A blog about Bloomsbury Academic's 33 1/3 series, our other books about music, and the world of sound in general.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Little Richard: The Birth of Rock'n'Roll

I'm thrilled to announce the publication of David Kirby's effervescent study of Little Richard. We received this lovely pre-publication review from Booklist:

In the poem “The House of Blue Light”—whose eponym is where Miss Molly does her rockin’, dontcha know—Kirby says that when he, à la Whitman, hears America singing, it “sounds like Little Richard.” He sticks to his line in this high-spirited, ambulatory meditation on Richard’s America. Ambulatory literally as Kirby pinballs mostly around Macon, Georgia, Richard’s hometown, but also New Orleans, where Richard recorded his first big hit, and L.A., home of Specialty Records, which Richard made a major independent label. Ambulatory spiritually, too, because Kirby adopts Greil Marcus’ canny conception of Old, Weird America—poor, superstitious, culturally “backward,” but always striving—as the homeground of rock ’n’ roll (along with the other vernacular American pop musics: gospel, blues, country) to explain Richard’s artistic roots. Kirby insists that that first big hit, “Tutti Frutti,” a cleaned-up “paean to heinie-poking” howled by “a gay black cripple from a town nobody ever heard of,” is the first 100-proof rock ’n’ roll song and devotes the central chapter here to its creation and impact. Kirby packs his prose as fully as he does his verse and likewise runs it on high octane, pedal to the metal. He beats all the professional rock scribes hollow with this light-footed but profound little book.

And here's an extract, from the very beginning:

***

“What are you doing in my cousin’s apartment?” says Little Richard, and the answer is that I’ve come to Macon to write a travel piece for The Washington Post and also do research for a book on the Georgia Peach himself. Willie Ruth Howard is two years older than her celebrated relative, which makes her 77, and even though it’s a hot day, I’ve put on a sports coat and brought flowers, too, because I want her to think I’m a gentleman and not just a fan trying to hop aboard the singer’s coattails.

When the phone rings, she talks for a minute and says, “It’s him,” and “He wants to talk to you,” but before I can start telling Little Richard how the world changed for me when I turned on my little green plastic Westinghouse radio in 1955 and heard a voice say, “A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop, a-lop-bam-boom!” he says, “What are you doing in my cousin’s apartment?” and then “Uh-huh. Well, look around you. You can see that my cousin is very poor, can’t you?” and I’m thinking, well, she looks as though she’s doing okay to me, but who am I to disagree with Little Richard, so I say, “Sure—yeah!” and he says, “Well, then, what I want you to do is get out your checkbook and write her a check for five hundred dollahs!” and I’m thinking, Jeez, I brought her these flowers. . . .

But then I say, “Mr. Richard, I mean, Mr. Penniman, I don’t have my checkbook with me,” which is true, and I also want to say, Wait, who’s the wealthy rock star here, you or me? But mainly I don’t want him to hang up, and I’d been to the ATM the night before, so I say, “I do have $100 in my wallet,” and he says, “Okay, get your wallet out,” and I say, “It’s out,” and he says, “Now take the money out,” and I do, which is when I realize that I’d gone to a club last night after I’d hit the ATM, so now I only have $88, and I tell him that, and he says, “Okay, put it on the coffee table,” so I put my bills on the coffee table, and he says, “Where’s the money now?” and I say, “On the coffee table!” and he says, “Now tell Willie Ruth to get her purse,” so I say, “Willie Ruth, Little Richard wants you to get your purse,” so she says, “Okay!”

So Willie Ruth disappears into the other room and comes back with the purse, and I say, “She’s back,” and he says, “Now give her the phone,” and I do, and from where I’m sitting—this is Little Richard, after all—I hear him say, “Put the money in your purse!”and she says “Okay!” and he says “Where is the money now?” and she says, “In the purse!” and he says, “Okay, now take the purse back into the other room,” and she does, and when she comes back, he says, “Now give the phone back to him,” so Willie Ruth passes me the phone, and he says, “Where’s the money?” and I say, “It’s in Willie Ruth’s purse, which is in the other room,” and he says, “Thank you!”

And I say, “You’re welcome, Mr. Penniman! But I’d really like to talk to you as well, so how do you feel about giving me your phone number?” and he says, “I’m not at home right now! I’m in Baltimore!” and I say, “That’s good, but can I call you when you’re back in Tennessee, maybe fly up and see you some time?” and he says, “I’m not in Tennessee! I told you—I’m in Baltimore!”and I say, “I know, but when you are in Tennessee,” but he says, “Give her the phone again!” and while Willie Ruth is ending the call, I’m looking around and thinking, did Little Richard just get me to take $88 out of my wallet and give them to a cousin I’ve barely met?

I feel like a jerk. I think, 88 is the number of keys on a piano, like the instrument referred to by the Capitols in their 1961 R ‘n’ B chart topper “Cool Jerk” when they say, “Now give me a little bit of bass with those 88s.” At the moment, though, I have the 88 dollar blues. I could write a song about it: “I have the 88 dollar blues / I’ve been plundered. / I say I have the 88 dollar blues / yes, I’m plundered. / Little Richard fired a round into my travel expenses / but at least it wasn’t five hunnerd.”

On the other hand, I’ve probably spent more than that on a single phone call to some woman I was breaking up with, and a fairly horrible woman, too, or else she’d be with me today and I with her. My goodness! How’d that be, to be chained to a shrew who despised me and treated me like her servant, an attitude hardly calculated to improve my disposition, so that I, in turn, would become more and more truculent and pettish and in that way increase her disdain for me. . . . When I look up, the call’s over, and Willie Ruth is sitting quietly on the couch with the phone in her hand, and she says, “Was he rude?” and I say, “Uh . . . business-like!”

Which is true, because while he was forceful and direct, he wasn’t discourteous. And I didn’t have to part with a cent, but I did, and now I’m talking to Willie Ruth Howard, and she’s saying, “Well, you know, he did get cheated a lot back when he was first starting out, when those record company people took all the money and didn’t leave the singers with anything. Besides, he was so poor growing up. So poor. . . .”

***


Friday, November 13, 2009

One Step Beyond

Popmatters had a great review this week of Terry Edwards' book for the series on Madness' debut album.

You can read the whole review here, but here's a taster...

***

In addition to his own memories of the time, Edwards spoke to producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, Stiff Records’ Dave Robinson, John Hasler (designated “Minder” on the record sleeve) and Madness members Mike “Barso” Barson, Chrissy Boy (Chris Foreman), Thommo (Lee “Kix” Thompson), Bedders (Mark Bedford), Chas Smash (Cathal Smyth), Woody (Dan Woodgate), and Suggs (who also has another name, but no one ever uses it). Each chapter is prefaced by a lyrical excerpt (lots of Ian Dury, incidentally), or by a pertinent quote from a band member, either about the song in question or a band mate.

Each of these seems to be Edwards’ way of clueing readers to the fact that he isn’t just going to discuss musical arrangements and in-studio details (though, there is plenty of that included for the more technically obsessed, too). In fact, Chapter 8 begins with a lyric from “Sweet Gene Vincent” about being on the road and continues with several funny-but-true paragraphs about how rock music really revolves around laundry, before getting into the other laundry-related subject that is the a central theme of “In the Middle of the Night.” Edwards jumps from song to song and album to album tying together threads about this topic before bringing the whole thing full circle with a suitable quip. He does this so beautifully with the rest of the chapters/tracks, too, weaving actual incidents with insight into the song structures, confirming or refuting rumors about the meanings behind lyrics (sometimes both, depending on who he’s spoken to), commenting on the social and political subjects sometimes hidden in the songs, and providing tidbits of trivia.

***

And here's some Prince Buster for the weekend:

Just wanted to bring your attention to two NYC events put on by Mike McGonigal, author of the 33 1/3 on My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, among other creative pursuits.

First up, this Saturday night, Nov. 14th 8-12PM, I'm DJ'ing all gospel music at the ACE Hotel (20 W 29th St in Manhattan -- 212 679-2222) in celebration of the release of the 4 hour boxset I compiled and produced for Tompkins Square, FIRE IN MY BONES: Raw, Rare + Other Worldly African-American Gospel. I'm bringing a lot of records out with me, the compilation has gotten good reviews thus far, and it should be fun! Also, it is free.

Here's a great review of Fire In My Bones from the Onion AV Club.

Then we have a reading/ signing/ slide show next Thursday, November 19, at 8 PM at Spoonbill & Sugartown (218 Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg). There will be a slide show and reading given by LUC SANTE in honor of the brand new YETI publication, 'FOLK PHOTOGRAPHY: The American Real-Photo Postcard 1905-1930.' Also on the bill is PETER DOYLE, on a rare visit from Sydney, presenting his indelible Crooks Like Us, based on spectacular 1920-era mugshots from the New South Wales Police Archives. This will be crazy fun, and is also free -- get there early!

Here's a link to a Luc Sante essay/interview from Artforum.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Song and Circumstance

It's always gratifying to get a book enthusiastically endorsed by an expert in the field, in advance of its publication. But it's not every day that we get such a lovely blurb from the subject of the book in question.

Here's what David Byrne has to say about Song and Circumstance: The Work of David Byrne from the Talking Heads to the Present, by Sytze Steenstra...

“If I ever need to remind myself what I was reading or mulling over at various points in my life I have only to look in this scrupulously researched and uncannily on-the-money book. Would that we all had references like this! It is for me a beautiful and narcissistically bizarre experience to re-experience my life through the series of ideas and the flow of connections I have made as they are reported and interpreted by Sytze Steenstra. The book is delightfully and unusually free of gossip and psychological assumptions and explanations (not that those don’t also contain some truth); instead it focuses almost exclusively on what I’ve done, said or written—and comes to some conclusions that are (to me) surprising and unexpected. Sytze finds connections I wasn’t aware of, and continuity and patterns where initially one might see randomness and chaos. This book makes me seem both smarter than I am and possibly stranger than I am."

The book should be out in late March or early April (despite Amazon's cheery optimism).

Monday, November 09, 2009

Get off the Stage, indeed!

A Manchester bookstore recently played host to a launch party for Gavin Hopps's study of Morrissey's work - about which USA Today said "Dive in, grab a highlighter, and savor the plentiful footnotes." Which, let's face it, are probably more fun to savor than the flavor of murder.

Here's some footage of the book launch, from a Manchester news site (that's not Gavin on the drums, by the way):



And here's the old chap himself just the other day in Liverpool, doing what he does best...

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Looking for Calvin and Hobbes

One of our fastest-selling books in recent memory is Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip, by Nevin Martell. The book tells the tale of Watterson's early years and his massive creative and commercial success, while documenting Nevin's ongoing attempts to get in touch with the great man who is (as pretty much everybody knows) something of a recluse. It's an informative and entertaining read, containing some fascinating insights into the world of comic strips and what drives some artists to turn their back on celebrity with such determination.

Here's an extract:

***

It was quickly apparent to everyone at Universal that Calvin and Hobbes was a huge commercial hit and they might be able to start making some of that crazy funny money. There was little stopping them. Watterson's original contract with Universal had the syndicate controlling ancillary rights and splitting the revenues with the artist. This was a standard deal for freshman cartoonists, most of whom were more than happy to have their syndicate seek additional sources of income from their work. This meant that the syndicate would try to capitalize on successful derivative merchandise - Hobbes dolls, Spaceman Spiff Underoos, Stupendous Man T-shirts, a Saturday morning TV series, whatever.

However, unlike almost all of his peers, Watterson was not keen on exploiting his creations. "Licensing couldn't have been further from his mind when he was trying to make his little world emerge," Rich West explained to me. "He wasn't sitting next to his drawing board and rubbing his hands together in anticipation of all the money he could make." In fact, the avalanche of commercial interest blindsided the modest young artist. His first reaction was to just say no as he sat back and considered the ramifications of licensing. "Bill's not one of these people who says, 'I want the money and I want the fame and I want the attention,'" West revealed. "All he wanted to do was to draw the strip as best he could. If he was going to be rewarded for that, then that was great, but that wasn't ever the goal. He simply wanted to be able to pay his bills by being able to draw."

Watterson's modest vision of success was puzzling to Universal, whose other artists were pestering them for the kinds of offers that Watterson was reflexively turning down. After all, who doesn't want to be successful and earn a boatload of money? Well, Watterson didn't. Everyone at Universal quickly realized that Watterson's dream was vastly different and that this new-found fame was more like a nightmare to him. Watterson wasn't just uncomfortable with his characters becoming ubiquitous; he was worried about becoming ubiquitous himself. Despite the fact that he had told Lee Salem that he didn't want to do any further interviews after his negative experience with the Los Angeles Times interviewer, Watterson agreed to sit down with the Plain Dealer in the summer of 1987. Though the interviewer probably went to get a piece on Watterson's happiness with his success, he got something completely different - a full-on rant that was Watterson's manifesto against celebrity. The resulting article ran in the Plain Dealer magazine of 30 August 1987 and bore the front-page headline "The Angry Artist Behind Lovable Calvin and Hobbes."

The writer meets up with Watterson at his "small," "cramped" and "difficult to find" house in Hudson, where the artist is hanging out with his wife and three cats, Pumpernickel, Sprite and Juniper Boots. Watterson answers the door wearing large-framed glasses and his work outfit, "yellow high-top sneakers, purple socks, yellow slacks, a striped shirt and thin blue belt," as well as a red, green and purple Swatch. Though he has a Marine-length buzz cut, his moustache is profuse, as is his ability to laugh over the course of what is not such a laughable discussion.

"I know most people dream of being famous or being a celebrity," Watterson confided to sports editor Gene Williams, who conducted the interview. "The attention is thought to be gratifying, or ego-building or something. I've found it to be a nuisance all the way around. There's very little of it that I enjoy." Apparently, that celebrity was an unwanted yoke of oppression. "You become a cartoonist all your life, all day," he continued. "It's no longer a job. You are defined by your work. You suddenly have no private time. You cannot be a husband to your wife, you are still a celebrity cartoonist...I find that aggravating. If you can't have a personal life, it really seems to me to be a sacrifice."

"As a culture, we embrace people for no reason other than the fact that they have a job that puts them in a position of recognizability," Watterson aggressively opined. "People who have no other virtues necessarily are somehow made into these things that we devour...There's something very strange about our fascination with other people's lives that I don't think is entirely healthy."

This was Watterson's strongest statement to date on his aversion to the recognition that had accompanied the rise of Calvin and Hobbes. Though he had discussed his discomfort with autograph seekers and being recognized in public before, this last conversation really finds him lashing out at the construct of celebrity. Even then, he recognized that his stance might be misunderstood. "People think I'm either a grouch," he declared, "or that I somehow think myself better than other people, and I'm just not willing to expose myself to the unwashed masses. Neither is the case. It's just that I want to have my own life, too."

"As part of this devouring process," he continued, "people love to have you, and then they use you up and there's nothing left. They're not interested any more. It's a cyclical thing." Watterson was especially afraid of this devouring because of the negative effect it could have on the sustainability of his work. "There are trends where there is a hot strip and then people don't care any more. A certain amount of that is inevitable. But I'd like to control it if I can."

His final comment is the one that would prove to be most prophetic. "Why start compromising values now?" he asked Williams. "Why tamper with what's important to me? The whole fun of doing this is I beat the odds. I beat the system. I get to do what I want, the way I want to do it. There's no point in buckling under now after I've made it."

***

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Quite the Accolade!

Many congratulations to Carl Wilson - his book for the series on Celine Dion has made it on to Paste magazine's list of the 20 Best Books of the Decade. If you haven't read it yet, perhaps this might nudge you over the cliff.

20. Chuck Klosterman - Killing Yourself to Live
19. Malcolm Gladwell - The Tipping Point
18. Donald Miller - Blue Like Jazz
17. Carl Wilson - Let's Talk About Love
16. Joseph O'Neill - Netherland
15. Eric Schlosser - Fast Food Nation
14. JK Rowling - Harry Potter series
13. Ian McEwan - Atonement
12. Doug Blackmon - Slavery By Another Name
11. David Sedaris - Me Talk Pretty One Day
10. David Foster Wallace - Consider the Lobster
9. Jonathan Safran Foer - Everything Is Illuminated
8. Joan Didion - The Year of Magical Thinking
7. Craig Thompson - Blankets
6. Markus Zusak - The Book Thief
5. Jeffrey Eugenides - Middlesex
4. Marilynne Robinson - Gilead
3. Cormac McCarthy - The Road
2. Dave Eggers - A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
1. Michael Chabon - The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

I'm sure many of those authors would give their left hand for just a fraction of Carl's royalties...

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Attention Mainers!

[This is coming up over the weekend, so I thought I would bump it to the top of the page...]


Michael Fournier and Zeth Lundy will be doing a pair of joint readings from their 33 1/3s on The Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime and Stevie Wonder's Songs In the Key of Life in early November. Click on the flyer for a larger version. Or if you need it in text form, here's this:

Saturday, November 7th
University of Maine-Orono
Donald P. Corbett Hall, Room 105
Orono, Maine
7:00pm

Sunday, November 8th
Portland, Maine
7:00pm
(Featuring a set of Minutemen covers by HUAK)

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Nation of Millions

One of the 33 1/3 books we'll be publishing in the early spring of 2010 is Christopher Weingarten's stellar study of Public Enemy's second album. Here's an early taste of the book:

***

Around the release of Revolution, James Brown started noticing that radio was being segregated and formatted by genre. Despite the fact that he sold tons of records (he would have two No. 1 R&B singles in 1971, the year Revolution was released), he said that rock stations stopped playing him: “I was making some of my strongest music during that period, and I think most whites have been deprived of it.” “The radio’s scared of me,” echoes Chuck on “Hype.” “’Cause I’m mad, plus I’m the enemy.” It didn’t end there: Public Enemy would sample Revolution of the Mind throughout their career. MC Danny Ray’s intro (“Are you really ready for some super dynamite soul?”) would turn up on Nation’s 1990 follow-up Fear of a Black Planet. The rapturous screams from the audience in “Soul Power” would be transformed into whistling missiles in the bridge of “Caught, Can I Get a Witness.”

And the JB’s would find even more session work on “Don’t Believe the Hype”: Some guitar (either by Cheese Martin or Robert Coleman) from Brown’s 1971 single “I Got Ants in My Pants, Pt. 1” is sliced in under the verses. One of Chuck D’s unheralded roles as a Bomb Squad member was doing light scratching and turntable manipulation, and this song features his handiwork.

“‘Don’t Believe the Hype,’ it’s a sequel,” begins Chuck in the third verse, still mulling over the can of worms he opened in “Rebel Without a Pause.” His line “They claim that I’m a criminal” is in the same vein as “Rebel’s” “Designed to scatter a line of suckers that claim I do crime”—consecutive songs in a row that put racist cops on blast. Fittingly, Public Enemy borrow from Whodini’s “Fugitive” for that paranoid “hu-ahh-AHH-ahhhm-yah” vocal ejaculation. “Fugitive,” a hard-rocking track off Whodini’s 1986 album Back in Black is also about being wrongly accused.

But this time, Chuck had music critics in his scope, most notably writer John Leland. Much like radio stations, American critics weren’t too receptive to Yo! Bum Rush the Show, and Leland was especially vicious in his Village Voice review titled after the Buzzcocks song “Noise Annoys.” Chuck later told NME that he attended a Spin party looking to fuck Leland up. Chuck heard he was hiding. When Public Enemy were cornered, they would bite back. Here was a band that not only read their press but would call writers out on it. In a Spin interview in 1988, they had a comically tense exchange: “Your last single, ‘Bring the Noise,’ was basically about what other people are saying about you.” … “Oh, yeah, that was about you. I was talking right at you.”

“White media were terrified of these guys,” said Public Enemy publicist Leyla Turkkan at a panel in New York City. She told a story about how one prominent rock critic cowered in fear during the drive to a face-to-face interview with Chuck.

Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin spent his summer vacation in L.A., recording metal bands Danzig and Slayer for the Def Jam helmed soundtrack to Less Than Zero, the chilly, druggy, cult flick loosely based on the Bret Easton Ellis book. When Rubin returned to New York in August, he wanted a Public Enemy track to top the soundtrack off, and they submitted “Don’t Believe the Hype.” Rubin didn’t think the song fit. Hank Shocklee was never the biggest fan of it, and the rest of the group agreed they wanted to make something “turbulent, not funky.” Ultimately, the song was scrapped for the punkier “Bring the Noise.” The group put “Don’t Believe the Hype” on the shelf and forgot about it.

“Don’t Believe the Hype,” the true “sequel” to “Rebel Without a Pause,” became more of a Part 3, since it didn’t see the light of day until later. Like with “Rebel,” Chuck’s heroes Run-DMC were integral in giving the song the go-ahead. Since tapes were easy to get in the Def Jam office, DMC had gotten a copy of “Don’t Believe the Hype” after mastering.

Hank later stumbled across DMC blasting the track from his Bronco on a Saturday night—on the Lower East Side or in Harlem depending on whom you ask. The entire block was grooving along. Public Enemy changed their opinion on the track immediately and, once May 1988 rolled around, wrapped tightly under Friedman’s surveillance-camera cover, it became Nation of Millions’ third single.

***

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Clash, Nine Inch Nails

Those of you who've been waiting since, oh, 2005 for the books on "London Calling" or "Pretty Hate Machine" - we have good news. Both manuscripts are in, today. Genuinely amazing!

Which makes me very happy, as does this:



(Although obviously the 10-minute version is better, and this video is crap, but whatever)

Enoiana

Four quick addenda to David's post below about Geeta's book on Mr. Eno:
  1. A link to the piece Geeta wrote for Rhizome, on Eno, Peter Schmidt, and Cybernetics.
  2. A bit of info about Tom Phillips, painter of the cover art for Another Green World, via Ed Park at Disambiguation.
  3. Just posted at Pitchfork this morning, a longish interview with Eno himself.
  4. Neither here nor there: I have always thought that "Fullness of Wind" would make fantastic wedding music.
Enjoy!