Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Summer Reading:
John Peel: Margrave of the Marshes
(Chicago Review Press, 2007)
By John Peel & Sheila Ravenscroft
Clapton: The Autobiography (Century, 2007)
By Eric Clapton

A laconic, hard-working obsessive, John Peel was one of the most important DJs in rock history. He brought untold thousands of left field recordings to the attention of legions of appreciative listeners.

As a teen I spent many a night with my ear firmly glued to his late night show on the BBC. It was through Peel that I received my greatest musical education, discovering Euro-rock, high-life, punk, dub reggae and much more.

Peel’s autobiography - a dryly humorous love letter to rock ‘n’ roll - describes his soul-destroying years at an oppressive public school, relatively calm military service, his metamorphosis into a Dallas disc jockey and later canonization as the UK’s most influential - and beloved by his fans - arbiter of musical taste.

There are some intriguing nuggets of information, such as the fact that during his Texas period Peel schmoozed his way into a Lee Harvey Oswald press conference shortly after the JFK assassination. He is to be seen quite clearly in photos of the event.

Peel fans may be surprised at revelations that during his early rise to fame he had few qualms about exploiting his status as ‘top dj’ to indulge a rapacious sexual appetite. Sounds fair enough to me. I was also unaware that Peel was on pretty friendly terms with fellow Scouser John Lennon.

Since Peel had only completed 50% of his memoir before his untimely death, his wife Sheila relates the second half of his story. There is thus an abrupt shift in style, and I rather missed the great man’s lugubrious, self-deprecating tone. But Sheila provides insights only a wife could offer and does a great job under what must have been trying circumstances. This is a hugely informative and entertaining biography of a major figure in British music.

During Peel's rise to fame Eric Clapton was creating his own legend as the central figure in the British blues boom, originator of the power trio, ‘super group’ and blues rock, and a hugely successful songwriter who later created yet another niche as an MOR concert draw.

Clapton's excellent autobiography is disarmingly forthright, providing many insights into his multifaceted career. Moody and distant from an early age, he’s honest about the musical snobbery which caused him to abandon The Yardbirds in 1965 and wrongfully disdain many pop innovations of the early 60s.

Britain's guitar god is compellingly upfront about his feelings of sexual inadequacy and the head spinning variety of addictions which have plagued him throughout his life. The book is filled with tales of dissolution and tragedy but they're related from a touchingly philosophical perspective and never seem gratuitous or self-aggrandizing.

As a confirmed Beatles freak, I was delighted to finally get Clapton’s take on the legendary Plastic Ono Band performance at 1969’s Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Festival.

His account of being summoned by John Lennon to do the gig - joining him ‘on spec’ at Heathrow Airport - is priceless, and ends up with Clapton snorting prodigious amounts of cocaine backstage with Lennon before staggering on stage to unleash one of the great sets in rock ‘n’ roll history. It's all there on the classic Live Peace in Toronto album, one of Eric’s finest moments.

Despite all the madness, Clapton is most comfortable with his family, and my favorite passage - among all the rock 'n' roll hedonism - describes an eccentric uncle’s curious predilection for vinegar! I’m not a huge Clapton fan, have only ever bought one of his records, but I came away from this book with a new appreciation and respect for him as a musician and survivor.

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