A Career in Rock Journalism Makes for Some ‘Strange Days’

Throughout Strange Days Goodman displays elements of what the great Papa described as a “built in bullshit detector”.

One would be hard pressed to find examples of people who actively dislike music. From the most casual listeners to die hard devotees, music is one of the few uniting aspects amongst we humans. All cultures use music as ceremony. Whether it is the war drum or bridal chorus, we surround ourselves with music in even the most casual circumstances.

Of the arts music is undoubtedly the most immediate, and quite often the most enduring. A dance might be the first intimate contact a couple shares. A romantic mood is induced by just the right application of syncopation, rhythm and melody. We hold dear these songs, clutch just as tightly to them as our dance partner. Years will pass, lovers will come and go and our fortunes will change, but the passion for music endures. So much so that a gulf of time can elapse, but with the first few bars of that treasured song memories and emotions vibrantly return as if the moment had just passed.

Can you remember when you were first seduced by music? Dean Goodman can. And he knew in that moment he would devote his life to it. The attraction began in primary school, and although he didn’t pick up an instrument, before college he would have an above the fold article in New Zealand’s largest circular. Music would take him across an ocean, provide him with a profession, and make a minor celebrity out of him. Indeed, Goodman’s life has been spent following music, and it would ultimately culminate in the excellent recent release, Strange Days.

Strange Days is a litany review of the who’s who in music that Goodman has interviewed during his career at Reuters. The genre-spanning entries provide the mandatory Q&As with stars of country, rock, punk, funk and pop — over a half century of music from the Beach Boys to the Spice Girls. Where each chapter really shines isn’t just the words that spilled from, say, Garth Brooks or Stephen Adler’s mouth, but also the immersion that’s generally edited out of published interviews.

The longer form version of interviews provided here a dual purpose. Through extensive research, Goodman places the interview into a greater historical context than simply the occasion of the interview itself. The extended word count allows for an abundance of detail that lends some chapters a dimension closer to fiction. That isn’t to say Goodman takes fictitious liberties; rather, each subject, each interview contains the back story, setting, character interaction and short narrative arc of a finely tuned one act play.

Certain names are sure to draw attention. Interviews with members of Queen, Kiss, or the Doors are undoubtedly going to move units based on their respectively rabid fan-bases alone. However, some of the more interesting interviews come between those chapters. Take, for example, the chapter on Isaac Hayes, the largely misunderstood funk crooner.

There are two camps in relation to Hayes: the fans who know him primarily as one bad motha (shut yo mouth!) and the younger fans who better recognize him as Chef from the animated sitcom, South Park. Over the years, public perception of Hayes shifted away from a sultry voiced funk proponent to a Scientology fanatic. Here, Hayes discusses his relationship with the murky quasi-religion, but more importantly through his dialogue and Goodman’s treatment of character, a human being surfaces from all the misconceptions.

Hayes laughed a lot during our encounter, not necessarily because I was amusing company, although that couldn’t have hurt. He just seemed so relaxed, so engaged, so in love with life and with music. And when he wasn’t laughing, he was melting my heart with that deep-fried Tennessee accent.

The treatment of Country superstar Johnny Cash also falls far from generally accepted public perception. Invited to the Cash home outside Nashville, the long venerated rebel doesn’t resemble the pained sage created by Rick Ruben during the American Recordings campaign. Neither does he match up with the larger than life Country Dark Horse persona perpetuated by the Outlaw Country community. The Cashes, both John and June, come across as something closer to your own kindly grandparents than any type of country music power couple. Goodman is invited to their home where he is given a tour..

Johnny Cash, one of the greatest American men ever, had been assigned a small upstairs den, where his Grammys and other trophies were displayed in an open cabinet. A small daybed ran alongside one of the walls. Clearly, this was June’s house, and Johnny was just a guest.

Over the course of the interview, more chinks appeared in Johnny Cash’s armor. Like most of us, Cash worried about his career. More tellingly, he also worried about money. How very mortal!

In this digital age of instantaneous communication, with every mediocre tweet or leaked nude selfie, it is the artists themselves who devalue their persona. Sure Kanye West and Taylor Swift are still stars, but they’re not gods to their fans, the way the Beatles or Stones were a generation or so ago. Therein lies another strength in Strange Days. Goodman’s ability to bridge the generational gap gives the faded stars of another era a fresh spark. While the book might be mainly marketed towards an older ‘classic rock’ audience, there’s intrigue enough to entertain the dourest millennial.

Is there an American of any age that cannot identify the song “Sweet Home Alabama,” by country-fried rockers, Lynyrd Skynyrd? Or what about “Free Bird”s iconic double guitar lead? The group has been celebrated since they first hit the airwaves back in the early ‘70s. Most rock enthusiasts are well aware of the tragic end to the original group, when at the height of success a plane crashed killed front man Ronnie Van Zant among others band members and crew. Various incarnations of the group would continue to tour under the Skynyrd moniker up until 2009.

The end and revival of Lynyrd Skynyrd is very well known, even to casual fans. What isn’t so well documented is the role drummer Artemus Pyle would play in rescuing those who survived. The wounded ex-marine administered first aid to passengers before navigating through the swamp at the site of the wreckage to a nearby farmhouse — where he was shot at by the owner. Credited with saving multiple lives, Pyle would endure survivor’s guilt. In retrospect, this fate might have been preferable to the politics that would lead him to quit the band in 1991.

The story doesn’t end there, though. Unemployed and largely unpaid despite the highly grossing act, life would go from bad to worse for Pyle, when charges of child molestation were leveled at him by an ex-girlfriend. After hefty attorney’s fees the ex-Skynyrd drummer accepted a plea deal from the state despite contesting the charges and professing his innocence. Broke and on probation, his band, even those whose lives he once saved, turned their backs on him. The ins and outs of betrayals and poor politics within the Skynyrd camp are colossal, none the least to Pyle as the chapter displays. A tentative book by Goodman seeks to address the strange, baleful ballad of Artemus Pyle.

As the subtitle ‘The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles’ suggests, Goodman might be a little apprehensive about his contribution to pop music history. The book’s introduction offers a glimpse of the lifestyle the author enjoyed. Although he was too poor to afford a car, so instead rode the bus, Goodman recounts highlights like select parties, access to his childhood idols, advance album releases, and respect from the music industry. So where does the sub-titular ‘grumpiness’ originate?

It originates with auto-tune and other post-production tricks, with television/touring strategies, the increasing focus on an artist’s appearance as opposed to their sound, the prevalence of personality over product, and finally with the intense marketing towards youth culture. Modern popular music increasingly panders to the lowest common denominator. Musicians don’t express themselves these days half as well as they market themselves.

Look to the awards shows, those bloated overly obvious industry pageants of self congratulation. Are we ever surprised by the ‘winners’ of the various categories? Look to social media and the sad trap of appearing popular, fresh, the next big deal. This is an age of imitation, isn’t it? Now look to the journalists themselves, the writers and critics who do their own small part in popularizing what’s already been endorsed by the masses. Is any of it really about music anymore?

You can kick out at the industry all you want, but be advised that the industry kicks back a lot harder, Goodman discovers. See the article, “Stars with criminal pasts honored at BET Awards”, which he was fired for writing. Mediocrity and popularity often (but not always) go hand in hand, and throughout Strange Days Goodman displays elements of what the great Papa described as a “built in bullshit detector”. As a trained economics journalist, he delves into territory often avoided by his contemporaries.

Nothing brings out bad blood, in-fighting, and other juicy behind the scenes drama like a discussion of where the money’s going. Framed more as discussions rather than publicity, Goodman’s interviews cut a bit deeper. Whether it be drug abuse, personal relationships, or other sensitive issues, the interviews in Strange Days excellently draws the subjects away from their personal agendas.

Fans of the individual artists and general pop culture enthusiasts alike will enjoy Strange Days. By placing legendary musicians in casual circumstances to discuss issues beyond the, “What can we look forward to on the new album?”, Goodman humanizes the star while illuminating the historical significance of that artist’s work. There are surface topics and name dropping to be sure, but Goodman’s writing and perspective adds a dimension to the celebrated, which is not often glimpsed in popular media.

RATING 7 / 10