Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Corn Flakes with John Lennon: And Other Tales from a Rock 'n' Roll Life

 By Robert Hilborn

Genre: Rock

This is a hard book for me to be non-biased about. I first started reading Hilburn's columns in the Los Angeles Times in 1968 when I started going to college, coincidentally the very same university that Hilburn went to himself. It was the LA Times trinity of columnists; Hilburn, Jazz critic Leonard Feather, and classical music critic Martin Bernheimer, that taught me there was even a thing called music criticism. Hilburn continued writing during the golden age of rock music criticism and beyond until he retired from the Times in 2005. When I did a little music writing of my own some mentors compared my style to Hilburn's, sometimes complimentary but sometimes not. I always took it as a compliment. While he didn't have the mad genius of Lester Bangs or the scholarly vision of Greil Marcus, he had something the others did not bring to pen and paper. He wrote for the everyman, the nine-to-fivers who needed the music to enrich their lives. Hilburn himself didn't smoke or drink and, around these superstars that lived in an insane world, brought enough sanity with him that these artists came across as real human beings. He may not have been the best of the music writers but he had empathy which served to show his readers the hearts behind the music.

All of this comes out in his new book, Cornflakes with John Lennon. This book is a memoir of his experiences as a rock music writer and his relationship with some of the most important musicians of rock music; Lennon, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Kurt Cobain and others. As a memoir it does what the writer rarely did in his own columns. It gave us a look at the writer himself. Yet even here the bulk of this book is about rock music and rock artists. Hilburn brought out the best in his subjects whether it was a troubled Lennon, a vulnerable Janis Joplin, a insecure Michael Jackson, or an obsessively searching Bruce Springsteen. Hilborn wants us to see the thoughts and the person behind the songs and he does that better than any other writer of his time.

Yet there are some issues with this book that troubles me. Hilburn spends way too much time with the superstars, especially Springsteen, but little about the less revered artists that changed the music yet didn't get a mass of fans. I know he paid a lot of attention to artists like P. J. Harvey, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Rickie Lee Jones but little is in this book. I suspect that may have been a publishing decision. Yet they also have tales to tell and I know Hilburn paid more attention to them than this book would let on. Also the writer could have a evil pen to those he called "the superficial artists who shouldn't be on stage in the first place because they have nothing to tell you". Yet he only shows examples of this briefly in about one page which does include an especially right-on assessment of Michael Bolton. Most bewildering is his exclusion of the rather notorious feud with Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson that led to the musician writing a scathing song about the critic called "Only Solitaire." Yet, I assume Hilburn wanted his first book on his own writings and experiences in music to be positive and not focus on the negative.

So I really wanted to give this book five stars, maybe even a bonus sixth star, for a lot of personal reasons. But I also realized that without my nostalgic baggage, this book is still a very strong four stars. Certainly if you want to know about the real musicians that made the music and not just the promotional hype, Hilburn will deliver.

Background CD: John Lennon - Imagine

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