By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
They Fought the Law: Rock Music Goes to Court by Stan Soocher (Schirmer Books) could be a book of scripts for a music-industry version of Law & Order. Billy Joel sues his ex-brother-in-law/manager, the Presley estate attempts to make up for Colonel Tom Parker's financial bloodsucking by establishing postmortem merchandising rights for Elvis souvenirs, Michael Jackson fights a plagiarism suit over the song "Dangerous," and 2 Live Crew falls into a pit of legal problems by sampling Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman." Best of all, the chapter on the Judas Priest subliminal-message lawsuit, initiated by the parents of a Priest fan who killed himself, relates how the courts snuffed the most recent attempt to prove that rock and roll is the root of all evil. Can't think of a better piece of required reading for those conspiracy-starved right-wingers and headstrong Christers desperately in need of critical thinking skills.
Original Woodstocker Richie Havens remains both the quintessential hippie and most sophisticated rhythm guitarist on the scene since those Three Days of Peace and Love. They Can't Hide Us Anymore (Spike/Avon Books) is both his life story and an optimistic rant appealing for utopia on earth. The chapter on how he opened Woodstock will be of interest to many, the chapters on his hanging out with Dylan and the other Greenwich Village folkies of interest to some, and the rest intriguing only to diehard Havens mavens.
Though a bio on Nat "King" Cole might sound like a snoozer, given his smooth and unobtrusive singing style, Nat King Cole by Daniel Mark Epstein (Farrar, Straus, Giroux) uncovers loads of heavyweight info about the artist that prove he was a lot more than a mentor to Johnny Mathis. Cole was a solid jazz pianist at an amazingly young age, a black entertainer in an era when a cabaret card guaranteed nothing regarding racial equality, and a handsome media figure who unsuccessfully struggled to remain a faithful husband. It's that rare music book in which a record label -- Capitol Records, in this case -- comes across as a hero supporting an artist during turbulent times.
Lots of jazz giants have yet to merit a biography -- try finding a history of Chet Baker or Lennie Tristano. As far as becoming a life in print: The late soul-jazz guitarist Grant Green may be far more popular now than a decade back because of his influence on the acid jazz movement, but he didn't reveal much regarding the whole jazz-funk movement of the '70s, nor did he live a life filled with colorful circumstances. Kudos nonetheless to daughter-in-law Sharony Andrews Green, the journalist who penned Grant Green: Rediscovering the Forgotten Genius of Jazz Guitar (Miller Freeman Books), for documenting the life of a figure probably no one would pursue in print a generation from now. The writing is next-door-neighbor personable, which makes up for the lack of wild stories.
There's not been much hardcore jazz reference material since Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler's Encyclopedia of Jazz was first published back in the '50s. We've now progressed from that groundbreaking, inch-thick overview to the likes of The Virgin Encyclopedia of Jazz (Virgin) edited by Colin Larkin, so information-heavy that if it falls off the shelf, it will break your foot. Yes, its thousand pages cover the usual jazz legends found in even those slapped-together coffee-table encyclopedias, but its informative meanderings on both the blatant outsiders and subtly peripheral figures of jazz are what make Virgin a find. Some inclusions, though, are downright perplexing: Leon Redbone is given as much space as David "Fathead" Newman and Michael Brecker. But for every head-scratcher, there are attention-worthy figures like singer Annette Peacock, the String Trio of New York, and composer Steve Reich. Snag this along with The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, and you'll have more info than you could possibly use.
You'll want to grab a copy of Jim DeRogatis' Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic. Along with Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, the Greil Marcus-edited posthumous collection of Bangs' writing, Let It Blurt should be required reading for any aspiring rock critic. But more than that, DeRogatis, a frequent Dallas Observer contributor, delivers a page-turning look at a heroically self-destructive genius, a man who lived for rock and roll and died for drugs and alcohol. (His motto, after all, was "live fast, be bad, get messy, die young.") Eighteen years after his death, some still say that Bangs is the only music journalist that matters. With Let It Blurt, DeRogatis proves them right.
The best book of the lot is Exotica: Fabricated Soundscapes in a Real World by David Toop (Serpent's Tail). The Londoner believes that the Western hemisphere has consistently created kitsch interpretations of black and Asian music forms, resulting in both the original and retro lounge-music scenes. Toop's expansive knowledge of history validates, through sometimes amazingly obscure references, how popular music has unintentionally furthered racism and stereotypes when re-creating the music of other countries. Exotica includes interviews with musicians as diverse as Burt Bacharach and Bill Laswell, the latter having named his Miles Davis remix album Panthalassa, after a term in Toop's previous book. Betcha Toop will end up becoming a major name in music writing, setting a steep standard for journalists who weakly attempt to persuade through fanaticism rather than footnotes.