Rock Dreamsby Bill Tuomala
See, there's this book. It's something of a secret because nobody I knows owns it or is aware of it. It seemingly gets published in a new edition every few years, then quickly drops out of print again. In the early eighties as a teen in the first throes of my rock 'n' roll infatuation; I used to flip through a copy of the book at the B. Dalton store in Grand Forks, entranced. I don't know why I never bought it then, times were tight or maybe I thought I could just absorb it whenever I wanted while at the mall.
Like I said, the book has more often been out of print than readily available, but over the years the thought of it - its images, its words - stuck with me. Almost twenty years after those times in the mall, I did some web surfing and bought a used copy from Powells.com. I was fortunate as it was the same 1982 edition as that one I used to thumb through. I've been playing serious catch-up with its pages ever since.
The cover of the book misleads. It shows Jagger and Dylan in a diner. Jagger has his arm around Dylan, who is enjoying a cup of coffee. The back cover continues this image. Lennon, elbows on counter, stares off into space. Presley is next to him, enjoying a milkshake and looking like he wouldn't mind a conversation with the Beatle. If this evokes that overexposed print Boulevard of Broken Dreams - the one that features Presley, Monroe, Dean, and Bogart in a diner - don't worry. Open the cover and you will find the most subversive rock book ever published.
It's called Rock Dreams and it deals in myths, dreams, nightmares. Things you're pretty sure you saw in your rock 'n' roll mind any time it was left to wander. Johnny Cash in a work farm prison; Solomon Burke and Wilson Pickett as ultra-slick pool hustlers, icily dropping opponents left and right; Eddie Cochran on the street corner scoping out chicks, yearning; The Band as Civil War soldiers; Jim Morrison looking gorgeous in leather trousers, perched on a stool in a queer bar; Bob Dylan in the back of a limo, his star attained, fur coat and shades on, cut off from the world.
The images are by painter Guy Peellaert. He is a Belgian and a "born icon-painter" as Michael Herr writes in the introduction to the 1982 edition. He went on to do the cover art for David Bowie's Diamond Dogs and the Rolling Stones' It's Only Rock 'n' Roll. His work in Rock Dreams is alternately creepy, fascinating, and hilarious. For instance:
The Beach Boys miserable in a very real rain that doesn't appear in their songs, trying to re-start a vehicle that is simply named "GREED."
Phil Spector as avenger, filled with a silent knowing rage as his hits top all comers, time after time.
Diana Ross dually beautiful and ugly and dressed to the nines; having her driver take a hurried trip through the slums to check up on the status quo.
Ray Charles - I can't even write about this one, it needs to be seen to be believed. Amazing.
The words are by rock critic Nik Cohn. He is a Brit who wrote one of the earliest and best histories of rock 'n' roll, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom (some of Cohn's ideas in Rock Dreams originated in this earlier book.) In Rock Dreams, he provides short narratives on each artist.
Peellaert and Cohn's collaboration works wonders. Consider the magnificent job that they do on the Rolling Stones. They're portrayed in page after page as drunken gluttons; as show-tune peddlers dressed as pirates; as Nazis in SS garb, surrounded by naked pre-teen girls ... the sequence ends with an image of Jagger alone, based on his role in the movie Performance. While this book was published in 1973, the words ring true three-plus decades later after Emotional Rescue and Steel Wheels and Bridges to Babylon and a half-dozen live albums: "Even though his stock of games had long since run out, he went right on playing them, over and over and over."
Cohn's few sentences per page often double as brief prose poems:
"Somewhere in this city, so vast and impersonal, so loud and harsh and filthy, there is still a refuge, where nothing can reach you, where fun is still fun." (on the Drifters)
"Night after night, leaping high upon the piano, he preached his fiery tongues, in sermons of arrogance and lust. Then his audience would surge forward and storm the stage, like converts, to shake his hand and be blessed." (on Jerry Lee Lewis)
Cohn also has a matter-of-factness that works well in other pieces:
"If there must be bullshit, at least they would manufacture their own." (on sixties-into-seventies soul artists such as Sly Stone and Marvin Gaye)
"When it seemed that every singer must become a seer, every group a mystic set, Rod Stewart came along and was simply a delinquent."
The first half of the above sentence speaks not just to Stewart's early work, but also to the complacency present in popular culture today. It's a landscape where there is a convenient genius that appears monthly to grace the covers of kneepad-wearing music magazines. There's American Idol and all of the mysteriously over-adored shows of its ilk that bring the shit karaoke of the corner bar to your living room; but just like karaoke there is none of the passion, chaos, or unpredicatbleness of true rock 'n' roll.
When it comes to books on rock, no amount of poetic myth-making or punk-purist outrage has ever been able to match the images and prose in Rock Dreams. Again, Michael Herr in the introduction to the 1982 edition: "No wonder, looking through it even today, that you can't say whether what you're seeing is glorious or sordid, celebratory or morbid."