We're the lucky ones, folks. What a great spring for readable, provocative books about music. Log off the Internet, grab a cold one, stack up the tracks and start reading.
hat do you give a guy who's turning 60, who has given you so much? An Oscar? A tribute album? A shelf full of biographies and anthologies? The publishing and music industries are falling all over themselves with products to honor Bob Dylan, who turns 60 next Thursday. You don't really need any of these new books or records (haven't seen any action figures ... yet) commemorating the event, just play a few of his classic album sides in the next week or so. But, if you want to check out the best biography of the man we've seen since, say, his last big birthday, look no further than Howard Sounes' Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan. Sounes' book is a treasure trove for Dylan fans and--like its subject--is somewhat balanced, somewhat uneven and way eccentric in places. To sum up, Dylan is always on the move, often on the make, if you're interested in the man's offstage liaisons. Because of his supreme talent, he usually gets away with it, too. But there's also plenty of info for collectors; Sounes is strongest when describing Dylan's recording sessions, especially the dozens (hundreds?) that have never made it above ground.
Looking back over his career, it's obvious that Dylan loves to experiment and change bands and musical styles. Any studio in the world is available to him; there's not a musician or vocalist anywhere, it seems, who wouldn't drop what they're doing to gig with Bob. Sounes recounts great session stories of Bob just calling up John Lennon, or George Harrison, on short notice, as well as The Sex Pistols' Steve Jones. Everybody shows up for the session. My favorite chapter is the detailed recounting of the Nashville sessions for Blonde on Blonde. The musicians who played on the double album were forever grateful because of one simple detail: For the first time in liner-note history, Dylan insisted that all the Nashville musicians playing on the release be listed on the album. After the album went Top 10, other bands flooded the town looking for the same "Nashville sound." Guess which session men and women got the gigs?
Upon release, the book got lots of initial press for the outing of Bob's "secret marriage" to Carolyn Dennis in 1986. Indeed, Dylan's relationships with women are often gloomy shadows in the book. He's faithful to no one, even stealing girlfriends from his band members. He's romantically linked to nearly every female name in the 24-page index.
Through Sounes' copious, footnoted research, we learn background stories for most of Dylan's famous songs--the coded meanings, the real names of the characters. It all makes for great reading and frequent trips to the turntable. Happy Birthday, Bob! We know all your secrets. We know none of your secrets. Please write soon.
ow 7 years old, the Chicago 'zine Punk Planet is one of the most respected, most passed around magazines on, well, the planet. Its interview style, developed by Daniel Sinker, is driven by the deeper meanings of punk and music, giving musicians a real chance to be honest and not come off like pitchmen for their next single/movie/T-shirt line.
But the half-life of any rock 'n' roll musical form is preciously short. By definition, punk lives in the moment, especially the live-on-stage moment. So we have to cherish We Owe You Nothing as an amazing print document that freezes in time a punk ethos that tried to matter, even while continually struggling with its own identity. Each refreshingly frank interview combines a political take on punk with the person or group's place on punk's musical "family tree."
Not that there is any one "punk" line that everyone holds dear. Some of these guys hate each other, some are jealous of each other's success. But that's where the energy for Punk Planet comes from--as a street 'zine keeping up with the changes. You put Thurston Moore, Ian MacKaye, Ted Leo, Kathleen Hanna, Steve Albini and Carrie Brownstein in a room together and there are going to be some words. Every interviewee in We Owe You Nothing has a very good idea about what she or he is doing. They're passionately able to share their visions and disappointments in the free speech atmosphere of Daniel Sinker's anthology. In other words, turn it up.
nn Patchett's latest novel sneaks up so stealthily on the reader that before you know it, you've already skipped a meal or missed your meeting. What starts out as a thriller with a kidnap/terrorist subplot becomes an international love story with layers of music-as-metaphor texture. Katsumi Hosokawa, a powerful, influential Japanese businessman whose only non-work passion is opera, is kidnapped. So, too, is a famous American opera diva. They fall in love. The two can only communicate at first through music in the form of daily piano concerts. While revolutionary chaos threatens outside the compound, the ritual of shared piano performances cuts through all tension, and in the end liberates everyone.
Hostages in a South American mansion, the kidnapped diplomats, drained by the monotony of silence, poor food, and failed negotiations, live only for the language of the Steinway. In this passage, two weeks into the siege, Tetsuya Kato, another hostage, is allowed to play the piano for the group:
In his heart he had never felt closer to Chopin, whom he loved like a father. The felt-covered hammers tapped the strings gently at first, and the music, even for those who had never heard the piece before, was like a memory. From all over the house, terrorist and hostage alike turned and listened and felt a great easing in their chests. The people in the living room of the vice-presidential mansion listened to Kato with hunger and nothing in their lives had ever fed them so well.
The power and majesty of music, the power and acceptability of good writing. It's all there in Ann Patchett's Bel Canto.
Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota, by Chuck Klosterman, Scribner, $23
Almost Famous meets Motley Crue, and gets stomped. Klosterman is a Midwestern art "critic" whose formative years were not spent with the Village Voice, LA/SF, ArtForum, or even Rolling Stone rockcrit crowd. In the trenches, backstage, and in the front row, with the KISS army, Guns 'N' Roses, and Poison, Chuck Klosterman was a head-bangin' writer, tracking with some incredible rock cult phenomena armed with his wit and gut instincts. This is the best music journalism book of the year. Klosterman is original (Check out his hilarious, "Jack Factor: Nonessential Hair Metal Records I Really, Really, Like,"), smart, and has a great ticket stub collection. Black Sabbath, Metallica, and Axl RULE! MAKE IT. (This review dedicated to Karen Mann.)
Chelsea Horror Hotel, by Dee Dee Ramone, Thunder's Mouth Press, $13.95
Dee Dee is a brilliant songwriter and survivor. His nonfiction autobiography of the Ramones, Lobotomy, was entertaining and honest, a best seller in rock circles. His latest writing effort, a "novel," is too much. One-Two-Three-Four, Dee Dee needs an editor. If only he could tighten this book down to a two-minute song, he might have a hit record. BREAK IT.
You Think You Hear, by Mast O'Keefe, St. Martin's Press, $23.95
On the West Coast, everyone, it seems, has a movie or screenplay deal. But here in the Triangle--that woman in the video store, that guy in line at the Kroger--they all have book deals. O'Keefe, currently living in Chapel Hill, delivers a fantastic debut novel that nails the struggling-band-on-tour scene. In You Think You Hear, O'Keefe uses his astute observational skills (no doubt honed at area clubs) to include the kind of details that bring the story into a tight focus. In 25 words or less: Lou's the roadie for Day Action Band, and he's in love with the drummer, Cree. They're on tour opening for a hot new Brit band, the Radicals. And, yes, they do pass through Chapel Hill. MAKE IT.
The Covert War Against Rock, by Alex Constantine, Feral House, $14.95
My brother-in-law used to say, "Don't look now, the paranoids might be after you." Yeah, well, try reading this book. Constantine takes a few facts, some great music, mixes it all together and--aided by mega doses of caffeine--ends up with a diatribe like Covert War. Not that I'm a complete Pollyanna here, but totally buying into a book that purports to reveal "what you don't know about the deaths" of 10 rock heroes would take a huge leap of faith. The book attempts to appeal to the scholarly rather than the conspiracy theory-style reader by its use of footnotes and a textbook typeface as it reopens the cases of Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Tupac, and half a dozen other musicians. This is one dense, cynical document, and while I'm not disputing Constantine's "facts," let's just say that the paper trails don't always support a cover up. BREAK IT.
The Great Rock Discography (Fully Revised and Expanded Fifth Edition), by Martin Strong, MoJo Books, $30
Over 1,100 pages of extremely well fact-checked, list-charted, bio-studied, music-loving entries on artists and groups from both sides of the Atlantic (and beyond). This is a huge book, a glorious bible of rock lore and statistics (and weighty, too--you'll need to test the supports on your bedside table). As one local record store manager recently said, "Here, you take it for a while. I can't get any work done with this around." Strong lists--in great detail--all the hit songs, all the CDs, all the break-ups, all the birthdays, all the colored vinyl, all the one-offs you've ever imagined existed. Bring this book into your music room, read the entries from your favorite artists, then start pulling out the tapes and records. You'll create a grand mess, but it'll be worth it. MAKE IT.