Weblog of Leland Rucker
Random header image... Refresh for more!

You say Grossman; I Say Goldman

A sharp-eared listener (thanks Ginger) caught me calling the notorious manager of Bob Dylan and the Band Albert Goldman during the Levon Helm tribute program on KGNU.

Everybody knows it’s Albert Grossman.

Albert Goldman

Both of them were about the same age; Albert Grossman was born in 1926, Albert Goldman about a year later.  Each had some connection to rock and roll, and both were almost equally reviled for their efforts in that regard.

Albert Goldman was a teacher and an author, and it was his efforts in the latter that earned him the disdain of rock cognoscenti. His biographies of Elvis Presley and John Lennon dared to look down the subjects, instead of up. Each book had its flaws, but it was his disdain for two pop superheroes that pissed off most who read it. His biography of Lenny Bruce isn’t as reviled. His biography of Jim Morrison remains unpublished.

I would certainly recommend Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Presley over Goldman’s, but after reading Tim Riley’s exhaustively researched Lennonbio, I don’t think Goldman, though he makes some rather ludicrous assumptions, was that far off the mark about Paul McCartney’s songwriting partner.

Albert Grossman circa 1966

Albert Grossman was once the most powerful manager in the music business, and a model for an entire breed of manager that thrived beginning in the 1960s. He was, as promoter George Wein told author Fred Goodman in Mansion on the Hill, “a strong, one-way street. He was a brilliant man and a good man in his way, but a tough son-of-a-bitch.” And though he was militant about protecting his “artists,” his arrogance generally drove away all his clients, including Bob Dylan, whom he famously managed from 1962-1970.

But the most interesting thing is that both men died on jets heading from the U.S. to London,  Grossman of a heart attack Christmas Day 1986 aboard the Concorde at age 59 and Goldman on March 28, 1994, aged 66.

As it turns out, I walked past Albert Grossman once. It was forty years ago this month. I was in Chicago, May 1972, at a Peter Yarrow/Lazarus concert. After the show I saw this fellow standing near the doors cupping a cigarette in his hand who, as best I could figure, looked like Benjamin Franklin. I wasn’t sure it was Grossman, but since he created Peter Paul and Mary, it seemed right. Years later I began reading other descriptions of him as looking like a certain bespectacled founding father.

May 16, 2012   No Comments

Jesus Christ — The Superstars! Buffalo Bill & Little Missie

What is it about superstars? Why do they so fascinate us?

I thought about that as millions mourned publicly for Whitney Houston last month, as I read Tim Riley’s John Lennon biography, and again after finishing Larry McMurtry’s The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America (Simon and Schuster 2005).

Buffalo Bill: The first superstar to go viral.

Annie Oakley and Bill Cody were among the first real American celebrities, those people — mostly actors, musicians, athletes or media professionals — who become stupendously successful. McMurtry notes that we don’t remember any of the other big names from that period when live shows about the West were as popular as stadium concerts today. Pawnee Bill, Ned Buntline, Doc Carver, Johnny Baker and Lillian Smith were all renowned performers of their day. But we remember the Colonel and Little Missie. They were superstars.

And as such, McMurtry makes an equally good case that Oakley and Cody were also among the first to get swept up in the frenzy of celebrity, something they didn’t understand and ultimately weren’t able to control. In their wake, few have.

His wry, common-sense style is perfect for this kind of interpretive historical story-telling as he traces the arc of Oakley and Cody’s triumphs and tragedies, always questioning what made them so darned popular.

“Superstars cannot exactly create themselves, no matter how skilled – the public cannot be manipulated vis-à-vis superstars only up to a point. The public must, at some point, develop a genuine love for the performer – a love that grows as long as the performer lasts,” he muses. “When great stars die, thousands mourn and mourn genuinely. Exactly how this chemistry works, no one quite understands – but some deep identification is made or superstardom doesn’t happen.”

In Cody’s case, at least part of it was that he actually was a scout in the 1870s, a man of the frontier, as well as an entertainer. But Oakley, on the other hand, was just a performer who dressed in buckskins and was a damned good shot.

Luck and circumstance certainly have something to do with it. Cody’s life as a frontiersman overlapped with his performing career. His Wild West Show idea was prescient, and though he never got to see his dreams materialize, he was a film visionary as well.

He was almost certainly the first artist to go viral. His iconic image, first immortalized in dime novels, books, and on posters, sitting on a horse in buckskins looking out at the endless prairie, is still as recognizable today as it was around the turn of the twentieth century. Everybody saw his image somewhere. We all know Buffalo Bill.

McMurtry wonders aloud why Robert Duvall, an extraordinary actor who, for all his skills, isn’t a superstar, while John Wayne, hardly in the class of Duvall as an actor, was. “The sonofabitch just looks like a man,” McMurtry quotes director John Ford about Wayne. McMurtry ponders that it might be something in the way superstars move. Was it because Oakley would give a little back kick when she did well or would visibly pout when she missed that made the audience love her? Was it because Buffalo Bill looked as good on a horse as Wayne did when he sauntered, his walk slightly tilted, into a movie saloon?

In the end, like the rest of us, McMurtry has more questions than answers about superstardom, and he seems to be as bemused as the rest of us about it all, but the book is quite enjoyable. Perhaps in this case, the quest will have to be enough.

March 8, 2012   No Comments

John Lennon: A Life of Contradictions

When I was a child, my uncle Jack, who was my guardian at the time, would tell my brother and me, “do as I say, not as I do,” as if that were a way to excuse his own excesses and remain an authority figure.

That’s kind of how I feel about John Lennon after reading Tim Riley’s Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music – The Definitive Life (Hyperion 2011). After 661 pages and almost 100 pages of footnotes, Lennon comes off like Uncle Jack, insecure, deeply flawed and seemingly incapable of controlling his worst instincts. Except that Lennon created music that has become part of my own soundtrack.

Lennon and the other Beatles were heroes of my youth whose music, style and attitude helped shape my own thinking and life. His murder devastated me, enough that it took years to be able to listen or appreciate his music again. Trying to separate the myths from the reality of Lennon’s complicated life is a formidable task, and Riley has given considerable time and energy to the project. Just using “The Definitive Life” in the title sounds, well, definitive.

Most biographies spend little time on childhood, but Lennon’s is worth looking into, and Riley does a great job of tracing his early life in Liverpool: his incredibly dysfunctional family, his fortuitous early hookup with Paul McCartney and George Harrison, the formation of the band, the three trips to Hamburg and their residency at the Cavern Club.

This is easily the best historical narrative of the Beatles’ rise, success and dissolution that I’ve read (and I’m looking over at about three dozen Beatles books on my shelf here in my office). Listening to the recordings that survive of their last Hamburg trip (packaged now as Live From the Star Club), it’s easy to understand Riley’s persuasive case that the Beatles created themselves on those scuzzy stages, both the music they engineered out of the riffs, rhythms and harmonies of American proto-rock/soul and the smiling, smirking, smart-alecky attitude that made me to want to adopt a new lifestyle paradigm at age 15.

Riley is at his best when he’s writing about the music itself. Author of Tell Me Why: The Beatles Album by Album, Song by Song, The Sixties and After, he spends a breathtaking chapter weaving the Beatles and George Martin’s production skills into the rich patchwork of innovation that characterized 1960s rock. His interpretations of Lennon’s songs, though subjective, are always provocative. Though he obviously believes that Lennon was the more serious creative force in the partnership, he is generous in recognizing the special relationship between Lennon and Paul McCartney, McCartney’s many contributions to Lennon’s material, and vice versa, and how even during the band’s dissolution, Lennon and McCartney remained committed to each other’s music.

But back to Uncle Jack and Lennon. “Do as I say, not as I do” pretty much sums up Lennon’s life. Blame it on his childhood or his insecurities (both of which Riley makes a case for), but too often Lennon just doesn’t come off as a very nice guy. Riley doesn’t try to cover over the warts, showing us time and again that what Lennon said and what he did were in complete contradiction, whether it was preaching peace and love but treating even his friends and associates with callousness, or preaching family and fidelity while cheating on the “love of his life.” Riley makes a somewhat persuasive case that Lennon was growing up in his last five years, but not enough to make you believe he really was, as he put it, starting over. And I found myself scratching my head in a few places where he interprets, sometimes without attribution, Lennon’s thought process, and I kept thinking that the word “perhaps” could have been used a bit more often when ascribing motivation.

That’s a minor quibble. Making John Lennon human didn’t change my view of his musical contributions or impact on my own life. If you’re a Beatles/Lennon fan, you really have to read this one and judge for yourself.

January 22, 2012   No Comments

It’s All Too Much: Beatles Night in Lyons

It was standing room only by the time we got to the Beatles tribute in the basement of Oskar Blues brewpub in Lyons, Colorado, last night. The concept was simple enough: From 7-11 p.m., musicians who signed up beforehand each got to play three songs by the Fabs.

Squint and you're in the Cavern Club - or not.

Squint and you're in the Cavern Club - or not.

We got there about 8:30, just in time to catch a duo turning “Got to Get You Into My Life” into a sweet acoustic number. The music ran the gamut from classics like “Nowhere Man” to late-period John Lennon blues, and it was fascinating to hear pick-up bands composed of people, most of them small children or not born when the Beatles ruled, imitating their idols just as the Beatles emulated their musical heroes on tiny stages in Liverpool half a century ago. The torch continues to be passed.

Everybody knew the words to the songs, and many sang along with each and every one. Easily the best moment for me was when a rock quartet wound itself around George Harrison’s crunching, droning “It’s All Too Much.” Between the bar noise, the aroma of beer brewing and the low ceilings, I squinted, and for a quick moment, I thought I might be in the Cavern Club.

Or maybe it was just the Christmas lights and those pints of Dales’ Pale Ale.

And whom should I find making his way from the stage to the sound booth? It’s my old friend Dave McIntyre, a tireless supporter of music in this area, columnist for Blues Access back in the day and in charge of live music at Oskar Blues, which features a smorgasbord of blues, bluegrass, western swing, jazz and Americana, depending on the night, in this intimate room. Last month Oskar’s saluted the music of Neil Young, and next up is Bob Dylan on February 18, with more to be added.

January 22, 2009   2 Comments