I started thinking about autobiography written by musicians themselves. They were there, after all, inhabiting their own bodies as the music surged around them and through them, powered along by the rhythms of their own minds and bones, and they likely have a close personal relationship with their own unique perspective. A point of view which, when taken with others, might combine to give a wider field of view of a particular time and place. If you're at all interested in such things, that is.
I started thinking about this quite some time ago, but over the past few days, especially with reference to Genya Ravan's book of her life in music, "The Lollipop Lounge
." Genya, you might not know, spent her earliest years in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland, where her parents were assigned to work as slave labor in munitions. Can you imagine living in a reality that twisted and cruel, where you are forced to work each day making the ammunition to kill the very people who are likeliest to try to come rescue you?
Then just yesterday, thanks to an email list-serve, I was pointed to Country Joe's autobiographical notes
online. A constant work in progress, this section shares some of his thoughts and memories about Janis Joplin. (And this relates if only because of time period and the process of autobiography by musicians aspect). Also, as they were both females who sang, Genya and Janis were compared to each other and often. As if one would somehow describe the other. Genya was way across the country -- East Coast, so that was like being across the world, you know. Janis was sometimes geographically a bit closer at hand and so more familiar.)
I was around there then, too, and I can share some of the history. For instance, I remember Larry Miller, KMPX, and Joe's first EP. I was so grateful for KMPX, the free-form radio station, I wrote thank you notes to both Larry Miller and Tom Donahue. And that first EP of Joe's ... I even have a small personal connection with that release, placed in a mercantile setting of course.
Back in the mid-60's and last gasps of FSM, I ran into a fellow in his new incarnation as Country Joe's manager at Moe's book store on Telegraph when he was dropping off another small box of Country Joe and the Fish's first EP -- the one with the original great keyboard work on "Section 43." There it was -- a record! An EP with swirly black and white artwork, a few photos of the band on the cover (one of whom if I remember was standing at a tilt), and a handful of songs -- All for one thin dollar (plus tax.)
I guess everybody in the Fish school felt it was time to make a record, and they wanted to do it on their own. They even called up Samuel B. Charters who I've heard acted as producer for that one and had his name on the notes.
The EP (extended play) was a strange new European format, and one a friend of mine had tried out several years previous. It sort of fell between a single 45 and what I called a big record, an album. I used to joke and say that EP meant European Product, meaning something was foreign and strange.
Moe could barely keep the Fish disc in stock, and their manager/record distributor was standing at the counter wondering how much he should up the next pressing. As Joe and his fish continued their swim, the current was suddenly in their favor. I later saw their manager strolling down Telegraph looking a little more prosperous in his navy blue wool jacket and long woolen scarf about the neck, trying to control two salukis he had on leashes. I would see his wife riding a green motorcycle down University Avenue wearing a short yellow dress, Japanese flip flops, and one of those new rare and expensive prototypes, a headphone radio.
I ducked in to Robbie's Chinese Hof Brau one time during one of the many melees of the period, when I was caught in between cops and demonstrators ready to charge at each other again on Telegraph Avenue, the cook unlocked the door for me to help me escape the crossfire, and I sat sipping a big glass of coca cola across the room from Country Joe's manager, and he ordered a glass of coca cola, too, to drink while the teargas billowed outside.
A few years ago, as I was packing nearly my entire vinyl record collection to ship off for a charity radio auction, I ran across my copy of that Country Joe & the Fish EP. It might have fetched the proverbial pretty penny at the auction if the right collector showed up, but even so, I couldn't let a stranger have that. So I mailed it off to the woman who rode the green motorcycle all those many years ago. I figured she should have that for posterity.
Or have I told you this story before?
Anyway, Joe seems to take more of a tell-it-like-it-was beatnik approach to writing his personal history.
Genya's is a little different as autobiography, the parts I remember -- it's not a tell-all, no name dropping (which would have made the sales go up, I think). She just picks herself up and goes.
I usually keep my own reflections to myself, and edit them out because I don't think anyone would really be interested. For instance, if I were to write about Genya's, I could never work in a fact I recently learned -- that 25% of the concentration camp guards held PhD's.
And even with the Frank Zappa bio that Camille Paglia wrote about that I linked to earlier this week. Her article said Frank pulled his own kids out of school at age 15. That made me wonder. I remember when his brother Bobby was new to the school in my precious village. Frank likely was alarmed hearing about the Walter Knotts lectures at obligatory school assemblies. So Frank took on the role of a concerned elder and his younger brother ended up transferring to a Catholic academy, if I remember correctly, where there was also promise of a good education.
Anyway, musicians and autobiography. Here's another musician who is doing just that online