Wednesday, December 28, 2011
TOP TEN BOOKS about MUSIC
TOP TEN BOOKS ABOUT MUSIC
I have long been an avid reader. For about 12 years, I have set a goal to read 50 books per year which means I have to keep up a prolific pace. So for those of you who spot me in clubs reading a book, I am just trying to take advantage of every opportunity to get in my reading time. But be careful, it may not be me as I have seen several other people reading in clubs and who knows what some folks are reading on phones and hand held devices. I have a lot of favorite genres... film, hard boiled mystery, police procedural, fiction, and philosophy come immediately to mind. But of course I read many books on music and have a few favorites that I have enjoyed and learned from over the years. So if you are looking to use that Amazon gift certificate or if you spot one of these in a real live bookstore, I can heartily recommend these fascinating books.
1. Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad.
This wonderful book tells the tales of thirteen indie bands and their quest for carving out some space in the big bad music world. These are all American post-punk bands in the sense that they all came about due to what the Ramones and Sex Pistols and others created. The subtitle explains it all as these are "scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991". That covers the era from Black Flag to Mudhoney or Minor Threat to Fugazi to put a local spin on things. I knew only some of the stories and the writing was quite gripping as it fanned the flames of my excitement and had me cringing with sadness as at all the missed opportunities for many of these bands.
2. Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs.
Greil Marcus edited this collection of the writings of the late great rock critic, Lester Bangs. I firmly believe that older rock criticism looks pompous and somewhat ridiculous as rock music moves forward. However, Lester Bangs is the one writer whose work will stand the test of time every bit as long as the music itself. Not only did have a crazy energy and a flair for language, he had a sense of immediacy and rush to judgment that I find quite endearing (and empathize with). He would often say how he didn't like a record on first listen but found it a classic by the fifth spin. He would allow himself to buy the hype and go with the flow and see where that took him. It was a fun journey where he was able to capture the progression with insight and plenty of humor. I would skip his fiction, however, as it is not any where nearly as interesting as his reviews. There is a second collection of the rest of his writings that is also worth a look.
3. White Bicycles by Joe Boyd
I thought I knew enough about Joe Boyd. He was an essential figure in the folk, folk-rock, and psyche-folk scene of the late sixties in the UK. But he started much earlier than that with classic blues artists to a position at Newport when Dylan went electric to Nick Drake to REM and so much more. He packs in more stories per page than a good Cliffs Notes writer could do. And that is my main problem with this book... it is only 270 pages showcasing a life that deserves at least a thousand. Joe Boyd is one of the good guys that understands the business but works hard to ensure that the artist and customers are both happy with recordings or live shows. And his absolute favorite time he had was recording the Incredible Sting Band's second album, "The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion", where even the title sounds like fun (and it is a good album as well).
4. Grit, Noise, and Revolution by David A. Carson
This one is subtitled "The Birth of Detroit Rock'n'Roll". So basically if you like heavy, gutsy rock music and did or do like punk music, you really should have a full understanding of the real birthplace of punk. That would be Detroit in the late 60s and early 70s. There are a number of threads connecting punk bands, but the most consistent and important threads are those that point to Detroit where the Stooges and the MC5 made some mind blowing music that still dazzles today. This book covers the scene extremely well and goes well beyond these two bands. And the John Sinclair story as well as lesser known items are things that every music lover should dig into.
5. Hammer of the Gods by Stephen Davis
This is an older book covering Led Zeppelin and focusing on the depraved side of big rock band tours. Although virtually any book about Motley Crue or Guns'n'Roses will do the same thing (and Duff McKagan's book does quite a bit more), this book may have done it first and does it best. You can read a lot of autobiographies and biographies that follow the same pattern of success, debauchery and redemption and it all gets a little tiring (so stick to your favorite acts), but this one hits all the right notes.
6. Eye Mind by Paul Drummond
The story of the 13th Floor Elevators is so good, that you don't have to listen to one note of their music to enjoy the tale. This is also true of the documentary film "You're Gonna Miss Me" which focuses on singer Roky Erickson. This band lifted psychedelic music to unheard levels and still sounds shockingly fresh and vibrant today. But the story of the sixties and what they went through in Texas is amazing. This kind of thing just does not happen anymore which is a very good thing from a human point of view, but there is something about the art that fights its way through this mess that makes for some of the most compelling music around.
7. No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs by John Lydon
This is the story of Johnny Rotten and John Lydon the youth and John Lydon the elder. Of course there is plenty of that acerbic wit and acerbic commentary that one expects with Mr. Lydon. The stories are good from his good taste in music as a teen (Can, Van der Graaf Generator, Hawkwind) to the Sex Pitols and Public Image and beyond. Sadly Malcolm McLaren did not live to write his rebuttal to the harsh criticism of Mr. Lydon, but perhaps he really did not have a position to defend.
8. Please Kill Me - the Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain.
While the snippets of interviews edited together to tell a story is not my favorite style of writing, the technique works brilliantly here. I have read of complaints of the facts, but this is simply a collection of memories of many of the pivotal players surrounding the CBGBs scene of the seventies. McNeil was one of the founders of Punk magazine so he knows where the bodies are buried and which walking dead are worth interviewing. Entertaining and insightful, the New York scene gets a little overblown at times, but this is a must read.
9. England's Dreaming by Jon Savage.
If you prefer the British birth of punk history over the NYC history, look no further than this important book. Savage covers a fair amount of ground in full detail. His observations are sharp and his stories are gripping. He brings a better focus into the birth of punk as a result of a reaction to the woeful state of pop music and charted hits of the mid 70s and NOT the excesses of the progressive scene. I have read a lot of books on punk rock and if you only want to read one, start and finish right here.
10. Tropical Truth by Caetano Veloso.
'A Story of Music & Revolution in Brazil' is the subtitle of this fine work. Veloso wrote this in his native Portugese and of course I read the English translation. I am not sure I have read a sharper translation anywhere. This reads like the work of a great scholar and not 'the Brazilian Bob Dylan'. Although his musical career is covered, the political and social times of the country and the Tropicalia movement is the main topic here. Veloso and Gilberto Gil spent time in jail and exile due to their music and cultural importance in Brazil. It is a fabulous story and again, this may be the most literate book in my entire music collection.
And if I had more room I would add the Keith Richards autobiography, the Iggy Pop biography (Trynka), the Rick Brown autobiography of the Misunderstood (Like Misunderstood), Electric Eden by Rob Young (I think, as it's on my to read list), and others.