Saturday, October 2, 2010

Rosanne's heart belongs to daddy — Rosanne Cash's Composed is another brilliant musician's memoir

Posted By on Sat, Oct 2, 2010 at 2:30 PM

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Bob Dylan raised the bar for musician memoirs when he published Chronicles, Volume 1 a couple of years back. Filled with the wit and wordplay of his best song lyrics, he took the concept of memoir and drop kicked it out the window. It wasn’t a tell-all or even a tell-a-lot. It was a literary work that toyed with the concepts of time and memory, and left us eager for more.

As he is on stage, Dylan was a tough act to follow at the bookstore.

But now Rosanne Cash has published Composed (Viking, $26.95) and finally there is a companion worthy of Dylan’s.

click to enlarge Rosanne and Her Father
For 30 years, Cash has been one of the best singer-songwriters in America. She’s not the best known of that breed, but certainly among the most articulate. We expected her memoir to be well written. That it too expands this smarmy show-biz genre and turns it into something lasting and memorable is a literary weenie roast.

Cash’s songs were always unique, filled with ambiguities and knee deep in the messy catastrophe of life. Like Dylan, she rarely wrote conventional love songs. The message of her lyrics might be something like this: “I love you, and I hate myself for that because you piss me off so much.”

She attained her artistic maturity during her professional and personal partnership with singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell. Listening to Cash’s masterpiece, Interiors, which came out in 1990, you could hear the Cash-Crowell marriage breaking with each of the tracks. It was one of the most naked and truthful albums ever recorded. She later worked with producer John Leventhal, whom she also married, and the two of them created their share of small masterworks.

Along the way, Cash raised a good family, had brain surgery and managed to stay sane. She writes unflinchingly about the breakup of  her brilliant partnership with Crowell, the trials of motherhood and the addictions that nearly ruined her life.

But the best writing is saved for Daddy. Her fierce love for Johnny Cash drove her to become an artist and the man emerges here as the decent, caring father we hoped he would be.

When Rosanne graduated high school, her then-estranged father took her on the road. As they sat on the tour bus as it asphalted its way cross country, they talked about music. He was disappointed to learn she knew little of her musical legacy. He retired to the back of the bus and returned later in the day with a list of 100 songs he said were essential.

click to enlarge RosanneCash-2010-300-01
At the time, as a Southern California teenager steeped in The Beatles, she didn’t have much interest in the songs and their strange titles. But she kept the list.

As a mature artist, she decided to honor her late father by recording the songs and her most recent album, The List, may be the best album she ever recorded.

With The List and Composed, Rosanne Cash proves that talent still runs deep in her family.

PASS THE BUCK: I was one of those Beatled and Stoned teens like Rosanne Cash. In the late 1960s, I listened to Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo and not much “genuine” country.  To me, Buck Owens was just a clown on “Hee Haw,” a television show tso bad I couldn’t watch it.

What a dumb ass I was.

Later in life, I learned to appreciate the genius of that classic country music. (We have classic rock stations. How come we don’t have enough classic country stations? It's hard to find Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline or George Jones on the radio.)

Owens was a great influence on the Beatles and generations of country artists. In Buck Owens: The Biography by Eileen Sisk (Chicago Review Press, $24.95), we learn what a troubled complex man there was behind that toothy grin.

Neither gossipy nor trembling-lipped reverential, Sisk hits exactly the right tone in telling the story of this musical pioneer and his messy life.

TRANE TALKS: John Coltrane ’s best albums – Blue Train, Love Supreme, My Favorite Things – are the sorts of things we’d want to present to space aliens when they ask us “What is jazz?” Those masterful recordings are some of the best music ever preserved on tape.

Alas, Coltrane did not live to write a musical memoir, but luckily, he didn’t mind talking to journalists.  Chris DeVito has collected the best interviews in Coltrane on Coltrane (A Cappella Books, $26.95). It’s the closest we’ll ever get to an autobiography from the late, great saxophonist.

KNOCK ON WOOD: I was never a Carpenters fan – never liked that gooey, sticky sweet kind of pop music – but it’s hard to work up a strong counter argument when people begin gushing about the perfection of Karen Carpenter’s voice. How can you fault someone for having a perfect voice?

Maybe if she had better material, that voice might have been tested more. But Carpenter was another one of those artists who died too soon, before we really saw what was inside.

Little Girl Blue by Randy Schmidt (Chicago Review Press, $26.95) is a solid telling of Carpenter’s life. Watching her on television with her perfect hair and flawless voice, we might be deluded into thinking she had her shit together. Schmidt’s book makes it clear that she was fucked up eight ways from Sunday and had mother issues that made Joan Crawford look like Barbara Billingsly.

Even non-Carpenters fans (this is where I raise my hand) can’t help but be fascinated by this peculiar American tragedy.

William McKeen chairs the journalism department at Boston University and is the author of several books, including the acclaimed Hunter S. Thompson biography Outlaw Journalist, available in paperback.

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