Musical Chairs

Posted on February 22, 2009 – 3:03 PM | by OldManFoster
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MaxwellAllen Rockwell fronts two of the most disparate rock groups in town—critics’ darlings Knock Knock, whose folk pop gems showcase Rockwell’s sunnier side, and Rock the Light, a camaro-drivin’ mesh-t-shirt-wearing hesher’s dream.  Rockwell himself is something of a conundrum—a clean-living junior high teacher by day who also happens to need to rock the bejeezus out of any stage handy.   We got to talking about his passion for trashy (is there any other kind?) rock bios and he offered to run through some of his favorites for us.

Rock bios tend to be familiar. Most move from the humble beginnings of the band members, sprinkled with endearing stories of gifted musical childhoods, into the drive to make timeless music and be stars, quickly followed by the first awkward sexual encounter, the actual making of timeless music and becoming stars, then a meteoric rise to fantastic success and multitude of lurid (but never awkward!) sexual encounters, culminating in the crushingly depressing collapse of the dream into either (1) death or (2) middle age hum-drum State Fair tour circuit or greatest hits package. Not surprisingly, the first halves of these books are always a gas to read, and the most popular ones wallow in the stories of the wish fulfillment of their protagonists, often bordering on being pornographic.

Here are a few I can recommend:

1. The Hammer of The Gods by Stephen Davis
Reading The Hammer of the Gods remains a right of passage of sorts, especially for those of us who are deeply moved by the Faustian overtones of Heavy Metal, and like to whisper about Jimmie Page luring the younger, inexperienced Robert Plant and John Bonham into a Black Magic pact with Satan, exchanging their souls for massive success and sexual depravity (which the book overflows with).  And just look at what happened to them! Death! Heroin addiction! Death! Furthermore, there was one member of Zep who didn’t fall for Jimmie’s Crowley-esque ploy, and, in contrast, just look what happened to him — lurking in the shadows, avoiding the spotlight, the ever dour and watchful bass player, John Paul Jones, the only member of Led Zeppelin to avoid the curse unscathed!

2. Buddy Holly: A Biography by Ellis Amburn
In which Buddy Holly finally succumbs to Little Richard’s attempts to lure him into a bi-sexual backstage orgy, the cosmic repercussions of which we can still feel today.  Also, Buddy Holly’s wife, Maria, was and is a no-goodnick who all the ex-Crickets hate, but that doesn’t stop the author from sucking up to her, at one point writing, “Brava, Maria, I thought to myself…” as the author witnesses her walking out of a Crickets’ reunion. I therefore summarize that the book rules but the author is a pud.

3. The Beatles by Bob Spitz.
Exhaustive, sprawling and at 996 pages long, a hefty brick of a book that is never once, not once, never in the least, never, never, never, boring. The Beatles begins with the births and lives of the Beatles’ parents (!) and ends bitterly, when George Harrison tells Paul McCartney over the phone, “Hare Krishna, motherfucker,” before hanging up on him. If this doesn’t excite you, you’re a lost cause. Oh yeah, Paul and John, rock n’ roll’s ultimate geniuses, are total bastards, George was kind of a nasty sort, but, Ringo, God bless him, comes out smelling like a rose. No surprise there.

4.  A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of The Grateful Dead by Dennis McNally
The following review serves two purposes, the first is giving myself the perverse pleasure of knowing that Tim Foster is publishing an article about the Grateful Dead, the second is ensuring that at least one person will read it (Hi, Scott Miller!).  Dennis McNally appears to have survived the sixties and hanging in close quarters with the Dead with his wits intact, and he writes about the whole she-bang in a fairly objectionable light, meaning that he delivers all sorts of acid fueled communal weirdness in amazing clarity without slipping into annoying cosmic dippiness. Still, the first half kills the second, when the San Francisco sixties were in full swing, and our boys in the Warlocks were dropping acid for the first time and Jerry sees universal unity in a cloud pattern delivered by God, whereupon he points to a random page in the dictionary and the words “Grateful Dead” are illuminated in gold. Jerry then decides that the art form most suited to his new world view cannot be tangible, and must be ever changing — meaning music. All the while, Neal Cassady is driving Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus at breakneck speeds around incredible Northern California mountain passes and Jerry is riding along, cool as a cucumber because the acid has given him clarity of vision, and he knows he won’t die but instead will give a free concert in the Panhandle where the bullshit won’t hit the fan until Altamont.

The early seventies aren’t bad either, when the Dead tour Europe and experience all sorts of weird synchronicity like skulls and roses set in ancient rock on the bridges, rainbows appearing suddenly as they visit Stonehenge, dancing bears in the streets of Paris, and Jerry weeping uncontrollably during the taping of “Morning Dew” when the sound engineer leaves the recording unit, because he just has to catch the vibes that are coming from the stage, when he catches Jerry’s tear stained eye, and, oh no!, he’s caught leaving his post, but Jerry smiles beautifully upon him, sending the message, “it’s all right, man” and that’s the version you hear on Europe 72! Okay, I’ll admit there is a fair amount of cosmic dippiness, but it is extremely awesome and entertaining cosmic dippiness, and you have to be a total stick-in-the-mud square not to get sucked up into it.

Of course, the second half is a serious drag and is, without a doubt, one of the most depressing accounts of the sixties rock n roll dream gone sour and I recommend that no one read it with the exception of, maybe, the above mentioned Scott Miller, and members of the Dark Star Orchestra.

Our Band Could be your life5. Our Band Could Be Your Life – Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad
Quite possibly the most relevant book to our own confusing music scene, and a book I consistently re-read for inspiration, Our Band Could Be Your Life, focuses on thirteen indie bands who ruled the eighties before the post Nevermind alternative and grunge explosion of the 90s. Azerrad’s subjects avoid the cliches of the bands mentioned earlier by detailing a decade in Indie rock when massive success was replaced by massive influence. Once ’91 rolls around, Azerrad cuts the narrative short, leaving the stories fairly untouched by the usual flaccid end of a rock band’s career. Of course, there is a fair amount of drug abuse and general smuttiness, but that’s mostly reserved for the Butthole Surfers’ chapter.

The twin themes of Our Band Could Be Your Life are hard-working integrity (Black Flag, the Minutemen, Fugazi, Sonic Youth, Mission of Burma) and inspired idiot savant pigheadedness (Dinosaur Jr., Mudhoney, the Replacements and Beat Happening). Whatever the case, these were the beautiful loser underdogs of rock n roll, making music on their own terms in the depressing doldrums known as the nineteen-eighties.

I can ramble endlessly about the importance of these bands’ stories, I’ll try to just relate a few of my favorite moments.
* The Replacements decided to name their to-be-released album with the title of the next song that came on the radio no matter what it was. The horror of their Beatles obsessed manager when that song turned out to be “Let It Be.”
* Minor Threat breaking up because a third of the band wanted to sound more like U2!
* The incredibly unrelenting and workaholic Black Flag waking up at six am for their usual five hour practice… on Christmas morning. Talk about Charles!

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