‘Everything Is Combustible’ Puts You Inside the Unique Mind of a Musical Master
Jeff Tweedy, the founder of Wilco and author of a gorgeous new rock memoir himself, said that the guitarist Richard Lloyd, who founded Television and played key roles in critical moments of American rock history, “has lived the kind of life memoirs were invented for.”
This review of Lloyd’s electric new book, Everything Is Combustible, should end right there. For example, he was the first booking agent when Hilly Kristal decided to book punk acts rather than the country, bluegrass, and blues that gave CBGB’s its name. His habit of constantly being at precisely the right place and time means that Lloyd has lived the kind of life that any rock n roll fan instantly appreciates.
But Richard Lloyd’s personality and writing style makes this book an unusual and worthy entrant into a saturated genre. Even as the material trods well-worn ground–drugs, creative differences, bad record deals, lots of sex–Lloyd’s total frankness lifts the experience beyond cliché. In the foreword, Bill Flanagan cites Lloyd’s “photographic memory and an almost penitential honesty.” That nails it.
When discussing the highs and lows of a life that’s been lived at the margins, Lloyd recounts his past as though he’s describing a videotape. From his own birth in Pittsburgh in 1951 to the birth of the punk scene in the East Village, Lloyd’s philosophy of life and wide-ranging intellect informs a writing style that causes him to constantly analyze not just what is happening, but why.
The book is a total delight in any medium, but the audiobook version, which Lloyd narrates, next-levels it. When Lloyd says he’s capable of doubling all the lead parts on “Venus” perfectly, the reader doesn’t hear it as a boast. When he frankly admits his shortcomings and disasters, like the near-death experience in England after an experiment with pure heroin or fumbling through the chance at professional management when his first solo record Misty Eyes was breaking, it’s clear he’s already past ego.
Lloyd recalls how Elektra changed the cover of Misty Eyes from color to black-and-white. They debated changing it back, but the company declined because they’d already pressed 10,000 copies in sales. Lloyd giggles a bit at the memory and it’s delicious, all the more so because it’s rare. In another scene, Lloyd finds himself in rehab yet again—his positive attitude supernaturally undaunted—and befriends a tough-guy fellow patient. Day after day, the guy complains that his eyes hurt. Finally, Dr. Richard takes a look. How long have you worn contact lenses? Two years. When was the last time you washed them, they’re filthy. Washed them? Lloyd gets a spirited chuckle at the memory and the reader is right there with him.
Bursts of deep philosophy and a cohesive, unusual worldview
The book contains occasional bursts of melody as well. In a harrowing episode, Richard’s heroin addiction has led to such a serious case of heart inflammation that he spends three months in Beth Israel Hospital. Doctors tell him that his only chance at survival relies on a successful implantation of a pig’s heart. By this point of the book, Lloyd has detailed many times his philosophy regarding soul and spirit. It’s too complex to explain here, but he doesn’t want a pig’s heart. He doesn’t want to be a junkie anymore. He begins using the Bob Marley song “African Herbsman” as a hymn, intoning it over and over, especially the lyric
While that old white slavetrader, with a transplanted heart
Well guess how soon him have to part.
In the audiobook version, Lloyd sings the line for the listener. He’s 67 now and has never sang as beautifully as he plays the guitar. But these little bits of his singing voice, as he recounts the most harrowing incidents a person can endure, are profoundly moving. Lloyd recovers and the surgery is canceled. He never injects himself again.
Lloyd attributes the miraculous recovery to a supernatural payback from Bob Marley. When Lloyd lived in Montclair, New Jersey, as a teenager he introduced his friend Al Anderson to marijuana. That affinity led to Al being deemed suitable to join the master’s band. That’s him playing guitar on No Woman No Cry. When Lloyd writes that he attributes his recovery to the spirit of Bob Marley, he doesn’t mean it in a loose “good karma” way. He means he literally believes that the spirit of Bob Marley was repaying the debt of an intro to a great guitarist by healing his badly damaged heart.
“Bob and I have settled our debts in the spiritual realm,” Lloyd writes. “I know deeply that without it, I would be a dead man.”
The thousands of fans who got addicted to his Alchemical Guitarist lessons (guilty!) in Guitar World already know the mathematical and analytical side to how he approaches the guitar. In the very first lesson, a must-view on YouTube, Lloyd strays from the omnipresent “here’s how to be awesome at guitar” to opine on how “the genetic code of music began 2700 years ago when Pythagorus in 500 BC brought the musical scale to an island off Italy.”
As a nerd for this kind of thing I could have used a bit more detail about how he achieved the specific sounds or why he played this solo there. Lloyd derides guitar-ego guys as sometimes giving in to “wheedle dee” triplets. I know exactly what he means. But anyone who’s experienced the sheer joy of the wheedle dee noodles after the second chorus of Marquee Moon knows that Richard Lloyd, who was close to Hendrix’s only protege Velvert Turner and was once even punched out by Hendrix himself, can wheedle plenty when the song calls for it.
Everything Is Combustible is a worthy addition to the rock memoir canon, both because of Lloyd’s contributions to American music, and also because of his original thinking and unique voice. And it’s just plain fun as hell to read.