Get It While You Can
MARCH 22, 1999: What was Janis Joplin running from? She must have been running from something; why else would she have ridden her rocket to stardom so hard? Why would she have grabbed the golden ring but still insisted on going another round after it was firmly in hand? Janis Joplin was rock & roll's first female superstar; wasn't that enough?
The last Chronicle rock & roll section generated e-mail from two of the authors I reviewed. Patricia Butler was pissed about the review of her book: "I'm sorry you didn't take the time to read my book, Angels Dance and Angels Die: The Tragic Romance of Pamela and Jim Morrison. ... I spent seven years working on the book. It would have been nice for you to actually spend a little time reading it before presuming to publicly trash it."
Ex-Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres, on the other hand, was naturally more pleased to see the reissue of Hickory Wind, his excellent bio on Gram Parsons, getting ink years later. His note thanked me for it and suggested reviewing his equally excellent The Hits Just Keep Coming: History of Top 40 Radio. Regrettably, The Hits isn't reviewed here and guiltily I did go back to try and slog my way through the thin volume of Butler's seven-year labor with no more favorable opinion. But I don't review books for authors; I review them for readers. The publication of rock & roll books has reached almost as dreadful a glut as the music industry itself, leaving readers in the same boat as listeners, dazzled by glitzy, high-budget promotion and drained by the lack of substance. It calls for fair warning.
Fortunately, our writers enjoyed most of the books reviewed within. Most of the subjects are well-known, much older than when we first met them, or dead; the most recent ones come from the Eighties, a decade that is about to enjoy a revival. While editing these, I kept humming Janis Joplin's "Get It While You Can," fittingly, since I had been reading Alice Echols' book on her. From the Grateful Dead to the New York Dolls, from Elvis to the Clash, from Keith Moon to the Gun Club to the Rolling Stones, "get it while you can" seemed to be the philosophy. And only the Stones got it right -- you can't always get what you want. -- Margaret Moser
After reading Alice Echols' Scars of Sweet Paradise, the answer is a resounding no. Janis craved love and affection, family, friends, and lovers. She desperately desired acceptance, and had an insatiable appetite for the drugs that soothed the pain she suffered from getting little of what she wanted.
The live-fast, die-young stories of rock stars hold a peculiar fascination for the reading audience and Joplin's life was no exception. If anything, she has fared heroically well in print since her death in 1970 from a heroin overdose -- excellent biographies of Joplin are available by Myra Friedman (Buried Alive in the Blues), David Dalton (Janis, Piece of My Heart), and Ellis Amburn (Pearl). Even the milk-and-cookies collection of letters edited by Joplin's sister Laura (Love, Janis) reveal a young girl who wanted little more than to please her parents and siblings. That's impressive considering the worst of the lot was a cheapie paperback called Going Down With Janis by one Peggy Caserta. Its unforgettably florid opening line was "I was stark naked, stoned out of my mind on heroin, and the girl lying between my legs giving me head was Janis Joplin."
It's not like others haven't done Joplin right, so why is Echols revisiting what looks like well-mapped territory? Interestingly, she doesn't. She covers well the San Francisco days with less emphasis on Joplin's career than her personal life. She does her homework on Joplin's drug use, and has so far been the only writer to allow Caserta to be much more than a strung-out lesbian bimbo who sold out her lover for chump change. That's important because Caserta's sometimes acerbic comments eerily ring true almost 30 years later.
What Echols gets really right that no one else has is the profound effect of Janis' days in Austin, her days of liberating discovery and deep humiliation, the likes of which she thought she'd left in her hometown of Port Arthur. A historian specializing in the chaotic Sixties, Echols interviewed relentlessly for this part of the book and the result is one of the purest pictures to emerge yet of Austin in that fabled decade. So very thoroughly does Echols get to the heart of Janis' Austin rebellion that many long-forgotten names associated with Joplin's college days in Austin are interviewed, which finally helps piece together her mystery. Of course Janis pretended she didn't care about being Ugliest Man on Campus. Of course she was deeply wounded. Wouldn't you run too?
And yet what Echols misses is Port Arthur. She almost gets it right, steering down Highway 90 where the Louisiana paradise of all-night music lay, but she exits before reaching the crossroads of heaven and hell that every teenager who dared go over the border faced. That's where the real story of Janis lies. Neither in the lumpy, miserable teenager nor in the ebullient rock goddess but in the girl who was running away, the pure spirit who loved music.
What no one has said, though, is that 27 is traditionally the age of discontent. Janis had spent much time and effort rejecting Port Arthur because it had rejected her, but I truly believe she would have eventually come around to a more reluctant affection for it. Remember: All that bravado and "my-mother-kicked-me-out-when-I-was-14" bluster was coming from a young woman not 10 years out of adolescence.
Who knows -- had she lived, she might have taken an interest in supporting the powerful grassroots music she heard as a teenager -- country, R&B, zydeco -- and eventually studied as a young woman, and Port Arthur might be celebrating her life. And had she lived, I'll bet Janis would have produced magnificent music. Her leap from Big Brother to the Kozmic Blues Band was hailed as brave and original. In reality, it was canny -- that band was Louisiana's Boogie Kings done up in Seventies drag. 1969's I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Agin, Mama! is the missing link between the Boogie Kings regional albums of the mid-Sixties and Edgar Winter's fabulous 1975 album Roadwork, featuring none other than once and future Boogie Kings lead singer Jerry LaCroix. It was a wild ride with Janis to her roots and no one knew, probably not even her. Pearl reflected Janis' other musical roots in folk-influenced country blues. Given a few years into the Seventies, she would have been a progressive country icon too, and playing Jazz Fest. The shame of it all is that Janis Joplin has seldom been recognized as the fine songwriter she was.
A few years back, I ran away to Janis' teenage past by driving relentlessly through the tiny towns in Louisiana parishes across the Texas border, looking for some sort of meaning to it all. Ironically, I found not meaning but a kind of solace sitting in a rundown roadhouse in the swamps drinking a Dixie beer, watching the sun set on the Gulf of Mexico, and listening to Joplin sing on the jukebox. The song was "Get It While You Can," and Janis pleaded, as if to herself, "So if someone comes along and gives you some love and affection, I say get it while you can." And damn if the words didn't mean something. -- Margaret Moser
The problem with every Who biography is simply this: Everyone closely involved with the band drank heavily, sometimes did a lot of drugs, and most importantly, never failed to let the truth interfere with a great story. Previous biographers of the band have been frequently stymied and misled by both Pete Townshend and John Entwistle's bad memories; Roger Daltrey was often simply not there. All three, along with managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, were prone to elaborating on a story through frequent retellings. Record keeping by management was hit and miss. Consequently, every Who book or biography has been riddled by inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and fib-telling. If you love The Who, or simply love good celebrity bios, then Moon is a must-read -- not a great book, like Peter Guralnick's Elvis books or Nick Tosches' Dean Martin bio, but a great rock biography.
Fletcher has made a heroic effort to find out who the real Keith Moon was. He hasn't succeeded, really, but that's because the "real" Keith Moon seems to have been a man no one ever knew. Keith Moon was the best drummer in rock & roll from the day he auditioned for The Who. He was also the clown prince of pop music, one of the most genuinely funny and lovable entertainers in the music business, whose onstage antics, and offstage hotel destruction, became the stuff of legend. Moonie was one of the most well-loved, generous, and sociable of all rock stars, and yet, from his youngest school years, he seems to have had virtually no close friends.
It comes as no surprise that any Moon biographer in the Nineties can come close, but not really nail, the subject. His bandmates hardly knew him, or at best, only knew certain aspects of his personality. Fletcher's big advantage over all previous Who biographers is that he is the only one to extensively interview Moon's wife, Kim Kerrigan Moon McLagan, the one true great love of Moon's life, aside from The Who. Fletcher has also come up with a possible diagnosis for the condition from which Moon apparently suffered -- borderline personality disorder, and he makes a convincing case for it. The sad fact of Moon's life is that he was never diagnosed, and never received help. By the time of his death, Keith Moon had been living the role of "Keith Moon" for so many years, it seems he himself had forgotten who he really was.
Moon is an admirable piece of research, and a damn entertaining read, but I can't help but wish Moonie was still around, making cameo appearances in films, much as Ian Dury has been doing, and stealing scenes from every big star he encounters. -- Kent Benjamin
Most people have probably read more about the New York Dolls than actually listened to their music. This is probably because the articles, Web sites, and other annotations about the band far outweigh its recorded output. Despite this awkward fact, their story is still a juicy one, and in Too Much, Too Soon, author and avid Dolls' fan Nina Antonia (the scribe behind the Johnny Thunders bio In Cold Blood) delivers it with jagged grace.
In its heyday, the five-piece unit's blend of attitude, androgyny, and unpolished musical skills often alienated mainstream audiences yet wowed critics. But as the hard-rocking Dolls left much of America either puzzled or repulsed, they also influenced a slew of imitators (as diverse as Aerosmith and the Sex Pistols) and predated current cross-dressers (Marilyn Manson).
From their garage days in Queens to their rise as Manhattan's drag darlings to the band's ultimate drugged-out demise, Antonia covers all the bases with vivid accounts, candid interviews (although some are quite dated), and interesting tour tidbits (the boys were drinking buddies with Lynyrd Skynyrd).
Best of all, she manages to reflect the charisma of all five dolls (six counting an early pill casualty, drummer Billy Murcia) with apparent ease. Her depictions of lead vocalist David Johansen (or lounge slime Buster Poindexter to the MTV generation) and lead axe-man Johnny Thunders draw parallels to the stuff we've read about Mick and Keith. At the same time, there's a pathetic, insecure quality to both men. Johansen is described as egocentric and often venomous when imbibing the right cocktail. On the other hand, Thunders' quest for an identity in the rock world eventually leads him on an endless chase for a fix. Other band members are also brilliantly illustrated, and by the book's end, it's hard not to feel sorry for them as each meets a separate fate out of the spotlight.
The band was obviously ahead of its time in terms of sound and shock value. They were also pioneers in several genres (heavy metal, glam rock, punk), but couldn't see the impact they would have on generations of style-hounds and rock & rollers. Too drunk, too high, and maybe even too caught up in the moment, the New York Dolls would not realize their legacy until their careers were long over. The book's title (taken from the Dolls' sophomore LP) perfectly sums up the band's story, and Antonia's concise style perfectly chronicles their short yet tumultuous career. Also included are some relatively decent black-and-white photos capturing the band in its ragged glory as well as its Commie-shtick climax.
The story of the New York Dolls is one we've all heard before. Just watch any episode of VH1's Behind the Music and you'll see that Leif Garrett's life wasn't too far off from the Dolls'. Nonetheless, theirs is a tale that truly emphasizes the "nothing lasts forever" aspect of the music biz and one that every local act with dreams of stardom should pay attention to. In all, Antonia translates the short-fused career of the band into a choice bio and bitter fable, which is as provoking as it is haunting. A must-have for loyal fans and a history lesson for neophytes, Too Much, Too Soon is a solid portrait of a band whose lack of talent was only exceeded by their lack of self-control. -- Mike Emery
Elvis' future son-in-law wasn't the only one with a hankering for chimps. Long before Bubbles ever bounced into the world, there was Scatter. Elvis bought Scatter in October 1961 from Memphis TV star Captain Bill Killebrew and soon, as Peter Guralnick writes, "there was no end of Scatter stories, from his tearing out all the phone lines in the house to his having simulated sex with a former stripper named Brandy to various hair-raising (and skirt-raising) escapades with nearly every other girl who came to visit. When there was nothing to talk about, there was always Scatter." Little wonder, then, that when speaking of the since-deceased chimp in 1971, Elvis said "Scatter was one of the best buddies I had around at that time." Careless Love, Guralnick's sordid, epic tale of Elvis' final years from his arrival in Germany for army duty in 1958 to his funeral in August 1977, unfolds likewise, as the King of Rock & Roll and most famous man in the world searches in vain for something -- anything -- to hold his attention or even simply keep him amused.
Exhaustively chronicling the movie years, the Vegas period, the fateful Seventies tours, and everything in between, Careless Love carries with it a profound, lingering sense of sadness and loss; Guralnick's meticulous reportage (easily meeting the standard he established in his biography of Elvis' early years, Last Train to Memphis, or any of his other books exploring American music) excruciatingly illustrates the hole in Elvis' life left by the death of his mother Gladys -- whose funeral provides Last Train's wrenching climax -- and that no amount of girls, cars, guns, jewelry, pills, philosophy, karate, law-enforcement badges, or ultimately even adoration from his fans -- could fill. Elvis' was a patently unhappy soul made even more so because those closest to him were too busy making money off him to notice; also, naturally, Elvis never listened to the one person not out to exploit him, his father Vernon. The King's grip on reality similarly fell by the wayside, no doubt due to the massive amount of pharmaceuticals he ingested; the autopsy alone found 14 different drugs in his system.
Elvis' laundry list of eccentricities, unfortunately too myriad to go into here, punctuate the story with some much-needed chuckles, and the few unmitigated triumphs of his later life (the '68 comeback, Aloha From Hawaii) come as much-needed reminders of why he was who he was, what he could do under the proper circumstances when, as he would say, "the spirit moved him." Sadly, such moments are few and far between, and in fact most of Elvis' actions in the book consist of sleepwalking and rubber-stamping, whether on screen, in the studio, or onstage, culminating on what would prove to be his final tour when, Guralnick writes, "the idea was simply to get Elvis out onstage and keep him upright for the hour he was scheduled to perform." Fond as he was of Demerol, Placidyl, Seconal, and Dilaudid (among many others), that's not hard to imagine. Some people are able to respond to the crushing demands of fame and celebrity and retain some sense of normality; Elvis wasn't.
In the end, after over 650 pages, it's no wonder Elvis derived such pleasure from and spoke so rosily of his pet chimp. Scatter was someone he could actually relate to, certainly more so than the dozen or so enablers (Guralnick usually calls them "the guys," but let's be frank) that comprised his entourage. Ultimately, and tragically, Scatter wasn't half the trained monkey his so-called "master" was. -- Christopher Gray
In the last years of his life, Gun Club lead singer Jeffrey Lee Pierce set out to write the definitive history of his band. Part of the eclectic L.A. punk scene in the early Eighties, Gun Club predated the current wave of indie bands delving into blues exploration and the fusion of black and white musical forms, and sporadically made a career of it for a decade. Pierce died in 1986, a week before his self-imposed deadline for finishing this book, and devoted friends have pushed the manuscript forward, fulfilling his wishes to get the thing out to the masses.
However high-minded an effort, Go Tell the Mountain narrows its audience from the first few pages on. Divided into three sections -- one part journal, one part thinly veiled fiction which follows directly from his autobiographical revelations, and one part compendium of song lyrics -- the book offers very few entrances for readers who didn't follow the band through the Eighties. The journal section, essentially a sweeping history of Pierce's musical career, goes the farthest in trying to reach out to a readership by showering light on the punk scene of the Reagan years, not only in his native Los Angeles, but in New York (where Gun Club enjoyed their first successes) and in numerous locales abroad.
Through a series of incredibly close friends, Pierce found Japanese culture, language, and Japan itself, which saturated his writing and perspective through his later years. There's a surprisingly diverse array of minor musical celebrities who surface here, ranging from Darby Crash to Nick Cave to Debbie Harry to the Cocteau Twins, and for those of us who soundtracked the Eighties through the joyously eclectic, dollar-be-damned world of college radio, it's rewarding to see that these people actually interacted in real life as they did on college radio playlists. And where Pierce might just deal with them in a perfunctory, name-dropping fashion, he instead attempts to make them come alive in anecdotes which give them depth and character.
However, the nature of the writing, since it is journal writing, is focused on the personal, and while the writing never purposefully intends to be self-indulgent, it never really transcends Pierce's own frame of reference. Unfortunately, that frame of reference is largely absorbed with rock & roll excess on a punk budget, and the stories Pierce tells seem to circle themselves, eventually returning to the state of his liver and his lapse into a default mode of substance abuse. Contrast that with something like Please Kill Me, the superlative oral history on the rise of punk rock, where the tales of excess are a satisfying soap opera which slowly and craftily morph into a rise-and-fall epic, and you're left with something that lacks a coherent, overarching vision. The little reflection Pierce does offer centers on his own self-identity, which would border on arrogance if his story was intended to do more than clarify his own life.
And had the Gun Club been the predominant band in the Eighties L.A. punk scene, this self-indulgence might be understandable. But ultimately, Go Tell the Mountain is specifically for the Gun Club faithful, which is all it really sets out to be, despite the opportunity to be so much more. -- Phil West
Johnny Green, erudite rogue and writer and narrator of this book, is introduced to his readership as Clash frontmen Joe Strummer and Mick Jones drag him dead drunk through a hallway in a Finnish hotel. Graham Parker walks by and asks "Who is that cunt?" and Strummer says "He's our road manager. He's looking after us."
It's a fitting start to the story, a wild ride in the biggest and baddest sense of the rock & roll cliché. But it's also a hell of a lot of fun, and that's the only reason to read a book like this. Sure, there are some insights into the workings of the band, like a play-by-play account of the incredibly long and intense hours of recording the band did for Give 'Em Enough Rope and, even more so for London Calling; and the fact that, on the tour preceding the release of London Calling, Joe Ely, playing support for the Clash on their Texas dates, diverted the "big American tour machine" out to Lubbock, where they played an impromptu gig to a packed Rock's Club. But mostly it's a snowballing tale of a punk rock band's early adventures, told from the perspective of an intensely fascinated fan who becomes a devoted employee.
The book is illustrated by Ray Lowrey, a cartoonist whose rough drawings are evocative of Ralph Steadman's work for Fear and Loathing, though these are less surreal and more documentary in their irreverence. Lowrey traveled with the band on their second American tour, and the out-of-control lifestyle of the road is brilliantly played out in his drawings, lending the tale an appropriately cartoony aspect.
The development of each band member as a character is cursory: Mick seems a spoiled prodigy, while Paul Simonon is a genial fellow and Topper Headon is a delightful clown. All are seen with great affection, though, especially Joe Strummer, who is most definitely the hero of the book. All the more touching passages, where the messy emotions of the political and personal realities outside this punk rock circus are broached, involve poignant quotes from Strummer that get right to the heart of any situation. Sometimes his superhuman devotion to what is right, morally and politically, make him seem almost too good.
In all, A Riot of Our Own is a good read, a fast and tidy account of the beginning stages of one of the bands that defined and breathed life into punk rock. It'll make you break out London Calling and play it over and over again, wondering what happened to the passion in rock music. -- Christopher Hess
It's strangely ironic that Sweet Chaos should be published right now, just as the recently completed impeachment hearings have brought the "culture war" back into the national spotlight. To the warriors on the political right wing, it is the demon excesses of the 1960's "counterculture" that are at the root of today's social ills.
In so many fundamental ways and as much more than just a rock & roll band, the Grateful Dead came to epitomize much of the rebellious yet collective spirit of a decade that has come to be vilified by those on the conservative, moralistic side of the culture chasm. It is within this highly-charged, socio-cultural-political context that Ms. Brightman weaves her narrative of how the exploits of these visionary Bay Area descendants of the Beat movement, by way of their LSD-fueled musical explorations as the house band for the crazed escapades of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, would ultimately reverberate through the cultural landscape for decades to come. And it is precisely because the Dead's amazing social history requires an especially astute and expansive perspective that Sweet Chaos proves so successful in going above and beyond any previous biography of the band or of its "non-leader leader" Jerry Garcia.
Brightman has done her homework in distilling information from these various other sources, but it is her personal political experiences that inform the book most directly. As a Sixties radical seriously active in New Left politics, Brightman was never a Dead "insider" and was only made aware of the phenomenon through her sister, Candace, a lighting technician for the band. This outsider's political point of view cuts both ways, however. Brightman is able to intricately weave the Dead's evolution into the political, as well as the more familiar socio-cultural, fabric of those amazingly turbulent times in a way no one else has bothered to explore.
Her insights, for example, into the CIA's role in the LSD revolution vis-à-vis its experimentation with psychotropic drugs as part of its war research and the related introduction of psychedelics into Haight Ashbury are rather fascinating. Nonetheless, when Brightman delves too deeply into her own political involvement in "The Movement," the results become more of a distraction to the narrative than a complement.
Too, Brightman seems intent on a parochial predilection to adversely compare the politicos in Berkeley to their non-political contemporaries across the Bay. In doing so, she precludes a common maxim of the times that would have unabashedly endorsed the Grateful Dead and their followers, by their very existence alone, as being a political statement in the truest sense. -- Jay Trachtenberg
There's a moment in 25x5: The Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones, a superb, two-hour VH1 Behind the Scenes-style documentary from 1989, during which everything this band ever was or represented -- the history, the myth -- crystallizes. It's a scene from Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones, an out-of-print theatrical release from the mid-Seventies that captures the group's 1972 Exile on Main Street tour (part of the film was shot in Fort Worth). In the shot, the band is trekking through the bowels of Madison Square Garden towards the stage, when wham, all of a sudden the frame goes color and Keith Richards, in all his ragged, long-hair/bad teeth, and young beautiful glory, is at the mike singing, rocking. "Always took candy from strangers, didn't wanna get me no trade. Never wanna be like poppa, working for the boss every night and day." On the last phrase, Jagger's face fills the frame with Keith's and the two deliver "working for the boss every night and day" with the burning passion of eternal youth. Awesome. In those moments, everything that rock & roll ever was -- celebration, rebellion -- comes alive.
In The Rolling Stones: A Life on the Road, a big, handsome, exceptionally well-designed coffee table book, there are plenty of indelible images: Jagger at Altamont, Keith and Woody backstage talking, clowning around, or with their guitars, and Charlie Watts, shopping, reading, always looking like a head of state. With 250 glossy pages of pictures scanning the better part of four decades, most of them of or relating to the band's life on the road -- onstage and behind -- there's a photograph that will make Stones fans gawk in wonder at least every few pages. Interspersed with long quotes from the band members (including Bill Wyman, though not Mick Taylor), a sort of loose oral history put together by Squeeze's Jools Holland and Dora Loewenstein (daughter of the group's longtime adviser, Prince Rupert Loewenstein), A Life on the Road does a particularly expert job of illustrating how the Stones' continued popularity around the world has been due in large part to their commitment to the live arena, their adjustments to it, and the fact that Jagger, Richards, Wood, and Watts are extremely proud individuals who still enjoy playing together and making sure their fans get what they want. "When they walk on stage they're not just musicians," says one of their well-traveled roadcrew, "they carry a lot of history with them. You see their talent, but you are also watching that reputation and they know it. They work hard to live up to it. They don't slack, they don't coast, they don't pretend they're big enough so they don't have to do much. They go out and give it 110%."
So does The Rolling Stones: A Life on the Road, easily the best book on the band since Wyman's autobiographical Stone Alone in '92. About the only thing missing herein is that one magical image where reality and myth become one, that shining "Happy" moment from the 25x5 video, which has been transcribed liberally for portions of this book. Only the centerfold, a picture of Jagger circa '75 in a sequined jumpsuit motioning thespian-like past Richards, who is rearing back on a riff and a Fender, comes close. In fact, there's a curious lack of photos from three of the band's best tours, '69, '72, and '78. Alright, so maybe you can't always get what you want ... -- Raoul Hernandez
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