he autobiography of Levon Helm, drummer for the Band, is a good read. His childhood reminiscences—about picking cotton on his family's farm in rural Arkansas, about watching Sonny Boy Williamson street performing out of the back of his King Biscuit Time school bus complete with amplifiers and an upright piano, about his whole family tumbling around inside their house as it cartwheeled across a field after being upended by a tornado, about the live sound of Elvis' band before and after Bill traded his doghouse bass for an electric and D.J. added that barrelhouse burlesque stripclub drum style—are great stuff. And he never misses an opportunity to take wickedly funny digs at Robbie Robertson, who he accuses of ripping off his bandmates by surreptitiously taking sole writing credit on the publishing for everybody's songs and then hoarding the royalties. Levon reveals that the reason the Band's performance wasn't included in the Woodstock documentary was that contrary to usual, Robbie's microphone was inadvertently left on and his terrible singing ruined the set, an oversight they were careful not to repeat during the filming of The Last Waltz. Levon describes watching his first screening of that film with Ronnie Hawkins, the rockabilly legend that first assembled the Band as his backup group decades before: "For two hours we watched as the camera focused almost exclusively on Robbie Robertson, long and loving close-ups of his heavily made-up face and expensive haircut. The muscles on his neck stood out like cords when he sang so powerfully into his switched off microphone. . . . Robertson earnestly told Scorsese, his hooded eyes rimmed with kohl, 'I couldn't live with twenty years on the road. I couldn't even discuss it.' The world-weary angst with which these and other lines were delivered were making Ronnie laugh. Hell, he'd been on the road twenty years and it hadn't killed him."





pent all day sick in bed with a cold, reading Legs McNeil's entertaining "uncensored" oral history of punk rock, Please Kill Me. An oral history is assembled by stringing together excerpts from interviews with many different people in roughly chronological order, without any editorial text or commentary. One of my favorite books in this genre is Nat Hentoff's oral history of jazz, Hear Me Talkin' To Ya. Legs McNeil—one of the guys who started Punk magazine, which gave the movement its name—uses reminiscences by Lou Reed, John Cale, Iggy and the Stooges, Patti Smith, the Ramones, Richard Hell, the New York Dolls, Jim Carroll, William Burroughs and others to tell the story of the NYC underground music scene starting with the Velvet Underground in the mid 60s up through the end of the original wave of punk in the early 80s. Main impressions: the never ending litany of people shooting up, throwing up, and nodding off reminds you that almost everyone in that scene, with a few exceptions like Joey Ramone, was a junkie. And in that pre-AIDs era, everybody fucked everybody else. You need a scorecard to keep track of all the stripper/hooker/groupies hopping from one strung out musician to another, and in fact I found one. Using Iggy as a starting point, some compulsive music buff went through the book and created an index of who slept with who, complete with corresponding page numbers—you'll find it here about halfway down the page under the title Six Degrees of Iggy Pop. It's pretty funny.





recently read two Muddy Waters biographies back to back. Can't Be Satisfied by Robert Gordon, a relatively high profile American music writer, was published last year by Little, Brown and Company with a slick cover, a foreword by Keith Richards, and a smug blurb on the jacket claiming there had never been a comprehensive biography of Muddy Waters until now. Well annotated and decently written, it's a bit jivey and hyperbolic in that hackneyed sort of way of most music writers, but by his own admission, most of Muddy's friends and bandmates were gone by the time Gordon began the book, and he obviously had to rely heavily on previously published source material and interviews.

he other biography, Muddy Waters: The Mojo Man by Sandra Tooze—published in Canada by ECW Press in 1997 with a foreword by Eric Clapton— is described somewhat dismissively by Gordon as using an extended Muddy discography as its foundation to trace his life through his recordings. Tooze's book is certainly less polished, and at times poorly written and amateurish—when was the last time you ran across the word verdant used twice in three pages in completely different contexts? But while Gordon spends much time exploring Muddy's personal life and extramarital affairs and illegitimate children, Tooze focuses in detail on his recordings and band members, often through lengthy quotes from her interviews with his sidemen, many now since passed away. For example, both tell the story of the arrest of an adolescent Junior Wells for stealing a harmonica from a pawn shop in Chicago, and how Muddy, Tampa Red, Sunnyland Slim and Big Maceo went down to the courthouse to vouch for the boy before the judge, who made them all sign documents making them Wells' court-appointed guardians. Gordon's book summarizes their departure fom the courthouse with one line: "Then Muddy took him outside and popped him on the forehead." Tooze's version includes this account from her interview with Wells:

s Junior was leaving court, Muddy caught up with him and ordered the boy to get in his car. Junior refused and started heading for the bus stop. "Oh, you'll get in this car," Muddy declared. "I just went in and signed my name on that thing. Do you know what that said?" Junior knew, but he still had no intention of obeying Muddy. He'll never forget Muddy's response: "He said, 'Oh, you're getting in there.' And he grabbed me, and I snatched away from him. . . . And he went bang, and he hit me right there [points to his forehead] and knocked me down. He pulled out his gun. He had an old .25 automatic. . . . 'You know I'll shoot you, boy. Now get in that car.' I got in that car."

ooze relates another great story from an interview with James Cotton. Years later, when Junior Wells was on tour with Muddy and walked out on the band in Florida, Muddy arrived in Memphis without a harp player and someone told him to go look up a cat named James Cotton, who had just imbibed a half pint of whiskey when Muddy first encountered him. Cotton remembered, "He said, 'I'm Muddy Waters,' and I told him, 'I'm Jesus Christ.' I didn't believe he was Muddy Waters." And one more harp anecdote from her book: In April 1954 Muddy's band went into the Chess studios to record "I Just Want To Make Love To You." Little Walter brought along a chromatic harmonica and Muddy had never one seen before, so he told Walter, "Don't rehearse on my session, motherfucker."