Bramwell was there from the beginning, and he saw the story unfold page-by-page. In addition, his work with Phil Spector and Bruce Springsteen further illustrates how these mega-musicians viewed him – as somebody they could trust in a business known for double-dealing and back-stabbing.

This interview was conducted in the first week of April (2005), as Bramwell circled New York City in a brief promotional tour to promote his new Thomas Dunne release, Magical Mystery Tours (My Life With The Beatles).

Always courteous, always gentlemanly, Tony Bramwell has never let the hype cloud his razor-honed perceptions of the world or the music-makers who helped change it. Like his book, Bramwell resonates honesty, depth and a true understanding of the most influential rock and roll band ever to assemble.

Can you tell me briefly how you met The Beatles?

George and I were friends when we were young kids in England. I knew Paul, too. But I knew George first. Georgie and I would swap records. Together, with some other folks, we became this kind of record club. Sometime later, I was riding on a bus and George was on that same bus. When I saw him, I asked where he was going. “To play a show,” he said. “I’ll carry your guitar if I can get in free” I said. (Bramwell chuckles looking back at this classic memory). He said, “yeah, sure, why not?” and that was kind of the start of it. In 1962, after The Beatles got their first contract with EMI, Brian Epstein hired me to set up stage and also to work in the office, booking gigs and making travel arrangements, that sort of thing. I was only 16 at the time….

Who in the band were you closest to?

George, I’d say. And Paul as well. In the early years, I was always referred to as “Georgie’s (and Paul’s) friend.” (laughs)

Looking back, what stands out about life with The Beatles?

I guess I’d say that has to be the break of “Beatlemania” in England. It was February or March of 1963, and the band was getting mobbed by fans every place. We were traveling with police escorts and security, with 1,000 screaming kids outside the theater fighting to get in. When “Beatlemania” first broke, man it was a huge experience, so very exciting, unlike anything you could imagine.

Fame looked like it was devastating to the band in many ways. What did you observe? What kind of toll did it take on them?

Well you know, they didn’t know any other life except “Beatlemania.” They went from school, into The Beatles, into the madness. And in many ways, the band had to retreat and hide because of the fans. They couldn’t go out, certainly not during the day, and if they went out at all, it was at night. Instead of doing things, they had to stay in their hotel and have other people do things for them. That was certainly difficult.

That have been so many rumors that Bob Dylan turned The Beatles on to pot and thus were the guiding inspiration for the band pursuing another, deeper level with their music. Is there any truth to this? Or more media hype?

Much of that is a media story. In terms of Dylan’s music, The Beatles were such fans of his, they were especially fond of the work he was doing when he toured London with The Band. Dylan and The Beatles hung out a lot together, and were actually huge fans of each other.

Tell me about your relationship with Phil Spector.

I’ve known Phil quite well since the 1960s, when he came to London to work with George and John. Spector was simply a musical genius, creating these wonderful pop symphonies, he’s made some of the best records that ever have been cut. I later worked directly with Phil in creating a label called Phil Spector’s International so we could reissue his entire catalogue. And we had quite a lot of success with that and sold hundreds of thousands of records. (pauses) I remember when you went to Phil’s house there was a lot of paranoia and a lot of guns around. A lot of security, and a lot of guns. Phil’s motto was: “It’s better to have a gun and not need it then need a gun and not have it.”

Can you comment briefly on Yoko? Did the band accept her, or did she actually pull it apart as so many seem to believe?

She had to be accepted, because she was such a part of John. But I think the rest of the band resented her for being in the studio so much, for taking up so much of John’s time there. She was just in the studio constantly, and The Beatles’ motto had been, “We Don’t Take Our Wives to Work.” [In retrospect] I’d say she moved the demolition [of the band] along. The Beatles were already in somewhat of a fragile state, and Yoko’s involvement speeded it along.

On record, The Beatles always seem to be in total sync. But behind the scenes, did their unique musical philosophies compete with each other?

No no, they really did work well together. They had different sounds (Paul was rock and roll and ballads; John was the full rock and roll idea; George was country in the idea of Chet Atkins and Carl Perkins; Ringo was the West Coast country idea like Merl Haggard) – but it all somehow came perfectly together.

Tell me how the deaths of Lennon and Harrison have impacted you. Did you talk to either of them immediately prior to their deaths?

John’s death was a big big shock. I had spoken to him just days before, and I was awoken at 4 AM by a telephone call from ABC – “John’s just been shot. What do you think of it?” It was a huge shock. With George, though, we knew it was bad. We knew he was in bad shape, and we expected one day to pick up the newspaper and see his obituary there. I actually saw him a year before he died. We bumped into each other on the street and ended having a cup of tea together.

Did he speak at all of dying or of how he felt during that last encounter?

No, no — he didn’t say a word about it that day. Not a word…

by John Aiello

Band For the Ages

THE COMPLETE ANNOTATED GRATEFUL DEAD LYRICS. Annotations by David Dodd; Foreword by Robert Hunter. Simon & Schuster.

It is worth noting that Jerry Garcia performed with his mentor, Marshall Leicester, as a member of the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers at the Boar’s Head Coffee House in San Carlos, California, a scant three days before the Students for a Democratic Society issued the Port Huron Statement heralding the rise of a now largely unfulfilled – and unremembered – social awakening.

It is also noteworthy that the Hog Stomper’s set list on the night of June 11, 1962 included such American string-band classics as Cannonball Blues, Devilish Mary, and Buck dancer’s Choice, the latter title forever immortalized in Robert Hunter’s lyrics to Uncle John’s Band:

“Well, the first days

Are the hardest days,

Don’t you worry anymore

When life looks

Like Easy Street

There is danger

At your door “

Viewed as a whole, the Dead’s lyrics, written over the last 40 years (principally by John Barlow, Robert Hunter, Robert Peterson, Peter Monk and Gerrit Graham), evoke the raw emotion of a Nineteenth century camp-revival, this lasting call for a spiritual epiphany.

Looking back, none of these lyrics seem more prophetic than Robert Hunter’s lines in Uncle John’s Band which were first publicly performed at the Fillmore West on December 4, 1969 – two days before Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death at the Altamont Motor Speedway as the Rolling Stones played and the eyes the Bay Area Counterculture watched:

“Come hear

Uncle John’s Band

By the riverside

Come with me

Or go alone

He’s come to take

His children home”

Seen from the perspective of the last half-century, The Dead’s lyrics chronicled the promise and hopes of a generation which just could not sustain itself. Listen closely to Robert Peterson’s lyrics to the Pride of Cucamonga, “running hard out of Muskrat Flats…” (probably a deft reference to Peterson’s own home-town of Klamath Falls, Oregon):

“Since I came down from Oregon

There’s a lesson or two I’ve learned

By standing in the road alone

Standing, watching the fires burn

The northern sky it stinks with greed

You can smell it heavy for miles around

Good old boys in the Graystone Hotel

Sitting doing that git-on down.”

As David Dodd notes in his annotation to these lyrics, Robert Peterson’s “Graystone Hotel” is the term applied by inmates everywhere to jail buildings (and may also be a reference to the maximum security Graystone, located at Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail). Dodd notes that Peterson, a sometime companion of Beat oracle Neal Cassidy, “spent some time . . . in such hotels.”

Yet, Peterson, like Peter Monk and Robert Hunter, was also an accomplished poet. Indeed, many of the Dead’s lyrics sound like Elizabethan elegies; ingested as a body of work, they can be viewed as an American elegy to a time once full of excesses and dreams and then lost to bittersweet memories. This fact is evinced by Robert Hunter’s lyrics to Might as Well, which memorialized the Trans-Continental Pop Festival and one of Janis Joplin’s last performances, of which Hunter later reminisced: “Nearing her last days, Janis, for one, wished aloud that the ride would never have to stop.”

And somewhere along the way, Robert Hunter, wrote Stella Blue:

“It all rolls into one

And nothing comes for free

There’s nothing you can hold

For very long

And when you hear that song

Come crying like the wind

It seems like all this life

Was just a dream.”

Order from amazon.com.

by Frank Aiello

© Frank Aiello. All rights reserved.


Frank Aiello is an attorney who has practiced law in California since the 1970s, including criminal defense, civil and probate work. He holds a History degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Law degree from Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco; he has also studied Anthropology, Sociology and Political Science extensively. Reach him via The Electric Review.

LOST IN THE GROOVES. Scram’s Capricious Guide To the Music You Missed. Edited by Kim Cooper and David Smay. Illustrated by Tom Neely. Routledge.

Scram magazine, housed in Los Angeles, California and edited by Cooper and Smay, pays homage to all the players too eccentric or obscure or off-beat to find a home in the Madison Avenue media machine. Scram is truly a resource for those musicians just outside the windows of top-forty-land, those songwriters and guitar slingers looking for an outlet for their own particular brand of art.

Accordingly, Lost in the Grooves takes up where Scram leaves off — a compilation of ruminations from 75 critics and music aficionados detailing their favorite slices of the scene:

“Jandek is a flat-out weirdo. No one knows who he is, and the guy is either making up his own chords or just doesn’t care how his guitar is tuned. Jandek is like an alien trying to play music after hearing it described to him once. Blind Corpse is his masterpiece…His lyrics reveal a man suffering from a pain so oblique that the listener must simply allow him to revel in his misery. Jadek doesn’t need us for comfort…”

(Hayden Childs, Page 120)

These little known stories about the sometimes shadowy figures of the music world are a hoot to discover; more than anything, this book is like picking an old Rolling Stone and reading for the pure enjoyment of the ride.

However, Lost is important for another reason: as a diary of the hidden streets of the American Music scene, the pieces come together to give true historical perspective to the influences behind the echoes shedding light on the faces behind the old ghosts. Just as much as all the big-time dollar bands, these unknowns serve to bring shape and continuity to the history of our sound:

“Forget the hilarious GTOs. Forget even the mighty Shaggs. Suckdog captures adolescent female adrenaline-fueled angst and aggression like no recording artist I’ve heard before or since. This is not a record for the squeamish…”

(Russ Foster, Page 228)

Lost in the Grooves is not a book for fans mad about one band or one particular singer. Instead, this is a book for the serious music fan, for those serious students of the art form curious about who-influenced-who and what sound rose out of what region. Like turning on a radio station and listening to a feverish wounded-voiced DJ tell you the reason behindevery record you never heard, there’s 20 new things to be learned on every page here.

Recommended to all libraries in the public sector and at the college level as general reference text. Also will appeal to serious music fans of all generations – there’s some new stuff here for all tastes. & thanks to Routledge for perhaps forsaking pure commercial motive and releasing an invaluable teaching tool.

Order from amazon.com or go to routledge.com.

by John Aiello

FLETCHER HENDERSON AND BIG BAND JAZZ: The Uncrowned King of Swing. Jeffrey Magee. Oxford.

Fletcher Henderson was a bandleader, composer and pianist whose work became known across the globe in the 1920s and 1930s for its soulful bounding rhythms. Moreover, Henderson was a true musical innovator, and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra was, according to legendary record producer John Hammond, the most advanced in the land in the days of the 1920s (with Henderson’s arrangements used extensively by Benny Goodman to create his “King of Swing” sound).

Magee’s book covers the whole of Henderson’s life and career in a dense yet highly readable book, providing valuable insight into one of the greats of the big band jazz era. In addition, the profiles of Hammond are both entertaining and deeply enlightening, showing his vast knowledge and influence on this vital period of American music.

As an added bonus, the appendix to Fletcher lists all of Henderson’s arrangements for Benny Goodman, including the precise order of all instrument solos, as well as information about each of them. As Magee’s book evidences, Fletcher Henderson’s genius accelerated the development of the jazz era. Yet, sadly, much of Henderson’s work for Goodman still remains unheard – a true and tragic travesty to the memory of this masterful musical mind.

Order from amazon.com.

by Frank Aiello

© Frank Aiello. All rights reserved.


Frank Aiello is an attorney who has practiced law in California since the 1970s, including criminal defense, civil and probate work. He holds a History degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Law degree from Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco; he has also studied Anthropology, Sociology and Political Science extensively. Reach him via The Electric Review.

RAY CHARLES: MAN AND MUSIC. Michael Lydon. Routledge. The Taylor and Francis Group.

“My life was what it was. Whatever it became, I made it so.”

– Ray Charles

Unfortunately, it took Ray Charles’death earlier this year to cause critics and fans to truly examine the full impact of his influence: without a doubt, this was a musician who inspired everyone who heard him sing – from rock and rollers to bluesman, from rappers to funksters. But more than the music he made, it was Charles the person who we would grow to adore — the subtle piano bounce and indignant howl the signature trademarks of one of the most versatile playersever.

In Charles, Michael Lydon (one of the founding editors of Rolling Stone magazine) has written the definitive study on this fascinating man — dissecting his music in relation to his life, examining the songs in relation to the delicate and deep psyche that created them – the ultimate memorial to the only player to make indelible marks on the country, gospel, R&B and pop-rock genres:

“It may be said, in admiration, that Ray Charles possesses a molelike quality to his character, an unusual ability to dig a one-man tunnel into time, to concentrate on the task at hand, doing what he needs to do, what he wants to do second by second, month by month…”

(Page 130)

And later:

“Ray rode across the Carolinas and red-dirt Georgia, the Mississippi delta the Bayous of Louisiana …he rolled through the hazy heat of southern mornings and the thunderstorms of southern afternoons, and he played deep into sticky southern nights, driving the band, igniting the crowd, his feet splayed and dancing, his head thrown back and sweating, his mouth wide-open singing…”

(Pages 130 – 131)

Charles tells the complete story of the life and times of Ray Charles. Born into despair, Charles suffered through a difficult childhood, losing his sight at the tender age of six; as if that wasn’t enough, he ended up orphaned at 14. And from this point, he went deeper into the morass — drunk on his pain, addicted to heroin, music his sole solace and ultimate savior. Similar to the Beat Generation novelist William Burroughs, Charles used art to fight through his cravings for junk, finding peace within himself within his beautiful music.

Yet, as romantic as it all sounds, it was still a very difficult journey, the road littered with doubt and multiple minefields, each path darkened by this holy penance of blindness. And that, then, is the true wonder of Lydon’s work: rather than pretend away certain details, he instead tells the whole story, refusing to eliminate the layers of Charles’ life which explain where these amazing holy reservoirs of music grew from:

“Some days Ray felt better and figured he might beat his illness; other days he sank into silent, teary depressions… ‘The chemo is whipping my ass’ Ray told Ritz, ‘I’ve been lucky to have done so many things…’ “

(Page 412)

Lydon is obviously a very gifted and very sensitive writer — his prose lilting and poetic, drunk on the invisible rhythms of the music, each syllable softly falling like beads of water against the wide windows of the dawn-hour. Readers will find this an easy book to consume – pages almost turning themselves, eyes feverishly tracking back and forth, anxious to see where everything ends.

In the end, one reading is not enough — there is just too much information here to absorb during the first go around. In addition, the new details chronicling the last days of this master musician are worth the price of the text alone, for they speak to a man who died like he lived: graceful and dignified, this lone hawk perched upon the grand oak, high above the sacred realm, looking down on all the people of the orchard.

Recommended to all libraries in both the public sector and at the college level as a general reference text. Would further prove useful as a class text in all music history or music appreciation courses that deal with pop, R&B or blues subject material. Even though we are primarily making academic recommendations, the book is highly accessible to the general reader and eclectic music fan: anyone at all interested in Charles or the many musical genres he inspired will want to add this one to their collection.

Order from amazon.com or go to routledge.com.

by John Aiello

ACOUSTIC BLUES GUITAR STYLES. Larry Sandberg. Routledge.

This text offers an introduction to fingerstyle acoustic blues guitar for the intermediate player. Here, Sandberg (who also wrote the widely acclaimed Acoustic Blues now in use in many classrooms) teaches both technique and the application of technique, bringing students to the point where they can seamlessly apply personal impulses of creativity to the way they pick a song. Sandberg’s manual is divided into three primary sections: In section one, students learn preliminary or foundational skills, such as reading a chord chart and navigating a standard 12-bar blues. In section two, the focus shifts to technique as students learn the fine-points of timing and touch and the standard ‘finger-picking’ style of play. In section three (which is the most personalized), students are taught stylistic approaches, including how to incorporate bends, vibrato and rhythm variations into performance. Each of the exercises is presented in both standard notation and tablature, while the CD that’s included with the text provides pertinent audio-examples meant to give readers a real-time review of the ground they just covered in the book. In addition to analyzing the myriad techniques of finger-picking, Acoustic Blues also serves as a reminder to players of all levels on just how influential this style of guitar work has been: From the great Delta strains of Robert Johnson to the early work of Bob Dylan to the modern cadences that San Francisco’s Roy Rogers carves out of time, the acoustic blues has been at the center of American music – driving its backbeat, building its delicate histories. Here, Larry Sandberg, through his careful instruction and clear-minded narrative, insures that new generations of aspiring guitar players will carry-on thesetimeless traditions of guitar-picking in perpetuity.

Recommended as a primary classroom text for instructors who teach acoustic guitar courses (in either structured high school or college courses or in a private setting). Also recommend to libraries at both the college level and in the private sector as a general reference text.

Order this book from amazon.com.

 SICK OF BEING ME. Sean Egan. Askill Publishing. Drugs and Rock and Roll stories are nothing new in the world of publishing. Every year, we seem to see four or five “tell all” books about the music business and the minefields inherent with life on the road. Sick of Being Me, Sean Egan’s first book, tells the story of musician and heroine addict Paul Hazelwood, creating a picture of what so many confused and speed-driven rock and rollers live through:

“On the last four or five streets I had to stop to vomit twice. The first time, I felt my stomach going into spasms. It wasn’t painful but the bizarre violent jumping of your innards makes you feel queasy in the brain as well as in the gut: an awful, all-over slithery sensation. I stopped and held my face away from the papers. My stomach felt like it was rolling over itself as the eruption of sick hit the pavement..”

I know what you’re saying — “but I’ve read all this before. Why should I read it again?” Good question.

And the answer is that I believe this book. While reading this, I don’t sense that I’m being bullshitted – but instead, I get the feeling that I am in a conversation with another writer about something he saw down the street last night. This story reads not so much as a novel but as a careful and clear reportage of the behind the scenes world of the music business (Egan is a music journalist so he’s obviously been carefully observing his surroundings). In the end, Egan is able to pull all this off because his writing is crisp and clear and ever-so-evocative: a tour through the muddy swamps of 2 AM music clubs, pant cuffs muddy with rain, shirt stained with puke, no more money for drugs.

Sick of Being Me is about the world that haunted Jim Carroll. It’s about the world that plagued William Burroughs and Herbert Huncke circa Tangiers in the early 1950s: a shockingly real ride through the dirtiness of addiction and denial and egotism told with the sure-eyed realism of a practicing journalist.

Order this book from amazon.com.

Classroom Music Texts

THE COMPLETE MUSICIAN. An Integrated Approach to Tonal Theory, Analysis, and Listening. Second Edition. Steven G. Laitz. Oxford.

Writing a music textbook is a difficult endeavor – as a reference in this arena must be able to competently deepen the focus of the advanced student while simultaneously engaging the reader new to the discipline.

Accordingly, this recent release from Laitz (University of Rochester) is a standout resource for undergraduate students embarking on a course of study in music. The Complete Musician is recognized for its breadth and depth, as it sets out to integrate the ideas of written theory (writing, composition, analysis) and musicianship skills (singing, playing, and improvisation) in order to build a complete tonal curriculum.

Divided into parts or segments of study, topics of coverage include the foundations of tonal music (including tonality, notation and scales); the merging of melody and harmony (including consonance and dissonance); harmonic function and harmonic embellishments; the Diatonic Spectrum and pertinent listening guidelines; Chromaticism; and an in depth introduction to 19th century harmony (with analysis of the shift from asymmetry to symmetry).

The text is further augmented by two DVDs which provide recorded examples of ideas addressed in text, offering students an immediate way to test their comprehension of the most relevant material.

Insofar as a text that addresses the ‘full experience’ for the music student, The Complete Musician meets its mission in elegant and authoritative terms – connecting the components of written theory with the idea of musical performance beyond the classroom in an effort to help create musicians who excel in both realms.

Recommended as a class text in all courses premised on teaching tonal theory and analysis. Further recommended to all college-level libraries as a general reference text.

Order this book from amazon.com.

by John Aiello

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This entry was posted on March 1, 2009 by in 2009, March 2009, Rat On Music and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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