A survey of music biographies

Over the past 15 years or so, my taste in reading has gravitated heavily toward biographies, and one significant sub-genre of them has been musicians. I’ve read a lot of good ones, so I’m going to share my observations with you.

I’m putting Life, by Keith Richards, at the top of this list. It covers a huge amount of territory. Like several other books included here, there’s the post-World War II impoverished childhood, the discovery and fascination with 1950’s US blues artists, and the Rolling Stones circus, which includes the self-destruction of Brian Jones and relationships with Anita Pallenberg. Later comes his close brush with imprisonment in Toronto, and a nasty confrontation with Donald Trump. (Yes, you read that right.) After that, there’s a chapter about his own band, the X-Pensive Winos. (If you haven’t listened to Keith’s two solo albums, do so; they are excellent.)

The great thing, though, it it’s primarily about the music. In particular, if you’re a guitarist, you’ll enjoy the part about the 5-string open G tuning that he has used for a very long time. When he started doing his solo albums and touring with the X-Pensive Winos, he worked, at an advanced age, to improve his singing.

Next, a two-volume biography of Elvis, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, by Peter Guralnick. The first one covers up to his departure for Germany in 1958, during his Army service, and the second one covers the rest of his life.

You may ask, “is Elvis’ life story worth reading 1,400 pages?” Well, this about one of the biggest worldwide cultural icons of the 20th century, and I say “yes”. I certainly didn’t think it was boring. I learned from it that white gospel music, which his mother loved, was a major influence. That he had a three-octave vocal range. That he took his craft very seriously, often working on a song for months to get it to sound the way he wanted. That Tom Parker was a huge negative creative influence. (Forget this “Colonel” crap; he never was a colonel in any army.)

One big surprise for me was, his heavy amphetamine use started in the Army. Had more people known this, his death at the age of 42 would not have been a shock. Indeed, the small circle of people who knew what was going on thought he could have died a couple of years earlier; Parker made an effort to sell his contract.

And one more thing; not long after his death, Albert Goldman published a biography that drew a lot of attention. It’s crap. Goldman himself admitted that he knew nothing about music.

A related book, also by Guralnick, is Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll. Phillips was the legendary proprietor of Sun Records in Memphis. His long list of discoveries includes Ike Turner, Carl Perkins, Elvis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. He had a particularly high opinion of Lewis’ musical talent. Phillips was a complex person who had issues with alcoholism, and treated his wife badly. The book has great descriptions of Memphis’ Beale Street scene.

Speaking of Johnny Cash, he was a great verbal communicator, and Cash: The Autobiography is a good example. Unlike most autobiographies, it’s not “as told to”, although he got some help from Patrick Carr; Cash actually sat in front of a word processor and typed it. There’s a lot in this book that even a lot of hard-core Cash fans don’t know about. For example, he owned a house in Jamaica, and spent a lot of time there. One quibble I have with it is, there are three chapters about religion. Now, I understand perfectly well that this was important part of his life. I just think that one chapter would have been sufficient.

Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life is the autobiography of Graham Nash, one of the truly decent human beings on this planet. His big-time musical career started with The Hollies, a band with good vocal harmonies and guitar playing. However, Nash went to Laurel Canyon (you’ll be reading more about that place in this article), met up with David Crosby and other Los Angeles-area progressive musicians, and decided he wanted to take it up a notch. The result, of course, was Crosby, Stills & Nash, and later Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Crosby & Nash. There a lot of discussion of Nash’s political activism, starting with Musicians for Safe Energy in 1979.

The section on his induction into the Order of the British Empire in 2010 was poignant; Queen Elizabeth is a Hollies fan.

Toward the end, Nash wrote quite a bit about his 38-year marriage with Susan Sennett, his good relationship with their adult children, and his family estate on Kauai. Well, this book was published in 2014, and the marriage broke up in 2016. Publication of this book also ended his long-time through-thick-and-thin friendship with Crosby. Crosby took exception to some things that Nash wrote about him, despite the fact that Crosby admitted to those things publicly many years ago.

So, let’s get to Crosby. He has written two autobiographies, Long Time Gone and the aptly-titled Since Then: How I Survived Everything and Lived to Tell About It. I think that the first one, published in 1988, is the better of the two. It tells the tale of the formation of The Byrds, and how they were driving around Los Angeles and had to pull the car over when they heard “Mister Tambourine Man” on the radio the first time.
There is a lot in both books about Crosby’s sailboat, and his legendary drug use. The first book talks about the nine months he spent in a Texas prison for a weapons offense, and possession of heroin and cocaine. He was living in Laurel Canyon when The Byrds kicked him out, and started using heroin with Cass Elliott.

The second book starts with his near-death experience waiting for a liver transplant. His fatherhood of two biological children with Melissa Etheridge gets a few pages. However, the biggest revelation was his meeting up with James Raymond, a son that he fathered in 1962 and was put up for adoption. Raymond discovered that Crosby was his biological father when he was 30 years old, and Raymond was already a successful singer, songwriter, and keyboardist. The two of them met for the first time while Crosby was waiting for that liver transplant, and they hit it off so well that they formed a band, CPR, that put out a couple of albums. (The first one is excellent.) They are still playing together; the current band is David Crosby & the Sky Trails Band.

There have been several books written about Joni Mitchell, another Laurel Canyon resident. The one I’ve read is Reckless Daughter, by David Yaffe. One thing that comes across in it is, although most people regard her as a folk musician, over her long career, she did a lot more jazz-oriented material than folk.

If you’re a die-hard Mitchell fan, you might want to give this one a miss, or wait for an abridged version to come out. In the words of Crosby, “Joni hates everybody.” Her feud with Judy Collins who, at the age of 80, is still singing and recording, continues to this day. The book also documents her feud with Joan Baez. And for those you who are of the “all men are evil” persuasion, it was Mitchell who broke off the relationship with the above-mentioned Graham Nash. And the main reason she married her first husband was to get a green card.

Another must-read for guitarists is Been So Long: My Life and Music, by Jorma Kaukonen. Kaukonen is among the best guitarists on the planet, and he wrote quite a bit about his playing techniques, including drop d tuning. One key thing about Kaukonen is, he was only in the Jefferson Airplane for nine years. Most of his musical production has been with Hot Tuna, which started in 1970 and is still going today.

However, he did tell the story of the formation of the Jefferson Airplane. Although I’ve heard at least 15 versions of this story, I never get tired of it.

Because Hot Tuna has only two permanent members (Kaukonen and former Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady), they have collaborated with a long list of prominent musicians. Before I read this book, I wasn’t familiar with a lot of of Hot Tuna material, and I found myself putting down the Kindle when Kaukonen was talking about a song, and going to Spotify to listen to it. I also interrupted my reading to watch the film “Transcendence”, which includes “Genesis”, a great Kaukonen song.

On to Bob Dylan. There have been enough books written about him to fill a small library. No Direction Home, by Robert Shelton, is a good one. The PBS series with the same title, directed by Martin Scorsese, is well worth watching. One highlight of the PBS series is the interview with Al Kooper, where he explains how he ended up playing the organ on “Like a Rolling Stone”.

However, the Dylan book that I preach about to anyone who will listen is Dylan Goes Electric!: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties, by Elijah Wald. I need to start off by explaining that the main part of the title is misleading. What it is really about is the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and it’s about a lot more than Dylan. Dylan had already “gone electric”; he used electric instruments on the “Bringing It All Back Home” album, released four months earlier. And electric instruments had been used at this festival before, by various blues artists and by Johnny Cash.

What this book documents is something close to a street gang rumble between disciples of Pete Seeger (which included Alan Lomax) and clients of Albert Grossman (Columbia Records), which included Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Ian and Sylvia, and Gordon Lightfoot. Seeger had a vision of folk music being proletarian, with three-chord songs strummed on a banjo. Seeger didn’t have a chance; when Lomax tried to get the festival organizers to ban Grossman from the site, they had to back off, because Grossman’ clients would have gone with him, and this is where the subtitle “the night that split the sixties” comes in. The confrontation over Dylan’s electric performance, as well as the one by the Butterfield Blues Band a couple of nights earlier, changed the course of what is now known as Americana music.

One of my takeaways from this book was a much higher opinion of Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary. He generally “got” what the progressive folk artists were about, and put Seeger in his place.

You don’t have to be a Dylan fan at all to appreciate Dylan Goes Electric, but if you are a Dylan fan, and consider the “Blonde on Blonde” album to be one of his best, you’ll probably like That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound, by Daryl Sanders. It provides a day-by-day, song-by-song description of how the album was recorded. It was recorded in Nashville, primarily with Nashville musicians such as Charlie McCoy, Hargus “Pig” Robbins, and Joe South, but Dylan also brought a few of his own people with him, primarily Al Kooper. The Nashville people had to put up with some eccentricities, which wasn’t a problem because they were getting paid by the hour. All the songs were recorded “live in the studio”; they didn’t cut separate tracks for the various instruments and Dylan’s vocals. A lot of the songs were works in progress; the musicians often had to wait around in the studio for several hours while Dylan finished writing the lyrics, and he often made significant changes to the lyrics from one take to the next.

Dylan was also a major character in Small Town Talk, by Barney Hoskyns. The small town is Woodstock, New York, and lesson one is, the site of the Woodstock Festival was 50 miles from the town. One of the things that the book addresses is the “motorcycle accident” legend. According to people who were around at the time, Dylan wasn’t a very good motorcyclist, so the accident wasn’t a surprise. The accident actually wasn’t very serious, but the recuperation was a cover story for Dylan recovering from drug addiction. The next legend was the “Big Pink” house, where members of The Band lived, and where the “Basement Tapes” were recorded.

The popularity of the festival didn’t do the town any good. Dylan and some other celebrities ended up moving elsewhere because of too many incidents where they came home and discovered freaks who just invited themselves into the swimming pool. This was in the aftermath of the Manson murders, so this sort of thing was a justifiable concern.

The presence of The Band, Van Morrison, Todd Rundgren, and others led to the establishment of several recording studios, which attracted other music industry people, including the previously mentioned Albert Grossman. Levon Helm, the drummer for The Band, lived there until his death, and in later years, held °Midnight Rambles” in his house to pay the bills.

Helm wrote an autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire. He was originally from Arkansas, and was brought to Toronto by another Arkansan, Ronnie Hawkins. The membership of the Hawks became Dylan’s touring band, then The Band. Helm devoted a chapter to the making of “Music From Big Pink”, and some more pages to their second album, “The Band”. Then, all hell broke loose. The members of The Band regarded their songs as collective efforts, and justifiably so, but Robbie Robertson ended up with most of the songwriting credits. Later came “The Last Waltz” film, which was Robertson’s project. The other members of The Band were skeptical, and in a couple of cases, outright hostile. Helm later got some film experience, mainly with “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, and had some things to say about mistakes made by Martin Scorsese, who directed “The Last Waltz”. If you watch the film, you’ll see other members of the band rolling their eyes when Robertson pontificates about “the road”.

Here’s one anecdote, on pp. 276-277 (of the hardcover edition), that I really liked. At about the time “The Last Waltz” was released, there was a screening for members of The Band, their families, and friends, including Ronnie Hawkins. Hawkins laughed through a good part of it, and when it was over, he pounded Helm on the back, and proclaimed, “hey, son, don’t look so glum. The goddamn movie’d be awright if it only had a few more shots of Robbie. Haw haw haw haw haw!!!”

Now, if you want hear Robertson’s side of the story, no problem; he wrote Testimony, published in 2017. Robertson is, of course, an excellent writer, and it comes through in this book. However, some of his songs tell stories, and some of this book is definitely fiction. He glossed over the songwriting credits dispute. He ended up settling in Los Angeles, and there’s a lot of “here’s me hanging out with Martin Scorsese” and “here’s me hanging out with Joni Mitchell and David Geffen”.

However, his version of “The Last Waltz” is well worth reading. He describes the various technical challenges that had to be addressed. The main one was, it was recorded on film, not video. Film cameras can only be run for 20 minutes or so before they overheat, and the film and batteries have to be changed frequently. Some of the songs performed in the concert were left out because of this. A huge number of people were involved in the effort, including all the guest performers, and keeping it organized was quite an accomplishment.

The Beatles have attracted a huge amount of verbiage over the years. The book I’ll mention here is John, by Cynthia Lennon, John’s first wife. Cynthia was a classy woman who wasn’t treated well by John, but she managed to keep the bitterness to a minimum. She had some insights into the Beatles’ rise to fame that you won’t read elsewhere. She also has quite a bit to say about her son, Julian Lennon. If you have a low opinion of Yoko Ono, there’s some ammunition for you. Here’s some examples: John’s will provided for a trust fund for Julian, which was a sensible thing to to. Problem was, Ono was designated as the trustee. As a result, Julian got very little money out of it, and had to go to court, where he eventually got a settlement.

John was a generous person, and when the Beatles hit it big, he bought houses for a couple of his relatives. Again, there was a problem; he never got around to transferring the titles. So, when the “not legally owners” died, Ono sold the houses, instead of of transferring them to the heirs, which, according to Cynthia, is what John wanted.

This book didn’t mention that after John’s death, Ono auctioned off most of his personal papers. So, Julian had to buy back letters he had received from his father.

I’ll finish on a humorous note: Cynthia commented on the sale of their Rolls Royce to Jim Pattison to $2.3 million, with “if only I‘d asked him to include it in my divorce settlement!”

It’s worth buying Waylon: An Autobiography just for chapter two, which tells an extensive story of the 1959 Winter Dance Party tour, also known as “the bus tour from hell”. This was the tour that led to the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson. Jennings was a radio DJ in Lubbock, Texas prior to the tour. Before the tour started, Holly walked in the station with a bass guitar, tossed it to Jennings, and said “you have two weeks to learn to play that thing”. A few weeks later, Holly chartered a plane from Clear Lake, Iowa to Fargo, North Dakota, just so he could get some sleep and do laundry. Jennings was supposed to be one of the passengers, but he generously gave up his seat to Richardson.

Pete Kennedy of The Kennedys wrote Tone, Twang, and Taste: A Guitar Memoir (available only in paperback). This is a good book to read if you want to get an idea of just how much work is involved in being a professional musician. As a journeyman guitarist, he worked or jammed with Emmylou Harris, Chet Atkins, David Bromberg, Charlie Byrd, Roger McGuinn, Dave Carter, Steve Earle, Danny Gatton, Doc Watson, Tom Paxton, and Eric Andersen. After 20 years of this, he got some breaks; playing Mary Chapin Carpenter’s and Nanci Griffith’s bands, then meeting his wife and musical partner Maura.

Again, I’ll pass along an anecdote; when he was a teenager in the Arlington, Virginia, his garage band chipped in and bought a copy of "Are You Experienced?", Jimi Hendrix' first album. After listening to it, they concluded, "this is what we're going to sound like from now on." The drummer said that he was going to have to quit, because he felt that there was no way that he would ever play that well. The rest of the band talked him out of it.

Finally, Rumours of Glory is the autobiography of Canada’s National Treasure, Bruce Cockburn. Besides being an excellent guitarist and singer/songwriter, Bruce has been a world traveler since the age of 18. It shows in his songs: “Tokyo”, “Nicaragua”, “Santiago Dawn”, “Mines of Mozambique” (yes, he went there), “Fascist Architecture” (Italy), and “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (Chiapas, Mexico). He’s also well noted for not backing away from political causes.

I have one quibble about this book. I would have liked to read less about “Madame X” (a woman he had a long-term affair with, and was the subject of several of his songs), and more about his current wife, M.J. Hannett.