Book Reviews: Amy Rigby, Todd Rundgren, A Year in the Country

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Amy Rigby

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Girl to City: A Memoir

(www.girltocity.com)

First things first.If every musician with a story to tell could write a book this great, ghostwriters would be out of a job.And if every musician had a tale like Rigby’s, then there’d be a lot less nonsense clogging up the bookshelves.

Rigby is probably best remembered as the brains behind Diary of a Mod Housewife, the 1996 debut album that threatened… and, when you listen to it today, still threatens… to establish her among America’s most potent songwriters.

That the remainder of her career has largely been lived in the shadow of that album is irrelevant.Among those who have kept up with her since then,, she continues to set a high bar for all, as illustrated by the success of her last album, The Old Guys (Top 100 in last year’s Pazz and Jop critics poll) and single, “The President Can’t Read” (#1 in Rolling Stone’s Real Life Top 10 earlier this year).

The fact that her memoir should prove as buoyant, observant and downright compelling as the best of her music, then, should surprise no-one.

The story opens in Pittsburgh, in 1973, with the fourteen-year-old Amy winning tickets to see Elton John at the Civic Arena.“Do you love Elton John” was the DJ’s question.“Do I love life itself?” was Rigby’s reply, and that was all it took.

Elton was a good role model, at least during those years when Bernie Taupin wrote his finest lyrics, to accompany the erstwhile Reg’s most transcendent melodies.A role model because, though it takes a few chapters before Rigby gets into her own songwriting swing, that’s the standard that she set herself.Her trick was to keep it going.

She leads us through her life and career… school, college,sudden swerve to a New York City which was more fabulous than she’d ever imagined, and more bizarre too - not even “Walk on the Wild Side,” she admits, ���could… have prepared me for the freak show.”

But she slipped into the local scene, hanging at CBs and Max’s Kansas City, seeing the bands that made those venues so vital; she went to England and bought a striped mohair sweater (like “I’d seen Johnny Rotten wear in photos”); she went to Paris and saw a subtitled West Side Story; and then she returned to New York and formed a band.And another one.And another one.

That’s the Clift Notes version of the first half of the book.But read between those lines (which means reading Amy’s own), and it’s impossible not to get caught up in the… you don’t want to say “petty dramas and domestic mishaps” that she lived through, but those things are always far more fascinating when they’re happening to someone else, and Rigby’s writing brings them into full day-glo focus.You can feel the distortion, smell the damp, see the clothes, hear the guitars.Get the haircut!

And once her career (and her life) does start picking up, finding a focus and making things work, still the story enthrals, to the point where the possibly-slightly-maybe-abrupt ending leaves you howling for more.The book closes where most people probably came in, with the release and reception of Diary of a Mod Housewife, but it ends with Elton John on the radio, and what do you do?

You run into the other room to play Madman Across the Water.Or should that be Mod Woman….?

Todd Rundgren

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The Individualist: Digressions, Dreams and Dissertations

(Cleopatra Books)

That’s one alarmingly foreboding subtitle you’ve got there, Todd.But there again… well, it’s Todd.What do you expect?

Besides, again… it’s Todd.You know he doesn’t mean it, and so The Individualist rattles along without making good on too many of its titular threats.See, Rundgren may seem like a serious guy sometimes, the sort of chap who is prone to dissertations.And he certainly doesn’t mess around when he’s making his albums.

But he does, as well.Think of his appearance on Midnight Special way back when, glammed up like an other-worldly Christmas tree.Recall his production of Bat Out of Hell, hurling everything but the kitchen sink into the sonic landscape, then reconsidering and slinging the sink in as well.

Todd Rundgren makes records like they need to be made.No expense spared, no risk untaken, no idea unexplored.If you’re familiar with Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies card set, imagine taking the full deck and throwing it into the air, and then obeying every suggestion as you pick them off the floor.

That’s how Rundgren makes his best records, and that’s how The Individualist feels.As though he’s throwing everything into the mix, and then rearranging it to read its best.A recollection here, a revelation there, a sonic boom to make sure you’re paying attention… you’re hooked before he’s even left home, entranced as he skips through the life of the Nazz, and by page 65, engineering Jesse Winchester, you know he’s not leaving many stones unturned.

True, The Individualist could have been more individually designed.Rows of type without even some bold or italics to lighten the vista; line breaks instead of indents; and paragraphs that go on forever (complains the guy whose current favorite book is Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport… 1,000 pages in just sentences), with all the photos sequestered at the back.The paper’s too shiny, as well.

But reading it, you slip so easily into the Rundgren mind that you’re running side-by-side all the way, into the studio, off to Kabul, watching the Tubes, meeting Steve Jobs.Yeah, we’re all going to find a project or two that he either skipped over, or glossed through too fast, but he compensates for that with the things you didn’t know.

His allergy to cats. How he didn’t go to college.The morning he woke up and realized his girlfriend was actually “Kaiju, a Godzilla-like creature that destroys things out of blundering ignorance.”And the pictures, when you do finally get there, are worth the wait as well. Especially that one family photo, where Todd’s pulling a face that’s more Munster than maestro.

A chunky hardback, a solid read, a lot you didn’t know. And maybe that subtitle’s not so foreboding, either.What he says is what you get, but he distributes all three so well.

Stephen Prince/A Year in the Country

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Straying from the Pathways: Hidden Histories, Echoes of the Future’s Past and the Unsettled Landscape

(ayearinthecountry.co.uk)

The wyrdfolk/hauntology themed website A Year in the Country long ago established itself as perhaps the definitive guide to the weird, wonderful and just plain “wow” that lurks in the undergrowth that has sprung up over Britain’s recent past… namely slivers from the sixties, the bulk of the seventies, and the shadow of the eighties as well.

Regular CD releases, constantly updated online investigations and, from a couple of years ago, a first book collecting the site’s assembled wisdom - all these are essential acquisitions for anybody whose heart misses even half a beat at the mention of Quatermass, the Warminster Thing, The Wicker Man, Stonehenge, public information films - any and all of a crop circle full of remembrances, “do you remember that show where…”; “yes, but what was it?”

The hum of high tension wires, the lure of dark waters, a movement in the shadows by the tumulus after dark.Not quite the supernatural, but not the natural either.

Similar worlds and remembrances have been celebrated elsewhere - Scarfolk, Hookland, the Tales of the Black Meadow.The difference is, they’re all (allegedly) fictional. A Year in the Country takes reality as its starting point, and not only makes its weirdness tangible, it tells you why as well.

Straying from the Pathways is very much the child of the earlier Wandering Through Spectral Fields, in that author Prince’s eye remains firmly fixed on things you may not have seen, even when you were watching them.

Again, the emphasis is on the kind of print and broadcast media that they just don’t (or won’t) make any more, salutary lessons in the fact that not everything you think was just the wind in the trees or moonlight in a mirror can be quite so easily explained away.

But the only ghosts here are the memories of how these things make you feel - movies and TV shows for sure, but also events (the 1984 Miner’s Strike); personalities (Danielle Dax, Nigel Kneale), music, comedy.A full run of Misty comics, and the face behind the faces on the cover of an old AA Guide Book.

And all in search of that certain something that you feel is rooted in all of them, a promised land, a long lost paradise, a happy land simultaneously resplendent in the sun-drenched meadows of John Betjeman’s brightest imaginings, or plunged into the bible blackness of Dylan Thomas’s Milk Wood.Cockleshell and unsure.

Straying from the Pathways is an easy read, but a demanding one - how else to describe a book that gives you the full Jane Fonda work-put routine, as you get up to see if this show’s on YouTube, to check that movie’s on blu-ray, to ensure this book is in the library, that song is on your iPad, and who is that whistling “Danny Boy” beyond your garden wall?

And if you reach the end, and you’re still sitting comfortably… well, let me tell you about this other book I once read, years ago.