Nina Antonia:- 13 Knots - Collected Poetry and Prose (TBMR Records)
The arrival of a new Nina Antonia book is always a major event in the Mudkiss reading room. Her Only Ones book (“The One and Only”) is one of my all-time favourites, and she’s also written a great Johnny Thunders biography, “In Cold Blood” and about the New York Dolls in “Too Much Too Soon“. This latest volume is a nicely produced paperback - just under 100 pages - with a pretty even split between poetry and prose. It’s an excellent read and a good introduction for anyone who hasn’t read her writing before.
The material gathered here has the unifying feature of being material that Nina’s used for various public readings, both solo and accompanied at spoken word events, which could just be the new rock’n’roll if she has anything to do with it. The text is divided into five sections: the poetry - Absence, Arcadia, and Artifice, followed by the prose in Aspects and Aftermath.
I’m not usually a big poetry fan, but there’s a really good mix of styles here, and some very skilful writing, full of detail and allusive imagery. There’s an undercurrent of older knowledge underscoring a lot of the writing here, along with the black leather and cheekbones “Born to Lose” feeling, as in the poignant “Old Red” - “May The Horned Ones Beat Down Your Door”. Timeless figures like Pan, Isis and Osiris mingle like shades with Johnny Thunders, Sid Vicious and Nico, while the spirit of William Blake lurks in the twilight. Poems like “Desperate Dave Is Dead” and “Johnny Teardrop” inhabit this semi-mythical territory. On the other hand, “El Alamein” is a simple and direct tribute to her grandfather Sammy Mack’s experience of that battle (one that’s always been important in my family too) - it’s a real favourite of mine, and an overdue recognition of the real heroes of WW2.
The Artifice section contains a couple of small but perfectly formed word bombs like “Patti Smith” and “Underclass” which are perfect for doing live, but are sharp enough to work on the page as well. “My Best Friend” is sharp as nails too, a Keats like “Ode to a Cigarette” - “Oh sultry boy, my paramour/ Your glory days are over/ The prop of stars/ Has burned its last/ As Film Noir Iconoclast”.
The prose writings continue many of the themes and ideas of the poetry, but at more depth. As well as invoking the old misty gods and forest spirits like Cernunnos and Herne the Hunter, she makes further connections with the Bohemian/outsider artist tradition, the kickers against the pricks condemned to recognition when it’s too late to be of any use. The big bucks might go elsewhere, but it’s the likes of Blake, Baudelaire and Burroughs who cross the centuries.
“Jackals At Play” captures the essence of a sweaty, sultry, summer night in Soho so well that you can almost smell that mixture of coffee and exhaust fumes, hustling and expectation. “The Soul Errant” summarises the marginal status of the writer now, noting that “in the recent Footlocker UK riots, only bookshops were left unscathed”, while “The Road Less Staggered” laments the decline of the old school, hard living artist, whether Dylan Thomas, Peter Doherty or Johnny Thunders, where now going into rehab is little more than a career move following some slight lapse into decadence is, before a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed return. “Blue Valentine” is a bold and fascinating piece, which - via the characters of Sid and Nancy - considers the taboo concept of “bad love” and how “love is all you need” may not always be the case. Of course writing anything remotely positive about Nancy Spungen is another present-day taboo (as I’ve found when expressing similar heresies). The concept of ‘lost souls’ runs throughout the writing here, and is developed further in the “Aftermath” section. Here she looks deeper at the Nancy Spungen‘s life and death, and the web of destructive influences that led to her early demise. It’s a tough and perceptive piece of writing, and one that isn’t afraid to go against the grain of mindless stereotypes. The essay on Nico looks at her life before and after the Velvet Underground, and its intriguing to see how for all her faults, she‘s perceived to this day as an icon of cool sophistication, while Nancy is simply damned to eternity as “Nauseating“. A final piece looks at the story of critics ‘favourites the MC5 and the jailing of their manager, John Sinclair. Again, it’s a tale of how musical and political idealism succumb to overblown egos and substance abuse. The idea of a rock group as “community band” might seem quaint now, in the same way that calling your political faction the White Panthers (like the seriously militant Black Panthers) was naïve to say the least - but seen in the context of the late 60’s/early 70’s anti-Viet Nam War movement and uprisings against the system, it made sense at the time. For me the MC5 rhetoric and backstory was always a load more interesting than the music, and Nina does a really good job of illustrating the difference between being heroes in your own (Detroit) backyard and the harsh realities of taking it out on the road and dealing with the wiles of the music business.
“13 Knots” shows once again that Nina Antonia is one of the sharpest and classiest music writers around, and its ‘slim volume’ nature makes it an ideal starter or filler until her next full-length writing. Meanwhile, she’s at work editing Peter Doherty’s writing - now that should make for an interesting review…
Rob Jovanovic - Big Star: The Story of Rock’s Forgotten Band (Jawbone Press, revised & updated edition)
Big Star truly lived up to their name in the early/mid 70s, shining like a beacon through the fog of declining 60’s bands and the bland corporate Eagles-style music of the day. Although there was always a strong Byrds influence with their 12-string and harmonies sound, the group’s real inspirations were from the UK, principally Beatles, Kinks and Who. Later groups like REM and the Replacements were to cash in massively on the Big Star sound, and this influence has continued to resonate through people like Yo La Tengo, the Bangles and Best Coast. Main writer and singer Alex Chilton had previously been the teenage lead singer with the Box Tops when they’d had global hits like “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby“. However the endless tours and label demands for more hits left him embittered and mistrustful. Big Star made two fantastic albums, but suffered every mishap going, and seem to be one of those groups like Badfinger, the Only Ones or the Auteurs with a curse on their career.
It’s a fascinating story, and one that at times seems like a novel, such are the characters, locations and happenings along the way. Rob Jovanovic does a great job of describing it all. As he says, the group are his first love musically, and it was always his ambition to write about them, but the book’s no gushing fan-fest, and he doesn’t duck the hard stuff. There’s some very perceptive writing about the two main personalities in the group: idealistic Anglophile Chris Bell and hard-bitten Alex Chilton, a man who operated very much on his own terms, and with a lifelong bitterness against the Music Biz from his Box Tops days. Some of the scene setting is terrific too. The group originated in the South, with Memphis, Tennessee, as their focal point. There have been some great BBC4 programmes recently about the Stax Studios and its core team of musicians and technicians, and the book captures the same sweaty small-town atmosphere, along with a rich cast of full-on characters like Jim Dickinson. Chris Bell was training as an engineer, and from there the nascent Big Star first got together, practising and recording in all-night studio down-time sessions, before the house band and Otis Redding turned up in the morning.
The Stax-influence gave the rhythm section of Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens a fluidity lacking in most white rock boogie bands of the time. Combine this with the awesome song-writing skills and harmony singing of Bell and Chilton, and something very special happened - listen to songs like “Ballad of El Goodo”, “Way Out West”, “What’s Going Ahn”, “I Am the Cosmos”, “You Get What You Deserve” or “September Gurls” to get an idea. With material like this they should have been huge at a pretty fallow time for US music, so what went wrong? Everything basically! Stax wanted to cross over from their established soul base and break into the white rock market. Memphis boys Big Star seemed ideal, but the label had no idea how to market them, and couldn’t manage the nationwide distribution the group required (a recurring theme in their career). The first two albums - “#1 Record” (1972) and “Radio City” (1973) - got rave reviews from the heavyweights like Rolling Stone magazine, but anyone trying to buy the albums would come home disappointed from the record store.
At the same time things got increasingly fractious in the group, with Chris Bell wanting the group to be studio based and not tour (like his heroes the Beatles), which led to conflict with Alex Chilton. Meanwhile the other two guys in the group were getting frustrated as they too started writing songs, good ones too. Add the usual early 70’s wild cards of drink and drugs, and it’s a downward path. There is nominally a third Big Star album, “Sister Lovers/Third” - when even the title’s disputed, things don’t look good - which is a big critics’ fave over the two earlier albums, mainly for the back-story rather than the music, and because its one of those “car crash records” like Neil Young’s “On the Beach” or “Tonight’s the Night” or Iggy’s “Metallic KO“, oozing an atmosphere of booze, downers and other bad scenes. Really it’s much more of an Alex Chilton solo album (first of many) which does have its moments, along with some pretty redundant covers (although I accept I might be in a minority of one here). Chris Bell made some headway as a solo performer, but sadly his life became increasingly beset with “personal” problems. In addition he developed an obsessive perfectionism in the studio which would make it virtually impossible for him to ever actually complete any work. Since his death in a 1978 car accident, there have been various reissues as new fans discover songs like “I Am the Cosmos”.
The book’s been updated and revised to include Alex Chilton’s death in 2010, and to record the group’s various attempts at reunions, tours and even some recording. Chilton comes across as an elusive character, with a suspicious and contrary nature that would always lead to problems in a group situation. While just about everyone else in the Big Star story cooperated with the author, the reclusive Chilton declined to be interviewed or involved in any way (the author could only find five TV interviews for the whole of his career) - “famous for not being famous”, as Rob says.
This was Rob Jovanovic’s first book when it originally came out and was very much a labour of love, driven by his passion for Big Star’s music and wanting to explore the many strange undercurrents in their story. Convincing publishers was another matter, delaying the book by years. It was worth the wait - it’s a masterpiece of thorough research and structure, with some good illustrations too. He describes the characters and locations really well, and there’s some lovely writing towards the end of the book in “Postscript” when he goes on his own personal voyage into Big Star country and visits Chris Bell‘s lonely grave. His attempts at reaching the Holy Grail of meeting Alex Chilton are poignantly described - when it finally happens, the man doesn’t even want to say hello , “So I let him be”, the voice of the true fan. Since then he’s published a series of quality music books on Nirvana, Johnny Cash, Michael Stipe, Pavement, Richey Edwards and the Velvet Underground among others - as he says, there seems to be some ongoing masochistic fascination on his part with writing about troubled or awkward front men. His next book is a history of the Kinks - Ray and Dave Davies should provide enough material for another good read.
Tony Beesley - Away From The Numbers: To Be Someone In The 1980s (Days Like Tomorrow)
It’s always good to get a new book from Tony Beesley, and “Away From The Numbers” is another installment (after earlier books like “Our Generation“, “Out Of Control“ and “This Is Our Generation Calling“) in his highly detailed accounts of life, love, music, fashion and much more in the late 70’s/early 80’s. There are also lots of original photos, cuttings, tickets and fliers which add to the atmosphere - this is the kind of stuff that easily gets lost and overlooked, so there’s a real element of recording the memories and culture of a particular local scene. As someone observed, he’s kept alive the memory of a whole vibrant South Yorkshire scene. There’s a really nice balance between the local and the universal in the writing, where you feel like you get to know Tony and his mates, but at the same time so many of their thoughts and adventures mirror teenage scenes and dreams everywhere. I hope he won’t mind me saying that his writing’s really come on from the early accounts of gigs and clubs too.
I don’t want to risk doing a spoiler on the book but among the many highlights as Tony navigates his way thru teen trauma and a changing musical scene are a meeting with hero Paul Weller, producing his own fanzine, followed by a series of groups with mates - Terminal Daze, Control, the Way - you can pretty much tell the year and musical style from the names, classic!
He’s certainly got a very fertile territory to write about in “Away From The Numbers“. It was a fast-moving time that produced a bewildering torrent of very different but totally absorbing music, the range of which its still hard to take in 30 years later(in a much more dumbed-down musical environment. There was post-punk, Two Tone, New Wave, Goth, Northern Soul, to mention just a few, and a variety of attendant styles like Skins, Mods and New Romantics.
Where this book really scores for me is in how it balances personal and universal themes, as detailed descriptions of gigs, pubs, “lasses” or whatever merge together to really capture the simultaneous angst and magic of teenage life, when a week can seem like an eternity or contain a lifetime’s adventure and changes. After a chapter or two I was back in the days of miners’ strikes against the Thatcher dictatorship, and he really catches the strange way that it can seem like another world (no cd’s, let alone mobile phones or mp3’s), but one that on a personal level is driven by the same eternal forces. There’s also some really effective writing when real life breaks thru the teenage dream. At the start of the book his Dad dies, followed by some very honest analysis of the stages of grief and how loss can affect a family - I know from my own life that such tragedies are just as likely to drive a family apart as bring them together. It’s a really nice cyclical touch that the author becomes a father himself near the end of the book, bringing us full circle, & leaving the teacher-baiting kiddo of the early chapters far behind.
I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: this is all very much Tony’s own work - in the true DIY spirit of punk - just say “Why Not?” to anyone who gets in the way - he’s learnt his trade, cut through the crap, and done a great job of writing about a really significant period, both musically and personally. It’s a journey that everyone makes in their own way, but so often by middle age people have simply forgotten about their younger selves or no longer care about how they got where they are. So next time you’re thinking of sending a load of old singles down the charity shop, or binning your teenage scrapbooks - that’s your life.
The memoir can be a tricky path, easy to fall into the dread “In my day…” territory, or to over-analyze youthful highs and lows from an older-but-wiser perspective. Tony Beesley avoids these traps thru the direct honesty of his writing, and lots of nice little touches like the occasional sketches and cartoons scattered through the text, which add to the affectionate but never sentimental tone of the writing. Next one please Tony! All reviews above by Den Browne
Keith Hayward - Tin Pan Alley – The Rise Of Elton John - (Soundcheck Books)
In the contemporary climate with The X Factor, BGT, YouTube, MP3’s and instant gratification, it’s hard to appreciate what the music industry was like in the relatively recent history of the last fifty or sixty years. As an author and music historian whose credentials lie with literally being there at the time and also in gathering together a comprehensive set of accounts and insights from the significant characters, publishers and players of the times, Keith Hayward has drawn together a fascinating insight into how the music industry used to operate.
It is as much a historical document (he calls it an “oral history”) and snapshot of a time when the world was allegedly a much simpler place, as much as anything else as it charts the early days and career path of modern day superstar Elton John and his launch into the music industry. As well as the perspective of the artist, there is in depth coverage which sheds considerable light into the way that music publishing worked before the days when recorded music was the accepted manner in which success was monitored and sheet music was king. From dealings with songwriters and on to the acid test which coined the phrase ‘the old grey whistle test’, there are glimpses into the operations of the industry which might seem either archaic and antiquated or even remotely quaint to those in the profession in the 21st century. What is even more fascinating is the remarkably small world in which all this happened with the focus based round an intense hive of activity in London’s Denmark Street.
Intertwined with the unravelling of processes in the music industry is the similarly unravelled tale of the early days of the musical career of Reg Dwight. It seems strange to constantly hear of the (in)famously flamboyant public figure we know and love today referred to as ‘Reg’, but they read just as, if not more, fascinating than the slightly more salubrious tales of his private life which tend to dominate later biographies. What does become apparent very quickly is that young Reg was blessed with a real talent and despite not having the ‘image’, was able to exploit his natural musical ear to help imitate the pianists of the day and start to explore what would transform and develop him into the stage persona of his Elton John alter ego.
The narrative details how the way forward for Reg’s ambitions which seemed very much focused on writing the songs upon which so many artists relied. The days of groups writing and recording their own material was about to arrive with the groundbreaking work of Lennon and McCartney and it was the lack of real success for Reg’s own songs to be picked up by publishers which led to the suggestion that he should be the one to record them. Traditional values were about to be tossed aside; it was a time of change and a brave new world of singer songwriters was about to dawn.
Despite the relatively comfortable existence of gigging with the likes of Long John Baldry and Bluesology, the emerging Elton would use stints with Hookfoot to work on arrangements of his material – a major influence on developing what would become recognised as the Elton John sound. Continued session work and the options with songwriting and performing meant that the time following the subdued reaction to his first album was quite a precarious one, yet one which led to the type of fortuitous meetings (with the likes of Bernie Taupin and arranger Paul Buckmaster who would play significant roles in the very near future) which could change careers.
In closing the book with Elton having not exactly broken America, but making a substantial and career defining impact in his residency at LA’s Troubadour Club, the tale is effectively told. Billed as “a timely reminder of a golden era for music”, it does go some distance to demonstrating the almost complete contrast and turnaround in business models which operate in the modern day musical climate. The sepia tinged book jacket is a story of, for once, going against the grain and judging a book by its cover (rose tinted spectacles not supplied). Review by Mike Ainscoe