Books acquired: “The Portable Hawthorne,” Malcolm Cowley, ed.; “The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan,” Kevin Dettmar, ed.
Books read: “Ritchie Valens, the First Latino Rocker,” Beverly Mendheim; “Janis,” David Dalton; “Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, the Middle Years, 1974-1986,” Paul Williams
Happy December! I finished my reading early, pre-Christmas actually, and so here I am in the same month rather than a few days into the next.
I finished a trio of books, all of them with a rock musician’s name in the title. I read the Dylan because it is the oldest unread book on my shelves, and the last from my years living in the Bay Area. I have a half-dozen unread books of Dylaniana still and, see above, just bought another. Janis Joplin is another favorite. Valens is to be the subject of a future column.
It’s a shame that three decades after publication, “Ritchie Valens” (1987) evidently remains the only biography of the pioneering singer and guitarist, only 17 when he died in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, and with a career that lasted all of eight months.
To her credit, Mendheim (who as a teen saw Valens perform live in NYC) spoke to the relevant people and gathered copious source material. But she’s not expert enough to have made a real narrative out of it. Worthwhile for admirers, though. The conflicting memories of members of the Silhouettes, a local band in which Valens was a member, is both frustrating and hilarious; they can’t agree on much of anything.
I don’t know that I would have liked Janis Joplin had I known her, as she was so needy and outrageous (and faux-outrageous), but I find her fascinating to listen to and read about. She was a real trailblazer who suffered for being a woman and for being ahead of her time. The best bio is likely “Scars of Sweet Paradise” by Alice Echols, which I read a few years ago, pre-blog.
“Janis” (1971) is a ramshackle biography-cum-scrapbook published a year after her death, composed of relaxed interviews with Joplin from 1970, various Rolling Stone articles, a hefty photo section, sheet music for some of her best-known songs and a flexi-disc of talking. (The disc is still attached to the book and I think it’s more valuable to me preserved intact compared to the likely meager rewards of tearing it out and listening to it.) So as books go it’s a curio, but as a fan I enjoyed this more than I’d expected.
I read Paul Williams’ “Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, the Early Years, 1960-1973” in 1993, three years after publication, and let me tell you, I read it, listening to the records and following along with the lyrics, and also playing whatever unreleased tapes or records I happened to own. It took months. It was rewarding, but still. When I bought the sequel, I wanted to do the same thing, but after a suitable break.
Well, a quarter-century later (gulp), and trying to raise the floor of my unread books backlog by clearing out the stragglers from the late ’80s and early ’90s, I finally read “Performing Artist II” (1992). And it took months. This period starts with the 1974 comeback tour and “Blood on the Tracks” and ends with a 1986 tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the dismal “Knocked Out Loaded.”
The late Williams’ judgments are very useful if you’re willing to do a deep dive into the material. His thesis is that Dylan is a performer who can be as rewarding in concert as on record. Williams is a careful listener, but he can be overly generous, his devotion to the legendarily self-indulgent and unwatchable four-hour movie “Renaldo and Clara” is inexplicable and his takes on concert tours/tapes are a service to history if not always to readers who don’t have access to the material. Still, he was among the best Dylan commentators.
(There’s a final volume, from 2004, covering only 1986-1990, which I suspect will prove the least of the three and get bogged down in Never Ending Tour concert examinations. I hope to read that in 2019: There’s only four albums, one of them live, in that period.)
Look for my annual column in a few days about the books I read in the year past. I’ll also post the list of titles on this blog, which will be the best spot for you to comment on your own year in reading if you choose.
As for when and where the books above were acquired, the Dylan was bought in 1993 at Rasputin’s Music in Berkeley, the Joplin from Book Alley in Pasadena in 2002 and the Valens in October (talk about a leap forward in time) via Amazon Marketplace. It’s a former (I hope!) library copy.
Next month: “Counter Intelligence” and more.