Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs of a Rock 'N' Roll Survivor by Al Kooper

Kooper is one of those semi-famous rock stars who had a part in many things but never became a superstar. A partial resume:
  • Wrote "This Diamond Ring" (made famous by Gary Lewis & the Playboys)
  • Played organ on "Like a Rolling Stone" and other Dylan songs in the studio and on stage including the 1965 Newport Folk Festival
  • Formed Blood, Sweat & Tears
  • Worked A&R for Columbia Records
  • Conceived and recorded the groundbreaking Super Session album with Mike Bloomfield and Steven Stills
  • Played french horn, organ, and piano on the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want"
  • Produced Lynyrd Skynyrd's first three albums as well as the first album by the Tubes
And that doesn't begin to cover the material in this excellent book. Kooper has done virtually everything in the music business, and he shares his experiences with detail and humor. Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards is one of the best rock memoirs I've ever read, both in content and writing style. The photos are great, too!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Boy in the Song: The True Stories Behind 50 Rock Classics by Frank Hopkinson and Michael Heatley

I actually wanted to buy their first book, The Girl in the Song, but it wasn't on the shelf at Barnes & Noble at State & Jackson. That store took over the space formerly occupied by the downtown location of the late, great, beloved Crow's Nest Records & Tapes. It is oddly invisible on B&N's website. Maybe it is somehow falsely classified as a university bookstore because it's on DePaul's downtown campus.

The Boy in the Song offers interesting tales, and I even enjoyed the stories about songs I don't like or haven't heard. That said, these aren't all rock classics—there's a bit too much from singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell (especially Joni Mitchell). Also I wish it was longer; even with lots of photos, it's only 144 pages.

One of my favorite tidbits is about the boy who inspired Suzanne Vega's "Luka" using his notoriety to try to impress a potential girlfriend!*

* I always kind of felt sorry for Vega having "Luka" as her biggest hit because it doesn't work for concerts. Most performers do their biggest hits at the end or in the encore. But who wants to finish a concert with such a downer of a song?


Monday, July 29, 2013

Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll by Joe Oestreich

When it comes to rock memoirs, I usually like those by less famous people more than those by superstars. That's one reason I've put off reading Keith Richards' book even though my dad asks me all the time if I've read it yet (besides, in spite of the hundreds of books I've read and reviewed here, thick books—the hardcover is 576 pages—still intimidate me). Hitless Wonder is about Oestreich's long and barely known career in a band from Columbus, OH named Watershed. Apparently they had a minor regional hit back in the 1990s, but I had never heard nor even heard of them before I read this book.*

I love the structure of this book. It follows a two-week tour with a chapter for each concert, but each chapter is full of flashbacks that recount the history of the band. Oestreich gives great insight into the record industry (at least as it was 15-20 years ago), the recording process, and the interpersonal dynamics involved in keeping a struggling band together for more than two decades. As a non-fan, I was surprised how engrossing this story is.

* They're not bad, about what you'd expect from 1990s Midwestern rock. I didn't order their albums, but I wouldn't change the radio station if anyone played them. You can hear samples at

Miss O'Dell: Hard Days and Long Nights with The Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton by Chris O'Dell with Katherine Ketcham

This is a fun book. O'Dell is introduced to Derek Taylor in Los Angeles by a friend and moves to London to work for Apple.* This leads to a minor career in rock and roll, mostly performing administrative tasks and managing tours (one website ranks her among groupies, which I think is a mischaracterization—she actually worked for/with rock stars, didn't just throw herself at them). She has led a life far more exciting than she could ever have imagined, and that's part of what makes this an enjoyable read. Even the inevitable (given the industry) addiction and recovery storyline isn't overdone.

I don't think Clapton should be in the subtitle, though. O'Dell only spent time around him because of his relationship with her friend Patti Boyd (aka Layla, George Harrison's ex-wife), and they seemed to have a mutual dislike or suspicion of each other. Clapton comes across as a huge dickhead, perhaps due to his drinking. In any case, he plays a relatively minor role and putting him in the subtitle is shameless name-dropping—as if The Beatles, The Stones, and Dylan weren't enough!

Any fan of late 1960s-early 1970s rock music who likes reading about the musicians and their personal lives (the music is beyond the book's scope) should like Miss O'Dell.

* Kids, that's the original Apple, the company formed by the Beatles. It included not just Apple Records but also a film company and lots of other money-losing ventures.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo & Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.* by Howard Kaylan with Jeff Tamarkin

The Turtles have long been among my favorite minor groups of the 1960s, and I have some Turtles bootleg concerts that are hilarious and fun. I had no idea Kaylan was writing a memoir until I found this at Half Price Books in Algonquin shortly after it came out (and shortly after that store opened) earlier this year.

If you want to hear about the proverbial sex, drugs, and rock & roll, this is the memoir for you! Kaylan shares lots of great stories from succeeding at a young age as a Turtle to being at the scene of "Smoke on the Water" to singing with Bruce Springsteen to writing songs for Strawberry Shortcake and the Care Bears.** I suppose I would have liked to hear more about the songs, but that's how I feel about most rock memoirs. All in all, Shell Shocked is a fun book about a likable guy who worked hard but also got lucky (in more ways than one) along the way.

* I assume this is a reference to the Turtles song "Elenore": "You're my pride and joy, et cetera."

** It is interesting to me that Kaylan and lifelong showbiz partner Mark Volman became writers after most of the Turtles' biggest hits were written by other people (with the exception of the aforementioned "Elenore").

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Year the Music Died by Dwight Rounds

Ridiculously long subtitle: "1964-1972: A commentary on the best era of pop music, and an irreverent look at the musicians and social movements of the time." As the subtitle explains, the title isn't what the book is really about.

Rounds begins with the premise that the only music worth listening to was created between 1964 and 1972. While this inherently makes him full of shit, I decided to buy the book anyway because I do like reading about that period (actually, the first three books I read this month are mostly about that time).

Unfortunately, this isn't a good book. Rounds digs up some interesting factoids, but then he repeats many of them. The book is strongly biased toward singles, but by the second half of the era artists weren't necessarily putting their best material out on 45s. Much of the book is devoted to chart information, and judging from the obvious errors (lots of footnotes are messed up), I wouldn't trust it. Besides, there are more complete and better organized sources available for chart data, so it's really just filler.

There are more mistakes. I found it interesting that Mac Davis wrote Elvis Presley's "In the Ghetto"... until I checked another source and learned this is totally untrue. It was actually written by Scott Davis, as the author notes 72 pages later. Roger Daltrey's name is misspelled everywhere. Zombies keyboardist Rod Argent is misnamed Ron Artest!

I spotted so many that I don't trust anything here that I didn't know before. That makes this book pretty useless unless you really care about the author's opinions about the artists, songs, and politics of the era. I don't think those opinions are insightful enough to overcome the rest. Aside from a few amusing, contemporaneous fanzine clippings which I assume are from Rounds' personal collection, I could have written this book myself and done no worse.

Monday, July 15, 2013

June Wrap-Up/July Theme

It seemed like I would never finish writing all those reviews for June, but at least I met my absolute deadline, which is the 15th of the following month (I know, I know, I set the bar pretty low). I read a lot of books for the laughter theme, which coincided with Chicago's Just for Laughs comedy festival. It turned out I didn't get too down in June regardless of what I was reading. Rosco had a good, long life and though I think about him a lot, he doesn't make me sad.

I read a total of 11 books in June. The biggest disappointment, of course, was Jen Lancaster's Such a Pretty Fat, but I've beaten up on her enough so let's move on. I had a lot of favorites this month including Mike Birbiglia's Sleepwalk With Me , Dave Hill's Tasteful Nudes, Laurie Notaro's I Love Everybody (and Other Atrocious Lies)., and William Knoedelseder's I'm Dying Up Here. Dan Wilbur's How Not to Read was funny, too.

It's been a long time since I read about rock and roll*, so that is July's theme. I have quite a few memoirs to read, as well as books about the music itself.

* To paraphrase a band I don't like.

Chocolate Please: My Adventures in Food, Fat, and Freaks by Lisa Lampanelli

I love Lampanelli on Comedy Central's celebrity roasts, but her stand-up routines are just so-so. Though this book includes a chapter of roast highlights, most of it reminds me more of her stand-up. It's not as funny as I was hoping, although it gets better as it goes on. The chapters about rehab are surprisingly good, partly because it's rehab for emotional overeating and codependency—a welcome variation on the overdone drugs/alcohol addiction/recovery genre. My wife liked this book more than I did, but she likes Lampanelli's stand-up more than I do, too.

By the way, I like the hardcover illustration (second below) better than the paperback. It's funnier and more accurate.


I Guess the Party's Over

After a steady stream of visitors to Biking Illinois and this blog for the past few months, it looks like things have cooled down. For a 24-hour period earlier this week, Feedjit logged only my own visits to this site (I reload it when I post to make sure it looks okay, and occasionally just to see who's visited lately).* There were apparently hundreds of applicants for the search evaluation job that used my site as a test. Thanks to those who posted comments. I hope at least a few of you managed to get hired.

This chart shows the pageview history for this blog over the past six years. I don't know what caused the spike in October 2012, but the search engine evaluators started visiting in March 2013. Notice the nosedive into July:

* I set Blogger to ignore my own pageviews, but I don't know how to do that for Feedjit.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


I sort of have a thing for homophones. Your/you're and their/there/they're are annoyingly common mistakes, but I get a kick out of the ones I see less often. I came across two in last month's reading.

In Such a Pretty Fat, Jen Lancaster refers to egg yokes. I suppose one could fashion some sort of framework to keep one's eggs in line, but I suspect she really meant yolks.*

Margaret Cho made a rarer mistake describing Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Mexico in I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight:
Other penitents are more lackluster, with cardboard crucifixes and blood that is actually too-orange tempura paint...
Sometimes tempura does have an orange appearance, but surely Cho was thinking of tempera paints. That's one homophonic error I have never seen before.

* Some dictionaries say yoke is an acceptable variant of yolk, but that's just a case of so many people getting it wrong that the dictionary editors threw up their hands in defeat. It's like the idiot I overheard the other day arguing that irregardless is a word. I suppose any combination of letters can be a "word", but that doesn't make it legitimate. There are words in the dictionary that one shouldn't actually use (ain't comes to mind).

I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight by Margaret Cho

I have mixed feelings about this book. Parts are interesting or entertaining, but other parts are boring or annoying. Much of this book began as blog entries, and let's face it, blog entries aren't always worth preserving on paper. Some chapters are specific to forgotten events (granted, the book is eight years old, but a writer should consider the rapidity of news cycles). Much of the political writing is shrill and has aged poorly (a characteristic of most blogs, even this one). Plus she often goes off on irrelevant tangents. Usually blogs do not have editors, but when a blogger wants to publish something on paper, an editor really is essential.

Overall this is maybe a 2.5-star book. It's uneven but has its moments. Better editing could have bumped it to a solid three stars.

I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy's Golden Era by William Knoedelseder

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I'm a sucker for stories about the world of stand-up comedy. This book is about the early days of the Comedy Store in the mid-1970s and the comedians' strike in 1979 (they had been performing for free).

Knoedelseder writes about the early careers of performers such as David Letterman, Jay Leno, Robin Williams, Richard Lewis, and Elayne Boosler, as well as Tom Dreesen, who was a bit older and more experienced at the time (probably why the others elected him as their representative).

If you're looking for jokes, this book doesn't offer many, but if you want to learn about the roots of comedians popular in the 1980s, I'm Dying Up Here is great. Just be aware that it focuses more on the operation of the Comedy Store and the strike than on the individual performers.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

I Love Everybody (and Other Atrocious Lies) by Laurie Notaro

After being disappointed by Jen Lancaster's third book, I was a bit leery of reading Laurie Notaro's third book.*

No worries. I enjoyed I Love Everybody just as much as her first two books. This one reminds me a little more of her first book, a broad collection of tales, than of her second book, which began with the narrative of her wedding preparations. Regardless, she's still laugh-out-loud hilarious** without being unlikable or obnoxious like Lancaster has sadly become. I have all of Notaro's other books (aside from her latest) yet to read so I hope she kept writing funny stories like these.

Comparing the two is appropriate, as Lancaster credits Notaro with inspiring her writing career:
Fact: If it weren’t for Laurie Notaro, I may never have had a career as an author.  I was unemployed and under-stimulated when I first picked up The Idiot Girls’ Action Adventure Guide.  I inhaled this hilarious book in a day, the whole time thinking, “You’re allowed to write funny stories about getting drunk and falling down?  I WANT IN ON THIS!”
** I was eating lunch one day at Sweet Tomatoes when the people at the neighboring table asked what I was reading because I seemed to be enjoying it so much.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Hasta La Vista, Alta Vista

As a longtime Internet user, I can't help feeling a little sad about Yahoo shutting down this week. It was my favorite search engine in the late 1990s with my 33.6K modem. I remember AltaVista, Civilization II, and the Smashing Pumpkins guiding me through my last love-related depression in late 1996. Okay, so they weren't all good times.

Sunday, July 07, 2013


As I was preparing my bike to ride the Wauponsee Glacial Trail in Manhattan IL, another car pulled into the parking lot behind me. I turned around a minute later and did a double take. The driver was already gone (must have been a runner), and all I saw was my own car. Except I had just turned away from my car. This Focus is the same color, same number of doors, same trim level (SES) right down to the identical 16" wheels. It really did freak me out for a moment. (My car is in the foreground below.)

Saturday, July 06, 2013

How Not to Read: Harnessing the Power of a Literature-Free Life by Dan Wilbur

I was hoping this book would save me a lot of time, money, and space. If I embraced not reading, I could finally stop shopping for books and give away the hundreds I haven't read yet. I could turn the library into an S & M dungeon or something (just kidding—we have a room underneath the library in the basement that would be much better suited for that purpose).

Anyway, though I was disappointedly unconvinced, at least I got a lot of laughs out of How Not to Read. Wilbur includes topics such as how to pretend you've read a book and how to write your own. Plus he covers the entire history of Western literature in under 25 pages. As someone who spends way too much time reading books, I loved How Not to Read.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Spoiled Rotten America: Outrages of Everyday Life by Larry Miller

Here is yet another collection of essays. Maybe I was burning out, but this one took me nearly a week to plow through. Miller meanders a lot, and a ruthless editor probably could have chopped this book in half. Overall it's just okay, not as interesting or funny as Tasteful Nudes or Sleepwalk with Me. I really enjoyed the chapter he wrote in tribute to his "late-night buddy", but I am a sucker for stand-up comedy tales.

Monday, July 01, 2013

The Book of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks: A Celebration of Creative Punctuation by Bethany Keeley

Some blogs really make better blogs than books. This book/blog is a perfect example. It's probably entertaining to look at one or two of these every morning while you're trying to muster the ambition to do actual "work." But unless you have the patience and restraint to read only a couple pages of the book each day, it quickly becomes overwhelming and somewhat repetitive. I mean, even with different words in each photo, it's really just the same "joke" over and over.

I don't have a photo to go with it, but one of my favorite examples of unnecessary quotation marks here in Chicago is written on a hardware store window on Lawrence Avenue:
Yeah buddy, I'll tell you where you can park it...

Tasteful Nudes ...and Other Misguided Attempts at Personal Growth and Validation by Dave Hill

I read in restaurants a lot. Sometimes people ask me what I am reading. When I was reading this book, I really didn't want to answer that question. So naturally, everybody asked.

Sleepwalk with Me was a tough act to follow, but Tasteful Nudes was up to the challenge. It's a hilarious collection of autobiographical essays. I enjoyed it so much that I signed up for Hill's e-mail list, and regular readers of this blog know how hard I've been trying to cut back on my e-mail. Hill must know, too, because he hasn't sent me anything beyond a subscription confirmation.