Greville St Bookstore

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

Joan & Bob
September 12, 2009, 5:28 am
Filed under: Music

Dylan - Revolution in the Air

by Clinton Heylin
HB $45

No matter how big the corpus of writings on Dylan grows, it seems that each year brings us a weighty new tome that challenges or expands our perceptions of his career to date. Clinton Heylin is no stranger to Dylan, having published several previous books, including the classic Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades – Take Two. But he’s maybe outdone himself with this new project, the first of two books that will look at every song that Dylan has written, beginning with ‘Song to Brigit’, rumored to be the first ever song Dylan wrote circa 1956-57, through to 2006.

This first volume recounts the stories behind 300 songs Dylan wrote from his earliest days up until Planet Waves. Heylin goes to great lengths in his introduction to distinguish his book from others, in particular his decision to set out the songs in the order in which they were written rather than recorded. He includes every song Dylan is known to have written, including those never recorded, and for the latter, where possible, he tracks down original manuscripts of lyrics rather than relying on transcripts from live concert recordings. For each entry or song, Heylin provides the story, the context, the background, stylistic or other influences, and provides data on first performance, first recording, and prior publication of the lyrics. Song entries run from half a page to half a dozen pages.

It is probably fair to say this is not a book for reading cover to cover, certainly not in a single sitting. Heylin’s research is meticulous and exhaustive, and probably best approached whilst listening to the songs on a particular album, perhaps with a copy of the 1985 or 2004 collected lyrics to hand. But for anyone making the effort, there is much new information to be found here, Heylin’s aim being nothing less than “providing an authoritative history of the most multifaceted canon in twentieth century popular song.”

There are few artists who warrant this sort of attention. In last month’s Rhythms, Brian Wise spoke about a friend who’d lashed out on a Blue Ray DVD player, just so as to spend the next few months rooting around in Neil Young’s Archives Vol I. So too does Dylan deserve that special attention, perhaps more than any other popular recording artist. The more we listen, read and learn, the more we uncover, which is the sign of any great artist. In what is an increasingly crowded marketplace, Heylin’s new book rightfully takes its place on the shelf as one of the dozen essential books on Dylan’s remarkable career. As Dylan said in a 1985 interview: “It’s not for me to understand my songs… they make sense to me, but it’s not like I can explain them”. Thankfully, we have Heylin for that.
Joan Baez

by Joan Baez
pb $34.95

For better or worse, it has been Joan Baez’s lot in life to have her name indelibly linked to that of Bob Dylan’s. I imagine this must grate at times, given their personal relationship was nearly half a century ago and lasted little more than three years, up until his triumphant tour of England in the spring of 1965. Of her first meeting with Bob, she remembers: “I first saw Bob Dylan in 1961 at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. He was not overly impressive… He spat out the words to his own songs. They were original and refreshing, if blunt and jagged. He was absurd, new and grubby beyond words”. She was soon in love, introducing him at her shows, promoting his genius to whoever would listen; a favour not returned once his own career took off.

Baez proffers at the outset her gratitude to have been born gifted with a remarkable singing voice, a soprano pure as the driven snow. To that we could add her striking good looks, the product of Scottish and Mexican ancestry. Given her somewhat lower profile these days, it’s easy to forget just how big she was at the dawn of the sixties, debuting as a nineteen year old at the Newport Folk Festiv
al in 1959, selling out concert halls in New York and Boston by 1961, featuring on the cover of Time magazine in 1962, and eventually seeing the decade out in style at Woodstock. (Oh, and she tells us her name is pronounced more like “Bize”, rather than “Buy-ezz”).

Joan Baez first published her memoir in 1987, and my only complaint with this re-issue is that it hasn’t been updated to account for the past twenty years. However, that said, there’s more than enough living in her book to account for half a dozen lives. She is candid about her years with Dylan, and the pain he caused her, including her return match as part of Bob’s mid-seventies Rolling Thunder review, which saw her perversely dress up and perform onstage as his twin. She details other relationships, in particular her first husband David Harris, who was in prison for draft dodging at the time Baez performed at Woodstock, and her sister Mimi, wife of talented novelist Richard Farina, who was tragically killed in a motorcar accident in 1966.

But perhaps Baez has been defined more than anything else by her commitment to non-violence and politics. So po-faced and unwavering is she in pursuit of justice for all, that it’s easy to see why comic artist Al Capp felt impelled to poke fun at her by creating the character of Phoanie Joanie in his sixties strip Li’l Abner. Baez recounts her opposition to the Vietnam War, her visit to Hanoi, her role in Amnesty International, her support for mothers of the ‘disappeared’ in Argentina, her concerts in post-Franco Spain. She lectures and cajoles her audience from the stage between songs that, well, pretty much carry a political message anyway. Some of her personal memories, su
ch as her friendship with Martin Luther King, remain moving; others, such as her wide-eyed admiration for the walrus-mustached Lech Walesa, seem, with hindsight, past their use-by-date.

To its credit, Baez’s memoir goes out in style, as she performs in the circus that was Live Aid. Believing it to be the Woodstock for an eighties generation, she hitches herself to Sir Bob Geldof’s bandwagon. In reality, it turns out to be anything but, as rampant egos fight it out for best dressed and access to the ‘red mike’ during an all-in rendition of ‘We are the World’. She knows that the best of her career is behind her, and that, unlike Dylan, she’ll be forever relegated in people’s minds to the ghetto of sixties folk music. But she’s happy to be there, to be part of it all still, singing hand in hand with Chrissie Hynde, whilst eyeing off the “charismatic hunk of maleness” that is Don Johnson, having stayed true to her beliefs, and to the gift that she was born with.

—reviewed by Des Cowley

Music August
August 5, 2009, 1:12 am
Filed under: Music

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER: an autobiography
by Al Green with Davin Seay

pb $33.00 

It has often been said that Al Green was the last of the soul singers, the end of a line that began with Sam Cook. When Green turned to God in the mid-seventies, after a string of brilliant albums for the Hi label, soul music would never be the same again. Disco and the increasing secularization of black American culture would put pay to the foundations from which this music had sprung – gospel music and the Church.

Green’s autobiography, newly re-issued, first appeared in 2000. In it, the conflict between the sacred and the secular is writ large, as the older Reverend Green looks back to his younger self, to the years spent chasing fame, fortune and women. He begins by pointing out there are several Al Greens – the soul man, the Reverend and the family man – and this slightly schizophrenic approach to his life story makes for strange reading. The hand of God is everywhere at work, guiding him through the hard times to his life’s eventual mission.

Music was the only thing that mattered to Green in his early years. He sang at Church, he sang in a quartet with his brothers, and later with school friends, firstly as the Creations and then Al Greene & the Soul Mates. Despite having a hit with ‘Back up Train’ in 1967, Green’s career stalled, and he spent the following year on the ‘chitlin’ circuit’, literally singing for his supper.

Green’s book has a tendency to read as though edited direct from conversation, no doubt the hand of Davin Seay, and it’s arguable that he devotes too many pages to his early years. But for me, Green’s book really comes alive when he meets Willie Mitchell, at a Texas roadhouse, in late 1968. It’s Mitchell who sees the potential, who provides Green with a home in Memphis, convincing him to “soften it up”, to feel the music. As he tells Green: “It’s silky on top, rough on the bottom”. Instead of growling like Otis, Green learns to express a “soft, tender, vulnerable side of myself”, “just my voice, simple and unadorned”. If nothing else, Green’s book pays homage to the genius of producer Willie Mitchell, and session musicians like Howard Grimes and the late Al Jackson, who were responsible for those infectious mellow rhythms that allowed Green’s voice to shine. For the next few years, this team could do no wrong, literally producing gold from every session.

 I couldn’t help but wonder, as I neared the end of the book, whether Green was going to refer to that incident. But he eventually does, recounting the terrible night when Mary Woodson attacked him with a pot of boiling grits, causing third degree burns across his back, before shooting herself. Finding God after such an event seems almost inevitable, but Green makes it clear that he was headed this way already. One day, he drives through Memphis till he comes to the Full Gospel Tabernacle, and he says to the first person he meets: “My name is Al Green and I’m going to preach in this Church”. Green has had a long career since then, but that’s pretty much where he leaves his story, preaching and singing to the glory of God, returning soul music full circle to its gospel roots. It’s almost enough to give you religion.

by Stephen Cummings
pb $29.95 

There was a time when I used to run into Steve Cummings all the time. I used to run into him in Melbourne music shops and newsagents, or walking in the back lanes of St Kilda. For a period there, we walked the same streets, and though I didn’t really know him, and we certainly never made eye contact, it gave me theillusion of knowing him. That is, until I read this book, and then I realised I didn’t know him at all. In the face of the evidence before me, I am forced to acknowledge that Steve is far weirder and more interesting than I’d ever given him credit for.

Like a Morrissey or Elvis Costello, Cummings has always been a bit of a wordsmith, whether in song or the two previous novels he’s published. So it comes as no real surprise to discover that this autobiography – subtitled ‘Misadventures in music’ – is a rollicking good read. Without wanting to elevate Cummings beyond his station, there’s a touch of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles about the way he approaches his life and career. Like Bob, Cummings sidesteps the more usual chronological fare, choosing instead to focus intensely upon certain moments to the exclusion of others. At first glance, this approach can look arbitrary; but make no mistake, there’s serious art going on here behind the artifice.

 From an early age, music was everything to Cummings. He was right there as Melbourne’s burgeoning music scene took off in 1970s, playing firstly with the Pelaco Brothers, and then with the mighty Sports. Cummings rightly believes the Sports should have conquered the world, but his self-confessed control-freak personality, combined with his head-on clashes with Mushroom chief Michael Gudinski, ended that dream once and for all. But along the way there were recordings in London for Stiff Records, tours with Graham Parker and the Rumour, and the almost obligatory disastrous tour of the US. Years later, there would be Countdown reunion tour, bringing to mind Karl Marx’s famous quote about history repeating itself.

What is most likely to take the reader aback is Cummings’ outspoken and judgmental attitude to fellow musicians. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his bizarre chapter on Nick Cave, a curious mix of sarcasm and spite. But Cummings eventually turns it back on himself, using his rancour to expose his own feeble jealousies: “Do you know what I can’t get my head around? The idea that he sells millions of albums and I don’t.” If Cummings is hard on those around him, he reserves his harshest judgments for himself.

I wondered whether this book shouldn’t come with a warning sticker, something along the lines of “spending too much time inside Stephen Cummings’ head may not be good for your health”. So sensitive is he to nuance, to the fraught vagaries of everyday social interaction, that I found myself having mild anxiety attacks on his behalf while reading the bookBut in the end, Cummings finds his own consolation, feeling “lucky that I get to make my music, spend time at home and read”. I could think of worse ways to spend my time. Cummings has written a book that is honest, amusing and at times a little sad. And next time I run into him in some deserted Melbourne back street, just the two of us, I’ll damn well tell him that.

Music July
July 27, 2009, 3:06 am
Filed under: Music

10 Songs That Changed the World by June Skinner Sawyers
pb $39.95

Her 10 songs — each the subject of their own chapter — are arranged chronologically, beginning with ‘Amazing Grace’, a song whose lyrics were originally penned back in the 18th century by Englishman John Newton. No argument here. ‘Amazing Grace’ was sung by slaves in the American south, was sung by Aretha Franklin at Martin Luther King’s funeral, by Bono in memory of Joey Ramone on the day of his death, and has been recorded over 1100 times. It’s a song indelibly linked to funeral services, to the long history of black American struggle for equality, to spiritual music. Anyone fortunate enough to have heard a Aaron Neville, unaccompanied, close the New Orleans Jazz Festival with ‘Amazing Grace’ knows the sheer power and beauty of this song.

Other songs that Sawyers includes in this vein are ‘We Shall Overcome’, made famous by Pete Seeger and others, and ‘Strange Fruit’, a song that, while written by a New York Jewish school teacher, became, in Billie Holiday’s hands, a devastating critique of black lynching in the American south. For me, these chapters were amongst the most moving, as these were songs that evolved and grew over time to accommodate and breathe life into on-going struggles.

It is when Sawyers gets to the rise of popular music that things get a little stickier. Elvis is represented by ‘Hound Dog’, Dylan by ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and the Beatles by ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’. These choices feel almost arbitrary, as any one of half a dozen songs by any of these artists could have equally taken their place. ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ gets the nod because it was the song that introduced the Beatles to America; yet there are a dozen more adventurous songs scattered across Sergeant Pepper’s or the White Album, including ‘Revolution’. But, to be fair, Sawyers uses these selections as jumping off points to assess the transformation in our culture that each of these artists generated.

Sawyers is back on firmer ground with ‘Respect’, a song that, though written by Otis Redding, was transformed into an anthem by Aretha Franklin. Even Otis was reported as saying: ‘That little girl done took my song away’. But perhaps the song that transcends daily struggle and protest was John Lennon’s simple Utopian dream ‘Imagine’, a song made even more poignant in the light of his senseless murder in a New York street in 1980.

If Sawyers has one complete miss, it would have to be her final selection — the Sugerhill Gang’s 1979 single ‘Rapper’s Delight’ — purportedly there for its being the first recorded example of hip hop/rap. But if this one-hit wonder carries more gravitas than, say, Public Enemy’s ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’, well, I’ll eat my shorts.

Sawyers’ book is an easy read, and there’s a certain satisfaction to be had in measuring your own selections up against this sort of all-encompassing list. If pressed to do so, I’d be putting my hand up for Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ and Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On’. To her credit, Sawyers adds an appendix listing ‘100 Additional Recordings that Changed the World’, each with a paragraph or two arguing the case. This broader selection allows her to stretch her wings a little, finding room for Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’, the Who’s ‘My Generation’, James Brown’s ‘Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)’, CSN&Y’s ‘Ohio’, Bob Marley’s ‘Get Up, Stand Up’, Sly’s ‘There’s a Riot Goin’ On’, Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and our very own Oil’s ‘Beds are Burning’.

Where Sawyers lets us down, however, is in her over-reliance on the work of other writers. She’s read widely, but there’s very little original research on offer here, and anyone who has read Peter Guralnick on Elvis, Jon Savage on the Sex Pistols, and virtually anyone on the Beatles will be familiar with many of the stories told in her book.

At the end of Sawyers’ book, I found myself in two minds about whether a song could change the world, unclear whether Sawyers really conclusively nails her case. A book can express an idea that is so revolutionary – let’s say Copernicus or Marx – that it turns the world on its ear. While a song is a far more expressive form, capable of anger, solace, grief, love and a thousand other emotions, it is rarely a vehicle for ideas. But then I put on Sam Cooke, and replay in my mind the images of Obama’s recent inauguration, or I think of John Lennon seated at a white piano in a white room singing ‘Imagine’, and for a moment I think that maybe it is just possible, that songs can change the world.