When panning for this book’s scarce nuggets of insight, the reader reaches a conclusion that is startling in its obviousness: musicians are musicians. It doesn’t matter if they are 22 or 82, playing blues or penning lite-rock ballads — they all share core traits like an obsession with gear, a sense of financial jeopardy and pathological self-doubt. “Working Musicians,” a collection of 100-plus verbatim interviews gathered from 1975-2000 by journo Bruce Pollock, reveals another common quality. Musicians rarely express themselves best with words. Frank Zappa probably spoke for many industry peers when he said, “There are two things wrong with the world today, one of them is the writers and the other is the readers.”
There is, nevertheless, abundant appeal in the concept of Paul Simon, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, Carole King, Randy Newman and dozens more rambling about their craft. The palavers of megastars, especially when blended with more rank-and-file types whom Pollock includes to make his title fit, give the book the tone of a DVD commentary track. But the patient listener can sometimes be handsomely rewarded.
There’s something genuinely “unplugged,” for example, about Lou Reed conceding that his ultra-straightforward style has made it “excruciating trying to find other musicians.” Ex-Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger reveals the humiliation when the group disbanded and he was routinely out-played in jam sessions. “Jim (Morrison) was perfect for my writing style,” Krieger says. “If Jim were alive today, I’d have twenty hit songs by now.”
Sources of inspiration also provide some much-needed elements of surprise: Simon recalls reading Raymond Carver while writing “Graceland,” Zappa says he always worshiped ’50s doo-wop, and XTC’s Andy Partridge claims to wake up screaming his best melodies at 4 a.m.
Ferreting out the true substance and intrigue in this shaggy, unedited collection can be maddening. Much of it is weighed down by banalities about which kind of Peavey amp works best and how hard work is the only way to the top. The lack of a guiding hand to shape the material frees subjects to noodle, yielding a trying Phish concert of a book. Pollock organizes the interviews into chapters titled “First Album,” “The Set” and “Songwriters,” but the topics often bleed into one another.
Phil Ochs’ unfocused musing is typical: “For me, songwriting was easy from 1961 to 1966 and then it got more and more difficult. It could be the alcohol. It could be the deterioration of the politics I was involved in. It could be a general deterioration of the country.”
A more disciplined (not to mention shorter) attack could have helped the material transcend its mundane trappings. In a spiffier setting, the book’s gems would truly shine. It shouldn’t be by accident that the reader stumbles upon an epitaph-worthy proclamation by Ted Myers, guitarist for 1960s outfit the Lost: “A few eardrums were sacrificed so that many could rock.”