A recent interview with Black Keys guitarist and vocalist Dan Auerbach wound its way toward a discussion about the garage blues duo’s best Boston shows, which inevitably meant recounting a famous Paradise Rock Club blowout in October 2003. What a night that was–the band was just breaking big across the country, and they were at their shaggiest, bashing out songs up through 2003’s “Thickfreakness”, and a bone-rattling take on the Stooges’ “No Fun”.
Oh, and as Auerbach noted in his reserved, dryly witty style, “It was pretty cool when Al Kooper showed up.” And Indeed it was—the sideman legend giving his tacit endorsement to the young Akron, Ohio twosome by sitting in for two selections on organ, grinning and nodding his approval as Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney kicked up a fussy racket. Kooper’s cool like that.
“I just finished his book,” Auerbach said, recounting the night and his meeting with Kooper. “Man, did that guy have a lot of balls.”
It’s true: Kooper’s Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards, reissued for the second time this spring more than 30 years after its original publication in 1977, has the same effect as Al Kooper the man: cool like that. And ballsy. Definitely ballsy.
It’s organized by rock eras as a Kooper highlights-reel, and best digested in short bites. Kooper is an exhausting storyteller; reading too many at once feels like trying to keep up with a chatty party guest who, instead of realizing that most folks have already headed home from the soiree, insists on opening another bottle at 3AM. And you’re not sure you want to stop him either, even though you’re up for work in a few short hours.
But that’s also Kooper’s strength: he doesn’t talk himself in circles or backfill with inane details like in so many other rock life biographies just to make sure it’s all there or that we, the reader, are aware of with how many famous people he crossed paths. You can get lost in his stories, and read for hours—I finished this new edition of in three sittings—without realizing how late it is, or that their sometimes-goofy, always-folksy charms had won me over completely.
You can admire the work as literature, not merely a catalog of good “we were so fucked up when we did that” stories, which even without such a narrative journalist’s sense of detail would break Kooper’s work from the ranks of rote, rock life book cliché. He’s too cynical to look on his experiences with an “Almost Famous”-like pair of Peter Pan pie-eyes, but he’s too appreciative of all the places he’s been to be flip or detached about it all—his writing has an emotional subtext that skews toward humility, though Kooper, a more curmudgeongly statesman these days, would probably be loath to admit it.
Kooper’s stories are detailed and voluminous, and in Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards you get them all, including the most (in)famous: the more-or-less-by-accident “Like a Rolling Stone” organ riff that’s rock history’s most recognizable use of the instrument; Kooper’s work and friendship with the tragic Mike Bloomfield; getting together, getting heavy with and then getting booted from Blood Sweat & Tears; that misty-eyed french horn intro to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”; and his shepherding of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Along with the requisite recounting of messy relationships, post-coital regrets, hard drugs, and a panorama of the ‘70s’ more colorful characters, you get snatches of Kooper working backstage at the Monterey Pop Festival (someone remembers it all!), or brokering an introduction between Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins, or admiring honcho Clive Davis’ bitchy dressing-down of a callow waiter, determining only after the fact that it was not just Davis cracking a whip, but also a power move to induce Kooper’s signing with Columbia.
Kooper’s framing of his own highs and lows against various historical events is also remarkable—cinematic, even—from his memory of being in New York, high as a kite, during the Northeast Blackout of 1965 to working with George Harrison the night John Lennon was murdered. Where some writers would take these experiences as artistic license for a “what does it all mean” exegesis, Kooper’s preference is toward self-deprecation and a more level-headed “imagine that” type of tone. Whether his was tripping his face off while fear gripped New York City with terror has some relevance to the era’s cosmic stitching is up to the reader. Of all the things craved by the jaded rock book imbiber sick to death of faux-intellectualism and the overanalyzed corners of the pop idiom, that might be Kooper’s most refreshing departure from the form.
If the book becomes more of a slog in its final third than in either of the previous two, it’s because Kooper’s associations are less fruitful and his dealings less colorful. Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards drops off, and to Kooper’s credit, he seems to know it: the final chapters read like the “updated edition” filler they are, but they’re also the fastest-moving: shorter stories, quick hit takes with the likes of Miles Davis and Smokey Robinson, wry quips, snappy punchlines and sparer phraseology.
It doesn’t change the fact that above all, Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards was then and is now essential reading, lovingly indulged. If you were to liken it to any of Kooper’s particular career highlights, it’d be “Super Session”, the freewheeling blues rock masterpiece he cut with Bloomfield and Stephen Stills: buoyant, forceful, invigorating, hard-rocking, tastefully drawn-out, occasionally dull and/or overbaked, and never uninteresting, or worse, disinteresting.
And we still have Kooper himself to kick around, perhaps because his afflictions—he suffered from ulcers and terrible insomnia, to name just two—kept him shrouded from some of the drug spectres that killed many his peers. But he’d be the first to tell you, and when Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards comes up for reissue again, there’ll no doubt be more closets to clean out, more cobwebs to clear, more memories to draw from.