(Sorry if this review’s a little disjointed — I’m not particularly well today).
This review will, to an extent, be a matter of comparing the book to my own work, and there’s very little I can do about that — simply put, had I known this book, which came out last month, was being written I probably never would have Kickstarted my own California Dreaming book. Not that it’s actually much like my book, but because it fills the same niche my book was designed for.
I’ve been saying for years that someone should write the whole story of the LA music scene in the 1960s, and Harvey Kubernik has done just that, taking forty years’ worth of interviews, and condensing them into a coffee-table book full of Henry Diltz photographs that manages to cover, at least lightly, the whole vista of LA music in a sixteen year period. Kubernik has got interviews here with pretty much anyone who was involved at all in the music business in LA during the years it was the most vital town in the world.
The book’s strength is also its weakness. It tries (and to a large extent successfully) to cover everything. This means that it covers a lot of music that I’m ashamed to say won’t be in my book on LA music, particularly a lot of music by black and Latino musicians, who dominated the late 50s LA scene — by choosing 1956 as his starting point, he can talk about a lot of musicians like Johnny Otis, the Coasters, and Richie Valens — hugely important figures who my own book, concentrating as it does on 1960 to 1970 and a fairly small number of individuals, simply can’t deal with. (And this does make me question my own book somewhat, because I haven’t really dealt with the way the surf scene and the music that followed it — the music I’m writing about — essentially involved a load of white boys dominating a town that had previously been dominated by black music. This is something I *need* to think about when revising the book for print.)
The downside, though, is that Kubernik can’t really do justice to any of the people he talks about. Not only does he deal with pretty much every major figure to come from or be based in LA, he deals with every major figure from elsewhere who had a connection with LA. So we get longish sections on Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Ike & Tina Turner, the Rolling Stones… anyone who recorded in LA at all.
This means that no one act can get dealt with in any real depth, and the book is full of anecdote with very little through-line, but the anecdotes are marvellous. Kubernik has managed to get interviews with *everyone* — scenesters like Kim Fowley and Nik Venet, pop stars like Roger McGuinn and Brian Wilson, session musicians, record company executives, DJs, songwriters… anyone who had anything to do with the record industry during that sixteen-year period at least gets to tell a couple of their best stories. Everyone from Carol Connors (who sang with The Teddy Bears, Phil Spector’s first group, before later writing hot-rod songs like Hey Little Cobra) to Dan Kessel (the son of Barney Kessel, the Wrecking Crew guitarist) gets interviewed, by way of Lou Adler and Bones Howe.
The result is sometimes frustrating, simply because a tighter focus might have allowed for more detail, but at the same time there’s something to be said for a book which covers (to just take a handful of the people whose photos are shown in the endpaper) The Monkees, Nat King Cole, Linda Ronstadt, Michael Jackson, Brian Jones, and the Doors.
Everyone is guaranteed to discover some new interesting fact or story from this book, from almost every page. As an example I just chose a random page, and even though I have written books about the Beach Boys and the Monkees, I never knew that the Beach Boys’ song Breakaway was inspired by a Monkees song (presumably Someday Man, though Brian Wilson doesn’t say which one).
This is a coffee-table book, with all that that entails, but it’s a good one, and those of you who are more visually oriented than me will love the photos (about half of them by Henry Diltz, and many that I’ve not seen anywhere else).
It’s not quite an essential book, simply because the scope is so broad it will put off people who are only interested in some of these bands, but it’s a really, really good one, and it’s one that everyone who has a real interest in LA music from 1956 to 72 will appreciate.