Book 'Em

Taking a look at some of the best music literature from the past few months

Given rock's smutty half-century, it's a wonder that The Mammoth Book of Sex, Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll (Carroll and Graf), edited by Jim Driver, is only 600 pages long. Fortunately, the British collection passes on the well-known shock fodder by stateside writers and shovels up a pile of lesser-known essays on pop excesses: a failed attempt at interviewing Syd Barrett after he'd become a walking LSD factory, hitting the road with the Cramps, Ian Hunter recounting the hassles of a Mott the Hoople tour. There's bluesman Hound Dog Taylor staying awake all night to avoid his recurring dreams involving wolves; producer Joe Meek of "Telstar" fame blowing away his landlady before removing his own head with the gun; and a piece on why heroin's a better drug than coke to use when recording. Fun reading for the entire family.

Without Muddy Waters there would have been no Rolling Stones, without Howlin' Wolf no Captain Beefheart, without Chuck Berry no Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA." All came about as a result of a lot of major figures in '60s/'70s rock playing Chess, a Chicago record label that perfectly bridged the gap for urban adolescents between early Delta blues and plugged-in, three-chord pop radio hits. Spinning Blues Into Gold (St. Martin's Press) by Nadine Cohodas details how two Jewish brothers, Leonard and Phil Chess, obsessively recorded black blues artists back in the '50s, overcoming quirky setbacks like Chuck Berry's career-damaging, lengthy incarceration for concealed weapons and driving jailbait over state lines. The rock 'n' roll element aside, there is no better book detailing how the blues became electrified. By the way, the Stones' song "2120 South Michigan" references the address of Chess' Windy City studios.

Music to settle the Guinness within us: June Skinner Sawyers' Celtic Music: A Complete Guide (Da Capo Press) outlines Irish music from the Clancy Brothers through U2. Much more than an encyclopedia of artists, her book defines odd offshoots like mouth music -- vocal droning meant to emulate bagpipes -- and identifies the structural aspects common in Irish ballads -- a strong sense of national identity built on stories of bygone royalty. The final 30 pages are nearly as valuable as the rest of the book, offering as appendices a list of Celtic music festivals, more than 300 books and articles on Irish music and 100 seminal recordings. The well-balanced volume gives equal coverage to Thin Lizzy, the Pogues and Enya, treating them all as valuable Irish players on considerably different teams.

Odd how Bossa Nova (A Cappella) by Ruy Castro is the only book to detail the music's history since its initial burst of popularity more than four decades ago. Castro's book, first published in Brazil back in 1990 (Portuguese only), is just now making it into English. Those who associate bossa nova with elevators and shopping music will find that Brazil's most famous export was a very complex development, mixing samba, Brazilian folk music and jazz. In fact, nearly 150 pages pass before "Chega de Saudade," the first bossa nova hit in 1958, is detailed. Lots of saucy details are included: "Girl From Ipanema" was written about an 18-year-old who regularly bought cigarettes for her mother at the cafe where 35-year-old composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and poet/lyricist Vinicius de Moraes collaborated. While recording the most famous version of the song with jazz saxophonist Stan Getz, Joao Gilberto -- second only to Jobim in fame as a bossa nova composer/singer -- referred to the jazzman as a moron and got him drunk on whiskey in order that he might play less stiffly. This immensely informative book unfortunately ends in 1966, with Jobim making an album with Frank Sinatra.

Not many can carry a business card presenting themselves as an Elvis research expert. Mary Hancock Hinds can, though, and the Smithsonian Institution, NBC Nightly News, the BBC and Nightline regularly rely on her for detailed info on the late King. In Infinite Elvis: An Annotated Bibliography (A Cappella), she lists more than 1,700 books and articles written about everything ranging from Elvis-inspired cookbooks, comics about the King, dramas and musicals, as well as religious tomes depicting him as either the devil in disguise or the new Messiah. Read further for articles that describe the architecture of Graceland (one of them compares his mansion to Disneyland), legal documents relating to "Elvis" becoming a trademark, and doctoral dissertations on the King. There are also references to Elvis books written in Basque, Czech, Icelandic and Thai, as well. Did Presley actually read any of the myriad works written about him? Hinds says it's almost certain he didn't, with the possible exception of Jerry Hopkins' Elvis: A Biography.

The three authors -- Melinda Bilyeu, Hector Cook and Andrew Mon Hughes -- and two assistants responsible for The Ultimate Biography of the Bee Gees: Tales of the Brothers Gibb (Omnibus Press) wrote the book via e-mail from their homes in Wales, Australia, Scotland and New Jersey. This thick tome is not likely to be outdone in terms of detail by any future writer apart from the boys' mama. More than 120 associates of the band were interviewed -- the Bee Gees themselves were not -- and hundreds of fans offer input. The book contrasts the struggle the Brothers Gibb faced in balancing their public personas with their personal feelings: When a British comedy team lampooned them with a bit about a band called the Hee Bee Gee Bees singing "The Meaningless Song," the group claimed they found it hysterical, though composer brother Barry was always resentful of his lyrics not being taken seriously. How about the ultimate in cryptic lyrics: "I Started a Joke"? Don't mean a thing, admits Barry. Brother Andy Gibb's rise and fall is covered as well in this very colorful read.

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