Rock This Way
The Semi-Annual, Whenever-We-Feel-Like-It Rock & Roll Books Section
Like Brigitte Bardot or Sophia Loren, the fact that Deneuve is both European and still alive means she hasn't been iconographized like exquisite dead blonde American movie stars - Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly. All the more reason one naturally stops to admire her visage when it pops up somewhere. And this applies to both genders. What woman doesn't think Brigitte Bardot was once a work of art?
Naturally, then, when leafing through this album-cover sized coffeetable glossy, The Album Cover Art of Soundtracks by Frank Jastfelder and Stefan Kassel (Little, Brown and Company, $29.95 paper), one stops to admire the picture of Deneuve that adorns the soundtrack album to the musical Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), one of Deneuve's finest moments onscreen, and one hell of a musical score by French composer Michel Legrand (think Grease meets West Side Story). At 20, Deneuve is absolutely radiant, and in only the way a young woman can be - she positively glows with everything that is the splendor of youth. She's standing at the window, waving to her first love. Matching her glow are half a dozen brightly colored umbrellas. It's one of the more memorable scenes from the film. Beautiful.
Compare this album art to the 2-CD set of the soundtrack currently available on the market. First off, it's yellow. Bright yellow. Orange, too - with purple. There, in the middle of this 5-inch yellow and orange CD cover - under the blue raindrops - is a small picture of Denueve from the film. She and her beau. That's black-and-white. You have to lean in and squint to make sure it's really her. Here is one the most beautiful faces to ever appear on screen, and you've got to get a magnifying glass to prove it. Okay, so maybe it's not so bad in a Sixties art deco way, but compare it to the album. Which would you rather pick up and look at? Which would your average consumer be more likely to pause over? Exactly.
One thing most baby bands don't understand (and some veteran artists have forgotten) is how important album cover artwork really is. If the cover looks pretty, people will pick it up. They'll pick up ghastly, too; interesting always works as well, but pretty - attractive - that one works every time. It's a basic human instinct. And with the rampant proliferation of modern music, don't you want - no, need - your album, ahem - CD - to stand out in the racks? Something so cool that people will naturally walk over to it? Brother, you need all the help you can get. Yeah, yeah, the music, but think how many amazing albums have cool artwork versus classics that have shit artwork. See? What The Album Cover Art of Soundtracks reminds us is that: a) Album cover "art" really is "art" in the right hands, and that something besides analog has been lost in the translation to CD; b) What better way to sell albums than with film images - pictures from a public consciousness; and c) Some of your favorite albums are soundtracks.
Leafing through page after page of eye-grabbing full-color reproductions of soundtracks for films from the late Fifties through the Seventies (the rise of the 12-inch record and soundtrack), the appreciation for those who designed album covers comes quick. From the colorful, angular abstractions of Saul Bass (Man With the Golden Arm), and the Sixties psychedelia of Ed Thrasher (Bullitt), to the Seventies blaxploitation work of G. Akimoto (Coffy), and of course the easily recognizable Mad magazine/Playboy style of the truly great Jack Davis (It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World), the artwork on these long out-of-print albums is a graphic designer's dream. Much of it is uncredited today, but for every anonymous movie still selection, there's a Saul Bass like the one on the soundtrack to Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder (music by Duke Ellington). Nice. Artwork is everything.
Take the soundtrack next to the Denueve, for example. Brigitte Bardot, from Viva Maria! (1966). Her in a red barroom number with black fringe. Big, pouty lips. Blonde hair and black mascara. Aiming a big ol' WWII Gatling gun at you. Gulp.
Now that's art.
- Raoul Hernandez
Say what you want about Marilyn Manson, but he's sure revitalized The Jenny Jones Show. Since mid-'97, I've lost count of the number of episodes in which the program's hook revolved around fashion makeovers on the good Reverend's legions of Maybelline-festooned, lunchbox dangling Spooky Kids. Ditto Jerry Springer, who, in his never-ending role as Satan's cathode-ray lapdog, has featured endless flurries of "My Daughter's a Freak and She's Freaking Me Out!"-type segments to amuse, titillate, and stroke the collective psychic genitalia.
Tough break for Manson, whose new autobiography The Long Hard Road Out of Hell by Marilyn Manson with Neil Strauss (Regan/Harper Collins, $24 hard) hurls invectives and chunks against a popular culture that feeds and breeds the Springers and Joneses of the airwaves. He hates them, to be sure, but he ought to be getting royalties anyway, poor sap.
That aside, Long Hard Road is a terrific rock & roll saga in the epic vein. I polished it off in five hours straight even though I had plenty of time and better things to do. Like Manson's gooney-harsh music and Danzig-on-goofdust lyrics, the book sucks you in and never lets you go until the final appendices are past. Essentially a standard my-life-was-shit,-look-at-me-now,-oops-it's-shit-again tale, Manson relates - in excruciating detail - everything that ever went wrong in his life, from the magical mystery tour of his warped grandpa's Basement o' Perversities in Canton, Ohio, to the formation of The Band, and on to world domination and the requisite sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Lots of sex and drugs, and nearly as much rock & roll.
As far as revelations, no one who ever caught the Reverend's early shows at the Back Room and elsewhere in Austin (there were many) is going to be too surprised by his and bandmate Twiggy's Falstaffian boudoir and razorblade excesses. Always approachable and pleasantly twisted in a way few artists are these days, Manson was and remains a core figure to Nineties youth rebellion and nasty, nasty hi-jinks, though really he doesn't seem to want to be bothered with it all. Detractors who lump him in with previous shock-troopers like Alice Cooper are missing the point and the timeframe; Manson is unique in the scope of his influence, though you have to wonder if the American Family Association is as gobstoppingly stoned as he is when you read the faux affidavits they wrote hoping to rally support against the Manson crew (these and various other juicy tidbits make up the book's appendices).
Like Manson's shows, the book is a visceral, scatalogical read, full of "can you top this?" gross-outs and Grand Guignol sexfests to set de Sade's loins aquiver. It's like Willy Wonka trapped in superfamefucker limbo: How low can you go? Very low indeed.
- Marc Savlov
First off, let's get one thing, er, straight. I don't for one minute think that the kind of person that picks up these mass-market, checkout counter paperbacks is the kind of person who reads book reviews. That said, those who do pick up these things has no doubt ended up with a lot worse reading material in their purse or back pocket. In Keepin' It Country: The George Strait Story by Jo Sgammato (Ballantine, $5.99 paper), the author admits to never having met or spoken to George Strait, choosing to assemble this entire bio out of previously published interviews, overviews, and whatever other views she could get a peep at. As a result, much of the book is not so much about Strait as about the music and places that shaped his life.
And that's not a bad thing. Who'd expect to pick up one of these time-fillers and find themselves digesting facts about Harlan Howard, the Carter Family, the peanut crop of Pearsall, Texas, and the history of Gruene Hall (as well as how to pronounce it correctly). And though I don't claim to be a Strait expert, the worst error I spotted was misnaming Hal Ketchum "Hank" - as in the guy who draws Dennis the Menace - but I'll allow that one to be written off as a slip. I can't help but wonder how much of the history of Old El Paso refried beans shows up in Sgammato's Dream Come True: The LeAnn Rimes Story.
- Ken Lieck
This book is not for Joe or Jane Rockfan, the attentive listener looking for a bit of insight into what makes popular music such a compelling force in modern culture and in his or her life and why it holds sex as such a central focus. In Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender edited by Sheila Whiteley (Routledge, $22.99 paper), a broad batch of academia is aimed at establishing a discourse on the "ever changing modes of expression within popular music" as they relate to gender and sexuality.
While acknowledged across the board that popular music has been and is a male-dominated industry, the reasons behind that historical generalization are given shape, from the disappearance of vast catalogues of music by female artists (as explored in David Sanjek's paean to the women of rockabilly, "Can a Fujiyama Mama Be the Female Elvis?") to the eventual implications of motherhood on female artists and their links to audience, as in Charlotte Greig's search for the "real lives of women" in modern song and Keith Nagus' piece on Sinead O'Connor. The ambiguity of k.d. lang is put under a microscope, and the riot grrrl movement is given treatment in two of this section's essays.
Surprisingly enough, the discussion of Madonna is limited for the most part to an examination of specific video personae, which seems now a shrewd move, considering that her recent image-change with the release of the maternally inspired Ray of Light brings to light the problem with texts of this type. While pop music as a cultural reality has established a residence, its fickle nature is transient, and it's hard to make any definitive statements about (let alone keep tabs on) a specific performer, as that performer's identity is still being built with every move in the public eye.
The necessity of considering the immediacy of an artist's physical presence is the thread running through the closest thing to a page-turner to be found in the book, Whiteley's own "Little Red Rooster v. The Honky-Tonk Woman." The section on "Masculinities and Popular Music" is split between essays on Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, and the Pet Shop Boys, and it's not difficult to guess which is the most interesting. Mick Jagger embodies the multifaceted nature of gender roles in pop music more completely than any single figure ever has (and often more than a couple of them put together). In this essay, Whiteley acknowledges that no study of Jagger or his identity is complete or even valid without considering his live performances, and she includes accounts from shows at all points in his career, the section devoted to Altamont being a particularly in-depth examination of the relationship, however exaggerated or misunderstood, between performer and audience.
All this makes Sexing the Groove a good reference tool for the aspiring music scholar and as such, a sound basis for ever-continuing exploration into the nature of gender in popular music.
- Christopher Hess
Credibility. It's something Henry Rollins tries to carve out in everything he does, be it punk rock credibility from his days fronting Black Flag, still one of the best examples of American punk at its apex, or street credibility, as served up in the surviving-the-mean-streets tone of the bulk of his writing. Now, with the best of his work grafted into an anthology, The Portable Henry Rollins (Villard/Random House, $19.95 paper), the tireless spoken-word artist appears to have gained a literary credibility with the backing of a Big Publishing House. Despite attempts to make him appear as cutting-edge as he's sold himself as (the back jacket blurb starts with a large-print "Raw. Real. Rollins." Subtle.), Random House's backing makes Rollins seem less of a sellout than someone we should be listening to.
Thanks to editing, this collection far surpasses anything Rollins has released on his own, much of that under his own publishing house, 2.13.61 Publications, since left to his own devices, Rollins tends to ramble\. I remember, a few years back, slagging a books-on-tape version of Eye Scream because it relentlessly drove the most cartoonish of his mean-streetisms into what felt like an endless loop. But in snippets, especially in the range of writings culled from 15-plus years of his work, Rollins' caustic point of view actually functions as more of a single, well-placed slap in the face to wake you up, rather than an endless barrage of kicks and punches after you're already down and the lesson has been taught.
Rollins is at his best when he's reporting rather than pontificating, and his earliest efforts, out of the urge to get it down on paper rather than to bolster a spoken-word reputation, are the freshest and most direct. His best work to date, Get in the Van, is featured here in abbreviated form, still keeping the chronological organization and spirit of his tour diary from Black Flag days. He shows that, for a punk band with Black Flag's notoriety and following, it's a long way to the top if you want to rock & roll. Through the thumbnail version of the diary shown here, it's evident that Rollins was destined for burnout as a punk singer, thanks to the scourge of skinhead antics and physical confrontations that reared their ugly heads at show after show. When Rollins meets a female fan he recognizes from a show, who was landed on by a large male stagediver, he asks her if his landing hurt. As he reports:
"She showed me her glass eye. The guy took her eye out with his boot. I didn't know what to say. What do you say? `Sorry about that. How about a free shirt?' She told me not to worry about it and walked away."
In other excerpts of early Rollins' writings, such as those culled from High Adventure in the Great Outdoors, he presents deliciously cynical observations about items, such as male bonding rituals at the men's room urinals, and the superiority of cockroaches to humans, that ring fresh rather than hollow.
However, this is Rollins through the ages, and although the editing scales him down into digestible chunks, there's still plenty of random rage filtering through his world view, making sections of the prose and nearly all the "poetry" the worst kind of challenge for a reader expecting craft, subtlety, and irony to wind through the words. Still, though Rollins still primarily works toward a specific fan base, this collection, for perhaps the first time in his lengthy career, reaches out to the reader who might not be sold outright on the Rollins mystique of self-promotion. It's not exclusively for the fan, in other words - although with Rollins, being a fan still goes a long way toward unmitigated enjoyment, if one can truly "enjoy" Rollins in the conventional sense.
- Phil West Conventional literary wisdom says don't judge a book by its cover (or opening sentence), but how often do chapter headings do us wrong? They not only make skimming a book easier but can serve as the author's vehicle for subliminal foreshadowing - telling the reader what's in the section ahead without telling the reader enough that they'll put the book down. Ronin Ro, a hip-hop historian and author of Have Gun Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records (Doubleday, $23.95 hard), tells a good story, but writes even better chapter headings. Try these: "All they found was his wallet," "Niggas were still cleaning up the blood, then next thing you know, the FBI and all that shit came," and "He shouldn't be afraid of me. I could make him a star."
Each serves as both a chapter heading and quote from Ro's research into Death Row Records and that hip-hop empire's founder, Suge Knight. Behind each of the above quotes, and dozens more like it, lie insight into Knight's heavy-handed business acumen, from which Ro has constructed a powerful page-turner - as scary as it is compelling. Sure, many of the book's most damning quotes are unattributed but, well, no shit. According to Ro source's, Death Row associates, and even the Justice Department, Knight's something of an intimidating guy - who more often than not backed up his threats with real action. As such, Have Gun Will Travel doesn't just read like The Godfather, but like a Mafia Handbook. By Ro's account, when Knight wasn't shooting guns, intimidating journalists with piranha, or force-feeding his urine to enemies, he was donating generously to charity and handing out hosted Fourth of July cookouts in poverty-stricken Los Angeles. Despite Knight's eventual downfall, Ro makes a good case for the difference between classic American gangsters and hip-hop gangstas being more about phonetics than practice.
Have Gun Will Travel's other lesson is that although the L.A. Times reports regularly on Knight's legal proceedings, and even Entertainment Tonight on the personalities, Death Row's story is the rare, fully Nineties saga that demands the back-story a newspaper or television account can't accommodate. And to that end, Ro's chronological introduction of key characters like Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dr. Dre, and Tupac Shakur and careful analysis on accusations that major corporate entities like Time/Warner, Sony, and Seagram's knew of Knight's illegal activities, are invaluable. While others have pieces of the story, nobody has yet tied up this tale's loose ends better than Ro. And because Knight's legal story appears so far from being over, Ro's last chapter heading - "The shit's about to hit the fan" - seems like great news... not so much for Knight, but for the prospects of a must-read sequel.
- Andy Langer
Gangsta rap may have put "South Central" into the national consciousness in recent years, but long before N.W.A. and Dr. Dre came along, Central Avenue was Los Angeles' major social, cultural, and musical thoroughfare - every bit as vital as its East Coast counterpart, NYC's famed 52nd Street. In fact, during its heyday from roughly 1930-50, this miles-long commercial strip housed countless round-the-clock nightclubs, dance halls, ballrooms, speakeasys, dives, hotels, and restaurants; as well, the surrounding area was at one time or other home to such musical titans as Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and
T-Bone Walker. Indeed, Central Avenue was as swingin', jumpin' and boppin' as any place on the planet.
Although books by L.A. musicians like Charles Mingus, Hampton Hawes, and Johnnie Otis have included mere chapters on this area, until Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles by Clora Bryant, et.al. (University of California Press, $34.95 hard), there has strangely never been a book devoted solely to chronicling the rich history of Central Avenue. Like many of my favorite jazz books, this one is an oral history as told by nearly 20 musicians - famous and not so famous - who grew up and/or came of age in this African-American section of segregated Los Angeles. As such, these personal tales not only tell the colorful story of an unparalleled musical mecca of celebrity-filled cabarets with star-studded stage extravaganzas and smoky, hipster-laden, all-night jam sessions, they also place that history within the context of L.A.'s culturally diverse and infinitely complex social history vis-à-vis issues like racial politics and its ramifications on Hollywood movie studios, selective law enforcement, and the musician's union.
Central Avenue started to die out for various reasons in the eary 1950s, and for some time now it's been yet another all-too-familiar example of depressed urban decay. All the more reason why this book is so important as both a highly enjoyable jazz read and a vital social document.
- Jay Trachtenberg
Most music fans with a cursory interest in related history know Hamburg, Germany as the city where British bands went to cut their teeth at the close of the Fifties and into the Sixties. Those a little more in the know will recognize names like the Kaiserkeller, the Star Club, and the Top Ten. However, all but the criminally obsessed probably don't realize that as late as December 1962, when "Love Me Do" was lodged in the British Top 20, the Beatles were still second-class citizens in St. Pauli and opening for the likes of Johnny & the Hurricanes.
Hamburg: The Cradle of British Rock by Alan Clayson (Harvill Press, $14.95 paper) is a remarkably in-depth examination of (as the title indicates) the German city inland on the Elbe, and its importance in the development of the U.K.'s many later-to-be-famous and other soon-forgotten musicians.
At its best, Hamburg delves into the historical, social, and political forces that sent the Brits to the Rhineland. Clayson makes the case, albeit too briefly, that the sociological groundwork goes back at least to the Thirties, when Hitler's purging of all that was modern in music left post-war Germans starved for anything that wasn't Wagner.
Eventually, a natural symbiotic relationship arose between British skifflers-turned-pop-practitioners and the young Germans who were fascinated with the new rock & roll sounds being made in America. The former were not particularly wanted or needed at home, and it was much cheaper for the latter to import the imitators from across the North Sea than the genuine articles from across the Atlantic. The Brits got paying gigs and the Germans got rock & roll.
Clayson dedicates the bulk of the book to depicting just about every aspect of the Hamburg scene - the groups, the groupies, the venues, the living conditions, the drugs and alcohol. He details how the clubs made both the bands and the sound that led to the real British Invasion and does so with remarkable lack of revisionist tendencies. Rather than shamelessly exploit or single-mindedly discredit certain myths and conceptions currently accepted about Hamburg, Clayson goes to great length to simply re-set himself in the time and, temporally, tell the story from that point.
Hamburg, though, gets bogged down in its own thoroughness. Clayson's obsession with mentioning every player in the scene - whether it be someone prominent like Tony Sheridan, Van Morrison, or Ritchie Blackmore; or someone obscure like Brian Cassar or Dave Lee - weighs down the read and continually diffuses focus from the actual interesting events and characters. Moreover, much of the information in later chapters contributes little to the story - it may fill in a few missing colors in the big picture, but at that level of detail it is almost unnecessary.
Better to have the information than not, though. As chronology gives way to simply defining and describing discrete aspects of life and music in Hamburg, certain large sections of information are easy to identify; the uninterested can skip them, but they are there for the engrossed. More interesting than a music-related story, Hamburg is a good piece of history that happens to be centered around music.
- Michael Bertin
As someone with roots deep in the 'oods of East Texas, where the non sequiturs are as thick as the gravy and the accents, I feel no shame at all in saying West Texas is strange. Just ask Oprah - she'll tell ya. It must be. I had a boss back at The Daily Texan named Kevin, who was from Lubbock. Kevin was fond of Black Flag, the Misfits, Minor Threat... and Newt Gingrich, making him quite possibly the only Republican - and probably one of the few Lubbockites - able to quote Ian MacKaye chapter and verse. Hell of a managing editor, too. Then he went off to India to teach English or something after he graduated, itself no easy feat for Texan alumni. Now, everyone in Lubbock probably isn't like Kevin, but they are also fond of throwing tortillas on the field during Texas Tech football games. Somebody explain that.
Though the closest they come to punk rock - or anything, really, since the rise of the Flatlanders and their ken in the Seventies - is mentioning for the umpteenth time that Joe Ely toured with the Clash (or didn't you know?), South Plains College professors and bluegrass pickers Joe Carr and Alan Munde say it all in the opening sentence of Prairie Nights to Neon Lights: The Story of Country Music in West Texas (Texas Tech University Press, $18.95 paper): "The arid plains and rugged ranch lands of West Texas has been fertile soil for the growth and development of country music." Indeed, West Texans have been setting their songs and stories to fiddles and two-steps since the 1860s and Seventies, when the plains were still thick with Comanche and people hiding from various warrants and posses back East. Today it is this area, above any other, that explains why the music colloquially known as "country" picked up its now-ubiquitous "western" attachment.
"Country" music first showed up in the area as cowboy songs, brought to the plains by men anxious to distract themselves from volatile weather, intractable boredom, and fidgety herds. These ballads, as collected by wayfarer Jack Thorpe in Songs of the Cowboys (1908) and seminal American folk music archivist John Lomax in Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910), offer all the blueprint the new music needed. And blue they were: a smattering of racier cowboy songs, which had previously (appropriately?) been passed along orally, finally surfaced in Guy Lodgson's The Whorehouse Bells Were Ringing (1989). Lomax, who today might choose to publish his findings at www.cum-n-git-it.com, chose to omit them from his more scholarly-minded volume, though not without admitting the songs were among the most "characteristic" of the genre. And two of the most lauded Lubbock-spawned works of our Nineties are Terry and Jo Harvey Allen's ode to a West Texas working girl, Chippy, and Jo Carol Pierce's bawdy Bad Girls Upset by the Truth; how much could possibly have changed?
To be fair, a good bit has changed. Prairie Nights & Neon Lights leaves little of it out: the fiddle contests ("The fiddler was often characterized as lazy, hard drinking, and generally worthless," they mention) and medicine shows of the Twenties; the rise of Western Swing in the Thirties and Forties; the rock & roll of Buddy Holly, the Crickets, and Roy Orbison; the Lubbock-Nashville connection and the problems that created, how songwriters like Ely, Allen, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Ol' Waylon Jennings of Littlefield fought back; the continuing tradition of "community musicals"; and finally the Buddy Holly statue, museum, postage stamp, and other hallmarks of contemporary Lubbock - which seems finally to have embraced its musical past instead of treating it like a crocked fiddle player. Barbecue guru C.B. "Stubbs" Stubblefield even rates a few paragraphs. Heavy on names, dates, timelines (and pictures!) but lacking anything beyond even the most cursory analysis and insight, Prairie Nights and Neon Lights is a fine history text on a fascinating subject, though past the details and occasional lyrics the book really offers very little sense of what the music is about. The strangest thing of all about West Texas music may be how dry it seems on the page, but how vivid it is when performed.
One thing Prairie Nights does do is spend a good deal of ink detailing the Lubbock exploits of songwriter/personality Tommy X Hancock, who led various Western Swing bands and one of the city's major nightclubs for years and years before, like so many of his neighbors, migrating down to these parts. At one point in Prairie Nights someone calls him "Lubbock's first hippie," and boy, does Hancock prove it in his own book. Tommy X knows exactly what his music is about, and is more than willing to say so: It's about dancing, which is about the fulfillment of carnal and spiritual desires, which is about what most people just call getting it on. Hancock's tome Zen and the Art of the Texas Two-Step: The Book on Dancing (World Wide Publishing, $9.95 paper), part of a set that also includes CDs and an instructional videotape (!), abounds with references to "cool sex" - something between dancing and dry-humping; "hot" sex is the penetrative, fluid-exchanging kind - and wisdom on the order of "Women yield their power in a much less obvious way than men do. Their operating plane is on a much more refined level than that of men. So consideration of `la differencia' [sic] can get you a lot of poontang." Hancock isn't the first person to equate dancing with humanity's more erogenous zones, but he is certainly one of the more amusing, and by the sheer weight of his words ("The worst occurrence in this dimension will probably be seen in retrospect from a higher level as being an experience I needed to wake me up and transcend good and bad") and how strongly he seems to believe them, he's one of the more convincing.
The way Tommy Hancock tells it, dancing is a way to exercise, be at one with the universe, and rub up against some prime Tejas boo-tay all at the same time. What could possibly be wrong with that? I, for one, would sooner be pelted with a thousand flying tortillas than argue with him.
- Christopher Gray