BY ERIK CHRISTENSEN
November 2, 2016
Great year. Terrible year. A year that killed off several close friends and a handful of musical heroes (Prince, David Bowie, Guy Clark … the list goes on.) It’s also the year a skinny songwriter kid from Hibbing, Minnesota won the Nobel Prize. So let’s go positive and celebrate with a stack of musical books that I’ve read in the last year. Pull up a chair, pour a glass of your favorite beverage, and enjoy my 2016 Top Five Reading List.
1. “Born To Run” by Bruce Springsteen
The attraction: Always had a soft spot for Bruce. Although it’s a cliché, I revert to the typical music geek who says, “I liked him before he was famous, man! Before he sold out.” Instead of the fist-in-the-air Americana icon, gimme the pre-1975 Bruce, who was still a skinny street rat playing clubs. Of all the records I own, the stack of 1973-74-75 live bootlegs are my most cherished.
The surprise: In this brand new book, Bruce talks very frankly about struggling with depression. Inherited from his father’s side of the family, he says it’s the secret package in the Crackerjack box of his family tree. Strange to think that someone with 20,000 people screaming his name in adulation in a soccer stadium still needs medication and therapy. In some of the press for the book, it was mentioned that maybe it will lead to more folks seeking treatment. Thanks, for being so honest, boss.
Unsung hero: Best friend and Soprano-style sidekick Steve Van Zandt. Part sounding board, part evil twin, this beating heart of rock and roll keeps everyone around him grounded.
Favorite quote: “A lot of what the E Street Band does is hand-me-down shtick transformed by will, power and an intense communication with our audience into something transcendent. Sometimes that’s all you need.”
2. “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink” by Elvis Costello
The attraction: One of the most literate of all pop songwriters, Elvis took me from sophomore year in high school (an amazing first album and terrible/wonderful appearance on “Saturday Night Live“) to the modern day (collaborations with Paul McCartney and a great 2016 solo tour). One of the great artists of our time.
The surprise: All the country and west-coast easy listening that Elvis spends pages and pages rhapsodizing over. For someone who became famous for angry punk rock, he spent his childhood listening to Joni Mitchell, Little Feat, CSN&Y, etc. Who knew?
Unsung hero: Elvis’ father, Ross McManus, was a big band leader and quite a well-known singer in his own right. Also, his grandfather Patrick played trumpet on the White Star Line cruise ships in the 1920s. Hmmm. Genetics.
Favorite quote: “There is no superior. There is no high and low. The beautiful thing is, you don’t have to choose. You can love it all. Those songs are there to help you when you need them most.”
3. “Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements” by Bob Mehr
The attraction: The champions of walking the line between drunken buffoonery and transcendent lyricism, I kind of looked forward to reading this like watching a car wreck in slow motion.
The surprise: Paul Westerberg, leader and songwriter, always spent time writing tender ballads, even in those early days of trashing hotel rooms and canceling gigs on account of inebriation. That might be the creative tension that made The Replacements great or doomed them to the almost-but-not-quite-successful scrap heap.
Unsung hero: Tommy Stinson, who joined as a 14-year-old delinquent, and grew up backstage and on the bus. As producer Jim Dickinson remembers, “Tommy Stinson may be my favorite musician I’ve ever worked with. People say Keith Richards is the living embodiment of rock-and-roll? I’m sorry, but I know Keith, and it’s Tommy.”
Favorite quote: “Yet like the others, he had an incredibly jaundiced view of the music business. ‘He was just like them,’ said Gary Hobbib, laughing. ‘He didn’t trust anybody, didn’t like anybody. He was born a Replacement.’ “
4. “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen” by Sylvie Simmons
The attraction: This is the only book on the list that was not released this year. Like everyone, I just love the music—always an interesting mix of sacred and secular. My band plays “Hallelujah” at most of my shows, and I love the poetry in “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Bird on a Wire,” and any other number of Leonard’s songs.
The surprise: I knew Cohen was a serious poet, and I even have several of his books, but I didn’t realize, until I read about his early life, that he was quite successful as a poet long before he even took up songwriting. He won several literary awards and was even the subject of a CBC documentary for his writing. True in the 1950s as now, poetry doesn’t really pay, so he picked up the Spanish guitar in earnest.
Unsung hero: We have a tie between poet/friend/mentor Irving Leyton and Joni Mitchell, sometime romantic partner and longtime artistic supporter, who got Leonard up on stage in many prestigious venues and pushed/inspired him as a musician.
Favorite quote: “…a version of the yin and yang, or any of those symbols that incorporate the polarities and try and reconcile the differences.”
5. “M Train” by Patti Smith
The attraction: “Just Kids,” which came out in 2010, was a wonderful insight into the NYC-bohemian-Robert Mapplethorpe artistic era of the 1970s. This book is far more personal on her relationship with her husband and his untimely death and her travels to pay respect to the ghosts of Genet, Frida Kahlo, and Alfred Wegener.
The surprise: Throughout the book, Smith mentions watching the Seattle-based murder mystery series “The Killing.” I thought, “Interesting…I’ve been meaning to watch that.” Then, several chapters in, without warning, she proceeds to give away the surprise ending! Jeez! Guess I won’t be watching it after all.
Unsung hero: Baristas. The common motif in this book is coffee shops, notebooks, and writing, writing, writing. She travels, she’s very introspective and thoughtful, but is always working, putting words to paper, and paying respect to the artists of the past.
Favorite quote: “I have lived in my own book. One I never planned to write, recording time backwards and forwards. I have watched the snow fall onto the sea and traced the steps of a traveler long gone. I have relived moments that were perfect in their certainty.”
As always, there were some honorable mentions: “Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L. A. Punk” by John Doe and Tom DeSavia, and, in the non-musical categories: “You Must Change Your Life—The Story of Auguste Rodin and Rainer Maria Rilke” by Rachel Corbett, “Pretty Much Everything” by Aaron James Draplin, “Widow Basquiat” by Jennifer Clement, “The Lost Poems of Pablo Neruda” by Pablo Neruda, and “The Great Fires” by Jack Gilbert.
Get reading, boys and girls!
Erik Christensen teaches in Oak Harbor, writes songs and poetry, and enjoys a good cup of coffee and a notebook more than just about anything.
The Erik Christensen Band plays at the Oak Harbor Fleet Reserve from 9 p.m. to midnight on Saturday, Nov. 5 and at Loakal Public House in Oak Harbor from 8 to 10 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 19.
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