Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Book Review: Lost Rockers, by Steven Blush (etc.)

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Live images by Robert Barry Francos
Book cover image from Internet

Lost Rockers: Broken Dreams and Crashed Careers
By Steven Blush, with Paul Rachman and Tony Mann
powerHouse Books (Brooklyn, NY), 2016
160 pages (hardcover); USD $15.00

If the name Steven Blush sounds familiar, I’m guessing it is due to his previous seminal book, American Hardcore. Presently, he is assisted by Paul Rachman, who directed the 2006 documentary based on that first book, and by Tony Mann. who has drummed with just about everyone in the New York scene.

Tony Mann
Anyway, the book looks at some might-have-beens in the music biz in the past few decades, essentially some who had a touch of major stardom, coming thisclose, but who had it evaporate into the clear blue, be it through wrong timing, sometimes by the fault of third parties such as record companies, bitter rivalries, or occasionally by shooting themselves in the foot by the likes of ego or substance abuse.

While I’m not amazed that there are quite a few I have never heard of before this, I am even more stunned at how many I have seen in both their heydays and beyond. I will indicate those I have watched perform with a [*].

If you’ve been around any music scene for a while, you must know some bands that deserved the break and never got it. Off the top of my head, I think of the Marbles and the original formation of the Shirts, and of course the Dictators from New York, Willie Loco Alexander in Boston, the Jumpers from Buffalo, and I would even add in the Cramps to that list. Most of them were signed to major labels at some point, or on the verge of it, and then it all just went away.

There are 20 musicians (rather than bands) covered here. Some had relatively major hits, such as the opening article subject, Evie Sands, who was the first to record the classic Chip Taylor tune “Angel of the Morning.” Then there’s Robert Fleischmann, the original singer for Journey and Vinnie Vincent Invasion. Marc Bolan’s common-law wife and baby mama Gloria Jones is here, her career evaporating when the car she was driving crashed, which ended Bolan’s life.

Corpse Grinders
But not everyone has star turns, though should have, such as Gass Wild [*], who helped form the Pretenders, though I saw him in a version of the Love Pirates at Otto’s Shrunken Head in the early 2000s. I met him through the band The She Wolves, whose drummer was Tony Mann. Rick Rivets [*] was in a couple of bands I saw in the early New York scene days, the Brats and Corpse Grinders.

One of the people here who is not just famous but also a bit infamous is Cherry Vanilla [*], an ex-groupie who helped Bowie and MainMan conquer the States. She was at the forefront of the Max’s scene, and I saw her on a stunning bill with the Fast and (then) Wayne County in late ’76 or early ‘77. Some of her band members back then would be part of the core of Get Wet, another deserving band that almost broke and could be included in a sequel.

Cherry Vanilla
An interesting inclusion is Chris Robison [*], who was sort of an early sexually fluid musician who flowed between men and women (similar to Bowie and Lou Reed). As well as a solo act, he was associated with the touring band Steam (“Na Na Hey Hey [Goodbye]”). Also, he played with Elephant’s Memory (he may have been in the band when I saw them at Prospect Park with Brownsville Station opening) and the local New York group Stumblebunny (they opened for Peter Tork at CBGBs in ‘77, but I have no memory of the band).

Marge Raymond in Flame
One of the rockers in the ‘70s I really enjoyed was Flame, fronted by Marge Raymond [*], who is represented here. I saw the band play at Zappaz in Brooklyn in 1977. She’s in a ‘50s/’60s cover band now. Which brings me to a point: Marge seems pretty happy now, and who knows if “success” would have made an end-total betterment or crashing of a lived life. I mean, do you get the feeling that someone like, say, Axl Rose or Alan Price or Tommy Lee are actually happy in their relative career success?

Yes, there are certainly some depressing tales here, such as with Bobby Jameson [d. 2015], whose life has been street hardcore after the near-fame, but for most here, there is still wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’ going on, and some positive thoughts. Most are still making music on their own terms and through the book we learn that they deserve our respect.

Most of the pieces tend to run a couple of pages, though a few are nicely quite lengthy. There are also lots of photos, of which the “now” pictures particularly interested me; for example, Cherry Vanilla has not lost her zing at all.

Blush, who conducted all the interviews himself, does a fine job of keeping the interest of the reader. I found that even with those of whom I was unfamiliar, my curiosity was kept whetted and I read the articles through. At first I wished there was a disk of some of the music included, but then I remembered YouTube, so I could check to see what some of the recordings were like (especially check out Flame’s “Beg Me” and Cherry Vanilla’s “The Punk,’ but I digress…).

As a side note, I found it interesting that producer Jimmy Iovine makes more than one appearance as being a hindrance (personally, I find a lot of his stuff overproduced and clinical, but that’s for another day). The only real issue I had with the writing itself was the overuse of the term “left high and dry,” but that’s just the nitpicking hell that my brain does. Point is, if the repetition of that phrase is the worst I can come up with, well, that’s saying a lot in favor of release.

This is not the first book to be written about cult artists who never broke the big time. For two examples, there are Jake Austen’s Flying Saucers Rock’n’Roll: Conversations with Unjustly Obscure Rock’n’Soul Eccentrics (reviewed by me HERE) and Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll: Psychedelic Unknowns, Mad Geniuses, Punk Pioneers, Lo-Fi Mavericks & More. Each one has its own take on the lives and output of the musicians under the microscope.

While Blush takes a deep look at some of the artists, he does not analyze the music, and I feel the book is the better for it. He doesn’t talk down to the reading audience, which also makes sense, because the person who has the book in-hand most likely has a history of following music to some extent, and probably will have some knowledge of at least some of those discussed.

The name of the book is a slight misnomer, I’m happy to say, because it is not only rock that is covered, as there is both soul and folk included in the batch. Still, I would not change the title.

I’m pleased to know that as with American Hardcore, a documentary film version of this book is in post-production by Rachman. As much as I enjoyed reading this, I am also looking forward to the film. While there probably will be music in the documentary, this book is still essential, and certainly worth the read.

As a brief post-note, Blush actually has a new book out since this once came out last year, titled New York Rock: From the Rise of the Velvet Underground to the Fall of CBGB. I'm hoping to get the chance to check that one out, as well! 

Musician subjects in book:
Evie Sands
Alan Merrill
Chris Robison
Ginger Bianco
Brett Smiley
Betty Davis
Pat Briggs
Bobby Jameson
Rick Fox
Charlie Farren
Gloria Jones
Chris Darrow
Gass Wild & Johnny Hodge
Rick Rivets
Cherry Vanilla
Robert Fleischman
Kenny Young
Marge Raymond
Jake Holmes

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