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Books

Rockin' reads

MT's annual guide to the year's grooviest rock literature

Ethan Russell’s iconic 1972 Keith Richards photo, which closes his new Rolling Stones book.
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Published 11/25/2009

Full disclosure: Two of the books I'm enthusiastically endorsing this year — Harvey Kubernik's Canyon of Dreams: The Magic & Music of Laurel Canyon (Sterling, $29.95) and Robert Hilburn's Cornflakes With John Lennon & Other Tales from a Rock 'N' Roll Life (Rodale, $24.99) — were written by friends of mine. I hung out with Kubernik a lot more during my 20 years in L.A., but you couldn't help bumping into Hilburn, the L.A. Times rock critic for more than three decades, at every major rock event; I first met him at a Prince concert in Detroit in the early '80s and he put money in my pocket when he let me write a few reviews for the Times right after my house burned down in 1998. All that said, my fully objective opinion here is that both books are not only superb reads but also books that I never knew either writer had in him.

Unlike the other two recent histories of L.A.'s golden canyon road, Kubernik — a proud native of the city who Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham once described as the archetypal L.A. teenage music fan in the '60s — has spotlighted stories and anecdotes from figures who weren't exactly on the sidelines but, rather, participants whose memories aren't often recorded by history but are no less important. This includes not just musicians but poets, rock groupies, thespians. ... And this beautiful coffee-table volume, with numerous photos from the likes of Henry Diltz (whose images of L.A. rock royalty are now mostly iconic), delivers a story that spans from the 1920s to a final chapter on today's rising Laurel Canyon stars. It's essentially a full pop history of L.A., with a long stop at its truly golden era, when a community of musical artists was wide and eclectic enough to include everyone from Joni Mitchell and Neil Young to the Monkees and Frank Zappa.

As one of America's first major newspaper rock scribes, if not the first, Hilburn has stories to tell that are sometimes almost Zelig-like. Over these many years, he has never seemed to lose his love for the music, and that boyish fan enthusiasm is still evident in this memoir. But hell, wouldn't you be enthusiastic if you'd hung out (and in some cases, even became friends) with the likes of Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Bob Dylan. ...? Or were the only rock critic present when Johnny Cash played Folsom Prison ...? Or spent hours with the post-Thriller Michael Jackson when Hilburn was asked to write Jackson's autobiography and Michael just wanted to watch cartoons ...? The list goes on and on. Hilburn never delves much into anything scandalous about his rock heroes, who grew over the years, warranted or not, to include such figures as Bono (who wrote the book's intro and recently gave Hilburn a shout-out during U2's L.A. concert), Kurt Cobain and our own Jack White (it's interesting to note how much Detroit gets mentioned in the book, thanks to a time when major music tours actually premiered — or at least delivered what were considered really important shows — in this city). But as an interviewer, Hilburn — who championed bands like the New York Dolls when most mainstream critics didn't — had the knack of getting into his subjects' heads, urging artists from Springsteen to NWA to open up, and sometimes even influencing their subsequent decisions and output with his opinion. A fun, often fascinating read.

There were two biographies/family memoirs dedicated to individual Ramones this year: Poisoned Heart: I Married Dee Dee Ramone — A Punk Love Story (Phoenix, $22.98) by Vera Ramone King, and the more recent I Slept with Joey Ramone by Mickey Leigh with Legs McNeil (Touchstone, $26). The latter records the memories of the legendary Ramones singer's younger brother, who had a front row seat for pop history in the making, not just observing the band's so-underrated-at-the-time history from beginning to dissolution but also the entire CBGB punk explosion, including his time as a founding guitarist with Lester Bangs' band, Birdland. Vera Ramone's book, meanwhile, is exactly what the title states it is — not as tragic or as pathetic as Sid 'n' Nancy, perhaps, but still what one might expect from the tale of a starstruck girl who fell in love with a troubled, bipolar, drug-addicted musical savant, perhaps genius. Some of it could be better written, but the emotion is clearly there.

One of Dee Dee's earlier girlfriends, Connie Gripp, infamously sliced the thumb off then-boyfriend Arthur "Killer" Kane in a jealous rage right before the bassist was set to go on an important tour as a founding member of the New York Dolls. The slicing story is documented in his posthumous memoir, I, Doll: Life & Death With the New York Dolls by Arthur "Killer" Kane (Chicago Review Press, $24.98), which his widow, Barbara Kane, edited and released earlier this year. The book documents Kane's first 16 months with the Dolls, and then presents an epilogue of the post-glory years, partially taken from Barbara's memories. Colorful characters range from Ziggy-era Bowie to Blackie Lawless, and, like Vera Ramone's book, it's ultimately a story of rock 'n' roll survival and survivors.

There were also two Velvet Underground books this year, as interest in the seminal underground rock 'n' roll band, which influenced everyone from the Dolls and Stooges to today's indie groups, never seems to wane. Jim DeRogatis' The Velvet Underground: An Illustrated History of a Walk on the Wild Side (Voyager, $30) features a few essays by others, in addition to DeRogatis' own historical reporting and critical observations, but is basically a coffee-table book (complete with a clumsy, half-cover black velvet dust jacket) on a band that once seemed inconceivable as a subject of a coffee-table book. Richie Uterberger's White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day (Jawbone, $29.95), meanwhile, is absolutely exhaustive, tracing various band members and associates from 1958 straight through to 2007, while constantly passing this critic's litmus test for obscure trivia in spades. The author's research was impeccable. Some great rare photos as well!

Bruce Springsteen's now-legendary saxophonist Clarence Clemons tells many different kinds of stories in Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales, which he wrote with his other best friend, TV writer Don Reo (Grand Central, $26.96). The book takes the form of a series of episodic snapshots from a life, following no chronological order, some of which are more revealing on subjects like sex and drugs than one might expect from a member of the always cleanly portrayed E Street Band. Some of the stories don't always seem to have a clear punch line or payoff — aside from introducing the reader to some of Clemons' famous friends — but there is a lot of classic material too, including a meeting Clemons had with Frank Sinatra and Jilly Rizzo after Frank has decided it's his New Jersey patriotic duty to record a cover of "Born to Run." It reads damn close to a Saturday Night Live sketch! Clemons also reveals he's been living with chronic pain for years, which is why those rumors of the most recent E Street Band tour being their last might be true. David Letterman/Rock Hall of Fame bandleader Paul Schaffer's We'll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives: A Swingin' Showbiz Saga (Flying Dolphin, $26) takes a more structured, chronological approach to the memoir form — but the stories are no less amazing or amusing, including Schaffer's first meeting with hero Bob Dylan, whose first words, after Schaffer praises the bard for his longtime influence, are: "Can you introduce me to Larry ‘Bud' Melman?'"

In the '70s, Larry Harris was the managing director of Casablanca Records — the home of KISS, Donna Summer and the Village People and the headquarters of L.A. sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll excess during that era. He was also Casablanca founder Neil Bogart's cousin — so aside from some questionable business practices, the dirt and sleaze in his memoir, And Party Every Day: The Inside Story of Casablanca Records (Backbeat, $24.99) isn't as heavy-duty as one might hope for in a book of this kind. Besides, Harris still seems actually proud that he signed Angel (anyone remember Punky Meadows?) to the label. We'll wait for Tommy James' upcoming autobiography, due in February, in which he's said to dish all the dirt on Morris Levy, the Mafia-connected head of James' label who was the inspiration for the Hesh Rabkin character on The Sopranos. Andy Williams also delivered an autobiography this year, Moon River and Me: A Memoir (Viking, $25.99). We were just starting to read it when the 81-year-old Republican (and former Kennedy supporter) made some ridiculous anti-Obama "Marxist" comment and, to quote Bill Maher, then made Moon River in his diaper ... so we stopped reading.

The year's most ambitious serious bio was probably Barney Hoskyns' Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits (Broadway, $29.95), which is quite in-depth and revealing, despite the enigmatic artist, who strongly prefers to remain an enigma, putting up roadblock after roadblock and hindering Hoskyns' access to subjects (shades of the Neil Young bio, Shakey). Nevertheless, the book poignantly concludes with the author waiting by Waits' bus with other fans following a concert, hoping for perhaps a brief meeting with his subject. Such is the mark of a true fan. Mark Ribowsky's The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success & Betrayal (DeCapo, $26) is, oddly, the first biography devoted exclusively to Motown Records' biggest act ever, though it kinda got lost in the shuffle. It's a worthy read, though. Ribowsky has cross-referenced all the various autobiographies (including the sometimes-fantasies of Miss Ross and Berry Gordy), as well as the volumes of Motown histories, to come up with a real-life drama that's actually way better then the fictionalized Dreamgirls. The music was better too! Flo Ballard remains one of the most tragic figures in pop music history. The author gets a few minor details wrong (metro Detroit native and current Rock Hall of Fame curator Howard Kramer is called "Kaplan," for instance). But it's a fun and fascinating book to read, especially when living in Detroit (the local landmarks are overflowing in its pages), and it offers some terrific trivia gems, such as George Harrison later admitting to Mary Wilson that the Beatles thought the Supremes, dressed as they were in their furs and jewels, were squares when the superstar artists all first met.

As one might expect, there were numerous Beatles tomes published in 2009, running from a Beatology: Which Beatle Are You? book (Adams Media, $14.95) — isn't a book that tells us Nixon was like John and Reagan like Paul more appropriate as a Facebook application, where no trees are harmed? — to Barry Miles' coffee-table book on the Beatles-led The British Invasion (Sterling, $27.95), to an "anti-history" treatise, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'N' Roll by Elijah Wald (Oxford, $24.95), which never actually makes a case for its revisionist title's thesis and leaves the reader wondering exactly what case the author is trying to make in his jumbled "alternative history" (which is a shame since Wald's Robert Johnson "think" book a few years back was so provocative and entertaining).

But the most charming Beatles-related publication was Jerry Levitan's I Met the Walrus: How One Day with John Lennon Changed My Life Forever (Collins Design, $24.99), which is based on Levitan's Academy Award-nominated short animated film on the same subject — his 1968 meeting in Toronto with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, when the writer was still a 14-year-old high school student. He was also the only "journalist" the pair spoke to before their Montreal "bed-in" for peace a few days later, after Levitan convinced them to deliver a message of peace to Canadian and American high school students through him. The kid even got to go on "a date" with Beatle discovery Mary Hopkin the final night. The book beautifully captures how exciting it was to be a Beatles fan when the band actually existed, to the point of it provoking tears from the reader near its conclusion.

Beatles or Stones? That question was a myth, even at the time that the musical giants were both roaming the planet. But for those of you who have forgotten — and it's easy to do, given to the accumulation of all kinds of moss over the years — Ethan Russell's Let It Bleed: The Rolling Stones, Altamont and the End of the '60s (Springboard, $35) is a gorgeous coffee-table book that fully captures a time — and a legendary tour — when the Stones really were "the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world," at least onstage, at least when you're talking the purest form of the term. Some never-before-seen shots (beginning with one of the doomed Brian Jones' final photo sessions and concluding with Russell's now-iconic 1972 shot of Keith Richards in front of the American airport customs anti-drug sign) makes this a perfect gift for the rock historian on your list as well as a perfect visual complement to the recently-released remastered Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out 40th anniversary box set.

(Note: Two books that we covered via feature stories in MT this year — Robert Matheu's The Stooges: The Authorized & Illustrated Story (Abrams, $35) and Travelin' Man: On The Road & Behind the Scenes with Bob Seger by Thomas Weschler and Gary Graff (Wayne State Press, $27.95) — would also make fine coffee-table book gifts for Michigan rock aficionados and historians. Happy holidays!)

Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to mailto:letters@metrotimes.com.

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