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.”
“I look at people as ideas. I don’t see people as people.” Bob Dylan
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 brief encounters with Elton John, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Waylon Jennings, and Jack White.
You might be thinking that you’ll enjoy this memoir if you 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 Java. Hilburn makes very 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 full of excitement and energy – and the telling seems to get tired and pessimistic as we approach present times. Hilburn, in fact, closes the book with a lot of pessimism about the current 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, he favors. Not only does he realize it, but so do some of the artists he’s supported. For example, at one point he asks Bono if the musician is afraid that the public will become tired of him. Bono answers, “Look, I’m tired of Bono and I am Bono.”
“Paul’s like a brother. We’ve gone 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 that he and Paul were, deep down, brothers still.
Hilburn’s book is a brief for the power of rock ‘n roll. It may now be an endangered art form, but Hilburn reminds us that, at its best – as when it’s performed by Bruce Springsteen, “rock ‘n roll (can) still be majestic.”
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 great 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.” Take what you need from this account and leave the rest.