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Reading the Jukebox

The life of James Taylor, rock 'n' roll love, jazz a la Louis Armstrong and geek talk from the Tape Op folks



On this hallowed day, discover four books that celebrate the love of the music, the love of the lyric, the lyrics of love. The musical arts performed, or examined, without passion have no place in our ides of February celebration. Nor perhaps do trashy biographies of rock stars. But James Taylor is at the same time a bona fide inaccessible folk rock icon and a brilliant, accessible songwriter. Ian Halperin's new biography of JT, Fire and Rain, dishes the dirt but in its obsessive wounded-artist-incident checklist style, the book steers the reader to appreciate even more James Taylor's music.

In August 1970, Taylor's classic tune, "Fire and Rain," was the No. 1 song in the country. At only 22 years old, he had had a full lifetime's worth of experiences. Signed and produced by Paul McCartney two years before, Taylor was living a rock 'n' roll dream. His affection for all kinds of drugs and women are well-cataloged by Halperin. Depending heavily on Internet chat-rooms and bulletin boards devoted to Taylor's life and music, Halperin prints pages of silly postings. But then he comes through with some great stories. Elvis Presley used to sing "Fire and Rain" to Lisa Marie as a bedtime lullaby. Presley once told Colonel Tom Parker, "If I was the character in any song, it would be 'Fire and Rain.'" Indeed people close to Elvis in the weeks before he died in 1977 reported that he listened to the Sweet Baby James album repeatedly.

And then there are all the Triangle stories. Like a tour guide, Halperin takes the reader through Carrboro and Chapel Hill of the '50s and early '60s. Isaac Taylor, James' father, was named dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill medical school while the family was living in an 11-room farmhouse surrounded by 28 acres of woodland, pasture and creeks in Carrboro. No wonder, "Carolina On My Mind" touches such a rural chord. The Taylor family moved to Morgan Creek Road in Chapel Hill when James was in elementary school. Describing those youthful years, biographer Halperin writes, "The Taylors were part of a new, young, white liberal generation that surfaced in Chapel Hill."

Twelve-year-old James Taylor received his first nylon-stringed guitar on Christmas Day, 1960. He taught himself how to play, making up his first song a few days later, "playing one or two chords, then putting melodies and words over them." Halperin adds, "He could be seen strumming and singing on a park bench in Chapel Hill. The first chords he learned were C, D and G. He improvised for hours over those three chords."

Stories about prep school problems (Taylor finally dropped out of a New England school to return to North Carolina and finished at Chapel Hill High School), his extraordinary musical family, James and the junkies, James in mod London, James and Joni, James and Carly, and James and his Grammies follow quickly in Halperin's Fire and Rain. It's a hard book to put down. Rumors on the Internet last fall were that this bio would never come out, that Taylor didn't want it published. Looking at Ian Halperin's author photo, you wouldn't want the guy writing your life, either. (His previous best seller was Who Killed Kurt Cobain?) Despite his "investigative journalist" routine, Halperin paints a sympathetic portrait. However, James Taylor's songs have always been so honest, so cathartic, so undisguised, that they are the literary culture that will endure.

A published poet, currently an assistant professor of English at Iowa State University, Debra Marquart does what all the workshops suggest in her first collection of short stories, The Hunger Bone: Rock and Roll Stories. She writes what she knows. Prior to landing in academia, Marquart toured and performed with heavy metal and rock bands. Her 21 stories use rock 'n' roll references as coded or direct messages. Familiar soundtracks (Jimmy Page, Muddy Waters, Springsteen, Devo, Pink Floyd) and pop culture backdrops combine for some great reading. Half a dozen of the pieces are so good, the reader wishes for more chapters in the lives of Marquart's memorable characters.

Nina's the lead singer in the band, crushing on Troy, the lead guitar. He's married, but the wife's at home, as the band loads into the van to hit the road. Nina can't wait for the three-mile limit to kick in. Marquart explains this understood theory, "Outside the three mile limit, debts were forgotten, promises to lovers and girlfriends were irrelevant, and wedding vows, forget about it. They dissolved three miles from your wife's doorstep."

Quite a few musicians have written "road stories," men usually noting the scene of "holding it for the next gas stop," the bladder motif of rock writing. Women usually write how stupid the men are. Marquart recreates the hurtling cocoon of the band van like no other. Her skills as a poet shine as she details the nuances of headlights and moonlight, wheel wells, bucket seats and smoldering emotion.

Thomas Brothers, an associate professor of music at Duke University, once wrote a book called Chromatic Beauty in the Late Medieval Chanson. There was no 10-part PBS series on television about the subject when it was published, but soon after Ken Burns' January epic on jazz aired, Dr. Brothers, most recent book became a hot property.

Louis Armstrong: In His Own Words, edited and introduced by Thomas Brothers is a brilliant book, a labor of love for the editor who understood how seriously Louis Armstrong wanted to be recognized as both a jazz musician and a writer. Brothers provides insightful commentary on dozens of Armstrong's published essays, music reviews, letters, magazine articles and radio interviews.

Heavily indexed, footnoted, with an extensive bibliography of Armstrong's papers, In His Own Words (through the eyes and ears of its focused editor) uses text, fonts and the typewriter keyboard to parallel the creative process of Armstrong's musical jazz. "Armstrong brought to the invention of words the same package of creativity, intelligence, nuance, and charm that he brought to the invention of music," says Brothers. Some pages of the book even look like music notation as Armstrong (and Brothers) mix italics, bold letters, commas and apostrophes. Brothers offers this example of Armstrong's ability to use writing for humor and inventive style in a letter to his manager. "I-Just, Love, Your, Checks, in, My POCKETS--'OH' They look so pretty, until, I hate like hell to cash them."

Armstrong was a prolific writer, producing thousands of letters, two autobiographies and numerous magazine articles on music. Brothers presents a selection, dividing Armstrong's career into four phases. We follow the artist from New Orleans through Chicago, California and New York. The ride is entertaining, eye-opening, riveting. Armstrong used his writing to explore life within his creative musical sphere and way, way beyond. He muses about race relations (and sometimes the lack thereof), women he's loved, poverty, even issues of personal health. In addition to the dozens of classic jazz releases now available, what the enthusiastic reader wants now is an Armstrong spoken-word boxed set. No doubt, Thomas Brothers is on the case.

Tape Op, the Book About Creative Music Recording grew out of Tape Op, the Magazine. You either yank it out of the rack as a must-have, or your eyes glaze over at all the tech talk. The folks at Tape Op love speaking about microphones, preamps, tubes, ribbon, mixers and more microphones. Wonderful, addictive reading, the book includes dozens of eclectic interviews, committed to going off on electronic tangents but loving the whole deal of music production.

And no one locally plays their game like Don Dixon. He can talk Silvertones, Pintrons, Scullys, video transport technology, EQs, EBOs, and 57s. The Tape Op guys worship him because he was there. The Dixon interview in Tape Op is a total gas. Honest about what he likes and dislikes, Dixon is fresh, funny and never boring, even when he's talking about microphones. ("You need figure-8 for a few plumbline style techniques, because of your phase.") I also learned to always take a Roland 3000 delay line, set to 151ms, with the filter in. My tip: Make sure to plug 'em in. EndBlock

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