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Book Review

Critic’s memoir recalls rock’s elite

By Steve Morse
December 24, 2009

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No rock music critic had better access than Robert Hilburn. He worked for 35 years as a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, becoming the acknowledged dean of rock scribes. His philosophy says it all: “Rock ’n’ roll is the promise of a better day, and the best artists spread that message with an almost missionary zeal,’’ he writes. One could say the same about Hilburn’s own zeal, because he spent the most time chasing the acts he felt fulfilled rock’s promise - John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, U2, and Johnny Cash.

These artists form the backbone of this engaging new memoir, “Corn Flakes With John Lennon,’’ so named because Hilburn watched Lennon eat cornflakes with cream, a dairy treat that Lennon couldn’t get as a boy in Liverpool during World War II. A sense of struggling childhoods influenced all of these superstars, as Hilburn points out time and again in interviews culled through the years.

From the outset let me offer this one caveat: The book borders on hero worship, because Hilburn, now 70, spends little time on musicians who don’t exhibit some sense of social conscience. There’s only one mention of other famous acts such as the Grateful Dead, Madonna, and Aerosmith, only two of the Eagles, and none of AC/DC or Jimmy Buffett.

Hilburn’s prejudices are further revealed as he disparages disco, heavy metal, and reggae (“too exotic and limited thematically’’).

But he never tires of the Five: Lennon, Dylan, Springsteen, U2, and Cash. If you love any of these acts, then this is a must read. He became friends with Lennon during the latter’s “lost weekend’’ years in LA after Lennon got a temporary boot by wife Yoko Ono (Lennon was drinking heavily then, but enjoyed taking breaks with Hilburn, who didn’t drink or do drugs).

Hilburn also got close to Dylan, holding interviews in numerous venues that included a Santa Monica coffeeshop and a diner in Chicago. Excerpts of the interviews are included and they are fascinating - from Dylan talking about how the poets John Keats and Lord Byron influenced him to the singer admitting that “I look at people as ideas. I don’t look at them as people.’’

Hilburn’s relationship with U2 started when he took Bono to a Bob’s Big Boy drive-in restaurant in LA and later walked along the Grand Canal with him in Dublin. Bono repays Hilburn’s fanaticism by writing the foreword to this book. Bono praises him for having “the Levitical/Jesuitical energy of a keeper of the flame.’’

As for Springsteen, Hilburn cemented their ties by bringing him to meet producer Phil Spector (then a Springsteen idol) in LA in 1975. He also elicited a great response from Springsteen about his sense of the arbitrariness and uselessness of interviews, which “are like questions and answers when there is no answer. So why is there a question?’’

Hilburn’s most passionate writing, however, is on Cash. An early freelance assignment with the Times allowed the writer to accompany Cash to his Folsom Prison concert in 1968. That led to a lifelong bond. One of the most tender moments in the book involves a community barn dance that Cash played in Virginia near the end of his life. Hilburn describes an asthma-ridden Cash trying to sing before being helped down some stairs and going to bed at 9 p.m., too tired to socialize further.

Hillburn covers a good bit but also leaves much out. But if you care about the pantheon of the most socially aware musicians of the rock era, then you can’t go wrong in reading someone who has four decades of experience to share. Hilburn viewed his job as a privilege and he never took that responsibility lightly.

Steve Morse, formerly a music critic at the Globe, can be reached at spmorse@gmail.com.

CORN FLAKES WITH JOHN LENNON: And Other Tales From a Rock and Roll Life By Robert Hilburn

Rodale, 296 pp., $24.99

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