‘Tis the season for a celebration of music in words; and in the spirit of giving, an offering of a few last-minute choices for the rock fanatic on your holiday list…
Who I Am – Pete Townshend (2012)
On the heels of Keith Richards’ brutally honest account a year ago, another pioneer of the British guitar godhead has penned an eminently readable memoir of his rise to prominence as one of rock’s most innovative composers and performers. Unlike Richards’ Life, Who I Am is hardly revelatory. Townshend has spent most of his public life conducting incredibly revealing interviews and released volumes of material both published in rock magazines throughout his career as leader of The Who, and in long-form essays included in compilations of his work, whether the legendary Tommy or the abandoned Lifehouse Chronicles or last year’s immense Quadrophenia – The Director’s Cut.
Townshend was never tight-lipped about the untimely death of a founding member of his band, Keith Moon, as Richards had mostly been about Brian Jones’ demise, or his issues with the colossal ego of his singer, Roger Daltrey, as Richards had been about Mick Jagger.
However, beyond the pillow talk and usual prancing through the minefields of drug abuse and the unromantic aging of a rock superstar, Who I Am sheds light on Townshend’s 2003 investigation into his alleged and later dismissed charges of soliciting child porn and his drawn out public flirtation with bisexuality. Here is where the book truly breaks into the gruff exteriors formed from years of merely placating a rabid fanbase and willing press; as all great memoirs must eventually go if they are to matter.
Unfortunately, there is a disappointing absence of behind-the-genius monologue that would have kicked an otherwise illuminating autobiography into the quintessential source for future rock historians. Although, the insights and origins of Townshend’s mastery of the rock narrative is lucidly laid bare by an airing of his almost Dickensian childhood through his formative years as a pop music auteur.
Won’t Get Fooled Again – The Who From Lifehouse To Quadrophenia – Richie Unterberger (2012)
For a complete and riveting overview of what made Pete Townshend a true giant of the genre and The Who the most powerful weapon for his talents, a must-read is Richie Unterberger’s exhaustively researched epic. Investigating perhaps the most prolific years of a rock band ever, Won’t Get Fooled Again thoroughly covers the post-Tommy triumph through the painful unfurling of the doomed Lifehouse project, which gave birth to one of the undisputed monster rock albums, Who’s Next, into the band’s most lasting statement, Quadrophenia.
This is the rock junky’s fix; musical influences, recording methods, inventive instruments and behind-the-scenes minutia make for an entertaining ride.
Alice Cooper – Welcome To My Nightmare – Dave Thompson (2012)
The only serious biography ever attempted on a true rock icon and innovator, Thompson’s comprehensive narrative of what continues to be one of the most unlikely careers in American showbiz, never mind rock and roll history, is a rousing page-turner. Debunking all the myths, the book deftly manages to unravel a far more sinisterly fascinating tale of rebellion, slapstick, and macabre.
Everyone living from the wild days of the early Alice Cooper group, from its Frank Zappa roots, through its Detroit rise and its Bob Ezrin sonic cauldron, all the way to Cooper’s present-day staged blowouts, is represented. The man himself waxes poetic on his peripatetic childhood and a lifetime of alcohol demons, careening into what is eventually an unsurprising born again Christian revival.
Alice Cooper – Welcome To My Nightmare traverses the scope of Alice Cooper’s arc as public villain to his lovable place today as America’s mantle of heavy metal showman.
Makeup To Breakup – Peter Criss (2012)
From the very first paragraphs, Peter Criss, drummer, and one of the four original members of the mighty KISS machine of the 1970s, clearly demonstrates that what follows would not be anything close to the fluid prose and irrepressible personal examination of a Pete Townshend. Criss, with his co-author, Larry “Ratso” Sloman, who has penned a few intriguing rock tomes in his time, cuts right to the core of the Catman public persona; a low-mannered street tough with an insatiable eye for trouble.
Criss comes clean on a rock and roll life of manic excesses, inexcusable violence and a parade of stupidity, appearing as a man finally comfortable with easing into his golden years. There is an enviable sense of perspective that is powerfully expressed with little fluff.
Last year, Criss’ party buddy and KISS original lead guitarist, Ace Frehley, attempted the same exposé/memoir, but failed to escape his infantile sense of entitlement to mayhem. With each gory anecdote, Frehley unleashed a phalanx of flimsy excuses for his treatment of trusted friends and colleagues as props for his childish whims. Unlike Frehley, who constantly fought his battles with drugged apathy, Criss openly reveals his pain and disappointment with pissing away a gig he prayed, begged and worked his ass off achieving.
Makeup To Breakup makes a concerted effort to decipher exactly how these four disparate personalities that made up KISS were able to generate one of rock’s most lasting statements.
Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years In New York That Changed Music Forever – Will Hermes (2011)
True to its title, this incredibly engaging tale of punk, salsa, disco, jazz, hip-hop and rap brings into perspective one of the most underrated seismic shifts in the pop culture zeitgeist. Hermes begins in the bubbling undercurrent of ‘60s communal expression that exploded into several and varied sounds that has dominated much of popular music to this day.
Packed with characters, dates, incidents, meetings, parties, clubs, jams, and seminal moments that make up a turbulent but creative explosion throughout the greatest city in the world at perhaps its most stimulatingly dangerous period, Love Goes To Buildings On Fire, taken from the title of an early Talking Heads song, breaks the mold at mere history and essay; it is a literary snapshot of what fuels great art and allows the ripples to expand into movements and cultures that hinge their liberating waves of dance, volume and fashion into lifestyle.
This is a modern map of our truest passions given its due.
Simple Twist Of Fate – Bob Dylan And The Making Of Blood On The Tracks – Andy Gill (2005)
There may be more classic albums, some also recorded by Bob Dylan, but none have the unlikely circuitous route from conception to completion as Blood On The Tracks, which Andy Gill has captured without fail.
Much of what Dylan has shared in interviews and woven in song barely sniffs at the gorgeous agony in the compositions that make up his last great album. And is it a wonder, with divorce, drug addiction and celebrity isolation, paranoia, and the creeping insecurities that must come when the indestructible absorb a blow to the solar plexus? But Simple Twist Of Fate just begins there; what transpires in its pages is an icon drifting with the elusive muse, recording the entire record once in New York City with legendary producer Phil Ramone only to scrap it and cobble together a replacement with local amateurs in the middle of a brutal Hibbing, Minnesota winter.
The musicians that helped Dylan complete his musical journey lend their observations on the mercurial elements that turn the chaos of Dylan’s methods into the brilliance of his art; something Gill helps keep us enthralled with both to understand that much better.
Not Only Women Bleed – Dick Wagner (2011)
It may not be that guitarist extraordinaire Dick Wagner has played with everyone; it just seems that way. And there is no way to actually measure his influence on those he called contemporaries—Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent and many more—or those he worked with—whether Lou Reed, Aerosmith or KISS—but if such a mysterious story of inglorious mastery could be framed, it’s in the pages of Wagner’s memoir.
Although it is said in many ways in condescension and praise, Wagner truly does write as he speaks; frankly, boldly and without fear. He has seen it all and he doesn’t mind sharing every gruesome detail; both professional and personal. His bouts with disease and drugs and sexual addiction are not sensationalized, but sterilized, put on display as confession; a talent stripped bare. Not Only Women Bleed, a title inspired by perhaps his most famous rock ballad, soars like one of Wagner’s most magnificent solos, and lays down a no-nonsense view from the bottom and the top.
Just Kids – Patti Smith (2010)
Where hype, madness and illicit name-dropping ends, Patti Smith’s wonderful prose-memory begins. Just Kids is simply a masterwork of nonfiction as fiction; much as anything Truman Capote or Norman Mailer, both of whom the manically literate Smith had crossed paths, created. It is both love story and personal triumph, but it is also the brooding timeline of a third generation of rock and roll misfits, put on trial by their mere existence.
But Smith would never be as pretentious as to say it that way or any other way she may think of as a fairy tale, because even at its most tender, Just Kids is an ode to pain; the pain of creation, rejection, starvation, introspection and death. It’s inspiring, grueling, and will change the lives of those who read it.
Good books, like good songs, can do that.