A famous DJ's concert diary wings us to pivotal moments in rock and roll, but the typos kill our buzz.
Carter Alan, a long-time Boston deejay, has chronicled nearly a half-century’s worth of notable concerts that he’s attended, from tiny little college shows near his Pennsylvania hometown to behemoth festivals of rock legend. The result is fitful hybrid of pop culture history and personal memoir that is pleasant to delve into here and there but presents problems read straight through. Most chapters focus on a particular band, giving some context on the band’s place in music history and Alan’s place alongside them as either a member of the audience or as a more active participant: interviewer, emcee, etc. This personalization can be very effective: My life was like this when I saw this band. It’s a great idea when it works but it only works sporadically. In detailing the histories of these bands, Alan covers a lot of material with which fans are already familiar but Alan’s parallel life story, frankly, isn’t always that interesting.
First rock concert stories invariably make for great tales however and Alan’s is no different. His sense of awe at being so close to The James Gang at a local college in 1970 reflects the same slack-jawed joy every serious concert-goer feels the first time they see in person a band they love. It’s clear that the live music bug bites Alan hard as he actively seeks to sustain that joy by taking in shows from musicians familiar and otherwise. Neil Young, Traffic and Free follow in quick succession, with Alan taking a leap into the blues abyss by seeing B.B. King, knowing only King’s 1970 hit, “The Thrill Is Gone.”
A passage describing the unexpectedly powerful effect Stevie Nicks had on the audience at a Fleetwood Mac/Jefferson Starship gig perfectly captures the rapture one experiences when first coming across an unheralded talent. His depiction of the Clash’s legendary 1979 show at the Harvard Square Theater is visceral and exciting enough to have had this reader not only wishing he had been there but almost convinced that he was. An oddly moving chapter on Joan Jett shows her not only as devoted to her fans but also as a fan, refusing to start her show until the last notes of her take-the-stage song are complete. Additionally, there’s a lot of fun in tracing the course of Alan’s career from spinning records in a tiny little booth at his New Hampshire college to spinning them at WBCN, Boston’s legendary powerhouse FM station, and beyond. Fun too (and a little sad, I suppose) as he recounts how concert ticket prices rise through the years.
While Alan’s enthusiasm informs the book, sometimes it is to its own detriment. At times the prose resembles the you’re-great-don’t ever-change messages scrawled in one’s high school yearbook. Cogent truths such as “There is a certain liberation in seeing a show when you know practically none of the artist’s music” go hand in glove with clunkers like “I shook my fist mentally at the singer’s faithless lover, real or imagined; it didn’t matter” and “The instrument’s mechanical guts surely must have been jumbled expensively by the violent crash.”
Carter offers a thoughtful comparison on the velocity of gossip, pointing out that shit-slinging reviews of George Harrison’s 1972 tour took weeks to filter through magazines like Rolling Stone and Circus while bad performances now – and Alan makes a pretty good case that Harrison’s didn’t necessarily qualify – are on-line in their entirety almost before they’re over.
However, sober analysis like this is followed quickly by a chapter on the Rolling Stones that features grandiose qualifiers that reek of deejay talk: “Shamans of the backbeat,” “the real deal with no artificial ingredients,” “serious rhythm coal in the band’s boiler room.” This, combined with an almost DC Comics’ liberality in the use of exclamation points, is enough to make a reader shake his mental fist (but not at Alan’s faithless lover – Ed.). Fifty chapters worth of superlatives can’t be an easy gig but the incessant litany of jockey jargon smacks of – and this may be the unkindest cut – 1960’s AM radio.
There are moments when Alan chooses a questionable tone. After beginning a chapter with the grim story of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s last flight and the post-crash deaths of several members, he rather jarringly declares that it’s time to set the time machine to the date of Boston show. Yeesh, even Mister Peabody and Sherman could have come up with a more tasteful segue than that.
Editorial issues abound. There are repetitive passages: the twin tragedies of the Allman brothers is recounted thoroughly in the Skynyrd chapter then again in the Allman’s. It’s at moments like these when the book truly resembles a diary, as though Alan jotted down notes immediately upon returning home from a show and then didn’t bother re-reading them before turning it all into a book. A firmer, perhaps more music-oriented proofreader would have helped, especially with several errors/typos: AC/DC’s first album with Brian Johnson is at one point said to be called Black in Black; “Paradise City” by Guns ‘N’ Roses is renamed “Paradise Theater” (who’s likely to take more offense at that – G’n’R or Styx?); Colonel Bruce Hampton’s band is referred to as Aquarian Rescue Unit.
In the end, how much a reader enjoys this will rest primarily on how much they enjoy the bands featured. For me, chapters on the Clash, Talking Heads and the Ramones were easily digested. Those on Yes, the Eagles and Mötley Crüe not so much. Your mileage may vary.