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December 2006

Ron Forbes-Roberts
One Long Tune: The Life And Music Of Lenny Breau

Ron Forbes-Roberts gave himself a tough assignment in Lenny Breau. The guitarist won a small, devoted following for his astounding technique but may have been less suited to jazz stardom than practically any other player. He spent the bulk of his adult life drifting between the jazz meccas of Nashville, Toronto and Winnipeg, at times so completely zonked out on drugs and alcohol that he could barely play. He performed so poorly at one of his hometown comeback shows that he started a riot. Many of his fans thought him dead on multiple occasions before he actually turned up dead in an L.A. swimming pool. And that’s just the abbreviated version. It ain’t easy turning this life into a compelling narrative.

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Lenny Breau

Forbes-Roberts makes a decent effort of it. His Breau biography, One Long Tune, brings together an impressive pile of research and quotes—some of it not particularly relevant. Still, Forbes-Roberts tries gamely to keep the narrative moving along—sometimes resorting to breathless prose and chapter-ending cliffhangers. Breau’s antics will nevertheless weary the most patient of readers. One can only read so many accounts of zombie Lenny hocking another custom-designed guitar or nodding off in the middle of another club set before wanting to strangle oneself with a flat-wound A-string.

Breau’s musical legacy is an impromptu, ad hoc mess, and here is where Forbes-Roberts distinguishes himself. It’s remarkable that Breau managed to find work at all—especially toward the end of his life. As unreliable as he was, he still collected friends and acolytes so dazzled by his playing that they’d find him gigs and even the occasional recording session. Breau’s music needed a sharp critic who could also be an empathetic, if critical, fan, and that is exactly what it gets with Forbes-Roberts. The writer expertly guides the reader through Breau’s collaborators, his evolving style and his grab bag of hastily conceived, uneven recordings. Fans of Breau—especially the guitarists—will appreciate Forbes-Roberts’ concise and deep analysis. Fatalists will dig the rest.

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