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Rock 101 Revisited

Yeah, sure, if you actually remember the Sixties you weren't really there. True for any era worth remembering. But as long as the person doing the retelling has some idea of what's important, the results should be okay. It takes real talent to make sex and drugs a dull read. (Bill Wyman should have given up playing bass with the Rolling Stones long ago. His memoir Stone Alone proves he had a whole other career writing tomes for insomniacs.) The rock era has turned out a sizable number of fascinating books, from Pamela Des Barres's innocently sleazy groupie confession I'm with the Band to my personal favorite, Bill Graham Presents, which recounts rock's hard-nosed San Francisco promoter and his dealings with the drugged (Hendrix, Joplin) and the arrogantly rich (Led Zeppelin). Memoirs have appeal for obvious reasons: Who doesn't enjoy reading someone else's diary? Who doesn't wonder what goes on where it says "no admittance"?

You don't even need to be a key player in a major scene. Julian Cope was the leader of the marginally successful Eighties psychedelic pop band, the Teardrop Explodes, and because he understood the hilarity that often accompanies failure, his book Head On reads like an epic doomed tale. It's miles ahead in terms of debauchery and ego than, say, David Crosby's memoir Long Time Gone, which features far more name stars, yet seems too proud of itself for being there to really impress anyone.

When Al Kooper's Backstage Passes first hit in the late Seventies, it had all the makings of a cult classic. Kooper had just enough credibility to get past the gate (playing with Bob Dylan will do that for a person) and his tale-spinning had the right mix of detached humor and personal empathy. He recently updated his book, retitling it Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards. He's added a vast amount of material, moving into the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties with the same sardonic eye and uncanny ability to lay blame at his own feet.

The man who managed to stumble into a Bob Dylan recording session, sit himself down at the organ, and fake his way through "Like a Rolling Stone" has many such tales. It's amazing, really, how personality traits that would be unseemly and selfish under normal circumstances take on a heroic light when magnified in the public arena. I'm thinking of Bill Graham here, but make no mistake: Kooper has certain social-climber skills that kept him ahead of the pack. As a kid he worked his way into publishing houses and began writing songs and demo-ing material for others before he knew which end up was. He puts it bluntly: "My philosophy was that you couldn't afford the luxury of trying to be in the right place at the right time. You had to be every place at every time, and hope that you might wind up anyplace at all."

After a stint working with Gene Pitney, Kooper lands his spot in rock history. Columbia producer Tom Wilson invites Kooper to watch the Dylan session. What transpires is complete inspiration on Kooper's part. Even better is the background material Kooper offers up. He had been a young hipster, always checking out the latest talent. Young Al bought Dylan's first two folk albums and didn't hear anything. It takes Paul Simon (Kooper had a sixth sense for future stars, if nothing else) playing "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" on electric guitar to convince him to relisten. Once converted, Kooper begins writing his own Dylan-inspired crap. "'Paper doll princesses' and the like," as he describes it. He heads out for an open-mike night at Cafe Interlude in Forest Hills, Queens to perform his song "Thirty-Eight People," an unhumorous appraisal of the Kitty Genovese story, in which 38 of the woman's neighbors heard her screams as she was murdered near her apartment, but did nothing to help. Realizing the folk bag wasn't the rock-and-roll world he was accustomed to, and, in horror, realizing that Genovese's attack took place not far from the club, Kooper does what any self-respecting rocker would do: He signs up under the name Al Casey.

The Dylan scene is perfect. Kooper arrives early, gets the guitar ready, and waits. The musicians saunter in. Kooper looks composed. Then Michael Bloomfield walks in with Dylan. Wipes off his guitar, which has no case and has weathered the elements, plugs in, and begins playing. Kooper hears Bloomfield's mastery of the instrument, puts away his own guitar, and heads for the control room. It isn't until the organ player is shuffled to the piano that Kooper sees his opening. Ignoring producer Wilson's protest, Kooper sits down at the organ and tentatively plays along with "Like a Rolling Stone." In the control room, Dylan calls for the organ to be made louder. Kooper has joined the fold.

This moment is so much what great rock music is about. An element of improvisation working within a defined song. A happy accident never questioned. A moment being accepted for the moment. Dylan continued to use Kooper on his sessions, which are among both men's finest work. Dylan has always insisted that his session musicians play by the seat of their pants, intuitively understanding that given enough time to work up an "arrangement," old habits and the uniformity take over. Kooper brings us inside with him, admitting his insecurities and downplaying his abilities. He may have been a stranger to the organ but his innate musical gifts pulled it off satisfactorily. If not, his book would've ended here.

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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