Dancing About Architecture – Books About Music

The quote, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, has been attributed to everyone from Elvis Costello, to Frank Zappa and Hunter S. Thompson – I think I even heard Laurie Anderson say it one time. It’s one of my most beloved quotes, however, because it speaks to the inherent impotence of speech and verbal language in the face of what I feel is a superior art form, music.
Of course, the reason it comes up from time to time is that, in addition to my ongoing life education as a songwriter and guitarist, I frequently attempt (with varying efficacy) to write about music. That is, I seek to convey with words, the impact and scope of songs, albums, musical performances and the people who make said music, and then put it into some kind of coherent context. Only, I’m doomed from the start but frankly once you do start, there’s generally no turning back. And hey, I have some heroes who have come before me, and who are out there now, who have done such an excellent job of getting it down on the page, that I am at once humbled, inspired and intimidated by the challenge. Today I’m gonna talk about some of the books that inspire me, or that I haven’t read yet but want to.

Full disclosure, this topic comes up as I prepare for the release of my third book, A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio, which will be published by Jawbone Press on October 1st 2010, and as the publication date nears, I will be promoting the book with bonus material, bonus content that had to be edited out of the print edition and exclusive stories and context about the interviews, which I will post every Tuesday (Todd Tuesdays?) Or maybe Wednesdays (Wizard Wednesdays?) Anyway, I’ll let you know so keep checking in for an announcement. At right, is an early design for the book jacket, which is very close to what the final cover will look like.

You know, for a guy who writes, I’m a surprisingly infrequent reader. I have friends like Blair Packham who read everything (that’s good) and I always feel like I’m missing really great books. Here though, are a few music books I did read that I absolutely loved…

Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey In Rural Nörth Daköta by Chuck Klosterman

This book was initially recommended to me by Tyler from Barenaked Ladies, who told me that Chuck makes a case for the kind of rock that I considered at the time an embarrassment, i.e. the hair metal and L.A. glam rock of the Poison and Ratt variety. Yeah right! But sure enough, Ty was right, and Klosterman’s trick was to finally treat “midwestern dirt bag” rock with the kind of hipster cred that journalists usually only bestow upon the likes of Morrissey, Pavement or Brian Eno. His argument was that this music reached a lot of people and was just as “valid” as any Pitchfork flavour of the month (week). It could have been mere reactionary faux populism, but Klosterman knew both worlds so well that he made a lot of sense and while it may not have moved me to throw on any more Mötley Crüe records,  it did make me understand their power and perceived value. Hopefully it also chipped away at my veneer of snobbish insularity.
The Nearest Faraway Place: Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys and The Southern California Experience by Timothy White

When I first moved down here, to Northern California, in 1997, I was still discovering the deep cuts of Brian Wilson via some of the mid-nineties CD box sets issued by Capitol, notably Good Vibrations and The Pet Sounds Sessions (Smile wouldn’t be finished and released until the next decade). As my brother was still living in Southern California, we had an excuse to make frequent runs to Los Angeles and every trip would include a short drive through Bel Air or down Sunset Blvd toward the locations where Brian had lived and worked. A chief source of inspiration was this book by (the late) Timothy White, who had also written the excellent Catch A Fire about Bob Marley. Although The Nearest Faraway Place had come out in 1994, the paperback edition made it to my eager hands in ’96, so it was fresh and exciting to me, a welcoming guidebook to the world of cars, guitars, beaches, palm trees and orange crate art and other assorted Wilsonia. What made the book more valuable to me was that it didn’t just talk about the recording sessions or the chart positions, it described – in more detail than I thought I needed, at the time – the history of the region. We learn of the Okie roots of the Wilson and Love families as they migrated to the newly planted orange groves with the promise of new life and new jobs, the word “new” comes up a lot. This section of the book (with it’s muddy Grapes Of Wrath overtones) sets up the rest of the story perfectly. We learn about surfing, and why cars were so central to Southern California life. We learn about Murry Wilson, the cycloptic father of Brian, Carl and Dennis, also their manager and fabled cruelly jealous tormentor. We also learn about how the Hollywood orchestra scene and the Los Angeles jazz community intersected with the emerging Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman world and into things like The Wrecking Crew, the session team who played on Pet Sounds. White’s ability to set scenes and to tie up seeming loose ends has been an abiding influence on my own work, notably on my 2007 book about the London blues scene of the early 60’s, It Ain’t Easy, and I think I had it in mind when working last year on the Todd book. The Southern California experience laid out in White’s book inspired me to also check out:

Riot On Sunset Strip: Rock’n’roll’s Last Stand In Hollywood by Domenic Priore (with a Foreword by Arthur Lee)                     I have long been trying to get my Derek Taylor biography sold to someone who would dare to let me do it, but until I do this book really sets the scene on the last flaming days of the Sixties on Sunset Strip (1965 and 1966) before the hippies fled to Monterey. Thus we see Dylan sitting in with The Byrds at Ciro’s and a cast that inclues The Doors, Arthur Lee’s band Love, Buffalo Springfield, Frank  Zappa, Captain Beefheart, The Turtles and even Johnny Rivers or The Bobby Fuller Four. What a time. Meanwhile in the hills above Sunset, the folk rock scene beckoned, as documented in…

Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock-And-Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood by Michael Walker

Slightly romanticized, but always compelling, this is a great antidote to the turmoil down in the flats, and I loved hearing the tales of innocent experimentation, which often lead to terrible consequences, but more often than not forged a sound and a vibe, yes vibe is the word, that placed in a perfectly fragile moment in time. Joni shares the “Our House” house with Graham Nash, Mama Cass Elliott is in everyone’s business and pot smoke rings through the idyllic forests. Frank Zappa is nearby, but he’s a workaholic family man so he’s not having of it. Of course, Manson murders put an end to it all, like the parents coming down to the den to break up the kids stoner party. Still, nothing was going to harsh their mellow and by the end of it, these blissed out rich kids ended up defining the peaceful easy feeling of the seventies, for good or ill.  Over in England, an American was defining the folk rock scene…

White Bicycles: Making Music In The 1960s by Joe Boyd

As the founder of Hannibal Records and his Witchseason company, Joe Boyd was responsible for legendary careers of Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Richard and Linda Thompson and The Incredible String Band, but he’s done so much more. Starting as an early importer of American Jazz and Blues to the UK, he eventually started working with Elektra Records. He was also behind the legendary UFO club psych shows by The Pink Floyd and Roy Wood and Jeff Lynnes band, The Move. He’s the Zelig of UK prog. And there’s more, he was the stage manager for Judas. Well, he worked The Newport Folk Festival when Dylan plugged in a, gasp, electric guitar! So he’s been there done that, done it all actually, so why should you read this book? Because, lucky for you dear reader, Boyd is a compelling story teller and a gifted writer who knows how to unravel the tale so you’re always curious about what happens next. And there’s lots of “next” here.

The seventies and eighties, and all the greed that these decades imply, seems well represented in

Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business by Frederic Dannen

Essentially a tell-all about the gangsterism rampant in the music business,  disputed (selectively) by its central character, Columbia’s Walter Yetnikoff. When I first read this, it blew my mind, and I couldn’t listen to Pink Floyd’s The Wall again without thinking of the backroom machinations and clandestine dealings that helped it (as good as it arguably was) to become the crazy Multi-Diamond award album it became. Critic Robert Christgau, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called it an “entertaining… collection of anecdotes about an uproariously unsavory subculture of egomaniacs, sybarites, goniffs, and music-lovers as any greed fan could wish. Exploiting sources that range from trial records, confidential interviews, and other journalists’ notes to People and the trades (all documented in a meticulous 40-page appendix), Dannen has a knack for the telling quote and a healthy appetite for the juicy story: supermanager Irving Azoff sending a rival with a strong-willed wife a boa constrictor and a note that says “Now you have two of them!,” or industry toastmaster Joe Smith reading from Clive Davis’s “official biography”: “Clive was born in a manger in Bethlehem . . .” Dannen understands such crucial economic issues as corporate centralization and the extortionate “recoupable” expenses artists are stuck with. And while most of the crime reporting that justifies Hit Men’s blatantly ambiguous title is public record, it’s convenient to have it all in one place.”

But beware, as Christgau reminds us, Dannen comes from the world of high finance and not music, so his musical history is sometimes sketchier than his fluency in the matters of corporate power. “Too much of his scant musical detail is erroneous,” adds Christgau, “the so-called ‘old blues song’ “Piece of My Heart” was written by biz music-lovers Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns; Wilson Pickett is of a later generation than Ray Charles and was never produced by Ahmet Ertegun; Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” isn’t based on Looking Glass’s “Brandy”…. what interests him about today’s music business isn’t the music. It’s the bottom line…”

and before I go, undying big ups to a few essential Beatle books I’ve read and a couple I sorta want to…

The Beatles Anthology by the horses mouth, A Day In The Life by Mark Hertsgaard and Revolution In The Head by Ian Macdonald (I’ve yet to crack Bob Spitz’s big The Beatles: The Biography and I only got a third into Jonathan Gould’s Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and Americathat could just be due to my old nemesis/ pal ADHD, though.

and the funniest fantasy autobiography you’ll ever read,

X-Ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography by Ray Davies of the Kinks.

This is not a definitive list and these are just the ones I always recommend without even thinking, and there are TONS of great music biography books out there, so now I’m gonna hand the mic over to you…

AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION TIME: ROCK BIOGRAPHIES (BOOKS) EDITION
TELL ME YOUR ROCK BIOGRAPHIES AND OR AUTOBIOGRAPHIES, AND BRIEFLY DESCRIBE WHY THEY DESERVE MENTION, IN THE COMMENTS SECTION BELOW.


THANKS FOR READING THE PULMYEARS MUSIC BLOG, SOMEWHERE AN ANGEL IS SMILING ON YOU.

PAUL.

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5 Responses to “Dancing About Architecture – Books About Music”

  1. these aren’t strictly speaking bios, but they are books about pop music that fit easily on the shelf with the ones you wrote up:

    my absolute favorite, which i reread every five years or so: nick tosches’ “unsung heroes of rock and roll.” glorious writing about incredible figures we all stand upon. or sprawl, as the case may be.

    greil marcus’s “mystery train,” a really stunning book. six kinds of briliant.

    anything by peter guralnick. i loved “lost highway: journeys & arrivals of american musicians,” and “sweet soul music: rhythm and blues and the southern dream of freedom.” i bet “last train to memphis,” his elvis book, is also fantastic.

    and i want to second your mention of the late ian macdonald’s “revolution in the head,” which some people find kind of heavy in the footnote department…but the opening essay on the ’60s and the differences in what was happening in the US and in swinging London just blew my little mind.

    so looking forward to a taste of your newest!

  2. Mike B. Says:

    My top 2:

    Lone Star Swing by Duncan McLean — Scotsman uses literary prize money to travel through Texas, meeting people who played with Bob Willis. Great travelogue, history of Western Swing and exploration of fandom.

    Songbook by Nick Hornby — Nick explains why certain songs have a hold on him. Brilliant writing.

    And the Trouser Press Record Guides.

  3. Kiss and Sell: The Making of a Supergroup by CK Lendt, who was the traveling representative of Glickman-Marks during the heyday of Kiss. The suit in training, as it were. This book explained a lot about the big business of Kiss, providing much needed subtitles under all of the hype that made the group what they were. Fascinating music business realities about a group I thought I knew everything about.

    Careless Love by Peter Guralnick, which was the second volume of the Last Train To Memphis biography of Elvis. This book was a meticulously researched account of Elvis Presley’s turn from movie star back into live performer. It gave great insight into Presley’s dedication to the music, despite the histrionics with which he was associated late in his life. It starts when he gets out of the army, though we all know how the story ends…

  4. Fargo Rock City might not make you want to hear more Crue, but have you read the Crue bio, THE DIRT? Unbelievable. One of the best rock and roll reads ever. For real!

  5. TRouBLe Says:

    I’d like to mention “Ghost Rider” by Neil Peart, an autobiographical work recounting his life after the deaths of his daughter and his first wife.

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