Rock ’n’ Roll, Minute by Minute

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Testimony, by Robbie Robertson

As with so many music fans, I loved The Band’s music. It harkened to history, but while doing so it had a way of being contemporary. I had thought the bandmates would have done that on purpose, but no, they weren’t that self-aware. Instead they loved old fashioned rock ’n’ roll, gospel, folk music, and country equally, and allowed those influences to meld into their musical sound. Robertson’s book is all about himself, but underlying that is the history of rock. And as such it’s a form of cultural digest of the ‘sixties and early ‘seventies.

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Many will read this book, anxiously flipping pages hoping to get a whiff of the famed dispute between Robertson and drummer/singer Levon Helm. Robertson alludes to some of that issue, referring to Helm’s heroin addiction and emotional volatility, but it’s clear the author didn’t wish to dig up those bones after so many years. What Robertson did is detail virtually every moment from the time he joined Ronnie Hawkins’ band, The Hawks until The Band dissolved temporarily after the famed Last Waltz concert. The book seems overlong, Robertson’s accounting too detailed, but I don’t think this was a random occurrence. The life of any artistic person is that way—days and nights uncounted of planning, sketching, noodling on piano or guitar as one attempts to squeeze from latent skills a creative expression of some vague idea that just won’t let go of the artist.

By Robertson’s accounting and as a sixteen year-old, he attracts by chance the notice of Hawkins and refines his guitar chops and performing persona with Hawkins’ band, The Hawks. During the next couple of years, the band adds Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson. Robertson details the years that follow their abandoning Hawkins to back up Bob Dylan, and then venturing out finally as The Band. They aren’t part of the “peace and love” crowd; they carry blackjacks and pistols, and in one instance toy with holding up a high stakes poker game. They drink heavily and abuse drugs. And still they manage to develop their individual crafts and merge them into the unique musical vehicle that is The Band.

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Robertson’s writing voice is much the same as his speaking voice, colored with street and back-alley musical lingo that manages to be highly expressive while forgoing purple prose. As such, this is a memoir that’s unusually well written. Robertson manages to draw the reader into their shabby but creative world, and this reader felt compelled, with the reading done, to re-watch The Last Waltz with a whole new appreciation of their quirky, highly improbable musical world.

My Rating: 18 of 20 stars

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll find more information on my books. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

The Era That Transformed The World

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Some two years ago, I friend challenged me on Goodreads to write a novel about the ‘sixties. Is there something to write about from that era? You bet there is. My challenge, then was to decide how to encapsulate that era of rebellion, rock’n’roll, war and massive social change into a half dozen characters’ lives.

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Before you ask, I was there, at least on the periphery. David Crosby said, “If you remember the ‘sixties, you weren’t there.” I was there, and I do remember most of it. Most of it, you say? Yeah. It was the sixties, after all. Okay??!?

My idea in writing this book was that no one, escaped the effects of the ‘sixties, even those of us who lived relatively conventional lives. And so I built this novel around some half dozen characters living rather ‘fifties-esque lifestyles, working conventional careers and jobs. And that’s the rub. Conventionality wasn’t very satisfying, and it led to changes we all seem to accept now, to one degree or another.

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Once I set about writing this novel, shades of memory and history took over. I remarked to group of writers in Vermont two years ago that it was a period piece (and it is). One of the faculty there, Clint McCown, on hearing my depiction,  said, “The ‘sixties a period piece. Sadly, I guess it is.”

And so this take on the sixties is partially done. As with sculpture, there are fine bits to be chipped away, added on, to make the story as real as the era that inspired it. It’s already in the hands of a beta reader.

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Meanwhile, as always, I move on.

 

Visit my website here. Within it you’ll find more on books and events that matter to me — and possibly to you. And there’s a gridleyfires Facebook page, too, if you can find it

 

Guitar Hero Settles Down

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Clapton, The Autobiography, by Eric Clapton

This book wasn’t on my stack until Christmas Eve, when Bill Mattocks, blues harmonica player extraordinaire tossed it to me. End result? Having just read Keith Richards’ LIFE, reading this one was sort of like viewing seminal British blues rock through a stereoscope – certain things up front, others nudged into the background. So. To Eric:

The passage from childhood to guitar player to guitar god to family man to elder statesman of rock for Eric Clapton is eerily similar to that of Keith Richards (see last week’s post). This juxtaposition isn’t as odd as it might seem, though. Both grew up in lower middle class England, post-WWII, and their interest in guitar was, truly oddly, driven by abiding interests in the American blues. Clapton, as with Richards, found fame early, Clapton with  The Yardbirds. Clapton seems to have been swayed by fame more than his Rolling Stones counterpart, with Cream, Blind Faith, and Derek and the Dominos all poised for R’n’R glory.

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Clapton, too, trifled with hard drugs, heroin taking his money and much of his creative energy until he switched to alcohol, which seemed to have had a stronger pull on him than heroin. Finally, after a couple of misfires, Clapton got sober, and has remained so. The following twenty years of his career have been spent largely in retrospective play, including a couple of solid blues albums and a pair of collaborations with J.J. Cale. Clapton now finds himself integrating family life with some four kids into his musical travels, and he seems happy in his sixties.

The writing here is rather prim, always measuring his words, choosing them cautiously, even in depicting the lowest points of his life. This makes a lot of it a rather boring read, leaving this reader feeling that he’s overly wary in unearthing his life away from the stage – or perhaps he’s avoiding some areas he doesn’t want in the light of day. It’s the sort of book you wouldn’t want to finish, once begun, if you aren’t interested in this key player in rock ’n’ roll history

My rating: 15 of 20 stars

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

The Good and the Sad

A couple of days ago, I received notice from the website of the band, America, that they'd just released a new album, Back Pages, a compilation of covers of some of their favorite artists, including oldies Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and Mark Knopfler, as well as some relative newbies such as Fountains of Wayne, New Radicals, and Gin Blossoms.

I gave it a listen as I trudged through my three-mile walk today, and I was amazed. I'd never thought of America as studio artists in the same vein as Brian Wilson, but the arrangements were enough to have made George Martin proud.

As the music downloaded, I checked their website, and was dismayed to see a posting that former member of the band, Dad Peek, had died this week, peacefully, in his sleep. Peek, by his own admission was the "bad boy" of the group, living the rock 'n' roll lifestyle to the hilt. But somewhere around the group's fifth album, Peek left, and his life went in the opposite direction. 

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I've always wondered about such gear shifting. The only thing I can rationalize is that extreme people go to extremes, whatever the direction. But you'd never know that about Peek by his music. Songs such as "Don't Cross the River," "Lonely People," and "Willow Tree Lullaby" were some of the sweetest, most beautiful pop songs of that era.

Well. R.I.P, Dan, and thanks for your music. My most sincere sympathies to his wife, Catherine, and their family.