Milwaukeeans who know erstwhile Brew City musician John Kruth, who has long since relocated to New York, will be entirely unsurprised that the multi-instrumentalist has written biographies of musicians as diverse as jazzman Rahsaan Roland Kirk, respected and troubled singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt and, in his latest book, Roy Orbison.
In music, Kruth is the master of diversity and marrying unexpected elements into something engaging and unique. So, why should his work as a biographer be any different?
"Rhapsody In Black: The Life and Music of Roy Orbison" (Backbeat Books), which hit shops in mid-May, follows "To Live’s to Fly: The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt" and "Bright Moments: The Life and Legacy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk."
"These three books oddly represent a triptych of American music to me – Roy being rock, Rahsaan – jazz and Townes – folk/country," says Kruth. "Maybe one of these days I’ll finish my book on the holy blues man Reverend Gary Davis and the chair will have four legs and I can sit down and rest some."
We asked Kruth about how he came to life and oeuvre of Orbison and more:
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell me a bit about how, in general, you decide who to write about? Because it's a pretty major time, emotion and energy commitment, isn't it?
John Kruth: Well, yeah as far as time and energy and commitment go it’s far beyond any other "discipline" I’ve ever been involved in – writing, performing and recording songs and writing poetry. It’s more like pyramid building. As far as making the choice, as writer, an article is like a date or two where a book is more like a marriage.
OMC: More specifically, what led you to Roy Orbison?
JK: I wanted to write a book outside my "comfort zone." Where I had no choice concerning Rahsaan, "Bright Moments" – which will soon be in a new second edition – started out as an article and then became a mission. With Townes – here was this brilliant songwriter/legendary figure that everybody was sleeping on, a writer on the same level as say Neil Young or Robbie Robertson.
Both of these guys were "cool," where Roy, despite his Ray-Bans and "the other man in black" image isn’t the kind of artist that you’ll find record store dudes discussing in hushed tones. Roy Orbison, who was basically known for his hits "Oh, Pretty Woman," "Only the Lonely" and "Crying," had an amazing body of work. His Monument recordings of the early ‘60s, I believe were some of the best records ever made – particularly their brilliant arrangements and the way they were recorded live in the studio.
His MGM and later records were challenging to me esthetically. They were just so far over the top. But Roy was a fantastic touchstone for so many people, from so many different styles of music – from Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello, the list is long and diverse. And, besides, he was kinda weird in a lotta ways –- his voice was singular and he sang so effortlessly. He was almost a freak of nature and that really speaks to me.
OMC: So what ties these guys together for you?
JK: Oddly enough there's a theme that runs through all of my books, different as my subjects might seem. All three of these men were great lemonade makers – they took the lemons that fate/life dealt them and transmuted pain and suffering into something beautiful that refreshed people's spirits. Each one of these guys faced some serious challenges. Rahsaan was born sightless, black in a seriously racist age and was written off as a gimmick. Townes wrestled with the demons of depression, drug addiction and alcohol, although he was born to a privileged family. And Roy was deluged with woes of biblical proportion. Miraculously, they all managed to keep producing great music, although not for long – Kirk was 42 when he died while Townes and Roy were both just 52.
OMC: Let's talk some more about Orbison. Had anyone written a book about him before? If not, that seems almost hard to believe. If so, what did you aim to do differently?
JK: This is the first time I’ve written a book about someone that has already had a book, in this case two, previously written about them. I don’t want to be a jerk but the first one I read was so poorly written that it actually inspired me to take up the mantle and set things right for the man. The second book, "Dark Star," by Ellis Amburn is quite good. He’s a fine historian who wrote for Newsweek. But I felt he didn’t delve into the music the way I would have liked, which left an opening for me. Being a songwriter and a singer – and I say that in all humility in the same breath as mentioning Roy Orbison, I feel I have an unusual gift/ability to get to the core of what it’s all about, compared to someone who hasn’t had the experience of performing, arranging and living the music.
OMC: Did you know much about him already going into the project? Were you a fan?
JK: Just the tip of the iceberg really. I knew the hits. I knew about the horrible accidents that decimated his family and traumatized him. I knew where Springsteen and Chris Isaak got it from.
OMC: Did you learn anything that came as a surprise to you?
JK: Surprises? How great and how lame some of the MGM tracks were. Check out the album "Hank Williams The Roy Orbison Way." I’d never heard it before, and most of the musicians I interviewed didn’t even recall recording it. It’s wild. It sounds like a Lee Hazelwood/Nancy Sinatra production. They took Hank to Vegas with that one. But the story of his life fascinated me, the way he was able to overcome incredible tragedies and managed to continue creating in spite of the devastating cards that fate dealt him. Ultimately, Roy was a sonic alchemist who turned pain into beauty.
OMC: How much time did you spend writing the book?
JK: Three years.
OMC: Are you working on another book? Is it a bio? Can you tell us anything about it?
JK: I’ve been working on and off on a book called "Friend of the Devil" for the University of Texas, for the last five years or so. I’m almost finished with it. It’s a book on the history of outlaw songs from Robin Hood to rap with a lot of great interviews with people like Taj Mahal, author Ishmael Reed and Richard Thompson.
And then there’s my new book, which I don’t want to say anything about until the ink is dry on the contract. But neither are biography.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.