Tag Archives: music essays

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah

The Cambridge Companion to The Beatles, edited by Kenneth Womack (Cambridge University Press)

“(George) Martin was more impressed with the Beatles charisma than their early material.”

The Cambridge Companion to The Beatles is an excellent collection of essays concerning the band’s work.   This compendium manages to cover their musical career from simple rockers to complicated composers without missing a beat.   The chapter, “The Beatles as recording artists” quotes freely from recording engineer Geoff Emerick.   Although it’s a fine summary in a couple of dozen pages, it does not take the place of Emerick’s essential work, Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Beatles.

As with every account of the Beatles, things start out fine and fun before ending in the train wreck of the band’s dissolution.   We begin with Meet the Beatles and end up with the mishmash digital meddling – and mess – of Love.   It remains, all in all, a sad story.   (Hey Jude, anyone?)

One of the writers notes that major educational institutions – like Cambridge – now see the Beatles as a bona fide topic of scholarly inquiry.   Fine, but collections like this one completely omit the spirit of the Fab Four; their human energy if you will.   This reviewer thinks that mythologizing the Beatles is more destructive than constructive.   After all, as John Lennon said, they were just four guys in a band.   That was enough.

Well recommended.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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Into the Mystic

When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison by Greil Marcus (Public Affairs, 208 pages, $25.95)

“To this day it gives me pain to hear it.   Pain is the wrong word – I’m so moved by it.”   Lewis Merenstein, producer of Astral Weeks

listening-to-van-morrison

Greil Marcus has provided the world with a love letter – one addressed to Van Morrison.   Anyone who’s heard Van Morrison’s music is likely to admire this book.   It’s one of the few nonfiction books in which the Prologue and Introduction do not serve as unnecessary baggage, Marcus taking us back to the world of a very young Morrison with Them.

Rough God (the title taken from a line of poetry by Yeats) is a series of essays on the artist as a young and very mature man rather than a conventionally structured biography.   The entire point of the book, however, is to pay tribute to Morrison’s now 41-year-old masterpiece, Astral Weeks.   The producer of the record said that just 30 seconds into recording the album, “My whole being was vibrating.”   Marcus delves deeply into what Lester Bangs called the “mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work.”

If you’ve never quite understood the meaning of Astral Weeks, Marcus translates it and makes it clear.   This in itself is worth the price of admission, as if one were unlocking the core of Pet Sounds or Rubber Soul.  This work also examines some of Morrison’s lesser known recordings.   Like his song “Domino,” it’s joyful noise.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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Live Dead

The Grateful Dead in Concert: Essays on Improvisation (edited by Jim Tuedio and Stan Spector; McFarland, $35.00, 355 pages)

“Where I enjoyed the music, the audience was immersed in it; they were tuned to the slightest nuances coming from the stage.”   Cristian Amigo

The Grateful Dead in Concert is a non-essential but fun collection of essays about the Dead’s live improvisation, and other things related to the band in its heyday.   This reviewer sees it as non-essential because the notion of writing academic essays on the Dead’s intentionally sloppy musicianship is a little silly.   A comparable book would discuss the classical elements and phrases in the music of Bruce Springsteen.   And does anyone really need a list of the seven Requirements for Strategic Improvisation? 

But there’s some great writing in here, such as the article by Cristian Amigo that calls to mind Junot Diaz; Rebecca Adams’ essay on seeing the Dead play live for the first time; and Joan Millay’s wild and wooly tale of sharing drugs with the band members.   The latter will take Boomers back to the time when they read magazines like Cream, Ramparts, and the then-rebellious Rolling Stone.

This might make a nice gift for an egghead that’s been a closet Dead Head.   Just warn the recipient not to take it too seriously.   As musician Wynton Marsalis said about jazz, “Anyone can improvise, but any improvisation is not jazz.”   Writing about music is not music.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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