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Book Review: Corn Flakes with John Lennon: And Other Tales from a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life by Robert Hilburn

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One of the things you hear most often from guys my age is our pissing and moaning about the death of rock and roll.

Truth be told, a pretty good case can be made for it too. Certainly the most common complaints — the lack of any true megabands since U2, the decline of record sales, and the increasingly disposable pop of the Disney teen acts and American Idol — ring true enough.

The fact is, in today's musical landscape, the chances of a true game-changing phenomenon — one that affects not just the musical, but also the cultural landscape of America and the world in ways that the Beatles, Dylan, or even Nirvana did — just isn't that likely to happen. This probably has as much to do with how music is distributed to the masses these days as anything else. But that's another subject…

What I miss nearly as much as rock's golden age of the sixties, seventies, and eighties, however, is the brand of rock journalism which often went side by side with it — the type of writing I soaked up like a sponge in magazines like Creem and Rolling Stone as a kid, written with a fan's passion by guys like the late, great Lester Bangs.

Since I didn't grow up in Los Angeles (and therefore was unable read the music coverage of the L.A. Times), I was never that familiar with the work of Robert Hilburn, although I certainly knew of his reputation.

Reading his new book, however, it's certainly clear that he was, and still is, cut from that same old-school cloth of rock criticism that I miss so much. In fact, Hilburn's Corn Flakes with John Lennon: And Other Tales from a Rock 'n' Roll Life is one of the best books on the subject of rock and roll I have read in a good long while.

Hilburn certainly writes from a perspective that is more informed than most — at times this book reads as much as a history of rock as it does as his own personal memoir.

But more importantly, Hilburn writes about the music he so clearly loves with all the passion of the most hardcore fan. This, more than anything else, is what separates Corn Flakes with John Lennon: And Other Tales from a Rock 'n' Roll Life from the rest of the rock books you'll find in the music section at your nearest Borders, and also what makes it such a great read.

Although this is largely a personal memoir of Hilburn's career as pop music critic for the L.A. Times, it is also a fascinating journey through the history of rock and roll itself — dotted with Hilburn's personal memories of rubbing shoulders with such greats as Elvis, Lennon, Dylan, Springsteen and Bono.

Tracing his own history of discovering the music through listening to his uncle's records by artists like Hank Williams, and then later discovering R&B and of course Elvis, Hilburn goes on to describe how he liked the attention he got from the other kids in school through his writing, beginning a journey which finally landed him a gig with the L.A. Times, first as a stringer, then eventually as full-time pop music critic.

That part of Hilburn's story will primarily be of interest to writing geeks like myself. What gives Corn Flakes With John Lennon its more universal appeal, though, are the stories of how Hilburn endeared himself to some of the greatest musical icons of this generation — often to the point of becoming a personal confidant.

The common thread running through nearly all of them is how Hilburn was able to cut through the barriers surrounding musicians who were treated more like Gods — particularly during the sixties when rock was impacting culture like it hasn't at any time before or since. In story after amazing story here, we learn how Hilburn perfected this art mainly by first being honest, and then by connecting with them as fans.

And what stories.

In Corn Flakes With John Lennon, we travel with Hilburn to Folsom Prison on the occasion of Johnny Cash's historic concerts there. We go backstage and discover the shy, insecure person lying beneath the dynamo that was Janis Joplin, and are there on the night of Elton John's career-making shows at L.A.'s Troubadour club.

We meet John Lennon during his infamous alcohol-fueled "lost weekend" in seventies L.A., and later during the "house-husband" period of his album Double Fantasy, where we find Lennon's biggest vice to be the chocolate bars he sneaks when Yoko (who he refers to as "Mother") isn't around.

Sadly, we are also there for the funerals of Elvis, John Lennon, and Kurt Cobain. Hilburn's bedside interview with a grief-stricken Yoko Ono and later with Courtney Love in particular reveal a side of these rock and roll widows which clashes profoundly with their public images.

Most telling though is the way this book reveals the unique relationship between rock critics like Hilburn and the artists they write about.

Hilburn's various conversations with Bob Dylan over the years are particularly revealing — ranging from Dylan's changing his setlists at the writer's suggestion (and how he later chided him about it by asking if he brought a setlist with him), to the way the notoriously interview reluctant Dylan uncharacteristically opened up to Hilburn about subjects ranging from his "born-again" conversion to his songcraft over the years.

Hilburn also takes no less than Bruce Springsteen — an artist he clearly loves — to task for compromising his art by playing his old hits on the early nineties tour just after "The Boss" enraged many fans by disbanding the E Street Band. At another point in the book, Hilburn urges a young Bono, then known for scaling 30-foot high scaffolds and throwing himself into audiences, to scale down the "antics" and let the music do the talking. Bono, who was said to be haunted by Hilburn's stern lecture for years, nonetheless took the critic's advice to heart. It's no coincidence he wrote the intro to this book.

Corn Flakes With John Lennon ends on a somewhat depressing note however.

Although Hilburn tries his best to cover his glum appraisal of the present and future state of rock and roll with signs of optimism — pinning most of his hopes on people like Jack White and Conor Oberst — it's pretty clear that the wise old critic can see the writing on the wall. There is a tone of resignation in the final chapter here that perhaps rock music's time as a true life altering cultural force has indeed passed.

Corn Flakes With John Lennon is a must read for anyone who loves writing, but especially for anyone who loves rock and roll. It is also one of the best books on rock music I have read in a good long while. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • Greg Barbrick

    Good review Mr. Boyd. So tell me, when do we get to see the memoirs of The Shockmaster?

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Thanks Greg. As far as the Shockmaster goes, its been a work in progress forever, and will likely see the light of day around the same time I decide to pick up the Strat again…which means it could be either tomorrow or it could be never.

    -Glen

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Not surprising as a lot of the artists Hilburn writes about here skew older, although he also talks a lot about people like Jack White (White Stripes, Raconteurs, Dead Weather), Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) and there’s even a few chapters devoted to rap artists. Anyway, thanks for the comment.

    -Glen