Looking for a celebration of music in words to stuff the stockings of the rock fan in your life?
The Youngs—The Brothers Who Built AC/DC—Jesse Fink (2015)
This is the story of the three young brothers that created, developed and eventually controlled one of the most successful and lasting rock and roll bands of all time; the eldest, George Young, late of Australia’s first celebrated rock act, the Easybeats, with his gnawing angst against the evils of the music business that left him broke and exploited, and his younger siblings of the famed AC/DC, Malcolm and baby brother Angus, the bedrock flash of one of the genre’s most enduringly simple and effective sounds. It is also the inside story of passion, jealousy, power, paranoia, fame, money, and the kind of music business shenanigans that make the history of rock unique in the annals of international capitalism. Most of all, it is a story of how and why AC/DC matters and what made it, and still makes it hum against all odds through several eras, fads and movements.
Author Jesse Fink is an Australian abroad and he writes like one—with wonderful Aussie terms and flavor—reaching back in time through all the haze and innuendo to try and come up with a definitive look at the origins and influences of AC/DC, and throughout makes the point in response to one contradictory quote after the other from interviewees who refute, report and build one myth upon another.
At the vortex of all this are the mysterious Youngs, non-committal, intransigent and defiant. They have their methods which work and have worked like gangbusters for decades, and while none of it is remotely consistent and at times seem downright insidious, they aim for one key element, to protect the inner circle in which they reside.
Fink is brutally honest with the reader about his process of discovery, one in which he compares to legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon which uses a “plot device which involves various characters providing alternative, self-serving and contradictory versions of the same incident.” Indeed The Youngs—The Brothers Who Built AC/DC not only pains to break through the impenetrable armor of the Youngs’ inner sanctum (and although the author tried to gather new quotes from them was met with similar roadblocks), but it takes to task the inconsistencies and inaccuracies of existing AC/DC biographies that tend to be all over the joint in zeroing in on whatever the truth may be.
The other remarkable achievement of the book, something quite ambitious, is Fink’s attempt to intellectually frame the unframed-able; the adolescent, primal beauty of AC/DC’s music; its origins, its recording, its live presentations, all of it fluffed off by the critics and even the band as something innately incapable of deconstruction or analyzing. Yet, he does it. And you are better for the experience, and so are the music and the band.
Fink still leaves many unanswered questions; if anything, this book raises a great many others, but The Youngs is an important work of rock investigative journalism and a damn fun read for any fan, and even the curious, to digest.
Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre—Mick Wall (2015)
This is quite simply the best biography of The Doors as a band, as a myth, as an American experience that has yet been offered. Having read them all, only James Riordan and Jerry Prochnicky’s 2006 Break On Through: The Life And Death Of Jim Morrison, comes close. Author Mick Wall (Mojo, Rolling Stone, Playboy) pulls no punches. This is not the usual waxing-poetic, elegy to the martyred Jim Morrison or the obligatory 1960s fairytale. Fans of the band that have been force-fed the usual star-worship tripe will be in for a rude awakening. However, readers who have waited for a fresh and sober take on a true rock and roll phenomenon aided by a sense of perspective on the wit and madness of Morrison will be genuinely pleased.
Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre is aptly titled. The road from highly idealized, experimental seekers along the corridors of art and excess—so prevalent during the early days of The Doors—rapidly descends into a cauldron of violence, alcoholism and constant in-fighting, sometimes resulting in less-than-stellar music, while other times stumbling into brilliance. Walls combs the deepest recesses of The Doors archives and gets on record a cast of characters only hinted at in previous attempts at capturing the spirit, lunacy and impact of one of the great California Baby Boomer bands of all time.
The book opens dramatically, almost as if attempting to mine the final thoughts of Jim Morrison, as he stumbles through his final hours on earth in a seedy French discotheque, copping pure heroin and drunkenly administering his own death warrant. It is a fine prelude to the style of the book, which as stated holds nothing back. Wall strips bare the façade of The Doors myths while ironically advancing them, using one-on-one discussions with all the surviving members, even the final interviews granted by Ray Manzarek before his death in May of 2013.
A wonderfully balanced and often nuanced deconstruction of what The Doors meant to a generation exploding and then imploding upon itself, Love Becomes A Funeral Pyre acts as its metaphor and becomes its morality play.
Public Enemy: Inside The Terrordome—Tim Grierson (2015)
In the most literal definition, Public Enemy is probably more of a band than any band—rap, rock or otherwise—that has come before or after it. This is/was a band; an army of like-minded, often costumed and defiant artists—a band of brothers, coming together to change the landscape of popular music and test the boundaries of lyrical revolution.
Tim Grierson’s Public Enemy: Inside The Terrordome is a long overdue exploration into a groundbreaking force, as often crude and combative as misunderstood and inclusive. Led by the relentless professionalism of the legendary Chuck D, whose emotively spine-tingling voice and culture-defining lyrics pushed the needle of 1980s hip-hop to a level never before attempted or duplicated, Public Enemy was the precursor and the East Coast answer the L.A. movement forged by N.W.A., a cultural, racial and democratically political faction. In fact, Grieson’s research reveals the unyielding dedication to street and national politics inherent in P.E.’s image and music from its very first song, “Public Enemy #1,” to the band’s implosion and reconstruction in the late 1990s.
While rightly citing P.E.’s explorative accomplishments to rap and pop culture Inside The Terrordome does not ignore the controversies surrounding the band; strange anti-Semitic and racially charged comments from Professor Griff or blatantly homophobic and misogynistic lyrics that the recent Straight Outta Compton film on N.W.A. was either afraid to tackle or felt obliged to ignore.
And while William Jonathan Drayton Jr., aka Flava Flav, has often been portrayed by the band’s public relations and his own antics as a bit of a clown figure, Grieson makes it a point to reveal his brilliant contributions to P.E.’s music and image, correctly illustrating his strengths as a performer and promoter, and how much his sometimes comedic free-association raps added to the otherwise ultra-serious tone of Chuck D’s message.
And beyond the obvious social and political touchstones covered in Inside The Terrordome, there is plenty of musical insight and behind-the-scenes information on the creation of P.E.’s masterpieces from Yo! Bum Rush The Show to It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back to Fear Of A Black Planet here. Grieson combs over the hundreds of musical samples, historical quote clips and a myriad of sound effects and studio machinations that infuse the P.E. canon with original sounds and focus. All the major principles inside and around the band are heard from, either in new interviews or archived material, making Inside The Terrordome the quintessential historical guide to one of the most innovative and influential musical forces of the golden age of rap.
Bowie—Simon Critchley (2014)
Never have I read a more personal account of a pop artist’s affect on a fan, more specifically author Simon Critchley. Bowie is short, sweet and poignant. It is a book about identity and the symbiotic relationship between artist and his audience. It is something I mined in my 2013 novel, Y, an exercise in finding the core of creativity and how that creativity is absorbed by the public at large, and, more importantly, how it touches and inspires the individual. Critchley investigates this in a more direct and historical way using David Bowie’s brilliantly eclectic and arced career to place its mark on a generation and beyond.
Bowie is original in its scope because its author is original in his mission. Critchley is an imaginative thinker and an English philosopher, currently teaching at The New School in Greenwich Village, NYC. Most of his published work to this point has centered on the history of philosophy, political theory, religion, ethics, and aesthetics, especially literature and theater, and he manages to inject it all into this book. The author writes candidly about how as a boy Bowie’s demeanor, lyrics and music not only inspired Chritchley’s view of life, but empowered him with a sense of self and provided a unique perspective to the mysteries of the artist’s persona and work.
Even its title on the front cover—stark white surrounding a Thin White Duke era shot of Bowie with hair slicked back and affecting an Arian, stoic stare, featuring the single last name Critchley below it—is intriguing and an insight to the themes here; sexuality, power, anonymity, social upheaval, and most of all music. To the youth of the early 1970s and beyond, Bowie was an interpreter of their fantasies and a harbinger of their fears, something beyond mere pop stardom or rock star hokum. He would become a symbol for the odd and disaffected and never shied away from discovering the parameters of madness and exploiting the darker themes of their zeitgeist.
In Bowie, the man becomes the myth again, and through the myth he is seen anew.
The Dylanologists—Adventures In The Land Of Bob—David Kinney (2014)
If you care at all about Bob Dylan, you will love this book. If you hate Bob Dylan, you will love this book. Apathetic to the whole Dylan thing? You will still love this book.
At one point or another, I have fallen into all three of these categories, probably 90 percent on the caring (at times worshipping) Dylan, and parts of the other 10 percent either hating (okay, maybe hate is a tad harsh—let’s say disdainful for the record) or caring little to nothing about him. But I could not put Dylanologists down. Most of it, I think, is my fascination of the human condition and the effect art and artists have on it. You could fill in any anecdote in this book with most celebrities and it would probably be applicable. This is not a book about Bob Dylan, per se—though he is all over it, of course—it is a book about us.
Author David Kinney has woven a primer on the thin line between celebrity worship, manic collecting, competitive quasi-ownership of art and the artist among the faithful, and out-and-out insanity. You could apply any of these habits to a countless number of fans of the famous; however, what you learn from this book is that, singularly, Bob Dylan provokes something extraordinary in these people that may be unequaled in any other realm of celebrity.
What Dylanologists does so well is bring us inside the many and varied levels of obsession Bob Dylan has engendered (Kinney argues both are intended as equally as it is unintended by the artist himself) in his following. His vacillating images, his conflicting personas, the eras that both define and defy his work, the work—which in and of itself is so vast and contradictory and mysterious in its meaning and construct that it begs to be obsessed over—and his legacy as an icon, both in pop culture and letters.
Through dozens of stories of real people—some brilliant, others nuts—Kinney weaves his tale of a subculture of dead serious, almost religious fervor that follows Dylan as both an historical figure and a living, working musician. You will read about the decades of relentless pursuits to own everything Dylan, from his childhood highchair to the leg of a piano he once tinkled, the epic battles over discovering and hording and sharing and arguing about every second of recorded material—some legally obtained (sort of), much of it not so much, and those who have literally followed him all over the world—living on streets and stairwells and bumming rides and stealing shelter to be at every show, and in some cases always be in the very first row.
Dylanologists is a fascinating discovery of sociality and extreme human behavior, while never attempting to judge or poke fun. This is a study that had to be made, these are stories that begged to be told and they are all in one place and provide us a glimpse into what great art can produce—both alarming as much as charming.
Rocks Off—50 Tracks That Tell The Story Of The Rolling Stones—Bill Janovitz (2013)
Okay, so maybe there are too many Rolling Stones books. Even as a lifelong fan and someone who has probably read 30 of them, it may be time to give it a rest. But I submit to me and you this gem.
Rocks Off is a fantastic read! It is all of these Stones books with a rare difference: it is written by a musician. And it does not belabor the usual fare, trading in most of the stories we’ve heard over and over for a serious and overdue dissection of the Stones music. Imagine that.
What I loved right away about Bill Janovitz’s style and his unique angle of leading us through the decades of the Stones work to define each era was an attention to the records we know so well but may have missed the true nature of in the grooves. I especially dig his breakdown of the early-to-mid ’60s work with its blatant bum chords and off-kilter beats and irking notes and how “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”—with its signature fuzz-pedal box guitar sound and head-bobbing chord progression—is a fit and stop of technological missteps. It is real, it is honest, it is raw, it is the Stones and why we love them.
I never do this, but I must give Janovitz his due by running a passage. Indulge the writer in me, because it kicked my ass the first time I read it. Here are several disparate lines from the “Gimmie Shelter” chapter, a song that has gone on to top best rock song, best rock song of the 1960s, and recently topped Rolling Stone magazine’s top Stones song ever; which may be harder to fathom that its placing on the first two lists: “The Stones were no longer tweaking the noses of flower children…there was no layer of sarcasm, humor or irony. They were instead combining a musically and lyrically consistent horrific message about war, rape, and murder. Now it felt like the walls were really closing in. Keith’s opening riff is like a stick of butter sliding around in a pan, melting, turning brown, bubbling and burning. Mick enters without a mask, in a rarely featured low and guttural register of his voice. Everyone in the band sounds committed to the terrific gloom of the track. Charlie’s drum sounds like a snarling, sweaty limping monster.”
Forget what you know about Stones books.