Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Mark Johnson - An Ideal for Living (1984)

Title: An Ideal for Living: An History of Joy Division
Author: Mark Johnson
Publisher: Proteus Books (original), Bobcat Books (reprinting)
Year: 1984


I stumbled onto this book at a local bookstore and quickly realized I'd found something special. An Ideal for Living is an obsessively detailed book about Joy Division and early New Order. It's been long out of print and copies on eBay go for dozens of euros. The book chronologically documents the bands from their earliest beginnings in 1976 until the end of 1983. While we may have the internet today to compulsively research and document every studio session and live performance of a beloved band, in the post-punk heyday this task was left up to the most hardcore of fans. This is a testament to that sort of dedication. Apparently, Mark Johnson was both loved and hated for his work: the band members were annoyed with his persistence and plentiful errors, but fans can only marvel at the amount of information in the book.

Most of the content of An Ideal for Living takes the form of a combined gigography, sessionography, and discography. Although the bands and some related parties were interviewed, the text primarily describes notable aspects of the live performances and recording details. Very few concerts are left without some sort of note, and every show for which a bootleg was available at the time is marked with an asterisk. (The introduction humorously states that to obtain these bootlegs, just ask around at the next New Order concert. Times have changed!) Accompanying these notes, there are also over a hundred reproduced photographs, most of which I'd never seen before.

There is one confusing aspect to this: it is unclear where the most of the information actually comes from. Sources are scarcely listed for anything except the direct quotes from the band members, their associates, and the local press. It would appear that the author attended many of the gigs in question, and has heard bootlegs where available, but one can only assume the rest of his information simply came from the fan community.

In addition to the comprehensive primary text, the other source of content is a series of pseudo-philosophical essays that also go largely uncredited. With only a few exceptions, they are only vaguely related to the bands in question. Most of these essays are nonsensical and an utter waste of space. They don't even do a good job of constructing mystique around the music, which might have been welcome considering how deconstructive the rest of the material is. Paul Morley is listed as contributing "Faces and Masks", and he is likely the author of some of these essays, especially considering his penchant for abstract, irrelevant prose. I generally like Morley, and he seems to like the same bands as me, but his writing often wanders too far off course. At any rate, the authorship is never fully clarified.

While the book is fun to peruse just to ponder the history, the author made no attempt to maintain a consistent narrative. Information is simply presented chronologically as it is available, and the book sort of awkwardly trails off at the end as the material had to be wrapped up for publication. There is also no attempt whatsoever to describe the musicians' personal lives; unlike Deborah Curtis' Touching from a Distance, family members and mental health are largely ignored. In the few words that are used to describe Ian Curtis, his suicide is considered a complete surprise, his depression is left unmentioned, and his epilepsy is downplayed. This may have been the general trend of the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, it's hard not to feel like warning signs were certainly present.

While reading the book, I tried to consider if this book is still relevant. It's a great resource, but apart from being out of date (new audience recordings have appeared since publication, and of course New Order is still active today!), most of this information is now well-documented online, on multiple websites, with additional details. The sessionography and discography are also available in the booklet accompanying the Heart and Soul box set. However, hardcore fans may still appreciate having all of the material in print, especially considering the photographs and the unique nature of many of the incidental details of the various concerts. Considering the limitations of the work and the difficulty in procuring a copy, I can only recommend it to the hardcore, which is presumably for whom the book was written anyway. It's a cool collection of information, but not essential.

Score: B

References and Further Reading:

Monday, November 17, 2014

Jimmy McDonough - Shakey: Neil Young's Biography (2002)

Title: Shakey: Neil Young's Biography
Author: Jimmy McDonough
Publisher: Random House
Year: 2002


A couple months ago, I was thinking about reading Graham Nash's new book, Wild Tales, but I was sufficiently warded off by advice that it would make me dislike the primary figures portrayed in the book. However, my interest in Nash and his scene had been piqued by the release of CSNY 1974, and I'd also just discovered that Neil Young's Archives Vol. 1 is on Spotify. (This seems utterly bizarre considering his well-known hatred of low-quality digital audio formats). Thus, when I found a copy of Shakey on my parents' bookshelves, I decided to give that a try instead, and so I asked to borrow it.

Shakey had a tumultuous history, and remains somewhat contentious in the hagiography of Neil Young. I don't want to retread water that's been well documented elsewhere, and that includes most of the actual history of the artist in question, but there is still the matter of the quality of the book itself. What I am most concerned about here is the ability of the author of the biography, Jimmy McDonough, to transmit the many-faceted life and music of his subject to the reader.

Two things smack you in the face within the first few pages of the book: the massive ego of the author and the incredible amount of time and energy that went into the project. The lowest points of the book are when McDonough's language gets so ridiculous that you can't take him seriously and you start to question his motives. His opinions are strong and they are scattered all over the book. Avoiding them is impossible. A less-informed reader would come away thinking that Crosby, Stills and Nash are three of the absolute worst humans to have tread this planet (okay, maybe not Crosby), Pearl Jam isn't much better, Crazy Horse is God, Bob Dylan is Jesus, every band from the late 70s through the present is absolute garbage, and Neil Young must be the Second Coming or the Holy Spirit or whatever makes sense out of these awful clichés.

Many people get away with hating contemporary music or new wave or whatever their favorite scapegoat is, but McDonough's virulence is irresponsible. He's allowed to have his opinions, and it wouldn't even bother me if they were presented in a measured fashion, but because he paints in such broad, black-and-white strokes, it's hard not to get distracted. Crazy Horse very well might be his best creative partner, but to pretend that Neil's other collaborators are meritless is unreasonable. For example, CSNY in the early 70s were on fire, even if they never again truly recaptured it; and Neil's album with Pearl Jam (Mirror Ball, 1995) is one of his best and most consistent.

[Mirror Ball.]

Similarly, he tries to portray Young as apolitical, or merely subject to the whims of his time. He successfully makes a point that Neil has appeared out of touch at times, and that he has made his fair share of stupid or ridiculous comments, but he also ignores Neil's long history of political themes. Neil may have become more overt with his subject matter in recent times, but even if you write off the obvious "Ohio", "Southern Man", and "Rockin' in the Free World", what else can one make of songs like "After the Gold Rush", "War Song", "Campaigner", "Homegrown", "Pocahontas", "Powderfinger", "Shots", "Mideast Vacation", "Long Walk Home", "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)", "Song X", "Act of Love", and so on?

In keeping with his love of Crazy Horse and producer David Brigg's anti-overdub policy, McDonough overlooks that Neil has a perfectionist side that has produced an equal portion of his best work, starting with his Buffalo Springfield masterpieces "Expecting to Fly" and "Broken Arrow", and continuing throughout his career, including some of his best albums, such as Harvest (1972), Comes a Time (1978), Trans (1982), and Freedom (1989). The author tries to portray any carefully crafted album as lacking spirit or soul, but almost all of his albums are a balance of first-take gut instinct and mechanical perfectionism. Young's catalog defies simple categorization. Some of the lopsidedly overproduced albums, like Harvest Moon (1992) are dull and predictable, while some of the more underproduced albums, like Broken Arrow (1996), are lumbering and slipshod.

[Trans.]

Worst of all is his portrayal of CSN, and in particular Graham Nash. While largely excusing Crosby for his regularly awful behavior, and merely writing off Stills as a drugged-out failure, he spares nothing from Nash. The author paints Nash as overly sentimental and unartistically populist, yet fails to appreciate that he brings an element of balance and precision to their collaborations. McDonough cleverly overlooks that Nash and Young have a lot in common, including political interests and personal assistants (i.e. archivist/photographer Joel Bernstein). In fact, he never mentions the joint Nash-Young single "War Song" from 1973 at all, nor Nash's Wurlitzer contribution to "On the Beach". His role in the Time Fades Away tour and album and his many vocal contributions to Neil's songs performed with CSNY are also downplayed. Despite the author's negativity, the very photo on the cover of the book was taken by Nash!

Another strange element, perhaps fitting into the author's overwhelming prejudices, is that he refused to interview several important people, including erstwhile record company owner David Geffen and latter-day collaborators Pearl Jam and Booker T & the MGs. Considering the number of subjects interviewed, these exclusions are obviously deliberate, and the author even calls them out specifically in the endnotes. The reasoning is apparently left as an exercise for the reader. Several subjects are also mentioned as ignoring or refusing interviews, including Bob Dylan and Stephen Stills. (Also, bizarrely, Beck.) While perhaps disappointing, their voices are hardly missed, and this is presumably no fault of the author's.

Instead, several sections of the book focus on otherwise unknown, hyper-obsessive fans that the reader is given no reason to care about. Two of these figures, Ken Viola and Dave McFarlin, are repeatedly quoted and interviewed. Neither seems to offer a particularly sophisticated or unique perspective, yet both are treated as sage voices of the truth. Why their opinions are relevant is left unclear.

A more complex subject is the author's treatment of Neil Young's family. First wife Susan Acevedo apparently declined to be interviewed, but she is still discussed. Young's next long-term partner, Carrie Snodgrass, and their child together, Zeke, are both interviewed and discussed, but when the narrative reaches the point of Neil's marriage to Pegi, the author states that he decided not to enter that space. Hence, Pegi is hardly mentioned at all, and it is unclear if she was even interviewed. Their two children together are also minimally discussed, except for son Ben's struggles with cerebral palsy.

I don't think McDonough's decision is necessarily a bad one, but since Neil's personal life from that point largely becomes a transparent void, the narrative loses a lot of its force and weight. Up to that point, his life is analyzed and processed just as much as his musical endeavors, but after the mid-70s, Neil is presented as a purely musical entity. I understand the desire to respect the privacy of his children, but we lose a lot of perspective on what drives and defines Neil. Halfway through the book, the narrative has just reached February 1971, only a few years into Young's career. Much of his music-making career, throughout the 80s up until the manuscript was completed in 1998, is given a rushed, at best precursory treatment.

To make it worse, as the narrative carries on, the author begins to insert himself into the narrative. His ego is large enough that he describes telling Neil that some of his material was terrible and shouldn't be released. Apparently, he didn't know what else to say about Neil's career in the 90s, so he just writes about hanging out in Neil's tour bus and model train barn. These might be interesting or unusual parts of Neil's life, but no one cares about how the author fits into them.

[Homegrown (unreleased, but recorded in 1974).]

McDonough's text makes for a frustrating read. He gets so much right – he digs deep into Neil's circle, he doesn't shy away from Neil's eccentricity, he researches all the obscure unreleased material, he describes all the best concerts and tours that you'd never know happened in Santa Cruz or New Zealand or wherever, and he doesn't always paint Neil in the best light. Shakey convinced me to immediately start seeking out a bunch of bootlegs I didn't heretofore know existed and to give some of his weirder, less popular albums another listen. That right there is indicative of a successful rock biography.

But on the other hand, the author's arbitrarily harsh opinions too often get in the way of the story. His over-the-top style of trying to come off as some sort of streetwise hustler only makes him seem immature and less credible. His blatant preference for the seedy, grainy side of everything tarnishes his perspective on anything fashioned in any other manner. And while the thoroughness of the book is hardly a fault, the length is a little excessive when you consider how much of the material relating to himself or to irrelevant fans could be trimmed. I wanted to read a book about Neil Young, not a book about Jimmy McDonough and his fanboy preoccupations.

Score: B

References and Further Reading:

Friday, November 7, 2014

Peter Hook & the Light - Live 2014.11.04

I've been very skeptical of the recent trend of concerts consisting of full album performances. It seems like a blatant nostalgia trip, at risk of providing neither room for the creativity of designing a good setlist nor the freedom of rearranging songs to take advantage of the live setting. This type of show has become very popular among some of my favorite post-punk/new wave bands, and I'm not sure how to feel about it. It clearly is an attempt to give fans what they want, which apparently is just a rehashing of the past, but I see both good and bad in it.

I've also been very skeptical of the antics of Peter Hook as of late. It was only a few months ago that I acquired his first book, The Haçienda, and my review was mildly unfavorable. Hooky has long since seemed like the odd member out of New Order, and there is quite a bit of content available to the public of the feuds between him and the rest of the band. For that matter, there's a fair bit of history of feuds between him and others (cf. Freebass). In fact, he comes off as a bit of a loudmouthed jerk. However, it's hard to really know the truth or to actually establish fault.

At any rate, when I heard that Peter Hook and the Light were coming to town to perform New Order's Low-Life (1985) and Brotherhood (1986), I did not jump at the opportunity. It wasn't until just a few days before, after deciding that I wouldn't be going to the Fun Fun Fun Fest this year, that I realized that $21 was pretty cheap for an aging veteran of two of my favorite bands. Even though the forecast was heavy thunderstorms, the venue claimed to have tents, and I figured it was still worth a shot.

Artist: Peter Hook & the Light
Venue: Mohawk
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 4 November 2014

First set (Joy Division):
01. Atmosphere
02. ICB
03. Passover
04. No Love Lost
05. Something Must Break
06. These Days
07. Shadowplay

Second set (Brotherhood):
08. Let's Go (instrumental)
09. Lonesome Tonight
10. Thieves Like Us
11. Paradise
12. Weirdo
13. As It Is When It Was
14. Broken Promise
15. Way of Life
16. Bizarre Love Triangle (extended)
17. All Day Long
18. Angel Dust
19. Every Little Counts

Third set (Low-Life):
20. Love Vigilantes
21. The Perfect Kiss (extended)
22. This Time of Night
23. Sunrise
24. Elegia
25. Sooner Than You Think
26. Subculture
27. Face Up

Encore (non-album singles):
28. Confusion
29. State of the Nation
30. True Faith
31. Temptation
32. Love Will Tear Us Apart

[Peter Hook & the Light.]

Review:
Of course, it did indeed rain during most of the concert, and the best spots were not actually under tents. So I stood in the rain and even took my usual notes, although I now know that was pointless since Hooky posted the setlists online the next morning. This was actually the opening night of the new US tour of these albums, following prior tours featuring the original Joy Division albums and then the first two New Order albums. It was also announced that the band would be their own opener, playing an assortment of Joy Division songs.

Currently, the line-up of the Light features Hooky's son, Jack Bates, on "rhythm" bass, along with three of Hooky's former bandmates from Monaco: guitarist David Potts, drummer Paul Kehoe, and keyboardist Andy Poole. Hooky himself sings and plays "lead" bass. The dual-bassist situation might strike some as odd, but since Peter's last band initially featured three bassists, this is not so extraordinary. Furthermore, considering the prominent role that his bass played in Joy Division and New Order, it's no surprise that many of the songs put both musicians to full use. Of course, in most songs, Hooky let his son handle the basic parts, while he would just occasionally double the parts, play an octave higher, or break for the solos.

Nonetheless, Hooky is still a solid performer, and when he did play, it was with honed precision and skill. On "Love Vigilantes", he even played the melodica riff, and in the bridges of a few songs, he would turn to a drum pad and beat out some extra rhythm parts. And naturally, he took the lead vocals – except on "Sooner Than You Think", where he let Potts take the lead on the verses. Potts also took the co-lead part of the chorus to "Paradise", and sang backing vocals in many songs. The similarity of his voice to that of Bernard Sumner's threw me off, but I'm glad it wasn't relied upon too much. Meanwhile, Hooky can actually do a decent job of approximating Ian Curtis, but these days he sounds quite different than Sumner.

The Joy Division set was a great way to start things off, especially since it started with their best song ("Atmosphere") and continued along with a motley selection of songs scattered throughout their brief career. Most of these songs were played with a punky, energetic vibe befitting the original band's live sound. The real surprise was "ICB", a conspicuous anomaly in that it is a New Order song from their debut album, Movement (1981). It fit right in, but one can only wonder why that song. After all, Hooky did sing lead on two songs from that album – but not that one!

I had assumed that after a brief break, the band would jump right into Low-Life. Instead, the Light (without Peter) came out and played an instrumental version of the rare "Let's Go". Hooky then came out and played both sides of the great 1984 single "Thieves Like Us" / "Lonesome Tonight". I figured that worked as a good chronological prelude to Low-Life, but the band surprised me again by starting into Brotherhood.

I've always slightly preferred Low-Life, and I'm left to assume that by reversing the chronology and playing it last, Hooky shares my feelings, or he figured his audience would. I felt wronged for a second until I realized that it didn't matter at all. Even if I do have an established preference when it comes to the recorded versions, I'd be hard-pressed to say which one was better live. I think the band handled the Brotherhood songs better than I would have expected, but part of it might just be that the album is less sequencer-based and thus translates to the live rock band format more readily.

The band brought a great energy to the show, and I thought the band's familiarity with each other contributed to a certain tightness. The sequencer-heavy songs (i.e. most of the singles and "Elegia") were less dynamic and exciting, but the music was still good. It's just a bit awkward to watch the musicians stand around on stage, waiting for their brief part or even just the next song. Otherwise, it was great to see some of these lesser-known songs played live for the first time since 1987 or thereabout. I also appreciated that several songs were played in their extended forms, closer to the versions found on the original 12" singles. "Bizarre Love Triangle" was definitely longer than the album version; "Subculture" featured a few elements from the 12" mix (although that's a rare case where I prefer the album mix); and "The Perfect Kiss" featured the third verse and extended instrumental section found only on the 12" version, although it probably still wasn't the full nine minutes of the unedited original. (The frog solo was sorely missed, for example.)

[Hooky on a stool with his six-string bass for "Elegia".]

Hooky's vocals were the one thing that were sometimes a weak point. While he appeared natural trying to convey Curtis's words, he was clearly less comfortable singing some of Sumner's vocals from the New Order set. The main problem was just range: Hooky's voice is much closer to Ian's, so he didn't really have to stretch to sing the Joy Division songs, but Bernard's voice is just a bit higher and softer than what Hooky could reasonably manage. He ended up singing many parts an octave lower, which sometimes worked and sometimes just didn't sound right. There were a few parts that he didn't drop but still couldn't do justice to. Otherwise, while his voice might not be extraordinary, I thought he did a good job with the vocals, and the mix was such that I could understand most of the lyrics quite well.

The encore included several singles from the era (loosely speaking), which naturally received great audience response. "True Faith" and "Temptation" really got the crowd excited, while "State of the Nation" was a bit of a surprise, even to me. (I always thought that one and "Shellshock" were of a lesser quality musically, even if the lyrics to "Nation" have reasonable merit.) The final number was a precursory take of "Love Will Tear Us Apart", which was satisfying despite the predictability.

I'll admit, Peter Hook more than surpassed my expectations. He might not have challenged his audience or provided any new insights, but the entire purpose of his project with The Light has been to bring alive songs of his past, and he certainly does it well. I give him major bonus points for the Joy Division set and especially all the extra singles and rarities. The show rocked, the sound was superb, and he treated his audience quite well, so what else could you want?

Score: A-