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I Ain’t Living Long Like This

Chinaberry Sidewalks: A Memoir by Rodney Crowell (Knopf; $24.95; 256 pages)

“To be well-loved is to be free of the evil lurking around the next darkened corner.   Every child should know that feeling.”

The country music artist Rodney Crowell is known for his singing and songwriting skills.   His singing voice, often compared to that of Kris Kristofferson (but higher pitched), may leave something to be desired.   But the artist who has written songs like Shame on the Moon, I Ain’t Living Long Like This and (The Way You Burn Me I Should Be) Ashes by Now, has shown himself to be a bright star in this category.   Crowell is also known as being the ex-husband of Rosanne Cash, which has presented other issues, such as coming off second in comparison to her singing, songwriting and writing skills.

It proves to be true again.   For while Chinaberry Sidewalks is interesting in some places, it does not hold the reader’s imagination and interest the way that Rosanne Cash’s brilliantly written memoir Composed does.   Cash displayed a skill for always finding the right interesting words to describe the happenings in her life; and her voice was just as unique as Bob Dylan’s in Chronicles.

Crowell never seems to find his voice or his style here, although he has stated that he felt freed from the strict rules of song writing in putting together – over a decade – this autobiographical account.

With my grandmother and Charlie (the shoe shine man)…  I experienced love as something tangible between myself and another human being.”

This is a tough read because much of it covers the sad scenes of a childhood filled with bickering parents and domestic violence.   No doubt Crowell is being brutally honest, but it is often difficult to wish to read about a childhood described as filled with nothing “but a primal instinct for survival, theirs and mine.”   In one of the hard-to-concentrate on scenes, Crowell’s inebriated mother hits his father whereupon his very drunk dad responds by punching his mother in the face.   The young Crowell intervenes by breaking a Coke bottle over his own head, requiring a trip to the hospital for stitches.   Yes, a few stories like this go a long way.

It must be noted that this memoir contains some near-charming stories of growing up as a boomer child (Crowell was born in August of 1950).   But the reader interested in tales of playing soldier, or cowboys and Indians, etc. will find better written accounts in the memoirs of Bob Greene (When We Get to Surf City).

“…my parents’ deaths were unique to their personalities.”

At the end of Chinaberry Sidewalks, Crowell’s parents have found a sense of normalcy in their lives before they depart the earth.   And love in a marriage that somehow lasted for decades.   It is a comforting message but one that arrives only after a narrative that might have benefited from tighter editing.   Crowell’s narrative never equates to the level of his songwriting skills in this account.

This is not a bad first effort, but the Rodney Crowell that’s found in Cash’s Composed – such as in the classic scene where a nervous young Crowell meets his legendary future father-in-law for the first time – is a far more interesting person than the one found here.

Joseph Arellano  

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Chinaberry Sidewalks was released on January 18, 2011.  

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Life Is What Happens

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”   John Lennon (“Beautiful Boy”)

This is an interview with John M. Borack, author of John Lennon: Life Is What Happens: Music, Memories & Memorabilia (Krause Publications; $26.99; 256 pages).   The book was released in late October of this year.

1.  Tell us a bit about your own background and what led you to write a book about John Lennon.

I’ve been a Beatles fan since the tender age of five, when my dad bought me my first Beatles record (the “All You Need is Love”/”Baby, You’re a Rich Man” 45).   Their output is what helped to shape my musical tastes, and when I first began writing about music in 1985 (for Goldmine Magazine), I was somewhat fixated on songs and artists that took their cues from the sound and spirit of the Fab Four.

Fast forward 25 years, and I received a call from the former editor of Goldmine, Peter Lindblad, asking if I’d be interested in being considered to write a book on John Lennon for Krause Publications, which is the same company that publishes Goldmine.   I practically jumped through the phone, I was so excited.   A few weeks later, Krause made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and the rest is history!

2.  What will readers find in John Lennon: Life Is What Happens that they haven’t seen in the myriad of other tomes about Lennon?

Well, the account of rare/previously unpublished photos in the book is pretty impressive, for starters.   Also, I tried to keep the focus of the book on John and his music, and tell a relatively straightforward story of a complicated mans’ life, steering clear of most of the unnecessary drama that surrounded him.   To me, it’s a very nice-looking, coffee-table-style book, and one that can serve as not only a biography but also a critical look at Lennon’s music.   And did I mention that the photos are pretty cool, too?

3.  The amount of memorabilia and photos in this book is staggering.   Any personal faves?

As far as memorabilia, I love the shot of the Beatles pinball machine from 1966.   I’ve loved to play pinball since I was a kid, so this is one item I wish I had in my rec room – if I had a rec room.   I also like the personal letters and notes from Lennon that we included; I think they give an insight into John as a person and also showcase his awesome sense of humor.

4.  There was a photo of John and George Harrison on the banks of the Ganges in 1968 that stood out for me.   It’s so personal…  and tranquil.

That’s one of my favorites, too; I had never seen that one before.   I think it captures the two of them at a moment in time when they were coming out of the psychedelic scene and searching for something more in their lives.   It’s really a beautiful shot.

5.  What are some of the kookier things you came across?

I think the wax heads of John and Paul (from The Beatles Story Museum in Liverpool) are pretty wacky, as is the John Lennon Halloween mask from 1964.   It’s still fun to look at, though.

6.  As you accumulated the mass of material in this book, what did you learn about the man?   Did your research alter your impression of Lennon in any way?

What impressed me most during my research was the reinforcement of the fact that John Lennon was a true renaissance man.   Singer, songwriter, rhythm guitarist, poet, peacenik, author, social activist, husband, father – John was all of those and more.   He packed a lot of life into his 40 years, and he poured his whole heart and soul into everything he did.

7.   There’s a quote in Life Is What Happens taken from The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1980 where Lennon says, “I really thought that love would save us all.”   For a guy so famously cynical, that seems rather beautifully naive.   I don’t mean that in a bad sense of the word.   But do you think he really believed it?

John was a paradox; one minute he was singing about “Revolution” and “Power to the People,” and the next he was proclaiming, “All You Need is Love,” and imploring us to “Give Peace a Chance.”   I think John really believed in what he was singing (and saying) at the time he was singing (and saying) it.   The contradictions were part of who he was, but he wasn’t the type to say things he didn’t mean.

8.  This year has marked the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death.   What are your reflections on the man and his career?

John Lennon was a true original, the likes of which we’ll probably never see again.   The rock music world, and the world in general, is a bit less interesting without him.   Like many others, I really wish he was still here to lead us in new directions, flash his rapier wit and sing us some new songs.   Imagine…

Copyright 2010 John M. Borack, author of John Lennon: Life is What Happens.   John M. Borack is a Beatles collector and a Southern California-based music journalist whose reviews, columns and feature articles have appeared in periodicals such as Goldmine and Amplifier.   Courtesy of FSB Media.

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