Some of the women whose work informs and inspires me today:
Maureen Ryan, TV Critic, Variety. Sample piece: "‘Sweet/Vicious’ Canceled by MTV but Should Live on Elsewhere (Opinion)". "One of the greatest joys of this job is coming across something around the margins that does something cool, unique, or entertaining. When a show you’ve never heard of does all of those things, it’s like getting a jolt of joy straight to thenervous system."
I think I was too scared to be open with the fans because I knew how bottomless their need could be. How could I help if I was just like them? I was afraid I might not be able to lessen their pain or live up to their ideals; I would be revealed as a fraud, unworthy and insubstantial. The disconnect between who I was on- and offstage would be so pronounced as to be jarring. Me, so small, so unqualified.
I just finished Joel Selvin's book on Altamont, and then watched Gimme Shelter again. The concluding section of the book discusses Gimme Shelter. Selvin is less interested in assigning blame than in getting to the details behind the legend ... by the time we get to the movie, we've come to know many of the people who turn up in that movie, and have a better understanding of where they were coming from.
First, a few words about Selvin’s book, since I’ve written a lot about Gimme Shelter in the past. The book is long, detailed, and seems to be well-researched. Selvin was well-placed to write the book, being a Bay Area native who has had a long career as a music critic, and is an author of several books on music. In his afterword, he notes that “I knew better than to go to Altamont”, then offers the observations of friends who did attend (“[M]y friends knew nothing about what had really gone on. They had a good time ...”). This mirrors my own experience ... I had friends who went, and they returned speaking joyfully about “Woodstock West”. (In later years, they talked about how awful it was ... the vagaries of memory.) The book works in part as a warm-up for the movie, filling in what was largely left unreported in the film. But the movie is never far from Selvin’s mind:
That movie became the accepted account of the day, the official record of history, despite the fact that the Rolling Stones themselves were partners in the film’s production.... The story needed to be told, as fully and completely as possible. The tangled threads of the movie and the concert needed to be unbraided.
Selvin may be up to more than handing out blame, but he does make himself clear. “[W]hen all the facts are presented, it’s hard to see true responsibility lying with anyone but the Rolling Stones.” And he connects this to Gimme Shelter:
[W]hy did the Rolling Stones go through with the concert? That crucial decision – and the underlying determination that went into it – made the difference in everything that happened at Altamont. There is only one plausible reason: the final scene to the concert movie. There is no other good explanation for why Jagger and company proceeded with this concert in the days before the show as it unraveled in front of their eyes.... It is simply not true that this free concert was some magnanimous, beneficent gesture. The Stones wanted something out of the deal, and what they wanted was a big finish for their epochal movie that they hoped would document their magnificent return to glory.
What the book Altamont does is place the above in context. He doesn’t absolve everyone other than the Stones, but “The Hells Angels needed to be portrayed as they were – real people with names who were placed in a treacherous, untenable situation – not cardboard cutout villains. The role of the Grateful Dead and their ultimate betrayal by the Stones needed to be detailed.... The massive use of toxic drugs was not examined.”
So, Gimme Shelter. I have huge emotional reactions to the film every time I see it. Over the years, I have a more solid appreciation for the techniques and vision of the Maysles. But maybe "appreciation" is the wrong word, as is my reference to "Maysles". For on this watching, I decided the true artist was editor Charlotte Zwerin.
My friend Charlie Bertsch wrote a strong piece on the movie a few years ago. A big portion of that essay is devoted to refuting Pauline Kael’s take. She resisted the pull of “direct cinema”, emphasizing the “manipulative possibilities of filmmaking”. Charlie responds, “[T]he Maysles’ approach ... demands witnessing events without knowing how they will turn out”, as if this precludes the possibility of manipulation.
But Charlie also points us in the direction of what is really happening in Gimme Shelter when he rightfully praises the work of editor Charlotte Zwerin, “who earned co-director billing for the brilliant editing she did after filming was complete” [emphasis added]. He singles out scenes of Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts looking at footage from the film, which he calls “a brilliant idea for which Charlotte Zwerin gets the credit”. But if the Maysles want to fall back on "we don't stage stuff", those scenes would seem to contradict that idea. Jagger and Watts were invited, and filmed, by the filmmakers to watch the footage, which didn’t happen “naturally”.
Ultimately, the truest statement in Charlie’s piece is this: "The finished product’s success depends entirely on how the raw footage is edited together." No matter what the circumstances under which the Maysles worked, the film is made when Zwerin gets her talented hands on it. And film editing is as crucial, and as vulnerable to manipulation, as the shooting of the original footage. The Maysles may not have had a preformed idea of what they wanted the events to show, but Gimme Shelter requires that someone edit the footage. Charlotte Zwerin, whether working on her own or with the direction of the Maysles, manipulates the raw footage into the movie we see today. We can argue what Gimme Shelter is saying, but we can’t argue about the role the filmmakers had in making that statement. Michael Sragow, who Charlie quotes, is half right when he says “Gimme Shelter is not about manipulating events – it’s about letting events get away from you.” The latter part is true, which is one reason I find the movie so disturbing. But the first part is false.
When asking yourself, “Do we really need another book about The Beatles?”, the answer should be “Yes, when it’s written by Rob Sheffield.” I can’t say I came to his books about Duran Duran, karaoke, and Bowie because I was a fan of any of those topics. But I’m a fan of Sheffield, and he has never let me down, to the point where now I care about Duran Duran et al.
Another thing I like about Sheffield is his age. He was born in 1966. The first batch of writers about rock music were of a different generation: Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, Dave Marsh, Jaan Uhelszki, Lester Bangs, Ellen Willis. (In terms of personal influence, I’d include Ralph J. Gleason, born in 1917.) Many of them came to our attention in the 70s ... “rock criticism” didn’t quite exist until then. But they were people who had lived when The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan for the first time. Thankfully, there are many great writers about music from Sheffield’s generation: Ann Powers and dream hampton come to mind. But their perspective is drawn from the times in which they live, and with pop music, the teenage years are especially important. As an example, Sheffield was 15 when Duran Duran’s first album was released. When I was 15, the White Album was released.
So Sheffield wasn’t “there” during Beatlemania. But to the extent this distances him from the subject, he is able to offer a new look. And he makes a great case in Dreaming the Beatles that the time of The Beatles has never left us. He has lived with The Beatles for most of his life ... in the book, he describes seeing Help! when he was five (“They entered my life”), and the enthusiasm with which he writes about The Beatles to this day demonstrates how they have never left his life.
Sheffield’s books all merge with memoir, and I guess if that bothers you, you might want to look elsewhere. In this case, though, it’s even more appropriate than usual, for the reasons I’ve already stated: He was only 4 years old when The Beatles broke up, so unless he’s doing some straightforward “and then they recorded this” type of book, his personal relationship with the band is crucial. Having said that, he takes the subtitle seriously. He tells the story, not just of his own relationship to The Beatles, but to the whole world’s love affair with the group.
While he writes a lot about the relationships between the band and their fans, he also talks about the relationships within the band, and not always by simply citing biographical trivia, as when he discusses a favorite of mine, “There’s a Place”:
You can hear John woke up with a stuffy nose; you can also hear how nervous he and Paul are, their voices quavering as they stretch out the vowels, “plaaaace” and “looow” and “goooo,” Ringo urging them on with his drum crashes. It’s another Buddy Holly homage, one they wrote on their guitars in the front room of Paul’s dad’s house on Forthlin Road. John and Paul sing about escaping to the place you go when you feel low – in your mind, where you hear the voice of the girl who tells you things you want to know, the place you go to remember the things she said that swim around your head, the place you talk yourself out of the fears you wouldn’t confess to your closest male friends. Except here are John and Paul, trading off the confession out loud. It’s done and dusted in under two minutes – no time for waffling or kidding around, the voices say, this is it, this is how I feel, let’s go, let’s tell it.
It’s a close reading that doesn’t depend solely on the lyrics, it’s a close reading that encompasses the performance. This happens throughout the book ... every time he points out something going on in a particular track, you instantly want to hear it. And when someone can help you hear a Beatles’ song with a fresh ear, well, that’s a lot harder than it seems.
Sheffield spends much of the second half of the book talking about the post-Beatles years of the four lads. This makes sense, since his own relationship with the band began after they’d broken up. But it also reflects the ways The Beatles as a band are still in our dreams ... just because they weren’t together after 1970 didn’t mean they no longer mattered.
Love Is a Mix Tape may always be my favorite of his books. But Dreaming the Beatles is right up there with the others.
Maybe it takes two Canadians to place Donald Trump in perspective. Phil Dellio and Scott Woods worked on this book for more than a year, never expecting that by the time it was published, Trump would have actually won the election. The book works just as well with that surprise element, though, because they are trying to figure out Trump, not just as a person/politician, but as someone who is part of our cultural landscape.
Thus, the “chapters” examine cultural landmarks that connect to Trump, in order to understand all of us. They go from Sarah Palin to Elvis Presley, which all by itself makes a nice instant description of the parameters of President Donald Trump. There is a section with, in turn, Pat Buchanan, George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, and Joe McCarthy. The middle of the book is devoted to “early sightings in the movies, on TV, and between the covers”, which goes from Nashville (the movie) to Howard Beale, from Citizen Kane to the Manchurian Candidate, from Gordon Gekko to The Joker. These selections make sense the second you see the connections.
None of this would matter if the writing wasn’t up to the concept. So it is important how good that writing is. There is no attempt to identify who wrote what, but there is a smoothness to the style that keeps any seams from showing. Combine the pleasure of reading this writing with the seductive nature of the book’s structure (short chapters), and Unshackled becomes very hard to put down. You can’t resist the pull of “just one more chapter”.
In some ways, this book is very much of the moment. You might even think it’s a bit too late to be reading about the emergence of Trump as President. But it’s still soon enough to the election that everything seems fresh. And it works as an excellent snapshot of how this all seems to us as we prepare for Trump’s inauguration. For this reason, I think this book will make for interesting reading ten years from now, as a reminder of where we were in 2017. I not only recommend Unshackled, I suggest you read it ASAP.
(I suppose a disclosure is in order. I know both Phil and Scott, and am very kindly included in the acknowledgements. It made my day to see my name in the same sentence as Rob Sheffield’s).
I’ve read several of Shawn Levy’s books, and I like every one I’ve gotten to, especially his first, King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis. He has written about the Rat Pack ... he did one book on the Swinging Sixties in London. He doesn’t always choose topics I am passionate about, but he makes me interested, so I’ll start one of his books no matter the subject, knowing it will be worth it. Thus, I happily pre-ordered his latest, on Rome in the 1950s.
I expected to find good stories about the big film names of the period, placed in a larger cultural context, and that is exactly what Levy delivers. Once again, he burrows into areas I hadn’t cared much about ... I should have been warned when Pucci’s name appeared in the subtitle. But you can trust Levy to make that larger context something you want to learn about, and so I read more than I ever thought I would about post-war fashion, in Italy and in Europe as a whole. And it was indeed educational, since I knew so little about the fashion world. The book convinces us that the big fashion names were integral to the creation of Italian culture after World War II.
As for the dolce vita, it’s all here. Fellini and Loren make the subtitle, but Anita Ekberg deserves special mention. She comes across as much more interesting than her public image ... in fact, we learn that she was more than her image, which seems like a small point until you realize that image is pretty much all we ever knew, or cared about.
Levy devotes a lot of time to Fellini, and rightly so ... La Dolce Vita is his movie, after all. I don’t think I needed convincing about the importance of Fellini to Italian film and culture. I’m not his biggest fan, and I would have enjoyed a more detailed description of the making of Antonioni’s L’Avventura, my favorite Italian film of all time. But the truth is, Antonioni’s film speaks to a general malaise ... it isn’t specific to its time, which is why the story of upper-middle class people speaks to us, no matter our own class position. Fellini, though, in films like La Dolce Vita, managed to make movies that were intensely personal yet also very much of their moment. If you want to see a great film, L’Avventura is the choice. But if you want to see Rome in the 50s, filtered through the lens of Fellini the showman, La Dolce Vita is where you’d look. Which is why it’s a great place for Levy to spend time.
(I suppose this is where I admit to a fondness for “Toby Dammit”, Fellini’s contribution to the Poe anthology Spirits of the Dead. I’m not sure it’s representative of its time, but the title character feels like he would belong in the dolce vita, Fellini is at his most Fellini-esque, and it is over in 37 minutes.)
Levy’s writing is easy to read. You think you’re just taking in a history of the scandals. But when you finish the book, you realize you’ve actually gotten a clear vision of a specific time and place. By blending movies and fashion and celebrity and paparazzi, Levy makes all of the aspects of that life more interesting. Dolce Vita Confidential is another success for Shawn Levy.
My wife doesn’t have a birthday. She has a Birthday Month. So I have to be on my toes all through October, not just on the 4th (which is what the rest of us would call her birthday).
Last night we settled in to watch TV. She wanted to start with Designated Survivor, the new, so-so- Kiefer Sutherland show. I was feeling a bit sad ... silly, really, but I wished we liked more of the same TV shows and movies. Designated Survivor may turn out to be a show we watch together, but it kind of gives “common ground” a bad name.
After that, we watched the season opener of Ash vs Evil Dead. This is more like it, I thought, I like this show a lot, which reveals my real definition of “shows we watch together”: something I like that she tolerates. Except she doesn’t tolerate Ash vs Evil Dead, she likes it, too. And she occasionally laughs, which if you know Robin, you know laughing at TV isn’t a regular occurrence. But it’s one of the reasons I love her so ... she’ll sit quietly as a comedy plays, then laugh at arguably the goriest show in TV history (gore isn’t inherently funny, but ridiculous, over-the-top gore is).
And if Season One was the Goriest Show of All Time, Season Two had an early scene that easily topped anything we’d seen before. And we laughed. I can’t find the scene on YouTube, which is probably just as well. The best I can do is this Season Two trailer, which was apparently too gory for Comic Con:
Later in the evening, we spent a few minutes chuckling over a couple of S. Clay Wilson drawings.
Now I ask you: what kind of moron would think he and his wife had few shared tastes, when she laughed at Evil Dead and S. Clay Wilson?
Early in his autobiography, Bruce Springsteen writes:
In the beginning there was a great darkness upon the Earth. There was Christmas and your birthday but beyond that all was a black endless authoritarian void. There was nothing to look forward to, nothing to look back upon, no future, no history. It was all a kid could do to make it to summer vacation.
Then, in a moment of light, blinding as a universe birthing a billion new suns, there was hope, sex, rhythm, excitement, possibility, a new way of seeing, of feeling, of thinking, of looking at your body, of combing your hair, of wearing your clothes, of moving and of living. There was a joyous demand made, a challenge, a way out of this dead-to-life world, this small-town grave with all the people I dearly loved and feared buried in it alongside of me.
He is describing the first time he saw Elvis Presley on TV. He was two weeks shy of his 7th birthday.
Born to Run allows us to see what drove Bruce from a very early age. We’ve heard the stories in bits and pieces over the years, but seeing them in one place, chronological, has a special impact. It turns out many of those stories he used to tell on stage about growing up were true. Bruce Springsteen was a misfit who found his calling in rock and roll music. And for many reasons, all of them discussed in this book, Bruce was the guy who did indeed make it. Writing about a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame jam:
In 1964, millions of kids saw the Stones and the Beatles and decided, “That looks like fun.” Some of them went out and bought instruments. Some of them learned to play a little. Some got good enough to maybe join a local band. Some might have even made a demo tape. Some might have lucked out and gotten a record deal of some sort. A few of those might have sold some records and done some touring. A few of those might have had a small hit, a short career in music, and managed to eke out a modest living. A very few of those might have managed to make a life as a musician, and a very, very few might have had some continuing success that brought them fame, fortune and deep gratification, and tonight, one of those ended up standing behind Mick Jagger and George Harrison, a Stone and a Beatle.... I knew my talents and I knew I worked hard, but THESE, THESE WERE THE GODS, and I was, well ... one hardworking guitar man. I carried the journeyman in me for better or worse, a commonness, and I always would.
There is an undertone throughout the book that tells us Bruce knows for many of us in his audience, he is that god. And he never downplays the role his big ego played in his career. But it feels legitimate when he deflects such thoughts, standing up not for the gods, but for the journeymen.
Most of the pre-publication things I read focused on his fight against depression and anxiety. This does indeed take up a sizable portion of Born to Run, especially in the last third, when he finally stops and takes stock of where his life has gone. This is vital, crucial material ... knowing that our hero fights against the same problems we all do matters more than perhaps it should ... and Bruce pulls no punches in talking about his battles. He had promised us a real, warts-and-all picture of his life, and he delivers. In those sections, I was reminded of Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, which described how debilitating life on the road became for her. You wonder how he was able to continue making music during those times.
And the music ... the book has three parts. The first takes us through his childhood, up until his first two albums have been released in 1973. The second section goes through the most vital artistic period of his career, from Born to Run to Tunnel of Love. The third and final section seems appetizing, kind of like watching the E Street Band play music from the “Other Band” years. But the final section is also the shortest. While we get several chapters about the making of Born to Run, while all of the subsequent albums through Tunnel of Love get detailed treatment, suddenly the book shifts. Part of this is the shift in his life ... once he pairs up with Patti, things are better, and as their three kids are born, life seems worth living in ways that perhaps hadn’t been true before that.
The third section, and the first chapter of that section, is called “Living Proof”, and begins with the birth of his first child. The next chapter is devoted to Patti, then to the firing of the E Street Band, LA riots, a marriage and a honeymoon, another child, and then, finally, comes “The Other Band”, which gets one short section in the “Going to the Chapel” chapter. He briefly names each of the band members, says of the subsequent tour “It was a lot of good shows, good company and good times.” That’s pretty much it. After the in-depth look at each of his albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town are barely mentioned. This is a period where, musically, we know too little, and I was looking forward to this part of the book, so I was disappointed to see it dismissed.
In fairness, much of that final section is about his depression. While he writes a bit more about albums like The Rising, none of his work of the last nearly thirty years gets too bogged down in details. The first two sections are so engrossing, the third becomes a bit of a letdown, at least in the discussion of music. And this might speak to his musical career ... while he has made some fine albums since Tunnel of Love, with a few classic songs, what makes him still excitingly relevant is the passion that remains in his live performances. He has inched closer to being a nostalgia act, except when you play with the fervor of Bruce and the E Street Band, you are caught up in something far greater than mere nostalgia.
He also has an interesting way of always finding the best in people. We learn that Danny Federici was a handful, but in the end, he played the organ with heart and that’s what mattered. His first manager famously screwed him over, but Bruce also insists that he believed in Bruce when no one else did. Even his father, with whom Bruce has the most complicated relationship, becomes a more sympathetic figure in the end. And when there are problems, Bruce often puts the blame on himself. His first marriage goes by in a flash, but he has nothing but good things to say about his wife, and puts all of the negativity on himself. As for Patti ... well, it reminded me a lot of my relationship with my own wife. He fucks up, she sets him on the right track, she doesn’t take shit but she is always there for him, and even when she is hard-headed it is in his best interest. If the first two thirds of the book are about reaching to the gods of rock and roll, much of the final third is about his wife the red-headed goddess and their three offspring. It isn’t dull, especially with the freak outs and therapy sessions and psych meds, but it’s as if the music takes a back seat.
And you know what? He deserves it. He gave so much of himself to rock and roll, in the process enriching the lives of so many of us. He’s earned a break.
Except he can’t help himself, so he keeps giving. As he says in “Darkness on the Edge of Town”,
Tonight I'll be on that hill `cause I can't stop I'll be on that hill with everything I got With our lives on the line where dreams are found and lost I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost For wanting things that can only be found In the darkness on the edge of town
He finally sees past the darkness, but he still has it in his bones.
Near the end, he tells about an operation he had not that long ago, a story that sums up the above. Over the years of giving the proverbial 110% on stage, he’d developed cervical disc problems. The surgery sounds scary, especially for a singer:
They knock you out; cut an incision into your throat; tie your vocal cords off to one side; get in there with a wrench, screwdriver and some titanium; they take a chunk of bone out of your hip and go about building you a few new disks. It worked!
And his voice was fine, a few months later. But this is where it gets good. He heads back on tour “with just one instruction: no crowd surfing! But there is no fool like an old fool, so the first night I dove right on in. Everything was fine.”
I just finished reading Music in the Air: The Selected Writings of Ralph J. Gleason. Gleason was a big part of my life, starting sometime in the 60s and going until his premature death in 1975. His television series, Jazz Casual, which ran throughout the 60s, was produced at the San Francisco NET (now PBS) outlet, and while I wasn’t a big jazz fan, the show, and its host, was hard to miss, especially in the Bay Area. Along with the countless things Gleason wrote for various magazines, he had a regular column in the San Francisco Chronicle, from before I was born until he died. We subscribed to The Chronicle for most of my life, and especially once Gleason started covering the local rock scene, I never missed a column. I remember getting as a birthday present a book by Gleason, The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound, which was a mishmash of recycled columns and interviews with each member of the Airplane. Gleason was already in his 50s when that book came out, and it was always clear that he wasn’t the same age as the musicians in that world, but his presence was strong in the Bay Area rock scene, and his writing was never condescending ... he didn’t write from above like the jazz expert he was. With Jann Wenner, he co-founded Rolling Stone, which at first seemed like a local paper. Again, Gleason’s regular columns in RS were mandatory reading at my house.
For all of these reasons, I looked forward to this anthology of Gleason’s writings, edited by his son, Toby. And it doesn’t disappoint. The range of Gleason’s work is evident by looking at the four sections into which the book is divided: “Jazz and Blues”, “Folk, Rock, and Pop”, “Comedy”, and “Politics and Culture”. That last section is almost superfluous, given how often politics and culture are part of most things Gleason wrote. The jazz section is most informative to me, especially his pieces on Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. And I was happily surprised to find many passages still exist in my memory, like the time Duke Ellington gave Nixon four kisses, “One for each cheek”. Or the moment in his essay on Hank Williams where Gleason refers to San Pablo Avenue as “possibly the longest main street in the world”. I’ve always remembered that line, without always remembering where it came from, so it was fun to see it was yet another way Gleason was part of my life. (Since 1987, I’ve lived less than half-a-mile from San Pablo Ave.)
Gleason was so much a part of my life in those years that I was surprised when a friend, Peter Richardson, in a review of this book, wrote he “didn’t know anything about the Ralph J. Gleason cult until I began researching my 2009 book on Ramparts magazine.” Pete, like myself, is a Bay Area guy (as he says on his blog, he was “Bred and buttered in the East Bay”), and I’m only a bit older than he is, plus he knows the local culture as well as anyone. (Suffice to say that at this point, he knows more than I do about all this stuff.) I suppose some of this is age-related ... I don’t expect my kids to know all about Ralph Gleason, or even to know who he was. (When I was directing American Studies senior theses at Cal, a student came to my office one day ... I think she said I’d been recommended as someone who might be able to help ... I no longer recall the exact family relationship, but she was, if memory serves, one of Ralph Gleason’s grandchildren, and she decided to write about him because she realized she knew very little about this man who was both famous and a family member.)
Music in the Air includes many examples of Gleason’s liner notes for albums. (The list of such notes is endless ... a highlight in the book is the notes for Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, Davis having a long-time relationship with Gleason. To this day, I remember Davis’ contribution to a large obituary section in Rolling Stone on Gleason’s death, a section featuring numerous heartfelt comments. Davis was brief and to the point, and for that reason, unforgettable: “Give me back my friend.”)
Here is the Jazz Casual featuring John Coltrane:
Postscript: After finishing Music in the Air, I happened on an interview with author Jack Hamilton, who has a new book, Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imaginary. Book looks quite interesting, but what caught my eye in the interview was this:
Pitchfork: Ralph J. Gleason, who co-founded Rolling Stone, comes up a lot in the book. The quotes you utilize are blindsiding—endless “other”-ing, almost no self-examination. My favorite is when he writes about the “magic rhythmic power” of Santana’s rhythm section, presuming they could only be accessible to people with a direct line to Latin America’s “savannahs and inland plains.” Your respond: “The 'magic rhythmic power' that Gleason extolled was provided by Michael Shrieve and bass player Douglas Rauch, both of the savannahs and inland plains of San Francisco.”
Hamilton: [laughs] Yeah. I realized at the time I was coming down fairly hard on Gleason. I definitely don’t feel like I unfairly demonized him or anything. He was an elder figure who had come to rock as a longstanding jazz critic, and who in those early years was a really influential voice because he had that prestige. He was really seen as a critical authority on music. That Santana material is from Rolling Stone; he also wrote a lot [about rock] in the [San Francisco]Chronicle.
Another essay that he published in The American Scholar in 1967 was called “Like a Rolling Stone.” It’s this interesting, bizarre intellectual and artistic manifesto on rock music—in 1967, when this is a fairly early concept, the idea that rock is art. The amount that race figures into it, these quotes where he’s trumpeting white creativity over what he sees as black music selling out. One thing that came up a lot while I was writing the book was that notion of selling out, whether or not a black musician is making music that’s “black” enough. No one’s ever said that Dylan or the Beatles aren’t white enough.
The “Like a Rolling Stone” essay can be found in Music in the Air.
Jovana Babovic is an historian with a clear love for Sleater-Kinney. She goes far afield from a track-by-track approach ... in fact, she never comes close. Instead, she places riot grrrl within the history of rock and roll music, shows how the women who created the music in that genre were battling against long-held prejudices against women in rock, and then explains how Sleater-Kinney grew out of that milieu, tying them specifically to the Pacific Northwest. She shows how the band drew power from that community, but also how they couldn’t be confined to those roots.
She talks about the making of Dig Me Out, which took eight days during a miserable snow storm, pointing out that they were able to create the album under those conditions because they were prepared (this reminded me of Rombes noting that The Ramones were able to make their first album so cheaply because they rehearsed before they ever hit the studio). Once S-K hit the road, touring behind the album, they confronted the condescending sexism of the sound guys, who never understood that these women knew what they were doing. And a key moment in the book comes when S-K are opening for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and a fan of the headliners is giving Corin some shit. “We just want to say that we’re not here to fuck the band; we are the band.”
One question I have had through the close to 20 years I’ve been a fan of Sleater-Kinney is why they have so many middle-aged guys among their admirers. I once wrote, “Sleater-Kinney are a 21st-century version of classic rock. Their most obvious roots are in punk via riot grrrl, but the less obvious roots are reflected in the bands they cover in concert: Creedence, Bruce Springsteen, Jefferson Airplane, Richard Thompson, even Danzig. The Woods sounded like Blue Cheer meets Led Zep; drummer Janet Weiss plays like a cross of Keith Moon and John Bonham.” Their music reflects the tastes of a lot of middle-aged men. What Babovic reminds us, again and again, is that the music is made by women, and that while these women want to reach out to the largest audience possible, they will never do this at the expense of their demand that what women do in rock music is not just relevant, but crucial. (Babovic quotes Weiss about those middle-aged men: "We always joked that Corin had these intellectual 50-year-old men who wore glasses and looked like college professors. ... She really had a type -- these guys always stood on her side and they were Corin's special, intellectual fans.")
I don’t know which of their eight albums is my favorite ... probably Dig Me Out or The Woods. But I remember in the earlier days, when a question often arose, are you a Call the Doctor person or a Dig Me Out person? It was never close, in my book ... most obviously, Dig Me Out is when Janet Weiss joined the band, and “my” Sleater-Kinney always includes Janet. I can say that I very much enjoyed revisiting the album through the lens of Jovana Babovic.
Here are my favorite tracks from Dig Me Out:
“Dig Me Out”. The video, from 2015, has everything that is great about a Sleater-Kinney concert. Corin’s unstoppable vocals, Carrie dripping charisma and playing her idiosyncratic guitar lines, Janet Fucking Weiss of the Great Drummer Hair showing why she is the best.
“One More Hour”. Perhaps the most heartbreaking song in their catalog, and in the running for best breakup song ever. Oh, you’ve got the darkest eyes.
“Turn It On”. The video is from CBGB’s in 1997, a show written about in the book.”On top of that, there were rats everywhere.... ‘It was just gross and just-don’t-touch-anything,’ Tucker said. ‘But it was also a very rock ‘n’ roll club.’”
“Words and Guitar”. As much a statement of purpose as “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” from the previous album. The email list for S-K fans I was on was named after this song. “Take take the noise in my head, C'mon and turn turn it up, I wanna turn turn you on, I play it all i play it all, I play it words + guitar!”
“Little Babies”. I’ve never been quite sure what this song is about, but it is their greatest sing-along. “Dum dum dee dee dee dum dum dee dum do, All the little babies go oh oh i want to.” I could add that Janet is great on this one, but I could say that for every song they recorded once she joined the band.
“Not What You Want”. Like the Stones’ “Rip This Joint”, this is S-K blasting through a song at breakneck speed ... as Corin sings, “80, 95, maybe more!” As such, my favorite S-K blitz song, at least until a couple of years later, when Janet had her greatest moment in “Youth Decay”. (That song has my favorite Sleater-Kinney lyric ever, one that could be my motto: “I’m all about a forked tongue and a dirty house.”) The video is from Portland, 2006 ... after that show, they took off for a decade.
Bonus: here’s the last time we saw them do “Youth Decay” live, San Francisco, 2015:
I love Rob Sheffield’s books. His first, Love Is a Mix Tape, was an explicitly autobiographical memoir, a moving and beautifully written story about his life and subsequent marriage with Renée Crist, who dies unexpectedly. He tells this story by blending in a series of mix tapes, which suggests the direction his next books would go. The second book mentions Duran Duran in the title, the third is about “the rituals of love and karaoke”. It would be hard to find two subjects that interest me less than Duran Duran and karaoke, but I loved both books. I love that they continue his use of memoir to illuminate broader topics, such that by the time I finished the books, I had a much deeper understanding of those things I had thought were uninteresting.
What makes Sheffield’s books work is that while he is a central character, his presence is used to illuminate the world around him. Some writers (myself included) tend to turn everything into a story about myself, but that’s not what Sheffield accomplishes. Instead, he uses his personal connections in the service of his subjects. It’s quite a skill, one I wish I could master.
Sheffield loved David Bowie, and when Bowie died, Sheffield’s heart was broken. He says his latest book, On Bowie, “is a love letter to Bowie ... a thank-you for the beautiful mess he made out of all our lives.” Reading this, I realize that on some level, every book Rob Sheffield has written is a love letter of sorts, and that provides a lovely structure for whatever he is writing about. In one moving passage, he writes about hearing Bowie had died. “I thought about waking up my wife to tell her. But I wanted her to sleep one more night in a world that had Bowie in it.” In those sentences, we feel how important Bowie was in people’s lives, but also how Sheffield’s personal response includes the desire to protect his wife for a few more hours.
Here’s the thing: we learn a lot about Rob Sheffield in On Bowie, just as we have in all of his books. But, more than that, we learn a lot about David Bowie. Sheffield’s critical analysis of Bowie’s work is idiosyncratic ... of course it is, it should be, he’s not trying to put a canon in concrete. By attaching his own life history with Bowie, Sheffield stands in for the fans, and that helps a non-believer like me appreciate how Bowie and his fans fed off of each other. The biggest implication is always there ... substitute your own favorite for Bowie, and you’ll recognize a lot of what Sheffield goes through over the years. But by working with the memoir structure, Sheffield always brings those larger implications back to the specific story of David Bowie.
Here are a few of my favorite Bowie songs. I only scratch the surface ... another use for On Bowie is to uncover hidden gems from Bowie’s recorded work. Me, I’m a greatest-hits kind of guy when it comes to Bowie ... well, I also love The Man Who Fell to Earth, one place where Rob and I do disagree. These are in no particular order, probably chronological although I’m not checking. “Stay” would be atop my list.