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October 19, 2007

Book Notes - Mitch Myers ("The Boy Who Cried Freebird")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

The Boy Who Cried Freebird is a unique music book, filled with factual essays as well as fictional stories that cover rock, jazz and ambient music.

Preview or buy this playlist at iTunes

In his own words, here is Mitch Myers' Book Notes essay for his book, The Boy Who Cried Freebird: Rock & Roll Fables and Sonic Storytelling:

The Boy Who Cried Freebird is a treatise on music and popular culture of the 20th Century—mixing together short fiction, straight journalism, comic interludes, pop satire and all sorts of other fan-boy hokum. There are more than forty chapters, and almost all of them are connected to specific musical events communities, or persons. Often compared to a literary mix-tape or a written version of “the iPod shuffle” this collection of tailor-made tales is my very personal extension of the oral storytelling tradition here in America.

So, hey ho, let’s go!

River Deep, Mountain High, Ike & Tina Turner

Producer Phil Spector had forbidden Ike Turner from visiting this epic (1966) recording session, which signaled Tina’s first step away from Ike’s dominance. The composition is really three different songs cobbled together, but Spector’s Wall of Sound prevails and Tina’s inspired performance reaches mammoth proportions—matching Phil’s production punch for punch. Still, the record bombed and Spector went into seclusion, only to resurface a few years later to produce The Beatles’ Let It Be, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band.

Me and the Devil Blues, Robert Johnson

The difference between Robert Johnson and his less famous peers was that Johnson followed the career-boosting path of dying young. But seriously, Johnson’s brash facility on guitar is still impressive, and his vocal style has influenced multiple generations of bluesmen. It was really musician Tommy Johnson who went down to the crossroads, but you should still study up on the twenty-nine songs poor Robert left behind. You can even say the devil made you do it.

Open My Eyes, The Nazz

The Nazz were Todd Rundgren’s group in Philadelphia back in the day, and “Open My Eyes” was merely the B-side for their 1968 version of his song, “Hello It’s Me.” Included on Lenny Kaye’s wonderful Nuggets anthology, “Open My Eyes” was one of the first American tunes to employ phasing (à la “Itchycoo Park” by England’s Small Faces a year earlier), resulting in that sweet “psychedelic” sound of the 60s we know so well. It’s a pop-rock masterpiece that clocks in well under three minutes and still sounds crazy after all these years.

Metal Machine Music, Lou Reed

Was it a real rock ‘n’ roll swindle, or just minimalist-art-rock for the ages? On Metal Machine Music, rather than using conventional instruments or the human voice, Lou Reed chose to stack multiple combinations of reverberating electronic sound to create a vast industrial howl. Derived from a process of manipulating aural frequencies and distorting both intensity and pitch, Reed’s mechanized drones and harmonic buildups released shifting waves of pulsing white noise and emitted squeals of pure feedback into two separate (but equal) stereo channels. MMM was released in 1975, and it is still controversial today - an album certainly not for the weak of heart or mind.

Boogie Chillun, John Lee Hooker

“Boogie Chillun” was a hit for the Modern record label in 1948. It was here that John Lee Hooker first sang these now-immortal words,

One night I was layin’ down,
I heard mama ‘n papa talkin’
I heard papa tell mama, let that boy boogie-woogie,
It’s in him, and it got to come out.

John Lee’s fanatical one-chord stomps are classics of the boogie genre and his haunting, stream-of-consciousness boogies have inspired musicians like Van Morrison, R.L. Burnside and ZZ Top, to name just a few. I repeat, “Boogie Chillun.” Nuff said?

CIA Dope Calypso, Allen Ginsberg produced by Harry Smith

Allen Ginsberg met historian Harry Smith at The Five Spot in Manhattan in 1959, where pianist Thelonious Monk was enjoying one of his famous residencies. Ginsberg had only heard rumors about Smith, but recognized him immediately, as Harry was sitting at a table transcribing Monk’s fractured melodies into impressionistic drawings. Recorded by Smith in his room at the Chelsea Hotel in the early 1970s, Ginsberg’s singing of “CIA Dope Calypso” is precluded by an explanation of the relatedness between blues and calypso. This encounter is one part of First Blues: Rags, Ballads & Harmonium Songs, more recently reissued as New York Blues.

Six (3rd take), Sonic Youth

Taken from the 2-CD set Goodbye 20th Century, Sonic Youth reconsiders the John Cage composition and makes it palatable to the electric-guitar generation. Besides Cage, the band performs compositions by other notable outsiders including Cornelius Cardew, Pauline Oliveros, James Tenney and Christian Wolff. Using sampling, discordant guitar riffs, tape loops and other electronic noises, Sonic Youth embraces the groundbreaking reconsiderations of the 60’s avant-garde; including abstract atmospherics, repetition-of-sound-as-art, atonal colorings, and white-noise-as-entertainment.

Paranoid, Black Sabbath

When I first wrote my sci-fi spoof “Who Will Save The World? Black Sabbath!” writer Dave Marsh said it was my masterpiece, and that Lester Bangs was drooling with envy in hell. I naturally assumed Dave was getting off on my political subtext, where the U.S. government and the general population were being motivated by fear and paranoia. No dice, Dave just really likes the song “Paranoid.” In any case, I still think the world needed one story about combating alien invaders where Ozzy Osbourne is the (potential) hero. Don’t you?

Walking The Cow, Daniel Johnston

To quote Daniel Johnson, “Hi! How are you?” As far as outsider artists go, you can’t get much better than Johnston. His original pump-organ version of “Walking The Cow” has all of the tuneful innocence and aesthetic grandiosity required to make a classic—if not a hit—record. Also, check out Daniel’s former Austin gal-pal Kathy McCarty’s version of the same tune—the melody is totally solidified, and her empathy for Johnston’s childlike worldview helps to make the song’s infectious hook seem even stronger than it really is.

Blue Monk, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk

Art Blakey was Monk's favorite drummer, and he appeared on a number of Monk’s early recordings. By 1957, the Jazz Messengers were a popular enterprise and it was the drummer’s turn to have his old friend sit in on a recording session. The result, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk, is a collection of Monk tunes invigorated by the hard-bop groove of Blakey’s band. Contrapuntal conversations between Monk and Blakey abound on “Blue Monk,” and trumpeter Bill Hardman and saxophonist Johnny Griffin breathe fire into the über-logical-gospel sound sketch. Monk’s dangling chord structures are well anchored by the Messengers’ soulful strut, while his angular piano style remains completely intact.

Blabber ‘N Smoke, Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band

Captain Beefheart is one of the true original musicians to emerge in the post-Elvis age. The man was a psychedelic rock bard whose unique grasp of blues, boogie, Dadaist poetry, avant-garde jazz and arcane field hollers informed an incredibly distinctive sonic identity on-stage and in the studio. By now you have heard all about the harmonica hoedowns, the distended guitar solo, the obtuse blues mutterings, and the Magic Band’s polyrhythmic group encounters. The Beefheart universe is a consistently strange and beautiful place that captures the spirit and alchemy of an essential American artist. “Blabber ‘N Smoke” is a good a place to start.

Chinese Rocks, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers

Dee Dee Ramone may have written it, Richard Hell was the first person to really sing it, but nobody played this song better than Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers. Their live version, recorded at a so-called “reunion” show at Max’s Kansas City in 1979, was the best of them all. By that time Hell was long gone from the group and Thunders had found guitarist/singer Walter Lure to share in their patented wiseass junkie Bowery Boys shtick onstage. Add to that Johnny’s own buzz saw guitar and an incessant punk drumbeat and well, there you are. Dee Dee’s monomaniacal ode to heroin was a virtual anthem for the blank generation - and very few are still alive to tell about it. For a more detailed gossip session see Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain.

Dark Star, The Grateful Dead

If I have to explain it, you’ll never understand. So start with the February 1969 version from the Live/Dead album, read my Grateful Dead time travel tale “Back To The Fillmore,” and then we’ll talk.

Motherless Child, John Fahey

It was John Fahey’s dream to generate an “American Primitive” school of steel string solo guitarists, and to raise this experimental folk-form to the level of classical music. His aesthetic inspired many disciples, some of whose records Fahey released on his Takoma label—most notably Leo Kottke’s 1969 opus, 6 And 12-String Guitar. Fahey recorded “Motherless Child” shortly before his death in 2001. Wielding his piercing tone like a buck knife, the guitarist carved concentric circles around the traditional melody. Repeating and reframing this eternal lament as a cosmic blues of epic proportions, John Fahey put that song, and his own myth, to rest.

Well, that’s just about the first third of my book represented in song. If you really want to read subsequent sections of this type of summation, just tell the powers that be at Largehearted Boy, and I’ll be glad to oblige.

Mitch Myers and The Boy Who Cried Freebird links:

the author's page at the publisher
the book's page at the publisher
an excerpt from the book

Baltimore City Paper review
Chicago Sun-Times review
LAS review
MusicAngle review
MusicDish review
Orlando Sentinel review
Popmatters review
Raleigh News & Observer review
Time Out New York review

Blogcritics interview with the author
Harp interview with the author
Plug In Music interview with the author
Songfacts interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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