Tag Archives: Led Zeppelin

New to the Rock and Roll Bookshelf: Memoirs by Graham Nash and Lisa Robinson

29 Sep

For someone who purports to being a novelist, I read very little fiction. I should probably do something about that.

Instead, I read biographies, autobiographies and memoirs about people in show business, many of whom are in the music industry (natch). For instance:

Lisa Robinson's backstage passes, or, another reason to wish you were her/ VanityFair.com

Lisa Robinson’s collection of all-access backstage passes, or, another reason I wish I was her/ VanityFair.com

There Goes Gravity: a life in Rock and Roll by Lisa Robinson 

Let’s get one thing straight: Lisa Robinson knows more rock stars than you ever will in your entire life. It’s up to you to get over your seething jealousy and enjoy the fruit of her labors as a journalist by reading this entertaining, intimate memoir about making a living by writing about the biggest names in rock and roll history.

Robinson is still one of the few women in her line of work. She got her start as the editor of several rock magazines then became a columnist for the New York Post and now is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. She was also on the nominating committee for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for 18 years.

Robinson championed Led Zeppelin at a time when they were being savaged by Rolling Stone and others, and that – and her deep knowledge of jazz and blues – earned her a seat on their private jet the Starship during their tours in the mid-1970s. Holding her own with those “lads” led to her covering the 1975 Rolling Stones tour along with Annie Leibovitz (riding the Starship again, as it turned out). Since then she’s covered everyone from John Lennon and Bono to Eminem and Lady Gaga.

She credits her knack for gaining her subjects’ trust to being a journalist rather than a critic, and she was able to offer a uniquely up-close perspective on the artists and their lifestyle by not getting swept up in the debauchery:

Often, I was the only woman in the room and certainly the only one who wasn’t sleeping with any of [the musicians]. I wanted to keep everything professional, to get the stories. For me, the lure was always the music. But if you’re not having sex with someone on a tour, or participating in the drugs, you really are on a different tour than everyone else.

Yes, she drops a lot of names but she’s earned that right. The photos from throughout her career – pointing a cassette recorder at an 11-year old Michael Jackson; sitting on David Johansen’s lap to chat to Freddie Mercury; reading a newspaper with Joe Strummer – are proof.

I liked this book so much I bought it after I returned it to the library. Check it out yourselves!

Graham Nash's Wild TalesWild Tales by Graham Nash

Graham Nash rightfully earned his place in rock history as a founder of  2 1/2 seminal bands: The Hollies and Crosby, Stills & Nash (and occasionally & Young). He was one of the organizers of the No Nukes concerts in 1979 that brought rock music together with environmental  fundraising. He has also enjoyed success as a solo musician, a photographer, book publisher and visual artist. Despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars he blew on cocaine, he has survived and saved enough to enter his 70s living in Hawaii … with the time and means to fly into New York to participate in Occupy Wall Street.

Wild Tales chronicles Nash’s rise from the council projects of Salford to becoming a British Invasion sensation with the Hollies. Then the action moves over to nearly five decades of his ins and outs with various combinations of Stephen Stills (whom Nash depicts as a relentless egotist), David Crosby (best friend and cringe-inducing drug addict) and Neil Young (infuriating musical genius). Along the way, many women were loved (including Joni Mitchell and Rita Coolidge) and many drugs were done and, as Nash tells it, he was usually the one  stuck waiting for his friends to show up or sober up to perform. When contemplating reuniting with the Hollies in the early 1980s, he took the gig because

God almighty, was it easier to sing with the Hollies than with CSN! It was certainly more fun, less plagued with personal bullshit. No freebase, no egos, no Neil Young.

Humility is not his strong suit. Neither is literary finesse. That’s what makes this a rather tiring read.  At best Nash’s book, like his lyrics, demonstrate his straightforward charm, but often he gets preachy and pedestrian. Also, his overuse of nicknames (“Clarkie,” “Croz”) and his hippie grandpa phraseology – for instance, he refers to “smokin’ it” (it being marijuana) constantly – does him no favors. Still, he does have an insider’s view of the California music scene and all its unwashed glory, and his celestial harmonies should be celebrated and enjoyed two generations later. Rather than read about why he thinks they’re great, put your copy of Crosby, Stills & Nash on the turntable instead and experience Graham Nash’s best talents for yourself.

What’s on your nightstand these days? Let me know … even if it’s fiction.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Do you use the Facebook? Stay up to date on the doings associated with my novel by liking the Love and Other B-Sides page there – and I hope to see you at my first author event on October 26 at Leon and Lulu in Clawson!

Recommended Reads from the Rock and Roll Bookshelf

25 Apr

Lately, I’ve focused more on films or books about musicians rather than the music itself. I don’t know if that’s because there haven’t been a lot of new releases I’ve been interested in or because I haven’t been to a live show in a while. (Maybe I just wanted to look badass by reading a book that’s been blurbed by Slash, Kirk Hammett and Billy Gibbons while waiting for a blood draw at my doctor’s office.)

The two most recent rock books I’ve read couldn’t be more different, and I recommend them both:

So many facets, so little time ...

So many facets, so little time …

David Byrne’s How Music Works is the definition of eclectic, which comes as no surprise. Byrne has not stood still since the Talking Heads broke up and has diversified his artistic output over the years to include painting, producing, writing scores for film and dance, and even cycling. His most recent project is Here Lies Love, which began as an album he did a few years ago with DJ Fatboy Slim as an interpretation of the significance of the life of Imelda Marcos. It is now being presented at the Public Theater as “a 90-minute theatrical experience” for which “dancing is encouraged” and  “comfortable shoes and clothing are recommended.”

How Music Works is Byrne’s meditation on why music sounds the way it does and how the music industry has grown up around the desire to capture and share the “real” experience of live performance when, of course, that can never truly happen. While not exactly light reading, it’s not as dreary as it sounds, either. He’s got a droll sense of humor and he points out things I never considered before, like how the acoustics and floor plan of a performance venue – be it a cathedral or CBGB’s – determines the success of the music played there almost more than the talent of the musicians does.

What I found fascinating was his description of how he’s written lyrics to some songs based not on their meaning as much as their tonal quality: he’ll want certain vowel sounds to be part of a phrase, so he identifies words to deliver them. This is antithetical to pretty much any other songwriter I’ve heard of, save maybe Stephen Sondheim. David Byrne isn’t looking as much for the emotional or even intellectual connection we have with words. Instead he aims to connect us to their power as expressions of pure sound, as instruments.

Do as I did and read it on a long plane trip. Even if you don’t enjoy the book you’ll look incredibly erudite.

drawing on every boy's notebook in high school

This was the drawing on nearly every boy’s notebook cover in my high school in the early 1980s … although usually it was drawn with a blue Bic pen

At present, I’m in the midst of Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page by Brad Tolinski, who is the editor in chief of Guitar World magazine. The stated purpose of the book is not to dwell on Led Zeppelin’s lurid history or Page’s fascination with the occult but to talk solely about the man as musician.

jimmy-page double neckPage’s background as a studio session guitarist helped him develop a superb work ethic and keen ear as a producer. As the third and last lead guitarist for the Yardbirds – following Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck – he began to push his love for American blues into new directions. Then Led Zeppelin became the most successful band in the universe … and here we are with a book full of vivid memories of how it all came together with Jimmy Page steering the ship.

Overall this is a very good read, with Page coming off as the thoughtful, disciplined and inspirational musician he was in the 2008 documentary, It Might Get Loud. (Nothing like seeing Jack White and the Edge get starry-eyed over watching their guitar hero up close.) Tolinski asks intelligent questions, and his background gives him solid footing when talking to Page about guitars, equipment and production tricks and techniques. Still there’s an element of drooling, fanboy awe and superiority in some of his questions that makes me – and perhaps Page – giggle:

In retrospect, your agenda was clear: Led Zeppelin was taking the existing ideas found in traditional blues, folk, and rock and moving them into the future. Led Zeppelin III was a substantial leap in that direction.

Okay, okay, well, there it is, then.

Reading this book inspired me to listen to ultra-familiar Led Zeppelin material with fresh ears, which is practically a miracle – and reason enough to recommend it.

So, what’s on your nightstand these days?

See you on the flip side …

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