Instant Karma

Corn Flakes with John Lennon and Other Tales From a Rock ‘n Roll Life by Robert Hilburn (Rodale, $14.99, 280 pages)

“…the best music doesn’t just fill a void in the listener…  it can also fill a need in the artist.”   Robert Hilburn

“I look at people as ideas.   I don’t see people as people.”   Bob Dylan

“And we all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun.”   John Lennon

The fine long-time music critic for The Los Angeles Times, Bob Hilburn, takes us along on his trips with “the best rock stars” in this engaging account of his years in the music business.   It is mostly a study of personalities, big ones, such as John Lennon, Bob Dylan (“The most important figure in rock…  rock’s most celebrated living figure…  the greatest songwriter.”), Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, Neil Young, Bono of U2, Johnny Cash and Janis Joplin.   There are also quick, brief encounters with Sir Elton John, Sir Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Waylon Jennings, and Jack White.

You’re probably thinking that you’ll enjoy this memoir if you happen to like these artists, most of whom were blessed with the approval of both Hilburn and Rolling Stone magazine.   You’ll be right in that thought, and also will likely find that it has less charm if these artists are not your cup of tea or Java.   Hilburn makes quite clear that he dislikes “superficial artists” (a term coined by Dylan), among whom he includes Rod Stewart, the “cold” Steely Dan, and Madonna.   He writes of the latter that she’s a “sharp cookie” who always provides good quotes for an interviewer, but “I’m not generally a fan of her music.”

So, yes, this is an account of hanging out on the road with the stars of boomer rock and country music.   The true tales from the 1970s are the most interesting ones – when rock was seemingly full of excitement and energy (and played on vinyl) – and the telling seems to get tired and grumpy as we approach current times.   Hilburn, in fact, closes the book with a tremendous sense of pessimism about the music trade’s prospects for survival.

If Hilburn has a fault, it’s an obvious one in that he often gets close to being over the top about those artists, those geniuses – such as Dylan and Mitchell, that he favors.   Not only does he realize it, but so do some of the performers he’s supported.   For example, at one point he asks Bono if the musician fears that the public will become tired of him.   Bono replies, “Look, I’m tired of Bono and I am Bono.”

“Paul’s like a brother.   We’ve gone way past all that.”   John Lennon

If there’s a reason to buy this book, now available in trade paperback form, it’s for the touching overview of Hilburn’s days spent with Lennon in New York City just two weeks before the former Beatle’s tragic death.   This Lennon is a man at peace with himself, in love with his life, and ready to forgive and forget.   One very revealing note is when John tells Hilburn that all of the stories about the deep rift between him and Paul McCartney were just that, stories.   John noted he and Paul were, deep down, brothers still.

Hilburn’s book is a brief for the magical power of rock ‘n roll.   It may now be an endangered art form, but Hilburn reminds us that, at it’s best – as when it’s performed by The Boss (Springsteen), “rock ‘n roll can still be majestic.”

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Take Away:  This is a very entertaining journal of life within the rock ‘n roll circus tent.   However, Hilburn sacrifices a bit of credibility when he refers to Kurt Cobain as one of rock’s greatest figures and as “the great talent” of the 1990s.   As he admits, “I often had a hard time convincing…  people when it came to Kurt.”   In the words of The Band, take what you need and leave the rest.

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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