Was Frank Zappa right when he said, “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read?” Well, let’s just say “more truth than poetry, perhaps.” A more generous observation, as quoted in NPR music host Bob Boilen’s new book, Your Song Changed My Life, was made by novelist William S. Burroughs: “The essential ingredient for any successful rock group is energy — the ability to give out energy, to receive energy from the audience and to give it back to the audience. A rock concert is in fact a rite involving the evocation and transmutation of energy.” As Boilen comments, “What a perfect way to describe rock & roll.”
Boilen, a veteran NPR music programmer and the host of All Songs Considered, clearly loves his job and loves musicians, and this good-naturedness comes through in the 35 interviews that make up Your Song Changed My Life. It’s a short geek-out of a music book that definitely hews toward the mainstream, the interviewees ranging from David Byrne (“while many of the punk bands of the day were angry or pugnacious, Talking Heads were whimsical”) and Dave Grohl (who as a kid would “set up pillows on his bed as if they were drums and pound them until...”) to a lot of folks with one name; the tally amounts to 33 rock stars and singer-songwriters, one avant-garde composer and one Icelandic drone artist (though the author admits to his own, private enthusiasm for artists such as Brian Eno and Anthony Braxton).
In his autobiographical introduction, Boilen recalls his teenage love for rock music (he remembers transistor radios!), sitting on his back porch in Queens one sad night in 1965 knowing, painfully, that The Beatles were performing at that moment at Shea Stadium. Given the subject matter, the writing here is necessarily facile, though Boilen does aim for lyricism, as when he’s describing how enraptured he was upon first hearing The Beatles’ brand-new Sgt. Pepper album, as a kid in 1967. “Imagine,” he writes, “growing up in a city and walking into a forest for the first time — that’s what the experience of this album was like.” Following some intriguing late-’60s and early-’70s memories of avoiding the draft and his unfolding musical discoveries (besides loving Bowie, Jimi Hendrix and Roxy Music, he loathed The Eagles, which would seem to qualify as Music 101), the book then presents the at-times-insightful opinions, memories and nerd-outs of rockers and hip-hop artists, some of them actually interesting to non-fans, some not:
David Byrne, recalling his early days in folk clubs: “The folkies didn’t know rock & roll music … I’d do a Who song or a Kinks song … on acoustic guitar and it was kind of like, ‘That’s a really nice song. Where did that come from?'”
Jimmy Page, the first interviewee in the book, on Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti album: “It’s like the mother of all double albums. Isn’t it? Really, let’s be honest,” and on William Burroughs: “He’d actually been to see Led Zeppelin. … He was connecting the essence of trance music, with riffs that repeat over and over, with what he had experienced … in Tangier … connecting this whole aspect of things with … what we were doing.”
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Lucinda Williams’ discussions with her poet-father on whether Bob Dylan was a poet or a songwriter: “I tell you, as soon as I sat down with one of my dad’s poems and tried to turn it into a song, then I knew the difference.”
For me, the best part of this book is the surprise factor, those unlikely meetings of people and tastes you wouldn’t expect. Boilen recalls his surprise at hearing Jackson Browne singing a Nico song, “These Days,” on his second album; as it turns out, not only were Browne and Nico a couple back in ’67, but Browne wrote the song at age 16. Browne here recalls growing up in Highland Park with that ultimate rarity, a Cool Dad (“He took me to see Lightnin’ Hopkins!”).
Including a minimalist composer like Philip Glass in this book feels like a sop, but it’s a welcome one; the goofy story about Glass’ father’s radio repair shop selling, in Baltimore back in the 1940s, avant-garde 78s by Bartók and Stravinsky, is both strange and hilarious.
One would like to have seen Boilen include some of the more singular artists he’s had on his show, such as L.A.’s own Frank Fairfield (plucking a banjo and sounding like ol’ Gus Cannon from the 1920s reincarnated) and legendary singer Tom Jones, but then one can always gripe about someone else’s choices, especially when it comes to music.