“Rock” for a book review by Mark Myers

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Mark Myers spoke to musicians and producers about his previous book, Anatomy of a Song, about how a combination of trials, accidents, talent, and inspiration led to such classic recordings as “My Girl,” “Proud Mary,” and “Ramplin Man.”

With “Rock Concert,” Myers brings his interview-based approach to a topic so sprawling that he’s had the power to break through barriers like crowds in Woodstock. Obviously, the author had to set some rules: he stays away from sex and drugs, prefers mainstream rock and ends the show in 1985.

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Downplaying drug and sex stories isn’t a bad thing; Hearing about other people’s changing states is often like hearing other people’s dreams. Instead, readers of “Rock Concert” discover a universe parallel to the world of rockstar debauchery we have come to know. Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson recalls taking a tour: “I was always happy in my own company. The same was true for our guitarist, Martin Parr, when we were stars, so to speak. We’d go back to our hotel rooms and read Agatha Christie novels or watch The Dick Show. Cavett on TV or something.” Drummer Max Weinberg wrote that Bruce Springsteen led his band to the next town as soon as possible after the concert: “What she did was keep us safe and out of so-called tangled alliances. He didn’t want us to be around culture parties.”

Unlike some modern oral histories that focus on a specific time and place—heavy volumes such as “Everybody Loves Our City: An Oral History of Grunge by Mark Yarme” and Lizzie Goodman’s “Meet Me in the Bath: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011″— “Rock Concert” traces the growth of rock and roll audiences across the United States from small, dynamic performances after World War II to the double-pitch televised scene of Live Aid.

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The book started promisingly in the 1940s in Los Angeles, with active participants in the music scene including saxophonist Big Jay McNeely and songwriter Mike Stoller. Readers learn about integrated audiences, emerging businesses, and shows from the perspective of fans and musicians. “The hall felt as if it was rocking on its foundation,” a photographer said of the Big Jay McNeely show. “He created a kind of resonance in the audience. In a strange way, he seemed to play with it.”

Also helpful, after last month’s Astroworld tragedy, is the echo of the book’s scattered references to crowd safety. Back in 1952, DJ Alan Freed knew he had to make security a priority after a riot at the Moondog Coronation Ball. At Fillmore East in the late 1960s, security personnel were hired based on communication skills rather than physical imposition. As former home manager Jerry Bombelli said, “About 99 percent of your problems with people can be addressed and defused with information.” For Wattstax, a music festival held in August 1972, Al Bell, co-owner of Stax Records, made sure not to use the LAPD for crowd control at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, because “that would only generate friction.” Instead, he appointed director Melvin van Peebles as head of security. Bell recalls: “There were no accidents. … We had about forty men and we had no weapons, nothing like that.”

Many of the people interviewed with Myers—including Wanda Jackson, Ronnie Spector, and Da Pinebaker—tell compelling stories, but it also includes material that doesn’t seem relevant to the big task at hand: how the Chicago band’s logo was designed, for example, or how Marshall managed Chase of Rolling Stone Records. And by focusing on how audiences and venues can grow bigger and bigger, Myers ignores all the music that was played in clubs and theaters from the 1970s onwards. As the book progresses, more pages are devoted to the way business and technology teams have dealt with challenges (such as lighting and ticketing) to rock music than to the experiences of musicians and fans.

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The final chapter of “Rock Concert” is about Live Aid, which took place in London and Philadelphia in the summer of 1985 to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. The focus is again on logistics, including VIP pass controversies, stage challenges and Phil Collins’ flight on Concorde’s supersonic aircraft (which enables him to perform in both cities). Although Myers calls it “perhaps the last amazing rock concert before ticket prices went up significantly,” he could have extended his account for another decade or so; Travel festivals like Lollapalooza, the HORDE Tour, and the Lilith Fair were artist-driven (to varying degrees) and no more expensive than Live Aid. One Live Aid promoter ends up saying the last, “In many ways, Live Aid was the last pure rock concert.” Rock definitely includes all kinds of things, but what does purity have to do with it?

Abby McGaney NolanHe often writes about American history and popular culture.

Oral history as told by artists, behind-the-scenes insiders, and fans who have been there

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