Sunday, July 22, 2012
Music Sunday: Music Plus Book Review Edition
I grew up listening to rock music. I also spent a lot of that time reading the writing of Robert Hilburn, the legendary music critic for the Los Angeles Times. So, when I discovered that Hilburn had written a memoir, Corn Flakes with John Lennon and Other Tales From a Rock’n’Roll Life (Rodale, 2009; 280 pages), I had to read it.
I’m glad I did.
Hilburn, who wrote his first story as a freelancer for the Times in 1966 and was hired as full-time pop music critic and editor in 1970, is a fabulous writer. He spent his career at one of the epicenters of the music industry, and he writes about his adventures with grace and wit and a great deal of insight. As part of his job, he met and interviewed and reviewed the biggest and most legendary names in music, and became friends with not a few of them. These friendships did not stop Hilburn from calling these performers on the missteps in their recordings and in performance, although he writes about being worried that his relationships with these artists could be seen as a conflict or interest or result in bias toward them.
Hilburn also writes about his questions concerning continuing to write about music aimed mostly at teenagers and young adults as he aged, addressing his doubts in the context of covering musicians who kept making music, sometimes relevant, sometimes not so much, as they aged. I found this interesting as a person of a certain age who still loves rock music but finds fewer and fewer new artists whose work I can relate to as I get older. Hilburn quotes Paul McCartney on the subject, recalls that at one point Mick Jagger said that he couldn't envision still singing “Satisfaction” at the age of thirty but has continued singing it much longer than that, and celebrates the fact that Johnny Cash’s work remained relevant until the end of his life.
Then there are the stories. Hilburn recalls being the person John Lennon would call to spend an evening with during Lennon's year-and-a-half long “lost weekend”, spent primarily in Los Angeles, when he needed to remain relatively sober to get up for an early meeting the next day. He relates serious and deep discussions he had about the music with Bruce Springsteen. He talks about the difficulties inherent in interviewing people like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. He explores his ability to connect with musicians much younger than himself, such as Kurt Cobain, and from very different backgrounds, such as Ice Cube. He describes hanging out with the members of U2 in and out of the recording studio.
In the course of all this, Hilburn pulls no punches in writing about artists he admires and those he finds, following Bob Dylan’s three categories of musicians, “superficial”, which in Hilburn’s eyes includes some very big name acts and musicians. But Hilburn spends much less time on the superficial than he does on the natural performers and the supernatural performers, Dylan’s two other categories.
I’ll leave you to read the book to discover how various performers Hilburn discusses fit into which category. If you think this is my way of making you read the book rather than giving away the good parts, you’re absolutely correct. Every music lover should read Corn Flakes with John Lennon.
Because it is Music Sunday, I’m going to end this review with three of the artists and performances mentioned by Hilburn in the course of his book.
One of the musicians that Hilburn had a friendship with was Johnny Cash. He calls Cash's cover of "Hurt" "stirring" (p. 194):
Another artist Hilburn has high praise for is Bruce Springsteen, whose "Brilliant Disguise" Hilburn described as "a chilling reflection about commitment" (p. 148):
Hilburn said that U2's album, "The Unforgettable Fire" "confused" him, but he called two of the songs on the album, "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "Bad", "brilliant" (p. 141). Just last week, I shared the band's performance of "Bad" at Live Aid, so here is "Pride":