Elvis Costello - Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink

Unfaithful music
I've been a fan of Elvis Costello since My Aim Is True fell into my life in 1977. I was still in high school and my older brother thought I would like it because of the nerdy guy with glasses on the album cover. How right he was. Over the next few years I listened to everything he put out. However, by the time Get Happy!! came out with 20 songs in 1980, I hit my saturation point. I regrettably put EC aside for more than ten years and then came back with a vengeance picking up CD versions of Taking Liberties (B-side singles), Kojak Variety, and many of the Rykodisk reissues of the '90s, replete with bonus disks, demos, live tracks etc.  

Though I never saw Costello live in the '70s (Hey, I was still in high school!) or the '80s, I more than made up for it since then, dragging my wife to more EC concerts than any other. 

So I'm pretty familiar with Costello's career. I knew all about Stiff Records, his original backing band Clover, his awkward appearance on SNL subbing for the Sex Pistols and more. I knew he'd wandered from his band the Attractions, grown a beard and gone Country, collaborated with Burt Bacharach and had dalliances into Classical and Jazz music. All was forgiven when he cut 1994's Brutal Youth with the Attractions. Then 2002's When I Was Cruel was even better. 

I probably should have jumped on his memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink when it first came out. But, better late than never. I'm actually listening to the audio version of the book, as read by EC himself.  If you are fan of Elvis Costello, especially the early albums, it is definitely worth checking out. He's a fabulous raconteur and if you like his lyrics, you'll love his prose.

However, I have to say the book is definitely too long. And, more unforgiving, it's presented in schizophrenic order. We get the setup for the 1978 Hollywood High concert before we're ever told anything about My Aim Is True, or how the Attractions were formed. We hear about his meeting Paul McCartney before anything about This Year's Model. And then nothing more about co-writing with Macca for 20 chapters. There are lengthy dispatches not about Costello's upbringing, or his parents, but about his grandparents. Ok, these are the literary equivalent of the Brodsky Quartet, you can just skip these sections. 

Still, despite these weaknesses, it is one of the best rock biographies I've ever read. Costello gives you enough insight into his creative process without drowning in the details of drink, drugs and debauchery. Costello doesn't gloss over his prickly personality, personal failings or bad decisions. He's generous in acknowledging the influence of other musicians (Neil Young, The Band, Joni Mitchell --so many Canadians!) and heaps on well-deserved praise for the Attractions. As with the best of his songs, his prose is filled with keen observation, wry commentary and wonderful delivery. It's great to hear Costello's funny as hell encounters with Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Johny Cash and others. He remains a true fan of music and his appreciation shines through.

It makes for a compelling read. 

Here's a video from '78 of sweaty, skinny Elvis Costello & The Attractions on German TV tearing through a thirteen song set in 45 minutes. At times the band teeters towards the brink of chaos, pulling back for a couple of numbers and somehow keeping it all together. I really should have gone to see them back in '78.

Tom Petty Biog


I'm not a huge Tom Petty fan. Sure, I'm familiar with his top 40 radio hits. You couldn't avoid Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers in the '80s and '90s. But I never saw them live and never followed them that closely. But "Petty: The Biography" by Warren Zanes is something special. First of all Warren Zanes knows his music. His band, the Del Fuegos, opened for Tom Petty in the '80s. And he's an unapologetic fan. But he's also an extremely gifted and objective writer who brings a serious study to a field that is littered with "I was there" stories that don't tell you anything you don't already know. 

Zanes explores the ups and downs of Petty's career with remarkable insight. He's also great at putting a broader societal context on the evolution of the music business. You get the feeling of what was going down in Gainesville in the 70s and what gave Petty, Benmont Trench, Mike Cooper and others the drive to sustain themselves when so many bands fell by the wayside. What emerges is the complex story of a band that managed to (more or less) evolve and stay together for 40 years under the leadership and songwriting of Tom Petty. You get to experience the band politics, friendships and loss. There are also some very funny scenes whether it's about the manager who needed a manager or touring with Bob Dylan. This is a great book, told by someone who understands the music world. If you're a fan of Tom Petty, you will love it even more.

Best of all, Zanes narrates the audiobook himself.  Here's a video of the original line up of the Heartbreakers covering that '60s classic "Louie, Louie."

Guy Pratt - My Bass & Other Animals

Pratt book

Although I was not familiar with Guy Pratt, I certainly knew many of the bands he played with: Roxy Music, Robert Palmer, David Bowie, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Robbie Robertson and Pink Floyd to name a few. His book "My Bass and Other Animals" though poorly titled, is a terrific account of what it's like to play sideman to the legends of the music industry. It's like sitting down at a pub with an old friend from high school thirty years later  and discovering he toured with one of the biggest bands in history and he lets you in on all the crazy shenanigans.

This book’s genesis is from a series of life/stand up performances that Pratt did telling his stories of life as a rock and roll Road dog. That said, as a conventional autobiography it starts a bit slow as you learn about Pratt’s upbringing, first bass, first band etc. As Pratt's career takes off, the store is become quite funny. There were times when I was in stitches due to the materials as well as Pratt’s wonderfully dry English delivery. The stories about Pink Floyd are hilarious. If you listen to the audio version you also get Pratt's very entertaining American regional English accents. Here's a video of Guy Pratt talking about smashing his bass on stage at the end of  his tour with Pink Floyd. 

For bass heads or other musicians, the last chapter includes a full rundown of just about every bass, guitar, amp, and effects pedal that Pratt has owned. This is a great book and an awful lot of fun. But if you are bothered by stories of drug taking or drink, probably best to skip it.

And just for posterity's sake, here's a twenty-six year-old fresh-faced Guy Pratt playing bass on "Money" from the 1988 Delicate Sound of Thunder tour, live album and DVD. However, brace yourself for those dreaded late-eighties fashions.

Daisy Jones & The Six


I admit, I have a weakness for rock and roll biogs: The Doors, The Kinks, The Ramones, The Clash, KISS; I've read them all. Hell, I've read and enjoyed biogs by bands like Kraftwerk and I don't even particularly like their music! But it's pretty rare to find a novel that does rock and roll justice. Daisy Jones & The Six comes pretty close to being the perfect rock and roll novel.

The book is told entirely as an oral history charting the rise and fall of a fictional 1970s band Daisy Jones & The Six.  This is quite different from a traditional novel and the story reads like an extended Rolling Stone or MTV interview with a real band. The device works extremely well and pulls you into each of the characters, their foibles, their egos in a way that brings the band to life. The story is being told many years after the fact, and the sometimes conflicting accounts are used to great effect in the story. You can still feel the raw emotions of how peoples lives are brought together including all of the joys, pains, hurt feelings and bruised egos. The characters are not always likable and the structure gives the book a bit of a meandering style, but it all comes together in a way that I can only describe as heartwrenching. Jenkins Reid has layered so much drama and emotion into the story that the climax is nothing short of magnificent. She captures the feeling of performance, songwriting, fame and addiction in a way that is truly memorable.

The book had been on my list for a while, but when I heard an interview with the author Jenkins Reid on the highly-addictive Bestseller Experiment podcast, I bought the book immediately on Audible. The book works especially well in audio because each of the different characters is voiced by a different actor. It's a fantastic book which I highly recommend.  The only other novel I know that captures rock and roll is "Evening's Empire" by Former MTV exec Bill Flanagan. Flanagan's book is in some ways both funnier and deeper, but Jenkins-Reid's will may you cry.

Thomas Dolby - Speed of Sound

Speed of sound

I've read a lot of biographies about musicians and my fair share of business bios, but Thomas Dolby's improbable "The Speed of Sound" is one of the best. Dolby creates a compelling narrative that puts you in the scene, without the usual aggrandizing. He gives you a feel for what it was like to be carving out a living as a geeky synth player in the late 70s and early 80s. Then as his music career starts to fade, Dolby gets involved in film soundtracks and eventually moves the San Francisco Bay Area to become a tech entrepreneur, creating a technology to put sound on the web and in mobile phones.  He sheds light on the questionable ways of the music industry (and Silicon Valley) that makes the story especially powerful. 

DolbyWhile I was familiar with Dolby's early musical work with such songs as "One of Our Submarines" and "She Blinded Me With Science," I wouldn't say I was a huge fan. But if were around in the '70s and '80s you'll appreciate his stories of blagging his way into an Elvis Costello gig, going to see Television and the Talking Heads, doing sound for bands like The Members and Gang of Four. Dolby had pretty wide-ranging musical credits playing synth with acts as divergent as Foreigner(!), David Bowie at Live Aid and Rogers Waters in his record-breaking performance of The Wall in Berlin.

Similarly, his description of the dot-com frenzy in the bay area, is spot on. He describes decisions, good and bad, that led to the rise and near IPO of his company, as well as the miss-steps that led to its downfall. (Interesting coincidence: Dolby's software company Beatnik Audio started at a small office on Third Street in San Mateo, where many years later, I also worked at a startup company.) 

Most of all, what emerges is the portrait of a man who found his calling as a music boffin who always remained curious.

Steve Jones' Lonely Boy - The Ultimate Rock Biog

Steve jones cover

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

Peter criss cover

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.