Going Over The Books 001

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

"What is truth?” It's important for a review of The Boy In The Song – The True Stories Behind 50 Rock Classics to ask that question only because it also needs to ask if a convenient re-telling of established and well-documented facts coupled with some colorful but vague conjecture can pass for truth these days. While this novel can be entertaining, it is entertaining in a 'fluffy storytelling' way  – not in a way which even fumbles toward fact-finding or journalism. As long as readers know that before they open this book, The Boy In The Song – a book which theoretically attempts to uncover and present some of the true stories beneath the artifice of pop – can be enjoyable; however, if anyone is looking for real history or factual accounts of the men which might have inspired some of the great story-songs in rock history, they'll find this book sorely lacking in several places throughout these 144 pages.

The first point of complaint about The Boy In The Song is that readers are presented with a list of song titles on the table of contents, but no preface or explanation why authors Frank Hopkinson and Michael Heatley elected to try and discover the stories of these fifty songs; after the table of contents, readers are simply thrust forward to Example 1 (which happens to be “Amazing” by George Michael) and are left to deal with the fact tat the only flow or momentum of this dialogue is dependent on alphabetical order.

…And then there is the content itself. To be fair, Hopkinson and Heatley chose to work on a pretty imposing body when they tried to decipher some of the songs included in this book but, because they don't always work hard to dig into the material, one has to question why they wouldn't have simply chosen easier fare; the successes that they do enjoy are solid, but those that only get treated lightly are pretty laughable.

The two greatest successes logged by The Boy In The Song are its coverage of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd and “Walk On The Wild Side” by Lou Reed. While the authors would have had to work laughably hard to somehow mishandle “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” (the story of Sid Barrett and Pink Floyd's love letter to him are well-known, often-explained and easy enough to research), Hopkinson and Heatley begin digging into Andy Warhol and his cast of characters at The Factory for their coverage of “Walk On The Wild Side” and present what they find very well. Readers will find themselves glued to the duo's prose as they uncover the characters in the song including Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis and “Little” Joe Dallesandro – who were all working alongside Reed at Warhol's Factory during its heyday and, in this particular case, the authors don't do too badly with their presentation; they get all the names right and help to connect how those names associate with the singer's character in addition to enriching the song. True, after forty years of other journalists and authors doing the exact same research over and over again (in some cases, there are now interactive exhibits at children's museums) it's not difficult to get the background right on “Walk On The Wild Side,” but hearing the story and about the characters again – even in a cursory manner, as is the case here – is entertaining and satisfying.

Far less satisfying are the mini dissertations offered up on songs including “A Day In The Life” by The Beatles, “Malibu” by Hole and “You Oughtta Know” by Alanis Morissette. Unfortunately, each of those (and more) excitedly and passionately offers little more than conjecture and unfounded speculation on the background of the songs and meanings of the songs. For example, The Boy In The Song explains Courtney Love's relationship with former Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain at length and even goes into the finer point's of his substance abuse problems and suicide – but doesn't really connect any of it with the song. If that was the route the book's authors had wanted to take, a better choice of song would have been “Rock Star” from Live Through This (which actually does get mentioned with lyrical citation here) – but that this was the route they took just weakens the movement of the story, and relegates a lengthy passage to the status of being little more than an aside which could have been entitled, “And we pause now to talk about Nirvana because we want to – not because it suits the tone of the rest of this book."

The same sort of weakness manifests again (but with a slightly different angle) when the the idea that the male antagonist in Alanis Morissette's “You Oughtta Know” is actually the singer's ex-boyfriend Dave Coulier gets broached. There, Hopkinson and Heatley try to build a pretty provocative argument for Coulier being the muse of Morissette's most confrontational song, but get the former Full House star saying simply, “I'll just let the urban legend folks keep spinning that one” while the singer herself refused to go on the record either way. In effect, readers get the height of fey, anti-climactic meandering here, and it's just frustrating.

The artful dodging and half-handed provocation continues into the analysis of The Beatles' “A Day In The Life.” After Heatley and Hopkinson establish that, yes, this bombastic song was actually the assemblage of two half-completed works brought together by producer George Martin, the authors stall as they try to reconcile their theory that Lennon's half of the song is about the death of British socialite Tara Browne, and how it's entirely possible that Browne isn't actually dead. The prose begins to flounder pretty pitifully  as the authors make much of Browne's excesses before blurting simply, “There is still a body of people – and a book called The Walrus Is Paul – who believe that Paul is dead and is now actually Tara Browne with plastic surgery” before limping away, as if to imply that s point has been well-made and proven (which, of course, it hasn't).

The problems with Hopkinson and Heatley's appraisals of “A Day In The Life” and “You Oughtta know” are pretty representative of the problems which come up elsewhere for some of the other forty-eight songs covered here, when problems do come up. The main with The Boy In The Song problem is that, if it hasn't been said dozens of times in other tomes, it gets mishandled here. That's because all these two writers did was come up with an idea and then hoped to research out their answers and arguments; they did no original interviews to substantiate the arguments presented in this book. Simply said, they seemed to hope that someone else had already done the work and they'd be able to just compile it and present their own slightly augmented treatise with it. Needless to say, the ground it's standing on is shaky but, if all one is looking for is a light read which doesn't require much of an intellectual investment, The Boy In The Song is entertaining, if not informative.


The Boy In The Song – The True Stories Behind 50 Rock Classics
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