Unfinished Business: The Life & Times of Danny Gatton. Ralph Heibutzki. San Francisco: Backbeat Books. ISBN 978-0879307486 and 087930748X.
It’s always difficult to assess the quality of a biography. If the author goes into too much personal detail, he/she runs the risk of losing much of the professional flavor of the book’s subject. But if the author doesn’t go into that much detail about the individual, she/he runs the risk of fleshing out the whole person, risks losing much of the flavor that made that person a unique individual. It’s a fine line that needs to be walked, and one that not every writer is able to do effectively.
That’s kind of the issue that I have with this particular book. We read much of what drove Gatton, of his professional life (even to the extent of describing the type of music structure in a given song), but little of his private life. Perhaps that’s just as well, because it doesn’t appear from the little bit we do get that his family had a huge influence on the music itself (on Gatton’s choices, yes, but not so much on the music). But it is a noticeable failing of the book.
And that failing makes Gatton almost into a 2 dimensional figure. I’m not sure that we get a real sense of Gatton because we don’t know a lot about his personal life. My understanding is that when someone commits suicide, it’s typically not due to one issue. So that Gatton’s professional life wasn’t going that well doesn’t help us understand what drove him to kill himself. We need the whole picture to understand his final act, even though no one will ever know for sure.
Some will say ‘that’s fine, it’s his music that was the thing.’ True. And there, the book does do well. We learn about the different lineups Gatton had for his many recordings, as well as some of the more famous musicians with whom Gatton played (Roger Miller and Robert Gordon to name two examples). Additionally, we learn why it was that Gatton didn’t tour more (he didn’t like it and didn’t want to be away from his home and family) and some of the issues he had while on tour (including getting paid, a ubiquitous issue for musicians). It’s just that there’s not a lot of meat; it’s kind of thin.
I might have too high an expectation for this book. I waited quite some time before I bought it and looked forward to reading it, though I put that off for nearly 2 years (I have a lot of books to read, and bought this when I saw it far cheaper than it had ever been before). Those expectations probably color my overall view of the book. However, I think most people look forward to reading books and I’m not sure that expectations color the perception to that great a degree. This book disappointed.
It disappointed not just for lack of the human side of Gatton, for some of that’s there (not enough for my tastes, but perhaps enough for most). It disappointed not just for the way the book was laid out (in terms of band-years or albums, more than a strict chronological type thing), because that format made sense. Gatton had a number of different bands, and played as a sideman for others, that his fans recognize and apparently argue over (like which band/album was the best). The book simply seemed, for lack of a better way to put it, thin. I know more now about Gatton than I did before, but I’m an admirer and not a fan, so that’s to be expected: anything I learn about him is new. It’s just that the book itself feels incomplete, like there’s unfinished business.
It’s unfinished in terms of Gatton’s personal life, it’s unfinished in terms of his work life (what really happened with the Atlantic record deal?), it’s unfinished with regard to Gatton’s suicide.
Perhaps that’s how Heibutzki intended it. Perhaps he wanted us to come away regretting that more isn’t written, that more isn’t said, that more is left out than put in. All that works to emphasize the book’s title (which is also the title of a Gatton album). But when it comes to writing about a life that ran its course, the business is finished, even if the name and legacy live on. In those terms, Gatton does have unfinished business, for his musical legacy will continue to affect players for years. But the book itself is finished business and doesn’t finish well.
It was an okay read, but just okay, not great. It wasn’t a waste of time (almost no book is, Ladd’s I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus notwithstanding (7 Aug 2015), but I wanted, needed, expected so much more.
I don’t know if Gatton fans should read this book or if those who admired and appreciated him but fall short of fandom should read the book: will either get enough out of it? Maybe. I have mixed views on the book. If you can get a cheap copy, all the better. If you’re interested in Gatton, consider it. If you just like books about guitarists, maybe. If you fall into any of those categories but choose not to get the book, I don’t know that you’re not missing much.
And that makes the book Unfinished Business.