Corn Flakes with John Lennon ~ by Robert Hilburn
Sub-titled “and Other Tales from a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life”, this is a series of vignettes spanning 40 years from a renowned music critic for the Los Angeles Times.
The first thing to be said is that Hilburn isn’t just any old critic; he’s made a name for himself over decades as a well-respected writer who clearly loves his subject matter. He’s also managed to build personal relationships with many of the leading lights in the world of rock music, enabling him to get interviews that others can’t, and allowing him to glean deeper insights into some of the more famous and interesting characters that have shaped music trends since the 1950’s.
As a youngster growing up in the South his first musical love was country music, and his tastes then widened to take in rhythm and blues. Like many of his generation, he was blown away when Elvis Presley came along and turned the musical world on its head. His adoration of Elvis stayed with him and one theme running through the book is the way that many of the biggest stars from the 1960s onwards shared that love and were deeply influenced by Elvis.
Having opted for a career in journalism, Hilburn managed to start working for the L.A. Times covering music in the mid-1960s – albeit focusing on country music as the paper already had someone covering rock music. He started to make a name for himself and his first big coup was covering Johnny Cash’s live concert at Folsom State Prison. In fairly short order he was able to take over as the main writer covering the whole spectrum of pop music and from there his coverage and reputation blossomed.
The book follows him over the years as he tracks and reviews the changing music industry, and as some of his favorite rock stars mature and develop as artists. In particular, featured throughout the book are John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and U2. You get some fascinating insights into all of these artists as Hilburn seems to have developed strong bonds with them all. While these four provide the cornerstone for the book, others who feature heavily include Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Yoko Ono, Elton John, Phil Spector, Michael Jackson and Kurt Cobain.
I love rock music, am an avid collector and listener, and also read about it voraciously, so I suspect that this book was written with me in mind! I was almost bound to like it and I did. It certainly helps that Hilburn has a writing style that is interesting and easy to read. While thoughtful and insightful, he isn’t one of those annoying critics who get so wrapped up in wanting to prove how clever they are that they over-intellectualize everything and produce gobbledygook; if he was I wouldn’t have got past the first ten pages. I have to say that my musical tastes are not the same as his, but that didn’t make the book any less interesting. He is writing mainly about artists that most music lovers will be familiar with or at least know something about, so it’s easy to relate to the stories. And I have to say that although I’m a voracious reader about music, most of what’s contained in the book was new to me. Perhaps surprisingly, most of the artists covered come across as really nice people, though many end up being damaged by the industry and some of them are just plain weird (please take a bow Phil Spector and Michael Jackson). For me, the most interesting of them all was John Lennon and Hilburn’s obvious affection for him positively shines from the book.
I’m probably a wee bit biased with this book but I’d have to rate it 4 stars. I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone who likes music or who is interested in finding out more about some of the leading cultural lights from the last couple of generations.
Here is a YouTube video that John has picked out to share and is classic John Lennon.
For basic publisher’s information on the book please see our preview post including the book.
- Hardcover: 296 pages
- Publisher: Rodale Books (October 13, 2009)
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