More Looks on Music Books (& A Savage Plea for Local Radio)

So then: another month (albeit on the short side); another year. Same old me mas o menos, still attempting entertaining proseology while succeeding at winnowing away at the compressed artifacts of past and present culture glutting ye olde Grotto.

And as dumb luck would have it, no sooner had I finished one brick with words on (Keith Richards’ Life, and what a readable brick it is; anyone heard Johnny Depp-as-Capt.Jack-as-the Human Riff on the audio book version?), that I was gifted with another, even more imposing one.

Beefheart: Through The Eyes Of Magic (Proper Music Publishing, UK), the memoir of Magic Band drummer John ‘Drumbo’ French is, at 880 pages, nothing if not chock-full of info and details that even the most casual admirer of the recently interred, desert Dada bluesman-artist will be startled by. Sometimes not in a good way: the immortal Trout Mask Replica is revealed to have been as much the product of cultish psychological and physical tactics, imposed by teh Captain upon his then barely post-teen players, as any genuine artistic invention. And as any fule kno, being a musical groundbreaker doesn’t guarantee financial security, as French (repeatedly) discovers.

The overall picture presented by and of French is a complex one: someone who genuinely believed in the substance of Don Van Vliet’s vision, but not so blinded by it to ignore the all too human flaws of its creator (of which there were many).

The structure and content of Through The Eyes… has come in for its share of criticism throughout the Beefheart fan universe – veteran writer and outside-music champion Byron Coley among them. I can see their points for the most part. While happy for (and more than once delightedly staggered by) his thoroughness for minutiae, French’s lust for total honesty about his life within and without the Magic Band can be a bit much to take (TMI, I believe the young folks call it nowadays?). And yes, a more discerning editor could have brought this in at a third of its length and still kept it comprehensive.

That said, I seriously doubt another book will be published anytime soon that admits the reader as intimately, as compellingly, into that self-created terrarium in which Beefheart and the Magic Band’s ever-mutating lineups were the sole occupants, as does French’s. (Equally recommended for a congruent but more manageably readable Beefheart take is Mr. Zoot Horn Rollo aka Bill Harkelroad’s own memoir from a few years ago, Lunar Notes. And also spare a thought and ear for the recent reunion of certain crucial Magic Band artisans on French’s recent City of Refuge CD.)

More than a few reads of this kind have in fact crossed my always messy and wanting for space desk recently. British writer David Nolan has knocked out a fine one about the man behind Factory Records, Tony Wilson, entitled You’re Entitled To An Opinion… (John Blake Publishing). While a bit on the dry side, it’s a worthwhile history of the enterprising Manchester TV journalist who made possible such minor musical events as, oh letsee, the first national TV exposure to 70’s UK and US Punk acts, the recorded legacy of Joy Division/New Order, and Manchester acid-house dance culture. Altogether a useful factual counterweight to the enjoyable but baldly myth-stoking 24 Hour Party People flick.

Onetime rock group manager Sam Cutler has also come through with a memoir of his own, You Can’t Always Get What You Want (ECW Press). Cutler was the road manager for the Rolling Stones on their ill-fated 1969 American tour, and then hooked up wth the Grateful Dead for the early part of the 70’s. No seismic revelations are aired by Cutler that haven’t been hashed over in other books on those groups (Mick Jagger is arrogant; the Dead are closet capitalists – big surprises there, eh?). It’s still an entertaining enough read, particularly for Cutler’s memories of early British psychedelia and the music that came out of it, primary place of privilege given to Syd’s Floyd. I must say, though, Cutler’s recounting of the comeuppance received by Bill Graham at the hands and LSE-educated lips of Mr. Jagger is actually quite hilarious.

Must make mention of the disgrace that was the closing of KUSF-FM a few weeks back. Basically, the longtime University of SF radio station, a mainstay of the community for decades, had its transmitter and license sold out from under it in a decidedly stealthy and underhanded manner.

When I first moved to town in 1992, KUSF was the means by which I could hear for myself what was cooking locally, with then-DJ’s like The Germ and his Sunday night, have-demo-will-play showcase of nothing but local bands.

I also appreciated its varied music programming: jazz, roots music, modern classical, reggae, metal, of course what was happening on the ‘college rock/indie’ scene. I was entertained by the weekly golden-age-throwback playlets aired on Shoestring Radio Theatre; informed as to new and old cinema by Monica Sullivan, now-esteemed horror novelist ‘Mad Professor Mike’ Marano and the other columnists of Movie Magazine International…everyone who listened to KUSF has similar stories to tell about shows that were favorites of theirs.

Happily, an event as abrupt and unconscionable as this shutdown has not gone unnoticed, and even gained national attention. The great New Jersey public station WFMU, to name one example, has actively campaigned for KUSF’s return to the airwaves, going so far as to recently host a broadcast from Amoeba Music featuring KUSF staffers.

A website has also been set up to give air to KUSF’s plight and drum up support; go to for all the latest. Community-based media such as theirs is far too important to let fade away, and between this and Congress’ odious recent attempt to legislate slashing the budgets of PBS and NPR, one hopes that the American people will pull their heads out of their…erm, iPhones…long enough to make sure such potential cultural tragedies don’t happen.

Next time: my adventures in the world of the DL (no, not that kind).


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