Tag Archives: folk-rock

Fakin’ It

paul-simon-hb

Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon by Peter Ames Carlin (Henry Holt, $32.00, 415 pages)

An ambitious attempt that fails because in the end we don’t know who Paul Simon is.

Paul Simon singing at the Jacquard Club in Norwich in the 1960s. EDP staff photograph. Ref: M1298-33A

Paul Simon singing at the Jacquard Club in Norwich in the 1960s.
EDP staff photograph. Ref: M1298-33A

I apply a key test to biographies of public figures. Does the book help the reader to understand who the subject is… What he thinks, what he values, what he seeks to accomplish through his work or art? Does the bio make you feel as if you’ve spent time with the subject? In this sense, Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon fails. Writer Peter Ames Carlin presents two quite different – often contradictory, portraits of Simon.

One Paul Simon is brilliantly creative, generous (he pays studio musicians two or three times their usual fees), open to helping others, and quite proud of his craft. The other Paul Simon must borrow from the music of others – what some might term stealing, is spiteful and/or vindictive, is a loner know-it-all, and is the son who failed to meet the role assigned to him by his father. (Louis Simon wanted his son to be a teacher rather than a musician.)

Unfortunately, Carlin does not take the initiative to tell us which Simon is the most real to him. Instead, he relies on a “fair and balanced” approach that tells us almost everything about the musician in 415 pages while revealing virtually nothing. It’s akin to reading a murder-mystery in which the author concludes the work without solving the crime. Thus, this is a frustrating work.

Carlin was hampered by the fact that Simon would not cooperate with this book, which is an unauthorized biography. Near its conclusion, Carlin presents a scene in which Simon – on stage to give a lecture, glares at him. Yes, Simon knows who Carlin is and clearly dislikes what he’s attempting to do.

This being said, the biographer of Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, and Brian Wilson offers some fine insights. We learn about the influence that Simon’s working musician father had on him, and there are parallels with the relationship between Paul McCartney and his father. It’s through Louis Simon that Paul was exposed to the Latin rhythms that he has often used in his music:

Paul could hear the echoes of the Latin dance bands he’d seen sharing the stage with (his father’s orchestra) at the Roseland Ballroom and the Latin rhythms and voices coming from the fringes of his radio dial, the sound of his youth, the essence of the New York that had created him and then, like his youth, slipped away.

As with his prior bios, Carlin examines in detail various recording sessions, songs and the inspiration for particular albums. But there are flaws. Carlin refers to Simon and Garfunkel’s performance in New York City’s Central Park as “a long day of rock ‘n roll communion.” Rock and roll? Paul Simon has produced a great amount of memorable music, but it’s a stretch to call it rock.

simon-and-garfunkel

There’s far too much included about the decades-long feuds and arguments between Art Garfunkel and Simon; so much so that it’s overblown and intensely boring. (Simon himself seems to wonder why on earth people care at this point.) And the case for Simon’s theft of music is pretty much non-existent. Let’s see, he borrowed a cassette tape with African music on it from a young woman who wanted Simon to assist her in recording similar music. She sought to borrow from – or embellish – the sounds of African musicians and was incensed when Simon did so himself. That’s not much of a scandal.

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A number of readers will undoubtedly find interesting the details that Carlin provides on Simon’s relationship with the late Carrie Fisher:

The divorce from Carrie hadn’t taken. They spent a few months apart, then started talking again, then seeing each other. Then they were back living together… There had always been something perfect about them when they were getting along: the way they huddled together, the way he grounded her, the way she could make him laugh so easily. And he loved her, with a desperation that sometimes frightened him… Carrie had taken herself to rehab to shed her drug habits, but drugs were only symptomatic of the manic-depression she’d suffered her entire adult life… Her depths were unimaginably deep, and Paul’s were nothing to sneeze at, either, so they clung to each other with a passion that could both soothe and abrade.

Beautiful words, but without Simon’s cooperation in telling his story, we have no way to judge their accuracy. One certainly has to wonder how this biography would have turned out if it had been authorized, and written with Simon’s assistance. Sadly, we will never know.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Homeward Bound was released on October 11, 2016.

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Music Review: Ready to Run by P.J. Pacifico

Music Review: ‘Ready to Run’ by P.J. Pacifico (Viper Records)Ready To Run Amazon

Musician P.J. Pacifico sounds different on his new EP release. Does the change in direction work?

Singer-songwriter P.J. Pacifico is going through some changes, as reflected in his latest release, an extended play (EP) disc entitled Ready to Run. The time he spends writing songs in Nashville is now augmented by time spent in the City of Angels. The influence of Los Angeles can be seen on the cover of Ready, which pays homage to Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky album. And Pacifico is co-writing songs with the team of Garrison Starr and AG, women who also handled the production on this release.

late-for-the-sky

Pacifico has come to terms with his status as a long-term cancer survivor (Hodgkin’s disease), a theme that runs through the five songs on the EP. And he’s gone retro, focusing on capturing the sound of the 1980s on this grouping. Does it all work? Well, let’s take a look at the songs on Ready, four of which can be seen and heard on YouTube.

“All for Something” is the first track, and it opens with the sound of a heartbeat. It sounds like a Sting recording crossed with Paul Simon during the latter’s Graceland period. Pacifico is reflective as he sings: “Baby, nothing good ever comes easy/And everybody knows it/I swear it’s all for something/If you’ll keep holding on.” The song could either be about a lost love or surviving a dreadful disease. This is a song that remains with the listener for a day or two after hearing it.

“While You Were Looking Away” is like Simon melded with Browne. The lyrics are definitely Browne-ish: “Nobody could have loved you better/It wasn’t getting any easier/Oh, I ran out of reasons to stay/While you were looking away/You don’t know what you want/You don’t want what you have/And now there ain’t no one left/You can blame me for that.” Note that Pacifico feels guilt, something that’s also true on the next track.

“Among the Living” is clearly about Pacifico’s experience with disease and his guilty feelings over having survived while others did not: “I was surviving/I want to forgive myself/For I’m among the living.” It’s a good song, but it’s marred by the heavy-handed production. There’s too much bass and Pacifico’s voice is at too low a range. “Living” would have been more effective if given a George Harrison-style arrangement. Still, Pacifico gets off a great line: “The thing that might kill you/Just might save your life.” He should know.

“I Want Your Love” is the track that’s not on YouTube, but it should be. It sounds like a Bruce Springsteen composition and production, with a bit of Ryan Adams thrown into the mix. The song closes out, quite interestingly, with Beatles-like sound effects. A very effective song, it should have been the single.

“Ready to Run” closes out the set with another overly-produced song. The sounds bury the vocal and the melody. In terms of reflecting the ’80s, this comes off as more Bryan Adams (“Run to You”) than Browne (“Running On Empty”). “Ready” would have been more memorable if delivered in a humble, pensive Browne-like style.

Ready to Run

It’s understandable that artists like to change things up, and it’s admirable that Pacifico’s taken risks on this new release. But I found there’s an overall sameness to the tracks due to the heavy, boomy production. This makes listening to this EP somewhat tiring. Make that more than somewhat.

I may well be in the minority, but I’d love to see the talented Pacifico return to the quieter guitar-based, almost folk rock sound reflected on earlier songs like “Half Wishing,” “Champions and Guardians,” and the beautiful “Lakeshore Drive.” I think Pacifico is in his natural sweet spot when he’s channeling the sound of the 1960s and ’70s.

Long-time Pacifico fans will no doubt want to pick up Ready to add to their collection. For those new to him, I’d suggest sampling his work on YouTube to see if you prefer his prior or current sound.

Recommended, with some reservations.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by a publicist.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/music-review-p-j-pacifico-ready-to-run-ep/

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(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

1965

1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music by Andrew Grant Jackson (Thomas Dunne Books, $27.99, 352 pages)

1965 could have been a direct, engaging and entertaining account of that year’s music. Instead, this nonfiction story begins with Acknowledgements, a Selected Time Line, an Introduction, and a Prologue before it actually starts. The ending is, naturally, followed by an Epilogue. And instead of simply discussing the music of the 12-month period, Andrew Grant Jackson proceeds to attempt to cover all of the political and social developments of the time, with far too much attention paid to psychedelic drugs. (Boring, “oft-covered” territory.)

One or two factual errors might be excusable, as Jackson was not alive when these events occurred. But there are far too many in 1965. Jackson writes that the Beatles tried to out-jingle-jangle the Byrds with the song “Nowhere Man.” No, it was George Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone.” He lists the Beatles’ “Think For Yourself” as a song about politics and free expression. No, it was a break-up song. He writes that the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” was a remake of “Baby Love” by the Supremes. Not even close. And he cites “Sloop John B” by the Beach Boys as a drug song. It was a remake of a West Indies traditional folk song earlier recorded by the rather benign, innocent Kingston Trio.

There are other statements that are questionable. Jackson writes, for example, that the Rolling Stones based their single “Paint It Black” on “My World Is Empty Without You” by the Supremes. Maybe, maybe not. One of the highly doubtful statements made by Jackson is that Brian Wilson based his classic song “God Only Knows” on the lightweight song “You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice” by the Spoonful. C’mon, now.

1965 is also plagued with no small amount of repetition. Jackson often makes the claim that specific rock song introductions were based on Bach’s classical music. In a couple of instances, he is likely right, but he goes on to state that this is the case for a large number of songs. Again, this is questionable.

beatles-1965-granger

Every now and then Jackson does uncover something of interest. He may have discovered the song that Paul McCartney heard as a very young boy in the early 50s, which subconsciously inspired him to write “Yesterday.” Well, maybe.

aftermath-usa

The book’s subtitle claims that 1965 was the most revolutionary year in rock music. Really? Pet Sounds and Blonde on Blonde and Aftermath were released in 1966, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band followed in 1967. I’d argue that these were the most significant, revolutionary years in rock music.

One final point is that Jackson often attempts to connect one type of music to everything else, musically and otherwise. You can love the music that Frank Sinatra recorded in the 60s without tying it to what the Beatles, Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones were doing at the time. There are different types of music, and some music is created without reference to the political struggles or happenings of the time.

1965 is a book that had a lot of potential. Due to its strangely formal structure and its errors, the potential was largely wasted.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on February 3, 2015.

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You Can Close Your Eyes

Music review: The Essential James Taylor

Does a buyer get his or her money’s worth with this 2 CD, 30 song collection?

Sony’s Legacy Recordings gets some props for truth in labeling with this collection. They could have simply placed James Taylor’s 20 best-selling singles on one CD and it would have constituted a purchase-worthy collection. Instead, on The Essential James Taylor the listener/purchaser has those 20 songs plus an additional 10 more on two CDs.

For any greatest hits collection there will be some quibbles. I would have left off the overly short “Long Ago and Far Away” (which seemed to be an idea for a song rather than a finished item, on which Taylor was accompanied by Joni Mitchell). Instead, I would have included “Mockingbird,” on which Taylor sang with his then-spouse Carly Simon – assuming the rights were available for licensing from Elektra/Warner. And I would have preferred “Suite for 20G” instead of the live take on “Steamroller.” Nevertheless, all of Taylor’s hits – as documented by their Pop and Adult Contemporary peak chart positions – and several lesser-known songs are found here.

The Essential James Taylor

“Honey Don’t Leave L.A.,” written by Danny Kortchmar, is one of the fun and unexpected selections in this compilation. Fortunately, “Her Town Too,” co-written and performed by Taylor and the very talented J.D. Souther, is included. There’s an interesting track, “Hard Times Come No More,” recorded with Yo-Yo Ma and a jaunty live version of the classic “Country Road.” “Secret O’ Life” – recorded live, is a nice surprise for those not previously familiar with it.

The second of the two CDs concludes almost perfectly with two inspiring and life-affirming songs performed live, “My Traveling Star” with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and “You Can Close Your Eyes.”

A word about the sound. This compilation was produced by Bill Inglot and mastered by Vic Anesini. Anesini has been involved in mastering several Legacy discs, including Over the Bridge of Time: A Paul Simon Retrospective (1964-2011). Here, the Inglot-Anesini team has delivered a set of discs with a nice, warm mid-range tone that’s generally pleasing to the ear. This collection is not a case where artificial “punch” and jarring loudness are added for dramatic effect. The sound is as soothing as Taylor’s voice. And Taylor’s and Kortchmar’s guitar work is easily heard in the mix. There are a couple of tracks that sound a bit flat, as if one were listening to the songs over a set of television speakers. But all in all, it’s a compilation that sounds consistently fine whether one is listening at home or in the car.

It’s a bit of a puzzle as to why Inglot placed the songs in almost, but not quite, chronological order. Perhaps it has to do with the segues, deciding which song would sound best followed by another particular song. I would not change a thing about the song order on either disc.

This fresh look at Taylor’s career that spans the years 1968 through 2007 reminds us that he is, like Paul Simon, a true American treasure. James Taylor’s music has not just helped to – in the words of the liner notes – “define a generation,” it helped a generation to grow, survive and prosper even when times seemed to be at their worst (“Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.”).

Thank goodness we’ve been able to experience his artistry in our times. How sweet it was and still is.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by Sony Legacy Recordings.

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics site as an Editor’s Choice article:

http://blogcritics.org/music-review-james-taylor-the-essential-james-taylor/

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Music Review: The Olms

Is the debut album from The Olms a hit, a miss or something in between?

The Olms (300)

If you missed the rock music era that ran from the mid-60s through to the end of the 70s, you can catch up to some extent by listening to this eclectic collection of 10 retro songs from the Los Angeles-based group The Olms. The Olms are Pete Yorn, who gives off something of an Owen Wilson-crossed-with-Ray-Davies vibe, and J. D. King, a combination of George Harrison and Michael Clarke (the late Byrds drummer) in appearance. It’s perhaps no accident that you’ll hear echoes of The Kinks and The Byrds in their music.

This debut album runs a couple of seconds less than a half-hour in length, and it was recorded on analog tape. Listening to the CD sounds like you’re hearing a cassette version. Whether that’s good or bad is up to the listener, but it adds a period touch to the release.

Here’s a quick look at the tracks.

“On the Line” is like The Traveling Wilburys (“End of the Line”) mixed with the Kinks. The megaphone vocal is by King, while Yorn contributes Davies-style background vocals. “Someone Else’s Girl” could have been a track from Damn the Torpedoes by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. There’s also a touch of The Beatles’ “Things We Said Today” in the song. The music sounds like a weekend drive through Los Angeles. Blissful.

“Twice As Nice,” the first-ever Yorn/King composition is an uplifting song that calls to mind The Beach Boys and America. “Walking down Record Street at night….” Clever. “Wanna Feel It” is the single, which has a nice rhythm but ultimately goes nowhere. All promise and no delivery, which is perhaps why it ends abruptly two-thirds of the way through and segues into “A Bottle of Wine, etc.” This sounds like a late-period Byrds song that might have been included on either Sweetheart of the Rodeo or Dr. Byrd & Mr. Hyde. It melds beautiful lyrics with unique and playful instrumentation. “It’s a lonely world without the one you want.” Sweetly melancholic.

“Another Daydream” is a Pet Sounds-style song with a beautiful melody and the strangest lyrics since “A Horse With No Name”: “Koolaid sheik wandering the desert/Stranded in time feeling alone/Cold sweat drying in the garden/Cactus flower saying hello.” What?

“Rise and Shine” is by far the weakest song on the album. And it’s meaningless. “I check the kitchen but there’s no one there/I start the engine yet go nowhere.” This might have served as a throwaway track on an album by The Monkees.

“What Can I Do?” is Yorn’s full-on Ray Davies act. “You know it’s useless baby we can’t say goodbye/We’re going to be together till one of us dies!” “She Said No” is King’s gruesome yet entertaining song. It’s his serio-comic version of Neil Young’s “Down By the River.” “Only One Way” might have been the last track on a Byrds album. The lyrics say, “We’ll see you next time.” Yorn channels Davies again while King’s guitar work combines George Harrison and Roger McGuinn.

The Olms

All in all, The Olms is a mixed effort. The album has some high highs, but they’re counterbalanced by some very low lows. Although Yorn is quite a good drummer, the energy level is off compared to their live performances (Google the olms kcrw). When they played these songs in a live session at Apogee Studio for the KCRW audience in Los Angeles, there was a spark, a sense of joyfulness (Yorn played the opening chords to The Kinks’ “Lola” and sang a fine cover of “Love Is All Around” by The Troggs), and a love of life and playing that’s absent in the flat-by-comparison album versions. The songs were also played at a faster pace when played live.

It’s a shame that the excellent KCRW concert was not taped and released as the debut effort by this group. Still, The Olms serves as a heartfelt tribute to days gone by.

Joseph Arellano

A review CD was provided by a publicist. (Photo: Justin Wise/KCRW)

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics website:

Music Review: The Olms – ‘The Olms’

The review was also used by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Music-Review-The-Olms-The-Olms-4849307.php

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Photographs and Memories

I Got a Name: The Jim Croce Story by Ingrid Croce and Jimmy Rock (Da Capo, $25.00, 307 pages)

In I Got a Name: The Jim Croce Story, the wife of the late singer-songwriter has put together a moving, direct, and fully engaging biography.   The 300 pages seem to fly by and Ingrid Croce – assisted by her second husband Jimmy Rock – has done something that most musician biographers fail to do.   She uses the lyrics to 33 Jim Croce songs to demonstrate how the events in Croce’s life directly shaped his music.

Jim Croce knew individuals named Leroy Brown, Big Jim Walker and Willie McCoy; they were not just figments of a wild imagination.   His ballads and love songs were usually based on the often contentious relationship between himself and Ingrid.   One story told by Ingrid reads like a scene out of film…  Jim and Ingrid have a major dispute, and Jim walks away leaving her sobbing in the bedroom.   A couple of hours later, by way of apology, he returns to sing her a song he has just written – I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song.

Ingrid does not pull any punches about Jim’s flaws.   He had a lot of anger (much of it having to do with his parent’s insistence that he not “waste” his college education on a music career), abused prescription medication, and was often unfaithful… However, her love for him as a person shines through on every page of this sometimes emotional work.

One of the shocks for the reader is finding out that while Croce made millions of dollars for his record company, he never saw any of it during his short life of 30 years.   Near the end of his life, he had no more than $40 in his pocket, saved out of a weekly travel per diem of just $200.   It took years and decades of litigation for Ingrid to receive what was due.

“I know he will be with me forever.”

It was shortly before his death in an airplane crash that Croce appeared to be coming apart at the seams.   (A psychic had earlier told him that his son would be raised with only one parent.)   He wrote a letter of love and regrets to Ingrid:  “I know that I haven’t been very nice to you for some time…  I know that you see me for what I am…”   It was a letter that she was to receive after his death.

Croce also told Ingrid in the letter of his plan to separate himself from life on the road and rededicate himself to his wife and toddler son:  “…I want to be the oldest man around, a man with a face full of wrinkles and lots of wisdom.   Give a kiss to my little man and tell him Daddy loves him.   Remember, it’s the first sixty years that count and I’ve got thirty to go.   I love you.”

A long life was not to be, but we have Jim Croce’s amazing music to remember him by.   We now also have this loving remembrance from a strong, but still somewhat heartbroken, woman.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.  The Foreward to I Got a Name was written by Arlo Guthrie.

Note:  The song I Got a Name, featured so well in the film Invincible (set in Jim Croce’s hometown of Philadelphia), was the one song sung by Croce that he did not write.

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Questions

The Quandaries of a Book Reviewer

It would seem, at first blush, that a book reviewer needs only to read the book in question and then write-up his or her thoughts.   Sometimes it is just this simple.   However, I’ve found that some unexpected issues – almost moral in nature – arise from time to time.   Let me go over a few of those here with you.

The Twin Books

Sometimes two books, fiction or nonfiction, are released at the same time and contain virtually identical content.   It may be that both books are biographies of a former First Lady or of a 70-year-old folk rock singer…  It may be that both novels tell a story that is the same from start to finish.   How does a reviewer handle this?   Is it relevant?   I think it is, but then how is the reviewer to make use of this factor?

Do both books get downgraded due to a lack of originality, or does one accept that this is simply what happens in life (independent and spontaneous creation)?   If two books are almost the same, does this not beg for a comparative review – a determination of which is better (like DVD versus Blu-ray)?   And doesn’t this mean that one of the two must be selected as the winner, and the other as the loser?

Should a reviewer ever express a suspicion that one writer may have copied the other – or at least cribbed an idea from the other?   Or should all of this be put aside, so that the reviewer is – in effect – placing his hands over his eyes, ears and mouth like a monkey?

The Shooting Star

Let’s say that the reviewer has a favorite author and is very much looking forward to reading this writer’s latest work (in our example, a novel).   For illustrative purposes, I will use one of my favorites, Pat Conroy.   If I’ve loved every one of his novels and then I find that his latest release is a dog, what do I do?   Or, rather, what should I do?   Do I compensate for this by stating that every author is going to have a down period (a compensation for a lifetime of achievement), or should I slam him since I know full well that he’s capable of doing better than this?

Is a talented author to be given a pass when he delivers something less than his usual best, or should the reviewer explicitly make the case that this author has gotten lazy – or something worse?

Pass/Fail

Some less-established authors may have only published a couple of novels.   I’ve found instances where one of the two is near-perfection (more often the debut novel), while the sophomore effort pales by comparison.   Is this something that should be mentioned in a review of the more recent release, or is it outside the bounds of propriety and relevance?   Is it acceptable for the reviewer to write something like, “While this new novel is not up to the standards of the author’s first, he clearly has demonstrated the ability to produce an impressive product the next time around.”

Does the average book review reader really care about whether the author is getting stronger or weaker, or does that reader simply want to know whether this book is worth purchasing?

The Same Thing, Over and Over

There are a few authors who write a great story – the sole problem being that they’re known for writing the same story, the same novel over and over again.   In one recent case, a publisher stated that a very successful author’s new novel was “completely new and different,” as if to apologize for all of the almost-photocopied novels (with similar cover images) that preceded it.   Should the reviewer judge each and every novel with the almost-same plot and resolution on its own merits – on “all fours” as law professors state, or is it justifiable to critique the author’s novels for a lack of originality?

If you love a particular author whose books happen to be very similar, does it bother you or is  it something that you’re able to put aside – like knowing that some rock bands are continuously original while others are not?

The End

If you happen to know the answers to these questions, please feel free to let me know.   In the interim, I will continue to stumble along not quite knowing (in the words of the immortal Van Morrison) “what is worst or what is best.”

Joseph Arellano

Pictured – Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by Greg Lawrence (Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99, 322 pages).   “The vision Jackie brought into editing embraced the recognition that every life has its own riches and meaning, waiting to be revealed by what she called ‘the hard work of writing.'”

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No Direction Home

The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein (Harper; $27.99; 496 pages)

He didn’t really know where he was going and he didn’t care much.   He just liked the feeling of freedom, walking alone in a strange town on a day when nobody…  was likely to meet him or greet him.   He could go “invisible,” a word and an idea he relished.   Since the age of twenty-three he could not go anywhere where he was not recognized.

Bob Dylan has said (and it’s repeated in this work) that he has only read the first of the many books written about his life.   That’s because after he read the first bio of Robert (Bobby) Zimmerman, he felt like it was all fiction – it did not seem like he was reading about his own life.   To some extent, I share the feeling after reading this huge tome on Dylan’s professional life in music.

When I read Dylan’s own Chronicles I felt like I had engaged with the man…  His all-too-unique voice came through so clearly and he seemed intelligent, clever and likeable all at once.   But after reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan, I felt as if the man, the musician, had suddenly become invisible again.   “You’re invisible, you’ve got no secrets to conceal…”   (“Like A Rolling Stone”)

The role of the modern biography should be to transform a legendary human being, living or dead, into flesh and blood.   When I read the equally long (480 page) biography of the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood, I felt as if I’d spent days in the presence of an athlete that I’d never met.   More importantly, I felt sorrow when I finished the true tale as I knew that I would begin missing the feeling of being in the presence of the late Sugar Ray’s bittersweet personality.

As a research document, The Ballad of Bob Dylan is fine.   It adds to the historical record giving the reader citations as to the inspirations for Dylan’s songs (religious, personal and otherwise), and telling us – sometimes for the first time – about his interactions with other musicians.   But the read is simply flat, very much like reading a college textbook.   For me, many interesting facts got lost in the presence of too many uninteresting facts.   And looking at the singer-songwriter’s life by reporting on a select number of performances that were separated by decades just seemed too clever to me – the game was not worth the candle, as the law professors say.

If you’re a Dylan fanatic, then you will no doubt purchase and read this biography no matter what any review states; and there are two other new Bob Dylan biographies that you’ll need to buy at the same time.   But if you’re just curious about the man who is about to turn 70 (and maybe new to the whole Dylan craze), I would humbly suggest that you instead purchase the trade paperback copy of Bob’s own Chronicles: Volume One.   You might also ask one of your older relatives to lend you their vinyl or digital copies of Subterranean Homesick Blues, Highway 61 Revisited (“The album that changed everything!”  Rolling Stone), Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks.   In this way, you’ll come to know both the man and the musician at his oh-so-fine, once upon a time, peak.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan is available from Simon and Schuster Paperbacks ($14.00; 293 pages).   Sweet Thunder: The  Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood is available in trade paperback form from Lawrence Hill Books ($18.95).  

“The best is always fragile, Sugar Ray Robinson once said, and it took a writer of Wil Haygood’s magnificence to appreciate what this meant in bringing the great boxer back to life.   Sweet Thunder is a jewel from beginning to end.”   David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered and They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967.

Slight Return:  I made this note to myself while reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan, “This book is like a brief for a lifetime achievement award.   It did not help me to understand who the man is.”


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Mr. Tambourine Man

Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010 (Public Affairs; $29.95; 481 pages)

“You have to pay to get out of going through these things twice.”   Bob Dylan

In 1985, rock critic Greil Marcus was asked to review the book A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan by Wilfred Meller, and his review began with these words:  “This is a confused and confusing book about a confused and confusing figure: Bob Dylan, born 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, as Robert Alan Zimmerman.”   Well, back at you, Greil, as those would be the perfect words to describe this $30 collection of essays, previously published and unpublished.   They all deal in some way – and some barely – with the subject of Bob Dylan.   It might be said that Marcus’ essays on the man are dazed and confused.

It’s a bit shocking that Marcus does not come even close to enlightening the reader about Dylan the musician or the man.   That’s shocking because just last year, he released a brilliant tome about Van Morrison (reviewed on this site on August 26, 2010), When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison.   There, Marcus seemed to capture both Van’s heart and his soul, and it made the reader want to run to play his or her Morrison CDs.   He was spot on there; here, no way.

Marcus seems confused because there are four Bob Dylans:  the genius songwriter (“Like A Rolling Stone,” “Visions of Johanna”); the oh-so-casual writer of throw-away songs (“Watching the River Flow,” “Rainy Day Women No.s 12 & 35 [Everybody Must Get Stoned]”);  the overly serious, angry and controlling musician (where there are similarities to Morrison); and the Joker, whose every action and comment is a complete put-on.   Because Marcus cannot reconcile these four personalities in one person, he appears continually lost as to what’s going on with Mr. Hughes in his Dylan shoes.   Sometimes he loves Dylan, sometimes he’s disappointed by him, sometimes he blasts him, but mostly he’s watching the parade go by and  wondering about the meaning of it all.

As an example, he prints a section of the interview that Dylan gave to Playboy magazine back in 1966.   The entire interview is a big joke – although it was lost to the magazine’s editors – and none of it is real.   But Marcus has no comment on it.

One problem is that to properly understand and analyze Dylan, one must have a breadth of background as big and wide as Dylan’s.   Such is not the case in this compilation…  At one point Marcus does note that Dylan has relied on religious writings as the inspiration for many of his songs (the same is true of philosophers, not just prophets), but he does not supply any actual references.   It’s a shame and one has to wonder if Marcus cribbed that point from another writer.

The writing is dull and flat and lacks the excitement of, say, a Lester Bangs or a John Mendelsohn.   And yet when Van Morrison appears on the scene, as when Marcus writes of The Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz, the writing is suddenly sparkling – until Morrison leaves the stage, and it returns to being flat.   So it seems that Marcus simply gets Morrison in a way that will never apply to Dylan.

“Along with a lot of other things, becoming a Bob Dylan fan made me a writer.   I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant.”

As you can see from this quotation, you’re not going to get much from Greil Marcus that’s going to help you understand Bob Dylan’s songs…  Except…  Except that he includes an almost-perfect review of Dylan’s singular 10-song masterpiece Blood on the Tracks.   Which, as the Chuck Berry song says, goes to show you never can tell.

Marcus was quite tough in that ’85 review of Wilfred Meller’s book:  “Meller’s language collapses along with his conceptual apparatus.”   That sounds very harsh and professorial, does it not?   Getting back to Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, I’ll just say that there’s far less here than one would expect from a writer who wrote the liner notes to one of Bob Dylan’s major albums.   Making your way through all of this is like going on an Easter egg hunt where no one finds any of the eggs.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)

The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein (Harper; $27.99; 512 pages)

Bob Dylan is a performing artist – a traveling bluesman, a modern-day minstrel – and the best way to try to access his art is to see him perform live.   Reading the lyrics, even listening to the records just does not do the man justice.   In The Ballad of Bob Dylan, Daniel Mark Epstein does what few have been able to do at all, much less do well – capture that spirit and, in doing so, somehow manages to get closer to the essence of an American icon.

Epstein explores Mr. Dylan through the lens of four concerts spanning 46 (yes, you read it correctly, 46!) years.   Beginning with the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C., December 14, 1963; moving to Madison Square Garden, 1974; then to Tanglewood, 1997; and, finally, ending with Aberdeen, 2009, the author invites the reader into the endless iterations and reincarnations of the man who, by Dylan’s account “doesn’t do folk-rock” and is “just a guitar player.”   Epstein tells of a Hibbing, Minnesota, Jewish boy obsessed with American roots music.   He explores the inner workings of a young man who locks himself in his room listening to far away radio stations – a teenager enamored with Little Richard and Buddy Holly.

Epstein takes the reader on an improbable journey in which this same person, later in his life, converts to Christianity and – for nearly three years from 1979-1981 – almost exclusively performs music from his three religious albums, regularly using the stage as a pulpit.   Epstein describes a man so distraught that in 1987, after years of going through the motions and hiding behind back-up singers, concludes that retirement from live performances is his only option.

At this point, Epstein alludes to a turning point in Dylan’s career familiar to many of his fans.   On October 5, 1987, in Locarno, Switzerland, Dylan, petrified, needing to take the stage on the verge of a panic attack, indicated that he heard a voice, and a revelation occurred to him.   “I’m determined to stand, whether God will deliver me or not.   And all of a  sudden everything just exploded in every which way.   After that is when I sort of knew:  I’ve got to go out and play these songs.   That’s just what I must do.”

This moment is likely the birth of what has become known as “The Never Ending Tour”, a tour that Dylan claims has ended, but to which the author refers in an effort to describe Dylan’s continual need to perform well over 100 shows per year.   Epstein describes Tanglewood as the 880th show of the tour.   Specifics aside, Dylan has kept up this pace ever since.   He has played in front of a couple of thousand people or less; he has played to sold-out arenas; he has played summer shows in amphitheaters to crowds of 20,000-plus; he has played ballparks and college campuses; he has played in front of crowds that have enthusiastically embraced him, as well as several who have walked out on him.   But keep playing, he has.

As Epstein relates, Dylan wanted to take his music to a new audience without preconceived ideas of what it was supposed to sound like.   In so doing, Dylan essentially recreates his music on a nightly basis.

Moving from concert to concert, Epstein recounts various stages of Dylan’s career.   Many of these stories can be found elsewhere.   However, the perspective is unique, and there’s ample and interesting new ground.   The best example of this is Chapter 12, in which the author goes to great lengths describing the impact drummer David Kemper had on the band during his 509 shows (1996-2001).   It is probably no coincidence that this is the era in which Dylan reconnected with the masses.

Another interesting tidbit is Epstein’s account of when Larry Campbell replaced John Jackson on lead guitar.   Upon arrival, Campbell had to learn Dylan’s songbook, yet during the rehearsals prior to his first tour, the band almost exclusively played covers from the traditional American songbook.   Rarely did they ever rehearse anything.   Dylan wanted things raw and spontaneous and created an environment to ensure it.

There are a great many other nuggets in this book, and Epstein’s bright ability to capture the essence of Dylan’s commitment to performing live is unique.   Paul Williams wrote three books entitled Bob Dylan Performing Artist, which consider work from different eras of Dylan’s career, but Esptein – for reasons that will become apparent to the reader – does a better job than most at providing the context of why this discussion is worth having in the first place.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is the author of a novel about baseball, family and Bob Dylan entitled Life and Life Only.   He has seen Bob Dylan perform live twenty-nine (yes, 29!) times over the years and decades; however, Mr. Moyer has never played his drums for Mr. Dylan.


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