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Music & Words: A Review of Some Classic Rock Books

By Brian L. Knight.


With record companies such as Columbia/Legacy, Sundazed, and Rhino, the music of the 1960s is alive and well.  Through these company’s extensive reissues, many long lost recordings are available to both returning listeners and youthful adventurers.  For those who want to learn a little about the stories behind the music, there is also a wealth of books that cover the exciting 1960s music era. 


Two books cover the lives of two legendary guitarists.  The first book is Michael Bloomfield: If You Love These Blues (Miller Freeman Books) the other is Go Ahead John: The Music of John McLaughlin(Interlink Books),.  The McLaughlin book was written by Paul Stump who is also the author of a great overview of progressive rock and a biography about Roxy Music while the authors of the Bloomfied book, Jan Mark Wolkin and Bill Keenom, are longtime fans of Bloomfield and the blues in general.


Both John McLaughlin and Mike Bloomfield started off with their musical careers with a penchant for the blues.  Bloomfield made his name by playing with the Paul Butterfield Blue Band while McLaughlin busted out with English legend Alexis Korner.  Bloomfield remained within the Chicago Blues style while McLaughlin left no musical style untouched.  His career covered blues, jazz, fusion, rock & roll, Indian and Mediterranean styles.  Bloomfield met a premature death in 1981 while McLaughlin’s creative drive is alive and well.


If You Love These Blues is a great look into Michael Bloomfield the person.  The book is full of wonderful anecdotes from fellow musicians, family members, and childhood friends.  In contrast, Go Ahead John is a precise look into the music of the great guitarist and it has less to do with his personal life.  Go Ahead John ultimately serves as a detailed McLaughlin discography but it offers minimal glimpses of the man behind the music.  For a man who achieved ultimate spiritual awakening, jammed with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and Carlos Santana and ultimately, revolutionized the relationship between jazz and rock & roll, Go Ahead John offers little insight to those exact things that made McLaughlin a living legend.


Bloomfield died at the tender age of 37 but within his short career, he made a tremendous impact on the musical world.  Throughout the 1960s and 1970, Bloomfield left his guitar signature on legendary albums such as Al Kooper’s Super Session and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and electrified live audience with his playing in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Electric Flag.  In contrast to Go Ahead John, If You Love These Blues is a great look at Bloomfield the individual, but there is remarkably little about the music that he created.


If the precise histories are a little two detailed and you are looking at some great broad overviews of the era, there is Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators and Eccentric Visionaries of '60s Rock(Miller Freeman) by Richie Unterberger and Rhino's Psychedelic Trip(Miller Freeman) by Alan Bisbort.  Unterberger is a senior editor for the extremely popular and useful All Music Guide to Rock (Miller Freeman) and he is also the author of the book Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll.  Alan Bisbort has written a series of books about the 1960s, California beaches, and a retrospective about the artist Charles Bragg.


Rhino's Psychedelic Trip looks at the music and culture of the 1960s and how the great counter culture movement became integrated into mainstream culture.  Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers is a look at the underground elements of the counter culture.  The book covers a collection of musicians who were counter to the counter-revolution.  While Rhino's Psychedelic Trip covers 1960s icons such as the Grateful Dead, the Doors and the Beatles, Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers covers the music of unheralded musicians such as Giorgio Gomelsky, Kaleidoscope, Dino Valenti, The Fugs, and Richard and Mimi Fariña.  The main point that Unterberger get across is that not only did these musicians slip between the cracks of music history, but that the work was extremely talented an innovative.  Between the two books, the reader is provided with the 1960s in its entirety.  Everything from the psychedelic 1960s effect on the comic book industry to the satirist music of The Bonzo Dog Band.  There are some interesting crossovers – Rhino's Psychedelic Trip  explores the 1960s scenes of both San Francisco and London while Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers provides a look at the lesser-known bands that comprised these scenes such as the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and the Electric Prunes. 


One of the most interesting stories to read in the Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers is  the tale of the Pretty Things, who always lived in the shadow of British bands such as the Who and the Rolling Stones but were also arguably a step ahead of both band in term of rock & roll craziness and music creativity.  These points are strengthened through the tales of Vivian Prince, the Pretty Thing’s drummer who defined rock & roll excess and then, their album SF Sorrow, which predates Tommy as the first rock and roll opera.


Through any one of these four books, the reader will receive a look into the personalities that defined a whole genre of music.  In addition, with both the Bloomfield and the Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers books, the reader also receives an audio CD to make their reading experience that much more enjoyable.