Highway 61 Revisited, by Mark Polizzotti

By pretty much unanimous consent, the 33 1/3 Series of books about classic albums is pretty spotty. That said, I’ve only read four of them and enjoyed them all.

Bill Janovitz’s in-depth analysis of Exile On Main St. was the best of the bunch, and will be tough to beat. However, this look at Bob Dylan’s masterwork, Highway 61 Revisited by Mark Polizzotti, isn’t too far off that mark.

The premise of these short books (most are under 150 pages) is not to provide behind-the-scenes glimpses of recording, or to expose anything new. These books are really little more than comprehensive reviews of the album in question. Everything from the cover art to the individual songs is dissected. In some ways, these books are the literary equivalent of the great Classic Albums series of DVDs.

For Highway 61, the author examines not only the songs that appear on the album, but also the two songs that were recorded at the same time but released only as singles (the vicious “Positively 4th Street” and the equally nasty “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”). Bob’s electric machine-gunning of the folk and toke crowd at Newport is also discussed.

All of the legends of the recording are written about in depth…how Al Kooper slipped into the studio as a guest and sat behind the organ and ended up creating the organ sound that defined the mid-Sixties music scene; how Dylan hired one of the best blues guitar players in the world to play on the album only to tell him that he wasn’t allowed to play “any of that B.B. King shit”; how Dylan played the original acetate version of the album featuring different songs in a different order for the Beatles, and then hurriedly changed it when the Fabs didn’t think it was all that good.

The lyrics…those magnificent, complex, stream of consciousness lyrics…are also discussed in depth, and placed into their proper place in the canon of folk music. Dylan’s folk music was an older, surreal brand of American music, murder ballads, beat poetry, and fantasy. He was never a part of the “I gave my love a cherry” crowd, and even his most bizarre lyrics sit squarely inside the older tradition from whence he came.

Think of this book, and the others I’ve read in the series (Exile On Main St., The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, and Murmur) as being lengthy magazine articles that simply tell the story of a classic album, and there is much to enjoy here. If you’re looking for information about guitar pedals, stories of wretched drug excess, and wholesale groupie shenanigans, then stick to quickie biographies by hack writers. The 33 1/3 Series of books are written by fans about their favorite albums. As such, they speak to the fan in me that loves to sit up all night talking about music with friends.

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Moon: The Life And Death Of A Rock Legend, by Tony Fletcher

I’m about to wrap up reading Moon: The Life And Death of A Rock Legend, Tony Fletcher’s biography of Keith Moon. This kind of book always brings out somewhat mixed feelings in me. I always enjoy reading about music and musicians, and Keith was certainly the most influential rock drummer who ever held the sticks. Great drummers like John Bonham and Dave Grohl are impossible to imagine without Moonie blazing the trail.

Yet at the same time I am more aware than ever of the promise and talent that was wasted. Reading of Moonie’s often hilarious exploits can make you laugh, but there’s a sadness underpinning the laughter because the exploits are so often fueled by an absolutely insane intake of drugs and alcohol and it was these vices that killed him in the end.

Why should it matter to me? I didn’t know Keith. Never met him. He never heard of me. I was only 14 when he died and the only Who albums I owned at that time were By Numbers and Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy. But the soundtrack of my adolesence is largely provided by The Who. Over the next few years as I traveled the halls of high school, it would be The Who, among others, who I would keep going back to. I loved Who’s Next…who didn’t? But hearing Quadrophenia (on an 8-track tape, kiddies) blew my doors off. By the time high school ended I had memorized every note on every album, from The Who Sings My Generation to Face Dances. Townshend was, to me, even cooler than Keith Richards because he was not only such a captivating presence on stage but he was also so frickin’ smart. My old friend JT drooled over every note John Entwistle played. We all liked Roger, the mic swinging rock god.

But above all, it was Moonie. The powerhouse engine that propelled this beast forward. Listening to him on Live at Leeds and Quadrophenia was like hearing a man with eight arms playing a 50-piece drum kit. How on earth did he do that and still be so…musical? Naysayers may point to the fact that Moon was not the world’s best timekeeper, but to a teenage boy with raging hormones and a perpetual hard-on, and no clear idea what to do with either, I could never be satisfied with a timekeeper. I loved Kenney Jones in the Faces, but when he joined the Who it was obvious to everyone within earshot (except, apparently, Pete Townshend) that it was a poor choice. But yes, Kenney sure could keep time with the best of them. That was the key. The Who was us, and we were the Who and Moonie was the fire raging inside of every teenage boy…uncontrollable, blazing hot, anarchic, confusion incarnate. Jones was a very good drummer.

But reading Fletcher’s book, the adult version of me is struck by the notion that I would love to be in the bar watching Moon carry on, as long as he stayed far away from me. And knowing that he was obsessively jealous and abusive to the women in his life doesn’t sweeten the picture.

Moon comes across as a real life Jekyll and Hyde. In fact, Entwistle’s song “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was written about the drummer. Sober, he was sweet and charming and generous to a fault, a kind and caring man who would do anything for anybody. Drunk or high, he could alternate between being an over-the-top, laugh-a-minute clown or an abusive, nasty prick. And he was mostly drunk or high. Towards the end of his life, the laugh-a-minute clown became harder to find as the abusive prick began to take over. It is the same story as Jim Morrison, though spread out over a longer period.

So my teenage dreams of all the fun Moonie was having are tempered with the adult reality that Keith Moon the man was little more than a scared little boy who hid his insecurities behind walls of practical jokes and under oceans of brandy. Many illusions are shattered in this book. A lot of Keith Moon’s life was self-serving, self-perpetuated mythology and the purpose of a good bio, and Moon is one, is to report the myth, and then report the truth.

But because I did not know him, I can compartmentalize somewhat. I can deplore the man who beat his wife. I can laugh at the man who, with the actor Oliver Reed, walked naked into the restaurant at breakfast time and ordered brandy in an uppercrust British accent (which was, itself, a put-on to hide his working class roots). I can admire and laugh at his genuine wit…it wasn’t all practical jokes. Moon possessed a razor sharp wit and verbal skills. But for me the one thing that still remains is the drumming. Despite the madness, and maybe because of it to some degree, Moon still sounds to me like an eight-armed man on a 50-piece kit. I still shake my head and smile, or drop my jaw in surprise and awe, at some particularly outrageous fill.

Keith Moon may not have been a great man, but he was the greatest drummer rock music’s ever seen. He smashed every rule of drumming that existed and proved, like Hendrix did with the guitar, that there were no limits as long as there was imagination.

Keith Moon, dead at 32. R.I.P.