Reviewed on this page:
Babes In Toyland
The Beach Boys
The Rolling Stones
Just listening to a bunch of albums doesn't make you a record reviewer - we've also made a point of reading up on our subjects whenever we get the chance. Here we run through the books we've consulted, rating them in case you ever want to track them down yourself. Note that because this page is an spin-off of our record reviews, it only includes books that are directly relevant to recording artists we've actually covered ourselves.
We're always open to reviewing more stuff, and if you have any books you want us to check out, consult our FAQ for our snail mail addresses. (JA)
Carter Alan, Outside Is America - U2 In The U.S. (1992)
Don't bother with this one if you're looking for dirt on rock's most self-righteous political band: there's almost nothing here about U2's upbringing and apparently uneventful personal lives. A veteran "alternative" rock DJ, Alan draws mostly on whitewashed first-hand accounts of concert appearances, backstage hijinks, and especially radio interviews - there's so much of the latter that the band comes across as more rambling, incoherent, and self-involved than it really is.
With an intentionally American focus, you get almost no feeling for the group's European lifestyle and global appeal. There's a ton of obscure discographic info and surveys of critical reactions, including track-by-track assessments of the group's albums. But Alan seems clueless about basic music theory, so he fails to perceive or explain U2's technical and artistic limitations. Even more so than the band, this is a well-crafted and sincere effort that too often lacks musical insight. (JA)
Victor Bockris, Transformer: The Lou Reed Story (1994)
This is a basically conventional biography of a second-rank figure.
The main points of interest are Reed's phenomenal egotism and nastiness, some interesting collateral material on the New York avant garde scene, and Bockris' reasonable balance of rock criticism, sensationalism, psychological analysis, and diary-like journalism.
Velvet Underground fans will be disappointed by Bockris' relatively sketchy treatment of the 60s, but they could always consult his classic Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story instead.
Unfortunately, there's no discography, the photo section is minimal, and the index is unreliable.
And anyone who isn't already a fan will be left wondering why Reed's long string of flop albums and obvious musical shortcomings make him worth a separate 400 page treatment. Still, though, Bockris' workmanlike prose and entertaining anecdotes make it a fast and enjoyable read - don't miss the hysterical Reed-meets-William Burroughs interview in the appendix. (JA)
Stanley Booth, The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones (1984)
This Boomer journalist got a golden opportunity to travel with the Stones during their 1969 US tour. He spent most of it taking drugs and trying to get laid. I can't blame him for that. Unfortunately, after fifteen years he decided he should finally write the book he was commissioned to do, and it's pretty terrible: he keeps writing about himself and what he considers his generation, doesn't have anything new to say about the Stones, doesn't really understand any kind of music besides the blues. There's no discography or even photos -- he's writing more about himself than about the band (it's revealing that his epigraph comes from Norman Mailer's Advertisements For Myself). Which could have been okay, if he'd had anything interesting to say on any subject. (DBW)
James Brown with Bruce Tucker, James Brown: The Godfather Of Soul (1986)
This is about as good as a music autobiography can get: superstar
subject who's been hugely influential inside and outside of music yet is
still largely misunderstood; clear, lively writing; tons of factual
detail. From his earliest days in Augusta, GA to the birth of soul to
the rise and fall of the civil rights movement, Brown brings everything
vividly to life, and gives plenty of insight as to what his musical
influences were, and weren't. His opinions are contradictory - what
would you expect from a Black Power advocate who endorsed Richard Nixon?
- but always interesting. There's no one to tell the other side of the
story - Brown's well-publicized feuds with his bandmembers over money
and writing credits, his alleged mistreatment of women - but that's
unavoidable in an autobiography. Though the mammoth discography doesn't
give writer or musician credits, it's still a much-needed reference to
his sprawling catalog. Skip the Dave Marsh epilogue - but I'm sure you
knew that. (DBW)
Eric Burdon, I Used To Be An Animal, But I'm All Right Now (1986)
This is a flakey tell-all trash bio, light entertainment with minimal information. With Burdon telling his own story, he's freed of any constraints regarding accuracy or completeness. Instead, he meanders from one drug-dazed anecdote to another, dropping plenty of rock star names, proudly reporting his numerous sexual adventures, and skipping all of those petty little musical details. The gaps in the largely chronological account are huge, with nearly nothing on his late recordings with the New Animals and War, and a long account of Jimi Hendrix's death in 1970 being the final chapter - you'd think that the 70s never even happened. (JA)
Robert Christgau, Rock Records Of The '70s (1981)
What interests me about this collection of 3,000 sketchy, self-congratulatory, liberal guilt-consumed reviews - often two sentences with the
second thrown away on a flat joke - is that the way I feel about Christgau is the way people who don't like this site feel about me.
But that's no reason for you to read it.
George Clinton with Ben Greenman, Brothers Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard On You (2014)
Clinton claims that he's finally kicked his decades-long crack habit, and although I was taught in kindergarten "never trust an addict" I believe him: while he's often been brilliant in the many years since I first pledged grooveallegiance to the funk he's rarely been coherent, but this book actually makes sense, using a wealth of finely observed details to paint the big picture, delivered with a big helping of the puns and wordplay that made the Parliafunkadelicment Thang almost as funny as it was funky. As the basic Behind The Music story of P-Funk's rise and fall is well known, I got more out of the early chapters explaining how the many influences he absorbed in the Fifties grounded the Late Sixties freakiness which led so many acts into unlistenable experiments. As you expect from an autobiography, Clinton glosses over the many clashes he's had with bandmembers over the years (generally over money, songwriting credit or both); also, there isn't much light shed on how the Funk Mob was so fantastically productive in the studio in '75-'78 compared to before or after, and I get the impression he still doesn't comprehend how important the Bootsy/Bernie/Gary/Fred core was, or what he lost when they went their separate ways.
Jim Cogan and William Clark, Temples Of Sound: Inside The Great Recording Studios (2003)
A very readable and informative examination of the fifteen most important US recording studios
from the 40s through the 70s, one chapter each. While the household names -
Motown's Snake Pit, Sun, Stax,
Chess - are covered thoroughly, the real interest for me was
learning how many important records were cut in places like J&M in New Orleans, Universal
in Chicago, or Columbia's 30th Street studio.
The co-writers go into great detail about construction details and gear, but they are
careful to tie everything back to how the sound was influenced - it never becomes dry and
academic the way Good Vibrations often does.
And since the project started out as a picture book, there are tons of photos that bring
the various periods and settings to life.
The book also ends up telling the stories of the most overlooked participant in recording,
the lowly engineer: critical figures like Bill Putnam, Rudy Van Gelder (who recorded
virtually every important post-bop jazz record), Tommy Dowd and Roy Hallee are given their
due with biographies, anecdotes, and interviews where possible.
Muscle Shoals is a curious omission, and the writing occasionally overreaches for cutting-edge
hipness, but generally this is as good a book as I've seen on the mid-century recording industry.
Susan Crimp & Patricia Burstein, The Many Lives Of Elton John (1991)
The worst sort of trashy bio; the writers (best known for a book on Joan
and Jackie Collins) go out of their way to ridicule their subject (I
lost track of all the times they call Elton "fat"), focusing on the most
lurid subject matter including a debunked tabloid report about
fabricated sex and drug escapades, and with no insights whatsoever about
his music. Shut out from Elton's inner circle, they put this together
from news clippings and interviews with sources who are about as close
to John as I am. Along the way they make innumerable factual errors
(Elton John is described as his debut), and the prose is
painfully stilted. The discography (by Martha Trachtenberg) is solid,
and there's a decent collection of pictures, but that's it. (DBW)
Marc Cunningham, Good Vibrations: A History Of Record Production (1996)
Somewhere between a comprehensive history and a collection of interviews, this is still a useful inside scoop for
technodweebs who want to know just how many bass players were on "River Deep - Mountain High," or how they got Clapton's guitar to gently weep, or how Queen recorded "Bohemian Rhapsody." However, there's
far more depth and not nearly as much breadth as the subtitle implies. The problem isn't exactly a narrow focus, it's a
scattershot approach: Cunningham goes into great detail about people he managed to interview (Carol Kaye is one) and
pretty much ignores everyone else. The end result is, there's a huge preoccupation with early rock and roll, 60s British rock,
70s British dinosaur rock, and 90s British pop. Five pages are given to a discussion of London popsters Stock-Aiken-Waterman, while only four are devoted to the entire Motown
machine - and the majority of that is taken up with Kaye's claim that she played most of the bass lines commonly
ascribed to James Jamerson. There's no mention of Prince or Michael
Jackson or Madonna, nothing about Stevie Wonder's classic period,
nothing about hip hop or hardcore punk or funk or metal. But if you're interested in the artists he covers
exhaustively - Genesis, Trevor Horn, Les Paul,
Bowie and Eno, and of course the Beatles - you'll get a lot out
of this. However, the detail can be so excessive (get ready for lengthy discussions of exactly which microphones were used for exactly
which sessions) you'll probably use it as a reference rather than reading straight through.
Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, Miles (1990)
There's a lot of fascinating writing about jazz in here, but it can be an arduous task to find it: legendary bebop/cool jazz/modal jazz/fusion/funk pioneer Miles Davis
spends most of this autobiography on startlingly unrepentant descriptions of his pimping adventures, heroin and cocaine addictions (resulting in screwing other musicians out of their money),
extensive history of violence (including hitting practically every woman he ever met), abandonment of wives and children, etc.
He further spices things up by throwing "motherfucker" into every other sentence.
If the cheap thrills aren't enough, you can always play "Spot The Contradiction" in his endless ruminations about race and music. But mixed in with all this junk is priceless discussion of the
profound changes Davis created in jazz, as well as insightful characterizations of enigmatic figures like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane
and Thelonious Monk. The discography is minimal but that's offset by in-depth discussion of his many important albums; if you've got patience and a strong stomach, this is
a very rewarding read. (DBW)
Stephen Davis, Hammer Of The Gods (1985)
Subtitled "The Led Zeppelin Saga," this is the
quintessential rock and roll bio: tons of salacious tidbits - groupies,
drugs, more groupies, car crashes - written in breathless junior high
school prose, with nary a musical or cultural insight to be found. Oh, I
almost forgot about the endless discussions of "were they or weren't
they Satanists?" as if anyone really cared. There are some notes on when
certain songs were recorded, well-researched info on the band members'
pre-Zep days and just which blues records they stole their riffs from,
plus a sizable photo section and a perfunctory discography. All in all,
about as good a book as the band deserves. (DBW)
Sandy "Pepa" Denton with Karen Hunter, Let's Talk About Pep (2008)
Pretty much what you'd expect from Pep's bio: forthright, chatty, and enjoyable, if not too deep. Apart from tracing the standard Behind The Music arc, she does pull back the curtain on the Salt-N-Pepa's female empowerment rhetoric, detailing a variety of terrible
situations she got into after choosing the wrong men. (Weirdly, though, she blames herself for avoiding a relationship with a guy because he refused to wear a condom... Seems like he's the one who cut off his, um, nose to spite his face.) She also gives some details on Hurby "Luv Bug" Azor's bad behavior as Salt's boyfriend, though she's not shy about acknowledging his role as architect and producer of the band's first and biggest successes. Her childhood and post-S-n-P career get appropriate space; I just wish there'd been more on the actual recording and touring that established the band as a groundbreaking female hip hop act, paving the way for Queen Latifah, TLC and eventually today's milleau where the overlap between hip hop and pop is near total. You get the feeling Salt's book, if she ever writes one, will be more insightful but not quite as much fun to read.
Chuck Eddy, The Accidental Evolution Of Rock 'N' Roll (1997)
Sometimes I think, "Why don't I read other music critics?" Then I pick up a book like this, and I remember. Eddy came up
in the 80s, and his work is sort of an overreaction to the pretentiousness of 70s rock criticism. In his view any
artist who tries to mean something is automatically bad, and so he completely dismisses acclaimed acts like the Beatles, Nirvana and Sonic Youth in favor of critically reviled
pap like Quarterflash and Kix. Because he's so contrary, he will occasionally make you smile because he's expressing some
opinion you have but nobody else seems to (for me, it's his love of Mariah Carey and hatred of
grunge), but because he never backs up any of his statements, his writing has no value in influencing a purchasing
decision. This volume isn't a collection of reviews or an examination of the titular theme, just jumpy free
association and tenuous pseudo-genre classifications ("amputation rock," "housewife rock").
It's sloppy and repetitive in the extreme: there's a factual error and an Axl Rose reference on nearly every page,
and I don't know which is worse. I think Eddy's supposed to
be funny, but he's only about 1% as funny as web-based reviewer Mark Prindle, who
is at least giving you his own unprocessed opinion rather than just seeking to create controversy.
The only value the book has is that Eddy's idiotic statements will occasionally make you stop and think, "Precisely why
is that an idiotic statement?," and will - in a roundabout way - help you refine your critical sensibility.
Duke Ellington, Music Is My Mistress (1973)
A fascinating read, not just because Ellington's career took him everywhere from corn liquor-fueled barn dances to gangsters' dens to Buckingham Palace, not just because he worked with so many
other legendary jazz figures, but also because he's a brilliant writer. The book is in rough chronological order, with brief vignettes or prose poems - "New York City," "What Is Music?,"
"Civilization" - scattered throughout, and practically every sentence overflows with warmth, wit and charm. There are dozens of sharply drawn character sketches of musicians great and small who
crossed his path, which does a lot to explain the flexibility and durability of his orchestra.
Lots of photos, a comprehensive list of his compositions, and a selected discography round things out.
But there are some problems: he's so polite he never points out his innovations (though he does discuss those of his associates), and never has a bad word to say about anybody (he discusses
a nightclub owner burning down his business - at the time Ellington's main source of income - so obliquely I had to read it three times before I got it), glosses over his own struggles
(the mid-30s death of his mother gets a full paragraph, but that's about all), and never gives you a look at the man behind the swingin' persona.
Martin Elliott, The Rolling Stones Complete Recording Sessions (1990)
This is the only song-by-song, chronologically ordered account of the Stones' numerous recording efforts I've ever seen. It's nice to have something like it around, but the execution leaves much to be desired. The writing is at turns clumsy, longwinded, and marred by superfluous, hard-to-follow critical judgments of individual tracks. And with Decca/London never having organized the Stones catalogue, and the author mostly having put together his data from published sources, there's an awful lot of guesswork. This is particularly frustrating when it comes to the sequencing of recording dates and pinning down of session players. And despite a song title index and both US and UK discographies, the lack of a general index makes generally it hard to dig out trivia, if that's what you're after. (JA)
Aretha Franklin and David Ritz, Aretha: From These Roots (1999)
There are a lot of reasons to pick up the Queen of Soul's autobio: there's detailed discussion of her influences,
including many singers I haven't heard (like Clara Ward), and gospel in general. There's comprehensive information on the role her father - a
renowned preacher - sisters (including Carolyn, who wrote several of her signature tunes), brother and cousins played in her career. Franklin
explains how and why the shift from Columbia jazz to Atlantic R&B took place. As always, David Ritz's prose is a pleasure
to read, breezy yet concise. Each segment of her long career gets its due, even the hitless late 70s. And it's interesting to read about a
60s singer who came from a comfortable upper middle class family rather than crushing poverty. But it's a frustrating book, because Franklin pulls
so many punches, leaving some important career transitions unexplained: what really went down between former husband Ted White and a Muscle
Shoals musician, forcing the cancellation of her first Atlantic sessions? Why did she and White - a pivotal force in her late 60s success - break up?
What underlies her long-running feuds with Gladys Knight and other R&B divas? Why did she walk out of the fabled
Chic sessions? Franklin raises all these topics, only to drop them all unanswered. There's also no proper discography
- an annoying oversight - and a stingy collection of photos, but if you find this marked down to $3 (as I did) pick it up.
Steven Gaines, Heroes & Villains: The True Story Of The Beach Boys (1986)
Although it's now a bit out of date and lacks anything resembling a discography or time line, this is still a fine source for basic information about the Beach Boys. The solid, journalistic writing and careful research make it more reliable, for example, than Brian Wilson's own, later "autobiography" or Timothy White's shamelessly ragged The Nearest Faraway Place. Much of it focuses on the misadventures of Dennis Wilson, whose sordid death just three years previously must have helped the sales; but there's also plenty of trivia, gossip, and hard data on the band's business, personal, and recording history. Brian's genius and madness get sufficient coverage, Mike Love's bizarre behavior gets a nod, and predictably the remaining members get blown off. It's lurid enough for a few kicks, and reliable enough as a resource. (JA)
Geoffrey Giuliano, Dark Horse (1989)
What can you expect from a slim volume on the life of a highly private and religious man whose musical associates were far more interesting than he was? Not much, and that's what you'll find here. The sections on the Beatles are sketchy and padded with over-familiar trivia. The post-Beatles stuff is fresher, but like so many biographers Giuliano seems to have no insight at all when it comes to the music.
Instead, he babbles at length about Harrison's Eastern mysticism and hunts for anything resembling a sexual or drug-related scandal, digging up barely enough to justify the exercise.
There are some good parts like the useful discography and frequent photo sections. And then there's the thematic, semi-chronological organization, which gives Giuliano room to expound on related themes like Harrison's bizarre country estate. Not the most interesting rock biography in the world, but as the author himself notes, you're pretty much stuck with it if you're just dying to read about John and Paul's talented, younger sidekick. (JA)
Geoffrey Giuliano, Rod Stewart: Vagabond Heart (1993)
It's always hard to take Rod Stewart seriously as a rock musician instead of writing him off as a jet setting slut, but Guiliano barely even tries here. His writing style had improved at this point, and there are plenty of titillating revelations to keep you turning the pages. But his accounts of Stewart's recordings and performances are as minimal as you could imagine, and instead there's page after page about his long string of failed marriages and tawdry affairs. It's impossible to keep track of the cavalcade of leggy blondes, so why bother?
At least you do get the run-down on Stewart's equally impressive succession of failed bands and record deals before his late-60s breakthrough with the Jeff Beck Group. And the discography is fantastically thorough, although Giuliano gives no indication as to why anyone should care. I just wish someone would give the Faces their due - maybe their lead singer really was as vapid as Giuliano makes him out to be, but the rest of them had some talent, and they deserve more than the 90 pages they get. (JA)
David Hadju, Lush Life: A Biography Of Billy Strayhorn (1996)
Billy Strayhorn so successfully remained in the shadow of Duke Ellington that no book appeared about him until he'd been dead nearly thirty years. Hadju does his
best to make the case that Strayhorn was a neglected genius, bringing out a string of interviewees testifying to his many gifts and calling into question the authorship of many Ellington
favorites, and his research is so scrupulous it's hard to dismiss his conclusions. To my mind, Strayhorn's prominence as a composer is fully established by the work copywrighted in his name,
and Ellington's preeminence is unquestionable even if you ignore everything written during Strayhorn's tenure in the band, so the authorship question is mainly of academic interest - but that's
not to say it's not interesting. In addition, the book is a detailed, well written look at what life was like for a well-off gay black man in mid-century New York City.
The biography also serves as a nice complement to Ellington's autobio, because it dwells on several issues that book glosses over: how Ellington and Strayhorn collaborated,
why some Ellington associates struck out on their own and why they came back, how all of Ellington's stage shows failed, what Strayhorn's musical influences and stylistic innovations were.
Marybeth Hamilton, In Search Of The Blues (2008)
A fascinating look at how the past becomes history, as Hamilton delineates the motley group of antebellum apologists, Communists, folklorists and record collectors who created the origin myths of Delta blues and New Orleans jazz, and privileged their protagonists (Robert Johnson and Charley Patton; Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver) over the artists who were actually popular with cotemporaneous consumers of "race records." (Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter stands astride the discourse, as he managed to be used by multiple sides in these musical and political debates while remaining hugely and incorruptibly himself.) Along the way, Hamilton uses crisp, vigorous prose and a blithe - though properly footnoted - tendency to invent details missing from the historical record to craft an insightful, thought-provoking, readable narrative: The brief discussion of the itinerant bluesman as archetype for the late 20th century male's "flight from commitment" gave me more to think about than many voluminous tomes have.
Clinton Heylin, Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions (1995)
What the hell was I thinking when I bought this? Of all the great recording artists, Bob Dylan
is easily the least compelling candidate for a sessionography: the man clearly regards recording as a necessary evil, to
be completed as quickly and simply as possible. His backing musicians are lucky if he shows them the tune in advance; he
tends to use the first completed take; and the basic tracks are rarely subjected to overdubs, let alone more sophisticated
studio craft. So with nothing much to talk about, Heylin (whose other Dylan books include Behind The Shades and
Bootleg) just presents brief, opaque critiques of each released and unreleased track - like most bootleg collectors,
he invariably prefers the latter - along with the odd swipe at artists Heylin dislikes (like Paul
Simon and the Beatles). If he knows anything about music theory or recording technology,
he doesn't show it, discussing arrangements and the songs themselves (lyrics too, for that matter) in the most general
possible terms. I don't know what's worse: that he tries to pack 35 years of records into 200 pages, or that he can
fill such a small fraction of those pages with useful information. There are a few points of interest, though (the hilarious story behind
the distinctive percussion on "Lay Lady Lay," the confusing genesis of Freewheelin'), and the detailed info on
recording dates, studios and backing musicians will be an aid to the truly obsessive Dylan fan on your shopping list. (DBW)
Janis Ian, Society's Child: My Autobiography (2008)
Ian's about the most perfect subject for an autobiography you can think of.
Not only did she start young, ascend to the heights of multiplatinum success, come through life-shaking reversals, and wind up with a healthy income, a happy home life, and a career under her control, but she's also a terrific writer. If you've listened to any of her records or read any of her columns, you already know about her rigorous - though often playful - exactness with language, her eye for a telling detail, and her unsparing self-examination, and her book is packed with all of the above.
But she does fall into the biggest music autobio trap by constructing a narrative in which she's continually being wronged while she's being scrupulously fair to all, and every career failure is chalked up to poor promotion while every success is attributable to her songwriting talent.
Ian details how she was taken advantage of by virtually everyone she came across - not just labels and accountants but also lovers, bandmembers, strangers on the street, a therapist and an IRS agent - but doesn't seem to have any insight into how she kept getting into those situations, and given the unstinting confessional nature of so many of her songs it's strange that there's so little regret for her own actions expressed here.
It's also striking how she passed through so many important musical scenes and eras without getting too involved in them: she came up during the early 60s folk boom, hung out in San Francisco in 1967, was a major 70s singer-songwriter, and then joined the fertile Nashville songwriting community, but apart from some brief anecdotes there's very little about her interactions with other artists, as the key moments in her life seem to revolve around her writing in her notebook. Of course, that tendency toward isolation is the reason she's still around and able to write this book, which I devoured rapidly and am profoundly grateful for, so I'm not sure what I'm complaining about.
Liz Jones, Purple Reign: The Artist Formerly Known As Prince (1997)
No bombshells here, but Jones does an excellent job of telling the basic story of Prince Rogers Nelson,
interviewing a bewildering array of past and present bandmembers, managers, engineers and family - a feat that's all the more impressive given
Prince's penchant for requiring confidentiality agreements. She strikes a good balance thematically, discussing his studio workaholism, constant
touring, compulsive self-mythologizing, hot and cold attitude toward friends and employees, and romances both rumored and actual, though there could have been more discussion of his
musical influences and innovations. Jones touches on his extraordinary impact on postmodern academics, getting
Queer Theory soundbites from the likes of bell hooks, but doesn't get carried away with it, letting the facts and interviews speak for
themselves rather than pushing pet theories.
Befitting the impeccable research, there's a comprehensive discography with one reprinted magazine review per album, and a good full-color photo
Jeff Kaliss, I Want To Take You Higher: The Life And Times Of Sly & The Family Stone (2008)
I'm grateful that someone finally wrote a full biography of the man born Sylvester Stewart, but
Jeff Kaliss did a patchy job. Though Family Stoners Jerry Martini and Greg Errico are his only real inside sources
he did interview some interesting folks (such as high school bandmate Ria Boldway) but didn't do enough basic research to fill in the gaps. Though Sly's constantly described as a pioneer and visionary, there's little putting his achievements into the context of his 60s and 70s contemporaries (only Stevie Wonder, George Clinton, Miles Davis and Hendrix are mentioned, and even they aren't discussed in detail). There's also scarce mention of Graham Central Station or the Stone-affiliated mid-70s Motown projects, and despite bemoaning the tabloid emphasis on drug and child support arrests, he sheds no light on what else Stone has been doing for the past thirty-five years.
Even where Kaliss has some knowledge he can be too cagey, as when he implies that War producer Jerry Goldstein began exerting Gene Landyesque control over Sly starting in the 90s, but then presents no detail or evidence.
And he seems far too impressed with his ability to score two rare sit-downs with Stone, apparently failing to notice that he learned nothing substantial in either of them. Photos and discography are good, and Karliss writes clearly though without much passion; I hope the Konings Brothers (book due in 2011) will do better.
Neal Karlen, Babes In Toyland: The Making And Selling Of A Rock And Roll Band (1994)
When punk grrrl group Babes In Toyland was signed to a major label, their promo man lured
Karlen into traveling with the band for three years, documenting their meteoric rise to fame. Only trouble was, they
didn't really rise to fame, which makes the book more interesting than it otherwise would have been: it's never
predictable, as their label debut takes forever to record and stiffs on initial release, causing a brief band breakup,
after which they're picked for the main stage of Lollapalooza, which ended up being the band's high point. There's a
fair amount of background on the punk/alterative scene in Minneapolis, on Warner Bros Records, and on the often-murky
business of breaking new bands. The writing is lively and generally enjoyable, though Karlen fixates on a few pet words
and phrases ("doppleganger" and "kinderwhore" - in reference to the vintage white dresses worn by band leader Kat
Bjelland - seem to pop up on every page), and spends so much time writing about non-bandmember Courtney Love you start to wonder if
the book's actually about her. Also, it seems he ran out of steam while writing, as he goes into excruciating detail
about the recording of Fontanelle, but just skims over their far juicier Lollapalooza trip the following year.
As often happens in band bios, the author seriously exaggerates the group's originality and historical importance:
there's next to no credit given to earlier all-female and female-led rock bands, and far
superior Riot Grrrl acts like Bikini Kill and the Lunachicks are only
mentioned in passing. Weirdest of all, there's no discography, and he barely discusses the band's independent releases.
Robin D. G. Kelley, Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times Of An American Original (2009)
Writing the first comprehensive biography of such as myth-shrouded figure as bebop pioneer Thelonious Monk is a daunting task, and Robin D. G. Kelley spent fourteen years making sure he had every fact and story straight. The result is a monumental work that's frequently fascinating, but often diminished - despite a clear, reasonably lively prose style - by a fanatical devotion to detail. Kelley certainly deserves credit for not glossing over any aspect of the paradoxical Monk story - free spirit, family man, drug user, innovator, mental patient, loyal friend, unsentimental bandleader, success, failure - and the core of the book, tracing and describing his specific and unique contributions to the growth of jazz, is incredibly valuable.
However, while ploughing through lengthy descriptions of (say) the schools attended by Monk's progeny, or racist atrocities committed in places Monk nearly visited but didn't quite,
you may find the book a challenging read, even if (as I do) you have a deep interest in the era.
Chaka Khan with Tonya Bolden, Chaka! (2003)
From Black Power activist to hippie wild child to chart-topping singer to mother to crack addict to icon for a new generation
of chart-topping singers, Chaka Khan has a fascinating story to tell, and tells it plainly and
honestly. All phases of her life are given their due, though the Rufus years are glossed over a bit... I suspect she
just doesn't remember them too well. She brings refreshing humor even when discussing difficult situations, and
avoids the pitfalls of false modesty and self-pity, taking both credit and blame when they're due, looking to herself
for the causes of and solutions to most of her problems. It's hard to write an autobiography without seeming
self-absorbed, but Khan comes across as intelligent and thoughtful, someone you'd like to have over for dinner.
The photo section is decent, and the discography is excellent: every Rufus and solo album is broken down with writer, producer
and chart position for each track, and Khan's many soundtrack contributions and guest appearances are documented with
Daniel J. Levitin, This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science Of A Human Obsession (2006)
A musician turned recording engineer turned neuroscientist, Dan Levitin is in a perfect position to write a primer on how and why music works. His primary focus is summarizing recent research on how the brain organizes sound into what we recognize as music, and he does it well, getting across the main point of each study without getting bogged down in technical detail, and moving smoothly from the arcane geography of the brain to the real-world consequences. As Levitin explains the tension between familiar themes and unfamiliar variations, how we add to and revise our personal system of musical exemplars,
and digs into why we like what we like (the central question for me as a critic),
he drops so many fascinating tidbits that quoting one would be a disservice to the rest.
The writing is breezy and clear (though he occasionally overdoes the one-liners), and along the way, he also finds room for a decent intro to music theory - packed with illustrations from well known songs - and plenty of anecdotes about the many pleasures listening to and making music bring to our lives.
The final chapter, on speculation as to the evolutionary role of music, Levitin makes the point that both restricting music production to a small professional class, and solitary, silent music consumption are recent creations which run contrary to music's historical social function. So perhaps you should take off those headphones, stand up, grab a friend, sing a song and dance. See how it feels. I'll still be here when you get back.
Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles Recording Sessions (1988)
- Don't mistake this for a mere coffee table book: the endless photos and leisurely lay-out only conceal Lewisohn's methodical research. It's a goldmine for fans, and marks it as far and away the most detailed, accurate, and user-friendly sessionography ever compiled. And hey, it just so happens that the Beatles were the best and most important rock band in history - so it really does matter how many versions of "Strawberry Fields Forever" the group recorded. The only flaw: Lewisohn's prose is stiff, and he has little to say about the Beatles influences, impact, or musical ideas, making the text dry and disconnected. (JA)
- This is probably the best and most valuable sessionography ever. But he assumes you already know everything else about the group's career, making it necessary for you to buy another book (one of his, presumably) to get the rest of the story. (DBW)
Alan Slutsky ("Dr. Licks"), Standing In The Shadows Of Motown: The Life and Times of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson (1989)
This extremely readable bio did much to establish the legend of Motown
house bassist James Jamerson, with excerpts from numerous primary source
interviews and enough quotes from Jamerson to give you a good feel for
Jamerson's personality. A combination biography, transcription
book, and play-along - the package comes with two cassettes reproducing
many of Motown's most enduring lines. Slutsky hauled in a host of big
name bassists to reproduce the bass lines on the accompanying cassettes
- Jack Bruce, Phil
Chen, John Entwhistle, Nathan Watts, Geddy Lee, Ready Freddy Washington, Chuck Rainey, Anthony
Jackson, and many more. There are also fun frills like a chromatic
exercise Jamerson used. Two big problems: one, the $30 list price is
outrageous for a book, and a hell of a lot even considering the
two cassettes and transcriptions. Two, Slutsky's research
and presentation have come under fire, notably from studio bassist
Carole Kaye, who lays claim to many of the key bass lines Slutsky
asserts are Jamerson's ("Bernadette," "I Was Made To Love Her," etc.).
Apparently there's some kind of legal action in the works, and the last
thing I want to do is get in the middle of it - whoever created the bass
parts discussed in this book, they're among the most revolutionary
instrumental performances of the recorded music era, and if you're a
musician you'll definitely benefit from studying them in this book. Just
don't pay $30 for it. (DBW)
Devin McKinney, Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2004)
As I was reading this wide-ranging, obsessive, intellectual social-cultural-political analysis of the Beatles, I kept writing dismissive review openers in my head: "It's not easy to overstate the Beatles' impact on the Sixties... but McKinney manages to!" or "Like a science-fiction movie where a post-apocalyptic civilization has built a society from a dog-eared copy of War & Peace or The Joy Of Cooking, McKinney tries to interpret the entire decade purely in terms of the Beatles' catalog." The book is rife with hyperbole - "Please Please Me" was the most lunatic record yet released? Ever heard Screamin' Jay Hawkins? - and meaningless coincidence - shortly after Lennon's murder, someone overdosed on Nembutals, which were once known as "yellow submarines"! - and glosses over critical issues like George Martin's role or any competition besides Dylan and the Stones. Ultimately, though, I recommend the book for any analytically minded Beatlemaniac because his arguments are so clearly presented they'll make you think more critically about your reactions to the group - what you love, what you don't love, and why - than you ever have before.
McKinney's crackpot theories (Live At The Star Club is brilliant; Sgt. Pepper was reactionary) are no better than anyone else's, but his writing is lively, his sincerity is unquestionable, and he pulls no punches: he really does want to get to the bottom of the Beatles' uncanny influence during and since the Sixties, and while you may not be persuaded by his answers, he asks some very good questions.
John McDermott with Eddie Kramer, Hendrix: Setting The Record Straight (1992)
This is a clear, straightforward account of Hendrix's life, complete with a good discography (even making sense of the confusing early sessions and uncredited guest appearances). Only trouble is, anybody who wants to know the whole story will want Electric Gypsy, which makes this book irrelevant. (DBW)
John McDermott with Billy Cox and Eddie Kramer, Jimi Hendrix: Sessions (1995)
This is McDermott's version of The Beatles Recording Sessions. (To his credit, he does admit copying the book's format and aproach from Lewisohn.) He got access to piles of unreleased tapes, including some that have never been bootlegged, so this time he does have some info that's not in Electric Gypsy. But not much; although the book cover promises "The Complete Studio Recording Sessions," that's far from the case. He'll often summarize weeks or a month of sessions in a short paragraph. I understand that he faced monumental documentation problems, but
he certainly had access to more information than he presents here (e.g. sessions documented in Electric Gypsy). There's very little useful text for your money, although the coffee-table sized hardcover has lots of nice color photos. The discography is basically the same one from Setting The Record Straight. (DBW)
Dave Marsh, Before I Get Old: The Story Of The Who (1983)
The most pompous rock bio I've ever seen, this 500-page monster is a textbook illustration of how not to write history. Marsh just won't shut up about his pet themes - Pete Townshend's rambling self-criticism, the early days of the Mod scene as reported by Marsh's one informant, and Marsh's own wordy, overblown dissections of the Who's music. Sure, there's plenty of mind-boggling detail; Marsh got his hands on every magazine article he could find, and he certainly knows the records. But he rushes through the Who's significant last ten years as if they were a footnote, and buries the rest in so much verbiage that it's hard to dig out the important stuff. More than a decade later, it's time that someone did this over again and did it right. (JA)
David Mills et al., For The Record: George Clinton And P-Funk, An Oral History (1998)
Part of the For The Record series edited by Dave Marsh, this slim volume takes bits and pieces of interviews with dozens of P-Funk members and various hangers-on, slices them up, and reassembles the reminiscences into a rough chronological
order of events. The discursive tone of the book leaves out a lot of basic information on the drug-fueled rise and fall of the
Parliament/Funkadelic machine - there's not even a discography - so it's only of
real value to fans who already know all the background. Still, it's a fascinating read, with comments from every major player and most
of the minor ones, and an wide variety of opinions (Billy Bass's undimmed bitterness is astonishing, and refreshing in a strange way).
This is especially welcome because up till now the endlessly quotable George Clinton has uncontestedly shaped public
perceptions about the bands he led.
No attempt is made to reconcile wildly conflicting versions of events, which is a plus: most bios fall down on this point,
with the author warping source materials to create one definitive interpretation of reality.
There are also a bunch of rare photographs - too bad the reproduction quality is poor. (DBW)
Charles Mingus, Beneath The Underdog (1971)
This is a look inside the mind of a great jazz artist, but you won't
learn much about Mingus' music here. Edited
down from two thousand pages of Mingus' life story, and my guess is that
they decided to throw out almost all of his legendary musings on
philosophy, racism, and the music industry, in order to focus on the
most prurient aspects of his history. As a result, there
is no discography, discussion of his Jazz Workshops, or even mentions of
his landmark compositions. Instead, there's page after page about his
outré sexual exploits, including pimping his childhood
sweetheart, and a longterm menage a trois relationship. Not to mention
his night with 23 women in Tijuana. You get the idea. But as the only
autobiography written by a jazz artist during this era, it has a certain
historical value, and a few tidbits of information. (DBW)
Charles Shaar Murray, Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix And The Post-War Rock 'N' Roll Revolution (1989)
An odd, odd book, and I can't recommend it for anyone save the advanced Hendrix student. Murray's knowledge of Western pop music is encyclopedic, and, well, that seems to be his main point - look at me, I'm a REAL music scholar. The book is a rambling, chaotically organized citation of jazz and blues artists, the literature of music criticism, political movements, and post-Hendrix pop developments, and despite Murray's endless trivia and sympathetic ear for Hendrix's recordings, damn little of it has anything to do with the man himself. (JA)
Per Nilsen, Prince: A Documentary (1993)
This is a must for die-hard fans of the funky man from Minnesota; it covers his entire career day by day, with more information on unreleased unrecordings and live shows than you'll find anywhere else. Nilsen must have a huge scrapbook: he has clips of innumerable newspaper and magazine reviews. The discography is also excellent, as you'd expect. But since his information mostly comes from outsiders, and is in telegraphic diary format, you don't get any of the "inside scoop" that most fans are really interested in. There are a ton of photos, but they're all black and white and mostly small. (DBW)
Philip Norman, Elton John (1991)
Philip Norman has tackled several big-name rock subjects like the Beatles and the Stones, and, well, it's turned him into a hack. This is the most conventional biography of Elton John you can imagine, solidly written, scrupulously documented, and strangely hollow. There's a full dose of Elton the circus ring master, juggling rushed recording sessions, public tantrums, celebrity acquaintances, mad buying sprees, scores of camp followers, petulant lawsuits, global jet-setting adventures, and sold-out stadium concert tours.
But there's almost nothing on Elton the musician, other than the well-known litany of gold albums and hit singles, plus some interesting stuff on the early years of the John-Taupin songwriting collaboration, courtesy of Bernie Taupin himself. And as for Elton the flamboyant sexual chameleon, party animal, and tortured substance abuser/binge eater-dieter, there's nothing new. Only the 1993 edition's brief epilogue, recounting Norman's long-sought in-person interview with Captain Fantastic, gives any hint of the tragicomedy's true dimensions. A good discography by Mark Lewisohn balances the lousy photo section. (JA)
Prince/Randee St. Nicholas, 21 Nights (2008)
An oversized, overpriced coffee table book of photos by St. Nicholas, with song lyrics and fragmentary, cryptic commentary by Prince. They're organized into pseudo-documentary scenarios of Prince's life on the road, one for each night of his 2007 run at London's 02 arena, mostly involving the trappings of fame (e.g. a long-running arc concerning a nosy chambermaid). Since it's all so staged, the pictures reveal nothing about Prince except for his carefully managed self-presentation, and I don't know even a casual fan who isn't thoroughly familiar with that already.
The book comes with a disc of aftershow recordings, Indigo Nights - I figured I'd at least get some value out of that, but it's a shockingly barren batch of hits ("Girls & Boys"),
improvisations ("Beggin' Woman Blues") and guest shots (Beverly Knight singing "Rock Steady"), none of it reimagined the way he so often does.
The RZA, The Wu-Tang Manual (2005)
I always had a sneaking suspicion that there was less to Wu-Tang Clan than met the eye: that the kaleidoscopic profusion of references to Five Percenter Islam, kung-fu flicks and comic books was more to create an illusion of depth than to express a coherent worldview. But it turns out they weren't kidding, as group mastermind RZA breaks down in this compendium of arcana: summaries of specific Hong Kong movies, discussions of Buddhist and Muslim philosophies, and the explanation that members modeled themselves after Marvel Comics heroes in recognition that the same accidents of fate that give you your special strengths also give you your tragic flaw.
An entire chapter explicates lyrical references from some of the best known tracks, and though he takes his time getting there, he does go into some detail explaining just how he produced the breathtakingly bizarre but compelling beats which are the reason I started listening to Wu-Tang in the first place.
The RZA does give you the basic story of the Clan - where all the members came from, how they formed a supergroup with a five-year plan to dominate the industry with solo and group releases - but there's not much here for a general audience: you won't get much of a sense of the late 80s/early 90s NYC scene, and there's no discography. But if you're the type who read the appendices to the Lord Of The Rings and wanted more, you'll devour this in one sitting, as I did. (Okay, two sittings.)
The RZA with Chris Norris, The Tao Of Wu (2009)
The RZA comes back with another compendium of Wu-knowledge, but this time the focus is on his own life story and studies in religion and philosophy. You have to wade through a fair amount of numerology and universalist musings,
but the reward is an intriguing picture of a man who's gone from abject poverty to riches, righteous living to drug dealing and dissolution, obscurity to jet-setting fame... and can't seem to decide where on those spectra he belongs. Along the way, he fits in some brilliant free-standing pieces ranging from his self-criticism in the wake of ODB's death to a spot-on analysis of the social commentary function of horror movies.
There's not much about the other Clan members or the actual creation of hip hop tracks, so definitely start with Wu-Tang Manual if you're interested in the group's story. But if you want RZA's unique take on combining Nation of Gods and Earths teachings with Taoism, Christianity and comic books, this is the place to go.
Martha Reeves and Mark Bego, Dancing In The Street: Confessions Of A Motown Diva (1994)
I always had great respect and admiration for Martha Reeves - until I read this book.
Easily the most self-absorbed, preening, everyone's-at-fault-but-me autobiography I've ever seen. Every hit the Vandellas had
is entirely credited to her (she even claims to have helped write every single through 1967) while every flop is attributed
to Motown's bad promotion.
Reeves catalogs her myriad hospitalizations for drug overdoses and frequent changes in personnel while blaming the collapse
of her career on a Diana Ross/Berry Gordy plot. Martha, did it ever occur to you that while you were
taking every pill that came anywhere near you, Diana was working on her career? Plus, Reeves seems not to have noticed that she
lost her voice circa 1968. I won't even get into the Hallmark-style poems that open each chapter.
Whoever Mark Bego is, he's no fact checker: among the numerous errors, James Jamerson is alleged to have died in
1974 rather than 1983, and Idi Amin is mentioned as being in charge of Egypt (which Reeves toured in the late 70s) rather
than Uganda. It must be said that there is a decent amount of background info on obscure Motownies like Richard Morris, great pictures
and a solid discography.
Of the multiple Motown tell-alls I've read, though, this is the only one that left a sour taste in my mouth. (DBW)
Charles Reinhart, You Can't Do That (1981)
This is a useful specialty book, intended solely for Beatles bootleg collectors. The release of the three volume Anthology set makes bootleg collecting pretty irrelevant, but if for some reason you do want a list (with track listings and recording sources) of every bootleg released, this is for you. There's also information on the flood of Beatles novelty records (95% of them released in 1964), and a brief discussion of bootlegging in general, and the legal ramifications thereof. (DBW)
Mark Ribowsky, Signed, Sealed And Delivered: The Soulful Journey Of Stevie Wonder (2010)
I don't know what's more bizarre: that it's taken sixty years for a definitive biography of Stevie Wonder, or that the eventual product is so poorly done. Ribowsky writes for Penthouse, and that may partially explain his nonstop prurient focus and poor reading comprehension, which lead him to misconstrue a Rolling Stone interview as saying that Wonder lost his virginity at the age of eight. More embarrassingly, Ribowsky seems to believe the term "CP time" was coined by Motownies as a reference to Clarence Paul's initials, and that Curtis Mayfield did the Shaft soundtrack... If you can't tell the difference between Mayfield and Isaac Hayes, you probably shouldn't be writing a book about Stevie Wonder. Apart from all the sloppiness, there's an overreliance on a few ax-grinding sources like former tutor Ted Hull and the shockingly bitter Malcolm Cecil (none of Wonder's close-knit inner circle would speak to Ribowsky), plus the usual grousing about Berry Gordy, who's presented as globally incompetent except when incompetence would interfere with his ability to be evil.
The book does have some intriguing background about Lula Mae Hardaway and Wonder's boundary-busting association with Cecil and Bob Margouleff, but the credibility gap is such that it's hard to take anything presented here seriously.
Ronin Ro, Prince: Inside The Music And The Masks (2011)
Not really, no. Ro does a good job of compiling previously published information on Prince's career ups and downs, but it's a view from the outside, with no original research to speak of, no well-placed sources, and no notable revelations. He has no particular insight on what's behind the curtain, so he describes one record, one tour, one band after another, without shedding light on what drives Prince as an artist. Ro's crisp prose capably describes the persona he's constructed, but doesn't reveal why he's done so, or what's behind it. Worth a glance for the casual fan who used to like Prince but has no idea what he's been up to since "Diamonds & Pearls"; the hardcore heads will already have read all the collected facts on one website or another, while the Liz Jones bio - out of date as it is - remains the definitive study of P's ambition, achievement and influence.
Smokey Robinson with David Ritz, Smokey: Inside My Life (1989)
I can't get enough of these Motown autobiographies, partly because everyone's take on what actually went down is so
fascinatingly different. Robinson was not only a star singer, writer and producer but also an early vice president, so
he's uniquely qualified to spill the beans on what happened in the studio, on the road, in the boardroom and in
the fabled weekly quality control meetings. Unfortunately, Robinson's such a Berry Gordy booster (he named his first-born
child Berry) that the account of Motown's glory years is painfully unbalanced: to hear Robinson tell it, Gordy wasn't
just a brilliant talent scout and businessman, but a saint and benevolent father figure, anyone who complains about money
is lying, and anyone who left the Motown fold immediately vanished into obscurity (he doesn't mention Gladys Knight, the Parliaments or the Isley
Brothers, all of whom found greater success after leaving the label). So you may shake your head, but you never put the
book down, because the writing is so engaging - he is a writer, after all, and he's adept at capturing the characters
of complex individuals - Marvin Gaye; Robinson's father - with a few well chosen details.
Aside from the Motown story, there's ample discussion of Robinson's difficult childhood, his rocky 25-year marriage to
fellow Miracle Claudette Robinson, and the mid-80s cocaine addiction that derailed his career; the discography is
terse but serviceable, and there's a decent selection of photos.
J.P. Russell, The Beatles On Record (1982)
This is a discography masquerading as a whole book. It's padded out with misinformation and inaccuracies about the
recordings themselves, and short histories of each release. Recording Sessions blows this book away on every
Harry Shapiro & Caesar Glebeek, Electric Gypsy: Jimi Hendrix (1990)
- This mind-bogglingly exhaustive treatment runs through 500 pages of text, and then dives into a 200 page appendix that details Hendrix's vast recorded output. The writing style ain't exactly Ernest Hemingway, but if you want the plain facts on Hendrix's career, this is the place to look. The major bummer is that the appendix is poorly organized and unindexed, making it hard to find anything unless you already know more or less where to look. (JA)
- Sure, the appendix is a trial, and there could be more discussion of Hendrix's contributions as a composer. But
it's the only book you'll ever need on one of the century's most important artists. That's got to count for something. (DBW)
Denise Sullivan, Talk About The Passion: REM: An Oral History (1995)
This is a pretty unusual effort, but it doesn't really fly. Sullivan's idea was to collect quotes from a pile of people with REM connections, then string them together in semi-chronological order, and give it some structure with a detailed timeline at the start of each chapter. The timeline and discographic appendices are really useful, and the book is up to date, so I can recommend it as a reference for any fan.
But the quotes are nearly useless; none of the band members and almost none of the key insiders were willing to talk, so you get a lot of trivia related by people with minimal knowledge and plenty of axes to grind. As a result, every detail is padded out with a random value judgment. On the plus side, although you learn almost nothing about the music you do get a definite, albeit very contradictory image of the band. Is Michael Stipe a selfish, slutty space cadet or a generous, politically crusading artiste? Is Peter Buck a second-rate musician with a pathetic record collecting obsession or a ground-breaking musical genius? You be the judge... (JA)
John Swenson, Headliners: Kiss (1978)
This paperback appeared at the height of Kiss's popularity, and is loaded with black and white photos and self-serving band commentary.
But it's far from your usual fannish hagiography: instead, Swenson develops the thesis that the band's success was entirely due to their dramatic stage act and resulting mystique, and that their music was derivative and inept at best. I don't fully agree - I think Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons had a way with simple but memorable riffs and catchphrases that would've found an audience even without the makeup, blood and explosions - but it's refreshing to find a bio that takes such an unawed view of its subjects. It's also good news that the book was written when it was, because the past twenty-five years have added nothing to the band's legacy, and no time is wasted recounting missteps like Music From The Elder or Gene's acting career. Also, the band members come across more naturally than they do nowadays: Paul's gee-whiz-I-can't-believe-I'm-famous bit and Gene's self-aggrandizing musings seem unrehearsed and genuine, and there's plenty of detail about the early days before the whole thing got off the ground. No depth to speak of, but who'd look for that in a book about Kiss to begin with?
The discography is excellent, listing each song (with composer) on each album and single through Double Platinum.
Rick Taylor, Stevie Wonder: The Illustrated Disco/Biography (1985)
This is a glorified discography; the biographical data is minimal. But it's a really good discography: in addition to Stevie's own releases, it also lists every other artist's record he's ever appeared on, produced, or written a song for. If you're a Stevie Wonder completist, this book is a must. (DBW)
J.C. Thomas, Chasin' The Trane (1975)
This book is excellent all around, giving good background on John Coltrane's life, discussions of many of his albums, quotes from many people who either played with Coltrane or were otherwise part of his life. There's a good discography, although so much new material has been issued since the book has come out, it's become rather patchy. Thomas is a good writer (terrific for a music writer) but sometimes gets way off on tangents, which he strains embarrassingly to relate to the topic. My only other criticism is that the book could have been more detailed. But you get a good sense of the man, his music, his influence on other musicians, and his place in history. You can't ask for much more than that. (DBW)
George Tremlett, David Bowie: Living On The Brink (1996)
Reasonable one-stop shopping for Bowie fans. Tremlett recycles the best bits from older, trashier bios, and adds his own, substantial pre-Ziggy interview material. His presentation is clear, concise, and buttressed by a detailed chronology and annotated bibliography, and his record critiques are fair if overly focused on lyrics.
There's enough name-dropping and 70s hedonism for smut grazers, and plenty of financial analysis for those interested in rock's corporate machine.
But there are weak points: Tremlett runs through the last two decades with no enthusiasm or insider knowledge, there's no index or discography, and the photo section is pathetic. Worse, Tremlett's two main themes are contradictory: is Bowie an infinitely talented art-for-art's sake polymath, or a ruthless, greedy, and calculating self-promoter?
By the end, the author ends up sounding like yet another naive journalist hoodwinked by the Thin White Duke of media manipulation. (JA)
Various, Online Diaries: The Lollapalooza '95 Tour Journals (1996)
SPIN Magazine cut a deal to feature diary entries from most of the summer tour's headliners on their web site, and a bunch of those entries are compiled here. However, some of the
participants were much more into the process than others, so the bulk of the text is from either Thurston Moore or Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth. The details
of traveling on a nationwide tour contain no revelations: there's a lot of driving, flying, and hanging around backstage, and the SY members spend most of their free time shopping
for avant-garde jazz records. They both do a lot of complaining that the mass media was ignoring the music in order to focus on the antics of Courtney Love, but they fall into precisely the same trap, writing more about Love slugging Kathleen Hanna backstage
than about any of the other bands on the tour. The occasional entries from the other participants range from terse nothings (Dave Yow from Jesus Lizard) to cryptic drivel
(Beck) - Mike Watt, who came onboard as the tour was almost over, writes more about the nuts and bolts of stage
setups, security, and such, but in a dull, clinical manner.
At $6, the slim volume is drastically overpriced and underinformative, but hey, all proceeds benefit Habitat for Humanity. (DBW)
Sue Weiner & Lisa Howard, The Rolling Stones A To Z (1983)
Presumably out of print and hard to find, this is still a good laugh if you can find a cheap copy. It's an encyclopedia-style history of the Stones written by a pair of diehard fans who assembled it from index cards, with tons of photos and endless trivia. Many of the entries are nearly pointless ("Gimme Seltzer: New York City club soda delivery service"), but the majority are brief and useful, such as names of unreleased songs, session players, opening acts, films and outside albums connected with the band, etc. The major drawback is that unless you already know the band's basic history, you'll find the alphabetical presentation completely baffling. (JA)
Sheila Weller, Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon - And The Journey Of A Generation (2008)
To dispense with the obvious, each of the three artists profiled herein deserves her own serious biography rather than being lumped in with two peers, not to mention throwing every other white American woman their age into the pot.
That said, Weller does an admirable job of giving King, Mitchell and Simon each their due, carefully tracking their evolution from very different backgrounds through occasionally intersecting life and career paths. A veteran chronicler of celebrity and family history, Weller writes knowledgeably about everything from Manhattan cocktail parties to Toronto coffeehouses to Idaho communes, with insightful prose sharing evocative details about transformative situations and characters (for example, noting that Jimi Hendrix's charisma derived from his fragility). More improbably, she manages to pull off the title's conceit, showing how again and again the three followed trails shared by many contemporaneous women:
forging new models of motherhood, career, and society; the backpacking self-discovery trips; the hard-won sexual self-determination; the relationships built painstakingly on a fresh footing, nonetheless crashing on the rocks of (his and hers) infidelity.
It's the last of these that gets the most attention here, as it's an obvious irony that even among these surpassingly confident, emancipated, creative women, much of their best work was nonetheless inspired by romantic entanglements with men (and yes, James Taylor is a recurring topic).
Scrupulously researched, though Mitchell and King were cool toward the project, with thorough discussions of each singer's discography - unlike most writers, Weller seems as interested in the musicians' music as in their lyrics, though the latter are obviously easier to discuss - and a fine photo section. One weakness is that Weller seems to sympathize most with Simon and have the most respect for Mitchell's art, which sort of leaves Carole caught in the middle - her chapters are factual but a bit thin.
Craig Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come (1999)
Subtitled "Music, Race & The Soul Of America," this is an ambitious and successful examination of the impact of black
music on U.S. culture, from the 50s through the 90s.
(Werner does discuss some white musicians, usually in the context of how they were influenced by or perceived by blacks,
and like most people who came of age in the 60s, he seems incapable of thinking about race as a more complex matrix
than black and white.) Using a framework of three complementary social-political-musical impulses - blues, gospel and jazz -
he discusses a huge array of artists (from Sam Cooke to Wu-Tang Clan),
musical styles and social forces, organized into digestible, chronologically arranged
chapters. He nearly always manages to avoid pontificating, focusing on presenting a variety of viewpoints on everything
from affirmative action to disco.
His chapter on Elvis, for example, distills every conceivable perspective on the man
and his music into a few pages, and he writes well enough to keep you interested even when he's presenting artists as
dull as John Fogerty, or not writing about music at all: his chapter on Jimmy Carter's social policies may be the most
interesting part of the book. Werner does run out of steam when he gets to the music of the 80s, swallowing the MTV
line that Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince
and Springsteen were all that mattered about the decade, and his smiley-faced conclusion that community, respect for elders,
and dialogue across differences made a comeback in the 90s seems a bit forced.
There are no pictures, and the discography is minimal, but a detailed bibliography lets you know just how frighteningly
well read the guy (an Afro-American Studies professor) really is.
Craig Werner, Higher Ground (2004)
Cut and Paste is not your friend.
Subtitled "Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis
Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul," this is just a rewrite of A Change Is Gonna Come - long
sections are copied word for word - combined
with minibiographies of the named artists. There's next to no original insight or information, except for nuts and bolts
economic data about Chicago; adding insult to injury,
most of the "new" material is cribbed from earlier biographies or liner notes.
Werner also gets into structural trouble, abandoning chronology and context as he jumps from a discussion of white flight in
Chicago to what was going on in Franklin's marriage to mini-reviews of a string of Wonder albums.
And when he gets to the 80s, he gets so caught up in tracing Wonder and Franklin's awards and achievements that he doesn't
really grapple with how and why soul music collapsed (which was not caused by the rise of hip hop, but preceded it by
several years). Werner didn't exert himself this time out; stick with Change.
Charles White, The Life And Times Of Little Richard (1984)
It's hard to imagine a more quotable rocker than Little Richard, so it's no surprise that most of the book is made up of his anecdotes, arranged into
chronological order - the only surprise is that he's not listed as a writer. White's actual prose is confined to brief expository sections peppered with his uninsightful comments (such as a passing
remark that John Lennon wasn't worthy to tune Richard's piano). The book is well organized, with an appropriately heavy focus on the key 1955-1957 period, and just the
highlights of his subsequent comeback attempts. Interviews with other family members, producer Bumps Blackwell, longtime girlfriend Lee Angel and others
round out the picture somewhat, but you're left mostly with Richard's perspective on his rapid rise to and subsequent abandonment of fame, and his hot/cold relationship to practically everything:
rock and roll, women, men, God, drugs, etc. His opinions are fascinating even when they're downright bizarre (such as his contractory view of his homosexuality), and he comes across as wildly
joyous as he does on record.
There's a decent selection of photos and a wonderful discography and sessionography - sorely needed because Richard spent decades endlessly re-recording all his hits and releasing them with
confusingly similar titles.
Timothy White, The Nearest Faraway Place (1995)
I got this free in the mail from the publisher, and, well, I guess I'm grateful. White's interesting and somewhat grandiose goal was to chronicle the cultural history of Los Angeles and tie it to the personal and professional history of the Beach Boys and the surf music industry. A fine idea, but to do it he had to make big sacrifices - there's no discography or timeline, the photos are scarce and uninformative, and the entire period from the 70s on is covered in the most skeletal way imaginable.
With gobs of detail on the Wilson family's deep historical origins and on miscellaneous cultural events, it's often completely off the topic of music - and even when White is talking music, he's often tangential (do we really need to know about the career of the Eagles?).
Perhaps the worst problem is White's fanatic, almost glassy-eyed adoration of the Beach Boys, which leads him to take a strident anti-Gene Landy stance. His white-washing of Brian, Dennis, and Mike's escapades is hardly better than the diametrically opposed pro-Landy propaganda tract Wouldn't It Be Nice. In the end, diehards will end up learning little new about the Beach Boys, but may enjoy the read anyway. (JA)
Otis Williams & Patricia Romanowski, Temptations (1988)
- The most important 60s Motown act other than the Supremes, the Temptations more or less get their due here. Otis Williams, the group's founder and leader, runs through the standard autobiographical territory: there's a lot on the band's endless personnel changes, Motown's strange business workings, and Williams' own numerous affairs and marriages. Plus there's a fine discography. Unfortunately, the writing is rote, and the man himself seems to have little understanding of either the musical innovations that made Motown great in the mid-60s, or the general musical revolution in the late 60s that brought it down. His lengthy and bland reporting on the post-glory days only highlights his crass and self-involved approach to the music. (JA)
- Alroy hit the nail right on the head here. (DBW)
Brian Wilson & Todd Gold, Wouldn't It Be Nice: My Own Story (1991)
It would've been nice if the ghostwriter and editor had put more work into this. Despite the semi-chronological order of presentation and effort to cover all the major events in Wilson's life, there's a lot of sloppy scholarship here, and unfortunately Brian himself is so burned out that the new material consists of incoherent impressions of his drug trips, schizophrenic episodes, and family tragedies. So there's precious little about the music itself, and much less about the band's famous tours, which Brian had little to do with.
Worse, a good chunk of the text is devoted to defending Gene Landy, Wilson's feel-good, jet setting guru (admittedly, a good case is made that Brian would have shortly followed his deceased brother Dennis if it hadn't been for intensive therapy in the 1980s). There's little factual information here that wasn't already widely known, but still this is as close as you're going to get to stepping inside the mind of one of rock's greatest geniuses. (JA)
Mary Wilson, Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme (1983)
As an original Supreme, Mary Wilson's in as
good a position as anyone to tell the inside story of Motown, and she
does a good job, dishing plenty of dirt while giving more of a sense of
major players like Berry Gordy and Diana Ross than I've seen elsewhere.
There's not much insight into the music, which after all the Supremes
didn't write or produce, but plenty on Wilson's frustrated desire to be
a lead singer and the sad downward spiral of Florence Ballard. Wilson
also manages to come off as thoroughly likeable, which isn't always easy
even in your own autobiography (see Otis
Williams or Martha Reeves). The writing, assisted by Patricia Romanowski and Ahrgus
Juilliard, is lively and direct. The discography is excellent as far as
it goes, but there's nothing on the post-Diana years; if you want that,
look to Wilson's sequel Supreme Faith, which goes from 1970 to
about 1983, in the same readable style. I'm not reviewing that one
separately - it's more about her abusive relationship with her scumbag
husband than the music business - but it does include a can't-miss
chapter on Diana's freakout at Motown's 25th Anniversary Special.
But what about the records?