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“…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.”
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.
“Half the people are stoned/And the other half are waiting for the next election.” Paul Simon
The year 1970, as some of us remember, was the year that Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water was both the best-selling album and single of the year. But what might not be remembered is that S&G would soon be targeted – during the very same year – as rock’s ultra-conservative sell-outs. The New Yorker music critic, Ellen Willis, wrote of Mr. Simon: “I consider his soft sound a copout. And I hate most of his lyrics; his alienation, like the word itself, is an old-fashioned, sentimental, West-Side-liberal bore.”
Not to be outdone, critic Miles Kingston (who claimed to be a fan) wrote: “Some people hate Simon and Garfunkel because their music has no guts, because it is a middle-class look at life, because it slips too easily from idiom to idiom.” Kingston described their fans as “the left-out kids – the loners, the book-worms… (and worse).” And then there was the Time Magazine reporter, assigned to do a cover story on James Taylor, who wrote that, “…the people interested in James Taylor are those who never quite got over a fascination with Simon and Garfunkel. Upon whom it is now fashionable to dump.”
Yes, David Browne has a knack for finding interesting bits and bytes of information that challenge our collective memory. This is a non-fiction account of the 1970s – and, specifically, the decade’s beginning – in post Kent State America. Browne writes about the softening of rock ‘n roll in a year that saw the demise of three of the world’s most successful groups – The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY). Yet, in a year that one publication initially termed The Year That Melody in Popular Music Had Died, it was to be a year of rebirth in music, of melody.
If the hard rock of the late 60s had just about killed melody (John Lennon had called Beatle Paul’s Helter Skelter, “just noise…”), it was soon brought back to life in the form of new performers like James Taylor and Elton John. Browne’s account is actually a melding of two – one, a background look at the music of the time; second, a description of the social and political environments of the late 60s/early 70s. In this it bears many similarities to Girls Like Us, an earlier-written account of the musical careers and times of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon.
I noted that Browne has a knack for finding interesting factoids. Here’s another one… According to his research, backed by Paul Simon and Paul McCartney, two of the major songs of the decade were written not for the composer’s own group/band but for the voice of Aretha Franklin. Yes, both Bridge Over Troubled Water and Let It Be were specifically written for the Queen of Soul, who – luckily for fate – rejected them. It’s one reason that both songs, written within weeks of each other, share a gospel soul and structure.
If you’d like to read more fascinating things that you never knew about all of the band members and performers listed in the book’s subtitle, and about others like Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Phil Spector, Allen Klein, Mary Balin, and Billy Preston, you’ll want to run and pick this one up. As James Taylor was to sing, “Hey, Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox!”
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Notes – Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller was reviewed on this site on February 2, 2011 (“Women of Heart and Mind”).
Elizabeth Taylor was to say that, “People don’t like sustained success.” Which is perhaps why, in 1970, George Harrison sold more records than either Paul McCartney or John Lennon.
When she turned seventy-nine she wrote to tell me that although she was now legally blind she had decided to study medicine: “I am thinking of going to nursing school… That way, if I ever get sick or lose my sight completely, I’ll know what to do.” I found a set of her teeth inside an old eyeglass case.
In The Memory Palace, Mira Bartok writes of a world that, sadly, too many of us will come to experience. This is the world of the adult child whose parent is not only rapidly aging, but entering the throes of dementia or full-fledged insanity. Whether caused by disease or mental illness, the results are the same – a parent terrified of having bad things happen to him or her brings those very results about through his or her own irrational behavior. Bartok’s mother, Norma, was terrified of becoming homeless but became so after stabbing her own mother – who suffered from dementia – six times.
When her two daughters were young girls, Norma was diagnosed as having severe schizophrenia, and it cost her both a husband and a home. Aside from the illness, Norma was a highly talented classical pianist who might have become a household name. But it was not to be and Mira and her sister grew up in a hellish home with a mother who heard voices in her head, voices that caused her to lose touch with reality and normalcy.
As anyone who has lived through it knows, once a parent begins acting irrationally, their behavior will inevitably continue to deteriorate. We no longer seem to have systems in place for properly dealing with the problems of the aged with mental issues. They may be medicated or locked up for various periods of time (from hours to weeks or months), but they simply do not “get better.”
Bartok is to be commended for writing frankly about an adult daughter’s reaction to this, and it is mixed. One third of her escaped by thinking back to the times when her mother was seemingly normal – a time before this parent’s rapid descent into madness. One third of her lived in denial, literally trying to escape by hiding from her mother in Europe and elsewhere. And the last third consisted of the daughter who sometimes had to take harsh actions against her mother – such as attempting to get a court to declare her incompetent – knowing deep down that the situation would only be resolved (made peaceful) with her mother’s death.
In this account it becomes clear to the reader that although Bartok lived a very difficult life due to her mother’s mental instability, she very much loved her mother and has wrestled with feelings of guilt (“I abandoned my mother to the streets.”). As a young woman, Bartok was involved in an automobile accident that injured her brain and led to memory problems. This provided her with a measure of insight into her mother’s faded connections with the world.
“…I go to the church and light a candle for my mother. Not that I believe it will do any good; it’s just to remind myself that she is still lost in the world.”
By writing this blunt and painstakingly honest account of her mother’s troubled life, Bartok has performed an act of penance. It is an act of humble penance in which she seeks to forgive her mother for literally losing herself. It is an act of contrition in which she asks the world to forgive both herself and her mother for leading damaged lives.
This brilliantly written work reminds us that self-examination and self-forgiveness precede forgiving others for their real or imagined wrongs. It’s a harsh world – a dark ocean – out there and we sometimes need assistance in navigating our way through it. This memoir tells us that lighthouses exist.
“If memory is a palace, let me live there, forever with her, somewhere in the place between sleep and morning.”
This review was written by Joseph Arellano. A review copy was provided by the publisher. The Memory Palace was released on January 11, 2011.