Finding three more different people in the music business would be difficult, but they are the subjects of current books.
Two are autobiographies that end at crucial turning points in their respective life.
The third is a life spanning biography of Wilson Pickett, for which author Tony Lambert should get an award. The Pickett who emerges in In The Midnight Hour is driven by an inflated ego, drugs and alcohol; is short tempered and violent. Not a likely hero.
Lambert nonetheless balances this with examples of humour and enduring friendships with such as Bobby Womack, who had his share of troubles. He is able to mitigate Pickett’s unerring ability to shoot himself in the foot with an appreciation of some of the greatest soul records ever, of which In The Midnight Hour is the prime example, by one of the most recognizable voices in any genre.
Pickett came from an impoverished background and forever was influenced by what he learned on the gospel circuit. Gospel never left him, which arguably is why he failed as soul got slicker and moved into disco. Music might have changed but he wouldn’t, or couldn’t. There were no more In The Midnight Hours for him.
Skinheads, Fur Traders, And DJs proves that everyone has got a story. In this case, it’s Kim Clarke Champniss’s. Champniss probably is best known as a VJ on MuchMusic, but that came later in his career. This memoir has to do with the formative years, growing up in London and being exposed, or endangered, by skinhead culture. He experiences the usual teenage growing pains before leaving England as glam was taking over and his keenness on club life, symbolized by the the authority of the DJ, began to peak. So much for skinheads.
He next is a quartermaster for the Hudson Bay Company and is posted in the Canadian north. Hello to the fur traders of the title. As so few of us have lived in the arctic, this is the most fascinating portion of a short book.
After a year of freezing, Champniss is bouncing around various Canadian cities, building a record collection and learning the DJ’s craft. The club business can be as shadowy as working up north is cold, but Champniss is too nice and too discreet to throw dirt around, if there is any. His story isn’t remarkable at this point yet still is enlightening as the music environment changes and Champniss with it. Then the book ends. Still to come are his experiences as a band manager, releasing a CD of his poetry, his years as a VJ and – last I know of – working with Andy Kim. Some of this is referenced in the last page, indicating there might be a volume two. There are at least 30 years to cover.
Another volume of Cake And The Rain would be welcome. As it is, Jimmy Webb’s frank memoir stops around 1973 with a recovery from a near fatal crash brought on by taking a tainted dose of what he thought was primo cocaine. Presumably, this was the end of his drug use and the start of a renewed life. That was 45 years ago
Like many musicians of the 70s, his eventual addiction started innocently, yet it also fed into a need to assert himself as a rebel that dispelled the clean image of a songwriter who’d become enormously successful as composer of By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Wichita Lineman, Up Up And Away and especially MacArthur Park.
MacArthur Park has an image of a cake left out in the rain, used in some quarters as the starting point of proof of a pretentious and possibly silly lyric. It’s a lasting, vivid and evidently contentious lyric that you could conclude still stings Webb. Or maybe it’s a source of defiant pride.
Anyway, it points to what is a seemingly eternal conflict. It can be seen in the constructive and occasionally destructive things he does. His relationships are complicated and his urges greased by success. He surfaces as an accomplished story teller as well as a songwriter, bluntly truthful but talking from rarefied insight. From that vantage point, Webb admires Paul McCartney but has a much lower opinion of John Lennon. Harry Nilsson shows up quite a bit toward the end, cast as an impish enabler, doomed though abundantly talented.
I just had this suspicion that Nilsson is the reckless freewheeler that Webb wished he could be. Jimmy Webb is still alive, though, for which the last pages of The Cake And The Rain are grateful.
If you read his first book, Tunesmith, there isn’t much learned about Jimmy Webb except that he takes his craft very seriously and for which knowledge of the technical components of music making is crucial. The Cake And The Rain is an earthy contrast.