Come for the guitar, stay for everything else.
The genre of Richard Lloyd’s Everything Is Combustible is unmistakably that of a rock’n’roll memoir, but it is also much more than that. It is, to use a cliché, an honest-to-goodness dive into Lloyd’s mind. Where else can you find a book by a rocker with a chapter titled “The Awakening of Kundalini”?
The book comprises sixty-nine “chapters,” plus a section of so-called outtakes and four appendices, A through D, including a poem. Harnessing the unreliability of memory and the oral origins of storytelling, Lloyd’s book is conversational in style, elliptical, free-associative and often just downright weird.
A fascinating aspect of the book is that Lloyd gives relatively little attention to his significant musical accomplishments, ones that musicians with bigger egos (as in, virtually everyone else) would spend pages gushing about. At one point, writing about Television’s 1992 reunion, Lloyd writes that, “when the equipment worked, the combination of my Stratocaster and Tom’s Jazzmaster created an incredible mix that could not be beat.” This is as much self-praise as you find in the book, and it’s hardly excessive.
The most interesting parts of the book, then, tend not to do with music, at least not Lloyd’s own. He is at his best when writing about childhood, especially ecstatic, out-of-body experiences that didn’t involve the use of substances (though there would be plenty of those to come). His descriptions of being a teenager are some of the best I’ve read, as though he’s never quite forgotten what it’s like, how heartbreaking it can be, but also how exhilarating.
Elsewhere, he writes with disarming frankness about mental illness, sex (there’s lots of that in the book, though it is usually described with wonder rather than mere prurience), drugs (which nearly took his life on several occasions) and, of course, music. His friendship with Velvert Turner is especially interesting—Velvert is said to have studied under Hendrix, even befriending him and introducing Lloyd to him.
At other places in the book, we hear about most of the great acts of the ‘60s and ‘70s and get to relive them through Lloyd’s young eyes—in addition to bands like Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Doors, the Grateful Dead and many others, Lloyd sees John Lee Hooker and even gets guitar tips from him. An amusing chapter, “Anita and Keith,” tells us of his friendship with the late Anita Pallenberg and her then-husband, Keith Richards. Of course, we also hear of the early CBGB’s days and the early, short-lived Television era, including, most surprisingly to this reviewer, their tour opening for Peter Gabriel.
Finally, we hear tales of Lloyd’s post-Television years, often harrowing, though they did include some excellent music, in particular his first solo album, the unjustly overlooked Alchemy, and the seminal contributions he made to Matthew Sweet’s album Girlfriend and the ones that followed.
Perhaps the best part, however, is Chapter 69, “Suffering,” which defies description. All one can say is that it is a kind of synthesis of Lloyd’s philosophy of life—regardless of whether one agrees or not, it is sincere and even vulnerable, and utterly unlike anything else you’ll find in a rock biography.
In short: come for the guitar, stay for everything else.