I Been Paul Simoned And Art Garfunkeled

May 7, 2017

simonI like to listen to music while I cook, but as with my diet I want variety. So I have this long playlist of music I love, and I just ask Alexa to shuffle it as I pull out the cutting board. I never know what’s coming next. The other night, what popped up was “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” the opening track of Simon and Garfunkel’s album PARSLEY, SAGE, ROSEMARY AND THYME. Wow, that sounds pretty good, I thought. Wonder how the rest of the album holds up? So later that night I revisited the whole thing, in order, after half a century.

Yes, PARSLEY, SAGE, ROSEMARY AND THYME turned fifty last October. When it was new I was just starting my senior year in high school. Lots of water has flowed under the bridge since then and nearly everything has changed, most definitely including the music business. Its mid-Sixties conventions are almost unrecognizable today.

In 1966, in the artistic sense, we were all still trying to figure out what a “record album” was. The term originated to describe hardbound packages of single-track 78rpm disks, bound in sleeves with big holes in the middle so you could read the labels, which you flipped through just like a photo album. Those clunky beauties are long gone but the name has stuck. A single-artist collection is still an “album,” whether you buy it on a shiny digital disk or stream it down those Internets.

For pop acts, the arrival of the long-playing 33 1/3rpm single-disk “album” was largely a non-event. Throughout the Fifties, Lps — assuming you had the gear to play them — were mostly for Broadway cast recordings, which regularly topped the Billboard charts, or longer jazz or classical pieces. Pop songs, including the emerging rock & roll sound, were distributed on smaller 45rpm “singles.” That’s what filled up juke boxes, that’s what the Top 40 DJs spun on the air, that’s what teenagers stormed the record stores to buy.

The altruistic saints of the record companies, always looking for ways to devote their own modest profits toward the greater good, made some calculations as the Lp took hold. A single retailed for the better part of a buck for two songs, the chart hit and an unknown “B-side.” (Sometimes they both became hits, as with Ritchie Valens’s “Donna/La Bamba.” Too bad, thought the benevolent angels: that leaves some potential philanthropic donations on the table. Should have been two releases.) Slap a bunch of singles on an Lp, though, and you could charge the kids three, four times as much and repurpose the studio time you’ve already written off — for charity! Add yet another buck for stereo! (“360 Sound” at Columbia.)

So, while more customers got used to Lps, almost all the big pop album releases were by and large collections of previously issued singles, except for the white-collar folk revival (“The Great Folk Scare,” as Dave Van Ronk called it) and sui generis artists such as Bob Dylan. Even Dylan and other oddballs still observed conventional graphic design, listing every song title on the front cover to make the package look like more of a bargain. Dylan’s first four album covers featured song lists, though he’d probably never been heard on a Top 40 radio station and most customers had no clue until they spun the platter.

By the mid-Sixties, however, forward-thinking artists, even popular ones, were starting to kick in their stalls and strive to turn their albums into unique events. PARSLEY, SAGE is a relic from the midpoint of that transition. It’s a collection of newish songs (funny, they don’t look newish!), but three of them had already been released: “Homeward Bound” and “The Dangling Conversation” were legit chart hits, and “Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall” was the B-side of the huge “I Am A Rock” single (I bought that one, in fact, just to get a new S&G song). There’s a song-title list on the cover, the two hits in big bold face, but the rest of the record besides “Flowers” was a cipher until you played it for the first time.

Paul Simon and Artie Garfunkel 24.jpg

Artie and Paul, about the time they recorded PARSLEY, SAGE.

PARSLEY, SAGE was also halfway conventional creatively. Its twelve songs clock in at a total of just under half an hour; the longest track, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” is only 3:10. But this material was more densely packed than anything I’d ever heard. It was partly a reaction to their rushed-out previous album SOUNDS OF SILENCE. They had already split up when, after the fact, producer Tom Wilson overdubbed electric instrumentation onto the acoustic recording of “The Sound of Silence” from their non-selling folkie Lp WEDNESDAY MORNING 3 AM. That second-hand backbeat irked Paul Simon when he heard it, and furthermore the tempo had wavered on the original, so at one point the electric cats had to audibly slow down to let the vocals catch up. But the new mix made Simon and Art Garfunkel huge stars when it became a smash, causing them to reunite for that quickie follow-up. Now they were big shots, and now they were going to take their time. They spent a then-unheard-of three months recording PARSLEY, SAGE, establishing a lasting reputation as studio perfectionists, sort of the Steely Dan of the Sixties. I could hear a quantum leap in ambition the first time I played the record in fall 1966. I thought it was one of the best things ever. No lie. It was the same feeling I got when I first saw CITIZEN KANE and 2001.

If most albums at the time were hit-record compilations, they still worked because the artists had a signature sound that sustained itself throughout. While it was true that Simon & Garfunkel harmonized so beautifully that you often couldn’t tell which one was up high — they sang intervals like their idols the Everly Brothers, but without a hint of country twang; they may have sounded like altar boys but were really two Jewish kids from Queens — each track on PARSLEY, SAGE inhabited its own individual sonic environment. It felt less like a greatest-hits record and more like a collection of great short stories. Even the magnificent BLONDE ON BLONDE, which beat PARSLEY, SAGE to market by six months or so, didn’t exhibit such variety and exactitude. I was blown away.

How did I react five decades later? Spoiler Alert: ambivalently. The newness has worn off. Some PARSLEY, SAGE tracks are still hands-down classics, others have lost a bit of luster. But that short half hour is still crammed with so much creative thought that it cannot be denied.

“Scarborough Fair/Canticle” meets one’s expectations with a soft opening guitar figure. I’ve always admired Paul Simon’s acoustic guitar playing and you can tell it a mile away. He’ll pluck way down on the lower strings and almost slap them for emphasis to get a violent percussive attack. (It’s the first sound on the next song.) This jagged rhythmic effect is a cousin to the wonderful pick-heavy style that James Taylor brought along later. The boys begin their new album with an innocent medieval air, seasoned with some harpsichord fillips that favor Paul’s puffy shirt on the cover photo. But then something intrudes, “signaled by the electric bass,” as Ralph J. Gleason writes in his liner notes. It’s a countermelody, a darker countersong that fills the gaps on the road to Scarborough with the same sweet voicing, but starts to drip menace. Something about polishing a gun, war bellows blazing, scarlet battalions, generals ordering death, it becomes a real nightmare. You can concentrate on either thread — sort of choose to sip wine or chew some food — or just let the total sound wash over you as when a balance of wine and food produces a third taste. I don’t know which member found the harmony (I hope it was Artie) but this is our first iteration of a signature S&G effect, the high note from way off in the rural areas of the chord. You can hear it clearly on the final “THYYYYME…” Even in mono — I didn’t have the money or gear for stereo at the time — there’s an expanse to the track, as if it’s being performed in a large room or from a fair distance. Surprise upon surprise. As I said, this was the one that recently made me interested in hearing the entire album again. I think it still works, though by now we who have followed all these years are already expecting the “Canticle” descant (most amateur performers omit this part).

It sounds more like a normal recording studio on “Patterns,” a minor-key rumination that puzzled me even in high school, from whence much overreaching poetry springeth forth. Also, somebody brought some bongos to the session. Unless meaning is actually being obscured, I’m not a grammar nazi (screw that missing Oxford comma in the album title!) but I couldn’t hear the song back in the day without getting stuck on these lines: “Impaled on my wall / My eyes can dimly see / The pattern of my life / And the puzzle that is me.” In other words, somebody ripped out Paul’s eyeballs and nailed them to a wall, yet in the early evening gloom they can still perceive images. Seriously, I get that he’s trying to refer to the pattern, but why impale it on his wall? For that matter, not to second-guess the bard or anything, but what’s so awful about patterns in the first place? I’ll bet even Simon considers these lyrics to be juvenilia. The solution is to chillax, put down your microscope, and listen to, as Donald Fagen once put it, “the sound of the phonemes.” Just enjoy the groove as I learned to. But still: impaled eyes?!

Simon & Garfunkel had been the avatars of alienation, full of angst and woe, so it was a bit of a novelty to hear the jaunty “Cloudy.” Here again, the chorus is pure existential sighing: the clouds are gray, they’re lonely, they hang down on the singer, they don’t know where they’re going. But the verses brighten into pure joy — though the boys are about to go to 11 with the endorphins in a few minutes — maybe because they were co-written by (but not credited to) the Seekers’ Bruce Woodley, with whom Simon also wrote the hit “Red Rubber Ball” for the Cyrkle. They became pals after Paul fled to England to escape the resounding thud of WEDNESDAY MORNING 3 AM, then un-became pals, thus the non-credit. My guess is it had something to do with publishing money. But from Tolstoy to Tinker Bell, from Berkeley to Carmel, this is just finger-poppin, toe-tappin fun, a bold new direction for our morose heroes. Artie’s harmonies come from outer space.

1e94aaef096b8fe71276a0c5c5b970ec.jpg

Carol Kaye played bass on both “Scarborough Fair” and “Homeward Bound.”

“Homeward Bound” is one of my favorite songs by anyone, and it sounds every bit as good today as it did when it was fresh. It’s one of the most poignant depictions of life on the road for a touring musician: he and the stand-up comic are the only kinds of performing artists who, when not recording, are traveling all the time. The sheer sameness can throw you off very quickly. I once tagged along with Lynyrd Skynyrd for not quite a week, and one day I woke up in my hotel room, flung open the drapes, and had a mild but real panic attack because I couldn’t suss out where I was until I found a newspaper in the lobby. (This is why rock stars tear up hotel rooms.) But I had no idea when I first heard this song how real it is. Simon probably wrote it in England, since he’s “sittin’ in the railway station” rather than a car or bus. The song is terrific, but the record yells out “hit!” because of Hal Blaine’s muscular beat and Carol Kaye’s bass line. (Yes, among their many other credits, the “Wrecking Crew” of LA session cats blew anonymously for S&G too. Carol also plays on “Scarborough Fair/Canticle.”) I know it’s the arrangement that counts because when the boys do it with Paul as their “one-man band,” it just ain’t the same. Judge for yourself, early in their Central Park concert.

Advertising is crass and manipulative! So avers “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine,” which sounds like a certain songwriter might have been watching way too much tv. Still, the banal pitches for the title panacea display wit and economy. “Does your group have more cavities than theirs?” “Do you sleep alone when others sleep in pairs?” There’s even what passes for controversy in 1966: “Are you worried ‘cause your girlfriend’s just a little late?” Not your wife, your girlfriend. You’ve been having extramarital sex, haven’t you? This piece was minor the day it was written and doesn’t age well, but the performance is full-on Everlys.

joe_morello03.jpg

Joe Morello brushed the tubs on “The 59th Street Bridge Song.”

And now, turning on a dime, the happiest 1:43 on record. Without a trace of irony, Simon & Garfunkel go skipping down the street on “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” which celebrates that euphoric feeling you get when everything’s perfect or the drugs have just kicked in. “Groovy” as a word has outlived its usefulness (basically replaced by “cool,” which comes from the beatnik era, and “awesome,” which comes from — I dunno, IMAX superhero movies?) but the song’s exalted state is still crystal clear today. Here again, the recording completely sells the exuberance, for the boys have borrowed none other than half of (labelmates) The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Eugene Wright is on upright bass and Joe Morello is swattin’ the super-hip brushes that set the tone immediately; yes, the same guys who recorded the immortal “Take Five.” Veteran S&G fans were nervously waiting for the other shoe to drop, as it did in “Richard Cory,” but no: “Life, I love you / All is groovy.” Angelic la-la syllables dart, weave, spill over each other in a growing chorus of contentment that luxuriously plays us out of side 1. I was happily amazed at first spin, and the song fulfills its simple mission so effectively that it has become timeless despite that antiquated adverb.

“The Dangling Conversation” is about pretension, but it’s pretentious itself, probably why it hasn’t held up as well as S&G’s other big hits. It felt much more profound in 1966 than it does today. In winkily sniffing at detached privilege it becomes guilty of the same offense. There’s certainly much to like, including once again the economy of a gifted songwriter. Simon only needs a few seconds to lay out the shallow vapidity of proper cocktail chitchat: “Can analysis be worthwhile? / Is the theater really dead?” And the lush orchestration, all harps and strings, is sublime — in a sense, just going to the trouble of writing charts and hiring players helps validate Simon & Garfunkel. But it’s hard to listen past the lyrics and enjoy “The Dangling Conversation” on an aural level, because this particular song is all about the lyrics. It only comes to life once, when despair breaks the singer’s chilly composure: “I only kiss your shadow / I cannot feel your hand…” There’s no doubt that it’s a more intellectual way to Stick It To The Man, which is why it fit right in with the times. But fifty years later, I don’t really mind when it’s over.

True fans had already heard “Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall” on that B-side. The straight-ahead fast picking sounded great, and since I was listening in mono, what I had here was basically that same radio mix from the single. This is one of those songs where it’s easy to mistake the mood. The melody (the same resigned note for a long while on the verses, with Artie handling the changes upstairs) and vibrant tempo could be for a ditty about waiting for a lover to arrive. Instead, leave it to our boys to muse about the inevitability of death, complete with confusion, illusion, dark shadows, tortured sleep, directionless wandering — some fairly grim stuff. If the vocal were in French, you’d never come close to pinning it down lyrically. There is an interesting thought in the chorus: “So I’ll continue to continue to pretend / My life will never end.” We all do that at a young age. But take it from us, kid: you’re gonna die.

On “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” we discover that Paul Simon does have a sense of humor! It’s the musical equivalent of that time he wore a ludicrous turkey suit on SNL and said they had told him, lighten up, you take yourself s-o-o-o-o seriously. Here he flings out cultural references just because they rhyme, from Ayn Rand to Gen. Maxwell Taylor. He’s been Mick Jaggered and “Silver Daggered,” which if you’re not our age you probably don’t recognize as Joan Baez’s signature song early in her career — in other words, I lived through all that folk-singer stuff too. But the centerpiece is the moment when Paul stops everything to do a fairly snarky impression of Bob Dylan, complete with panting in-out harmonica. He has now addressed the elephant in the room. After all, S&G and Dylan shared a label (Columbia) and a producer (Bob Johnston, formerly Tom Wilson). They had included a hokey, halfhearted cover of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” on their first album (the one that tanked), but if Paul or Artie had ever in their lives said A-Anythin’ outside that session, we don’t know about it. For want of a better pigeonhole, both acts were categorized as “folk-rock,” whatever that means, and they didn’t click personally. We know in retrospect that they were worlds apart and evolved even farther away from each other, but we didn’t have any retrospect back then. We have to assume Dylan didn’t mind the ribbing too much because he recorded a self-harmonized “The Boxer” on his possibly heartfelt but definitely delusional SELF PORTRAIT, and many years later he and Paul toured together, even managing to co-perform a tune or two. I saw them at Madison Square Garden: two long sets that were both enjoyable for completely different reasons. Simon, Garfunkel and Laughter. Who’d have imagined that trio? Sue me, but the Dylan thing is still funny.

tumblr_op6ht9xFY51ssg8n3o1_500.jpg

The producers of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS aped this Mark Spoelstra cover for the phony album release by “Al Cody” (Adam Driver).

I’ve loved the sound of the 12-string guitar ever since I heard Mark Spoelstra’s FIVE & TWENTY QUESTIONS during the Great Folk Scare. (Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker didn’t hurt either.) When you pluck an individual string, it sounds double-tracked, like a John Lennon vocal. When you strum them all you have a little guitar orchestra. I finally got next to a Vox Folk Twelve and though it was twice as hard to tune and maintain, I never quit playing it. Paul Simon hits the 12 only rarely, but he does a terrific job on “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her,” a dreamy solo for Artie that was probably traded off for “Philippic.” Paul’s guitar is mixed in the background and loaded with reverb, and when the lyric says “cathedral bells,” you go, that’s what it sounds like: a cathedral! Talk about puffy shirts: this is Jane Austen set to music, aimed directly at the chicks. Organdy, crinoline, juniper, burgundy, frosted fields, tripping bells, honey hair, flushed cheeks, grateful tears! Is there anything we forgot? Paul steps forward for a regal guitar break and seals the deal: he makes you want your own 12-string.

But as John and Yoko once said, the dream is over. Now a racing heartbeat pulse introduces “A Poem On The Underground Wall,” a little slice of city life that makes us voyeurs while a profane graffitist defaces a subway poster with “a single-worded poem comprised of four letters.” The tempo doesn’t change but it seems to. As the perv nervously waits for his chance, scrawls his “poem” and books it up the stairs to street level, Paul and Artie help the illusion by becoming ever louder and more intense. He gets closer to what seems like an almost sexual release, maybe not even almost, and we feel like we’re watching something we shouldn’t see. Nothing has prepared us for the chugging inevitability of the rhythm. But most disturbing of all, we find ourselves thinking about what it might feel like to wield the “crayon rosary” ourselves. Finally nothing is left but the pulse we started with, and we’re finished, if not shamed.

Well, not quite. The boys wind up with another “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”-style mashup for a closing bookend. “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” begins with a reverent version of the venerable holiday carol as only these choirboys can warble. It’s beautiful. Then something seems to interfere with your sound system. You’re getting a rogue radio signal from somewhere. Dammit: some newscaster is ruining the song! How is this even possible? You keep listening and the announcer grows louder while your music gets softer. Now you can’t help but pay attention. Martin Luther King may face the National Guard in Cicero, Illinois. Mass murderer Richard Speck is indicted. HUAC investigates war protest. Nixon says opposition to the war works against the country. The news is nothing but bad, and it has finally overpowered “Silent Night.” Of course, all this was deliberate. The effect is quite powerful — in fact, too much so for posterity. “7 O’Clock News” is like a magic trick: the first time you experience it can be mind-blowing, but there’s a reason most magicians don’t repeat illusions for the same audience. Without the element of surprise, you’re only interested in the method, how you were fooled. Well, S&G hired radio DJ Charlie O’Donnell to read actual news items from August 3, 1966 and engineer Roy Halee worked the faders just right. It’s wrenching the first time, but the returns begin to diminish almost immediately. All these years later it’s not only the now-familiar juxtaposition that weakens the piece: the news items themselves are so stale they’re ancient history. I wish this track had been a B-side, or maybe a single for the holiday, so they could have ended PARSLEY, SAGE with something a bit more permanent. But who knew we’d still be listening to it fifty years later?

Sure, it doesn’t all work, and there are other dated moments. But PARSLEY, SAGE, ROSEMARY AND THYME has spun off so much enjoyment over the decades that it’s instructive to consider how long that span of time really is. Fifty years before PARSLEY, SAGE, the biggest hit records, including “O Sole Mio” by Enrico Caruso, “I Love A Piano” by Billy Murray, and ”Ireland Must Be Heaven, For My Mother Came From There” by Charles Harrison, were made with frickin recording horns. Well, that much time and more has now passed for us since S&G’s first groundbreaker. Yet it still has the power to reach out over an eventful half century, to delight, provoke and entertain. Even after buying all that studio time, I’d say Columbia got its money’s worth and then some.

61kbXVzBRmL._AC_UL320_SR312,320_.jpg

The stunning Richard Avedon portrait for their next album, BOOKENDS.


The Moment I Got It

October 14, 2016

unknownWhen I heard the announcement yesterday that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, my first thought was, “What a strange choice.” My second thought, an instant later: “What took them so long?”

The “strangeness” comes because most of us don’t think of Dylan’s unmatched output as “literature.” Though much initial reaction is supportive, the backlash has quickly formed. Novelist Rabih Alameddine tweeted, “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars.” Jodi Picoult offered the hashtag #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy? The meanest (and funniest) dig I’ve seen comes from Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh: “I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Unlike the timorous voters for Oscars and Grammys, the Swedish Academy was not afraid to take a bold step which arguably blows up the whole definition of literature, much as Dylan himself once did for popular music. It calmly explained in its citation that Dylan was being honored “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” But that presents two problems for non-senile, non-gibbering purists.

First, “song.” That Dylan is a masterful writer — at minimum, one who has repeatedly been able to connect with his audience in a deeply felt way for more than half a century — cannot credibly be contested. But aside from the very fine prose voice of his memoir CHRONICLES VOLUME ONE, most of Dylan’s work has been written not to be read, but to be performed aloud. (He’s the first musician ever to receive this honor.) Walt Whitman may “sing the body electric” and compose a ”Song of Myself,” so a poem can be a song. But can a song be a poem? If not, the anti-Bob faction may have a point — but the selection committee emphatically says yes, it can.

Second, context. There have been quite a few print collections of Dylan lyrics over the years, and I believe another one is expected this fall. When you flip through a representative sample, you’ll indeed find a trove of vaulting images and dazzling metaphorical beauty. But you’ll also have to read past a simple 12-bar blues lyric that might sound great — fulfilling its artistic purpose — but looks hopelessly banal on the page. In other words, this big-tent view of literature will require its own aesthetic to be properly studied and appreciated. We haven’t developed that yet, which is one reason some folks are freaking out today.

tumblr_inline_mw3xrqtc8x1rilmyoThere’s one more strike against Dylan. Even conceding that a song is really a poem performed out loud, what’s up with that crazy anti-musical voice? I faced this problem myself when I encountered Dylan for the first time. It was fall 1964, I’d just entered high school, and I saw a short notice in Time magazine about his new record, ANOTHER SIDE OF BOB DYLAN. I knew he was the guy who’d written “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” both covered by Peter, Paul & Mary (the latter by Simon & Garfunkel too: they and Dylan shared a producer, Tom Wilson), but I had never heard his voice. I dropped the needle on Side One Track 1, “All I Really Want To Do,” and almost started laughing. This nasal, vibrato-less wail was on pitch all right, but it cut through the air and clashed with the litany of rhymes in the verses, and then the sumbitch yodeled on the chorus and blew simple open chords on a harmonica! To the piano for “Black Crow Blues,” of which I thought nothing special, then an interesting little riff, “Spanish Harlem Incident,” but I still wan’t really paying attention.

The next song was called “Chimes of Freedom.” It begins, “Far between sundown’s finish / And midnight’s broken toll…” I perked up: something was different. I leaned in to a relentless cascade of images. Where “All I Really Want To Do” had been playful, this was mature and sophisticated — the yodeling hayseed was nowhere to be found. Now it was a rousing call for basic human decency using linguistic connections I’d never heard before. I listened to the entire seven-minute song, picked up the needle and played it again. The second time through, I found myself fixated on one word: the chimes of freedom were “flashing.” Chimes don’t flash. They peal, clang, bong, jingle, whatever. They toll in the song itself. Then I said, whoa: the lyric doesn’t say they’re listening to the chimes, it says they’re gazing upon them during a thunderstorm. Any other songwriter would describe the experience as aural. Who would think to observe the chimes of freedom visually? I listened one last time before continuing with the rest of the album. Now I was seizing on the lyrics. My focus had moved past the voice into the heartbeat of the songs. I was breaking down the verses in real time if I could, and on subsequent plays if not. There was a richness, a substance, that I’d never heard in popular music. By the Lp’s end I had become a Bob Dylan fan. On the power of the poetry. On the strength of the literature. And I’m only frickin fourteen.

Energized, I went back and bought his three previous albums (how would his own “Blowin’ in the Wind” sound, I wondered? Like Woody Guthrie in the Dust Bowl). Retroactively, I learned that he had arisen out of the “traditional” Greenwich Village folk scene but was upending propriety by “writing” his own songs early on. I use quotes because his early “Farewell” (the one at the end of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS) is nothing more than “The Leaving of Liverpool” with altered lyrics, just as “The Patriot Game” becomes “With God On Our Side” in his hands. But melodic “homage” is part of the folk tradition too. Then Dylan became more topical and the darling of the civil rights and antiwar movements with powerful pieces like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” By the time of ANOTHER SIDE, though, he was undergoing another step in his evolution and setting the topical folk scene aside, causing resentment that survives in some circles today. And that’s where I caught up with him.

About a year later, on Nov. 27, 1965, my sixteenth birthday, I was sitting in an audience at McCormick Place in Chicago for an early stop on Dylan’s first tour with electric instruments, brought on after a solo acoustic set and intermission. Musically, he was advancing faster than his audience and there were plenty of boos during the second set. (This show was very much like the one recorded at the Royal Albert Hall the following year and released as part of the “Bootleg” series.) I have rarely been so thrilled to be at a concert. Maybe Elvis. Maybe Sinatra. Maybe not.

Dylan’s material didn’t sound like old folk songs any more. He was inventing beautiful melodies as well. The verbal allusions were a mashup of current popular culture and the classics, intruding on and elevating each other as if inside a dream. Yet even this was only a career byway. Dylan has continued to reinvent himself, periodically shaking off all but the most ardent fans in the process. (He lost me briefly during his born-again Christian phase in the late 70s-early 80s.) In this respect his career more resembles a painter’s than a performing artist’s: a country period, a gospel period, an American songbook period. Not every one of his song lyrics belongs in the permanent pantheon. Neither does every single thing written by Faulkner or Hemingway. But a remarkable body of Bob Dylan’s work does indeed belong there. If 2016’s Nobel Prize in Literature forces us to reevaluate the very meaning of the term, then that was a well-given prize indeed.

unknown-1

10/30/16: Some of these same thoughts, more artfully realized, by David Hadju. (Listen to the commentary by Hadju, Sean Wilentz and Robert Christgau on the INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Criterion DVD.)


Adventures In Editing, Part VI

September 18, 2014

fansSo far we’ve been ruminating about the care and feeding of different kinds of authors. How does it work when your author isn’t an author at all? That’s what you face when you enter the land of celebrity books, always one of the hottest aspects of publishing.

I’m not talking here about biography, which doesn’t require the cooperation of the subject. I edited beautiful bios of the writers Terry Southern and Michael O’Donoghue and a haunting account of the parallel lives of Tim Buckley and his son Jeff, and in all three cases we had access to some private material — each of those books is the last word on its subject and will be used as a reference from now on — but no estate had any input into, or approval over, the finished manuscript. What I’m getting at instead is celebrity autobiography, usually by a star of stage, screen, sound or sport, or by a politician who is planning to run for President.

Pop-music autobios have always interested book publishers, nearly all of whom are boomers or later. And just now a notable subset is doing pretty good business: the Summation of the Aging Rock Star. It was probably kicked off by Bob Dylan’s CHRONICLES and Keith Richards’s LIFE, both huge bestsellers and genuinely good books, which have encouraged a host of other musicians (or at least their managers) to crack open the laptop: a month rarely passes without the announcement of another classic-rockin’ book contract.

That’s figurative, of course, the laptop: most celebrity books are co-written by someone who at least has recorded hours of tape, at most researched and reconstructed a life and spit it out in the subject’s voice. The good ones are so good that you can’t tell the difference. They’re credited as “with” or “as told to” in teeny type on the book cover. There’s no shame in that: it doesn’t mean the celebrity is incapable of forming a sentence, only that she became famous for something other than writing a book, and the best way to get an assured voice on the page is to hire a pro. (I heard that Bob Dylan actually wrote his book himself, and there are undoubtedly others who’ve rolled up their sleeves as well. David Byrne’s HOW MUSIC WORKS isn’t about his life but his art, yet it sure feels like it comes straight from the horse’s mouth.) There are also people who have celebrity thrust upon them, like Captain Sully Sullenberger, the commercial pilot who safely landed a huge Airbus A320 in the Hudson River in 2009. To write his book, the captain collaborated with a pro — not a “ghost writer,” since Jeffrey Zaslow’s name is right there on the cover. My old friend Bret Witter is making quite a career out of helping “ordinary” people relate their extraordinary narratives; he’s now officially a multiple New York Times bestselling author.

psychological-skills-training_eMusicians who write their own material are artistic cousins to authors; they’re firing similar synapses. Actors, on the other hand, and especially sports stars, are confronted with a type of expression that is utterly foreign to them. Their talent isn’t a natural fit with the process of writing a book. In my experience, some have been better than others in bridging the necessary gap. Once my company published a very famous athlete who was confronted with some incendiary comments in his book (you want to make news if possible), and not only did he deny making them, he was also a little too candid when he denied having read his own autobiography. That’s one extreme.

It all comes down to the individual, and one common attribute. When you’re evaluating a celeb proposal, you’re not only trying to predict how much interest there could be out there, you’re also judging the subject’s ability and plausibility as a storyteller. Because that’s the heart of any celebrity autobio, and here’s where actors regain some advantage, particularly those who’ve enjoyed long careers. It is the rare actor indeed who isn’t also a raconteur. If you can get that delightful quality on paper, you’re in for some fun.

snakenbaconIt helps if you yourself enjoy the subject’s work, though you normally can’t go so far as to persuade her to do a book (I made a pest of myself trying to talk the Lucasfilm folks into asking George Lucas to consider an autobio in his own voice. Wouldn’t you like to read that?). The already-assembled package usually lands on your desk through an agent, who is shopping the personality as much as the proposal. Which isn’t to say that you can’t sometimes create a book on your own. In the mid-Nineties we kept seeing hilarious, so-retro-they’re-hip cartoons by one “P. Revess” in places like the (late, lamented) Oxford American. I made a few calls, searched on this new Internets thing, and tracked down Michael Kupperman in my very own New York. I called him up out of the blue and asked him if he might consider doing a collection of his work, along with some new material. At first (he later told me) Mike suspected it was a prank call. I invited him down to the office to establish my bona fides, and a year or so later we published SNAKE ’N’ BACON’S CARTOON CABARET; in a sense, it’s his autobio. No agent was involved, by the way. I’ve published two other books sans agency, but in all three cases I knew the authors’ work-ethics very well (one reason to have an agent), and each time I proved worthy of their trust by doing everything I promised I would, so they didn’t need protection from me (the other reason). Mike has since gone on to greater things, including a cover illustration for Fortune and many inside illos in The New Yorker and elsewhere, and he’s seen some of his work animated for television. Last year he won the Eisner Award, the Oscar of the comics industry. I didn’t discover Michael Kupperman: those magazine editors did that. But by God, I published his first book, which introduced him to Robert Smigel, who brought his stuff to tv…

al_green_bw2-905x1024As I said, it helps if you’re a fan. Some celeb books are bought because somebody at the publishing house wanted to hang out with the notable, and that can be tremendous (if expensive) fun. I “inherited” (see Part III) the autobio of the incomparable Al Green when I got to Avon Books, and upon putting it together after heroic work by Al’s co-author Davin Seay, there finally came that wonderful moment when the finished books showed up and the angels sang. Al (or “Reverend,” which is what everybody in his entourage calls him) came to New York to meet with us, do a signing or two, and headline a Central Park concert opened by Odetta. (!) I’d ridden in Rev’s limo to take him to to lunch and then the book signing; we talked about Memphis and music, it was an out-of-body experience in that I remember thinking how lucky I was while words were still coming out of my mouth. Rev invited me to bring my wife backstage before the concert, and we found his trailer just before Odetta went on. He hugged me like I was a long-lost brother (he’d met me only the day before), and after kissing my wife’s hand, he looked deeply into her eyes and said, “Tonight, I’m going to sing ‘Simply Beautiful’ for you.” As we were strolling away toward our seats, Linda noted, I realize that was probably the five millionth time he’s used that line, but my knees still got a little wobbly. I have never met a more adept, more piercing, more sex-exuding, let’s say ladies’ man, than the Rev. Ever. And it only happened because I happened to be a book editor. That’s what I mean: to enter such a milieu, book publishers fight for celebrities.

You may be a fan, yes, but as an editor you have to play dumb. Any celebrity autobio has to be understandable to a reader who’s never heard of the author. You can’t assume the reader knows about the time her boyfriend did that thing, or the day they got thrown out of that hotel. You can’t assume anything; the subject’s life should be understandable to a Martian. (Besides, if the reader knew everything, why in the world would he need to buy your book?) The exception that proves the rule is, you guessed it, Bob Dylan. His highly enjoyable CHRONICLES begins in medias res and jumps around in time, fitting his mercurial, iconoclastic nature perfectly. Some find it excruciating to make the leap. When I was at Bantam, we’d held the contract on Hugh Hefner’s mega-late autobio (wouldn’t you like to read that?) for many years, then one day the accountants said: time to clean house, cancel the contracts that are just fairy tales and get our money back. At Avon, we had a deal with Todd Rundgren to do the most amazingly creative autobio I’ve ever imagined. Upon inheriting the project, I was so reluctant to jettison it that I invited Todd up to the office to see if he was still serious. He showed up and said he was. But I think his creative eyes were bigger than his creative stomach, because he couldn’t make any progress and we had to cancel, me sobbing all the while. (It would have required die-cuts, a different kind of press run…don’t get me started!)

hillary-clinton-book-signingOne intangible which you frequently only discover on the fly is, how active will the celebrity be in promoting the book come crunch time? With a politician or a notable who is pushing a particular social issue, well, as the old saying goes, the most dangerous place you can be in Washington is between [POLITICIAN’S NAME] and a camera. (Conservative gasbags are having fun piling on Hillary Clinton right now, but Henry Kissinger — who, it’s safe to say, is not running for President — has been nearly as ubiquitous promoting his new book.) And book publicists, who usually spend too much of their day hearing the word no, enjoy finding themselves able to apportion appearances by their famous temporary clients. But artists and athletes have such a range of personalities that sometimes a guaranteed number of signings or tv appearances becomes a contractual deal point. No promote, no check. I’ve noted reluctance in some celebrity authors (interestingly, never directed at their fans), but then there were people like Richie Havens who not only played music at his signings, but also lunched with booksellers and spent hours autographing books and posters for key accounts. That’s another extreme.

imagesBooksellers, especially staunch independents (of which there are never enough, my friends), are sometimes ambivalent about celebrity publishing. Does a wall full of gold records give this “author” any right to the hallowed lectern occupied last week by Margaret Atwood? Most of these people have never set foot in my store before and never will again! But as I say to anyone who’ll listen, anything that causes anybody to enter a bookstore is good for everybody, whether the come-hither attraction was Jorge Luis Borges or David Lee Roth or Kathie Lee Gifford. A rising tide lifts all bookselling boats, in a bit of cultural magic most recently performed by young Master Harry Potter. All true book professionals are pleased (ok, maybe a tad jealous too) when anything becomes a huge hit, because it brings in customers all set to read something and eventually inquire about something else. The unfortunate part is that a year or two after any trend establishes itself, all the lesser pretenders show up, just as in movies and tv. Where books are concerned, I think the paranormal teens have just about worn themselves out in favor of the ordeals of Hungry Divergent teens, but, as noted, right on cue, here come the geezer rockers to make their grandparents happy!

MAC40_BOOKS06Publishers guarantee too much for celeb autobios because they bid against each other and it often boils down to, which house employs the biggest fan? You have to get your money back quickly because every year the notable’s career continues puts your book that much farther out of date, and only a well-researched, dispassionate biography can stick around long enough to strike gold on the backlist. Why are there so many serious bios about dead people? Hmmmm. Very few autobiographies can stand the test of time, and the ones that can damn sure don’t come from the entertainment field. But try not to begrudge the “author” who never picked up a book when s/he was in school. Maybe it’s nothing more than time for a little literary payback.

NEXT: Some final thoughts as our Adventures In Editing conclude.

 Previous Adventures:

Part I   Part II   Part III   Part IV   Part V


Bob Dylan’s Christmas Album

October 17, 2009

HeartCHRISTMAS IN THE HEART by Bob Dylan just rolled by, and I had to stop and have a listen. My quick take: it’ll be easy to make fun of. But only those who have patiently observed Dylan’s career over the decades, only those who have been heartbroken by the singer himself, can really wallow in the assurance that whatever digital zomboid “program-directing” husks still remain, they cannot fail now to include a track or two from this album (right next to Springsteen’s by-now-perennial live “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”) on the actual Xmas Day playlist of every still-existing radio station whose “jocks” would by then like to throttle frickin Mel Torme! (Bob makes it the five gagazillionth cover on this very record!)

Here are some other things you should know.

#1: It’s not a novelty record, like Shatner intoning. Dylan is serious: this is his Xmas album. Like it or not.

#2: All of Bob’s U.S. royalties are going to a national food bank in perpetuity, international monies will be donated to international charities.

#3: He sings. He doesn’t fake it, like Rex Harrison. He shows you that he knows what notes are, and if you think what I just said is funny, then you haven’t kept up with Bob for the last twenty years.

#4: He doesn’t care what you think about Christian blah-blah. He heard of Sammy Cahn long before you did, ‘cause about songwriting, he does care. He intends an album you can enjoy for the “Holidays.” (This is my very first record which iTunes automatically placed in that sorely needed genre.)

#5: One day, if global warming doesn’t seize us first, your grandchildren will look up from their quantum-whatevers that you just bought them for Christmas, and if you’ve raised them correctly, they’ll say, “Grampa [or Gramma], who’s that guy who sounds like Louis Armstrong on ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas”’?

#6: There’s a bitchin’ painting of Bettie Page as Scanty Santa opposite the disk. Take that, downloaders!

#7: As Bob has always wished, since his first Lp in 1962, just chill, and listen. I’ve strayed in those fifty years, sure, but I’m with him on this one. Old fans from the early days will agree with me. I want you to go and look at the young turk staring out from the cover of THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’, the one who called out senators, congressmen, mothers and fathers throughout the land. Now listen to him croak out “Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus Lane…” and try not to smile.


%d bloggers like this: