Rock round-up: musical memoirs with original angles

New books by Steve Conway, on Radio Caroline, Stuart David, on Belle and Sebastian, Wyndham Wallace, on Lee Hazlewood, and Philip Glass, on his life in the musical avant-garde

 

Every boy dreams of running away and joining the crew of a pirate ship. In 1987 the Irishman Steve Conway took a figary and joined the crew of Ross Revenge, home of the pirate station Radio Caroline. But there was nothing swashbuckling about life aboard. The ship remained anchored just outside British waters but close enough to broadcast to London and England’s southeast, and the crew of DJs worked hard in less than salubrious conditions, often waiting weeks for a supply boat to sneak past harbour police and bring food, water and creature comforts.

Conway’s book Shiprocked: Life on the Waves With Radio Caroline (Liberties Press, €12.99) gives a crow’s-nest view of the challenges of keeping a pirate radio station afloat: money shortages, technical hitches and frequent treacherous weather, not to mention the difficulty of getting a copy of the new T’Pau single.

But most of the time the station floated along without much incident, so we get anecdotes about a hide-and-seek game, a naked hung-over DJ and a nailbiting wait for the arrival of a tug with Christmas fare.

There is a climactic ending, though, when the ship runs aground in a storm, triggering a huge rescue operation. It’s a brave soul who’ll risk life and limb to bring pop music to the people, so Conway is to be commended for taking the plunge.

You wouldn’t expect much derring-do – or many rock’n’roll antics – in a book about the Scottish indie band Belle and Sebastian, but In the All-Night Café, by Stuart David (Little, Brown, £16.99), proves to be a fascinating account of the band’s genesis in Glasgow in the mid 1990s.

David was a founder member of the band, but the key figure here is its leader and creative force, Stuart Murdoch, whom David met while both were on a music course for the unemployed called Beatbox.

David watches in fascination and not a little awe as the talented Murdoch sets about fulfilling his singular musical vision, seducing local musicians into joining his ever-growing collective, staging concerts in friends’ flats, and using Beatbox’s studios for his end-of-term project, recording the band’s seminal debut album, Tigermilk.

This is a lovely, lyrical account of the formative year of one of pop’s most enchanting bands, who are still working their magic 20 years later.

Ignoring the general rule that you should never meet your heroes, Wyndham Wallace sets out on a journey into the heart and soul of an American pop legend in Lee, Myself and I: Inside the Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood (Jawbone Press, £14.95). Not only did he meet the man behind the chart-topping hit These Boots Were Made for Walkin’ but he also got to stage his comeback concert in London, oversee the reissues of his highly prized back catalogue, and hang out with Hazlewood at his home in Las Vegas. And, in the end, Wallace had the dubious honour of watching his hero die.

Hazlewood was one of 1960s pop’s men of mystery, a moustachioed figure lurking in the shadows behind his better-known singing partner, Nancy Sinatra. As well as writing her biggest hit he wrote such haunting, hallucinogenic tunes as Summer Wine, Sugartown and Some Velvet Morning.

By the time he came on Wallace’s radar, in the mid 1990s, Hazlewood was all but forgotten except by a coterie of indie acts who revered his work. His songs have been covered by Nick Cave, Primal Scream, The Fall and Lana Del Rey; in Neil Jordan’s film Breakfast on Pluto Cillian Murphy and Gavin Friday perform a memorable version of his song Sand.

Wallace’s book chronicles the unlikely friendship that developed between the reserved young English publicist and his ageing, irascible client. Happily, Hazlewood loved holding court and telling stories about the people he’d known, including Phil Spector, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Björn Borg and Roger Moore.

Hazlewood died of cancer in 2007, aged 78. “This is what happens when you meet your heroes,” writes Wallace. “It always ends in tears.”

When Philip Glass announced to his family that he wanted to pursue a career in music his mother, Ida, warned him, “You’ll end up like your uncle Henry.” Uncle Henry was a drummer in a dance band who played at holiday hotels around the US. The idea of Glass becoming a lounge musician, playing easy-listening hits for geriatric guests, sounds ridiculous, but while building his reputation as one of the finest avant-garde composers of the 20th century Glass paid the rent by working as a plumber and a taxi driver. Many New Yorkers may not realise that they have sat in the back seat of Glass’s yellow cab or on a toilet installed by him.

Words Without Music (Faber & Faber, £22.50) is peopled with some of the greatest artists and performers of the 20th century, including Allen Ginsberg, Leonard Cohen, Ravi Shankar and Martin Scorsese, along with a cast of lesser-known but no less pivotal figures. It is a warm, affectionate memoir of Glass’s personal and musical journey, from growing up in a musical Jewish family in Baltimore to studying at the University of Chicago and then the Juilliard School, in New York, to writing and staging such seminal works as Music in Twelve Parts, Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, and composing soundtracks for such films as Koyaanisqatsi, Mishima and Scorsese’s Kundun.

Glass takes a mathematician’s approach to music, and breaks down the process of composing into easily comprehensible shapes and patterns. “I’m not thinking about music. I’m thinking music,” he writes. “My brain thinks music. It doesn’t think words.” For a man who doesn’t think words, Glass has mastered them well.

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist

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