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)
Perhaps the single most entertaining rock book of the year (after DeCurtis', but we're talking intentional entertainment here). Sideman extraordinaire Kooper unleashes a lifetime's stories about all manner of music-industry silliness and perfidy, and he savors the telling of each.
How-to book that's actually helpful: Confessions of a Record Producer by Moses Avalon (Miller Freeman)
This pseudonymous effort provides considerable wit and wisdom on this festering snake pit of a bidness. It covers all the basics--from record companies to how not to get too screwed by them--in plain language and with rock-and-roll attitude. Like Kooper's book, it will talk you out of even thinking of entering the biz, but it will entertain you in the process.
How-to book that's no help at all: Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting by Jimmy Webb (Hyperion)
More than 400 pages comprising an "indispensable guide to a fascinating process" from the man who gave us "Up, Up and Away."
Best multi-media package: Orbitones, Spoon Harps & Bellowphones: Experimental Musical Instruments by Bart Hopkins (Ellipsis Arts)
A California musicologist combines a lavishly illustrated book with a 16-track CD chronicling all manner of homemade instruments and the music that's been made with 'em. Includes contributions by everyone from Tom Waits and the Aphex Twin to Leonard Solomon (inventor of the majestic bellowphone) and Colin Oford (master of the mouthbow).
Heaviest, man, heaviest award: The Portable Henry Rollins by Henry Rollins (Villard)
Allow me to quote one untitled poem in its entirety: "She was raped by her uncle / Her father left home / For another man / She is confused / She is sixteen."
First runner-up: Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists from Vaudeville to Techno by Robert Christgau
(Harvard University Press)
The "dean of American rock critics" can be amusing, insightful, and/or ponderous in his 150-word Consumer Guide capsules. In the essays collected here, he's just ponderous.
Second runner-up: A Night Without Armor: Poems by Jewel (Harper Collins)
"In my belly is a gold fish / I swallowed it and kept it there / I sing to it, and can feel it wiggle / when it especially likes the tune / Brahms makes it do back flips of glee."
And, finally, a note of special recognition...
Who Neil Strauss was in bed with back before his recent Jewel cover story in Rolling Stone: The Long Hard Road Out of Hell by Marilyn Manson with Neil Strauss
He only got in a hot tub with the Antichrist Superstar; in Rolling Stone's year-end cover story, Mr. Strauss brags of falling asleep next to Jewel (in a just-pals way, of course). Hey, Neil: How long before the Jewel book contract? And will you continue to write about her in The New York Times? And speaking of Manson--is he jealous? Or is he too busy doing the S&M thing with Spin editor Craig Marks? Just wondering.