The Queen still reigns after all these years


November 19, 2006


The '60s slang that provides the chant at the climax of the tune may seem a bit hoary these days: "Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me!" But the sentiment of the song is, of course, timeless, and so is the artist who made it her own.

Aretha Franklin started out strong at the House of Blues on Friday night, opening with a fiery rendition of "Respect," and then sliding into a smooth and soulful tribute to "Chicago's gentle giant," Curtis Mayfield. And it only got better from there.

One of the highlights of the club's 10th anniversary bookings, the 64-year-old Queen of Soul fronted a 23-piece band -- including five backing vocalists and her son Teddy White Jr. on lead guitar -- and proceeded to offer a 90-minute overview of a five-decade career that has spanned at least twice that many genres, from transcendent gospel to sensual torch songs, and from gritty R&B anthems to a Puccini aria.

Doesn't coast
Her latest accomplishment: a new song called "Never Gonna Break My Faith," written by Bryan Adams and featuring a cameo by Mary J. Blige, featured in the film "Bobby" and on a new album to be released in February.

At this stage in her career, Franklin no longer tours to promote new product or to build a reputation that has long since been assured. But unlike some of her contemporaries, she doesn't simply coast through her shows, either, offering truncated medleys, unduly leaning on the backing vocalists and counting the minutes until the end of her set. (The only concession to her age and diva status: a break at mid-set that found her leaving the stage for 15 minutes while the band vamped.)

Jazz to blues to opera
After covering many of the expected Motown high points in the first half of the evening -- with "Think" standing as another high point, and especially appropriate in the house that Aykroyd built -- Franklin devoted much of the remainder of the show to proving that her voice is an instrument with few limits in terms of genre.

The singer stretched out to claim the standards "Beyond the Sea" and "Mack the Knife" as her own; sat behind the grand piano for a detour into soulful jazz; dug deep into her considerable catalog for several blues that emphasized her octaves-spanning powers, and reprised the version of "Nessun Dorma" that she delivered on the 1998 Grammys as a last-minute replacement for Luciano Pavarotti.

In the process, a crowd that was happy just to bask in the presence of a legend heard plenty of what earned her that position and the music world's enduring respect.


Rock Books

Time for another installment of this column surveying the recent crop of music books: Turn it up, and read on!

The pick of the litter here is without a doubt One Train Later, a memoir by Police guitarist Andy Summers (St. Martin's Press, $24.95). The title refers to the chance meeting Summers had with drummer Stewart Copeland: If either had caught a different train one afternoon in the mid-'70s, one of the most successful bands in rock history might never have come together. The attitude Summers displays in that title -- bemused, non-nostalgic and distanced enough to be both very funny and brutally honest -- prevails throughout the book, which is evenly divided between his early days on the fringes of the British progressive rock movement and the surprising rise of the Police concurrent with (but never really a part of) the punk explosion.

The book ends with the demise of that beloved trio, leaving more than two decades of solo work unaccounted for. But that's fine, given that most of us want to read about the famously fractious battles between bottle blonds Summers, Copeland and Sting, and the writer/musician doesn't disappoint. "This time the studio feels more like a canvas for dirty fighting," Summers writes of recording "Ghost in the Machine" (1981). "The stakes have been raised, and instead of rejoicing in the unbelievable success we have created together, we lose sight of the big picture and go on in emotional disorder, each one of us battling for his own territory. ... There is a humiliating episode in the studio one day when as a result of all this tension and loss of perspective, Sting goes berserk on me, calling me every name under the sun with considerable vehemence, leaving everyone in the room white-faced and in shock."

Ah, yes, we always knew Sting was an egotistical jerk! But Summers doesn't shy away from his own rock-star foibles, and the combination of this unflinching frankness and the author's considerable insights into the making of the group's best music combine for illuminating reading, leaving fans appreciating the group's accomplishments all the more, and marveling that it ever managed to create anything at all.

Post-punk polemic
Though the Police chronologically fall into the era Simon Reynolds covers in Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (Penguin, $16), they never show up in its pages: This overview of a genre that was never really a genre focuses more on the "futurist spirit" of post-punk/New Wave bands such as Joy Division, Gang of Four, Talking Heads and Devo, echoes of which have certainly been prevalent in many successful groups of late. While there have been countless books on punk, the movements it inspired have been woefully underexamined in the rock canon.

"Part of this book's argument is that revolutionary moments in pop culture actually have their widest impact after the 'moment' has allegedly passed and the ideas spread from the metropolitan bohemian elites and hipster cliques that originally 'owned' them into the suburbs and outer regions," Reynolds writes.

That passage underscores the shortcomings in this book. One is Reynolds' occasionally insightful but often dense and academic style (the London-born critic's earlier books include the similarly problematic Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture); the other is the incredibly wide scope of this project, which inevitably leads many important and influential groups under-covered. (Besides the Police, there's the Cure and XTC, to cite just as few). It certainly doesn't help that the American edition trims several hundred pages from the original British version -- without mentioning the abridgement -- so perhaps we should blame the publisher instead of the author for this overview's sometimes sketchy nature.

All about the biz
Long the best guide for aspiring musicians or naive music-lovers hoping to work in the infamous vipers' nest of the recording industry, the sixth edition of Donald S. Passman's classic All You Need to Know about the Music Business (Simon & Schuster, $30) finds the well-respected Los Angeles music business attorney revising and updating the original to include the ever-shifting realities represented by digital sales, streaming videos, podcasts, ring tones and other recent innovations. Some specifics in these areas are already outdated -- the business is changing too quickly at the moment for any book to keep pace -- but as always, Passman is at his best when dispensing his most basic advice: Knowledge is power.

"I've discovered that a rock star and a brain surgeon have something in common," the author writes. "It's not that either one would be particularly good at the other's craft (and I'm not sure which crossover would produce the most disastrous results), but rather that each one is capable of performing his craft brilliantly, and generating huge sums of money, without the need for any financial skills."

The book won't necessarily make musicians financial and legal experts, but it definitely will serve as a thorough primer about the questions they need to ask and the most obvious land mines to avoid.

A thousand words ...
Other recent rock books worthy of a quick mention include two beautiful collections: Forever Young: Photographs of Bob Dylan by Douglas R. Gilbert (Da Capo, $23), which offers an exquisite look at the artist at 23, and Glam! An Eyewitness Account (Omnibus Press, $29.95), a gorgeous look at rock's prettiest genre, as seen through the lens of legendary photog Mick Rock, and with a foreword by David Bowie.

Since Then: How I Survived Everything and Lived to Tell About It (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $26.95) is the second installment of David Crosby's autobiography; like its predecessor, Long Time Gone, it was co-written with Car Gottlieb, but it's not nearly as essential, since it focuses more on recent events than its subject's much more important years with the Byrds and sometimes partners Stills, Nash and Young. And finally, for truly hard-core progressive-rock geeks, Jim Christopulos and Phil Smart have given us Van Der Graaf Generator: The Book, a massive, 317-page, hardcover examination of every intricacy in the history of Pete Hammill and his mates in a band that, let's face it, 99.9 percent of rock lovers have never even heard of. But what a treat for us fans! (Available online at