Reading Al Kooper: Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards

Not Just Rock's Zelig...

By , Contributor

Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper as seen by Norman Rockwell

Don’t even be thinking about accusing me of sucking up to Al Kooper just because he’s writing a way excellent music column for The Morton Report, where you can listen to his musical selections as you read it. It just so happens that I just read his autobiography, Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards. Now would I be sucking up to Al Kooper had I not just read his book? Of course I would, Al Kooper is and always has been mega cool.

I first really learned of Al Kooper watching Martin Scorsese’s killer Dylan documentary, No Direction Home. I don’t know about you, but I find Bob Dylan to be hilarious, but in No Direction Home, Kooper is even more fun.  He comes across a lot like the late comedian Mitch Hedberg and tells one of the greatest and funniest stories in rock and roll history, how he hijacked himself a starring role in the recording of “Like a Rolling Stone,” perhaps the most important recording date in the last century of modern music. Warning: The rest of this piece contains tons of fully merited hyperbole.

At the time, Kooper was primarily a songwriter and sometime session guitarist, who nobody had ever really heard of and not by any means a virtuoso at that (Kooper is consistently humble about his musical abilities perhaps too much so). He took one look at the criminally, too often forgotten Mike Bloomfield playing guitar and hid his own out of embarrassment, but recognizing the importance of the moment slipped in and started playing the organ - all the while praying that nobody would notice and kick him out into the street. Despite the fact that he wasn't really sure of the chords to the song (he just aped the band about an eighth note late), Kooper’s high jinks wound up defining the sound of a song that Griel Marcus managed to write an entire book about.

After falling in love with Kooper during Scorsese’s film, I did some research on him and saw that Backstage Passes was widely considered to be a fantastically humorous look at the world of rock. Unfortunately, it was out of print and used copies were listed on Amazon for close to a hundred dollars. I love me some Al Kooper, but maybe not at $100 a copy. Luckily, Al just updated the book and re-released it. You can purchase it for reasonable coin at Amazon or order an autographed copy from his website like I did.

It’s a great book. Al seems to have enjoyed his own little Spinal Tap of a life. Almost every paragraph is designed to make you laugh in a laconic and self-deprecating manner. Kooper has been rock and roll’s Zelig, albeit if Woody Allen's character had influenced those events rather than just been at the right place at the right time. Wherever something cool was happening, somehow he was there.

He started out at the Brill Building associated 1650 Broadway digging Gene Pitney. He wrote the song “This Diamond Ring,” but he’d like to let you know that it’s clearly not his fault that Gary Lewis and the Playboys turned it into the dorkiest recording of all time. Admit it, just like me, every time you hear that song you say, “Wow, what a great song; why did it wind up in the hands of Jerry Lewis’s son?” Al had hoped that it would go to someone like the Drifters.

He then played behind Dylan the night he went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. We’re talking the night Dylan went f***ing electric! Kooper hilariously left Dylan’s band after he became convinced that someone from Dylan’s outraged, booing folk audience might accidentally shoot him while taking a shot at Dylan.

Kooper’s led a sort of vagabond life. At one point in his career, he ran into legendary Stax guitarist Steve Cropper in Los Angeles and upon hearing how great it was in Nashville decided to move there on the spot.

A brief trip to England resulted in Kooper convincing Columbia to release Odessey and Oracle, the too often ignored masterpiece by the Zombies, the most underrated band of the British Invasion, which means he’s probably the reason that you’ve heard the undeniable classic “Time of the Season.”

He then went on to record the much loved Super Session with Bloomfield, founded Blood Sweat & Tears, helped organize the Monterey Pop Festival (you know, the one that everyone that knows anything rightfully says kicked Woodstock’s ass), oh, and for good measure he discovered and produced Lynyrd Skynyrd. Freebird!

Kooper has such good ears that he knew that the pre-Boy U2 would be huge and he wasn’t even in the same room as them at the time. Kooper sadly discovered that they had just been signed to Island Records.

After the 77th time you're around for a seismic change in rock history, it becomes pretty hard to call it luck.

My favorite part of Kooper’s book concerns his hilarious retelling of his time backing up Dylan on his “Shot of Love” tour. In case you didn’t know, that was the period where Bob got really into Jesus, while Kooper did his subtle best to convince the ever unpredictable Dylan that it might be fun to play something off of Blonde on Blonde, the classic album that Kooper also played on.

Then there’s the Nils Lofgren solo album that Al didn’t do a particularly good job producing due to his sudden interest in experimenting with pure nitrous oxide and the Jimi Hendrix guitar that he had to sell because the thought of having it stolen was driving him crazy.

There have been a lot of what-ifs in Kooper’s career. What if he could have gotten Michael Bloomfield to stick around for more than a day at a time? What if he hadn’t been kicked out of his own band? What if he could have afforded to reunite Rick Nelson with James Burton? What if he had actually been paid his royalties? Kooper takes it all in stride as a man who genuinely loves music and considers himself lucky to have lived his life in it.

Believe me, there aren’t many people out there worth sucking up to more than Al Kooper!

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Brad Laidman has been a freelance writer since 2000. His work has appeared in Film Threat, Perfect Sound Forever, and Rock and Rap Confidential. His defense of The Kinks' Dave Davies so moved the legendary guitarist that Davies labeled Brad his hero and he has the email to prove it.

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