Tag Archives: Crystal Zevon

True Dat: An Oral Biography

21 Jul

 

While understanding the appeal of biographies I have not found that the door stop comprehensive tediously factual compendia of a life (even of an admired or world historical personage) bear the weight of such attention— though Ben Bradlee managed to write a weighty tome about Ted Williams that held up well through its 800 plus pages. The concise biographical essay (around 200 pages) by a sympathetic writer introduced in a series by James Atlas seemed to me to adequate for most general (those not seeking to bathe in the minutiae of a life).

 

 

There is another approach to biography that in the two instances that I encountered them I found extremely effective— the oral biography. Crystal Zevon’s assembly of commentators on her late husband I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon and Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff. There are, of course, a number of reasons why these two lives lent themselves to the oral history approach, not the least being the outlier, colorful personalties of Zevon and Altman.

 

 

 

 

Except for Che (Guevara), no one comes to mind who has greater cross generational universal appeal than Bob Marley. Setting aside the fact import of more than 500 books devoted to the late Jamaican musicIan, his image adorns more consumer products than one can reasonably imagine (except Swatch watch only  a Che adorned wristwatch. And it is the complexity and wide reaching appeal that Bob Marley generated in his few 36 years before succumbing to cancer that makes So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley by Roger Stevens both exponentially useful and definitive

 

 

Roger Steffens is one of the world’s leading Bob Marley experts. In compiling this biography in over 40 years he interviewed more than seventy-five friends, business managers, relatives and confidants of Bob Marley. As an early adopter of reggae music Steffens was present t the creation and with the zeal and determination of the true believer he draws out the telling stories from Marley’s original group the Wailers ( Junior Braithwaite, Beverley Kelso and Cherry Green) as well as his intimate relationships (wife Rita Marley and long time companion Cindy Breakspeare.)

 

 

As we should expect, Steffens elicits little-known stories, about of some of Marley’s songs, the Wailers’ difficulties with  producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, singer Johnny Nash’s  mentoring and the assassination attempt (see Marlon James novel), which led to Marley’s   stirring performance two nights later still carrying the bullet embedded in his arm.

So Much Things to Say allows to witness Marley’s conquest of a planet wide audience— for example, his visit to Zimbabwe to sing for freedom fighters  and a host  of other international public appearances. Clearl,y Marley packed a substantial life in his three and a half decades. Most compelling are  the accounts of Marley’s post Cancer (controversial) diagnosis and his rapid decline. Bob Marley (1945-1981).

Even a cursory viewing of a Bob Marley concert video will provide one of  those light  that get through the cracks and that he gained sufficient cultural/political valence to occasion conspiracy theories about the alarmingly late cancer diagnosis, ties to the CIA and casting shadows on Chris Blackwell, Island Records owner. Bob Marley’s  musical legacy is inestimable (as you can get a taste of in the videos I have included ) and if you are inclined  to attend to 464 pages (including 40 pictures) about a remarkable life, this should be the one.

 

 

 

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1.Serviceable Online biography of  Bob Marley… https://www.biography.com/people/bob-marley-9399524

2. I should note that Jon Lee Anderson’s  biography of Che Guevara is exhaustive  accessibly with lots to recommend it as Anderson is  superb example of a disappearing calling— the foreign/war correspondent. Here’s a chat I had with him back in 1997 when his Che biography was freshly minted…https://ourmaninboston.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/talking-cuba-and-che-with-jon-lee-anderson/

Magical Musical Moments

12 May

Fame Recording studio, Muscle Shoals, Alabama

Fame Recording studio, Muscle Shoals, Alabama

My first record purchase was a 45 rpm single by young hot singing sensation known as Elvis Presley, circa 1956. I didn’t buy another record until 1960 — The Cannonball Adderly Quintet, Live in San Francisco. And I now believe that moment marks the beginning of my intense attachment, the almost seamless integration of music and sound into my perception of the world. Such was my commitment to listening to music that I did not for a long time interest myself (much) in the back stories and inside baseball stuff of the music culture and business. In fact, despite being both an omnivorous reader and having an appreciation of a wide swath go musical genres and also having spent a years of living a dimly mean spirited year as a local record promotion guy in Chicago, up until recently the only books I have read about music are David Hadju’s brilliant bio of Billy Strayhorn ,his book about early Bob Dylan and friends, Dylan’s loopy but compelling Chronicles,Crystal Zevon’s well executed oral biography of Warren and Peter Guralnick’s excellent profile of Sam Cooke, and a sadly under appreciated survey of soul music Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music
by Arthur Kempton, and A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen by Liel Leibovitz.

These days I have developed a taste for music history, especially American Regional music. Coincidentally in the last few years the quality of such narratives seems to have upgraded from the hagiographic and fan’s notes to deeper and more telling stories. A few years ago the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown gleaned one of the better stories to come out of the Motown music machine. In addition to give much deserved attention to the previously unheralded studio cats, Motown founder Berry Gordy’s commercial genius was credibly exhibited.

A couple of years back the Oscar winning documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom chronicled the lives of a few of great voices Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, Jo Lawry and a few more, who sang back up both for super star bands and a large cache of hit records.

The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman

The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman

As a kind of bookend to the above mentioned Motown story, Kent Hartman’s The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret,filled in a vital piece of music history, putting the spotlight on a small cadre of West Coast studio musicians aka The Wrecking Crew reputedly known in the record business as “the secret weapons behind the top recording stars— included Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, guitarist Tommy Tedesco,drummer Hal Blaine,keyboardist Larry Knechtel as well and non-pareil bassist, Carol Kaye.

Legendary session bassist Carol Kaye

Legendary session bassist Carol Kaye

The hit records to which these players contributed, not to mention in some cause created — from Derek & the Dominoes Layla, Simon and Garfunkle’s Bridge Over Troubled Water virtually all the Beach Boys Records to Frank Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night are a greatest hits discography of the 60’s and 70’s. Hartman’s diligence is evident from the wealth of first person citations and collection of engaging anecdotes. M<y favorite is the story of how Ray Charles appearing in segregated Birmingham Alabama managed to pass off his Jewish guitar player.

Currently there is a serviceable documentary, The Wrecking Crew in the theaters produced and directed by Denny Tedesco, son of Tommy Tedesco. A bit to hagiographic for my tastes, it does give you some visuals for Hartman’s narrative.

A most transcendental music story is gracefully told in a lovely film ,Muscle Shoals, about that legendary, magical recording venue deep in backwater Muscle Shoals, Alabama and the extraordinary assemblage of solid gold musicians (Barry Beckett on keyboards, Roger Hawkins on drums, Jimmy Johnson on guitar, and David Hood) that Fame Studios founder Rick Hall attracted, nurtured, shepherded and goaded. Its equal parts biography, travelogue, anthropological study, business gossip and visual feast.

The short interviews and commentary by Etta James,Bono, Keith Richards, Stevie Winwood, Aretha, Wilson Pickett, Rich Hall, Jerry Wexler, Greg Allman and more are illuminating —almost all sharing a mystical view of what made Muscle Shoals a very special place. Alicia Keyes ends the film with a competent performance/ contemporary recording of Bob Dylan’s beautiful gospel song “Pressing On,” backed by the Swampers, Fame’s original session band— an understandable if miscast attempt to bridge the history to the present.

Post Script

Poster for the film “Get on Up”

I first saw James Brown live at the Regal Theater in Chicago in 1966 and continued listening to him through subsequent decades — by my tastes he never lost his infections groove. Brown put the soul into soul music and the biopic Get on Up with a jumping performance by veteran actor Chadwick Boseman (who gave a fine performance as Jackie Robinson in 42) makes a plausible and riveting
narrative whether you are or not inclined to give credence to the facts of Brown’s complicated life

Singing About Architecture

31 Jul

A Ship Without A Sail by Gary Marmorstein


As much as I love music I can count on one hand the number of books that I have read about music and musicians— David Hadju’s Lush Life, a brilliant biography of Billy Strayhorn, Crystal Zevon’s oral biography of her one time husband Warren Zevon, I’ll Sleep When I am Dead, Charles Mingus’s autobiography Beneath the Underdog and Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke and Arthur Kempton’s rhythm and blues devotional Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music.

Which not to say that I am oblivious of the books being published as I will display by pointing out three recent notable books—each shining a clear light on a different aspect of music.

One half of the famed song writing Rodgers and Hart, lyricist Lorenzo Hart is well accounted for in Gary Marmorstein’s A Ship Without A Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart (Simon & Schuster). If you aren’t familiar with songs such as “Blue Moon, ” “Where or When, ” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Isn’t It Romantic?,” “My Romance,” “There’s a Small Hotel,” “Falling in Love with Love,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and much more you probably won’t care about the life of brilliant homosexual alcoholic who lived entire short life with his mother.

The Jazz Standards by Ted Gioia


Whatever defines a jazz “standard” jazz historian Ted Gioia (The History of Jazz) has selected 252 songs to The Jazz Standards A Guide to the Repertoire (Oxford University Press) on which to comment, including composer details and a listen guides that references about 2000 recordings.

David Ulin points out that

“to call “The Jazz Standards” a work of history, however, is to miss at least half the point; it is also a work of criticism, and Gioia is not afraid to offer pointed commentary…

…” What is the book, after all, if not an extended improvisation, beginning with its framing of the repertoire? Such a repertoire is fluid, and if in recent years it has undergone a “process of codification,” his approach can’t help but be subjective, defined by his experience and sensibility. To read “The Jazz Standards,” then, is not unlike listening to Gioia play his way through this music, sharing not just what he likes (and dislikes) but also what he knows.”

What the video that accompanies the Sonny Rollins’ version of “We Kissed in The Shadow” above, means or its connection with this great piece of music has me stumped but the Rollins track (From the LP East Broadway Rundown) is so evocative and mesmerizing I had to include it

Just as I was more simpatico with the Beat movement than much of its literature I found Punk Rock’s anarchical ethos and do it yourself values more interesting than most of the music it spawned. In any case,in Punk Rock: An Oral History (PM Press) John Robb, a punk rocker himself, collects about 150 interviews with seminal figures such as John Lydon, Lemmy, Siouxsie Sioux, Mick Jones, Chrissie Hynde, Malcolm McLaren, Henry Rollins, and Glen Matlock.Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren elucidates,

It was not necessarily a plan to play art colleges first and avoid the pub. I hated beer. And that’s all you got in those stinking pubs in Anglo-Saxon land. Art school preached a noble pursuit of failure. It was part of the legacy laid down by William Morris: art for art’s sake. which we attempted to create and indeed succeeded at one level. We made ugliness beautiful.

Punk Rock An Oral History by John Robb

Currently reading The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (Knopf)