Archive Book Reviews

Thro’ My Eyes: A Memoir – Iain Matthews with Ian Clayton | Book Review | Route | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.01.19

I picked up Iain Matthews’ autobiography during the break between two sets at an intimate Matthews’ Southern Comfort gig in an unassuming Pontefract pub, having just witnessed a rather fine opening set from the vantage point of a front row seat. I don’t think I had any intention of buying this book or any book for that matter, having far too many piled up on the arm of my sofa at home awaiting attention, yet there was something that drew me to this book. Perhaps it was due to the fact that both Iain Matthews and his ghost writer/helper Ian Clayton were present at the pub on this particular night; it could have had something to do with the sudden realisation half way through the band’s opening set that I knew little about its subject, other than the fact that he was in an early incarnation of Fairport Convention, that his was the first voice to be heard on the band’s torchlight song “Meet on the Ledge”, that his next band had a smash hit with Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, that his other band Plainsong appeared on the Old Grey Whistle Test one evening just as I was preparing books for school the next morning. Added to these hazy recollections was the memory of seeing a later incarnation of Matthews’ Southern Comfort more recently at a winter festival in Skeggy of all places and that I actually got to speak to him backstage for a good half hour. What else did I need to know? Well lots apparently.  The title of Thro’ My Eyes is taken from an early song on Iain’s debut solo record If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes, the LP with the swirling Vertigo label that’s currently on the player as I write, and suggests the book’s intention from the start, to explore a life very much lived from the author’s personal perspective. It’s pretty much a warts and all memoir, which takes us on a journey from an early Northern childhood in both Scunthorpe and Barton-upon-Humber, through to the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus and Carnaby Street in the ‘Swinging Sixties’, and on through his earliest involvement in music, to his middle years in the States and more recently that of mainland Europe. One or two loose ends are neatly tied up for us, such as the question of the McDonald/Matthews, Ian/Iain confusion, which is all explained here and is notably far less pretentious than initially imagined.  Though the story takes us from one exciting episode to another, where we see evidence of Iain’s brushes with a veritable list of high profile musicians (Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, Eric Taylor), there’s also an inherent sadness that looms in the shadows, occasionally present on the songwriter’s furrowed brow in some of the pictures included and sometimes in the words of his songs. Songs are an important part of Iain Matthews’ story and each chapter here is prefaced by lyrics from his prolific back catalogue. If like me, you have the rare ability to multi-task and are not particularly fazed by listening to music as you read, having a handful of Iain’s records by the player can be useful.  Iain can be candid in his revelations and refuses to shy away from his own insecurities, his open confessions of possible family neglect whilst in search of his own muse, his disappointments, his distrust in others, his episodic relationships and his mistakes and miscalculations along the way. This is an honourable quality throughout the book although occasionally you want to shake him. Through the decades though, we see a singular artistic bent and a desire to make good music and write great songs, both alone and in the company of others, a pursuit that continues to this day and that will no doubt go on until mortality becomes a tangible issue.

Nothing is Real – David Hepworth | Book Review | Penguin | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.01.19

When David Hepworth ventured into the world of books after years of writing insightful articles and essays on all aspects of popular music, I wonder if he realised just what he was getting into? Barely a couple of years into this relatively new enterprise and we see Hepworth’s instantly identifiable bright orange dust jackets standing proud on the shelves in every good book shop; three already published and one more on its way in 2019.  There’s a very good reason for this and it has nothing to do with the fact that orange is the new anything in particular, but it’s because Hepworth knows his stuff and therefore we trust him. Let’s face it, he’s had plenty of practice writing about music, establishing and then editing magazines, broadcasting on both TV and radio and more recently through podcasts, whilst backing up his musical knowledge with at least 20,000 records at his disposal. He’s keen to listen and more importantly he’s keen to observe first hand some of the great moments in pop’s wild history, whilst you and I watch from the comfort of our armchairs. Possibly the most memorable of Hepworth’s countless encounters was with Bob Geldof at Wembley Stadium on a hot midsummer’s day in the middle of the Eighties, just as he dropped the f word mid-afternoon on live national TV, during which Live Aid was making history.  If 1971 Never a Dull Moment talks about Hepworth’s own personal annus mirabilis, a notion enjoyed all the more if you happen to be at least half way on his side – just one glimpse at my own long player archive soon reveals that we very much share this notion – and Uncommon People discusses the finite era of the Rock Star from Little Richard to Kurt Cobain, then Nothing is Real, the third orange-covered Hepworth offering, addresses our misconceptions and misunderstanding of such things as the function of pop managers, the importance of good drummers, the ridiculously over populated world of pop genres and subgenres (and dare I say, sub subgenres) to what we should play at funerals, the woeful demise of the record as an object and the record shop as an institution, each subject leaving this reader nodding in approval at the end of each chapter.  Not quite as exhaustive as either 1971 or Uncommon People, yet equally enjoyable, which you could possibly get through in one sitting if you have the time to spare. Collected in this slim volume, Hepworth’s short essays are largely informative, to the point and with no apparent sniff of sycophantic hero worship, yet none of his views come across as highly critical either. Rather, he’s an observer who likes to simply point out some of the things pop and rock fans may have overlooked along the way and as would be expected, there’s no shortage of lists, the music buff’s essential ingredient.  Although The Beatles figure large at the beginning of this book, the title in fact borrowed from one of the band’s many masterpieces, the content has a much broader canvas. However, Hepworth’s insights reflected in earlier essays do point towards little patience for those who undervalue the band’s importance in the popular music arena. The bold and sweeping statement printed on the cover, that the Fabs were indeed underrated, is a good place to start – what follows are notions delivered with equal authority.

Viral Verses – Art in Exceptional Times | Book Review | Borthwick Press | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 03.10.20

With a dedication to the late Edward Tudor ‘Ted’ Crum, a victim of COVID 19 and a friend to some of the contributors to this collection of poems and illustrations, Viral Verses is a gathering of empathetic writers and illustrators, each with a shared vision of navigating through an unprecedented period in our lives.  Edited by Nicholas Linstead and Stephen Linstead, this collection has been published in aid of NHS Charities Together and to highlight a true sense of togetherness.  With an introduction by Margaret Drabble, who eloquently reminds us of the power, beauty and importance of poetry, Viral Verses captures human empathy at a time when such things are needed most.  Being locked down and locked up behind closed doors with only our thoughts, our music and time on our hands to catch up on all those neglected books we’ve been meaning to read, a vital ingredient is missing, that of social contact with friends, relations, neighbours and potential new acquaintances, all of which we take for granted in less uncertain times.  Viral Verses endeavours to make up for this by demonstrating unity in both words and pictures, with a real sense of a combined effort.  With so many diverse voices, of differing angles, thought waves and viewpoints between each writer, this book brings a sense of variety both in its individual styles and its execution.  Mike Harding’s contributions are accompanied by exquisite drawings by Jed Grimes, whilst Jessie Summerhayes elects to accompany hers with her own minimalist illustrations.  These illustrations range from simple cartoons, the odd pair of slippers for instance, or a needle and thread, together with a few monochrome photographs, to Alan Andrews’ vivid poster art and Bryan Ledgard’s Manga-inspired ‘bone-handled knife’, artworks that offer a broad spectrum and all of which serve to bring vivid images to these carefully constructed words.  Ray Hearne begins a short poem by staring at a painting on his wall by his friend John Law, while John in turn reminds Ray (and the rest of us) of some of the things that made us what we are today, from the games we played on the streets to such school day treats as Jubblies, Kali and Arrowroot Rock, while watching Captain Pugwash, the Flowerpotmen and Watch with Mother on the box; things we like to recall, especially in these bleak times.  Heath Common describes Powis Square in the early hours of the morning as the Swinging Sixties reaches its conclusion, bumping into a Performance-era Mick Jagger, while meditating on the outgoing Brian Jones and the Pink Fairies, with Marc Bolan “living down the street”, illustrated in contemporary style by Bryan Ledgard’s hand.  Evocative stuff indeed.  If times like these force us to look back with a sense of nostalgia and longing, then they also make us sit up and take note.  The pandemic is addressed head on throughout, in such poems as “Pandemic Low Tide in Holderness” by Stephen Linstead, “Evenings in Isolation” by Violet Hatch, “Love in Lockdown” by Gareth Griffith, “Oh Land! World Pandemic” by Adekunle Ridwan and “Lockdown” by David Driver, an optimistic and funny take on the predicament we find ourselves in.  Joe Solo’s title alone, “This is Our Blitz” speaks volumes in just four words, accompanied by Alan Andrews’ bleak and doomed illustration.  Then there’s the NHS, our heroes in this drama, who are revered in verse.  Ralph McTell, no stranger to verse, reminds us of the “Masks and Gowns”, while Paul Thwaites spells it out clearly, that the letters N H S stand for much more than National Health Service, poignantly illustrated with an angel, courtesy of the hand of Graham Ibbeson.  Singling out such poems hopefully does no disservice to the others.  We often hear the words “we’re all in this together” as if we’re all living through the same common experience, which of course we’re not.  I’m sure a government minister, a school teacher, a nurse, a labourer or a retired grandparent are all experiencing completely different things, not to mention the homeless man on the street or those stranded far from home.  All these poems and accompanying illustrations are equally relevant, in that they express singular and individual experiences, yet there’s a good chance that the reader will empathise with many of them.  When things begin to improve and we begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel, quite possibly marked ‘new normal’, Viral Verses will still be just as relevant and important and therefore will make a valuable addition to your bookshelf.

Annye C. Anderson and Preston Lauterbach – Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson | Book Review | Hachette Books | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 30.12.20

The mythology associated with Robert Johnson will, most likely, never be shaken off.  Whenever we hear those beautifully haunting recordings of “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Terraplane Blues” and “Come On In My Kitchen”, it’s so easy to let that unique voice and slide guitar carry us off into the realm of legend.  How else can such an exquisite talent be bestowed upon a human being than via a blessing from the Devil himself? Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson gives us a much needed glimpse of Johnson the man and the musician, rather than the ethereal figure from the tall tales.  It’s the memoir of Johnson’s stepsister Annye C. Anderson, the little girl who remembers watching her brother’s slender fingers moving along the fretboard of a guitar she was not allowed to touch, written with author Preston Lauterbach in her ninety-third year.  Lauterbach has allowed Anderson to tell her story in her own voice, complete with her warmly magnetic accent and dialect, which helps in ushering us closer to the man behind the myths.  We hear, in this brief but engaging book, how Robert talked, how he dressed, how he wrote, and of the affectionate relationships he had with his family and friends.  We also hear of the hardships Johnson and his family faced in 1920s Mississippi and Tennessee, where money was tight and racial tensions were even tighter.  It is this candid aspect of the book – the kind of wonderful candour you’d expect from a forthright woman of a certain age – which places it firmly amongst the must-reads of these new Twenties.  Whilst the first part of Brother Robert provides blues fans with an enticing glance at our hero, the second part reveals the horrors of Johnson’s legacy at the hands of white fraudsters, money-hungry music companies and the many shadowy figures who have jumped at the chance of exploiting the bluesman’s family and fame, not to mention the lengths Annye herself has gone to in order to protect her brother’s reputation.  And however we choose to remember Robert Johnson, whether its as a poor black musician with an unequaled skill or the troubled artist who sold his soul at the crossroads, there’s one thing that no one can dispute; this is the last chance we’ll get to read a first-hand account of the greatest bluesman of them all.

Philip Norman – Wild Thing: The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix | Book Review | Weidenfeld & Nicolson | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 08.01.21

Philip Norman has steadily carved a niche for himself over the years.  Since the 1981 release of Shout!, his somewhat controversial book about The Beatles, Norman has provided us with the go-to biographies of such notable musicians as Elton John, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney and John Lennon.  And whilst some might balk at his often opinionated and provocative style, Norman always guarantees a rattling read.  His latest offering considers the life and immortality of one Jimi Hendrix, an artist who continues to fascinate, puzzle and astonish his fans.  Wild Thing: The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix tells the story of a musician whom, fifty years after his untimely death at the age of 27, we may feel we know inside out but will probably never truly know.  And that’s exactly what I loved most about this short but engaging biography, that it was peppered with small surprises and intriguing, though never earth-shattering, revelations about an artist I thought I was beginning to understand.  The first portion of the book takes a detailed look at Jimi’s youth, shedding light on his difficult upbringing and his time in the military, where he would dedicate most of his concentration to experimenting with a cheap guitar, even sleeping with it each night in his barracks.  We then follow his early outings with Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, his fascination with Dylan and his life-changing meetings with Chas Chandler and Keith Richard.  The second portion of Norman’s biography takes us to London, where Jimi enchanted the cream of the British music scene with his unearthly talents and striking good looks, leading the likes of Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney to bow down before him.  Finally, the book explores Jimi’s third act, in which the drug-addled, hard-drinking, sex-obsessed global megastar defied the ongoing issues with his health, relationships and professional management to take the festival crowds by storm before dying, pitifully, of a sleeping pill overdose in a London townhouse.  Whilst the bones of the story we already know are very much there, it’s the treasure-encrusted asides and digressions that make this book a treat.  There are curiously long paragraphs on the subject of Jimi’s hair, for instance, as well as remarkable tales of the psychedelic god who preferred a bag of chips and a game of Monopoly backstage in Hull and Ilkley over the more common excesses of the rock star lifestyle.  There are also some remarkable glimpses behind the scenes of the major festivals such as Woodstock, where his Monday morning performance was impacted by scheduling problems, and the Isle of Wight, where another guitar legend by the name of Bert Jansch lay beneath the stage as Jimi’s monster vibrations shook the little island.  We’re also lucky to have, in this book, an extremely detailed catalogue of the events of Jimi’s final days, including an absorbing few pages on the subject of his last performance at the Open Air Love & Peace Festival on the Baltic island of Fehmarn.

Loretta Lynn – Me & Patsy Kickin’ Up Dust: My Friendship with Patsy Cline | Book Review | Grand Central Publishing | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 17.01.21

There’s a scene in Michael Apted’s 1980 biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter in which a thirty-year-old Patsy Cline offers her old maternity clothes to a pregnant Loretta Lynn, a gesture not only of kindness but of love.  There’s a magic in that relationship, beautifully captured by Beverly D’Angelo and Sissy Spacek, which clearly transcends the friendship between these two country legends.  Indeed, some of the film’s most memorable scenes are those in which we’re offered a curious glimpse of this remarkable bond, a sisterly attachment that was cut so tragically short when Patsy Cline was killed in a plane crash in 1963.  One of the twin girls, with whom Loretta was pregnant at the time of Patsy’s death, recently had the good sense to persuade her eighty-eight-year-old mother to finally write a book about this intriguing relationship.  Patsy Lynn, named in memory of Cline, had been hearing the stories all her life and, thanks to her, the tales are now preserved for all time in what is a fascinating, warm-hearted and often revealing memoir.  Written entirely in Loretta Lynn’s distinct Kentucky vernacular and featuring fifty-one brief and engaging chapters, Me & Patsy Kickin’ Up Dust is an illuminating double portrait of two extraordinary women, both climbing the ladder of success and supporting one another along the way.  Loretta’s humility is both astounding and endearing as she paints Patsy as a big sister or, at times, a surrogate mother as she strives to beat her own path through the male-dominated country music scene.  We hear about the way in which Cline helped her to understand the business, to perform, to present herself and to cope with the adversities of marriage, motherhood and music.  But whilst Loretta shows us the strong, protective Patsy, she is also candid in her descriptions of occasions when Cline relied on that “little gal” from Butcher Hollow.  It was, as Patsy sang, “true love”.  Loretta’s new book will provide a riveting read for fans of both artists as well as anyone interested in the art of song-writing and the business of country music.  It’s also a meditation on the importance of friendship and sisterhood in a world that all too frequently attempts to inhibit both.