By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
As with the year's new records, 1998's rock-and-roll reading found small pleasures coming from unexpected places, while the much-touted Big Events were ushered into the world with a resounding plop echoing throughout the lavatory. As we've been doing every year since, ah, OK, 1999, the Dallas Observer will forgo the usual best and worst lists, opting instead to hand out awards to books of special merit. As always, they acknowledge both the good and the Anthony DeCurtis.
Most extraordinarily well-written and researched book no one wants to read: Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick (Little Brown)
Even if you think that Elvis doesn't mean shit to you, the first installment of Guralnick's epic Presley bio is a fascinating read and a convincing argument that his early music was holy text. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for this tome, part two in the series, which covers the post-Army years, Hollywood, and, of course, the Vegas decline in excruciating detail, pill by pill. Round about page 431 you'll be screaming, "Enough already!" There are 300 pages after that. (Note: Official publication date is this month, but since it was already in stores in December, we'll call it a '98 book.)
Runner-up: Zoot Horn Rollo's Captain Beefheart Experience by Bill Harkleroad with Billy James (SAF)
A tour/studio journal chronicling the Magic Band's adventures during the making of such masterpieces as Trout Mask Replica. Alas, there are no heroes anymore: This book supports the sad but inescapable conclusion that Captain Beefheart was an asshole.
Best book about a lame band: The Phish Book by Richard Gehr and Phish (Villard)
In the era of alternative, the "fan book" became as cheap and disposable as the music it detailed. This tome hearkens back to better days, combining a lavish old-fashioned homage (a la Armando Gallo's Genesis book I Know What I Like) and obsessive studio log. Damn shame the group it covers sucks so much.
Least ecstatic book about ecstasy and rave culture: Generation Ecstasy by Simon Reynolds (Little, Brown)
Prof. Simon covers all the bases--from the music's origins on the isle of Ibiza to the giant "Furthur" rave in Hixton, Wisconsin--while arguing that techno is a totally new art form that cannot be judged via "rockist" terms (i.e., "artists" who record interesting "albums" full of good "songs"). Uh, "no." But the biggest problem is that ol' Simon never has any fun: He don't dance, and in a million years, you'd never find him in a Cat in the Hat chapeau.
The get over yourself award: Rocking My Life Away: Writing About Music and Other Matters by Anthony DeCurtis (Duke University Press)
The "best" of former Rolling Stone record reviews editor DeCurtis features not only a Warhol-style pop art painting of the author on the front cover, but a huge photo of chrome dome on the back. Never liked the guy and never will, so don't take my word on this one. Here's an excerpt from a notice about the book in Kirkus Review: "Critically generous, slightly boring essays." Mmmm, sounds like good readin', don't it?
Runner-up: From Lilith to Lilith Fair by Buffy Childerhose
(Madrigal/St. Martin's Press)
The author is a self-described "full-time culture vulture and critic"; the book is a mix of rehashed record-company bios and profiles of great chicks through the ages, and reads like a term paper for a Womyn's Studies class. Did you know that Sarah McLachlan's contributions rank with those of Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks? No? Well, you must be a man, then.
Wherein you will find dozens of pictures of late hubby Fred "Sonic" Smith and new boytoy Oliver Ray--with appropriately overwrought mythologizing of both--but only one scant mention of old boyfriend Allen Lanier, a key collaborator and early inspiration, and no hint at all of her rock-critic past. Oh, of course: It's a selective "complete."
Best attempt to justify a tremendous amount of arcane trivia about unknown but rewarding music: Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll by Richie Unterberger (Miller Freeman)
Essentially a tour of the author's record collection, but with thorough research yielding fascinating mini-biographies of hipster heroes from Wanda Jackson and Ronnie Dawson (unknown? not around here) to the Creation to X-Ray Spex to the Young Marble Giants.
Worst attempt to justify years wasted in the '80s doing a fanzine and college radio: The Secret History of Rock by Roni Sarig (Billboard Books)
A tour of the author's indie-rock record collection, bolstered only by quotes from alternative airheads about how all that stuff was "really, really cool, man."
Best book about a marginal and boring genre that's reluctant to admit it's marginal, boring, and not really a genre: No Depression: An Introduction to Alternative Country Music, Whatever That Is edited by Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock (Dowling)
This book begins with an introduction that notes: "We have fought hard not to define the music we write about." Hey, just what everybody wants in a music book!
Nothing important, really, but damn he's a good storyteller: Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs of a Rock 'n' Roll Survivor by Al Kooper (Billboard)