Elvis was a hero to most

By Joel Francis

Elvis Presley led a boring life.

I realize this seems like a preposterous statement, especially coming from someone who devoted a good deal of time reading Peter Guralnick’s 1,000-plus page, two-volume biography of The King. But I stand by my statement.

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Carless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley stand as the definitive works on the totality of Elvis’ life. Other books might provide better insight into a specific part of Elvis’ story, but for a cradle-to-grave examination, I can’t imagine how anyone could do it better than Guralnick.

In addition to being a great writer, Guralnick is a thorough researcher. While Elvis left no record of his life beyond the carefully cultivated figure in copious interviews, films and records, Guralnick gets to the soul of the man through first-hand interviews with scores of musicians, friends and – most importantly – women.

Through the memories of Dixie Locke, Elvis’ first girlfriend, we see the inception of his royalty. She was 15 when they met (Elvis was 19) and a sophomore in high school. They started seeing each other regularly when Elvis was a truck driver, delivering supplies at job sites for Crown Electrical in Memphis. Locke paints the picture of a man who was confident in his ability as a musician, but didn’t want to be pushy about his passion. Elvis’ always had his guitar with him and wouldn’t hesitate to play and sing if asked, but would never initiate a performance on his own.

Locke was on a two-week vacation with her parents when Elvis got the call from Sam Phillips to cut some songs for Sun Records. When she returned, Elvis was playing shows all over the area with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black. Elvis and Locke did an admirable job of trying to remain a couple, but Elvis’ life had changed too much over that short amount of time. He was home less and less and the couple found they had fewer things in common each time he was back in Memphis. Elvis was still shy, tender and devoted, but he was no longer living a life that could be contained by a white picket fence and nine-to-five job.

Elvis’ rise on the Louisiana Hayride tours, the Dorsey Brothers, Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan television shows is well-covered territory. In many ways, his life crescendos upon entering the army. Although just 23 at the time, Elvis and his manager, the infamous Colonel Tom Parker, were worried a fickle public would forget about The King while he was overseas. When Elvis returned from Germany two years later, he hit the ground running, recording singles and making movies to regain any lost momentum. He also came back with a habit for pills and a 14-year-old love interest, Priscilla Beaulieu.

In many ways, the events of 1960 and Elvis’ return to America set up a cycle of events that he was either never willing or able to escape for the rest of his life. Elvis would fly to Los Angeles or go on location for a movie shoot for a few weeks, pop into a California or Nashville studio to record the music for the film’s soundtrack, a stand-alone single or his own album, have a few weeks off, then be off to another movie shoot with a sprinkling of several more recording sessions, rinse, lather, repeat.

In the days of the Kennedy administration, it seemed like everything Elvis touched turned to gold. He had hit records and was a big box office draw. Because success came so quickly, both before and after the army, Elvis kept a tight circle of friends, people he knew from Memphis or the service, people he could trust. This is certainly natural and understandable. And because Elvis and his crew were all males in their early 20s, it made sense for everyone to burn the candle at both ends and have as much fun as possible. If that meant you had to take a few pills so you could stay up for 20-plus hours at a time and cavort around Las Vegas or the Sunset Strip, so be it.

The enduring problem was Elvis never found a greater purpose in life. He began with ambition to be a legitimate actor in the mold of Marlon Brando or James Dean, but it didn’t take long for Parker or the studio heads to realize that people would gladly pay just for the privilege of seeing their idol on the big screen, regardless of the vehicle. So, any attempts at prestige went out the window and the movies got quicker and cheaper. For most of the ‘60s, Elvis was appearing in three new movies each year.

Likewise, the unmistakable brilliance in being able to transform a standard like “Blue Moon of Kentucky” into something completely fresh and revolutionary was also being commodified. In order to make as much money as possible, Parker and RCA records insisted that they have a significant cut of the publishing on any song Elvis would record. As the decade progressed, the person responsible for finding new material from their publishing company got lazier and lazier and the material suffered significantly. There are many true gems to emerge from this period, like Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman’s “Viva Las Vegas.” But those moments are tarnished by the amount of embarrassing dreck like “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car” and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”

Near the end of the decade, Elvis was tired of releasing such undercooked material (although he never got tired of cashing the checks). His routine had been pretty static for several years at this point, although because Elvis’ fame kept growing, the circle around him became even more insular and isolating. And because everyone had been taking stimulants to stay awake for so long, they now needed depressants to help them sleep.

Here again, the underlying issue of a greater purpose comes back to the fore. When you can buy anything you want without fear of running out of money, when you can bed any woman you want on charm alone and you can get out of any jam simply because you are Elvis Presley it all becomes very rote very quickly. Put another way, a life without friction is no life at all.

Elvis, June 1968

Elvis flirted with different hobbies, trying to fill that void. He bought a ranch and everyone got horses, he got into karate, then collecting law enforcement badges, guns and racquetball, but eventually tired of it all. Nothing scratched that itch.

Shortly after the summer of love, Elvis finally stood up for himself and declared he wanted to start touring again. (As a point of reference as to how out-of-touch Elvis was at this time, try imagining him at the Monterey Pop Festival or Woodstock. It is almost impossible.) Coincidentally, the public was finally tiring on to Elvis’ cinematic manure and stopped showing up at the theaters. The ’68 Comeback Special re-established The King’s musical bona fides and invigorated his recordings for a while. The fans flocked to his concerts, which earned rave reviews, but in reality, Elvis had only traded three- or four-week movie shoots for two- or three-week tours. The rest of his hamster wheel remained the same.

After Elvis’ marriage to Priscilla ended in divorce, he desperately started cycling through a dizzying number of women. This time, though, he wasn’t (just) looking for sex. He was searching for a connection. He felt isolated from his entourage, his family, his manager, even well-meaning fans. Who he was as a person had been consumed by what he was as a celebrity.

Several women in Guralnick’s book express surprise that when they met Elvis, thinking their world was going to get larger. Instead, it shrank to hotel suites, Graceland and a dozen constant hangers-on. By the mid-‘70s, Elvis had given up any pretense of caring. He put on weight, quit trying onstage and lashed out at everyone around him. The merry-go-round of uppers and downers had given way to cocaine.

Elvis, June 1976

In his final years, Elvis was burning through money in futile attempts to buy intimacy. He’d buy a fancy car for a girl on their first date, then get sad when she wanted to leave Graceland to be with her friends or family. “Well I gave her a car and she leaves me in it,” Elvis quipped. He begged his dates to hold his hand and stay with him until the pills take over enough for him to fall asleep. He speaks baby talk and expects them to wait on and care for him. By the end, it is no surprise that Elvis dies, only that the inevitable took so long. And it didn’t really take that long. Picture Elvis in that gorgeous black leather attire onstage in the fabulous (and weird) ’68 Comeback Special. Now think of him bloated, squeezed into a jumpsuit. Those moments are less than 10 years apart.

Could this have been avoided? Looking at Judy Garland and Kurt Cobain, the answer seems negative. But Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Dave Grohl would say otherwise. Heck, Frank Sinatra outlived Elvis by two decades, and Sinatra started his career when Elvis was in grade school.

Elvis rarely spoke up for himself, preferring to follow a schedule someone else laid out for him. Maybe he didn’t want to let down all the people depending on him, but it ultimately meant he became a pawn in his own life. He was far too content with the superficial for far too long, rarely searching for depth until he had become fallow.

As Guralnick notes in the introduction to Careless Love, Elvis’ story is a tragedy. It is compelling and fascinating by what it suggests and lacks, but as a long-form, day-by-day narrative, it plays like a boring recitation of Groundhog’s Day as the same events cycle past again and again. As a vacation, I’d swap places with Elvis in a second, but in the long view I’ll take my mundane life over Elvis’ boring one any time.

Cue “Heartbreak Hotel.” Roll credits.

Keep reading:

KC Recalls: Elvis Presley at Kemper Arena

Peter Guralnick and Solomon Burke’s Sweet Soul Music

Local Doctor Claims He’s Treating Elvis

Review: “December 8, 1980”

(Above: “(Just Like) Starting Over” announced John Lennon’s return to music in the fall of 1980. After his death, it occupied the No. 1 spot for five weeks.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Rock and roll is littered with artists who left too soon. None are mourned as deeply and fervently, though, as John Lennon. The former Beatle was gunned down outside his New York City home 30 years ago today.

Keith Elliot Greenberg’s new book, “December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died” marks the occasion. Much of the information contained in this brief volume has been presented before.  Even casual fans will be familiar with many of the details in Greenberg’s truncated telling of Lennon’s biography. While the Beatle’s story is well-known, Greenberg makes it worth visiting again.

“December 8, 1980” reads like a true crime television special, which makes sense given the author’s background as a producer for “America’s Most Wanted,” “48 Hours” and “MSNBC Investigates.” The unfolding day is interrupted by the histories of both Lennon and his assassin, Mark David Chapman.

Greenberg not only places the reader in both men’s minds heading to the fateful moment, but paints a vivid picture of Lennon’s home in the Dakota building and the state of New York City as a whole. First-hand stories from Lennon’s neighbors, autograph hounds who haunted the Dakota’s entry, musicians, fans and police officers. The details these auxiliary players provide peel back the years and familiarity and make the story seem fresh.

Although they were only tangentially related to the saga, Greenberg recounts the activities of Lennon’s fellow Beatles on that day, and their reactions to his death. One can feel the throngs pressing against Ringo as he visits Yoko Ono at the Dakota, and feel the energy of Bruce Springsteen’s unofficial tribute concerts in Philadelphia.

“December 8, 1980” concludes well after the titular date, covering Champan’s trial, the Beatles anthology reunion project, and the attempt on George Harrison’s life in 1999.

Beatles fans truly interested in the events of Dec. 8 and its main participants are advised to seek out any of the available solid Lennon biographies – Philip Norman’s “John Lennon: The Life” has received rave reviews – and Jack Jones’ 1992 Chapman biography “Let Me Take You Down.” Although it is essentially a distillation of those texts, Beatle fans looking for a light trot through that devastating day should be satisfied with Greenberg’s work.

 

Keep reading:

George Harrison – “Ding Dong, Ding Dong”

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light (includes stories of Lennon’s concerts at Madison Square Garden and the Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh)

McCartney in Career Resurgence

Review – “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll”

 

 

 

 

Review: “The Art of the LP”

(Above: Jay-Z takes fans behind the scenes for the making of  the cover for his 2009 release “The Blueprint 3.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

There is no shortage of books on album artwork. Pick a decade, genre or label and you’ll likely have several volumes to choose among. Johnny Morgan and Ben Wardle make an impressive entry into this crowded field with their book “The Art of the LP: Classic Album Covers 1955-1995.”

While some of the album covers are inevitably familiar – Santana’s “Abraxas,” Nirvana’s “Nevermind”  – the grouping sets this volume apart. Albums are arranged in ten categories ranging from sex, drugs and rock and roll to ego, drugs, politics and death.

artofLPwebIt’s fascinating to watch the evolution of styles and boundaries. In the 1950s, for example, just showing a black man’s face with a red tint as on Sonny Rollins’ “A Night at the ‘Village Vanguard’ was enough to shock a racially uneasy country in the middle of the red scare. Barely over a decade later, “black power” was in full force on covers such as Miles Davis’ “On the Corner” and Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove.” More subtle comments on race and politics gave way to confrontational styles embraced in succession by reggae, punk and hip hop.

Especially interesting are the two-page spreads, like the one juxtaposing the use of the American flag on Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 release “There’s A Riot Going On,” Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 “Born in the U.S.A.” and the Black Crowes’ 1993 album “Amorica.” Stone alters the flag’s stars to make it a statement against the Vietnam War, while the backdrop to Springsteen’s anti-Vietnam statement is seen as patriotic. The Black Crowes chose an image from Hustler of a woman in a flag patterned bikini. The authors note that the Crowes statement wouldn’t have been unusual in the free love era of the ‘60s, but needed the relaxed censorship of the ‘90s to gain mainstream circulation.

Arranging the albums so they comment and reflect on each other, not only reinforces the themes, but adds a deeper appreciation of the work. Students of art will undoubtedly relish this experience, but for the rest of us Morgan and Wardle have added a solid block of text for each work. This paragraph not only provides the context of the time and artists, but explains what the artist may have been trying to accomplish.

This text is especially fun on the disastrous covers marked with an exclamation point.  The authors clearly have a special place in their hearts for the Scorpions. No less than three of the ‘80s German metal outfit’s covers are denoted. Reaching a “Spinal Tap” moment, they muse “Would the Scorpions ever learn the difference between sexy and sexist? Of course not.”

Ending just before the peak of the CD era, Morgan and Wardle give their subjects the largest canvass possible. The oversized pages allow for half-size reproductions. Music fans used to viewing tiny CD booklets will be amazed at the details that spring from the page. Fans accustomed to vinyl sleeves won’t miss much. Gatefold covers or albums that answer the cover artwork on the back are also given full exhibition. The handsome hardbound book is housed in a red plastic slipcase.

“The Art of the LP” is a visual jukebox that will entertain and inspire music fans and artists alike. Unless your coffee table is already loaded with similar books, I suggest making room for this one.

Keep reading:

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light

Review: “Neil Young – Long May You Run: The Illustrated History”

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

Review: “How to Rap”

(Above: If you want to hang with Mos Def, Eminem and Black Thought, you’d be advised to do your homework first.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Two of the most common criticism of hip hop are, one, it’s not music and, two, anyone can do it. While the first complaint is purely subjective, it would be difficult to think anyone could agree with the second conclusion after reading “How To Rap.”

Drawing on interviews with more than 100 MCs, Paul Edwards has assembled a comprehensive primer for aspiring microphone magicians. Incredibly concise, Edwards and his subjects cover nearly every conceivable topic, including rhyme schemes, recording and performing, in 340 pages.

A diverse palette of interviewees matches the range of topics. Edwards culls insight from conscious rappers like Gift of Gab, underground MCs such as Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif and gangsta rappers like the Clipse. Legends Phife Dawg and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Chuck D, Big Daddy Kane and Kool Moe Dee (who also provides the introduction), also lend insight. Local music fans will be delighted to read TechN9ne’s contributions.

At first glance, the text seems obvious. Much of the first section on content and styles should already be familiar to anyone with an interest deep enough in hip hop to pick up this book. Once the overview is out of the way, however, the book offers fascinating insight.

The flow diagram demonstrates how MCs line up their lyrics against the beats. The product is surprisingly similar to traditional notation and demonstrates how much forethought is put into delivery. This complexity is reinforced in the chapter explaining different styles of rhyming, rhyme schemes and placement. The pattern diagram ties these concepts together, allowing lyricists to illustrate how the syllables fall in their lyrics, pointing out repetitive patterns or other accidental traps.

Edwards stays out of the way, letting the artists break down each step in their own way. Not only does the reader learn this information firsthand, but receives several different perspectives on the process. Most of the time this format serves well, but sometimes Edwards’ narrative is repetitive. He frequently sets up a topic, only to have the first quote echo that statement. Edwards does a good job of editing the quotes, pruning the “you know what I mean” while maintaining each performer’s voice.

While a lot of the biggest names dropped frequently dropped among the pages – particularly Eminem and Dr. Dre – are absent, several of their collaborators, such as Lady of Rage, Devin the Dude and Royce da 5’9”, are able to provide insight in the missing legends’ creative process.

“How To Rap” lives up to its title, providing a meaty background on all facets of the vocal side of hip hop, while being slim enough to be stuck in a back pocket or jacket as the MC embarks upon the journey. Call hip hop what you like, but there’s no doubt it takes a talented person to do it well. Edwards’ book should arm the aspiring with the necessary tools for the scene.

Keep reading:

Chuck D looks forward in reverse

Review: Lupe Fiasco

Steddy P and DJ Mahf – “While You Were Sleeping”

Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

Review: “Ripped” by Greg Kot

(Above: Author Greg Kot discusses his book “Ripped” in this 30-minute radio interview.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When I was in graduate school I wrote my précis – an abridged thesis – on how the internet was changing the music industry. It was an exciting time. Napster was in full swing and Metallica’s lawsuit was not only breaking news, but new research ripe for my writing. (Incidentally, the record industry’s great hope at the time was to create a new type of CD that could not be copied or ripped to computer.) I was praised for my paper, but the research did not age well. Barely two years after graduation, its findings were horribly outdated.

Greg Kot fares much better in his recent book “Ripped” How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music.” Published in 2009, he takes the long view on the digital evolution of the past decade. The book opens with an overview of how the major labels wound up on the wrong side of their consumers at the turn of the century. In the first three chapters, Kot covers the consolidations that homogenized commercial radio and placed extra emphasis on the major labels’ profit margins; the labels’ revolt against the payola system they built and established; and how labels quashed their artists’ efforts to embrace the Internet.

That’s a lot to cover in 50 pages, but Kot is wise not to belabor these points. Other books – notably Steve Knopper’s “Appetite for Self-Destruction,” which appeared a few months earlier – cover this ground in far more depth. Kot’s summary provides a nice launching pad for the real meat of his book, namely how the net has allowed artists and fans to connect in unexpected ways with unexpected results.

Today Prince is a punching bag for declaring the internet “completely over,” but his actions in the mid-‘90s laid the groundwork for the path Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and other bands currently follow. Walking away from his contract with Warner Bros., Prince built a network with his fans where he would release music directly to them, at a pace he dictated. Without the modern digital infrastructure, distribution was often slow and frustrating. It is puzzling that yesterday’s visionary opted out just when technology became the most accommodating.

Kot also discusses how the internet helped Wilco and Death Cab For Cutie develop an online cult following and how that translated to mainstream success. Another chapter is devoted to the impact of Pitchfork and other online tastemakers. The book ends with the stories of Lily Allen, Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor and Radiohead and how their business models have turned the industry on its head.

A music critic and reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Kot draws on his day job to incorporate first-hand quotes delivered in the heat of the moment. Putting the reader in the speaker’s mind in real time keeps the stories fresh and makes the linear exposition more exciting. Very little is revealed through hindsight; the reader gets everything as it occurs.

“Ripped” shares many traits with Thomas Freidman’s 2006 exploration of the online paradigm “The World is Flat.” Both books hold few revelations for readers who followed the events unfold in real time, but are also handy encapsulations of everything that has occurred. At the same time, they are immensely in explaining to the uninitiated how we got to where we are. Whether “Ripped” deserves a spot on the bookshelf or a visit to the library depends on the reader’s level of knowledge. Either way, it is worth reading.

Keep reading:

Review – “Record Store Days”

Radiohead Rock St. Louis

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Review: Wilco returns to the Crossroads (2009)

Review: “Neil Young – Long May You Run: The Illustrated History”

(Above: Neil Young, his wife Pegi and the late Ben Keith perform “Long May You Run.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Pity the Kindle reader or Web surfer. The computer screen is still years away from capturing the depth and richness in the pages of “Long May You Rung,” Daniel Durchholz and Gary Graff’s new illustrated history of Neil Young.

Much of the book’s information will be familiar to longtime fans. What makes “Long May You Run” a treasure, however, is its presentation. Read about Young’s high school days at Kelvin Technical School in Winnipeg, and a photo of the school and two yearbook photos are right there alongside the text. Concert photos, tour programs and magazine covers all accompany entries on the myriad of Young’s tours. These and other similar visual clues that populate the book help put the events in context.

Also handy are the sidebars that detail Young’s sidemen, producers and female collaborators, his film career, favorite guitar, Motown stint, the Bridge School and nearly everything else that wouldn’t fit comfortably in the chronological narrative. The text is also punctuated with dozens of quotes from usual suspects Crosby, Stills and Nash and Eddie Vedder to Ben Folds and Toby Keith.

Authors Durchholz and Graff are clearly in their element. The St. Louis-based Durchholz boasts music bylines from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Washington Post and Rolling Stone. Graff has written for Billboard, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and New York Times and is the editor of “The Ties that Bind: Bruce Springsteen: A to E to Z” and the MusicHound Essential Album guides.

Their story opens with a photo of a two-year-old Young nestled by a full-page shot of his first band, the Squires. It closes with essays on his Linc/Volt hybrid car and the first volume of the Neil Young Archives. In between we see Young grow his hair long, cut it short, grow a beard, and dabble with folk, classic rock, electronica, country and grunge. Never comfortable with one look or style of music, the only constant in the narrative arc is Young himself.

Four appendices chronicle Young’s discography, providing the recording details, cover art and track listing for all of his albums, compilations and box sets. Further resources include the catalog number and a- and b-sides for all of his singles, his guest appearances on others’ albums and the tribute albums released in Young’s honor.

“Long May You Run” stops short of being a Young reference guide, but that was never the goal. It is a wonderful coffee table companion that is puts a trove of information, visual and otherwise at the reader’s fingertips. While there’s nothing in “Long May You Run” that can’t be found on a comprehensive Web site, it is a lot more fun to flip through and soak up.

Keep reading:

Review: “I Am Ozzy”

Review: “Big Man” by Clarence Clemons

Review – “Record Store Days”

Review: “All Over But the Shouting”

(Above: The Replacements always went out of their way to defy convention. While other acts were turning music videos into high-budget mini-movies, the ‘Mats responded by giving MTV a nearly static, continuous shot of a speaker for their “Bastards of Young.” It works.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Sometimes at a concert, if you’re lucky, the room will fade away and the music will ring out twice as loud. Your spirit attaches to the notes as your soul hovers, if only for a moment, one with the sound.

These are the moments music fans live for. They can occur in arenas and outdoor sheds, but they’re most likely to appear in small, sweaty spaces where strangers are forced to jostle and celebrate in uncomfortably close proximity.

“All Over But the Shouting,” an oral history of the Replacements by Jim Walsh, is a book of such moments. By forgoing the traditional narrative voice, Walsh lets the fans tell the story of their favorite band. Through their accounts, you can feel the group’s egotistical hesitancy at early gigs at the Longhorn bar and 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis. The quartet didn’t quite have the magic yet, but they could feel the potential, and hoped the elements would coalesce in time to produce.

The first-person accounts take readers behind the scenes, to conversations with junior high and high school classmates, and men and women who caught each other’s eyes for the first time, like ‘Mats lead singer Paul Westerberg and his future wife, Laurie Lindeen. The text crackles with the energy of early enthusiasts like Emily Boigenzahn. She appears early in the book as a major ‘Mat’s fan, only to have the band pull the rug out from under her when they hire her father, Slim Dunlap, to replace founding guitarist Bob Stinson. After hearing her champion the band so frequently, her heartache is especially resonant at learning her dad is now in her favorite band.

Walsh admits his fanboy bias in the preface, but let’s detractors and critics weigh in. Fans, especially long-time devotees, are never shy about pinpointing the precise moment the band lost the plot in their eyes. Walsh is especially deft handling the firing of Stinson and original manager Pete Jesperson, weaving historic quotes and news stories with contemporary interviews. Walsh is also frank in his treatment of the ‘Mats final days, when Westerberg and bass player Tommy Stinson were the only founding members left in the lineup. Walsh lets lame-duck drummer Steve Foley gush about the gig, but doesn’t sugarcoat the end of the reign.

The only time Walsh’s approach lets him down is on the creative side. We hear plenty of stories about where people were the day an album came out or when a song was released to radio, but very little on Westerberg’s songwriting process. This deficiency is especially glaring in the pages dealing with the band’s transition from their second album, “Hootenany,” to the more realized “Let It Be.” Westerberg’s writing matured significantly during that time, but we have no glimpses into what may have occurred to spur this growth.

The book runs past the end of the band, letting fans weigh in on Tommy Stinson’s current gig with Guns ‘N’ Roses, and giving Westerberg (through secondary sources) and Dunlap speculate on the chances of a ‘Mats reunion (not good). Walsh is at his finest during the 50 poignant pages covering Bob Stinson’s final days. Friends, random people Stinson befriended at bars, his last girlfriend, and even Stinson’s mom paint an unvarnished picture of Stinson’s post-Replacements life, his generous spirit and addictions. Walsh’s longtime relationship with the band shines as he places these remembrances in context alongside news stories he wrote at the time, other local coverage and the eulogy Walsh delivered at Stinson’s funeral.

As with most stories, a hint of melancholy runs throughout the book, but it is never overshadowed by the glorious free spirit of the music.

“All Over But the Shouting” assumes the reader already has a working level of knowledge about the band, and therefore may not be the best read for newcomers. Beginner’s just discovering the band through the song “Alex Chilton” after its namesake’s passing are advised to put in some time with the ‘Mats catalog before wading in. For longtime fans, “All Over But the Shouting” is nearly as enjoyable as hearing those classic ‘Mats recordings again for the first time.

Keep reading:

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

Review – “Record Store Days”

(Below: A more traditional video from the band’s final days, “Achin’ To Be.”)

Review: “Pops” by Terry Teachout

(Above: Satchmo and his septet rip through the “Tiger Rag.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The beauty of Louis Armstrong’s music was that it could be enjoyed and appreciated by everyone from children to adults and seasoned jazz fans to hardened critics.

Pity then that “Pops,” the new Armstrong biography by Wall Street Journal critic and former Kansas City resident Terry Teachout, isn’t as accessible.

Teachout is an exhaustive researcher who leaves few stones unturned. His biography draws not only from the two autobiographies published during Armstrong’s life, but dozens of books, articles, reviews and liner notes. It also boasts access to scores of previously unseen letters and hours of unheard conversations Armstrong recorded.

This unprecedented access allows Teachout to paint an intimate view of Armstrong. He paints a frank view of Armstrong’s daily marijuana use, which led to his 1931 arrest in California. We learn about the murder threats Satchmo received from the Chicago mafia for. When former boxing promoter Joe Glaser promised to make the threats stop, Armstrong rewarded him with a lifetime appointment as his manager. With Glaser taking care of everything else, Armstrong was free to focus on the only thing that matter to him: music.

Ironically, Armstrong’s music was most vital when his life was in the most upheaval. When he cut his classic Hot Fives and Hot Sevens sides, he was in the middle of a failing marriage, having trouble keeping a steady band together, and running ragged across the country to poorly organized shows. Most of those problems went away when Glaser came on the scene, but Armstrong’s music also reached a plateau.

While the current crop of trumpet stars were heavily and obviously indebted to Armstrong’s trailblazing technique, they were also disappointed by Armstrong’s repetitive repertoire and unashamed desire to entertain (which hewed too close to minstrelsy for the newly empowered African American generation). Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis were among the most vocal of Armstrong’s critics.

Yet even Diz and Miles were forced to reconsider their opinions after Armstrong cancelled a State Department-sponsored trip to Russia in protest President Eisenhower’s tepid steps to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (Armstrong later sent Eisenhower a congratulatory telegram when the crisis was resolved.) Armstrong gained with respect with the trio of albums he released on Columbia in the 1950s that showcased a long-dormant vitality and sense of adventure.

Detractors may have been surprised when Armstrong spoke out on segregation, but he’d been fighting it most of his life. The color line is drawn most sharply when Teachout looks at what might have been were Satchmo’s skin lighter by comparing his career with his friend Bing Crosby’s. While Crosby was given his own radio show and starring roles in Hollywood films, Armstrong had to settle for guest appearances on the air and supporting roles in low-budget films.

“Pops” revels in the details of Satchmo’s glory days, but it doesn’t skimp on the leaner parts of his career. The last quarter of Armstrong’s life receive nearly 100 pages. These chapters document Satchmo’s renaissance as not only a premier jazz talent, but showman whose love knew no age or national boundaries. Stories of “Hello Dolly” knocking the Beatles off the top of the chart or recording “(What A) Wonderful World” do not feel like curtain calls, but the natural continuation of a career.

Teachout’s findings are fascinating, but impenetrable at first. It takes several chapters to comfortably negotiate Teachout’s style. His habit of identifying sources in the text instead of footnotes makes for a clunky read. Sometimes the sourcing overwhelms the content. However, after becoming accustomed to Teachout’s style, “Pops” is a pleasant and illuminating read.

Keep reading:

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

“Willie Nelson: An Epic Life” by Joe Nick Patoski

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Review – “Record Store Days”

(Above: The crew at Championship Vinyl discuss their favorite Side 1, Track 1’s in the ultimate record store flick “High Fidelity.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Music fans geeked out for Record Store Day, have a new bedside companion until the next incarnation of the annual event. In “Record Store Days,” Gary Calamar and Phil Gallo have loving assembled a history of their musical Mecca.

The tome operates on several levels. The bountiful pictures that depict the stacks, musicians and proprietors of record shops qualify the book as a fetish object. It’s easy to get lost in the details, such as trying to identify the covers on display during Elvis Presley’s trip to a Memphis shop, or getting lost in the promotion displays in a picture the counter at The Holiday Shop, a Roeland Park, Kan. store in the 1950s.

The chapters are quickly paced, and contain lots of headers, so they can be read in bits and pieces. There are nearly as many sidebars as photos. The insets tell the stories behind the most outlandish names, like Minneapolis’ Oarjokefolkopus or Los Angeles’ Licorice Pizza, chronicle the history of record stores in movies, and tell about finding that first love in the racks – musical or otherwise. Along the way, plenty of musicians, owners and fans relate their favorite vinyl experiences.

Finally, the book offers a comprehensive history of the independent retail industry. The story starts at the turn of the last century, when records were sold in furniture stores as an accoutrement to Victrolas and other record players. Like everything else, music sales declined during the Depression, and the materials used to create the platters were scarce during World War II.

The record store as we know it blossomed in the 1950s, and enjoyed a heyday in the 1960s and ‘70s. The spaces almost became alternative community centers, where music fans would swap songs and stories while digging for the latest gem.

The final half of the book also serves as a cautionary tale of the industry. CDs gradually replace vinyl, but when the bubble bursts in the late ‘90s, neither the major labels nor the stores have anything to replace them. Particularly telling is the story behind SoundScan, the computer-based sales tabulator that destroyed the manipulative hand tallying.

“Record Store Days” ends on a happy note, with the opening of Amoeba on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and the recent resurgence of vinyl. The final chapter discusses the founding of Record Store Day and is sunny enough to convince anyone to hop in their car and run to a record shop as soon as they finish the page. The book doesn’t try to be objective. It reads like a loving embrace written by people who love vinyl, for record fans.

The book’s biggest flaw is that too much of the action is centered in Los Angeles and New York. There are some mentions of Criminal Records in Atlanta, Waterloo in Austin, Texas and Oarjokefolkopus, but little else occurs between the coasts. Some love for the great college town record shops would have been a welcome – and diverse – addition.

Calamar and Gallo are not out to convert new fans to the cult of vinyl, and readers will quickly know if they are in the target audience. (Hint: If you don’t think it’s cool that the record on the cover actually has grooves, this book likely isn’t for you.) The duo knows the next best experience to being in a record store is reading about record stores, and their offering does a great job of taking fans there.

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Review – “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll”

Review – “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll”

(Above: Don’t read “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll” expecting author Elijah Wald to bash the Fab Four.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Elijah Wald’s provocatively titled book slipped into the marketplace about the same time the much-ballyhooed Beatles remasters slammed retail shelves. But Wald isn’t trying to turn fans against their beloved Fab Four. He’s trying to reinforce their importance by approaching their arrival with a magical mystery tour that examines music from a populist perspective.

For the most part, Wald’s narrative manages to ignore critics and historians and answer the greater question of “Why did people like this?” Starting 100 years ago with ragtime, Wald walks through the growth, progression and trends that emerged in the first half of the 20th century.

Wald focuses on the Beatles because they were able to make artistically respectable music while staying true to their genre. Their foil is Paul Whiteman, who despite accomplishing the same feat, has been forgotten.

Whiteman was a Caucasian big band leader who crowned himself “King of Jazz.” Despite earning the endorsements from Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and selling millions of records, Whiteman’s career has been largely dismissed by jazz historians because his arrangements were so genteel. Indeed, part of Whiteman’s mission was to sand the rough edges off of jazz and respectable, if unchallenging, middle-brow dance music.

By eschewing the conventional narrative based on critical favorites, Wald shows how mainstream performers and tastes shaped the progression of music. Traditional viewpoints and assumptions are confounded again and again as Wald shows how the popular persuades the acclaimed. For example, Wald tells how Guy Lombardo’s arrangements influenced Armstrong’s celebrated Hot Five and Hot Seven records.

He also builds interesting parallels between celebrated trendsetters and those who are slighted for their foresight. In one instance, romantic crooner Vaughn Monroe was savaged in the press when his stage shows were little more than reconstructions of his singles. Yet only a few years later, as recorded music replaced live interpretations on the radio, it became what audiences expected.

Wald covers a lot of territory in a hurry, but it rarely feels like any corners are cut. Although the history is told in a linear fashion, Wald is a master of connecting previously unseen dots. The lines he draws between the Bennie Moten Orchestra and Elvis Presley, or Parlimanent-Funkadelic and Benny Goodman are both ingenious and obvious in retrospect. While not all of Wald’s parallels or arguments work, they are worth pondering.

In a way, “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll” is the natural outgrowth of Wald’s previous book, “Escaping the Delta.” That volume examined the curious arrival of Robert Johnson as the figurehead of “authentic” pre-war blues. In looking at Johnson’s forgotten peers like Peetey Wheatstraw and Bumble Bee Slim, Wald not only places Johnson’s music in context, but draws attention to arguably more deserving performers.

Admittedly, Wald may be giving himself the upper hand by focusing on unheard and unheralded performers. But while Wald’s arguments are contrarian, they are also well-researched and measured. In fact, the only argument Wald fails to back up is his title. Not only does Wald leave the Fab Four’s legacy intact, he doesn’t address them directly until the final two chapters. Fans of the British Invasion and Boomers looking to relieve their adolescence are bound to be disappointed.

Armchair historians and musicologists are bound to be the most pleased with this text. Wald is not encouraging the reader to explore Whiteman’s catalog or discard his or her favorite performers, only look at them through a longer lens.

Keep reading:

A Conversation with Elijah Wald

Talking King Records with author Jon Hartley Fox

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Talking Motown with author Bill Dahl

Key King Artists

The True Story of Cadillac Records