Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards is producer and sideman extraordinaire Al Kooper’s very funny, highly-readable and very honest memoir. The man behind the opening organ riff of “Like A Rolling Stone” and the French horns in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” leaves a likewise indelible mark on the rock book business with this early-entry no-holds barred account of a life in rock’n’roll.
Originally published in 1971 (and later republished in 1998), Kooper is brutally honest, funny as hell and a heck of a storyteller. His career has a certain Zelig quality to it; Kooper seems to be along side many of the pioneers of music, much like Zelig was witness to every major historical event. Unlike that Woody Allen creation however, Kooper is always his own man and deserves a lot of credit for recognizing, creating or taking advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves.
You don’t get those gigs by simply “showing up,” — well, except for the Dylan one. For that session, Kooper had intended to play guitar until he witnessed Mike Bloomfield warming up and famously slid over behind the organ – an instrument he only had passing familiarity with. While opening for Muddy Waters in The Blues Project, he “had a plan even ballsier than (his) first Dylan session”: he would ask for (and receive!) piano lessons from the legendary bluesman’s keyboard player Otis Spann. Classic Al.
Kooper would soon go to the label side as an A&R man and eventually man the producer’s chair and produce some seminal records: “Super Sessions “ featuring Mike Bloomfield, Stephen Stills and himself, (thus pioneering the concept of a rock’n’roll jam session album), Lynyrd Skynryd’s first three albums (whom he discovered in an Atlanta bar, and would earn their loyalty by sending money to fix the band’s broken down van) as well as New Wave auteurs The Tubes (“the best record I have ever produced.”). In between you get Al’s encounters with Hendrix, Miles, The Who, George Harrison, Hollywood and the “swinging” Seventies.
The book gallops along like an everyman’s tale, but Kooper clearly has his ears and mind wide open, regardless of musical genres and styles, and it is his enthusiasm and belief in the music that prove his calling cards. You may not know Al Kooper’s name, but you’ve definitely heard the music. The results, over a 40-year career, speak for themselves.
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