Tuesday, February 27, 2007

how tired am i?

well, 24 hours ago I was slumping in a chair outside Gate 29 in the US Airways terminal at SFO waiting for my boarding call. I ate breakfast in Pittsburgh. but the most strenuous sign of exhaustion came when I asked my NYC cabbie for change.

sure, I wear the iPod more than I should - call me misanthropic - but when I see a mouth move in my direction, need to converse myself, I do shift the earbuds to my collar. but exiting the cab I somehow stuffed the earbuds into my pants pocket and tried to stick three dollar bills down my shirt.

tired, I tell you.

last concert I ever saw (though no pics this time): Cold War Kids at Great American Music Hall in San Francisco (thanks Jill)

last museum visited: the de Young

the one before that: the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (I liked the Henry Wessel exhibit)

last four relatively expensive restaurants where I've eaten: Ana Mandara, Aqua, The Slanted Door, Rubicon

pick of the relative litter: Aqua

last book read: Ric Menck's The Notorious Bird Brothers from the 33 1/3 series

title of the photograph above: Airplane Over Alcatraz

Monday, February 19, 2007

33 1/3: a conversation with john perry

London-based guitarist John Perry is a former member of The Only Ones, as well as the author of Meaty, Beaty, Big & Bouncy and Exile on Main St. in Schirmer’s Classic Rock Albums series and Electric Ladyland in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series. We spoke by phone on February 8, 2006.

Electric Ladyland is absolutely, obviously written by a guitarist with a sense of humor.

(laughs) Yeah, that’s true.

Let’s start with the guitarist part first since that’s probably easier to talk about than where your sense of humor came from. When do you start playing guitar?

When did I start playing guitar? Let me think. I started when I was about 12 or 13, and then basically I left school at 16 and went professional straight away because in those days, which was the late sixties, there was still a lot of live work around England. I’d been working with bands for a couple of years. I was always the youngest in the band. And there was just work to turn down so I kind of went professional very young.

So if four years after you pick up your first guitar you leave the world behind in order to go do it for the rest of your life I imagine there’s some natural talent involved there.

Well, the thing that was nice was that all my mates at school were going through all that kind of Oh, what should I do? What am I going to be? What do I want to do? And I never even thought of that because, I mean, from the time I was about 13 there was kind of no question as to what I do and, you know, luckily I was able to.

Well, how does the guitar happen for you? Were there musicians in your family?

No, my dad sung counter tenor, sort of operatic, amateur. He could’ve been professional, I think, but he was the youngest of nine so by the time any money got to him there wasn’t enough. So he was a keen amateur musician but he didn’t play guitar. There was just a guitar in the attic which I got down. But I think like everyone at my age in England, the thing which did it was The Shadows. The Shadows were kind of the first guitar group in England and once you saw a Stratocaster and a tremolo arm that was kind of it. That’s what you wanted to do.

Was that your first real guitar? A Strat?

No, I had some Japanese guitars. I had an acoustic guitar first. My first electric was a Japanese guitar, and then the first Strat I picked up must’ve been about 1968. Again, in those days there were a lot of people who’d bought good American guitars in the late fifties when the first rock and roll boom, Buddy Holly and that sort of thing, had started, and then they probably got married and put the guitar under the bed where it sat for five or six years. The guy I bought it off certainly, the Strat had been under his bed for six years. He got married and the wife made him stop playing music.

Do you still play a Strat or are you playing something else?

Strat is always my main instrument. Yeah, I love Strats. I also play a Tele and with Freddie (Stevenson) quite a lot of acoustic so I’ve got a Martin I’ve had for years that is my main acoustic guitar.

All right. One more quick question about the guitars and then we’ll move on. What’s your favorite Strat that you own. What color? What year? How long have you had it?

I’ve had luck with guitars actually. The first Strat I had must’ve been ’68, the one I was telling you about under the bed. That was a sunburst. Then I had a friend who had been given one of Pete Townshend’s Gibson SGs that had been smashed and glued together and I bought that off him. Then in ’73 I got the white 1962 Strat which is the one I use now. And a couple of years later Jerry Garcia gave me his Gibson SG which is the one he played on Live/Dead, and the one he played at Woodstock, so I had a couple of SGs, a couple of Gibsons and one Strat. So I sold the Pete Townshend one and bought a Telecaster. So basically my main instruments now are a white 1962 Strat and a black ’64 Telecaster.

And you’ve had the white ’62 forever and a day?

Absolutely. Yeah, it’s beaten to fuck. It’s like a plank. That’s what I like about a Fender. Really, it’s just a plank and you can kind of kick it around the stage and bounce it off walls, play cricket with it. Anything you want. And it stays in tune. It’s the only guitar I’ve had that you can knock around and still stays in tune.

In 1976 you join The Only Ones.

That’s right. Late ’75 I started working with Peter and it was in development for about a year, and then we started gigging in January ’77, I guess. Everyone talks about ’77 as the year of punk but in London, if you were there, I always remember ’76 as the real year of punk, and ’77 the year it kind of spread out through the country. Peter, who was the singer in The Only Ones, was the first singer McLaren asked to front The (Sex) Pistols, but Peter didn’t want to do it because he was a songwriter and he knew basically what McLaren was looking for. The Pistols and Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers we knew socially. We were good friends with them. So even though musically we weren’t really punk we were sort of shoveled in with the new wave. It’s a bit like Blondie in New York, really. I mean, they’re straightforward pop group but they were always included in the CBGB’s crowd because they were socially part of it.

So is pop/punk not a fair characterization of The Only Ones’ sound?

No, no. See Kellie, the drummer, had been in Spooky Tooth who were big in England and America in ’68. I would say we were a mainstream English rock ‘n’ roll band in the style of The Who and The Stones, if you like. Peter was very keen on Lou Reed. I was very keen on Jonathan Richman, so it was a kind of crossover between them. It was like any of those things. If you’re doing something good, and something genuinely original, when you start out nobody in the press kind of knows how to categorize it. You can tell if you’re doing something really good. If it’s easily pigeonholeable, it’ll probably be easy to sell but it probably isn’t that original. Every time you do something that the press is having a genuine problem figuring out quite what it is, you’re probably onto something original, I figure.

And The Only Ones last about four years?

We split up in 1980, but we had to pretend that we were together for another year in order to get out of our contract with CBS.

You’re obviously still playing guitar. When does the writing career start?

About 1984 I was just kind of entertaining friends with kind of long stories of like disasters on the road. You know, funny things that happen on the road, stuff that goes wrong. Of course, disasters are the most amusing bit. And somebody said, Oh, you ought to write that down. So I thought about it and thought, Actually, I probably should. And it’d probably be quite fun to write a book of kind of collected road stories, so I started doing that, kind of a retrospective diary, finished that but didn’t really put any effort into selling it, and then a bit later I bumped into Clinton Heylin who was a series editor for a similar set of books with Schirmer, and he said he’d been let down by the person doing The Who book, and I said, Well, I could do that. So I wrote a book on The Who singles for the Classic Album Series.

And that’s Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy.

That’s right.

And that comes out in 1997.

That’s about right. I probably wrote it in ’96, something like that I’d guess. I mean, I’d occasionally written bits for Melody Maker and bits for ZigZag, bits for various English magazines, so I’d always kind of scribbled a little bit. By ’96 I was 40-something and you’ve got a bit of perspective on things, and I just thought it would be fun to write basically about the three bands I loved most from when I was 16, which was The Who as they were in ’66, Hendrix and The Stones. Those were the three things that moved me most, I guess, when I was 16.

Well hell, John, that makes it sound like you’re finished.

I mean, I keep my ears open to new stuff, but I just think when you’re 16 you’re uniquely open to music, you know. And the other thing is, they were all things I saw before I was professional. Once you turn professional as a musician, you kind of know how it’s done. No matter how great the artist, you kind of know how it’s done.

It’s a different set of eyes, isn’t it?

Yeah, so you can never quite recreate that complete sense of magic when you’re just a spectator and you have no idea how it’s done, you know. I think that’s probably what the difference is.

So The Who book kind of falls into your lap.

Absolutely. It was just an accident.

It’s already a book. They just don’t have a writer.

They wanted to do Who’s Next and I said, No, I don’t want to do Who’s Next. For me, The Who were always two bands. They were a great English pop group who made a run of like six or seven superb singles, up as far as Tommy, then after Tommy they changed into a rock group and kind of invented big-time American stadium rock, really. They were still great, but they were a completely different proposition then. It was that singles band, The Who as they were when they were kind of 19, 20, 21 that really appealed to me.

So you do that one and it goes well and you’re happy and the editor’s happy.

That’s right.

And so he says, Why don’t you do another one?

That’s right. And I picked Exile a) because I loved the record, and b) I’d got quite good friends with Anita Pallenberg who was Keith Richards’ wife at the time they were making the record. You know, they made the record in the south of France at Keith’s house, and through all the stuff I’d read about that nobody had really talked to Anita about what went on. And you know, if you want to know what went on in the house, if you want to know where the bodies are buried, you ask The Lady of The House, so I was able to do long chats with Anita. I mean, I could do the musicology side of it, but the social stuff, there was this great resource of all this kind of info that Anita had that nobody had really sat down and talked to her about. I thought, Yeah, let’s do Exile on Main St. That’ll be a good one.

To the best of my knowledge, you’re the only writer who’s written for both the 33 1/3 series and the Classic Rock Album series.

I think that’s correct. I think that’s right.

How are the two different?

Okay, now the Schirmer ones were much more kind of formal dissections of the album. The Continuum series, David had a definite idea that he wanted kind of individual, quite quirky books. The one about The Smiths is almost a novel, I think. And he didn’t want just a straight, kind of musicological analysis. He wanted kind of a quirkier, more personalized view of it. I’d say that’s the main difference.

Well, it sounds like the approach that you were going to take with Exile on Main St., where you sit down and talk to Anita Pallenberg to get her perspective, that sounds like that could’ve been a 33 1/3 book if you had skewed it a certain way.

It probably would’ve fit into either, yeah, except the stuff with Anita was so much I don’t know if would’ve fit into the 33 1/3, because the 33 1/3 is quite a short word count and I had so much material from Anita. I could’ve probably just done Anita talks about Exile on Main St. for 33 1/3 and not even got to the music.

Well, how does the 33 1/3 book come about? The first one came out in fall of ’03 and yours is published in the spring of ’04, so I’m guessing there’s not even a physical sample to look at when you sit down to start this.

I don’t think there is at that point. Again, it’s my friend Clinton Heylin who basically writes Dylan books mostly, though he’s written one on Orson Welles and a couple of other topics. He always has fingers in lots of pies. And I was chatting with Clinton and he said, It’s time you did another book. And I said, Well, maybe, but I don’t know if a third one in the Schirmer series would go well. And he’d been talking to David and knew that there was another series with a kind of a different slant. And I thought, Yeah. I don’t want to do a third book in the same style, but if there’s something that’s still the same kind of area but from a different angle . . . So I got in touch with David. I e-mailed him overnight and got a very nice e-mail back but saying, no, the list was closed and thanks for writing but they were kind of set up. And then about 24 hours later I got a second e-mail saying, No, no. You must do it. John, do it. Do the book. So it was great. Stuff kind of turned around and it went straight from there.

What the hell happened in those 24 hours? Did you ever ask him?

I didn’t ask. But I what I think probably happened is when I first called him though, Oh shit, who’s this creep? Didn’t know who I was, didn’t know the other books perhaps. He maybe asked a friend, maybe the friend was an Only Ones fan and said, He’s a good guitarist and the books he’s done previously are good. You ought to grab him. That’s the only guess that I can think for a complete about turn so quick, you know.

When you contact David, do you say, I want to do one of these books? Or do you say, I want to do Electric Ladyland?

Basically I contacted him and said, There’s only two or three things that I feel that passionately about and I’ve done two of them. The remainder is Hendrix. I would love to do a Hendrix book. Which of the first three Hendrix albums would best suit your series? And between us we chose Electric Ladyland. But I would’ve been happy writing about any of the first three because they were just kind of landmark albums coming out when I was the perfect age for them.

So that’s your Holy Trinity of groups that you saw, pre-professional, when it was still magic. These are the three that you wanted to write about and so this basically kind of puts the last brick in the house you’re building here.

For those kind of books it does really. I was lucky. I was born just at the right time when most of the great bands were still playing live and still playing basically the local dance hall. Of the big guns the only ones I never saw was The Beatles. Obviously I would’ve liked to have seen The Beatles. You know, the Hendrix thing was ridiculous. I was at school when a friend said, Do you want to come down to the dance hall tonight to see this black bloke that plays with his teeth? And I said, No. Don’t be stupid. What would I want to go see that for? Because, you know, he didn’t have a record out. Nobody knew who he was. He had just arrived in England. But in the end I went anyway, and bang. You know, suddenly it was the Jimi Hendrix as we know him, but I was seeing him without any pre-preparation, with none of the myth already in place. It was just seeing him without a veil between you and him, if you know what I mean.

Sure. How about placing this for me, because that’s a very real moment in the book. Hendrix gets to England in late ’66.

That’s right. He arrived in late September ’66, starts playing the odd show around the London clubs, I think, in November, December. But he really starts in January, in the new year. January ’67 is when he starts playing around the country.

And when do you see him?

I saw him very early in February, so I guess “Hey Joe” was already out but hadn’t actually done anything yet.

But this isn’t London.

No, I grew up in Bristol which is a town about 100 miles west of London, and there was just a local dance hall where like every Monday you’d have Cream, John Mayall, The Who, The Small Faces. One of those would be playing every Monday. You went down and paid 35 cents and saw these bands playing live.

I’m going to make the assumption that the American idea of dance hall and the British idea of dance hall are completely different. I mean, dance hall in America sounds almost like a saloon in a Western, you know, where there are women in garters named Kitty.

No, no. It’s not women in garters. Basically you had a firm called Mecca who owned a kind of dance hall in every major town, and like Saturday night there would be an orchestra and it would be strict tempo dancing. Thursday night would be a disco and they would play Motown and all the mods would come. Basically the reason they did Monday nights for the live music was they could get the bands cheaper on a Monday night. If they booked Hendrix on a Saturday night it would’ve probably cost them 100 pounds. When they booked him for a Monday night, they probably got him for 30 quid.

How many people would the dance hall hold? And how many people are in attendance this night?

Occasionally, like with The Who at their peak, you’d get lines around the place and a few people turned away. It was probably about five or six hundred capacity. And it was just one of those classic sort of tacky low lighting, plastic palm trees, you know the kind of vibe. So it’s definitely like seeing him in a local club. I mean, I can’t have been more than four or five feet away from him.

Did Hendrix draw a full house?

It was decently attended. It wasn’t packed stupid certainly, but I mean there was a regular group of people who went to see the music every week.

So a crowd of several hundred.

That’s right. That would be it. Yes, I doubt if the place held a thousand so it would be hundreds. Right.

And what’s the effect on a 14 year old boy? You’ve been playing guitar for two years at this time, but I imagine at 14 you’re still a wide-eyed adolescent. Does your jaw drop? Do you realize when you see him that this is something different than you had ever seen before?

Oh, I think so. Because remember by this time we’d already seen Cream, we’d seen Clapton, we’d seen the English blues guitarists. And they were good guitarists but they were definitely a kind of trainspotter mentality, you know. It was English people doing an impersonation of something. And even with the little I knew you could see that Hendrix was the real thing.

I wanted to ask you about that. There’s probably as much material written about Hendrix as anybody short of Dylan, and many of the biographies play up the racial aspect of Hendrix’ ascent and many point to his being labeled as the Wildman from Borneo as sort of racial typecasting.

That’s right. In England he had a great publicist called Keith Altham and Hendrix’s management was basically Chas from The Animals and he was still thinking very much like, Hey, can we get a splash in the tabloids? So they tried Black Elvis and that didn’t do anything, so then they tried The Wildman of Borneo and that worked for the tabloids, I guess, but the thing is they were hitting the wrong audience, because this was a point that the Underground market was starting. If you took the people who became face in the Underground of 1969, probably about 99% of them were there that night, so it was clear that was his true audience. Apart from the fact that he was a black American and therefore doubly authentic, there was really no kind of comparable racial thing in England. I think a lot of the black musicians found Europe really kind of cool after America, which is why so many chose to stay there.

It’s an interesting angle because we still kind of go through the same issues with, say, American basketball players. White players are described as smart and gritty while African-American players are described as natural. And I understand the connotation behind the Wildman tag. They’re calling him primitive. But in the book you write, “Good as they were, none of the English players I’d seen – Clapton, Beck, Townshend – prepared one for Hendrix. It wasn’t a question of degrees of ability but a qualitative difference: the English guys all seemed like highly skilled workers applying themselves to a task while Hendrix seemed a natural.”

Yeah, well what I mean by that is I think the English players had all sat down with their American records and learned to play off the records and created something in their imaginations. Whereas you’ve got Hendrix who, by the time I saw him, had already played rhythm guitar with the Isley Brothers, toured with Little Richard a bit. It was just clear that we had this idea of the thing, that we got an impression of something from 3000 miles away, and seeing Hendrix it was suddenly like being moved 3000 miles. And none of those English guys could play good rhythm guitar. They were all kind of B.B. King-style lead guitarists. The whole thing with Hendrix is he was such a fabulous rhythm guitarist.

The English players did one thing, and they did that one thing really, really well.

That’s it.

I wasn’t trying to argue with your word choice there. It just seems like it’s almost dangerous territory to call Hendrix a natural despite that fact that you’re obviously being complimentary.

Well, the point is, we had white English kids copying black America R&B and then along comes the real thing – Jimi. I go at this from the reverse angle in the book, where after The Experience’s US debut at Monterey there’s a definite clique of critics who dislike, perhaps even feat and resent him, the “Psychedelic Uncle Tom” crew. To them, black artists were supposed to be “dignified,” like Josh White or Pop Staples, or do do steps wearing matching mohair suits.
Even now, all this time later, I’ve never seen a better electric guitarist, and you would think that in the 40 years, or whatever it is, somebody almost as good would’ve cropped up. But to my ears, they haven’t. You know, there’s brilliant players around but there’s nobody who seems as effortless as Hendrix. And he was also hugely good-natured onstage. He was really fun. You know, people get carried away by the talk of the wild side, but it was a really nice vibe seeing him. He was good-natured. He was obviously having a great time. It was kind of big grins and chewing and cracking jokes. It was just a very, very different thing. The blues that we’d seen was mostly like really serious people and the audience kind of stood dead still and looked really serious, whereas as Hendrix had played rhythm guitar with all those people, he’d learned his craft there, but he was constrained by it and suddenly, with all that background behind him, he suddenly got an open stage to do exactly what he wanted and at that point he was just reveling in the freedom.

He was enjoying himself.

Enjoying it hugely, and that really communicated, even to a 14 year old. And I could play some basic chords but I couldn’t begin to play what he was playing, but that sense of enjoyment really communicated.

And it’s understandable because he probably had only been experiencing this kind of attention for three, maybe four months.

Hardly that. I mean, if you think about it, he’d been doing those kind of US soul review gigs right up til the spring of ’66 at least, and when I saw him he was only five weeks into the first tour around England. For him it must’ve just been like a dream come true, like an open door, do whatever you want, because he didn’t have a great deal of original material. From memory, as I recall it, he had “Hey Joe,” whatever the flip side of “Hey Joe” was, he had Third Stone From The Sun, but most of the set was kind of “Wild Thing,” “Midnight Hour,” “Have Mercy”. It was a lot of, you know, American soul standards, some of which he’d played on.

Kind of the stuff that the mods are dancing to on Thursday night.

Exactly. Exactly. It’s just, you know, one of those rare, rare occasions when you can’t quite believe the thing’s happening. And all the better because it was totally unexpected.

One of the things that you point out in the book is that really nobody of a comparable skill level is ever in the studio with Hendrix other than Stevie Winwood. And you point out that Jack Casady, who plays bass on “Voodoo Child,” shows up thinking it’s a jam session. Does Winwood know what he’s there for? Obviously Casady’s got to figure out by like the third take that this isn’t just a jam session, but is Winwood’s participation happenstance or is it planned?

I would suspect happenstance actually, because my understanding of that album was that the studio was around the corner from the club that he liked hanging out in. He would hang out in the club til kind of midnight to jam with whoever was in the place, and the minute he hit a kind of vibe in the jam that he liked he would just grab everyone and rush around to the studio and record it. So it was probably just an extension of what was happening on the stage a couple of hours earlier at the club.

It’s impossible, almost, to duplicate that kind of rush of excitement that he gets when he hits London, because it’s a complete rags to riches story. But how much of that excitement carries over to when he does return to the States? Does he really have musicians the caliber of Jack Casady and Steve Winwood willing to follow him around the corner whenever he wants to go?

Oh, I think so. I mean what happened in the English scene is, when he first arrived the top English guitarists of the time, kind of Clapton and Townshend, felt really, really threatened by him. Their initial reaction was they were deeply threatened by it. Then just a combination of the fact that he was so good, he was such a nice guy and clearly there was no point in trying to take him on, everybody just kind of changed their attitude really quickly, so as I recall it virtually the whole English music scene just kind of adopted Hendrix. He was so obviously the best thing around. There was Dylan perhaps as a lyricist. There was Hendrix as a guitarist. The whole English scene was posited on the blues anyway, and here was someone that, you know, was a blues guitarist on a par with Buddy Guy but was inventing the kind of new electric as he went along too. And also he was just such an attractive figure, so I think that in England certainly he could have more or less have his pick of anybody. Everybody was just dying to play with him. Kellie, the drummer in The Only Ones, jammed with him. He was in Spooky Tooth at the time and Hendrix was just carrying on. He would just come down to The Speakeasy - this would’ve been ’66 or early ’67, I guess, before I was in London - but yeah, Kellie had played with Hendrix and said it was just huge fun.

Let me ask you about the actual writing of this book. How long is the process once David says, You’ve got to do this book?

I’d guess the whole thing went through in about seven months, something like that probably. Maybe less. I mean, the first thing I would do was just kind of bring round friends from the time and speak to them. Then in part of the British Museum in north London we have the newspaper library so it was great to go back to the Melody Maker and the various papers from the time, which I would’ve read when they came out and haven’t seen since. I would also look up the local newspapers for the town I was in, where I saw the act, to see if there was a review or anything. So I spent a couple of months doing that, and then for the actual writing bit I think I borrowed a house in the Russian River in Sonoma County, up north of Frisco. A friend just lent me a house for a month and I basically just sat down, you know, undisturbed for four weeks and just got into it.

So the writing takes about a month.

Yeah, yeah. And to be honest that’s not working particularly flat out. I would write from about 9 til 12 in the morning and then just kind of piddle around the rest of the day. I suspect you can’t really apply yourself for much longer than that unless you’re up against some frantic deadline.

How soon does the structure come to you? When you pitch this to David, do you know how you’re going to lay it out?

Not at all. Not at all. I’m completely a kind of improvising musician – not that the two disciplines are particularly comparable – but I’m pretty lazy about structure and I think if you overstructure you can make the book a little bit formal and dull. The first week or ten days nothing I wrote was any use. I would basically just start writing until I found an angle and a way in that actually interested me. Because you know what it’s like. Sitting down with a blank page is boring as fuck. It’s horrible. It’s hard work until you find some sort of way in that actually interests you and then after that it’s sort of downhill.

Yeah, it’s kind of fun after that.

Exactly. So I had no idea of structure at all. I just started writing and basically just waited to see how it came out. And then the structure kind of declares itself as you go along.

The track by track section is pretty close to half the book. And I’ve got to imagine that you’ve heard this record a hundred times in your life before you get this assignment.

I probably heard it a hundred times in the first year it came out.

So how much time do you actually have to spend with the record, especially given the detailed comments from a guitarist’s perspective?

Well, this is quite interesting to me. The records from that period, when I was kind of 15, 16, I played so much that now, even if I don’t listen to the record for ten years, I know exactly how it goes.

You can play it in your head.

Exactly. But what was interesting to me was going back to a record that I knew that well and actually listening closely and listening below the surface of it and seeing what was there. So for me that was fascinating, because it’s like revisiting something that you love and concentrating on the details that you hadn’t noticed before. So that part of it was a real pleasure for me. You know, really I knew the album with a 16 year old’s ears, I suppose, but when I did the book I was able to go back to it with the ears of someone who’s been playing for 30 years or whatever. I find that really interesting. I would basically take a track a day, I guess, and then just kind of run it on speakers, run it in headphones. I also had access to some great outtakes, like the “Voodoo Chile.” I had all twenty-one takes. Twenty of them aren’t used, but you can really hear the thing developing. Obviously it is a jam. It starts from a loose idea. It takes a wrong turn. He changes the chord structure a bit, and then round about take 15 or 16 they suddenly just hit it. So yeah, I was very lucky in that friends furnished me with really kind of detailed outtakes and all that stuff.

How are you listening to the album? Are you listening to a CD? Are you listening on a reel to reel? Are you listening to an LP?

No, what I had was CDs. Most of the outtakes have been rounded up and collected on bootleg CDs, so I was working pretty much from the official albums and from bootlegs of the outtakes. And for that detailed listening you really have to use cans. When you want to hear the minutiae of like maybe bits of conversation between the musicians, you really need cans so you can listen right in close.

And just to make sure we’re on the same page, cans are headphones?


So it’s probably safe to say that Meaty, Beaty Big & Bouncy, Exile on Main St. and Electric Ladyland have all been played hundreds of times in your presence. Are you sick of any of them?

No. No. I mean, I wouldn’t put them on every day, but that’s partly because they exist in my head anyway. If we got up on stage now and anybody asked me to play any of the songs off any of those records I could certainly play them straight off from memory.

When you turn the manuscript in to David, do you have to stay away from the record for a little bit to kind of give yourself a break?

Yes. Yes. Doing it that closely kind of exhausts your energies for it a bit, it’s true. But then the nice thing is I’ve always loved radio. I love radio. And one of the aspects I like of radio is the fact that you’re not choosing the music and you’re not choosing the sequence, so when any of that stuff comes on the radio I still love it. I turn it up. But I probably wouldn’t sit down with Electric Ladyland and play it through, the whole album.

In the process of writing about this record that you’ve listened to hundreds of times, what did you learn? What surprised you that you didn’t know before?

I’ll tell what I discovered actually on both The Stones and the Hendrix one. I moved to London in ’76 and I get to know lots of people on the scene who’d been there and had been around London in the ‘60s. I have a friend Carol who used to be married to Jim Price who’s the trumpeter with The Stones in the great period. Now I’ve known Carol for thirty years and it was only when I started writing this book did I discover that Carol knew Hendrix really well. She’d never mentioned it, never volunteered the information at all. So I was just kind of over there one evening and mentioned I was writing a book on Hendrix and she said, Oh yeah. Jimi gave me this. And she pulls out a white label acetate of “The Wind Cries Mary.” Yeah, she says, I bumped into him at Kensington Market one afternoon and he gave me this. Carol, I didn’t know you knew Hendrix. Oh yeah, I knew him really well. She was going out with the guitarist from Love, from Arthur Lee’s band, who were based in England at that time, and Arthur Lee and Hendrix were pals in LA circa ’65, but when they both found themselves in London they hooked up. This was fascinating to me. Friends who had been around London during the period it was happening who I’d known for years but had never known that they actually knew Hendrix. So it was that kind of thing. It was the personal testimony that I was most interested in.
The thing with Hendrix especially, with him dying so long ago and with him still being kind of popular, recurrently popular with each generation of new young people, whole generations of people who never actually saw him but who love him dearly, and it seems to me each generation creates their own idea of what Hendrix was like. Well, of course they do, but in some cases, I notice with Hendrix especially, it becomes a really kind of personal thing and sometimes people don’t actually like to hear contemporaneous info if it challenges their Jimi. They’ve got their idea of Hendrix. They’ve built an image in their head, and they want it to be so, and they feel so affectionate towards Hendrix that they don’t actually like information from people who were actually there if it contradicts the image they’ve built. I find that especially with Hendrix. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think that’s just because there’s something about him that enables kids of 15 today getting into guitar to feel that Hendrix is almost like their personal property. It’s really no different than kids who were 15 in 1967. I find that more with Hendrix than almost any other musician I can think of.

We talked before about there being more books on Hendrix out than probably any other artist besides Dylan, and obviously you read a lot of material when you were doing your research. Did you ever have pause that there’s forty books out there on Hendrix already? Did you ever worry about trying to say something that hasn’t been said before?

Well, obviously I thought about that, and because of the specific request that David had made, for them to be kind of personal books, I didn’t think there was any point trying to write yet another objective sort of history of Hendrix, because the definitive book has been written anyway. It’s not the recent Charles Cross one. It’s Electric Gypsy by Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek. That is the definitive work as far as I’m concerned. It’s a thick book, it’s beautifully researched, it’s done with great care and great attention and it’s accurate too. I’ve read the book several times and actually, in leafing through that as I wrote this book I was moved to a new respect of how well done it was, enough to actually e-mail the author and express my admiration for what a great job he’d done.

Now the Cross book came out in the fall of 2005, so your book obviously predates it. And yet you’re interested enough to read the Cross book within the first few months after it comes out.

Yep. Well, I’m always interested in Hendrix, and it had been serialized somewhere or other and I’d seen that there was a bunch of new stuff about his teenage years so I thought I would check it out. It’s not bad, but as I say, I still think the definitive book that will never be triumphed is Harry Shapiro’s Electric Gypsy. It’s a fine book. It really is a fine book.

So now that you’ve written books on Meaty Beaty, Exile on Main St. and Electric Ladyland, what’s your favorite album?

God, it changes all the time. If I had to take one album with me to the desert island actually, what I would take is the full Dylan Basement Tapes. Not the 15 song thing that came out on Columbia, but there’s a bootleg that’s got about 100 songs of Dylan and The Band at Big Pink, so I think that’s the record I would take with me. The thing I love about the Basement, it’s not a formal record at all. It’s Dylan at the top of his form with a bunch of mates basically messing around at home for their own amusement through the course of a summer. It just touches such a wide range of music. You know, there’s country, there’s contemporary Dylan, there’s Hank Williams, there’s Johnny Cash, there’s stuff right back to the ‘20s like Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers. It covers an extraordinary range of music. It’s like a primer in Americana, really.

So if somebody came to you and said, John, would you write a book about Dylan and The Basement Tapes . . . ?

Good question. Well, I wonder. Clinton Heylin, my good pal who sort of facilitated my doing these things, is a great Dylanologist, and even more than Hendrix Dylan seems to inspire a sort of semi-academic feuding. I mean, there’s a crew of maybe a dozen writers that write regularly about Dylan, and the disputes between them are furious. I mean, I wouldn’t tangle that lot for anything. I wouldn’t even put my toe in the pool because they’re a bunch of sharks when it comes to, you know, the minute details and I don’t have, or want, that kind of forensic grasp of marshalling huge amounts of evidence, which someone like Clinton can do. He’ll go to CBS and he’ll get the track sheets and he’ll establish that this take was done the day before that one. I could write broadly, I suppose, about the feel and the spirit of the music, but between Clinton Heylin doing it at one end and Greil Marcus doing it at the other end I don’t know that the world is crying out for my opinion on The Basement Tapes. Oddly, the thing I’m always told is that if you actually want to make money from a book, write about Led Zeppelin.


Yeah. You put out a book on Zeppelin and they just jump off the shelves.

I didn’t even know Led Zeppelin fans could read.

Well, maybe they just look at the pictures. I mean, I saw Zeppelin a lot when I was young, that period we’re talking about here is ’66 and ’67, so by ’68 I’m working professionally and we had a gig in a town called Bath just a few miles from Bristol. It was a great venue called the Bath Pavilion. Everybody played there. Even into the seventies when The Who were doing stadium tours they would use Bath Pavilion as a kind of tryout date. And my band always had the support slot there, so one day in maybe late ’68 we get a phone call saying, Can you do a support at Bath tonight? And we said, Yeah. Yeah. Who’s the band? And they said, Secret. Not allowed to tell you. So we think, Okay, this is interesting. So we go over, we get there, and there’s big posters saying, The New Yardbirds, and in little brackets underneath it Led Zeppelin. And this was maybe the third or the fourth gig they did. Page was using existing Yardbirds bookings to try out his new Zeppelin. We opened up for them and they stank. They were awful. They were so bad. So, you know, having seen Hendrix, and everything that I loved about Hendrix, the spontaneity, the ease, the joviality, the effortlessness, it seemed to me that Zeppelin, at that point at least, were the antithesis. It was heavy. It was labored. It was humorless. They were awful, I thought. I was telling that to a friend of mine quite recently, Boss who was the tour manager for a group called the Pink Fairies, and it turns out that his band did exactly the same thing only the next night further down the country at Exeter. His band did the support for Zeppelin, and they thought they stank too. You know, they were individually obviously very accomplished if you like that sort of thing, but they didn’t gel as a unit and they didn’t swing. I was always thought Led Zeppelin were a bad copy of the Jeff Beck/Rod Stewart group anyway.

33 1/3: a conversation with jim fusilli

Jim Fusilli is a rock and pop critic for The Wall Street Journal, as well as the author of a series of mystery novels which center on fictional private investigator Terry Orr.
We spoke by phone on August 20, 2005, just after the Rolling Stones kicked off their Bigger Bang Tour in Boston, Massachusetts and just before the debut of Martin Scorsese’s Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back.

How long have you been at The Journal and how did that come about?

It’s been going on for 24 years and I was at Dow Jones when the Leisure and Arts page started. And I went to the editor at the time and I told him I had written a rock column for a small paper in New Jersey, and I told him that since I was approaching 30 I was probably too old to be a rock critic. Could I be a jazz critic? And he said, Well, you know, we’d like to accommodate you but we’re going to be using Nat Hentoff for jazz. So I said, Well, okay. I understand. Keep me at rock, please. And that’s been it. I’ve been with the paper ever since.

What’s the most gratifying piece that you’ve done for The Journal?

Boy, this is really going to date me, but I was very happy that the full weight of the paper came out behind Paul Simon when he made the Graceland album. We stood up to the African National Congress and to world opinion and just stood with this guy. And the paper ran my piece on the Op/Ed page rather than on the Arts page. But there’s been smaller pieces, like profiles of people who, you know, are so far behind the scenes that nobody knows who they are. Like a guy like Phil Schaap who runs a radio program on the Columbia University radio station for Charlie Parker, and makes a living, such as it is, cleaning up old jazz recordings and making them suitable for release on CD.
But you know, just recently for example, I did a piece on the Rickie Lee Jones anthology, and we were able to contextualize it in such a way that people who may have lost track of her were able to understand that she’s been a major influence on the pop charts even if she’s not on them herself. And yet her body of work is really substantial, and that from our point of view it’s better to do a substantial body of work than to have a couple of hit singles.
Part of the pleasure of writing for the Journal is the position we take, which is not that what’s hip and what’s commercial is important. That’s not our point of view. Our point of view is that rock music sits under the umbrella of the arts and it should approached as an art form, and therefore work that’s substantial is worth celebrating.

When you talk about your work at The Journal, you use the first-person plural.

I’ve been with the paper for a long time. I know the editors and I’m comfortable with the philosophy. I’m not empowered to speak on behalf of the paper, though I think you’d find a similar approach in the other arts coverage.

So there’s truly an editorial philosophy for The Journal’s arts coverage rather than four or five arts writers who generally maintain the same approach.

That would be my perception of it. I take my cues from the page. I mean, I read the page. I think the Journal’s Leisure and Arts page is an unrecognized gem. You know, when I do book tours people will say to me, I didn’t know The Wall Street Journal had a rock critic. But the readers that we have, they know and it’s a pleasure to write for them because they’re smart people.

And while we’re on the subject, what’s your favorite Rickie Lee Jones album?

It’s probably Pirates. But this anthology is brilliant because of the way that it is tracked. There’s no sort of sense of anything other than “let’s put one song next to the song that sounds best next to it.” There’s no attempt to build a chronology or a commercial sweep to it, or to put her most poppy songs on the first CD. It just flows endlessly. And because her songs are filled with time changes and key changes, these songs just flow into each other and it’s like a ten-song suite on each CD.

So she sequenced the anthology as if all of the material was new.

That’s right. I mean, for example, “Chuck E’s In Love” is not the first song on the CD. There’s really an attempt to make an artistic statement on this CD and that’s exactly the kind of thing that I would like and I’d want to tell the Journal readers about.

When you wrote about this, did you talk to her or was this just a straight review?

This was a straight review, but I heard from her through her publicist.

And she’s pleased, I hope.

Well, yeah. I mean, we’re reaching a reader that should be important to people in rock. I don’t know anybody who reaches this reader as well as we do. And you know, rock tends to forget about people once they go outside the 18 to 49 demographic, which is totally stupid because these are people who love music, who grew up thinking music is important, have disposable income, are eager to stay current, and the record industry shouldn’t be pushing Rod Stewart’s Standards, Volume 8 at us. They should be pushing The Magic Numbers and stellastarr and an anthology like Rickie Lee Jones’ that is a sample of excellent work by somebody who may have slipped out of the mainstream. But they don’t.

So I assume that you’ve rethought your opinion of twenty-four years ago, that you might be too old to be a rock critic.

Oh yeah. I mean, I’m really delighted that I did it. To be honest with you, part of it was that I was a father - a new father - and I had a baby and I wanted to be active in her upbringing, so I didn’t want to be out every night, late, you know, traveling with bands and things of that nature. This is off the top of my head, but I might’ve been dismayed at the state of rock back then too.

Let’s see. 24 years ago would’ve been 1981. That’s not the best of times.

I mean, the Joy Division had just busted up and New Order was there. The Cure hadn’t come along yet. The Smiths hadn’t come along yet.

The Smiths and R.E.M. were right around the corner.

And, you know, the sort of institutionalizing of punk was going on.

But what about being too old for the job? If you thought that 30 might be too old twenty-four years ago, then you’ve rethought that end of it as well.

Um, yes. But, you know, age isn’t the deciding factor. It’s attitude.

But age can be a deciding factor. I think certain papers might take age into consideration when they’re hiring a rock critic.

They may. I’m unaware of that. I mean, I don’t have a sense that. I just don’t know if my readers know how old I am. By the way, I’m not 54. I’m 52. I was approaching 30. I guess they must figure I’ve been around for a long time, and I have a bias in favor of some of the components of music that were more popular long ago. You know, I’m a big fan of melody. I’m a big fan of lyrics. I like interplay between musicians. I like a band that has depth, meaning that it might be the second guitar player who plays the most interesting thing on that track. I was just listening to a band called Kingsbury Manx, and they have two drummers and then they play this sort of Gomez-like folk rock, but the fact that they have two drummers is fascinating. These guys really create a really nice texture, so maybe people say, Jim doesn’t review a lot of rap, and he prefers melody, and maybe that indicates how old I am, but you know I’ve never really had a comment from anybody that I’m too old or something like that. I’m pretty youthful in my world view anyway.

And you’re not anywhere close to feeling too old for it.

No, but the industry makes it difficult. They really do make it difficult for me to bring our readership into the experience. You know, when I was 18 I was much more up for standing in a club for the 2 a.m. set. I still do it now and then. It’s not something I can recommend to our readers. And I once had a conversation about this with Van Morrison. I envy the first-rate jazz club. There have always been rock musicians that I thought if they could just show up with their instrument and sit in a room full of people who were attentive they would really show the quality of their work. But they’re compelled to go out into this raucous environment. They’re almost compelled to be less musical than they can be.
I had a conversation with Keith Richards about two weeks ago, and he was telling me about how it stays special, because he and Charlie and Woody and Darryl Jones sort of play with each other and for each other. They’re aware of the spectacle around them, but they try to do something to confound each other, see if the other guy can pick up on it, and take it to a little bit different place while staying within the structure of the song. And I saw them in Boston and I paid attention, and that is exactly what they did. And I said to Keith, You know, I’m not sure that a lot of people are aware you do this. And he said to me, You’re probably right, but I think people are aware, at some level, that there’s quality at work. And that there’s a reason why this music’s substantial. I’m paraphrasing. And I understood completely what he meant.
And that’s what kept the Stones fresh and, you know, as a member of the audience that thrilled me, because as much as I like the spectacle, at the end of the day I just want to hear music. You know, I’m not interested in much more than the music. The celebrity doesn’t matter. Whether they’re fashionable doesn’t matter to me. I just care about the music at the moment, and you know I’ve seen a lot of big bands do bad shows and I’ve seen a lot of unknown bands do good shows. You know, I’m doing a piece right now about three bands that I’m not sure that any members of the Journal readership knows about, but these bands are great and I’m confident that the readership will give them a try.

And they are?

The Magic Numbers, which I think is the album of the year. I probably shouldn’t say that but I do. The Kingsbury Manx.

I just got that one yesterday. I haven’t opened it yet.

It’s going to remind you of early Kinks. Not early Kinks, you know, sort of Village Green Kinks, and Belle & Sebastian and Elliott Smith, but you know, as I said, they’ve got two drummers and they do this music with a lot of confidence, and it shouldn’t be ignored. And then there’s a band called stellastarr which I love. They’re from Brooklyn. They just did their second album. There’s another band that I might do - I don’t know if I can fit it in the piece - called the Eames Era, but I may run out of space.

What’s the usual word count for a piece?

It’s generally around 800 words, but the Journal’s starting a new Saturday edition so there may be more opportunities.

Three bands in 800 words is a tough assignment, let alone four.

The Journal reader is not turning to us for music. They’re busy people who are thoroughly engaged in their lives. And the arts coverage is not the primary reason they come to the paper. At least this was always the philosophy, to make it clear and distinctive and understand that these are very busy people. You know, it’s just sort of discipline of doing it, and respecting the reader’s time. I have tremendous respect for the intelligence of the reader, but I don’t presume they know anything about what I’m writing about, so I try to be as helpful as I can. I don’t use jargon. I don’t presume knowledge of the subject. And when you’re writing at that fundamental level, you stick pretty close to the core of the story. And if somebody said to me, Jim, you can fill the entire paper, you know, I wouldn’t know how to do that, but I do know how to turn in 800 words for grown-ups to read about rock.
Now my Keith Richards piece ran about 1000 words, but we had a long discussion about his relationship with Brian Jones, Mick Taylor and Ron Wood, and I thought it was fascinating. And it’s certainly the kind of thing historians would want to know about because it was fascinating, his perception of what he had to do to accommodate three different types of guitar players. But there wasn’t room for it.

So what do you do with all of that material? Is it burning a hole in your pocket?

I may use it in the future. I had conversation with Miles Davis many, many, many years ago. I’m talking about 22 years ago, and I’ve written about that conversation many times. In fact, I just mentioned it the other day to Keith because back then Darryl Jones had just joined Miles’ band as the bass player and Miles was explaining to me why he was so great. So you know I hold onto these things and I use them when I can.
You know, part of the experience of talking to people like Keith Richards or Lou Reed or Elvis Costello or people of that caliber is that there’s life lessons being communicated as well. They may give me everything I need for my story pretty quickly, but I’m trying to learn how to manage my career as an artist also, as a novelist. And when these people who have worked at the highest level for decades start talking about a subject that may be off-track, you know, I just soak it all in and I try to make it part of my philosophy on being a novelist.

How do you come to the 33 1/3 series?

At first, I just wasn’t interested in doing it. I mean, my career as a novelist was taking off and I had a four book deal. I had to do a book a year. And I really didn’t, you know, want to do a 150 page album review. But then I had a conversation with the publisher, David Barker, who’s a terrific publisher and knows tons about music. And I said, You know, I had a personal experience with Pet Sounds when I was a kid, and it really changed my life. How would you feel about me writing this book, but bringing elements of the novel to it? Not writing it as a sort of linear album review, but show how a single work of art can change a life? And David, to his credit, was up for it, and so the book is about me as much as it’s about Brian or the album even. But the hope is that people who read the book will either say, Yes, that’s exactly what Pet Sounds did for me, or they may say, Nah, Pet Sounds didn’t do it for me, but this other piece of art did. And you know, the book has quite a few elements of the novel in it. I think it’s written by a novelist rather than a music critic. I mean, it’s got music in it, but by and large you have this character of Jim who’s basically writing in the voice of an amazed teenager, who is timid and a little concerned about his place in world and doesn’t really have the courage of his opinions, but he sort of floats them out there anyway. And you know, there are some people that just catch on to that instantly and they go along with it and they understand the voice. It’s an idealized voice. So I mean it was a big pleasure to do it. It’s been far more successful than I thought it was going to be. I just thought it was going to be a project between books and I thought maybe I could do something interesting here and I really did want to be associated with 33 1/3, but it just has taken on a little bit of a life of its own.

When you start talking to David, there’s absolutely no question in your mind what album is in your sights.

If the standard was that it had to be great and influential, my thought would’ve been Pet Sounds. You know, there’s others I could’ve picked. I could’ve picked something by Monk maybe, or something by Jaco or Joni Mitchell but, you know, they would’ve been second choices. No album ever hit me like Pet Sounds did.

Is that the same thing as Pet Sounds being your favorite album? Or is it just the most influential?

It’s the most influential on my life. It had almost no influence on me as a musician. It wasn’t until last year that I even bothered to sit down and figure out how to play the songs. And I can’t listen to it for fun. I don’t even list it in my Desert Island Discs because it’s too specific and too painful. But I do think it’s the best rock album. Or let me say this another way. I do think it is the best album of the rock era. It is absolutely a realization of what the artist intended and it connects on an emotional and intellectual level. You know, there’s not a lot of work that does that. In fact, I think it’d be difficult and name 10 from the rock era that do that.

But you do have reservations about particular songs on the album. I think the word you use is “annoying.”

Yeah, I don’t think it’s a perfect album. I mean, it’s perfect in that it’s a reflection of a very troubled man, but I think that musically, you know, it’s a creation of its time, where you had very tight deadlines and you had to produce work quickly. You just didn’t have a year to work on something. You know, for example, “Sloop John B.” It doesn’t really have a place on that album. The instrumentals, particularly the title track, “Pet Sounds,” you know, this he wrote for a James Bond film. So as I speculate in the book, you can probably go back to the album before Pet Sounds and find a couple of better songs for the overarching theme. But again, one thing we have a tendency to forget, as critics and as fans, is that these are products of human endeavor and, you know, they’re not perfect, even if the artist becomes iconic in our mind. We forget that they’re just like a regular guy like we are and they had to go to work to do this. You know, sometimes when you have those imperfections they remind you of that. I’ve tried to listen to Pet Sounds by programming out the instrumentals, but it just doesn’t work.

You mentioned “Sloop John B” and the instrumental “Pet Sounds” as material that really doesn’t belong.

Well, I think “Sloop John B” doesn’t belong thematically. In terms of the quality of Brian’s production and the voices and the band’s performance, I think it fits.

So why was “Sloop John B” included and “Good Vibrations” wasn’t?

I think it just didn’t fit thematically. “Sloop John B” was the single that appeared between the two albums and, as it was at the time, that single just automatically went on the next album. This was still a transition period from when people were largely buying singles to starting to buy albums. So you would entice people by releasing the single, and you’d try to get them to buy the single and then you would try to get them to buy the album that included the single.

You mentioned presenting voice of the 13 year old. Basically your narrator is Jim the Boy.


Is that approach already in your head before you sit down at the keyboard?

Yeah. I think, as a writer, choosing a voice is something that you have to consider. I mean, when you choose subject, you’re choosing voice. I mean, this is something that good novelists know. A pretty good sign of whether a novel’s going to be of quality is if the writer has chosen the right voice for the story.

There are nine elements of fiction, and obviously there’s overlap between them, but does your voice, your point of view dictate your structure? You take what I’m going to call a running start into the album. It’s similar to a long jumper at a track meet, or when Evel Knievel would ride his motorcycle to the top of the ramp in order to visualize where he was going to go before backing all the way down to make his approach.

Yeah, that’s really good.

Is that a fair analogy?

Yes it is. I thought the book’s foreword could set the tone for what was going to follow. And I did want to have a certain scattershot approach to it. I did want to have a sense of disorientation to the writing, but you know I’m too disciplined by experience to make individual sentences or individual paragraphs disorienting. The only thing I could do would be to string a bunch of very lucid sentences and lucid paragraphs together in an unusual way.

In the book you speak directly to the reader quite a bit. Is that a conscious choice, or is that an overflow of the voice? When I say conscious I probably mean calculated, though it’s hard to use the word calculated and make it sound nice.

I’m totally with you and my novels are like that. My novels are all in first person and they have a level of intimacy with the reader. My principal character, Terry Orr, shares information with the reader that he shares with no one else in his life, so I’m familiar with that. That is not in my journalism, by and large. With my journalism there’s a bit of distance because I’m pushing the work out in front, not myself.

But again, you’re approaching Pet Sounds as a more fictional endeavor than a journalistic music review.

Right. I think you want to give the reader a chance to be as intimate with you as you’re trying to be with them, so you want the reader to react viscerally rather than intellectually to what you’re doing. It’s the only way I know to create intimacy between author and reader, to be forthcoming and give the reader space to be forthcoming in return.

As an interviewer, when you’re talking to someone like Keith Richards or Miles Davis, do you find yourself needing to reach out, somehow sharing in order have them open up?

First of all, I probably should say that when I met Miles I was terrified of him, and he knew it. And at the time I didn’t know how to bring the weight of the newspaper into the room. But Miles was very kind to me and very understanding, and he knew I was basically a kid who loved him so much that I couldn’t, you know, meet him as an equal, and I’m always grateful for that experience because he was wonderful with me.

That could’ve gone another way.

Yeah, you know, I just think that I approached him in the proper way even though I was frightened of him. I think he saw that I respected him very much, and that I wasn’t looking to become his pal. With somebody like Keith, you know, he’s 10 years older than me, but we’re more or less the same age. I play music, he plays music and so there’s common ground right away. He’s knows I’m a serious guy. I’m not there to fawn all over him. We’re both doing a job. But you know, musicians are interesting people. They love music, and if they sense that you love music, you’re usually going to get along. And I do love it, and I think that these guys sense that fashion and celebrity and commercial success is not part of my thinking. You know, we just get along. I don’t prepare questions generally. I pretty much have an idea of what I want to say, but what I’ll usually say to them is, I have a premise. Let me run this by you and tell me if it makes any sense. And they’ll say, Yes, that’s great, or No, that’s not quite it. And then we’re off and running.

What do you do when you get, No, that’s not quite it.

I’ll just say to them, Would you give me a minute and show me where I misunderstood? For example, I said to Keith, I get a sense, Keith, that you’re just standing around listening, and that the rhythm section is strong enough that you don’t have to be a constant presence, that you can accent and add filigrees and enrich the music that way. And you know, he could’ve easily said, Absolutely not. Without me, Charlie falls part. Woody wouldn’t know what to play. But he said, No, that’s exactly right. But that was a sort of an informed opinion, because first of all I love the Stones and I know their stuff, and secondly I had seen them play with just the five guys, and I couldn’t believe how much rhythm Charlie, Darryl Jones and Woody made together, and how Keith came in and out of the music and how the other guys were sensitive to when he was drifting away intentionally to fill up that space. I mean, the communication among those guys is fabulous. But my first meeting with Lou Reed, for example, we didn’t start off on the same page, and it wasn’t until we started discussing poetry that we found common ground. You know, the point of this is to get the story for the reader. It’s not necessarily for the writer to have a pleasant experience.

You seem extremely, maybe even extraordinarily, protective of Brian in the book.


When you mention that he took LSD, you take a moment to mention that it was legal at the time.


You also talk about being backstage with him and having the desire to give him a big hug. Has that been there since the beginning? Or is that something that as his problems, his struggles have become more public, the desire to protect grows?

We must remember that this book was written by a fan. My journalism about Brian over the years is not so forgiving. I don’t respect anyone who surrendered their gifts to drugs. I don’t like people who forsake the ability to create art to do other things. I have a huge sympathy for Brian and I think that of all the troubled rock stars I’ve met over the years he’s the one that I look at and see the root causes of his problems more clearly than others. But that book is a fan’s perspective. If somebody gave me the opportunity to write a full-fledged biography of Brian Wilson, that certainly wouldn’t be the perspective.

So the fan is protective of Brian.

I think so. It’s very funny. You know, Steve Earle has this very funny comment about Dylan. He says, When did people start calling him Bob? And he says, I hear this all the time now. Bob. Bob. And you know, the name denotes a lot, and the way that people refer to Brian. You know, Brian is like a child’s name. And the way people say it. Oh Brian. There’s sort of this built in affection for him. And being with him in a controlled environment, I just simply decided to look at it through that perspective. I wrote about this on my website and it’s not as fawning, but you know I just think that he’s had just a terrible life, and yet he’s given us such joy.

You use Brian’s quote to David Leaf: “I wanted people to know it was more a Brian Wilson album than a Beach Boys album.” That sounds more self-assured than one might expect from someone who seems to need the protection that you’re willing to give him.

Well, I don’t believe that any rock star has achieved his or her fame without a bit of ruthlessness and calculation. And I think what Brian probably felt at that time was that it was time for the world to know that he was the man behind the Beach Boys.
Wait until you see the Scorsese documentary on Dylan. Scorsese leaves no doubt that Dylan was ruthless in pursuit of fame, and that he would’ve trampled anyone to get it. Look, I used to play music in Greenwich Village. I used to go to the coffeehouses and play, and the people who made it were the people who were relentless. They weren’t the most talented people. They were the people who were relentless. And part of that relentlessness came from a desperation. You rarely found people doing well who had happy home lives, lots of career choices, and change in their pocket. It was always the back against the wall situation. And this is one of life’s hard lessons. You know, for somebody like me who had options, who had, you know, a variety of career paths available to him, to go up against somebody who was absolutely desperate to succeed, there was no way I was going to be able to defeat them. Unless I had overwhelming talent, which I didn’t.

So does that mean that people who didn’t have the dysfunctional upbringing with a drunk father managing their career and hitting them hard enough to cause hearing loss, does that mean that those people are destined for something less than greatness?

No, they’re just going to achieve it in a field that doesn’t require such desperate maneuvers. You know, my childhood experiences are nothing compared to Brian’s, but nonetheless they were painful to me. And one of the things I like about this Pet Sounds book is, if you read it before you read any of my novels, you will say, Okay, now I understand what parts of Jim are in this character Terry Orr.
Our lives are our own, and it’s not until much later that we begin to understand whether we’ve had a good time or a bad time comparatively. You know, you don’t really know if your family’s dysfunctional until you start interacting with other families. I grew up in a pretty rowdy neighborhood where families were always yelling at each other and my family shouted at each other. It was not mean-spirited. It was just the way of communicating. And I remember in high school I went over to this friend’s house, and the way he and his father spoke to each other, with affection and love, complete respect, I couldn’t believe it. I mean, they were speaking like equals. I just thought, Wow, this is something different. I think one thing parents try to do is they try to put their kids in situations where they see the world in a little bit different way, so my parents had sent me off to another high school and that was a way for me to get out of the sort of insular world in which I lived.

Let me go back Brian’s quote. He says, “I wanted people to know if was more of a Brian Wilson album than a Beach Boys album.” Does he need Tony Asher? He needs the other voices in the band, but does he need Tony Asher as a co-writer?

Actually, if I may say so, he doesn’t need the voices. For example, the ending of “God Only Knows,” it’s just he and Carl and Bruce.

You’re saying Brian could’ve done all of the vocals.

He could’ve done all the voices. I mean, this is where he was really savvy. He knew that the sweetness in Carl’s voice was better for “God Only Knows” than his own voice. His voice was just too brassy. But he needed Asher. Asher was an advertising copywriter, and Brian chose an advertising copywriter because Brian knew that advertising copywriters are supposed to write what you tell them in an elegant way. And I suspect that that was Brian’s thinking at the time. Asher really captured naivete about matters of the heart, and I think he did a wonderful job. And I wish he had more opportunities to write. I even wish he had opportunities to write today because I think, you know, some of those lyrics are just really wonderful. At these little gigs I’ve been doing I always play “I Wasn’t Made For These Times” as a folk song. And people can’t believe the lyrics. They can’t believe how penetrating they are, and that’s to Brian and Asher’s credit.

Let me ask you about the logistics of writing the book. You decide on the voice of Jim the Boy, but you have other responsibilities – a novel a year plus your work for The Journal. Do you have to go back and do more research, or has this album so enthralled you that you’ve pretty much got the music and the books by Timothy White and David Leaf already ingrained and you just have to check the quote to make sure you’ve got it right?

Yeah, the White book I’ve read a number of times over the years. I think it’s wonderful.

So you really didn’t have to budget research time.

No, I knew the story. But what I did is I decided to try to learn the music of the album, to try to be able to play all the songs. So I took the Granata book, which is very helpful in that way. I actually tried to get the sheet music and I couldn’t get it. And I played all the music which revealed even more to me about the chaos in Brian’s mind and the ingeniousness of his arranging abilities.

And the process of discovery, even if it’s just the chord changes, has got to help the writer.

Yeah, it did. It really did.

What song gave you the most trouble?

To figure out or to play?

Either one you want. I realize they’re two different things.

“God Only Knows” is problematic. I mean, he has really written himself into a dead end that he arranged himself out of. I mean, the bridge just doesn’t resolve itself properly. And there’s recorded versions of it, earlier takes of it where it just falls apart, but he was such a strong arranger of voices that he was able to overcome his shortcomings as a composer at that point. Yeah, “God Only Knows.” It’s a very simple song to play but it’s really difficult to make it high art.

And what was the one that’s the most difficult to play?

Well, I’m not trying to dodge the question, but you have to understand, I’m trying to play these songs by myself. For example, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” no matter how I tried to arrange it, I could not come up with evocative enough chords to give a sense of harmony. Brian would occasionally write folk chords and then suddenly add these incredible augmentations that created a groundswell of harmony, so if you’re playing “Caroline No,” for example, you’re playing like it’s a folk song and then suddenly these chords come in that create a harmony with your vocal. It’s pretty amazing.

When you’re writing the Terry Orr novels, what do you listen to?

I don’t listen to anything. In the first couple books, whenever you come across a piece of classical music, that’s probably what I was listening to at that moment, but recently I’ve not been listening to anything while I’ve been writing.

What if you’re writing 800 words on the Rickie Lee Jones anthology? I imagine that it’s either nothing or you’re writing to the anthology.

It’s probably nothing. What I generally do is download the album onto my computer, I’ll listen to it just straight through a couple of times, probably the first time while I’m doing like my bills or something like that, and then I’ll let it wash over me and I’ll start to get a sense of it. I’ll start to memorize it a little bit. And then when I’m writing I’ll just pick and choose things I wanted to highlight and emphasize.

You talk about the pain of listening to Pet Sounds. Were you listening to Pet Sounds when you were writing the book?

No. I was really in a good space then for an artist. It was almost a sort of Stanislavski approach to writing. I had completely transported myself back to the pain of my childhood.

And how long, start to finish, does it take to write?

I think I wrote that book in three weeks, and then David asked me to put a little bit more music criticism in it, and then we cleaned it up a little bit.

But you got the whole draft in three weeks’ time.

Very fast, because it had to be like that. It had to be visceral. It couldn’t be intellectual. I should probably try to do that with my novels. Be a bit more free.

You used the term “good space,” but that’s for writing. How are you as a person during those three weeks?

Pretty painful. I didn’t enjoy it at all. Yeah, I wouldn’t want to do that again.

Did you take it out on co-workers, family members?

No, it stripped my confidence and made me sad. But I’ll tell you what, I wrote the foreword to Hard, Hard City, the Terry Orr book after I wrote the first draft of Pet Sounds 33 1/3, and you can see the influence of having that experience, because for the first time I write about Terry’s childhood.

Was the experience worth it?

The book? Yeah. Definitely. It’s created new opportunities for me. It’s created new fans for my fiction. It’s giving me a chance to play music again and connect with a different audience. But the best part about it was it made me very close again to this lovely and wonderful album.

33 1/3: a conversation with joe pernice

The bio note on the back of Joe Pernice’s 33 1/3 offering, Meat Is Murder, reads: “Joe Pernice is the singer and songwriter for The Pernice Brothers. Their most recent album is called Yours, Mine & Ours. He has published a book of poetry. This is his first work of fiction.”
Since the publication of Meat Is Murder, however, The Pernice Brothers have recorded and released two more discs, Discover A Lovelier You and Live A Little. Pernice’s novella is officially the series’ fifth release as well as its first endeavor into fiction and the current best-seller among all 33 1/3 output.
We spoke by phone on June 8, 2005.

How do you get hooked up with David Barker?

He just called me. He e-mailed through my label. He was a fan of my music and then, you know, he just got in touch with me and asked me if I was interested in the series.

So this wasn’t because you had a book of poetry out and so therefore he knew you were a writer.

He had no idea, he said. He didn’t know about the book. He got the idea for the series, and he said he was looking at his shelf of albums and he went through and picked out records that he liked of people he thought might be interested. Whether he was pulling my leg or not, I don’t know.

That’s quite a leap of faith – to assume that because someone can write a good song they can also write a good book.

I agree, but he asked if I was interested in thinking of an idea and writing up a treatment of it, so that was probably to see if I could string a sentence together. I sent him about 200 words, and my idea was to write a fiction, and to his credit he just said, Why not? I remember him saying, We don’t do fiction, but What the hell? That was exactly what he said.

So your original treatment or pitch was to write a work of fiction about Meat Is Murder.

Yeah, he knew I liked The Smiths and he suggested The Queen Is Dead, but that wasn’t a big record for me. For me it was Meat Is Murder. And I said, I went to grad school and I just can’t write any more stuff that even approaches criticism. I have no interest in it. But what I would do is maybe write a novella that, you know, tries to place this album in the context of some freak’s life. And he said, I like it. Go ahead. It was really that simple.

When he wrote you, did you jump in with both feet? Or did you have reservations?

Well, when he first got in touch with me, I was literally at the halfway point of recording my record, Yours, Mine & Ours. I was neck deep in it. And so I had some reservations, but on the other hand I had also seen how far we had come with recording. Like that last recording project was involved as far as logistics and making everything work, so I was feeling a bit brave. And I finally said, You know what? It’s 25,000 words. What the hell? It didn’t take me long to say yes.

Was any of the novella already written? Or did you pretty much write the thing from scratch after the assignment was made?

I think I decided to do the book maybe around Christmas, maybe a little earlier. And I knew I wasn’t going to be able to begin it until March, and I had about five weeks from March until I was going on tour again, so I had a window of five weeks and just made sure my schedule was clear. Probably around Christmas I started relistening to Meat Is Murder, and it brought up a lot of memories. And to tell you the truth, no shit, I sat down in about five weeks and wrote it from scratch.

You had five weeks and you used all five weeks.

I did. I had a little closet in my apartment in Brooklyn that I cleaned out. It was big enough to put like a desk in and a lamp in. When we finished recording and mastering our record, I sat down and I just started to get into a schedule. It took me a week or so just to get into the, you know, swing. Like, All right, I’ve got to work from whatever to whatever, or I need to do this many words a day. The biggest problem was just figuring out which part of the day was kind of the sweet spot for me.

And what did you learn? Are you a morning guy or a night time guy? When does the fiction flow?

Well, I thought I was a morning guy because that’s usually when I write songs but I got up in the morning and I realized I was still writing songs and I wouldn’t even start thinking about sitting down to write fiction until about 1. Then I honed it down. I realized that probably from between 1 and 5 I was doing pretty doing good work, and then after that I just kind of faded. So that was my window. I wrote anywhere from about five to six hours a day.

You mentioned getting a headstart around Christmas by listening to Meat Is Murder, but when you’re in your closet with the computer turned on are you playing music while you’re writing?

Oh no no no no no.

Not even classical, mind-clearing stuff?

No, I need to have like a fan on, actually. I put a fan or something on where it’s just a din. I like a white noise.

And would this be Christmas ’02 into March ’03?

Yeah. I wrote it in March of ’03. I wrote it from like the end of March until I passed in the manuscript about five weeks later and I believe it was published in October of ’03.

And how is David Barker as an editor?

Oh, he’s great. He really is one of my best friends now. It turns out that we lived right around the corner from each other in Brooklyn, and we would get together. You know, we would hang out a lot and it had nothing to do with the books. He became really one of my closest friends.

He seems like a very pleasant fellow.

An excellent guy. And that helps. As an editor he gave me a little guidance. I probably wrote about 5000 words and sent it to him, and I think he made a couple - they might’ve even been grammatical - changes, sent it back and said, I like it. Keep going. And then he didn’t see anything again until the end.

There’s a certain power to the words “keep going” if they’re coming from the right person.

Yeah, you know, I was concerned because I didn’t know if I was writing anything that was any good. With music, I’ve sort of developed a bit of skin where if you take a hammering here and there, you know, and you don’t really let it get you down. But I was thinking about this book. Like all of a sudden, you know, am I immediately lumped into that kind of category of songwriters who think they can write, but they can’t? So I really wanted to write something that was pretty good. I don’t mean the greatest book of all time, but I wanted to do something that was pretty good. So I had some concerns about just getting crushed critically, and I was concerned because David had become a good friend of mine and I didn’t want him like lose his job because he put out some dog. Like, I really thought about that.

Was fear of failure a motivation? Or is that taking it too far?

I think that might be a little too far. I did think about it, but when I got into the groove of writing I was really into it and I didn’t think of much else. But every once in a while you poke your head up and you’re thinking, What am I doing?
But luckily for me I did develop an ability to just focus. It was really an enjoyable thing. I loved it.

Your book is the best seller of the series, but as a work of fiction it’s the least representative. If you were the editor of this series would you be worried, or bothered at all, that the only fiction entry is the one that has sold the best? (ed. note: since this interview the 33 1/3 series has published another novella, John Niven’s Music from Big Pink)

Well, I would say No, because I think the number of books I’ve sold – and it’s not an astronomical number – is above his expectation. I mean, I’m sure he wants to sell books, but if his motivation was What can I do to sell a ton of books, then none of these people would be writing books, myself included. But I think I might have gone past the expectation. As long as the other people are living up to their expectations, or to think of it in a crudely business sense, as long as everyone else is hitting their bottom line, then I think he’s successful for sure.

How many books in the 33 1/3 series have you read?

I’ve read a couple. Not many. I’ve probably gotten Thank yous on six or eight books in this series because I’ve hooked up that many people, I think. Just said, Hey David, I know a guy who can write.

Who have you made the connection for?

Well, I definitely got Warren Zanes hooked up. I got my cousin, Joe Harvard, hooked up. I hooked up this guy John Niven who’s from Scotland who was actually an A & R guy who signed my band. He’s writing a book on The Band. I hooked up Ric Menck who’s writing a book on The Byrds which I think is going to be really good. I think there were a couple others that aren’t coming to my head right now.

Well, obviously you’re providing a kind of editorial function already, but let’s say David wins the lottery and retires and Continuum throws a lot of money at you to take over his job.

Oh Jesus.

What writer would be next on your list?

There’s a guy, Gary Stewart, who was the head of A & R of Rhino for years. He produced all those box sets, and he and I are pretty good friends. And as I’m thinking of this right now I’m thinking, There’s a guy who David has to get hooked up with.

And what should Gary write about?

Everything. His knowledge of music is colossal. If you look at any Rhino box set, any box set from the last 15 years or how ever many years, you’ll see the name Gary Stewart and you’ll see the name Bill Inglot. Bill’s mastered like everything, or a ton of it, and Gary has produced and compiled and written the liner notes for countless things, hundreds of records. So that’s a guy. I may make a phone call.

I assume you’re getting an agent’s commission.

Yeah, which is probably about three bucks.

Well, you at least ought to get a Thank you and a cup of coffee from each of these guys.

Yeah, well. Like my friend Menck who’s writing his book now (ed note: the recently published Notorious Byrd Brothers), he is so psyched. I wouldn’t think of him as the kind of a guy who would go out and try to put like a book proposal together and beat the carpet or beat the drum, whatever you call it, and get a deal, but his knowledge of music is outrageous. And I’ve sat with him I don’t know how many hours and heard him go on with incredible passion about records, from the most obscure to certain mainstream music. His knowledge is just huge. He’s a lover - like a real certifiable lover - of rock and roll, so I hooked him up and he’s like a pig in shit. And I’m pretty psyched about it because I get to talk to him about it and he’ll say, Oh, today I hit a stride and I really said what I wanted to say, and that’s very cool. This is just like a very fortunate situation for a lot of people.