Saturday, August 02, 2008

Book Review: Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards - Memoirs of a Rock 'N' Roll Survivor by Al Kooper

Originally published in that most holy of musical years, 1977, updated and republished in the late 1990s, and now again revised in 2008 with an additional chapter, Al Kooper’s Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs of a Rock ‘N’ Roll Survivor remains one of the most honest, hilarious, and in many ways poignant entries in the bloated wasteland of the music autobiography genre.

Kooper is occasionally described as the “Forrest Gump of Music.” Besides making for lazy journalism, it’s not a particularly accurate or flattering depiction. Gump was an out and out moron who coincidentally happened to experience many of the key events of modern America; anything that happened to him was by pure accident and he never really understood the significance of those events. Kooper is quite different. Very intelligent and ambitious despite the laid-back persona he sometimes paints of himself in this biography, through determination and the occasional hustle he managed to maintain one of the most remarkable careers in music.

Of course one of the big draws in Kooper’s book is his interaction with Bob Dylan, particularly the hipster mid-1960s version. Recounting how being asked to play with Dylan was like “getting backstage passes to the fourth day of creation,” Kooper describes how he essentially tricked his way into playing organ on “Like a Rolling Stone.” A novice (at best) keyboardist at the time, his rudimentary organ playing is one of the song’s most recognizable features. The incident was a key moment in launching Kooper’s extremely varied career, which has included playing on Blonde on Blonde, founding the first incarnation of The Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears, working as an A&R man, and producing that bastion of redneck music, Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Kooper also points out many of the inaccuracies that have seeped into musical lore; of note is his assertion of why the “Brill Building Sound” is a misnomer. However, some of Kooper’s claims are still open to debate. He maintains that people booed at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival because the set was so short (clocking in at around 15 minutes), not because of any folkie revolt against Dylan going electric. Yet bootlegs of the Newport performance don’t support this assertion; the booing occurs throughout the songs, from the start of Dylan’s performance. At that point no one in the crowd knew how long or short Dylan and the band would play. But, hell, as Kooper points out, he was there.

Backstage Passes is perhaps primarily considered a book of humorous musical anecdotes, which Kooper describes with great comedic effect. Certainly there are plenty of those, with stories ranging from the usual hotel hijinks and horizontal tangos favored by musicians on the road to stories of a cohort defecating on a poor music lackey’s desk. A veritable who’s who of music history ducks in and out of many of these stories: from Miles Davis allegedly threatening Kooper for simply (and unknowingly) talking to Davis’ wife to his interactions with pre-faces-like-a-catcher’s-mitt Rolling Stones, Kooper brings a definite comedian’s touch as he remembers them.

Yet what’s most striking upon rereading Backstage Passes are the poignant and emotional moments that Kooper describes with no pretenses or excuses. Though not exactly as explicit as Junkie, the passages in which Kooper addresses his early 1970s addiction to painkillers are among the most moving of the entire memoir. Likewise, a real sense of loss can be felt as Kooper offers a sincere tribute to his deceased friend, blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield. Finding himself recording with George Harrison at the time of John Lennon’s death, Kooper conveys the shock everyone, especially Harrison, felt, without coming across like a sleazy tabloid goon.

Kooper’s book also succeeds because he rarely comes across like a pampered rock star, even if he does tend to sometimes use the book to settle old scores or to grouse about financial issues fairly often at times. He never gets overly philosophical or pedantic (like Bruce Thomas in The Big Wheel). He never portrays himself as some sort of misunderstood, suffering existentialist (like Bruce Thomas in The Big Wheel). And though some stories probably have the benefit of hindsight and the artistic license of exaggeration, Kooper doesn’t make those stories so outlandish as to be unbelievable (like Bruce Thomas in… you get the point).

Although the chapter that covers 1998-2007 might not be enough to warrant another purchase of the book for those who own a previous edition, Backstage Passes is still one of the best music memoirs written. Kooper’s lived a pretty remarkable life; between releasing his own various albums, touring with musical giants, and producing some other ones, there’s plenty of good material to write out. That he put it all to paper is still a treat for any music fan.

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