Write or Wrong

Our quarterly roundup of music books lets us get lost with Chet Baker, nasty with Bill Monroe and saved by Al Green, while Ted Nugent teaches us that happiness really is a warm gun

Listed below are 17 pounds of new and worthwhile music books all you fact-obsessed tune junkies will need to buy and haul around every time you move for the rest of your lives.

There's no shortage of pointless Grateful Dead books littering the bargain tables in bookstores, outnumbered only by equally insight-free volumes on Sinatra. Though The Grateful Dead Reader (Oxford) by David G. Dodd and Diana Spaulding features a cover more drab than its psychedelic competition, the editors have unearthed observations and remembrances from some of music's most elite writers. Not only do Robert Christgau, Richard Meltzer and Ralph Gleason pontificate on the near mythological aspects of Deadhead culture, so do authors of greater literary significance. Included is an excerpt from Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test on the Dead's first concert, and a poem by Richard Brautigan, author of Trout Fishing in America, on the day the band was arrested for possession of marijuana. Four entries by Dead lyricist Robert Hunter span the band's history, ending with a not-so-grateful reaction to what a dead Garcia means to music's most lively community of followers.

Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 (Da Capo) is the first in a series anthologizing the best music writing from the previous year, the guest editor for 1999's output being Elvis biographer/Southern music expert Peter Guralnick. His choices were culled mostly from high-profile rags (New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Book Review) and quirky music zines catering to distinct stylistic followings (No Depression, Motorbooty), with only two articles coming from the familiar music monthlies (Spin, Vibe). There are pieces about Ry Cooder recording Buena Vista Social Club in Cuba; music collector Joe Bussard searching for rare 78 RPM recordings in the boondocks of West Virginia; a visit with the sisters once known as the Shaggs, considered by many to be the worst band ever recorded; and a review of a pathetic concert by ex-Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek.

The Grateful Dead Reader offers observation from some of music's most elite writers.
The Grateful Dead Reader offers observation from some of music's most elite writers.
Tongue talker: Soul man Green puts down his life story.
Tongue talker: Soul man Green puts down his life story.

Seems that if you're famous and find Jesus, part of the deal is having to write an I-was-lost-but-now-am-found autobiography. Fortunately, in Take Me to the River (Harper Collins), writer David Seay helps soul singer/Pentecostal minister Al Green avoid the redeemed-from-the-first-half-of-my-life shtick frequently upchucked by converted celebrities who've snagged a book deal. Green doesn't talk in tongues until page 293, and even then exhibits a spiritual humility void of the stereotypical piety that makes you glad you're a heathen. Much attention is given to the role of producer Willie Mitchell, the man in the shadows responsible for Green's signature sound.

Chet Baker's reputation as both wild child and jazz royalty makes his life story potentially as interesting as jaw-dropping-but-historically-solid confessionals like Art Pepper's Straight Life and Mezz Mezzrow's Really the Blues. During Baker's final years as a homeless junkie traveling from gig to gig across Europe, the trumpeter made a frustratingly weak stab at an autobiography: As Though I Had Wings: The Lost Memoir, an overview of his life not much longer than a term paper. Jeroen de Valk's Chet Baker: His Life and Music (Berkeley Hills) is far more preferable, though Baker's ever-increasing lack of direction and self-sabotaging tendencies turn the bio into a series of tales about jail and drugged-up recording sessions. The Dutch author manages to walk a tightrope between the appreciable and the appalling, revering the trumpeter's output without glossing over the dreadful albums he recorded in trade for heroin. The book opens with an investigation of his death (he fell -- some say he was pushed -- from a hotel window in Amsterdam) and closes with an album-by-album critique of Baker's 200 CD releases.

Can't You Hear Me Callin': The Life of Bill Monroe (Little, Brown and Co.), the father of bluegrass's bio, isn't the dry, hokum backwoods story one might expect given the music's tendency to be lyrically sanctimonious. Author Richard D. Smith reveals how Monroe, a neglected child, became a married womanizer who brazenly invited his long-term mistresses onstage to join him in song. Smith even suggests that his trysts may have resulted in a spurned lover being the intruder who caused such damage to his prized mandolin that it took three solid months to reconstruct the instrument from slivers. Though the late Monroe received much affection as a result of both his exceptional talent and silver-haired, avuncular appearance, he was nonetheless jealous of the more refined act of former sidemen Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, for years snubbing them as they crossed paths on the festival circuit. Monroe's untarnished reputation as god of bluegrass mandolin means that a biography's revelations can only dethrone him, though the humanization allows some new passion and irony to be read into his music.

Michael Bloomfield: If You Love These Blues (Miller Freeman) by Jan Mark Wolkin and Bill Keenom attempts to unravel to what extent the blues guitarist's career suicide and demise -- he died at 37 -- was due to drugs and/or his bizarre hatred of fame and success. The authors relate Bloomfield's story entirely as oral history, an unbroken series of memories from more than 80 of his friends and family members. Those who kept his company offer lots of fascinating firsthand tales of his involvement in Electric Flag, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Dylan's early electric forays.

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