Like all great feature writers, Josh Alan Friedman has a telephoto eye for the telling tidbit.Tell the Truth Until They Bleed: Coming Clean in the Dirty World of Blues and Rock 'n' Roll
, his recently published collection of musical biographies, has plenty of interesting nuts-and-bolts historical facts, but it’s the pulpy tidbits of gossip and Friedman’s unvarnished firsthand recollections that make the book a can’t-put-down rock and roll read.
Much of the material here has been harvested from pieces Friedman wrote for the Dallas Observer, but his previously unpublished piece on songwriting/publishing legends Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller offers up a wealth of comic detail, interesting minutae and revealing psychological snippets. Certainly Leiber’s first hand account of how the New York mob took his business from him for a dollar is movie-script material; wisely, neither Leiber nor Friedman makes use of the hoary Godfather cliché “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” but it would certainly have been apropos.
Leiber is utterly ruthless in describing the work of icons like Stephen Sondheim or the current state of affairs in the music business.
Jerry Leiber (right) and Mike Stoller tsutpen.blogspot.com
“People only talk about product,” Leiber tells Friedman. “We used to sit down at Luchow’s with Jerome Kern, all the members of ASCAP, and make world-shaking decisions. But we also talked about songs. I want to murder the next motherfucker that looks, dresses and says product.”
Bob Dylan gets no respect from Leiber, either.
“He was playing a role – I never believed he was real. Had a lot of chicks? So did Mickey Rooney. The fact that he was hip, inscrutable, and quiet – this motherfucker is self-aggrandizing and full of shit.”
There are also interesting anecdotes of Norman Mailer trying to choke Leiber to death in swank NYC watering hole Elaine’s, of Leiber’s tutelage of Phil Spector and what it was like to work around the founders of Atlantic Records.
Friedman paints perhaps the best-written picture of the great but virtually anonymous songwriter Doc Pomus, one of the true behind-the-scenes legends and a longtime New York character. Near the end of his career, Pomus worked quite a bit with Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) and according to Pomus, Dr. John was amazed to find out Pomus wasn’t a heroin addict.
“All the junkies, Mac told me, thought I was a junkie,” Pomus says. “They said somebody who wasn’t could never have written “Lonely Avenue.” Mac couldn’t believe how straight I was.”
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Perhaps the most interesting and macabre chapter details Friedman’s own relationship with Ronnie Spector (right). The irony of titling the chapter “Mr. Nobody” certainly won’t be lost on anyone who reads this enthralling but sad tale of a woman gone over the rock and roll edge. At one point, the self-deprecating Friedman calls Spector “my own little historical showpiece, spinning around like a kewpie doll.” The verbal abuse the woman heaps on him will make the toughest man cringe.
Tell The Truth Until They Bleed is worth the price for the chapter on Jerry Leiber alone, but with telling behind-the-scenes portraits of recently deceased Atlantic Records guru Jerry Wexler and an epic cast of rock and roll characters – including an absolutely realistic, tragic portrait of deceased Fabulous Thunderbirds bassist Keith Ferguson – this fast-reading book is a must for any fan of good music writing and great storytelling. – William Michael Smith
Published by Hal Leonard Corporation, 262pp., $19.95 (available used on amazon.com).