Tag Archives: music

For Whom The Bell Tolls

The Bee Gees: The Biography by David N. Meyer (Da Capo, $27.50)

Bee Gees Meyer 2

An attempt to de-mythologize the best-selling brothers Gibb that doesn’t even get the song titles right.

It’s hard to understand why David Meyer wrote this book. Moreover, who is the audience for it? The biography is not a tribute to the Bee Gees, which means that fans will have no reason to read it. It does its best to present the brothers Gibb as a strange band of brothers, but that will hardly be enough to convince non-fans to purchase the book.

The band bio is perhaps best described as an attempt to de-mythologize/bring down the musical group described on the jacket as, “[O]ne of the bestselling bands on the planet….” Meyer puts his cards on the table in the introduction (one as unnecessary as most introductions are). Here he tells readers that, while the Bee Gees “made hits for forty years, they sold a quarter of a billion albums, (and) everyone on earth knows their music… they still seem like they don’t really belong.” Really? Well, that’s one person’s foolish opinion.

Early on the book tries to dwell on things that might make the brothers appear to be unlikeable. For example, within the first 50 pages we’re informed that Maurice Gibb might have spent “an aggregate of $100 million on automobiles.” Except that Meyer is not reporting this as factual. Instead, he relates that, “It’s rumored he spent… $100 million on automobiles.” So it is not necessarily factual, and it has nothing to do with the group’s music.

Meyer proceeds in this realm by telling us that a young Barry Gibb once parked six expensive cars in front of his London flat. And if we haven’t got the point, there’s a photo of Barry standing in front of his Lotus, circa 1969. The relevance of this is what, exactly?

Since this is a book about an esteemed musical group, Meyer does try to provide some pseudo-analysis of the band’s music. But his heart doesn’t seem to be in it. As an example, he refers multiple times to a song called “Marley Putt Drive” recorded for the Odessa double album. He refers to “Marley Putt Drive” as a track with lyrics that are “beyond idiocy.” This might be a tad interesting, except for the fact that the song in question is actually “Marley Purt Drive.” How is it that one would set to write about a band’s music and not get the song titles right? (If one were to write about the Beatles and refer to one of their songs as “Nobody Man,” how much credibility would such a writer have?) And how is it that neither the writer nor an editor caught this error in the hardbound release?

The writer’s negative bias is glaring when he refers to the group’s mega-successful songs on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack as “mediocre songs.” This is pretty tactless, pointless criticism, as when he writes of the song “Stayin’ Alive” that it is “a mechanistic artifact from a mechanistic genre, and tragically, soulless at its core.” Not only is this over the top, it reads like something written for a high school newspaper, overdramatic to its core.

As an illustration of how weak Meyer’s point is, he tells us that “Stayin’ Alive” “spent less time at #1 (in sales) than any other #1 (song) on the album.” Shocking and almost shameful! The group had multiple number one songs on this album, and this song was the least successful of the ultra-successful tracks. This must be the opposite of damning with faint praise.

When Brian Wilson inducted the Bee Gees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he called them, “One of the greatest vocal groups ever assembled.” Consider the source in terms of praiseworthiness. Wilson went on to state: “There’s nothing more important than spiritual love in music. And the Bee Gees have given us this love in music.” Beautiful words which reflect the way the Bee Gees might properly be remembered.

The late Robin Gibb once wrote a bestselling song called “Saved by the Bell.” The bell may have already rung for David Meyer’s account; tragically, it did not ring timely in order to save us from it.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy of the finished book was received from the publisher.

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics site:

Book Review: ‘The Bee Gees: The Biography’ by David N. Meyer

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

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Book-Review-The-Bee-Gees-The-Biography-by-4826973.php

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People leave the scene after explosions went off at the 117th Boston Marathon in BostonBridge Over Troubled Water (450)

An article about the tragic events in Boston and music.

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The Days That Used to Be

Waging Heavy Peace (audio large)

‘Cause there are very few of us left my friend/ From the days that used to be Neil Young, “The Days That Used to Be” from 1990’s Ragged Glory album

Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young (Blue Rider Press, $30.00, 502 pages)

Where to begin. Let’s try with Neil’s own words. How about we work backward from page 409?

“About twenty years later, in the mid-nineties, Briggs and I were making an album. I still call it an album because that is what I make. I don’t make CDs or iTunes tracks. I make albums. That is just what I do. Call it what you like. I remember how I hated the shuffle feature on iTunes because it f—– up the running order I spent hours laboring over. Having tracks available independently and having the shuffle factor sucks as far as I am concerned. Call me old-fashioned. I make albums and I want the songs to go together to create a feeling. I do those things on purpose. I don’t want people cherry-picking the albums. I like to choose the singles. After all, it’s my s—.”

That, in a nutshell is Neil Young’s amazing autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace.

The title comes from a query directed at Neil in which he was asked if he was waging war with Apple. He replied, “No, I’m waging heavy peace.”

Neil has been working on starting a company (originally PureTone, now Pono due to an alleged copyright infringement) – Neil is always in the middle of some project or another – to restore digital music to something resembling its original sound. In what I will call a companion release, whether accurate or not, the album sans CD Psychedelic Pill, a project with Crazy Horse, now leads with the song “Driftin’ Back”. A key verse starts off, “When you hear my song now/You only get 5%”. His web page contains a message touting that in 2012 record companies will release High Resolution Audio. Neil is nothing if not passionate, and he is overtly committed to doing all he can to ensure the next generation does not forget what music is supposed to sound like.

This book is as close to honesty as one can get without it becoming too uncomfortable. Yes, Neil likes cars and trains. He loves his wife, Pegi. But, how about finding out he needs brain surgery only to go to Nashville to record one of his finest works, Prairie Wind, while waiting for surgery on the aneurysm because he can’t sit still? How about vacillating between being a young guy who strands a woman in New Mexico to find her own way home because she is grating on his nerves, matter-of-factly describing incidents and leaving compatriots dead in the manuscript due to various indiscretions, and describing incidents such as David Crosby visiting with a yacht disguised as a meth lab, and yet revisits such scenes with candor, honesty, tenderness, love, and loyalty, that he comes across as eminently noble and likeable?

This is some book. Neil has two children with handicaps. Many people know this. Throughout the book, he continues to refer to his son Ben as Ben Young. Always Ben Young. At first this seems as quirky as Neil himself, until the reader eventually discovers the respect behind the moniker.

Neil tells you he’s writing the book as he writes it. He confides that he is attempting to produce art sober for the first time in his life. He has tremendous allegiance and affinity for fellow musicians, explains why Buffalo Springfield could never continue in its burst of brilliance, and admires Jimmy Fallon for doing a better Neil than Neil.

Some have compared this book to Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. Understandable, I guess, but Bob is Bob, and Neil is Neil, and this book is so captivating and fascinating that I cannot compare it to anything.

I rarely lapse into first person in any formal writing, but this book moved me. It hit me in the gut and remains stuck with me somehow, like Neil’s music. I could refer to Neil as Young, or Mr. Young, like The Wall Street Journal would. But I cannot. Neil is too personal to me. I’ll never meet the man, but if he goes first, I’ll never forget him.

Thanks, Neil, for staying true to your art in good times and bad, and creating such moving and unique tales of humanity that will last forever – and for writing one helluva book.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Hallelujah

The Holy or The Broken (nook book)The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and The Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” by Alan Light (Atria Books, $25.00, 254 pages)

“People keep finding the song in new ways… I’ve had kids talk to me about ‘Hallelujah’ as if they were the only ones who knew it – it’s a cult classic, like the world’s biggest sleeper hit. It’s like joining a club.” Singer Patrick Stump of the band Fall Out Boy

There are some nonfiction books that read like – and were written as, long versions of magazine articles. These tend to be books with lots of filler, in which not so much new information is found. Such is not the case with The Holy or the Broken – while it reads like it might have begun its existence in the form of a possible magazine article, there’s plenty of new and valuable information here, especially for music fans. For the less knowledgeable, this account may lead them to pursue more information about Leonard Cohen or Jeff Buckley or other musicians named within its pages.

This is the fascinating true story of Cohen’s writing a song included within an album that his record company refused to release. The song would not be discovered and appreciated for 13 years, and – as referenced in the subtitle, it was the late Jeff Buckley’s vibrant cover version that was to make it a worldwide phenomenon. The song is now a staple of televised singing competitions such as American Idol, The Voice and The X Factor.

Author Light details how Cohen’s song – a mixture of joyful and sorrowful sentiments, has benefited from being used as an anthem following tragic events such as 9/11, and via its frequent use on TV and motion picture soundtracks (including Shrek). There’s also the fact that musicians as varied as Bob Dylan, Bono, Sheryl Crowe, Justin Timberlake, Susan Boyle, Rufus Wainright, Lee DeWyze, Willie Nelson, Neil Diamond and k.d. lang have either covered it and/or performed it on stage. The song has become an industry onto itself; one publisher calling the song “a brand.”

The one negative about the narrative is that Light, a former editor-in-chief at Spin magazine, incorporates a bit too much of his personal tastes into the telling – becoming, if you will, more rock critic than unbiased historian. Still, there’s ample fascinating stuff to chew on here – one example being that John Lissauer, the producer of Cohen’s initially-unreleased album Various Positions (which contained Cohen’s original version of “Hallelujah”) confesses that, “I felt like I’d ruined (Cohen’s) career.” Far from it!

“When you hear the Jeff Buckley version, it’s so intimate it’s almost like you’re invading his personal space, or you’re listening to something that you weren’t supposed to hear.” Jake Shimaburkuro

“It’s a hymn to being alive. It’s a hymn to love lost. To love. Even the pain of existence…” Jeff Buckley

The Holy or the Broken is well recommended.

Readers or music lovers wishing to learn more may want to read the excellent book Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley by David Browne, and the new biography I’m You’re Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. The Holy or the Broken is also available as a Nook Book or Kindle Edition download.

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The Holy or The BrokenA review of The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and The Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” by Alan Light.

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You Beat Me to the Punch

Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar by Peter Benjaminson (Chicago Review Press, $26.95, 304 pages)The singer Mary Wells had an amazing, crystal clear voice that was to presage what came later with The Supremes and Diana Ross.   Wells’ early ’60s-era singles, such as “You Beat Me to the Punch,” “My Guy,” “The One Who Really Loves You,” and “Two Lovers” were so perfectly recorded that it’s difficult, even now, to think of anyone attempting to cover them.   (Try substituting another singer’s voice in your mind.   Try it.   It can’t be done.)

The Queen of Motown died all too young from cancer at the age of 49, and in a basically impoverished state.   Wells’ dramatic riches to rags story offered cinematic-style opportunities for the right writer.   In Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar, Peter Benjaminson delivers an account that falls short of being extensive or definitive.   Biographies of artists – musicians, writers, fashion designers, actors – often come across as flawed when the biographer missed the chance to interview his or her subject.   While Benjaminson interviewed many of Wells’ “friends, lovers and husbands,” he was forced to rely on another writer’s dated one-on-one interviews with the singer.

Because Benjaminson cannot describe what it was like to be in Wells’ orbit or company, he takes the route of writing about “the sex, the violence and the drugs in her life.”   This is unfortunate because writing about Wells’ sexual partners, domestic violence incidents, and her illicit drug use does nothing to flesh her out as an artist.   The story of Wells’ life is told in such a straight-forward, chronological order that there’s no rush to turn the pages.   (It’s a book that I put down far more than I intended.)

The story’s momentum comes late, when Benjaminson deals with Wells’ clearly fatal cancer diagnosis and her poverty.   Wells might have been a multi-millionaire had she taken the deal offered to her by Berry Gordy to remain at Motown as a co-owner of the record company.   Instead, she left to begin what she felt was going to be a highly successful musical career with another label.   It was not to be, and Wells’ later may have repeated her mistake by turning down an alleged offer of $1 million from Gordy when she was quite ill.   (Benjaminson is unclear as to whether this offer was, in fact, ever put on the table.)

Mary Wells, the woman who – in her own words – “helped build Motown” was to survive by playing gigs in small clubs, in hotels such as the Sheraton Airport Hotel at LAX, at San Quentin State Prison, and basically wherever someone would offer her a few dollars to walk on stage.   It’s ironic that, as Benjaminson states, Wells was to pursue fortune, not fame during her lifetime but her terrible personal decisions left her with “no money to speak of.”

Where Benjaminson gets it right is in providing readers with details about Wells’ recording sessions at Motown (with the likes of Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye) and elsewhere.   These details are what draw the interest of music fans.   There are, however, some facts presented in this bio that may be open to question.   For example, Benjaminson insists that Wells was hugely popular for several decades in Latino neighborhoods in California, and specifically in the greater Los Angeles area.   This was not evident to this reviewer when I lived in L.A.

As with Mark Ribowsky’s The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success, and Betrayal (2010), which was highly focused on personal issues rather than on the music of the three performers, this bio by Peter Benjaminson left me feeling that I knew little more about the late, great Mary Wells when I finished it than when I opened it.   I suspect that one can discover more about her spirit, her character by listening again to her records, her songs — a life’s work.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   This review first appeared on the Blogcritics Books site:  http://blogcritics.org/books/article/book-review-mary-wells-the-tumultuous/ .

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A review of Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar by Peter Benjaminson.

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