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Its December, and we all know what that means: The Baby Jesus wants you to spend, spend, spend. And what better way to honor the birth of a savior than by picking up books by or about those minstrels of Satan rock stars. Weve been reading our eyes bloody on the Beat Reader desk (my bathroom), and here are a few suggestions for your holiday shopping.
Hands-down, best music book of the year has to be Peter Guralnicks Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (Little, Brown). Guralnick is one of my favorite music biographers, and here he comes again with a deeply researched and excitingly written story. His descriptions of Cookes life from his gospel roots through his stick-it-to-the-man success and sickening death give gooseflesh throughout. Package these up with the new remasters of his twin masterpieces, Night Beat and Live at the Harlem Square Club (Sony/Legacy), and youve got one happy soul fan.
For coffee-table eye candy with local appeal, there are a couple of great contenders. Niagaras Beyond the Pale (9mm Press) is a hardcover joy. Part biography, part journal, part art book, its the perfect summation of this enigmatic woman alternately beautiful, confusing, sexy, vulnerable, exciting and scary.
Beyond the Pale chronicles Niagaras development as an artist, musician and fixture on the local scene. One of the great joys comes in the photos of the 70s and 80s Detroit punk scene, including great shots of Motor City rock royalty, like Destroy All Monsters bandmates Ron Asheton and Michael Davis. It also contains the revelation that she has two tattoos on her ass Danger and Rons Bitch. Alas, no photos of those.
If you crave pictures of Asheton, youd be hard pressed to beat Mick Rocks Raw Power: Iggy and the Stooges (Omnibus). Weve seen so much rock iconography through Rocks camera lens from Syd Barretts Madcap Laughs to David Bowies Ziggy Stardust to Lou Reeds Transformer. In this collection of photos of the Raw Power-era Stooges, Rock chronicles the group of low-life Americans turned feral in London. The text is accompanied by a new introduction by Iggy, in which he writes that the photos of Scott Asheton are his favorites in the book, and its easy to see why. Mr. Rock Action oozes Midwestern antisocial charm and leather-clad cocksure attitude. If youve ever wondered what hearts full of napalm look like ...
Another book of interest to Detroiters of a certain age is Don McLeeses Kick out the Jams (Continuum), which is part of the 33-1/3 series chronicling landmark albums. Very few records are as exciting or influential as the MC5s revolutionary debut, so its only appropriate that the record is included in the series.
McLeeses first-person account of the bands performance at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago is fascinating (and crushing for those of us who never got to see the MC5, only to hear breathless accounts from folks who were there). It was a musical mugging so far beyond the realm of expectation that it would take years before punk or metal would provide some sort of frame of reference, though no punk or metal band would ever match the galvanizing force of the 5, he writes.
The book is a well-done recap, although it contains a couple of annoying bush-league errors (for example, Wayne Kramers birth surname is Kambes, not Kambus). Not a big deal, but errors like that erode an authors credibility. It must be said that the MC5 story boundless energy and creativity brought crashing to earth by inept interpersonal relationships and external repression doesnt get less depressing as time passes. Kick Out the Jams ends with a summary of the current conflicted state among surviving band members and family members of the late Rob Tyner and Fred Smith.
Along the same lines, Dave Carsons Grit, Noise and Revolution (University of Michigan Press) is still a good bet if you seek an overview of the Detroit music scene during the first 20 years of rock n roll.
If youre looking for other gift ideas for Boomers whose memories arent what they used to be (or the grandkids whove been raiding their record collections), there are a couple of more biographies worth checking out. Eddi Fiegel offers an insightful look into Mama Cass Elliots life in Dream a Little Dream of Me (Chicago Review Press). The Mamas and the Papas Elliot was a huge woman with a huge voice and a huge heart. Though she was talented, she was also plagued with self-image issues and a bad case of unrequited love. Ultimately the reader is left with a portrait of a vivacious woman. Despite her untimely death and the demons she faced, Mama Cass doesnt come off as the tragic figure youd imagine.
Also recommended is Room Full of Mirrors by Charles R. Cross (Hyperion), which provides a detailed (and frequently heartbreaking) portrait of Jimi Hendrix. The books assertion that Hendrix got out of the Army by pretending to be a homosexual and chronic masturbator caused controversy, but if true, it might explain a few things. It exposes the terrible impact poverty and family dysfunction can have on a child, and makes the reader wonder what Hendrix could have done if hed had a reasonable upbringing.
If youre looking for tales of Roman emperor-level debauchery, Marc Elliots Eagles biography To the Limit (Da Capo Books) has those goods. It also exposes Don Henley as the megalomaniacal prick you always knew he was. Its a sleazy, gossipy tome, and whether its salacious details are entirely true or not, its a page-turner. If its decadence coupled with actual musical talent you seek, a better bet would be David Buckleys Roxy Music bio, The Thrill of it All (Chicago Review). Unlike those Eagles, Bryan Ferry et al. always had class.
Christian Death co-founder John Alberts book, Wrecking Crew (Scribner), is a cinematic tome filled with addicts, reprobates and other good-for-nothing rock n roll degenerates who find redemption through baseball. Its gritty and inspirational (but not in a cheesy, Lifetime movie way). If you can imagine Bukowski-meets-The Bad News Bears, youre on the right track.
Paul Zollo was given unprecedented access when writing Conversations with Tom Petty (Omnibus). The result is just that an in-depth conversation with the reclusive star that gives context and color to Pettys life and career. It fills in lots of holes for fans of the media-shy rocker.
Wastes of gift coin, and paper:
When it comes to Whores: An Oral Biography of Perry Farrell and Janes Addiction (Da Capo), its hard to say if the problem is Brendan Mullens flaccid writing or the low-rent decadent jive of his subjects. There was a moment when Janes Addiction seemed like a visionary outfit, but Whores punches holes in that, exposing the band as the dumbfuck frauds they are. But thats probably not what Mullen intended with his blowjobian text.
Wanna read about Bruce Springsteen? Jimmy Gutermans Runaway American Dream (Da Capo) is a total jackoff. Stick to Dave Marsh on that topic.
Best Music Writing 2005 (Da Capo) features no Jeffrey Morgan at all, so how can we take it seriously? Try again next year, chumps.
Dark Side of the Moon is quite possibly the most overrated record ever, but for some reason John Harris decided to write a book chronicling its making, The Dark Side of the Moon: The Making of the Pink Floyd Masterpiece (Da Capo). And the book is every bit as exciting as its subject. Take that however you will.
The Beat Reader is a column about music books. Brian J. Bowe is editor of Creem magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.