If the title of Richard Goldstein’s memoir makes you reach instinctively for a bottle of Southern Comfort, this book is for you. (If not, listen to Big Brother and the Holding Company’s “Cheap Thrills” a few times, then read the book.)
Goldstein came of age in the Bronx in the 1960s, and like so many of his contemporaries living in outer boroughs and suburbs throughout the country, his weekends were spent seeking refuge from ticky-tacky in whatever emerging counterculture scene could be found in the nether reaches of his metropolis – in Goldstein’s case, the mother lode comprising the streets, crash pads, and cafes of Greenwich Village and what would soon come to be called Alphabet City. The young Goldstein immersed himself in the sights and sounds of the East and West Villages and managed to parlay his talents and experiences into a gig at the Village Voice, where he rose to become the world’s first rock music critic ever.
The first half of his book is given over to an account of Goldstein’s adventures in this new wonderland, recalling an era that is almost impossible for anyone who wasn’t there at the time to imagine. The seeds of a new culture were being sown and germinated in the fertile soil of baby-boomer leisure and restlessness, dominated by musicians (the term “rock star” hadn’t been invented yet) who were seldom in it for the money, though they rarely said no to the sex, drugs, and alcohol that came with the territory.
Goldstein carefully documents both his hopes and disillusionments with how this promise played out, for good and ill. This is a book in which people loom large – from titans such as Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison to such minor figures as the Fugs, the Plaster Casters, Tiny Tim, and a plethora of young men who chose to adopt the nom de paix of Groovy – all of whom collectively give an indispensable, trippy tang to the main dish on offer. (Goldstein’s reflections on the sad life of Tiny Tim, as well as his recollections of hanging out at Ratner’s with Janis Joplin, are alone worth the price of the book.)
Ultimately, Goldstein cannot confine himself to discussing the music scene alone. He documents the growth of the hippie movement, including a lengthy excursion to San Francisco during the Summer of Love, where he found an ugly misery lurking beneath the flowers-in-the-hair, and concludes with the rise of such would-be revolutionaries as the Yippies and the Black Panthers, whom he sees as heroic and redemptive figures. Here, as throughout the book, Goldstein’s opinions are provocative, and his prose has a compelling flair.
Where Goldstein is synoptic and personal, Carlin stays firmly in the third person in his narrative of the career of one individual: Morris Levy, the driving force behind the Manhattan jazz club Birdland and the important independent label Roulette Records. While there is an impressive cast of musical artists parading through the pages of the book — Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Joey Dee, Tommy James, and more — they are treated as largely interchangeable figures in a seemingly timeless morality play that pits the Unscrupulous against the Unwary, important not for the music they created but for being exploitable putty in the hands of the avaricious Levy.
Tales of how intimidating machers like Levy took advantage of vulnerable artists who, at least early in their careers, put a higher value on fame and the hedonistic perks of stardom than they did on money, are legion by now, and schemes similar to those that Levy concocted, most of which revolved around the shadowy world of “music publishing,” have been documented many times over. What made Levy stand out from the crowd?
Carlin lives up to his title by documenting Levy’s ties to organized crime; Roulette’s offices were a virtually undisguised clubhouse for mob muscle who would make Luca Brasi seem tame. But when he gets down to cases, he provides both too much detail and not enough substance to sustain the reader’s interest. Levy’s schemes were so complicated that they are virtually impossible to explain, or follow, and despite the best efforts of able prosecutors and plaintiffs’ lawyers, many claims against Levy could not be conclusively proved, leading Carlin to fill in a lot of blanks with speculations about what might have, or must have happened, rather than solid facts.