Holly George-Warren’s newest book, A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man, takes a look at the career of artist Alex Chliton and Holly was kind enough to talk to us a bit about it.

Music Tomes: What made you want to write the biography of Alex Chilton?chilton

Holly George-Warren: After Alex died so suddenly in 2010, my literary agent who had attended numerous Alex Chilton concerts with me, convinced me that writing the book would be a way to perpetuate his legacy. Fortunately,my publisher agreed with her!

MT: Since you personally knew Chilton, was it difficult at times to stay objective as you were putting together the book?

HG-W: I was a longtime fan so that probably made it more difficult to be objective about Alex’s music — all of which I really like. Knowing him personally made it difficult to deal with some of the tragedies I uncovered about his life–which I had no idea about when he was alive.

MT: Big Star had, and has, a sizable cult following. Why didn’t they ever break big?

HG-W: It was a matter of bad timing and record label difficulties…similar to what happened to Nick Drake’s music and Gram Parsons’ music during their lifetimes. They didn’t “fit in” when the music was originally released.

MT: You’ve written extensively on Western related topics such as Gene Autry, Western wear, and Western women. does it take a different mindset to dive into something a little more contemporary?

HG-W: No, there are so many linkages between the mythic singing cowboy heroes like Gene Autry & Roy Rogers and rock & rollers– guys like Alex (and artists as diverse as Solomon Burke, James Taylor, and Keith Richards) grew up watching and listening to Gene & Roy and it helped inform their independent spirit and love of music — even before the Beatles. Alex was known for wearing cool clothes in the ’60s during his Box Tops days–he was a big Gram Parsons fan. It all connects somehow….

MT: What are you currently working on?

HG-W: Stay tuned….a new book proposal just went out…fingers crossed I’ll have news on that soon!

MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?

HG-W: There are so many! Joe Klein’s biography of Woody Guthrie, Rage to Survive by Etta James & David Ritz; Chris Salewicz biography of Joe Strummer; Chet Flippo’s biography of Hank Williams, both volumes of the Elvis biography by Peter Guralnick; Sound of the City by Charlie Gillett, You’re So Cold I’m Turning Blue by Martha Hume; recent books on New Orleans musicians by Ned Sublette, John Swenson, and Keith Spera; A history of singing cowboys by Doug Green; biographies of Jimmie Rodgers by Nolan Porterfield and Barry Mazor; biographies of Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix by Charles Cross; Nick Tosche’s biography of Jerry Lee Lewis (Hellfire); I could go on and on!

The Week’s Releases (4/13-19)newreleases

[Note: These are affiliate links, but if you are going to buy it anyway, why not help out the site at the same time?]

A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen, Liel Leibovitz, W. W. Norton & Company, April 14, 2014

The British Beat Explosion: Rock ‘N’ Roll Island, JC Wheatley, Aurora Metro Press, April 15, 2014

Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues, Joel Selvin, Counterpoint, April 15, 2014

Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s, Lori Majewski, Jonathan Bernstein, Abrams Image, April 15, 2014

Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind & Fire, Philip Bailey, Keith Zimmerman and Kent Zimmerman, Viking Adult, April 15, 2014

The Smell of Death, Bruce Duff, Rare Bird Books, Apr 15, 2014

Songs Only You Know: A Memoir, Sean Madigan Hoen, Soho Press, April 15, 2014

The Band: Pioneers of Americana Music, Craig Harris, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, April 16, 2014

The Elvis Movies, James L. Neibaur, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, April 16, 2014

Women Drummers: A History from Rock and Jazz to Blues and Country, Angela Smith, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, April 16, 2014

Wounds to Bind: A Memoir of the Folk-Rock Revolution, Jerry Burgan, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, April 16, 2014


[Music Tomes is proud to partner with AllMusicBooks.com to present a review every month here on the site. Be sure to check out the other great reviews they have!]

Raisin’ Cain: The Wild And Raucous Story Of Johnny Winter by Mary Lou Sullivan: Reviewed by Drew A

I remember the first time I heard Johnny Winter: I was a small boy, probably 7 or 8 years old, and my dad was playing some of his records, one of which was Johnny Winter’s “Captured Live!” album. I couldn’t believe the way he played guitar and sang, and I was even more shocked when I saw the album cover and discovered not only was he white but that he was albino. To my young ears he sounded like the quintessential black bluesman carrying on the electric blues guitar slinging torch from Hendrix. What I didn’t realize until years later was not only did he lead a very interesting life and career, but that he was hugely popular in the 1960s and 70s; this was in contrast to the blank stares I got back from my friends when we started getting heavily into playing music and using the classic rock we were discovering as our touchstones after I mentioned Johnny Winter’s name.  Needless to say, I was thrilled when I saw that Raisin’ Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter was released recently, and even happier to learn that it is his authorized biography.winter

Author Mary Lou Sullivan is a longtime music writer and Johnny Winter fan and friend. She began her quest to write this book in 1984 with Winter’s cooperation, only to be stymied by his management multiple times. Finally, years later, management was out of the way and Johnny gave his full cooperation. The result is the only authorized biography of the great bluesman, done with his blessing and direct input. His ringing endorsement in the introduction prepares us for a story filled with incredible highs and some despicable lows, and it’s clear from both Johnny and the author that their friendship and numerous sit-down interviews ensure that this will be as true a story as can be told.

No book on Johnny Winter’s life can be told without first focusing on his albinism, which is something he refused to let define him. He and his brother Edgar, both albinos, were born to non-albino parents in Beaumont, Texas in the mid-1940s. While the brothers grew up in a very nurturing and stable upper-middle class upbringing, they did endure some hardship due to their condition, mainly in taunts and comments from their peers and other adults who were not used to seeing albinos. Growing up in the still-segregated south made it more pronounced. There were also health consequences from their condition, mainly poor eyesight and sensitivity to sunlight.  However, Johnny and Edgar were very musical from an early age, and the book follows their progression from playing ukulele and singing Everly Brothers songs as small kids to their forming their first bands as teenagers and playing concerts all over Texas and later on, nearby Mississippi and Louisiana. Just as no book about Johnny Winter can neglect to discuss his albinism, it’s also true that no book can fail to also include his younger brother Edgar, himself a very talented and successful musician and the co-conspirator in so many of Johnny’s musical endeavors, from boyhood to the present day. Contrary to many accounts of Johnny, he’s a very intelligent and educated man who is an accomplished musician and singer beyond the blistering guitar solos and screaming bluesy vocals. He’s also an accomplished pianist, drummer, arranger, producer, and singer (as is Edgar). Both brothers shared a love of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Hendrix but while Edgar’s true passions were jazz and R&B, for Johnny it was, as the title of his 1977 album proclaims, “Nothin’ But the Blues.”

The book does a very job using new interviews with Johnny and several of his associates, as well as older articles and interviews, in detailing the trajectory of his career and fleshing out a lot of the events in his life. After recording numerous original and cover songs for local labels in the south in the early to mid-1960s, which would come back to haunt and dog him for his entire career, Johnny was determined to play blues and hooked up with “Uncle” John Turner and Tommy Shannon to form his first band. After recording their excellent “Progressive Blues Experiment” debut album, they attracted the attention of Rolling Stone magazine and subsequently, a bidding war broke out between record companies eager to sign him. Eventually signing with Columbia Records in 1968, the next decade was a whirlwind for Johnny. He gigged heavily, released several seminal blues/rock albums, the best of which are his self-titled debut, Second Winter, Still Alive and Well, and a pair of scorching live albums (Johnny Winter And…Live and Captured Live!). Loads of money coming in, late night jams in clubs with Jimi Hendrix, collaborations with Janis Joplin onstage and in bed, appearances at numerous festivals including Woodstock, changing band lineups, drug addictions, deaths, and women all happened to Johnny in a short span of time, and they came on hard. Everything is covered in the book and nothing is sugarcoated. However, I don’t want it to sound like it’s all salacious stories and negative incidents. In fact, just the opposite; the overwhelming feeling I got from reading this book was the joy Johnny gets from being a musician and playing his style of blues and rock, as well as the deep and genuine affection and love his family and friends have for him as a human being. Career-wise, despite his horrific management situation (which I’ll get to in a bit), he’s been very successful, both commercially and critically. Besides his own albums and tours, he revived Muddy Waters’ career late in the blues master’s life (for which they won multiple Grammy awards), has sat in with everyone from B.B. King and John Lee Hooker to the Allman Brothers Band and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and has been recognized as the premier blues guitarist of his generation, which is saying something given who his peers in that area are (for instance, Eric Clapton, anyone?). He was the first white person to be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, which is ironic if you consider that not only is Johnny white, he’s as white as one can physically be as an albino! The humor was not lost on Johnny, but that’s a towering achievement that’s a testament to his talent, dedication, and personality and something he’s rightfully proud of.

At this moment, I need to introduce the other main thread that runs through this book which I alluded to above: Johnny’s shockingly shady and dishonest management. While this is nothing new in the history of the music industry, what is eye-opening in Johnny’s case is just how long it went on. Raisin’ Cain is also the tale of nearly forty years of mismanagement and blown chances that cost people loads of money, opportunities, and in many cases, their lives. Without giving too much away to anyone who wants to read this book, the incredible revelation to me was that, as big a star as Johnny was, especially in the 1968-1984 period, he could’ve been ten times more successful and popular given different managers who actually cared about him as a person and musician and didn’t view him simply as a freakshow and a meal ticket to exploit for their own gain. The feeling I got at the end of the book was that Johnny was a massive success despite Steve Paul, Teddy Slatus, and Betty Johnston (all of whom collaboratively managed his career in some capacity from 1968 until 2004 or so).  From lying to Johnny and Susan (his lifelong companion and wife), skimming money off the top of everything, exploiting Johnny with shoddy releases and gig cancellations that damaged his reputation, sabotaging his attempts to get off drugs, and later on purposely conspiring with shady doctors to keep Johnny drugged up and under their influence so that he could be easily manipulated, the behavior of his management is shocking, disgusting, and I won’t lie that I was quite happy to read how they all died lonely and in disgrace. While it’s acknowledged by Johnny and those close to him that he does share some of the blame for enabling and tolerating the behavior of Paul, Slatus, and Johnston for so long, it’s also true that most of what went on behind the scenes wasn’t discovered until much later and that those three cretins did a very good job covering their tracks for decades until they were finally discovered.  The happy ending is that Johnny’s bandmates and friends helped him to get out from under management’s thumb, overcome the medication he was forced to take, and to get him back to being healthy, happy, and playing the music he loves.

As far as biographies go, this is one of the better ones I’ve read. It’s clear that while the author has affection for Winter and his music, she is also not afraid to document some of the more sordid and bizarre aspects of his life, from his inability to stay faithful to any one woman until he finally married longtime girlfriend Susan in 1992, to his various addictions, strange sleeping and eating habits, and clashes with certain bandmates and producers, it’s all in the book.  There are some cases where the book begins to read as if it were just patched together from quote after quote from various sources, and this mainly occurs toward the end of the book which discusses the decline period of Johnny’s career in the mid-1980s and 1990s. Overall, however, when the book relies more on firsthand accounts and new interviews (which is how the bulk of the book is presented), it’s very enjoyable and interesting.  Something evident throughout the entire book is that Johnny has a great sense of humor about nearly everything and that, while he admits in the introduction that it’s painful at times to read the “not-so-good bits” from his past, he has no regrets. In general, it seems that people really like him as a person, which as an albino and respected musician, was all he ever wanted and something he goes to great lengths to reiterate repeatedly in the book. Unequivocally, he states at the end of the book that he wouldn’t do anything differently if he could go back and live his life over again. At the end of the day, his goal in life was to be a “pretty good blues player” and on that count, he succeeded in spades.

(for more great content, please visit my website at http://www.rnrchemist.blogspot.com and follow me on twitter @blackbookblur)

The Week’s Releases (3/23-29)newreleases

[Note: These are affiliate links, but if you are going to buy it anyway, why not help out the site at the same time?]

The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture & Style, Nelson George, William Morrow, Mar 25, 2014

Behind the Boards II: The Making of Rock n Rolls Greatest Records Revealed, Jake Brown, Hal Leonard, Mar 25, 2014

Rock Atlas USA: The Musical Landscape of America, David Roberts, Global Book Sales, Mar 25, 2014

Nirvana FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Most Important Band of the 1990s (FAQ Series), John D. Luerssen, BackBeat Books, Mar 26, 2014

Gang of Four’s Entertainment! (33 1/3), Kevin J.H. Dettmar, Bloomsbury, Mar 27, 2014

Far from beyond the point of caring, music writer Alan Paul catches up with the legendary band that’s spent its life runnin’ to keep from hidin’ in this entertaining, compulsively readable oral history of the Allman Brothers band, One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. Through interviews with every member of the band except Duane and original bassist Berry Oakley, their friends and music associates, as well as in sidebars about various aspects of the band’s history and a “highly opinionated” discography, Paul traces the ups and downs of the band and its music from Duane’s and Gregg’s early bands in Jacksonville, Florida, the earliest days of the Allman Brothers as they developed their signature sound with the original members of the band, Duane’s side projects with Derek and the Dominoes and Muscle Shoals, through the deaths of Duane and Berry to the various incarnations of the Allman Brothers over the past twenty years. Paul’s free-flowing jam reveals that the bands’ deep love of laying music has held them together through many stormy Mondays and win, lose, or draw, they’re bound to keep on ridin’.

For Music Tomes, Henry Carrigan caught up with Paul and talked to him about his new book.

Music Tomes: What prompted you to write this book now? How long has it been in the making?One Way Out

Alan Paul: The interviews go back to 1990. The time just seemed right. I started compiling it into a book about four years ago to see what I had, and I knew that I could deliver the book this band’s rich history deserved and which had not been written yet. I had the access, the understanding and the desire. I felt that I owed it to myself, to the band and to their fans to write the book and to do my very best to make it definitive.

MT: You’ve talked not only to every living member of the band in its various incarnations but also to many of their friends and fellow musicians. Did you face any challenges getting access to anyone? Is there anyone who was reluctant to talk with you?

AP: Remarkably, not really. I would have loved a second interview with Eric Clapton. I had so many questions I wish I had asked. I wanted to circle back to a few more people, and I kicked myself repeatedly for not doing more interview with original manager and record label owner Phil Walden, before he passed away. I’m glad I got as much as I did.

Guitarist Dan Toler and tech Joe Dan Petty were both guys I knew pretty well and spoke to quite a few times, but never formally interviewed and then they passed away – Joe Dan way back n 2000, but Danny not long ago. By the time I started writing, he had advance ALS and could not talk.

And I had a great conversation with Bonnie Bramlett, who then told me I couldn’t use any of it. It was a lot of fun for to talk to her and she had some cool thoughts, but none of it was essential to the Allman Brothers Band.

I found that some people who don’t really do interviews, like Bruce Springsteen manager Jon landau and Boston promoter Don Law were happy to talk because they are proud of their association with the Allman Brothers and happy to have it known

MT: What are the greatest flaws in the Allman Brothers Band? Their greatest strengths?

AP: Their greatest strength has always been their openness to everyone expressing themselves and the way they touch on so many musical genres – blues, jazz, rock, country, folk and rock – and combine it into something entirely unique.

Their biggest flaws have been mostly non-musical: ongoing struggles with substance abuse, an inability to get along for long stretches of time. In the 80s they succumbed to trying to be au courant and that was a big problem. Otherwise, they’ve remained remarkably true to their original musical vision.

MT: In many ways, this is a book about Duane Allman; his spirit certainly pervades the book, and almost every conversation somehow turns back to Duane. Can you describe what the band lost when Duane died, and how his death affected later incarnations of the band?

AP: That’s an interesting question and I agree with the premise though I think it’s an exaggeration to say almost every conversation turns back to him. It raises an interesting point, though. I haven’t necessarily thought about this as a book about Duane, but I understand why you say that and I did very consciously bring it back to talking about Duane on the last page because his spirit so thoroughly infuses the band to this day. Warren Haynes just told me the other day that when they have to make musical decisions, it still revolves around “What Would Duane Do?”

What they lost is almost incalculable. It was very important to Duane that the band not be about him – that everyone have an equal say. That has oddly kept him more alive in the band over the years. if he had made it the Duane Allman group, it would have died with him. But he was undoubtedly the visionary and the unspoken leader. Bassist Berry Oakley was second in command, and he died a year after Duane in 1972. What they accomplished in the shadow of these losses is truly remarkable, and deserves as much or more attention as all of their struggles.

MT: I love Warren Haynes’ words: “The Allman Brothers Band is based on the fact that no one on stage can rest on his laurels; you have to bring it.” Were there periods when the band did not “bring it”? What are some of the shows that you can recall where the band more than brought it?

AP: For the most part, the Allman Brothers have always remained an excellent live band. !980-82 was their only embarrassing period, when they released two really lame albums for Arista, trying to make music of the time and write pop hits. But even then, they were mostly a strong live band, as long as you can overlook an occasional keytar solo.

Alan PaulThroughout the 90s, they were mostly very strong, but both Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts went through periods of serious substance abuse that could derail shows. The overall band was strong enough to overcome a lot, but I saw a few shows that made me cringe.

I’ve seen the band more than bring it too many times to count. Most of my most memorable experiences have taken place at the Beacon Theatre, where they have will have played 236 shows since 1989 when the upcoming run is done. I think I’ve been to well over 50. I wish I’d been more of a counter, but it’s been plenty and the energy in that room when they are really cooking is just off the charts. I’ve never experienced anything else quite like it.

MT: What are some of the ways that the Allman Brothers Band has influenced rock and other kinds of music?

AP: The Allman Brothers have always been very diverse, so their influence is widespread. No one else has really copied them, because the scope is too big. They’ve had a huge influence on country music – as evidenced by the presence of Eric Church, Martina McBride, Trace Adkins and others at the Tribute to Gregg Allman concert in January. The Allmans and the Grateful Dead are the lynchpins of the entire jam band world, though most of those bands lack the blues feeling to really do the Allmans justice. All of Southern Rock, form Lynyrd Skynyrd down, stemmed from the Allmans. And every band that’s ever featured two lead guitars played in harmony owes them a debt of gratitude.

MT: Have you had a chance yet to read Galadrielle Allman’s memoir/biography of her father, Duane? What do you think of it?

AP: Yes. I read an advance copy of Please Be With Me and thought it was  a lovely, and courageous book. People who can’t get enough of Duane – and there are lots of us – will really enjoy it. I felt pretty proud to walk into a Barnes and Noble and see our books together on the front table and be a part of bringing Duane to the fore like that in 2014.

Her book also provides a lot of heartbreaking insight into the process of trying to get to know a parent who died when you were too young to remember them.

MT: What’s next for you?

AP: I really don’t know. I’ve been grinding on this book pretty hard for two or three years– researching it, writing, it, picking photos, proofing, and now promoting it. It’s all been an honor and fun in a meta sense, but I want to stop and smell the roses a little. Hang out with my family. Eat, drink, be merry. I have a few solid ideas percolating and in the process of chilling a little, the right thing will surface. Check back in the fall.

Henry Carrigan writes about music and music books for Engine 145, American Songwriter, No Depression, Publishers Weekly, and BookPage.

Part of the series that also include 100 Books Every Blues Fan Should Own, 100 Books Every Folk Music Fan Should Own covers a wider range of books touching on all aspects of Folk music. Author Dick Weissman took some time to give a little more info on the book:

Music Tomes: When you started your list, what did you lay out as the initial criteria?100folk

Dick Weissman: I did not start with a list of criteria. I started with the notion that there were a group of subjects that I wanted to cover, such as historical surveys, songbooks, etc. Within each category I attempted to choose the books that were most useful, coherent, or, sometimes, simply of historical importance. For example, the Lomaxes book about Leadbelly has numerous flaws, but, in my opinion, it has considerable historical significance.

MT: You use the term “folk” here as a broad term that covers also country and blues. How did you come to that decision?

DW: As far as I know, I originated the term “folk-based music,” which Kip Lornell has acknowledged in his survey book about American folk music. In the folksong revival, someone like Dave Van Ronk, performed blues, country-folk songs, and later songs by such singer-songwriters as Joni Mitchell. He also recorded a few of his own songs. These days all over the world people have access to any sort of music that they wish to hear, via the internet. It seems pointless to me to use the traditional definition of folk music as music learned through families or communities via oral transmission.

MT: Why include music instruction books in the mix?

DW: A major part of the folk music revival was people learning how to play musical instruments, often inspired by such musicians as Doc Watson or Mississippi John Hurt. Music stores sprang up that specialized in acoustic instruments, rather than selling band instruments. These stores sold instruction book, and featured informal jam sessions where aspiring musicians learned how to play folk styles. For me the answer to this question is similar to what I’ve written above about the nature of the folk music revival. Many folk music fans play musical instruments, or want to do so. I tried to list a few books to help them along the way.

MT: What are you currently working on?

DW: I write music every day. I generally record CD’s every couple of years. Recently I taught myself how to play the mandolin. It was something I had never done, and I’m not sure why, since I’ve been playing banjo and guitar
for many years.

As for books, I’m working on a memoir at the moment. It will concentrate on my life in music and the many musicians that I have interacted with, famous, or virtually unknown. I am also thinking about writing books about the connections between white and black music in America, and a book about banjos, their role in American life, how they are played, and the many different banjos and banjo styles.

MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?

DW: Probably my favorite book that I read for the 100 Books, is Stephen Wade’s book The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience. It is a fascinating study of a group of American folk musicians who recorded for the Library of Congress. Many of the musicians are little-known, and all are deceased. Wade went back to their communities, and interviewed their descendants, siblings, and people in the community. A CD attached to the book includes a selection by each of the artists discussed in the book. Another book that I really liked is Only A Miner: Studies In Recorded Coal-Mining Songs, an older book by Archie Green. Green was a unique figure in folksong scholarship, a working man who ended up as a folklorist, and a mentor to many of the next generation of folk song scholars, including Stephen wade. A third book that fascinated me is Bruce Conforth’s African-American Folksong and American Cultural Politics: The Lawrence Gellert Story. Gellert is a mostly forgotten and cantankerous figure who lived a mysterious life. He had no formal folklore background, but collected protest songs, folklore and traditional ballads in the south with no academic affiliation or financial support of any significance.

The Week’s Releases (3/16-22)newreleases

[Note: These are affiliate links, but if you are going to buy it anyway, why not help out the site at the same time?]

Louis Jordan: Son of Arkansas, Father of R&b (Music), Stephen Koch, The History Press, Mar 18, 2014

Top of the Pops: 50 Years On, Steve Blacknell and Patrick Humphries, McNidder & Grace, Mar 18, 2014

Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain, Charles R. Cross and Lloyd James, It Books, Mar 18, 2014

A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man, Holly George-Warren, Viking Adult, Mar 20, 2014

Mudhoney: The Sound and the Fury from Seattle, Keith Cameron, Voyageur Press, Mar 21, 2014

For the first time in the history of the series, Bloomsbury is expanding one of its 33 1/3 series books into a larger work including essays written by others. They couldn’t have made a better choice than Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste by Carl Wilson. Carl took some time to tell us a little more about the new edition:LTAL

Music Tomes: At the point your book came out, the 33 1/3 series had released books that detailed the behind-the-scenes of famous albums, or some books about personal experiences with a given record. While “Let’s Talk About Love” discusses the album and artist, it is much more about the listener and how they, or we, listen or don’t listen. How did you come to think of the direction of the book?

Carl Wilson: The basic question of “where taste comes from” had been in my mind as something to investigate for years. It only became a sharper concern as I began working as a critic and over time had a lot of disputes with readers, other critics and so on about my judgments. I think the media crisis also had an effect, because it raised the issue of why some people who wrote about art were considered authorities and others who did so on their blogs etc. were just amateurs – by what process do we validate someone else’s tastes as superior, if that’s what critics claim? And is that what critics claim?

So all that was bouncing around in my head when the 33 1/3 editors invited me to submit a proposal. Initially I suggested a couple of possibilities – Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys and Pere Ubu’s Dub Housing – that would have made for books more similar to the others in the series. They didn’t think either one would attract enough readers, so I started thinking about more populist subjects. As a bit of a joke, I went to the Recording Industry Association of America’s website and looked up the best-selling albums of all time, and was surprised to find (at the time) three Celine Dion albums on the list.

A little bell went off at that moment, because I felt like I did have something to say about Celine, and it had to do with that taste question: How could music I thought I found so unappealing be so widely beloved of audiences around the world? And in Celine’s case, because she’s Canadian and Quebecoise (and I’d lived in Quebec for many years), that contradiction felt more personal, not like just an abstract test case.

Still, initially I thought the book would be mostly theoretical. It was only as I wrote it that it became much more first-person and socially centered – which was a matter of form following function, of the story that the book seemed to want to tell.

MT: Were there points when you were writing the book that you questioned why you were doing it? Why you were questioning these things?

CW: All the time! Although the anxiety was actually sharpest when I finished it – I looked at what I’d just done and thought, “What is this thing? Am I nuts? Who’s going to want to read it?”

I actually think that’s a valid and necessary part of any creative project. It’s both a quality control – you have to check yourself now and then – and a neurotic human thing. We have waves of self-loathing (right? right?) and so we also have waves of loathing about what we’re making. And the more eccentric project, the more insecure-making it is.

But what I found out was the best lesson, I think – that if what you’re doing deeply interests you and you follow that in good faith and with rigor, there’s a good chance it will deeply interest others too. At least it won’t be as bland as a lot of overly calculated reaches for mass appeal.

MT: After release the book took on a life of its own, in terms of publicity and reach. Did that surprise you?

CW: People have been wonderfully nice. But that’s always the hope. I would call it more of a relief and a pleasure than a surprise – if nothing like that had happened, it would have been a disappointment. I think the surprise is how little negative feedback there’s been. Perhaps it just hasn’t reached the people who would hate it yet. I think it’s mostly been read by people who to some degree share my social location and general aesthetic background – liberal-artsy types. I wish more mainstream Celine fans would read it, for example, although it means listening to some harsh words (mostly quotes) in the first couple of chapters.

I’m always the happiest when it reaches beyond music, and the kind of debates that happen among listeners, and people in other fields – art, literature, film – find it useful. I also didn’t expect it to get picked up in classrooms the way it has been, and it’s great for me that high-school and college-aged young people are reading it as a result.

Of course though there were a few bigger surprises: The James Franco Oscar moment, which led to the Colbert Report. That’s the kind of thing you just can’t predict, lovely serendipity and cheap thrills.

MT: A new edition of the book is out, in an expanded format, which, I believe, is the first tie one of the 33 1/3 books has recieved such a treatment. Did the publisher approach you with the idea? If so, what was your initial thought?

CW: Yes, this is the first time any of the books have broken out into standalone editions. It was a bit of a natural because it follows the album-centric mandate of the series only superficially – there’s really only one chapter that’s intensively about the album. Amusingly the publisher – that is, the founding editor of the 33 1/3 series, David Barker – and I seem to have had the idea simultaneously: He emailed me about it just as I was about to do the same to him. (Unfortunately David’s returned to England, but happily he’s passed the series into the very nimble hands of Ally Jane Grossan.) I think the guest-essayist proposal was mine, though.

MT: How did you go about picking the essayists that are included in the new edition?

CW: There was a process of brainstorming between me and the people at Bloomsbury, drawing up a “dream team” and then reaching out to see who’d be willing. Several, such as Ann Powers, Owen Pallett and Sheila Heti, are dear old friends – others are newer friends, colleagues and acquaintances, and a few were strangers before we did this. I had a great time working with all of them, working on a balance between addressing the book directly and going off on fresh, fascinating tangents.

MT: What are you currently working on?

CW: I left my day job as an editor at the Globe and Mail in Toronto five months ago after more than a decade, so I’ve been working on getting my full-time freelance career up and running. I’ve become the music critic for Slate.com, which provides me a great venue for writing the kinds of thinky essays about music I love to do, and a weekly contributor at the terrific new web magazine Hazlitt, where I write a column called The News in Art: I take a theme from the events of the week and then find movies, music, novels, poems, etc. that in some way reflect on it. It usually turns into a crazy link-fest.

Otherwise I have a book proposal that’s in the secretive gestation stages.


And the winner is…


Thanks to all who entered!


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Robert Plant: A Life by Paul Rees

Review by SteveJ

Truth be told, I’ve never been a Led Zeppelin fan…something about that dude’s voice. But Robert Plant sits atop the Mt. Olympus of “Rock Gods.” Led Zeppelin sits there as well. Zep was as big as it gets growing up and, like ‘em or not, they achieved a stature that few bands can ever hope to attain. The press wasn’t particularly kind to them in their day, which seemingly only enhanced the mystery, mystique and allure of the band. I also felt, given the band’s well-documented appetite for hedonism, debauchery and excess, hearing these tales from Plant’s perspective would simply provide a good read.

Led Zeppelin fans should note, as Robert Plant; A Life states, that his career in that band takes up less than half the book. Plant acknowledges, “I was a young man when Zeppelin finished. I thought I was washed up (at 32).” Bitten early by the blues bug, we get young Rob growing up and diving headlong into performing at the tender age of 13, forming musical relationships over the years that would last to this day. We get the highs, lows and the in-betweens of his solo career, reaching a peak with his groundbreaking record with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand (where we’re also clued in to the origins of that record’s title) and the misfires and successes in following it up.robert_plant_a_life

It is Led Zeppelin, however, that defines Plant, who in full-bloom, was “pushing my chest out, pursing my lips and throwing my hair back like some West Midlands giraffe.” The band gelled quickly, growing into a powerful unit that particularly shook up the West Coast, where the “audiences and musicians were so fucking blasé,” according to tour manager Richard Cole, “that when Zeppelin got there it was like a rocket being shot up their arses.” (In fact, Cole supplies some of the best parts in the book.) Ironically, Los Angeles, particularly the infamous “Riot House,” would become the band’s second home.

The problem is that we don’t hear enough from Robert Plant directly and little to nothing about those sensationalistic, famously bacchanalian exploits as well as the tragedies that led to the demise of Led Zeppelin — and therein lays my main criticism of the book. It’s a fairly glowing portrait and makes the Led Zeppelin front-man extremely likeable from all angles – but key moments of the dark side of Led Zeppelin are too-easily glossed over. The famous “mud shark” incident isn’t even mentioned and Plant’s numerous conquests are written off as “Robert always had a way with women,” “his libido seemingly unchecked,” as he “strutted through many a young girl’s fantasy.” Really? How…Shakespearean. And that’s about as salacious as it gets for the focal point of rock and roll’s most hedonistic group, save one infamous meeting with the Plaster Casters which is recounted in detail, although, again, not from Plant.

Yet the substance abuse problems of Richard Cole, Jimmy Page and John Bonham, amongst others, are much more freely discussed and detailed while Plant’s forays into the spoils of success are obliquely recounted. Maybe it’s best to read this book along with the legendary Hammer Of The Gods, and Richard Cole’s bookStairway to Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored and imagine that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

The absence of Plant’s voice is a shame, as he can be quite eloquent and insightful. The death of old mate John Bonham comes and goes in a page and a half or so, yet is heartbreakingly summed-up by Plant thusly:”Bonzo saved me. And while he was saving me, he was losing himself.” That only made me want to hear more directly from him and unfortunately, things like the death of Plant’s young son Karac are recounted entirely through friends, although Plant’s remorse and guilt over the loss is returned to several times in the book.

Through it all, however, you get a definite sense of Plant; a true “seeker,” especially musically, and a hippie down to his core. He even references David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair” at one point, talking about one of his more shorn solo looks. Those solo years are particularly well-represented and enlightening in the book and showcase Plant’s insatiable thirst for finding “new” music, no matter where it leads him or his career.

Given that, I was quite surprised to find at the end of the book that this is not an “authorized” bio and perhaps that explains why much of Plant’s input is referenced from interviews and conversations from years gone by. It’s not a bad book; in fact, it’s a damn good read. It just feels…a bit tidy, pehaps incomplete. It’s a Cliff Notes version of an epic tale. And Rock Gods simply aren’t this shiny and well-scrubbed.

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