I am an incorrigible gossip. That means, as the old joke goes, that I usually need no incorrigement. And it may be why I was attracted to criticism—which John Updike puckishly called “the higher gossip”—in the first place. I like being the guy with the inside dope, the straight skinny: the guy who can look at anything from a renaissance masterpiece to an inter-office romance, and tell you what’s really going on.
So it’s no surprise that The Boy in the Song: The True Stories Behind 50 Rock Classics (Chicago Review Press) was catnip for the likes of me. Authors Frank Hopkinson and Michael Heatley deliver pretty much as advertised on the tin. Each song gets a brief write-up, two to six pages, outlining its inspiration, composition and impact, with biographical blurbs of the relevant parties and plenty of photographs. The usual suspects are well-represented; Joni Mitchell’s Blue album—a founding document of the confessional singer-songwriter school—rates three entries all on its own, while Stevie Nicks garners another two.
Read what Popdose had to say about Harris Wittels' 'Humblebrag.'
And as with the companion volume The Girl in the Song, by the same authors, the tone is cheerfully populist, falling somewhere between Rolling Stone and People magazine. It doesn’t pretend to be a serious reference work, but neither is it a lurid, Hollywood Babylon-style takedown.
Indeed, for a gossip-hound like myself, The Boy in the Song mainly affords the soothing pleasure of hearing again a story you already know by heart. For alas, many of these tales are not exactly revelatory. Breathes there the rock fan that does not already know that “Hey Jude” was written for Julian Lennon, or that Eric Clapton wrote “Tears In Heaven” after the accidental death of his young son? Is it really news to anyone that “You’re So Vain” is actually about Warren Beatty, or that Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” addresses founding member Syd Barrett?
And R.E.M.’s “Man on the Moon” not only lent its title to a biographical film about alt-comedian Andy Kaufman, it served as the movie’s theme song; I’m pretty sure there was no great mystery as to its subject matter. And there’s much that, even if you didn’t already know, you could surely guess. You say that Courtney Love has a song about Kurt Cobain, or that Joan Baez wrote one about Bob Dylan? Fetch me my smelling salts, I’m simply shocked.
Of course, even tales many times-told can yield new spins. It’s long been rumored, for instance that Alanis Morissette’s poison-pen classic “You Oughta Know” is about Full House funnyman Dave Coulier, but until reading The Boy in the Song I never knew that the source of this rumor was, in fact, Coulier himself.
Other entries, though, promise more than they can deliver. The inclusion of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” for instance, is a bit of a cheat. The identity of its subject has never actually been made public, nor is it revealed within these pages.
The Boy in the Song also suffers from a number of factual errors, as egregious as they are elementary. Among other howlers, the authors get the title of Louis Malle’s film My Dinner With André wrong; David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” becomes “Space Odyssey”; and a photo of the Velvet Underground misidentifies drummer Maureen Tucker as latter-day member Doug Yule, getting chronology and gender wrong in a single fell swoop.
It’s nice to have all the deets gathered up in one place, I suppose. But one cannot help but wish for a little more new information, and a little more credibility. On the other hand, maybe the sketchiness and the well-worn nature of the stories add to the overall affect. Dubious interlocutors rehashing third-hand rumors—that pretty much defines the experience of gossip, doesn’t it?
Omigod, did you hear about that Jack Feerick? Well, I hear that he’s writing for Popdose now, as Critic—“at Large,” no less, if you know what I mean.