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The Artist Formerly Known As Print

Sure, reading about music is no substitute for listening, but probably only a music book is going to show the typical Rolling Stones fan how Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters were the group's daddies. Most likely it will be a Miles Davis bio that explains to a recent jazz convert how such dissimilar albums as Kind of Blue and On the Corner could be cut by the same artist. And history books on jazz and pop music offer the most educated perspectives on why smoothies like Stan Getz and Everything but the Girl are substantial while smoothies like Najee and Celine Dion are musical wankers. The books reviewed here will help you squelch that uninformed putz whose idea of music history is a VH1 Behind the Music episode.

Ben Fong-Torres was one of Rolling Stone magazine's original writers, back when the rag opened not with 40 pages of clothing ads à la Glamour, but a subscription renewal form featuring John Lennon pissing on a tree. In Not Fade Away: A Backstage Pass to 20 Years of Rock and Roll (Miller Freeman Books), Fong-Torres prefaces more than a dozen reprinted Rolling Stone stories with glimpses of how the ultimate rock mag continually slingshot him across the country to chronicle rock at its cockiest. He follows the Stones to Hawaii where a snotty Mick Jagger delivers one of his nastiest interviews; talks with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young before a St. Paul, Minnesota, concert about the group's ego problems; and interviews a defensive Neil Diamond ("hip is bullshit") as the Band's Robbie Robertson -- a surprising collaborator -- produces the former's Beautiful Noise album. Because Fong-Torres was one of the first music journalists to seriously critique '60s music, you'd do well not to pass on this sucker.

Merle Haggard wrote his autobiography, Sing Me Back Home, a full 18 years ago when he was only in his mid-40s. Then again, considering his self-destructive life -- time in the big house, a trading-card series of divorces, etc. -- the country icon can be forgiven for prematurely penning his own eulogy. My House of Memories by Merle Haggard with Tom Carter (Cliff Street Books) is a follow-up on all that he's induced and endured since long ago readying himself to give Mr. Death the brother handshake. Hag rails on about how CBS and Curb Records screwed him (having made and lost, in his estimate, 100 million dollars), how he tried to strangle his wife in the presence of her boyfriend, and how in prison he befriended serial rapist Caryl Chessman. Too bad current country music lacks the kind of artists who blur the lines between what they sing and how they live. Doubtful there are many of you waiting for that lurid lowdown on the lives of the Dixie Chicks.

Future Jazz by Howard Mandel (Oxford University Press) may be the first book on contemporary jazz built on interviews with, rather than general overviews of, the artists. Mandel, a veteran jazz scribe, visits Michael Brecker's home studio, gets an explanation of the touring process from the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and hears John Scofield expound on the glories of playing live. Dividing the book into thirds are interviews with the nemesis of jazz crossbreeding and radical experimentation, Wynton Marsalis. The book's worth the price for its chapters on the underrated and now-defunct M-Base movement (which gave us Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson and Gary Thomas) and the radical scene associated with the now-famous club and record label the Knitting Factory.

Poor Quincy Troupe was the co-writer of Miles Davis' autobiography back in the late '80s. Though according to other sources Davis fucked with him mercilessly, in Miles and Me (University of California Press) Troupe recalls his exacerbating encounters without malice. The impression unintentionally left is that the admirable rebellion of a younger Davis later became indistinguishable from the cantankerous attitude of any cranky, aging eccentric. Not much has been written about the trumpeter's last years, making this book an essential, if painful, read. Unfortunately, the book is not particularly well-written -- surprising, considering that Troupe has been touted as a major poet.

Would we have guessed that one of John Lee Hooker's favorite recordings is by Tower of Power? Or that Bob Weir has a thang for the big-band music of Fletcher Henderson and Count Basie? Listen to This!: Leading Musicians Recommend Their Favorite Artists and Recordings (Hyperion) by Alan Reder and John Baxter seduces us into a bit of aural voyeurism by asking some very familiar names what their CD disc trays suck in most frequently. Turns out that loads of artists have stretched themselves with some pretty disparate influences: Bruce Hornsby loves both Charles Ives and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; Rosanne Cash praises Marty Robbins, Chopin and Mark Knopfler; and Branford Marsalis juggles Los Lobos, Beethoven and Parliament Funkadelic. Never mind that you'll forget everything you read 10 minutes after you lay the book down -- it's top-drawer fluff.

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Dave McElfresh