Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Saturday, April 28, 2012

“Revival: A Folk Music Novel” by Scott Alarik (Peter E. Randall)

This review breaks new ground for this particular blog - I have never reviewed a novel before, and didn’t expect I ever would. Indeed, it has been many, many years since I’ve so much as READ a novel. But Scott Alarik is an old friend of mine, albeit someone I haven’t seen for close on to 30 years, so I’m very pleased to have had the opportunity to peruse this book.

Scott Alarik came out of Minnesota during the 1970’s as a singer-songwriter with a deep, sensitive voice and songs to match. After moving to Boston in the 1980’s, he became a folk-music journalist, writing about one of the most active, most vigorous folk-music scenes in the country with the same levels of awareness and discernment he brought to lyric-writing. Now, he brings his writing skills and knowledge to a novel based in that same Boston-area folk scene, not merely to tell us a story, but also to make cogent observations about the worlds of traditional and contemporary folk music, and the ways these related genres nourish each other.

On the surface, this would appear to be a love story. Nathan Warren is an aging singer-songwriter whose once-bright future stalled, spiraling him into a rut in which he manages to survive by hosting an open-mike, overseeing a jam session, and teaching guitar to students who possess very little potential to ever match his skills. His efforts in these roles are appreciated and highly respected, yet they represent a much lower level of success than was originally predicted for him. But then, a much younger, more modern-styled singer-songwriter named Kit Palmer enters his life through the open-mike, and the two become lovers as well as collaborators. Much of the storyline revolves around their burgeoning relationship, as well as Nathan’s attempts to point Kit toward a musical direction and career path best suited for her talents.

At first it seems as if Alarik might be offering us a roman a clef. In the opening segments, set largely at the open-mike, I was entirely convinced that I knew exactly who Nathan Warren was supposed to be in real life. Then I realized that in many ways Nathan Warren must stand for any number of open-mike hosts whose dreams of a bigger platform for their talents never emerged the way they’d hoped it would. Other characters likewise have inexact or composite parallels in the real world, including a local folk-music critic named Ferguson, whose role in the folk community seems very much akin to what I suppose Alarik’s own role to be in Boston. It is no doubt always a mistake to think that authors are incorporating themselves into their own novels in exact replica. But I’m probably safe in saying that Scott Alarik is in some measure writing about what he knows in the delineation of the Ferguson character, as well as others in the book. I suppose there are people who will read this book with the primary purpose of seeing who else they think can identify, But they would only be shortchanging themselves by doing so, as there is far more at work here than a mere reproduction of particular people at a particular locale, in a particular time.

In the long run, it doesn’t matter who the characters may or may not be modeled after, or whether they are composites of people the author knows. The more one reads, the more Nathan, Kit, and several of the other characters become newly-created individuals, not merely “types”. And the deeper one gets into the reading of this book, it starts to become clear that this is not merely a love story about a middle-aged has-been-who-never-was and his beautiful young lover on the way up. Indeed, it is not really about the people - it is about the music. Nathan instills in Kit an increasing love for the traditions which lie at the foundation of folk music as practiced in the 21st century, traditions which Alarik is careful to discuss openly with the reader. Likewise, Kit teaches Nathan some of the contemporary realities of up-to-date songwriting styles - Alarik inserts adaptations of real songs by Dar Williams and Antje Duvekot (fully credited in an appendix) to stand-in as songs written by a young female writer of considerable talent - while at the same time, she incorporating elements of the traditions she learns from him. Nathan performs traditional songs at his open-mike, while welcoming new songs by newer writers,. He guest-lectures on traditional folk-music at Harvard, and eventually teaches a folk-music-history class at a local folk venue. Alarik gets to draw from his own considerable knowledge of folk traditions, in the service of revealing some of the ways in which older and newer styles of folk music draw from each other. One can read these insertions as adjuncts to the love story, or one can interpret the love story as a means by which the author may express eternal truths about the way folk-music progresses, by always renewing itself while retaining kernels of the old realities, which never really become old, after all.

Thus, the title “Revival”, a book about a cultural idiom - and about characters - perennially in the process of renewal. This is not merely a novel set in the world of folk music, it is ABOUT folk music. Thus, the subtitle, “A Folk Music Novel”, is entirely appropriate. I would think anyone who cares deeply about folk music, its past, present, and future, will find much pleasure and much to ponder while reading this book. I recommended it highly.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

“WIXY 1260: Pixies, Six-Packs, and Supermen” by Mike Olszewski and Richard Berg, with Carlo Wolff (Black Squirrel)

Those of you of a certain age - in this particular case, those who came to maturity in the 1960’s - will remember how IMPORTANT radio was to us. It was our lifeline, our entree into the popular music which we felt represented our ideals and way of life, our connection to what people around us were considering to be new and hip and worthy of our era. Yes, there were local scenes in the 1960’s, but there also was, or so we thought, a consensus developing as to what was good and what wasn’t., even though it was never really the case that “everybody” agreed. We thought we all listened to the same songs (not really) on the same stations (of course not), and hung on every word spoken by the same DJ’s (though we can barely remember half their names now).

No, we never were that much in lockstep, even if we tended to feel that way at the time. Perhaps because radio has lost so much of its magic in this digital age, thanks to the Internet, iTunes, iPad, downloads,, many of us who were around when radio DID possess true magic - from the 1920’s into at least the 1980’s, perhaps 90’s - may have developed a tendency to romanticize its importance. I, on the other hand, KNOW how significant radio was in my life. Approaching my mid-60‘s, I still do a show on a college-radio station, still review books about radio, still keep in touch with like-minded friends, and in fact do just about everything except listen to radio. Because radio’s no fun anymore.

Along come the authors of this little book (144 pages) to remind us much fun radio used to be. WIXY was a small AM radio station in a big city (Cleveland), which successfully took on the clear-channel giants and long-established on-air favorites, quickly building itself into a major player in a major market, only to stumble awkwardly when the music changed and a new medium (FM radio) caused drastic alterations in America’s listening habits. Founded by three young men who loved radio and were eager to please their audience, WIXY appealed to the masses through a combination of the hottest Top 40 music going during the mid-60’s, popular on-air personalities, and wild, attention-grabbing promotions.

“WIXY 1260” - the cryptic subtitle will only mean something to people who remember the station and its on-air branding - traces the swift rise of a locally-driven format which could appeal to an across-the-board pop-music audience which had not yet splintered into subcategories and warring factions, those by-products of the dreaded out-of-town consultants minutely studying target demographics. The comings and goings of the station’s personnel are tracked - this was not an era in which it paid to become TOO attached to a particular jock, aside from certain superstars who would stay with a station seemingly forever - as are dealings with sponsors and visiting performers. But what many (including myself) may find most memorable are the detailed descriptions of the station’s promotional stunts and gimmicks, many of which were elaborate to the point of seeming preposterous in retrospect. And considering some of the headaches that came the station’s way as a result of a few of these promotions, they doubtless seemed preposterous at the time as well. But they worked, helping to increase the station’s audience many times over.

Yet, while the station rose to the #1 position in the ratings uncommonly quickly, its fall from grace dragged on far longer than it probably should have. The original owners saw the writing on the wall - the rise of FM as a listening alternative with superior sound quality, the introduction of the FM band to car radios, the split of the audience into “progressive FM” vs. “easy-listening”/”adult-contemporary/AOR” formats, the growth of the LP over the 45-RPM single - and managed to sell the station without losing their shirts. The new corporate owners struggled to succeed until the ignominious end. Success stories are always more pleasant to read than tales of woe, but one can often learn a lot from stories of failure as well. Thus, I wish the authors’ analysis of the station’s demise were as carefully detailed as their examination of the station’s success. The book is divided so that each chapter covers a particular year. Once we reach the 1970’s, the chapters become much shorter, the story less detailed.

But the first half of the book tells the success story in such a way that it made me wish this were a station I would have been able to listen to. Living in Western New York, I could hear WIXY’s top competitor, WKYC, loud and clear after sundown, weather conditions permitting, but WIXY itself was too low-powered to reach this far east. I would surmise that this book would have its greatest appeal to people who fondly remember hearing WIXY during its 1967-68 heyday. But since there were smaller, well-loved stations such as WIXY in many other parts of the US, I have a feeling that anyone who loved radio during the era will find much to identify with here. (I suppose this is where I should insert my memories of WNIA in Cheektowaga, NY, as format-free a Top 40 station as one could hope to find in the mid-60’s, but that’s really a story for another day.)

Recommended more to fans of radio-nostalgia than to people looking for music-nostalgia. But a nice little book, nevertheless. Black Squirrel Books is an imprint of Kent State University Press.

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