For his previous book, the fun and informative “Anatomy of a Song,” Marc Myers talked to musicians and producers about how some combination of experimentation, accident, talent and inspiration led to such classic records as “My Girl,” “Proud Mary” and “Ramblin’ Man.”
Minimizing the drug and sex stories isn’t a bad way to go; hearing about other people’s altered states is often like hearing about other people’s dreams. “Rock Concert” readers instead discover a parallel universe to the realm of rock star debauchery we’ve come to know. Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson recalls of touring: “I was always happy in my own company. The same was true of our guitarist, Martin Barre, when we were superstars, as it were. We would go back to our hotel rooms and read Agatha Christie novels or watch ‘The Dick Cavett Show’ on TV or something.” And drummer Max Weinberg writes that Bruce Springsteen drove his band to the next city as soon as possible after a concert: “What that did was keep us safe and out of so-called entangling alliances. He didn’t want us to be around the partying culture.”
Unlike some recent oral histories that zero in on a particular time and place — heavyweight tomes like Mark Yarm’s “Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge” and Lizzy Goodman’s “Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011” — “Rock Concert” tracks the growth of rock-and-roll audiences across the United States from small, dynamic shows after World War II to the televised double-stadiumspectacle of Live Aid.
The book begins promisingly in 1940s Los Angeles, with active participants in the music scene including tenor saxophonist Big Jay McNeely and songwriter Mike Stoller. Readers get a sense of the integrated audiences, the business that was emerging, and the performances from both the fan’s and the musician’s perspective. “The hall felt as if it was rocking on its foundation,” a photographer says of a Big Jay McNeely show. “He had created some sort of resonance with the audience. In some weird way, he seemed to be playing them.”
Also enlightening and, after the Astroworld tragedy last month, particularly resonant are the book’s scattered references to crowd safety. Way back in 1952, DJ Alan Freed learned that he had to make security a priority after a near-riot at the Moondog Coronation Ball. At the Fillmore East in the late 1960s, security staff was hired based on communication skills rather than imposing physicality. As Jerry Pompili, the former house manager, put it, “About 99 percent of your problems with people can be addressed and defused with information.” For Wattstax, a music festival held in August 1972, Stax Records co-owner Al Bell made sure that the LAPD would not be used to control the crowd at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, because “that would just generate friction.” Instead, he hired filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles as head of security. Bell recalls: “There were no incidents. ... We had around forty guys and no guns, none of that.”
Many of Myers’s interviewees — including Wanda Jackson, Ronnie Spector and D.A. Pennebaker — tell compelling stories, but he also includes material that doesn’t seem relevant to the big task at hand: how the logo of the band Chicago was designed, for example, or how Marshall Chess managed Rolling Stone Records. And by focusing on how audiences and venues got bigger and bigger, Myers leaves out almost all the music that was being played in clubs and theaters from the 1970s onward. As the book goes along, more pages are devoted to the way businessmen and tech teams handled the challenges (such as lighting and ticketing) of arena rock than to the experiences of musicians and fans.
The last chapter of “Rock Concert” concerns Live Aid, held in London and Philadelphia in the summer of 1985 to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia. The focus again is on logistics, including VIP-pass disagreements, staging challenges and Phil Collins’s flight on the supersonic Concorde (enabling him to perform in both cities). Although Myers calls it “perhaps the last spectacular rock concert before ticket prices climbed significantly,” he could perhaps have extended his account another decade or so; traveling festivals like Lollapalooza, the H.O.R.D.E. tour and Lilith Fair were all artist-driven (in varying degrees) and no more expensive than Live Aid. One of Live Aid’s promoters ends up with the last word, saying, “In many ways, Live Aid was the last pure rock concert.” Rock music certainly encompasses all sorts of things, but what’s purity got to do with it?
Abby McGanney Nolan writes often about American history and pop culture.
An Oral History as Told by the Artists, Backstage Insiders, and Fans Who Were There
By Marc Myers
Grove Press. 400 pp. $30
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