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Barney Hoskyns' "Waiting for the Sun" is a superbly written and illustrated history of the Los Angeles music scene from the Second World War through the early nineties. There aren't many really good books about popular music around, but this is one of them; in fact, I'd say it's the best book yet written about a music "scene" (as opposed to a particular artist), even better than Jon Savage's "England's Dreaming," which recounts the explosion of punk in the U.K. in the 1970's.
The story moves effortlessly through the progression of musical styles that have flourished and often cross-pollinated each other in Southern California -- small-combo jazz, R&B, early rock & roll, surf music, folk-rock, psychedelia, country rock, heavy metal, punk and rap. The book includes lively portraits of the many famous (and infamous) people who have been a part of it, like Phil Spector, Ricky Nelson, Sam Cooke, David Crosby, Neil Young, Sonny Bono, the Beach Boys, Jim Morrison, Gram Parsons, Charles Manson, Randy Newman, Steely Dan, X and NWA, but also discusses many talented people who never quite made it to the big time, or who lost their way before realizing their full potential. Hoskyns is quite good in describing the business side of the music scene, and in relating events outside the music scene (for example, the booming aerospace industry, the surfing craze, the development of a "San Francisco sound," and the riots of 1965 and 1992) that had a significant impact on it.
In tracing the development of popular music in LA, Hoskyns makes the key point -- though this is hardly news -- that no musical style remains popular very long, and even the most creative and versatile artists simply can't stay on top for more than a couple of years. A handful of artists (Neil Young and Joni Mitchell come to mind) do manage to hold onto a significant audience throughout their careers, but few artists have their level of talent and dedication, and seem to do better by going into production, or management, or the movies, or politics (like Sonny Bono), than trying to rely on an outmoded musical formula.
Another key point is that during the sixties, Los Angeles became the popular music capital of the U.S., if not the world. Los Angeles' preeminence in the industry may be a given now, but even as late as the mid-sixties, many of the top groups lived and worked in New York, Detroit, New Orleans, and elsewhere; as Hoskyns documents, a lively club scene, big-name entertainment companies, sun and palm trees, and growing ranks of like-minded artists, all combined to make the region the entertainment mecca it is today.
This book contains a few small errors, such as repeatedly referring to "Huntingdon" rather than "Huntington" Beach, and ascribing several different publication years to Mike Davis' "City of Quartz," another fine book about Southern California. I also don't understand the significance of the book's lame title, except that it was also the title of the Doors' generally lame third album. Finally, I take issue with Hoskyns' gratuitous bashing of Joan Didion, whose writings on California in the sixties are still -- at least to this Midwesterner -- better than anyone else's.
These minor complaints aside, "Waiting for the Sun" is a superb book, a great addition to the literature on both popular music and Southern California.