From the Banjo to Michael Jackson: Great Summer Reads
To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, of the making of many music books there is no end. As I pointed out in last week’s column, there are enough new titles from publishers both large and small to keep us reading well into the early days of the winter Solstice, when a new batch of Spring 2017 titles — including John Oates’ long-awaited memoir, Change of Seasons (St. Martins, April 2017) — will be ready to crack open.
This week, I’m playing a little catchup and offering short reviews of a number of books that have either appeared in the past six months or so, or, in one or two cases, will appear in the next month or so.
As every music fan knows, music delivery systems have grown so diverse over the past 20 years that we can now listen in on a tremendous variety of global music in ways previously unavailable to us. In his melodic little book, Uproot: Travels in 21st Century Music and Digital Culture (FSG, August), Jace Clayton, aka DJ Rupture, easily has our attention from the very first sentences — “The early twenty-first century will be remembered as a time of great forgetting. As many ways of communicating with each other … translate to the digital and dematerialize, much is lost, and many new possibilities emerge.”
This book is a whirlwind global tour of the ways that various forms of music — and the technologies that carry them — flow in and out of cultures, at once broadening the horizon of sound and bringing the world closer together, at least musically.
On a trip to Morocco, Clayton discovers musicians using Auto-Tune and concludes that the one element uniting the disparate uses of Auto-Tune across the world is the voice itself, which “sings out at the heart of the contest between what we’ve inherited and what we may yet become.” Clayton’s book bogs down every now and then and his wide-eyed attitude grows tiresome. But overall, his reflections are sure to stimulate some conversations about music’s capacity to become a “memory palace with room for everybody inside.”
As much as Clayton touts the power of music to bring people together, Andrew Schulman knows firsthand about music’s power to heal. Following complications after his own surgery for pancreatic cancer, Schulman slipped into a medically-induced coma. His wife, Wendy, suggested playing music for him, and after she played Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, he emerged from his coma and slowly climbed the road to recovery.
In Waking the Spirit: A Musician’s Journey Healing the Body, Mind, and Soul (Picador, August), Schulman, a classical guitarist, resolves to return to the surgical ICU with his guitar as a way of giving something to patients in a situation similar to his own.
He regales us with tales of healing that might sometimes seem improbable. For example, when he learns that one patient recovering from a stroke is married to the son of Yip Harburg, who collaborated with the Gershwins, he plays songs by the Gershwins and her father-in-law, and she slowly starts to recover as she connects with herself through the music. In the grand tradition of Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Schulman cannily narrates stories of the ways that music can bring healing not only to the broken spirit but also to the broken body.
Steve Knopper’s MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson (Scribner) was so detailed and complete that he delivered the last word on the strange life and times of the King of Pop. Yet, Matt Richards and Mark Langhorne apparently think there’s more to be said, and they do so in their tedious, tiresome, lurid new book 83 Minutes: The Doctor, the Damage, and the Shocking Death of Michael Jackson (Thomas Dunne Books). These two are fans who want to elevate Jackson’s reputation and place all blame on Conrad Murray, the doctor Jackson hired in 2006 who was sentenced eventually for his part in Jackson’s death.
The authors provide the already well-known details of Jackson’s dysfunctional family, his alleged pedophilia, and his descent into drug addiction following the burns he suffered during the filming of a Pepsi commercial. And they ramble on about Murray’s trial.
Jackson’s tale is a sad one, and so, perhaps, is Murray’s, but in the end Jackson was already on the downhill run when he met Murray; the saddest part of Jackson’s life certainly can’t be confined to these 83 minutes.
Personal memoirs of entertainers are certainly a mixed bag. They can be tedious and painful to read because they’re so poorly written, poignant, overly long (as is very often the case), or so riveting that you feel empathy immediately for the writer, laughing and crying along with her or catching your breath with every new event, wondering what might come next.
To that end, Tig Notaro’s I’m Just a Person (Ecco) is certainly this kind of memoir, and may be one of the best of the year. For four months in 2012, the stand-up comedian descended into a decidedly unfunny period of her life: she survived a bout with the life-threatening bacterial infection Clostridium difficile (C. diff.), only to find out that her mother had died. Not long after she buried her mother, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. You wonder what else can happen, yet Notaro unflinchingly faces up to her struggles, questioning her identity even as she decisively moves forward through her illnesses.
After her illnesses, she slowly returns to the stage, gaining a large following when she introduces her new routine with the words: “Hello. Good evening. Hello. I have cancer, how are you?” This is a fiercely honest memoir, and Notaro often has us laughing along with her in spite of our sadness about her case.
Many music memoirs give us a glimpse of the artists behind the mics and the instruments, but few give us a look into the window of managers or producers. Psychotherapist Glenn Berger gives an even different perspective in Never Say No to a Rock Star: In the Studio with Dylan, Sinatra, Jagger, and More… (Schaffner Press, July).
As an apprentice to legendary producer Phil Ramone, Berger spent his teenage years and beyond helping out behind the boards at A&R studios. Of course, he got to meet some famous stars and learn some lessons from them. From Judy Collins, for example, he learned that artistic sensibility is a “way of being in the world and responsiveness to the highest levels of quality and feeling.” Ramone, he discloses, was “brilliant and a baby, an inspiring hitmaker and a world-class psycho.”
In the end, this is a pretty thin memoir, and Berger’s tales start to get old after a while; still, he continues to marvel at the power of music to help us connect with others, and he uses that power in his practice today.
Shep Gordon is a born storyteller, and if you watch Mike Myers’ documentary, Supermensch, you also meet a man whose compassion for others manifests itself in the ways he works to build others up even as he takes little credit for it. In his entertaining memoir, They Call Me Supermensch: My Amazing Adventures in Rock ‘n’ Roll, Hollywood, and Haute Cuisine (Ecco, September), Gordon invites us warmly and graciously to gather around him as he regales us with tales of a life in the entertainment and restaurant industry, and the lessons he’s learned.
When he played a college prank at the University of Buffalo, Gordon learned a valuable lesson about himself that shaped the rest of his life: how to create history, not just wait for it to happen.
After college, he moved to L.A., where on his first night in town he met Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix at his hotel. Hendrix suggested the next morning that Gordon manage a band, and before long, he was managing Alice Cooper and launching the band’s career. Eventually, he helped Groucho Marx put his business back together, reinvented Raquel Welch’s career, and created a high profile for chef Roger Vergé. Gordon was also instrumental in creating the Food Network, helping to launch the careers of Emeril Lagasse and others.
Gordon’s memoir is funny, enlightening, and a break from the run-of-the-mill music success stories.
We’ve all played a few tunes by rubbing a wet finger around the rims of glasses filled with various amounts of water. Such sounds also captivated Benjamin Franklin, who invented the armonica — a dulcimer made of glass bells that “warbled like the sound of an organ.” In Angelic Music: The Story of Ben Franklin’s Glass Armonica (S&S, October), Corey Mead peers into a fascinating chapter in musicology.
Franklin built an instrument consisting of glasses of various sizes, arranged on a spindle that could be turned by a foot pedal, allowing the musician to use both hands to play the armonica much like a harpsichord. Franklin’s armonica produced such a heavenly sound that he and others believed it had healing powers.
Mead traces the history of the instrument from the peak of its popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries in America and Europe, its decline in the 19th century, when society often attributed illness and death to the sounds of the armonica, and its revival in the later 20th century, when even Neil Young ordered one to be made for use on one of his albums.
These days, the banjo is a much more familiar instrument than the armonica. Everybody’s got a banjo, and jokes about the ubiquity of banjos are rife. We’ve come a long way from Bernie Leadon’s using banjo as a backdrop for the guitar solo on the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” to the easy presence of banjos today in just about every musical configuration.
In his often tedious and too-often jargon-filled contribution to music history, The Banjo: America’s African Instrument (Harvard), Laurent Dubois valiantly traces the birth of the banjo from its earliest days in Africa and its introduction in Caribbean culture, through enslaved peoples in the 17th century, to its central role in the lives of slaves on 19th-century plantations, its use in minstrel shows, and its role in the folk movement and protest movements of the 1950s and 1960s — especially in the music of Pete Seeger.
Dubois illustrates that the banjo was instrumental in helping a number of diverse cultures shape one another in an effort to create something new, especially as the banjo moved from Africa to various indigenous cultures of the Atlantic.
While Dubois unfortunately leaves out the number of women banjo players — from Roni Stoneman to Alison Brown, who’ve helped shaped the history of the music played on the instrument — his book nevertheless adds a new dimension to our understanding of the history of this popular instrument.