Book Review: Real Life Rock

Greil Marcus is a legend in rock music criticism, a longtime voice on the scene that often cuts through the surface of music to go deeper by observing the cultural moments and the lens of musical history. He can be witty, supportive and insightful, and he can just as quickly be harsh, snarky and critical. Whether you agree with him or not, he’s clear on what he thinks about a particular artist, song or cultural moment.

In his book Real Life Rock, Marcus gathered together decades of columns in various publications (starting with The Village Voice and ending in The Believer) of a column by the same name of the book, where Marcus uses the Top Ten list concept by examining music, culture, art, books, television, politics and whatever else caught his attention at the moment. (Note: he also has a new book out, with more recent columns)

For each of the ten topics in any given column, he mostly opines in only a few sentences, although there are other times when he takes liberty with the space offered, writing a short editorial beneath any given topic. You can tell he has found something passionate, and has sunk his hooks into an issue. His breadth of knowledge is pretty impressive.

Common artists emerge across time for his opinion (often skeptical but sometimes celebratory): Bob Dylan, cover albums, the Mekons, Lucinda Williams, Bonny Prince Billy, Sleater-Kinney, Allison Krause, and more.

I flipped to a page in the book, and here are the topics at a glance, which give a sense of the wide scope of Marcus interests:

  • Dido’s Thank You song (and what Eminem did with it)
  • Live concert of Rock Your Baby (Portland) by Dick Slessig Combo
  • Billy Bragg and Wilco (Woody Guthrie covers in Mermaid Avenue Vol.2)
  • Shalini (singer from North Carolina)
  • Thread Waxing Space (art display in NYC) – life casts of musicians

Reading his pieces across time (1986 through 2014) is pretty fascinating, and even if I skipped through many of his pieces as I sort of did a power reading tour of musical criticism, Marcus’ voice is always loud and clear, confident and critical. I didn’t always agree with him but I always kept on reading him. The rewards in terms of tiny nuggets of insights were always worth the time.

Peace (in books about music),

Book Review: Flooded (Requiem for Johnstown)

Rosemary's Reading Circle

Ann E. Burg’s Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown, a novel in verse, is a powerful set of interlocking character stories, informed by historical record, that lays bare the tragedy of the dam that burst in the working-class town outside of Pittsburgh, and all that died as a result.

Even worse, the story reminds us that the powerful and wealthy (ie, Andrew Carnegie, etc.), who bought the abandoned dammed-up lake for summer recreation and then failed to invest enough in its upkeep and maintenance, are clearly to blame for the 1889 disaster, and were never really held accountable. They blamed nature, not themselves.

Flooded is told in poetic verse, through the voices of children of the town as they prepare for Decoration Day, honoring veterans of the Civil War. Burg stitches together their stories and voices through some researched historical records, and with the freedom of a fiction writer. The result is a moving quilt of life, from the eyes and lives of young people, brought into the chaos of the flood, and the destruction of the town, and the loss of many, many lives, on that day when the dam breached and the water ran downhill.

The river, too, has a voice here, as it weaves its own story in between narrative sections, with narrow text formatting to visually show the winding path of its waters, and warning us of how it might never be tamed, and is always wild.

The last section of the book, where Burg uses anonymous letters and numbers as identification, is both insightful and, at times, both despairing and hopeful, the wishes of the dead for the survivors to carry on, to press ahead, to make something good in the world, to remember the stories. She even uses faded font texts to indicate those whose lives were taken, their ghost voices rises from the pages like distant music, and those who survived, devastated by loss but intent on moving forward.

As I read Flooded, I was reminded of the great 1874 Mill River Flood in my area of Western Massachusetts, in which a dam burst, towns were destroyed, lives lost or forever altered, and the wealthy — who ignored the upkeep of the dam, were never held accountable. Sound familiar? That river is one I walk by all the time, and the memorials erected and reminders we have (including a map of the flood on a wall of our house) is never far away from our thoughts. And I have Burg’s structure in my mind now, too, and how stories can be told.

Peace (comes after a time),

Book Review: Bibliophile (Diverse Spines)

Any book, about books, that introduces me to a wider possibility of stories and selections is always something I am interested in. Add art, and I’m hooked. For Bibliophile: Diverse Spines, Jamie Harper and Jane Mount gather and feature a breathtaking collection of books of all genres — fiction, non-fiction, poetry, picture books, etc. And as the subtitle suggests, the focus is on diverse stories and diverse authors and illustrators.

There were many books and writers I had not yet encountered, and I dogeared a few pages in my book, to go back to remind myself of the discoveries when I am needing something new to read. Even just flipping through this collection, it’s a joy to see a celebration of books and covers, with snippets of insights from Harper and Mount on every page.

And if you like this one, be sure to check out Jane Mount’s last collection, just entitled Bibliophile. Like this newest one, it is also a visual feast and celebration of books of all sorts.

Peace (in the spines),

Book Review: Respect The Mic

How cool is it that Hanif Abdurraqib (one of my favorite cultural critics, writer, podcaster) is helping to promote young people’s spoken poetry out of Chicago with this new collection: Respect The Mic (Celebrating 20 Years of Poetry From a Chicagoland High School)?

Pretty cool, and Abdurraqib, along with a handful of others (Franny Choi, Peter Kahn, Dan Sullivan) provide the textual introduction to the many poems shared here from Spoken Word Clubs in two Chicago high schools. The result is a gathering of powerful youthful poetic voices, along with small biographical snapshots of where the young poets are now (in college, or at work, or with family).

The themes of these poems run the gamut from family life in urban center, to friendships (strong and frayed), to survival in difficult conditions, to social unrest and social justice. These poets all have something to say.

Peter Kahn is one of the main teachers with the Spoken Word Club, and his story of finding a root with spoken poetry (which he also explains in the book) is a spark of inspiration for other educators. Notice how students led the way with their passions and interest.

I’ll admit, though: reading poems in the book that are meant to be performed live can be a bit strange, as the reader yearns to hear the pauses, the inflection points, the rising and lowering of cadence in the lines, the emphasis on this word over that, this phrase over that, the presence of the poet standing in the center of the stanzas. (See some videos from the Spoken Word Club)

Overall, a celebration of young poets is worth celebrating, and Respect The Mic does just that — it brings Chicago slam poetry onto the stage, and their words sing off the pages. (Note: the book provides a helpful link to information and resources about Spoken Poetry: )

Peace (and poems),

Book Review: Serpentine (His Dark Materials 3.6)

I admit: I didn’t have the right frame of mind as I read this short novella about a familiar character: Lyra. I am an avid reader of Philip Pullman and eagerly await the next book in his most recent series The Book of Dust. This small book — Serpentine — is a sort of in-between, set in the time when the first series (His Dark Materials) ended and the current series (Book of Dust) begins.

I didn’t realize that it was little more than an lingering idea of Pullman that came to fruition during a charity auction, and it was then that the story he wrote and sold off was pulled into this small novella, filled with evocative charcoal illustrations by Tom Duxbury. The story isn’t really a story, and would confuse anyone not familiar with the two series. The book is more of a written sketch of Lyra and her daemon exploring the notion of being separated, and what that means, as they head back north to ask questions of an old acquaintance about their situation.

Not much happens, plot-wise, and little is revealed, but the narrative here does connect to The Book of Dust and forms a bit of a bridge between the two series, which Pullman explains was his whole idea for conceiving Serpentine. I borrowed this  novella from the library, so it was a quick afternoon read that pulled me back into Pullman’s world for a bit, and that’s worked just fine.

Peace (connected by a string),


Remixing Ain’t Burned All The Bright (Found Poem)

Aint Burned Bright Found Poem Remix

Yesterday, I mentioned loving the new visual/text novel by writer Jason Reynolds and artist Jason Griffin — Ain’t Burned All The Bright — and after reading it multiple times, I realized that if you did random flipping through its pages, a poem would almost always emerge. (I started to read the book, thanks to a shared birthday invitation from two National Writing Project friends: Bryan Crandall and Paul Hankins).

Which led me to a remix that became a found poem. (above)

The words in the poem are all from pages in the book, and the collage which I created to reference the book’s cover and the inside pages where I “found” the words is designed to celebrate and hint at the book’s beautiful pages.

I actually tried this a few different ways, with different apps and approaches, and landed on this one, which merges the words onto the image through an app that combines media in interesting ways.

Here is the poem, as text:

or the way we treat
the world
high enough to fly off
and catch air
and maybe grab some sky
and somehow even become
its own rain cloud
to see a split second
and maybe
seeing each other’s mess
as a breath of fresh air

A Found Poem Remix
with appreciation for the words of Jason Reynolds and the art of Jason Griffin in ‘Ain’t Burned All The Bright’

Peace (in wonder),

Book Review: Ain’t Burned All The Bright

Ain't Burned All the Bright | Book by Jason Reynolds ...

I read Ain’t Burned All The Bright, the new book by Jason Reynold and Jason Griffin, five times in three days — the first, to just read it. The second, to read the words. The third, to read the images. The fourth, to flip and remix the pages, and wonder at how such efforts could surface even more stories. The fifth was to remix it … I’ll share that tomorrow.

How to explain this book? It’s a three-sentence text (long sentences, but still, just three) by Reynolds spanning over pages and pages of beautiful and evocative collage art by Griffin, and each flip of the page is another surprise.

The “story,” such as it is, can be read a few different ways, I suppose, but it has themes of the street violence and protest of the last few years, hints at the effects of Covid, and a family, in which the narrator is one of the children, struggling to hold it all together. The book is in three parts — three breaths – with a refrain of breathing in and breathing out.

It’s serious and it’s joyful — and it is this teetering of emotional zigzag that resonates so strongly through multiple readings. The mom is stuck in front of the television the whole book, watching the news. The dad is isolated in the parents’ bedroom, coughing up a storm. The brother is playing a video game and the sister is on her phone, and our narrator is just trying to break through all this clutter of life to get their/our attention.

These scenes of life inside an apartment, and the way the text (typed, cut and pasted) unfold against the small works of art by Griffin (really, every page could be framed and hung on a gallery wall) demonstrates the power of multi-literacies at work in tandem with each other.

Add the “is anyone still here?” question/answer authors’ section at the back of the book, where the two Jasons (friends since college), talk about where the seeds of this collaborative came from, and it’s all just a powerful, magical textural/artistic experience unlike any other.

I’m going back in to read it for a sixth time (rare for me). It’s that kind of book.

Peace (breathing in/breathing out),

Book Review: The Most Important Comic Book on Earth (Stories to Save the World)

The Most Important Comic Book on Earth: Stories to Save ...

Where did I read about this one? I’m no longer sure, but The Most Important Comic Book on Earth (Stories to Save the World) certainly had a title that caught my attention. It’s a huge tome, filled with more than 100 comic/graphic novel stories about the planet from dozens of writer and artists, and all with a highly activist global bent.

And all of it designed to raise awareness about Climate Change and spur us into action – right now.

The quality of the art and stories is hit or miss, I’d say, but the stories and comics that resonate were powerful statements about taking action and the book itself is a fundraiser for various environmental organizations. Some of the stories here are one-pagers. Some are multiple page stories. There are fictional stories. There are non-fiction looks at people and organizations fighting against for-profit corporation and countries negatively impacting oceans and habitats.

More than a few of the stories here are painfully difficult to read, as they envision our planet and world where no or little action has been taken to address climate change and the impact on animals, ecology, humankind.

But as the book moves along through various themes (from changing the system, to protecting the world, to restoring the damage, to inspiration for the future), the collection ends with some positive stories centered on how regular people can’t wait for the politicians to take action — we have to have it in ourselves to make change, through collective organization and deeds. Interspersed with the comics are one-page informational texts, with research and information about individual action.

The overarching message of the collection: It’s not hopeless, but neither is it inevitable that we can do what we need to do to save our planet. The comics and graphic stories here are designed to alarm and to inspire us into action. The most important comic book on Earth? Maybe it is.

This collection might be appropriate for high school readers, but some unsettling stories of environmental and ecological collapse might be a bit too much for younger readers, in my opinion. Or not, if the point all along is to jar us into action.

Peace (planted and nurtured for the future),

Book Review: The Lyrics (Paul McCartney)

PRE-ORDER Paul McCartney: The Lyrics Hardcover Book Set ...

This is my kind of book — a songwriter taking apart each and every song, from where the words came from, to how a song fell into place, and using the process to tell a larger story of a life in music — but the two-volume The Lyrics (1956 to the Present) by Paul McCartney would be a bit too much for the casual listener. And it would be a hit on the wallet (for me, this was a combined holiday gift from my children).

While many of the songs here in this collection from McCartney’s later life were not familiar to me, the Beatles’ songs and the early Wings’ songs certainly were (my first vinyl LP was Wings: At The Speed of Sound) , and as I perused the lyrics, I could hear the songs playing in my head. Each song lyric sheet comes with a narrative that McCartney pulled together, with help of writer/poet Paul Muldoon, and McCartney’s life as a curious observer of life and explorer of songs comes through.

As a songwriter myself, I was most curious about the gathering of early drafts of lyric sheets, arrows and scratches, recording studio notes about instrumental tracks, photographs inside the studios, and the other ephemeral items from a life of making songs. You can see handwritten notes and chord changes, and doodles in the margins, and all the things that show a creative mind at work.

After watching the six hours of the recent Beatles movie, and then reading this book, I’m McCartney-ed out at this point, but I was glad for the journey into songs, and appreciate how he has long developed his craft, but also the ability to recognize, seize and develop inspiration from wherever it comes, and to always be ready for the moment when a song arrives.

Peace (singing it),

Book Review: Mirror Sound

Rock and Roll Book Club | The Current

The very first songs I ever wrote and then recorded were done on a little Tascam Four-Track machine that a friend (Murph) borrowed from another friend (Eric), and we set it up in a basement room in my house. We were teenagers. We used a microphone to record some Casio keyboard drums, and layered other sounds, and added vocals (ack), and the magic of the moment when we had a “mix” of that first song was … amazing.

You can even take a listen (because I try to keep everything). The song is called Follow That Dream. It’s hard for me to listen — the lyrics, the voice, the mix … but you can hear some of what we were trying to do with our production as beginners. What you can’t hear is how excited and focused we were, to be recording songs we had written.

That memory has been lingering in my mind as soon as I began reading Mirror Sound (A Look Into the People and Processes Behind Self-Recorded Music) by Spencer Tweedy, Lawrence Azarrad and Daniel Topete.

In this oversized (and pricey) table book — full of cool photographs of underground and independent musicians across genres and genders — the three men (Tweedy is the son of Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco, but an accomplished drummer and producer in his own right) dig deep into what makes music makers creative, and how a home studio format (either simple or complex) helps these artists to chase their musical threads.

I found every page fascinating, even though I barely know any of the artists in this book. What struck me was the articulation of the creative mind at work, and the desire to make music and follow your paths, for yourself first, and maybe the world, second. These musicians are driven by the need capture the sounds and songs they hear and feel, with little regard for audience (at least, in the making of music part of things).

While some of the discussions went technical (about microphones and set-ups and software), Tweedy always seems to ground the discussion to the creative mind, and to the motivation, and to what it is about recording your ideas on your own that keeps the flame of making songs alive for each of these artists. The first section of the book is mostly photographs, intimate shots of people’s bedroom studio spaces (sometimes, it’s just a bed with a laptop and a guitar), with some enlarged quotes, and the second half is packed with interviews with the people. I enjoyed both parts, and the book itself is a beautiful piece of visual art.

After my friend, Murph, and I recorded those first songs, we were able to “steal time” at night one summer in another friend’s garage where he was slowly setting up recording equipment. We’d tinker in there, and make some tapes, and sit and listen in the car.

Later, I saved up and bought my own Tascam (which, reading here in this book, was a revolutionary product for many musicians, for its affordability and its ability to layer four tracks, or more, if you bounced tracks down) and I spent countless hours in my room, by myself, playing around and experimenting. (Murph, my friend, later went on to build his own recording studio as a business.)

These days, I mostly use an online site  to record and layer tracks, although I have an old Tascam in the basement and a cardboard box full of master tapes somewhere (probably gone bad with time).

And I am still mostly writing for an audience of one — myself, and the hope that I will stumble upon something interesting, and follow that path into a song. When it happens, there’s nothing quite like it. That’s what Mirror Sound captures on the page — that sense of wonder and magic of making music.

Peace (the muse sings),