Anyone who's spent any time in the music business has great stories to tell, and consequently the ranks of musicians, engineers and producers include a lot of great storytellers. To learn how the great practitioners accomplished their art, how the industry has grown and evolved, and what kind of craziness goes into the creative process, nothing beats the personal touch. Memoirs by the likes of Bing Crosby, Igor Stravinsky, Taj Mahal, George Antheil, Richard Rodgers, Bruce Swedien and Wynton Marsalis are not only entertaining, but they should also be required reading for anyone who considers himself or herself serious about a career in music.
Because it's still summer, it's not too late to get away from your computer and get outside with an old-fashioned book. Here are three music memoirs I strongly recommend for your leisure hours, now or in any other season. They're well-written, insightful, funny and full of characters you already know, or you think you know, or you'd really like to know.
The hot new music book of the year is White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s by Joe Boyd (Serpent's Tail). If that name isn't familiar to you, it should be. Boyd was a preppy kid from New Jersey who was a major player in the musical revolutions of the '60s in the United States and in England. His style is modest and self-effacing: There's only one clear picture of him in the book, and he's in the background. But he was right in the thick of the most fertile era in pop music history.
In high school, he was booking blues artists to play in friends' living rooms, and at Harvard he roomed with folk legends Geoff Muldaur and Tom Rush and watched the folk stars of the future get their starts at the legendary Club 47. One night he was invited to the home of a girl he picked up in Harvard Square, but by the time he got there, her bedroom door was closed and a note said, “Sorry, change of plans,” so he slept on the couch. The next morning he woke up to find Bob Dylan in her shower.
His first job out of college was as a tour and production manager for George Wein, creator of the Newport Festivals. He got to work with — and baby-sit — such legends as Coleman Hawkins, Stan Getz, Muddy Waters, Elvin Jones, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. He was onstage at Dylan's famous electric set at Newport in 1966, where he had to mediate between those festival board members — including Pete Seeger and Theodore Bikel — who thought the music was way too loud and board member Peter Yarrow — of Peter, Paul & Mary — who thought it was just right. Because the grinning Yarrow happened to be at the sound board at the time, he won.
Soon, Boyd became the head of Elektra Records' London office, where his first project was recording a new band called Eric Clapton and Powerhouse featuring Jack Bruce and Steve Winwood — but the sessions were never released. (A companion CD of Boyd's music can be found separately as an import from the UK.) Within a few months, he opened UFO, a subterranean club where London audiences got their first exposure to Fairport Convention, the Soft Machine, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and the house band, a former blues outfit recently turned psychedelic who had named themselves after two obscure South Carolina singers: Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.
Boyd comes across as a truly nice guy who was in a lot of amazing places at just the right amazing times. He's opinionated, but never hits the reader over the head and relates some of the most outrageous sins of the industry without judgment. His writing is dry, intelligent and subtle, and often a page or even a chapter will benefit from a second look before you can fully appreciate his point. His view of the sex and drugs excesses of the era is similarly nonjudgmental: Yes, a lot of people he was close to were damaged or destroyed by drugs, but chemical stimulation was absolutely crucial to the creation of the music and of its audience. White Bicycles (the title comes from a social experiment in Amsterdam at the time that put free bikes out on the streets for anyone to use) is a gentle, funny, enormously informative tour of the '60s from someone who was really there — and really remembers.
Dylan figures even more prominently in the life story of Al Kooper. Kooper was a New York songwriter who played with a group called the Royal Teens (“Short Shorts”) and had his first song recorded by age 14. Before he was 21, he worked with artists like Gene Pitney, Bobby Vee and even Pat Boone, and wrote “This Diamond Ring,” which became a hit for Jerry Lewis' “thoroughly inoffensive white son,” Gary. One day, he convinced a friend, producer Tom Wilson, to let him watch a studio session for Highway 61 Revisited. It was, as he puts it, “like getting backstage passes to the fourth day of creation.” During one song, Kooper noticed the Hammond organ stool was empty, so he sat down at the instrument, which he had never played before, and fumbled through a six-minute take. On the playback, although Wilson tried to tell Dylan the organ track was no good, Dylan said, “Just turn it up.” The track was “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Kooper retells that story and many others — honestly and hilariously — in his Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs of a Rock 'n' Roll Survivor (Watson-Guptill). Like Boyd, he was onstage at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, playing behind Dylan, and has a similar story: The crowd wasn't booing because Dylan had gone electric; they were “going bonkers for an encore, as we had only played 15 minutes!” The band had met for the first time the night before and three songs was all they had had a chance to rehearse.
In the mid-'60s, Kooper founded the Blues Project, an all-Jewish New York band that combined folk, rock, blues and jazz, and had a major influence on pop music. His book answers the question of why the Live at Town Hall album doesn't sound like the concert at Town Hall that I remember attending: It was actually recorded at a college on Long Island, Kooper writes, “but ‘Town Hall’ sounded much better than ‘SUNY at Stony Brook.’”
His next creation was Blood, Sweat & Tears, an even more influential group, and he made a brilliant first album with them but was ousted from the group before they went on to huge pop fame; his book pulls no punches in retelling the nasty personal politics that predicated and followed his departure. He became a staff producer at Columbia Records, and in that capacity thought up the idea of getting “a bunch of proven rock players into the studio and just jam in a relaxed atmosphere.” Thus was born the Super Session album, with guitarist Mike Bloomfield. (The two had met at the Dylan sessions.) “Bloomers” was supposed to be on the whole album, but after the first day of recording in Los Angeles, he just checked out of his hotel room and flew back to Chicago. After a frantic day calling every guitarist he knew, Kooper connected with Stephen Stills, and yet another legend was created.
Meanwhile, he got to play on albums by the Rolling Stones (French horn on the long version of “You Can't Always Get What You Want”) and Jimi Hendrix; he discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Tubes; and he produced records by Don Ellis, Nils Lofgren, B.B. King and Dylan. He was music director for Ray Charles' 50th-anniversary TV special and relates what happened when the producers asked the star to perform the “Uh-Huh” song from his Pepsi commercial on the program. “‘I get paid to do that song,’” he quotes Charles. “‘Pepsi pays me to go all over the world and do that song. Why in the f*** would I just want to do that song for nuthin'?’”
Kooper writes candidly about his struggles with domestic and professional relationships, with corporate types and with drugs, and many of his stories are real eye-openers, even to those of us who think we've seen everything, from when his bandmate Steve Katz slammed a car door on Clapton's hand, to when he comped together (pre-Pro Tools) a great B.B. King vocal to King's amazement, who said, “How did you do that? I don't even know this song yet!”
Today, Kooper lives a couple of miles from me in Somerville, Mass. He moved to the area when he took a job at Berklee College of Music, but has since retired from teaching because he is suffering from vision problems. He can still play great, and I heard him not long ago kick butt with his band The Rekooperators, which he calls “probably the best band I've ever been a member of.”
Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards was published in 1998 — it was actually an update of Kooper's original Backstage Passes, written in 1977 — but, sadly, it is currently out of print and copies of it are going for $100 and up online. However, you can find it in a lot of local libraries, and next year — “if all goes well,” Kooper says — it will be re-issued, complete with a live-performance DVD. It will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his first gig, an all-nighter at an upstate hotel, from which he returned just as his father was leaving for work. He describes the look on his father's face as: “Your son has been lobotomized by Martians carrying electric guitars. He'll never be the same again.” Amen.
My last suggestion is not from anyone famous, but the author's stories — and she is a wonderful storyteller — will strike close to home for anyone who's ever played a gig. It's a completely different perspective on how one can make a living from music, and as it's too late for the majority of us to become 1960s rock 'n' roll producers, it's certainly a more realistic one.
Robin Meloy Goldsby's career started with the kind of “Eureka!” moment many of us have had: As an 18-year-old aspiring actress and pianist from Pittsburgh working on her summer break as a waitress on Nantucket Island, she discovered she could earn more money and be much happier playing background music in a cocktail lounge. The fact that she's been able to do so for 30-plus years is the subject of her 2005 memoir, Piano Girl (Backbeat Books).
After she finished college, she went off to New York City to try out for the stage and her experiences read like a bad novel: “Why don't they just say, ‘Thank you, Miss, but you suck.’ We know that's what they're thinking,” she said to herself after a string of painful auditions.
She finally got a break in a touring burlesque show, but with one complication: In Boston (actually, suburban Framingham at an upholstered toilet called the Château de Ville where I once had the misfortune of performing), she was expected to strip while playing. Worse still, she discovered on opening night that there were two large policemen with dogs in the wings — ready to arrest everyone onstage if the lighting technician didn't black out at exactly the moment she played a glissando and whipped off her bra.
Eventually, she worked her way up to high-class New York hotels like the Grand Hyatt, where she entertained regulars like The Booger Lady, “who blows her nose so hard I think one of the trains from Grand Central is pulling into the lounge,” and the Park Central, where she picked up a stalker who scared the hell out of her before the security team beat the crap out of him.
Goldsby, who describes the unreal ambience inside the Midtown Manhattan hotel with stunning accuracy, was affected by this curse right from the beginning: The management had installed “dozens of giant ficus trees, rumored to have cost tens of thousands of dollars apiece, to form a green umbrella over the Atrium Lounge” where the piano was located. “Two weeks after we open, they begin shedding leaves. Autumn in New York. The falling leaves drift by my piano, and they aren't red and gold. They're brown and dusty, and they land in the piano and crunch when they bounce on the strings.” Eventually, they were replaced with artificial plants. “Another ficus crisis averted.”
One day, she showed up at work and noticed part of the lobby was blocked off. Her manager hustled her to the piano and told her to start quickly, “so that the guests don't notice the dead body behind the black curtains. A traumatized waitress tells me that some poor soul has thrown himself from one of the sky-high balconies into the pit of shedding ficus.”
Along the way, she accompanied fistfights, heart attacks, a priest going into diabetic shock and a patron choking on a pancake — and she was the only one around who knew the Heimlich Maneuver and thus saved his life. She met a man with no arms who showed her how beautifully he played the piano — with his feet.
She never wanted a concert career — she had a panic attack during a recital in college — but was always perfectly comfortable playing behind conversation and clinking glasses. But she has played in public far more than most concert pianists, and she got to travel, too: Hawaii, Brazil and Germany, where she now makes her home.
The book is peppered with some wonderful interior dialogs, usually between what she calls her “Voice of Reason” and her “Voice of Doom.” She also recounts valuable advice that her father, a professional drummer, gave her like, “Always carry a roll of duct tape and an extension cord with you because with those two items, you can solve virtually any problem.” And, “Remember, you'll get fired from every job you have. Don't take it personally.”
Piano Girl doesn't have the celebrity dirt or rock 'n' roll attitude of Kooper and Boyd's books, but it's a charming look into the real life of a performer who has done quite well in one oft-ignored corner of the music world, and has enjoyed herself all the way. As long as you don't crave worldwide fame and the mindless adulation of millions of screaming teenagers, what more can you ask for from a career?
Paul D. Lehrman is a musician, producer, filmmaker, writer and the coordinator of music technology at Tufts University. His book, The Insider Audio Bathroom Reader, also makes good beach reading.