Please Kill Me and other ROCK & ROLL BOOKS of 1996
To your average American, even if he is an aficionado, one for whom the beat and the noise and fury was All, punk rock has remained merely a minority musical taste. Hence, the above-named may find themselves puzzled by punk's insatiable thirst for documentation.
What these people are neglecting was that, in actual practice, punk was primarily a socio-cultural phenomenon and a musical one secondarily. This is the nagging-itch quality in punk's makeup which has made the stuff uncomfortable for both the average rock fan and the mainstream music business: It's hardly a disposable, fleeting pop moment, except as a commercial product. (And believe me, punk's moment in the American commercial sun is about to pass.) This also explains that jones for documentation, as punk rock's as much an ongoing art project as anything else. And hey, a rock club's hardly a museum, and a well-scuffed 45rpm single or shiny new CD reissue can only capture the sonic flavor. So, why not feverishly snap that shutter, stroke that typewriter key, get that project preserved for posterity?
No doubt, the entire mallpunk commercial flare-up is as much the direct catalyst for the recent flood of punk books as for the equivalent avalanche of archival CDs. The question is, how well can you pogo to these pages? Well, like the music, some books may be the Sex Pistols, some may be Eater. Falling somewhere in between has to be the most celebrated punk book of the season, Please Kill Me, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain (Grove Press, $25 hard). The book operates within a breathless/deathless gutter-Terkle framework that sucks you in, then relies on grit and color to keep you there. Particularly instructive are Wayne Kramer and Dennis Thompson's accounts of how much the MC5 really suffered for our salvation (not even the Stooges faced either the continual bombing of their living quarters or concentrated harassment from federal, state, and local authorities). Particularly hilarious are Jeff Magnum's tales of life in the Dead Boys, all of which seem to have the refrain, "These people are insane. I left a job operating a drill press in Cleveland for this?!! All I wanted to do was play my electric bass really loud." It's no doubt a thrilling read, but it's still a botched one. Never has such a major book been released to the public so in need of copy-editing: If the Cast of Characters section at book's end alone is to be believed, Heartbreakers guitarist Walter Lure and Clash guitarist Mick Jones were both bassists; Jones no longer leads his 10-year-old Big Audio Dynamite (for whom he also played bass, apparently); Sex Pistols guitar hero Steve Jones played drums alongside Paul Cook (no wonder Never Mind the Bollocks sounded so revolutionary -- they figured out a way to make drums sound like cranked guitars!); and Jac Holzman, the one-time founder and president of Elektra Records who is actively running Discovery Records, died in 1993. McNeil also attempts claiming authorship for the term "punk rock," more likely first used by Dave Marsh in a ? &the Mysterians review published in Creem in 1970 and further defined by rock journalism pioneers Lester Bangs, Lenny Kaye, and Greg Shaw as Legs attended high school in Connecticut. With glaring factual errors like these, you've gotta wonder how much credibility is to be invested in Please Kill Me.
Fortunately, those errors are all on McNeil's part, which means you could probably believe whatever parts of the tale aren't told by McNeil. McNeil might also be blamed for the book's sordid tone. With the exception of the truly gentlemanly Jerry Nolan (New York Dolls/Heartbreakers drummer) you get the feeling the entire punk rock population of late-Sixties Detroit and the Lower East Side was composed of degenerate scumbags, hustlers, dope fiends, chicken hawks, and rampaging sluts. You notice scant documentation of perhaps more sedate folks like Talking Heads. Andy Shernoff himself has pointed out his old band, the Dictators, wouldn't have made it in had singer Handsome Dick Manitoba not gotten into a legendary bloody battle with Wayne County onstage. Still, Please Kill Me is more fun and much livelier than Clinton Heylin's From The Velvets to the Voidoids, which covered the same material in a far too sterile and clinical fashion. Even then, Please Kill Me could have benefited from a touch more scholarship, and it still leaves you with a nagging need to take a shower at book's end.
Then again, Legs can't help it. Somewhat of a weird, untutored genius, his strengths were more intuitive and attitudinal than journalistic. His initial fame was as the rampaging, alcoholic fuck-up mascot of Punk Magazine, one of the pioneering punk rock fanzines, finally seeing some of its prime moments anthologized in Punk: The Original (Trans-High Corp., $19.95 paper [235 Park Avenue S., Fifth Floor, New York, NY 10003]). Of course, that could describe the mag itself, as glimpsed within these pages. Hardly comparable to any mag alive, then or now, Punk was a deeply hilarious, hand-lettered burst of snot and middle-finger aesthetics, willing to risk anything for a reaction, transforming a bit of amateurish buffoonery like asking Lou Reed what he likes on his hamburgers into a transcendent moment. Punk wallowed in culture both high and especially low, talking poetry and films with Richard Hell and Patti Smith, yet relying on John Homstrom's background in comic books for its look and layout. But the apex had to be Issue #15, in which the entire mag was taken over by "Mutant Monster Beach Party," a hysterical photocomic salute to the Roger Corman oeuvre starring Joey Ramone and Debbie Harry, apparently a key factor in the Ramones' being cast in Rock 'n' Roll High School. It's here, reproduced in glorious black-and-white, alongside numerous other high spots in the lifespan of one of the few mags sharp enough to see merit in both the Sex Pistols and the Bay City Rollers.
Where Punk's value lay in its spirit and presentation, San Francisco's Search & Destroy was thick in actual substance and content. Produced for 11 issues from 1977 to 1979 by City Lights Books employee V. Vale (later to co-mastermind the acclaimed Re/Search Books imprint with then-partner Andrea Juno), S&D's outlook was expansive in scope, realizing there was more than music and records shaping the revolution-in-progress. During the course of its relentless Q-&-A approach to documenting punk, the mag would question musicians and fans on the culture they were dumping in their heads, providing lists of books and films they'd enjoyed, cataloging oddball collections and hobbies, printing set lists, inventorying everything from the contents of Avengers singer Penelope Houston's wardrobe to comic book purchases made by Dee Dee Ramone the afternoon of his interview to the decor of the apartment of a budding young guitar whiz named Alejandro Escovedo. (Al also makes a hysterical comment about a porno loop he'd just seen, and offers a list of people he admires that numbers Godard, Artaud, Lautreamont, Phillip Marlowe, James Williamson, and Brian Eno.) Equally valuable were the mag's concise essays on concepts like anarchy, black humor, and insurrectionist heroes like the Marquis DeSade. It was features and qualities like these which made Search & Destroy, alongside the L.A.-based Slash, possibly the best and most important punkzine ever produced. Long unavailable except in ill-distributed and now-crumbling back issues, Search & Destroy: The Complete Reprint (V/Search, $19.95 paper [20 Romolo #B, San Francisco, CA 94133]) presents the complete run in two perfect-bound volumes, reprinted in their entirety straight from the original layouts, ads included. Volume One is in stores now, prefaced with a hilarious and informative interview with Jello Biafra on punk's progress, with the second volume comprising issues 7-11 due early next year. Together, they present possibly the most complete and accurate picture of punk, untainted by both the damage time wreaks upon memory banks and the geographical myopia affecting after-the-fact memoirs like Please Kill Me. They also proffer ideas and suggestions which still have an urgency and a value.
And sometimes, it pays to shut up and allow the visuals to tell the story, as two other recent volumes attempt. Former Austinite Stephanie Chernikowski's New York-centric Dream Baby Dream: Images From the Blank Generation (2.31.61, $19.95 paper) succeeds far more than a similar attempt made by her London equivalent Erica Echenberg, And God Created Punk with Mark P. (Virgin Books, $17.95 paper). And it's not for lack of striking images: It's just that you wish for larger, more vivid reproductions of Echenberg's snaps of the Clash overseeing a crew of female underlings stencilling the clothes in which they're to take the stage hours later, of Steve Jones and Paul Cook shivering through an anonymous night out in decidedly un-Pistolish civilian clothing, of the Slits' Ari Upp howling at a terrified audience like a vampiric flasher. Instead, they have to share space with long-winded reminiscences of seminal U.K. punkzine editor Mark P., of Sniffing Glue/Alternative TV fame. Once you get past a brief, thrilling, introductory passage describing life at a punk gig reprinted from the debut Richard Hell novel, Go Now, words are left at the door in Dream Baby Dream. There's no verbal embellishment necessary for these gorgeous, damn-near three-dimensional images: Rick Hell brooding at himself in a mirror like a down-at-the-heel Alain Delon, Iggy reaching down a pair of two-tone trousers with a deliciously lascivious leer on his face, Lux Interior thumping a vein in his forearm with only a top hat and black pants on his frame, Lydia Lunch adjusting a shoe strap with a gleam of soiled innocence in her eye, Johnny Thunders long past innocence in black bondage pants, both hands clasped around a pair of drinks. Chernikowski's own description of Dream Baby Dream is "a documentary film in stills," and there's no hubris in the phrase. There's a silent, noble beauty to these photos, and the book's rich production values really underline their cinematic qualities. Dream Baby Dream outstrips every one of Please Kill Me's failures, in that these pictures can't lie.
Jayne County in her glory
Of course, rock bands can, and this explains the importance of Last Gang in Town: The Story and Myth of The Clash by Marcus Gray (Henry Holt & Co., $25 hard). More human and honest than the Sex Pistols, and also more far-reaching in their ambition, the Clash were nevertheless as entrenched in bullshit and myth-making as the band they would succeed as the U.K.'s prime punk band. Denied access to the band members themselves, Gray makes do with existing press material and observations from peripheral Clash observers like Glen Matlock and on-again/off-again drummer Terry Chimes, several Strummer and Jones pre-Clash bandmates and others. From this base, Gray constructs a story that holds fast to the book's subtitle, usually first presenting the "official" version of the facts, then counterpointing with the likely truth. What Gray manages to unearth can be damaging, including the extent of how much reprogramming the privately-educated diplomat's son John Mellor had to undergo to become working-class hero Joe Strummer, and how much more important trouser lengths were to Mick Jones than political commitment, the Clash's manifesto to the contrary. Last Gang could stand some trimming at 500 pages, but it's the closest thing yet to a companion to Jon Savage's Pistol-centric England's Dreaming, telling virtually the same story from the Clash's viewpoint.
Some tales are only tangentially related to the punk epoch, such as that of Jayne County. Sure, as the queen of transgender rock & roll, County was a delightfully trashy presence on both the New York and London punk scenes, and possibly helped pave the way for the dubious likes of RuPaul and Boy George. But as her autobiography, Man Enough to Be a Woman by Jayne County with Rupert Smith, (Serpent's Tail, $17.99 paper), there's far more to Ms. County's timeline than its intersection with punk rock. County spins a tale beginning with a boyhood far more sissified than the Georgia backwater from whence he sprang could tolerate, continuing through his transmogrification into a screaming queen running wild in Atlanta's homosexual community, grooving on rock & roll, drugs, and frightening the rubes. County gets hippified, relocates to New York, winds up in the thick of the Stonewall melée and helps fire the initial shots in the gay lib movement. Soon after embroiled with pioneering, gender-bending Warhol superstars like Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling, County rises to prominence in the early Seventies shock theatre scene which helped pave glam rock's path, giving both David Bowie and the creators of The Rocky Horror Picture Show a few ideas ripe for plunder. It's only then the New York Dolls, Max's Kansas City, punk, and all the rest enter the picture -- and that's only three chapters out of 10! By turns trashy, dishy, funny, profound, touching, and courageous, Man Enough to Be a Woman is far more than punk lit. It's a heroic testament to the phenomenal life and accomplishments of a seminal figure who receives too little glory, much less credit.
"If you don't wanna kiss me..." The Divine Miss C with Tim Stegall
Then again, this is the continuing story in the historical division of punk literature. Punk books tend to get too colored by either the ongoing geographical rivalries between New York and the entirety of the U.K., or the age/prejudices of the authors, or too blind to the movement's continued growth and health past its media-sanctioned death the day the Sex Pistols struck their last notes in San Francisco. Only Jon Savage's classic England's Dreaming manages a degree of fair-mindedness and breadth of scope (i.e. non-London locales like New York, Cleveland, San Francisco and Los Angeles get their dues, albeit briefly), and its focus is London/Pistols-centric. The entire story has yet to be told; the proper book needs to be written, the one which acknowledges punk life beyond New York and London, which tells the tales of Australia, Paris, Boston, Vancouver, even Austin. The one which places the Saints, the Avengers, the Weirdos, La Peste, the Pagans, and the Big Boys in their proper spots alongside the Pistols and Ramones. Sadly, any candidate for the job is as fated to remainder-bin life as any of these books. But dammit, history is waiting! Care to be the one to deny it?
-- Tim Stegall
In the kaleidoscope of images that still burn in my brain from those first few acid-laced Grateful Dead shows oh so many years ago, the one that really stands out for me is that of a beaming Jerry Garcia, kindly shepherd of good vibes, guitar nestled in his hands, smiling beatifically out upon his flock of delirious Deadheads. Interestingly, "Jerry with the smiling face" is the early recollection of Merle Saunders, a close friend and bandmate of Garcia during this deliciously fertile period of the late Sixties/early Seventies. These were among the best years. For better and for worse, however, nothing ever seemed to stay constant for Garcia, whose rapid-fire intellect and unquenchable curiosity were always leading him on to new discoveries and endeavors; not all, unfortunately, to his benefit or to his family, friends, and fans. But Garcia was almost a larger-than-life figure. Bursting with creativity, his very presence, even early on, impacted everyone around him.
"Jerry Garcia would have been famous even if rock 'n' roll had never been invented" is one of the more memorable observations that abound throughout Dark Star: An Oral Biography of Jerry Garcia by Robert Greenfield (Wm. Morrow & Co., $22 hard), a fascinating piecing together of Garcia's life through the words of many of those closest to him. I've always found oral histories to be particularly engaging and insightful; this one is no exception. However, while we hear both wonderful and horrific tales and tidbits from the likes of Garcia's brother, his wives and girlfriends, musical colleagues, innumerable Grateful Dead family members, and various and sundry hangers on, the most glaring drawback here is the virtual total omission of input from fellow Dead bandmembers who might have provided the most intriguing and accurate insights of all. Nonetheless, the book covers Garcia's life quite thoroughly from his early youth until after his death. As a devoted fan, it made for a spellbinding trip albeit the outcome is ultimately tragic and depressing. Although not the primary focus of the book, it also provides a fair social history of the so-called hippy counter-culture of which Garcia and the Dead were a vortex.
Garcia was an extraordinarily gifted individual whose foremost addiction was playing music. That's what he wanted to do more than anything else. At one point during perhaps his most prolific period, he was playing in four different bands including the Grateful Dead. Ironically, as much as the Dead had always espoused the philosophy of a leaderless communal family, Garcia had almost always been perceived as its leader. Unfortunately, his talent and charisma inevitably had the undesirable effect of turning him into not only the reluctant guru of the Sixties counter-culture but ultimately into an American icon with bizarre repercussions such as having a flavor of ice cream named in his honor and holding court with unlikely public figures like 90-year-old Senator Strom Thurmond. As the Dead became increasingly popular, that burden became harder to shoulder. Add to this an unendingly generous nature that made it impossible to say "no" to those asking of his musical services and a particularly bad track record in his relationships with women, and it's not surprising that his already legendary drug usage would lead to the comforting buffer provided by heroin. It became a habit he couldn't totally kick and, until it was too late, it divorced him from actually feeling the physical effects of his various medical problems. The slide down makes for a long, painful read but one that all Deadheads will want to venture.
From a far lighter perspective, Living With the Dead by Rock Scully with David Dalton (Little, Brown, $24.95 hard) by the band's former manager Rock Scully, immediately brings to mind the old adage that proclaims "if you can remember the Sixties, you probably weren't there." In a nutshell, this is a rollicking tale of drugs, sex, and rock & roll -- Grateful Dead style. There are plenty of really hilarious and amusing moments here but one has to question how much of it is hyperbole in light of the vast quanities of mind-altering substances that are purported to have been ingested along the way. If Owsley's orange sunshine was that potent, how can you recall conversations verbatim from 30 years ago? Scully is quoted at length in Dark Star and, as you might expect, there is some overlap here. It takes awhile, but by the very end of the book he finally gets around to disclosing the ravages of addiction that plagued both him and Garcia when they lived in adjoining abodes. If you want an insider's account of what it was like being "on the bus" with the Dead, you probably won't find a more entertaining roadmap than this.
-- Jay Trachtenberg
Virgin bioraphical territory such as the genius of Billy Strayhorn is prime real estate, indeed. After all, one doesn't just stumble upon American composers of Strayhorn's stature every day -- no matter how elfin he was in real life. And it was no less than Gil Evans himself, a composer of similar Mount Rushmore-sized repute, who prompted this maiden biography on Strayhorn by telling its author, "That's all I ever did -- [was] try to do what Billy Strayhorn did." Twelve years and literally hundreds of interviews later, the reportorial prowess qualifies Lush Life by David Hadju (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux $27.50, hard), as the first scholarly proof of what Evans and many jazz historians have known for nearly three decades: That Strayhorn is as important a modern composer as Evans, Gershwin, or Ellington. Let's not forget Duke Ellington.
Like the contributions of countless orchestra members, Strayhorn's musical legacy had -- until Joe Henderson's Lush Life album in 1991 -- been mostly absorbed into the whole of the massive Ellington oeuvre. And smartly, Hadju hasn't tried to unravel what each composer brought to a lifetime of collaborations; this is no hellishly dull annotated discography masquerading as a book. Instead, Hadju, an editor at Entertainment Weekly (!!), lets the unique details of Strayhorn's typically sad and underprivileged upbringing in Pittsburgh's back-alley black community of the Twenties and Thirties color in the charcoal outlines of flowering talent; the genius of an 18-year-old classical music prodigy, who somehow managed to wrangle an audience with the era's greatest big band leader.
Auditioning for Ellington between the orchestra's morning and matinee performances one fall afternoon in 1938, Strayhorn quickly got the maestro's attention by playing "Sophisticated Lady" exactly the way the bandleader had just played it. Then he played it again -- his way. "Well..." proceeded Ellington dramatically as he faced Strayhorn eye-to-eye for the first time, Ellington gazing down, Strayhorn peering up. "Can you do that again?" "Yes," Strayhorn replied matter-of-factly. And he did. Ellington was shocked, nevertheless, he told the kid to come up and see him in Harlem. That's exactly what Strayhorn did, showing up at his doorstep several months later with a tune he'd composed from Ellington's instructions on how to find him; "Take the `A' Train."
"Why, I was just going to send for you," Ellington is reported to have said: "You don't have to," Strayhorn said. "Here I am." From that foundation of intuitive connectedness and mutual faith, Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington began working together. And didn't stop for the next 28 years, until Strayhorn finally drank himself to death ("Lush Life," also the title of the composer's signature tune) in 1967, when he died from esophageal cancer at the age of 51. By that point, however, "Strays" or "Swee' Pea," the openly gay, intellectual socialite, who was content to remain in the shadows, and "Edward," the womanizing debutante, who stayed in the spotlight and on the road over four decades, had created a body of work that would require DNA testing to figure out exactly who did what.
Through Hadju's book, and possibly with a little help from its tie-in CD, Verve's Lush Life, The Billy Strayhorn Songbook (a cross-medium promotion also done with Donald Maggin's tome, Stan Getz: A Life in Jazz), or Fred Hersch's recent tribute, Passion Flower -- not to mention Ellington's own superlative elegy -- And His Mother Called Him Bill -- Billy Strayhorn not only steps out from behind the figure of Duke Ellington, he also lays claim to his portion of that grand legacy, and finally takes his rightful place in the pantheon of jazz greats.
-- Raoul Hernandez
In a world overflowing with music books, there are still a few in desperate need of being written, and some of them have yet to see print because the prospect of writing them is so daunting. Barney Hoskyns, one of Britain's most Americanophilic music writers (and one of the few), has, with Waiting for the Sun: The Story of the Los Angeles Music Scene by Barney Hoskyns (St. Martin's, $27.50 hard), dived in where few have dared, endeavoring to cover the world of pop music in Los Angeles from the immediate post-War era, when Central Avenue throbbed to the sounds of jump blues, to the gangsta-rap of the current day.
One wonders how many people told Hoskyns he was insane for mounting such a project: a book gathering Roy Brown, the Penguins, Jan & Dean, CSNY, Little Feat, Gram Parsons, Kim Fowley, the Germs, NWA, and Guns `n' Roses into 350 nicely illustrated pages sounds like sheer lunacy. Yet Hoskyns has succeeded, to an extent, in making sense out of this parade of misfits, idealists, money-grubbers, and wannabes. More, he has succeeded in rescuing L.A. from the aura of second-rateness that has plagued its reputation since the San Francisco hype of the Sixties. He's zeroed in on a great number of the important people who have made important, intelligent music and recorded their comments not only on their own work and that of their peers, but on the ephemeral. Los Angeles gave us Love, but it also gave us The Peanut Butter Conspiracy; it gave us the overarching ambitions of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, and also the schlock of Cher and the Carpenters. And they're all here.
There are quibbles to be made, certainly. One of Hoskyns' theses is that the music industry in L.A. ignored blacks and the evolution of soul music, an argument that sounds pretty good when he's making it, but doesn't entirely hold water. He never even mentions the struggle of Loma, a label started by Warner Bros. (at the time largely a soundtrack label) in the mid-Sixties to record soul. Much of it, true, was done by East Coast producers, but no label that gave us Lorraine Ellison's magisterial one-take masterpiece "Stay With Me" deserves silence of this sort. Much better is his fully-integrated view of the interplay between the Industry and the Artists: few musicians ever came to L.A. to be pure artists, but, rather, because they knew that the people with access to media and production could see, hear, and, with luck, exploit them.
The tension between the creators and the salesmen produced some important turning-points in American music: One need only remember the friction within the Beach Boys over Brian's Pet Sounds project, or the internal conflict as Elektra, until then a folk label, finally decided to go all the way with the Doors, an act of a sort they'd never previously tried to promote. And the same forces destroyed as much as they created: Hoskyns is particularly good on the decline and fall of that quintessential L.A. institution the Byrds, and the revival of their concept in the overtly commercial Eagles.
But Waiting For the Sun will also give comfort to those who maintain that, in the end, L.A. is hollow inside, and here is where Hoskyns misses a golden opportunity that, as a non-American, he might not have noticed. For L.A. is unreality, and has been since the first movie companies moved out there. And when you're making your own reality daily, that which does not exist is as important as that which does: thus, the hollowness has a shape, and the shape is interesting and important in and of itself. What Hoskyns misses is gossip, which, elsewhere, is an annoyance and distraction to the orderly collection of facts. But Hollywood thrives on gossip, uses it as a fuel, an alternative energy source. Bound to facts, Hoskyns misses the alternate reality that existed alongside the facts and gave them their shadows.
The book eventually seems dry, even though Hoskyns has interviewed people like Van Dyke Parks and Kim Fowley (who even gets the last word in the book, as only seems appropriate).
Enough criticism. The book is long overdue, and is better, even, than a good start. The work Hoskyns has started here will need to be expanded and, with luck, improved upon, but if you have the slightest interest in the history of American post-War popular music, you need to pick up Waiting For the Sun and get a start on understanding the music of this derided and crucial city.
-- Ed Ward
The King and the King, from B.B. King's Blues All Around Me
A writer friend laughs when I describe the number of books I will be writing about in terms of how high the stack is to my admittedly short legs. Most of the time they hover mid-calf, standard height at any given time. About once a year, it's almost to my hip. That would be the thick and weighty art and photography books during Christmas.
"Knee-deep?" he'll smile a little later, and I'll nod. That would be rock & roll books, where those trade paperbacks of music charts and photo collections plus at least a half-dozen sizable biographies stack up quickly. For me to be ankle-deep in books is, relatively speaking, a good thing.
The business of publishing rock & roll books is fascinating. Twenty-five years ago, there were probably a few dozen titles on the subject -- it is almost impossible to imagine that when Woodstock happened in 1969, the major documentation of it was on film, and not readily available on video until the early Eighties. The only print documentation of the event was a fairly comprehensive photo special that LIFE magazine published. I daresay there are literally thousands of rock & roll titles now.
The smattering of books stacked here is mute testimony to that. Mute, that is, until the books' covers are opened and the sounds come blasting out: blues, jazz, country, Seventies pop, roots, alternative, swamp pop, charts, biographies, photograph collections... the array of books is astonishing.
So why is it that amidst comprehensive tomes such as Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now, edited by Robert Gottlieb (Pantheon, $37.50 hard) and cool reissues like Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock, by Nik Cohn (Da Capo, $13.95 paper), I take greater pleasure in a book like Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon by Pamela Des Barres (St. Martin's Press, $24.95 hard)?
Pamela (I'm With the Band) Des Barres is a very fortunate woman, having successfully parlayed her infamous groupiedom into a successful career, and not without a modicum of respect. Her writing is more ingenuous than literary, but it no less legitimate a viewpoint for her 30 or so years behind America's rock & roll scenes. The reason I could never dismiss Pamela as a writer is more than spiritual kinship. I have always felt that she, like myself, was a fan with a typewriter.
In Rock Bottom, Des Barres scrapes along the edge of rock's envelope -- digging up a little dirt here, raising dust there, exhuming a few corpses. It's a scattershot approach in which she hits a few bull's eyes, detailing the strange, sad sagas of musicians like Pink Floyd's elusive Syd Barrett and Eric Clapton drummer Jim Gordon, while including more predictable names like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. There are also a few tut-tut entries, such as one on Chuck Berry's less impressive personal pecadillos, and more info on G.G.Allin than I wanted to know. And I couldn't put the book down.
Not that I couldn't put down Reading Jazz, it's just that I would need a lot more time with it. This carefully cultivated tome is a virtual monument to jazz writing and criticism. The anthology includes first-person narratives from performers such as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Hoagy Carmichael, and Anita O'Day. The second part is a series of essays from writers like Leonard Feather, Ralph Ellison, and Nat Hentoff; included here is a reminiscence of Charlie Parker by Miles Davis. Part three offers criticism and opinion from an array of writers including LeRoi Jones, Marshall Stearns, Stanley Crouch, and others. Like Billie Holiday's signature white gardenia, this volume is elegant to behold, simple in appearance yet a complex structure.
Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, recently re-issued by Da Capo, is one of the earliest books on rock music, first written in 1968 and then revised in 1972. Cohn's text is very Eurocentric but invaluable for its attention to the link between jazz and blues into the emergence of rock & roll. Sometimes books like these don't seem to have much value after they've sat for a few years their P.O.V. seems so specific to the period and reads like a report on extinction after a while. In retrospect though, books like Awopbopaloobop keep the flavor of the period intact -- think of them as chapters, so to speak, in the larger library of music books.
Wish I could say the same about Precious and Few: Pop Music in the Early '70s by Don and Jeff Breithaupt (St. Martin's Griffin, $9.95 paper), evidently a labor of love for the sibling authors. Awash with trivia, personal anecdotes, and nostalgia, Precious and Few is not a bad book -- in fact, its fan-prose is tendered quite lovingly -- but this genre of Seventies pop is a huge field that is barely mined here. Kaleidoscope Eyes: Psychedelic Rock From the '60s to the '90s by Jim DeRogatis (Citadel Underground, $16.95 paper) is much more successful at its effort, linking the roots of acid rock from its genesis in the hippie era right through its modern-day heirs Oasis and Flaming Lips. What Kaleidoscope Eyes has that Precious and Few does not is attitude -- always a necessary component of rock & roll.
Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock 'n' Roll by Nick Tosches (Da Capo, $13.95 paper) is a hands-down must-have, the grand prize winner of this year's crop for me -- and it's a reissue! Tosches wastes no words here in his warts-and-tell-all update of country music's dark side, the revised 1985 version of his 1977 book that treated country music with all the subtlety of a blowtorch. Tosches' approach ain't pretty -- he's written similar biographies on Jerry Lee Lewis and Dean Martin -- but it rings so true that when he describes Joan Baez as "butterfly of egalitarianism and wet-dream queen of liberals," I smirked with delight. When he closed a paragraph about scholarly treatises on country music with the line, "and you thought all they did was fuck chickens and pray," I spewed Coca-Cola through my nose and fell off the chair laughing. Murder, sex, mayhem, drugs, racism, hypocrisy under the scrubbed aegis of Nashville... Country is wild, rude, and wickedly obscene. Mr. Tosches, meet Junior Brown!
Contrast Country, then, with the more genteel Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography of B.B.King, by B.B.King with David Ritz (Avon Books, $23 hard). For all the knee-slapping yee-haw fun I got from the Tosches book, I found King's to be just as pleasurable, if more well-tempered. Not that King whitewashes his history, he's just a gentleman, and his book reads as such, and co-author David Ritz (who has also bio'd Etta James and Marvin Gaye) no doubt gives King's writing its patina. King has a voice, and it is one of tolerance and patience in a world that didn't always accept him but in which he earned respect and a place high in the music pantheon.
Kim Gordon in Noise From The Underground looking much cooler than the book.
You can read about B.B.King, or you can listen to him play the blues, and one of the sources for his recordings is in The All Music Guide to the Blues: The Experts' Guide to the Best Blues, edited by Michael Erlewine, Vladimar Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, and Cub Koda (Miller-Freeman, $17.95 paper). I find books like this and The All Music Book of Hit Singles: Top Twenty Charts from 1954 to the Present, compiled by Dave Aleer (Miller Freeman Books, $22.95 paper) absolutely indispensable reference sources. Guide to the Best Blues offers over 2600 reviews and ratings of blues records and 500 musician profiles, an extensive resource for CD recordings. Hit Singles likewise tracks the Top 20 charts (U.S. and U.K.) from 1954 and drops in little tidbits about bands and the business to flesh out the lists.
Don't think that the coffee table will be bare either. The Elvis Atlas: A Journey Through Elvis Presley's America by Michael Gray and Roger Osbourne (Henry Holt, $22.95 hard) isn't nearly as schmucky a book as it might seem, though it could certainly be considered a little precious. Authors Gray and Osbourne took great pains to piece together all of Elvis' tour dates throughout his career, arranged chronologically. I wouldn't say that the Elvis Atlas is for die-hards only, but if you know any other type of Elvis fan, it's news to me. Good thing this never happened to Buddy Holly. Remembering Buddy: The Definitive Biography of Buddy Holly by John Goldrosen and John Beecher (Da Capo, $18.95 paper) is a large coffee-table style book, but it is a very text-heavy biography, well-illustrated and referenced. Holly's story always comes off as poignant, and this gentle tribute does nothing to change that. And guess who else is still fodder: the Fab Four. Beatles: At the Movies by Roy Carr (HarperPerennial, $20 paper) is... well, pretty self-explanatory. If you're holding up one hand thinking, uh, how many films did they make? -- join the club. Besides the obvious -- Help, Hard Day's Night, Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine, and Let It Be -- the book also covers films the lovable moptops starred in individually, including the Beatles cartoons. More than 200 behind-the-scenes photos and anecdotes chronicle their brief moments on screen.
I wished that Noise From the Underground: A Secret History of Alternative Rock photographs by Michael Lavine, text by Pat Blashill, introduction by Henry Rollins (Fireside/Simon & Schuster, $25 paper) was as cool as it looks. Maybe I'm just too bored with Henry Rollins' yammering to think that writing an introduction to a book means you get credited on the spine as an author or maybe it's just that the whee!-look-at-these-graphics manner of Gen X books is generally lame, but this could have been so much more. Lavine's photography is at once both lush and stark, and former Austinite Pat Blashill gives a knowledgeable link through it all with his thoughtful commentary. The underlying irony of this book, though, is that this sort of treatment of alternative is as anti-punk as the success that has embraced alternative. Maybe, with a few years on the bookshelf, it will emerge as a more important document. For now, it seems a little smug. But not as fatuous as Teen Spirit: The Stories Behind Every Nirvana Song by Chuck Crisafulli (Fireside/Simon & Schuster, $16 paper). Did you get all that -- the story behind every Nirvana song! 'Nuff said.
Gene Terry on the cover of Swamp Pop
This book round-up being purely subjective, my favorite book (along with Des Barres' and Tosches) is Swamp Pop: Cajun and Creole Rhythm & Blues by Shane Bernard (University Press of Mississippi, $17 paper). A terse, dry, no-frills examination of the regional sound that sprang primarily out of the Louisiana Gulf Coast region, swamp pop is notable as a sub-genre partly because it is more readily defined by its sound than with words. A peculiar hybrid of rock & roll crossed with black Creole and Cajun influences, swamp pop hits dotted the chart landscapes of the Fifties and early Sixties until it almost died out, its home turf conquered by the British Invasion. Although swamp pop was deeply influential in the formation of the pop side of rock, it has been criminally underrated as a genre.
Shane Bernard, a native Louisianan and historical writer, has done an admirable job of bringing this oft-ignored sub-genre to the forefront with his book. The son of swamp pop crooner Rod Bernard, the younger Bernard has created an earnest, well-researched volume, the first time in the genre's 35-years+ history a book has been dedicated to that history. Bernard has poignantly noted how the prejudices against the Cajun and Creoles shaped the music. The Cajuns were already an outcast culture, banned from speaking their native language and crushed into submission; is it any wonder their children rebelled, too, taking their cue from rock & roll and imbuing it with local musical flourishes, such as the New Orleans-ish piano triplets that virtually define the sound?
Think you don't know any swamp pop? How about "See You Later Alligator" or "Sea of Love"? Patsy Cline took "Sweet Dreams" higher on the charts, but the song belonged to Tommy McLain. More than just half-familiar titles, Swamp Pop is a loving tribute to these performers, largely forgotten in the overall scheme but still revered names in their native Southwest Louisiana. What Swamp Pop may lack in whiz-bang writing and graphics it more than makes up for with lovingly well-documented history, interviews, and rare photos. Not unlike the reissue of Nik Cohn's Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, Swamp Pop is a book that will always have a place on the bookshelf, another chapter in the ever-expanding world of music.
-- Margaret Moser