Review: “I Am Ozzy”

(Above: Ozzy Osbourne has done a lot of crazy stuff in his life. This might be the most surreal.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The trails and adventures of Ozzy Osbourne’s life have been repackaged and sold nearly as often as the metal god’s greatest hits.

Between an episode of “Behind the Music,” countless articles and three seasons of reality television on MTV, there’s little new ground for Ozzy’s new autobiography, “I Am Ozzy” to cover.

But just like “Crazy Train” and “No More Tears,” just because you’ve heard them before doesn’t mean you don’t want to hear them again. “I Am Ozzy” may hold few surprises, but it’s still a breezy and entertaining read.

Fans looking for insight into Ozzy’s musical process should look elsewhere. Animal activists are also advised to keep away. In the course of the book’s 391 pages, Ozzy not only (infamously) bites the head off of a dove and a bat, but decapitates his seven-foot stuffed bear and mows down his backyard flock of pet chickens during a drunken rampage.

That phrase, “during a drunken rampage,” is the preface to 99 percent of the book’s stories. It is amazing that Ozzy survived his rampages. Even more incredibly, the cumulative effect of so many successive episodes makes Ozzy’s unthinkable actions seem rational. After reading “I was drunk, so I figured ___” so many times, one starts to become numb to the consequences and may find himself frequently nodding in agreement.

The most entertaining and musically focused chapters detail Ozzy’s time in Black Sabbath. Before recording “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” the band holed up at Clearwell Castle in England. The time supposed to be used for rehearsal quickly devolved into a series of pranks designed to convince the others the castle was haunted. These stories show an innocent playfulness than reinforces the bond between band mates and makes them feel more human.

“I Am Ozzy” could also serve as an alternate screenplay for “This Is Spinal Tap.” Ozzy details his difficulties finding the perfect midget to hang onstage and how he placed blood capsules in a wig so it looks like he is suffering head trauma. He also recalls the difficulties of performing in a suit of armor – particularly when fans are flinging handfuls of raw meat onto the stage – and the night the pyrotechnic hand designed to lift him over the crowd malfunctioned.

Despite the hi-jinks, there is a serious side to the book. Ozzy somberly discusses the death of his guitarist and greatest foil, Randy Rhoades, a lawsuit filed by the family of a fan after he committed suicide and dealings with religious fanatics, both Satanists and Christians. Ozzy expresses his regrets, but doesn’t expound on the details (probably because he never had to deal with them).

For the past three decades, Ozzy’s long-suffering wife and manager Sharon has embraced the role of janitor. The Marge to Homer’s Ozzy, Sharon not only had to deal with the consequences of her husband’s addictions, but also had to repeatedly stand up to her father, Don Arden. As Ozzy and Sabbath’s former manager, he uses every dirty trick in the book to steal Ozzy back from his daughter. Sharon is frequently painted as an opportunist, but “I Am Ozzy” leaves little doubt that Sharon had to work very hard for her empire and may even deserve a smidgen of sympathy.

After spending two-thirds of his text on Sabbath and Rhodes, Ozzy breezes through the final 25 years of his life. Guitarists Jake E. Lee and Zakk Wylde (who played with Ozzy for 20 years) get only a passing mention. Ozzy slows down over the last 50 pages to discuss his resurrection on MTV, and health issues.

“I Am Ozzy” may not win any literary awards, but a special prize should be awarded to Chris Ayres for making the Ozz-man sound coherent and engaging. Although the conversational tone is loaded with profanity and British colloquialisms, they make the stories seem even more natural and personal.

If there’s one surprise in “I Am Ozzy” it is how much of Ozzy’s life feels like destiny. Despite the trappings of his fame and success, one gets the feeling Ozzy would have turned out pretty much same. Ozzy the Crazy Ex-Con or Ozzy the Slaughterhouse Worker (both were pre-fame occupations) just seem like lower-budget versions of Ozzy the Metal God.

After all, that’s who he is.

Review – “King of the Queen City”

(Above: The Delmore Brothers landed a hit with “Blues Stay Away From Me” in 1949 on King Records.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

In a musical landscape that lionizes pioneering indie labels Chess, Motown and Atlantic, Cincinnati’s King Records is at best remembered as a footnote and the early home of James Brown.

Author Jon Hartley Fox aims to correct that perspective with his new book “King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records.” While Brown receives his due, Fox spends a great deal of time making the case that King was the most diverse and innovative label of its time.

King Records was founded in 1943 by Syd Nathan, a 40-year-old Cincinnati businessman with asthma and poor eyesight. Nathan’s got into the music business started by reselling old jukebox platters at the tail end of the depression. The venture proved so successful he opened Syd’s Record Shop on Cincinnati’s Central Avenue in 1940.

The first artists Nathan signed to King were Grandpa Jones and Merle Travis. Their success, coupled with the early hit “I’m Using My Bible for a Road Map,” led Nathan to advertise with the slogan, “If it’s a King, it’s a hillbilly.”

In 1945, Nathan dipped his toe in the waters of “race music” (the term “rhythm and blues” wouldn’t be coined for another three years), with Queen Records. The success of early artists like Bull Moose Johnson led the subsidiary to be moved onto the proper King label.

Nathan’s pursuit to make records for the “little man” took him into nearly every conceivable genre of music. Throughout his quarter century at the helm of King, the label produced hits on the country, blues, gospel, pop, R&B and jazz charts. A cross section of King’s staggeringly diverse roster includes Freddie King, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, the Stanley Brothers, Homer and Jethro and, briefly, John Lee Hooker, Hot Lips Page and Johnny Otis.

The label’s biggest artist, however, nearly didn’t make it out of the studio. James Brown came to King through a demo of “Please, Please, Please.” Nathan hated the track with a passion, and released it only to humiliate the producer, who staked his career on its success. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business went on to have an unprecedented string of hits on King beginning with “Please, Please, Please” 1956 and continuing until 1971, when Brown and his back catalog moved to Polydor.

The label’s success went beyond its across-the-board chart triumphs. In the early 1940s it was the first independent label to have its own fully functioning recording studio. Nathan was also at the vanguard of race relations, hiring black producers to supervise sessions with white musicians. Eight years before the hometown Cincinnati Reds would let blacks and whites play on the same team, Nathan had integrated crews in nearly every facet of the label.

Clearly, Fox has a lot of ground to cover in his book, and he does a good job of presenting the material in easy-to-digest portions. Each chapter covers a different facet of the label, such as country, gospel, solo or group R&B acts, production and distribution. From one-hit wonders to major performers, Fox does a good job breaking down the biographies of all the key players. In one or two pages, Fox paints a tight picture of everything the subject did before, during and after King. In that regard, the book functions almost as well as an encyclopedia of mid-century, Midwestern performers.

That approach, however, can also suffer from losing sight of the forest from all the trees. Nathan’s persona could have provided an easy and useful narrative thread, but he disappears for pages at a time. We don’t learn about his failing health until Fox casually mentions Nathan had a heart attack during a treatise on Brown. We also don’t learn much about Nathan’s personality – when he showed up at the office, his lifestyle, where he lived or his personal life.

The book’s timing also puts Fox at a disadvantage. Nathan died in 1968 and Brown in 2006. Most of the other performers are also deceased, giving Fox few primary sources to work with. Despite these difficulties, Fox proves himself a good researcher who draws on previously published material and interviews to tell his story.

The concise book covers a lot of territory in just over 200 pages. “King of the Queen City” is a brief but compelling work that should be devoured by music historians, both professional and amateur.

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

(Above: Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ are one of many artists to get some love in a recent Oxford American music writing anthology.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Oxford American “Southern Music Issue” is an annual treat, loaded with great writing that unearths wonderful stories on longtime favorites and introduces several new discoveries. Coupled with a CD – in recent years it’s come with two discs – the magazine effectively serves as the ultimate set of liner notes to a killer compilation.

Now in its 11th year, these editions are been rightfully prized; back issues frequently fetch more triple face value online. Fortunately, there is a more affordable way for new readers to access the previously published essays and features.

The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing compiles the best articles from the magazine’s first decade. The 420-page book reads like a mixtape, transitioning smoothly from all the usual suspects – blues, country, jazz, rock and bluegrass – and spiking the playlist with pieces on Southern metal, the Sex Pistols and the art of playing.

Several of the best features provide an intimate view of the artist or their environment. Tom Piazza’s account on hanging out backstage at the Grand Ol’ Opry with snubbed bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin is so awkward Ricky Gervais could turn it into a screenplay. Similarly, John Lewis’ weekend at Ike Turner’s house puts the much-savaged abuser in new light, particularly when the host shows up in his pajamas at the end of the day to thank Lewis for coming and hug him goodnight.

A history of jazzman Bob Dorough by Paul Reyes takes us from the obscure keyboard player’s origins touring with Sugar Ray Robinson, recording “Blue Xmas” with a dismissive Mile Davis and ultimately as the force behind Schoolhouse Rocks. The line from “Up a Lazy River” to “Conjunction Junction” was never so clear.

Beth Ann Fennelly’s description of a night at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint with R.L. Burnside and Cynthia Shearer’s search for understanding in Janis Joplin’s hometown of Port Arthur, Texas both paint a clear picture of the artists’ native perspectives. One can feel the plywood sweat at Junior’s Place and imagine Joplin longing for some niche in town where she felt comfortable and ultimately yearning to get the heck out.

Despite a mention of Wu Tang Clan producer RZA in the introduction, the book eschews hip hop and most new music. A dated piece on R.E.M. circa “Automatic for the People” is the only time when the mainstream and the modern intersect. But while the book doesn’t touch on modern artists, it will certainly send readers scrambling back to dusty old platters, either on vinyl, acetate or plastic, to unearth old favorites, possibly for the first time.

Easier to carry than a stack of magazines, less trouble to hunt down online, the Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing will be a pleasant voyage for adventurous fans of both good writing and good music.

Review: “Big Man” by Clarence Clemons

(Above: Clarence Clemons, the Big Man, recalls the phone call that put the E Street Band on hiatus for 10 years.)

By Joel Francis

Legions of dedicated Bruce Springsteen fans have no doubt haunted hotel bars after concerts in hopes of being able to buy their heroes a drink and soak in their stories. In his new autobiography “Big Man,” E Street saxophone player Clarence Clemons offers fans the next best thing with 360 pages of his favorite stories from the road and adventures with friends like Robert DeNiro, Kinky Friedman and, of course, the Boss.

The warning is right there in the subtitle: “Real Life and Tall Tales.” This is not a chronological telling of Clemons’ life. Rather, it’s a series of episodes and anecdotes. In the first 50 pages, the story races from Clemmons’ childhood in rural Virginia to meeting Springsteen, his first job with a band and ultimately joining the Bruce Springsteen Band.

Early vignettes like the portrait of Clemons and Springsteen hanging out underneath the Jersey pier are vivid snapshots of uninhibited creativity, innocence and ambition. The book is best when it operates along these lines, lifting the veil of history and putting the reader in the moment.

Clemmons’ telling of receiving a phone call from Springsteen while on tour with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band is especially poignant. Also entertaining is the tale of shooting pool with Fidel Castro in Cuba as Hunter S. Thompson offers commentary from the bar.

But moments like this are divorced from context, and raise many unanswered questions. Clemons never discusses how he spent decade away from the E Street Band or how he became friends with the Good Doctor. Too frequently the story is bogged down by diversions of pay phone conversations with Groucho Marx and competitive exchanges with Norman Mailer.

There is no doubt that Clemons is an intelligent man, filled with wit who knows how to tell a story. He is happy to take the reader into the Temple of Soul, the backstage sanctuary Clemons creates before each show, but unwilling to reveal everything that happens away from the music.

Clemons recognizes omitting the juicy bits undermines his purpose. At one point he jokes about writing another book that contains all the sex and drug stories from the early days and publishing it after everyone in the band has died, but realizes everyone has children and grandchildren and quickly recants. The decision is understandable, but the kid gloves weaken the saga and experience.

For example, we learn that Springsteen has two rules: don’t take drugs and be on time. Clemons reports that since he breaks one rule regularly, he is always punctual. Drugs, particularly marijuana, show up several times, but Clemons never explains his introduction to these experiences or their perpetual attraction.

Clemons is more transparent about his health problems. He had both knees and hips replaced prior to the “Working on a Dream” tour and underwent a tough rehab regimen before being able to perform at the Super Bowl. These issues, coupled with ruminations on the deaths of E Street veterans Danny Federici and Terry Magovern give the last third of the book a morbid preoccupation. What should be a celebration, feels like a premature wake.

The biggest problem with “Big Man,” however, is co-writer Don Reo. While most “as told to” authors stay in the background, Reo has no difficulty inserting himself into the story, bragging about his past as a television writer for “The Cher Show” and bringing “Blossom” to the small screen. Reo sometimes serves as an uber-fan insider, providing a third-party perspective on the inner workings of a Springsteen tour or an alternate angle on some of Clemons’ tales. Unfortunately, he’s too preoccupied with dropping names and gushing about how cool it is to be part of Clemmons’ entourage to be completely effective.

Reo’s interruptions also cause an inconsistent narrative voice. Clemmons’ story distractingly jumps between first and third person, depending on which author is helming the chapter.

Despite these shortcomings, “Big Man” is a breezy, entertaining read. Although it may have worked better as a series of blog entries or podcasts, hardcore fans will revel in hearing the man who defined “Jungleland” spin yarns.

(Below: Clemons reflects on the death of longtime E Street band member Danny Federici.)

Keep reading:

Review: Boss is Bigger than Big 12 Tourney (2008)

Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello – “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

Review: Springsteen’s “Dream” Needs More Work

Springsteen in the Waiting Room: Drop the Needle and Pray

Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part 1)

Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part 2)

More Bruce Springsteen on The Daily Record

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

willie2By Joel Francis

“Epic” is the key word in the title of Joe Nick Patoski’s 567-page biography on Willie Nelson. Drawn from dozens of interviews and scores of oral histories, books and articles, Patoski paints a comprehensive picture of his fellow Texan.

If Patoski skimps on Nelson’s childhood – less than 50 pages are devoted to his years as a minor – he makes up for it by piling chapter on top of chapter about Nelson’s early family life, struggles as a disc jockey and songwriter for hire and, finally, as a nascent country performer. Patoski also devotes an entire chapter on IRS struggles and puts in strong perspective how such horrible accounting could have transpired.

But while Patoski’s journalism skills and research is impeccable, he spends too much of his time telling and not enough showing. For example, there piles of anecdotes about Nelson’s generosity and his inability to say no. He sticks around for hours after concerts to sign autographs, and lavishly gifts his friends and family. When a credit card company asked him to put his face on their card, he said yes without thinking of the consequences. Manager Mark Rothbaum has to explain the implications.

“Well think about it: A third of all credit cards go into receivership, so a third of your fans will go bankrupt, and they will have to look at your picture on that card,” Rothbaum tells Nelson. “Every time they see your picture they will think, That prick is making money off of me.”

Nelson asked Rothbaum to get him out of the deal, but the reader is never given understanding of what compels Nelson to be so affable.

The person who shines best is Nelson’s longtime drummer Paul English. English doesn’t appear until a third of the way through, where he initially surfaces as a pimp who drills and robs pinball machines and operates backroom card games. When Nelson’s drummer failed to show up for a radio session, English is recruited. Even though he had never played drums before, but the experience went well enough English accepted Nelson’s invitation to walk away from the lucrative prostitution business and join the band on the road.

English’s skills with a gun and knife were handing in prying a reticent promoter away from the band’s money and bailing Nelson’s smart mouth out of fight. English was never shy about displaying the pistol he always carried, which was usually all it took to calm any disagreements. English’s black market background also came in handy procuring marijuana for the band.

Patoski’s meticulous exploration sheds light on Nelson’s long walk to fame, where record labels and producers try in vain to pigeonhole the artist, and Nelson’s inability to fit into their boxes, even when he gamely goes along. Later, as Nelson’s fame and wealth grows, he builds a studio on his Texas estate. Patoski conveys a laid-back atmosphere where music flows as freely as beer and songs are recorded as effortlessly as lighting a roach. That Nelson practically lived in his studio explains the prolificacy of his catalog (he released two albums in 2008), and the easygoing environment explains how his financial problems reached the boiling point.

The vision of Nelson unearthed in the book refuses to be worried about anything except his music, even when doing so compromised his family and friends. His nature reminds me of a line from the film “Walk the Line.” When Johnny Cash tells June Carter on the back of the tour bus that everything will work itself out, she replies “No, John. People work them out for you, and you think they work themselves out.”

That Nelson’s music has attracted rednecks and hipsters alike is less mystifying after this thorough examination of the man. The songs are merely an extension of the personality: Nelson is willing to meet anyone anywhere for a good time. The access Nelson provided for this thick tome can rest proudly alongside his albums as a testament to the man’s generosity.