Listen to their music. Read their books. Or books about them written by family members, fans and friends. We spent almost a year, reading and researching tomes written by or about singers, songwriters, bands, groups and music makers. We found lots of bad notes. We also found some great books that make the record of being names the Best Music Books of 2015. All prices are suggested retail; a visit to amazon.com will say you oodles of cash.
The other Elvis, Costello, has penned “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink” (Blue Rider Press, $30), an autobiography that’s fiercely passionate, funny and moving. He easily and proudly displays his an encyclopedic knowledge and appreciation for, and deep love of, music. Both sardonic and self-aware, Costello rambles about his family and friends; he refuses to hide being fans for other musicians. He discusses artists that tower (Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash) and that still fight for recognition (David Ackles, Robert Wyatt). The tome is written in a clipped, biting style; his work underscores his ability as a great storyteller, whose work is as close to Costello’s greatest songs, equally lyrical and difficult to categorize.
Sam Phillips’ early important influences were a blind sharecropper, a deaf aunt and a female owner of a whorehouse during the Depression era. Their guidance and advice helped Phillips become a visionary genius who single-handedly steered the revolutionary path of Sun Records. The music that he shaped in his tiny Memphis studio (opened at just the right moment, in 1950, right before the rock ‘n roll explosion)with artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, Ike Turner, Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, introduced a sound that had never been heard before. He brought forth a singular mix of black and white voices passionately proclaiming the vitality of the American vernacular tradition while at the same time declaring, once and for all, a new, integrated musical day. With extensive interviews and firsthand personal observations extending over a 25-year period with Phillips, along with wide-ranging interviews with nearly all the legendary Sun Records artists, Peter Guralnick gives us an ardent, unrestrained portrait of an American original in “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n Roll” (Little, Brown and Company, $32). Guralnick has painted a portrait with many layers shedding light of Phillips’ life, as a boy in the Depression, the people who crossed his path (both in and out of music), and of course, the artists and music he envisioned and recorded (and sometimes sold to other labels for much needed money) in his studio.
Deadheads will live full lives with David Browne’s “So Many Roads: “The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead (Da Capo Press, $30) that takes readers into the never-visited worlds of the Grateful Dead: Backstage babble in groupie-laden dressing rooms; recording studios; legendary band meetings; the group’s communal home in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district during the band’s notorious 1967 bust; even stints in rehab. Fifty years after they first came together and changed the sound of rock ‘n roll, the Dead remain one of rock’s most beloved bands—a musical and cultural phenomenon that spans generations and paved the way for everything from the world of jam bands and the idea of independently released music to social networking. Much has been written about the band, but nothing quite as vibrant and vivid as So Many Roads. Readers will hear not only from the Dead but also from sundry crew members, friends, colleagues and lovers, including some who’ve never spoken to the press before.The result is a remarkably detailed and cinematic book that paints a strikingly fresh portrait of Garcia and Company and sheds new light—for fans and newcomers alike—on the band’s music, dynamics, and internal struggles.
Willie Nelson’s raggedy voice can be heard as his autobiography “It’s a Long Story: My Life” (Little, Brown and Company, $30) is read . . . a gravely journey through great music, bad marriages and career ups and downs. Yarns are spun with short sentences, in a powerful, yet simple and direct, voice. Nelson’s deadpan wit and the larger-than-life tales reeks on every page, and that’s a good thing. that good thing is called “honesty.” Life lessons told in terse, conversational style and peppered with profanity. Pour a drink and join him across the table.
Lamb of god vocalist D. Randall Blythe finally tells the incredible story of his arrest, incarceration, trial and acquittal for manslaughter in the Czech Republic over the tragic and accidental death of a concertgoer in “Dark Days: A Memoir” (Da Capo Press, $26.99). At once, it’s a riveting, gripping, biting, bold and brave memoir. Wrongly accused of manslaughter in a foreign country, he bravely chose to go to trial rather than run. The recollections are harrowing and disturbing; Blythe’s detailed description of Pankrác Prison, the notorious, crumbling 123-year-old prison where the Nazis’ torture units had set up camp, and the dark cell he called home for more than a month from (from arrest to his making bail), seems lifted from a horror novel. Much more than a tour diary or a prison memoir, “Dark Days” is Blythe’s own story about what went down—before, during, and after—told only as he can.
You can fly to Paris, visit Pere-Lachaise and say hello to Jim Morrison. He’s buried there, and finding his grave is easy: Simply follow the fans’ directions (“Jim this way!”) often written on the headstones of other permanent residents. Or you can save the money and visit “The Doors: The Illustrated History” (Voyageur Press, $35.) Author Gillian G. Gaar chronicles all The Doors daze, starting with Ray Manzarek’s first meeting fellow UCLA film school acquaintance Morrison in July, 1965, to Jim’s mysterious death, and onto the recent past, documenting the surviving members’ collaborations with the likes of Ian Astbury, Perry Farrell, Scott Weiland and Skrillex. The band’s music is explored in-depth and in a unique way, with a roster of respected music writers contributing analyses of each of the band’s studio releases. The Doors became famous for a sound driven by powerful keyboards and haunting, stream of consciousness lyrics. Rounded out by guitarist Robbie Krieger and drummer John Densmore, the quartet released a string of six highly successful studio albums. Morrison’s death at age 27 didn’t stop him or the band from the joining the rock world’s pantheon and their history and mystique continues to grow and their music remains influential. The band’s story continues to fascinate, and the new book documents it all. Although their career with their wild and unpredictable frontman lasted barely six years, The Doors became one of the most mind-blowing, mesmerizing bands in rock history. The cover of “The Doors: The Illustrated History” features a nifty a die-cut logo and boasts nearly 200 photos, including candid concert photos, revealing intimate and offstage snapshots. A listing of tour dates from 1966-1972 and a discography are also included. Enter the door. How much fun is Dylan Jones’ slim “Mr. Mojo: A Biography of Jim Morrison” (Bloomsbury, $16)? The advance press says it all by revealing that Jones “strips bare the skintight leather suit of Jim Morrison’s Lizard King persona, and offers a frank and honest appraisal of a much beloved and often-romanticized countercultural icon.” Indeed! The book is crammed with little-known anecdotes from fellow stars, spurned lovers and industry moguls. The tome’s major flaw: Exceptt for the cover image, there are no photo!
He was body and soul. He was Carl Wilson, the story of the youngest of the three Wilson brothers, a consummate musician and singer and a natural peacemaker. His story is told in Kent Crowley ‘s “Long Promised Road: Carl Wilson, Soul Of The Beach Boys” (Jawbone Press, $19.95). Robbed of a normal childhood by international stardom, Carl marked out his own territory by his devotion to the guitar, rock ’n roll and rhythm & blues. His electric lead lines ensured the fledgling vocal group known as The Beach Boys were able to ride the surf music wave—before redefining it altogether. Later, he would sing lead on two of the most admired songs in rock history, “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations.” Then, as Brian succumbed to mental illness and Dennis pursued the path of self-destruction, Carl kept the fractious Beach Boys show on the road—literally—while increasingly taking the reins in the studio. He would create a series of underrated albums, including two under his own name, and some wonderfully soulful songs. And all the while, Carl was the supreme family man, sheltering Dennis from the wrath of Charles Manson and prising Brian from the clutches of Dr Eugene Landy. Fighting against conscription into the Vietnam War, then battling his own problems with drink, drugs, and marital breakdown, he achieved peace, only to be diagnosed with a terminal illness. In this wide-ranging and thoughtful book, Kent Crowley explores the life and career of the overlooked hero of the Beach Boys story. Drawing on new interviews with friends and colleagues, it provides a unique slant on one of rock’s most enduring family sagas.
In the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, an electrifying scene appeared out of nowhere, exploded into creativity, and then, just as suddenly, vanished. Domenic Priore ‘s “Riot on Sunset Strip” (Jawbone Press, $19.95) captures the excitement of this great artistic awakening and serves as a startling evocation of the social and artistic revolution that was the ’60s. From the moment The Byrds debuted at Ciro’s on March 26. 1965—with Bob Dylan joining them on stage—right up to the demonstrations of November 1966, Sunset Strip nightclubs nurtured and broke The Doors, Love, Buffalo Springfield (featuring Neil Young and Stephen Stills), Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, The Turtles, The Mamas & The Papas, The Standells, The Electric Prunes, and so many more. With a foreword by Arthur Lee, period maps by Shag, and a brand new epilogue, this book tells the story of the astonishing time when rock ’n roll displaced movies at the center of the action in Hollywood. As Stephen Stills says, “If you’ve ever seen ‘American Graffiti’, the Strip used to be like that.”
Whoever knew 50 could be so . . . rockin’ influential? “The Who: 50 Years of My Generation” (Race Point Publishing, $40) documents the band’s entire turbulent history, from Pete Townsend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Keith Moon first getting together, thru the dramas and tragedies, triumphs and setbacks, right up to this year’s 50th anniversary tour. The book is an illustrated history; it’s chock full of great images. Behind the die-cut hard cover lies such wonders as classic live shots, candid backstage and family photos, album covers, 45 sleeves and rare tour posters It’s the perfect introduction for the Who newbie yet comprehensive enough that even hardcore fans of the band will want in their collection.
The updated second edition of Jon Beam’s “Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin” (Voyageur Press $24.99) features top rock journalists from such publications as Rolling Stone, CREEM and Billboard, as well as reflections on the band from some of rock’s greatest performers, including members of the Kinks, Aerosmith, Heart, Mott the Hoople, Black Crowes, KISS, Matchbox Twenty, even Dolly Parton. Glorious concert and behind-the-scenes photography cover the band from the first shows in 1968 (as The New Yardbirds) through today. More than 450 rare concert posters, backstage passes, tickets, LPs and singles, T-shirts and buttons riddle the book. A discography and tour itinerary complete the package, making a book as epic as the band it documents.
Frank Sinatra would have turned 100 on December 12. A centennial calls for a celebrations . . . and many books on the Chairman of the Board. Here are a few.
It could be mistaken for a musical murder weapon, the official centennial book “Sinatra 100” (Thames & Hudson, $60), a lavish new volume that celebrates the life and career of the cultural icon. This isn’t chock full of rumor and innuendo and oft-told tales; author Charles Pignone’s text is based on personal interviews and conversations with Sinatra, his friends, family and colleagues and draws on the Sinata family’s vast personal archives, revealing many previously unseen moments in a remarkable life through more than 400 photographs, about half of which have not been seen previously. Even the forewords by Steve Wynn and Tony Bennett and afterwords by Nancy Sinatra, Frank Sinatra, Jr. and Tina Sinatra are compelling, especially since the book was produced with the participation of the Sinatra family and the cooperation of Frank Sinatra Enterprises. The best.
It’s been described as “a musical ‘Elements of Style'”, the slim meditation “Why Sinatra Matters” (Little, Brown and Company, $26) by Pete Hamill. The author explores Frankie’s enduring musical legacy; Hamill knew Sinatra and knew (and loved) his music but doesn’t fawn over the dead singer. Hamill’s prose is simple and elegant as he recounts the Sinatra saga, focusing on the singer’s best recordings, dismissing The Rat Pack because of “the swagger, the arrogance, the growing fortune, the courtiers.” Hamill proves the man’s best music were released by Capitol label. “Sinatra perfected the role of the Tender Tough Guy,” Hamill writes. “Before him, that archetype did not exist in American popular culture.” Think of this as a musical meditation.
“Sinatra: Behind the Legend”(Grand Central Publishing, $17.99) is a “new edition” of J. Randy Taraborrelli’s 1997 “Sinatra: Behind the Legend.” The publisher promises that “Taraborrelli is back with a completely new and updated lens.” The book is based (or so they say) on six years of research and more than 425 interviews with associates, friends and lovers. Marilyn speaks?
Poor Barbara Marx. Not an official member of the “real” Sinatra clan, she ends up compiling “Sinatra: The Photographs” (Harry N. Abrams, $50), a photo-festooned book that the book’s flak assures “not only his ineffable sense of style, but also his aura of vulnerability, intensity, sexuality and charm.” Revisit Ol’ Blue Eyes with Jack Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, and making music with Nelson Riddle, Count Basie and Quincy Jones.
Patti Smith’s newest book, “M Train” (Knopf, $25) begins in a tiny Greenwich Village cafe where she goes every morning for black coffee, ruminates on the world as it is and the world as it was and writes in her notebook. She remembers life in Michigan and the deep sadness that swallowed her after the death of her husband. She goes on about the business of existence. Smith must know those words would see print; after all, she won the National Book Award for her book “Just Kids.” Smith takes us on her trips . . . Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul; a meeting of an Arctic explorer’s society in Berlin; to a ramshackle seaside bungalow in New York’s Far Rockaway. What could easily become creepy—pilgrimages to the graves of Genet, Plath, Rimbaud and Mishima—are poetic lyrical odes. Her words, illustrated with Polaroids she took, become her musical staff on life.
Chrissie Hydne’s “Reckless: My Life as a Pretender” (Doubleday, $26.95) is as much a tale of reinvention as it is a confession of being a groupie: Who knew she went ga-ga over David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Rod Stewart? Her recollections of witnessing the tragedy at Kent State still stings. She tells all, almost, with candor and humor and a spilling of too many beans in too many missteps and misadventures of her life. But as she writes: “Chaos and disorder were to be ongoing themes for me with a mouth that flapped like a rag nailed to a post in a windstorm. I regret half of this story and the other half is the sound you heard.” Ouch!
Warren Zanes’ “Petty: The Biography” (Henry Holt and Company, $30) takes a look at the life and career of one of America’s most enduring and true post-’60s rock stars. And it’s well done and honest, despite the fact that the author is also a musician and a friend of his subject . . . and that Petty is known for being as close to a recluse as possible (unless he’s on tour). Petty’s reticent life is plenty memorable; he produced Del Shannon, backed Bob Dylan, formed a band with George Harrison, Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne, even made records with Johnny Cash. As Freakonomics freak gushes, the book is “an X-ray of the most fragile, most volatile, and most sublime social unit ever invented: The rock-and-roll band.”
“Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music” (Little, Brown and Company, $30) is quite readable as John Fogerty tells his story incisively, from the early years as lead singer and lead guitarist for Creedence Clearwater Revival and later as a successful solo recording artist. His is one of the most interesting stories of the ’60s rock ‘n roll era, and he tells the truth without resentment or remorse: The acrimonious falling out with his CCR bandmates (whom he describes as “jealous, lazy and only marginally talented”); his battles with Saul Zaentz and Fantasy Records; his years as a loner who was reticent to open up about feelings until he met his second wife; even thoughts of suicide. Fogerty’s writing, like his songwriting, has genuine depths of emotion.
Lou Reed died on October 27, 2013, but as fast as you can peel a banana, every writer who knew or thought he knew Reed has written a book, about him, his music, his Velvet Underground, his . . . anything. We will only suggest four:. Walk on the wild side for more. “Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed” (Chicago Review Press , $28.95); “Lou Reed: The Last Interview: and Other Conversations (Melville House , $15.95); “Lou Reed: The Life” (Orion Publishing, $22.95)and “Waiting for the Man: The Life and Career of Lou Reed” (Overlook Press, $27.95).