Further evidence of the Beatles’ impact on popular culture can be found, if only in passing, in IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR: The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett (Oxford University, $27.95), which somewhat surprisingly is the first biography of the singer its author, Tony Fletcher, calls “the very embodiment of soul music.”
Although Pickett became famous at a time when black and white artists coexisted peacefully on Top 40 radio, there was not much common ground between his raw and earthy brand of rhythm and blues, rooted in the music of the black church, and the expertly crafted pop the Beatles were making in the late 1960s. And Pickett himself, Fletcher writes, “initially recoiled at the thought” of recording a song by “a white pop band.” But the guitarist Duane Allman — a white Southerner who was himself on the verge of pop stardom but at the time was just becoming known as a studio musician — persuaded Pickett that it might be a good idea to cover the Beatles hit “Hey Jude.”
With a typically impassioned Pickett vocal and sympathetic accompaniment from Allman, “Hey Jude” was, Fletcher writes, “a musical benchmark, a song often referenced as the highlight of his career subsequent to, and sometimes even including, the early trifecta of ‘In the Midnight Hour,’ ‘Land of 1000 Dances’ and ‘Mustang Sally’” — quite a trifecta by any standard.
Fletcher’s account of how Pickett came to record “Hey Jude” is one of many fascinating stories in this meticulously researched biography. There are times, though, when the line between “meticulously researched” and “do we need to know this?” gets a bit blurry.
Soul-music completists will no doubt appreciate the minute detail with which Fletcher recounts Pickett’s recording sessions, even his subpar later ones. Others, myself included, would have preferred to see the exhaustive lists of personnel and repertoire confined to a discography. And there are only so many ways to say that Pickett was volatile, prone to violence, a drug abuser and a man who, in the words of the singer Lloyd Price, “could not stay out of trouble,” before a certain monotony sets in.
As any good biography of a musician should, “In the Midnight Hour” sends us back to the recordings, the best of which have not lost one iota of their power. And Fletcher (the author of books about Keith Moon, the Smiths and R.E.M.) has done his best to illuminate the man behind the music. If Pickett the man remains elusive — if we ultimately don’t learn that much about him other than that we probably wouldn’t have wanted to hang out with him — one can hardly blame Fletcher. But it may explain why there has never been a Pickett biography until now.
In stark contrast with Pickett, whose first biography arrives more than a decade after his death at 64, the jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke has been the subject of biographies, analysis and — as Brendan Wolfe outlines in FINDING BIX: The Life and Afterlife of a Jazz Legend (University of Iowa, paper, $24.95) — a whole lot of mythology almost from the day in 1931 that he died, at the alarmingly early age of 28.
“Finding Bix” is not a biography; despite its name, it is as much about what has been written about Beiderbecke over the years — as Wolfe puts it, capital letters and all, “What Bix Means” — as it is about Beiderbecke himself.
Wolfe, the managing editor of the website Encyclopedia Virginia, writes admiringly about Beiderbecke’s “bell-like tone” and the “cool reserve” of his playing. But he doesn’t devote a lot of time to the music; he is more concerned with the big-picture issues Beiderbecke’s life and career raise, among them the romance of the doomed artist, the battle between art and commerce, and, because Beiderbecke was white, what he calls “the longest-running argument in jazz — the argument over race.”
On one side of that argument are black writers like Albert Murray, who maintained that because jazz is an African-American art, a white musician like Beiderbecke could never be more than an “intruder.” On the other side are white writers like Terry Teachout, the author of biographies of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, who told Wolfe in an interview: “Bix is indisputably a major figure in jazz who is white. This pushes all kinds of buttons in people.”
Although Wolfe ultimately judges his search a failure — near the end of the book he writes of his “chronic inability to find Bix” — the journey itself is well worth reading about.
Michael Nesmith and Steve Jones do not have much in common, but they do have this: Both became known to the public at a young age for reasons largely beyond their control, and both have spent their careers defined by that early fame.
Nesmith was one of the Monkees — a fictional rock band, created for a television show, that became a multimillion-dollar phenomenon and, briefly, an actual band (albeit one that never fully utilized his talents as a songwriter and musician). He has long seemed at best ambivalent about his Monkees experience, and considering everything he has accomplished since those years — a long list that includes producing films like “Repo Man” and playing a vital role in the early years of the music-video explosion — it’s understandable that he might resent still being best known as Monkee Mike.
But age seems to have mellowed him. In his beautifully written INFINITE TUESDAY: An Autobiographical Riff (Crown Archetype, $28), he does not devote all that many words to his Monkee phase, but he writes about it with considerable affection and charming self-deprecation.
When he made the rapid transition from performing his folkish songs at the Troubadour in Los Angeles to appearing every week on network television, he writes, “I was under the impression it would require me to write, act, sing and play as one of the main cast members of a TV show about an out-of-work rock band” — only to learn “that I was somewhat right but mostly wrong.” Of a subsequent invitation to contribute songs to the show, he says, “I had no idea how to write a pop song any more than I knew how to levitate.”
Nesmith’s success as a Monkee, he writes, led to what he calls Celebrity Psychosis, one of his many inspired coinages. (Among the others: the Hollywood Mind, Hamburger Movie Tycoon and the book’s spiritually resonant title.)
“Whatever character flaws may exist in an otherwise simple, sincere person,” he writes, “Celebrity Psychosis amplifies them by almost inconceivable orders of magnitude.” The examples of his awful behavior in the Monkee years — and to an extent beyond — are chilling but also, because of the deadpan way he recounts them, often very funny.
Steve Jones has played in numerous bands and has for many years hosted a popular Los Angeles radio show. But like Michael Nesmith, he remains best known for something he did decades ago: play guitar with the Sex Pistols, the band that, for fans and detractors alike, came to embody punk rock — and that, Jones reminds us in LONELY BOY: Tales From a Sex Pistol (Da Capo, $26.99), existed, with him as leader, before Johnny Rotten or Sid Vicious entered the picture.
Jones is nowhere near the prose stylist Nesmith is; indeed, since the rock journalist Ben Thompson is credited as his collaborator, I suspect that “Lonely Boy” was more dictated than written. But the bluntness and unapologetic crudity with which he tells his story are tremendously appealing. And, of course, he has a heck of a story to tell.
Beyond the Dickensian details of his bleak London childhood and the eye-opening litany of the addictions with which he has dealt over the years — not just to drugs and alcohol but also to stealing (his hauls included David Bowie’s equipment and Keith Richards’s coat) and sex — Jones’s focus is largely on the pride he takes in what the Sex Pistols meant, less as a cultural phenomenon or a political statement than as a really good rock ’n’ roll band.
Jones has some kind words — kinder than one might have guessed — for Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols’ much-maligned manager. But he dismisses McLaren’s portrait of himself as a rock ’n’ roll Svengali who called the shots and manufactured the outrage. McLaren, he says, never realized that what made the Pistols special was not the outrage they generated but the music they made.
After the band gave a profanity-laced live television interview in December 1976 that resulted in tabloid headlines and canceled bookings, Jones writes, things changed, and not for the better. Before then, “it was like the normal progression you’d expect of a band”; afterward, the music “took a total back seat as far as Malcolm was concerned” — an attitude that in Jones’s view reached its nadir when McLaren replaced Glen Matlock, who could play bass, with Sid Vicious, who couldn’t. And while “us getting banned everywhere made for so much great press,” he writes wistfully, “it would’ve been nice to play a few more gigs as well.”
The structure of the prolific songwriter Jimmy Webb’s THE CAKE AND THE RAIN (St. Martin’s, $26.99) is as unorthodox, and at times as puzzling, as the lyrics of “MacArthur Park,” the oft-recorded Webb composition from which the book takes its name. (I must admit, though, that after reading Webb’s explanation of the song’s genesis, I find the lyrics a lot less obscure than I used to.)
“The Cake and the Rain” is full of colorful anecdotes, well told and entertainingly punctuated by the steady dropping of names: Frank Sinatra was my friend! Louis Armstrong encouraged me! Elvis Presley knew my name! They range from harrowing tales of extreme partying to the origin of the monster hit “Up, Up and Away” — a music-business friend Webb for some reason identifies only as the Devil (we never do learn his name) asked him to write a song about a hot-air balloon for a movie that never happened — to the remarkable account of a chamber music concert at his home for which everyone, the musicians as well as an audience that included Joni Mitchell and David Geffen, was required to be nude.
But Webb’s decision to present his narrative in non-chronological order — his first chapter, for example, keeps jumping back and forth between Las Vegas in 1969 and Oklahoma in the 1940s, just before he was born there — can make for a bumpy read. And the book ends abruptly in 1973, with the final chapter largely devoted to his long recovery from a hellacious overdose, leaving the reader wondering what happened next.
Of course, leaving the reader hanging may have been the commercially savvy Webb’s plan. Perhaps a sequel is already in the works. Anyone responsible for as many hit songs as Webb has written surely has another memoir in him.
Dan Hicks was far less famous than Michael Nesmith, far less notorious than Steve Jones and — although anyone who writes a song called “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?” probably deserves a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame — far less celebrated a songwriter than Jimmy Webb. But when he died last year at 74, he left a legion of devoted fans and a legacy of brilliantly wrought, often hilarious and sometimes moving songs that, with their blend of old-timey genres (he liked to call it “folk-swing”), could at their best sound both vintage and timeless.
Hicks’s posthumously published autobiography, I SCARE MYSELF (Jawbone/Quarto, paper, $22.95) — the title is also the name of one of his best-known songs — captures his distinctively droll voice, even when addressing (but by no means making light of) his long battle with alcoholism. Unfortunately, Hicks died before the book was finished, and it was left to the music journalist Kristine McKenna, who had been editing the manuscript, to write a final chapter that covers, somewhat hurriedly, his last 20 years.
She does a serviceable job. But the sudden disappearance of Hicks from his own story is almost as jarring in print as it was for many of us in life.
What music memoirs have most inspired you?
“Marianne Faithfull’s ‘Memories, Dreams and Reflections’ is a gem; her luminous words light up the book’s portraits and events in the way ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party’ is illumined by Renoir’s colors. There are shadows no doubt, but in Faithfull’s hands they serve to reveal and clarify. A fine memoir.” — Michael Nesmith
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