Frank Gutch Jr: If You Don’t Like To Read, Maybe You’re Reading The Wrong Stuff: Books On Music… Plus Notes

FrankJr2I worked with a guy for four or five years who had never read a book after college.  He read, he just didn’t read books (which had me scratching my head until I developed a bald spot).  Books have always been part of my life.  As a child and even toddler, books were a never ending source of pleasure.  So how is it, I ask myself, that people hate to read?  And I think I have found the answer.  They haven’t found anything which, to them, is worth reading.  Books are like music in the forest for the trees idiom.  There are so damn many choices, one has no idea where to start.  Well, for people who love music, the obvious starting point is books about music (or would that be “are”?).  Like soul?  Find a book about soul music.  Love country?  There are tons of biographies of country artists, past and present, and even books about country’s musical past.  Blues?  The same.  Rock?  Too many to count.

I could rattle off a number of titles to start with, regardless of genre, but I am on a journey to live and relive my past musically anyway, so why don’t you tag along?  Here are some books you might consider picking up and leafing through, if not outright adding to your collection.

MEMPHIS BOYS: The Story of American Studios by Roben Jones…..

MemphisBoysMockupThe sub-subtitle is A detailed history of an unsung recording studio and its lasting impact on music, but don’t let that scare you away.  Ms. Jones has done yeoman’s work, compiling and editing information from historical articles and interviews with the musicians and friends of those musicians which could very well have been lost to history.  While some might look upon this as more of a textbook than an entertaining read, they would be wrong.  True, this covers a long period of time and a number of different people in depth, but the story is a fascinating one and Jones’ approach is solid.

She gripped my ‘nads, as the old saying goes, in the introduction:

“Drifting out of my speakers was Alex Chilton, at one time one of the Box Tops but whose recordings were solo performances with session players accompanying him, singing something called I Shall Be Released.  It was a Dylan tune, but I did not know that then.  I could certainly relate to the words, about a man in the lonely crowd who remembered “every face of every man who put me here” and swore that he was not to blame.  But even more than the song itself, what got me was the music.”

“It opened with a resonant grand piano, then continued quietly with the piano and an acoustic guitar underlining the verses.  But the anguish implied in the lyric burst forth in the choruses, with a horn arrangement building and building to screams of bewilderment and pain.  Bob Dylan may have been writing about a literal prison, but these musicians, these producers and arrangers— whoever had gotten that sound— had built and woven around Dylan’s words to describe a prison of the spirit.  These people knew something about agony and loss and bleak empty roads stretching endlessly before them.”

“It was the most musically creative thing I had ever heard; the production embellished the song to create a completely personal statement.  There was nothing else on the air to compare with it.”

Naturally, this struck deep because I, too, have discovered music so personal and so profound that I, too, became obsessed.  Jones’ obsession slowly turned into a book of real merit covering a portion of the early rock scene worthy of dissection.  Names are tossed around— like Tommy Cogbill and Reggie Young and Chips Moman and Bobby Emmons and Papa Don Schroeder and a slew of others— not for name-dropping sake but because they were keys to the studio and, truthfully, the times.

american-sound-studioOne thing which has always  bothered me about books on music is that we pay so much attention to the popular, we forget about the scene itself— about the people who make up or made up that scene.  Jones not only has chosen a subject which fills in blanks, she weaves tales of what it was really like back then (then being from the fifties all the way into the seventies).  Mostly the sixties, though, and what an era it was.

This book is personal.  Jones went out of her way to make it so with quotes from an encyclopedia of the people who lived and worked in Memphis and at American Studios.  This is what it was actually like, from the intensive studio work to the long tours and problems which got in the way of so many successes the artists, studio and label should have had.

Don’t expect a volume of mostly pictures broken up by text.  The only pictures in the book I have are on the cover.  Every page inside is packed with information and stories and remembrances and everything else needed to round out the Memphis music scene.  To myself, books like these are crucial to a real understanding of the times.

From the American Made Music Series published by University Press of Mississippi.  And here you thought books were a thing of the past.  Want to see what else they have, here’s the link:  http://www.upress.state.ms.us/.  You will be amazed.

DON’T GET ABOVE YOUR RAISIN’Country Music and the Southern Working Class…..

dontgetaboveDon’t get freaked out by the subtitle.  This, also, is not a textbook, though as close as you are likely to find.  It is an in-depth look at Country music with the sociological structures of its supporters as jumping off places.  The fascinating aspect of this book is the author’s tendency toward attempting to explain the popularity of the music to the working class through subject matter.  Race, of course, was mixed into the equation along with a variety of other factors— occupation (coal mining and farming are two obvious and major areas touched upon), isolation (rural is as rural does, as people in my hometown used to say), religion (where I grew up, it seemed like every four-corner road in town had a gas station, a tavern and a church on three of them).  Just the existence of The Grand Ole Opry and Louisiana Hayride said something.

One thing which makes this book worthy is its span.  The author, Bill C. Malone, starts in the very early days and carries it right up to the present day, recalling the real old-timers (Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, The Blue Sky Boys) along with the new (Chris Hillman, Alan Jackson, Billy Joe Shaver).  That is a lot of years there, sports fans.

One thing, though.  A full one-quarter of the book is attributes and source material, but that’s cool.  If the subject matter strikes you at all, a short tiptoe through the sources available are always a good thing, especially when a side trip is necessary to fully understand.

From the Music In American Life series at University of Illinois Press.

ONE NATION UNDER A GROOVEMotown & American Culture— 

onenationPlease allow me to refer to this as a Cliff’s Notes version of Motown because it is short, sweet and to the point.  Author Gerald Early uses the first section to set the scene, then lays out a quick and easy history of Motown’s place in Pop Culture and does it well.  No groundbreaking moments in the book, but for people who have not studied Motown or the early days of rhythm & blues, that can be a good thing.  Ever been curious about the Korean War?  I bought a book on it and it is long and detailed.  I loved it, but if I had wanted a simple course, I would have taken the undergraduate course, so to speak.  The thing that impresses me about this book is that Early covers the bases but does not dwell upon them ad infinitum.  For the beginner, not the scholar, but entertaining as hell (assuming hell is entertaining).  Covers a fifty year period beginning around 1945.

Available from University of Michigan Press.  Goddamn, but I love universities and their loyalty to the printed word!

THE DEATH OF RHYTHM & BLUES…..

deathofr&bI first heard about Nelson George through a music junkie who called George a hack writer.  He had read both The Death of Rhythm & Blues and Where Did Our Love Go? and brushed them off as so much pap.  When I read them , I found just the opposite.  I had had little schooling in R&B, though I had been a huge Motown fan pretty much from the git-go.  I found both to be entertaining and easy reads.

First published in 1988 by Pantheon Books, The Death of Rhythm & Blues looks back to the roots of Black Culture to ease the reader into the music.  The first chapter, in fact, is titled Philosophy, Money and Music (1900-30) and reads like the beginnings of a documentary on the plight of Blacks over the years:  “A great many Americans, spoon fed words of democracy like ‘brotherhood’ and ‘divided we fall’ since childhood, are uncomfortable with the idea that an ethnic or racial group needs to band together and have goals that clearly and purposefully set them apart from the rest of the country.  Yet racial, national, and religious power blocs have always been integral to how power is wielded in this nation.”  “This nation” being the United States.  Sound like an easy read about music?  You will be surprised that it really is.

George utilizes music as a thread needed to make this country a better place for all.  He covers the early Black Culture, lightly documents the rise and importance of R&B as an important and viable genre for all while using the history of Blacks in the US as a basis for the music genre itself.  Don’t confuse R&B with Soul, my friends (and especially young people whose existence began after Motown’s rise to the top).  R&B, to me, is a conglomeration of genres under a cultural umbrella— blues, rock, soul, and some jazz.  It is not A music but MANY musics and while that may make it hard for some to understand, George makes a valiant attempt to explain here.

George spent a lot of years analyzing and writing about music with zines such as Village Voice and Billboard.  He later became interested and worked in film as well as writing a series of non-fiction works.  He knew/knows his stuff.  He is passionate about his music as well as his culture and it shows.  It is one of my favorite books just because George steps beyond the stars and talks about life as it really existed.  The mom-and-pop stores and the distribution of records.  The problems of getting the message out beyond Black-owned radio and newspapers.  The struggles of musicians themselves.  Maybe it is just me, but I found a lot to absorb in the pages.  I went in thinking I knew something about R&B.  I came out knowing I had a lot to learn.  A lot more than I had theretofore been willing to admit.

 

This is one of the few worthy books on music which is available from a major publisher.  It is available from Penguin Books.  Why has a publisher with the size and reputation of Penguin picked it up and kept in in their catalog?  Read it.  You will understand.

WHERE DID OUR LOVE GO?The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound…..

wheredidourlovegoThis was published before The Death of Rhythm & Blues, but publishing dates mean little in the long struggle to write and get published works such as these.  The two George books were a long time in the making, George drawing from a few years of frantically scraped together notes as well as info gathered for the many articles and reviews he wrote during those years.  The important thing, though, is not just the notes but how they are arranged.  George either edited the chapters numerous times or has a knack for mixing the chronological and the levels of important.  And what is important, though you would not think so by looking at many of the tomes written about Motown, are not the stars themselves but the stories behind the stars— and the label.

After a short historical layout of the past regarding Blacks and the social situation they found themselves in in the first part of the 20th Century, George delves into Berry Gordy’s roots, tracing his family situation and personal life to the actual beginnings (or pre-beginnings) of what eventually developed into Motown Records.  Sure, recently everyone is being given the docu-version of Motown, thanks to the recent super-documentary of the musicians behind the Motown sound (Standing in the Shadows of Motown), but when George wrote this, that doc was a ways away.

It was a fascinating run from Jackie Wilson to the label to the move to L.A. and the subsequent involvement in motion pictures, but that is the period covered.  You get a lot of behind the scenes activity when the label was in its way up to the long slide downhill.  Los Angeles?  Motown was not even a blip on L.A.’s radar.  They should never have left Detroit.  Even I know that.

This is an outstanding introduction to the Motown years but is worthy of respect from scholars as well.  George’s easy flowing writing style makes it so entertaining that you don’t even realize how much you’re learning.  Is a book on pop music and culture deserving of a scholar’s respect?  This one is.

Another in the series Music In American Life from University of Illinois Press.

SOUTH TO LOUISIANA:  The Music of the Cajun Bayous…..

southtolouisianaMy friend Joe Lee bought me a book titled Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans years ago.  I was knocked out.  It was an in-depth look at music in New Orleans, mostly during the fifties and sixties when names like Fats Domino and Ernie K-Doe and Professor Longhair and Irma Thomas ruled the roost.  Written originally as Walking to New Orleans:  The Story of New Orleans R&B and published in the UK in 1974, it made its way to the States and gained a small amount of success among the handful of music historians who love the music of that period.  I thanked Joe for it again and again, so much so that I have to thank him this one more time.  Thanks, Joe.

It didn’t end there, though.  Joe not long after found another excellent John Broven tome, this one running down the music of the bayous, and handed it to me on a silver platter.  I mean, I loved Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans.  And I love South to Louisiana.  Take a look at the cover and you might think it was more about Cajun than anything, but it’s not.  Once again, Broven mined an area of music history others had barely touched upon.  You think you know a lot about the Louisiana music of the fifties and sixties?  Time for a gut check.

Broven tells the stories of so many musicians my head spins, and musicians of many sizes and shapes:  Dewey Balfa, Cookie & The Cupcakes, Leo Soileau, Jimmy Newman, Lou Millet, Vin Bruce, Nathan Abshire.  He digs hard to uncover the significance of Jole Blon, a song as important to Louisiana of the forties and fifties as was Louie Louie to the Pac Northwest of the sixties.  He tells of Rockin’ Dopsie and Clifton Chenier and Slim Harpo and Dale & Grace and of the early days of Huey P. MeauxEddie ShulerFloyd Soileau.  He goes behind the scenes of a couple of studios important to the recording of music which probably would have been lost had they not been there.  He writes of culture and the mixing of the races in an area not really known for that and about the modern music easing its way into the landscape of the traditional.  He talks of so many things, I have read it four times, front to back, and have to pick it up now and again to make sure I got it right.  This is a veritable encyclopedia of Louisiana music— the music of the bayous, at least.

Yep, you put Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans on the same table as South to Louisiana and, by all rights, the legs should collapse.  They’re that heavy.  A lot of the younger set, I have noticed, only go back so far in their searches for the roots of much of today’s music.  If they really want to know, they have to dig a lot deeper.  Here are two excellent books to start with.

Pelican Publishing does the honors this time.  You might also want to check out a book published by University of Illinois Press titled Record Makers & BreakersHere is a link.

DEATH OF A REBEL…..

deathofarebelHow could someone who had a smash hit with a song like Outside a Small Circle of Friends be a rebel?  Have you listened to the song?  Admittedly, it was almost crassly commercial compared to the huge library of realist and protest songs Phil Ochs produced over his all too short life, but he still made a point.  Dig these lyrics:

Smokin’ marijuana is more fun than drinkin’ beer

But a friend of ours was captured

And they gave him thirty years

Maybe we should raise our voices, ask somebody why

But demonstrations are a drag

And besides we’re much too high

These words, stashed inside an upbeat folk rock song which was catchy but not Ochs’ best, gave him the biggest hit he was to have, which is a sad thing to say when one considers the importance Ochs (and many fans) gave to his previous songs.  While I’m sure he was pleased with the song and with the album Pleasures of the Harbor, Ochs had this way of focusing upon what he had not recorded rather than on what he had.  No matter what he recorded, he felt like he was not getting through to people— to that crucial “listening public” the media harped on in those days.  Ochs’ contemporaries were.  Dylan was huge.  A whole string of fellow folkies from the Bleecker & MacDougall days of the New York City folk scene were on their way.  Why couldn’t he break through?

I have no clue.  I loved the guy.  He spoke and sang from the heart.  Truth was the core of his existence— at least, truth as he imagined it.  His beginnings were mystical, as were most of the beginnings during NYC’s heyday of folk.  He gained success, but sometimes at too high a price.  He eventually fell by the wayside, a somewhat forgotten relic of times past when things seemed to matter more than getting laid or getting high.  He killed himself, probably for a variety of reasons including health problems.

The ride he had, though, was long and—- well, I don’t really want to say full of drama, but I will— full of drama.  Protest music, it seemed from my point of view, was a calling to him and when certain musicians abused the calling (meaning that they sang protest while selling out to the establishment they were supposedly protesting), Ochs got upset.  For years, I retold the story of Bob Dylan’s first public appearance after a motorcycle accident as being one of the Newport Folk Festivals.  I was wrong.  It was the Carnegie Hall Tribute to Woody Guthrie.  Seems the booking committee left Ochs and, of all people, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott off the bill, turning the tribute into more of a show than a tribute.  Ochs never forgave them.

This is one intriguing book partially because Phil Ochs was one intriguing dude.  Hate him or love him, these pages are full of stories to entertain anyone who has even the slightest interest in NYC’s old folk scene.  You might want to read this, by the way, before you see the new documentary about Gerdes’ Folk City, Positively Porco.  The preliminary word is that it is a film you don’t want to miss.

Available via Amazon.

MR. TAMBOURINE MAN:  The Life and Legacy of The Byrds’ Gene Clark…..

I wasn’t going to include this here but there seems to be some kind of resurgent interest in Clark beyond the norm.  Part of it is the ongoing love affair that boomers seem to have with The Byrds and part of it has something to do with a group of musicians who evidently play in other bands (or play solo) joining together to either record or perform Clark’s No Other album front-to-back.  It is nothing new, except maybe for this idolization on a major scale by people who have followed neither Clark nor Clark’s music (and I am not referring to the musicians) but seem unable to pass up the fad of the moment.  I’m not saying that Clark has not recorded music worth hearing.  I have been collecting his music for years.  But that does not mean that he hasn’t written or recorded some clunkers along the way, a few of which turned up on the aforementioned No Other project.  My suggestion would be to skip the hype.  Buy the Clark albums.  Listen to the man himself.  Otherwise, what’s the point?  Cover bands are cover bands, gilded or not.

That said, if you are interested in the life (and death) of Gene Clark, Mr. Tambourine Man will tell you probably more than you need to know.  John Einarson follows the musical life of Clark through Clark’s folkie days (he once played with The New Christy Minstrels who were huge during the folk revival of the fifties and sixties), through his run with The Byrds and Dillard & Clark and indeed through a number of attempts to revive a crumbling career.  For those who need sensation, Clark had his demons.  He struggled with them most if not all of his life.  But he had his positive periods, too.

This is a fascinating book in that it delves into both the private and public, the personal and the general.  An historical rundown of a musician and his times, written in both major and minor chords.  If, after reading this, you want to truck out to see the “No Other” performances by the minor league stars who have taken up the challenge, do so.  But know that you are doing it with a semblance of knowledge about the man behind the music— the real man and not the god that so many seem to need to justify their interest.

Available from Backbeat Books.

HIGH STRUNG:  The Five Americans— A Memoir…..

rabonhighstrungMichael Rabon, a founding member of The Five Americans, pulls no punches with this so-called “memoir.”  In truth, it is more than that— a behind the scenes look at life as a young pop star (stars, really, because all five were living the dream) during a period in which the music business was blowing up.  You want sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll?  Rabon gives you the unfiltered version.  In fact, one of them— drugs— could have ended Rabon prematurely but didn’t.  I won’t give away the reason, but you will be surprised.  Let me just say that timing (and family) is everything.

Most interesting in this book is the transparent look at the business as it was— dealing with Abnak Records and backers and fellow musicians and, yes, even survival.  Rabon writes this with a look backward but with a look forward, as well.  He left the life behind him decades ago, but you cannot ignore the past.  Perhaps this is his way of purging.  An easy read with hopefully another volume or two to follow.

Published by Aberdeen BayAvailable from Amazon.

I have plenty more to write about.  I will get to them sometime.  In the meantime, though, there are always…..

Music Notes smallNotes…..  If you haven’t paid attention to my positive words about Gary Minkler, you really haven’t been paying attention.  Doesn’t mean I’m not going to be shouting about him, though.  For instance, Gary sent me a link to a live Red Dress performance filmed this past December.  It is typical of the Red Dress I used to know— beat heavy with that signature touch of insanity.  Man, the music biz must have sucked more than I thought to have passed on these guys back in the early 80s.  Big time.

God forgive me for always wanting to be a producer, but when I hear songs like this one by The Creekside Strays and High School Sweetheart, I start twisting knobs and arranging vocals (in my head, of course).  This is a solid song on its own and I love the vocal arrangement, but if they could just have…..  Not to worry.  I do it with Classic Rock too.  And blues and jazz and…..  Maybe I’m never satisfied.  But take a listen to the song and imagine it with…..  Oh, well.  I guess that’s why I’m a writer.  I like this, though.  More every time I hear it.

For those who love the history of recording, here is a clip from RCA which explains the recording and processing process.  Be forewarned.  You might actually learn something. Fascinating.

And this just in from Chris & Gileah Taylor:  New album on the fast track.  Mixing now, then mastering, then pressing, then…..  I have followed Gileah for years and am anxious for this project!  While she and husband Chris have worked on projects together, this one (to my knowledge) is the first which will cast them as a band.  Stay tuned…..

And along comes Canada’s Xprime (who will always be that “little baby animals in a box” band, thanks to Nadia Elkharadly), with the first video to support their new album, tentatively (and aptly) titled The Album.  If you don’t know these guys, you’re missing one of the most versatile bands to come down the pike in a long time.  They can play anything!  (Well, maybe not Peruvian Death Metal)  Don’t let the light pop fool you.  It is one of many sides of this multi-faceted band.

Sometimes, it is best to go backwards, politically correct or not.  Instead of autotune, I give you The Cat Piano, a decide of great musical possibilities.  The Republican Party is thinking about replacing the cats with Republicans, who already sound a lot like cats.  And here you thought forward was the only way we could go.

Have I posted this video of Era For a Moment yet?  No matter.  I post it any chance I get.  I discovered the band a few years ago and they have taken their own sweet time to get back into the studio.  This is one of those if-I-had-a-label bands I love so much.  Live, I’ll bet these guys kick ass!

Just when I was beginning to wonder, I find this little gem on the Net.  Research Turtles’ Jud Norman returns with a punchy little number, To and Fro.  Turn it up!

Fellow DBAWISer Roxanne Tellier uncovered this little puppy over the weekend and I’m freakin’ impressed!  Ian Thomas has still got it!  Young musicians, take note.  Here’s how you do it.

Of all the Seattle bands, I am most impressed with Ticktockman, a band stacked so high with talent I’m surprised it doesn’t collapse.  Here is one of their less ambitious efforts (but beautifully constructed, nonetheless) from their soon-to-be-released Ferdnik das Treubel album.  Okay, I made that up, but only because I don’t know the title of the upcoming release.  When I do, I will let you know.  Until then, lay back and enjoy.

=FGJ=

Frank’s column appears every Tuesday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS_ButtonFrank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.” 

One Response to “Frank Gutch Jr: If You Don’t Like To Read, Maybe You’re Reading The Wrong Stuff: Books On Music… Plus Notes”

  1. hmmm… Peruvian Death Metal eh? CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!

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