Monday, July 28, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Keith Moon: The Life and Death of a Rock Legend

Perhaps no one epitomizes the lunacy of legendary rock and roll excess from years past than one of the greatest drummers who ever lived, Keith Moon. During the fourteen years that the Who's career spanned, Keith was not only one of the best and most revolutionary drummers the world had ever known, but he was a one-of-a-kind character. However, contrary to the popular perception of Moon the Loon as a perpetual jester, he was also a very complicated and troubled man who guarded his emotions fiercely and almost never allowed anyone inside to see the real Keith.

Tony Fletcher is well known as a music writer and I've had the pleasure of reading and reviewing other books of his, including his excellent biographies on R.E.M. and the Smiths. However, his Keith Moon book was the first one of his I read...I vividly remember purchasing this in 1999 the week it was released, having read about it in one of the numerous music magazines I was devouring on a regular basis at the time. After reading all 600+ pages of this hefty tome, I thought it to be one of the best musician biographies I'd ever read; it was perhaps confusing, then, that I recently realized that my initial reading some fifteen years ago was also the last time I'd read the book. In order to rectify that, I've given it a fresh re-reading for the purposes of this review.

Central to Fletcher's approach to writing about Moon is the concept of myth in rock lore. More specifically, how the various myths and legends about certain figures in rock music originated and persisted such that the line between fact and fiction is blurred to such an extent that untruths become accepted as fact many years later. Right from the beginning of the book, this is pointed out by Moon shaving a year off of his age so that, until the publication of this book, it was generally accepted he was born in 1947 when in reality, Fletcher shows he was born in 1946 (corroborated by Moon's birth certificate).  From here, we get a very detailed and in depth account of Keith's rather unremarkable and shockingly (for him) normal upbringing: he was raised by two loving parents whose calm and reserved demeanor gave no indication of the wildness that was about to come into their lives. Moon grew up in the London suburb of Wembley and was an energetic and extroverted child almost from birth. He was intelligent enough but didn't apply himself and found himself finished with school at the age of fifteen. Despite holding a series of menial jobs for a few years after leaving school, the only thing he ever wanted to do was play the drums. Via a series of friends and acquaintances, he began playing, purchased his own kit, and after a brief stint in the Escorts, landed in the Beachcombers, a popular cover band he would stay with for almost two years before he joined the Who in early 1964. In these early years, one thing all of his friends recounted to Fletcher is that Keith never drank or took pills; he simply got high on adrenaline and life. His wicked and warped sense of humor was on display even in those early years, but never with any malice, and he was as generous and kind a person as any of them had known. He also had a revolutionary drum style that was so unique, so busy, and so loud that no one could make sense of it, and he made a name for himself not only for his unorthodox drumming but for because he was so good so young.

Upon joining the Who, it was clear that he was just what they were looking for, and vice versa. From here, Fletcher does a great job telling the story of both Keith's life and the Who's career, but not in a way that makes the book ever seem like a straight-up Who biography. When the story of the Who is discussed in detail, it's from the perspective of Keith's impact on it and its impact on Keith. From the moment he joined, musically the band was complete, although adding his already volatile personality to those of the other three equally headstrong members meant that the early years of the Who's career were fraught with drama and violence, despite their almost immediate success.  Much of the tension came from the fact that Keith readily joined in on popping uppers and downers with Pete and John, while Roger (with whom Keith was never particularly close) didn't. After sacking Roger for two weeks in mid-1965, he was reinstated, band relations improved, and the Who continued to release a string of successful singles and albums before a downturn in their fortunes in 1968. However, the release of the album Tommy in 1969 turned them into international megastars overnight and from that moment until the day Keith died, they would remain one of the top rock bands in the world. I don't intend to describe the Who's entire career, as I've already written a post on it and there are numerous books and websites any interested readers can check out for more information. However, what is noticeable is that even though Keith started ingesting a lot of pills and drinking more and more, his antics and his personality were still enjoyed by his bandmates, friends, and the press. It was really with the onset of global success and the flood of wealth that began pouring in with Tommy and subsequent Who albums and tours that Keith began his spiral out of control.

Running concurrently with the Who's rise to stardom in the 1960s was Keith's relationship with his wife Kim, who spoke extensively with Fletcher for this book. She first met Keith in 1965 when he was nineteen and she fifteen, and while they fell in love rather quickly, he exhibited twin streaks of jealousy and insecurity. While his mental issues, which we would now readily (and correctly) diagnosis as a combination of ADHD and BPD, reared their ugly heads on innumerable occasions, Keith's true personality shone through enough that Kim stayed with him; the decision was made final for her when she became pregnant within a year of dating. Since their marriage was a central part of Keith's life, and their divorce in 1973 would come to affect him perhaps more than any other event in his adult life, it's described in great detail throughout the book; to Fletcher's credit, it's never done in a sensationalized manner and while he is as objective as possible, the truth doesn't paint Keith in too flattering a light. He was jealous, self-centered, and abusive to his wife, both verbally and physically. His mental state also deteriorated as his appetite for all manner of pills escalated and he exploded into a full-blown alcoholic. Even after separating for a year, Kim returned to him, hoping that he had finally changed, but the insane lifestyle Keith kept up at their house, which has to be read to be believed (and even then, just barely) became too much. Kim and Mandy finally left for good in 1973 and it was a devastation Keith would never recover from. However, while most people would use an event like this as the impetus to clean up their act, for Keith it instead drove him further into oblivion. 

Concurrent with all of this was the fact that when the Who were busy recording and touring, Keith, while not on what would termed "best behavior" by anyone elses metric, was at his happiest, most focused, and tolerable. However, from 1972 onward, when the Who finally took some time off after years of constant motion, Keith needed something to fill his time (especially after his divorce) and besides his rampaging substance abuse, he threw himself into a variety of projects to varying degrees of success, including cameos in a couple of movies, a lead role in the Tommy movie, and a disastrous solo album. While his drumming on 1973's Who masterpiece Quadrophenia and 1975's The Who By Numbers was still excellent, it was around this time that he began experiencing frequent collapses due to overdoses, both onstage (San Francisco 1973 and Boston 1976 immediately spring to mind) as well as during parties at his house. But still the pace continued, until by the mid-1970s Keith was living in Los Angeles and getting up to even more insanity with fellow stars John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, and others. Even a new love in his life, Annette Walter-Lax, couldn't get him to slow down and take control. There were even stints in psychiatric wards after some mental breakdowns brought on by his despair at losing Kim and his drinking. His alcohol and drug abuse was now not only affecting his health (he put on a significant amount of weight at this time due to infrequent gigging) but sadly, his drumming. One only has to listen to the final Who album, Who Are You from 1978, to hear that while the drumming is still unmistakeably Keith Moon, he was now only a shadow of his former self.  It was around this time, depressed by the deterioration of his drumming and threats from the rest of the Who to clean up his act or else, that he finally decided to get some help.  By the summer of 1978, he seemed to be trying to get his life in order, staying sober and solidifying his relationship with Annette. He was terrified to go into rehab or under psychiatric evaluation, however, and instead self medicated with Heminevrin, a drug used for treating acute withdrawal from alcohol. However, he took too many on his final night and sadly died on September 7, 1978 at the age of thirty-two.

Keith Moon at dinner with Annette (far left), Linda and Paul McCartney on September 6, 1978. He died the following morning.

 Keith's last interview, August 1978

Fletcher does an excellent job diving into what it was that made Keith tick, as well as his demons and where they may have come from. Much of this is an impossible task, as there's little if anything in Moon's family background to indicate that he would have had any musical talent, let alone the mental and personality issues he had. What's clear from everything, though, is that he was at his core a kind and generous soul who was also lost, lonely, and terribly immature throughout his adult life. Perhaps it was the sudden success, upon joining the Who, when he was only eighteen (although plenty of others of the same era were as young, or younger, and survived just fine), but Keith was so eager to please and make everyone laugh that he eventually became the character Moon the Loon that he was portrayed as in the media. It got to the point where he wasn't sure who he really was: was he Keith Moon, drumming boy wonder from Wembley? Or was he Moon the Loon, insane and lovable rock star, destroyer of hotel rooms and madcap joker, where every gag and antic he pulled had to outdo the last? Add in the fact that this all of this was happeing during the heady golden age of rock music, when not only the art form but society and the entire world was undergoing cataclysmic changes, and it's no surprise Keith ended up the way he did. Fletcher's discussions with Kim, as well as their daughter Mandy, John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey (Pete Townshend declined to be interviewed for this book), Chris Stamp (former Who co-manager), and numerous friends of Keith's throughout his life all reveal a man who many loved, but no one really knew. Behind the jokes and crazy antics was a young man with real and diagnosable mental issues; however, these issues weren't as well understood back then, so instead of treatment, they were exacerbated by his drug and alcohol abuse, and encouraged by fans and friends who lived vicariously through Keith's mad life. He was also unable to outrun or outlast his demons; whether it was the wife and child he drove away, the friend and chauffeur (Neil Boland) he accidentally killed in early 1970...whatever else haunted him, it ultimately caught up with him just as he was finally trying to improve his life. Therein lies the real tragedy at the heart of Keith Moon's story.

As a hardcore Who fan, I commend Tony Fletcher's attention to detail in this book...I didn't come across any errors and he did a thorough and excellent job with all of the facts, as well as how he presented them.  The fact that he was able to research Keith's life in such detail that he could say with confidence which myths were true (Keith stranding his hovercraft on busy train tracks) and which are are not (he never drove a car into a swimming pool) is deserving of endless credit. While it's clear that the author is a big fan of the Who and of Keith, he does the job right and presents the life and death of this one-of-a-kind man, who revolutionized rock drumming and sent up the idea of what it meant to be famous, perfectly. It's a tale that's alternately funny, tragic, amazing, and shocking, and the book is still deserving of the praise it received upon its release as one of the best rock biographies of all time.  The passage of time since it burst on the scene has done nothing to change that fact, much the same way it has done nothing to dim the legend of Keith Moon.

MY RATING: 10/10

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Trio of Upcoming Books For Review That Look Really Interesting

I've got a few new books on their way to me from their respective publishers that look to be fascinating reads...I'll be sharing the reviews on here, of course, once I've finished reading the books and writing them up.

First up is what, by all accounts, is an excellent and near-definitive biography of one of my favorite musicians of all time, Paul McCartney, entitled Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney by Howard Sounes.

Another book by Sounes, which is brand new, is called 27: A History of the 27 Club, and it discusses the eerie coincidence that so many famous musicians died at the age of 27, including some of my favorites like Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and more.

Finally, a new book on the Who, but one that details how their appearance at Union Catholic High School in New Jersey in 1967 came to pass. It's written by Michael Rosenbloom and looks really interesting.

These are in addition to the other books from my personal library that I will continue to read and review, so there is still plenty to come for all of you rock-music-loving book-reading fans of this site...stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


For this next entry in my band profile series, I'm going to change gears from the older bands I've written about in previous entries and focus instead on a band that I was lucky enough to discover and be a fan of while career was still active. The band is Mansun, who consist of, above from left: Andie Rathbone (drums), Paul Draper (vocals, rhythm guitar, songwriting), Stove King (bass guitar), and Dominic Chad (lead guitar, backing vocals). Coming on to the scene in the mid-1990s at the height of the BritPop/Cool Britannia era that defined the decade in England, Mansun were completely out of step with the rest of the scene. While bands like Blur, Oasis, Suede, Pulp, and other lesser groups were ubiquitous throughout the decade and released singles and albums that defined their generation, Mansun were more the brooding, slightly off-kilter outsiders who crashed the party and found themselves with a string of highly successful records in the charts. They managed to outlast BritPop, but just barely, eventually succumbing to pressures both internal and external and splintering early into the new millennium.

Mansun formed in Chester, England in 1995 when Draper and King brought in Dominic Chad and decided to form a band. Using a drum machine, they recorded some demos and released their debut single, "Take it Easy, Chicken" in late 1995. The band was initially called Grey Lantern, but then switched to Manson for their first single before settling on their eventual name of Mansun. They came to the attention of DJ John Peel and eventually signed with Parlophone Records. At their debut gig in August 1995, they'd drafted Carlton Hibbert in on drums and Mark Swinnerton on drum machine programming. Swinnerton left after a few months and the four-piece line-up released some more singles before Hibbert was sacked, after feuding with Chad, in spring 1996. Julian Fenton filled in on drums until Andie Rathbone joined in August 1996, solidifying the line-up.  Their debut album, Attack of the Grey Lantern, was released in early 1997 and knocked labelmate Blur's critically acclaimed self-titled fifth album off the top of the charts. The album is a concept album looking at  various bizarre characters amidst life behind the scenes of the village they inhabit, all from the perspective of the Grey Lantern who observes it all. The Stripper Vicar, Dark Mavis, Egg Shaped Fred, Penelope Cheapskate, Fatima Toothpaste, and other residents populate daily life in the town,  as it's revealed that the vicar is a stripper and that Dark Mavis is his daughter. The end of the album concludes with the death and funeral of the Vicar as the entire town gathers to pay their respects. Beginning with the beautifully sweeping opening track "The Chad Who Loved Me" and ending with the long chanted fadeout of "Dark Mavis," it's a fantastically grandiose album, where every song segues into the next...the entire record comes off like a technicolor movie for your ears. The songwriting and band performances are top-notch, and the album hangs together as a cohesive whole masterfully. Beyond this, there are several excellent tracks that work as standalone songs outside of the album's concept, including"Wide Open Space," "Naked Twister," "Mansun's Only Love Song," "She Makes My Nose Bleed," and others that would become staples of their live act (which will be discussed later in this piece).

After the touring and promotion for the album was finished, the band began recording their second album. However, at the time Draper was suffering from writers block; because of this, rather than bringing completed songs to the sessions, he brought forth dozens of song fragments. Stitching these together and making the album from scratch in the studio, the result was the critically acclaimed but (relatively) commercially flawed album Six. It's a sprawling, dense, and harrowing album full of twists and turns, hidden bits tucked in every corner...a true headphones records and to the 1990s what the White Album is to the 1960s. With its elaborate album cover filled with hidden references to the lyrics and the kaleidoscopic texture of the songs (again, without breaks between tracks), the album had a definite psychedelic and progressive rock feel and had little to nothing to do with BritPop. Throw in the fact that there was even an interlude partway through where the album was split in half like a vinyl record ("Witness to a Muder, Part II"), and you're left with a masterpiece that was perhaps too ahead of its time given the moment in 1990s Britain when it was released. There were, however, several successful singles from the record including "Legacy," "Negative," and "Being a Girl." While the album was met with confusion in its time, it has since rightly been hailed as the pinnacle of the band's recording career and it is often invoked as one of the lost masterpieces of 1990s rock. Due to Six's relative failure, Parlophone insisted that an outside producer oversee the sessions for the third album, the making of which was not a particularly happy time for the band. They were pushed into a slicker, more commercial-sounding direction and the resulting album, Little Kix, while solid, lacked the spark of their previous efforts and was quite uneven. The band hate it and fans are split on my opinion, half of the album is great and half should be swapped with the B-sides for the album's singles, which are stronger tracks!

From here it was sadly downhill for the band; their planned fourth album was to be a back-to-basics affair, stripped down, rawer, and self-titled to boot. However, internal tensions throughout its gestation led to King being sacked after the final tour in 2002, and the band called it a day in 2003. But the story didn't end there; vigorous fan petitioning led Draper and Parlophone to release the final album sessions in 2004 as a 3-CD box set, entitled Kleptomania, that also included a disc of rarities and a greatest-hits disc as voted on by fans in an online poll. Listening to this set, it's reinforced how much of a shame it is that the band split when they did, as the 4th album tracks have a raw, gritty energy that bristles, and while the trademark Mansun sound is stripped down, it doesn't mean they've gone completely low-fi...the beautiful atmospheres and textures their best work has is still present, and to great effect. A further compilation, Legacy: The Best of Mansun, was released in 2006 and contained all of the band's promotional videos and a new mini-documentary on the band, on the bonus DVD included in the set. Since then, it's been quiet from the band, with rumors of Paul Draper's solo album, as well as rumors of a full band reunion, popping up over the years. Nothing has happened although those of us who have been passionate fans of the band have never stopped loving the band and their music, to the point that there will be fan convention held in Chester in August 2014, where rare Mansun memorabilia will be on display, there will be several Q&A sessions with people from the Mansun camp, and the first Paul Draper solo track will be premiered!

As for Mansun's influences, in an era where their contemporaries were citing 1960s and 1970s legends like the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who, Small Faces, T Rex, and David Bowie as musical touchstones, Mansun, while sharing the Bowie influence, drew upon different inspirations, including 1980s New Wave, Duran Duran, ABC, and Magazine among others. Along with being musically apart from their peers, Mansun were also quite striking in their appearance, eschewing the Fred Perry/Adidas/neo-Mod stylings of BritPop in favor of a darker, Gothic/Romantic look that had more to do with the Doors, the Velvet Underground, and 1970s punk than any of the more colorful and florid looks making a comeback in the 1990s. Whether it was Chad wearing a dress, the band wearing eyeliner, or Paul with the word "STRIPPER" scrawled across his chest with lipstick, there was more of an edge to their look than the mainstream bands of BritPop. This melding of their look and their music was perfect and manifested itself to great effect not only in their promotional videos, but in their concerts. For as great as Mansun's records were (and still are), they also were one of the best live acts of their era, putting on shows of incredible power. The songs took on a harder, heavier edge in a live setting, with many of them stretching out to ten minutes or more, including storming numbers like "Take it Easy, Chicken" and "Taxloss," which were two regular showpieces of the live act. Additionally, they drew upon their rich catalog of B-sides, many of which were as good, if not better, than album tracks. They had a handle on dynamics, where quieter passages were used to great effect to build tension and excitement before the music would explode over the only has to hear a live version of "Electric Man" or "Comes As No Surprise" to hear what I mean. And instrumentally, the live stage gave them a chance to stretch out and flex their chops, none more so than Andie with his thunderous drumming flying all over the drum kit, and Chad with his stinging and soaring solos and his mastery of effects pedals. Some songs were transformed from their majestic studio incarnations into powerhouse performances, including "Naked Twister," "Mansun's Only Love Song," and "Everyone Must Win," while longer concept pieces like "Television" became truly epic when played live.

For me personally, the appeal of Mansun's music, besides its quality, is the fact that while it had identifiable touchstones, it was simultaneously so different and unique; the band truly had a sound all their own. In addition, many of their songs had an outsider appeal and dealt with topics that were more personal than what many of their peers were writing about at the time...I find them to be analogous in this way to other bands who had this natural outsider ethos and embraced it, such as The Kinks and The Smiths. Beyond that, the music and lyrics work so well together and have so many layers to them that repeated listens still reveal new things, and the songs always sound fresh and interesting, which is the hallmark of any great band. I can also find new ways to relate to the same song depending on circumstances or my mood, which makes for a rich listening experience. 

Mansun are virtually unknown here in the USA beyond a small but devoted following. When I've tried to expose my friends to them, they almost always have no clue who I'm talking about...a few of them have recognized "Wide Open Space," which was the band's only (minor) hit song here, but that's about it. In a way, however, I like it this makes the band more of an intimate secret here, something that can be held close to my heart and that I don't have to share with everyone else in the mainstream. And in keeping with the band's status as outsiders, that's absolutely fitting.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Family Fanatics: We're Wicked Big Sports Fans!

Sports are a big part of my life and always have been; I not only played them a ton when I was younger, but I still stay active both for the health benefits as well as sheer enjoyment. And of course, I've been a dedicated fan since as far back as I can remember. So when I was approached by Fanatics asking if I would participate in their Family Fanatics campaign, I jumped at the chance. Fanatics is a leading online retailer for sportswear and apparel, not only of all of the major sports leagues, but college and international sports as well. The invitation to contribute to the Family Fanatics campaign was to write about experiences where sports have brought our family together, which seemed interesting and can read my contribution below!
There are numerous reasons why I always feel that I've been very fortunate to have lived my entire life in New England. One of those reasons has to do with being a sports fan. We're a very provincial region, loyal to and proud of our traditions and where we live, and one of the ways that this is manifested is in our devotion to our sports teams.  Here in New England, we've got some of the oldest teams in each of the "Big 4" sports leagues, including a founding member of the NBA in the Boston Celtics, one of the original American League baseball teams in the Boston Red Sox, a founding member of the AFL (which was later absorbed into the NFL) in the New England Patriots, and an Original Six hockey team in the Boston Bruins. We're devoted to our teams and support them rabidly in good times and fair-weather fans here! Having grown up a sports fan and rooting for these teams, I've been able to share that passion for sports with my wife and now we are raising our four children to be fans, too. From our son constantly wearing his Red Sox hat and Celtics shirt to our daughters loving the Red Sox shirts they got after the team won the 2013 World Series, being a New England sports fan is something we do together as a family.

Luckily for our kids, they're growing up during an unprecedented run of success for our local teams. As a kid myself in the 1980s and 1990s, the only winning I knew was the sustained excellent of the Celtics, where they made five NBA Finals appearances, winning three of them. I also knew heartache, seeing the Patriots lose two Super Bowls, in 1986 and 1997, watching the Bruins come up short in the 1988 and 1990 Stanley Cup Finals, and the ultimate heartbreak that was the Red Sox and the 1986 World Series. However, my fandom never wavered, and starting in 2001 our four teams have appeared in a staggering ELEVEN championship finals combined, winning eight of them. I've been lucky enough to be able to share in watching all of these with my wife (who was a big sports fan herself before we even met) and, for the more recent ones, our kids as well. Our oldest two daughters had a lot of fun watching World Series games with me last year as we cheered the Sox on to victory again, and they had a blast at "Red Sox Day" at their school the next day, when they wore their favorite Sox shirts and hats to school. They've also known the heartbreak of defeat, seeing the Bruins lose in the Finals in 2013 and the Patriots in 2011, but that's okay...while obviously we would have been happy had our teams won, learning to lose with grace is an important life lesson; they've learned this through their own experiences playing on soccer teams, but losing as a sports fan is also good lesson for anyone to learn, especially since at the end of the day it's all in fun.

The beauty of sports is that we can sit and watch them together as a family and really have fun with it. We even have a family tradition that we started years ago that all of us really look forward each and every NFL Sunday: whenever the Patriots are playing, we have pizza delivered and enjoy a "picnic" in our living room, where we all sit in our favorite seats and have either a late lunch or early dinner (depending on whether it's a 1pm or 4pm game) of pizza while we watch the game. We have so much fun doing this, none more so than our kids, who even now are asking me how many weeks are left until football season starts again so we can resume our tradition!

In addition to watching sports as a family, we also like to participate in them together. In 2011, I decided to get back in shape and started running...I ended up losing a lot of weight, which I've kept off, and I've continued running regularly to the present day; it's something I can't imagine not doing for the rest of my life. Since then, the whole family has taken to running 5k races together and we have had a lot of fun doing it. It's also been a great way for us to set an example for the kids that regular exercise and a healthy and active lifestyle should be an important part of their lives. This summer we had our most fun yet, participating in the Finish at the Fifty race at Gillette Stadium, home of the Patriots, during the Independence Day weekend. Even though it was the hottest day of the summer (at a scorching 95 oF with unbearable humidity), we had a blast spending the day together.  Our three youngest kids did the fun run, my wife and our oldest ran the 5k, and I ran the 10k.  As an added bonus, all of the races ended on the field at the 50-yard line and it was a real treat to be able to walk and run on the same field where we watch our beloved Patriots play every week during football season! The entire experience was great for our family in many different ways. In preparation for the race, my wife and two oldest daughters started running a few days a week in order to get ready for their 5k, while I ramped up my mileage in order to prepare for the 10k.  On race day, we arrived early in order to enjoy the family activities that were set up all over Patriot Place before we got ready to run.  First, our youngest three did the kids fun run, then my wife and oldest did the 5k, and finally, I ran the 10k. While the oppressive heat and humidity made the running quite miserable (if I'm being honest) and we all ran slower on purpose in order to avoid heat-related exhaustion, overall the day was a ton of fun. We cheered each other on during our races, proudly wore the medals we received, took pictures of each other crossing the finish line...the best part was just spending a wonderful day together as a family. Even the hour-long drive back home later that night was fun, since we were all so excited about what we had done and it was a relief to spend the time in an air-conditioned car! What it really showed us is that not only does being sports fans bring us together and allow us to spend quality family time, but so does participating in them!

Pat Patriot getting everyone pumped up to start! He must have been HOT in there!

Stella and Sophia getting ready to watch the Fun Run

Penny showing off her medal after the Fun Run while Evan checks his medal out
Evan proudly showing off his medal

Me with Penny and Evan walking off the field after their run

Trying to pose for a picture, but they weren't sure where to look!

Stella getting ready to run her race

Stella after the race!

Kristie and Stella after Stella's Fun Run

Kristie and Sophia crossing the finish line!

Me and my number, getting ready to run

Me crossing the finish line after the 10k
Me with my medal

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Tribute to Johnny Winter

I was saddened this morning when I woke up and saw on the news that Johnny Winter passed away at the age of 70 while he was on tour in Europe. While he'd been in poor health for a while, it's still a bummer. As I wrote when I reviewed his official biography, he was a ridiculously talented guitarist and singer who was probably the most authentic white bluesman of all time. His dedication to his craft and his amazing talent have made him one of my favorite musicians throughout my entire life. He also seemed, for all his faults (and we all have faults), to be a good person. He was friends with and has played with everyone from Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton to Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, he appeared at Woodstock, won Grammys for the albums he made with Waters, and is one of the giants of American blues music. I was lucky enough to see him live in New Hampshire in 2006 and while he had slowed down a bit from his prime, he still put on a great show and played amazing guitar. 

Clapton, Muddy, and Johnny

Jimi and Johnny

Janis and Johnny

So crank up some Johnny Winter music today in tribute to the man and let's be thankful we'll always have the music to enjoy and to remember him by. Rest in peace, Johnny! 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Jimi Hendrix: Setting the Record Straight

In 1995, I was a 15 year old obsessed with playing my guitar whenever I could and listening to my idols at all times. Perhaps more so than any other year of my life, that year I ate, slept, and breathed all things Clapton, Page, Townshend, and Hendrix. Any available scrap of film I could watch or print I could read about these guys was eagerly devoured (remember, this is in the pre-internet days where it was much harder to find anything...not like today where it's a click away on the web). While working at my summer job as a short-order cook, one of the older guys I worked with told me, "hey, man, if you want to read a good book about Jimi, Setting the Record Straight is the best one." I took his advice and promptly went to a local bookstore and bought a copy, reading it in a matter of days. I ended up reading it a few more times after, but it had been quite some time, at least a dozen years since I last picked it up, so the following write-up is based on my re-reading of it for the purposes of this review.

Published in 1992, Setting the Record Straight endeavors to tell the true story of Jimi Hendrix' remarkable and short life and career via thorough research and firsthand accounts from the people who were knew him. Frustrated by the image of Hendrix that had been built up since his death as a clueless, albeit supremely talented,  drug-addled fool who squandered everything and died of a drug overdose, longtime Hendrix historian John McDermott and Hendrix' engineer and friend Eddie Kramer set out to tell his true story: a talented and serious musician who only wanted to make the best music he could. In order to do this, the authors not only drew from primary sources such as articles, interviews, and other books, but also new testimony from people who were there and who knew and dealt with Jimi. These included co-manager Chas Chandler, associates of his late co-manager (and man of mystery) Michael Jeffrey, controversial producer Alan Douglas, bandmates Noel Redding, Mitch Mitchel, Billy Cox, and Buddy Miles, various record company executives and studio personnel who worked with him, and fellow musicians including Paul McCartney, as well as his wife Linda, who was friends with Jimi and took numerous photographs of him.

Unlike the interesting new book, Starting At Zero, which I've recently reviewed and which is pieced together from various Hendrix quotes in order to present as close to an autobiography as we'll ever have, Setting the Record Straight is a straightforward biography of the man, but one that focuses entirely on the years when he was famous, 1966-1970. There is a very brisk and brief summation of his birth, childhood, and early years on the southern chitlin' circuit where he cut his teeth as a musician before we find Jimmy (as he was then known) struggling and literally starving trying to make a go of it as a musician in New York City's Greenwich Village during 1965 and 1966. First noticed by Keith Richards' then-girlfriend Linda Keith, Jimmy was shopped around to various record company A&R men (including Dick Rowe of Decca Records, who famously turned down the Beatles in 1962 and did the same to Hendrix in 1966) before coming to the attention of Animals bassist Chas Chandler, who took Jimi to England and set about managing and producing his career. Eventually, the hard work paid off and the Experience, comprising Hendrix, Mitchell, and Redding became one of the most successful and acclaimed UK bands of the decade alongside the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Who, Kinks, Cream, and Traffic. However, after his phenomenal and meteoric success in 1967 and 1968, Hendrix began to get bogged down by a variety of factors, all of which the authors describe in objective detail: relentless touring, sycophantic hangers-on, succumbing to the trappings of fame (most notably, Hendrix' escalating drug use), and the ruthless management style of Michael Jeffrey. Jimi became unfocused, spending unbelievable amounts of time and money on studio sessions that produced very little finished music in the wake of his epic 1968 masterpiece, Electric Ladyland. The purchase and construction of his own recording studio in New York City, Electric Lady Studios, would take up the remainder of his short life and he would only get to utilize it, still in an unfinished state, for less than a year before his tragic and accidental death in September 1970. 


McDermott does an excellent job telling the story of Jimi Hendrix in an engaging, interesting, and exciting manner without sacrificing any detail or information. Even when the subject matter turns to the complicated machinations behind Jeffrey's schemes, from tax shelters to the myriad labyrinth of contracts he constructed to bind Hendrix to him, it's done in a way that is easy to follow; this gives the reader a better understanding of just how tied to his management Jimi (somewhat unwittingly) was. However, the point is made throughout the book that Jimi was far from the uninformed dupe who never saw it coming that he's been portrayed as since his death. In fact, it is revealed that he was far shrewder and aware of what was going on with his career than many knew. However, he also had a cavalier attitude toward certain business dealings that came back to haunt him and had very real professional and personal ramifications. A contract he signed as a sideman in 1965 with Ed Chalpin's PPX Records was invoked once he became an international star in 1967 and dogged him until he died. It is this contract and the shoddy product (where Hendrix is little more than a session player) that has resulted in innumerable releases, both during Jimi's life and since his death, where his name is prominently displayed on the cover only to trick consumers into purchasing a record that is not an Experience album at all. In fact, Hendrix' classic 1970 live album Band of Gypsys was conceived and released in order to satisfy the demands of the lawsuit that stipulated he owed Chalpin an album of new Hendrix originals. A final successful tour in the spring and summer of 1970 resulted in some of the most mature and accomplished concerts of Hendrix' career, but by the time he appeared at the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970, he was tired, ragged, and depressed. A further week of shows in Europe was played before the tour halted. Jimi decamped to London to rest, refocus, and plan his next move. Sadly, it wasn't meant to be and he was found dead on September 18, 1970 at the London flat he shared with one of his girlfriends. The remainder of the book deals with the sordid way in which his life and music have been treated in the wake of his passing through to 1992, when the book was published.

Setting the Record Straight does an admirable job in presenting the facts about Jimi's life and career in as fair and even-handed a manner as possible, and the authors make a point of keeping their focus mainly on the music, which they rightfully contend is Jimi's true legacy. They don't, however, shy away from writing candidly and openly about some of the more unsavory aspects of his life, including his 1969 drug bust in Toronto, the various substances he abused (and his sometimes unseemly behavior while under the influence), and his cavalier and careless approach to spending money and honoring contracts he'd signed. However, through it all, the picture is painted of a man that was supremely talented musically who also happened to be quite shy, reserved, and who hated conflict of any kind. The tragedy of Jimi Hendrix is that, upon achieving the fame and success he'd wanted so long and for which he'd worked so hard, he found himself trapped on a treadmill of demands, deadlines, and matters outside of his control and he didn't know how to cope with it. Having scaled the heights of the music world in the wake of 1968's Electric Ladyland and finishing the decade as the highest paid rock act in the world, Jimi foolishly jettisoned Chandler and Redding, setting in motion a chain of events that saw his career and personal life spiral out of control and made him vulnerable enough that he fell ever deeper into the clutches of Michael Jeffrey. And what of Jeffrey? Much has been made about his management style, his paranoia, his ties to organized crime, and his desire for an iron-like grip on Hendrix' career and the vast financial rewards that resulted. To their credit, McDermott and Kramer treat him as fairly as possible and do counter many of the outrageous stories (such as the rumor that he intentionally dosed Hendrix, thereby ruining the Band of Gypsys' final concert in late January 1970) by pointing out much of the good that he did for Hendrix.  However, the fact of the matter remains that on balance, in the end he had a negative effect on Hendrix' life and career, and the authors manage to get this across without overtly slagging Jeffrey...they let the facts speak for themselves. Finally, the book has a section in the middle with numerous photos, many of them from Linda McCartney's excellent collection, and appendices at the back with blueprint drawings of Electric Lady Studios, as well as correspondence between Hendrix and his office discussing his precarious financial situation throughout 1969 and 1970 during studio construction.

The only downside with this book is that, having been published in 1992, it's a bit dated; not in terms of the information contained therein, but in terms of the fact that Hendrix' family subsequently regained control of his music in the mid-1990s and embarked upon a rebooting of his musical legacy (with author John McDermott as their resident Hendrix historian) that on balance has been good, but has also met with some criticism from fans. However, in a way it's good that the book is from 1992, as in subsequent years Redding, Mitchell, Miles, Douglas, and Chandler have all passed away and had the book come out later, none of them would have been able to offer their invaluable contributions. In closing, while there are many good books on Jimi Hendrix, as far as biographies go this is still, more than twenty years after its release, the definitive book on the man.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Pete Townshend: The Mt. Rushmore of Songwriters Part 3

Clockwise from top left: Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ray Davies, Pete Townshend

PART 1 of this series on the greatest songwriters in popular music focused on the partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles, and PART 2 discussed Ray Davies of the Kinks. This third and final part of the series on the Mt. Rushmore of songwriters will focus on one of the most talented, ambitious, and visionary writers to emerge from the 1960s rock is, of course, Pete Townshend of the Who. Like Davies, Townshend did not have a collaborator and worked on his own. However, while the label of genius can be applied without hesitation to all of them, I feel that it is most applicable and accurate when describing Pete, for reasons which I will get into below.


Peter Townshend was born in London in May 1945 a week after the war in Europe had ended. He was raised in a musical household; his father, Cliff, had been in the RAF dance band the Squadronairres and had a few minor hit records. However, his parents' marriage was volatile and during a prolonged separation, Pete was sent to live with his grandmother, who he has subsequently labeled as "clinically insane." Eventually his parents reconciled and he rejoined them. Growing up as an only child until his brothers were born in 1957 and 1960, he was a lonely and introverted child whose world changed once he went to see Rock Around the Clock at the movies, going to multiple viewings. Joining up with schoolfriend and future Who bass player John Entwistle, they first got caught up in the trad-jazz craze in Britain before gravitating to rock and roll. John was a member of the Detours, a band run by a boy a year ahead of them at school, Roger Daltrey (who remembers Pete in his schooldays as "a nose on a stick"). 

Eventually changing their name to The Who and recruiting a fantastic 17 year old drummer named Keith Moon, the band's lineup was completed in 1964. While their repertoire had to this point relied mainly on the blues, surf, and R&B covers they liked, as well as covers of Beatles and other popular songs of the era, eventually Pete began writing songs for the band, starting with their first single released late that year, "I Can't Explain." (Pete has long acknowledged that his affinity for a rival London band, the Kinks and their songwriter Ray Davies, was the inspiration for the sound and structure of "I Can't Explain"). Encouraged by Who managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, Pete not only began writing more songs, but was one of the first, if not THE first, rock musicians in Britain to set up a dedicated and fully functioning home studio. In doing so, he could be more ambitious with the music he wrote and could also bring fully formed demo recordings into the studio to play for the rest of the Who to review. As the years went on and the Who's career progressed, Pete moved on to ever more ambitious songs, including the two rock operas he wrote (Tommy and Quadrophenia) and the aborted concept piece Lifehouse which was salvaged for the superb Who's Next album. As will be discussed below, by the time of the late 1960s, his demos were so fully formed and complete that, in many cases, identical arrangements were used by the Who (albeit with their own fantastic talent enhancing the songs).

From his earliest songs that dealt with youthful confusion and aggression ("I Can't Explain," "My Generation," and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" for example), Pete showed an ability to express the emotions and thoughts of his audience through his own experiences, and it's a talent he would continue to refine and perfect as he grew in experience and stature as a writer. Initially, the Who were, along with the Kinks, a classic 60s singles band, releasing a string of successful and perfectly crafted pop singles including the aforementioned songs. Subsequent hits included more sophisticated, whimsical, and mature songs like "Pictures of Lily," "Substitute," "I'm a Boy," and "Happy Jack." By 1967, however, they were becoming more album-oriented, with their minor masterpiece The Who Sell Out (trailed by the exception single "I Can See For Miles," which inspired Paul McCartney to write "Helter Skelter") emerging at the end of the year. However, similar to the Kinks, they saw a sharp decline in their singles chart success in 1968 and had to spend most of the year on the road in order to stay financially afloat. 

It was during this year that the band worked hard recording Pete's first fully realized concept album, Tommy. He had gained experience writing cohesive extended pieces of music such as the title track of 1966's A Quick One album and the overall loose theme of 1967's The Who Sell Out. The aborted Lifehouse concept (whose songs make up the bulk of 1971's Who's Next) and his magnum opus, 1973's Quadrophenia, showed that he was among the masters of this genre. While the overarching story of Tommy was relatively straightforward, the deeper meanings have always been a bit obtuse. With Lifehouse, Townshend was simply too ambitious for the technological limitations of the time. However, with Quadrophenia he touched upon a story that was instantly relatable to just about anyone who listened to it: that of teenage disaffection and confusion with the world. These concept albums stand the test of time not only because of the quality of the songwriting, arrangements, and band performances, but because Pete was able to use very few linking pieces and instead built the entire albums around strong, standalone songs that work on their own as well as within the framework of the album. Thus, you can listen to classics like "Pinball Wizard," "I'm Free," "The Real Me," "The Dirty Jobs," "Love Reign O'er Me," etc outside of the context of their respective albums and still enjoy them; more than that, as standalone songs they still have something to say to the listener.

An aspect of Townshend's genius is in the way he is able to use emotions as the driving force behind so much of his best work. I've often said that the Who were one of the few bands that could make you want to punch out in one instant and weep the next, all within the same song. Perhaps no song epitomizes this more than the superb "Bargain" from Who's Next, which captures one of Townshend's greatest songs set to one of the best ensemble performances of the band's career; verses and choruses full of feeling and energy contrast with the quiet middle section that offers a more tender, cerebral slant on matters before the bombast resumes, all with one of his most beautiful lyrics. He did of course write outright heavy rock songs, but even these had an element of experimentation to them, such as the looped Lowry organ put through a wave filter that pulses underneath all nine minutes of "Won't Get Fooled Again" or the guitar solo patched through a synthesizer envelope filter on "Going Mobile." Indeed, starting in the late 1960s, Townshend became one of the first rock musicians to incorporate the newly developed synthesizers and he remained on the cutting edge of the technology's development and application. Whether it was the burbling pattern that was the basis for "Baba O'Riley," the gorgeous orchestrations throughout the entire Quadrophenia album, or the ambitious  and meticulously constructed neo-classical synthesizer backdrops on the Who Are You album, Townshend's sophisticated and audacious use of synthesizer technology in rock music elevated him from status of mere songwriter to that of a composer, with all of the pretensions (fair or not) that it brought.

Perhaps the most overlooked and under appreciated aspect of Pete's songwriting genius is his lyric writing. It's certainly an aspect that I feel has not gotten its due over the years. While it's true that in Roger Daltrey and his voice, he had the perfect instrument with which to express his words, without Pete writing the words, Daltrey would have had nothing to sing. To give absolutely deserved credit, Daltrey managed to take Townshend's lyrics, which were oftentimes quite personal to Pete, and convey them in the perfect way. There are very few times ("However Much I Booze," for example) where Roger felt uncomfortable enough with the lyric being too personal and left Pete to sing lead. There are so many examples of Townshend's brilliant lyric writing, from the simple aggression of "My Generation" (and the line that has haunted him to this day, "I hope I die before I get old") to whole swaths of Tommy and Quadrophenia. In the interests of not making this article even longer than it already is, I'll choose some of my favorite examples.  There is the wholly perfect love song to God in the aforementioned "Bargain," where the singer years to suffer and lose all that he has in order to become one with the Lord. "Time is Passing," in addition to being a lost gem of a song contains such powerful lines extolling the quasi-religious virtues of music as a higher force: "there are echoes of it splashing in the waves, and an empire of dead men leave their graves." Whether it's looking at the world and the power of music and humans to change things for the better ("Pure and Easy"), musings on aging ("Slip Kid"), the restless creative spirit pushing him ever onward ("Music Must Change"), allegorical science fiction ("I'm a Boy") or cheeky double entendres ("Pictures of Lily," "Mary Ann With the Shaky Hand"), Pete has shown repeatedly that he's one of the most literate and thoughtful of rock's lyricists. How many other 22 year olds could write a superb rumination on what it means to be a man ("Tattoo") and wrap it up in a bit of Ray Davies-style humor to boot? Perhaps no other writer of his generation took rock music so seriously, or asked so much of it.

On a personal level, besides the Who being one of my favorite bands for as long as I can remember, Pete's songs have, like those of Lennon/McCartney and Davies, meant so much to me. Not only have they inspired and influenced my own songwriting and guitar playing, but they have quite literally saved my life (or at least my sanity!). In particular, Quadrophenia is an album that means more to me than just about any other record in the world. It not only helped me during some emotionally harrowing times in my teenage years (and to be fair, what I was going through with friends, girls, and my parents was ultimately trivial and just a normal part of growing up when I look back on it as an adult, but at the time it was serious to me), but in the years since then, I've used it as a way to get a handle on my emotions. The story arc helps to reaffirm that things will eventually be all right if the storm can be weathered. Pete's songs are always emotional, thoughtful, and impactful and continue to be among my very favorites of all time.

While John Entwistle certainly wrote some fantastic songs for the Who ("My Wife," "Someone's Coming," and "Heaven and Hell" among others), it was Pete Townshend who was the creative force in the band, writing the vast majority of their songs and shaping their overall artistic direction. More than even the other three writers profiled in this series, I would say that Pete Townshend was a true innovator in the way he incorporated synthesizers into his sound and in the way he utilized his home studio to pioneer recording techniques and devise methods and technical innovations that are now commonplace in professional recording studios. Quite simply, while Lennon, McCartney, and Davies are brilliant writers, perhaps none of the four of them lives up to the title of genius as much as Pete Townshend.