The Boston Phoenix
September 21 - 28, 2000

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Writing about Radiohead, Mali, and more

Cellars by Starlight by Ted Drozdowski

Mac Randall is downloading an MP3 file of a live Radiohead song when he calls from his desk in New York City. "It's one of the two songs on their new album that they didn't play on their last tour," he explains. "Now I've got live versions of everything on the album."

Obviously, Randall is a Radiohead fan. He's also the author of the just-published Exit Music: The Radiohead Story (Delta, 284 pages, $13.95), the first serious book so far on the English group who're modern rock's sonic equivalent of the Beatles -- another band the 28-year-old journalist fancies. The book took more than a year to write and research, time that included a trip to Radiohead's home turf around Oxford, where Randall investigated their families, their schooling, and their early performances and studio experiences.

"It was a fun project," he relates. "I wish they had agreed to take part in it beyond the interviews I'd already done with them when I was at Musician, but they had a record to make, so that's fine."

And now Randall's got his first book to promote. So this Tuesday (September 26), from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., he'll be revisiting his local roots with a book signing at Cambridge Music Center in Porter Square. Why hold an author event at a guitar shop? Well, for one thing, Randall is an exceptional guitarist who played around Boston before moving to New York in the mid '90s to take a senior editor's post at Musician. He still plays, in the NYC-based art-rock trio Fuller. (Meanwhile he's become East Coast editor of the Web music publication Launch. He's also been a contributor to the Phoenix.) Another reason is Randall's observation that "when you accomplish something that's significant in your life, it's good to go back to a place that's meant a lot to you to celebrate it."

Indeed, Cambridge Music proved to be an important part of the axis that spun Randall on his path. He went there in the '80s for lessons as a young prodigy and made friendships with the musicians who hung out at the store that colored his playing experiences and helped usher him into music journalism. That's where I met him in 1987, when he was just 16. I hired him as a fact checker at Musician. Mac was also able to plot his own course through Harvard. His graduation party was held at Cambridge Music.

Randall's talent for research and writing is evident throughout Exit Music, which should answer most questions fans have about Radiohead. But as a critic, I have to ask him whether he doesn't feel it's premature to write such a book about a band with a mere five-year history.

"I think they felt that was the case, and you could argue that it is," he replies. "I think that was the primary reason they didn't want to get involved. Their management told me, `We've done three albums and are working on a fourth. Kind of early in our career for that kind of thing.' "

As for Randall's next book, he's mulling a few ideas. "I'm having a hard time with the concept of doing another rock biography. If I were going to do such a full-length job on one subject again, it would have to be something I could stand for that period of time. With Radiohead, I'm just a huge fan of the music more than anything else. So my enjoyment of their music got me through it. But it's hard to think of that many other bands that aren't already written about for which I'd do the same thing. No one needs another book on the Beatles or Dylan."

Another ex-Bostonian , long-time Phoenix contributor Banning Eyre, recently published his account of his immersion in African life, In Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali (Temple University Press, 256 pages, $19.95). It's Eyre's story of the seven months of 1996 he spent in the city of Bamako living in the family compound of Djelimady Tounkara and studying with the master guitarist and leader of the Rail Band. His well-written narrative reveals a close understanding of griot culture and the world of myth, tradition, and cash-hungry practicality that surrounds it.

You could say that this book and the Malian apprenticeship were inevitable. Eyre, who's 43, has made a career of reporting on and performing African music. He produces programs for the public radio show Afropop Worldwide, and together with Sean Barlow he wrote Afropop! An Illustrated Guide to Contemporary African Music.

Before the events of In Griot Time, Eyre had been to Africa twice, traveling for two to three months each trip, between various cities. "On my second trip I had been to Bamako and met Djelimady," he explains by phone from his home in Middletown, Connecticut. "I just got a real message from him that this was a guy I could trust and could learn a lot from. And that he genuinely liked me and wanted to teach me. From a writing perspective, I knew there would be a lot of interesting things surrounding the experience of learning guitar."

The prospect of spending so much time in impoverished Mali raised issues. "I had apprehensions about how things would go regarding the dynamics of living with that family, whether I would become trapped in the world of one culture, whether I would just get sick or things would get stolen. The idea of staying six months or so was because it would take that long to learn a substantial amount of guitar. Also, I knew that I had to be there long enough for things to happen that would shape the period of time I was going to write about."

In Bamako, Eyre was submerged in the routine of a working griot playing weddings and parties and other events. He traveled to backwoods clubs and urban watering holes, making friends and becoming one of the rare outsiders allowed inside a way of life that seems unfathomable to most Americans. He also met Babani Sissoko, Mali's staggeringly generous patron of the musical arts, as well as one of the world's greatest con men.

As his book neared completion, Eyre approached the Stern's label about a companion CD. The result is a wonderful collection, also called In Griot Time, of the performers in his book, with many tracks that Eyre recorded himself during his adventure. And when he returned to Mali almost four years later, the money from the CD that he brought back for his friends warmed his welcome.

Today Eyre has found a group of musicians in Middletown with whom to play the Manding music he studied. "But we're all Americans. I feel we need to gel before we can attract an African singer. I know a lot of them who live in New York. And a vocalist is what we need to make it real."

Often he'll revisit the taped lessons he had with Djelimady Tounkara (whose nephew Balla now plays kora around Boston). "There's still so much to learn," he says. And he's organizing his notes and other material for another book. Buoyed by his experience in Bamako, Eyre went on to spend a similar stretch in Zimbabwe performing and living with the legendary Thomas Mapfumo and his Blacks Unlimited Orchestra. There he found a land unlike Mali, with much racial tension and violent crime, where Mapfumo is seen as a cultural and spiritual warrior trying to restore the Shona traditions that Zimbabwe's former Rhodesian government long sought to smash.

"This will be a much different book," he advises, "once I figure out how I'm going to find time to write it."

And then there's the blues. Randall's Exit Music deals with a band entrenched in the world of pop; Eyre's In Griot Time is about musicians in Africa. Two other notable recent books land in the territory between: blues. Neither Nadine Cohodos's Spinning Blues into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records (St. Martin's, 358 pages, $25.95) nor editor Jas Obrecht's Rollin' and Tumblin': The Postwar Blues Guitarists (Miller Freeman, 453 pages, $19.95) has a local connection, but both are likely to find an avid readership among the Boston area's estimable blues audience.

A solid history of Chess Records, the most influential American blues label, is long overdue. And Cohodos's book provides that and more. Spinning Blues into Gold reaffirms the role that Leonard and Phil Chess's businesses had, not only in establishing the sound of Chicago blues and its rock upstarts Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley (and thus providing a springboard for the likes of Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones) but in playing a part in the '60s struggle for civil rights and black empowerment. Providing a pleasurably detailed examination of how day-to-day business at Chess was conducted, Cohodos reveals both the mutual respect and the questionable paternalism that was the norm of Chess's dealings with its talent.

Although history has often tarred the Chess brothers as royalty robbers and skinflints, the truth is probably that Chess Records conducted its financial relationships with artists as fairly as most labels do today -- and possibly much better than other pioneering R&B outfits like Atlantic and Modern. Cohodos also gives us a feel for the essential humanity of Leonard Chess, a figure best-known for his foul-mouthed, hard-edged manner. This cultural historian fails to deliver on just one premise. Early on she makes the point that Chess Records was a "company built on the convergence of outsiders -- the Jewish immigrant from Poland and the black migrant from the cotton plantation in Mississippi." But this thread keeps slipping from her fingers.

Obrecht's Rollin' and Tumblin' is a less complex affair, a collection of interviews from great post-World War II blues guitarists plus the occasional profile, introduced by Obrecht's brief overview of the history of blues guitar. Some of the best interviews were conducted by Obrecht himself -- he's a former editor of Guitar Player magazine and winner of the Blues Foundation's Keeping the Blues Alive award for journalism. He's one of the rare guitar nerds who can translate his obsession into writing that appeals to both musicians and laymen. His summation of Muddy Waters' career is thoughtful and colorful. There's also his unusually personal interview with Otis Rush.

Other contributors including his Guitar Player peers Dan Forte and Tom Wheeler, on B.B. King, Albert King, Muddy Waters, and Johnny Winter in a joint interview, and Jimmy Reed. John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins, Gatemouth Brown, T-Bone Walker, Little Milton, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and a host of others are also covered. So the book makes a fine portal into the blues-guitar realm, and it gives aficionados another chance to sift through the stories and styles of the genre's formative players.

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