I love rock books. I’m a sucker for biographies, auto-biographies, band histories, rock history and those humongous coffee table books on bands like the Stones and Beatles which you can find for under 20 bucks at your local Barnes and Noble or Chapters on a regular basis. I recently had the chance to read the Al Kooper biography Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards and, not only was it a great read but it made me laugh out loud on numerous occasions, always a positive sign in my eyes.
Now the first thing you may be asking ye non-rock historian you is, who the hell is Al Kooper and why should I care? Legitimate question. You know the signature swirling keyboard intro to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone?” That’s Al Kooper. You know that mournful lone French Horn at the beginning of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want?” That’s Al Kooper. The producer of the first Blood, Sweat and Tears album or the first two Lynyrd Skynard records? The seminal “Super Sessions” record with Michael Bloomfield? All Al Kooper.
To say that Al Kooper has been around the music business is as much an understatement as Axl Rose is just a little bit eccentric. From being a noted session man, rock and roll sidekick and producer, Kooper has lived the rock and roll lifestyle up and down and all around. If you are looking for tales of sex, drugs and rock and roll they are all here but that’s not what I enjoyed most about this book. Two things that struck me upon closing it for the last time is that (1) this guy is funny and (2) it should be required reading for those just starting in the music “business” because at all points throughout this book you learn that songwriting and performing (both in studio and onstage) are a craft, something that should be taken seriously and something that should be nurtured and expanded upon at all times.
Now rock and roll should not be equated with classical music in the fact that absolute mastery of an instrument is a prerequisite to creating great music but certainly being able to build a great song with meaningful lyrics and a hooky main riff requires a great deal of musical intuition, something which Kooper demonstrates time and time again that he is capable of. What impressed me most about his approach to music is that he creates it as a true craftsman. Whether producing his own music, being a session-man on the music of others or producing in the control room of a recording studio, Kooper understands the sheer dedication required to make great music. Of course there is certainly room for the smash, bang, “three chords and a cloud of dust” approach to rock and roll and one can argue that the majority of rock and roll comes from the gut (and perhaps the loins) as opposed to the brain but long term one has to put in the commitment to make it in music and to really approach it as an art form. Rock and roll in a lot of ways has unfortunately become a disposable art form with music these days being replaced on a daily basis in the minds and ears of the great unwashed masses so if any musician really wants to make an impact beyond the “where are they now” file they need to approach their music with care. As you see time and time again in this book, the effort that goes into the music is definitely reflective of the final result and musicians in this day and age should certainly take that to heart.
If you are looking to music as a long term proposition then you should give it the effort it deserves and Al Kooper is certainly testament to what that entails. Plus he got to hang out with Keith Richards and hot chicks so the rewards are certainly there! A great and enlightening read by somebody who has been on both sides of the recording room window. Highly recommended.