The Guitar Cave Book Review #1

For Post #50 I’m going to do something I haven’t done before — review a couple of really cool books. Yea, I know, “books, wow how 20th century!”. But some people still like to read words on paper and some of these people are guitar players or people interested in guitar players, therefore I will show two of the many I have. The first book is Skydog — The Duane Allman Story, written by Randy Poe and the second is Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire by Joe Nick Patoski. The first thing you will notice if you go check these two books out on Amazon is that they have almost perfect 5 star ratings. Yes! They are that good, no fooling. Because, let’s face it, there are plenty of books on musicians that just suck. Authors either make stuff up, cobble together previously released material, get a whole lot of important factual info wrong, or spend the whole book dwelling on non-musical issues (drugs, gossip, sex). But the two books here on Duane and Stevie are awesome in that there is all kinds of little-known info on their lives, but also a TON of stuff that guitar players will find REALLY INTERESTING. Both authors deserve immense credit and recognition for getting these books together and obviously have a sincere personal interest in the subject matter.

There are other common threads throughout Skydog and Caught in the Crossfire: Both Duane and Stevie were pretty CRAZY southern dudes who channeled unbelievable energy and focus into the guitar and blues-based music from a very early age. The fact that they both died tragically only increased the aura that surrounds them many years later. They both had close relationships with Eric Clapton who has said on different occasions how he had to stop what he was doing the first time he heard each guitar player. Of course Eric and Duane ended up recording a milestone album, Layla, together, and he and Stevie became very good friends, shared many a stage together and was instrumental in Stevie’s recovery following his 1986 collapse from 20 years of bodily abuse. Jimmie Vaughan, Stevie’s brother once said that Stevie always played like he was “bustin’ outta jail” but I think both Duane and Stevie always played like they were being chased by demons or maybe knew the clock was ticking and tried to get as much guitar out there as they could before time was up. This is pretty obvious in the following clip (a book review with film! How cool and novel is that?)

I knew quite a bit about Stevie before I read Caught in the Crossfire, but Duane Allman has always been a bit of mystery. He died when I was still a wee youngin’ and there weren’t a whole lot of guitar magazine interviews or books written about him, even though it was accepted that he was a legend. Neither the Allmans or SRV ever cultivated attention from, or were accepted by the media because they lacked the glamor appeal and hype that sells so much music. Duane was notoriously hell-bent from an early age. He acquired his first motorcycle around the same time he began playing guitar and his riding habits convinced at least one of his classmates at the time that “Duane was one of those people you meet in your life that you know is not going to make it to 30…He was as self-destructive as anyone I ever knew…You do things when you’re a kid that you’d never do when you were older — but he took it way past that.” However, Duane was also an extremely disciplined learner when it came to his approach to guitar. As I described in an earlier post, one of his classmates related how he would play along to his awesome record collection learning licks one by one, stopping the record with his big toe, letting it go to move on to the next lick when he had the first one down. He’d play the whole record that way, flip it over, and then do it again. Author Randy Poe alternates between his personal research and interviews from people who knew Duane well and this makes the story move and sheds some light on Duane’s personal troubles and motivations. By the end I KNEW Duane and all of the people in his life who had any interaction with him. The chapters on the milestone recording of Hey Jude with Wilson Pickett, the formation and road/recording days of the Allmans and the recording of Layla with Derek and the Dominos are all brilliant — it’s almost like being there. The glorious and painful saga of the Allman Brothers post Duane’s (and Berry Oakley’s) passing is covered and the book has an intro from the one and only Reverend Billy Gibbons. Fans of the band and guitar geeks will not be disappointed. I promise!

Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire is also a great read because it was obviously well-researched and, like Skydog, written by someone who has an appreciation for what Stevie accomplished. From a very early age SRV was a guitar force in Texas and he went on to break through to mass appeal and resurrect the whole genre of blues music.  Like Duane he was completely driven to make it, to the point where he super-glued a ripped callous back on his finger to finish a set. He gave the impression that he lived to play guitar and play the blues and his entrance to the big time — by way of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance and the first SRV and Double Trouble release, Texas Flood, was so overwhelming that the blues suddenly didn’t seen so out of touch with the 1980s. Stevie could adapt his blues to anything and make it sound current and relevant. Like Duane, Stevie lived at a Mach 5 speed and fueled by ever-increasing amounts of substances, ran himself nearly to death playing more gigs every year and sleeping only when he fell down. It would take a near-death experience to get him back and once again his determination allowed for him to clean up and resume what really mattered…making music. Joe Nick Patoski has input from a whole ton of people on this book and Stevie Ray emerges as a complete person with all of the good and bad that came with that. There are glorious highs and bar-soaked, creaky piano lows to this story but it is a very human portrait and Stevie, like any great literary hero, succeeds in the end. The late-80s SRV was clear-eyed and stingin! and when Stevie played like he does in the following clip, he had no competition.

There’s a lot music, a lot of music business and quite a few great stories in both of these books. I learned more than I expected and have a better picture of not only Duane and Stevie, but others who were important to the stories of these men: Greg Allman, Berry Oakley, Dickie Betts, Jimmie Vaughan, Tommy Shannon, Chris Layton and many others I’d like to list but that would take forever. Of course a feeling of tragedy permeates both books, but that is true of a lot of rock and roll tales. Because Duane and Stevie were both ALL about the music at the expense of everything else, physical health and well-being included, it is perhaps almost expected that their destinies would include an early death. The world was made richer by the music they created and you will be made richer if you check out either or both of these books. There is a distinctly American vibe to both stories and in a way, they are the stories of us all.

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