Greville St Bookstore

best music writing
January 18, 2010, 4:10 am
Filed under: Music


by Suze Rotolo

pb $24.95

You’ve got to feel for Suze Rotolo. Sure, she’s led an interesting life, managing to pack more experience into it between the ages of seventeen and her early twenties than most of us. But, let’s be frank, would any publisher have given her more than twenty seconds of their time if she hadn’t dated Bob Dylan in the early sixties?

Rotolo’s claim to fame therefore rests on a several year relationship she had with Dylan, covering the period soon after he arrived in New York, in 1961, through to around 1964, when she was unceremoniously replaced with the more high-profile Joan Baez. On the strength of that, she’s been given a few hundred pages to tell her own story. To her credit, she’s never traded on the Dylan connection. But there she is with him, for instance, walking arm in arm on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

The news is not all bad. Rotolo gives us a detailed snapshot of Greenwich Village in the late fifties and early sixties, when the folk movement was first taking off. Familiar names crisscross the pages: Dave Van Ronk, Tom Paxton, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. Into this scene swaggers the young Dylan, “oddly old-time looking, charming in a scraggly way”, sure about his talent if not yet his place in the world. Dylan and Rotolo first met in July 1961 at a marathon folk concert at Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan. By the time they separated several years later, he’d signed a contract with Columbia Records, headlined Carnegie Hall and the Newport Folk Festival, given the world ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and a dozen other timeless classics, and gone from underground folkie to national icon. Not bad in a few short years.

While Rotolo was there to witness much of Dylan’s rise, her book lets us down by not giving much of the game away. She says at the outset that she always protected her privacy, and “consequently his”, and the result is a tale that dwells long on her own experiences, but sheds too little light on what made Dylan tick in those early years. In the end, rather than the seminal work it might have been, it feels like one more in the unending cycle of works that tries, yet ultimately fails, to come to grips with the greatest poet/musical troubadour of the twentieth century and beyond. Roll on volume two of Bob’s Memoirs, is what I say.


by Craig Mathieson

pb $29.95

It was unfortunate timing that Craig Mathieson’s investigation into the health of the Australian music scene was published at the same time as Robert Forster’s excellent book of music essays The Ten Rules of Rock n’ Roll. While Forster’s book didn’t necessarily limit itself to Australian music, there was enough overlap for reviewers to lump the two together, generally to the detriment of one or the other. Of the two writers, Forster, to my mind, has the better ear. His writing is more expressive, his prose seems to get to the nub of the music in the space of a few short paragraphs, allowing the reader to almost hear it, regardless of whether we know the music he’s writing about or not.

Craig Mathieson is a long-term music critic for the Australian media, and has published several previous books on Australian rock music. Playlist-ed comprises some thirty or so essays, covering a wide range of Australian artists – The Drones, The Veronicas, Kylie Minogue, Silverchair, Sarah Blasko, The Living End, Jet, The Vines, Powderfinger, You Am I, The Presets, Frente, Regurgitator, and others. Mathieson brings a more academic bent to his writing; he’s a little more didactic than Forster, intent on his mission to report on the state of the Australian music industry. But, at times, the choppiness of individual essays, each between about four and ten pages in length, works against a more coherent narrative, one that might get to the beating heart of how and why Australian music has developed the way it has over the past decade.

That said, there’s plenty to feast on here if you take a smorgasbord approach, plenty to argue with and against. Mathieson remains a dogged fan and champion of this music, relishing the opportunity to confound orthodoxy – shredding Silverchair’s Young Modern one minute, making us re-think our attitude to a Delta Goodrem the next. At their best, the books by Forster and Mathieson have drawn attention to the literary possibilities of the contemporary Australian music essay, an art form that deserves to be championed.


edited by Greil Marcus

pb $32.95

Of course, anyone truly interested in the music essay as an art form will no doubt already be familiar with this excellent annual series, now celebrating its tenth year. Whether combing through last year’s contributions to well-known magazines like Rolling Stone or Oxford American, or trawling little-known web-sites, or dipping into the liner notes of album re-issues etc., it’s the guest editor’s job to come up with the best of the best, irrespective of music genre. This year’s candidate Greil Marcus, one of America’s leading writers, has come up with thirty-four essays, some as little as a page, others heading for forty pages, that define the current state of music writing. Stand-outs include David Ramsay’s beautiful account of how Lil Wayne helped him survive his first year of teaching kids in New Orleans; John Jeremiah Sullivan’s moving saga of the blues, that takes him from ‘Last Kind Word Blues’ to John Fahey, to the Pre-War Revenants album, to blues collector James McKune; and David Remnick’s endearing portrait of radio DJ Phil Shaap, self-confessed Charlie Parker nutcase, who has run a program called ‘Bird Flight’ on Columbia University’s radio station for the past 27 years. But eclecticism is the key here – Britney Spears, Axl Rose, John Peel, Funkadelic, Jay Reatard, Jerry Wexler, J Dilla, Pete Seeger, all jostle amongst its pages. After 10 years, Best Music Writing remains required reading for anyone interested in the state of music writing. An afterthought: time for some enterprising local publisher to consider starting up a home-grown version?

—— reviewed by Des

delta blues & rick rubin
December 18, 2009, 6:18 am
Filed under: Music

Delta Blues
by Ted Gioia
pb $27.95

Until recently, Ted Gioia’s reputation rested on a number of superb books he’d written on jazz history, including the groundbreaking West Coast Jazz. Yet Gioia acknowledges in his introduction to Delta Blues that, of late, he’d been drawn more and more back to what he calls “the deeper essence of the blues”, sensing a “richness to these songs, especially the older tunes from the Delta tradition”.

Given how much has been written already about the history of the blues, it’s a brave writer who ventures once more into this terrain. But, to his credit, Gioia has produced a panoramic epic on one of the greatest bodies of music in American history. At the same time, he’s updated earlier accounts, constantly questioning the veracity of what’s been handed down, particularly in the case of Robert Johnson, where the myths far outweigh the facts.

Anyone who has read widely on blues history will know the bare bones of many of these stories, beginning with the legend of WC Handy first hearing the blues at a railway station in Tutwiler in the first years of the 20th century. From these apocryphal beginnings, Gioia recounts the rich story of the Delta blues tradition, beginning with Charley Patton, and extending on through Son House, Bukka White, Tommy Johnson, Skip James, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt. He recounts the story of Alan Lomax, whose field recordings in the region for the Library of Congress turned up a young sharecropper named McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters) at Stovall’s plantation in 1941; the white entrepreneurs like HC Speir, who acted as talent scouts for the big labels; the early blues historians, like Samuel Charters, Robert Palmer, and Stephan Calt. He looks at the devastating effects the Great Depression wrought on this music, as record sales plummeted and careers ended overnight, some pretty much before they’d begun; how the introduction of mechanized cotton-pickers led to a mass migration north. Gioia follows the music where it leads, with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and BB King spreading the Delta blues to Chicago, Memphis.

Aside from the familiar names, Gioia also touches upon many lesser known names, some known to us only from one or two songs, their stories otherwise lost. He broaches the role of the early record collectors, their motivations and place in history, the late 1950s and early 1960s journeys of John Fahey and others in search of surviving bluesman. Their stories of tracking down Skip James, Son House and others are the stuff of legend; but of course it was too little too late, with most ‘rediscovered’ bluesman living only a handful more years, already worn out by a life of hardship and neglect. Though in the case of Skip James, recreating this lost music as though no time had passed at all. Their re-emergence would help fuel the blues revival of the early sixties, inspiring a new generation of young white musicians, such as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards.

Gioia’s wide-ranging story of the Delta blues is an important contribution to the history of American music. It is not possible, in such a brief review, to do full justice to the broad scope of his research and storytelling. In the end, the history of the Delta blues is one of competing and overlapping stories, peopled with larger than life characters; it’s a story full of economic hardship, of good and bad fortune, a fragmented saga made up out of the songs and music and memories that have been handed down to us. Gioia’s Delta Blues lovingly re-assembles the shards that make up this story, giving us, in the words of his book’s sub-title, “The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music”. It is only fitting that these stories be told and retold, and this music be played and listened to, down through the ages, as long as humanity survives.

Rick Rubin: In the Studio
by Jake Brown
pb $29.95

For many of us, Rick Rubin is best known as the mastermind behind the astounding series of albums recorded by Johnny Cash in the final years of his life. If Rubin had done nothing other than help bring this extraordinary body of work – generally known as the American Recordings – into existence, we’d be forever in his debt. But as Jake Brown’s book makes patently clear, Rubin’s finely tuned ear has never been content resting on its laurels.

What stunned most pundits at the time was that Rubin, a bearded and long-haired white boy, had previously been co-founder of Def Jam records back in the early eighties, a radical label best known for its pioneering recordings of hip hop. In fact, Rubin was barely out of school when he began issuing recordings by LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy. In a further stroke of genius, he paired Run DMC with his childhood heroes Aerosmith – the killer single ‘Walk this Way’, which married rap with metal, launched hip hop into the mainstream.

A tendency to musical restlessness soon saw Rubin fall back on his early love of metal, producing albums by Cult, Slayer and others. His genius was further enhanced when he managed to capture and bottle the funk of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers on Blood Sugar Sex Magik and 1999s Californication. In more recent years, Rubin has cast his net widely, working with everyone from Tom Petty, the Dixie Chicks, Neil Diamond, Rage Against the Machine, U2, Weezer, Metallica, and System of a Down. In the interim, he’s bagged himself seven Grammy’s, including two Producer of the Year awards.

Jake Brown’s book takes us chronologically through Rubin’s recordings. He makes it clear there is no ‘Rubin’ sound, in the way we might talk about Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’. In fact, Rubin openly admits he’s relatively useless around the mixing desk; his genius lies in working closely with artists to help them produce the best possible record they are capable of. Sometimes, this might simply entail talking to them for days, telling them what sounds good and what doesn’t, suggesting songs, building up their confidence. After all, who else might have paired Johnny Cash with a Nine Inch Nails’ song?

It’s telling that Rick Rubin’s first record carried the statement ‘Reduced by Rick Rubin’, as if his mission consisted of trying to reduce an artist to their purest essence, stripping away everything non-essential. This is certainly what he engineered in the case of the Cash recordings.

Author Jake Brown quotes extensively from bands and artists that Rubin has produced – though mostly from magazines rather than direct interviews – and they have much of interest to say about his working methods. But perhaps where he lets us down is in not managing to get us inside Rubin’s headspace, at no time do we glimpse the cogs whirring away as he tosses off another masterpiece. In the end, Rick Rubin the man remains something of a mystery, a genius most at home inside the confines of a studio, but an enigma nonetheless.

——reviewed by Des Cowley

December 13, 2009, 1:36 am
Filed under: Design, Music

Windfall Light: The Visual Language of ECM
Lars Müller Publishers, $135

Following the success of Sleeves of Desire (1996), a second publication about the ECM label is now devoted to its sleeve designs from 1996 to the present. Since its founding in 1969, ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music), has been dedicated primarily to jazz and contemporary classical music and is a leading international label in both these fields. What distinguishes ECM are its design aesthetics, which have always been an integral part of its music productions. Manfred Eicher’s collaboration with Barbara and Burkhart Wojirsch, and Dieter Rehm up to 1996, and since then with Sascha Kleis and alternating photographers and artists has produced an aesthetics of the cover that initiates a dialogue between the mostly photographic image and the music. This book takes the reader on an associative journey through this visual world. In their texts, the authors examine various aspects of this visual language in greater detail. An illustrated catalog of all of ECM’s releases since its founding completes this publication.

November 16, 2009, 4:18 am
Filed under: Art, Design, Fashion, Film, Literature, Music, Photography

More-things-like-this More Things Like This
Editors of McSweeney’s
Chronicle Books, $45

Curated by the editors of McSweeney’s, this unconventional book explores the intersection of text, humor, and illustration in art by cartoonists, writers, musicians, and fine artists in a hilarious and liberating mixture of high, low, and sideways. The eye-opening selection features nearly 200 images by more than 50 artists, including Raymond Pettibon, David Shrigley, Kurt Vonnegut, Maira Kalman, Shel Silverstein, Leonard Cohen, Chris Johanson, Andy Warhol, David Mamet, Tucker Nichols, Banksy, and dozens of others. Rounding out this beautifully designed package are insightful interviews with many of the artists illuminating the shared and diverget approaches they take to making this smart, funny, and immediately engaging work.

Robert Forster & Billy Thorpe
November 11, 2009, 2:39 am
Filed under: Music


by Jason Walker
pb $35.00

Amongst the dozen or so photographs in Walker’s book, there is a shot of Billy Thorpe with Lobby Loyde, taken during Loyde’s induction into the Aria Hall of Fame in August 2006. Loyde, who had been fighting cancer for some time, looks old, frail, almost cadaverous. Thorpe, on the other hand, positively glows, a picture of ruddy good health. To have predicted that Thorpe would be dead two months ahead of Loyde, in February 2007, at age sixty, seems unthinkable.

Rock n’ Roll was different back in the sixties. Australian artists who pioneered the music were pretty much washed away with the tide long before the decade was over. The prim innocence and tight suits morphed into a counter-culture that demanded more from their music than simple dance steps. The family fare of Brian Henderson’s Bandstand gave way to the ABC’s GTK, and music careers were measured in years, not decades.

Thorpe was in many ways an exception to this rule, having not one but two major careers that spanned this musical divide. Perhaps nowhere was this more on display than Thorpe’s two performances during the Long Way to the Top concerts, the only artist to do so under his own name, firstly with the original Aztecs, then with the Sunbury Aztecs. Labelling Billy one of rock’s great survivors seems like an understatement.

Jason Walker’s biography covers all aspects of Billy’s many lives. But so vast is the subject that it feels, at times, as if we are reading a condensed outline rather than the full story. Walker gives us Thorpe’s early years in Queensland, beginning with his performances as a ten year old under the guise of Little Rock Allen, before shifting gear to recount Billy’s success with the original Aztecs in Sydney in the early sixties — playing nightly gigs at Surf City, driving girls wild, and charting at #1 with ‘Poison Ivy’ in 1964. This was a time Billy revisited himself, albeit fictionally, in Sex and Thugs and Rock n’ Roll.

I suspect most readers will be more familiar with the second life of the Aztecs, often referred to as the Sunbury Aztecs, dating from the time Thorpe moved to Melbourne in 1968, teamed up with Lobby Loyde, cranked up the decibels and almost single-handedly inaugurated pub rock. For a handful of years, he could do no wrong, blazing a trail into immortality with his incendiary performances at the Sunbury Festivals 1972-74. It seems incredible that, with so much music history behind him at the time when he went to live in the States in 1976, he was barely thirty years of age.

Like so many artists of his generation, Punk’s ground zero swept Thorpe and his brand of hard driving rock and blues into oblivion. Tired, and partially burnt out, he headed for the US, going off the radar for most listeners. For that reason, I found the most interesting part of Walker’s book to be his account of Thorpe’s twenty or so years in the States, a complex time that yielded success and failure, including ventures as varied as recordings, television soundtracks, electronics, toy companies, children’s books, and the Zoo project with Mick Fleetwood. Thorpe’s late career back in Australia, from 1996 until his death, is better known. It was a decade that saw him garnering the sort of elder statesman adulation that such a legendary music career warranted. He remained passionate, both performing and working on the Tangier recordings, right up until his sudden and untimely death.

If anything, there’s a slightly annoying tendency in Walker’s book to overly portray Thorpe as the irascible larrikin he no doubt was, and to view his career as an endless series of highlights. If there’s a dark side, and there must have been, we get too little glimpse of it. Nor does Walker cast a critical eye over the recordings. After all, Thorpe’s best years coincided with the infancy of the independent recording industry in this country, and his legacy consists largely of live albums, sometimes poorly recorded. No doubt those who followed his endless live gigs have their own memories. Some of the best insights in Walker’s book come from Aztecs drummer Gil Matthews, the man behind the superb re-packaging of this music via his Aztec label. One can only hope that, as keeper of the flame, he someday provides his own personal account. Till such time, Walker’s generous and endearing portrait of the great musical maverick will have to suffice.

reviewed by Des


by Robert Forster
pb $27.95

Anyone who regularly reads the Monthly will be familiar with Robert Forster’s music reviews that grace its pages. It comes as a surprise therefore to learn he’d published virtually nothing before editor Christian Ryan approached him in 2004 to take on the role. But then again, the Forster/McLennan songwriting team that made up the Go-Betweens always wore their literary influences lightly, marrying poetry with infectious pop hooks, bright as a summer’s day. Forster brings this same songwriter’s skill — an almost compressed poetry — to bear on his second career as a prose writer; that, along with an inquiring mind and eclectic knowledge of music history. In fact, calling these pieces ‘reviews’ is to somehow miss the point — the best of them are beautifully conceived and written mini-essays, models of music journalism. For we mere scribes, utterly lacking in musical talent, it seems unjust that Forster could prove so competent plying this his secondary trade.

The book consists of some forty essays, five or six pages apiece, most of them culled from the pages of the Monthly between 2006 and August 2009. There are album reviews, book reviews, concert reviews on pretty much anything that takes Forster’s fancy: Dylan, Paul Kelly, the Monkees, Phil Spector, the Saints, AC/DC, Bonnie Prince Billie, Delta Goodrem, Augie March, Glen Campell, the Big Day Out, the Countdown Spectacular. On almost all, Forster has something of interest to say. He is thoughtful and considered, knows how to get to the nub of his subject, have his say, and exit gracefully. The book also includes two moving pieces on fellow Go-Between Grant McLennan, one of which was previously selected to appear in the prestigious US series Best Music Writing in 2007. At their best, these pieces read like stories, bristling with a narrative drive that, unlike much journalism, keeps the reader engaged. Given this, it seems fitting that Forster ends the collection with a short story about Normie Rowe, along with an imagined account of ‘The 10 Bands I Wish I’d Been In’. As a fellow reviewer, I’d like to say to Forster: “Don’t give up your day job”. But, on the evidence of this book, and much to my chagrin, I reckon he probably could.

reviewed by Des

October 9, 2009, 6:58 am
Filed under: Music

by Michael Lang
hb $49.95

Given there were a finite number of cameras and recording equipment rolling at Bethel NY in August 1969, it seems remarkable that the Woodstock industry has managed to maintain such a healthy level of productivity over the years. This year’s 40th anniversary has brought with it a slew of new products — DVD box sets, previously unreleased recordings (Sly, Johnny Winter), the Rhino 6-CD retrospective, and Ang Lee’s film Taking Woodstock. It appears as if our appetite for this stuff is insatiable. While the whole thing could be written off as a cynical exercise by corporate firms cashing in on baby-boomer nostalgia, it’s equally possible that, living in a world daily wracked by global financial meltdown or global warming, there is something genuinely warm and fuzzy about a time when half a million young people came together to celebrate peace and music.

Michael Lang’s account of his road to Woodstock joins a host of others that have appeared over the past decade. Given his role as co-creator of the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival, you’d be hard pressed to argue his right to tell his own story. At the outset of the 1970 movie, Lang can be seen riding a horse through lush fields of grass, like some sort of dope-smoking Marlborough man. In another scene, he is seated coolly on his motorbike, mumbling inaudibly to camera, looking for all the world like the most relaxed dude on the planet. It’s a remarkable performance, given the festival’s organization was going to hell in a handbasket at the time.

Lang’s memoir dispatches his Brooklyn childhood and teens in less than a dozen pages, before moving on to his time in Miami in 1967 where, barely out of his teens, he ran a head-shop specializing in bongs and psychedelic posters. It was in Miami he got his first taste of mounting music festivals, producing a two-day event at Gulfstream park featuring the likes of Hendrix, Zappa and John Lee Hooker. Though the experience left him bankrupt, he soon had his sights on bigger things.

The bulk of Lang’s memoir is given over to the lead-up and planning of the legendary Woodstock Festival. It’s a saga fraught with drama and intrigue, populated with naive young Jewish stockbrokers, drug-addled hippies, sharks and swindlers, and simple country folk facing their worst nightmare. The logistical planning behind such a venture defies all reason, and Lang, with the support of Artie Kornfeld, and financial backers John Roberts and Joel Rosenmann, goes at it with the enthusiasm of a nine-year old. How he slept at night is anyone’s guess, as the best-laid plans go awry and the bills mount up like there’s no tomorrow. But Lang demonstrates an uncanny business acumen. With his long curly locks and relaxed smile, he is able to bridge the disparate worlds of high finance, hippies, and hokey farmers. Despite facing insurmountable odds, including members of the Hog Farm commune, Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies, and a vast peace keeping force made up of New York’s finest, Lang somehow manages to weave together a thousand loose ends into the most legendary music festival of all time.

His greatest crisis occurred one month out when local folk in the town of Wallkill voted to ban the Festival. Then, just when there were no more wheels left to fall off the wagon, Lang was introduced to dairy farmer Max Yasgur, who agreed to rent out his farm near the town of Bethel. The rest, as they say, is history. With the clock ticking, the organizers realized they could either build the stage, or a fence around the festival site. The inevitable decision to focus on music over profit was captured beautifully for posterity in the immortal stage announcement: “It’s a free concert from now on. That doesn’t mean that anything goes, what that means is we’re going to put the music up here for free. What it means is that the people… who put up the money for it, are going to take a bit of a bath. A big bath. That’s no hype, that’s true, they’re going to get hurt”. Of course, it was Rosenmann and Roberts, rather than Lang, who took the bath, when ticket receipts utterly failed to recoup outgoings.

Lang’s devotes less space in his book to the actual music at the Festival, and this may have something to do with how totally stoned he looked in the film. He runs through most of the performances, selectively interspersing his own memories with those of others who were at the Festival — performers, stagehands, punters. In many ways, Woodstock was too big an event for any one person to capture; everyone there experienced just one part of the puzzle. For some performers — Joe Cocker, Santana, Richie Havens — it was a ticket to immortality. For others, such as Quill and Sweetwater, it would lead to obscurity. By the time Hendrix finished his set around 10.30am on the Monday, Lang can only remark: “What had seemed an eternity now felt like the blink of an eye. Nothing would be the same again”. As others begin work clearing the rubbish and cleaning up Yasgur’s property, Lang headed for Wall Street and the eventual washup.

The final part of Lang’s book recounts the inevitable legal wrangles that ensued in the wake of the Festival. Lacking capital to buy their way out of debt, both Lang and Kornfeld were bought out by their partners for a song, relinquishing all rights to the Woodstock name. The big winners were Warner Bros, who bought into the film rights and made a subsequent killing. But Lang, in true hippie style, walks away from it all with a shrug, ready to move on to the next thing. My only regret is that he tells us too little about his life post-Woodstock — making albums with Karen Dalton, managing Joe Cocker and Rickie Lee Jones, and producing the 1994 and 1999 Woodstock festivals.

Lang ends his book with Barak Obama’s inauguration, referred to in the Wall Street Journal as ‘Washington’s Woodstock’. Forty years previously, Jimi Hendrix gave us his incendiary rendition of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’, a fragment of hope rising out of the ashes of Vietnam. It seems fitting that Lang ends his book with Hendrix’s words, from a 1969 poem about Woodstock: “We washed and drank in God’s tears of joy. And for once, and for everyone, the truth was not still a mystery.”

—reviewed by Des

September 23, 2009, 1:45 am
Filed under: Music

The Blue Moment

by Richard Williams
hb $39.95

This year celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, one of the most significant recordings of 20th century music. Commonly cited as the best selling jazz album of all time, it’s also the jazz album most likely to be found in the collections of non-jazz listeners. As for the rest of us, how many copies have we purchased over the years, on vinyl and CD, up to and including this year’s Collector’s Edition box set? Dignity prevents me from a full confession.

Richard Williams began his book — subtitled ‘Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and the Making of Modern Music’ — a few years back, but put it aside when he got wind of Ashley Kahn’s 2001 book on the same subject. A few years on, Williams has come to realize that he’d always intended to write a very different book to Kahn — not so much about the making of the album, but instead about the cultural milieu that led up to its recording, and how it went on to influence so much that followed it.

Kind of Blue was recorded in quick time over two days in March and April 1959, at Columbia’s 30th Street Studio in New York, a deconsecrated Armenian Orthodox church. Even today, it remains almost comprehensible how half a dozen musicians could lay down these pieces — most in a single take — within that timeframe. But it’s Williams’ contention that it didn’t happen in isolation, that numerous prior forces came together to bear upon that moment. He casts a wide net in looking at the cultural mix that impacted upon Davis in the years leading up to the recording, including Davis’s friendship with composer and arranger Gil Evans, which resulted in the influential Birth of the Cool sessions in 1948-49; the rise of Third Stream music; and the theoretical writings of George Russell, whose ideas underpinned the rise of modal jazz, so critical to Kind of Blue. But equally Williams looks to Davis’s visits to Paris, where he met Jean-Paul Sartre, the godfather of existentialism, and recorded film music for director Louis Malle — the latter a wildly improvised score that, for the first time, elevated mood over composition. Williams also looks to the place of the colour blue in modern art — Picasso and Yves Klein — and the lonely outsider heralded by the Beat generation. These were just some of the surrounds that coalesced in the lead-up to 1959.

For Kind of Blue, Davis drew on the immense talents of his fellow musicians, in particular John Coltrane and pianist Bill Evans. The genius of Davis’s musical sketches lay in their open-ended structure, requiring the musicians to improvise on a series of modes instead of chord progressions. At its heart, the music was as much informed by Gil Evans’ love of French impressionist composers, such as Fauré, as it was by non-western musical traditions. In its totality, which “speaks to some profound ideal of the human condition”, it is music that stretches to infinity, without beginning or end. Kind of Blue is one of the earliest concept albums — a series of haunting sketches meditating on the colour blue – that speaks to us across the ages.

So far so good. But when Williams gets to his second major theme — the influence of Kind of Blue on music that came after — things begin to go a bit awry. Some of his examples are well documented — John Coltrane’s modal explorations, the Bill Evans trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, Joe Zawinul’s compositions for Cannonball Adderley and later Davis albums, such as In a Silent Way, Duane Allman’s improvisatory solos, through to James Brown’s ‘Cold Sweat’, based on a riff from Kind of Blue’s lead track ‘So What’. But Williams has an unfortunate tendency to see the hand of influence everywhere, from John Cale’s work with the Velvet Underground, through to Eno’s ambient experiments. In particular, he overly focuses upon minimalist composers such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and La Monte Young. It makes for good reading, but there’s a sense he’s drawing a long bow.

It’s in his final chapter that Williams hits upon what is possibly Kind of Blue’s greatest offspring — Manfred Eicher’s ECM label. It’s arguable that Eicher has founded an entire aesthetic of recording based upon the languid moments of silence to be found on Kind of Blue — the spaces opening out between the players and their instruments, and the otherworldly sound of Miles’s trumpet. Williams ends his book paying homage to Australian band the Necks, in whose music he hears a direct lineage to Kind of Blue. With their “slow accretion of harmonic information and rhythmic intensity”, the Necks “exploit the spaces that were opened up for them all those years ago; spaces in harmony, rhythm and melody, but also spaces in the mind”. And therein lies the immortal legacy of Kind of Blue.

—reviewed by Des

David McComb

edited by Chris Coughran & niall Lucy
pb $35.00

It seems unjust that David McComb is not around to reap the rewards that would no doubt have come his way on the strength of the recent re-issue program of the Triffids’ back catalogue. Some ten years after his death, at age 36, his reputation as one of our finest songwriters continues its ascendancy.

This book is not a biography of McComb, but instead a loose collection of writings by friends, musicians, poets and academics. The editors state they were trying for an Exile on Main Street sort of book — baggy and sprawling — a vagabond collection, full of holes. Within its covers can be found brief memoirs by Nick Cave. Robert Forster, and Mick Harvey, alongside those of fellow Triffids Alsy MacDonald, Phil Karkulas, Graham Lee and Robert McComb. There are diary extracts from Steve Kilby, poetry by Laurie Duggan and John Kinsella, and essays on McComb’s lyrics and influences, both musical and literary. Taken together, it doesn’t quite add up to a portrait, but more a jumble of jigsaw pieces that can be assembled by readers in multiple ways.

In likening their book to an eclectic ‘mix tape’, the editors virtually acknowledge that its intended audience will comb through it for what they like, sifting the contents for the jewels therein. It’s a well-designed book, littered with photographs and drawings, and its very existence is further testament to the restoration of McComb to his rightful place in the pantheon of local songwriters. My only beef is that it tells us too little of his life story — for that we’ll have to await Bleddyn Butcher’s forthcoming biography from UK press Helter Skelter. As an added extra to Vagabond Holes, publisher Fremantle Arts Press have also seen fit to separately release a slim volume of McComb’s poems: Beautiful Waste, again edited by Coughran and Lucy, with introduction by fellow West Australian poet John Kinsella.

—reviewed by Des