Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Reliving The Music of Shawn Colvin Through Her New Memoir, "Diamond in the Rough."

In some ways, music and film seem very similar, and you would think that books on music and books on film/video/tv would do similarly well, but I’ve noticed that this is not the case. While there are huge successes with video personalities nationally, for us, the Tina Feys are few and far between. Someday when I have nothing to write about, I will analyze this more closely.

On the other hand, there always seems to be a music book that is selling well for us. Not stuff popular right now, but it can be anywhere from the 1960s on. If I had friends who liked the act, we can probably sell some. For example, several weeks ago, Jesse Jarnow contacted us about his new book, Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock, and my immediate reaction was, we can sell some of that.

Another book that’s been out for a few months that we’ve been selling well is Carole King’s memoir, A Natural Woman. I keep thinking I’m going to read it but things keep getting in the way. I owned my copy of Tapestry, and continued to wave my flag through the next few albums. For some reason, I owned the sheet music to a song called "Only Love is Real," about which I was pretty obsessive and learned the first ten bars after many months. I am not the only person who had these issues. In the late 80s, I had a neighbor who was obsessed with learning Heart's "Alone" on his portable organ, and played the intro well into the wee hours.

This obsessiveness drove my music interest. A song that would click with me would give me this physical rush, something between falling in love and riding a rollercoaster. For about 25 years, I spent much of my time searching for these musical highs, and documented in weekly charts, where I ranked my 40 (and after about four years, 100) favorite songs of the week.

At the end of the year, I had this mathematical formula to tabulate my yearend favorites, and another formula, to figure out my top rated acts. It’s all very self-absorbed, but the interesting thing was that over the years, I had close to 20 other friends who did this, and I knew about as much about their favorites as I did mine.

I know I’ve mentioned this music charting (well, at the time it was “record” charting) before, but mostly it’s something in my past. It all came roaring back to me this week, after reading about the release of Shawn Colvin’s memoir, Diamond in the Rough.

Before reading Colvin’s story, I really didn’t know much, except that she had eventually moved from Los Angeles to Austin, which at the time, seemed somehow shocking. I also knew that she found success a bit later than many of her contemporaries. She wasn’t signed to a record label until she was 32, though her label fudged it down to 30.

Shawn Colvin’s life has had its highs and lows, with a number of obstacles to overcome. She had a pretty bad drinking problem, and battled anorexia and depression. At one point, the memoir comes suspiciously close to being an advertisement for Cymbalta and Abilify.

She’d also be the first one to admit to relationship issues, which of course does offer a wealth of material for songwriting. And of course like many successes in fields, she had a career high with A Few Small Repairs (which contained “Sunny Came Home,” awarded record and song of the year. Only one album later, she was pretty much abandoned by her label.

So it’s a question of whether you can be happy with a smaller success after a larger one. Interestingly enough, I just read a novel that had a similar theme. But still, the book, while chronological for the most part, rambles a bit. There are stories about how the songs came to fruition, stories about how her style developed, working as a folk singer, and as a member of country band. And of course since most of her songwriting is fairly personal, learning her story gives quite a bit of insight into her music.

While I heard her first album Steady On, it only made a slight impact on my record chart. It was Fat City that did it for me, with "Round of Blues" becoming one of those songs I could listen to over and over again. I found this list of songs by Colvin that hit my top 40, where they peaked, with a tally of total weeks in my top 40 and when they first hit.

Title Peak Wk40
Round of Blues 1 15
Climb On 24 6
I Don’t Know Why 22 7
Tennessee 5 10
Kill the Messenger 12 9
Tenderness on the Block 17 7
Object of My Affection 30 5
Every Little Thing He Does is Magic 26 5
Get Out of This House 4 11
The Facts About Jimmy 12 9
Sunny Came Home 7 11
You and the Mona Lisa 30 4
Nothing on Me 15 7

I never really quite understood that the songs of Fat City were about as upbeat as Colvin could get. She had just gotten deep into a relationship with Simon Tassano, who she met on tour with Richard Thompson and "Round of Blues" is just one of the songs on the LP that was about this relationship. It wound up being my #1 song of 1993, with the album being one of my favorites too (though my very favorite was New Order's Republic.)

Until about 1982, I only charted singles, but by the nineties, I charted album cuts too. This would lead to some misleading chart runs. I charted “Sunny Came Home” as an album cut, so by the time it had broken out, the song was long gone from my records, and I very rarely charted things. Needless to say, but the next album of original material (there was a cover album in between), her songs were back to being a bit somber.

I never quite understood how “Sunny Came Home” exploded the way it did. It was beautiful and unusually poetic and mature for a pop hit. Lilith Fair probably had a lot to do with it. Colvin had a similar arc to many a singer. Tastes changed, she got a little older, and you either give up, or adapt to a smaller but often no less fervent audience.

I guess most music memoirs are really dependent on connecting with the author’s fans. A number of years ago I read an amazing book, Jen Trynin’s Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be, which turned out to have a narrative arc and theme as strong as any novel. Trynin had left the business after crashing and burning, and went back for an MFA, a crime of sorts, big enough to warrant an article in Billboard.

Trynin’s story was a fascinating indictment of the music industry and still serves me well, when I am explaining to folks key difference between the music and book industry, and why authors have never hated their published quite as much as record artists hated their labels.

I have no idea how Diamond in the Rough is selling, but I think there’s a base for the book, and I think it delivers just fine. After all, she’s continued to find success in her field (as I’ve sometimes noticed, smaller successes are far more rewarding than huge ones, which sometimes feel empty) with a Grammy nom as recently as 2009. I feel like she’s the kind of person I just might run into at Book People, were I to be hanging out there.

So far, the only artist I’ve waited on at Boswell who I charted continues to be Paul Cebar, though it is said that Joe Puerta of Ambrosia (I think they had two number ones on my chart) lives in Milwaukee. Back when I worked at the Harry W. Schwartz downtown, we’d occasionally get touring musicians. I still have fond memories of one alternative dance act’s quest for Dr. Seuss books.

But that's for another memoir. For now, here's the video for "Round of Blues." It may be 18 years old, but it isn't even that embarrassing.

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