Posts Tagged ‘music books


Ranters and Crowd Pleasers by Greil Marcus

Ranters and Crowd PleasersRanters and Crowd Pleasers by Greil Marcus

Why should you or me or anyone at all read a book of rock criticism, especially when it’s filled with stuff about records from 30 years ago or longer, of bands who aren’t around anymore and musicians who aren’t even alive? It’s a good question. Why should anyone read Greil Marcus’ 1992 collection Ranters and Crowd Pleasers (also republished as Inside the Fascist Bathroom)?

It’s tempting to say something about how it putts music in a proper context, like reading a period review would help us get into the mind of that particular place and time. This might be true for some collections, I imagine, but it’s not really why I’m recommending this particular book of Marcus’ criticism.

I wouldn’t recommend it as a history of punk rock, either. Although it’s nominally a book about punk rock, particularly of English punk, and Marcus’ reviews cover a pretty good range of bands, generally a handful of names keep popping up, over and over: The Clash, Gang of Four, The Mekons and Lilliput. At the same time, more than a few seminal American bands fall to the wayside: there’s only a couple mentions of Sonic Youth and Black Flag, while both Husker Du and The Minutemen don’t ever show up at all.

So as a history of punk in the 80s, it only kind of succeeds; books like Our Band Could Be Your Life cover the 80s underground in a better fashion. So why am I recommending Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, then, exactly?

Basically because it’s a collection of criticism about music in the 80s, but is about more than just music. It takes music, ties it into pop culture and examines why this music was so important then, looks to deeper trends in the decade and gets to the core of why some of this music is so powerful and why the decade unfolded as it did.

Continue reading ‘Ranters and Crowd Pleasers by Greil Marcus’


The Rise and Fall Of Folk Music: Positively 4th Street – David Hajdu

Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard FariñaPositively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña by David Hajdu

A confession: I may have a slight Bob Dylan obsession. I own a bunch of his albums, have written a bunch of pieces about him and own a handful of books about him and his music. Dylan’s a fascinating guy: how did this awkward, mumbling guy from Minnesota take the folk world by storm, explode into rock music and revolutionize music in less than five years?

Those questions were part of the attraction for David Hajdu’s book positively 4th Street. His four-headed biography also covers Richard Farina and the Baez sisters, Mimi and Joan. And Hajdu’s book more than delivers. He covers the rapid rise of Joan Baez, the emergence of Dylan and the long incubation period for Farina’s novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me (previously reviewed here!). It’s not always pretty, sometimes not even nice. If I’m being honest, it’s why I enjoyed this so much.

At the book’s centre are the two Baez sisters, Joan and Mimi. They grew up on the west coast with Quakers for parents and learned guitar early. As a musician, Joan was prodigiously talented: before she turned 19, she performed in coffeehouses, popped up on compilation albums and debuted at the Newport Folk Festival. She was also driven to succeed: Hajdu recounts how she hustled her way backstage at Newport, hung just off to the side and asked just about every performer if she could duet with them.

Joan didn’t let people get in her way, even if they were family. Hajdu writes how Joan shut her sister Mimi’s career down almost before it started, telling Mimi she couldn’t sing to protect her own career: “I didn’t want any competition,” said Joan, “and I felt my success would overshadow her.” (pg 25) Indeed, this dismissive attitude comes through at various points; later, upon hearing “Blowin’ In the Wind”, she remarks how she didn’t think Dylan “had it in him.” (pg 120)

Is it insecurity? I don’t think so, especially when compared to Hajdu’s portrait of Richard Farina. While Farina comes off occasionally as a fun guy, prone to throwing parties and generous with praise and adventure, he also appears as insecure as jealous husbands get: opening (and answering!) his wife’s mail, telling his first wife Carolyn Hester what to eat and how to dress and convincing other people to sneak his pistol across international borders.

He does not come off as a nice guy at all. Prone to flattery and lying, Farina would tell people either what they wanted to hear or wild half-truths: he had ties to the IRA, a metal plate in his head, he fought in the Cuban revolution. For all the fun parties he threw, for all his innovations to folk music – Hajdu makes an interesting case for him revolutionizing the way the people play the dulcimer  – he never comes off as someone who’d be fun to be around for any length of time.

It’s interesting to compare him to Dylan, though. They share some traits, especially one for reinvention. But where Farina comes off seeming like a self-promoting liar at times, Dylan comes off like an enigma: he tells so many blatant falsehoods about himself – he raced motorcycles! Ran away to join the circus! Played on early Elvis albums! – he almost dares you to realize he’s fucking with you; Farina just seems to crave attention.

And once Dylan enters the book, his personality dominates it. Hajdu covers his early years and especially his relationship with manager Albert Grossman. It was Grossman’s pushy management style that led to his songs being covered by artists like Peter, Paul and Mary even as his first LP stalled on the charts, but Hajdu alleges cash payoffs to club owners and reporters helped ensure Dylan found stage time and notice in the press.

But if he needed a push to get started, he quickly shot off like a rocket. Before long, Joan and Bob were on top of the folk world. Hajdu covers some of the breathless coverage from the trade papers of the day, who write about them in gushing terms. While they each influenced the other, he’s also careful to show how wide apart they were even at their closest; politically, musically and even in terms of personality, they were ill-matched.

Dylan’s quick sense of reinvention keeps the book moving. While Farina and Mimi became a married folk duo, experimenting with incorporating rock into folk and as Joan’s music took a more direct, anti-establishment bent, Dylan was jumping headlong into rock, playing with The Hawks and writing in wild, pot-fuelled bursts. It couldn’t last.

Throughout the book, Hajdu never lets Dylan get one over on him: Dylan was capable of writing great music, but he was capable of being vicious and cruel, too. Hajdu never shies away from Dylan cheating on Joan, from his ever-increasing drug use or from him eviscerating Joan in songs like “She Belongs To Me.” Here’s his take on “Positively 4th Street”:

“The subject of (the song) is prey to a twisted psychology close to sadism… Once he establishes himself as a wounded victim, Dylan uses this justification to rip his opponent apart.” (pg 279).

Hajdu mixes this criticism throughout the book, providing background for songs and explaining technical points about the music, but it’s never as outspoken as Clinton Heylin’s books on Dylan. It’s well researched, with a nice bibliography and background notes and he’s interviewed just about everyone involved (even Thomas Pynchon!). While only Dylan refused interviews, Hajdu had access to a trove of unpublished interviews from the Experience Music Project.

Rating: 8/10. I enjoyed this one a bunch, plowing through it in only a few days. It’s a compulsive, informative read on an interesting time in music. While nobody really comes off too nicely in this, that’s part of the appeal for me: it’s not an exercise in mythologizing, another book about how great Dylan or Baez are. It’s a book about four young people, each of them flawed in their own way, who broke into folk before breaking it apart. Recommended.


Mean Old Man: Hellfire – Nick Tosches

Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis storyHellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis story by Nick Tosches

A fiery, energetic look at the first half of Jerry Lee Lewis’ life and career, Nick Tosches’ Hellfire is a great read. It covers way more than just The Killer, starting deep down the line of the Lewis family, at the harsh Louisiana landscape and the even-harsher Pentecostal religion with formed and shaped the inherent contradictions in Lewis.

As Tosches makes clear, inside Lewis has a tortured soul: he was raised in a strict religious upbringing, nearly became a preacher and rose to prominence as a hard rocking piano player, singing songs about screwing, getting drunk and raising a ruckus. On a very visceral level, Lewis’ music is pounding rock and roll, what he himself would call Devil’s Music. But when things go bad, Lewis retreats into religion, recording gospel and preaching to whomever will listen. And, almost as suddenly, he’ll show up on stage in shades and start banging out Great Balls of Fire and the wheel turns again.

There is a lot of supposition here and frequent, sudden changes of scenery as Lewis descends into addiction. But what makes Tosches’ book stand out is his forceful prose, it’s biblical echoes and allusions to fire and brimstone. This is a book where a reference to Jezebel being eaten by dogs is alongside a passing reference to Billboard’s C&W charts. Like Lewis himself, it teeters back and forth and reads like no other musical biography I’ve read.

Inside is a lot of information about Lewis, his troubled marriages, the death of his two sons and the depths of his drug and booze addictions. It’s often countered with looks at his first cousin, the preacher Jimmy Lee Swaggart, who learned to play music on the very same piano but who went in a totally different direction.

The spectre of religion haunts Lewis and his music. Just listen to the shouting match between him and Sam Phillips from a 1957 recording session. Just listen to the bombastic quotes Lewis gives every so often about dragging his audience to hell. Just listen to his albums and how he switches back and forth from gospel to rock to country and back again. As Tosches makes crystal clear, he’s a troubled man.

And yet, he’s also trouble, man. Reading about all the insanity of Lewis’ life – the addictions, shooting a band member, losing everything to the IRS and having his career collapse on him more than few times – it’s hard to believe he made alive even to the end of this book. He barely made it, nearly dying in 1981, but he did. And somehow, the story’s gotten even weirder: just read this Richard Ben Cramer story about the death of his fifth wife.

As of this writing, he continues still, having evolved into something of an elder statesman of Rock; just a couple of years ago, he released an album called Mean Old Man. I’m glad he has a sense of humour about it all, but I still can’t think of a musician I’d want to hang out with less.

Rating: 8/10. As a book about Lewis, it’s a little dated, stopping when he turns 45. But as a biography, it’s first-rate, capturing not only Lewis, but the world that produced a unique force in music. Recommended.


A Hunka Hunka Hot Mess: Greil Marcus’ Dead Elvis

Dead ElvisDead Elvis by Greil Marcus

A collection of previously published writings on Elvis, Greil Marcus’ Dead Elvis is an attempt to put Presley in a greater context, to reconcile his place in American culture. I’m not sure it’s entirely successful, but I’m not sure it’s something any one person can do, too.

The pieces range from book reviews to in-depth criticism to obituaries, published in places like The Village Voice, Artforum and Rolling Stone. Some look at works about Elvis: Joni Mabe’s collages; Albert Goldman’s trashy biography. Others have a looser connection, like the review of Nick Tosches’ biography of Jerry Lee Lewis. Some of Marcus’ impressions are insightful and intelligent, sometimes they’re a little academic (like when he quotes Vaneigem). Throughout, it’s juxtaposed by images of Elvis: fine art, bootleg record covers and underground comics. Taken as a whole, they show society’s fascination with someone who meant something to nearly everyone. But what he meant isn’t quite clear.

With all the breakdowns of culture, the looks at myth-making and the role of art, Marcus’ book is weighed down by its own criticism. He spends so much time tying together the disparate elements of popular culture, it’s easy to lose sight of the subject itself: Elvis often vanishes here, washed over by Melville, UK punk and art theory. The book builds to a climax, but what’s the climax? Elvis is still dead, Elvis is still alive. Yes and…? It never seems to get that far.

Oddly, it’s a quote by Lester Bangs that he runs early in the book which hits the mark best:

“I can guarantee you one thing: we will never agree again on anything as we agreed on Elvis.”

And that’s the rub: Elvis mattered to everyone, once. His role has changed so much since his death and continues to change, making Marcus’ Ahab-like quest to nail down a meaning futile. What does Elvis mean? Depends on who’s asking, I suppose.

Rating: 3/10. No wonder there’s a gushing quote by David Foster Wallace on the back: like his bloated Infinite Jest, this book pads out it’s thesis with unneeded juxtaposition, analysis and, ultimately, rings hollow. Compared with his essay on Elvis in Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll, this book feels superfluous. You might as well read that one again.


Music and Myth in America: Mystery Train by Greil Marcus

Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' RollMystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll by Greil Marcus

Rock is the quintessential American music form. Say what you will about jazz, bluegrass and hip-hop, it’s rock that people identify with the US more than any other. It’s one of those assessments that people make not because of the music, or the people who make it, but because of the culture: rock is so tied into what it means to be an American, it’s hard to separate it. Even the Brits try to sound like they’re from the south when they rock out.

In this  series of essays about America, rock music and the cultural history between the two, Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train is an attempt to place music in the greater context of America and, in particular, American culture. Here he’ll go between Moby Dick to Robbie Robertson to Stagger Lee to Elvis, making the connections one never thought about before and can’t help but see afterward. Don’t worry, it sounds more high-handed than it is and it’s a blast to read to boot.

In a series of essays about bands and musicians – Sly Stone, The Band, Robert Johnson and Elvis, among others – Marcus looks at the roots of music and the traditions between each, tying together disparate elements like Moby Dick and slavery to music’s role in culture. It’s thought provoking and gave me, someone who’s been listening to some of these acts for years, a new angle to look at their output.

One good example is The Band’s second album: Marcus makes the case that their long experience and travels through America, first as the backing band for Ronnie Hawkins and later for Bob Dylan, gave them the breadth and exposure to America to become commentators on it; only an outsider could write as nuanced a look at the south as The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and make it, as Marcus writes, “not so much a song about the Civil War as it is about the way each American caries a version of that event within himself.”

Later, Marcus ties together the common elements between the songs on their second album, The Band:

“The shifts between songs finally let us understand that the man who sings King Harvest wants nothing more than to sing a song like Rag Mama Rag; we understand that the voice on Rag Mama Rag is real because it’s been shaped by the terrors of King Harvest and knows a chance to dance them away for what it’s worth.” (pg 57)


In this essay, Marcus makes a great case for this album’s importance: it’s more familiar than their first record, although it lacks a song as iconic as The Weight, and that familiarity comes from the common roots of their music. It’s an album inspired by where we’ve been, looking backwards at a time when music was pushing forwards, coming together as a remarkable synthesis of two. It’s unfortunate that The Band lost the thread shortly after, releasing one good concert film (The Last Waltz), one decent album (Stage Freight) and some forgettable ones before breaking up for good in the mid 70s.

The other essays are just as provoking. In Every Man Is Free, he ties the literature of Los Angeles and the spectre of slavery to the music of Randy Newman (in particular the 1972 album Sail Away). In another, he examines the legend of Stagger Lee’s ties to black culture, and especially how they relate to the music of Sly Stone. To wit:

“On the way to the silent riot Sly shouldered the racial and sexual fantasies of a huge audience and staggered under them, as if he were Staggerlee himself back from the dead to live up to his myth. The images of mastery, style and triumph set forth earlier in Sly’s career reversed themselves; his old politics turned into death, his exuberance into dope, his old music into a soundtrack for a world that didn’t exist. As an artist, Sly used those facts to reverse the great myth itself.” (pg 78)

The heart of Mystery Train is his in-depth look at Elvis, which ties together all the elements of America: he cuts through the bullshit and hype to look at how one man came to represent so much, mean everything to a style of music and almost leave it as quickly – even if he still gave glimpses of his raw power here and there: on Ed Sullivan, on the Comeback Special, in the way he commanded himself on stage, doing so much while doing so little. A nod here, a move there and he had the crowd eating out of his hand.

Also of note is a giant Notes and Discographies section, which offers a more straightforward history of each act, breaking down their careers and discorgraphies (often with pointed opinions towards them), literature about them and suggestions for further reading. It’s nice to have a reference like this and having a seasoned critic like Marcus not only offer suggestions on where to go for everything (he seems to have an opinion on thousands of records), but what to read and to make it completely readable is a nice bonus.

Rating: 8/10. I read the fourth edition, which means the discography section was a little out of date (it’s since been updated, but I can’t speak to specifics), but it was still a blast. Still, the little things that nagged at me most were in the main text. Recommended for music fans, but I imagine some will find it a little pretentious. Still, there isn’t a better book in it’s vein. And if you’re like me, you’re going to go back and listen to these bands again and again.



Just Another Boy From Tupelo: Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley

My mom’s a big Elvis fan, which means I’ve heard his music more or less forever. Hell, she once had an Elvis impersonator she was a fan of over for dinner. Then again, my hometown’s big into this scene, too. Growing up, there was a 50s rock festival every summer. A few towns over, there’s an annual Elvis festival. It was hard not to get tired of his music growing up.

But it’s hard not to be curious about the man, too: he’s so iconic in music, it’s impossible not to be aware of his shadow. There are tons of quickie, scandal-ridden biographies, the depictions of him as a pill-addled maniac in popular culture, even the iconic photo of him shaking hands with Nixon. By the time I got around to this book, I figured I already knew everything I needed to about Elvis: he got famous back in the day, made some movies, got fat, hooked on drugs and died. And as Peter Guralnick shows in the first volume of his two-part biography of Elvis, I was completely wrong.

In some ways, I’m surprised a book like this hadn’t been written before: a straight telling of Elvis’ life, cutting through the bullshit with an objective viewpoint, while still remaining sympathetic to the man himself. In other words: a book about Elvis, the world he lived in and how each influenced the other. Not about the idle gossip or rumours.

Here, Guralnick cuts right to the roots of Elvis, looking at him before he was famous, driving a truck for an electrical company and hanging out at Sun Records, looking for a recording gig. It’s a fascinating read: we see Elvis living in the projects, barely making it through school and working hard for a living. Throughout this book, this Elvis is always right at the shadows; even as his fame went through the roof and he bought Graceland, he still realized where he came from and was appreciative of his fans, going out and signing autographs and taking pictures. It’s a cliché to say celebrities love their fans, but at this point in his career, Guralnick makes a point of showing Elvis really did: on a regular basis, he’d go out to sign autographs for fans and press some flesh.

The musical side of his life is also illuminated. I have memories of Elvis as a singer who danced around, but there was more to him than that. He had rudimentary guitar skills, played some piano and learned songs after just a few listens. While he served something of an apprenticeship from Sam Phillips at Sun Records, he was always a driven, determined musician who was going to make it, one way or another. When Guralnick writes of the many sessions Elvis had, it becomes clear that Elvis was always a perfectionist, demanding take after take, sometimes radically altering the song in the studio until it sounded the way he wanted it to.

Just as interesting is the supporting cast: Gladys, his worrisome mother (who Elvis was utterly devoted to); his moody, jaded dad Vernon; Dixie Locke, the woman he nearly married right before finding success and remained close to, even after they separated; the eccentric DJ Dewey Phillips, whose show inspired Elvis and helped popularize his music; and of course, Tom “Colonel” Parker, the smart, shrewd and ruthless promoter who all but turned Elvis into a rock star and then into an industry.

Rating: 9/10. Music biographies don’t come better than this and I can’t wait to read the second volume. Recommended for rock fans, especially if you think you already know everything there is to know about Elvis; you don’t, not even close.