Two new books on the inner workings of popular music are as different as AM and FM radio were in the 1970s.
Prolific rock journalist Richard Crouse’s Who Wrote the Book of Love?
While some of the stories might be familiar to a serious student of pop music, many reveal the roles rock’s hidden players – songwriters, agents, and label heads – had in shaping what later proved irresistible to the listening public.
Much of the book is fascinating reading – like the taming of Little Richard’s original “Tutti Frutti” lyrics (celebrating sodomy) by neophyte female songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie, or label rep Charlie Fach convincing an embarrassed Randy Bachman to include a number intended as a family joke on a BTO album, and later release the tune (“You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”) as a single, which subsequently went gold. But the book suffers occasionally from an overall glibness, an easy way with rock journalism’s clichés (“Rock Legend,” “edgy, power-chord hooks”) and a format that leaves little room for the personal reflections or in-depth analysis that masters of the genre like Greil Marcus or Chet Flippo excel at.
Which is not to fault Crouse, who certainly fulfills the requirements of the book, and whose concise style does lead to a few catchy phrases of his own. Ultimately, the book is engaging, full of tidbits ripe for insertion in party conversation, and doesn’t pretend to be anything but what it is: a gathering of glimpses into the star-making machinery, studio stories, unintentional successes and hidden connections – snapshots of what happened to make the hits. And like an all-hits weekend, you might find yourself caught up in the book without noticing the time going by.
A multi-layered concept album by comparison is Dave Bidini’s new book, On a Cold Road: Tales of Adventure in Canadian Rock. Co-founder and rhythm guitarist for The Rheostatics, Bidini has also hosted CBC radio’s Brave New Waves, and contributed to the Paul Quarrington-edited hockey-fiction anthology Original Six, as well as conducted umpteen interviews for various music papers.
As Bidini relates in the book, he almost gave up music in favour of writing (in 1985, while studying at Dublin’s Trinity College), only to be passionately re-energized by a Stompin’ Tom tape sent to him. Reading Bidini’s well-crafted, personal, and passionate writing in Cold Road, however, it’s our blessing that he has been able to do both.The book weaves together the “verse” of Bidini’s personal musical stories with the “chorus” of voices of 47 Canadian musicians and industry types –from Bruce Cockburn to Tommy Chong, Kim Mitchell, to Richard Flohil. Taking the Rheostatics 1996 cross-Canada tour opening for the Tragically Hip as his narrative framework (dividing chapters by province west to east, with a U.S. detour and two takes on hometown Toronto), Bidini fluidly jumps from personal experience to contributors’ stories on subjects as varied as first and worst gigs, interviews, stadium shows and small town bars, Cancon, drugs, snow, hockey, groupies, fame (or lack thereof), various rock personalities (from Canada and abroad), and musical magic.
Candid, Canadian, incisive, and inspirational, the book manages to cover musical territory as varied as this country in an engaging style. An impressive addition to the equally slim fields of intelligent Canadian rock writing and literary rock memoir, On a Cold Road’s contagious enthusiasm and kitchen-table conversational feel (from contributors as well as Bidini) even left me curious about other bands I previously cared nothing about.
Ultimately, like the Rheostatics’ music itself, Bidini manages to layer and link themes and variations on our country’s musical community, history, and players – famous and obscure – with equal measures of intricate (but unintrusive) craft and gut-honest openness, creating a book rich and ripe with voices that bear repeated listening. You may even want to sing along.