Now Read This: Strange Things Happen: A Life with The Police, Polo, and Pygmies, by Stewart Copeland

I snagged this one at the same time I picked up the Tammy Wynette biography from last week, mainly because, while I’m not the biggest fan of The Police, I could not resist that title. Pygmies? Polo? A rockstar with a (kind of) secret double life? Sign me up!

I am pleased to tell you that I had once again invested wisely, because Stewart Copeland definitely comes through in the hilarious / compelling anecdote department.

In addition to his time with The Police, his adventures as a documentary film maker and his trials and travails amid the ponies, the book also covers his childhood in the Beirut and England (his dad was founding member of the CIA!), his college years in California, his forays into the world of opera and ballet, the period he was in a band with Les Claypool and Trey Anastasio, a little bit about the making of Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out, his work writing movie scores, his stint as a judge on Just The Two Of Us, the many years he’s participated in La Notte Della Taranta, and ever so much more.

The stories are presented chronologically, but as independent anecdotes, so its possible to skip around and jump over times and topics that may not be of interest. That said, I read it straight through, and don’t feel my enjoyment of the work suffered at all.

Some observations: if you are looking for the nitty-gritty day by day (fight by fight?) story of The Police, this is not the book for you. Copeland hopscotches through their history fairly efficiently, assuming a certain amount of reader familiarity with their story and also with his and Sting’s complex and stormy relationship.

Best bit: the part where Copeland describes Sting trying to conduct Copeland’s drumming with subtle but increasingly furious movements of his guitar. And also the part where Copeland observed that, to the venerable members of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Copeland might as well be as Jonas brother, which nearly caused me to snort my tea out of my nose.

Though the part where I had to put the book down because I was laughing too hard to hold it upright was when Copeland was discussing the perils of being a Los Angeles PTA parent, i.e. that it’s possible Gene Simmons will leave you phone messages like – I’m paraphrasing here – Hi, this is Gene Simmons, you know, the one with the tongue?

The non-The Police related stories were excellent too; I definitely want to attend La Notta Della Taranta now, and his descriptions of his forays into the world of fine arts and movie making and scoring – especially pre-digital recording movie scoring – were fascinating.

In summary: A++, grab it if you find it and be prepared to stifle laughter if reading it in a public place.

I leave you with some videos; first, here he is at La Notta Della Taranta in 2003:

This is the first part of his Horse Opera. The rest is on YouTube and it is all totally ridiculous:

This is half an hour of actual opera, specifically, The Tell-Tale Heart which is not ridiculous at all. Or at least not any more ridiculous than opera is supposed to be.

Oysterhead performing on Conan:

And finally, Copeland jamming out with Matt Stone, Taylor Hawkins, and Chris Chaney at the Sacred Grove, his home studio:

Now Read This: Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen, by Jimmy McDonough

When I found this book in the music section of a used book store in Boston, I added it to my pile immediately.

Not because I’m a dedicated fan of Tammy Wynette – my favorite version of Stand By Your Man is the Lyle Lovett cover that was included in the Crying Game – but because she is such an iconic figure in country music, and I felt I should get to know her better.

Plus I’ve been reading a lot of auto/biographies of male rock stars lately, and I felt like I should branch out a little bit.

I may have picked it up out of a sense of duty, but what I got was the best kind of surprise. I loved this book. I honestly did not want to put it down, even though it was largely responsible for having Stand By Your Man stuck in my head on infinite repeat for the better part of a week.

Wynette’s story is a real rollercoaster ride of triumphant commercial success highs (all those #1 songs!) and tragic personal lows (her fifth marriage; being addicted to painkillers for most of her adult life due to extensive physical problems), but what really makes this book great is how much Jimmy McDonough loves her. His enduring affection for his subject melded with stubborn journalistic devotion to the truth – even if it is an ugly truth – is on every page.

I also learned a lot about Nashville, and the way country music used to be made, which, then as now, is very, very different from how rock music is made. McDonough also provides what has to be one of the finer, snarkier descriptions of Nashville ever committed to paper, which is Imagine that you’re at the dry cleaners, they’ve lost your pants, and you’re expecting them to be found. Then imagine you’ve been standing there waiting for forty-seven years.

And yet, as McDonough amply demonstrates, the place is home to so many vibrant characters. For example, George “The Possum” Jones, the country superstar who was the third of Wynette’s five husbands and by all accounts of the love of her life. Theirs was a stormy, dramatic union; they were married in 1969, divorced by 1975, and yet still continued to make beautiful music together for many years afterwards.

On a related note, this book is also a pretty good introduction to George Jones. I learned a lot about The Possum, not least being that his hell-raising days were the factual base One More Last Chance which was a hit for Vince Gill long after Jones had (more or less) settled down.

The one minor warning I would leave for the adventurous and ignorant coming after me is that McDonough presupposes a certain familiarity with the major events of Wynette’s personal and professional life. While it’s possible to enjoy this book without doing any previous reading – I know I did – I have a feeling the overall experience would be enriched by having at least a skeletal understanding of her story.

In summary: A++, add this to your end of summer reading list right away.

And now, some videos, so you can see The First Lady of Country Music in action.

Up first is D-I-V-O-R-C-E, her fourth #1 hit:

You know what’s next, right? Warning: may get stuck in your head for days at a time. It was so firmly lodged in mine that I fell into a Stand By Your Man-shaped YouTube hole while trying to exorcise it. My conclusion: I have mixed feelings about the various non-Lyle Lovett modern renditions, but I did enjoy Sara Evans’ version. I also came to the conclusion that this is not a song for the faint of heart or those possessed of a nervous disposition. You have to stare it down and then get up there and belt it out.

And here she is with Mr. Jones, and one of their most famous duets, Golden Ring:

And finally, singing Silver Threads and Golden Needles with her contemporaries, friends and competitors Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn:


Now Read This: Deep Blues by Robert Palmer


My co-blogger and I are both tremendous consumers of books as well as of music. Naturally, we also read books about music, and you’ve seen a few examples of that sneak in here and there – Jennifer’s review of Keith Richards’ Life, my write-up of B-Sides and Broken Hearts by Caryn Rose, and the recent blurb about Put the Needle on the Record by Matthew Chojnacki – and there are more to come. To that end, we introduce Now Read This, where we’ll write about music-related books that we get our grubby, grabby hands on.

To inaugurate our new title tag, I am very pleased to present a review of Deep Blues by renowned music journalist/musician Robert Palmer (not that Robert Palmer) from the man who thought of our clever new tag, kick-ass friend of NTSIB, Rick Saunders. (If’n you don’t know, Rick is the commander of his own wonderful blog, also known as Deep Blues. He is the only person I know who can consistently recommend music to my idiosyncratic self, so if you like what I write about here, you’re going to love Rick’s blog.)



“Anybody singing the blues is in a deep pit telling for help.” – Mahalia Jackson

“The blues ain’t nothin’ but a good woman feelin’ bad. You got a good woman, she ain’t feelin’ good, get her to feelin’ good. Say amen, somebody.” -Rev. Thomas A Dorsey aka Georgia Tom

The blues is the high loud Yop! The Om. The first cosmic sound. It’s a cry in the wilderness. The human or bestial wail. Which is worse? The baby about to be born or the man about to be hung? Ain’t that the blues? Rockabilly guitarist Charlie Feathers said of Mississippi hill country blues master Junior Kimbrough “The beginning and end of all music.” So, too, is blues music.

From our earliest known history in Africa, every society has had its blues. As we spread across the earth we brought our blues, and those blues mixed with the blues of others. Delta blues, country blues, gypsy blues, Tuvan blues, British blues, Piedmont blues, Chicago, St. Louis, Mississippi, Louisiana blues. They all retain the root. The human condition and the music it brings forth, the deep blues.

Robert Palmer weaves not only the raw history of the Delta blues – the who, what, when, where and why of the blues – but more importantly, the human story behind the music. With Delta blues great Muddy Waters as his protagonist, Palmer breathes new life to the Delta blues story.

We follow Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) from a rude Mississippi shack on the Stoval Plantation where he drove a tractor for twenty-two and a half cents an hour to a solid two-story brick home in Chicago and life as not only a living legend, but one of the most important progenitors of Delta Blues music.

As we follow, Palmer introduces us to the blues high society, the aristocracy, if you will. Names like Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Son House, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Sonny Boy Williamson, as well as their aliases. Palmer shows us and helps us to understand how they lived and spares few details. Perhaps more importantly, Palmer explains the worldwide importance of Delta blues music.

The way we play guitar, the use of a metal tube, glass bottleneck or even a steak bone to slide across the guitar’s neck by Delta musicians like Muddy Waters, R.L. Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Elmore James and countless others set the tone for later hard rock and heavy metal groups. The use of distortion and feedback to augment the sound, again now commonly used worldwide, stems from Delta blues, which, of course, stems from Africa and the buzzing of the strings on the one-string precursor to the banjo and the rattle of crude drums. As Palmer explains, it was Delta musicians that first put feedback and distortion to use, now these techniques are wholly common and put to use worldwide. Both techniques bring a sound to life that emulates crying, the tears of the broken-hearted and oppressed. That’s the soul of the blues.

The piano, too, gained a terrific boost from the innovation of Delta blues artists like Roosevelt Sykes and Muddy Waters’ accompanist Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins. Their percussive, boogie-woogie style of piano playing, with its infectious, driving, rollicking sound, brought the piano boogie out of the Delta’s juke joints and spread it throughout the world, influencing generations of pianists.

Our language contains common words like jive, hip, hip cat, banjo, and more, all sourced from the Wolof people of the Senegal and Gambian or Senegambian coast, a favored slave trading region. The way we sing, too, stems from Delta blues. The use of call and response, a common technique in musical styles as varied as blues, gospel, rap, old timey country, and instrumental jazz, as well, finds its roots in Africa and the slave trade.

The lowly one-string diddley bow, now in a resurgence of popularity, along with the cigar box guitar, originated in the Delta region. The diddley bow, often built by removing and tacking the wire that holds a straw broom together to the side of a house and using a glass bottleneck, heated over a flame to smooth its jagged edges, for a slide, was the starting point for many Delta would-be guitarists. Artists such as Charlie Christian, Robert Pete Williams, Albert King, Big Bill Broonzy, Carl Perkins and countless others from the region started out on simple, homemade cigar box guitars. Made from a box that once held cigars, one could easily attach a length of scrap wood for a neck, a couple eyebolts for tuning pegs and one to four strings, and you’d have yourself a very inexpensive but great-sounding guitar.

Blues is the sound of poverty, the sound of oppression, the sound of heartache. Robert Palmer referred to it as music “created by not just black people but by the poorest, most marginal black people” who “could neither read nor write…owned almost nothing and lived in virtual serfdom”. But it can also be the sound of joy, the sound of making love and raising hell on Saturday night, and the sound of redemption come Sunday morning. Although, as Palmer points out, the blues and those who trade in it have almost always been looked down upon. “If you asked a black preacher…or faithful churchgoer what kind of people played and listened to blues, they would tell you, ‘cornfield niggers’.” This is an attitude that, in spite of a long history of deeply gospel-infected blues music by the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, Roebuck “Pops” Staples (a contemporary of Charley Patton’s on the Dockery Farms Plantation), Sister Rosetta Tharp, and others, continues to this day. For example, St. Louis record label Broke and Hungry Records has an artist on its roster that calls himself The Masked Marvel. He allows no pictures, and his name is unknown but to label boss Jeff Konkel, because he’s a deacon in his church and fears repercussions for playing the blues.

Robert Palmer’s use of Muddy Waters as protagonist was a perfect choice. Out of all the characters Palmer had to choose from, it’s Waters that best represents the history of Delta blues. From his humble beginnings in Mississippi to worldwide stardom and legendary acclaim, no Delta blues artist, save perhaps B.B. King (Waters’ junior by 12 years), has achieved so much. The main difference between the two, and between Waters’ and all others: Muddy Waters did it first. Now, that’s not to say he was the first Delta bluesman to play slide, or go electric, but what Waters did do is lay the template for those that followed. He proved that Delta blues could go national, and beyond. He set the groundwork for what Palmer, and now current groups like The North Mississippi Allstars, calls, “the world boogie”.

As Palmer writes, “Muddy adapted to survive”. By changing his song and lyrical style, and adopting a tougher approach to an already often tough-sounding music, he not only transformed himself into a more commercially-marketable personality, via songs like “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “Natural Born Lover”, “All Night Long”, “Mannish Boy” and others, Waters appeared as the man men wanted to be and the man the ladies wanted to be with. It was that harder, sexier sound, followed by the feral blues of Howlin’ Wolf, the fascinating rhythmic mashup of the Bo Diddley beat – part call and response field holler, part Illinois Central train rhythm (the train from Mississippi to Chicago) – that opened the door wide for the new sound, for better or worse, of rock and roll.

Robert Palmer, in one slim, two hundred and seventy-seven page volume, captured the stark reality of the Delta blues, the depth of its history and the story of its people in a way that had not been done before. Certainly there have been numerous other volumes published on the history of African-American music, but one would be hard pressed to find one with as much emotional sensitivity, attention to detail and historical and cultural depth as Deep Blues. Palmer writes, “How much thought … can be hidden in a few short lines of poetry? How much history can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string?” Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues represents well “The thought of generations, the history of every human being who’s ever felt the blues come down like showers of rain”.

Caryn Rose: B-Sides and Broken Hearts


Lisa Simon, age 37, still loves loud punk rock and hates Dave Matthews with an all-consuming passion. So begins the synopsis of Caryn Rose’s first novel, B-Sides and Broken Hearts. If this book is for you, you know it just from that sentence. You’ve already heard the click of recognition and know you’re about to read the story of a kindred spirit.

For the rest of you, let me put it to you this way: B-Sides and Broken Hearts is like High Fidelity for female music nerds. I mean big music nerds. The ones you know in school who always wore band T-shirts, who tried to sneak their Walkman/Discman/mp3 player to class, whose locker and bedroom was papered with band posters, who camped out for concert tickets, who spent hours in records stores on the weekends and cried when the tape recorder ate their favorite cassette/favorite CD became too scratched to play/computer ate their mp3s. But moreover, these are the music nerds who never “grew out of it”. They may have flirted with being “normal” – took a desk job, toned down their wardrobe, tried dating a guy with a steady job. But the nerd streak never went away. They went on to start bands themselves, to work for bands, to start record labels, write for music rags, run music blogs…

The moment I knew Lisa Simon was one of my tribe happened in the first few pages, when Lisa fights with her soon-to-be-ex boyfriend over the significance of the death of Joey Ramone.

“Lisa, I’m sorry, yes, it’s sad, but–it’s not the greatest loss ever endured by the music world that the author of ‘Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue’ is no longer with us.” He pronounces the song title in artificial, clipped tones.

“That was Dee Dee,” I say, automatically. It was like Tourette’s or something. I honestly couldn’t stop myself.

I know that particular affliction well, and she’s right: it is like Tourette’s.

Now, not only is B-Sides a first novel, but it’s also a pretty DIY effort and, as such, can feel a little rough around the edges at times. But this works as a strength for the book, enhancing the feeling that, instead of reading a novel, you’re in conversation with a good friend who really gets it, a music-obsessive soulmate.

And as with a good friend, watching her go out and do what you’ve long dreamed of doing is inspiring and galvanizing. I’d like to put this book into the hands of teen girl music nerds to give them faith that their dreams are not silly, wrong or unobtainable. They are well within reach, perhaps now more than ever.

B-Sides and Broken Hearts Official Website

Caryn Rose Official Website

Rock ‘n’ Roll Photog: Life by Keith Richards

Today, Jennifer treats us to our first book review after a wild ride with Keith “Have fun deducing how much of what I say is fact and how much is drug-addled hallucination” Richards.


My first reaction, on turning the final page, was my god, this man is exhausting. And also to be amazed, again, that he’s still alive to co-write his autobiography. Yes, co-write; his assistant in this massive undertaking is James Fox, whom the jacket copy informs me is an old friend of Richards’, author of White Mischief and former journalist for the Sunday Times in London.
What they have produced together is a complex and fascinating portrait of Keith Richards, which reads like you’re sitting at the kitchen table with him while he tells you fabulous tales of sex, drugs (lots and LOTS of drugs) and rock and roll. (He also, unsurprisingly, has a lot of feelings about Mick Jagger.) I could almost see his hands waving and the smoke curling above his head. A good many of the stories cover territory that long-time and/or devoted Rolling Stones fans will already be familiar with; more recent, or more casual fans, on the other hand, may feel a little bit lost in the sea of names and partial descriptions of past events.

But the inside scoop on the scandalous behavior is really not the best part. Richards is most interesting when he digresses into a guitar lesson, and explains the secrets to the Stones’ disctinctive sound, or wanders off on an extended tangent about the mechanics of constructing songs.

The book is a big book, dense and sometimes rambling, and by turns hilarious, horrifying and mind-blowing, in a You did what? With whom? kind of way. I was left with a variety of things to chew over, about music and fame and rockstars in general, if not Keith Richards in particular, most notably the isolating nature of fame.

I was also left with the desire to read all the rest of the Stones’ memoirs, to get more views on the story.

Which brings me to: Please Allow Me To Correct a Few Things an review of the book in Slate by Bill Wyman (journalist, NOT rockstar) which is written as Mick Jagger’s response to the book. Just to be clear: Mick Jagger did not write the article. It’s a parody, a literary put-on, but it’s a very sharply observed parody. There’s also a postscript to the piece on Wyman’s blog. I mention it because it’s easy to get caught up in Richards’ story, and get to a point where all of the madness seems perfectly normal.

In summary: A big book, but not a dull one. Rating: \m/\m/ (two sets of metalfingers out of two)

— Jennifer