Category Archives: book

Chris Hillman • Time Between: My Life As a Byrd, Burrito Brother, and Beyond [Book]

If ever there was a year for me to catch up on my rock musician biography reading, 2020 was it. And yet… I didn’t get to near as many bio books as I thought I might. I did happen to read CHRIS HILLMAN’s Time Between, though, and it was a worthwhile read at that.

Chris, you may or may not know, was a founding member and bass player for The Byrds (who shouldn’t need any introduction on this website). He left that seminal rock band to form another important group, the one that coined and embodied the concept of “cosmic American music,” The Flying Burrito Brothers (with the legendary Gram Parsons). After that Hillman moved on to numerous other groups, of both rock and country persuasions (his Desert Rose Band was super popular on the country charts in the ’80s). Time Between – named after one of his more popular Byrds songs – actually tells more of the time during. As you would likely hope, there is a good amount of Byrds and Burritos history here, with some light shed on some of those bands’ more lurid or difficult times (such as why David Crosby left The Byrds or his mercurial partner Parsons in the Burritos). Those with inquiring minds may want to go elsewhere to find the down ’n’ dirty details that Hillman leaves out; this Byrd doesn’t fly that way. Chris’s writing style is pretty plain (as befits a quiet bass player) so the excitement, for me, was in the anecdotes themselves – of which there are plenty, even for a relatively short biography. Another good thing: Hillman spends plenty of time on the obvious high points of his career, and the right amount of time on his youth, early groups, and the rest of his career post-Burritos. For these reasons, Time Between is a fun read but probably best suited for the Byrds or Bros. fan in your life. – Marsh Gooch

3/5 (BMG Books, 2020)

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Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here [Book]

Just like America and many other countries, England in the 1960s had television programs designed to showcase pop music. The most prominent of those shows – and likely, the first – was the UK’s Ready, Steady, Go! BMG Books has brought out a very cool coffee table book with the lengthy title Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here: The Definitive Story of the Show That Changed Pop TV, and it’s a real swingin’ volume. Author Andy Neill dove deep into RSG!’s history and came up with a rollicking encyclopedia of “the most popular music program of all time,” and as far as books go, it’s nearly as exciting as the show itself must have been.

I say “must have been” because, being an American who spent literally no time in Britain in the ’60s, I’ve never seen the TV show. Aside from a few clips that reside on YouTube-type outlets (a couple are below), RSG! doesn’t exist in my memory as anything except a 1978 song by Generation X. For years after hearing the song I wondered who this “Cathy McGow-wow-wow-wow-wowan” was and what she had to do with “Ready Steady Go.” It took years of reading various rock ’n’ roll biographies to piece things together, yet there was still little or no visual evidence. (There was a time before YouTube, kids.) Think of a hipper, Brit-er American Bandstand – actually hosted by young people! – and that goes partway to describing the show, which featured pop groups doing their latest singles, kids doing the latest dances and a whole lot more. Though RSG! ran for only three and a half years, it clearly left a major impression on Britain’s youth.

Neill’s book is absolutely loaded with photos, which go a long way to helping us in 2020 to picture what the show was like. Sure, the essays he’s written are helpful, for context and scholarly history, but short of kinescopes, videos or audio recordings of the show, only photos and firsthand accounts can really put  RSG! into focus. To that end there are literally (I’m pretty sure) thousands of photos here – many full pages in color – and captions to go along. Regarding accounts, well, how about Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Lulu, Andrew Oldham and a whole bunch more? Some of the hosts are also quoted, though sadly Cathy McGowan herself decided not to participate.

Ready, Steady, Go! ran for such a short time, at a time when pop music was considered as something that would be here today, gone tomorrow, that only 5% of the filmed performances survive. The photos and essays help to tell the story but they still come up short – and that’s where Neill’s end-of-the-book, never-before-published guide to all 173 episodes comes in super handy. It gives a blow by blow (or artist by artist) account of who appeared each week, what song(s) they did, and more. It’s not exactly complete, since records of this kind of thing weren’t always kept (or at least, not kept long enough for Neill to get a hold of them), but through painstaking research of TV guides, music weeklies and other publications, Neill’s extra-mile work proves to be a very useful tool for understanding the scope of RSG!’s influence. Graphic designer Phil Smee, who’s done hundreds of great album and CD designs over the years, handled the art direction and layout of this 12″x12″, 268 page blast from Britain’s pop past and it’s a great looking book. In its entirety this behemoth volume gets you as close to watching an episode as you’re likely to get.

Gift-giving season will be upon us before you know it, so it’s a good time to have Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here on your radar for that Anglophile on your list. You may want to start bulking up your arm muscles, though, in order to heft this volume over to the gift-wrapping counter and then to whomever you’re gonna give it. Now: Ready, steady, go! – Marsh Gooch

4/5 (BMG Books 978-1947026346, 2020)

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Paul Collins with Chuck Nolan • I Don’t Fit In [Book]

Not exactly the kind of book that makes most people’s summer reading lists, PAUL COLLINSI Don’t Fit In: My Wild Ride Through the Punk & Power Pop Trenches with The Nerves & The Beat (co-written with Chuck Nolan) is, indeed, a wild ride through the rollercoaster rock ’n’ roll scene of the late ’70s/early ’80s. Not only is it that, it’s a pretty quick and exciting read that’s full of the kind of anecdotes that make you wonder why anyone, ever, wanted to get into the music business in the first place.

Paul Collins first met some fame – albeit on a small scale – as the drummer for The Nerves, a San Francisco-then-L.A. band that also featured Peter Case (later of The Plimsouls) and Jack Lee, the guy who wrote one of Blondie’s greatest songs (“Hanging on the Telephone”). That band didn’t so much implode as it just came to a slow, indeterminate stop. Collins ’n’ Case switched to guitars and tried a new version of the band, called The Breakaways, that didn’t go anywhere, and then each went his own separate way. Collins kept writing songs (The Nerves had already recorded his “Working Too Hard”) and quickly assembled The Beat, who were almost instantly signed to Columbia/CBS Records, given a big name producer (Bruce Botnick, who had worked with The Doors and Love), and started what they hoped would be a swift ascension into the ranks of the great rock bands. Well, you already know that didn’t happen, right? DESPITE a killer debut album, which included power pop classics like “Rock ’N’ Roll Girl,” the book’s title track, “Don’t Wait Up for Me,” – hell, just about every song on The Beat is a winner. But sometimes a great record can’t survive things like: record company politics, promotions mixups, band name issues (you remember The English Beat? Well, they’re called The Beat outside the USA), band member squabbles, lovelife issues, etc. etc.

Without giving too much of the book away – ’cause there are some real juicy stories in here, good, bad, ugly – one thing is true: Paul Collins is a fighter. He hasn’t always been right, hasn’t always been wrong, but boy, could he write a great song! I Don’t Fit In tells his story very well and is the best rock memoir I’ve read in a long time. It’s first printing of 500 copies has already sold out but it’s available in its second printing from HoZac Books and you can order it directly from them. Power pop fans will want to snap it up, pronto. If you wait too long and they’re gone, to recall one of Paul’s great songs, you won’t be happy. – Marsh Gooch

5/5 (HoZac Books HZB-009, 2020; available from their website)

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John Doe with Tom DeSavia • More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of LA Punk [Book]

If this kind of music biography/memoir was food I’d never go hungry. (I read a lot of ’em.) JOHN DOE and TOM DeSAVIA’s More Fun in the New World is the second of their pair of books on the Los Angeles punk scene of the late ’70s/early ’80s, and it’s full of the kind of anecdotes that at once astound and beg-to-be-believed that made their first book so good.

Credited to Doe, DeSavia “and Friends,” More Fun contains chapters by scenesters as varied as Doe and Billy Zoom (both of the awesome band, X), Henry Rollins (Black Flag and solo), Mike Ness (Social Distortion) and Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey (The Go-Go’s). All of these folks’ stories – as well as many more in the book – are worth reading and definitely highlight just what a wild and wonderful world was L.A. punk. Then there are chapters by non-musicians like actors and filmmakers Tim Robbins, W.T. Morgan and Allison Anders, and even people influenced by the scene like graphic artist Shepard Fairey and skateboarder Tony Hawk. You may ask, “What do these people have to do with L.A. punk?” and really, no one can blame you. I wondered the same thing upon picking up the book. Doe & DeSavia’s first book, Under the Big Black Sun (2016), featured a number of the same musicians but none of the “influenced-bys” that appear here in volume two. I guess they’re here to lend legitimacy to how influential the scene was but I really don’t think they’re necessary. That’s not to say they aren’t interesting – they are – but L.A.’s punk scene was populated by so many notable bands and characters that are still listened to and talked about that the scene’s legitimacy shouldn’t be in question. That, actually, may be why we do hear from musicians who weren’t exactly punk but who did contribute to the breadth of the scene (such as Fishbone and The Long Ryders).

Ultimately I think More Fun in the New World would have benefited from the stories of more of the town’s punk rockers. There’s no word from any of the Weirdos, The Dickies, Phast Phreddie & Thee Precisions, Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs, The Screamers, or the Germs, or any of the lesser-known bands that populated all those gigs at the Masque, Madame Wong’s, Club Lingerie or any of the other dives that gave the scene places to happen. It is nice to hear some of the narrators update (in More Fun) what they were doing a few years earlier (as they detailed in Big Black Sun), so it’s not catastrophic that some of the characters make encore appearances here. It’s still a fantastic and quick read so it ought to satisfy your punk rock nutritional needs during this live music blackout.  — Marsh Gooch

3/5 (DaCapo Press, 2019)

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Juliana Hatfield • When I Grow Up – A Memoir [Book]

[This review was originally published 5/10/2010 on my old blog, Skratchdisc.]

JULIANA HATFIELD is best known as the wispy-voiced alternative rock gal who belted out “Spin the Bottle” and “My Sister” in the early ’90s. She’s been putting out records fairly steadily since then, but once her major label deal ran out of gas, she was on her own and her visibility lessened considerably. Still, she’s bravely released albums on various labels, including her own Ye Olde Records, and has consistently done her own thing. Yet Juliana had many demons to deal with over the years, and that’s what led her to pen When I Grow Up.

The memoir, published by Wiley last year, is a stark, unexaggerated look at her life touring to support her various solo releases (since her first band, Blake Babies), and details the issues she’s faced, from standard “boy issues” to deeper problems like anorexia and severe shyness. What’s best about this book is that Hatfield doesn’t hold anything back. One moment she’s supremely irritated by a pushy fan trying to get a picture, the next moment she’s lamenting a crappy hotel room, the next she’s trying to combat loneliness despite being surrounded by friends and fans. It’s not that she’s a bitch, it’s just that she’s only outgoing when she’s performing. So she doesn’t color anything overly rosy, and that doesn’t mean the book is a big downer, though about midway through I was starting to wonder when – or if – she was gonna find the light at the end of the tunnel. She does, finally, and by then you feel like you wish you knew her as just a person and not the woman sporting the SG onstage.

After not having heard any of her records for a decade or so, I felt like I really wanted to track down a few of her releases to pay a little more attention to what she’s actually saying. Though she does note somewhere in the book that words are just vehicles to drive the songs, as a songwriter myself, I can tell you that no matter how much the writer wants to chalk a song up to a silly idea or funny phrase someone spoke, there’s always something personal in there. When I Grow Up shows how a girl can become a woman without succumbing to the massive amount of BS thrown at her from birth.  — Marsh Gooch

4/5 (Wiley Books, 2010)

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David Kirby • Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ’N’ Roll [Book]

[RIP Little Richard, 1932-2020. This book review was originally published 1/23/2010 on Skratchdisc.]

I read way too many rock ’n’ roll biographies. I could be filling my head with interesting socio-political tomes (which I do read on occasion) or treatises on the latest thoughts on victims’ rights or whathaveyou, but instead I read typically badly-written stories of people who may or may not be remembered in another ten years for wielding their cigarette-burned axes all over the world with fellow drug-addled losers… Okay, maybe not all of them are that bad, but you know what I mean.

Well, anyway, I was given a nice gift certificate to a book store and I bought this here book, Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ’N’ Roll, by a real life professor of English, DAVID KIRBY. It’s a small thing, suitably decorated in a mid-2oth century pink cover design depicting our own Richard Penniman looking his straightest best, more than likely belting out “Tutti Frutti” or one of his other hits. In fact, Kirby’s main premise in this book is that that song is the most important in the history of rock, and based on his very erudite and quite humorous arguments, he may just be right. This book isn’t exactly a biography, though, because Kirby doesn’t present “just the facts, ma’m” like most do – he gives you basic facts ’n’ figures but he surrounds them with his very interesting anecdotes and observations of Macon, Georgia (where Richard was born), of the man’s bi/gay persuasion, of his lifelong swingin’ back ’n’ forth from absolutely primordial rock ’n’ roll screamer to good-boy churchgoer. Kirby, a prof at Florida State U., makes this such an entertaining and energizing read, you just gotta get out your 18 Greatest Hits CD (on Rhino) or any one of the other packages of Little Richard’s awesome songs and start boogieing right there on the floor in front of God and everybody.

And he doesn’t just pour on the fanboy kudos all over the place, either. Though Charles White’s bio on LR might be the one to get if you want a by-the-book biography (it ain’t a bad book either, I recall), David Kirby’s is the one to better show just what made this effeminate madman possibly the craziest, most outrageous shouter the world has ever known.  — Marsh Gooch

4/5 (Continuum Books, 2009)

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Hank Williams • Pictures from Life’s Other Side [Book/6CD Set]

Hey friend, did you say there’s a HANK WILLIAMS revival going on? Did I miss the memo? Well, there’s no need to print one out because Pictures from Life’s Other Side has just hit the stores and it’s the second big release in half a year celebrating ol’ Hank’s legacy. That’s close enough to a memo to me.

“The Man and His Music in Rare Photos and Recordings” is the tagline of this behemoth, which consists of a 272 page hardcover book (inside a nice slipcase) loaded with great photos and housing six CDs of the music Hank made for yet another syndicated radio program, this one sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour. There is a bountiful dozen dozen (144) songs here, many that Hank & His Drifting Cowboys or alter ego Luke The Drifter never recorded for MGM Records in the late 1940s-early 1950s. Before we get to the music, let’s talk about the book. It’s beautiful, with an exhaustive and exhilarating selection of photos – many never published – in both black and white and (a handful in) color. Some are staged, studio shots, some are fans’ photos of the star and those very fans. Even the familiar pictures are reproduced clearer than ever before. The book itself is so fancy that it’s even got a red ribbon attached so you can mark your place; I mean, there’s no way you’re gonna get through this tabletop book in one go! It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the book is worth the price alone.

As for the music on Pictures from Life’s Other Side, the songs were cut throughout 1951 in a recording studio, “live” with Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboys current lineup. One of the things that makes this collection so cool is that, unlike on last year’s Health & Happiness Shows release (reviewed here), Hank and his band mates sound natural and off-the-cuff between songs. It’s a bit jarring when the banter is snipped off or quickly faded, but it does cut down on the hokey dialog that sometimes makes that other radio show release kinda corny. Many of Williams’s greatest hits are here, of course, but there are loads of not so obvious cuts, such as one version of “Dear Brother,” which Hank sings with his then-wife Audrey (I’ve noted how bad a singer she is before, most recently in that aforementioned review). On this particular take it’s like you’re listening to Hank & Audrey channeling thirty years into the future to John Doe & Exene Cervenka of punk band, X. I gotta say, though, that I’d much rather hear John & Exene sing “Los Angeles” than Hank & Audrey singing anything at all. (Maybe one day John & Exene will cut an album of Hank & Audrey hits! It’d be sorta like a second volume of X alter ego band The Knitters’ Poor Little Critter on the Road.)

Considering the hugeness of this Hank volume, you could likely find yourself on a lost highway going through Pictures from Life’s Other Side – I’ve only made it through the first three CDs and two quick runs through the book – and that means that the true fan will find lots to like about this massive book and music set. Cheryl Pawelski of Omnivore Recordings fame can again be thanked for producing yet another Hank Williams treat, and it’s Michael Graves who did the big job of restoring and remastering the music. (A host of others also should be thanked, including Hank historian Colin Escott, who assembled the book [and who wrote the definitive biography on our subject a few decades ago].) Three cheers for Hank Williams, his Drifting Cowboys, and the fans-in-high-places who keep the man’s fire stoked year after year. — Marsh Gooch

5/5 (BMG, 2020)

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Will Birch • Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe [Book]

Once a long haired hippie, later a spiky haired new waver and currently a white-pompadoured troubadour, NICK LOWE’s story is finally getting told. With WILL BIRCH’s new book, Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe, the Basher himself comes to life in all of his many guises.

Birch, himself a new wave musician (remember The Records?), is clearly a friend and fan of the man, and tells the stories even-handedly. Many of the tales are not those of a choir boy, though Lowe could sing and put on a show from an early age. Still, Nick was interviewed for the book – as were many of those who feature in his life, such as ex-wife Carlene Carter and musician Ry Cooder – and seems to be okay with letting the cards fall where they may.  Birch’s own personality eventually works its way into the narrative, but he’s not such a fanboy that it becomes a concern. The fact that the author really knows the world that his subject comes from adds immediacy and authenticity to the book.

What comes to light in Cruel to Be Kind is that Nick Lowe is a man who has matured over time. The rough but lovable edges of youth have been sanded down to a texture that is smooth to the touch but still retains the essence of what made the guy so interesting in the first place. Lowe, indeed, is “half a boy and half a man,” and that’s in the good, lovable way. Birch demonstrates it best when he talks about how Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” started out as a cynical look at the world (when it was written in the early ’70s and performed by Lowe’s band, Brinsley Schwarz), became an angry plea with Elvis Costello’s 1979 cover (produced by Lowe himself), and eventually a heartfelt, serious question when performed by the author today. That he frequently plays the song on tour with a bunch of musicians in Mexican wrestler masks (Los Straitjackets) underscores the comic genius at Nick’s core. He’s still the quintessential Jesus of Cool— Marsh Gooch

4/5 (Da Capo Press, hardcover, 2019)

#CruelToBeKind

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Arthur “Killer” Kane • I, Doll [Book]

[Edited version of a post originally published 2/18/2010 on Skratchdisc]

…Life and Death with the New York Dolls. Well, that’s what it’s about, all right. Told by ARTHUR “KILLER” KANE himself, this short read is full of all kinds of anecdotes—remembered or half-remembered—by someone who was there for all of it. I, Doll is told from 10-20 years of hindsight by the onetime New York Doll and later-on Mormon and star of his own documentary (New York Doll). Kane tells the stories in a very “I can remember it like it was yesterday” style, even when his memory fails him, due to age or, more likely, how stoned or drunk he was when the episode happened. And he doesn’t try to downplay anything, no matter how embarrassing it might be, so when he tells you the story about how all the Dolls were puking up Newcastle Brown Ale onstage in Birmingham in 1972 (pre record deal!), I’m sure he’s telling it like it is/was.

You don’t have to be a fan of the Dolls to enjoy this memoir (though if you’re not a fan, you’re no friend of mine!). Like The Dirt by Motley Crüe was about the Eighties, it is a fascinating view of what it was like in a rock band in the ’70s, pre-AIDS, pre-uptightness about sex, pre-major label slaughter of the lambs and their music, pre-everything that makes today’s rock ’n’ roll bands pale imitations of their punky, grungy, awesome forefathers.

I met Arthur in 2002 or 3 in Los Angeles at a gig my band shared with The Dogs in North Hollywood, and he was a very kind, subdued guy. At the time I wondered if that was his true personality, or if it was decades-ago ingestions and much more recent Book of Mormon teachings doing their thing on his 60-something year old body. My friend Loren assured me that that was Arthur. I wish I could have gotten to know him. Of course, not a week goes by that I don’t plop New York Dolls onto the turntable or into the CD player and crank it up, so in that sense I know Arthur, or at least his music.

By the way, on one very popular book ordering website, this book is noted as a “posthumous autobiography.” You mean Arthur wrote it AFTER he died? Wow! I knew the man was talented, but holy crap!
4/5 (Chicago Review Press, 2009)

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Chris Stamey • A Spy in the House of Loud [Book]

Memoirs by rock ’n’ roll stars are a dime a dozen these days. That’s great for those of us who devour them, but the more of them we read, the more we realize that these books fall generally into one of two boxes. There are books that give us revelatory information on how our favorite albums or songs were created and read as if they were written by someone who can actually write (few and far between); and then there are those that sound like someone related a bunch of anecdotes into a tape recorder, had someone transcribe them, and then gently edit them into a semi-cohesive “book.” A Spy in the House of Loud by CHRIS STAMEY, luckily, mostly falls into that first box.

Stamey, one of the founding members of the late ’70s indie band The dB’s, somewhat misleadingly subtitled his book New York Songs and Stories. True, the North Carolinian guitarist/songwriter spent a good portion of this memoir in NYC, chasing down his muse by witnessing and creating music by and with people as diverse as Television, R.E.M., Alex Chilton and more. But his college town upbringing in Chapel Hill plays a pretty big part in his story, too. I’m guessing the New York appellation was more of a marketing decision than one of “accuracy in reporting.” Whatever.

What I like about A Spy in the House of Loud is the nice mix of stories – the Chapel Hill scene of the ’60s, how he met fellow dB’s Peter Holsapple, Will Rigby and Gene Holder, his work with legend Mitch Easter – and his personal takes on songwriting, music theory and record production. Stamey started recording his early bands’ rehearsals on rudimentary reel-to-reel decks, figuring out ways to overdub and create sounds by overriding or rejigging his recorders, at least until the venerable (and semi-affordable) TEAC 4-track decks came out. The way he tells it, though, he was always equally as interested in the technology of how songs were recorded as he was in how the instruments used on them were played and how those songs were written in the first place. The author actually takes a few minor detours in the book by dissecting what he thinks is the crux of the biscuit on songs he didn’t even write (and some he did), so-called “Jukebox” mini-chapters that talk about R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe” as well as, for instance, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message,” the first crossover rap song (written about life in NYC in the early ’80s). His descriptions give us a unique look at how all of these disciplines interconnect to create the records and CDs we’ve been listening to all of our lives.

A Spy in the House of Loud has a generous selection of photos, most from Stamey’s or his fellow musicians’ archives, and a reasonable discography and footnotes at the end. My only nitpick – besides the subtitle one – is that he sometimes comes across as stuffy and intellectual, typically when discussing advanced music theory. Maybe that’s me being bugged that I don’t know music theory as well as he does, but I prefer the passages discussing the basic writing and recording of the songs, the musicians he created them with, and the glimpse of what the climates for creating music were like in ’60s Chapel Hill and ’70s/’80s NYC. That being said, Chris Stamey has written a book that reads like it was written by someone who can actually write. And by a musician, even!

3/5 (University of Texas Press, Austin, 2018)

 

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