Getting to Dylan

June 20, 2021 at 15:08

D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1966) – which I write about in my forthcoming book, Rock-N-Roll Plays Itself (to be published in early 2022) – might have once been seen simply asa film about a popular singer on tour told through the medium of a new kind of fly-on-the-wall kind of documentary film.

But with so much time having elapsed since it was first released and began to seep into popular culture more broadly the film’s portrait of the star confronting a rapacious media – although this media is admittedly quite tame by today’s standards – whose members are given the kind of close-up and intimate access to an artist at the peak of his early powers that would be hard to imagine being repeated today.

Dylan’s legend would only – and forever – be enhanced by the scenes of wit and cunning and the cat and mouse games with the interrogators we see in Don’t Look Now. The final scene of the film shows a triumphant Dylan after a performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall being carried away in a car with manager Albert Grossman and his sidekick and road manager, Bob Neuwirth, as they make one final jab at the press who had dogged him throughout the tour. ‘Anarchist,’ Neuwirth says. ‘That’s what they are calling you, because you are not protesting correctly.’ ‘Really. Am I an anarchist?’ Dylan laughs. ‘Maybe I am … Hey, give the anarchist a cigarette!’

It is a key element in the Dylan mythology.

Yet when it comes to the movies, Dylan was also shown to be merely mortal, a presence who perhaps suffered from not being the centre of attention, as in his role in the determinedly un-rock’n’roll western, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid. More mystifying is his decision to take a prominent role as some anonymous rock star in 1986’s Hearts on Fire, a straight-to-video nasty, in which he played opposite Rupert Everett and a little known Canadian singer and actress called Fiona Flanagan. The film is even more odd given that Dylan as Dylan – and partly because of the work that Don’t Look Back did in establishing an image of rock stardom – became the source of one of the most powerful of all rock star archetypes: the romantic outsider who channels reality through a collision of visionary images with a new kind of rock’n’roll sound.

1987’s Hearts of Fire

The question, then, is how can such a figure – such a man-as-myth – end up ‘playing’ some half-sketched stand in for the real thing?

But then again was Hearts of Fire as odd of choice as it seemed on its release? When viewed within the context of Dylan’s apparently faltering powers in the eighties (and later revelations of his need to earn money), it might just have been his way of trying to reassert the inscrutable public persona that Don’t Look Back had established. Along with the tours he undertook with the Grateful Dead and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in this era, and then collaborations that produced the Traveling Wilburys, the man who ‘wasn’t there’ was perhaps finding himself again by becoming … more enigmatic and elusive.

A BBC documentary titled ‘Getting to Dylan’ made around the time when Hearts of Fire was being filmed is one of the best films about how Dylan played the media for his own ends and even features amusing footage of the singer talking to some young teenagers who are hanging around outside his trailer. ‘Oh, you like Ozzy?’ he says to the kids. ‘How about Ratt …?’ Back inside the trailer, as filmmaker Christopher Sykes tries to probe for some meaning to the whole Dylan enigma, attempting to get Dylan to pin himself down, it seems that the discussion is not really going to go anywhere.

As an opener, Sykes raises the interesting thought that Dylan’s songs are actually very ‘film-like’, an interpretation that Dylan is keen not to allow anyone to think is what he thinks. ‘All Along the Watchtower, for example … it’s like very tight visual imagery, like it has been written at enormous length and then had things stripped out of it, leaving only these kind of key images and then suggestions of sound and stuff in it’, Sykes says. ‘I suppose what I want to know is that when you write a song, am I right about you doing it like that? …’

Dylan: ‘No’

Sykes: ‘How do you do it then?’

Dylan: ‘Many ways …’

Sykes: ‘They’re stories with visual images …’

Dylan: ‘Uh-uh, I don’t know whether they are [that] … they are whatever they are to whoever is listening to them. No, I don’t do those things, I don’t have those plans, I don’t have any set way of writing songs …’

Having slipped free of this attempt to pin him as a ‘cinematic’ songwriter, we see Dylan – who has been scribbling away the entire time on a sheet of paper from Sykes’ production notes – hand Sykes the finished product: a drawing of his interrogator. ‘That’s very flattering,’ a baffled Sykes says.

‘Getting to Dylan’, Omnibus, BBC One, first broadcast 18 September 1987. It can be viewed in four parts at Youtube.

Being Bad

May 1, 2020 at 13:01

A short extract from the opening chapter of John Scanlan, Sex Pistols: Poison in the Machine (2016). This is from Chapter 1, ‘I’ll Be So Bad’, which is about Malcolm McLaren in the 1960s.

It was October 1964. Malcolm McLaren, then a few months shy of his nineteenth birthday and going by the name of Malcolm Edwards, found himself looking on in surprise as the Rolling Stones, laughing and puffing away on cigarettes, appeared in front of him. He was perched on Chelsea Bridge with an etching pad, looking over at Battersea Power Station, its four iconic chimneys pumping white smoke, and outlining its imposing presence on the south bank of the Thames.

He knew who the Rolling Stones were, of course; but it was only here that he was struck, seeing them out on the street, in the daylight, by the way they looked and how unlike pop stars – how un-rock’n’roll – they actually were. The way they dressed, they could have been Beat writers, or young French existentialist poets and philosophers.

Bill Wyman, the least star-like of the group, was dressed in a knee-length black leather mac, and standing in front of a wooden hut selling tea and hot dogs that was plonked on the Battersea side of the bridge. He spoke to Charlie Watts, as Keith Richards and Brian Jones ordered cups of tea. Mick Jagger was prancing around, posing for some photographers. Together, with their long hair and slightly unkempt appearance, they looked bad – they looked mean, dirty, and possibly dangerous. It was an interesting look.

But all that – pop music – was something that belonged in the past. He once had time for the Rolling Stones, and others like the Pretty Things, but in the year or so since he had first started taking art classes at St Martin’s School of Art, he had more or less lost interest in it all. When the Beatles and the rest of the upbeat pop music that swept through the sixties took over, something had been lost. The action was to be found elsewhere – possibly in art, and living the life of an artist.

Why bother being some kind of spectator of this popular culture, he thought, when you could – as an artist – reshape the future by your own actions.

* * *

The 1960s were a time of upheaval in Britain’s art schools and colleges, shaped both by events in the world outside and by the structures and relationships that then existed within the institutions, and which seemed to act as obstacles to the kind of freedom that young artists wanted. By 1966 Malcolm Edwards had made the first of many attempts to instigate events and situations that might ruffle the feathers of the authority figures he so despised. In July that year he appeared in the headlines of a national newspaper for the first time, when The Times reported that he and a friend named Henry Adler had been found guilty at Marlborough Street Magistrates Court in London of ‘insulting behaviour contrary to the Public Order Act’.

Adler, a few years older and more woven into the life of the counterculture, would be the ‘conduit’ that linked the then Malcolm Edwards to radical politics, and to King Mob, a London Situationist group that he was later loosely associated with. The twenty-year-old Edwards – described by The Times as ‘a sculptor’ – was caught with 23-year old Adler trying to set light to the Stars and Stripes outside the US Embassy, in a ‘symbolic act against American policy in Vietnam’. They were both fined and bound over to keep the peace for twelve months, as the magistrate explained, to ensure that there would be no more such incidents.[1]

Grosvenor Square 1969

There would be no more headline-grabbing incidents in those twelve months, although the one-time sculptor later wrote that in 1968 – the year when a revolutionary fervour gripped students across Europe – he could be found scrambling through the South African embassy as all around him Molotov cocktails flew into the air. And he remembered spilling bags of marbles on the ground at a charge from the oncoming mounted police at Grosvenor Square, scene of the most famous confrontations with the police in 1968:

Suddenly it looked like these horses were on an ice skating rink, and then, like Agincourt, we ducked down and people behind us had catapults and started firing gobstopper marbles at the windows of the American embassy.[2]

Since 1966 Edwards had lived with Vivienne Westwood, sister of his best friend Gordon Swire. Gordon was connected to the capital’s music scene, and had been booking bands on the burgeoning London rhythm and blues (R&B) scene in the early days of The Rolling Stones, when Malcolm would sometimes follow him around the circuit, often with more interest in the beer than the music – unless The Pretty Things or The Rolling Stones were playing. He was impressed that the Stones would get on-stage wearing dirty collars and cuffs, and – like many others at the time – loved the whiff of danger that these small details communicated. 

Sex Pistols, Poison in the Machine

John Scanlan, Sex Pistols: Poison in the Machine (Reaktion Books, 2016).

Published by Reaktion Books, September, 2015 (UK) 
+ via University of Chicago Press, October 2015 (USA)

ISBN 9781780235295

240 pages
45 illustrations
216 x 138 mm

Bowie Bonds

January 13, 2020 at 22:16

In the early 1990s David Bowie began to detach himself from the weight of his own musical legacy, and in doing so – which involved disappearing from the hit parade – he nonetheless ended up as one of the richest rock stars in the world. And while it is true that reinvention was more or less the norm for Bowie, what he began in the nineties was nonetheless a novel attempt at finding a way to move forward in a creative sense; one that seemed, indeed, to separate him from many of his peers.

Unlikely as it may have seemed at the time he was recording the records that made him in the seventies and eighties, this was on the cusp of an era – the late nineties into the new century – when it would not be uncommon to see ageing rockers, some associated with its most decadent excesses, being feted by world leaders, or awarded medals of honour and suchlike.

Recently, Bob Dylan accepted a Nobel Prize. But before that the American Presidents Obama and Clinton handed out awards to the likes of Dylan, as well as Led Zeppelin and The Who, while at the same time the list of British rockers enjoying use of the title of ‘Sir’ seemed to grow each year, with Paul McCartney and Elton John joined recently by Sir Ray Davies of the Kinks, Sir Van Morrison, Sir Rod Stewart and Sir Ringo Starr.

Only one of the rock icons of the same generation as those mentioned managed to avoid this symbolic embrace of the establishment, refusing all offers of state-bestowed honours: David Bowie.

Unsurprisingly, given the lengths he went to throughout his career to move past exhausted ideas or forms of presentation, Bowie was very aware of the need to keep himself within the artistic sphere at this particular time, and to resist the lure of nostalgia that accompanied the music industry’s resurgent interest in its own past. This was first as a result of the CD era and then the emerging digital era, which together promised new and unforeseen income streams for recordings that often seemed doomed to enjoy the limited lifespan of chart popularity to keep them in stores, and thus available to be listened to by new audiences.

But once the dawn of the CD made it possible for the industry to see a means to sell once again old music, now repackaged in the new format, and because the CD revolution also freed up physical space in stores, there was just so much more room for a lot of music that had been forgotten about.

The danger in this for artists living through it, if they submitted to revivals based on former glories, was that their careers could easily end up revolving around a demand that they keep revisiting that past, as their audience grew with both old fans rediscovering their music, and new audiences discovering for the first time the hits of a golden era.

At around the same time as he was plotting a new way of working the catalogue that might result in freeing him from the claim of the past, Bowie’s odd cameo in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me – as an FBI agent who had disappeared years before and suddenly, out of the blue, appears in the most mysterious circumstances – seemed quite in tune Bowie’s (music) career at that time: now you see him, now you don’t.

You see, Bowie ‘retired’ his greatest hits (not himself, as rock stars had previously done) after some final performances at the turn of the new decade. I witnessed one of these last shows at which he was going to play the hits from the golden years – the ‘Sound + Vision’ tour, in 1990 – before he temporarily tried to vanish within pseudo-metal / hard rock band, Tin Machine, a number of film roles, but also the world of the visual arts (he had a one man show of his art in London in 1995, and wrote for the magazine Modern Painters during the decade).

Tin Machine (1989)

Some surmised that Tin Machine was just another of Bowie’s disguises: an attempt to disappear himself. It was reported that he introduced himself onstage as David ‘Jones’, and on the cover of the first Tin Machine album cover what we see seems to be a shrunken Bowie, as if he was the least significant figure of the four band members.

When Bowie pops up as Agent Phillip Jeffries in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, it is entirely unexpected, and not prefigured in any way in what the viewer had seen up to that point. As such, it disrupted whatever the story unfolding on screen. Was it ‘a flash-forward,’ Sean Redmond asks in a recent article, ‘a fragment or figment from Agent Cooper’s dream(ing), or a ghost walking in plain sight?’[1]

Whatever the answer might be, the sense of dislocation that the moment of his appearance represents within the film seemed to produce an oddly typical Bowie moment. It’s like he disappeared in real life and appeared out of nowhere as this fictional character – as if the two events had more than a coincidental continuity. And wasn’t it true that whatever disguise Bowie adopted, we always knew that it was David Bowie anyway?

Bowie as Agent Phillip Jeffries in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

But that was hardly the most significant event in Bowie’s life at this time.

Distancing himself from his past was a process that gained momentum when he acquired the rights to the valuable master recordings of his back catalogue in 1997 (although it seems to have stemmed from an impulse that actually dates back to that 1990 tour, when he first decided that this was the end of the line for the old hits).

What was significant about 1997 was the the emerging realisation that digital file-sharing presented a real problem for artists who relied on income from record and CD sales. These fears were most notably aired when Metallica sued the main pre-iTunes platform, Napster, for theft of copyright by allowing the sharing of music files via its peer-to-peer platform: a seemingly logical outgrowth of the old counterculture wisdom that drove Silicon Valley tech geeks to innovate, the idea that information wants to be free and could not be contained. Well, it was true: in the digital age, music became information – a collection of zeroes and ones. Files that once copied, could be copied endlessly with little or no time or effort.

Bowie’s own back catalogue, which he was no longer interested in promoting in performance, he realised, could quickly end up worthless in an era of declining sales and rampant file-sharing. So, rather than using the circumstance of obtaining his masters back from RCA Records to become the curator of his own legacy – as others would do – Bowie and his manager tried to devise a way to put this catalogue to use while it still had a present value, in order to finance his continued artistic experiments. It was to be a different way of using a past to sustain future development. And so, Bowie and his business manager Bill Zysblat invented, along with a stock market analyst named David Pullman, what came to be known as ‘Bowie Bonds’. 

Billboard, 15 February 1997

A calculation was made of the likely cash flows from royalties due on Bowie’s recorded back catalogue up to 1990, which he now owned outright. As the Financial Times reported at the time of his death in 2016, ‘Bowie struck a licensing deal with EMI for his back catalogue’ giving the record company limited-term rights to all of his albums – 25 in total – released between 1969 and 1990. They could re-release, repackage and do whatever they wanted with the catalogue, and in return Bowie would receive substantial funds.

Financial Times, 12 January 2016

‘Those rights were then securitised, turned into $55m of Bowie Bonds, offering a 7.9 per cent annual coupon. The bonds were “self-liquidating”, meaning the principal declined each year, and the rating agency Moody’s blessed the deal with an investment grade credit rating.'[2]

The bonds would mature over a ten-year period, between 1997 and 2007, after which the royalties from this pre-1990 music would once again start to flow back to Bowie himself. Bonds were issued to the value of $55m and sold to investors who might otherwise have put their funds into real estate or more traditional investment ventures.

Others following Bowie into the bond market included James Brown

With the income windfall, Bowie was now free from dependence on record companies, or the need to raise income through touring his greatest hits over and over to please the fans who preferred an earlier version of David Bowiet (as so many of the ageing artists of his generation had been forced to do in the face of declining record sales and resurgent back catalogue CD reissues). Remarkably, by the mid-1990s, it was reported that his personal wealth had been transformed beyond the amount raised by the bond issue, with Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper reporting in 1995 that he was ‘the richest man in British rock music’ – outstripping even Paul McCartney – and with a personal fortune of ‘more than half a billion pounds, thanks to canny overseas investments, a bond issue and rights to his back catalogue.'[3]

In 2002, more than ten years after this experiment in fund-raising, Bowie was still anticipating that things would go much further in the same direction for the music business as the internet promised to affect every facet of life. ‘I’m fully confident that copyright, for instance, will not exist in ten years. Authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing. Music itself is going to be like running water or electricity’, he said.[4] Yet, there was much that had not yet happened, including the arrival of iTunes to normalise the idea of paying for downloaded music.

In the last decades of his life – and hindered by serious illness in the early 2000s – Bowie kept working an artist who was living in his own present time, thinking about the future as opposed to the past. Following the Bowie Bonds were a series of eclectic albums, not always received with affection, from 1997’s Earthling to 2016’s Blackstar (completed weeks before he died) that demonstrated his unwillingness to let time and age erode his artistic impulses.

[1] Sean Redmond, ‘David Bowie: In Cameo,’ Cinema Journal, Vol. 57: 3 (Spring 2018), p. 152.
[2] Dan McCrum, ‘A Short History of the Bowie Bond,’ Financial Times, 11 Jan, 2016.
[3] Alison Boshoff, ‘Bowie Tops the Money Charts,’ Daily Telegraph, 29 Oct, 1997, p. 3.
[4] Jon Pareles, ‘David Bowie, 21st-Century Entrepreneur,’ New York Times, 09 June, 2002, p. 30.

Back to mono

June 12, 2018 at 15:40

I have been thinking about time recently. Rock’n’roll and time and how integral the feeling of things accelerating were to how people must have experienced the music and its ability to constantly replenish itself, often working through formulaic patterns or variations on a theme. Consider Phil Spector who, as much as anyone in his prime, defined a point in time through the application of a vision and the creation of an unmistakable signature sound. What were his records called – two-minute teenage operas, or something similar.

It was perhaps odd then that Spector ended up producing what was, at the time, the longest slab or recorded rock music ever made in the form of George Harrison’s sprawling triple-album All Things Must Pass. But it wasn’t really enough to allow Spector to transition into the cultural milieu of seventies rock too easily. In fact he had found himself cut adrift amidst the easy-going excess of LA’s rock culture.

Spector was anything but easy-going. When he reluctantly ventured out into this new alien world in the mid-70s, doing the rounds of the Sunset Strip clubs in search of new blood, as he half-heartedly scouted the scene while sporting custom t-shirts and lapel-badges exclaiming the words of his own unwritten manifesto: ‘BACK TO MONO’.

An ad for Phil Spector’s Greatest Hits. Warner / Spector Records 25P9104 (1977)

It was a slogan that his record company had adopted to market a re-release double LP of his hits. Observers were not convinced that Spector’s old work – catapulted into an age before the concept of the re-release had even seriously been thought of – merited much attention, such was the ever-shifting clock of rock and roll fashions. ‘Time works against the concept,’ Billboard magazine declared, almost baffled that anyone would try and market their past in such a way. ‘Spector has been out of the limelight for some time, so it is hard to imagine masses of record buyers surging into stores to gulp this LP up.’

‘Back to Mono’ may have failed as a marketing slogan, but it was a sentiment that might have rung true for many in the mid-seventies had they noticed; an implicit rebuke to those who had abandoned the direct simplicity of rock’n’roll. The out-of-fashion Spector found himself working with John Lennon on an album of fifties cover songs, titled simply Rock’n’roll. If it seemed a little early for Lennon to be looking back nostalgically to the past – a mere dozen or so years after the Beatles had rose to global fame – it was perhaps an indication that he now found himself in uncharted territory, outlasting the expectation that he’d be done with rock’n’roll by the time he reached his thirties.

The two fell out after Spector brought one session to a halt by firing gunshots into the ceiling, later disappearing with the master tapes, which would not be recovered until over a year later. When the album finally saw the light of day, in late 1975, it showed Lennon on the cover in his pre-fame Hamburg days, harking back to the fifties and sporting black leather and greased-back hair.

But it was only when the Ramones were brought to Spector’s attention that the famed producer believed he had found a way to get back to his own kind of rock’n’roll. They had been pushed into his arms by the combination of a record company desperate for hits, and lead singer Joey Ramone’s vision of himself as the reincarnation of one of Spector’s girl-group singers on the album’s excellent version of The Ronettes’ ‘Baby, I Love You.’

But the prolonged recording process turned into a trial for the impatient Ramones. Spector thought that the resulting album, End of the Century (1979), would revive his fortunes. But it failed to deliver the chart success that both parties had expected, a situation not helped by the fact that the band’s leader, Johnny Ramone – claiming Spector had forced him to repeat the opening chord of ‘Rock’n’roll High School’ over 200 times – disowned the album, and used every opportunity he could to claim that Spector had all but taken the band hostage in the studio, forcing them to perform at gunpoint.

40 Years Gone

February 3, 2015 at 15:00

On this day in 1975 William Burroughs was tasked with interviewing Zeppelin’s pied piper for Crawdaddy magazine (image from the cover pictured below). As Tom Nissley writes in his book, A Reader’s Book of Days, True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year (2014): “The next day at his apartment, he offered Page a session in his Reichian orgone accumulator, which the guitarist declined, and a cup of tea, which he accepted, and they discussed soccer riots, Moroccan trance music, death rays, Brian Jones, and the possibility of constructing an actual stairway to heaven.”

Like a Rolling Stone

June 6, 2014 at 22:49

It sounds like the name of an unassuming clerical officer from Stevenage, or some other provincial outpost on these islands. Stanley Booth. But, it’s a name that anyone interested in writing that is concerned with music and musicians as its subjects – rock’n’roll, R’n’B, blues – should know. But, you know, I don’t think Stanley is well known at all. So, why is he not as revered as Greil Marcus or Nick Kent? Um, I don’t know …

When I was looking at the clip of the Rolling Stones (which I posted below) from the early 70s, I couldn’t help but think of Stanley Booth’s great book, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (that’s the jacket of the original Heinemman edition, 1985, pictured below). Far from being some kind of clerical officer, the inside flap of the book notes that Booth had previously worked as ‘a karate teacher, a state welfare worker, a Pinkerton operative, and a writing teacher.’ A Pinkerton operative?  I recall now buying it back in 1985 for something like 25p, from one of those Bargain Books shops that always seemed to be located near bus and train stations (remaindered stock, on the way to the skip, for a transient population on the road to nowhere, etc).

It’s a tremedously evocative portrait of the end of the 1960s, whose demise has been closely associated with the Rolling Stones’ infamous December 1969 performance at the Altamont Speedway in California, which was famously captured in the Maysles Brothers film, Gimme Shelter. One of the most memorable chapters in the book recounts Stanley’s trip to Cheltenham to interview the parents of Brian Jones, not long after the Rolling Stones’ founder member had died in 1969.

And there they were: two respectable middle class people, probably born in the distant 1910s, 1920s, baffled by how this thing, rock’n’roll, could have changed their polite son from an aspiring draughtsman into the embodiment of rock’n’roll decadence. Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, for Stanley – who was from the swamp country of Waycross, Georgia – was a foreign land. So, of course, he records the kind of details that only a traveller would latch onto – the fact that the only soft drink his hotel serves is orange squash seems strangely characteristic of how little England, beyond the metropolitan centres, had changed in the previous 20 or 30 years. Cheltenham reminded him, he said, of Macon, Georgia, where he went to school ‘wearing an army uniform, carrying a rifle.’ This was a book published some fifteen years after the events it recounts took place. Stanley Booth was there at Altamont, and spent the year on the road with the Stones. This was still an era when rock musicians allowed writers and reporters to get close to them. That proximity to his subject shows in the way the story of that year is told.

It’s no surprise that the cover of the second edition of the book, published by Chicago Review Press in 2000, has the testimony of Keith Richards emblazoned across the front: Stanley Booth’s book is the only one I can read and say, ‘Yeah, that’s how it was’. But, it’s worth saying that this is no censored, ‘official’, biography. The portrait it paints is often not flattering. Of first meeting Keith Richards, for instance, Stanley describes seeing before him, an ‘advertisment for dangerous carefree death – black ragged hair, dead green skin, a cougar tooth hanging from his right earlobe, his lips snarled back from the marijuana cigarette between his rotting fangs’.

And, in the light of all that has been said about Altamont – that it represents the end of sixties optimism, etc., etc. – what more could be said about it, especially by a first-hand witness who had stood at the side of the stage as the Stones performed, and Meredith Hunter was murdered by the Hells Angels? Fifteen years – and in the meantime everyone else (i.e., those who weren’t there) has had their go at telling the story. But you know from the opening paragraph of True Adventures, which captures Stanley riding with the band in their car, on the way to Altamont Speedway, that this is better than the rest: “It is late. All the little snakes are asleep. The world is black outside the car windows, just the dusty clay road in the headlights. Far from the city, past the last crossroads (where they used to bury suicides in England, with wooden stakes driven through their hearts), we are looking for a strange Californian hillside where we may see him, may even dance with him in his torn, bloody skins, come and play.”

That last sentence undoubtedly reflects the publisher’s preferred title (changed at the last minute), ‘Dance with the Devil’, if not how apt the Stones’ own ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ was in soundtracking that year of 1969. My guess would be that Stanley Booth’s book is the one that fully fills in the background and captures the era and its mores – i.e, we read more than just the events leading up to that unfortunate day at Altamont Speedway, and get more of a sense that something really bad could be just around the corner at anytime with the Rolling Stones in those days.

One other enduring image of Altamont for me was provided by the sight of Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead. In the film Gimme Shelter, he is seen to arrive at the site late in the day and we first glimpse him in the company of Santana’s drummer, Micheal Shrieve, who is attempting to relay how disastrous things had turned out. As Shrieve explains to Garcia, and the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, that the Hells Angels (who they had recommeded as security for the concert) had been beating up members of the audience and even musicians onstage, Garcia just kind of stood there dressed in a cape – stoned – saying, ‘Uh, bummer, man’. I found this very short interview with Stanley Booth, for those who want to read more.

A longer and more informative piece than this can be found here. Below is a clip from the Gimme Shelter film, with the Stones on the road in the States in 1969. In this scene, they have just checked into a motel, and we see them in a room listening to a demo of the song, ‘Brown Sugar’. Stanley Booth is the guy standing up with Mick and Keith, wearing the blue denim shirt. If you like rock’n’roll, or just like writing no matter what the subject is – or writing that is about rock’n’roll, read Stanley Booth’s The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones.You will not be disappointed.

Stanley Booth in Gimme Shelter

On Mt. Baldy

August 25, 2013 at 01:02

This engaging documentary was produced and filmed by a French artist, Armelle Brusq and filmed in Spring 1996 on Mt. Baldy and in Los Angeles. More details here from

“The film describes the daily routines of the Zen monks at the Zen Center of Mt. Baldy: waking up early (2:30 or 3:00 am), marching together to the ceremonies, meditating, making food and eating. We see Cohen working in the kitchen and helping his dear friend and teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi (90 years at the time of shooting); later he drives with Roshi to another Zen Center (Rinzai Ji) in Los Angeles.

Cohen’s cabin with his Technics KN 3000 synthesizer and computers are shown, and he sings his new song A thousand kisses deep. He also recites three unpublished poems, two telling about Roshi (one titled Roshi at 89) . The third was titled Too old.

The camera also visits the office of Stranger Management: Cohen demonstrates his archives (lots of boxes full of notebooks, he shows a poster of his first book Let Us Compare Mythologies and a painting made by Suzanne, the mother of his children). Later a studio session is going on, he is working with Raffi Hakopian (violin) and Leanne Ungar (his sound engineer). Afterwards Cohen and Brusq dine at Canter’s.

In this documentary Cohen tells about his life, his memories, why he lives at the Zen Center. He suggests that some kind of a circle has been closed and now he can do something else (see footnote)

The film ends with (I was) Never Any Good (at loving you), a new song written for his next album. He goes to his car and listens to a demo sung by Billy Valentine.”

Hide Your Sheep

September 8, 2010 at 17:16

Well, this is an odd one.

As you may have noticed if you have looked at the menu on the right, one of our forthcoming Reverb books is titled, Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock’n’Roll. That’s my book, as it happens. Now, it is not my intention to use this blog to go on about my own book at the expense of all other possible matters of interest in the world of music. Nothing could be further from the truth, but this story just seemed too bizarre to let slip.

And, you know, the whole point of a blog is to try and exist with the flotsam and jetsam of the everyday. That’s why we’re here.

So, here below is the elusive – near invisible and unusually silent – David Lee Roth, ‘Rabelasian man of antics and adventure’ (according to this guy), sometime lead singer of Van Halen (between 1973 and 1985, and intermittently since). That’s him with the goatee beard, in disguise no doubt, wearing a San Francisco Caledonian Club t-shirt, standing next to the fellow who just happened to bump into him … at the annual Scottish Highland Games in Pleasanton, California, last weekend.


Doug Lyle and David Lee Roth at the Highland Games

Well, David Lee Roth is not Scottish, of course, so what’s this all about? He’s Russian-Jewish American, you say (or whatever way around that goes). Well, actually, he could be considered an honorary Scot … of sorts – seeing as he was a known player of the bagpipes (yes, it is true). This wasn’t just a matter of the pipes being good for ‘noising up’ degenerate Hollywood neighbours after running out of other interesting things to do of an evening. It seems that he did, at the time (around the early 1980s), feel some affinity for the instrument – which, in light of what is to be revealed below, were significantly often made of sheepskin.

But, that aside – and moving from the particular to the general – there is quite a long-standing Scottish influence in California, and particularly around the Pasadena area that Van Halen sprung from in the early 1970s. So, in that sense, it is no surprise that these Highland games were taking place – there are similar events in several locations in California every year – nor that any random Californian might be there just to while away the hours on a late summer weekend – y’know, hanging around, drinking fine malt whisky, or something like that.

But no, the weird thing is that Diamond Dave was actually in competition at this event. But not tossing the caber. Not playing the bagpipes. So what, then?

Well, he was always a man of many parts – and sometimes singing just seemed like one of the add-on bits. And that’s not forgetting that many say he couldn’t even do that very well. As the NME said back in 1984: ‘when not wrestling sharks, romancing women, and scattering wisdom, Dave likes to show off. Usually, Dave shows off with Van Halen …’ So just what was he up to at these Highland games? Singing tunes? Not with Van Halen. Er, country dancing? Doing that tippy-toe, lets reel around the swords on the floor thing?

Nah – that would be too unmanly (even though I am sure Dave is in touch with his feminine side).

He was, of course, in the sheepdog trials, where – as it says on the Games’ website – ‘highly trained Border Collies’ are ‘put through their paces herding sheep and other farm animals in the Amador Pavilion.’ Yeah, leave the caber-tossing to the men in skirts. As our witness, Doug, looked on he was amazed – ‘Wow, this guy knows his sheepdog stuff’, he reports.

Well, for those of you of a certain age who are reading this in the UK, the words ‘sheepdog trials’ will immediately engage involuntary memories of the old ‘One Man and His Dog’ routine, which ruled the broadcast waves in the days of 3 TV channels and boring wet Tuesdays, and still seems to be going. Now – think of that, and visualise David Lee Roth …


David Lee Roth, 1978. Dog not present.

Yup. Man, animal, nature – what could be more David Lee Roth than that, I ask you. Is he not PAN, anyway – the mythical satyr-shepherd with goat-like features?! Ah, so that’s the purpose of the goatee beard . . . Okay, call me crazy, but I do believe that Roth had some input into this outline of an unused record cover design (below) that, in retrospect, seems quite revealing:



And, let’s not forget, Van Halen’s 1982-3 tour went under the banner HIDE YOUR SHEEP (see pic below).


Entrance to Van Halen’s backstage, Us Festival, 1983

As the sole baffled witness to Roth’s shepherding (unable to believe that no-one else figured out who this ‘Dave Roth’ skilfully herding sheep was), Doug Lyle was initially alerted by the unmistakeable sound of Roth’s voice. If you are familiar with it you will know that it has always been sort of down there in the heel of the boots – LOW, you know? Before long he decided he had to confirm that this ‘Dave Roth’ was, in fact, David Lee Roth, who by then was being told that it was time to ‘call his dog’. As Doug says in his rendering of events that day:

I wanted to respect his [Roth’s] privacy so I only talked to him for a short while. There were so many things I could have said and asked. What was his personal favorite song? How did he get in to Sheepdog herding? Later … as we drove home I could not think of anything but what had just happened … My wife tried talking to me in the car but I had to tell her that I just couldn’t focus on anything else as I was still in a blur from what had just happened.

That was also the kind of feeling some people had when they discovered that Roth – who in his heydey was one of the most famous faces in America – was (around 2005) working as a paramedic in New York, hauling tanks of oxygen up several flights, to come to their aid. So, although the whole sheepdog thing seems odd, then again, it seems very Dave Roth.


David Lee Roth greets a fan, 1981.

When he was at the height of his fame with Van Halen he was always doing things that seemed quite un-rock’n’roll – expeditions in the Amazon (see pic below) and the Himalayas. Ballet and bagpipe lessons, and so on.


In Amazonia, 1983

Seeing as I have quite recently been in the archives, so to speak, I will leave you with this, from a 1984 interview:

What did the guys in the band think of your ballet lessons?
I’m always taking lessons. I’ve taken millions of kinds of lessons. I’ve been doing martial arts since I was 14. I took singing lessons for a couple of years. It obviously didn’t help me sing any better, but I didn’t lose what I had. This year I took Portugese three times a week. I finished 27 hours of helicopter ground school.

It’s just something new. Fill up the bucket, y’know.

Roth is apparently making an album with the Van Halen brothers, Eddie and Alex. They toured together as Van Halen back in 2007-08, for the first time since 1984, and – as the pic below shows – were still making it look like it sounded. This was all despite the fact that they were by this time in their mid-fifties. Eddie Van Halen had by then survived cancer (and claimed to have found the cure for his own cancer in a research lab he set up and staffed out of his own pocket). Some years earlier he had undergone relacement surgery on a hip that had been worn out as a result of his onstage acrobatics.

Most curious of all, though, was that Eddie – and not David Lee Roth (shock!) – ended up seemingly flirting with the porn industry, scoring music for some movie that was shot on his property in the Hollywood Hills.

But, contrarian to the end, he maintained that this was ‘art’, not porn. As he said to infamous shock-jock, Howard Stern: ‘You may call it porn, but I call it sex. And if it wasn’t for sex there wouldn’t all these dweebs even asking me about it.’

Way to go, Ed. But, who would’ve thought it, really – Ed Van Halen in porn movies and Dave Roth herding sheep … seems the wrong way around, somehow.


Eddie Van Halen (left) and David Lee Roth, 2008.

The last album to appear under the the Van Halen name was 1998’s disastrous VHIII, on which Eddie even ended up singing – like a confused Tom Waits, in fact – on one gravelly-voiced piano tune. Their last album with Roth was 1984 (recorded summer ’83). It was their best-selling album, but also – due to the circumstances of its making and aftermath – the album that would kill them off.

The last music that was heard from Roth was in 2007, with Jeff Falkowski. He sang a Portuguese tune – in Portuguese, naturally – titled ‘Take Sarava’.