Paperback Writers

Latest music books struggle to demystify pop culture's greatest enigmas

MacGowan has a hundred stories to relate, all of them proving that his detractors are scum-suckers deserving death. When he's called on having contradicted himself, he reminds his meek spouse/interviewer of her stupidity in not having understood his goddamned, crystal-clear answer. Clarke's cutesy reliance on ending most sentences with an adverb makes you want to strangle her, slowly, or flush the book, gladly. It's a thoroughly intriguing read, though, while doubling as the best anti-booze message since Alcoholics Anonymous' Big Book.

Here are a couple of other big books: As a member of the Chesterfield Kings, Andy Babiuk found himself attempting to duplicate the Beatles' sound. The result led instead to a book -- Beatles Gear: All the Fab Four's Instruments, From Stage to Studio -- with Babiuk interviewing more than 400 Beatles associates in compiling this oversize, photo-heavy volume. From John Lennon's $17 Gallotone Champion in the mid-'50s to the Moog synthesizer on Abbey Road, the book obsessively details what instruments -- there were hundreds -- each Beatle brought into the mix, literally from one song to the next. Keyboards, amps and effect pedals are identified, with plenty of guitar close-ups and vintage instrument ads included. A unique approach to the history of the Beatles.

American Roots Music, edited by Robert Santelli, Holly George-Warren and Jim Brown, is another coffee-table book, this one released in conjunction with the four-hour PBS series. Separate chapters ambitiously relate the stateside history of blues, folk, gospel, Cajun, Tex-Mex, country and Native American music. The format is choppy -- turning the documentary into a relatively brief book results in a disconnected, quick-tour feel. And while it's the Reader's Digest Condensed version of American music, the book manages to cover more material than the documentary: The Native American music section includes info on Redbone, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Rita Coolidge and Robbie Robertson's last few albums -- none of which are discussed in the series.

Parental Advisory by Eric Nuzum covers the history of music censorship in America, reminding us how the Parents Music Resource Center's (PMRC) attempts to eradicate vulgar songs by such immoral '80s hussies as Sheena Easton and Cyndi Lauper were only the most visible example of endless government-vs.-musicians wrestling. Though 1993's Anti-Rock: The Opposition to Rock 'n' Roll is better researched and more objective, Nuzum's book conveniently approaches censorship issues categorically, with chapters focusing on videos, cover art, race, religion, drugs, violence and sex. The book's Senate committee transcriptions and interviews show incensed government officials almost always respond to music censorship debates by snorting emotion-heavy responses as irrational as a Joseph McCarthy diatribe. More disturbing than the immature, disgusting lyrics that need to be defended is discovering how fervently some elected representatives ache to become the nation's paddle-wielding mamas and papas.

Trumpeter Miles Davis, who throughout his career intentionally abandoned each stylistic advancement when it became comfortable, made a damned near suicidal leap in the mid-'60s. While leading a sophisticated quintet many still consider to be the finest jazz group ever, Davis decided to go electric, spiraling into primitive jams fueled by funk bassists and wah-wah guitars. Jazz mags and their readers dismissed his jungle noise for several decades, only recently coming to appreciate it. Like his fans, most Miles biographies have given short shrift to these two dozen years of outrageous playing, with Paul Tingen's detailed Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 finally investigating this most radical phase in his career. But Tingen is no slobbering groupie, remaining plenty critical of Davis' forays into pop goo as he follows the Intimidating One's embracing of psychedelia, funk and, prior to his death, hip-hop. There's no shortage of Miles stories regarding his irascible and unpredictable nature, either, which undoubtedly sell more Miles books than his music does.

While Beach Boy/Buddha Brian Wilson's life has seen print only as his sketchy 1991 autobiography, departed brother/drummer Dennis Wilson has been the focus of two biographies in the past two years. It could be said, though, that the handful of Beach Boys group bios are all Brian Wilson stories, whereas the good-looking-boy-goes-bad tale of Dennis remained, like his drum kit, pretty much tucked behind the group's Mouseketeer-ish persona until its disbanding several years back.

Adam Webb's Dumb Angel: The Life and Music of Dennis Wilson -- the title is what big brother Brian called him -- presents the story of rock's most dysfunctional family, with Dennis' frightening spiral into self-destruction the result of rock 'n' roll hedonism fueled by hatred of a nightmare father who only validated Dennis' life-long loathing of rules -- good ones as well as bad ones. Dumb Angelis an engaging, quick read of Wilson's brush with Charles Manson, his myriad failed relationships (involving Fleetwood Mac's Christine McVie as well as fellow band member Mike Love's daughter), and, during the late '70s, his frustratingly erratic stabs at solo projects that proved at least equal to what the beached boys were upchucking. Check it out at www.creationbooks.com.

Speaking of upchucking, here's a sensitive love story for ya: Fucked by Rock: The Unspeakable Confessions of Zodiac Mindwarp should be subtitled The Marquis de Sade Goes Metal. Mark Manning, leader of Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction, recalls the offstage sex and drug orgies of his predatory, Nazi/Satan-inspired thrashers. Fucked by Rock is held together by endless misogyny and coprophilia-heavy sex, making Led Zep's groupie antics in Hammer of the Gods read like a Hallmark card. Oh, yeah, there are a few paragraphs about their music and tours, downplayed to the extent that the music comes across as a means to an end -- lots of girls' ends, actually. Not to be read at lunch hour, unless you want to hurl your Happy Meal.

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