Monday, February 2, 2015

Dave Marsh reviews various books on rock.

The following are excerpts from Dave Marsh's RRC EXTRA No. 49 Dave Marsh on Books.  Subscribe to Rock and Rap Confidential by e-mailing

The best book I read all year was Mark Lewisohn's Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years, Volume 1. I expected data collection. I got data, but also interpretation at a very high level, obsessive reporting and high quality music criticism. Lewisohn understands that the Beatles are still important and, more pertinently, why this is so, which has everything to do with their roots in Liverpool, their relationship not just to American rock 'n' roll and R&B but to other kinds of popular music and to each other, their families, neighborhoods and audiences. Far more than anyone could have expected, Lewisohn goes on for page after page, chapter after chapter, and I, at least, never found it boring for a minute. Maybe that's just because he brings along his own enthusiasm so effectively--which is to say, that he's a writer as much or more than an assembler of information. This is a great book, there's nothing like it in music and damned little anywhere else (it makes The Power Broker seem superficial) and it ends not just before the Beatles go to America, but before they even make "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

Which isn't to say that All These Years can be the whole story, but it takes some reach to get to a new one. Vivek J. Tiwary's graphic novel The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story finds his perch in the life of Beatles' manager Brian Epstein. I say it's his book because he worked on the story for years—first as a film script--but artist Andrew Robinson, much better known in the comics field, has done a beautiful job. (Disclosure: I played a very minor role in helping Vivek, a dear friend, get the book done.) Nobody else has even tried to obtain an insight to what tortures and delights the Beatles must have offered Brian Epstein as a gay man (and I am not referring to whether or not he and John Lennon were lovers--passed off here in a single panel, about as much as it deserves). I sometimes complain that people don't appreciate how difficult it was to have long hair or oppose the war in Vietnam (people literally hated you for it and so no reason to conceal their hatred) but that's nothing compared to what it cost to be a gay man in England or the United States when loving someone of the same gender could get you thrown into prison.

Tiwary doesn't suggest that it was why Epstein died of a prescription drug overdose. He just shows him terrified, blackmailed, frustrated, with this one magnificent outlet to which he contributed everything he had. (In this rendition, which I think probably accurate, he died of accumulated tensions, drugs merely a vehicle.) He's even persuaded me that Epstein wasn't so bad a businessman as I had believed.

I hardly need to add anything about music, except that there are two that haunt me: Graham Nash's Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life, the best rock autobiography actually written by its author (unless you believe that hoary old joke about Keith Richards') and living up to its title. My favorite memory, as winter sets in, is Nash and Allan Clarke of the Hollies waiting in a snowfall on the steps of a Manchester hotel for the Everly Brothers, who emerge and treat them kindly. More unforgettable for others will be Nash's description of the utter squalor of Manchester in the 40s and 50s. Dickensian in all the worst ways. (The stuff about David Crosby is Henry Miller-ish in the worst ways.)

            Nash's honest appraisal of his life is exceeded only by Glyn Johns' in Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits with The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Eric Clapton, The Faces . . . This isn't so much a book about recording some of the earliest Beatles demos, or all of the Rolling Stones' albums up to 1975 (as engineer, not producer, because "I don't think Mick and Keith know what a producer is, or does."), Who's Next, the whole of the Faces, the earliest works of the Eagles, Joan Armatrading, on up to the last album of the book, which nobody reading this but me will probably have heard, Benmont Tench's You Should Be So Lucky, a beautiful coda. This is Johns, sometimes a steely presence, at his best. It ends with a wonderful encomium to choral singing (where his life in music began) but I prefer the hilarious page or so in which he plays the unreleased first Led Zeppelin album for Mick Jagger and then George Harrison, and both of them are completely uncomprehending that it might have any value whatsoever. It's full of such yarns and along the way, a grand history of British rock, and the vast ways in which record-making and to some extent music-making have changed in the last half century.

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