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Instant Karma

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.”   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.”

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

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.

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Days Like These

Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy by Ken Sharp (Gallery Books/VH1 Books; $26.99; 262 pages)

starting over book

“You don’t have to do it anymore.   You can exist outside of the music.”   Yoko Ono to John Lennon, 1975

“There’s only two artists that I’ve ever worked with for more than a one-night stand.   That’s Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono, and I think that’s a pretty damned good choice!”   John Lennon, 1980

Before this, only one book took you inside the recording studio with The Beatles, and that was Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles by Geoff Emerick.   Emerick’s book explained the fascinating work performed by sound engineers such as that which led (in some small measure) to the success of the four moptops.   One of the disclosures in HT&E was that the recording sound process at Abbey Road always began with ensuring that Ringo’s drums would sound right and/or unique on each track. (Paul McCartney, who lived around the corner, was the individual who usually tuned the drums used by Ringo and Badfinger’s drummer.)

Now, with Ken Sharp’s book,  we go into the sound studios of New York City circa the winter of 1980, with former Beatle John Lennon, his wife Yoko Ono and a new band of hotshot musicians.   Lennon’s final album, Double Fantasy, would be recorded just weeks before his death (the single “Starting Over” was the track the public heard first), and would be well-crafted enough to preserve his legacy as a musical genius.

This was the happy-husband period for John Lennon who was pleased about everything, even the past:  “He never spoke about the Beatles in a negative way.   Ever.   He only said positive, affectionate things about them…  He was able to look back at their work and realize how great a band they were.”   (Andy Newmark, drummer)

And this was the John Lennon who filled his new album with what some viewed as recordings invading Paul McCartney’s well-marked territory – (silly or non-silly) love songs and songs of domestic harmony and bliss.   John was not at all apologetic about his new-found contentment:  “To work with your best friend is a joy and I don’t intend to stop it…  My best friend is my wife.   Who could ask for anything more?”

“…records do tend to either gain or lose aura as decades pass.   I would say Double Fantasy is one of the many excellent records that has gained a certain aura, glow, stature and presence.”   Robert Christgau

The participants interviewed for this book all display a sense of both bittersweet happiness and sorrow at having worked with John Lennon before his untimely death.   “I hadn’t listened to Double Fantasy in a long time.   I recently put it on and as soon as I started playing it, the tears welled up.   It was a real emotional experience for me.   There was a lot of joy doing that record…  When I hear the songs, I see John working on the tracks.   It’s the closing musical statement of his life and it’s filled with great songs.”   (Hugh McCracken, guitarist)

Well said, and this account is a well-written, detailed and loving tribute to someone who simply left us too soon.   Read this book and you will come to know and admire John Lennon’s honesty and his integrity.   By reading this book you’ll also come to discover the background stories of such great songs as “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” “(Just Like) Starting Over” and “Watching the Wheels”.

Think of Starting Over, the book, as the great lost album notes to the original vinyl release.   It will serve you well.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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