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Book Reviews

American Troubadours
Mark Brend
Backbeat Music
In American Troubadours Mark Brend considers nine American singer-songwriters (Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin, Phil Ochs, Fred Neil, Tom Rush, Tim Rose, David Ackles, David Blue and Tom Rapp) who had initial moderate success in the latter half of the sixties and then struggled to keep up with fashion. Falling between the traditionalist folkniks of the early 60Ős and the faded denim, commercially successful singer-songwriters of the 70Ős they were a generation energised by the potential in the music uncovered by Dylan, but lacked his genius and adaptability and failed to evolve with the changing public taste in music. In each case their struggle eventually fades away to silence - either though lack of public interest, creative bankruptcy or death. The death toll is remarkably high with only two of the subjects being still alive today - Tom Rush and Tom Rapp.

Brend gives each artist a chapter of around a dozen pages in which to give a potted history of their career and give an overview on their music. In recent years many of these musicians have had their reputations reassessed, often after CD reissues, and some of their music is now relatively well-known, but much of the material of David Ackles, David Blue and Tom Rapp was new to me and interesting precisely because of how it gave perspective and context to the more well-known figures on the scene.

The book itself is very well presented: being stylishly laid out on glossy paper and featuring dozens of rare photographs and a good discography. A very enticing and informative approach to a much overlooked genre.

Steve Wilcock (Originally published in Triste 4)

Bob Dylan: Down The Highway
Howard Sounes
Another year, another Bob Dylan biography. This time the book has caused an impact beyond the limited circle of Dylanologists, partly due to the revelations about Dylan's personal life, but more probably because Sounes, an established biographer, has approached the task from the viewpoint of a biography rather than an extended musical critique with biographical notes. One of the prerequisites of a good biographer is often research and by utilising a little intelligence, some moderate detective work and a large amount of common sense Sounes has opened up areas of Dylan's life which were apparently hidden away. It's just a case of knowing where to look and who to ask.

If you want to know the full story of the recording of Desire then you won't find it here - try one of Clinton Heylin's books - and if you want to know the blues sources in Time Out Of Mind try Michael Gray. If, however,you really want a glimpse of "the man behind the shades", then this book is probably for you, although the private and personal Dylan still remains an elusive quarry. Glimpses of Robert Zimmerman can be seen in recollections from childhood friends (such as Dylan's lifetime friend Larry Kegan and Bonnie Beecher) up to the poignant revelation from sacked "Never Ending Tour" drummer Winston Watson that his get-well-soon letter was the only one he had received.

A biography worth seeking out - especially now it's in paperback.

Steve Wilcock(Originally published in Triste 4)

Neil Young: Zero To Sixty
Johnny Rogan
Rogan Press
Johnny Rogan has probably written the definitive book on the Byrds ("Timeless Flight")and his book on the Smiths - "Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance" - was so incisive in stripping away the camouflage and mystique of Morrissey that Rogan earned a personal fatwa from the miserable one himself. Neil Young is another songwriter who likes to control the press by selective feeding of morsels of personal information, but this book is unlikely to cause any disquiet down at the Young homestead.

Rogan is an acknowledged expert on Neil Young, as well as his sometime bandmates messrs Crosby, Stills and Nash, and his research is always admirable, without ever flaunting the fact. In this case the book weighs in at a mammoth 700 pages and 3.2lbs, but at the end no more is known about Neil Young and his motivation than Rogan managed to squeeze into his earlier CD sized pocket guide "The Complete Guide To the Music of Neil Young".

Rogan writes well enough in a balanced, chronological format - breaking off to expand on each album as it occurs. Unfortunately, with an artist like Neil Young, with three dozen plus albums to his name, the format quickly becomes repetitive and unenlightening and few of the stories are new.

Competent and accurate, but ultimately uninspiring.

Steve Wilcock (Originally published in Triste 4)

Dazzling Stranger
Colin Harper
Bert Jansch, it can't have escaped your attention, is going through a major career reappraisal right now. The last few months have seen a new TV documentary; a new album with hip, young Jansch acolytes paying their dues; lengthy magazine articles and now a book by long-time Jansch aficionado Colin Harper. "Dazzling Stranger" is not however solely a biography of Bert Jansch. The full title of: "Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival", pretty much sums up the content quite accurately. Despite researching the 60's UK folk boom in great detail, interviewing all the main protagonists and even getting the great man himself to play at his wedding, Colin Harper never quite manages to pin Jansch down. Unwilling, or unable, to explain himself or his music, the portrait of Jansch that emerges is one that is mainly painted through the eyes of his peers in the 60's folk scene. Harper admits that the book sprang from the ashes of a proposed book on Pentangle and my guess is that after starting to meet the larger than life characters that formed the vanguard of the British folk revival he decided to broaden the scope of the book. While Jansch remains the dazzling stranger of the title, by the book's end we get to meet such overlooked pioneers as Roy Guest, Len Partridge and Archie Fisher, while learning more of figures such as Ewan McColl, Clive Palmer, Anne Briggs etc.

After Jansch joins Pentangle the book discards the earlier Greek chorus of players and suffers a drop in immediacy, but still manages to cover the rest of Jansch's career quite thoroughly. One gripe, common to many music books published, is that the book contains a mass of source notes, but lacks even a basic discography. As a popular account of music, rather than an academic text, this is surely a mistake of emphasis.

Steve Wilcock (Originally published in Triste 3)

Country Roads
Brian Hinton
Starting with the author's personal country music epiphany whilst seeing London's situationist, country/gospel, techno posse The Alabama 3 at a festival, the book drifts off into a fascinating exploration of some of the darker, less well-charted outposts of the country music map. Hinton's personal journey sees him encountering some of the same suspects encountered in Peter Doggett's, "Are You Ready for The Country", but is at its best when featuring the acts that come from that "old, weird America" so beloved of devotees from Harry Smith via Greil Marcus to The Handsome Family.

The book provides intriguing sketches of country folk such as The Louvin Brothers, Dock Boggs and AP Carter, but, again like Doggett's book, loses any overall structure or view point by its very inclusiveness. Acts as tenuously connected with country as The Corrs and Fairport Convention confuse the issue. "Country Roads", ultimately, is better appreciated as a journey than as a destination.

Steve Wilcock (Originally published in Triste 3)


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