Sunday, August 29, 2010

Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music

Imagine that you have been invited to a huge party, and when you get there everyone is a somebody... a Somebody in the history of pop music. Who do you talk to first? Do you walk around looking for your favorites first? Or do you just saunter around talking with whoever you run into next?

That's what it's like to pick up the book Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music.

Obviously a party like that can only be assembled by someone with connections. In this case the author is Joe Smith, who happened to be president and CEO of Capitol Industries-EMI (the same ones who signed the Beatles, Dylan and so many more.) Before this he had been president of Warner Bros./Reprise and Elektra. A Yale grad who became a popular and successful disc jockey, Smith seems like just the right guy to gather all these other pop celebs under one roof.

The book is handled just right. There are no long interviews. Like the party, you can bounce around for a brief spell with Tom Petty, then George Harrison, Little Richard, Ray Charles. Over here is Dylan and is that Yoko Ono? Oh yes, talking with Joni Mitchell, Phil Collins and Ella Fitzgerald. Joan Baez, Robert Plant and James Taylor seem to be enjoying themselves over there with Tina Turner and David Bowie. Then you see the jazz guys, Lionel Hampton, Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck staring out the window onto the lawn where Quincy Jones is listening to Robbie Krieger, Mary Travers, Frankie Valli, Al Kooper and Herbie Hancock. Donovan pensively listens to John Fogerty and David Lee Roth. Judy Collins seems to be reminiscing with Graham Nash and Stephen Stills. I Lou Rawls and Tom Petty can't seem to get enough of Henry Mancini.

O.K., you get the picture. And the stories they tell are fascinating because pop culture has played a role in all of our lives.

My bedtime reading ended with Mike Nesmith talking about the Monkees. They were not a music group, they were characters on a television show. The purpose of the show was not to end up with hit records, he says. But one day they're driving along in the car and hear that their song Last Train to Clarksville is #2 on the national charts. Nesmith says the very notion of it was bizarre. Suddenly everything changed.

The Monkees were shipped to London to prepare for a road tour as a music group, but they weren't really sure about how they really felt, nevertheless they followed through. One strange quirk about the tour was having Jimi Hendrix open for them. Mickey Dolenz had heard Hendrix in a London club and made the recommendation, which Nesmith off handedly thought was O.K., sight and sound unseen. When they arrive in Raleigh, North Carolina, to do their first gig, the Hendrix trio is mind blowing, even in appearance, but the teeny bopper screamers are there only for one purpose, and it's not the Experience of Jimi Hendrix.

Nesmith says he disguised himself and went into the crowd to snatch a listen. He'd never heard anything like it. "It was the most exhilarating, the most majestic, the most entertaining, the most fulfilling music I'd ever heard," said Nesmith.

But the mismatch was self-evident and after eight gigs Jimi had had it. The girls were chanting, "We want the Monkees," and in the middle of a song the most incredible guitar player of a generation left the stage in the middle of a song, disgusted.

For the record, this book offers a lot. It's real, it's intimate, up close and personal. Recommended.

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