Rock Reads: A Seasonal Guide For The Rock & Roll Literate

Nothin’ To Lose – Ken Sharp, Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons (2013)

If there is only one book you read about rock and roll this holiday season, then it has to be Nothin’ To Lose – The Making Of KISS 1972-1975. It is a monster and you will love it. Not because you are a KISS fanatic or remember when KISS mattered or when progressive/glam/dinosaur rock ruled the world, but because for my money this is the finest researched oral history of this remarkably creative and incredibly outlandish period in the culture of American rock and roll.

Author Ken Sharp’s inexhaustible ride through the mean streets of the New York City rock scene—post-hippy and pre-punk—and across the country through over 200 interviews paints an elaborate picture of risk, sacrifice and mayhem that helped to establish one of rock’s most enduring icons.

“What I endeavored to do is create a documentary on paper,” Sharp explained to me during a recent interview. “It was fascinating to bring in all of these voices, everyone from the band themselves to producers, engineers, touring bands, publicists, record company folks, roadies, competing bands from their New York club days, costume designers, the list goes on and on. Hearing from people who have rarely if ever spoken on the record before helped to bring into focus this rare, behind-the-scenes story of what it was like for a band starting out long before they were stars.”

When word got out last year that Nothin’ To Lose was in the works and that original members Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons were connected, the hullabaloo from fan blogs and on message boards was mixed. Since the other two original members—Ace Frehley and Peter Criss—had recently released tell-all memoirs taking to task their former brethren and the critiques from inside the KISS camp in response had been mostly vitriolic, the buzz was this would be a one-sided tale completely controlled by the usual tight-lipped stronghold of the KISS propaganda machine. Nothin’ To Lose is anything but. Sharp, who has worked with KISS on liner notes for the band’s box set, as well as photograph archiving and tour books, spent years conducting all the research himself; almost, as he describes, as if he were a detective following leads, getting tips and working back channels to compile the real stories behind the hype.

Stanley and Simmons, although heavily involved, read many of these anecdotes only a few months prior to publication and, according to Sharp, did not censor a thing. “To my great surprise, Gene and Paul never attempted to expurgate anything from the final text. And I think mainly it’s because most of the people around KISS at the time I cover in the book, 1972 through 1975, and the band themselves were all on the same page. There was a one-for-all mentality from the road crew to manager Bill Aucoin and Casablanca Records chairman and founder Neil Bogart. They were all on a mission.”

In fact, throughout the process of collecting all these memories, Stanley and Simmons would comment to Sharp how much they were learning about their past, mostly due to having to spent the formative years of KISS constantly touring and promoting the band and not being privy to firsthand knowledge of major decisions and seemingly ancillary incidents that would ultimately decide their fates.

Beyond the vast array of memories shared by those who were there, Nothin’ To Lose is bursting with rare photos and images that sends the reader back in time; gig posters, homemade ads, handwritten setlists, club date tickets, the reel-to-reel tape box of the original KISS demos and much more. “I worked really, really hard on getting so many rare and previously unseen images,” cites Sharp. “Especially my favorite photos of the band recording their first album without the makeup, which I got from Eddie Solan, the band’s roadie/engineer at the time. They really bring you inside a world that, when you were growing up, you always imagined what it would be like to be inside the studio with these guys.”

Nothin’ To Lose – The Making Of KISS 1972-1975 directly answers to that old rock and roll adage of “You had to be there!”


Bob Dylan In America – Sean Wilentz (2010)

Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University, deconstructs the nature, promise and import of Bob Dylan as Americana; the tireless quest for the folk/rock iconoclast in a stirring account that encompasses a century of our richest musical roots.

The puzzle that is Dylan is carefully assembled through his origins, not as a “voice of a generation” or the mercurial artist, but as a link in the unbreakable chain that begins for Wilentz in the strains of Aaron Copland to the stanzas of Civil War poetry, Delta blues riffs and re-imagined Woody Guthrie toss-offs. It is here that the mask of the jester troubadour which has enthralled and confused generations is revealed in Bob Dylan In America through the artist’s chronology as well as his idiom.

Perhaps the book’s greatest triumph is that it leaves no stone undisturbed, dissecting Dylan’s fabled past, his retreat from genres and fandom with flippant glee and later his embrace of doomed causes and Christianity to finally his merry-go-round of never-ending tours over the past decade that has brought this once trapped symbol of the lost American Dream into a turbulent musician who knows no fear.

Most compelling is Wilentz’s peeling off of Dylan’s inspirations steeped in American music, his reworking of traditional melodies and memes to infuse his cloudy background and later chameleon-like transformations into new modes of expression. For the first time, in a glut of literary expositions on Dylan, Bob Dylan In America provides us an historical foundation with which to truly marvel at the more than a half century of musical revolution which resides in his canon.

Thus, Wilentz has unfurled the finest portrait of Dylan yet, while also placing his bulging résumé of achievement into unique perspective.
Detroit Rock City – Steve Miller (2013)

Author Steve Miller’s bold claim in the book’s introduction that “Detroit is the most influential rock and roll city on earth” is tested in this thoroughly enjoyable romp through the history of the city’s amazing rock history. Hardly broaching the monumental impact of Berry Gordy’s Motown triumphs, Miller sticks to the nitty-gritty noisemakers that hit the ground running in the mid-to-late ‘60s with a fury rarely eclipsed during any period of the genre; Mitch Ryder, Bob Seger, MC5, Iggy And The Stooges, and Ted Nugent, in addition to many known but little discussed acts that deserve a place in the chronology.

The stories in Detroit Rock City – The Uncensored History Of Rock N’ Roll In American’s Loudest City alone make for an hilarious ride, but it is the determination of both a city now in deep decline, and once embroiled in class, race and ideological turmoil that leap from its pages. There is desperation in these voices, a sense of shooting-star mentality that fueled much of the era and beyond, as the book extends well into the 21st century with tales from The White Stripes, Laughing Hyenas and The Dirtbombs, et al.

Detroit Rock City also takes an in-depth look at the most important element of the Detroit scene, its inhabitants; a hard-boiled, no-nonsense mob of lunch-pail, assembly-line marauders that ravenously absorbed music that the great Lester Bangs of Detroit-based Creem magazine once called the “rattly clankings of rock and roll.”

Mick Jagger – Philip Norman (2012)

This broad portrait of arguably the most lasting and influential of “rock stars” mostly succeeds because it is written by an Englishman, whose similar indigenous encapsulation of ‘60s rock and roll and its expanse on the world was clearly on display in my favorite Beatles bio, Shout – The Beatles In Their Generation (1981). Here, Philip Norman’s storytelling is so utterly descriptive and enjoyable it is hard not to be fascinated by what is already a pretty damn fascinating life, but not as one might suspect.

Mick Jagger brims with anecdotes and missives from those close to him, as well as Norman’s nimble use of existing memoirs, including the best-selling Life by Keith Richards and Faithfull by Marianne Faithfull—both primary partners in the evolution of this machine called Mick Jagger. Norman is also a master of Western pop culture and literature, which he expertly wields through the narrative to bring into deep focus the blues/mod/swingin’/glam sweep of the British Invasion.

The only complaint, which appears to be rote in these types of exposes, is there is little given to Jagger’s immense successes in music—as in the inspiration and creation therein. Not that it is ignored, far from it, but fans will continue to wait for the “inside scoop” on the method and circumstance of Jagger’s Herculean output with “the greatest rock and roll band in the world.”

Although, in his defense, Norman is quick to point out Jagger’s incredibility gratuitous amnesia for crucial events in his life; thus prying into those moments is steeped in creative guesswork, for which Norman excels due to his immense research.

A rich example of this is the book’s revelation that the most famous drug bust in rock history—the raid on Keith Richards’ country home, Redlands, in 1967—was a covert international sting underwritten by J. Edgar Hoover’s sweeping counter-intelligence wing of the FBI and British authorities to break the growing influence of the Rolling Stones on the burgeoning boomer generation and prevent Jagger and Richards from ever stepping foot on American soil again.

Ultimately, the best compliment that can be granted for Mick Jagger (beyond that it’s eminently readable) is the book duly matches the spectacular life it unfurls.


The Beatles – The Biography – Bob Spitz (2005)

Recalling Philip Norman’s fine Beatles bio prompted a revisit to what is unequivocally the most complete and thorough telling of the cultural, musical, and historical era of The Beatles.

Appropriately titled The Beatles – The Biography, author Bob Spitz is finally able to combine the efforts of Hunter Davies’ early authorized biographies and the thousands of source materials, interviews, and documentation of the period to leave nothing, and I mean nothing, out; ultimately creating an authoritative chronology.

This tome, tipping the scales at nearly 1,000 pages, could well be the last word on the most explosive era in rock and roll, mainly due to the fact that what Spitz shares is the not-so-amazing revelation that many “interviews” with the Fab Four over the years were actually finely honed press releases and an amazing glut of phone-in radio chats with the lads that were actually Beatles inside-man Mal Evans, tour manager Neil Aspinall or public relations guru Derek Taylor putting on Liverpool accents. Paul McCartney is quoted copiously explaining how much of the myths surrounding The Beatles that were espoused and later taken as fact by previous bios—much of which the band members themselves aide—were outright malarkey. In turn, The Beatles – The Biography aims to set the record straight; a dubiously arduous task considering the very sources of the ruse were now said to be coming clean, which caused a firestorm among Beatlemaniacs the world over and a new set of debates to rage.

And while Spitz’s book is lengthy, it provides gravitas where it is due; the impact of The Beatles as a phenomenon in not only rock circles but far beyond in fashion, mind-expansion, sonic invention, cross cultural divides (one wonders where Indian culture would reside in the West without mammoth assistance from George Harrison) and the unbreakable bridge between the pop composer (post-Bob Dylan’s troubadour phase but pre-electric trippy one) and the industry-manipulated “sounds” of the Brill Building/Phil Spector umbrella.

It goes without saying that to find a less circumspect as finely crafted and uncompromising overview of this subject is currently impossible.


Wild Years: The Music And Myth Of Tom Waits – Jay S. Jacobs (2006)

If nothing else, Tom Waits is a character. And it is that character which has acted as the brush and canvas to the songwriter’s best work; from the lounge lizard, to the hobo hipster, the backstreet Beat, or the growling demon, the noise-making poet to the rousing bestial soundsmith. Therefore the artist, Tom Waits’ life has become what equally enigmatic playwright Oscar Wilde was mused as “a work of art.” In other words, if there is one shadowy figure to deconstruct in a biography, it is one Tom Waits.

Author Jay S. Jacobs does not disappoint, immediately jumping on the tongue-in-cheek affectation that Waits perpetuates throughout his work, which sometimes unfairly hides his arresting honesty on the deepest of themes from love, loss, loneliness and death. But that is only part of the charm of Wild Years: The Music And Myth Of Tom Waits. It hammers home what, say, Norman’s Mick Jagger leaves out, the method, inspiration and the influence of the composer.

An excellent example is Jacobs getting firsthand recollections from some of Waits’ producers and collaborators, not the least of which is the prolific Bones Howe, who in one chilling passage describes Waits phoning him in the middle of the night after spending hours roaming through Los Angeles’ skid row demanding they convene in the studio so he can lay down his experience in the brilliant “Tom Traubert’s Blues.”

“He called me up and said, ‘I went down to skid row … I bought a pint of rye. In a brown paper bag.’ I said, ‘Oh really?’ ‘Yeah—hunkered down, drank the pint of rye, went home, threw up, and wrote ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’ […] every guy down there… everyone I spoke to, a woman put him there.”

The book is chock-full of great anecdotes like that; many actually add to the myths surrounding Waits’ persona, ramblings and musical experimentations, which begins with his use of kitchen utensils and garage tools to create the sounds on the groundbreaking Swordfishtrombones to the rhythmic sanctity of Rain Dogs and well into the bizarre magnificence of Bone Machine.

Once again, this is a book worthy of its subject for it fulfills the promise that the artist has infused into the art.