Friday, January 04, 2008

Three Books for the Musically Obsessed
As I write this, it looks as if we’ve survived 2007 after all. I’m not talking about the obvious calamities and uncertainties that we endured throughout the year. Those are the little demons that have beset humankind from the get go. What I’m breathing a sigh of relief over is that we’re finally done with the endless parade of mindless TV specials commemorating the 40th anniversary of the so-called “Summer of Love.” With almost no variation, all these specials looked at the time through rose-colored glasses, and focused on a generation who danced with wild abandon through turbulent times, but were destined to change the world. Not surprisingly, they were by and large made by baby boomers. Even less surprisingly, they were mostly bollocks.

Those of us who grew up in the sixties will tell you it was all about the music. We’d been raised on rock and roll—at least the do-wop and milquetoast soul of American Bandstand at the time. The Beatles changed all that. I was a little kid when I saw them on Ed Sullivan, but some primordial force was awakened within me—I had to have that mop top. And I absolutely had to get a guitar.

My misspent youth aside, the sixties was the decade in which rock music came of age. It was the time when the stentorian voice of youth was unleashed in full, the echoes of which still reverberate today. Sure, the voice has been assimilated into mainstream mores from luxury car commercials to presidential campaigns, but the grumblings and rumblings bubble just beneath the azure calm. The media has changed, but the message has remained the same after all these years.

Three books have recently come across my desk that serve, with varying degrees of success, as snapshots of key moments that helped to transform rock and roll from a teen novelty to an integral aspect of our cultural landscape. The dispatches come from various geographic points from London to Los Angeles to upstate New York, and the viewpoints expressed are equally far-flung. The one commonality between them is they’re written by people whose love of the medium is readily apparent.

To fully appreciate Dominic Priore’s Riot On Sunset Strip, you have to accept the premise that it was Los Angeles, not San Francisco, that spawned the Californian movement that has become a cornerstone of modern music. He makes a compelling case here. As much social commentary as it is music history, Riot examines the brief moments between 1965-66 when LA’s Sunset Strip redefined pop culture before being effectively being shut down by the cops, who were taking their cues from conservative business owners. Priore recreates the climate of the times, and traces how the scene along a 1½ mile strip of Los Angeles real estate transformed the pop culture landscape forever. The Strip was the breeding ground for the Doors, Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Buffalo Springfield and numerous other bands whose influence is still being felt today. It was also a hub for art and fashion, and influenced a generation of filmmakers. Riot details it all in exquisite detail, lavishly illustrated with period photos. Priore’s style is almost breezy, yet incisive. For those interested in the evolution of pop culture, this is a must-read.

Million Dollar Bash, Sid Griffin’s exhaustive (and exhausting) study of the recording of Bob Dylan’s almost mythical The Basement Tapes, is not for the casual reader. While recovering from a motorcycle accident in 1967, Dylan holed up with a number of friends (most of which would later become the Band) to informally record what some consider his best body of work. Ironically, Dylan initially did not release the songs. Instead, they emerged as covers by the likes of Manfred Mann (“The Mighty Quinn”) and Brian Auger, Julie Driscoll and the Trinity (“This Wheel’s On Fire”). There have been numerous bootlegs of the tapes released over the years, but the only official version is the 1975 “The Basement Tapes,” released by Columbia in 1975. Griffin approaches the recordings with the wide eyes of a fan.
As a result, much of the book is based on speculation, breaking down individual songs into who played what, and when and how. The problem with this kind of attention is that the finished product often gets lost in the shuffle. It’s the kind of stuff that music geeks love, but it adds precious little to the Bob Dylan opus.

In Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America, author Jonathan Gould deftly traverses the rugged terrain that lies between the borders of pop culture, journalism, fan enthusiasm and music criticism. No matte how revisionists try to deny it, the Beatles had the single most important impact on popular culture in the twentieth century. In this book, Gould dissects the influence of the Beatles while examining how the sociopolitical upheavals of the time shaped their own musical evolution. This is by no means just another Beatles biography, although it does delineate finer points of their career that are often overlooked. The Beatles themselves, with the exception of John Lennon, were mostly unaware of how they were altering the face of rock and roll. What Gould has done here is not write a book about the Beatles per se, but instead has offered a chronicle of the sixties with the Beatles as the centerpiece. As a result, he presents perhaps the most comprehensive, enjoyable read concerning the Fab Four ever written. More importantly, Gould’s book illustrates how events influence our thought processes, and how we turn to idols to make sense of it all. This isn’t just a good book—it should be required reading for anybody interested in the influence of the sixties, and how we perceive ourselves now.

From the journalistic to the fannish to the scholarly, these three books are prime examples of rock journalism. Even at their worst, they’re leaps and bounds superior to the reviews I too frequently see passing as “criticism.” Power chords don’t hold much weight I the scheme of things. Lasting music does.