Books that Rock

Books that Rock: “Twilight of the Gods” by Steven Hyden (2018)

The daily posts I put up for my Facebook group Rock Docs (check it out if interested) generally fall into a few different categories: birthday tributes, trailers for upcoming music documentaries and seasonal-themed series (I recently had a weeklong string of posts about Irish bands centered around St. Patrick’s Day). Another frequent category that can’t be avoided: obituary posts. Any rock music fan of a certain age who is on social media knows these well. Whenever one of our beloved stars dies, the online tributes, often very heartfelt, come pouring in and last for days if not weeks. This phenomenon probably peaked in early 2016, when David Bowie and Prince passed away within a few months of each other.

Of course, a lot of this can’t be helped: rock ‘n’ roll is a youth-centric artform that is now about 65 years old. While many of the baby-boomer stars of its Golden Age are in their Golden Years, rock has ceded its primacy in the pop-music pyramid since at least the late Nineties. A book like Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock was inevitable.

Freelance author and podcaster Steven Hyden has acquitted himself well on this subject. Twilight of the Gods is an accessible, witty and committed book. Part of its success may be that Hyden was born in 1977 and grew up in suburban Minnesota, a Gen X/Millennial bitten bad by the Classic Rock bug. He is no portentous, self-serious scribe a la Greil Marcus, but he gets it. By early middle school he was subsumed by rock “as an act of faith: albums as sacred texts, live concerts as quasi-religious rituals, and rock mythology as a means of self-discovery.” An avowed agnostic, Hyden admits that “if there is a God, I was sure I had found Him on side two of Abbey Road.”


Hope I die before I get old—or not. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend on the “Who Hits 50 Tour” in 2016

He first saw his favorite band (the Who) in 2002, so the timeline of his grand obsession was already leaning into advanced middle age. But by the end of the night, Hyden had found his musical Olympus as the Who rose to the occasion of past greatness. Or, more precisely, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey did that. Bassist John Entwistle had recently died (after a night of latter-day rock-star debauchery) and Keith Moon, the original wildman drummer, was already a quarter-century in the grave.

But to Hayden and countless other fans, what may matter above all is the (hoped for) immortality of the form itself. Bands like the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd not only have a considerable repertoire of recordings but are also steeped in rich mystique and all sorts of esoterica. Like many before him, Hyden enthusiastically partakes of both the canon of accepted masterwork albums and more obscure discoveries, reads the books and music mags and views all the important rock docs.


By 1988, when American TV viewers were treated to the legendary “Freedom Rock” commercial, the canonization of Sixties and Seventies youth music was in full swing.

The result of this deep-diving is an often quirky book where the author explores all sorts of different tributaries on this long and winding musical river. Hyden tells of his great appreciation of both the rebel spirit of Bruce Springsteen’s wilder early albums and the more reflective tone of his later work (both men had complicated father/son relationships). He talks of how fans can keep the classic-rock experience fresh by embracing once-avoided “good bad albums” like the Stones’ Black and Blue and Neil Young’s Trans. And of course, no book about rock history would be complete without foray’s into the subjects of the occult (there is an excellent dissection of the Ozzy Osbourne song “Mr. Crowley”) and the old stand-by discussion of how awful the Eagles are (“They were cool like the captain of the high-school baseball team is cool… the kind of guys who will tape your ass cheeks together if you dare pass out early at the party”).

Not every section of The Twilight of the Gods works equally well. The “dad rock” chapter, while entertaining enough, goes on too long with its Wilco vs. Pearl Jam showdown. But Hyden mostly stays on point, often keenly so. Through the real-life example of his own divorced mother, he discerns a generational class of women who by the Eighties had moved on from the randy sex anthems of Aerosmith et al. Instead, they welcomed the embrace of goopy power ballads like “Open Arms” by Journey and “Keep on Loving You” by REO Speedwagon. But for good reason. Here, wised-up sensitive men were also looking for something more lasting. “These power ballads are about damaged people trying to make a go of love despite trying circumstances” and Hyden has the stats to mark this as a growing demographic.


Divorce Rock? Singers of this song type were often (and improbably) culled from glam metal bands.

As the author observes, eventually “you’ll see there is no beginning or end to music, only grooves that you can lock into until you find another groove.” But there is an end to the mortal coil and early on in the book he makes note of the rock notables who passed on while he was working on it: Chuck Berry, Gregg Allman, Leonard Cohen etc. Each of these deaths is mourned personally (online) often in ways that are inter-generational. In the the closing pages he notes, “The exaggerated arc of rock stardom creates a framework for understanding our own lives. Now classic rock is helping us understand, and accept, the inevitability of death.” Not the most pleasant thought, but I’m glad that Steven Hyden has tackled this thorny subject with such insight and panache.
–Rick Ouellette

Books That Rock: Michael Oberman’s “Fast Forward, Play and Rewind”

The annals of rock music journalism are filled with outsized personalities like Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches, Robert Christgau, Dave Marsh and others. They tended to be opinionated writers with national magazines, keen to rile things up. Less recognized in this field are the countless other music scribes who work for local or regional publications, welcoming bigger acts into town while also promoting the local scene.

Notable among this second group is Washington, DC-based Michael Oberman. He wrote a weekly interview column for the old Washington Evening Star from 1967-73 (his late brother Ron did the column for the three years before that) and interviewed many of the great rock, blues and soul artists during that classic epoch, and many of them before they really took off.

Oberman’s newly released book “Fast Forward, Play, and Rewind” collects many of those music columns with personal reminiscences and background narrative of meeting (and seeing in concert) such an array of pop music luminaries during this heady era. He watches the first moon landing backstage with members of Blind Faith. He has an interview with Peter Townshend cut short so the Who leader can catch Jimi Hendrix at his residency crosstown at the Ambassador Theatre, leaving Oberman there to do his reporter’s duty and check out headliner Herman’s Hermits! (Don’t worry, Michael caught Jimi earlier that week). The columns, though short pieces of 400-700 words, can sometimes reveal some fascinating interview tidbits, like the quirky details of the Cowsill’s ramshackle “Munster-like mansion” in Newport, RI just before hitting it big.

Pete Townshend in a D.C. hotel room, 1967 (Photo by Michael Klavans)

These pieces, though they are the snapshots in time they can’t help but be, are weighted down a bit by the fact they contain a lot of info that has long passed into rock fans’ common knowledge: like being told the personnel of The Doors. Wisely, Oberman intersperses these old columns with his “Musings” feature, newly written memoir-like mini-chapters on his experiences in the biz as well as his boyhood experiences. In the latter category, there are fun tales of youthful hijinx (his brother Ron’s good buddy was Carl Bernstein of “All the President’s Men” fame) and discovering great local music in the DC area. This includes the club scene in the Georgetown district and bands like the British Walkers, which featured a young Roy Buchanan, the blues guitar great. In the former, there are intriguing detours down the side lanes of the rock ‘n roll landscape. Oberman managed the Claude Jones band who not only played a Halloween gig at a mental hospital but also played host in 1970 to the notorious Medicine Ball Caravan travelling freak show at their shared home deep in Virginia redneck country.

Jimi Hendrix outside the Baltimore Civic Center (Photo by Michael Klavans)

My favorite part of the book, and the most pertinent in light of the recently-released movie “Stardust,” is the author’s retelling of the story of David Bowie’s first day in America, which the soon-to-be-superstar spent with Oberman’s family in Sliver Spring, Maryland. Michael’s brother Ron Oberman was by then a publicist for Mercury Recoords, Bowie’s US label. He had already met the singer in England and David had requested that he would like to spend the first night on his stateside publicity tour with a true-blue American family. Oberman’s father was a manager at the National Bohemian Beer Co. and Bowie asked for his business card as a memento. The card is what he’s holding in the picture below, sitting on the family sofa with Michael (on the left) and Ron in the middle.


Many thought that Bowie, in this much-circulated photo taken by Oberman’s mother, was holding a joint and not, innocently enough, her husband’s business card. (Oberman Family Archive)

Ron Oberman, who died in Nov. 2019 after a long struggle with fronto-temporal dementia, had a long and accomplished career in the record business, later moving on to Columbia and MCA where he helped launch Bruce Springsteen, the Bangles and others. His role in helping Bowie introduce himself to America was significant enough to make him the co-protagonist of “Stardust.” Michael Oberman is polite but steadfast in his dismay that the producers cast 56 year-old comedian Marc Maron to depict his brother (who was 27 at the time) as a “small-time publicist” instead of the director of publicity for Bowie’s label, which he was. The film producers didn’t take advantage of an actual participant in this event and finally told the surviving Oberman brother that they were going for more of a “buddy movie” (how original) centered around a cross-country road trip that never happened.

But you know that Hollywood will goes its own way, even if its the wrong way. “Stardust” (which didn’t get the rights to use any of Bowie’s music) is harvesting the bad reviews it probably deserves judging from the previews. If you’re more in tune with the folks who keep it real by the honest appreciation of pop music history that can only come from first-hand reporting, there’s a lot to like about Michael Oberman’s look back at this golden age of rock.

Michael has had a second career in fine-art photography and you can check that out, as well as finding a link for purchasing the book, at michaelobermanphotography.com

Books That Rock: Kathy Valentine’s “All I Ever Wanted”

“I waited so long, so long to play this part
And just remembered/That I’d forgotten about my heart”

I’m not sure if Go-Gos bassist Kathy Valentine wrote those lines in the song “Head Over Heels,” the band’s fourth and final Top 20 single. She co-wrote it with guitarist/pianist Charlotte Caffey but it has Valentine’s stamp all over it. The Austin, Texas native had brought over a few songs from her previous band the Textones when she became the final link in what would be become a history-making band: the hit “Vacation” and the closing number of their debut album “Can’t Stop the World.” Both those songs, and the later “Head Over Heels,” brim with deep notions of yearning, self-examination and personal determination against great odds. It is the refrain of “Vacation” that gives Valentine’s incisive and consistently compelling memoir its title. It totally suited the last-minute bassist (she was a guitarist while co-fronting the Textones) to be a supporting player in the ascendant Go-Gos. The Los Angeles band’s rise to be the first (and so far only) all-female band who wrote and played all their own material to have a #1 album is quite a story and Kathy neither sugarcoats the success nor sensationalizes the circumstances of their untimely initial split after just three LPs. Truth be told, the Go-Gos have long been a misconstrued group and though this is one member’s take, the tale of both her life and career are refreshingly parsed in these 270-odd pages.


Kathy Valentine today. On a life of artistic pursuit, she says: “A creative person gets used to subsisting on unequal parts of passion, delusion and relentless hope. No matter what happens, as long as I keep doing it, I’m still in the game, there’s still a shot.”

Like so many who make it big in show-biz and later write autobiographies, Valentine had early life complications. Born in 1959, her father was out of the picture by age three, and he would be a long time in making it back into her life. Her mother was a mini-skirted “babe” who enjoyed a good party—often with her teenage daughter along for the ride—while she wasn’t earning a degree at the Univ. of Texas. Valentine’s light-bulb musical moment came from seeing the pint-sized dynamo Suzi Quatro do her #1 UK hit (the raucous “Can the Can”) on TV while visiting her English grandparents. It wouldn’t be long until the she was chasing her own rock dreams in a high-school band, although after singing “Wild Thing” at an early show decided she wasn’t suited to be the main focal point.

Unsurprisingly, the tough times are there too. Date rape, an unwanted pregnancy and building substance abuse issues by her mid-teens are part of this story. These autobiographical details steeled Valentine against the world, and the self-medication that was part of the rock ‘n’ roll high life would not be recognized as needing an intervention until much later. This is a twice-told tale in the music business, so it’s in other areas that the reader gets the fresh insights that make this book valuable.


The Textones recording of a song that would get a makeover for the Go-Gos second album. Kathy left the band in late 1980, feeling they were stuck in neutral. She later heard thru the grapevine they were relieved she left, due to her heavy drinking. She took offense at the time only to understand better in her later sobriety.

One thread throughout these pages is that male musicians were uniformly supportive of her and fellow female bandmates, and “wanted us to do well.” That extends from from her early Austin days to rock stars she dated post-stardom: notably Blondie’s nice-guy drummer Clem Burke. Any sexism or patronizing seems to come from creeps in clubs (early on) to “industry suits” (later). The sisterhood squad she found in the Go-Gos provided her with surrogate siblings she never had and the musical success she worked for and craved.


The Go-Gos with new member Kathy Valentine (far right) in early 1981.

When it did arrive, it was all very sudden: from gritty L.A. clubs to arenas and international stardom within a year. She met Caffey at an X concert on Christmas night 1980 and (with the original bass player sick) found herself on stage a week later with a band on the verge of big things. Valentine’s prose hits the right tone here: forthcoming but not lurid, forthright but not self-serving. Sustaining the runaway success of the history-making Beauty and the Beat album was a challenge, with the constant touring, publicity ops, tricky business dealings and all the attendant rock-star bacchanalia that temporarily disguised internal problems within the band. Plus, they were up against the feeling that they were never being taken totally seriously. Here is Valentine’s rumination of when the group presented at the American Music Awards in 1982. “It seemed like most of the old guard didn’t get us… I sensed they thought of us as temporaries more than contemporaries, bits of fluff blowing by eternal monuments.”

The band would be on the outs not too long after their third (and in my opinion, best album, 1984’s Talk Show. “One hand’s just reaching out/And one’s just hangin’ on/It seems my weaknesses/Just keep going strong,” sings Belinda Carlisle on the opening track, the aforementioned “Head Over Heels.” Seeking strength thru the recognition of vulnerabilities, Valentine was sure her song would be a hit and show the band’s evolution. She was correct in the first case, but it is unclear how many saw the deeper qualities of this savvy group. They were looked upon as “America’s sweethearts” and “bouncy” and “frothy.” The bassist secretly fumed at the refusal of other band members to loosen up the band’s “static” formulation and to let others sing more, or spread the songwriting royalties around (esp. to their ace drummer Gina Shock, a big reason for their initial success).


The Go-Gos on the Tonight Show with guest host Joan Rivers in 1984. After a performance of current hit “Head Over Heels,” they pile onto the couch for a not-bad interview, but one that still placed extra emphasis on their being “adorable.” Back on stage they perform “Yes or No” a great song that tanked as the new single. There seems to be an effort to mix things up, with Belinda Carlisle sharing the lead vocal with Jane Wieldlin from behind the keyboard and Kathy playing on the drum-riser stairs. For me, lot more charming than the showcase gigs they did at the Greek Theater shortly after (also on YouTube).

The group’s initial split in 1985 was esp. hard on Valentine, who characteristically refrains from bitterness in the retelling. Belinda Carlisle and guitarist Jane Weidlin had solo success, while she became estranged from Charlotte Caffey who had spent the interim in part by kicking her heroin addiction. Kathy had less success with her own musical projects and broke up with longtime boyfriend Clem Burke. It was Caffey who was there for her when the reckoning with her alcoholism (and eventual sobriety) comes at the end of the Eighties. By the early Nineties ordered was restored as the Go-Gos reformed for the first of many successful tours while also releasing a pretty good comeback album, God Bless the Go-Gos, in 2001.

Like a lot of these memoirs, “All I Ever Wanted” pulls up a bit short, ending around the first band reunion, with a short epilogue tacked on. That concludes with an emphatic “Not the end” and indeed Valentine and the Go-Gos continue on, with a possible onelast tour (post-Covid) tour, a Broadway musical to their name and a documentary going into wide release in August. That film will hopefully be a worthy reexamination of this singular but oft-misunderstood band. But Valentine’s engaging book has a leg up on that tale, as well as being a vital retelling of her own wild ride on the rock and roller coaster.

Now available: The complete “I Was a Teenage Proghead” comic book!

 

Comic Book

Postage included (even outside the USA), please provide mailing address in PayPal

$5.00

Spin yourself back down all the days to…
Wilsontown High School, 1974

It was a time when the hair was long and so were the musical attention spans. That fall the mellow vibe of Wilsontown High gets disrupted by a mysterious rich-kid bully. But he makes a “sad” miscalculation when he focuses his grievances on Sean and Paul—two know-it-all aspiring rock critics—and their two new friends: clairvoyant Jane Klancy and kung-fu enthusiast April Underwood. Things are going to get personal in a hurry…

It’s here! The complete 32-page “I Was a Teenage Proghead” is now available in a shiny new standard comic-book format. Text is by me (Rick Ouellette) and artwork is by Brian Bicknell. The recently added 8-page epilogue catches up with the kids in the summer of 1975, a year after the events of Part One.

This project is 100% author-funded. If you would like to support indie, rock ‘n’ roll-inspired comics, you can purchase your own copy (and/or buy one for a friend) for only $5, postage included.

Thanks, Rick Ouellette

“I Was a Teenage Proghead” Part 3

This is final installment, see below the final page to find out how you can obtain a FREE copy of the full 32-page “Proghead” comic book when it comes out in print next month.

Text by Rick Ouellette, Illustrations by Brian Bicknell








This is my first foray into the world of indie comics and the first time in 25 years that I’ve written any fiction! So feedback is important. The first five people who comment with something specific that they either like or dislike about the comic will get a FREE copy of the complete 32-page “Proghead” comic book when it comes out next month. Entries outside the USA are welcome! I will contact you when the time comes for details. This is a print item only. Although I did not post Part Two of this to protect my intellectual property, you can look at Part One by looking for the link below. Thanks, Rick

“Books That Rock” spotlight: Arne Bellstorf’s “Baby’s in Black”

Rock and roll subjects have not exactly been excluded from the exploding popularity of indie comics over the last few decades, but they have not been a consistent point of reference either. Maybe the fact that you can’t hear a comic book is one factor. But with a band as universally popular as the Beatles, that would hardly seem to matter. As early as 1978, Marvel released a special edition “Story of the Beatles, overseen by Stan Lee. In the late 80s and early 90s, Rock N Roll Comics released a string of cartoon band bios, everyone from the Grateful Dead to AC/DC, but these have been criticized for being too skimpy and/or clichéd.

With the growing sophistication of the art-comic genre, it’s time to expect more. In 2014, German artist-writer Arne Bellstorf made a big move in the right direction with this 196-page graphic novelization of the Beatles’ early days as the house band at various Hamburg clubs. “Baby’s in Black” hones in on the romance between the group’s then-bassist Stu Sutcliffe and local photographer Astrid Kirchherr. She was part of the city’s bohemian art crowd (also included was her friend Klaus Voormann was another) that befriended the group. This was a natural angle for Bellstorf, who also hails from Hamburg.

Not only does romance sell, but this story has a tragic dénouement. As many baby-boomer rock fans already know, Sutcliffe left the band to devote more time to his primary passion (painting) while also getting engaged to Kirchherr. Then he died unexpectedly in April of 1962, likely due to a congenital brain condition that caused a fatal hemorrhage. The Beatles first hit record (“Love Me Do”) came out six months later.

So this early slice of pop history, played out in the rollicking red-light districts and quiet residential streets of Germany’s second largest city, has potentially a lot to offer on the developmental days of what would become rock and roll’s most famous band. But finding the right balance between these two main story elements is not always smooth going for Bellstorf.

His pencil and ink style is fetching and fairly naturalistic; it is especially good in his spatial reproductions of the infamous Reeperbahn with its elaborate signage and other landmarks, like Hamburg’s central train station. But his odd way with a human visage: black marble eyes, tiny mouths and limited expression, give the book an almost naïve look that can grow unsettling. This is accentuated by his habit of filling in backgrounds and clothing with what look to be gray crayon squiggles.

So yeah, I wanted to like “Baby’s in Black” a bit more than I did, though some of it may not be due to Bellstorf. The rather flat dialogue may have been partially caused by the English translation and I guess one can only surmise so much about what these folks were actually saying back then, especially considering that some of them (Kirchherr, Voorman and Paul McCartney) are still very much alive. There remains a lot to appreciate here. The scenes where Astrid—with her trusty Rolleicord camera—arranges her famous outdoor photo shoot with the boys is a revelation on the humble origins of what became the band’s legendarily photogenic aura. Also, the narrative does (lightly) chart the progress of the Beatles as they ascend from the dingier Reeperbahn dives to more high-profile clubs and make their first record, backing up singer Tony Sheridan. Towards the end, there are several image-only pages (which include wordless speech balloons) that convey Sutcliffe’s terrible fate with much eloquence.

I do hope that rock and roll graphic novels, produced with the sensitivity that Bellstorf displays here, do become more of a thing. The pop stories of our musical heroes have been hashed over in various media formats over the years, but graphic novels, with their combination of fiction writing’s interiority and cinema’s visceral immediacy, seems like a great forum in which to re-experience pop history.

But apparently this may be a case of be careful what you wish for. Yesterday I read a news item announcing the imminent arrival (in late March) of a 464-page book called “Tales of the Smiths: A Graphic Biography.” That’s a whole lotta Morrissey! I think I have the early front-runner for the Feel-Bad Book of the Year award…

On a more positive note, you can check out Klaus Voormann’s own coffee-table sized graphic novel, “Birth of an Icon: Revolver 50,” based around the making of his totemic Beatles’ album cover in 1966.

Wait, there’s more: Purchase “Rock Docs” and get free comic!

The T.A.M.I. Show. Don’t Look Back. Monterey Pop. Woodstock. Gimme Shelter. Let it Be.
The Last Waltz. The Kids Are Alright. Stop Making Sense. Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
The Filth and the Fury. Searching for Sugar Man. Twenty Feet From Stardom

Over the last half century, music documentaries like these have provided us with a priceless moving-image history of rock ‘n’ roll. My book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” is a first-of-its-kind anthology of the rockumentary genre, viewing pop music’s timeline through the prism of non-fiction film. Since its earliest days, the look of rock ‘n’ roll has been integral to its overall appeal.

This book reviews over 150 films from 1964 to 2014 in anthology form. It starts with a ground level look at the Beatles’ world-changing first visit to America and comes full circle fifty years later with “Good Ol’ Freda,” where the Fab Four’s secretary looks back through the years as both a fan and an insider. In between, readers will find many films to re-experience or discover for the first time.

From Craig Breaden, contributing writer for the Progarchy site:
Rick Ouellette’s “Rock Docs” is right at home in my rock reference collection, sitting next to my old Trouser Press Record Guide and my Rolling Stone Interview books. It’s the kind of read you can dip into piecemeal, as the mood strikes, and Ouellette’s amiable style will keep you coming back. Nicely done, and a really fun read!

And speaking of Prog, order “Rock Docs” between now and the end of February and I’ll throw in a free copy of my new (and first) comic book, “I Was a Teenage Proghead” with illustrations by Brian Bicknell.

Wilsontown High School, 1974
Travel back to a time when the hair was long and so were the musical attention spans. That fall the mellow vibe of Wilsontown High gets disrupted by a mysterious rich-kid bully. But he makes a “sad” miscalculation when he focuses his grievances on Sean and Paul—two know-it-all aspiring rock critics—and their two new friends: clairvoyant Jane Klancy and kung-fu enthusiast April Underwood. Things are going to get personal in a hurry…

If you are interested in purchasing “Rock Docs” and getting the comic book in the bargain, please leave a message below as I now sell the book directly for these promotions. You can also click on the link below for my author page at BookLocker.com. The link also has a click-through where you can view a 30-page excerpt.
Thanks, Rick

http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

“Make Mine a Double” Intro: The Wild and Wondrous World of Rock’s Two-Disc Albums

by Rick Ouellette

Across much of rock history’s last half-century, the double album has stood for a certain stakes-raising ambition and creative envelope-pushing, with artists asking fans for a little more of their attention and a little more of their disposable income. Among the sample titles pictured in this post, you’ll find some of rock’s most revered and, in a few cases, most reviled recordings. What do these titles have in common other than they were originally released as two-disc packages? In some ways, not a lot. As one might expect, the musical styles and subject matter are as varied as the far-flung pop universe itself. Delve into these records and soon enough you’ll come across overtures, artful sidelong suites, titanic instrumental jams and concept works based on socio-political and fantasy themes. There will be room for genre dabbling, sound collages, acoustic interludes and maybe even space left over to let the bass player sing a number.

How did these outsized albums come about? After all, as conventional wisdom would have it, rock ‘n’ roll is nothing if not concise. The early songs of Chuck Berry, Elvis, Buddy Holly et al rarely exceeded four minutes and were often closer to two. And that framework—the short, concentrated blasts of rebellion and celebration, dance and romance—are still often held up as the ideal of the art form. But art forms are rarely or ever immutable. They evolve and expand often to the point of earning a backlash, circling back closer to their original incarnation. Rock music is no exception to the rule. In its initial era of greatness, the 45 RPM single was the coin of the realm for rock ‘n’ roll’s pioneers. The latest smash by Bill Haley or Jerry Lee Lewis was played on a jukebox at the drop of a dime or heard on the AM radios of the big cruising sedans of the 1950s.
Long-playing records existed back then more as a vehicle for the most successful acts, pooling together a few hits and adding on some cover versions or dashed-off filler material.

In the wake of the Beatles’ worldwide success in 1964, rock music evolved into an artist-driven force to be reckoned with. Along with the Fab Four, bigger artists like the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan were able to assert more creative control. Soon, establishment-friendly fare like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” wasn’t cutting it any longer, especially as the Sixties became a more turbulent, crucial decade. Moreover, people like Dylan had multiple influences to begin with and it was just a matter of time before they all came to the fore. Sure, ol’ Zimmy was inspired by the great country artists like Hank Williams he’d pick up on his radio during lonely nights in northern Minnesota. But alongside them—and rock ‘n’ rollers like Little Richard that he would soon emulate in his high school band—there was a Beatnik strain as well.

Many of early baby boomers who came of age in the Sixties looked back in admiration at the literary rebels of the previous generation (Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac) as a touchstone to a new subversive epoch. For the Beats, the chosen music was jazz, an exploratory long-form medium that connected with a crowd searching for something more cosmic than what the Eisenhower years generally had to offer. The combined effect of a seized artistic freedom and a tempestuous era eventually led to ambitious rock music and it was Bob Dylan on the leading edge. His seminal Blonde on Blonde is widely regarded as rock’s first double album, ranging from ruminative balladry to fierce and free-associating blues rock; it set a very high bar for all four-sided efforts to follow. The officially-given release date of Blonde on Blonde was May 16, 1966 although there are claims that it didn’t show up (at least on the charts) until that July. In the month in between, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention debuted with a two-record set aptly called Freak Out! This anarchic blend of protest rock, Dadaist vocalizing, revisionist doo-wop and avant-garde aural collage was an early indicator as to how far off the margins counterculture music could go in the decade to follow.

By the end of the Sixties, the hippie masses had been treated to the Beatles’ White Album, the Who’s Tommy and Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, among others. We were off to the races. In a few days, I’ll start with a review of Blonde on Blonde that will, like other posts in this series, look at the album in view of how it pushed out at the boundaries of rock music (or at least tried to).

Throughout 2018, I’ll post a new one every 10-14 days, jumping around in time and genre. This is for a once a maybe future book project and I have about a third of it written. If you have any suggestions, let me know in the comments section (you can use the album cover images here as a jumping off point). Note that I have made double live albums and best-of compilations ineligible for this series, though half-studio/half-live records will be included.
–Rick Ouellette

Proghead, Part One: “Dawn of Man Tape Deck”

In Part Two: When September rolls around, our four heroes become quick friends. But the hazy tranquility of post-hippie high school life in Wilsontown is shattered when they have to deal with an early-onset case of Trumpism. April decides she has to take matters into her own hands. This time it’s personal….

Part Two will appear in the full 24-page printed comic. Please note that anyone out there who has purchased my book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” and would be willing to write a short Amazon review of it, will get sent a free copy. (Just let me know when it’s up). If you would like to purchase “Rock Docs” directly through me, I will throw in a copy of the comic as well. Just $18 for both and that includes shipping within the U.S. If interested, leave a comment or email me.

Thanks, Rick Ouellette
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Books That Rock spotlight: “Season of the Witch”

Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll
By Peter Bebergal—2014—229 pages—J. Tarcher/Penguin Books

What would you think of first if someone asked you to give a quick example of the union between pop music and the occult? Maybe you’d mention a choice Black Sabbath track like “Children of the Grave,” or recollect an Alice Cooper stage show from high school days or perhaps a death metal show for those of younger vintage. Some of you would quickly counter that naming one example is merely scratching the surface. In his new book Season of the Witch, author Peter Bebergal makes the case that the ”occult imagination” is in fact central to the appeal and success of rock music, and may be its very lifeblood.


Ozzy says: “I got your occult imagination, right here!”

Early chapters of this intriguing and informative (if occasionally meandering) book traces this influence back to European and American artistic/spiritual movements while also telescoping back to the pre-slave-trade African traditions that would give birth to gospel music and the blues. Bebergal very ably dissects the surprisingly close connections between the sacred and profane that passed into the culture of the American South. “Rock’s origins are in the blues and folk,” he writes, “forms of music deeply ingrained with Christian traditions and values, but whose own roots grew in the soil where other gods were worshipped.” Although he notes that modern Christianity tried to “seal off” these more ancient impulses, they always remained to some extent (speaking in tongues, ring shouts) and this ambivalence shows in the life and careers of early rock ‘n’ roll pioneers like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. But the influence of the occult (defined broadly as supernatural beliefs and the pursuit of esoteric knowledge) with its rebellious and unorthodox nature was a natural when this new music came along with the ascendance of youth culture in the Fifties.


Arthur Brown, after his god-of-hellfire days, formed Kingdom Come, seen here waiting on some hobgoblin action.

In fact, as Bebergal points out, early efforts by parents and ministers to stymie this new music likely backfired in the worst way. “Intentions to stop the music in its tracks instead started a conflagration that has never gone out,” he writes and indeed the relative innocence of those early years was superseded by the influence of the Beat writers, Aleister Crowley, Eastern spiritualism, and of course LSD. Through the likes of Pink Floyd, the Stones, the Beatles (in the post-“Revolver”/Maharishi era), Arthur Brown, Hawkwind, David Bowie, Sabbath, Sun Ra, Yes, Led Zeppelin and many others, “rock created a mythos around itself suggesting it was somehow heir to secret wisdom.” All of these case histories are given a good airing out without (usually) getting lurid. The author is clear-eyed about his subject, noting the negative side effects (drug abuse, cults) but also endorsing its role in affecting personal empowerment and acting as a counterweight to lockstep establishment thinking.


Madonna at the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, with her carefully-coded performance announcing the imminent takeover of the world by the Illuminati. And here’s me thinking it was just egomania.

Season of the Witch is a fine addition to the ever-growing canon of rock literature. Granted it’s not perfect: with so many artists to cover, some of Bebergals’ insights may sound a bit second-hand to devotees of a particular group. A few things are just wrong (Alice Cooper was not the name of an accused witch burned in 17th century Salem; besides they were hanged). But he does wrap it up nicely, moving the timeline up into this century, noting Jay-Z’s free-associating use of Freemason imagery in his videos and Madonna’s over-the-top halftime show at the 2012 Super Bowl, replete with pompous pageantry based on the kind Egyptian and Kabbalistic iconography that sent New World Order conspiracy theorists into a tizzy. But let’s put aside those vain one-per centers and remember that the magic in music can inspire people to a higher spiritual plain that will benefit us all in the end.

(If you like Books That Rock, please check out my tome Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey by clicking on the link below. A 30-page is available there, so try you can try-before-you-buy. Thanks, Rick Ouellette)
http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html