Rock 101 Revisited

Instead it takes us through a whirlwind of activity. Kooper's energy level is strong and he suffers a nervous breakdown, but such mental fatigue hardly stops him from forming Blood, Sweat & Tears (he ultimately quits his own group under internal pressures); recording Super Session with Bloomfield, "You Can't Always Get What You Want" with the Rolling Stones, and a solo album; producing Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Tubes; getting hooked on nitrous oxide; and touring with Dylan. The stories are all worth telling, even as Kooper recedes from the music industry's big picture as the youth engine pushes aside another aging rocker. His love for music is apparent throughout the text (there's even a picture of him standing in front of an extensive music library) and his sense of humor keeps everything in perspective (though I'd love to read the other side of the story by people less enamored with Al Kooper's tale-slinging abilities).

From the underbelly of the music business comes Dinky Dawson's Life on the Road, his collection of tales as the pre-eminent sound engineer for touring rock ensembles such as Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, Lou Reed, and Steely Dan. Dawson had the thankless task of loading up the amps and traveling the world in a war-torn van while the stars jet-setted and whispered in the ears of groupies. But don't think Dawson minded. While certain careers took off in a big way, many of Dawson's clients struggled along with him, and more than a few were shunted out of the business as quickly as they were admitted.

Dawson saw music as his escape hatch from the grinding steel mill that shortened his father's life. He began as a DJ, keeping the party going at London clubs. His transition to sound engineer was happenstance, but staying at the top of his game was a case of paying close attention to the needs of the equipment and the musicians themselves, though not necessarily in that order.

An artist such as Lou Reed barely participates in his own career. Dawson watches producer Bob Ezrin put together the orchestral grandeur that would become Reed's 1973 classic Berlin. Reed stops by at day's end only to be sent home by the obsessive producer. Later, Dawson has the displeasure of working with Reed during his 1978 Street Hassle tour. Night after night Reed is upstaged by his opening act, Ian Dury and the Blockheads. It gets so bad Reed denies the opening act a sound check.

Things aren't much different with Joni Mitchell. Dawson is kicked off sound duty midway through the tour, the victim of a secret, preplanned move to hire another sound company whose schedule had opened up. Dawson relishes the tale, explaining how Mitchell eventually closed down the tour owing to band infighting and inferior sound.

Tours with Steely Dan and hack-rockers Orleans fare better. But Life on the Road isn't just about Dawson's clients: It's about Dawson himself, the path he forged, the fun he had. He never sounds regretful, always keeps his sense of humor. The van breaks down; he gets it fixed. Such is life.

Each book contains its share of adversity and moments of hard cruelty. But mostly they convey a sense of fun and mischief. Rock and roll brought to you by people who brought it to us in the first place. There's no dry academic tone, no graduate school posturing. People have sex and make music because it feels good, because it was there, and why not? The writers show no remorse for the events that transpired. Nor should they. Their tone shifts to regret over the AIDS plague and the general change in public consciousness toward such fervent pleasure-seeking. In that way these books are wistfully nostalgic.

There should be more like them, retelling each era from a variety of angles. The misbegotten Eighties and Nineties scream for representation from the forgotten subcultures of indie rock and death metal. The choice of where people are having a good time should not be left to those determined to pick it dry, suck its blood, and enshrine it, be it in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or in another dismal sociological tome guaranteed to gather dust on college bookshelves. These books tell us to let the good times roll and scream like hell when they stop.

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