Reviewed by Sara Hodon
Corn Flakes with John Lennon
by Robert Hilburn
Hardcover: 296 pages, October 13, 2009, ISBN-13: 978-1594869211
Who hasn’t dreamt of being a rock star? Fame and fortune, groupies, and being idolized by millions all over the world. A lucky few get to live this life, and even fewer get to true superstar or living legend status. Although not a rock star, veteran journalist Robert Hilburn’s career could be called the next best thing—as a longtime music critic for the Los Angeles Times, he’s spent countless hours interviewing and developing friendships with some of the biggest names in music—John Lennon, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, and Janis Joplin among them. But the life of a superstar isn’t all glitz and glamour. The flip side of rock and roll—the life these performers return to once the crowds go home and they’re alone with their entourages, guitars, and self-doubts—is the focus of Hilburn’s new memoir, Corn Flakes With John Lennon: And Other Tales of a Rock and Roll Life.
To call this book a memoir is a bit of a misnomer. With the exception of a chapter about Hilburn’s childhood and how his lifelong love of country music indirectly led him into his 35-year-career as a rock journalist, most of the book focuses on Hilburn’s experiences with many of the most influential artists of our time. Hilburn spent time with Janis Joplin at the peak of her career, where she talked at length about the “loneliness” she often felt once she left the stage. The common themes of loneliness and the drive to connect with fans on some level (although different from person to person) are threaded throughout the book. Hilburn devotes several chapters to Bruce Springsteen, particularly how the “kid from Jersey” evolved as a songwriter and performer, often breaking away from the E Street Band to pursue more creative, experimental projects and reaching his fans in a different, more personal way. Hilburn says of Springsteen’s solo shows for his 2005 Devils and Dust release: “I sat in the fourth row and remembered all the inspiring nights Bruce had stood on stage and declared that anything is possible in this world and made us believe it. I felt equally privileged to be listening to these songs—songs not as much about dreams as about the real world, as Bruce liked to say…I would rather see Bruce at this stage of his career in this solo, acoustic format than with the E Street Band. I would always prize the old shows, but I didn’t need to see him racing around the stage, trying to recall for us all the glory days of our youth. I preferred that he move forward in this more intimate, challenging direction.” Clearly, Springsteen’s straightforward delivery of his music and honesty with his fans and with himself left an indelible mark on Hilburn, who covered many of Springsteen’s shows throughout his career.
Hilburn also devotes a good deal of his book to U2 and traces their evolution as a bunch of wide-eyed kids from Dublin to the biggest band in the world. Hilburn saw U2 several times in clubs in Los Angeles in the early 1980’s, and his affection and admiration for Bono, Edge, Larry, and Adam clearly shows in his writing. (As a sidenote, Bono, who writes the book’s introduction, agrees that the book is more about the artists Hilburn has written about than Hilburn himself: “Bob Hilburn is too modest to talk much about himself. Not suffering from that problem, I got as close as you can get to a glimpse of him by forcing him to answer some of my questions in exchange for answering his.”) Both Bono and Bruce talk about the challenges of being a “voice” or spokesmen for social causes while not alienating their audiences. Both men share that it’s important for them to stay true to their roots—Hilburn once flew to Dublin at Bono’s urging so that he could “better understand” where U2 comes from and why it’s important for them to stay grounded. Similarly, Springsteen would make several visits to his hometown of Freehold, New Jersey as his star rose for many of the same reasons.
The book also illustrates rock and roll’s importance to our collective cultural landscape over the past 50 years, and how even those “founding fathers” of the industry—namely, Elvis Presley—were simply consumed by their own fame. Hilburn spends several chapters on Presley (one of his childhood idols) and how difficult it was to often get past the carefully crafted persona to the person behind it. This was largely due to Presley’s manager, the notorious Colonel Tom Parker, and various handlers.
Hilburn does have the special gift of getting behind the glitz and glamour of these famous stars and merely starting conversations with the person. He says in several places throughout the book that he was often assigned interviews at the last minute at the artist’s request, and rather than conduct a proper interview with microphones or tape recorders, he and the artist simply had a conversation, Hilburn jotting down notes and important quotes as they talked. His “human” approach comes across clearly throughout the book, and his sparse, carefully worded journalist background shines through in his writing. Other highlights of the book include numerous conversations with Johnny Cash (Hilburn was the only music critic to accompany Cash to his legendary concert at Folsom Prison), Kurt Cobain, and Michael Jackson. Hilburn writes that Jackson was obsessed with his own fame; where other musicians literally had to walk away from that life for a few years in order to save themselves (John Lennon and Bob Dylan both dropped out of sight for years during the span of their careers), Jackson couldn’t get enough of it, as evident by his self-proclaimed “King of Pop” title. Hilburn confirms reports that Jackson was painfully shy, and seemed to live in some type of weird dream world, yet professionally strove to always push himself further and outdo his previous albums. When he learned of Jackson’s death on the brink of his much-hyped comeback shows, Hilburn writes: “I thought about Michael’s desperate need for affirmation about how in our evenings together he would sometimes break into tears while telling about his loneliness and the hurt of earlier rejection…I imagined Michael’s anxiety mounting day by day, even hour by hour, as he wondered if he could live up to what could be his make-or-break moment…Maybe in the end, the pressure was just too much for his already broken heart.”
Throughout the book, Hilburn muses on the life span of the rock star—many of the artists Hilburn befriended and recalls in his book are well over 50 years old—and what the future of music holds in our disposable, American Idol-dependent celebrity machine. There seems to be a lack of up-and-comers with the longevity of a Bob Dylan and the authenticity of Bruce Springsteen, with a bit of Bono’s charisma and arrogance thrown in, a harsh fact of which Hilburn is all too aware. He asks the tough questions, however, and reflects on the changing face of the record industry. Overall, Cornflakes with John Lennon takes readers on a journey through 40 years of popular culture and many defining moments. A highly enjoyable read.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon’s work has appeared in History, Young Money, WritersWeekly.com, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley College’s Magazine, among others. She is also the “Date and Relate” columnist for Online Dating Magazine (www.onlinedatingmagazine.com). Read more about her trials and triumphs in the writing life on her blog, http://adventuresinthewritinglife.blogspot.com.