The Man Who Sold The World – David Bowie And The 1970s – Peter Doggett (2012)
A painstaking deconstruction of arguably the most prolific period of a pop/rock artist in any era, rock journalist Peter Doggett’s The Man Who Sold The World follows the many threads of a complicated and exceedingly eccentric personality that accomplished it. Beautifully written details of David Bowie’s most gripping work as a faux-hippie mod into his glam-alien transformation, culminating with his late-‘70s experimentation with soul music and Brian Eno’s atmospheric symphonies usher readers through each and every groundbreaking musical and lyrical landscape.
Although some of Bowie’s personal life is dissected through the various shades of his work, it is only sifted through the prism of his genius as a composer and the inner turmoil of a theatrical chameleon. Doggett deftly unmasks Bowie as never before and ends up with a portrait of a mysterious storyteller as comfortable in his time as any rock star has ever been.
Can’t Be Satisfied – The Life And Times Of Muddy Waters – Robert Gordon (2003)
The most comprehensive chronicle of the master bluesman and godfather of the rock and roll ensemble, Can’t Be Satisfied – The Life And Times Of Muddy Waters unfolds like Muddy Waters’ best folklore four-barre rousers. Author Robert Gordon digs deep into the belly of the South’s rich blues traditions, utilizing dozens of insightful interviews with key witnesses to American music history, as well as Waters’ own remarkable recollections.
Gordon spares no punches, peeling back the many layers of the legendary McKinley Morganfield as if a living mystery novel, taking us behind the scenes and inside the steamy world of the birth of electric blues that tore up the Chitlin’ Circuit all the way to Chicago and beyond. During the journey, Waters acted in the capacity of talent collector, kick-starting the legendary careers of harmonica king Little Walter Jacobs, guitarist and songwriter Jimmy Rogers, pianist Otis Spann, and staple composer of the blues standard Willie Dixon, and later Howlin’ Wolf and the young and impressionable Chuck Berry.
And, of course, Waters’ influence crossed the Atlantic to birth the British blues movement of the early to late 1960s, giving name to The Rolling Stones and inspiration to Eric Clapton among so many guitar heroes of the era.
The blues indeed had a baby and called it rock and roll, and this is the story of its daddy.
I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became An Icon – Touré (2013)
This may be the finest portrait of a rock star ever penned. Cutting through the rumor, myth and celebrity nonsense usually surrounding Prince Rogers Nelson (most of it perpetuated by him) journalist and tv personality Touré passionately investigates the literal making of an icon by presenting the many sides of a mercurial career. Prince’s musical mastery, religious zealotry, sexual ambiguities, a longing for acceptance and flirtations with megalomania fill out the man while the author forms a social and generational foundation to why artists and entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beatles and others cross swaths of American eras, serving as touchstones for their times.
Extensive firsthand accounts of Prince as a driven child prodigy to his bold attempts to form an inter-racial, cross-gender musical tour de force, his unflinching desire to spread the Gospel truth and his legendary marathon studio sessions to perfect every note of his experimental and chart-topping canon is shared by those with the guts to dish the straight scoop.
Undeniably the most imitated pop star and groove master of his time is finally given his literary due.
The Doors – A Lifetime Of Listening To Five Mean Years – Greil Marcus (2011)
Greil Marcus is one of the finest rock critics of his or any generation and his dedication to detail, description and insight is all over this short but sweet read. A series of compelling and educational essays spans The Doors’ meteoric rise as a ‘60s icon while also explaining the band’s continued grip on the rock world to this day, making The Doors – A Lifetime Of Listening To Five Mean Years required reading for any rock fan.
Marcus not only lends personal reflections of the time capsule that provided the pathway to the unique, challenging and perplexing Doors milieu, from the inspired madness to the quirky pop art quality of its biggest hits, but also strips bare a good deal of what puzzles fans of the band on the directions it took in a concentrated amount of time to produce such seminal work.
In an interview for this paper earlier this year, Doors drummer John Densmore explained to me the impact of Marcus’ efforts: “Greil describes in just a couple of passages what I was doing on the drums and it just astounded me. I can’t literally tell you what he was saying, but I’m reading it and I’m going, ‘Oh, my God, that’s what I was doing!’ And I hadn’t realized it until I read Greil’s translation. He got in my head and I didn’t even know I was thinking that! But it’s true.”
Rock And Roll Will Save Your Life – Steve Almond (2010)
Humorist Steve Almond hits all the notes any obsessed rock and roll buff cares about: lyrical dissections, hero worship, raw inspiration and a defining sense of joy only derived from being moved by music that means something. Rock And Roll Will Save Your Life is hilarious, poignant and introspective; it is what all of us who will never apologize for allowing rock and roll to move us, corrupt us, distract us and annihilate us would write given the time and talent.
Almond speaks from the heart on all manners of the subject, especially dealing with being “a drooling fanatic,” providing personal anecdotes from meeting his wife to having his children beneath a pageantry of concerts, ravers, listening parties and critiques.
Highlights (of which there are way too many to list here) include a dissertation on why “(I Bless The Rains Down In) Africa” by Toto contains the worst rock lyrics ever, “Having An Older Sibling Who Thinks You’re A Dipshit” (for liking Styx, by the way), “How Dave Grohl Taught Me To Stop Whining And, Against Every Known Impulse In My Body, Embrace Happiness,” and a wonderful night of plutonic lovemaking with singer-songwriter Dayna Kurtz.
You’ll read this book again and again and again and lend it to everyone you know.
The Best Of Punk Magazine – John Holmstrom (2013)
The mother of all coffee table books, The Best Of Punk Magazine has it all; a literal, graphic, artistic sprint through punk rock’s dingy, grungy, polluted past as it happened. Relive the seminal years of the simultaneously overrated and underrated musical awakening of the post-hippie, prog rock set in as unfiltered a form as it gets.
Called “the Bible of the urban counterculture movement” and a serious influence of the East Village art scene, the pages of Punk bulged with photos, interviews and satires of an impressive host of the genre’s elite from the Ramones to the Sex Pistols, Blondie, Patti Smith and more. Highlights include handwritten essays by Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Lester Bangs and Legs McNeil, among other luminaries, as well as tons of underground art by R. Crumb and author John Holmstrom himself (the man who brought you those incredibly twisted Ramones cover and interior cartoons on Rocket To Russia and Road To Ruin).
A must own for those still piercing cheeks with safety pins and wearing jeans way past their prime.
Revolution: The Making Of The Beatles’ White Album – David Quantick (2002)
A more enigmatic labyrinth of musical ideas jammed into a two-record release by a bigger, more influential band is impossible to find. The Beatles, more popularly referred to as The White Album, is what most rock historians point to as the “beginning of the end” of the Fab Four. The weary and fractured members splitting genres and expanding horizons, each using different members to play on certain tracks—rarely is the group heard in its entirety—in what more than one critic at the time of its 1968 release called four solo albums with the rest of the group as the backing band.
But that’s not what author David Quantick believes, and he makes his case quite convincingly in Revolution: The Making Of The Beatles’ White Album. Waxing poetic about the most complete of Beatles’ statements and a showcase for the diversity of sound, scope and musicianship, as well as the most down to earth and rocking record of the second half of the band’s seismic career, the author sifts through track after track to bring the point home.
Of course, many of the album’s mysteries from backwards tracking, weirdly incoherent babbling in song segues, and the unintended but wholly mysterious influence on the Manson murders are discussed, culminating in a serious deconstruction of “Revolution 9,” John Lennon, Yoko Ono and George Harrison’s frenzied tape loops of sound effects, musical snippets and yawping nonsense that Quintick skillfully argues could be the most experimental piece ever attempted much less found on a pop record.
Revolution is aptly titled, since it truly creates a new vision in the wake of a previously decided upon but antiquated narrative.
Bootleg: The Secret History Of The Other Recording Industry – Clinton Heylin (1996)
Had to go back to the last century for this one, but a recent re-reading made it an imperative inclusion here.
Bootleg: The Secret History Of The Other Recording Industry is a damned fun read. Beginning as far back as boots of Shakespeare plays, author Clinton Heylin takes us through the many and varied incarnations of the musical bootleg throughout the sordid history of rock and roll, correctly pointing out its import to the greater pursuit of fame and fortune for artists and record companies—despite both hitting back hard to cease it.
Bootleg spins incredible but true yarns of real outlaws running from the FBI and MCA, sneaking in and out of pressing plants, handing off illicit studio reels of outtakes and paying teenage smugglers to spirit in tape recorders to some of rock’s most seminal moments.
Here is the inside scoop on the most notorious bootleggers, all of whom under assumed names with cleverly named labels helped to solidify the careers of the Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen, to name just two, and eventually forcing legit record labels to release all of the live sets we’ve enjoyed for decades.
It also comes with a comprehensive list of nearly every bootleg in existence up until its publishing in 1996, some of which you probably either own or have heard countless times. If not, it’s fun to head to the internet to see if a copy can still be had.