Van Morrison to Jeff Buckley and the Secret DJ: the latest in music books
Cautionary tales and fascinating insights into the lives of musicians and industry titans
New York 1967: (left to right) Jeff Barry, Bert Berns, Van Morrison, Carmine Denoia (with cigar) and Janet Planet. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Just when you think there is nothing left to say or theorise about Van Morrison’s sui-generis album, Astral Weeks, along comes Ryan H Walsh with Astral Weeks: A Secret History 1968 (Penguin Press, £19), which approaches its subject in the same way that Sherlock Holmes might embark on a trail of investigation. Pivotal to the book is the knowledge that on its initial release in late 1968, the album neither sold well nor received all-important radio play. Morrison was also cut loose from the strings of the music industry, a refugee of sorts who, with his wife Janet Rigsbee, had holed up in Boston (following an altercation in New York with a music industry “mob” figure who threatened deportation as well as physical violence). Establishing Boston as a hotbed of artistic militancy and societal experimentation, the author argues that the city’s various inspirations merged with Morrison’s ideas for songs. Some of the deductive dot-joining might come across as flimsy, but Walsh’s authoritative knowledge and sharp wit override such concerns.
We all love a good yarn, especially if they come from what amounts to a treasure chest of life experiences. One of the old school record company people still standing is Seymour Stein, a music industry titan, no less, and the man who has spent more than 50 years as the boss of Sire Records, the label that has been home to the likes of Madonna, Talking Heads, Depeche Mode, The Ramones and many more music acts. In Siren Song – My Life in Music, by Seymour Stein and Gareth Murphy (St Martin’s Press/Penguin, £22), Irish writer Murphy skillfully escorts the music mogul through a never-boring series of fateful encounters, hard work and what Stein (who admits he has no formal musical skills) terms as having a knack for spotting creative nonconformists who had something exceptional to offer. A revealing assisted autobiography about a man who “learned how to harness my mad, hungry dissatisfaction into rocket fuel”.
In terms of honesty, Stein has a fellow traveller in the guise of the anonymous author of The Secret DJ by The Secret DJ (Faber, £11.34). The author (who, states publisher Faber, is “a globally recognised DJ”) doesn’t hold back here, holding up a mirror to reflect the nature of the “superstar DJ” status. Admitting that the current perception of the once venerable DJ is more about “a deep love of the self” than music, the author spills the beans, according to his experiences, on the DJ lifestyle. Equal parts litigious (hence author anonymity), hilarious and queasy, this is neither a history book nor an instruction manual but more “a cautionary tale that may illuminate”. I’ll say – you only need to read Chapter 11, Happy as a Bastard on Father’s Day, which documents the author’s treatment for drug addiction and attempted suicide.
Another cautionary tale is highlighted in Jeff Buckley: From Hallelujah to the Last Goodbye, by Dave Lory and and Jim Irvin (Post Hill Press, $20). For someone who identified as the epitome of “artist”, it must have been difficult for gilded US singer Jeff Buckley to feature in People magazine’s 1995 “One of the 50 most beautiful people in the world” list. Maverick isn’t the word to describe Buckley, whose death by drowning in the summer of 1997 rocked the music world to its core. Guided by experienced Mojo writer Irvin, Lory – Buckley’s manager up to the time of his death – documents his final few years with the mercurial, celebrated singer. This is a fine if hugely poignant memoir about a volatile musician who would (according to Buckley confidante, photographer Merri Cyr) “make trouble so that he could write a song about it”.
Less fraught is Let The Good Times Roll by Kenney Jones (Blink Publishing, £20), in which the former Small Faces and The Who drummer rolls up his shirt sleeves and gets to work on telling a ripping yarn of a life story in pop and rock music. There’s a real chipper sense of recollection throughout, from Jones recounting his London East End background (“My cousin, Billy Boy, eldest son of my dad’s sister, Nel, and Uncle Bill, worked with the Krays – I felt I was forever being dragged to Wormwood Scrubs to visit him in the nick”) and his growing awareness of how the 1960s music industry worked (“just as dodgy as life in the East End”) to life in post-Small Faces group, The Faces (“the alcohol intake was pretty much even across the band – bucket loads”). Warm-hearted and breezy, Jones’s autobiography may not lift the lid on anything we didn’t already know, but it’s an old school rock’n’roll story well told and with no small charm.
Personalised testimonies as to power and import of music, especially while growing from child to adult, is a familiar memoir trope, and the success (or failure) of same is whether the writer is good enough to channel their tales – and their escape routes – into something that can transcend their cultural obsessions. Memory Songs: A Personal Journey into the Music that Shaped the 90s by James Cook (Penguin, £18.99) aims for a multi-threading approach. Efficiently mixing memoir, music criticism and social history, the author (who was once in the much admired but surely forgotten Britpop band, The Flamingoes – “the genuine article,” noted Melody Maker in 1995) makes his point from the outset: you’re either in the right place at the right time or you’re not. The band that started in the early 1990s (“making the kind of daily either/or decisions every penniless musician knows only too well: food versus cigarettes; amp repair versus electricity bill; proper job versus an insane artist project”) may have eventually signed a record deal, but as so often happens drifted out of view. Cook writes evocatively (and persuasively) of such times, of “redesigning” his life post-split, of how “sometimes the periphery is where the most interesting stories are to be found”, and why “memory songs” are “where we live”.