Take Me to the River
Rock & Roll Books
"Why," began an e-mail after we published last Christmas' rock & roll book section, "do you say these books are about rock & roll when they are anything but?"
Because, o best beloved, rock & roll was grand theft to begin with. It was like that essay Lester Bangs once wrote about punk, and who invented it. Lester traced it back so far, he stopped at Lady Godiva. You can't separate the influence of rhythm & blues or country & western from it. What came before Elvis recording "Hound Dog" or Roy Brown singing "Good Rockin' Tonight" or whatever starting point you choose, you can find something more nascent, more lowdown, and dirtier that came before.
No made-for-VH1 movie could have had a better premise than ABBA. In their Seventies heyday, the team of two married couples from Sweden turned out spectacular, danceable pop hits. From ABBA to Mamma Mia!: The Official Book by Anders Hanser and Carl Magnus Palm (Billboard Books, 256 pp., $39.95), like so many "official" books, is a photo-heavy hoot to read if only because ABBA's charm was so innocent.
That's probably not the intention of authors Hanser and Palm but really, how serious can you get over ABBA?
Pretty damn serious, actually. ABBA has sold more than 100 million records internationally and spawned the musical Mamma Mia!, based on their music and U.S. tour. In tribute, Hanser and Palm assembled more than 500 photos that follow the Swedish foursome from inception to Mia! ABBA isn't going to impress the non-fan or reveal any secrets, but their kitschy look and atrocious stage costumes are worth a laugh while their music maintains its shiny, happy appeal a quarter-century later.
It would be easy to trash Chasing Down the Dawn by Jewel (HarperCollins, 142 pp., $24) by dismissing it as post-adolescent tripe just because the singer-songwriter is young and naïve, albeit rich and successful. It's also noteworthy to point out that on the back of Chasing Down the Dawn, the only critical praise for her previous book is from a Canadian newspaper and Teen People. Why do you suppose that is? Let Jewel speak for herself: "Even now when I grow frightened or unsure, I hum." I believe that says it all.
Paul McCartney: I Saw Him Standing There by Jorie B. Gracen (Billboard Books, 176 pp., $35) is a gushy photo album of the Cutest Beatle by a People magazine photographer, and it is remarkable how these photos look like, well, People magazine. The sameness is striking: face or body takes up most of the frame. They look posed. For McCartney fans, that's not a bad thing, as Gracen's adoring 200-plus photos cover most of his post-Beatles days in Wings from 1976 to the present. Neither is there anything wrong with Gracen's worshipful approach to her idol -- she even sports that tired old Linda McCartney hairdo -- but the aging McCartney is not as photogenic now as he was in his younger days. There's no denying his charisma and presence, though, and Sir Paul McCartney's good humor and attitude over the years are in marked contrast to the bitterness that was left in John Lennon's memory, and that's Gracen's greatest gift -- capturing the sweet essence of Paul McCartney.
"Well you've heard about the time I was in the insane asylum / And you read the magazines / I've been wounded in folklore / But I bet you never knew what I went through / And what I had to do just to bring you a lonely song."
Those lyrics of Daniel Johnston's are part autobiography, part prophecy, and painful to read. Like Austin's official eccentric Roky Erickson, Daniel Johnston conveys a mad genius that is inextricably entwined with his music. Johnston comes off as no less eccentric than Erickson and possibly even more enigmatic for the thoughtful collection of tales, lyrics, and art, creatively strung together like mismatched beads, in Hi, How Are You?: The Definitive Daniel Johnston Handbook by Tarssa Yazdani (Soft Skull Press, 128 pp., $18 paper).
Daniel Johnston suffers from manic depression, a condition that colors his light melodies with lyrical darkness. The tag-team bouts of hospitalization and medication occasionally offer him moments of lucidity in which Johnston has written songs so painfully naïve and heartfelt they are like musical renditions of folk art. That aspect of his music is noted in Irwin Chusid's Songs in the Key of Z [see book reviews], who lumps Daniel in with people like the Legendary Stardust Cowboy and Wesley Willis, which casts him in an even more oddball light.
Hi, How Are You? keeps a close eye on Austin's post-punk music scene in the Eighties, so that in addition to Johnston, characters like Glass Eye's Kathy McCarty and Brian Beattie, the Chronicle's Ken Lieck, and Johnston's manager Jeff Tartakov (who very successfully marketed Daniel's music with a solidly punk DIY ethic) populate the book. Ditto for friends Dave Thornberry and Ron English, who offer loving but pointed observations on their friend not just as part of the background but as crucial links in Johnston's career and stability. The critical success that comes to Johnston is likely to continue, but it will be despite, rather than because of, the erratic nature of his depression.
The last time anyone tried to put Austin on the academic skewer was when former Long Ryder Barry Shank wrote the dry, stiff, genre-specific Dissonant Identities in the early Nineties. Music in the City: A History of Austin Music (by Alan C. Turley, Duckling Publishing, 191 pp. $15 paper) generates more enthusiasm for its subject but still smacks of academia.
Author (and not surprisingly, professor) Turley based a great deal of his historical research on Chronicle stories and other local newspaper sources over the past 20 years. (Turley also interviewed and quotes me extensively, so this can't be considered an unbiased assessment.) Armed with a strong affection for the subject, he dissects the whys and wherefores of Austin, how it came to enjoy its status as a musical mecca. That's tough to cram into 190 pages, and Turley is not altogether successful despite his best efforts. What he does do well is ask pointed questions about the economics of local music. Austin has yet to have a definitive book on its musical history. Music in the City isn't it, but it's a start.
For the faithful (KERRverts as they are called), Hot Jams and Cold Showers: Scenes From the Kerrville Folk Festival by Dyanne Fry Cortez (Dos Puertas Publishing, 312 pp. $24.95 paper) is a warm recollection of the author's years attending and working for the Kerrville Folk Festival. Cortez weaves a not-unfamiliar tale of being innocent about the magic of music until assigned to cover the Kerrville Festival for the New Braunfels newspaper in 1981 and becoming a part of it for the next two decades. "This cultural revolution didn't take place entirely behind my back. Some of it happened right under my nose. I just wasn't paying attention," she confesses. Kerrville does that to you.
Kerrville also becomes a world of its own during the annual festival and has its own dictionary included in the book to help explain the proliferation of words like KERRage, KERRency, and KERRfew. Cortez does a fine job capturing the glory and quirks (or is that KERRks?) of its past 20 years. Her painstaking portraits of the musicians, the workers, and the fans are painted in broad and joyous strokes that highlight the detail and minutiae that go into such an event, from the front gate on opening day to cleanup afterward. Fans of Kerrville will want to include this next to Music From the Heart, festival promoter Rod Kennedy's memoir. Hot Jams and Cold Showers will burnish the memory of sing-alongs, stage performances, and campfire jams with great affection.
The inequity of the publishing business is most apparent in the pricing and packaging of books. Witness the Jewel book at 142 pages for $24. Now look at Reading Lyrics edited by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball (Pantheon Books, 706 pp., $39.50), a magnificent gathering of words in music from American and British songwriters at more than 700 pages, and a $40 price tag. Which book do you think will sell the best? You're probably right -- Jewel, and not because it's cheaper.
That's a damn shame because this is a beautiful collection of lyrics from more than 100 composers and over 1,000 songs. Without a lot of text to explain itself but with tight, informative biographies of the composers, Reading Lyrics focuses on older writers (the youngest songwriter included was born in 1937). Cole Porter, George M. Cohan, Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn -- these are names so famous they scarcely need titles for identification. Even better are the "Oh yeahs" -- the names you may not know but whose songs make you go "oh yeah": Bob Russell ("Don't Get Around Much Anymore"), Carolyn Leigh ("Witchcraft"), Gus Kahn ("Yes Sir, That's My Baby"), Doris Fischer ("Put the Blame on Mame"). Then there are the teams: Betty Comden and Adolf Green ("New York, New York"), Marilyn and Alan Bergman ("The Way We Were"), Robert Wright and George Forrest ("Stranger in Paradise").
In many ways, these songs define 20th-century music completely, and that's ignoring the advent of rock & roll and everything after. Reading Lyrics is a marvelous reminder that words in music don't just move it along, they give it the poetic voice that speaks from the heart.