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.

On to other brothers: The Nevilles, the Mount Rushmore of New Orleans music, collaborated with David Ritz on The Brothers (Little, Brown). Art, Aaron, Charles and Cyril Neville all offer a string of reminiscences regarding women, drugs, clashes with the law (more than you'd imagine), and enough encounters with legendary musicians to merit a trading-card series. While the writing approach makes the reading a bit choppy -- each paragraph is a different brother's take on the band's and the family's history -- the multiple angles avoid all the boring detail that a straightahead, more in-depth bio would necessitate. There are lots of stories relating to the brothers' early band, the Meters, as well.

Could be that Andrew Loog Oldham was driven into his phenomenal success as the Rolling Stones' manager to compensate for his mother giving him "Loog" as a middle name. Nothing in his autobiography, Stoned: A Memoir of London in the 1960s (St. Martin's Press), to substantiate this, but something freaky motivated this power-hungry Svengali to establish himself as a figure of note long before Bill Graham, Malcolm McLaren and others managed to do so. The book unearths a version of the Stones so far back in their history we've forgotten that at one point they were actually innocents. Oldham, still living with his mother while first managing the Stones, recalls Mick Jagger seeking advice regarding girlfriend Chrissie Shrimpton whacking him during their brawls, a cocky Keith Richards still itching for street fights, and Oldham locking Jagger and Richards in his flat forcing them (successfully) to learn how to write songs. Less than half of the book is written by Oldham himself. Mixed with his own input are the recollections of more than 70 others who fraternized with the Stones during the era, the most familiar names being Gene Pitney, David Bowie, Pete Townshend and Marianne Faithfull. Stoned frustratingly ends in 1964, with Oldham producing the band's first album. However, fans can breathe easy as this is just the first installment of a planned trilogy.

Jazz writers are a wordy bunch, which has resulted in no shortage of Bible-length volumes on the history of bebop's 25-year reign beginning in the mid-'40s. But one of the most revered bop overviews is Ira Gitler's The Masters of Bebop: A Listener's Guide (Da Capo Press), which weighs in at a mere 300 pages. The book, in its second revised version since its original 1966 publishing, presents a unique approach: Rather than a chronological history of the music, Gitler attacks bop through chapters on how each instrument adapted during the shift from the swing style to bebop's more frantic sound. Highly colorful bios preface the chapters: Dizzy Gillespie's story leads into an overview of bop trumpeters, Tadd Dameron's life is revisited prior to detailing the work of other bebop arrangers, and a fascinating bio of Bud Powell begins the chapter on bop piano.

Taking a similar angle, in Saturday Night Forever: The Story of Disco (A Cappella), Alan Jones and Jussi Kantonen have written a history that, rather than relate the era's happenings chronologically, recalls the scene by its lurid specifics. There are chapters on gay disco, jazz disco, orchestral disco and non-disco artists who slobbered after career revival by regurgitating old hits to a disco beat. The authors also review disco movies, Italy's and Britain's re-creation of the disco explosion, how drab wardrobes were electrified in preparation for the weekend, the fall of Studio 54, the Saturday Night Fevercraze, which drugs were favorites of all those platform-shoed dance-floor freaks, and a step-by-step (literally) overview of the dance moves. Acknowledging that the era was intentionally all flash and no substance, the authors strip their writing down to all the lurid and goofy details to help draw readers in. Replications of the era's bare-bootied album-cover artwork makes up for discovering that country's George Jones and "Moon River" crooner Andy Williams attempted to boogie-oogie-oogie at low points in their respective careers.

Race With the Devil: Gene Vincent's Life in the Fast Lane (St. Martin's Press) is the first bio of the rock 'n' roll patriarch, a late-'50s guitar-slinging delinquent set up to fail by an industry bent on making him the next Elvis. Susan Vanhecke's very personable approach delves into a truckload of traumas that laid the groundwork for a badass/tragic rocker persona far more lasting than anything Presale contributed to the archetype. From Vincent's gimp leg (the result of a motorcycle accident) to the loss of soul brother/fellow rockabilly monster Eddie Cochran in a car crash, endless fights with family and band members, and finally his death from chronic alcoholism, Vanhecke hands over the quintessential portrayal of social loser as rock icon.

Since 1957, Whitney Balliett has been to the New Yorker's jazz pages what Pauline Kael was as the mag's resident film goddess. Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000 (St. Martin's Press) gathers nearly 50 years of artist portraits, along with book, album and concert reviews that show as much appreciation for the style of Cecil Taylor as Bix Beiderbecke. Balliett's a great storyteller, mixing his generally positive criticism with intriguing backstage tales and historical curiosities. Oddly, there's no table of contents to leaf through apart from the book being divided into five decades. Betcha, though, that the 300 or so entries include almost anyone the reader might want to search out.

Historian Richard Crawford must have a bitching record collection, given the breadth of his 900-page America's Musical Life: A History (Norton). Though Crawford sections off American music into folk, popular and classical styles, his coverage is much more thorough than these clean divisions would indicate. Also included are theatrical music, hymns, military marches, parlor songs, Native American music -- all detailed before stepping into the expected categories of blues, jazz, protest music and rock. How current does he get? The book wraps up with Wynton Marsalis, hip-hop, Philip Glass and P.J. Harvey. Unless the reader has lost his job or is a serious insomniac, the intimidatingly thick tome will probably be read as fragments chosen from a monstrous index that bounces from Charlie Parker to Harry Partch to Charlie Patton to "Little Richard" Penniman in a single column.

Editor William McKeen has compiled nearly a hundred paeans to your favorite loud stuff in Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay (Norton). We're given top-drawer soap-boxing by the best rock critics: Charlie Gillett on the five styles of rock 'n' roll; Britain's Charles Shaar Murray on Jimi Hendrix; Nelson George on James Brown; Robert Palmer on Delta blues going electric; and Dave Marsh on the song "Louie Louie." A few upscale, non-music writers get in their licks, too: Thomas Wolfe writes about his encounter with George Harrison during the Beatlemania craze, Terry Southern observes the Stones on their hedonistic 1972 tour, Salman Rushdie offers some of his rock fiction, Joan Didion watches the Doors record Waiting for the Sun. Also included are entries by the rock 'n' rollers themselves: Chuck Berry on hooking up with Chess Records, Ronnie Spector on her bizarre marriage to producer Phil Spector, and Frank Zappa's 1985 statement to the Senate Commerce Committee regarding warning stickers on potentially offensive albums. McKeen's effort shows how far rock writing has come from the days of dry liner notes and win-a-date-with-Ringo teen mag pap.

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