Posts Tagged With: Greil Marcus

Fifteen minutes at No. 15 on the best-of-2015 list

NDTRRlogoWith Christmas approaching and holiday buying season in full effecthint, hint — yearend best-of lists are beginning to roll in. And I’m happy to note that “Comin’ Right at Ya” has made it onto a really nice countdown alongside some very choice company in No Depression’s book column, “The Reading Room’s Best Books of 2015” as compiled by Henry Carrigan (who was kind enough to include me in another column last month about bookish influences).

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“Comin’ Right at Ya” appears at No. 15 on No Depression’s top-40, right between legendary Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty and “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau. Heck yeah, I’ll take that — especially since we quoted a few of Christgau’s “Consumer Guide” reviews of various Asleep at the Wheel albums in the book.

Being at No. 15 also puts “Comin’ Right at Ya” ahead of Chrissie Hynde’s memoir “Reckless” at No. 18; my American Music Series colleague Chris Morris’ “Los Lobos: Dream in Blue” at No. 20; Texas country icon Willie Nelson’s “It’s a Long Story: My Life” at No. 35; and (how about that) my idol Greil Marcus’ “Real Life Rock: The Complete Top Ten Columns” at No. 39.

As for the books at the top end of No Depression’s list, the No. 1 placement of Peter Guralnick’s exhaustive and much-acclaimed “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll” is no surprise. The same goes for Patti Smith’s “M Train” at No. 3 and Kristin Hersh’s gorgeously painful American Music Series title “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt,” plus memoirs by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon at No. 9 and Elvis Costello at No. 10.

I’d also like to note that it’s extremely cool to see my buddy Steve Knopper’s “MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson” come in two notches ahead of Ray Benson and me, at No. 13 — even though I don’t want him to be getting any ideas about that.

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Top-10’s, real-life and otherwise

OTRI’ve never had a book come anywhere near the top-10 of a best-seller list (at least not a real one, as opposed to the fun-but-ultimately inconsequential amazon specialty categories). But for one brief, shining and magical moment in early 2002, my first book “Off The Record” landed in the best top-10 list there is in my world: the “real life” one compiled by the legendary rock scribe Greil Marcus in his long-running “Real Life Rock Top Ten” column, which has been anthologized in the new book “Real Life Rock: The Complete Top Ten Columns, 1986-2014” (Yale University Press).

It’s hard to explain just how massive this was to me at the time. It wasn’t just that it remains my pinnacle experience as a reviewee. It very possibly stands as the single most validating moment of my life because Marcus was a writer I’d been reading and idolizing since my youth.

Going back to the very beginning, his very first book is still something like my personal Gutenberg Bible. That was the 1975 masterwork “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music,” which was one of the books that made me want to become a rock critic myself way back when. And “Mystery Train” also had a lot to do with shaping my thinking about a number of artists, especially Sly & the Family Stone — whose 1971 album There’s a Riot Goin’ On will always be my go-to choice of the ultimate Desert Island Disc (which is yet another Marcus book).

Marcus’ influence was all over “Off The Record,” too. I probably would not have selected the Sex Pistols song “Holidays in the Sun” as that book’s heart of darkness had I not obsessively read and reread his Sex Pistols chapter in “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll” enough times to memorize every word. The protagonist band’s cover of “Holidays in the Sun” serves as a pivot point in a couple of places throughout “Off The Record,” never moreso than the scene toward the end in which the band’s savant-like frontman comes unhinged for the last time and uses it to incite a stadium-full of people to riot:

GMRLRIt was an utterly bizarre way to open a supposedly triumphant breakthrough tour — the bleakest song from the bleakest band in rock history, a song about hurling oneself into a wall for no reason other than to tear down the false security it represented…

Well, I hope Marcus was flattered when he read that, or at least got a chuckle out of it. Whether it’s on the page or the stage, we all start out aping our idols.

When I published “Off The Record” in the fall of 2000, I cadged Marcus’ address from a mutual friend, sent him a copy and basically forgot all about it. I wasn’t expecting any sort of response, let alone review, given that I was just another guy with a self-published novel and he was, you know, GREIL MARCUS. But darned if a year or so later, Marcus’ “Real Life Rock Top 10” column of Jan. 7, 2002 didn’t have “Off The Record” at No. 6 — just ahead of Lesley Gore, no less. And now it’s on page 286 of the “Real Life Rock” book.

For the geeky likes of me, appearing between covers in a book by Greil Marcus is bucket-list material for sure.

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“Off The Record” gets belatedly blotted

OTRcoverA dozen long years before “Losering” was published, I put out my first book, a self-published novel called  “Off The Record.”  Despite the vanity-press taint, it actually out-performed the Ryan Adams book in terms of mainstream-press response. It picked up reviews in some big newspapers (Hartford Courant, Los Angeles Daily News) and even made Greil Marcus’ “Real Life Rock Top 10” column one week (props from one of the grand old men of rock criticism, and still very possibly the highlight of my writing career). These and other greatest hits from that book can be found at the “Off The Record” link above.

Then in May 2013, another “Off The Record” review  unexpectedly and belatedly turned up — close to 13 years after that book’s original publication date. Not bad, even if it was somewhat mixed, and I figured that was surely the last review it would ever get; wrong! The Blotter, a publication billed as “The South’s free, unique international literature and arts magazine,” was kind enough to review “Off The Record” as one of its “Books You Should Have Read” in the August 2015 issue.

The review is penned by Blotter Publisher/President/Treasurer Martin K. Smith, whose recent novel “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is also set in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill music scene. That got him to wondering about similar books out there, and mine was the only other one that turned up (on the recommendation of Ross Grady). So he wrote a very nice review that takes up a good four-page spread in the magazine. It starts on page 4 here, and below is the closing paragraph:

BlotterI’ve only skimmed the surface of all the good stuff in here. You’ll read of corporate skullduggery, insurance fraud, faked CD barcodes, sinister drug dealers, gunplay (funny how those two go together, isn’t it?); self-satisfied sexists deflated; S&M, concert riots, junkies doing faceplants into various restaurant meals, and more. When I’d finished it, after two evenings of binge-reading, I wanted to raise my lighter to it in proper rock & roll appreciation, until my husband reminded me that it was a library copy. Does it compete with my novel? Not at all. They’re two different tales, with one subject in common: a devotion to live local music. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is an outsider/fanboy’s view, from out in the audience. “Off The Record” takes long experience from onstage and backstage, from touring van and rehearsal space and record-industry offices, and from all the human crap that can happen there, and puts it on the record. [Translation: I’m still jealous.]

I am honored and humbled, sir.

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Going it alone

I was apprehensive about attempting a biography of Ryan for a number of reasons, one being that my opinions about his career fall well outside the mainstream narrative. That was why I’d never bothered with trying to sell a book about Ryan to the big New York publishing houses. Such a pitch would have boiled down to something like this:

Yeah, the Ryan Adams record that everybody seems to know and love — “Gold,” the album that broke him through to the masses, got the Grammy nominations, cemented his “Almost Famous” career arc and already inspired one not-so-great book about him — actually isn’t very good. In fact, that might be the least-interesting record he’s ever done. Everybody needs to go back and listen instead to the obscure records he was doing with Whiskeytown, which are far, far more compelling…

I didn’t want to be “That Guy,” the one whining about how a favorite artist was so much better before the proletariat caught on. Besides, coming from an unknown writer in Mayberry, that wasn’t going to fly. I’d already had one frustrating go-round with the book world over “Off The Record,” a novel I’d written and set in the music industry, centered around a crazy brilliant rock star whose fictional flamboyance was very much like Ryan’s.

“Rock novels are a tough sell” — I heard that over and over from agents and publishers, many of whom said nice things about “Off The Record,” and all of whom passed on it. Rather than leave it in the drawer, I eventually decided to put it out myself and it did okay. I sold enough books to break even, and Greil Marcus was kind enough to put it at No. 6 on his “Real Life Top 10” one week (an indescribably huge thrill, since he’s always been an idol of mine; I don’t think I slept for a week). But after the book industry’s response to “Off The Record,” I wasn’t in a hurry to put much effort into pitching another book that didn’t comfortably fit the standard pigeonholes.

Then, suddenly, someone did want me to write that Ryan book. My bluff was called, forcing me to confront my biggest cause for apprehension of all: I was pretty sure Ryan wouldn’t cooperate. I’d tried to interview him repeatedly during his post-Whiskeytown years; the answer had always been nyet, and no one would ever come out and say why. He and I had a break, but I didn’t know what it was over. Still don’t. I did hear mixed reports over a 2000 No Depression magazine feature I’d written, and I’d also written an unenthusiastic review of “Gold” when it came out. But neither of those seemed like enough to put us on the outs. It seemed like others had done worse without earning the cold shoulder.

The closest I ever got to an explanation was a 2002 phone call from his then-manager, who called me in an agitated state to basically tell me that “some people were saying some things.” He wouldn’t specify who or what, only that he and Ryan were disgruntled because I’d done…something. One thing he did specify was a Magnet magazine profile the previous fall, which painted Ryan in a less-than-flattering light. I was quoted in the story and I’d also given the writer some phone numbers to find other people he interviewed, which the manager seemed to believe represented a breach of ethics. I was confused and couldn’t understand why everyone was so upset, so I asked if I could talk to Ryan directly about it.

“I don’t think that would be such a good idea,” the manager said, laughing mirthlessly.

I didn’t get to talk to Ryan then, or ever. Ryan doesn’t seem to play in Raleigh anymore — except for a show in 2005, he hasn’t played his old hometown since 2000 — so I’ve periodically tried to get interviews for pieces I’ve written about some of his records. Nope. Naively, I hoped that enough time had gone by for this book to be different. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Part of my procrastinational busy work during 2010 involved sending backdoor messages to Ryan via mutual friends who were still in touch with him. That went nowhere. Finally, in December when it was coming on Christmas, it was time for the direct approach. I screwed up my courage and e-mailed Ryan’s manager. John Silva, a heavy hitter whose other clients include Beastie Boys, Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth and Beck. I made it as neutral and straightforward as possible:

Mr. Silva — I wanted to get in touch about a project concerning Ryan Adams, which I hope he’ll be willing to participate in. University of Texas Press is starting up a “No Depression Biography Series,” and Ryan is to be one of the artists profiled. It has fallen to me to do the book. Below is some information about the series from the UT Press catalog.
 
Ryan and I have a long history going back to his days in Raleigh with Whiskeytown, although we’ve not spoken in years beyond a cordial e-mail exchange a few Christmases ago. But I’ve always been an admirer, from back in the day (http://archives.nodepression.com/1995/09/a-short-interviews-journey-into-hell/) up to the present (www.spin.com/reviews/ryan-adams-and-cardinals-iiiiv-pax-am).
 
My hope is that he’ll agree to be interviewed. The book will come out on a university press, so the focus is to be very much on the music. Beyond a bit of interview access over the next six months, this is a process that should demand very little of him.
 
Happy holidays and please do holler back,

David Menconi

That letter went unanswered, as did several followups. So I turned to someone I knew I could at least get on the phone, Josh Grier, Ryan’s lawyer and someone I’ve known for 20 years. Josh has some history in North Carolina, having studied at Duke University Law School before going on to run Dolphin Records in the 1980s. His client list is as impressive as John Silva’s, and he’s worked with a lot of North Carolina acts over the years. I was hoping for some help here. But when I asked him about Ryan being interviewed for the book, it was the same answer as always.

“I know about this, I’ve heard talk,” Josh said. “Ryan’s not going to participate.”

Why not? I asked

“He just doesn’t want to revisit that time,” Josh said, adding that Ryan’s memories of his time in Raleigh had grown “fuzzy.” And that was that. Josh and I talked for a while that day, the way we always did about bands and the music business and projects he was working on. But it was clear that interviewing Ryan to get his modern-day perspective on the past was not going to happen.

(ADDENDUM, 9/27/12: I have been told by a friend of Josh Grier’s that Josh remembers this conversation a bit differently. His memory of it is that he used the word “faded” rather than “fuzzy” in describing Ryan’s memories. I’m not sure that makes a huge difference, but said friend seemed to think it was important. Anyway…so noted.)

By the time I hung up the phone, I was overcome with depression and dread. That was the early spring of 2011, and I’d accomplished little beyond some interviews with secondary characters. My Sept. 1 deadline loomed not much more than six months off, and I had to write a 50,000-word manuscript about someone I hadn’t interviewed in more than a decade. New interviews with Ryan could have simplified the process by suggesting possible structures for the story; a framework, a roadmap of where to go. But I wasn’t going to get any of that from him.

Truly, I was on my own this time.

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