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Reading Red

So why does a guy who abhors gossip shows read rock bios?

I don’t know, but I do. I’m not talking about the ghoul books, where hacks write detached tomes about Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger without ever getting close to the subject or the inner circle. There are writers who make a career out of that, although their creative output wouldn’t fill a thimble. You know who they are, because their dust jackets brag about how many they’ve written. If you know anything about rock’n’roll and grew up listening to the artists, you already know more than you’ll ever get out of these pulp pissants – the equivalent of stones skipping across the surface of a pond.

But hey, it’s America – they’re free to write ’em and you’re free to read ’em.

I’ve actually become more of a documentary fan as I’ve gotten older, everything from social issues to films to music. The recent deluxe package of Bridge Over Troubled Water included a fascinating piece about the making of the album; it started airing on Palladia this weekend. I almost didn’t recognize Art Garfunkel, but he and Paul Simon were interviewed at length along with several key collaborators. I know that album backwards and forwards and the title song still gives me goosebumps (one of the greatest vocals, ever), but I came away learning something. More on that tomorrow.

I’ve been working like a fiend, 12+ hour days, and this weekend I knew I had to decompress, at least for a day or two. I’ve always been a voracious reader, a book a day from my teen years through my mid-twenties. When I do have the time I still enjoy reading, whether next to the fireplace on a miserable winter’s night, laying on the beach on vacation or just sitting in an Adirondack chair outside my house. Summer is short and sweet in upstate New York, so with the sun high in the sky and cocktail in hand, I grabbed Sammy Hagar’s bio Red: My Uncensored Life In Rock.

Video: Montrose:Bad Motor Scooter

I’ve never been a huge fan of Sammy’s solo material, but that first Montrose album was and is an absolute killer, and his first solo record had a few stellar tracks as well. Being a bit older, I grew tired of Van Halen rather quickly, but two of the best songs they ever did – “Why Can’t This Be Love” and “Finish What You Started” – were with Sam in the band. And although the musicians in Chickenfoot are all first-rate, it just doesn’t stick with me musically. Frankly, his smaller band (whether Waboritas or Wabos) sounds looser and more fun.

Red is a pretty quick read – dysfunctional childhood, outsider with ambition, chance meetings, a little magic, and a combination of solo success mixed with playing alongside one of the most innovative guitarists in history and one of the most psychotic, self-destructive people around. And those last two people are the same guy.

Hagar doesn’t pull many punches here – he’s pretty open about his own missteps and regrets – and with few exceptions (Michael Anthony, original manager Ed Leffler) the usual suspects have the stink of the business upon them. Irving Azoff is skilled but two-faced, Ronnie Montrose is brilliant but self-directed, Eddie Van Halen can be a charming and apologetic cat but is also criminally insane. David Lee Roth is a self-serving dick. The only relationship I couldn’t figure out was Alex Van Halen; Hagar alternates between saying they are so tight they call each other on birthdays, and that Alex conspires with Eddie to screw him over at every turn. I think something went amiss in the editing.

Video: Van Halen: “Why Can’t This Be Love

I went into the book looking for the insider’s view on what really went down in the Van Halen circus, but frankly I didn’t learn a thing. What I did discover – and it was never said overtly – was that Hagar has been smart enough to reach out to successful people for advice, and then take it. Like Jimmy Buffet, he modeled his lifestyle into an enterprise that will keep him independently wealthy for the rest of his life, which gives him the freedom to play music for fun rather than necessity. Between cantinas and his Cabo Wabo tequila business – eventually sold to a majority owner who made his percentage worth more than it was when he ran it himself – Hagar is a free man.

So since he didn’t write the book for money, was it to set the record straight about the bands he had been in? To declare that the low-scale concerts and smaller albums are by design? To distance himself from the myriad of casualties he’s been associated with and celebrate family and casual living? Frankly, I’m not certain. The book doesn’t even really end, it just…stops. I think he wants his fans to believe that he’s at heart a decent guy who supports charities, who takes care of people (the Wabos are paid year-round even though they play infrequently), who has gotten to the top through hard work and dedication. I would imagine his fans already know that.

So while the book was a quick read – conversationally written, very pleasant – it was an afternoon’s diversion rather than a deep-dive. I did come away liking the guy and respecting his drive, and although I remain ambivalent about the majority of his catalogue, there are several classic songs of his that have endured well over time. If I ever meet him and he wants to do a shot of Cabo Wabo, it would probably be a good time (I did learn that Sammy brings the party with him). But sadly, maybe that Van Halen story will never be known.

Unless…I wonder if Michael Anthony is interested in writing a book?

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T.G.I.F. – Ten Rockin’ Recollections

I can’t really listen to the radio anymore.

Stations today pretty much suck. Much like chain store record department employees, most on-air people are out of their depth. They don’t have a good grasp of what they’re trying to sell or present. They aren’t lifers. They don’t live and breathe the music. Perhaps that has a lot to do with the fact that they’re not choosing what to play (or in the case of the chain store clerk, they are not there by choice but promoted from the small appliances department).

Oldies radio recycles the same few hits by the same few bands and never play the chestnuts. Hell, most of these stations are farmed in from a few central syndicates anyway, so the concept of a revisiting a regional classic is pretty much gone. Some consultant somewhere is choosing titles from a list of what their contractual rights enable them to play without paying additional royalties. It’s dull, lifeless, repetitive.

Oh, I know there are exceptions. There are a couple of guys in my town who have an occasional 3-4 hour slot that can be very entertaining, but the airtime doesn’t line up with my schedule. And maybe satellite radio would cure me of this low opinion; one listen to someone like Little Steven and you see what a world of difference it makes when the creator of the show is deeply invested in every song and detail. Like a great mixtape, each song brings a nod and a smile; it’s great when you’re on that wavelength.

But I don’t need radio anymore. It hasn’t been able to teach me anything in years…decades, perhaps. But I have a lifetime of music to draw upon, and a continuing pipeline of great music that real artists continue to make regardless of apathy, challenges and obstacles. Bless you, fellow zealots.

S0 this week I present you with ten rockin’ recollections, ten songs that I thought of while daydreaming this morning. There’s no logical sequence, it isn’t a mix, and although the thrust of it hovers in the 70s, it wasn’t by design. Just ten great songs that you’ll probably never hear on the radio, but they put a smile on my face and I hope they put a smile on yours.

Enjoy the weekend!

Graham Parker: “Temporary Beauty“. Nice live version from a guy who has been making one brilliant album after another for thirty-five years; he doesn’t get anywhere near the credit he deserves.

Santana: “Soul Sacrifice“. Michael Shrieve is mindblowing on drums; Santana wowed everybody at WoodstockShrieve, at twenty, looked like Sid Vicious!

The Cruzados: “Bed Of Lies“. Vastly underrated band who had a couple of excellent records in the 80s; even Dylan is a fan. This and “Motorcycle Girl” were my faves.

John Hiatt and Matthew Sweet): “Girlfriend“. From Vh-1 Duets. You know, back when music stations actually programmed music content? They also covered “I Wanna Be Sedated” that night!

? and the Mysterians: “Do Something To Me“. Garage gods! This song wasn’t a hit for them although Tommy James had success with it. They still sound great today.

Edgar Winter Group: “Queen of My DreamsDan Hartman goes all Led Zeppelin on us. He was the soul of this group and an incredible talent.

Montrose: “Bad Motor Scooter“. Still smokes 36 years later. Sammy had poodle hair, Ronnie Montrose left Edgar Winter after “Frankenstein”.

J. Geils Band: “Lookin’ For a Love“. Best. Party. Band. Ever. Saw a clip of them from a recent reunion and Peter Wolf can still work that stage like a scarecrow jacked up on coke.

Van Duren: “Grow Yourself Up“. Underknown pop giant who was part of the Memphis scene circa Big Star and came up to Connecticut to record at Big Sound Records. New album in 2010.

Johnny Winter: “Jumping Jack Flash“. With Floyd Radford and Randy Jo Hobbs, although they’re just hanging on for dear life. Johnny owns this song!

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