Sunday, December 18, 2016

Book Review - Al Kooper Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards


                             Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards

                                  Memoirs of A Rock & Roll Survivor

By Al Cooper

The book is a longish 327 pages that include a two-page intro and a four-page preamble wherein Cooper identifies a five block stretch of Broadway in New York City especially 1619 Broadway (at west 48th), more commonly known as the Brill Building. Tin Pan Alley era flourished at the Brill Building (1930-1955). In the mid-fifties the Brill Building Sound took over @ 1650 Broadway. This is where Elvis Presley’s publishing were looked after. It was the base of operations for the Goodman family who handled the Arc Publishing Empire. They had a total lock on R&B and Blues with songs of Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf. Cooper certainly does his homework. He understands that British Invasion bands like the Stones, Dave Clark 5 and the Beatles recorded Arc songs to achieve a shaky cultural authenticity. As a wet behind the ears teenager, Cooper learned from some of the best songwriters on the planet including Goffin & King, Mann & Weil, Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield. Aldon Music was the premier song publisher from the early sixties onward. Cooper continued to improve his songwriting craft and by 1958 he was in demand as an up and coming instrumentalist and got a gig with the Royal Teens. They had a hit with a song entitled Short Shorts. Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons was an original member!

Kooper is a natural born story teller who can split the truth to make a point. Early on he befriended Gene Pitney and he decries his involvement with Gary Lewis when he wrote This Diamond Ring, originally conceived as an R & B song for the Drifters. They declined and a west coast producer by the name of Snuff Garrett cut a “white” version of the song. It became a massive hit that started Gary Lewis & the Playboys down the road of bubblegum and pop music for teenagers who liked their rock sugary and sweet.

In 1965 Dylan was god. Tom Wilson produced Dylan and he allowed Kooper to observe the sessions for Subterranean Homesick Blues. The next session was called for the next afternoon. As Kooper recalls, “Taking no chances I arrived an hour early and well enough ahead of the crowd to establish my cover. Suddenly Dylan came in with Mike Bloomfield and the session got down to business. I told Tom Wilson that I have a great organ part for the song.” Wilson was distracted with other chores and it allowed Kooper to play that ham-fisted organ part without Wilson’s consent. Dylan liked it, so he told Wilson to turn the organ up. Wilson complained, “that cat’s not an organ player” but Dylan wasn’t buying it so he told Wilson, “Hey, don’t tell me who is an organ player and who’s not. Just turn it up. Kooper admitted that he waited until the chord was played by the rest of the band before he committed himself to play the verses. Kooper was always an eighth note behind. However, “Like a Rolling Stone” was pure magic and it was the linchpin for the album Highway 61 Revisited. To this day, Kooper insists his abilities are only adequate, even though he plays several different instruments. He is also an accomplished songwriter.

Kooper has an astonishing list of musicians with whom he’s known. He developed Blood Sweat & Tears, his first great band, only to walk away when the tension proved toxic. The later incarnations of the band never got the acclaim that the first Kooper-led aggregate. It seems that Kooper’s early BS&T work was visionary.  Child is Father to the Man was an incredible album that is still highly regarded by rock/jazz historians.

Along the way he championed Lynyrd Skynyrd and helped build their illustrious career. The leader and singer Ronnie Van Zandt was close to Kooper and they became a strong alliance that created the band’s persona, that of country gentlemen, a close knit band of brothers.

 It seems that Kooper was everywhere at once, in demand as a session player or a producer whether it was the Tubes, Nils Logfgren, Rick Nelson, Eric Clapton, or Pete Townsend. In 1980, Kooper collaborated with George Harrison and Ringo Starr at Harrison’s home studio to complete his new album. They were on their fourth night of recording when news broke at 10am. An hour later Lennon’s death was confirmed. The sessions continued even as Harrison was grieving. Harrison was white as a sheet, real shook up. Wine was gathered and somber tributes made. The sessions resulted in Harrison’s album Somewhere in England. Harrison composed a single entitled “All Those Years Ago.” It was a loving tribute to John Lennon. Kooper was on the session providing the Wurlitzer piano.

Kooper has been there and seen it all. He struggled with addiction and loved and lost too many times to count. He ended up in television with his friend Charlie Calello, a popular musician and guru who arranged all the Four Seasons and Lou Christie hits as well as Kooper’s Stand Alone LP. Kooper and Callelo created whole new careers when they got involved with a television show entitled Crime Story. It gave them both a new lease on life.

This is a page turner of a book, an incredible memoir that leaves no stone unturned. It is both irreverent, lurid, and loving.  If you like rock & roll, jazz, blues, and a good story, then buy this book. It is an updated version that is a page turner with plenty of photographs. You can find copies on Amazon at a good price.



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