21 November 2009

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Cornflakes With John Lennon
and Other Tales From A Rock 'N Roll Life
by Robert Hilburn
Rodale, 280 pages

For a musical genre that has only been in cultural focus for about 50 years, rock 'n roll has produced some notable books, from definitive biographies (Peter Guralnick's dual volume on Elvis, Last Train To Memphis and Careless Love) to rock as relevant sociology (Mystery Train by Greil Marcus) to collections of the advent of rock criticism (Lester Bangs' Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung). And while first person accounts of "rock as it happened" are becoming increasingly less rare, especially as the survivors reach their golden years, witnesses of a more dispassionate kind do not come along as often.

Enter Robert Hilburn, the chief music critic for the Los Angeles Times for over thirty years. Though certainly a fluid writer, one would expect Cornflakes With John Lennon to predictably be a compilation of his best columns and features published over the years. Instead, we are rewarded with a touching memoir of not only his unique relationships with the likes of Bob Dylan, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen, as well as Lennon, but the author's personal chronology of a life that parallels the birth of rock 'n roll to the present.

As a young boy growing up in the deep south, Hilburn recalls the wonderful sounds of Hank Williams and black blues artists that filled the air via the phonograph and radio. The family then moves to Southern California, and we get a first person account of attending the movie Blackboard Jungle, with teens literally dancing in the aisles to "Rock Around The Clock" by Bill Haley and His Comets during the opening credits. Something different was in the air, and Hilburn found it one day listening to XERB, a powerful AM radio station broadcasting across the border in Mexico: the Big Bang of Rock, Elvis Presley. Although over the years he would pursue personal audiences with "The King" to no avail, and write sadly of his declining years, Hilburn's enduring love of the artist would create his thesis for Cornflakes: "What linked Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, the Beatles and Bob Dylan was the old-fashioned American notion that each individual can make a difference, whether you are a truck driver from Memphis or a blind piano player from southwest Georgia. Rock 'n roll is the promise of a better day, and the best artists spread that message with an almost missionary zeal. I've always believed in that liberating message, which is probably why I respond most to artists who fight to keep the promise alive."

Because of his long familiarity with - and love of- country music, Hilburn works his way into the Times, first as a stringer, then as a full-time reporter. His big break comes as the only writer accompanying Johnny Cash for his now legendary performance at Folsom Prison in 1968. An early acquaintanceship with Kris Kristofferson leads to a famous interlude with Janis Joplin, and Hilburn convinces his editors that features on rock should be regular items in the newspaper.

The author straddles a fine line through the years between journalistic objectivity and championing the "next big thing." Just as Robert Shelton trumpeted the arrival of a young folk singer named Dylan in 1961 in the New York Times, Hilburn's excitement with the initial U.S. shows at L.A.'s Troubadour club of Elton John propels the singer-songwriter's career.

The memoir takes off from there and we are treated to a travelogue of Hilburn's favorites: John Prine, Randy Newman, Springsteen, U2 and Kurt Cobain. And while these artists make for more than interesting reading, the most gripping passages involve his various encounters with the post-Beatles John Lennon and post-motorcycle accident Bob Dylan.

We get a front row seat at Lennon's "lost weekend," the months in L.A. he spent usually in the besotted company of Harry Nilsson and producer Phil Spector (himself the subject of frightening and sad reminiscence of Hilburn). Their mutual love for Elvis will prove to be the glue that cements the relationship between newspaperman and artist, and gives us the sweet story behind the book's title: Lennon's habit of treating himself to corn flakes doused in real cream, staples rarely available in the rationed Liverpool of his youth. Hilburn spends significant time with Lennon during the genesis and recording of Double Fantasy. And sadly, he is the first writer to spend time with Ono in the initial hours following Lennon's murder.

Dylan, predictably, is a tougher get. Hilburn's initial approaches during the huge "comeback" tour with The Band in the early 70's are met with the famous Dylan indifference, bordering on mockery. But the author plows ahead, and with an open mind is granted the first audience with the singer after his immersion into Christian thought and beliefs. Hilburn clearly recognized the epic shadow that Dylan continued to cast on popular music despite the gyrations of popular opinion. And his faith in Dylan's missionary zeal with varying musical genres is rewarded with Dylan's renaissance in the 90's and into the 00's. Ironically, perhaps the most fascinating section of Cornflakes turns out to be the reprinting of an extended article Hilburn penned for the Times a couple of years ago in which Dylan talks for the first time at length about the songwriting process.

While Cornflakes sometimes devolves into cloying speech (patting himself on the back for supposedly changing Bono's early stage presence or providing Dylan with a set list of favorites for a concert in Israel), Hilburn keeps his eye on the initial premise and continues to hope (against hope?) for a next generation of rock saviors, casting his ballot for present day performers Jack White and Conor Oberst.

But it is his continued passion as a fan and his ability to bring the humanity of the famous to the written page that serve this memoir best.

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