Looking for a celebration of music in words to while away your lazy summer days?
Elvis Has Left The Building – The Death Of The King And The Rise Of Punk Rock – Dylan Jones (2014)
The title of this one, beyond being intriguing and a fine idea, is a little misleading. Only about 15 percent of author and veteran journalist, Dylan Jones’ highly entertaining and insightful book about the impact, mystery and influence of Elvis Presley—his shocking death and perhaps the more stunning aftermath filled with messianic-type grieving and media and consumer exploitation—concentrates on the birth and force of punk in the UK. But in a subtle way, it may get closer to these seemingly disparate cultural events than its promise.
Jones, a Brit, who was 17 when Presley died, paints a vivid picture of that day from the perspective of a generation fast ignoring, and in very overt ways, pissing on everything to do with the past. Elvis, of course, represents the past in spades, which lends a new voice to the event. Most of the specifics of what the punk aesthetic was achieving, specifically in England at the time, is dissected through this lens; a firsthand account of the movement, its grassroots ad hoc vibe, and youth tropes. The imposing shadow of perhaps the genre’s first punk, Presley always looms over the proceedings.
Mostly, Jones delves into “everything Elvis,” the bizarre and the ingenious, his unique effect on the zeitgeist that can be argued is a one-off that ignores decades of social and cultural revolution by staking claim to one piece of the pop landscape. Here, Elvis Has Left The Building succeeds in leading us through much of what we already understand about the Elvis phenomenon without being rote. However, just when you thought you knew everything there is to know about The King of Rock and Roll, Jones puts a slant on or hits you with the less obvious but important aspects of his career and effect, putting in proper perspective the enormity of the man and legend.
The highlights of the book are when Jones gets down to imagining if Elvis had abandoned his myopic existence and turned his back on the awful films and tacky Vegas reviews to delve into the kind of groundbreaking, instinctual upheaval of his early days, branching out to work with the Beatles or embrace the ’60s cultural revolution or even turn his Vegas act into something of an X-rated cabaret that eschews the subtle lines of sexual innuendo for a measure of Dante’s Inferno.
The duality of Jones’ work is best illustrated in two great passages, one in which he writes about Rolling Stone magazine’s final tribute to Presley days after his death and the other a final salvo from the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten: “This was the one that was going to properly mark out the rock ‘n’ roll years, the boy from Tupelo who torpedoed the old, square America with his libidinous air-humping and godless country blues, a man who remade the world so that the Beatles might rock and the Rolling Stones may roll.”
“’Fuckin’ good riddance to bad rubbish.’”
Man On The Run – Paul McCartney In The 1970s – Tom Doyle (2014)
Combining rare, detailed, and sometimes surprisingly emotional interviews with ex-Beatle, ex-Wing, the benighted Paul McCartney with archived and newer observances by those involved, author Tom Doyle brings to life the most overrated/underrated solo period of any artist in pop music. Man On The Run delivers on its quest to unveil a McCartney in perpetual artistic, personal and celebrity movement, half sprinting to unattainable goals of perfection and the other half running from a daunting musical legacy. It is a poignant depiction of one of our most famous personalities who has managed to reveal almost none of himself in the process.
The book will grip you from the get-go with an inside-the-psyche framing of a man in turmoil and crippled by fears of inadequacy, left to ponder the ruins of the world’s most famous and prolific rock band. It clearly lays the groundwork for the motivations of McCartney from the jumbled experimentation of his first attempts out of the gate (McCartney and Ram) to his haphazardly hippie cobbling of the initial grouping of Wings (Wild Life) and then the triumphant domination of the rock firmament once again (Band On The Run, Venus & Mars). Through this thorough review of his creative methods McCartney is rightly celebrated as a man of genuine artistry, embracing the avant-garde with the utterly vapid sing-song of camp.
The juxtaposition of the McCartneys (Linda always in tow to bolster the indecisive Paul) trying to co-exist in an egalitarian personal utopia of family, farming and underground subsistence with the extravagance of recording on yachts, hobnobbing with the Hollywood elite and conquering the States during the historic 1976 Wings Over America tour paints a complete portrait of the man.
I especially enjoyed Doyle’s parallels of McCartney’s musical soul mate John Lennon’s solo career during the period; their very public sniping to the intimate phone calls and surreptitious meetings, as if they were estranged, star-crossed lovers unable to strip the bond completely. I was amazed at how many times the two met up and interacted with each other during a period when it looked as though they were trying to both one-up the other and/or eviscerate their importance to the impact of The Beatles.
Man On The Run is a vital work in the historic record of The Beatles, but it is also an illumining biography of a man who lived out his torment and triumph in public and put a tune to it for good measure.
Waiting For The Man: The Life & Music Of Lou Reed – Jeremy Reed (2015)
Lou Reed was a complicated man; an uneven but always uncompromising artist with no sense of time or space or handle on his culture, beyond a seething contempt best explored in the structure of his three-chord noise, a confused and impenitent sexual pilgrim, a drug-addled, booze-fogged architect of violent defenses, and a sensitive, wounded soul given to paranoia at the drop of a hat. He is an even more complicated figure in the pantheon of rock and roll, as explored with an almost poetic zeal by author Jeremy Reed (no relation), who is indeed an award-winning poet in his own right. Here is where Reed, who boldly approved of this version of his life and work, “All the books about me are bullshit except Jeremy’s,” becomes the stuff of legend and expose, a ghost of Warhol’s Factory and a ’60s inventor—his Velvet Underground would set the stage the punk movement a decade later—and eventually a symbol for sexual, chemical and guitar-distortion decadence.
Reed’s triumph with the book is his unerring theme of his subject’s damaged psyche, born of his parents’ disgust with his then assumed bisexuality (truly homosexuality according to Jeremy Reed) that led to brutal shock treatments and a cocktail of prescription drugs to “cure” the boy, instead creating a concussive mental assault on Reed’s outlook on every environment he is confronted with, beyond art and celebrity. Time and again, the author puts us inside Reed’s eternal battle to gain his footing on an ever-evolving personality that only felt comfortable in chaos.
The book’s key insight may be Lou Reed’s never-ending pursuit of the literary in the rock song, trying and mostly failing to create the “Great American Novel” in his life’s work and making it a point at every turn to summit that the form was both beneath him and within him. Tortured by a haunting notion that he and rock and roll could and would never achieve a level of pertinence in American letters would lead to some of the most disturbingly poignant music of the latter half of the 20th century, but in turn would never find a larger audience and fully satisfy Reed’s soul.
Waiting For The Man is anything but apologetic; deconstructing much of Reed’s 1970s output as flimsy and haphazard (the author is unimpressed with the critically acclaimed Street Hassle, while waxing poetic on the otherwise ignored Berlin), a notion the songwriter understood, as he was sure at some point his abuse of speed and ravenous sexual appetites robbed him of his talents, and something he exultantly embraces in the 1990s with a string of albums that would cement his legacy as New York City’s demimonde poet laureate, the East Coast Charles Bukowski of the seedy, seductive and dangerous underground.
I’ve heard through my publisher that critic Anthony DeCurtis has a Reed bio coming perhaps later this year or next, and it is not hard to believe having digested this one that there couldn’t be volumes dedicated to Lou Reed and his complex aura; a man for whom the idea of rock and roll far outweighed its form. Many who enjoyed a similar spotlight within the genre claim to understand its healing qualities and voluminous catharsis, but few lived it to the fullest and were summarily defined by its promise.
His Song – The Musical Journey Of Elton John – Elizabeth J. Rosenthal (2001)
It has come to the point in his career where Elton John has now become merely a celebrity, and in some circles with his “Sir” tag something of rock royalty, placed in a glass case to be revered and remembered fondly for having done something spectacular on the charts eons ago. Most of that is true, but some of it conveniently forgets what it is that Elton John truly accomplished, beyond making himself one of the most, if not the most famous piano players on the planet that eventually scored The Lion King and sang that song we all remember after Princess Di died.
Elizabeth J. Rosenthal captures this missing essence of the pop invention that is Elton John; his toil and ascent, and the prodigious pop music sensibilities that tuned him from long-winded folk act into an icon. Mostly, it is the songwriting and the musicianship that Rosenthal zeroes in on in her enjoyable and exhaustively researched His Song, making it for my money one of the finest musical biographies written.
Rosenthal does not shy from the one thing that hit all of us ’70s kids square in the jaw; the voice, the words, the pomp and the rock of Elton’s most engaging material; pop singles, heart-wrenching, gospel-tinged ballads and torrid boogie-woogie rockers that seem to come from some strangely configured mill somewhere in England with his partner in crime, lyricist Bernie Taupin. The latter gets the attention he richly deserves in ably providing the pop star a depth and irony he so sorely needed.
For fans of the music, this book serves you well, while also putting in perspective Elton’s flamboyance, sexuality, and an obsession with success and keeping it. But more importantly it is the music; the highlights being a detailed if not borderline maudlin description of every song in Elton’s canon, most notably those albums in the early to mid ’70s—two per year—that are arguably as good as anything proffered by The Beatles in their domination of the genre.
Simply, Your Song is a book for serious fans of Elton John and his unique voice (let’s remember, here is a pianist who became a musical titan in the era of the rock guitar) who while also being a brilliant singer/songwriter broke the mold of visual and aural performance techniques that helped to give the 1970s and for some portion the 1980s its garish and joyous foundation.
Fargo Rock City – A Heavy Metal Odyssey In Rural North Dakota – Chuck Klosterman (2001)
I fully admit I love essayist/journalist/humorist Chuck Klosterman, which is not a popular sentiment among my colleagues, but I do. I get a huge kick out of him; his insights, his weird theories on the subterranean subtext of every piece of pop culture minutia known to humankind, and I think he is damned funny. But his finest work may still be his first book on the mesmerizing effects of heavy metal on the youth of mid-America and more importantly the mesmerizing effects of it on him.
And, yes, Fargo Rock City mostly takes place in North Dakota where Klosterman spent his formative years drinking beer and mulling over his beloved Mötley Crüe records and arguing with like-minded head-bangers about the legitimacy of Poison versus WASP and where Bon Jovi fits in next to Guns N’ Roses and why speed metal turns fairly ordinary people into violent marauders. It is a book that needed to be written and points a serious (okay, not an always serious), but poignant finger at the flash of light that was 1980s into early ’90s metal; its birth, its camp, its misogyny, its subconscious effect on middle-class Caucasian boys the nation over, and later the girls, and finally its ignominious demise at the hands of boredom, oversaturation and finally Nirvana.
Being a generation removed from the “hair-band” days (Klosterman abhors this phrase and considers it backhanded condescension, which is why I just used it) I was nevertheless still in my early 20s and endured much of its bottom feeding as much as its occasional snippet of (gulp!) brilliance, but the enthusiastic rant of Fargo Rock City leaves no stone unturned. You will marvel or be saddened by Klosterman’s attention to nonsense and relate to his shameless worship of same.
Let’s Go Crazy – Prince And The Making Of Purple Rain – Alan Light (2012)
I need to point out that I have read everything ever written in book-form on Prince Rogers Nelson, and probably a preponderance of national magazine and newspaper pieces too. I am infinitely fascinated by his art, persona, and raging idiosyncrasies. Maybe it’s simply because Prince never explained himself (and I mean never) so he left it up to the rest of us. Admittedly, some of the books are better than others, but most are crap. Toure’s I Would Die For You – Why Prince Became An Icon, which I reviewed two summers ago here fits in the latter category and so does Alan Light’s incredibly illuminating (pun intended) stroll down 1984 memory lane, Let’s Go Crazy – Prince And The Making Of Purple Rain.
While Toure spends more time on the idiosyncratic brilliance of the artist and its effect on a generation, Light delves deeper into the immediate influence Prince had on the exploding pop culture of the mid-’80s, more specifically 1984 with its shape-shifting blockbuster monoculture sold by the growing influence of MTV, the burgeoning CD market, the dominance of radio-friendly film soundtracks, and three gargantuan figures: Prince, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, all of whom would bridge racial and generational divides to create a two-year period when it appeared that everyone was at their feet. (Madonna would arrive that September to crash the all-male party and out-manipulate all of them.)
Of course, Let’s Go Crazy delivers on its promise to go behind the scenes into the conceptual birth of, making of, and finally promotion of one of the most if not the most popular and influential rock films ever created. Light makes note that it is a fair comparison (not one made flippantly) that Purple Rain was a vehicle that succeeded in reflecting not a culture but a thing, an entity unto its own culture. Thus it rivals if not reflects The Beatles’ groundbreaking A Hard Day’s Night 20 years later.
It is easy to forget about the enormity of Purple Rain in 1984 or Prince’s ability to pull off the never-before-achieved film star/rock star balancing act, while arguably being the genre’s finest live performer. This is because Prince, while never reaching these heights again (who would?) managed to carve out a pretty impressive run afterwards, which may be his greatest achievement, since this kind of ridiculous success turns even the most compelling performers into living parody.
The book also brings fans in-depth interviews with everyone who had anything to do with the album and the film, including members of the soon-to-be defunct Revolution, the director, management, and studio heads. All of this sans Prince directly, instead deftly using quotes from the stolen time and disparate interviews Light conducted throughout the years to get inside Prince’s machinations.
Let’s Go Crazy is a time capsule, perfectly wrapped in the author’s perspective that allows us to both relive this unique period in rock history, but also place it along other seminal years, 1956, 1967 and 1977, as a confluence of art, pop, fashion, bombast, and stardom.