Writerly influences: A blog

I was asked to write a blog for the UK’s Books Combined site about the writers who influenced me, in re: T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit. Here it is:

Capturing notes in words – the books that shaped the music critic

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Being that I’ve spent a good portion of my life writing about music, particularly jazz and rock, you would think I’d be able to cite any number of music books that influenced or inspired me – that convinced me it was not impossible to capture notes in words, a task Thelonious Monk (allegedly) said was about as easy as dancing about architecture.

But while such obvious classics as Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train (which marked its 40th anniversary in 2015!) and Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway surely left an imprint on my sensibility, opening me up to the deepest meaning in the rawest sounds, I was shaped to a greater degree as a critic by fiction writers who created their own special music on the page. These masters thrived (and in some cases thrive still) on offbeat rhythms, soaring notes, complex tones and bracing themes and variations in much the same way, and with much the same delight, as the musicians I most admired.

The Dick Gibson ShowOne of my great favorites was Stanley Elkin, who may have been a less-vaunted member of the Jewish American Novelists club, but whose originality was unsurpassed by any of his bunkmates. During his lifetime (he died in 1995), he commanded a relatively modest following, largely because he was socked away in St. Louis as the Merle Klinger Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University. But if you haven’t read masterpieces of his such as The Living End, The Dick Gibson Show and The Magic Kingdom, don’t worry. His books are as binge-able, still, as the latest season of Orange is the New Black.

Reviewing Elkin’s 1992 odds-and-ends collection, Pieces of Soap, in the Chicago Sun-Times, I enthused about the way he celebrated language by “rodeo-riding it, spurring it with outlandish opinion.” One of the great wranglers of vernacular, he viewed “the nature of good dialog” as “confrontational, some Friday-night-fight-nite ring to things, or no, better, quotes from the weigh-in, a suggestion of the dangerous.”

Criers and KibitzersSometimes, that suggestion of danger risked offending. This from Elkin’s 1965 story, “A Poetics for Bullies,” included in the collection Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers: “I’m Push the bully, and what I hate are new kids and sissies, dumb kids and smart, rich kids, poor kids, kids who wear glasses, talk funny, show off, patrol boys and wise guys and kids who pass pencils and water the plants – and cripples, especially cripples. I love nobody loved.”

Oh, the outlandish zigs and zags that energized his works. Lit up by his contrary spirit, his stories and novels were lessons in shooting from the hip. They made you question every safe assumption you had about writing, and its reflection of reality, and about your own strengths and weaknesses at the keyboard. I can only wonder where Stanley was when I felt compelled to defend one of my jazz reviews (of Sonny Rollins’ 1987 Dancing in the Dark) a mere week after it appeared. I was thrilled with and enriched by the album’s crossover pop melodies; why did I give a hoot that some critics thought they compromised the tenor giant’s bebop-rooted genius?

All the King's Men.pngAll of my favorite authors boasted unshakable sensibilities: Robert Penn Warren, whose All the King’s Men asserted itself as a great American opera decades before they attempted to turn it into one; Ross Macdonald, whose intrusions of past on present in mysteries such as The Chilladdressed the very meaning of time; Don DeLillo, whose Great Jones Street staked a claim as the Great American Rock Novel; Scott Spencer, whose soaring, suffering Endless Love is Layla in lyrical prose form; Anglo-Irish minor-key master William Trevor, whose stories turn on what isn’t said, and his sad American equivalent Richard Yates, whose characters are haunted by things they wished they had said.

And then, in a category of his own, there was John Leonard, whose literary criticism – and TV criticism and cultural and social commentary – touched me in ways I can’t really describe because his influence had as much to do with his surpassing reach as the words themselves. While there’s no way I could ever come within a mountain range of his erudition – his reviews of such authors as Toni Morrison and Richard Powers had the effect of shaming you for not having read, or at least tried to read, everything the author at hand had ever published – that didn’t stop me from stepping out with what I thought was Leonard-esque brio in my reviews.

Leonard’s book collections, including The Last Innocent White Man in Americaand Lonesome Rangers: Homeless Minds, Promised Lands, Fugitive Cultures are as inviting now, for quick hits or extended stays, as they were when they came out. If many of the topics in them should by all rights be dated, the intellectual energy and sheer sense of joy he poured into them refuse to wear out their welcome.

T Bone Burnett 

A nationally known voice on popular culture, Lloyd Sachs has written about pop music and jazz for many publications, including Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, DownBeat, the Village Voice, USA Today, and JazzTimes. He was a longtime music columnist and award-winning editorial writer at the Chicago Sun-Times and a senior editor at No Depression, the prized “alt-country” magazine. His book T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit was published by the University of Texas Press in 2016

“New biography of T Bone Burnett is fascinating, revealing”

That’s what book columnist Lauren Dailey wrote in the Massachussetts newspaper South Coast Today about Lloyd Sachs’ milestone biography, T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit. Her piece, linked below, also includes a brief Q&A with Sachs.

http://www.southcoasttoday.com/news/20170507/booklovers-new-biography-of-t-bone-burnett-is-fascinating-revealing

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“An admirable, comprehensive, relatively quick read through the life and times of a musical force whose journey is far from over” – PopMatters

Writing for PopMatters, Christopher John Stephens adds to the widespread acclaim for Lloyd Sachs’ milestone biography, T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit:

http://www.popmatters.com/column/t-bone-burnett-a-life-in-pursuit-lloyd-sachs/

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“The best resource on the life and work of Joseph Henry Burnett III”

That’s what Texas Music reviewer Madison Searle declared in a two-page spread in the Spring 2017 issue, calling Lloyd Sachs’ T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit an “informed and generous sampling of T Bone Burnett’s life in music.” Hear, hear!

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“I WISH ALL BOOKS ON MUSIC WERE LIKE THIS” – LLOYD SACHS’ T BONE BURNETT: A LIFE IN PURSUIT, REVIEWED IN LEADING SPANISH ROCK MAG RUTA 66

 

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Here are (loosely) translated highlights of Jordi Pujol Nadal’s fantastic review, part of a T Bone package in the March issue of Ruta 66:

“A precise and detailed portrait of Burnett’s work that, for those who enjoy thoughtful  studies, works more as a thesis than a biography.”

“The story, rich in details and anecdotes, engages as well as impresses, with previously unpublished information, commentaries from friends and revelations on what happened in the studio.”

“Sachs, a skilled rat of digital libraries, shines in the contextualization – he always has juicy statements that help us to understand this subject or that disc.”

“Read it. You will be amazed at how much you learn. I wish all books on music were like this.

Thank you, Jordi!

“I WANTED TO EXPOSE A SIDE OF HIS TALENT THAT A LOT OF PEOPLE WEREN’T AWARE OF, EVEN AS THEY WERE PROCLAIMING HIM ONE OF THE GREAT GENIUSES OF MODERN MUSIC” – LLOYD SACHS, AUTHOR OF T BONE BURNETT: A LIFE IN PURSUIT, TALKING TO TEXAS MONTHLY

A BONE TO PICK

A NEW BOOK ON THE LEGENDARY PRODUCER REVEALS A PERFORMER WITH CHOPS OF HIS OWN.

MARCH 31, 2017 by  

T Bone Burnett at the 17th Annual Americana Music Festival and Conference in 2016, in Nashville.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANNA WEBBER/GETTY IMAGES FOR AMERICANA MUSIC

Music fans are likely familiar with T Bone Burnett for his behind-the-scenes work. He’s first and foremost a gifted record producer. The list of albums he’s orchestrated for other musicians, often contributing his own talents as a multi-instrumentalist, is extraordinary, among them the Counting Crows’s August and Everything After, the Wallflowers’ Bringing Down the Horse, and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand. Besides those standouts, he’s produced albums for B.B. King, Steve Earle, Elton John, Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, John Mellencamp, Gillian Welch, Tony Bennett, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison—even Spinal Tap.

Still, others might know Burnett exclusively for his TV and movie soundtracks. He’s worked on three Coen Brothers films: The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis. Then there’s Crazy Heart and Walk the Line. Not to mention the TV series True Detective and Nashville, created by his second wife, Callie Khouri.

But what many people don’t know is that Burnett, an Oscar and Grammy winner, has had a brilliant solo career, spanning around a dozen releases since 1980. Bringing that to light was part of the inspiration for the new book T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit, by the Chicago-based journalist Lloyd Sachs, who will host a talk at BookPeople on Saturday.

“In certain cases, T Bone was his own worst enemy in the studio on his own stuff,” Sachs says. “None of his albums were commercially successful, and I think he really wanted to be considered among the Jackson Brownes and Warrens Zevons of the singer-songwriter generation. And a lot of times his self-consciousness got to him. On the production end of it, he would just play with the stuff and he wouldn’t leave it alone.”

Burnett did not make himself available for the book but Sachs, who has written extensively for the Chicago Sun-Times and No Depressionand has a previous book titled American Country: Bluegrass, Honky Tonk and Crossover Sounds, has interviewed him in the past. Each of the chapters in T Bone Burnett, published by the University of Texas Press, addresses a different identity of the enigmatic subject.

This includes Burnett as Svengali to his first wife, the singer-songwriter Sam Phillips, as she transitioned from a Christian to a secular musician. The book also refers to Burnett as a “Dylanologist,” because of his shared history with Bob Dylan, from playing guitar in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour in ’75 and ’76 to recording Dylan songs on Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, in 2014. Then there’s Burnett’s life as an activist, fighting against licensing legislation and advocating for musicians to get their proper monetary dues.

T Bone Burnett was born Joseph Henry Burnett III in St. Louis, in 1948, but he grew up in Fort Worth. As a teenager during the British Invasion, he gravitated to the Beatles because they experimented with sounds. He was also a blues hound, scarfing down Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters. Perhaps his biggest influence, though, was his childhood schoolmate and friend Stephen Bruton, best known for playing in Kris Kristofferson’s band. Bruton was a guitar whiz whose skills informed Burnett’s.

T Bone Burnett opening for the Who at the International Ampitheater on October 5, 1982, in Chicago.

PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL NATKIN/WIREIMAGE

“T Bone’s guitar playing tends to get overlooked, because it’s not about flashy solos,” Sachs says, “It’s all about feel, rhythmic feel. He’s got Texas blues seeped into his system.”

The impact Bruton had on Burnett extended to Bruton’s dad, who owned a record store called Record Town. At the store, Burnett got hip to arcane acts like the pre-blues singer Dock Boggs, whose song “Oh Death” would become a lynchpin for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which was a hugely influential album that more or less birthed the Americana genre. The two old friends would pair up again later in life, when Bruton was gravely ill, to collaborate on songs for Crazy Heart.

After graduating from Paschal High School, Burnett attended Texas Christian University for a spell, where he was in the ROTC, but dropped out to start working as a producer at Sound City, also in Fort Worth. He plucked the Legendary Stardust Cowboy off the streets and recorded his novelty hit “Paralyzed.” He also helmed the cult album The Unwritten Works of Geoffrey, Etc., by the psych-folk band Whistler, Chaucer, Detroit and Greenhill. (A former member of the group, David Bullock, will join Sachs in discussion at BookPeople.) These early experiences laid the foundation for the singular approach Burnett adopted later in his career as a producer.

“He makes everybody incredibly comfortable, and he doesn’t push his ideas on anyone,” Sachs says. “He actually sets up the studio in a kind of living room setting where he brings in couches and soft chairs and soft lamps and just creates this environment. He has some special incense that he burns too—some Peruvian incense that supposedly has great properties.”

Burnett (right) with Elvis Costello (left) at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, in Santa Monica, California, in 1984.

PHOTOGRAPH BY SHERRY RAYN BARNETT

Burnett eventually moved to Los Angeles, where in 1972 he released his first solo album, The B-52 Band & the Fabulous Skylarks, under J. Henry Burnett. A couple of years later he went on tour with Dylan. After that he formed the Alpha Band, featuring fellow players in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. The Alpha Band had a religious sensibility that would inhabit Burnett’s future work. In 1980, under the now well-known moniker T Bone Burnett, he released Truth Decay, which many consider his proper debut. With a combination of blues, folk, and country, Burnett served up parables and tales of personal struggles.

“Early on there was a certain religious underpinning to a lot of his stuff,” Sachs says. “He was kind of tagged a born-again artist, which is oversimplified and really probably not accurate. But there’s a definite spiritual drive to the songs he wrote, which had in many cases to do with belief and the difficulties of that life.”

As time wore on, elements of noir, spawned by the works of the mystery writers Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy, pervaded Burnett’s work. And surrealism and biting social commentary in his lyrics became the standard. However, an exception to that is his eponymous 1986 album. Stripped down and recorded over a few days in an all-acoustic setting with some Nashville session players, the album features Burnett singing from the heart. Songs like “River of Love” showcase Burnett’s ability to deliver deeply felt songs of his own.

“I wanted to expose this side of his talent that a lot of people weren’t aware of, even as they were proclaiming him one of the great geniuses of modern music,” Sachs says. “There are just so many dimensions to him.”
BookPeople, April 1, 2 p.m., bookpeople.com

L.A. AND AUSTIN CHEER “T BONE BURNETT: A LIFE IN PURSUIT”

Embarking on a whirlwind tour of the West Coast and South Coast, Lloyd Sachs presented his biography of music legend T Bone Burnett to enthusiastic crowds at Book Soup in Hollywood and BookPeople in Austin. The latter stop was highlighted by an appearance by David Bullock, onetime member of Whistler, Chaucer, Detroit and Greenhill, whom Burnett produced in his Sound City studio in the late ’60s.

Bullock’s lively commentary included a little-known tidbit: The cover of the group’s cult album, The Unwritten Works of Geoffrey, Etc. (coveted by drummer Lane on Gilmore Girls) , was taken by design student Guy Clark – who, with only three members of the ad hoc band present, inserted himself into the frame as the fourth player! This was before he began writing songs, on his way to legendary status.

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David Bullock and Lloyd Sachs at BookPeople

Those in attendance at the Book Soup event included film producer and T Bone collaborator Albert Berger, who first worked with Burnett on Cold Mountain; A&R and music publicity icon and writer Bill Bentley, who worked at Slash and Warner Bros. during the post-punk era that spawned Los Lobos and Burnett’s Trap Door EP; documentary makers Annika Iltis and Timothy Kane (The Barkley Marathons:The Race That Eats Its Young), and actor and Hollywood Beauty Detective creator Holly Fulger.

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Lloyd Sachs at Book Soup

Talking T Bone in L.A. and Austin

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Lloyd Sachs will talk about the writing of T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit, sign copies and read from it at two great bookstores. On March 30 at 7 PM, he’ll be at BookSoup in Hollywood, not far from Burnett’s West Coast manse. And on April 1 at 2 PM, he’ll be at BookPeople in Austin, Texas. There will be musical surprises – details to come. Come on out and hear about one of the great figures in American culture.

AUTHOR LLOYD SACHS CHATS UP “T BONE BURNETT: A LIFE IN PURSUIT” ON MILWAUKEE PUBLIC RADIO’S “LAKE EFFECT” AND APPEARS AT BOSWELL BOOKS

Talking T Bone at the fantastic Boswell Books in Milwaukee, Lloyd Sachs was joined by ace rockers John Sieger and Mike Hoffmann of Semi-Twang. They performed Burnett’s “River of Love” and Sieger’s “The Strangest Kind,” recorded by the BoDeans on their Burnett-produced Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams.

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Sachs was interviewed on “Lake Effect” by co-host Bonnie North. “It wouldn’t be difficult to play a six degrees game with T Bone,” Sachs told her. “He really has rubbed up against so many artists in one way or another.”

To hear the program, which features John Sieger, go here.

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BONNIE NORTH

The Talking T Bone caravan continues in late March in Los Angeles and Austin. Details to follow!

NO DEPRESSION CHOOSES LLOYD SACHS’ “T BONE BURNETT: A LIFE IN PURSUIT” AS ONE OF THE TOP 10 MUSIC BOOKS OF 2016

From Henry Carrigan’s article: “Lloyd Sachs’ critical appreciation of T Bone Burnett pulls us in with a magnetic force, or, better, like a fisherman pulling in a catch that’s bigger than life.”

Read the piece in its entirety here.

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