For my first 64 years on the planet, I never gave any serious thought to writing a book. But in 2017, I discovered the main thing you need for a book – a good idea. Sailing on our first-ever rock cruise, which featured Gregg Allman, I discovered 2,700 rock fans paying at least $2,000 each to hear music that was supposed to be just a passing teenage fad in the mid-1950s. I wondered how exactly did this come to pass.
And now today, 3 years later, my first book — Come Together: How the Baby Boomers, the Beatles, and a Youth Counterculture Combined to Create the Music of the Woodstock Generation — has been published and released.
For now, it is available exclusively at the Politics and Prose book store in Washington, DC. It can also be ordered from the Politics and Prose website. However, the book will be rolling out in other places and as an e-book soon.
Although Elvis Presley would later become as influential in Las Vegas as Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack who ruled the flashy entertainment scene in the 1950s and early 1960s, Presley’s first reception in the Nevada city of garish neon, glittering showgirls, and 24-hour gambling was far from a triumph for the hip-swiveling young star from Memphis.
In fact, Elvis’ debut in the 1,000-seat showroom of the refurbished New Frontier casino on April 23, 1956 was a flop. Backed by his three-piece group, guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, and drummer D.J. Fontana, Presley performed a 12-minute set consisting of just four songs – “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Money Honey”.
The critics were savage. “Elvis Presley, coming in on a wing of advance hoopla, doesn’t hit the mark here,” wrote the critic for Variety. “For the teenager, he’s a whiz; for the average Vegas spender, a fizz”.
Meanwhile Newsweek contended the 21-year-old rock and roller was “like a jug of corn liquor at a champagne party”.
However, 13 years later, when Presley returned, he initiated a casino career that would make him a Vegas legend, transform the way entertainment was presented in the city, and create a local industry of Elvis impersonators and Presley-themed wedding chapels that is still operating today.
In his latest book, Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Vegas Show, author Richard Zoglin details Presley’s casino showroom concerts that helped revitalize his career, as well as those near his death that demonstrated what a bloated, tragic figure the King of Rock, who died at age 42, had become.
“Elvis had a huge impact on Las Vegas,” writes Zoglin. “It raised the stakes, both in terms of money (his $125,000-a-week salary was a record at the time, soon to be surpassed) as well as production scale and promotional hype.” It also attracted a new breed of middle-class, mom-and-pop pilgrims from Presley’s vast, now multi-generational fan base, who traveled to see the King as well as play the slots. Vegas began to shed its seedy mobster trappings and morph into a family-friendly destination spot with a corporate sheen”.
In a review of Zoglin’s book in The Wall Street Journal, Eddie Dean says while Elvis definitely benefitted from his residencies, Las Vegas might have been even a bigger winner. “Las Vegas may have gotten more in the bargain than did its most enduring celebrity, who is still a presence there: from the scores of Elvis impersonators to shrines like the Graceland Wedding Chapel, where fans the world over come to tie the knot”.
So what is Presley’s true Vegas legacy? In Zoglin’s view, it’s the way he opened up Sin City to a broader range of music styles and ultimately to a new sort of spectacle. “Elvis created the model for a different kind of Vegas show: no longer an intimate nightclub encounter for an audience of a few hundred, but a big-star extravaganza, playing to thousands,” Zoglin contends.
As a creator of songs, poems, prose, and visual artwork, multi-talented poet laureate and grandmother of punk rock, Patti Smith, now 72, continues to achieve the success she was hungering for as she was coming of age in a working-class community in southern New Jersey in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Her first album Horses, released in 1975, is ranked number 44 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all-time and number 10 on its list of the best debut LPs. In 2009, the Library of Congress placed Horses on its National Recording Registry for its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.
Her book Just Kids, which described her relationship and life with controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe in New York City, won the 2010 National Book Award for nonfiction.
In 2005, the French Ministry of Culture awarded Smith the title of Commandeur des Arts des
Lettres, the highest honor given an artist by the French Republic. In 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2016, she attended the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Sweden on behalf of Bob Dylan, that year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, who could not be present due to prior commitments.
Earlier this month Smith appeared at George Washington University here in Washington, D.C., to talk about her new book Year of the Monkey. She told those of us in attendance that this was her first presentation on the work, which had just been released that day, and she was planning to try a few things out to see how they worked. Smith’s ideas included performing four songs live as a duo with her band’s bass player, Tony Shanahan. Smith and Shanahan’s stunningly powerful version of “Pissing in a River” (see YouTube video at top of page) prompted a deserved standing ovation. Smith, who has been known since the ‘70s for her activism especially on climate change and the environment, also offered a cover of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” with its classic line “look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s”.
As for the book, Year of the Monkey, combines fact and fiction to create a dreamscape of the year 2016. Much of the book deals with four significant changes familiar to all of Smith’s fellow Baby Boomers – aging, change, loss and death.
Here is one of my favorite segments on that topic from the chapter entitled “Imitation of a Dream” that Smith read to the audience:
I suddenly felt dead – no, not dead, more other-worldly, a grateful kind of dead. I could feel life scurrying about, a plane overhead, the sea just beyond, and the unfolding note of “Dark Star” (a classic Grateful Dead tune) drifting through the grid of my screen door. I could not bring myself to move, and let myself be transported elsewhere, long before I knew Sandy (her long-time friend who had just died), long before I listened to Wagner, to another summer at the Electric Circus, where a young girl slow-danced with an equally young boy, awkwardly in love”.
In another favorite passage, Smith speaks for so many of her generation when she writes:
I had bad feelings about an election in the Year of the Monkey. Don’t worry, everyone said, the majority rules. Not so, I retaliated, the silent rule and it will be decided by them, those who do not vote. … Election night I joined a gathering of good comrades and we watched the terrible soap opera called the American election unfold on a large-screen TV. One by one each stumbled off into dawn. The bully bellowed. Silence rules. Twenty-four percent of the population had elected the worst of ourselves to represent the other seventy-six percent. All hail our American apathy, all hail the twisted wisdom of the Electoral College.
Finally, here is a link to an article on Smith by Karen Heller that appeared in The Washington Post just prior to her book talk sponsored by Politics and Prose.
10 Must-Listen-To Songs by Patti Smith
Because the Night (from Easter)
Pissing in a River (from Ethiopia)
Gloria: In Excelsis Deo (from Horses)
Frederick (from Wave)
Gimme Shelter (cover of a Rolling Stones’ song from Twelve)
My Blakean Year (from Trampin’)
Wicked Messenger cover of a Bob Dylan song from Gone Again)
Many people believe that the rock stars of the late 60s and early 70s, fueled by a diet of drugs, alcohol and adoration, engaged in a decade-long series of wild, sex-filled parties after their sold-out concerts. Linda Ronstadt, one of the most popular singers of that period, admits that while the times could be wild, they were not the same for everyone. “Did I try things? You bet I did,” Ronstadt says. “But my addiction is to reading. I was the girl back in the hotel room reading and knitting”.
Actually reading is much more of the pastime with rockers than you might imagine, Ronstadt explained a few years ago at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC.. “A musician was the one who turned me on to Anna Karenina “The piano players always read; the drummers not so much. The piano player was the guy who had to calm things down. The lead guitar player was like the high-strung pitcher and the piano player was the catcher”.
She compared the life of a touring musician to that outlined in seafaring books like those ofHeart of Darkness author Joseph Conrad. “Those books capture how provincial a sailor’s life is. The harbors are the same all over the world. You hang with the same scabby old guys. You don’t go beyond the harbor. Being on tour is very much like that. There’s the bus, and the hotel, and the sound check, and the show, and the dinner, and then the after-dinner playing. And then you do the same thing the next day”.
Ronstadt, now 67 and battling the crippling effects of Parkinson’s disease that has dictated she will never sing in public again, was appearing at the festival to talk about her new memoir Simple Dreams, which focuses on her upbringing in a musical family in Tucson and the evolution of her career.
“My Dad sang these Mexican standards and folk songs,” she told the crowd of fans that packed the huge tent on the National Mall. “I just wanted to be a singer. I didn’t want to be a star”.
Ronstadt first came to national attention with the band the Stone Ponies and their 1967 hit “Different Drum”. She settled in the southern California area and began putting together a new band. She was able to recruit Don Henley on drums, Glen Frey and Bernie Leadon on guitar and Randy Meisner on bass. If those names sound familiar, it might be because those 4 went on to form The Eagles, one of the biggest selling bands of all-time. “They started playing (opening) shows together and regularly blowing me off the stage, but I didn’t care. It was great music and I was loving it,” Ronstadt said.
She says she is still amazed about those days in Los Angeles. When she was 18, she met a singer/songwriter who was one year younger. His name was Jackson Browne. “I was astonished that someone that young could write songs that well. And the 1st guitar player I met was Ry Cooder. He was up on stage playing his ass off like a demon”.
In the 70s, Ronstadt released a series of hits that showcased her versatility such as “Heat Wave”,”Blue Bayou,” “Tumbling Dice” and “You’re No Good”.
She also had a series of boyfriends, including current Oakland Mayor and former California Governor Jerry Brown. But despite the fact that she raised 2 adopted children, she never married. “I didn’t get married. It wasn’t important to me. I was a serial monogamist,” she said with a laugh. Although Ronstadt enjoyed her time in the rock limelight, she actually pulled herself out of the business to devote time to raising her 2 children, who are now 19 and 22.
Ronstadt said she was inspired to write her memoir after reading other such volumes like the one penned by fellow singer Roseanne Cash. “I thought I would like to write a thank you note,” she said. “I wasn’t the most talented singer, but I was one of the most diverse singers. I wanted to write about why these musical choices weren’t arbitrary. And they certainly weren’t career moves”.
She did a series of standards arranged by the late, great Nelson Riddle in the 1980s, predating such singers as Rod Stewart and his American songbook. She followed that with a return to her Mexican roots. “That was music I was passionate about. I had to sing it or I felt I would die,” she said.
There is a belief that all music stars with hit records make millions of dollars. “That just isn’t true,” Ronstadt said. She cited an article on her current book tour that portrayed her as squandering a fortune. “The writer wondered why I couldn’t afford a $20 million house. Oh gee (hitting herself in the head for emphasis), I must have snorted it”.
Ronstadt says the recording industry of her days is a thing of the past. “The record business I knew is completely gone. Now we don’t have any gatekeepers. They knew what a good record was”. Ronstadt says that while she is not against change, “the price we pay may be much too dear for what we lose”.
And while she describes herself as not particularly political, she does have strong feelings about the immigration debate. She contends that like much of America, the golden era of 20th Century music was nurtured by great American immigrant songwriters like George Gershwin. “It was completely created by the fact that we were a nation that was welcoming to immigrants,” Ronstadt said. “We allowed them to come in and find their place. We allowed them to prosper, which is what people from Mexico and Guatemala and El Salvador and Liberia and Libya and all these people would be doing now if we let them. We need to help them find their place. “I don’t know why this country doesn’t learn.”
Of course, she is asked how she feels about the Parkinson’s that has robbed her of her singing voice and forces her to steady herself with the aid of 2 walking sticks. Her succinct answer – no regrets. “I had a great career. I had an unusually long run at the trough,” she says.
This summer, a praised documentary on the life and career of Ronstadt was released. You can check out the trailer and a review below.
To read David Browne’s review of the documentary, click here