Tuesday, March 25, 2014

In It For the Long Run: A Musical Oydssey

By Jim Rooney

Genre: Americana

In terms of music, Americana is a sort of catch-all genre that includes all kinds of grass root American music. It entails folk, country, blues, bluegrass, early (and usually more acoustic) rock and roll, and all the offshoots that comes from the history of American music. The term recognizes the more noncommercial sounds that have been abandoned by the mainstream as American music became more homogenized by corporate interests. Much of what is termed as Americana is the type of music that you experience as you would trek across America, forsaking the top 40 channels and listening to what the locals are creating on their acoustic instruments. Accepted as a genre by The American Music Association in the 90s, I find it a much better description of grass roots American music than country, folk, or any of the more specific terms.

If anyone can claim to be at the forefront of Americana, it just may be Jim Rooney. He makes a good case for that in his autobiography, In it For the Long Run: A Musical Odyssey. Inspired as a young boy by the likes of greats like Bill Monroe and Muddy Waters, he formed his own band which was primary country, but later started an early folk club in the 60s and went on to be a musical coordinator for the Newport Folk Festival. Then in the 70s he went on to form his own record company and produce music with musicians like John Prine and Nanci Griffith. During all this, he kept his hands in the music by performing, playing in his own bands, and composing.

A memoir by someone who was if not a household name but was still steeped in the Americana tradition, promises to be a seminal and unique look at the development of the music and the scene. Yet Rooney's book falls far short of being that. It isn't that he doesn't write about the scene and the music. He does in much detail. But there is little insight in the music. It is more of a "And then I did this". He writes much about the various artists like Muddy Waters, John Prine,and others but there no real revelations. Pretty soon the book feels like a lot of name-dropping and not much else. When I read a memoir like this I want to get a sense of time and place; a feel for the excitement that the artists and the musical environment brought to the writer and the excitement he transmitted to them as a promoter and producer. That sense of excitement never materializes.

Perhaps this book is meant more for the Americana aficionado or for the ones that lived through the scene. But for someone like me who loves music and would like to know more about a particular kind of music, I just didn't think this worked. Perhaps there is another book out there that does justice to the Americana scene. This is not it.

Background Music:  The Music of Bill Monroe 1936-94

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Haunted Rock & Roll: Ghostly Tales of Musical Legends

By Matthew L. Swayne

Genre: Rock

There are two things I love: Music and tales of the supernatural. But I don"t believe there are ghosts, curses etc. I just find them fascinating. I like the chills a good horror tale delivers or remembers the fun of telling ghost stories around the campfire. Plus I love rock music. So <i>Haunted Rock & Roll: Ghostly Tales of Musical Legends</i> seemed a natural for me. And, by Ghost, Matthew L. Swayne does a great job in pulling the two together.

I don't think anyone is surprised that there are plenty of supernatural legends involving rock stars. Swayne runs the gamut from Robert Johnson to Janis Joplin to Curt Cobain to Whitney Houston. His tales are grouped into "Rock Star Ghosts", "Haunted Rock Spots", "Premonitions, Signs, and Omens",  and "Rock Stars Most famous Curses and Mysteries". There is inevitably a bit of overlap and redundancy that probably can't be avoided considering the grouping. For instance, we hear about Buddy Holly's accident in the Ghost section and Again in  the premonition and curse sections. I tmay have been better to group them by the rock star's name but that is just hindsight on my part. On the other hand, it is fun to hear the stories again, each time looking at a different angle.

It is easy to be too serious with a book like this like narrating each tale like it is the absolute truth and with no skepticism. That is the downfall of many true hauntings books. Swayne has just the right amount of "Hey this could have happened." and campfire storytelling skills. As a skeptic, I still enjoyed the stories immensely and didn't feel the author was trying to convince me they were real. Again, the author has a good mix of wit and spookiness.

So what about the tales. Of course,most of the stories are anecdotal, yet the author blends the anecdotal with the historical facts very well. The farthest he goes back is to the Delta Blues master Robert Johnson and the story of how he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads. If you never heard of Robert Johnson, shame on you. Go right out and buy a CD of his music and be amazed! When people say Rock & Roll starts with Robert Johnson, they are not lying. But then the author goes on to the usual suspects; Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, etc....and a few that may surprise you; Mama Cass, Sid Vicious, Ricky Nelson, Harry Nilsson and others. But I really enjoyed the mix of devil stories and witchcraft centered around...who else?...Black Sabbath. The story about Black Sabbath, and specifically Bassist Geezer Butler's exploration into the occult, brings out the author's droll side in sentences like "For Butler, seeing the devil was not as fun as writing songs about him."

One fascinating thing is how often the name of Aleister Crowley comes up. It seems like rock stars were fascinated by the occult figure and self proclaimed "evilest person in the world". Perhaps someone should write a book about the influence of Crowley on Rock & Roll. Just saying...

Another thing I liked is the story about the Devil's Chord. The Devil's Chord predates rock all the way back to classical music but...No..I don't want to spoil it for you.

I could continue and analyze each story. I could scoff at some of the more outrageous and give more mundane explanations for some of the events and interpretations but that would be killing the entertaining qualities of this weird and spooky book.. Simply put, this is a fun book that will delight the Rock & Roll fan, the ghost hunter, and ghost story aficionado. For a little dose of eerie, put on Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" or the versions by Cream or the Allman Brothers. Then enjoy a little chill to the bones as you read aboutits curse.

Happy hauntings.