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.

Write or Wrong

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.

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.

There's a myth regarding bebop's origin: Forties-era jazzmen, disgusted with how swing had curdled into the insubstantial white big bands of Glenn Miller and the Dorsey Brothers, created a style of jazz in which the nosebleed tempo and expansion of notes allowable on the high end of chords would incinerate all those poseurs who couldn't keep up. The truth is more complex than that, but bebop did set jazz back on the right path in a manner colorfully detailed in an armful of books dissecting the era. In Bebop: The Essential Listening Companion (Miller Freeman), Scott Yanow lets other authors chronicle the history, preferring to focus on the individual players' bios and recordings. Bebop covers jazz artists from 1945 to 1949, as well as satellite figures like Artie Shaw, Richie Cole and Gene Ammons for exhibiting a bebop influence in their recordings. Yanow's is a unique approach, making the book the ultimate travel guide for anyone obsessed with the style.

MusicHound has published a series of obsessively detailed music guides, none more thorough than World: The Essential Album Guide. This 1,100-page overview of non-English music goes so far as to include Turkish transvestite vocalists and metal salsa (discussed in David Byrne's witty introduction) and divides reggae artists into 10 stylistic categories. Beyond band history, we're given info on influences, which albums to buy, similar artists to check out, Web sites, record-label addresses -- pretty much everything short of sarong sizes.

If selling your plasma for cash becomes a problem, see if maybe some big bucks lie in your music collection. According to the Goldmine Jazz Album Price Guide (Krause) by Tim Neely, the 1968 version of Miles Davis, Volume 1 on Blue Note is only worth 12 bucks, but the 1955 version with a "deep indentation under label on both sides" is worth $200. Natch, no one in possession of the indented version wants to be reminded that such specific pricing of rarities is often constructed on the questionable recall of dealers' transactions and the willingness of a few high-roller loonies to drive the cost that high. As proof of the fickleness of the value system: You can still buy '30s-era Django Reinhardt 78s for only $5 because no one owns the old Victrolas to play them on. Nonetheless, the guide's thoroughness is impressive: There are nearly 350 Miles Davis listings and almost 250 of Coltrane. What's worth the most? A 1949 mail order-only album of Charlie Parker on Dial will allegedly bring you 4,000 smackers. Worth the least? Almost everything in our record collections. Nearly every album listed here tends to be valued somewhere between $10 and $40.

By page nine of Ted Nugent's God, Guns & Rock 'n' Roll (Regnery), the Motor City Madman is saving the life of an assaulted policeman with 16 loads of ammo firing from the ever-present Glock strapped to his waist. "It is wholly irresponsible to go into the world incapable of preventing violence, injury, crime and death," the messianic guitarist/gunslinger preaches. Halfway through the book, he casts his ire at a raccoon as the target: "one less egg-stealing, rabies-carrying vermin on SwampNuge," we're assured. Instead of outrageous rock 'n' roll stories -- music is seldom mentioned -- we're given endless examples of Nugentry through which we, too, can unleash the Warrior Within. Ted suggests we develop a personal relationship with our fish and game department. Ted would shoot a dog in the head if it were chewing on a child. Ted says family gun recreation will bring parents and kids together for "more intense quality time." "Intense" pretty much sums up the book. Buy it today, goddamn it, and don't tramp on the flag walking home from the bookstore.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >