Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
British writer Michael Gray, a world-expert on Bob Dylan and the biographer of Blind Willie McTell, recently announced that he will be opening his home in France in September (2010) for a series of themed discussions on Dylan’s life and work titled “Slowly Into Autumn.” Named after a phrase in a classic Dylan song from Blood On The Tracks, these weekend breaks will give three to four paying guests (or three couples) the chance to speak one-on-one with the author of “Song & Dance Man III” and “The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia” about the mercurial song-poet’s immense body of work. Themes for the retreats will include “Dylan & the Romantic Poets;” “Dylan’s Use of Blues & Bible;” and “Dylan, Plagiarism and Bootlegs.” Gray’s house, nestled in the deep countryside in the Southwest of France, is located only 45 miles from the Pyrenees and the Spanish border. Cost for these weekend retreats is £399 (sterling) per person, or £599 (sterling) per couple (plus flights and transfers).
Rock Shrines serves as a one-of-a-kind scrapbook detailing the stories behind the deaths of Rock’s greatest icons while illuminating the ‘houses’ where their ghosts now go to sleep.
At the outset, readers should be aware that Thomas Green’s book isn’t the same tired old rehash of who means what to who. Instead, Rock Shrines attempts to traverse some new territory, taking us to the places “where rock stars lives came to an end and where the myths about their lives and deaths began.”
Stunning color photographs, together with a well-conceived narrative by Green, paint little movies of the shrines that house the memories of our greatest voices – allowing us to gain an intimate understanding of the person behind the personality along the way.
For example, the passage on Joe Strummer (John Graham Mellor) speaks volumes. In just a few pages, readers connect with Strummer at his enigmatic core – the pictures that flank the ‘obituary’ reveal a poetic soul on an endless quest: Like James Dean mixed with a dollop of Jack Kerouac, Strummer sacrificed his earthly life for his art.
Another notable passage tells us about Karen Carpenter’s death: The once vibrant Carpenter succumbed as little more than a skeleton of her former self, a tragic victim of anorexia nervosa (her life and times helping to educate the world about an affliction that haunts many a young miss who live as prisoners inside the sheaths of their own skin).
In addition to exploring the details behind the deaths of Rock’s beacons (John Lennon, Elvis, Jim Morrison, Michael Jackson, Otis Redding, Brian Jones, Buddy Holly, Andy Gibb), readers can survey pieces of memorabilia that illuminate the faces of these bigger-than-life specters (as items like death certificates and coroner reports come to sate that voyeuristic impulse that swells inside each of us).
However, what’s best about Rock Shrines is found in its depth; rather than serve as another salacious notebook about the dirty little secrets behind some of the world’s ‘biggest deaths,’ Green instead presents a classy and comprehensive summary of rock and roll history that stitches together a series of places in time where we came to lose our guiding voices.
And as we sit and read, as we learn and remember, we are forced to once again recognize why the music matters (recognizing each reason why a madman-poet like Jim Morrison continues to matter to generations of young people who can only meet him now via a voice on a tape).
In the end, Rock Shrines is like a memorial service taking place through pictures on paper: The stories pouring from these pages striving to teach us about ourselves while simultaneously compelling each reader to recall the best moments of their own journey through the holy mystery of this life.
In my more than 25 years as practicing journalist, I have known many rock critics. And sadly, most of them think of themselves as the second-coming of Elvis – lost in the illusion that their commentary has the power to rival the power of the music.
However, this assessment does not include Robert Hilburn. Hilburn, who worked for years as the Pop Music Editor for the Los Angeles Times, is a true anomaly: Contemplative, subtle in his remarks, telling the story of the music without ever getting in its way.
In Corn Flakes With John Lennon, rock fans are presented with a compelling look at one critic’s impact on pop music and on the voices who created its best moments. In sum, this book tells Hilburn’s story as a writer through the invisible lines of melody and song.
“This book documents his [Hilburn’s] love of performers in country, rock, and pop and early hustles of Elvis and the Colonel,” Bono writes in his in preface, “…all documented by his gracious person and unforgiving prose.”
Bono has really hit the nail on the head here: For if one thing stands out about Hilburn, it’s his style. Knowledgeable fans can pick out a Bob Hilburn column anywhere – it’s all about the way the lilt of his line combines with the holy depth of perception to build an essay that kicks you in the ass and causes you to exclaim: “Yeah! Yeah! Why didn’t I catch that?”
Rest assured, there are many of those kind of moments in Corn Flakes With John Lennon. For example, readers will be consumed by the poignant passages that discuss Elvis. Rather than giving us another “this is what Elvis meant to me” buffet, Hilburn personalizes his reflections with a universal stab of insight:
“When your boyhood hero dies, it’s only natural to take inventory,” Hilburn writes. “I was thirty-seven and wondering if I wasn’t getting too old write about rock ‘n’ roll. It didn’t help when a teenage girl called to say she liked my stories and asked how old I was. Feeling self-conscious, I told her to guess. She said, ‘Twenty?’ I said no. ‘Twenty-two?’ I said no. ‘Twenty-five?’ she asked incredulously. When I said no again, she hung up. Sigh.”
Also striking is Hilburn’s honesty. In his musings on an early interview with Bob Dylan, he pulls no punches and does no grand-standing. Instead, Hilburn makes the reader see how hard it can be to interview legends who many times are in hiding from themselves:
“I was encouraged to find Bob had pushed back the rehearsal for an hour so our talk could be more leisurely,” Hilburn remembers. “To further insure that we weren’t interrupted, he suggested that we go down the street to the coffee shop. Bob seemed more approachable than before. On the walk, he waved to a man in a white MG convertible and returned the nod of a young woman who passed us on the street. Still, he didn’t go out of his way to make me feel at ease. I sensed he was trying to be friendly, but it wasn’t easy for someone who had largely avoided the press for ten years to suddenly drop his defenses. Bob tended to answer questions with one or two sentences, and he wasn’t big on small talk. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to make me feel uneasy or if I was just intimidated by his reputation.”
As you read through Corn Flakes With John Lennon you will be amazed by one theme that reappears time and again – it’s the realization that the artists Hilburn has written about and reviewed respect him just as much as he respects them.
Yes, it is absolutely remarkable to think that a ‘critic’ can affect personalities as deep and vibrant as the likes of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon – touching them with the depth of his mind. In essence, this fact speaks to the fact that Hilburn intuitively understands the music and his role in the process – watching and recording every turn of the wheel, honestly and directly assessing the place of the artist within the evolution of his society.
Corn Flakes With John Lennon is not a memoir or a hollow book of reminisces by some has-been critic trying to make a last buck on his by-line. Instead, it is a collection of essays that serves to discover new layers in the cell-structure of old songs, leading us back in time to re-evaluate how the eternal heart of the individual develops in relation to his times.
“Bob’s role as critic was to encourage suspension of disbelief not just in the audience, but in the artist as well,” writes Bono in his preface. “That is an environment in which music grows. He made us better.”
Well, I studied journalism at Cal-State Northridge and graduated from there in 1961. In school, I realized that I liked writing and wanted to be a writer of some kind. Initially, I was excited by the novel form and wrote some stories that were ultimately rejected by places like The New Yorker; still, I found the whole process exciting. In terms of writing novels, I really didn’t have anything to say, but I was nonetheless moved by writing. When I graduated from Northridge in 1961, there weren’t many dedicated music critics at newspapers. I started out as as straight news reporter at the Valley Times Today, but I really didn’t enjoy it much. Truthfully, I didn’t want to spend 24 hours a day thinking about floods and murders. I eventually quit the Times Today and went to work as a public information officer for the LA Unified School District. I worked there for about four years, but really started to miss writing and wanted to get back to it.
Well, I liked and knew music and felt confident about covering it, so I thought this might be a way to break back in to newspapers. But as I’ve already said, not many places had dedicated pop music critics on staff in those days. In 1966, I got started by freelancing for the LA Times, and was hired on as the first full-time pop music critic at the Times in 1970. My first piece as pop music critic for the Times was a review of Linda Ronstadt at the Troubadour. The opening act on the bill that night was Kris Kristofferson. Kris has just come on the scene with his first record, but he was still largely unknown. His performance that night was compelling, and even though I’d come to write about Ronstadt, I ended up writing more about Kris. He later told me that review called real attention to his music and help to make him a star.
Like Dylan says, I never look back (laughing). But really, I don’t tend to look back. The LA Times was a great platform for me. It was widely read around the country and allowed me to do a lot of special things. As a critic, I wanted to focus on great artists and I hoped my stories encouraged people to listen to them. In my stories, I wanted to communicate the things the artists felt. Really, my job at the Times was to tell readers about the people they were interested in. I wasn’t ever trying to make stars. I was only looking for great talent to spotlight. At all times, I saw myself as the “communication factor” – never the star of the story.
Well, thank you. I always saw myself as the transmitter, passing on the story with clarity. My job was to give each artist a platform from which to share his thoughts. And in retrospect, I think that’s why so many of them felt safe and comfortable with me – I guess they felt they were being portrayed honestly and somehow felt comfortable in my hands…
What stands out is that moment of discovery, something like seeing Springsteen on the “Born To Run Tour” or Dylan on the 1974 “comeback” tour [with the Band]. It’s the first time you cross greatness that you remember. It’s Dylan on that ’74 tour, or the pure joy of Elvis. I always tried to concentrate on the “A-shelf” – on the artists I thought were important in terms of the music they were making and the message they were sharing. The more reviews I did the more I found myself thinking, “where is this artist going? Is this going to be a journey worth following?” The ones who made me answer “yes” were the artists I wanted to follow. But, to get back to your question – it’s the moments of discovery that stick with you.
Well, at one point I did this singer-songwriter series in which I spent at least 5-7 hours with individual songwriters and examined their creative process. As part of this series I did a spot on Dylan, actually spending 2 nights with him in Amsterdam. During these sessions he told me how he writes songs, I was actually able to discuss his process with him. And my story is the only one to examine his work from this intimate perspective. Believe me, I got all kinds of calls from scholars around the world on that piece. I also remember a day I spent with Johnny Cash in Virginia near the end of his life. He was so very weak, so very sick. It was hard for him to talk, he had to stop every few moments to catch his breath. Those two stories stick in my mind. It’s those kinds of moments that tend to stick with you.
I first met Bob in Mexico, when he was with Peckinpah filming Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. The next time I met him was during the 1974 tour with The Band. He refused to do an interview with me at the time, but during one of our meetings, he asked me what my favorite song of his was. I answered “Love Minus Zero” and he actually dedicated it to me during the next night’s performance.
At first, I was very intimidated by it because I knew about that reputation, what we all saw in the “Don’t Look Back” film. And I didn’t want to be mocked. I would never attempt to speak for Bob, but I think he was disoriented by the 1960s, by the pressure of being the “spokesman for the generation.” I think Dylan thought that the press portrayed him badly and used and manipulated him. And he became wary of it. I also think that he’s bored by the interview process. So right here you have two pretty big obstacles to deal with. But I always found Dylan to be a completely fascinating person. He is as complex and fascinating in an interview as his music is. In terms of interviewing him – some days he can be disinterested and some days he can be compelling and generous with his comments. Like all of us – he’s different people on different days. But I don’t think Dylan likes to be bound by the questions. In that regard, you have to adjust your technique and let him have some freedom rather than leading him down a particular path.
Dylan’s the savior of rock and roll. Dylan and the Beatles saved rock and gave it purpose or it might have faded away. Dylan and Lennon helped give it this adult form, giving it real life.
Lennon was a magnetic person and an easy interview. He was just the opposite of Dylan in that regard. He went out of his way to make you feel comfortable and to make you feel at home.
Springsteen is talking about real people and real events. He’s not making things up. He’s writing about people and their experience. Like Steinbeck, he’s telling us what is really happening in different parts of the country. He’s also grown as a writer. For example, “Nebraska” was a remarkable achievement, the way it spoke to the darkness of the times. Bruce writes with passion and enthusiasm. And he took the Dylan message and extended it into the real world. He followed the Dylan blueprint and built on it. In a way he’s carried on as the “next Dylan” and done so admirably.
Bono actually took it further. He went to talk to world leaders. He went off to try and solve the world’s problems. He took the message beyond the arena and sought to change society. He went off to fulfill the promise of Dylan and the Beatles. He went off to show we weren’t rebels without a cause – but instead, rebels with a cause.
Well, every time I use to do an interview with someone people at the office would ask – “what was it like?” I had a few 60-second stories I used to tell, and people would say, “you have to put that in a book.” I think that was the first of it. And then when I was about to retire, I did a computer search and found that I’d done 7,000 stories for the Times. At that point, I refined the search to see who were the artists I’d written the most stories about. And the top five were: Dylan, The Beatles, Elvis, Springsteen and U2.
They reached a massive audience with a combination of great music and an inspirational message. They were talking about social and moral values. And when I looked at the stories I’d done on them it helped to give me a direction and a framework for my book. Really, I wanted this book to be about something and not just a memoir about my life, showing what was important about the whole rock and roll movement.
I thought it was catchy and would catch the eye of the reader. I also wanted to humanize the people in the book , showing their human qualities [Lennon used to actually like to eat corn flakes at night]. I wanted to give a personal glimpses into these artists and I sought a title that reflected that idea.
I’m from a different generation so I don’t look at music the same way. I look for different things. And the world is not facing the same issues it was facing 40 years ago. But communicating ideas is still the purpose of music. Right now, I think rock has lost its ability to affect social change. It’s just not being heard by enough people. There are some good bands out there, but they’re not reaching the mass public. That part’s broken down.
Maybe it needs some other kind of sound, some other device to make it useful and helpful and comforting and inspiring. Maybe it needs someone to come along with a fresh approach and another message. But right now it doesn’t have the impact that it had with previous generations, it’s just not connecting with society in the same way. The positive thing is that I still think it can recapture its inspirational edge. At least I hope it can.