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Reading the jukebox

This summer brought a tidal wave of high-profile "insider"-penned rock bios, as well as some small-press gems for the serious music fan

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The summer of 2002 brought tidal waves of lengthy books about rock legends. And, since it's the 25th anniversary year of Elvis' final "disappearance," what could have been more fitting? Three books in particular, written by insiders, were great reading, the kind of books that caused fans to take out the old vinyl, spring for CD packages or blitz dearly departed audiogalaxy.com for the obscure, "rare" (therefore totally significant) session cuts.

Thick as a concrete slab at 576 pages, Our Gods Almost Died: The 40 Year Odyssey of The Rolling Stones, was a delicious beach read. I mean, really—how are these guys still alive? Author Stephen Davis, an objective observer, checks the facts and rumors and delivers a rollercoaster chronicle of the band. Whatever is over-the-top or too dramatic or "not probable" is, well, true. Davis fills in the blanks for us, revealing why Keith and Mick are still standing, or at least propped up.

For Deadheads, there's Dennis McNally's book, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, the best biography so far on the band—what an evolution! McNally worked at many odd jobs for The Grateful Dead. He was in all the group houses, rode all the buses, humped the equipment, scribbled "press releases" and went with the flow. That flow is the essence of the band's mystique and aura, especially in their early days. The Dead connected with their fans like no other '60s band. My favorite clips were McNally's detailed asides about the band's intentionally very laid back "decision making process." Slow and steady wins the race, 'cause there was no template for success that Jerry and Phil followed, they just jammed and went where the music took them.

A few interstate exits away, in the hazy California sun, transplanted Canadian Neil Young was inventing his own intense sound. Surrounded by a devoted entourage, Young was in constant flux, searching for sound and meaning. Outsiders were shunned. But somehow Jimmy McDonough was there, following Young around, always asking questions. For years. While Young worked on his grand, historical, biographical five-CD compilation, McDonough hung out, partied, was ignored, hung in there. Somehow, he got Young to relent, give more interviews and allow his book to go forward. At 800 pages, the only thing missing from McDonough's Young bio, Shakey, is a little editing. Yet for fans, this is like getting the album and all the outtakes in a package set.

How significant is this book? Rick Moody was given the entire front page of the The New York Times Book Review to detail his glowing review a few months back. Long may you run, Neil. And please get that (first) boxed set on the shelves.

While the major entertainment-industry publishers pursue the celebrity rock tell-alls, small-press publishers are discovering that there's a market for well-researched biographies about lesser musical lights. Maybe it's just the Euro print version of VH1's answer to MTV, or a new wave of British invaders, but a pair of Brit publishing houses is leading the way. London's Helter Skelter Publishing and Manchester's Headpress Critical Vision Books have crossed the Atlantic with dense, intoxicating releases on Kraftwerk, Wire, Wishbone Ash, Procol Harem, The Troggs and XTC. They're able to pay the rent, too, by reprinting books on The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and—no last names needed—Bob and Bruce.

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Gram Parsons, so legend has it, invented country rock. A rock icon and symbol of early Hotel California genius, excess and tragedy, Parsons wrote like a god, sang like an angel and was dead at 26, having released only two albums. Known for his full embrace of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle as much as his lonesome, soulful voice, Parsons left way too early. Jason Walker's new book, God's Own Singer, is a riveting read, recounting how Parsons influenced the sound of The Byrds, The Rolling Stones and The Eagles; "discovered" Emmylou Harris, took way too many drugs, and died a legendary rock death. The circumstances of his death, the abduction of his body, and the wrangle over his remains and royalty checks take up a full chapter in his biography.

Walker talked to everyone he could about Parson's youth, and God's Own Singer's back story is the reason this bio is so good. Parson's mother was a Snively, a wealthy Florida socialite; his father, an Air Force major. Parsons was a kid who went hunting with his father, took piano lessons, attended the YMCA Indian Guide program, listened to live music at an early age, met Elvis when he was 8 and composed his first song ("Gram's Boogie") when he was 11. Like another artist who burned bright and died young, Kurt Cobain, Parsons' showed his aptitude for music early. But his parents' alcohol problems and affairs took their toll. He was sent away to boarding school at 11, and his father committed suicide when Parsons was only 13. Gram had lived half his life already.

Jason Walker researched many of the larger than life stories and myths about Gram Parsons and retells them like a storyteller. In 1964, while still in a high school band called The Shilos, somehow Parsons and his group were approached by The Ed Sullivan Show to appear on the show after an NBC talent broker heard their four-song demo tape. The Shilos' manager declined, insisting the band needed more live experience, and sent them to South Carolina for the summer where they did six shows, seven days a week at a resort. Parsons' hot and cold relationship with The Byrds is also detailed. Was he planning on taking over the band? Did they take his songs, overdub his vocals, and fire him? Parsons never looked back, and hooked up with Keith Richards, becoming a member of the Stones' entourage (many people think Parsons really wrote "Wild Horses"). And, speaking of The Stones, Parsons was in the wings at Altamont for that horrific concert.

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In this month of Elvis frenzy, it's impossible not to mention my favorite title of the summer: I Was Elvis Presley's Bastard Love-child and Other Stories of Rock 'n' Roll Excess, by Andrew Darlington, is just plain fun. Darlington is a zine riffing, interview-hopping, name-dropping, rock 'n' roll-lovin' writer/editor/publisher from England. This is his opus, a collection culled from 30 years of journalism and clubbing. Most of the pieces are disguised as record reviews, but they take off on serious tangents (not unlike a good concert). Rock journalism wasn't invented to be dry, grad student-thesis style print media, and Darlington freely admits he started interviewing "rock's luminaries and legends (hoping) to bed hippie chicks."

As a young zinester at Cambridge, Darlington snagged an interview with Gene Clark of The Byrds and asked him about one his favorite songs, "Eight Miles High," which Clark had written. According to Darlington, Clark looked at his tape recorder and said, "You know how that song really started?" He then proceeded to describe a surreal dinner scene from an early tour they'd done with The Rolling Stones where Brian Jones, Keith, Mick and Roger McGuinn were tossing off phrases that later became lyrics, all the while bouncing "across country on a motor home, listening to John Coltrane, Ravi Shankar. And a lot of Bach, too." We get hilarious, mostly honest (I think) takes on touring with Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and The Kinks (" ... a sitcom set in Hell. The very G-spot of the '60s," he says of the Davies brothers). Writing for English rock mags like Zig Zag and Hot Press, Darlington had a great time and, through his reviews and asides, captures the chaos and exuberance that was rock 'n' roll at that moment, archiving and celebrating at the same time.

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