Another Rock Star, Another Memoir

Arp 188 and the Tadpole's Tail
Arp 188 and the Tadpole’s Tail
Image Credit: Hubble Legacy Archive, ESA, NASA;

The Literary Man

Pete Townshend has long been associated with the rock band, The Who. In fact, along with Roger Daltry, Keith Moon and John Entwistle, he helped form the band way back in 1964, when the quartet first started playing British nightclubs. Today, The Who is generally recognized as one of the holy trinity of British Rock bands. The other two would be of course the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The Who were one of the top rock bands of the sixties and seventies until two tragic events signaled the beginning of the end for this musical quartet. These were the death of Keith Moon in 1978 and a Cincinnati concert in 1979, where eleven fans were killed. As a result, by the early eighties, the band called, The Who, was breaking up. In July of 1983, Pete Townshend took on a job at Faber and Faber Books as an editor, thus completing the breakup of The Who.

Pete Townshend performing in Hamburg in 1972
Pete Townshend performing in Hamburg in 1972

Townshend’s Literary Accomplishments

As major songwriter and wordsmith, for one of the most popular live bands, ever to come onto the rock scene, Pete Townshend has earned his place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and also in the general popular culture of the sixties and seventies. Nowhere are his literary talents more evident than with the rock opera, “Tommy”, a musical creation in which Townshend had the dominant roll.

On a strictly literary note, Townshend should  be noted for a series of three articles that he wrote for Rolling Stone Magazine. These appeared between 1970 and 1977; and were mostly about The Who. Also in 1977 Townshend started Eel Pie Publishing, which featured children’s books, music books and a London bookstore called The Magic Bus. Townshend has also published a book of his own short stories, called Horses Neck (19850) along with several scripts for short films and plays.

The Who in Chicago in 1975
The Who, original line up, performing in Chicago. Left to right: Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Keith Moon, Pete Townshend. from Wikipedia, photo by Jim Summaria

Who I Am

Just this fall (October 2012) Pete Townshend has released yet another memoir/autobiography by yet another wealthy and over-sexed Rock & Roll superstar. Is it worth reading? I can’t tell you because I haven’t read the book. but is has been on the NY Times Bestseller list for at least several weeks, since its release.  However, given Townshend’s longtime association with writing and his stint as an acquisitions editor, this book might dig deeper into the mindset of one of the world’s premier rock musicians. Early reviews, such as this one at LitKicks, tend to indicate that Pete Townshend has penned a first-rate intra-perspective book on his own personal journey through life.

Pete Townshend Today
Pete Townshend playing in Philadelphia in 2008 with the Who, from Wikipedia, photo by Kubackeck
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Bob Dylan’s Transfiguration

Bob Dylan with Joan Baez
Bob Dylan with Joan Baez in 1963, from Wikipedia, photo credit National Archives and Records Administration

“In my case, there’s a whole world of scholars, professors and Dylanologists, and everything I do affects them in some way. And you know in some way I’ve given them life. They’d be nowhere without me.”   Bob Dylan from the Rolling Stone Interview

The Interview

Last week Rolling Stone Magazine officially released their September 27 issue, which included a lengthy interview with Bob Dylan. The interview, which was conducted by Mikal Gilmore had generated some pre-publication press, especially around his quotes concerning plagiarism and U.S. slavery. I actually got my hands on a copy of the R & R mag yesterday and had a chance to read the in-depth discussion between Mr. Dylan and Mr. Gilmore. What I learned was very interesting and also very informative.

Transfiguration

Transfiguration – A marked change in form or appearance; a metamorphosis.     from the American Heritage Dictionary

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the interview is Bob Dylan’s belief…… that he was transfigured, when another person bearing the same name, died in a motorcycle accident in 1964. This is heady stuff indeed, but its inclusion makes for good reading. And that other person, who died in 1964 was named Bobby Zimmerman…..and…he was president of the San Bernadino chapter of Hells Angels at the time of his death. Even stranger still is the publisher’s footnote stating that the Hells Angels guy really died in 1961 almost at the same time that Bob Dylan (formerly known as Robert Zimmerman) got his first big break in the form of a NY Times interview.

The Fifties

Another important fact to note, when discussing the folk bard, is that Dylan was born right before Pearl Harbor and that he attended high school in Hibbing, Minnesota during the fifties. Not only were the 50s a more peaceful time, but also the future folksinger’s early life in the hinterlands of America may have been instrumental in the development of Dylan as a singer and social critic. A quick look and listen to some of the rock’n roll artists of that era will go a long way in learning about how somebody from those years might view the world. If you don’t agree check out this list of the top five R & R hits for that decade.  In descending order it includes Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry, Jailhouse Rock by Elvis Presley, Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley & His Comets, Tutti-Frutti by Little Richard and Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On by Jerry Lee Lewis. This list says a lot.

Other Interesting Topics

Other areas of discussion that caught my eye include a defense of borrowing and some thoughts on John Lennon. Plagiarism is a term tossed around the literary world a lot. In Dylan’s opinion this happens more often than it should be, for it is in unavoidable dilemma that any folksinger, poet playwright, writer or whatnot cannot create fresh material without borrowing from the past. For me that kind of says it all.

Bob Dylan and President Obama
President Obama rewarding Bob Dylan with the Medal of Freedom at the White House, from Wikipedia source NASA

Levon Helm Dies at Age 71

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Levon Helm playing in Woodstock, NY in 2004, from Wikipedia

Brief Bio

Levon Helm, the long-standing drummer and superb tenor vocalist for the Band, died today in Woodstock, NY after a long struggle with cancer. Having grown up in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, the talented singer and musician brought a lot of talent to one of the most popular rock groups of the 60s and 70’s. After The Band broke up, Helm went on to record with other Band members (excluding Robbie Robertson) and eventually doing his own solo recordings. The drummer-singer is known for some of the most riveting vocal leads in recording history, including the lead voice in “The Weight”, a R&R Classic.

Helm’s Feud With Robertson

Martin Scorcese filmed the last concert of the Band (it’s called the Last Waltz) and unknowingly produced a Rock & Roll classic. Though not very apparent to most film viewers, Robertson and Helm were feuding before, during and after the live performance. Their differences became quite obvious after the break-up of the Band. Since that time the two have had limited contact with each other. The most common form of communication between the two musicians indicates a general dislike of each other. One point of contention was the break-up of The Band. Robertson was for, Helm was against. Another component of their feud was Helm’s claim that he did not receive complete credit for his songwriting contributions. Nonetheless, Robbie Robertson had this to say about Helm recently, as it was widely known that his death was eminent, “We all need to send out love and prayers to my Band mate Levon Helm.”

After The Band

After the break-up of the Band both Robertson and Helm have had distinguished solo recording careers. In contrast other members of the group have remained on the sidelines. While Robertson went Native, Helms chose to continuing exploring his rural Arkansas roots. By coincidence Helm was the only American member of The Band. Special praise should be given to Levon for his literary biography of the Band, entitled “This Wheel’s On Fire.” It is Helm’s tribute to rock & roll history and by most accounts the book is a stimulating and forthright account of the rise of a five-piece, musical group known worldwide, simply as “The Band”.

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Bob Dylan and the Band playing in Chicago, 1974, from Wikipedia

The Bob Dylan Way

Bob Dylan Way in Duluth
The Bob Dylan Way in Duluth

“Go melt back into the night, babe
Everything inside is made of stone”     Bob Dylan from “It Ain’t Me Babe”

What Is the Bob Dylan Way

The Bob Dylan Way has nothing to do with troubadouring around the country, playing in smoky coffee houses or finding the right rock’n roll agent to market your songs. It is actually a street in downtown Duluth, named after one of its most famous citizens, who was born here in the year of 1941.  The avenue runs downtown not too far from the picturesque waterfront, which sits on the edge of Lake Superior. To the east is an aquarium, a lakeside boardwalk and some popular restaurants. Heading west, the landscape ascends sharply forming a high ridge along the northwest side of town. This city has an attractive mix of an industrial waterfront, set on the edge on one of the world’s great freshwater lakes.

Duluth Drawbridge in raised position
Duluth Drawbridge in raised position

Not Hibbing 

Duluth should not be confused with Hibbing, Minnesota, the small town in the Iron Range of Northern Minnesota, where Mr. Dylan spend his younger years eventually graduating from high school. Hibbing is located 50 or so miles west of Duluth in a region that supports many iron mines. Besides nurturing the poet-folksinger, Hibbing is the birthplace of Greyhound Busline and features a museum honoring the transportation giant. I have no idea whether there is a such a place dedicated to the life and times of Bob Dylan.

Duluth Today

Duluth is a hill town in a flat prairie state. In fact, some of the states several ski resorts are located here, despite a very short vertical drop. I was in town passing through on my way south to the cities. I was just ahead of the Duluth Blues Festival, an annual musical event that occurs every August on the waterfront. From what I could hear of the opening event from the downtown library, the quality of music is quite good. I would have liked to have stayed and caught the whole show, but ticket prices were high and all the the rooms were booked solid on account of the festival, so I had to move on – not to different from a line from a Dylan song.

Duluth Freighter
Duluth Freighter

Review of How To Become Clairvoyant

Where the sky meets the sea
Where the sky meets the sea

Notes From A Devout Robertson Fan

I have been fascinated with Robbie Robertson’s post Band solo career. This interest did not begin until he went native with the release of Music For Native Americans, which was accompanied by a TV documentary. True much of the music was performed by more traditional Indian musicians, but Robertson blends in his own musical touch quite well to complement the other performers. I always felt that the overall effect was quite remarkable. Several years later this effort was supplemented by Robertson’s own journey into his  Iroquois past with the release of  “Contact From the Underworld of Redboy”. Although at times Robertson comes dangerously close to falling in the trap of pan-Indianism, the musical quality is first-rate, as is Robertson’s ability to delve into the mystic, a trait definitely not confined to Native Americans. After greatly appreciating these two releases and went back and found more great enjoyment with Storyville and his self-titled first solo release.

Review of Clairvoyant

So with this background, I was more than happy to see Robertson team up with Eric Clapton for the just released “How To Become Clairvoyant”. The duo guitarist create an enamoring musical backdrop for most the album. As expected their guitar work is first rate and adds an additional element to “How To Become Clairvoyant”. The beginning of  “Clairvoyant” is excellent. In fact, the first four songs provide a classic Robertson nostalgic lookback at the heyday of  Rock & Roll, something Robertson was able to observe firsthand, both as a member of Bob Dylan’s first electric backup, and as a member of the much-heralded “Band”. The second number, “When the Night Was Young”, recaptures this mood as well as any song that you’ll hear. Another of my favorites is “The Right Mistake”, which features Clapton on guitar.

From this high point the album takes a downward turn. Things improve with the track “Axman” and “Won’t Be Back”, a song co-written by Clapton and Robertson. The musical journey ends on a strong note with the title track, “Clairvoyant”, and an instrumental tribute to Django Reinhardt, but yet fails to reach the expectations of the first four songs. The last piece has Marias De Vries (an English keyboardist, composer and producer) listed as the co-writer.

For those expecting a good musical listening experience from the lead guitarist of “Big Pink” and “The Band”, you probably won’t be disappointed. Though for those expecting some of the mystic world that Robertson so deftly explored in his last two albums “Clairvoyant” may be a bit more earthbound.

 

Django Reinhardt became a world renown jazz guitarist, despite a badly burned and deformed "finger" hand.
Django Reinhardt became a world-renown jazz guitarist, despite a badly burned and deformed "finger" hand. photo from Library of Congress,

How To Become A Clairevoyant

Robbie Robertson performing on stage at the Crossroads Guitar Festival 2007
Robbie Robertson performing on stage at the Crossroads Guitar Festival 2007, photo from Wikipedia, taken by Truejustice

I love being a Rock & Roll fan. Although I once owned a guitar and even took a few guitar lessons, there’s no question about it I’m all thumbs and very tone deaf when it comes to music. The Band was one of my favorite groups of the late 60s, but they were truly a band, for they clicked pretty good together without any true standouts.

In the late 70s, the band broke up and the five members took separate routes with some of the musicians continuing to release individual efforts. For a great look at what “The Band” could do, check out the DVD called The Last Waltz. It is a great tribute to five very good musicians, who for, at least a few years, made some great performances and recordings. However, as with any band there are always a few rivalries and petty jealousies and this group of musicians was no exception. Of special note are some of the post-Band sparks that flew between Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm.

To be honest I have been very impressed with with all of Robertson’s solo efforts. I have every CD and plan on obtaining his latest release, which is due to be released next week. It is called “How To Be Clairevoyant” and according to the pre-release buzz the album pulls away from the Native American themes of some of his other releases and delves into the soul of Rock & Roll. Accompanying Mr. Robertson on this musical journey are the likes of Eric Clapton, Trent Reznor, Tom Morello, Steve Winwood, Rocco Deluca and Robert Randolph. The audio CD can be pre-ordered from Amazon or purchased at any place that still sells CDs.