Monday, March 1, 2021

The Rolling Stone Rock 'N' Roll Reader

The Rolling Stone Rock 'N' Roll Reader, Edited By Ben Fong-Torres
February, 1974  Bantam Books

This doorstop of a paperback is almost like an archive of some forever lost time. Consisting of about a gazillion articles taken from 1967 – 1972 issues of Rolling Stone Magazine, The Rolling Stone Rock ‘N’ Roll Reader delivers an engaging view of the rock era, jumping from one section to the next and offering great writing throughout. I’m not sure how remembered he is today, but editor Ben Fong-Torres was a well-known, guiding presence in the early days of the magazine; he even made a cameo appearance in the cocaine fantasy that was the Tenth Anniversary TV special (he’s the dude in the opening scene who asks “Jann” to approve the galleys for his “Kiss story”). 

First of all, this is not to be confused with The Rolling Stone Reader, which Warner Paperback Library published in 1974; that one was courtesy “the editors of Rolling Stone” and featured articles that weren’t focused on rock music. This book however is completely focused on the magazine’s rock features, articles, and news items, and if you want a bird’s eye view of the rock scene as it was happening, you couldn’t do much worse. Fong-Torres has picked some great articles that are very respective of Rolling Stone’s early days, ultimately delivering pretty much the same vibe as the somewhat earlier anthology Smokestack El Ropo’s Bedside Reader. There’s no true “theme” to the collection, either; you might get a few pieces on John Lennon, or a brief section on the Rolling Stones 1969 tour of America, but really it’s just all over the place…sort of like an issue of the magazine, which no doubt was the point. Unlike the original articles, though, there are no photos or illustrations; we’re talking 783 whopping pages of small, dense print and nothing else. 

Fong-Torres delivers a rather short intro in which he states that this is not a “greatest hits” of the magazine, but rather “a lot of good shit.” He could’ve worked a little more on the opening sequence of pieces, though, as the Reader gets off to a rather haphazard start. I mean the first piece is on Joan Baez. And from there, arbitrarily enough, to a nice essay by Ralph Gleason on The Band performing at Winterland. Then we get into some heavy Beatles material; this is the one section that really is pretty theme-centric, and it covers the gamut from news pieces on the opening of the band’s Apple store in London to their final days together. There’s a lot on Get Back, later to be known as Let It Be, complete with even a review of the documentary film. 

Throughout the focus is really on John Lennon; we get several pieces on his various bed-ins, as well as a few interviews. It’s also interesting to see how news of the impending Beatles split slowly came to press; early articles have one or other Beatle denying any rumors of breakup, then later the same Beatle will announce they’ve broken up. We don’t get into any of their solo careers, though; if I’m not mistaken, if you want the Rolling Stone take on that, you’ll find it in a super-long essay in The Rolling Stone Record Review Volume II (Pocket, 1974), which goes over the state of all the solo Beatle LPs of the early ‘70s. 

After this though it’s back into the haphazard selection; we get a few pieces on the Rolling Stones, like Jann Wenner’s laudatory review of Beggars Banquet (during which he spends most of the time bitching about Their Satanic Majesties Request, which by the way I love to death). This is followed randomly enough by a piece on Johnny Cash and then an interview with Captain Beefheart. Before we know it we are reading a couple pieces on the Gram Parsons-era Byrds, then back to Johnny Cash and over to Joe Cocker! But to tell the truth none of these really appealed to me. Much better was the material on Cream, which follows the Beatles breakup material earlier in the book with one member flatly denying the breakup rumors in one piece, only for the breakup to be confirmed in the next. This portion closes out with an interesting interview with Eric Clapton, where he keeps dissing the Blind Faith album, which is another one I like…even the nigh-endless closing track with its Ginger Baker drum solo. 

One thing I enjoy about these early Rolling Stone writers is you could tell that sci-fi was never far from their minds…the review of the Let It Be Twickenham studios footage says that it’s like the Beatles are “in the land of Silver Surfer,” given the different colored auras that surround them in the studio on film. And later the Cream piece mentions the “banks of amplifiers” behind the group on stage, the red lights of which are like “science-fiction backing” for Cream’s loud “hairy Satanic” music. Another thing I appreciate is that everything’s on the level; there’s no snark or cynicism. The writers may have problems with a certain group’s album or particular concert performance, but there’s never any overt attempt to knock anyone down, and the enthusiasm all the writers have for the subject is very clear. 

The few short pieces on Crosby, Stills, and Nash are also interesting; the first one’s right before the release of their first album, and the second one’s from the release of their second, with Neil Young. And hey, how about an interview with Donovan? You’ll find that here. Surprisingly there isn’t too much on what I’ve always considered one of the greatest ever American rock groups: The Doors. But then they were an LA band and Rolling Stone in its early days was pretty snobbish toward any Californian rock group that wasn’t from San Francisco; in fact I’ve read this is why Spirit was never much covered in the magazine, as they too were based out of Los Angeles. At any rate the Doors material is paltry, and the majority of it concerns the infamous “dick flashing” incident in Florida which threatened to send Jimbo to the slammer. Curiously his death is not mentioned in any of the collected articles. 

Speaking of material I skimmed – I didn’t read any of the Bob Dylan section. I’ve just never got into his music, sad to report. But it might happen someday. The section on Jimi Hendrix is almost as paltry as the Doors material; Rolling Stone also never seemed to care much for Jimi, either. We do get a great profile piece courtesy Sheila Weller, who had some similarly-great pieces in Smokestack El Ropo’s Bedside Reader, but after that it’s straight into the sad reports on Jimi’s death, followed by a belated appreciation of his work once he was gone. Curiously the material on Janis Joplin’s death dwarfs the material on Jimi – but again, she was another rocker based out of San Francisco, so the magazine was just staying true to its snobbery. The Joplin material is almost overwhelming, with material from when she was still alive to overly-comprehensive reactions to her death, complete even with the scene on the ground in SanFran the night her death was announced. 

One of the people contacted here is Grace Slick, who doesn’t have much to say about Janis being gone…Slick’s basically like, “she’s dead, so let’s get on with our own lives.” Speaking of Grace Slick, the Jefferson Airplane section is pretty cool, and again more comprehensive than others given that they were another San Francisco group. We get a few pieces on the Airplane’s psychedelic masterpiece After Bathing At Baxter’s, as well as a later piece in which they can’t figure out what to name the album that would become Volunteers. Ralph Gleason provides another cool concert review, taking us through a 1970 show at Winterland, complete with a set from the Grateful Dead – who also have their own little section, but that’s another I skimmed. Can’t get into their music either, and I’ve really tried! 

Since I’m confessing, I also skipped over the section on “those oldies but goodies,” aka Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis and whatnot. I was much more interested in the later section on the Rolling Stones, which was mostly composed of reviews of their 1969 tour, which of course culminated at Altamont – which isn’t much discussed in the Reader. Rather, Fong-Torres sticks with a positive view of the tour, starting off with a great review from Greil Marcus, then moving into a longer piece that looks at the first four shows. We get to Altamont in the piece on the documentary Gimme Shelter, and here we learn the interesting revelations that no one at the time realized a man was being murdered right in front of the stage; Jagger says he had no idea, and even the cameramen are quoted as saying they just thought they were filming someone being pushed around. 

The section on “Festivals” is pretty cool, and gives the personal touch that was so missing from Robert Santelli’s later Aquarius Rising. Woodstock ins’t much discussed, but we do get a seemingly-endless piece on the Toronto Peace Festival and what “went wrong” with it (spoiler alert: lots of greed). If this festival is remembered at all today it’s for the appearance of Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, their set later released as Live Peace In Toronto. This article is overlong but filled with that awesome late ‘60s vibe, like weird stuff about plans for an “air car” that would be powered by Lennon’s aura or somesuch. We also have Lennon chortling that the Plastic Ono Band was so incredible that following act The Doors insisted on waiting 45 minutes to go on stage. Maybe they were just waiting for their eardrums to heal after the Yoko caterwauling and feebdack frenzy that ended the Plastic Ono Band’s set. 

Even cooler is the following piece, on the “Million Dollar Bash.” This one focuses on the new-to-me “Festival Express,” which is one of the more forgotten festivals of today. It took place in Canada over the last week of June, 1970, and featured Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, The Band, and various other country-esque bands (save for Mountain); they all boarded an express train, complete with sleeping cars, and ventured across Canada, stopping to play festivals. This was probably the most entertaining piece in the book, with the author capturing all the moments the various rock stars would sit around on the train and jam. One thing not mentioned here is that the Festival Express was such a bomb that there not only wasn’t another one, but the filmed footage was locked away for decades, only released in 2003 (and boy I’d love to see the movie). 

Fong-Torres was an FM rock deejay in addition to an editor at Rolling Stone, so he also includes a few pieces on what was then known as “freeform progressive” radio. There’s a cool article by legendary deejay Tom Donahue, one which practically drips with venom towards the bland approach of mainstream AM pap. Fong-Torres then incldues a few of his own pieces, both of which come off a little too dry and go into the behind-the-scenes squabbling at various freeform stations, all of which were under the threat of “selling out.” Fong-Torres also has a bone to pick with the syndicated “Brother Love” package shipped out to some stations, a sort of plastic fantastic take on true freeform; curiously Fong-Torres does not include a later piece of his own in which Brother Love’s firing was discussed. (I only know of this later piece due to having come across it in the Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-Rom archive.) 

Speaking of selling out, we next have some pieces – some of them again by Gleason – on how you could try to break into the rock world by writing songs…in 1967, at least. From there into more business: the financial impact of bootleg LPs. Then we have a mere two pieces on The Who, but the second of them’s pretty cool in that it’s a study of Tommy, complete with Pete Townshend’s typically-eggheaded explanations on which each of the songs mean. Yes of course, McLuhan is mentioned throughout. I mean it wouldn’t be a late ‘60s interview with Pete Townshend if he wasn’t. I had Tommy on cassette tape in the early ‘90s and I’m telling you, it was my favorite album ever when I was 15. Today though if I’m going to listen to the Who it’s going to be Live At Leeds

And friends that’s pretty much it – we’re actually in the very last pages of the book. A piece (which I skipped) on Hank Williams, and then the final article in the anthology: an interview with Neil Young. This one I found super cool, as it’s from right when he joined CSN and before the release of Déjà Vu. Young spends a lot of time discussing overdubbing and remastering, to the point that it almost sounds like something you’d read today over at the Steve Hoffman music forum. Young in particular rails against the originally-released mix of his first, self-titled album, saying how a “remastered” version was being re-released. I’ve heard both versions and I kind of like the original mix, though it’s almost impossible to find these days. It’s also cool because you can see here, even though he was only 24, Neil Young already knew the course his solo career would take – he says he has no interest in overproduced, overdubbed albums, a la his first one, in which you could spend months on just one song; he much prefers the live vibe you get playing with a group. 

And with that – not even an afterword! – The Rolling Stone Rock ‘N’ Roll Reader comes to a close. A seemingly abrupt close, which is especially surprising given that it’s nearly 800 pages long. But man, I really enjoyed it. Sure, I have all the original issues, at least in digital form, in the Cover To Cover CD-Rom, but there’s just something undeniably cool about this paperback collection. I could just see countless mid-‘70s hippies lighting up some “good shit” and perusing the pages. It looks like the book is becoming increasingly collectable, though, so if you want a copy I’d advise you to seek one out soon before the prices get too stupid.

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