Steve Jones' Lonely Boy - The Ultimate Rock Biog

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Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols recently published his long-awaited autobiography "Lonely Boy."  I've read lots of rock bios over the years, and this is certainly the funniest, but also the starkest. Jones pulls no punches as he tells of his rough upbringing: the father who left his mother, tales of sexual abuse, shoplifting, you name it.  Jones' isn't after your sympathy, but it does explain his errant ways as rock and roll guitar hero. There's plenty of sex and drugs added to the rock and roll, but you're unlikely to envy Jones' addictions. 

It's a fitting tale that sheds light on the dawn of Punk rock from someone who helped make it all happen.  Jones describes how his theft of musical equipment from some of his favorite rock stars (including David Bowie) led to the formation of the band that became the Sex Pistols. He also describes the band's early gigs, the role of manager Malcom McClaren on the band and some of the rock bands he loved. Who knew Jones loved bands like Boston and Journey in addition to The Faces and Mott the Hoople.   

Jones takes the high road when talking about his bandmates and gives songwriter and vocalist his Johnny Rotten full credit for taking the band in a unique direction. But his description of life on reunion circuit with the Sex Pistols in the early 2000s makes it hard to imagine putting up with Rotten's behavior.  

I listened to the audiobook version and I found it riveting. It feels like you ran into a long-lost high-school buddy in a dive bar and he told you how he spent the last twenty years of his life in an epic rock and roll roller coaster.  It's a helluva ride, but maybe better to hear about it than to live.  

I also highly recommend Jones' daily rock and roll radio show Jonesy's Jukebox on KLOS and also available via Podcast.  I'm not sure why the podcast still doesn't include music, but it's still worth listening to. 

Springsteen's Jersey Confession

New Jersey's elder statesman of rock, Bruce Springsteen, published an epic memoir "Born to Run." I'm not a Springsteen super-fan, but as far as rock docs go, it's well above average. The book clocks in at just over 500 pages, but it's equivalent to a four-hour concert that occasionally leaves you looking at your watch wondering when they'll get to the good stuff. To be fair, there is a lot of good stuff in the book. The first third, on Springsteen's struggling early days is excellent. It's a lively introduction into the early rock and roll scene, with struggles to make it in California that never quite work out. He finally gets signed to CBS, gets down to bottom dollar a couple of times, but dedication to his craft, and sheer brute force pays off. As Springsteen has said in the past, there was no "plan B." They had no choice but to continue to work. Springsteen's writing is colorful, engaging and honest. He's aware of his own insecurities and writes frankly about his ego, his flaws, his desire for control over his band. But the most important element that shines through all of this is his passion for the power of rock and roll. And it's contagious!

But somewhere after his big breakthrough album "Born in the USA," the book starts to bog down. There's a certain rambling verbosity that fans will recognize. It's a fun, breezy style. But like a guest who has stayed for one drink too many, it starts to grate. I found myself skimming passages of earth-shaking, music-making, viagra-taking excess. Ok, he messes around on his wife. He hangs out with Frank Sinatra. I could care less. But when he focuses on the music, his life as itinerant songwriter and troubadour, the book delivers. And there's some interesting revelations about his father's struggle with depression as well as his own.

Springsteen has also issued a companion greatest hits CD Chapter & Verse which includes five unreleased tracks from his early days with The Castilles, Steel Mill and The Bruce Springsteen Band. These songs help round out the book and give you a sense of the the early days of Jersey rock and roll. It also includes a selection of 13 of Springsteen's hits, though it's a bit constrained, since there's only one song from any album. But I think it's worth a listen.

Here's some live footage from an LA concert in 1973 opening for Dr Hook. This was just after the first album "Greetings from Asbury Park" and before the "E Street Band" lineup. It's a short set, but there are some great moments.

Evening's Empire - Greatest Rock Novel Ever


There are not that many great rock books and even fewer good rock novels. But one I read recently ranks as one of the best comic novels I've ever read. From the first page to the last, I was in stitches. "Evening's Empire" by former MTV exec Bill Flanagan is an absolute bang-0n send-up of the trials and tribulations of a fictional '70s rock band called the Ravons, but it could just as well be about the The Faces, The Kinks, The Pretty Things, Wishbone Ash or a dozen other English bands. The book conveys an insider's perspective of the wackiness of the music industry: egocentric rock stars, weirdo bass players, crazy fans, corrupt managers, gurus, money, drugs, fame, feuds and reunions... it's all in there. Flanagan spares no one. But the story is told with genuine affection and love of the music and the business behind it.

What elevates "Evening's Empire" beyond entertainment to a level of comic masterpiece is the picture he paints of the characters. You witness the evolution, for good and for bad, of the industry and it's players over several decades. There's a touch of Shakespearian tragedy in all of this: the price of fame is steep and it costs the characters plenty. And even when it's tragic, it's often funny as hell. 

Flanagan acknowledges he's used insider information coming directly from musicians he's worked with. My only criticism is that there are a few subplots in the book that don't really pay off and he probably could have trimmed 100 pages from the book. On the other hand, when I finished the book, I had tears in my eyes and I wanted nothing more than for the story to continue. For those who care about music, this is one of the funniest and most touching books ever.  It is arguably the best rock and roll novel ever written.

Studley Guitar Improvisation


Guitarist Greg Studley, who plays with the Pink Floyd Tribute band House of Floyd, has published a great new book called "A Guitarist's Guide to Improvising with Knowledge."  Although the title is a bit of a mouthful, it's a good book for any player who is looking to go beyond the usual learned riffs to develop a more dynamic style to improvisation.  

Studley's approach is a thoughtful one and it's well-suited to anyone who has got stuck in the "Pentatonic rut" of playing same-sounding solos over every song using just one or two Pentatonic scale shapes.  Studley has developed a consistent structure and naming approach to make it much easier to learn everything you need to develop interesting and melodic solos.  He also ensures that your solos match the underlying chord changes and not just the oveall key of the song.  This enables you to build on the natural tension that happens during chord changes to make things flow better with the overall song.

Studley provides a "three step method" and a series of exercises that focus on getting familiar with root notes, then the scales before you dive into the uncharted territories of improvisation.  This structure ensures that you learn where to place your hands and you know what scale you're working from at all times and don't end up somewhere you don't want to be.  Through the course of the book, the techniques get increasingly sophiticated, incorporating arpeggios, bends, slides, hammer-ons, triplets, vibrato, syncopated rhythms and more.

Here's a video that demonstrates some of Studley's techniques for mixing two different pentatonic scales:

The book weighs in at over 200 pages, so you get a lot more detail with exercises for each chapter. And you can practice along to the backing tracks which can be downloaded from Studley's web site.  

And in related news, The House of Floyd will be touring Northern California beginning March through April, so if you're anywhere in the vicinity, be sure to check them out.  They've really honed their chops over the years, in no small part to Studley's great guitar playing.

Peter Criss - Makeup to Breakup

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I'll admit it right here: KISS is a guilty pleasure and KISS books, doubly so.  As it turns out 2012 has been a pretty good year for KISS fans: 2 autobiographies, a tour and a new album, Monster.  This past week, I read the latest of these autobigraphies, Peter Criss' book "Makeup to Breakup - My Life in and out of KISS."  

While I found Ace Freheley's "No Regrets" bio to be a disappointment (it should have been called "No Insights") Criss' book is a more compelling read.  Most KISS fans are familiar with the "official" history of the band as told by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley that positions Ace and Peter as two screwups who couldn't stay clean and sober enough to stay in the band for the long haul.  

To Criss' credit, he doesn't deny any of that.  (Neither does Ace.)  What makes Criss' story compelling is the recognition of his own personal weaknesses that land him in trouble.  Repeatedly.  For years.  And years.  Criss' story is a bit of a trainwreck that keeps you reading page after page.  Criss' addiction to coke cost him two marriages, millions of dollars and several lost years.  And while Criss dishes on his former bandmates in ways that are pretty lurid, he's equally candid about his own failings --maybe a bit too candid at times. 

But when you understand his schooling by strict Catholic nuns and the amount of verbal abuse and manipulation he took from KISS co-founders Simmons and Stanley, you can start to understand how things went wrong.  Ultimately, Criss' takes responsibility for his actions and appears to have adjusted to a clean and sober lifestyle after the KISS reunions.  He's still a bit too angry at Simmons and Stanley for problems that were largely of his own making, but it's still a fascinating story even for a casual KISS fan.

You can read an excerpt over at Rolling Stone or on Amazon.

Hitless Wonder: Best Rock Book Ever


I've read a lot of books about rock and roll: biographies about the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, the Beachboys, Guns n Roses, the Doors, the Clash, the Stranglers, Sex Pistols, Ramones, Kiss, Anvil and probably a dozen others.  But none of them hold a candle to the story of Watershed as told in Joe Oestreich's "Hitless Wonder".  

I first heard about the book on NPR Weekend Edition and bought it immediately.  I devoured it in about 3 sittings.  But it's not your typical rock and roll book with a story arc from obscurity to fame and fortune.  It starts in obscurity and it pretty much ends there.  Watershed scored a mid-90's record contract with Epic Records, signed on with legendary producer Jim Steinman and opened for bands like Cheap Trick and the Smithereens.  They developed a huge following in their home state of Ohio which they hoped to launch nationwide.  

Unfortunately, Watershed fell victim to record label politics, bad timing and changing musical styles. But where most bands would have broken up and called it quits, Watershed soldiered on, touring and releasing albums without ever having a hit record.  

"Hitless Wonder" tells a compelling and lighthearted story about a band that you've probably have never heard of, but should have.  If you're willing to look beyond the rock & roll clichés of groupies, drugs and million dollar bashes and want to understand how 99% of all rock musician's who live in the minor leagues, you'll find a touching story about music, friendship and perseverance while riding in a cheap rental van and playing gigs to audiences that don't always outnumber the band.  When you finish, you'll wish that Oestreich would have added another hundred pages so you could go on reading.  It's that good a book. 

By most quantifiable standards, playing in a rock band is stupid. Five paying civilians at five bucks a head means come 2:00 a.m., Watershed will make twenty-five dollars at the door. Divided by the four guys in the band, that's $6.25 each. But nobody will pocket his six-and-a-quarter. We almost never see any cash. Instead we pay. For the gas. For the hotels. For the trips up and down the Wendy's Supervalue Menu. We dig into our pockets to cover five or six shows in a row, hoping to eventually land a high dollar gig that will get us all reimbursed. Sometimes this gamble works, sometimes not. On our most lucrative tours, we come home with a hundred bucks or so. Usually we lose twice that. So we bankroll the gigs the American way: with credit cards. Rock now, pay later. Even Biggie, the tour manager, is out here on his own nickel. The only member of the Watershed camp guaranteed to land in the black is Ricki C., who works for the cut rate of twenty-five dollars a day. And he only turns a profit because he can eat for a week on Hostess cupcakes and skim milk...

In the years since, we've played over a thousand shows, in thirty-four states and 116 cities. We've humped our amps through the doors at CBGB ten times. We've played the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip, The Metro in Chicago, The Rat in Boston. We've played on South Street in Philly, on Sixth Avenue in Austin, at the 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis, and above a gay bar called Rod's in Madison. We've played fifty-eight different venues in Columbus alone. Small's Bar is the fifteenth place we've played in Detroit. We've released six full-length albums; a batch of cassettes, 45s, and EPs; a couple videos; and a DVD. Colin, Biggie, and I have been together longer than The Beatles, The Doors, and Nirvana combined.

Watershed's long haul hasn't been all sparse crowds and dive bars. At one point we almost made it. We were limo'd around Manhattan. We recorded in the same studio as AC/DC, Aerosmith, and Springsteen. We played arenas and amphitheaters, headlining shows in front of thousands, opening for bands everybody's heard of. We were treated to fancy dinners and promised by insiders that we were the Next Big Thing. But we never had a hit song. Never had a video on MTV. Never won the notoriety that comes measured in songwriting residuals or on the Billboard Hot 100. And yet somehow we've stayed in the game for two decades, like a hustling utility man with a great glove but no bat, a hitless wonder.

If you're curious about Watershed's music, here's a short video from their latest album Brick & Mortar which is also available for streaming from their website.  Their music is just as good as the book and filled with great melodies, pop hooks and humor.  I hope they'll get back on the road for a west coast tour sometime soon.  

British Rock Guitar Book


Coming in plenty of time for the Christmas shopping season "British Rock Guitar" by Mo Foster is a book that promises to be a great treat for guitar players and fans of British rock and blues.  Foster is a touring professional musician, who has been playing for more than 30 years along side such legendary musicians as Gary Moore, Brian May, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison, Cliff Richard and Peter Green.  As a result, he's got a unique perspective on the evolution and development of British Rock Guitar.

The book is a personal and humorous account of the development of the British Rock Guitar sound from the 1950s onward and also documents the rise and fall of the British studio session scene.  The book is full of many anecdotes from someone who lived the rock musician life in its early days and also includes commentary from such legendary British guitar players as Eric Clapton, Brian May, Hank Marvin and many others.  The book also includes photographs, advertisements and memorabilia from that period. 

"British Rock Guitar" is published by Northumbria University Press and is available via Amazon. Note that this is a hardcover edition of  Mo Foster's earlier book "17 Watts?" that has been expanded and updated since its original publication back in 1997.

A Drummer's Perspective


As we approach the Christmas gift-giving season, here's an excellent choice for the drummer or rock fan in your life.  David Phillips has created a unique coffee-table book called "A Drummer's Perspective" with 200 exclusive shots of some of the most famous drummers in the business including Ginger Baker, Neil Peart, Mitch Mitchell, Roger Taylor, Zak Starkey, Dave Grohl and more.  

Each photo includes notes on where the photo was taken, anecdotes from the author and assorted backstage memorabilia. These are incredible in-concert photos from stadiums, clubs and festivals around the world over a five year period.  Author David Phillips was head of European Artist Relations for Pearl Drums and has also handled Artist Relations for Drum Workshop.   As a result, Phillips had a ringside seat at some of the best venues imaginable, resulting in the kind of close-up photos that you just can't get anywhere else.

So if you're looking for a unique book, check this out.  It's available exclusively by ordering from music-images in the UK for  £29.99 plus shipping.  

Beatles vs Stones

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My favorite public radio podcasters, Jim Derogatis and Greg Kot from WBEZ's Sound Opinions, have teamed up to write a book to settle once and for all the epic debate: which is better The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?  Sound Opinions has dissected and analyzed the careers and music of both bands to weigh in on their strengths, weaknesses and shortcomings.  The book is written in an informal conversational style, much like the Sound Opinions show itself.  You may not change your opinion on this highly personal debate, but you'll at least gather more evidence to support your cause and you may also develop an insight into what has made both of these bands such legends in the industry.  The book also has a ton of rare photos that illustrate both bands at the heights of their careers, touring and in the studio.

As for me, I'm of two different minds.  I think The Beatles helped transform the pop music industry into something much more meaningful and lasting.  But I still love the all-out raunch & roll guitar focus of mid '70s Stones albums. 

For music fans, The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones is a great book and no doubt will be a great gift this holiday season.   (Even more cool, the  book cover changes images from red to blue depending on the angle at which you view it!)

Is Musical Talent Overrated?


My wife and I have a long-running disagreement on the nature of musical talent.  I don't believe in innate abilities --and I obviously don't have any --whereas she believes that some people are just born with a musical gift. 

I've written previously about the stages of learning as described in the book "Mastery: The Keys to Success." These stages can apply to sports, music, business or almost any endeavor.   I believe that "brute force" practice and determination can make up for lack of innate talent in lots of different areas, whether training for a marathon or learning to play guitar.  

More recently, I've been reading Geoff Colvin's terrrific book "Talent Is Overrated" which reaffirms my views.  The book explores the myth of innate talent and how experts really develop their abilities. 

Early in the book, Colvin describes a UK study of 257 music school students that sets the stage:

The results were clear.  The telltale signs of precocious musical ability in the top-performing groups --the evidence of talent that we all know exists --simply weren't there.  On the contrary, judged by early signs of special talent, all the groups were highly similar...
Still, the students obviously differed dramatically in their musical accomplishments, and even if extensive interviewing turned up no evidence of particular talent, weren't the differing levels of achievement in themselves evident of talent?  What else could it be?  As it happens, the study produced an answer to that question.  One factor, and only one factor, predicted how musically accomplished the students were, and that was how much they practiced.  
Specifically, the researchers studied the results of those nationally administered grade-level exams.  You would expect, of course, that the students who went on to win places at the music school --and this was a school whose graduates regularly win national competitions and go on to professional music careers --would reach any give grade level more quickly and easily than the students who ended up being less accomplished.  Thats the very meaning of being musically talented.  
But it didn't happen.  On the contrary: The researchers calculated the average hours of practice needed by the most elite group of students to reach each grade level, and they calculated the average hours needed by each of the other groups.  There were no statistically significant differences.  For students who ended up going to the elite music school as well as for students who just played for fun, it took an averaged of twelve hundred hours of practice to reach grade 5, for example,  The music school students reached grade levels at earlier ages than other students for the simple reason that they practiced more each day.  

Colvin goes on to describe the notion of "deliberate practice," the way in which people learn new skills through concentration and focus.   It is an approach of learning to learn, that is applicable to music, sports, business or creative endeavors.  In my experience, until you have the right approach to learning, you're just dancing in the dark.  

Deliberate practice is quite different from the usual mind-numbing playing of scales or familiar songs that you may think of as practice.  It also explains why some people never seem to get better despite years of playing the same thing over and over again.  You really have to push yourself to learn new things and practice not with your fingers, but with your mind.  These ideas are applicable to individuals and to businesses.  You can read a longer excerpt of Colvin's book at Fortune magazine.  

There are also links below to guitar DVD courses from Metal Method and Learn & Master which I consider to be quite good at helping with the deliberate practice that is essential to developing your skills.

What do you think?  Can brute force match innate talent?  Let me know...

Update: Some of these links were not working previously

Surf City with Jan & Dean & Bob


I just finished reading Bob Greene's 2008 book "When We Get to Surf City." It's a rock and roll travelogue featuring a middle aged writer from the midwest who manages to tour with surf guitar legends Jan & Dean for 15 summers in the mid 90's and early 2000s. 

Having lived in Chicago for a few years, I have read a lot of Bob Greene's folksy tales of Americana.  His writing style can get a bit prescious after a while and so most people either love him or hate him.  The book's subtitle is a good hint at Greene's style: "A journey through America in pursuit of Rock & Roll, friendship and dreams."  So if you can get through that opening salvo along with Greene's occasionally heavy handed prose, it's a nice, light read.  Particularly if you're a fan of Jan & Dean, the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, The Kingsmen, Dick Dale or other early Rock & Roll acts who cross paths with Greene over the summers.

The book is a bit more compelling if you know the backstory of Jan & Dean.  They were two of the rising stars in the late 50's with California good looks and hit songs like "Surf City" (co-written with Brian Wilson), "The Little Old Lady from Pasadena," and the ominously prescient "Deadman's Curve."  At the height of their popularity, Jan Berry suffered a near-fatal car accident putting an end to the Hollywood story.  And yet 30 years later, Jan & Dean were still out touring, with Berry re-learning the words nightly to the songs he had written years earlier.  


Green gives you breezy snapshots of countless gigs at countless county fairs, beach boardwalks and insurance company sales conventions peppered with stops at burger joints and bars across the country.  I sometimes wish there was a bit more depth on the relationship between Jan & Dean, but overall it still works. (The cartoon is from BlogJam, not the book.)

But I still can't help but wonder: how the heck did Bob Greene end up playing guitar and singing with Jan & Dean in front of 60,000 people opening for the Beach Boys?   I guess dreams can come true. 

Time Won't Let Me


I read Bill Scheft's book Time Won't Let Me recently and thought this book does a great job capturing the energy of '60s garage rock in a present-day setting.  It's a story of a Boston-area garage band that reunites some 30 years later.  Or or at least tries to.  The personality quirks and passions that caused them to disintegrate the first time around are still there and it makes for a great story as things unfold.

Scheft is a one time writer for Dave Letterman with great passion for rock and roll.  Or at least what it used to be in the 60s when everyone who saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan was putting together a band.  Best of all, he does it with with humor and wordplay at every turn. It's guaranteed to put a smile on your face.  

The inspiration for the book came from Scheft's brother, who really was in a 1960's garage band called The Rising Storm that did reunite and is touring Europe this June.  The title is taken from a hit single from the Outsiders.