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Reading the jukebox

Musicians as authors--the good, the bad and the cliched


Which is more difficult? To write a good song or write a good short story? We could whine into the night about what the heck "good" means anyway. But honestly (and I know the same is true for you), I don't care what you think. A good song can be poppy, deep, or obscure. I don't care. If it's good, I'll know, 'cause I'll be looking forward to hearing it on the radio all day.

A good short story? That's simple, too. One you remember, keep thinking about. One when you're done, you seek out more info about the author, curious if there's more where that last one came from.

I think to write a good song, it must be harder. Much harder. The writer has fewer words to make the scenes work. There are poetic rhymes and beats to think about ... and the music. Phew!

So when Greg Kihn's anthology, Craved in Rock arrived, I dropped everything, swept off the bedside table and started reading all these stories by my guitar and top-40 heroes. There was Steve Earle and Suzzy Roche, Graham Parker and Eric Burdon, Joan Jett, John Entwhistle and quite a few others. At first it was like being backstage, or reading a diary.

But then I started skimming, looking for the good stuff. Most songwriters are good storytellers. But being a good songwriter is no guarantee you'll be a good short story writer. This collection was so uneven it drove me nuts.

But I loved these guys as musicians. I just wish they'd stop it with the cliches ("mirror gazing" and "crack of dawn"), de facto drug use and name dropping (lots of Rolling Stones ... ). Mea culpa, I kept reading the book for all of the above reasons, too.

Nineteen stories. Five of them were keepers. Steve Wynn's piece, "Looked a Lot Like Che Guevara," was fantastic, worthy of Nick Hornby/New Yorker notice. Nick wasn't anywhere near the table of contents in Carved in Rock, but Wynn's humor and wry observations of a been-around-the-block, aging rocker were perfect, like where he details an end-of-evening rendezvous scene where each party is taking something, all a game, all understood. The groupie gets the gold, no problem. But the band guy loses no sleep and walks into the sunrise, no harm done.

Robyn Hitchcock's "Narcissus," had some great snapshots of the offstage gamesmanship within a group, especially when old girlfriends show up. He wrote a funny backstage scene, not unlike Spinal Tap, where a foursome gets lost in the dressing room closets.

But Joan Jett and vampires, Jim Carroll and detox, Graham Parker and his funny play on names? I'd rather turn on the radio.

Nick Cave, ladies and gentleman, wrote a very, very good book when he was 29. Already a cult rock hero with Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds, Cave wrote And the Ass Saw the Angel, a most unlikely Southern gothic tale, sounding like he had just backed up Flannery O'Connor on a Wise Blood tour.

Henry Rollins' publishing company picked the book up (its third life!) for re-publication this summer. This might be the sleeper cool beach book of the season. When it was first published in 1989, the attraction was a simple: "Rock star writes book." But the book took off, showing up in backpacks all over the country, like a kind of On the Road for literary punkers. There's a friendly mule, a sweet young prostitute, fear, rage and revenge. And, of course, enough religious symbolism to fit right in with all of that other so-called Southern fiction. But, but I thought he was from ... Australia?

It's kind of a bummer to be reading a great book, a secret pleasure, coveting each chapter, digging out records to play as soundtracks to the wonderfully described scenes, and wake up one morning and hear the authors all over NPR's Morning Edition. But that's what happened two weeks ago. I bet you turned up your radio, too. Temples of Sound is already a huge hit with audiophiles and music book junkies even though it was just published a few weeks ago.

Jim Cogan and William Clark are masters of oral history. They let the engineers, artists, and producers tell the stories of the hallowed spaces around the country where very special music was made. It's an amazing book, inspirational, quirky, honest and full of rare photos. Cogan and Clark reward the unsung heroes of recorded music, the heroes of Sun and Stax, of Sunset Sound and RCA.

Temples of Sound is a deeply researched labor of love in the form of a travelogue. The reader can almost hear the harmonies, the asides, the outside-the-box suggestions offered to attain a unique sound. We get the recreated scenes of most special pre-dawns with Muddy Waters, Frank Sinatra, Otis Redding, John Coltrane, Jerry Lee Lewis, Brian Wilson, Prince, Aretha Franklin, Mary Wells, and even Elvis and Annette.

Fifteen "temples"--the most famous recording studios of our time--are profiled. Each story is unique, though there's usually one person at each address who had the vision, the sound in their head, to start it off.

Me, I want Temples of Sound, Part Two: The Outtakes. The book's publisher, Chronicle Books, is known as one of the best book-packagers in the business. Everything they touch looks beautiful. I'm hoping they're putting together a holiday boxed set right now.

Bubbling under: It is almost Bob Dylan's birthday. He's been working on his autobiography forever. Chronicles was due out last fall. It has been delayed and delayed and delayed. Cross your fingers, it's coming. While not Harry Potter numbers, the print run is a quarter of a million copies. EndBlock

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