An occasional column on music-related books
Hollywood Eden: Electric Guitars, Fast Cars, and the Myth of the California Paradise, by Joel Selvin (House of Anansi Press).
There’s a panoramic sweep to Joel Selvin’s Hollywood Eden. It’s a story told not as a history, but as a dramatic tale, an adventure, with scenes described so vividly, they become cinematic. The lines of the book’s opening chapter come to vivid life; you can hear the sound of the showers in the boy’s locker room at University High School, and see Jan Berry coming up to his future singing partner Dean Torrence, leading all the naked athletes in a singalong to the Silhouettes’ “Get a Job.”
VIDEO: Jan & Dean “Dead Man’s Curve”
These were the golden children of privilege, heading out into the world after high school with seemingly endless possibilities before them. But the story arc suggested by the title of the book’s three sections — Dawn, Daylight, Dusk — indicates that it won’t turn out to be a smooth ride.
The stories of Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys, Nancy Sinatra, and the Mamas and the Papas (among others) have been told numerous times. But Selvin manages to tease out new details. His biggest score is getting Jill Gibson to open up. She’s the scene’s outsider, coming across as slightly removed from the action, which still doesn’t prevent her from getting burned (her boyfriend Jan Berry removes her songwriting credits; she’s unceremoniously dumped from the Mamas and the Papas when John Phillips reconciles with his wife Michelle). She’s something of the story’s conscience; unlike the others, she’s not out to succeed at all costs.
But though the business may be cutthroat (Kim Fowley in particular comes across as the kid perennially outside the candy store, pounding on the window to be let in), it’s the love of music that’s the driving force here. These are the people whose songs cast the California experience as an endless summer, and Selvin’s engaging prose makes you feel the warmth of the sun once again.
The Velvet Mafia: The Gay Men Who Ran the Swinging Sixties, by Darryl W. Bullock (Omnibus Press)
For all the mythologizing about the great liberation of the 1960s, there was one area where hedonism remained tightly buttoned up. Flower power? So sweet. Turning on? Yes, please. Free love? Of course. Homosexuality? Keep it to yourself! Hence the men profiled in Bullock’s book, who nurtured British pop and then set it free to conquer the world, found it imperative to keep their sexuality private. This was an era when homosexual acts could still land you in prison.
Bullock is good at chronicling the careers of the main figures he covers: Larry Parnes (Tommy Steele, Billy Fury), Brian Epstein (the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers), Lionel Bart (the musical Oliver!), Robert Stigwood (Cream, the Bee Gees), and Joe Meek (“Telstar,” “Have I the Right”). But what’s disappointing is that he doesn’t really build upon the book’s premise. Yes, the men were all gay. But what did that mean, beyond having to be circumspect about their private lives in public? Was there a gay sensibility these men brought to the pop scene?
VIDEO: Dickie Pride “Betty Betty (Go Steady With Me)”
There’s an interesting parallel that could’ve been drawn between how having to live behind a public image perhaps made it easier for Parnes to pluck young men from obscurity and create new personas for them (complete with suggestive stage names like Vince Eager and Dickie Pride). One wonders what kept the media so hands-off during this period. From the standpoint of our media-saturated age, it’s amusing to see the delicate euphemisms in use at the time: “a particular friend” or “roommate” (as playwright Joe Orton, who wrote a proposed film script for the Beatles, once observed, “It crossed my mind to wonder why the English have never got around to finding a perfectly respectable word for ‘boy-friend’”). And there’s no mention of an interesting quirk in British law; while homosexual acts between men were illegal (until 1967, when consensual sex between men 21-and-older was decriminalized) there was no corresponding law about lesbianism.
Nonetheless, The Velvet Mafia offers a new look at an elite coterie who ruled the music roost in Britain, men whose stories have generally only been told as adjuncts to the acts they managed. It’s also a thoroughly British perspective on the music industry, making the first, pre-Beatles chapters especially interesting, as this isn’t a period that’s as well known to American music fans.
They Just Seem a Little Weird: How KISS, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, and Starz Remade Rock and Roll, by Doug Brod (Hachette Books)
The connection between these four disparate bands isn’t immediately apparent. Doug Brod makes the case for lumping them together in Chapter 19, arguing that these were acts that were accessible, not unreachable, reflecting their fan base. Others weigh in as well. Redd Kross’ Steven McDonald sees them as drawing on the tradition of reworking British Invasion rock for an American audience. To Anthrax’s Scott Ian, they were bands for his generation, not an older sibling’s.
But the best explanation can be found in the book’s introduction, where Brod observes they each represented a shift “from the earnest, mustachioed, puka-shelled strains” of the likes of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Doobie Brothers, and the Eagles. In short, these were bands that didn’t take themselves too seriously; they were simply having fun, and inviting everyone else to join in.
From that perspective, the book makes a lot more sense. It’s an entertaining romp through the rock and roll excess of the 1970s, and the disillusion, break ups, and reconciliations that followed ever after. Brod’s clearly a fan, which gives his writing a loving touch, and there are numerous interviews that add new information, and reveal the widely varying memories of events.
Brod has a penchant for odd metaphors; saying that listening to Cheap Trick’s album The Doctor “simulates the experience of being in an MRI machine operated by the ape-men of 2001: A Space Odyssey,” for example. But it’s nonetheless an enjoyable read, told in a style that holds your attention even if you aren’t interested in any of the bands.