Today you can find the term “Rock Star” attached to nearly everything from someone who excels in their field to energy drinks. But at one time, that term carried a lot more weight. In his new book, Rock Star: The Making of Musical Icons from Elvis to Springsteen, David Shumay, Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, takes a look at seven artists that carried the term when it stood for something different, perhaps higher. David was nice enough to talk to us a bit about the project:shumwayComps.indd

Music Tomes: How did you decide to focus on the seven artists you use in the book?

David Shumway: I was not intending to try to create a canon, which should be obvious since there is no chapter that focuses on the Beatles. My choices were informed by my interest in showing that rock stardom had broad cultural significance, and in investigating how it was linked to the social and cultural changes that are associated with the 1960s. I wanted stars who represented a range of these changes. They also had to be musicians of whom I was a fan, since, by my definition, one of the things stardom entails is an emotional bond the fan feels for the star. For this reason, it would have been hard to write about stars who did not matter to me. And, I wouldn’t have wanted to spend the time thinking about them. However, I should say that I am less a fan than critic even of those artists I like. For example, I can’t imagine writing someone a fan letter, and I’ve never had a great desire to meet rock stars.

MT: I’m sure you’ve heard as much about who you didn’t use as who you did. What struck me was that those you included seems to be artists with lengthy careers (with Elvis being the exception, comparatively) and that they seemed to have a fan base that values “authenticity.” What role did that play in your thought process?

DS: I did exclude Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison and the Doors because they did not have long careers. When I planned the book, I imagined that I would be telling the story of the development and/or changes of the persona of each subject, and there would be no story to tell about someone whose career lasted only a few years. As it turns out, none of my chapters actually deals with a whole career in detail, though the chapter on Springsteen comes closest. I didn’t have enough space in a single chapter, and I found that the persona or personas that really mattered tended to be associated with particular periods of artists’ careers.

MT: But the book is much more than just a look at the careers of these seven artists. It’s a deeper look at what created the “rock star,” correct?

DS: Yes, the book is about rock stardom as a specific cultural form. My premise is that by the late 1960s, rock stars had replaced movie stars as our culture’s most visible and iconic celebrities. That change was important because rock stars embodied different meanings than movie stars. The latter were primarily icons of personality. Greta Garbo, for example, was the tragic and enigmatic siren, Humphrey Bogart the tough, cynical man of honest commitments, and Cary Grant the sophisticated bon vivant. In the 1950s, a few movie stars, such as John Wayne and James Dean, have personas that embody more or less explicit politics, but with Elvis, we get a star who seems to challenge most the social hierarchies of race, class, gender, and age. After the Beatles and Rolling Stones, we begin to expect that rock stars will challenge convention and increasingly represent change. The changes rock stars represent are quite varied, including the breakdown of the distinction between high and low culture, the increasing intensity of consumerism, and the changing roles of women. As a result, people come to expect popular musicians to have something to say about important issues of the day, which is a major change from the days when they were assumed to be merely singers of silly love song

MT: You discuss in the conclusion the reasons that there aren’t rock stars being created today, citing, for one thing, the changes in the distribution of music. What is the world losing by not having the types of rock stars you talk about in the book?

DS: One thing that’s likely is that popular musicians are less likely to be taken seriously as social commentators, and even those who are will reach a smaller audience. So, the connection between music and politics that was established during the rock era has already begun to disappear. But I’ve been thinking lately about how listening is effected by recent changes in music distribution and technology. The shift from the model of purchasing albums to downloading songs has contributed to the decline of stardom, as consumers are less interested in who made the recording that in whether they like it. But I think it has also likely contributed to distracted listening. As Anahid Kassabian and others have observed, it has long been true that most listening to popular music is distracted, the music being a background for other activities. But stardom helped to encourage a more serious engagement at least with the music they produced. That was partly the result of the emotional bond that fans have with stars, but also the aesthetic interest that they have in understanding how new material adds to the star’s corpus. Of course, the latter need not be dependent stardom since any particular listener can treat the music of any artist no matter how obscure in this way. But stardom, in my view, encouraged many more people to listen in this way. This change in listening behavior would in turn contribute to decline of stardom itself.

MT: What are you currently working on?

DS: I’m writing a chapter for the Cambridge Companion to the singer-songwriter about the emergence of this category of performer in the late 1960s and early 1970s. My argument is that the singer-songwriter music needs to be considered a new genre developing out of the combination of folk and rock—different from the earlier “folk-rock.” It is a response in part to the political and cultural excesses of the 1960s, with 1968, the year when radicalism peaked around the world being the moment when this genre is first visible. But while it needs to be seen as more personal form, often confessional in character, it is not necessarily therefore politically regressive.

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

DS: Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music; Simon Frith, Sound Effects and Music For Pleasure: Essays in the Sociology of Pop; Nick Bromell, Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s; Steve Waksman, Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience; Anahid Kassabian, Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music; Anthony DeCurtis, Rocking My Life Away: Writing about Music and Other Matters.

David Kastin is an award-winning author known for his writings on jazz for a variety of jazz publications and websites, as well as his book Nica’s Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness, his biography. His new project, Turntable Publishing, is a boutique publisher focusing on examining, as their website says, “iconic albums of the LP era.” The first in the series, Song of the South: Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys, is his look at Randy Newman excellent 1974 album. Today he was kind enough to talk to us about the project.songofthesouth

Music Tomes: What drew you to Good Old Boys?

David Kastin: I’ve been a fan of Randy Newman beginning with his first album. It was just so different on every level. A lot of the songs had these lavish orchestral arrangements, but the songs themselves were these beautifully-observed miniature narratives filled with weird characters that somehow managed to be both satirical and compassionate at the same time.

By 1974, when Good Old Boys was released, Randy was one of my musical heroes – along with Dylan, The Beatles, Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin and Thelonious Monk, among others. So, I wasn’t surprised to hear another album of great songs and amazing arrangements. But GOB was also a surprise in a lot of ways.

Rather than being a random collection of separate songs, each with a different musical setting, GOB was a low-key “concept album” that had its own unified sound: a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, along with a strutting ragtime element and a dash of movie-soundtrack gloss. But blended together seamlessly. And the songs were also linked together in a way that made the album deeper than the sum of its parts.

It was only later that I found out that Newman had started out with the idea of creating a kind of post-modern musical about the American South based on the life of a fictional character named Johnny Cutler (the narrator of “Rednecks”). He had even cut an album’s worth of demos – titled “Johnny Cutler’s Birthday” – that was finally released almost three decades later as part of a Rhino CD reissue of Good Old Boys.

So, about two years ago, when I was looking around for a new writing project I homed in on GOB. It’s not only a great album on its own terms, but it’s got a fascinating backstory; and even though it’s very relevant to the era when it was created, it’s also universal and timeless. And that’s the story I try to tell in my book.

MT: The album plays between the triangle of artists like Neil Young writing condemnations of the South, black artists writing songs of hope, and the regional pride of Southern Rock. Was Newman’s aim to show a side that existed somewhere in the middle?

DK: You’re right. The South definitely had a big role in the politics and popular culture of the country when Randy was developing Good Old Boys. Especially, in regard to the racial turmoil that had been generated by the Civil Rights movement. And because of how pop music had come to focus on social issues over the previous decade, you had all kinds of music – folk, jazz, R&B and rock – using the events of the time period as subjects for their songs. In the early ’70s, for example, Neil Young was singing critically about the on-going racism of the South in “Alabama” and “Southern Man,” and at the same time, you had bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd writing expressions of Southern pride, including “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Randy was extremely conscious of America’s political landscape – especially where it concerned race. But in his work, he wasn’t interested in the kind of “message songs” that had grown out of the 60’s folk era. He was out to explore deeper issues about culture and identity. He often compared himself to writers like John Updike or Flannery O’Connor whose short stories explored the complexities of human nature rather than engaging in sloganeering or political labels. In Good Old Boys, Randy’s Southerners have both virtues and faults. Things aren’t black and white (pun intended), but there are always shades of grey.

MT: The majority of the songs are written from the point of view of fictional characters and sung in the first person. Did listeners have a hard time separating the narrator and the singer?

DK: From the start of his career, Newman was unique in that virtually all the other singer-songwriters of the period, including Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Dylan wrote their songs in the first person. The universal assumption was that the “I” in their song’s point of view was the songwriter. But Randy created this diverse cast of fictional characters who were the narrators of his songs and that led to a lot of confusion, and in many cases a lot of controversy.

Take “Rednecks” from GOB. The song is sung in the first person by an unapologetic racist who uses the N-word throughout the entire song! Even before the record was released Newman was giving interviews cautioning listeners not to be confused about who the narrator of the song was – that it wasn’t him. Not that it helped.

He also ran into the same problem a few years later with “Short People.” When people heard Newman singing “Short people got no reason to live” they got angry at him. As if he was expressing his own feelings. The same thing happened when he released a new song just before the 2012 presidential election (“I’m Dreaming of a White President”) that was told from a racist’s point of view. Even liberal commentators had a hard time coming to terms with just whose ideas we’re being expressed.

MT: This book is being released on a new ebook publisher. How do you think e-publishing changes things for music journalism?

DK: In the past few years, recorded music has gone digital, so it’s logical for books about music to do the same. It also makes economic sense in a music environment that has become so fragmented. The cost of traditional publishing is hard to reconcile now that the existence of a single mass audience for a handful of major pop acts is pretty much obsolete.

E-books can be cost-effective even when targeted to a niche audience, and – without the whole laborious process of traditional printing, shipping, and marketing – they can be produced and made available much more quickly.

Finally, there is the ability of e-books to supplement their narratives with music and video elements that can really make the subject come alive. This is slowly starting to happen. In particular, Peter Guralnick’s early books about blues, country and R&B are being reissued with musical samples, video clips, and portions from his original audiotaped interviews. I think this will be the model of the future.

Hopefully, as music publishers and record companies come to understand the potential of these kind of books to also sell records, they’ll be willing to adjust their fees for copyright permissions which are still prohibitive in most cases. I think for both music journalists and fans, the potential of e-books is tremendously exciting.

5. What are you currently working on?

As you mentioned, Song of the South is being published as an e-book. It’s the first volume in Turntable Publishing’s LP Companion Series, which I started in order to expand on what’s become a popular concept in music publishing: books about iconic recordings. Over the past few years, there have been explorations of jazz albums, like Ashley Kahn’s Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, and classic rock songs, like Greil Marcus’s Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads Of course, there’s also the long-running 33 1/3 series, many of which are great, but lately I think they have tended to concentrate on more obscure albums and have become a little too “meta.”

With the LP Companion Collection, I wanted to both provide a focus, by limiting the time-frame to the “LP Era” (1948-1988), while also opening it up to all genres of popular music. I’m convinced that there’s an audience for books exploring landmark recordings, whether it’s Johnny Cash Live at San Quentin, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, King of the Delta Blues by Robert Johnson, or Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin.

So, right now I’m in the process of transitioning, at least temporarily, from writer to publisher. I’m already in the process of developing the next volume in the LP Companion Collection, which I hope to announce soon. It’s a project I’m really committed to. If any of your readers have suggestions for new titles, they’re welcome to chime in at www.turntablepublishing.com

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

DK: That’s a hard one. There’s been so much good writing about popular music, especially over the past 25-30 years. I actually began by reading a lot of jazz writers and would recommend anything by Nat Hentoff, Whitney Balliet, and Gary Giddins. In particular the book Blues People: Negro Music in White America by LeRoi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) had a big impact on me.

Among the other books that meant a lot to me are Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta (a real classic) and Peter Guralnick’s books about blues and R&B (especially Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom). Like a lot of people, I was also influenced by Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, which showed that you could write about American popular music with the same kind of ambition and intellectual rigor as you could about American art or literature.

One book that doesn’t get the attention it deserves is by the journalist and novelist, Nick Tosches. The title has gone through a number of changes since it was published in 1977, but my favorite is: Country: The Twisted Roots Of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It’s a wild ride and should be much better known.

The last two Week’s Releases (10/12-25)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?]

I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy from Anthrax, Scott Ian, Da Capo Press, Oct 14, 2014

On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom, Dennis McNally, Counterpoint, Oct 14, 2014

Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life & Cars, Neil Young, Blue Rider Press, Oct 14 2014

Young Neil: The Sugar Mountain Years, Sharry Wilson, ECW Press, Oct 14, 2014

Experiencing Led Zeppelin: A Listener’s Companion, Gregg Akkerman, Rowman & Littlefield, Oct 16, 2014

Geek Rock: An Exploration of Music and Subculture by Alex DiBlasi and Victoria Willis, Rowman & Littlefield, Oct 16, 2014

Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll, Peter Bebergal, Tarcher, Oct 16, 2014

The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, Jesse Fink, Black and White Publishing, Oct. 16, 2014

The Flatlanders: Now It’s Now Again (American Music Series), John T. Davis, University of Texas Press, Oct 20, 2014

Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?: A Memoir, George Clinton and Ben Greenman, Atria, Oct 21, 2014

The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy, Joel Beckerman and Tyler Gray, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Oct 21, 2014

Robert Plant: The Voice That Sailed the Zeppelin, Dave Thompson, Backbeat Books, Oct 21, 2014

Nothing but Love in God’s Water: Volume I, Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, Robert F. Darden, Penn State University Press, Oct 24, 2014

In Channeling Elvis: How Television Saved the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Allen Wiener takes a look at the role television played in the career of Elvis. It’s an angle on the subject that is fresh and the book is an entertaining look at the synergy between the then-growing medium of television and the career of a legend.1785

Allen took a few minutes to tell us a little more about the project:

Music Tomes: Elvis was coming up at a time when television was a new and exciting development. What do you think Elvis’ early career would have looked like without television?

Allen Wiener: I think he would still have gotten there, but it would have taken a lot longer and been more gradual. His records were doing well and he was a presence on radio, but so were other new rock artists. He might have gotten somewhat lost in the shuffle there, although his voice and style were very new and unique and would have made him a star eventually. Television put him physically in front of the entire country in a single moment, and he really stood out visually on those early TV shows. He looked and performed so differently from anyone else, and his voice and the type of music he did were so new to most of the country, that he was bound to draw a lot of attention, which he did. I think television was the crucial element in quickly establishing Elvis as a superstar. When he first appeared on national TV in January 1956, he was not well known outside the South and was still barnstorming with country & western package shows. By the end of that year, after around a dozen TV appearances, he was a national sensation, had scored nearly a dozen Top 40 hits in Billboard, five of them reaching number 1, had a Hollywood contract, and had starred in his first film. Television deserves much credit for all of that happening so fast.

MT: It seems that throughout his career Elvis was able to utilize television to great effect. Was that something mapped out by Colonel Tom, or were there other influences?

AW: Colonel Parker deserves the credit for that. It was his idea to put Elvis on television as soon as he signed on as Presley’s manager. The recording contract he secured for Elvis with RCA Records included a provision calling for RCA to book TV appearances for Elvis. He even argued with Harry Kalcheim at the William Morris Agency, who wanted Elvis to continue touring for a while before appearing on TV, but the Colonel knew he could reach millions of people at once with a single TV spot, an audience that it would take months to accumulate through live concerts. So the Colonel knew what he was doing and his efforts were really responsible for Elvis’ early success. He also had the kind of business connections Elvis needed as a seasoned show biz veteran, who had managed stars like Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow (who also was his partner for a time). Of course, he might not have been as successful with a performer who was less exciting than Elvis, who was such a great performer and innovator, but Elvis needed someone like the Colonel to promote him successfully and map his course, while also looking after the business end of things. He was quite a genius at this and was particularly brilliant in making sure that no one got to see or hear too much of Elvis, which could lead to overexposure. Parker always made sure that the fans were left wanting more of Elvis. The Colonel has come in for a lot of hindsight criticism for his handling of Elvis during the final years, when it appeared he was using Presley as a cash cow and keeping him on stage when he was no longer in good health or performing well. He may deserve some of that, but he also deserves a lot of credit for Elvis becoming a star and sustaining his career so successfully for as long as he did. Of course, he had no artistic taste and didn’t seem to care at all about the quality of the work Elvis produced, particularly his formulaic movies during the 1960s, but I think Elvis is, perhaps, more responsible for that because he never really pushed for better quality material. He seemed to do whatever he was told, complaining only in private, never to anyone who might have been able to improve things for him.

MT: Some of Elvis’ performances caused quite a stir. What did having him on mean for a show host?

AW: His early TV appearances were on mid-1950s variety shows, some of which were hosted by older performers in the waning days of their own careers, including the Dorsey Brothers (Tommy and Jimmy) and Milton Berle. Their shows did not last after Elvis’ appearances and I think they enjoyed a short period of ratings success largely because of Elvis, who stood out immediately and stirred interest from the beginning. I wouldn’t put Steve Allen in the same category, even though he had been around for quite awhile too and was, in fact, starting a new variety show when Elvis appeared with him. He had been the original host of the Tonight show before that and was well known on television, but Elvis’ appearance on his show was a real coup for Allen. His new show went up against The Ed Sullivan Show, easily one of the most popular and highly-rated TV shows, so Allen had a very high bar to reach if he was to compete in that Sunday time slot. Sullivan, of course, had brushed off Elvis and the Colonel and thought Presley a hillbilly singer who was not good enough for his show. But Allen dealt Sullivan one of his few ratings defeats the night Elvis appeared with him and that really got Sullivan’s attention. He booked Elvis for three appearances almost immediately, and for the highest fee he ever paid any performer. So Elvis was very important to all of these television hosts. Of course, his later television appearances in the 1960s and 1970s were all on TV specials that centered entirely on Elvis and included no other stars.

allenwMT: What surprised you in your research?

AW: Several things, really, but most significantly the impression that, despite his hard-edged, rocker image, Elvis was a very compliant person off the stage and screen. He went along with anything he was told to do, almost never raising objections or asking that things be done differently from the way others arranged them. Everyone I spoke to from those shows commented on how shy, quiet, and polite he was, always addressing everyone as “Sir” or “Ma’am.” The most glaring example of this was his silence during rehearsal for The Steve Allen Show. Allen’s was a comedy show and guests were always put in comical sketches or settings, which often spoofed their public images. Serious actors, like Charlton Heston, would appear on the show that way and it was always for laughs. No one took it personally or thought they were being ridiculed. In fact, you have to be a star that the public instantly recognizes in order to be spoofed or the audience won’t get the joke. Elvis, however, felt he was being ridiculed when Allen decked him out in formal evening attire (white tie and tails) and had him sing “Hound Dog” to a basset hound. He also put Elvis in a comic sketch in a country and western setting, which Elvis thought was intended to ridicule his rural background. Yet, Elvis never said a word to Steve Allen about any of this or asked that anything be changed. He complained to his own entourage, and they all told him to speak to Steve Allen, that he was a star and a guest and had every right to weigh in on how he was being staged. But Elvis just sulked and said he would go along with what he was told. For years Steve Allen took a lot of brutal criticism for the way Elvis appeared and performed on his show and I think it’s unjustified. It didn’t help that Allen himself changed his own version of the story over the years and seemed to become defensive about it once he heard all the criticism, but I don’t think he was trying to hurt Elvis at all. He was trying to help himself and his ratings by fitting Elvis into his show. The one time Elvis’ attitude paid off was the 1968 “Comeback” special, Elvis, when he put himself in producer/director Steve Binder’s hands and Binder created one of the real triumphs of Presley’s career.

MT: What are you currently working on?

AW: Promoting this book! Which turns out to be a full time job! Seriously, I always take a break after each book and have not started looking for a new project yet. I hope something will catch my eye and give me a new idea. I have strong interest in history and the entertainment world, so I’m likely to look there again for a subject. I have started blogging and would like to continue with that, at least for a while.

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

AW: Major Elvis sources are at the top of my mind right now, having spent a lot of time with them over the past few years, especially Peter Guralnick’s seminal two-volume bio of Presley, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley and Ernst Jorgensen’s Elvis Presley: A Life In Music. I love Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘N’ Roll by Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins, the story of Sun Records, which is such a major moment in rock history and, thus, essential reading. There are tons of books on the Beatles and I’ve read my share, but Nicholas Schaffner’s Beatles Forever remains a great read and brings back the joyful side of Beatlemania. I’ve always enjoyed the music of Harry Chapin and Bobby Darin and would recommend Peter Coan’s Chapin bio Taxi: The Harry Chapin Story and Jeff Bleiel’s book on Darin, That’s All: Bobby Darin On Record, Stage & Screen, Revised and Expanded Second Edition. As far as history goes, I strongly recommend That’s Not What They Meant!: Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America’s Right Wing by Michael Austin, which is a terrific corrective to all the claims by pundits about what the Founding Fathers “meant” when they wrote and ratified the Constitution. I belong to a history book club and our current selection, The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds, coincides with the 100th anniversary of World War I.

Keep up with Allen at his Website: http://allenwienerblog.blogspot.com

Over its 40 years, Austin City Limits has become an institution and appointment viewing for music fans across the country. In Austin City Limits: A History Tracey Laird digs in to the shows origins and its evolution. Tracey was nice enough to talk to us a bit about the book.

Music Tomes: When approaching something like Austin City Limits, which is a television show, but also a cultural touchstone, how do you decide how that story should be told?ACL

Tracey Laird: It was important for me to tell the story from the present tense — in other words, to resist two competing impulses. On the one hand, there is the tug of nostalgia for the wonderful music and vibe of the progressive country era that begat the show. On the other hand, there is an impulse to reify Austin City Limits so that it seems more museum piece than living, dynamic entity whose story continues to unfold. The image that guided the project from very early on was that of a prism — figuratively speaking, a person could walk around the story of Austin City Limits and see something new, depending on the perspective or angle. Each chapter of the book feels to me like a different side of the prism, so my goal was to describe how I see it from different points of view and to connect the dots so that the picture becomes as complete as possible. I loved searching for ways to communicate both its changes and its continuity over 40 years, and at the same time convey the passion and enthusiasm of the remarkable people who make the program.

MT: Is it possible to strictly separate the show from its location, Austin, Texas, when talking about the rise of the perception as a music center?

TL: Not for me. We are not talking about a simplistic, causal connection and yet, at the same time, the show and the city cannot be separated. Austin City Limits grew up in a place where cultural boundary-crossing was normal. White, black, brown — Austin’s location made it a place where people of different heritage mixed it up, musicians included. Progressive country itself, the musical moment that gave rise to the show, encompassed a wide range of styles. Austin’s lively and constantly changing music scene attracted broader and broader notice over the course of the same years as Austin City Limits deepened its reputation. The city’s reputation spread in part because of efforts from many different corners — musicians, business people, civic leaders, and so on. By the time the city coined its well-known moniker “Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin City Limits was the best-known evidence for the claim.

MT: For many years ACL was associated primarily with country music with a sprinkling of blues and roots musicians thrown in. In the last ten years or so they’ve seemed to expand to more “indie rock” artists and world music. Is that a reflection of Austin, or an acknowledgement of how the reach of the show has grown?

TL: I think of the early 1980s as ACL’s country music phase in very general terms, but even then memorable shows include people like Ray Charles or B. B. King, Flaco Jimenez or Pete Fountain. The 1990s leaned more on the term “roots music” but programmed shows with performers like the Manhattan Transfer. In other words, there was never a time when any general framework of genre ruled the bookings for Austin City Limits, although there are larger patterns.

Since the turn of the century, Austin City Limits has expanded even in the sense for what that identifies: not just a show viewed on TV, but available to stream on a laptop or mobile device. Now Austin City Limits encompasses the festival and the new venue as well. Those are forces that bear both on ACL as a media entity and on the city of Austin as its home, and it all expands the reach of ACL in terms of its meaning, its musical breadth, and its audiences. In some sense that breadth links back to the wide open spirit of progressive country, and certainly to the particularly expansive season 4 (the first one booked by longtime producer Terry Lickona). Perhaps that kind of wide-ranging musical span has come into its time, and audiences are ready to take in more.

MT: You wrote an excellent book on the Louisiana Hayride. Are there any similarities between ACL and the radio barn dances of old?

TL: What comes to mind is spontaneity. In its day, the Louisiana Hayride unfolded according to a general plan devised by the producer but remained very in touch with the spontaneity and energy that makes live music exciting. Radio has that “theater of the mind” aspect and a wonderful thing about live radio was the presence of the unexpected — the lingering sense that one never knows what will happen next.

Austin City Limits as a television production doesn’t tap into that imagination element of radio, but does convey a sense of emotional immediacy that comes from close-up camera angles. It also maintains the sense of spontaneity that most music on television misses because production norms favor multiple takes and a heavy editing hand. Austin City Limits director Gary Menotti sketches out a time-based plan during rehearsals, and that loosely guides the camera shots during the performance itself. When the music begins, however, the production stays out of the way. Artists don’t get asked to repeat a song or part of a song for the sake of the cameras because that kills the live energy. Austin City Limits shares that appreciation for concert energy with the Hayride and other live radio barn dances.

MT: This is the 40th season of ACL. Where do you think the future will take it?

TL: There is really no telling. ACL dwells in a unique space defined by quality performers across a broad range of genres. People who are excited and passionate about music come to ACL for a substantive encounter with musicians they already love, or with musicians they figure must be quality for them to appear on Austin City Limits.

It has an ability, then, to act as a sort of taste filter, an identity that springs from uniquely overlapping elements that define the show: Austin hipness, PBS quality, production excellence, and just plain good musical taste on the part of Terry Lickona, Jeff Peterson, and other members of the production team. And they really all do work as a wonderful team.

How could that extend? Perhaps it could be the kinds of movie theater live streaming events like those for the New York Metropolitan Opera or London’s National Theater. Perhaps it could be a live show that brings multiple high quality musicians — from different genres — to tour under the auspices of Austin City Limits. Most likely it will be something I find it hard to imagine right now.

MT: What are you currently working on?

TL: With my spouse (also a writer — with a Kindle book called Future Great), I am working on the prose for a coffee table-style book about Austin City Limits that features the wonderful photos of Scott Newton, ACL’s longtime still photographer. That’s scheduled to be out in the spring. Other things on my plate include an article about the Battle of New Orleans in music and popular culture, which will appear in an edited collection next year. I’m also working on a more wide-ranging essay about roots music as an idea and a genre label. As for bigger projects, I’m part of a task force for the National Radio Preservation Board charged with collecting information about radio archives. That work along with two years I spent doing a weekly Atlanta AM radio show reminded me how much I still love thinking about radio and how much else I have left to learn. I’ll see where that takes me.

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

TL: One of the best music tomes I have read in the past year is Stephen Wade’s The Beautiful Music All Around Us, which resulted from twenty years of archival and ethnographic research, and focused on 13 Library of Congress historic field recordings. The book is a lovely piece of work, and beautifully written. The music department at Agnes Scott College (where I teach) brought him to campus for a short residency during which he performed and reflected on his work, which brought the whole project to life still further.

A lot of my reading during the academic year is connected to my courses, so recently I discovered the edited collection of writing by Ellen Willis called Out of the Vinyl Deeps. A course I’m doing on the Beatles led me to two good reads: a book by British journalist Leslie Woodhead, How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin, and another by Geoff Emerick, Here, There and Everywhere with Howard Massey. The former conveys a perspective on pop culture’s significance far afield from the U.S. The latter springs from Emerick’s work as sound engineer on many Beatles recordings — his memories of those experiences are pretty fascinating.

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2727: A History of the 27 Club Through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse by Howard Sounes
Reviewed by DrewA

The story of the dead rock star is almost a sad cliche at this point in time; certainly when a famous musician dies at a young age, most people aren’t surprised and in many cases, it’s almost expected to happen. Drink, drugs, reckless behavior, and unhealthy lifestyles are all some of the reasons many of the top musicians of their day end up passing away before their time at an age when most of us are just starting to come into our own as adults. However, there is a small subset of these deceased stars who all have a rather eerie thing in common; this is, of course, the fact that a disproportionate number of them died at the age of 27. Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain are the most famous and highest profile cases of this, but there have been numerous others, including Amy Winehouse, D. Boon, Pete Ham, Al Wilson, Robert Johnson, Pigpen McKernan, and so on. What is it about the age of 27 that seems to be so cursed? The exploration into this phenomenon is the thesis behind Howard Sounes’ new book 27: A History of the 27 Club.

The term “27 Club” was coined by Kurt Cobain’s mother after he died in 1994, when she said “now he’s gone and joined that stupid club…” The idea behind the term has been around for decades, however, most notably after three of the highest profile rock stars of all time all died within ten months of each other: Jimi Hendrix in September 1970, Janis Joplin in October 1970, and Jim Morrison in July 1971. Their deaths brought to larger attention the fact that so many musicians before them had died at 27, and the pattern continuing to the present day has only strengthened the idea that there is something almost supernatural behind it. However, is this really the case? Author Howard Sounes takes a look at six of the highest profile deaths in order to examine this.

The book is set up as a multi-strand mini-biography of each of the subjects, starting with investigations into their births and childhoods, later going on to detail how they achieved fame, how they coped with it, and the series of events that ultimately led to their untimely and premature deaths at 27. In this way, the author hopes to see if there is any commonality between his subjects and whether the fact that they (and many others) all died at the same age is more than just mere coincidence. While the level of depth into the lives of the subjects (with the exception of Winehouse…more on this in a bit) isn’t any deeper than what can be found in any potted synopsis of their lives, the author does a nice job weaving them all together, which is especially useful given how much the lives and careers of Jones, Joplin, Morrison, and Hendrix overlapped and interacted.

While there is much that is different about them, one thing they all do have in common is their unhappy childhoods. In the cases of Morrison, Joplin, and Jones, they came from intact nuclear families that nevertheless had strained parental relationships that were not as emotionally nurturing or safe as they should have been. Conversely, Hendrix, Cobain, and Winehouse all came from broken homes. In all cases, all six had very strained, and sometimes nonexistent, relationships with one or both of their parents that persisted into adulthood. All found success at a relatively young ages after years of struggle, and all used drugs and alcohol in order to cope with their sudden fame and wealth, as well as to dull the pain of their unresolved traumas. In several cases (Cobain, Joplin, Hendrix) there were serious mental issues such as depression and bipolar disorder, while Brian Jones singularly seems to have simply been a nasty piece of work as a human being. Indeed, as the author points out by the end of the book, of all of the “Big Six 27s” (as he calls them), at their core they all seemed to be decent people who had serious issues, except for Jones, who seems to have just been an unlikeable character; nearly everyone he worked with or interacted with did not speak kindly of him.

The premise of the book is that there is something all of the Big Six 27s have in common may that explain their demises at the same age (as well as the others who have died at the same age)…is this really the case? I commend Sounes for debunking any supernatural connotations that many others have tried to ascribe to this tragic coincidence of age, because as he rightly points out, nearly all of them led lives of high risk. Whether it was drugs, drink, reckless behavior, or in some cases simply bad luck, it was inevitable that unless they changed their lifestyles, that probability that it would catch up with them was inordinately high. However, at the same time, this makes it less than surprising that any of them died, and because of this I was somewhat skeptical going into the book; is it really shocking when someone abuses their bodies with substances, lives on the edge, and as a result dies at a premature age? Obviously it’s not, but regardless of that fact, it is still curious that, of all of the ages between, say 21 and 30, an unusually high proportion of these deaths occur at 27. Indeed, when plotting over 3,000 prominent musician deaths over the past 100+ years, Sounes’ chart shows an prominent spike at 27. And while he doesn’t offer an explanation as to why this is so surprising, he does show that given how the 27 Club members lived and the various mental and behavioral issues they struggled with, it’s not unsurprising.

Getting back to the subject of the book’s over-emphasis on Amy Winehouse, it does at times seem that this is a book about her with small amounts of material about the others sprinkled throughout in order to make it more broadly about the 27 Club; in the afterword Sounes admits as such when he admits that his intention going into the book was always to spend the most amount of time and detail on Amy. As someone who is not really a fan of hers, I did feel that while her story was interesting and tragic, she perhaps didn’t deserve this level of emphasis nor to be put on the same level as the other five main subjects. I will say that I am also of the opinion that her musical output (while pretty good) does not stand up to that of the other five and her iconic status seems to be based almost solely on her wild behavior and death, and not any profound cultural impact the way the other five had. It did feel as though her inclusion was either shoehorned in, or that, as I said above, this was to be a biography on her within the greater framework of the 27 Club. That being said, the book was still enjoyable and a quick, easy, and fun read. The writing style was a bit stilted and simplistic, and I’m not sure if that’s simply because of the subject matter or if that’s just Sounes’ style (I’ll know for sure when I read his biography on Paul McCartney).

Overall, this is a book that is enjoyable and thought-provoking. It doesn’t really offer all that much new information apart from the sections on Amy Winehouse, although it does draw on new research the author conducted, as well as previously available information in order to debunk many of the conspiracy theories that have arisen over the years as pertaining to the deaths of Jones, Hendrix, Morrison, and Cobain (the author does not think foul play was involved in any of them). This isn’t a groundbreaking or revelatory book, but any rock music fan will enjoy it, and looking at his list of 27 Club members at the end of the book will open your eyes to the fact that if there isn’t something supernatural going on behind the scenes, it’s still a might strange coincidence how many of them all expired at 27.

(for more great content please visit my site The Rock and Roll Chemist at www.rnrchemist.blogspot.com and follow me on twitter @blackbookblur)

The Week’s Releases (10/5-11)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?]

In Tune: Charley Patton, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Roots of American Music, Ben Wynne, Louisiana State University Press, Oct 6, 2014

Dancing with Myself, Billy Idol, Touchstone, Oct 7, 2014

Facing the Music: My Story, Jennifer Knapp, Howard Books, Oct 7, 2014

Rocks: My Life in and out of Aerosmith, Joe Perry, Simon & Schuster, Oct 7 2014

U2: The Definitive Biography, John Jobling, Thomas Dunne Books, Oct 7, 2014

The Art of Noise: Conversations with Great Songwriters, Daniel Rachel, St. Martin’s Griffin, Oct 7, 2014

Modest Mouse, Pat Graham, powerHouse Books, Oct 7, 2014

Treasures of Bob Dylan, Brian Southall, Carlton Books, Oct 9, 2014

Veteran music journalist Daryl Easlea has written books on Beyonce, Madonna, and Disco, among others. In his newest work, Without Frontiers: The Life and Music of Peter Gabriel, he takes a look at the life and career of Peter Gabriel. Daryl was nice enough to tell us a little about the book.

Music Tomes: When did you get interested in Peter Gabriel and his story?pg-wfbook-250

Daryl Easlea: When I was about 10 years old I got into Genesis, primarily through the film, Genesis In Concert, which used to be at the cinemas in the UK a lot on a double bill with the documentary of the 1976 Winter Olympics, White Rock. I think the two films were known as Sensasia in the US.Although the film was post-Gabriel, it contained several Gabriel-era classics. Armed with my NME Encyclopedia Of Rock, I was immediately intrigued why he had left the band, and started buying the Genesis catalogue. This was also the time of his first solo album, so I began following his work as well.

MT: Did you come across anything that surprised you in your research?

DE: Researching his family was fascinating, and realizing that how much a product of his parents he is. His father was a scientist who, among other things, helped invent cable TV long ahead of its time; and that his mother came from a musical family. He is 50/50 of both. And, although I’d previously been aware of it – more detail on his first post-Genesis work – producing and writing a single for British comedian, Charlie Drake. With Robert Fripp on guitar, Phil Collins on drums and Sandy Denny on vocals!

MT: It seems these days a lot of artist biographies are filled with the tabloid aspects of their life, but Gabriel doesn’t have much of that. Instead we have an artist that came out of progressive rock and into dealing with world leaders and huge issues. How does that affect how you tell the story?

DE: There has been the occasional tabloid moment in his career, certainly in the wake of his flirtation with superstardom in the mid 80s. Gabriel has always been refreshingly candid about this, and frankly he is tremendously low-key when compared to other artists. I think his story needed to be handled with care, as he becomes something much more than a mere pop star from the 80s onwards. It was lovely to write inasmuch as everyone I spoke with had an uplifting mixture of pride, love and respect for Peter.

MT: What are you currently working on?

DE: I have been writing a lot of articles, reviews and liner notes since finishing the book. I especially enjoyed writing the in-depth story of Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing for its reissue from earlier this year. I am very much looking forward to being a contributor at the second Louder The Words Festival in Manchester, England (louderthanwordsfest.com) in November 2014. I DJ regularly and I present my own Internet radio show/podcast, The Daryl Easlea Spectacular, on Ship Full Of Bombs www.sfob.co.uk. I am in early stages of developing my next book.

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

DE:
1: Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties
Ian Macdonald
(Fourth Estate, 1994)

Remarkable contextualization of the Beatles’ music, the time in which they worked, and their impact on popular culture. Apposite for the greatest group of all-time to have one of the best books of all-time written about them.

2: Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music
Gerri Hirshey
(Pan, 1984)

A vivid telling of the influence of African-American music on the US and the world. A classic, eye-opening book that sends you straight back to the recordings. If you haven’t read it, it cannot be recommended highly enough.

3: Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley
Peter Guralnick
(Little, Brown 1994)

The book that reclaimed Elvis Presley from all the shock, schlock and mashed potato tales of his demise. Guralnick, a learned writer and more importantly, a fan, conjures up the incredible tale of the rise of the Tupelo Flash, and the realization that nothing would ever be quite the same again.

4: The Music’s All That Matters: A History of Progressive Rock
Paul Stump
Quartet, 1997

Progressive rock remains as popular in some circles as the proverbial lead balloon, but Stump’s thorough dissection of its rise and fall is tremendously accessible and introduces you to many of the strange and glorious characters that this acquired taste has thrown up over the years.

5: Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd
Mark Blake
Aurum Press, 2007

This most stately of English bands finally got the biography they deserved by Mojo writer Mark Blake. With interviews with most of the key players, the book excels when discussing the schism between Roger Waters and David Gilmour. The chapter about 1983’s The Final Cut is either gripping or look-through-your-fingers-wincing, according to taste.

I think we live in a very exciting time for music journalism, particularly when it comes to books. Self-publishing, whether digitally or physically, has become a more affordable proposition and allows for music writers to publish books that might only appeal to a niche audience that wouldn’t justify the expense expended by a traditional publisher. I talk often about those types of authors here, and today I want to point out a couple of new works.

Someone I’ve reviewed here a few times, and interviewed here as well, is Neil Daniels. He’s what has come to be known as a hybrid author – one that both publishes traditionally and also self-publishes. His model is something I have been looking at quite a bit and I really believe that it is the way of the future for many music writers (I won’t get into all of my reasons for those thoughts here, now, but maybe soon.). For example, by the end of 2014, he will have released eight books this year. Five of those are traditionally published (one of them steps outside of the music world).Bryan Adams Final Front Cover

The three self-published books are a series Daniels created that carry the subtitle, A Casual Guide. These books delve in to an artist and provide an overview of their career and music. They aren’t in-depth bios and their meant for casual fans of those artists, to enable them to learn a little more. The first was on Neal Schon (and I reviewed it here). He currently has two new ones available: Richie Sambora (Stranger In This Town – A Casual Guide To The Music Of Bon Jovi’s Richie Sambora) and Bryan Adams.

Of the new two, I’ve only Reckless – A Casual Guide To The Music Of Bryan Adams, but it’s certainly the work we’ve come to expect from Daniels, offering in-depth research looking at contemporaneous reviews for their work and archival interviews. Daniels offers little in the way of commentary or criticism, but that’s in keeping with the “casual guide” theme of the works. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read from him and I hope to continue to do so.

Another veteran musiPower_Pop_cover_low_resc journalist that has been making the move toward hybrid authorship is Ken Sharp. Sharp has been traditionally published for several years and then last month he self-published his book Kooks, Queen Bitches and Andy Warhol: The Making of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory.

This month he has a new offering, PLAY ON! Power Pop Heroes – Volume 1. The book, of nearly 500 pages, is the first of three volumes that serve as an oral history of Power Pop including interviews with members of the Beatles, the Who, Bee Gees,vSmall Faces, The Raspberries and more.

But this one is being offered with a twist. You have to order the book by October 28, 2014 to get it. If you miss it, you’re out of luck. Sharp will only be printing the exact number of books being ordered. He won’t be keeping an inventory of them – once they’re gone, they’re gone! If you’re interested, you can order here.

I think what these writers (and several others) are doing is exciting for the future of book-length music journalism!

The Week’s Releases (9/28-10/4)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?]

Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia, Fiona Ritchie, Doug Orr, and Darcy Orr, University of North Carolina Press, Sept 29, 2014

Austin City Limits: A History, Tracey E. W. Laird, Oxford University Press, Oct 1 2014

Dream Weaver: A Memoir; Music, Meditation, and My Friendship with George Harrison, Gary Wright, Tarcher, Oct 2, 2014