The author is Rob Sheffield and the subtitle is The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World. So far this year this is my favorite book, in part because it stretches genres in a creative way. In addition to being a study of fandom, celebrity, 1960s history, “how boys think about girls,” and of course the music itself, it is most of all a splendid take on small group cooperation, management, and the dynamic between John and Paul. I enjoyed every page of this book, and learned a great deal, despite having read many other books on the Beatles. Here is a typical passage”
The Beatles invented most of what rock stars do…They invented breaking up. They invented drugs. They invented long hair, going to India, having a guru, round glasses, solo careers, beards, press conferences, divisive girlfriends, writing your own songs, funny drummers. They invented the idea of assembling a global mass audience and then challenging, disappointing, confusing this audience. As far as the rest of the planet is concerned, they invented England.
A few of the more specific things I learned were:
1. For a while Stanley Kubrick was planning on making a movie version of Lord of the Rings with Paul as Frodo, Ringo as Sam, and John as Gollum. George was to be Gandalf.
2. When the cops raided Keith Richards’s mansion in 1967 and found cocaine, they threw it away because they had never seen it before and didn’t know what it was.
3. When Paul McCartney played an acetate of “Tomorrow Never Knows” for Bob Dylan, Dylan’s response was “Oh, I get it. You don’t want to be cute anymore.”
4. The French title for “A Hard Day’s Night” was Quatre Garcons Dans Le Vent, which translates roughly as “Four Boys in the Wind.”
The book is funny too:
I always loved this sentence in Our Bodies, Ourselves, the Eighties edition I had in college: “The previous edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves included a brief section on astrological birth control, which just doesn’t work.” So much going on in that sentence, dispatched with no drama. Maybe a shade of irony, but no hand-wringing — just a change of mind announced as efficiently and discreetly and decisively as possible.
Paul has a compulsive need to feed his enemies all the ammunition they could want. The software of “don’t take the bait” was never installed in his system. No celebrity has ever been easier to goad into gaffes. I love that.
As Lennon snapped in 1980, after getting asked one too many times if they [he and Paul] still spoke, “He’s got 25 kids and about 20,000,000 records out. How can he spend time talking? He’s always working.”
On the revisionist upswing in this book are Rubber Soul, “I’m so Tired,” “It Won’t Be Long,” and John Lennon’s “God.” On the revisionist downswing is Let It Be and Paul McCartney’s “My Love.”
Not for the unconverted, but I’m glad to see people writing books with me as the intended audience. Here is a quite insightful review, in which Chris Taylor writes: “…it may be the first book to encompass the entire Beatlegeist. If aliens land tomorrow, and demand to know why we keep on pumping this particular brand of music into space, this is the first book you would hand them.”
I loved The Dispossessed as a kid, though The Left Hand of Darkness was considered the best of her novels.
I am about to read The Word for World Is Forest. The idea of space travel privileging homosexuality really struck me as a child. Perfectly practical and nifty idea. Why shouldn’t there be something that gay people are more suited for?
That is interesting.
Reproduction in space travel is a really bad idea. So gay people are the way to go.
The interview is interesting throughout.
Here is Rufus Wainwright:
What’s the biggest financial mistake you’ve made?
Signing a publishing deal years ago and asking them to throw in a piano. I thought they were gifting me a piano, when in fact I was just paying for the piano. I was confused by the big leagues—financially, it was a no-man’s land. That happens to most musicians. They get screwed by the industry. It’s a rite of passage. Don’t ask for a piano!
Here is Lee Daniels:
What do you wish you’d known about money before getting into showbiz?
That half of it goes directly to the government. And another 20 percent goes to your representatives, so that’s 70 percent of your income right there. You’d better make some money, honey! You’ve got to put $15 of that $30 away for your retirement.
Is that what you did?
No, of course not! That was the learning experience. It took me 34 years to find that out!
It is striking that none of them refer to “The d word,” namely diversification. (Priyanka Chopra does mention she bought land in Goa and Mumbai, and that it worked out very well for her.) Though you also have to wonder if that is not part of the reason why they rose to the top of their respective crafts. Rather than setting for a sufficiently happy and complacent normal existence, perhaps many kept doubling down on what might have been fundamentally unsound bets.
Here is the full piece from Bloomberg.
Marco Bresba emails me:
I loved your post on how Food has displaced Music in pop culture (March 29)
I’ve been thinking about the topic for years, and I believe complacency is pertinent.
Musical taste (like one’s taste in wine, food, books, etc.) provides a measure of social currency. It’s a way into a clique you want to join but admittance requires work.
Music no longer provides much of an effort barrier. Mention the most obscure band and I can become an expert in a few hours.
This was not always the case. Rewind to 1985: a classmate mocks me with “I bet you never heard of The Smiths.” He’s right. How do I get up to speed and become cool?
None of my radio stations play the Smiths. One channel teases me with a 3-hour alternative block every Sunday. The cool indie store is a bus ride away. And their inventory is spotty. The good stuff is imported form the UK. A domestic compilation is rumored for next year. Until then, would I be interested in the latest Cure single? They have one copy left. Only $9.99. I pick up the NME instead.
I hit a bunch of used record stores. Every second day. Two weeks later, I find one of the Smiths’ less popular singles. At this rate, I’ll be a fan by the time I graduate high school.
In our age of convenience, food still requires long term planning. At least the stuff foodies value. Will anyone care if I order Massaman Curry on Uber Eats? No. In order to become an elite foodie, I have to leave the house. I must shed my complacency in various ways:
- I accept a 90 mins line-up to nab a seat at a Celebrity Chef Pop Up.
- I have to befriend an annoying waiter at a hipster party just to find out how to secretly order raw pork at a suburban joint 45 mins away.
- I worry I don’t have enough referrals to get invited to the newest alternative supper club.
- I depend on the cheesemonger that only works on Saturdays to point out the best seasonal stinky varieties.
- I stay up till midnight that one night Pied de Cochon accepts resos for their Sugar Shack months away.
- I scold myself for not planning my Italian trip a year in advance – my bucket list meal at Osteria Francescana now in jeopardy.
In addition to the reasons you mentioned, food obsession will always hold currency because it still requires plenty of legwork. Music just needs an internet connection.
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, and here is part of the discussion of food:
Restaurants are increasingly an organizing and revitalizing force in our cities, and eating out has continued to rise as a means of socializing. America’s educated professional class may be out of touch with sports and tired of discussing the weather, and so trading information about new or favorite restaurants, or recipes and ingredients, has become one of the new all-purpose topics of conversation. Food is a relatively gender-neutral topic, and furthermore immigrant newcomers can be immediately proud of what they know and have eaten.
…Music made us get up and dance, or occasionally throw a rock. Food, especially if combined with wine, encourages a state of satiety and repose. Most conversation about food is studiously nonpolitical and removed from controversial social issues. There is a layer of left-wing critique of food corporations, genetic modification and food-associated pollution, but its impact on broader American culture has been marginal. These days, it could be said that food is the opiate of the educated classes. Anecdotally, I observe that the contemporary preoccupation with a particular kind of food fanciness and diversity has penetrated black communities less, and those are also the groups where music might in some cases remain politically important.
Otherwise, the contemporary food world grants diners the ability to cite a multicultural allegiance without controversy. One can mention a taste for Senegalese food, and win credibility for sophistication and worldliness, as well as knowledge of Africa. At the same time, one isn’t pinned down to having to defend any other specific feature of Senegalese culture. Maffa — usually a meat in peanut and tomato sauce — isn’t that controversial or revolutionary as a concept.
The current culinary touchstone is the foodie or TV host who “eats everything,” from pig snouts to worms to scorpions. Cannibalism aside, the list of what has been consumed on television is now so long it’s hard to shock viewers (not only do some insects taste like potato chips, but in some dining circles consuming potato chips is arguably the more rebellious act). The more prosaic truth, however, is that eating everything is not much of a revolution. If anything, historical resonance has been achieved by people who refused to eat certain foods, whether the underlying doctrine was vegetarianism, Jainism, Judaism or Islam.
There is much more of interest, including the take on music, at the link.
The last time I was in Ireland I wasn’t blogging yet. What riches lie here, let’s give it a start:
1. Poetry: I pick Joyce’s Ulysses, then Yeats and also Seamus Heaney, especially if the word “bog” appears in the poem. A good collection is The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, edited by Patrick Crotty. Beyond the ranks of the super-famous, you might try Louis MacNeice, from the Auden Group, or perhaps Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, who writes in Gaelic but has been translated by other superb Irish poets into English..
2. Novel/literature: Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels. One of the very very best books for social science too, and one of my favorite books period. After Joyce, there is also Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Lord Dunsany, John Banville (The Untouchable), William Trevor, and Elizabeth Bowen. Iris Murdoch was born in Ireland, but does she count? More recently I have enjoyed Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Eimear McBride, Claire Louise-Bennett, with Mike McCormack in my pile to read soon. Roddy Doyle is probably good, but I don’t find him so readable. Colum McCann somehow isn’t Irish enough for me, but many enjoy his work. Can the Anglo-Irish Oliver Goldsmith count? His Citizen of the World remains a neglected work. The recently published volumes of Samuel Beckett’s correspondence have received rave reviews and I hope to read through them this summer. Whew! And for a country of such a small population.
3. Classical music: Hmm…we hit a roadblock here. I don’t love John Field, so I have to call this category a fail. I can’t offhand think of many first-rate Irish classical performers, can you? James Galway?
4. Popular music: My Bloody Valentine, Loveless. Certainly my favorite album post-1970s, and possibly my favorite of all time. When the Irish do something well, they do it really really well. Then there is Van Morrison, Them, Bono and U2, Rory Gallagher, Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats, The Pogues, The Cranberries, and Sinead O’Connor, among others. I confess to having an inordinate weakness for Gilbert O’Sullivan. Traditional Irish music would need a post of its own, but it has never commanded much of my attention.
5. Painter: Francis Bacon is the obvious and probably correct choice, but I am no longer excited to see his work. I don’t find myself seeing new things in it. Sean Scully wins runner-up. This is a slightly weak category, at least relative to some of the others.
6. Political philosopher: Edmund Burke, who looks better all the time, I am sorry to say.
8. Classical economist: Mountifort Longfield and Isaac Butt both had better understandings of supply and demand and marginalism, before the marginal revolution, than almost any other economists except for a few of the French.
9. Theologian: C.S. Lewis, you could list him under fiction as well. Here is a debate over whether he is British or Irish. Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia covers Lewis, one of my favorite books from the last decade.
10. Silicon Valley entrepreneur: Patrick Collison (duh), of Stripe and Atlas, here is his superb podcast with Ezra Klein. Here is further information on the pathbreaking Stripe Atlas project.
11. Movie: There are plenty I don’t like so much, such as My Left Foot, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Waking Ned, and The Commitments. Most people consider those pretty good. I think I’ll opt for The Crying Game and also In the Name of the Father.
12: Movie, set in: Other than the movies listed above, there is Odd Man Out (quite good), The Quiet Man, and The Secret of Roan Inish, but my clear first choice is the still-underrated masterpiece Barry Lyndon.
The bottom line: The strengths are quite amazing, and that’s without adjusting for population.
What makes one song, TV show, or consumer product a hit, and the other not? Derek’s new book is probably the very best exploration of this question. Perhaps not surprisingly, I interpret much of his answer in terms of complacency: people want something that appears a bit different, but actually is deeply conservative and keeps them running in place (my take, not exactly his). In any case, what is the right blend of new and old to captivate an audience?
In the last two weeks I’ve heard the new George Harrison box set mentioned so often on channel 26 Sirius satellite radio — accompanied by the playing of Harrison songs — that I’ve concluded some form of payola is going on. In its early days, satellite radio was critical of the mainstream radio stations for this practice, but now it’s jumped on board. And you know what — no one cares! Even on the internet, there is hardly anyone complaining. Hard to believe, I know, but that is maybe one indirect advantage of the current political polarization.
And why should you complain about satellite radio payola? Without payola, the stations choose songs (directly or indirectly, through dj instructions) to pull in the marginal subscriber. With payola, payments from IP holders become a separate influence on program content. Those payments are most likely to come from IP holders whose products show a high elasticity of demand with respect to advertising. In other words, the influence of producer surplus rises, relative to consumer surplus.
Intuitively, that seems to me “music that a lot of listeners already are familiar with, even if they don’t know that a new boxed set just has been released” is how that category translates into satellite radio circa 2017. Or, in other words, George Harrison.
Perhaps the most underrated George Harrison song is “You.”
Addendum: Interestingly, payola in earlier parts of the 20th century seemed to favor music for the young, black music, and new, previously undiscovered artists. It’s worth thinking through why this has changed. For 1950-2000, there is no “marginal subscriber to radio” the way there is for satellite radio, rather most listeners are in the relevant network. Furthermore, today’s satellite radio listeners are I believe considerably older and somewhat wealthier than the typical radio listener, either now or earlier. When more or less everyone was on the “free radio network,” the high elasticity of profits with respect to advertising was for the artists who otherwise wouldn’t get much exposure. In contrast, today it is for “golden oldies,” where the taste for the product already is there but information about availability may be lacking.
But if Book IV fires a warning shot across the bow, Books V and VIII launch an all-out musical assault on convention. For the first time an instrumental basso continuo part appears, providing continuity that allows voices to falter, stop altogether or even sing alone. Suddenly, musical emotion is less a matter of symbolism than of imitation; sighs, moans and shouts of joy can all be rendered truthfully, with each voice unshackled from its fellows. Harmonically, too, things are very different. The knife-twisting dissonances that famously angered the theorist Artusi in ‘Cruda Amarilli’ (‘A tumult of sounds, a confusion of absurdities, an assemblage of imperfections’) turn the poem’s cardboard lover into something of flesh and blood, someone whose thoughts alternately gallop and linger, whose emotions ebb and flow naturally, if unpredictably.
Book VIII is the greatest and widest-ranging volume of secular music of its age — perhaps of any. Composed over a 30-year span, the madrigals tackle not only the erotic charge of love and sexuality, but also for the first time its warring conflicts — the restlessness, agitation and rage that go hand in hand with its pleasures. No single work can represent such a collection, but perhaps the ‘Lamento della Ninfa’ comes closest; if you listen to just one work, make it this one.
1. A Night at the Opera – Queen
2. Queen – Queen
3. Parachutes – Coldplay
In Hawaii it is Bob Marley, AC/DC in Idaho, Alanis Morrisette in Iowa and Maine, Revolver and Coltrane in NY, Michael Jackson in Utah, and the Rolling Stones’ Goat’s Head Soup does surprisingly well. Coldplay, Fleetwood Mac, and Arctic Monkeys all have multiple placements. Here is the link, based on eBay data.
I thought this was one of the very best of the conversations, Jhumpa responded consistently with brilliance and grace. Here is the link to the transcript, podcast, and video versions. In addition to discussing her books, we covered Rhode Island, Elena Ferrante, book covers, Bengal and Kolkaata and Bengali literature, immigrant identity, writing as problem solving, Italian authors, writing and reading across different languages, Indian classical music, architectural influences including Palladianism, and much more. Here is one excerpt:
TYLER COWEN: …You’ve written a great deal about not having a native country, about not having a language of your own that’s clearly yours, or even a culture. Having read or reread all of your work and surrounding works, and if I think, “How do I frame you?” I would say I think of you as a Rhode Islander because that’s where you grew up. You were born in England but came here when you were three, grew up in Rhode Island. How would you react to that?
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Uncomfortably.
LAHIRI: I mean, with all due respect. It’s true.
LAHIRI: Well, I think what was helpful about it is that it opened up the setting of The Lowland, which is set in part in Rhode Island, but it’s the first of my books in which I can actually mention Rhode Island by its name. Whereas the other books, the preceding books, are set in these sort of fake Rhode Island slash Massachusetts, this area, this terrain that really is Rhode Island, just to boil it down. But I couldn’t mention it. I couldn’t name it as such. And I think that’s telling.
It was saying something, the fact that in the earlier books I was writing about the ocean. I was writing about this small campus, this little town, and describing these settings that I knew very well, the settings I had grown up in, but I couldn’t come out and say that it was Rhode Island. I kept calling it some suburb of Boston. So I think the writing of that piece unlocked something. Then in The Lowland, they’re in Rhode Island, and I don’t pretend anymore.
COWEN: If you compare Interpreter of Maladies to your other short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, do you think of the latter, more recent work as being more about reconciliation and there’s a greater role for children or families in at least some of the stories? Or do you think, overall, your fiction with time is moving in the direction of Hardy and becoming darker?
LAHIRI: I think it’s becoming darker and I think that’s usually the case as we get older, right?
Jhumpa on Kolkaata:
…it’s a city that believes in its poets, that believes in its politics, believes in humanity in some sense. And life is so extreme there, in so many ways. People are put to the test, and you see life being put to the test constantly around you. There’s nothing you can really accept easily or take for granted about yourself or about the universe if you’ve been there. It’s a jolt to your consciousness, but a fundamental one, an essential one, to shake us out of this, whatever takes over, if you protect yourself.
Do read (or listen to) the whole thing. Jhumpa’s last two books are excellent and highly underrated, both were written in Italian (!) and then translated. One is on writing and reading in a foreign language, the other is on book covers.
I found it to be a remarkably deep year for recordings, against all economic odds. I could easily go twenty deep with little loss of quality, but these are the few that stood out for me:
The Complete Songs of Virgil Thomson for Voice and Piano, by the Florestan Recital Project. This release wins the prize for “music I didn’t really know existed before.” Here is one stellar review.
Inspired by Brahms: Music for Horn Trio, including works by Ewazen, Kellogg, and Brahms. After German Requiem, the Horn Trio is perhaps my favorite work by Brahms.
Brahms Lieder and Liebeslieder Waltzes, by Andrea Rose, Thomas Quasthoff, et.al. Finally a rendition as good as the classic Vronsky/Babin recording.
Domenico Scarlatti Sonatas, by Angela Hewitt. This is the recording I feel most comfortable recommending to most of you.
Rêve d’un Enfant, works by Franck, Ravel, and Ysaÿe, by Sophie Rosa and Benjamin Powell, the Franck is especially fine.
…briskly paced, crisp, bristling attacks – it is also unlike anyone else’s take on the great opera. It isn’t weird or eccentric; everything feels just right. What separates it from the crowd is the depth of attention which is applied to every detail, the profoundly imaginative shaping of each and every phrase, and the extraordinary, razor-sharp precision of the ensemble playing. The stuff, in other words, that everyone else would like to do, but doesn’t know how. The singing, in accordance with Currentzis’s beliefs – and others in the HIPP world – is a touch “lighter” than usual: less “operatic”, more “natural”, if there is such a thing. All the roles are superbly sung (including a best-ever Don Ottavio) and the recording is rich, warm and finely detailed.
That’s the one that wins my top prize.
Also new on my discovery list were the string quartets of Ben Johnston and also Robert Simpson, although these were not generally new recordings. I listened to plenty of Haydn, rediscovered Idomeneo, for some reason was a bit bored by Beethoven, and rued the passing of Pierre Boulez.
Yup, I’m here. I made this list before setting off:
1. Popular music: Few from any country come close to Fela Kuti, the main question is how many you should buy, not which ones. Most of them! On the CD medium, that old series of “two albums on one CD” was the best way to consume Fela. On streaming, you can probably just let it rip. And rip. And rip. Other favorites are King Sunny Ade and I.K. Dairo, I don’t love Fema Kuti. You also might try Nigerian psychedelic funk rock from the late 60s and early 70s, for instance found here. Most of all, there are thousands of wonderful local performers in Nigeria, you can watch a few of them on the Netflix documentary on the Nigerian music scene, titled Konkombe, recommended and only an hour long.
There is now a good deal of hit Nigerian and Nigerian-American music, such as Wizkid. It is enjoyable but does not compare to Fela in terms of staying power.
2. Basketball player: The Dream is one of my three or four favorite players of all time. My favorite Hakeem was watching him pick apart David Robinson play after play after play…see the final clip on the immediately preceding link.
3. Novel: Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. Honorable mentions go to Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri, and my colleague Helon Habila. There are also the Nigerian-American writers, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Teju Cole is worth reading, including his non-fiction.
4. Movie: Well, I’ve seen parts of some of them, and you should at least sample some Nollywood if you haven’t already. It’s kinetic. The documentary “Nollywood Babylon” (Netflix) gives you some background. As for “Movie, set in,” I draw a blank. “Album, set in and recorded in” would be Band on the Run, Paul McCartney and Wings.
5. Actor: Chiwetal Ejiofor, he starred in “Twelve Years a Slave,” and is from a Nigerian family in Britain.
6. Presidential name: Goodluck Jonathan.
7. Artist: Prince Twins Seven Seven, or more formally Prince Taiwo Olaniyi Wyewale-Toyeje Oyekale Osuntoki. He received his nickname because he was the only surviving child from seven distinct sets of twins.
8. Food dish: At least for now I have to say jollof rice, a precursor dish to jambalaya, further reports to come however!
The bottom line: Lots of talent here, plenty more on the way.
That is by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, published this November, a great book, could it be the very best book on the charm and importance of the Caribbean? Not the Caribbean of the cruise, but rather the real cultural Caribbean as found in Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, and Trinidad. The Caribbean was open, globalized, multiracial, vulnerable, and deindustrialized before it was “cool” to be so, and so it stands as a warning to us all. Yet so few seem to care. The Caribbean cultural blossoming of the 20th century remains one of the most remarkable yet understudied sagas, but this book, among its other historical virtues, gives you a very good look under the hood.
Did you know that in the 1930s Cuba received more visitors from the U.S. than did Canada?
This is one of the very best non-fiction books of this year, and its depth of knowledge and understanding truly impressed me. Just to prod your memories here is the broader list.
If I were to make a list of the top groups/performers during the critical 1964-1973 period, no doubt the Stones would make the top five handily, perhaps the top three. They also belong to that select tier with more than six excellent and important albums. They probably have created more great and memorable riffs than any other rock and roll group, ever.
So I don’t think I am unappreciative. My favorite cuts are probably the acoustic country songs on “Beggars Banquet’ and “Let It Bleed,” plus the riff-based songs from the mid- to late-1960s, such as “Under My Thumb” or “19th Nervous Breakdown.”
Still, I have not heard anything new in a Rolling Stones song for more than twenty years. I don’t mean that their later work is worse (though it is, much, for forty plus years running), rather I don’t hear anything new in their very best work and thus repeated re-listening is a waste of time. I don’t enjoy it.
In contrast, I’ve been listening to Jimi Hendrix for about forty years and still hear new bits in his songs most of the time. I am almost always excited to hear this work again.
I have two other objections. First, most (all?) of their blues covers are worse than the originals (the Beatles’ “Money” and “You Really Got a Hold On Me” and “Long Tall Sally” are all improvements, in contrast, not to mention John Lennon’s “Be Bop a Lula” or Hendrix’s “Hey Joe”). Second, you don’t have to invoke political correctness to feel that a lot of the early misogyny has worn thin and aged poorly.
So the Stones are boring, mostly, though still excellent in the abstract. It’s hard to imagine classic rock and roll, or the 1960s, without them. But in terms of lasting overall aesthetic merit they are just a wee bit closer to The Who than you might like to think.