‘E Street Shuffle’ hits a sour note

E Street Shuffle: The Glory Days of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Clinton Heylin.

This book is meant to “chronicle the evolution and influence of Springsteen’s E Street Band as they rose from blue-collar New Jersey to the heights of rock stardom.” (That’s straight from the book jacket.) What it really is is a poorly written, thinly sourced, morally bankrupt hatchet job that denigrates and belittles the artist it’s meant to celebrate.

How did I hate this book? Let me count the ways …

1. The book appears to have virtually no original reporting in it at all. Nearly every page has one or more paragraph-length excerpts of interviews of  Springsteen or one of the other subjects from other printed sources.

The author did not speak to Bruce or, as far as I can tell, anyone except Bruce’s first producer/manager, whom he ended up suing to get released from a bad contract. Naturally, the author takes the side of the producer/manager (Mike Appel) to an almost laughable extent. Seriously, I have read a fair bit about the lawsuit and that whole period and nothing I’ve read ever claimed that Springsteen was completely blameless in what happened. Bruce himself has been quoted in interviews talking about the mistakes he made at the beginning of his career, and he has been generous in recent years with his praise for what Appel did to launch his career. None of which was apparently persuasive to Heylin, who makes Springsteen seem like a bizarre combination of Machiavelli and Lenny from Of Mice and Men.

2. The author repeatedly asserts that none of Springsteen’s recordings with the E Street Band come close to replicating the magic that they conjure in a live show. Fair enough; that’s a common assertion by rock critics and fans all over the world. But the author seems to feel that simply asserting that as his opinion is sufficient; he offers absolutely nothing to try to explain what makes a live Springsteen show so special. By contrast, Springsteen biographers Dave Marsh and Peter Ames Carlin both managed to convey the magic and the mystery that happens when the E Street Band comes together on a stage in front of an audience.

3. In the album by album chronology of the book, the author repeatedly mocks and castigates the process by which Springsteen, his band, and his subsequent producer/manager Jon Landau (who is clearly held in the highest contempt by the author) managed to produce albums that have sold tens of millions of copies and been listed by respected critics* as among the very best rock records ever produced. He writes as if the struggles the E Street Band experienced in cutting studio albums was almost purely the result of willful selfishness on Springsteen’s part and a complete lack of ability on Landau’s.

* A sidenote: Every critic who ever wrote a complimentary review of one of these albums (i.e., disagreed with the author’s viewpoint) is dismissed as a sycophantic fool; critics who voiced reservations or criticism are bravely speaking truth to power.

The author criticizes the song choices, the recording process, the sequencing of the albums, the choice of cover art — pretty much everything. With every album, he has a list of songs that are supposedly so superior to the songs that made the final cut that only an idiot would have left them off the record. Some of these discarded songs, which were later released on a boxed set, are amazing cuts, no doubt about it. But the author does not seem to take into account the fact that they were not included because they did not fit the mood or theme of the album being recorded, as Springsteen (you know, the guy whose name is on the record) conceived it.

4. Some of the songs that the author holds in highest esteem have still never been released in any official way, either as B-sides of singles or in the compilation set of unreleased songs called Tracks. So how does the author know these unreleased tracks are so great? How did he happen to hear them? By purchasing illegal bootleg* records of studio sessions that were stolen from Springsteen or the recording studio and then sold to fans. This is where the morally corrupt charge comes in. The author makes no apologies for buying studio bootlegs; indeed, he seems to feel that he and other Springsteen fans are entitled to hear everything the man has ever recorded, whether he himself felt it was suitable for public listening or not. And that’s just wrong.

* There are two types of bootlegs when it comes to music: There are live bootlegs, surreptitious fan recordings of concerts that are traded or sold among fans, and there are studio bootlegs, which are copies of the tape that is recorded during studio sessions when albums are being produced. Some people think all bootlegs are wrong. I have a more nuanced viewpoint which is important in the context of this review. I have a number of live bootlegs, of Springsteen and other artists, and I don’t apologize for it. To my mind, the difference is that those live bootlegs are recordings of public performances; in other words, the music was meant to be heard by fans. Studio bootlegs, on the other hand, are recordings that the artist for whatever reason chose not to release to the public. Some of those unreleased recordings might even be superior to material that was officially released but that is irrelevant; the point is that the artist did not intend anyone to hear them outside of the studio and therefore fans and even self-important writers have absolutely no right to listen to them, let along make someone else rich by purchasing them.

5. I left this one for last because I freely admit it’s a petty criticism. The book is just poorly written. The author (who is apparently British) uses words like “gotta” and “gonna” and “ain’t” repeatedly in the narrative of the book ad apparently without irony. If the rest of the book had been worthwhile, this would have resulted in no more than the occasional eye-roll and a footnote in the review. But the rest of the book is crap, and thus I’m piling on with this last gripe.

If anyone reading this is interested in reading a decent, objective biography of Bruce Springsteen that doesn’t shy away from criticizing him or his actions when it’s warranted but also manages to explore all the reasons why and how he became one of the biggest and most acclaimed rock and roll singer-songwriters of his generation, I’d recommend the other recent Springsteen biography, Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin. As for this piece of dreck, it’s the rare music biography that isn’t suitable either for diehard or casual fans.

REVIEW: ‘Twentieth Century Drifter’

Cover image of Twentieth Century DrifterIt’s hard to believe that Diane Diekman’s Twentieth Century Drifter: The Life of Marty Robbins is the first biography of country music legend Marty Robbins, who first hit the music charts in the 1950s and was still charting hit singles when he died far too young (49) in 1982. The scope of his career would seem to have lent itself to a life story before now, but regardless of timing he found an able biographer in Diekman.

Diekman used contemporary media accounts as well as personal interviews with Robbins’ children, friends, and former band members to piece together a tale that could have been its own country song. He was born in Arizona and grew up poor with a father unable to hold a job and a mother who had her hands full with five kids and an alcoholic husband. After a stint in the Navy during World War II, he was aimlessly drifting through life when he stumbled into a gig playing and singing on a local radio station. The gig morphed into a television slot, and eventually led to a Nashville recording contract.

Robbins’ soulful voice seemed tailor-made for country ballads, earning him the nickname “Mr. Teardrop.” But one of the truly remarkable aspects of his career was how easily he was able to bend his vocal talents to sing just about any genre of music. Besides the traditional country heartbreak songs like “I Couldn’t Keep From Crying” and “Singing the Blues”, he scored pop hits (“Don’t Worry”) and a series of teeny-bopper tunes like “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation” and “She Was Only Seventeen”. He recorded entire albums of Hawaiian-influenced music, and what may be the seminal Western music album of all time, “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs,” which included the country and pop smash, “El Paso.” It’s an astonishing feat, and even more so when you consider Robbins wrote nearly all of his hit songs, displaying a songwriting versatility that may have been matched only by his vocal stylings.

Ultimately, the music is where Diekman’s book falls short. She is upfront about the fact that she is not a musicologist, and she makes little attempt to try to analyze what made Robbins’ music so memorable and so seminal. While I greatly enjoyed learning more about his personal life, including the entire side career he had as a successful NASCAR driver (no, really!), I missed an astute analysis of the music. But Diekman has laid a solid groundwork with her personal biography of this Twentieth Century Drifter, and we can only hope that someone else will take up the challenge of providing the true musical biography that Marty Robbins deserves.

‘Archie Green: The Making of a Working-Class Hero’

book cover of Archie Green: The Making of a Working-Class HeroThere aren’t too many things more exhilarating than learning something brand new about a subject you thought you already knew pretty well. That was the case for me when I received a review copy of Archie Green: The Making of a Working-Class Hero, written by Sean Burns and published by the University of Illinois Press.

Though I have a BA in history with an emphasis on progressive social movements, I had never heard of Archie Green before now. I should have. Green, it turns out, was one of the preeminent labor historians in America. It was largely through his efforts that the American Folklife Center was established at the Library of Congress, where many valuable sound recordings, photographs and written accounts help to preserve the record of working people in America. Green wrote several books and (a plethora of book chapters) detailing specific segments of working America, from millwrights in California to an examination of the body of coal-mining songs recorded through the years.

Burns does a fine job of explaining how Green’s career as a laborer and then labor historian and preservationist came about. The text is a bit drier than a standard mainstream biography or “popular” history book, which may scare off non-academics who are otherwise interested in the subject. I would urge them to persevere, because the life that Burns documents in Archie Green is one that more people should know.

Oh, what a ‘Life’!

bookcover image of Life, by Keith RichardsLast fall, I remember hearing and reading several interviews with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who had just published his autobiography, Life, written with James Fox. It was fascinating to hear him speak in matter-of-fact terms about all of the extraordinary things that have happened in his life — as well as a few that only happened in the minds of fans and the media.

Richards’ written Life doesn’t quite live up to his actual life, though both are filled with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, not necessarily in that order. Lots of rock and roll, a bit of sex, and lots and lots of heroin. All sorts of other drugs, too, from uppers to downers to LSD, but mostly heroin — smack to its friends (Life includes an anecdote that may explain how that particular nickname came to be). It’s frankly amazing that a man who took heroin virtually every day for more than a decade (except for his occasional attempts to quit ‘cold turkey’), remembers much of anything at all about the remarkable things that happened to him as a result of being in one of the world’s most famous rock bands of all time. But Life is chock-full of anecdotes about gigs played, songs written, guitar riffs discovered, groupies laid, and arrests both dodged and endured, all told in an amiable style that conjures up a group of friends sitting around trading tall tales.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in 1972

Mick Jagger (left) and Keith Richards in 1972. (Photo via Wikipedia)

As might be expected from a fellow whose life played out one gig at a time all over the world, the narrative bounces around a bit, making no serious attempt to a tell a coherent, chronological account once the teenage Richards meets fellow teen Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones begin to take shape. Richards is surprisingly candid about the foibles of his bandmates, past and present, displaying a surprising (to me, anyway) amount of venom toward Brian Jones, one of the original Stones who ended up dead in a swimming pool before the 1960s were over. And Richards makes no secret of the clashes he has had with his fellow Glimmer Twin, Jagger, who seems to have been unprepared to give up any of his control over the band’s business decisions once Richards sobered up and again took an interest in something more than who was supplying the smack at the next tour stop. At the same time, Richards is generous in his praise of Jagger, in particular his natural showmanship as the band’s front man and his value as a songwriting partner. As Richards says in Life, “I love the man dearly; I’m still his mate. But he makes it very difficult to be his friend.”

Richards recounts his many run-ins with law enforcement with a sort of resigned indignation that chooses to emphasize the ways in which various police forces “had it out for him”, basically following him around waiting for him to make a mistake that they could bust him for. He seems not to recognize that it was his own behavior buying and using illegal drugs that led to the arrests, which is odd because he otherwise tells the tale of his rampant drug use quite matter-of-factly, with no excuses or justifications. In the end, he chooses to quit heroin (in 1978, after being arrested in Toronto) for practical and not health reasons:

I’m facing three charges: trafficking, possession and importing. I’m going to be doing some hard fucking time. I’d better get ready. Which is one of the reasons I finally cleaned up. I didn’t want to cold turkey in jail.  … Also, attached to the junk as I was, I was putting myself slowly into a position where it would be impossible to move around the world and work.

Toward the end of Life, Richards talks about the side project he started in 1987, the X-Pensive Winos (tellingly, he did it in spiteful retaliation to Jagger’s going off on a solo project; I think Richards would otherwise have been happy to confine his musical output to the Stones for the rest of his life). As I read this segment of the book, I realized I had never listened to any of Richards’ non-Stones music; I have a built-in prejudice against vanity projects that never measure up to the original. Still, for the sake of learning more about Richards, I fired up Spotify and checked out a “best of’ compilation that was released in 2010, Vintage Vinos. I was stunned to realize despite my reservations that I loved it — it’s got the same kind of bluesy rock vibe that is so appealing to me about the early Stones’ material. It’s well worth checking out.

In the end, Keith Richards’ Life is entertaining enough, and a valuable insight into how some of the Rolling Stones’ greatest records were made, but it inevitably pales in comparison both with the actual life lived by Richards and the mythical tales that have been so often told about him: having his blood changed in Switzerland, snorting his dead father’s ashes along with “a line of bump” (cocaine). It certainly wasn’t one of those starstruck autobiographies that leave you saying, “Celebrities! They’re just like us,” that’s for sure.

REVIEW: Composed

I have a strange sort of (one-way) relationship with the musical Cash family. The first album I ever bought with my own money was Johnny Cash’s A Thing Called Love when I was 10 years old. The first concert I ever attended was a free concert in 1974 by Johnny Cash and the Carter Family, at the baseball stadium in Davenport, Iowa. The first album I ever checked out at the library was Rosanne Cash’s Seven Year Ache in 1981. The first concert I ever reviewed professionally was Johnny Cash again, this time in 1987 at the Masonic Temple in Davenport. Four years later, the Man in Black was one of the first celebrities I ever interviewed in person.

So what I’m saying is that I’m a big fan of both Johnny and his supremely talented daughter, Rosanne. For that reason, I was eager to read Rosanne’s memoir, Composed. I knew from listening to her songs that she is an intelligent, thoughtful writer, perhaps not the stereotype most people have of a country singer-songwriter. In that sense, Composed did not disappoint. Cash is candid without being indiscreet; you won’t read any dirt about her first husband, singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, or get the nitty-gritty on the collapse of their marriage. But while she is respectful of other people’s privacy, she does not hesitate to share her own actions and reactions. In particular, the chapter where she chronicles all of the losses she experienced over the course of a year — her mother, her stepsister, her stepmother June Carter Cash, and of course her father — is a harrowing portrait of grief.

It’s not surprising that a writer like Rosanne Cash would write such an emotionally open memoir, but Composed is also a first-rate look at her musical career and the stories behind each of her albums, and some of her most well-known songs. The combination added up to a fascinating portrait of an artist throughout her life.

LibraryThing review: The Union of Their Dreams

Heroes are funny things. We choose to put someone on a pedestal for any number of reasons, from the way they look to the way they sing to the causes they champion. But beneath the façade of every hero beats the heart of a human being, with all the quirks and foibles that make up all of our complex personalities.

César Chávez was a hero to many people in the 1960s and 1970s. He was the driving force behind making the plight of migrant farmworkers visible to the rest of America through boycotts of grapes and lettuce. With the founding of the United Farm Workers union, he and his dedicated staff fought for what most of us recognize as basic human rights: a safe workplace, a fair wage, decent housing, education for our children. Under his leadership, the UFW boycotts captured the attention of the nation and won major concessions from field owners to improve the lives of the workers. His accomplishments have been enshrined in American life: schools, parks, libraries and streets have been named after him, and the state of California officially celebrates his birthday as César Chávez Day.

As Miriam Pawel illustrates in The Union of Their Dreams: Power, hope, and struggle in Cesar Chavez’s farm worker movement, Chávez’s considerable accomplishments were not without setbacks. Over the years, his initial dedication to the cause of farm workers shifted to a determination to preserve his control over the organization he created. After farm workers at many farms and ranches in California won the right to hold union elections and chose the UFW to represent them, the union found it difficult to actually deliver on the promises it had made. Chávez could be capricious, transferring staff members out of communities in which they were working hard to win the trust of and organize workers. As the union grew, Chávez became preoccupied with fighting off what he perceived to be challenges to his authority from board members, resulting in midnight purges of staffers who had lived in poverty and dedicated their lives for years to the farm workers’ cause.

Pawel creates her complicated portrait of Chávez indirectly, by telling the stories of several of the UFW’s most dedicated workers in alternating vignettes. The style allows us to get to know each of the workers well, but muddies the reader’s sense of a coherent timeline of events, and sometimes leads to incidents being told twice and out of order.[The Union of Their Dreams] is not a hatchet job in any sense; Pawel does not try to demonize Chávez nor lay the UFW’s failures solely at his feet. The most grievous flaw of the book, however, is the lack of representation from UFW officials who remained loyal to Chávez throughout the 1970s turmoil. But Pawel, a journalist by trade, has a very accessible writing style, and her informality creates an intimacy that makes the reader feel part of the story.

This book is a worthy read not only for for those interested in progressive politics, but also readers looking for insight into how organization are formed, grow, and are stifled by their success. It’s a familiar story for anyone who has volunteered or worked for a nonprofit organization, but it seems especially poignant in this case, because the stakes were so high for so many people, and even more significant victories were so close. I came away from this book deeply impressed by the incredible accomplishments of a group of idealistic, committed men and women, and saddened by thoughts of the opportunities lost to power struggles, disorganization and petty quarrels.

REVIEW: Firehouse

book cover of FirehouseI just finished reading Firehouse, a book by David Halberstam about a New York City firehouse where 12 of the 13 men who responded to the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center died. The book is beautifully written, and manages to draw a vivid picture of the powerful bonds that unite firefighters with their comrades. It’s almost unbearably sad, especially when I stopped to think that for all the impact of the stories of these 13 men, they are but a tiny fraction of the lives that were lost that day.

I would strongly recommend Firehouse to anyone who is interested in a glimpse at the impact of that day on the NYFD. There is little detail about the scene at Ground Zero because little is known about what, exactly, the men of Engine 40/Ladder 35 experienced there. The one member of the firehouse who survived did so with severe injuries, including a concussion, and his memories of the day are incomplete. Most of the book examines both the individual lives of the firefighters who died and the culture of brotherhood that is the modern firehouse.

As good as the book is, though, one thing did trouble me. Although Halberstam tries to portray the firefighters realistically there is still an element of sanctification about their individual lives and stories. There are hints, mere wisps of suggestions, that some of the men may have been less than perfect (in the ways that all of us are less than perfect), but the tone quickly reverts to unstinted admiration. The book was published less than a year after the attacks, so it’s understandable that Halberstam did not have the luxury of distance to more objectively draw his portraits. It would be interesting to read an updated version of the book to see where the families and comrades of the firefighters are now, but that won’t ever happen given that the author Halberstam was killed a couple of years ago in a traffic accident.

So why does Halberstam’s idealization of the firefighters of Engine 35/Ladder 40 bother me? Because none of us are perfect, and by writing as if these men were, Halberstam diminishes their lives. There’s no question that it takes a special kind of person to be a firefighter anywhere, let alone New York City, but to pretend they were perfect is as if to say that what they were — strong,tough, proud, brave, sure, but also impatient, angry, intolerant — was not good enough. But all of us deserve to be remembered for who we are, warts and all. Anything less is like watching only half of a movie, or reading random chapters out of a book. We are the sum of our thoughts and actions and emotions, and it’s in the experiencing of the full spectrum of life that we are truly alive.