Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul, by Mark Ribowsky

maxresdefault Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler called him “the single most extraordinary talent I had ever seen.” Impresario Bill Graham felt his concert at the San Francisco Fillmore was “the best gig I ever put on in my entire life.” His performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival made the Rolling Stones’s Brian Jones cry. Janis Joplin was characteristically blunt: “Otis is God.”

One of America’s greatest performers, Otis Redding enjoyed less than a decade of fame before dying in a plane crash in 1967 at age 26. Just days earlier he recorded the song that would become his biggest hit: “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” the sixth most-played song in the 20th century.

Redding’s death was tragic, but his life was not. This is the central challenge for biographer Mark Ribowsky in “Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul.” Redding was a gifted, hard working songwriter and singer — he was a pro. At age 15 he won his hometown of Macon, Ga.’s citywide talent show 15 weeks straight. From then on, the force of his talent provided a fairly unimpeded path to stardom.

Compared to the lives of some of his peers, such as Etta James, Wilson Pickett, and Marvin Gaye, Redding’s life was uneventful. He wasn’t a drug addict or alcoholic, nor was he emotionally tortured, although Ribowsky does wring some drama out of his relationship with his father, a man of strict religious beliefs who initially discouraged his son from a life of show business but eventually became his champion. Every few chapters we get a glimpse of Redding’s early idol, fellow Macon native Little Richard, who scandalized the public with his bisexuality, drug use, and freaky charisma, and think: Wow, remind me to pick up his biography next time.

Ribowsky thus makes the wise choice to broaden his scope to the Southern Soul scene itself, particularly the unlikely triumph of Memphis’s small but influential Stax Records (Redding’s label) and the music industry as a whole. Ribowsky is pleasingly candid: “The record game, to be polite, is one of the most venal and soulless entities ever known, and a bane to creatively inclined people easily manipulated by power brokers with a fast line and legal levers to rip them off.” As Ribowsky shows, Stax itself fell victim to the same “insidious but legal backstabbing” when Atlantic Records virtually stole Stax’s world-famous back catalog (including recordings by Redding, Pickett, Isaac Hayes, and many others) and all the royalties associated with it.

But before all that ugliness, the tiny, family-run Stax, with its racially integrated staff and seat-of-the-pants production, managed to create a unique and influential sound that rivaled Motown, gained the admiration of fans around the world, and “converted one of the whitest bastions of the post-Confederate South into the vital core of black music.”

It’s a great story but one that is often interrupted by Ribowsky’s awkward phrasing. A recording studio has “glutinous echoes”; he describes Little Richard as “bold and daring yet conventionally spiritual enough to wear the label derived from a centuries-old religious conceptualization of the immortal essence of the human spirit and its undying connection to a higher power,” whatever that means.

One gets the sense that Ribowsky is turning up the volume a little too high to try and make his point. It’s a shame, because the subject practically speaks for itself. Notwithstanding the soul-baring theatricality of Redding’s performances on songs such as “Try a Little Tenderness,” the power of soul music has always been, paradoxically, its sense of restraint. The greatest soul singers are masters of dynamics, starting out softly with a slow build to the climax. “It wasn’t the size of his voice,” said keyboardist Booker T. Jones of Redding, “we knew lots of people with vocal powers like that. It was the intent with which he sang.” “Dreams to Remember” provides some fascinating historical context, but most of what you need to know about the emotional biography of Otis Redding can be found in the still-vital and moving recordings he left behind.

Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul

By Mark Ribowsky

Liveright, 400 pp., illustrated, $27.95

This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on June 13, 2015.

Love, God, Murder: Johnny Cash

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Book Review: Johnny Cash: The Life, by Robert Hilburn (Little, Brown), 679 pp.

This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on October 27, 2013.

The three words chosen for the title of Johnny Cash’s 2000 compilation — “Love, God, Murder’’ — told you everything you needed to know about the contradictions that defined the man and his obsessions; he was just as comfortable whipping the felons of Folsom Prison into a frenzy with his famous lyric, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” as he was testifying to the power of Jesus at prayer rallies with his good friend the Rev. Billy Graham.

Cash called his first autobiography “Man in Black”; his final book was “Man in White,” a novel about the Apostle Paul. His struggles with drug addiction and his stormy relationship with his second wife, June Carter Cash, are well known. Now Robert Hilburn, the longtime pop music critic and editor for the Los Angeles Times, delivers his new biography, “Johnny Cash: The Life.” Is there anything left to reveal?

According to Hilburn, despite two memoirs, an Oscar-winning biopic, and numerous books by family and friends, only “twenty percent” of Cash’s story has been told before now. The singer told Hilburn that “he wanted people to know his entire story — especially the dark, guilt-ridden, hopeless moments — because he believed in redemption and he wanted others to realize that they too could be redeemed.” One wonders whether Cash understood that his fans loved him because of his faults, not in spite of them.

Hilburn’s biography, based on interviews with Cash and those close to him, unearths new details about Cash’s personal problems, from his guilt at not being a better father to decades of bad behavior and occasionally bad music. But Cash’s conviction that no one knew the depths of his wickedness merely underscores the depth of his Southern Baptist spirituality and his lifelong view of himself as a sinner: Nothing in “Johnny Cash: The Life” will shock anyone who knows even the outline of the man’s career or those already inclined to love the singer or his songs. And the book’s best sections are those concerned with the music.

Cash spent the first three years of the 1950s in the Air Force dreaming of music stardom. As soon as he got discharged he headed for Memphis’s Sun Records, which had released Elvis Presley’s first recordings a few months earlier. Cash and his hastily convened band, the Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant on guitar and bass), had more ambition than musical skill, but they convinced producer Sam Phillips to give them a shot. The primitive, halting sound they produced, a stuttering boom-chicka-boom, was reminiscent of a freight train and just as powerful. “It wasn’t that they thought they had discovered something; it was just about the only way they could play,” Hilburn writes. Yet that spare, propulsive rhythm combined with Cash’s authoritative bass-baritone voice and fire-and-brimstone lyrics created a signature, timeless sound.

Cash’s songwriting and charisma carried him through the next several decades of performance and recording, and Hilburn charts it all, from the county fairs and prison concerts to Cash’s beloved gospel albums, recordings with the Highwaymen, and all the TV shows and schmaltzy Christmas specials in between. Like the touring schedule, Cash’s cycles of drug abuse, health scares, repentance, and relapse were unending; they exhausted those who knew him. After several hundred pages of day-to-day details they become something of a blur. Happily, Cash’s career and the pace of the book pick up again in the last decade of his life.

In 1993 Cash believed “his recording career was over.” Then hip-hop and rock producer Rick Rubin called. Cash was skeptical, but the Rubin recordings were a watershed, six albums of intense, painfully stark, and often solo performances “that sounded like it was coming from someplace deep inside of him,” Rubin said. “It was epic, and that’s what Johnny was to me — epic.”

After two decades of subpar records and halfhearted touring, Rubin’s American Recordings label brought Cash acclaim and his first hits in decades. They also reminded a world of music lovers that he was still relevant. “Rick made me think I might have a legacy after all,” Cash said, “I vowed not to let it slip away again.” They continued recording until just a few weeks before Cash died of diabetes-related complications in 2003.

Cash’s legacy as an icon of American duality had been restored: an outlaw with an angel on his shoulder; a holy prophet with a back-up plan. U2’s Bono spoke of his admiration for Cash and his music. “I think he was a very godly man, but you had the sense that he spent his time in the desert. And that just made you like him more.” He remembers sitting down to dinner at Cash’s home. “Johnny said the most beautiful, most poetic grace you’ve ever heard,” Bono says. “Then he leaned over to me with this devilish look in his eye and said, ‘But I sure miss the drugs.’ ”

Everyone Dies (not a spoiler!): Hilary Mantel's WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES

71901109 Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein the Younger ca. 1530. Chalk on paper. The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images

There Are No Endings

A review of WOLF HALL (2009) and BRING UP THE BODIES (2012) by Hilary Mantel. Henry Holt & Co.

This summer I fell in love with an old man. He had a tough childhood, left home early and took off for Italy and France, where he somehow talked his way into a series of better and better positions, despite having never gone to school. He learned several languages; people said he could recite the entire New Testament from memory. That wasn't what impressed me. What I loved about him was his sense of humor, his sense of absurdity. He was enormously ambitious and didn't try to hide it and yes, he was ambitious for money but mostly he wanted power. Not the flashy kind of power — he didn't want to be King — but the real power that comes from working the levers behind the scenes. As he - Thomas Cromwell, the hero of Mantel's genius novels WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES, puts it:

How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.

Most critics read these books a few years back, when they were first published. It took me three tries to get into WOLF HALL and it's not that they're difficult books, exactly, but they are so much their own thing, nearly their own genre - the super-historical super-novel - that I think I just needed to make a mental switch. And once I did, that was it: two weeks of solid reading (about 11oo pages between the two books) that I wished would never, ever end.

Mantel is telling the story of Thomas Cromwell and his role as advisor to King Henry VIII of England in the early 1500s. What most of us know about this period is Henry's deadly sequence of marriages and the supposed heroism of Thomas More, the Chancellor who refused to give Henry permission to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Mantel's is a completely different vision, with Thomas More as the priggish fundamentalist eager to torture and kill those who dared to read the Bible in English (as opposed to Latin) and Cromwell as More's progressive, surely-there's-a-reasonable-solution-to-all-the-world's-problems foil and, eventually, successor (More was executed for treason with Cromwell's help in 1535).

Cromwell is no angel, of course, but he has a few things More lacks: a sense of proportion; a sense of humor; a lack of fanaticism; intellectual curiosity. Here's Mantel's version of Cromwell, musing on his rival Thomas More:

He never sees More—a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod—without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope."

I don't think it's possible to fall in love with these two incredible novels without also falling in love with Cromwell. Even as he leads Anne Boleyn to her death, we walk with him, right up to the edge because, like King Henry, we trust Cromwell. Mantel's description, which is essentially Cromwell's perspective, of the execution of Anne Boleyn is as intimate, devastating, and surprising as we have been led to expect by this point in the novels. This is Anne with her executioner:  "Silent, she steadies herself against his shoulder, leans into him: intent, complicit, ready for the next thing they will do together, which is kill her."

Yes, Anne Boleyn dies. But we knew that. And we know Cromwell eventually has his day, too (though I try to put that out of my consciousness even now). EVERYONE DIES. Mantel's magic is in her understanding of the way we are all of humans trapped in linear time. No matter how well we think we understand that every man and woman's story can end in only one way, we spend our time fixated on the moment, forgetful of the fate awaiting us all. WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES are studies in this time-shifting consciousness, filled with small moments of passion, sorrow, and humor, like this aside from Cromwell in the midst of a tense secret negotiation: "The trouble with England, he thinks, is that it’s so poor in gesture. We shall have to develop a hand signal for “Back off, our prince is fucking this man’s daughter.”" And yet the momentum of the novels, as with our own lives, is relentlessly forward, rushing to the inevitable end.We know what's going to happen to Anne Boleyn and yet we hang on the flirtation between Anne and Henry as if anything could happen, something good, even. Despite everything we know.

And this is Thomas Cromwell's talent, the thing that sets him above his rivals: he knows the only strategy is in playing the game several steps ahead. "They will find him armoured, they will find him entrenched," thinks Cromwell, "they will find him stuck like a limpet to the future." Cromwell is above all a realist. Having barely survived a hellish childhood, he's happy to be alive and wants to stay that way… as long as he can. "He has studied the world without despising it. He understands the world without rejecting it. He has no illusions but he has hopes." He's a modern man in a medieval world. He would be modern in a 21st century world, for that matter.

THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT will be the sequel to BRING UP THE BODIES and it may be published as early as 2015, but who knows? It will be Mantel's third novel in the series. I can't bring myself to refer to it as a concluding volume, because I want her to write them into infinity. We know that these books must end — and we know how. Yet even the very last sentence of BRING UP THE BODIES gives us hope (don't worry, it won't spoil anything):

There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.

 

"A great shock, and a great, great joy": James Gleick's CHAOS: Making a New Science.

Review: Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. (Penguin: 1987/2012) 384 pp.  

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The humble, fractal cauliflower. Its fractal structure is evident in the way that its structural patterns repeat over and over again on ever-smaller scales. 

 

There are two ways of looking at it. From one perspective, the fact that I was stunned and shocked by a 26 year-old book subtitled "Making a New Science" was depressing; I mean, why hadn't I learned this stuff 26 years ago? From the other, the fact that James Gleick's magnificent book Chaos: Making a New Science (Penguin: 1987, 384 pp.) still had the power to blow my mind merely reinforces the book's central thesis: Chaos theory can be overwhelmingly obvious and invisible at the same time. Like gravity, it was always a central fact that governed everything we did, it just took a genius like Isaac Newton to "discover" it.  I'm grateful and humbled to finally have discovered this book.

I was already a huge fan of his most recent book, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Vintage: 2012, 544 pp.) so I was ready to like Chaos. But he does something different in each book. In The Information Gleick starts with something we're all familiar with, the World Wide Web, and lifts the screen to reveal how it got there. Along the way it becomes the story of the alphabet, the "talking" drums of Africa, Morse Code and a million other forms of communication. It's a masterpiece.

In Chaos Gleick goes in the opposite direction, taking seemingly unpredictable phenomena -- global weather, long-term stock market pricing, the timing intervals of a dripping faucet -- and revealing that "within the most disorderly realms of data lived an unexpected order." Chaos theory, which applies to dynamical systems, is a bizarre mix of predictability (when a dynamical process involving three or more initial variables is set in motion, we can predict that certain patterns will eventually emerge) and unpredictability (although patterns will emerge, we cannot precisely predict what outcome will happen at what time, if ever).

The rules of chaos (that's not a contradictory statement) result in similarly confounding realities. Gleick quotes mathematician Arthur Lorenz, one of the founders of chaos theory and the person who coined the term "the butterfly effect," saying: "We might have trouble forecasting the temperature of [this cup of] coffee one minute in advance, but we should have little difficulty in forecasting it an hour ahead." That is, we know the coffee's temperature will eventually equilibriate with the room and air temperature. But between now and then, the forces of convection, cooling and friction are so complicated and chaotic, it's impossible to predict exactly what will happen in the first minute.

It would take thousands of words to adequately describe all the features of chaos that Gleick manages to illuminate in the book. But his most profound contribution is in helping the reader understand something intuitive: "Our feeling for beauty is inspired by the harmonious arrangement of order and disorder as it occurs in natural objects--in clouds, trees, mountain ranges, or snow crystals. The shapes of all these are dynamical processes jelled into physical forms," explains physicist Gert Eilenberger, and those dynamical processes are chaotic, with all the beautiful fractal patterns associated with them. The structure of snowflakes, of seashells, of the Milky Way, of whirlpools and fingerprints, all these owe their beauty and form to chaos theory.

Very few writers can translate difficult science into readable and fascinating prose like Gleick. As far as I can tell, both the scientists he interviews and the reading public feel he is on "their" side and I think they're both right. Like the mathematical foundation of the theory itself, Chaos is a beautiful and profound book that helped me reconsider physics, philosophy and the universe itself.

Gleick captures both the concrete details of this science along with the revelatory and emotional resonance the discovery of chaos theory has had on the people who work in the field. "It's an experience like no other I can describe," said physicist Leo Kadanoff, "the best thing that can happen to a scientist, realizing that something that's happened in his or her own mind exactly corresponds to something that happens in nature. It's startling every time it occurs... A great shock, and a great, great joy." Which was exactly my experience of reading this book.

Johnny Cash: Love, God, Murder.

Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn

(Little, Brown: 2013) 679 pages

 

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(Photo credit: Jim Marshall, Folsom Prison concert, California, 1969)

This review was originally published on October 27, 2013 in the Sunday Books section of the Boston Globe.

The three words chosen for the title of Johnny Cash’s 2000 compilation — “Love, God, Murder’’ — told you everything you needed to know about the contradictions that defined the man and his obsessions; he was just as comfortable whipping the felons of Folsom Prison into a frenzy with his famous lyric, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” as he was testifying to the power of Jesus at prayer rallies with his good friend the Rev. Billy Graham.

Cash called his first autobiography “Man in Black”; his final book was “Man in White,” a novel about the Apostle Paul. His struggles with drug addiction and his stormy relationship with his second wife, June Carter Cash, are well known. Now Robert Hilburn, the longtime pop music critic and editor for the Los Angeles Times, delivers his new biography, “Johnny Cash: The Life.” Is there anything left to reveal?

According to Hilburn, despite two memoirs, an Oscar-winning biopic, and numerous books by family and friends, only “twenty percent” of Cash’s story has been told before now. The singer told Hilburn that “he wanted people to know his entire story — especially the dark, guilt-ridden, hopeless moments — because he believed in redemption and he wanted others to realize that they too could be redeemed.” One wonders whether Cash understood that his fans loved him because of his faults, not in spite of them.

Hilburn’s biography, based on interviews with Cash and those close to him, unearths new details about Cash’s personal problems, from his guilt at not being a better father to decades of bad behavior and occasionally bad music. But Cash’s conviction that no one knew the depths of his wickedness merely underscores the depth of his Southern Baptist spirituality and his lifelong view of himself as a sinner: Nothing in “Johnny Cash: The Life” will shock anyone who knows even the outline of the man’s career or those already inclined to love the singer or his songs. And the book’s best sections are those concerned with the music.

Cash spent the first three years of the 1950s in the Air Force dreaming of music stardom. As soon as he got discharged he headed for Memphis’s Sun Records, which had released Elvis Presley’s first recordings a few months earlier. Cash and his hastily convened band, the Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant on guitar and bass), had more ambition than musical skill, but they convinced producer Sam Phillips to give them a shot. The primitive, halting sound they produced, a stuttering boom-chicka-boom, was reminiscent of a freight train and just as powerful. “It wasn’t that they thought they had discovered something; it was just about the only way they could play,” Hilburn writes. Yet that spare, propulsive rhythm combined with Cash’s authoritative bass-baritone voice and fire-and-brimstone lyrics created a signature, timeless sound.

Cash’s songwriting and charisma carried him through the next several decades of performance and recording, and Hilburn charts it all, from the county fairs and prison concerts to Cash’s beloved gospel albums, recordings with the Highwaymen, and all the TV shows and schmaltzy Christmas specials in between. Like the touring schedule, Cash’s cycles of drug abuse, health scares, repentance, and relapse were unending; they exhausted those who knew him. After several hundred pages of day-to-day details they become something of a blur. Happily, Cash’s career and the pace of the book pick up again in the last decade of his life.

In 1993 Cash believed “his recording career was over.” Then hip-hop and rock producer Rick Rubin called. Cash was skeptical, but the Rubin recordings were a watershed, six albums of intense, painfully stark, and often solo performances “that sounded like it was coming from someplace deep inside of him,” Rubin said. “It was epic, and that’s what Johnny was to me — epic.”

After two decades of subpar records and halfhearted touring, Rubin’s American Recordings label brought Cash acclaim and his first hits in decades. They also reminded a world of music lovers that he was still relevant. “Rick made me think I might have a legacy after all,” Cash said, “I vowed not to let it slip away again.” They continued recording until just a few weeks before Cash died of diabetes-related complications in 2003.

Cash’s legacy as an icon of American duality had been restored: an outlaw with an angel on his shoulder; a holy prophet with a back-up plan. U2’s Bono spoke of his admiration for Cash and his music. “I think he was a very godly man, but you had the sense that he spent his time in the desert. And that just made you like him more.” He remembers sitting down to dinner at Cash’s home. “Johnny said the most beautiful, most poetic grace you’ve ever heard,” Bono says. “Then he leaned over to me with this devilish look in his eye and said, ‘But I sure miss the drugs.’ ”