As a teenager in the 1970's, I was never a Beatles fan (I was more into the Stones), but some of John Lennon's post-Beatles music, such as "Mother" and "Imagine", made such a strong impression on me because they sounded like they were coming right out of his very personal inner self. But I was a bit too young then to know exactly what was going on politically. This book filled me in with the information on the cultural and political background in America that Lennon walks into at the time and vividly depicts how he lived through the period and influenced many people (to the point that Nixon was afraid of him). Sure, as a former Beatle, it was probably easier than anyone to make a difference in the world, but he didn't have to do any of the things he did. His attempts to get involved and make a difference even in the local community levels appeared sincere and are consistent with his music. I am glad someone wrote a book about this period of Lennon's life.
Before listening to "How Music Works", based on what I knew about his music (his Talking Heads days anyway; my favorite album was "Remain in Light"), I thought to myself: does he mean "How Modern Pop Music Works"? But after listening to it, I now think that the title is appropriate, at least up to the current period.
This book covers a wide range of topics, including: how the historical, social, and technological environment shaped the type of music; what he was feeling/thinking while going through the experience of making music with Talking Heads in the lower east side of New York City in the 70s and 80s; how different cultures and people influenced his music; the financial aspect of making music in the current music production environment, and more. I can tell that he is extremely well read, but his interpretation of cultural/social aspects of music is unique, I think. He is also a very good writer. I really enjoyed this book.
I only knew Tony Danza from the 1980's TV show "Taxi", but, through this book, I found out what a great guy he is. But more importantly, in this book, Tony Danza lets me peek at some of the real lives of the kids who attend a public school in Philadelphia. I never watched the cable TV "reality show" that was part of this, but I know this actor went much deeper than a role in the TV show. He stayed with the class after the TV show production ended, and he still keeps in touch with some of the students. It's really heat-breaking what some of these kids have to go through in their personal lives AND go through the high school life that is so important in determining their future. We all know how important education is, but most of us, including myself, tend to think "education" in rather abstract way. This book brought me back to the time when I went to a public school but also reminded me how important this short period can be in shaping the kids' future. For this, I now feel that high school teachers probably play more important roles than college professors do. We often hear about negative things about teachers in public schools, but, considering what they are up against, we don't give (at least many of) them enough credit. Tony Danza honestly describes what went through his mind during his interactions with the students and other teachers and admits his flaws, mistakes, and vulnerability. I could tell that Tony Danza himself had some great passionate teachers. He is a great narrator by the way. Many of the scenes made me cry (and I almost never cry listening to audiobooks).
I've read several other so-called biographies of Bruce Springsteen and was amazed at how little factual information they contained of a living, accessible person. Mr. Carlin pretty well resolved that problem for me in this big biography, Bruce. The story starts with the tragic death at a very young age of Bruce Springsteen's aunt, Virginia. It explores the histories of both sides of his family as they came from Europe. It lightly touches on the unusual circumstances around his maternal grandfather's imprisonment, and his father's manic depression. The events that impacted the artist on his way up are well researched and chronicled. The one exception that I hoped Carlin would realize was important was the acquisition of the Telecaster. Mike Appel famously stated that Bruce still played the same $189 guitar he's always had. Well, Bruce's Telecaster is NOT $189 instrument under any normal circumstances. Perhaps Mr. Carlin does not play guitar but that is a story those of us who do are interested to hear.
In the introduction Carlin tells us that during his interviews with Springsteen Bruce advised him if he found warts and wrinkles to print them. Carlin followed this advice up to a point. He certainly addresses Springsteen's mercurial temper, his obnoxious behavior toward his band mates, and his jealousy and disregard often in public of his lovers. Where he holds back, however, is in the transition between Springsteen's two marriages. We get plenty of information about who Julianne Phillips is, that is he tells us all the good stuff. Abruptly they divorce and almost instantly Bruce is a couple with Patti Scialfa. I'm not really looking for gossip. I'm looking to understand a series of songs on Bruce Springsteen's two 1992 albums. Human Touch and Lucky Town.
Carlin explains how these two unusual records were recorded and how slow and how fast the various songs were written. What he leaves out to the distraction of we who follow these things obsessively, is what inspired the specific songs. He offers these insights on other records, so I had hope. On previous albums Springsteen tells stories about plain people, for the most part fictional. On Human Touch and Lucky Town he reveals himself in a much more cathartic way than he ever did before. Songs like Human Touch, Cross My Heart, All or Nothing at All, Man's Job, and I Wish I Were Blind, are not only stunningly beautiful chronicles of heartbreak but for me personally they mirrored real events in my own life and I wondered how "The Boss" could find his psyche in the same place as an underpaid graphic designer. For me buying those two records on the same day was like a Badder-Meinhoff phenomenon. I hoped this long book would give me an inkling. Unfortunately Carlin gives these two brilliant records shorter shift than most. He does point out that they both eventually went platinum.
The other thing nearly ignored is Springsteen's relationship with his wife, Patti Scialfa, herself a brilliant rock singer and a cathartic song smith. This is not out of any fear of impropriety as Mr. Carlin gives us plenty of info about their sexual activity. I suppose he wants to allow the family a buffer but that's hardly the job of a biographer. Both song writers use their relationships powerfully in their work and it would be interesting to explore the intersection between their records. Scialfa's heartfelt contrition (for want of a better word) in songs like Come Tomorrow, As Long As I Can Be With You, and Lucky Girl, the passion and regret of Romeo and Stumble Into Bethlehem, and her anger on Play Around and Black Ladder. Suffice it to say if any two artists should ever do a "Double Fantasy" style album, their's should be a two CD set.
All in all, this is a terrific biography much more detailed than both of Dave Marsh's two books put together and far superior to the other fan-ravings long on opinions but short on facts. When you're finished it you will know the details of Springsteen's history. You will not know the specific details about how he taught himself to play guitar or any mention of early guitar instructors if there were any. That said, you do learn how he became the electrifying performer he is and that is certainly valuable information.
Bobby Cannavale does an excellent job reading and characterizing this book. It would be easy to go too far and he avoids this pitfall elegantly.
The afterwards is told by Carlin himself and in so doing the listener gets some insight into the books shortcomings.
In all, this is a valuable addition to the Bruce chronicles. I'm sure it will not be the last entry however.