Books Of The Weekend: On The Road With Tommy And Bobby.
This past Labour Day (Labor Day) weekend, I finally got to absorb two fascinating rock memoirs.
Both were written in the first person and both revealed a wealth of knowledge about influential songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s. Most in the rock intelligentsia would concur on one, but I might have to convince them of the other. We were driving up to Lake Alpine for the weekend to stay in a tent and generally stay “off the grid”, so I wanted to take a book with me to read during the hours of doing nothing. For this, I chose the Tommy James memoir, Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The Shondells, written by James himself (with Martin Fitzpatrick). But it’s a long-ish drive to Lake Alpine from Berkeley, so I went to the library and signed out the CD Audiobook of Bob Dylan Chronicles, Vol. 1, read (remarkably) by Sean Penn.
First, the Dylan. There is no music on the Audiobook, so it’s a little jarring at first, but Sean Penn (a method actor, at heart) so wonderfully inhabits the voice of Dylan’s first-person narrative that, after a few miles, I didn’t mind. The first thing that caught me off guard, and really this is my fault, was that Dylan doesn’t necessarily cover everything (this is Volume One) and not in chronological order either. We time trip, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, through many of the key events in the life of the former Robert Allen Zimmerman, many details of which you probably already knew. He was born on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota, Iron Country, and soon moved to Hibbing where he outgrew the town shortly after hearing Woody Guthrie, Stephen Foster, Hank Williams and the oft-forgotten, New Lost City Ramblers. What makes it fascinating, besides the epoch shifting events of his life, is his knack for odd details and unexpected namechecks – Kurt Weill, Paula Abdul, Ice T – that remind you that Mr. Dylan has lived and continues to live in the same world as you and I.
He wasn’t off in a monastery, perfecting the “protest song”, in fact he eschews the term protest singer right from the opening. What you get is a relentlessly curious songwriter, who devours the music of his immediate past (and earlier) and self-consciously pushes himself to come up with something beyond the sum of his influences. You hear about a man named Jon Pancake who jabs the neophyte Dylan in the chest and admonishes him for merely imitating his idol, Woody Guthrie. We learn about the psychic influence of Dave Van Ronk, a peer in the Village whose intellectual dismissals of various music kept Dylan in line, at first. There’s Fred Neil, there’s Joan Baez, there’s Suze Rotolo (“the most erotic girl I’d ever seen”).
You see how Bob HATED being trapped in the role of folk icon and spokesman of his generation, and how he purposely tried to throw metaphorical tacks in the road of those who would try to follow him too closely.
Obfuscation was part of his strategy, ironically, because the more confusing he seemed, the more mythical he became. I also loved the way he peppers his descriptions with almost Damon Runyon gangster talk, like “Hoity toity” or “sure as shootin'”. He lays it all out, and Penn makes it real. We found ourselves getting back in the car, after we’d arrived at the campground, to drive to a nearby town and hear some more stories about Dylan and “Danny” recording Oh Mercy in New Orleans in the late 1980s. After hurting his hand, Dylan started coming up with lyrics to “Political World” and things kind of snowballed from there, and soon he’d written “What Good Am I?”, and “Dignity”, after hearing of the death of the NBA legend Pete Maravich.
The environment of New Orleans, and the steady hand of Daniel Lanois, pushed Dylan into about two dozen songs, including “What Was It You Wanted?”, “Everything Is Broken”, “Disease of Conceit”, and after a weird weekend motorcycle ride out of town with Mrs. Dylan, where he meets a strange man named Sun Pi at a General Store, he wrote the two last songs, “Shooting Star” and “Man in the Long Black Coat”. While that album gets a lot of attention, there is also a lot of praise for the man who got Dylan to Columbia, the legendary John Hammond. And there’s tons more. The book is a little raw and rough and worn down the edges, like the lived in voice of Bob himself. All in all, just a revelatory read for me (and for Liza) who had frankly resisted reading most of the Dylanography by other writers, with the possible exception of Sid Griffin’s Million Dollar Bash.
Then there’s Tommy James’s tale of million sellers and made men, Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The Shondells. While I have been resisting his book, for the silly reason that I hated the busy cover layout and the tabloidy title, I’m glad I finally devoured this over the weekend. The subtitle promises “one helluva ride” and, for once, I have to agree. We open on young Tommy Jackson, back in his smalltown home of Niles, Michigan, and his early bands, The Echoes and Tom and the Tornadoes, before arriving at The Shondells. I loved hearing about the battles of the bands, and the highly competitive atmosphere that lead to Jackson (James) snapping up the song “Hanky Panky” in 1964 and getting a regional hit out of it, but that fell by the wayside rather quickly because The Shondells had no national distribution. The band broke up, for awhile.But a couple of years later, the song was tearing up the radio in Pittsburgh, where he soon went on a promotional trip and was treated like a king. This is where the mob comes in. After a bidding war, well let’s say ten companies initially expressed interest and every one of them mysteriously backed off after a call from mob connected Morris Levy, who wanted (and would sign) Tommy and the Shondells to his Roulette Records, rechristening him Tommy James in the deal. The deal was great if you like getting lots of airplay, sales and attention but weren’t too fussy about little things like royalties and getting paid. Levy and his thugs knew how to grease the wheels of the music industry (they were key figures in the Alan Freed “payola” scandals of a previous era) and Tommy James made great records, like “I Think We’re Alone Now”, “Mirage”, “Mony Mony”, “Crimson And Clover”, “Sweet Cherry Wine”, “Crystal Blue Persuasion” and later, “Draggin’ The Line.”
The man can rightly be credited (along with his co-horts Richie Cordell and Bo Gentry) with having pioneered “Bubblegum” pop and “Psychedelic” pop. Through it all, mob hits, extortion, pill addiction, divorces – triumphs and tragedies – Tommy James tells it truthfully, taking the blame for what he messed up, laying the blame for what he didn’t, and taking the appropriate credit (and sharing it) for what all went so right. A rare treat.
Both books, Dylan’s and James’s, take you on long, often lonely journeys and both make you want to crank up the tunes when the words have stopped. That’s my kind of music book.