Wednesday, September 3, 2008

BOOK REVIEWS: Some recommended biographies

Some Recommended Songwriter Interviews and Biographies by Del Boland

Lately, I have enjoyed reading about some of my favorite songwriters. It is an attempt to understand their thinking and perhaps glean some of their methodologies, if such a thing exists. I was able to find a rather broad range of biographies in my local library. I will provide a brief description of a few books that I read recently and provide some additional comments.

First of all, there is an excellent compilation by American Songwriter Magazine appropriately entitled "Song" that has some very nice interviews with a wide variety of songwriters including Tom Petty, John Prine, Willie Nelson, Jeff Tweedy and Sheryl Crow. Each interview provides insights and recommendations to other songwriters which may be helpful. I recommend this book to those folks who may not have the time to dig into full blown biographies. It is a compilation of somewhat condensed interviews and many of the artists provide suggestions to aspiring songwriters.

I happen to be a Wilco fan since moving to the Chicago area, so I read a book called, "Learning How To Die" by Greg Kot. It is an interesting story of a group that defied the industry's formulaic approach to popular music and songwriting. It also offers a very nice example of a band that managed to break through despite a variety of challenges. This book provides not only a very good insight into the current trends of the music industry, but also helps folks to understand how the music business operates. Furthermore, it helps distinguish the more avant garde approach of a singer songwriter from the more commercial approach of a pure performer or a pure songwriter.

I read Warren Zevon's biography, "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" written by his friend and former wife, Crystal Zevon. It is a tragic story, but it provides a very nice description of the underappreciated Zevon, who wrote with a style that we may never really see again. Zevon is to music what Hunter S. Thompson is to literature. He was the epitome of "gonzo", a term coined by H.S. Thompson. Hunter seemed to recognize this particular characteristic in Zevon as they became fast friends.

I recently read "Paul Simon", a biography by Laura Jackson. I find this book particularly enjoyable as I recall the events surrounding the emergence of Simon and Garfunkel in the 60's. I find it particularly interesting that some of my favorite songs written by Paul Simon had distinct ties to events in his life as well as events in history. There are too many songs to list but I especially love "Sound of Silence", "The Boxer", "Bridge Over Troubled Water", "America", "Late In The Evening", "Graceland", "Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes", and "You Can Call Me Al". While it would be fun to provide an analysis of these songs, I will not spoil the book for those who may have an interest in reading it for themselves. However, I did find it interesting that Simon employed a habit of collecting somewhat random thoughts and observations in a notebook which were later infused in his writing.

I have just completed a biography written about the late Woody Guthrie by Elizabeth Partridge entitled, "This Land Is Your Land". This book is very readable, yet, for me, it was extremely dark and depressing. After reading the book, I wanted to hug my 14 year old and go outside to see if the sun was still shining. It was, thank God. While Woody Guthrie is one of the most prolific songwriters of modern times along with folks like Leonard Cohen, his life was worse than I could have ever imagined. Nonetheless, it is difficult to cast Woody Guthrie in a 100% positive light. I cannot pass judgment on this man other than to say he was extraordinarily unorganized in every way except for his unique gift of songwriting. Incidentally, it was my interest in Bob Dylan that led me to Woody Guthrie. I had heard Guthrie's name many times growing up, but I was not prepared for his tragic story.

If you are interested in songwriting, I would encourage you to learn more about the songwriters who have made an impression on you. It is interesting, but it can also be a bit frightening as you may find some characteristics similar to your own. There is definitely something that draws certain folks to this art form and it is interesting to see certain similarities that weave through their lives, in both circumstances and behaviors.

Perhaps one very positive attribute that stands out the most for me is the tendency for all great songwriters to be extraordinary observers of life, in general. They seem to have a peculiar ability to put words to things that are indescribable for the rest of the population. These words allow listeners to instantly identify with human thoughts and emotions in unique ways.

A bit on the darker side, there are certain characteristics that are very difficult to understand for those of us who are tied into society's framework. Some songwriters have exhibited self destructive behaviors that seem to coincide with their success. For some of these people, there seems to be a common thread of introspection, depression and mania. While my list is rather tame compared to some of the others who were, perhaps, not able to achieve the same level of notoriety, there seems to be enough similarity to give us good reason to remain vigilant with regard to our own lives. Extreme circumstances and behaviors can provide ample material for a songwriter, but it just makes good sense to temper it with moderation (when possible) for the sake of maintaining the self control and respectability that I believe is necessary for a sustained, happy life. Art is a wonderful thing, but there are plenty of very good examples of art that exists without tremendous suffering as a prerequisite. If you have suffered, then by all means, find a way to convert your experience into art. However, I would urge anyone not to go through life looking for opportunities to suffer for art's sake.

Finally, these books provide an added bonus for fans of music during the most prolific 50 years in the history of music. There is a cultural aspect to each book that perhaps provides a better understanding of the environmental elements surrounding each artist. These elements include history, politics, social change, economic conditions, and pop culture. In addition, each of the above books is a "Who's Who" of influential folks surrounding the music industry during this period.

Article distributed by permission of Del Boland and is a free online community for songwriters, bands, and musicians.

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