Sure, reading about music is no substitute for listening, but probably only a music book is going to show the typical Rolling Stones fan how Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters were the group's daddies. Most likely it will be a Miles Davis bio that explains to a recent jazz convert how such dissimilar albums as Kind of Blue and On the Corner could be cut by the same artist. And history books on jazz and pop music offer the most educated perspectives on why smoothies like Stan Getz and Everything but the Girl are substantial while smoothies like Najee and Celine Dion are musical wankers. The books reviewed here will help you squelch that uninformed putz whose idea of music history is a VH1 Behind the Music episode.
Ben Fong-Torres was one of Rolling Stone magazine's original writers, back when the rag opened not with 40 pages of clothing ads a la Glamour, but with a subscription-renewal form featuring John Lennon pissing on a tree. In Not Fade Away: A Backstage Pass to 20 Years of Rock and Roll (Miller Freeman Books), Fong-Torres prefaces more than a dozen reprinted Rolling Stone stories with glimpses of how the ultimate rock mag continually slingshot him across the country to chronicle rock at its cockiest. He follows the Stones to Hawaii, where a snotty Mick Jagger delivers one of his nastiest interviews; talks with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young before a St. Paul, Minnesota, concert about the group's ego problems; and interviews a defensive Neil Diamond ("hip is bullshit") as the Band's Robbie Robertson -- a surprising collaborator -- produces the former's Beautiful Noise album. Because Fong-Torres was one of the first music journalists to seriously critique '60s music, you'd do well not to pass on this sucker.
Merle Haggard wrote his autobiography, Sing Me Back Home, a full 18 years ago when he was only in his mid-40s. Then again, considering his self-destructive life -- time in the big house, a trading-card series of divorces, etc. -- the country icon can be forgiven for prematurely penning his own eulogy. My House of Memories by Merle Haggard with Tom Carter (Cliff Street Books) is a follow-up on all that he's induced and endured since long ago readying himself to give Mr. Death the brother handshake. Hag rails on about how CBS and Curb Records screwed him (having made and lost, in his estimate, 100 million dollars), how he tried to strangle his wife in the presence of her boyfriend, and how in prison he befriended serial rapist Caryl Chessman. Too bad current country music lacks the kind of artists who blur the lines between what they sing and how they live. Doubtful there are many of you waiting for that lurid lowdown on the lives of the Dixie Chicks.
Future Jazz by Howard Mandel (Oxford University Press) may be the first book on contemporary jazz built on interviews with, rather than general overviews of, the artists. Mandel, a veteran jazz scribe, visits Michael Brecker's home studio, gets an explanation of the touring process from the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and hears John Scofield expound the glories of playing live. Dividing the book into thirds are interviews with the nemesis of jazz crossbreeding and radical experimentation, Wynton Marsalis. The book's worth the price for its chapters on the underrated and now-defunct M-Base movement (which gave us Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson and Gary Thomas) and the radical scene associated with the now-famous club and record label the Knitting Factory.
Poor Quincy Troupe was the co-writer of Miles Davis' autobiography back in the late '80s. Though other sources say Davis fucked with him mercilessly, in Miles and Me (University of California Press) Troupe recalls his exacerbating encounters without malice. The impression unintentionally left is that the admirable rebellion of a younger Davis later became indistinguishable from the cantankerous attitude of any cranky, aging eccentric. Not much has been written about the trumpeter's last years, making this book an essential, if painful, read. Unfortunately, the book is not particularly well-written -- surprising, considering that Troupe has been touted as a major poet.
Would we have guessed that one of John Lee Hooker's favorite recordings is by Tower of Power? Or that Bob Weir has a thing for the big-band music of Fletcher Henderson and Count Basie? Listen to This!: Leading Musicians Recommend Their Favorite Artists and Recordings (Hyperion) by Alan Reder and John Baxter seduces us into a bit of aural voyeurism by asking some very familiar names what their CD disc trays suck in most frequently. Turns out that loads of artists have stretched themselves with some pretty disparate influences: Bruce Hornsby loves both Charles Ives and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; Rosanne Cash praises Marty Robbins, Chopin, and Mark Knopfler; and Branford Marsalis juggles Los Lobos, Beethoven, and Parliament Funkadelic. Never mind that you'll forget everything you read 10 minutes after you lay the book down -- it's top-drawer fluff.
Ornette Coleman: His Life and Music by Peter Niklas Wilson (Berkeley Hills) is the second bio written about this still controversial saxophonist-composer-music theorist. John Litweiller's Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life from 1992 details the historical data, while Wilson focuses on unraveling the mystery of Coleman's brilliant-or-bogus theory of harmolodics. Half the book is bio tracing his stylistic development, the other half an album-by-album overview of Coleman's output. Those still not sure that Coleman's honking wasn't a scam will find this of greater interest than the earlier effort.
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.
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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.