Rock Reads: A Summer Guide For The Rock And Roll Literate

Looking for a celebration of music in words to while away your lazy summer days?


Face The Music—A Life Exposed—Paul Stanley (2014)

The personalities in the bombastic rock band KISS have been so enormously ill-proportioned each has warranted a memoir, the last but not least being Paul Stanley’s, which at times reads like motivational speech meets Born Again revival. Unlike his predecessors in literary “truth-telling,” KISS’ Star Child gets more introspective, revealing a dysfunctional childhood that resulted in fear, resentment and deep-seated troubles with social interactions that have adversely affected his stardom trip. Not the least of these is a birth defect called microtia, a deformity of the right outer ear that rendered him deaf. Only being able to hear out of the left one and enduring an early life of ridicule and insecurity, its effect on Stanley, an outwardly impenetrable narcissist, was so profound that throughout Face The Music, he returns to it again and again, whether issues with relating to bandmates, girlfriends, family or performing.

While there are moments of touching self-awareness, like when Stanley first sees the musical Phantom Of The Opera and is moved by the exploits of a man shunned by deformity and forced to wear a mask to shield his insecurities, which later became his starring role in a Canadian production, mostly Face The Music suffers from the vengeance creed that other KISS memoirs do. Much of the time, Stanley is vindictive and highly critical of his collaborators. Although much of it is warranted, it comes off as mere fun-making.

Mostly though, Stanley and his literary collaborator, Tim Mohr, present the most compelling of the KISS autobiographies. Although having read them all now, I am partial to Peter Criss’ Makeup To Breakup, reviewed here in 2011, Face The Music is well written and literally “faces the music” in all the peaks and valleys of Stanley’s career, including the volatile but productive relationship with the man he calls “my brother” more than once, Gene Simmons.

One wishes there would be more of what went into the iconic songs Stanley wrote, many of which are KISS staples, or more insider takes on the creative process of performance and studio machinations, but alas, in this oversight he is not alone.


27: The History Of The 27 Club Through The Lives Of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain And Amy Winehouse—Howard Sounes (2013)

Okay, admittedly, when I received this one, I was a tad creeped out. The very title screams exploitation. “Ah, another book about doomed rock stars in their element,” I sighed. But I could not have been more off the mark.

Sort of.

Howard Sounes’ thoroughly researched waltz though the childhoods, fears, dreams, idiosyncrasies, triumphs and tragedies of these eerily connected but wholly individual personalities is a unique look at, let’s face it, a rather strangely dark numerical coincidence. The book truly soars when Sounes gets into the details of the final hours of each figure. Some of it I had never read before and in most cases the accounts refute earlier accounts and biographies, as 27 is skeptical if not outright mocking of conspiracy theories that haunt the deaths of Brian Jones, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain.

The only complaint with this provocative page turner, beside its almost nonchalant nod toward the musical achievements of these doomed artists, is its near obsession with Amy Winehouse, as if a British author must raise her significance to that of the other more dominant figures who died in much the same way; mostly alone, confused, isolated from reality and battling with the demons of addiction. But Sounes does admit his original intent on giving Winehouse, a tabloid darling of innuendo and mawkish celebrity rumor, a proper bio that needed added perspective for several reasons, not the least of which she was only in the spotlight for so short a time.

The most interesting find in 27 is learning of the other 45 musicians from several eras and genres who all oddly met their demise at 27; the most notable, blues icon Robert Johnson and Grateful Dead founder Ron Pigpen McKernan.


I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp—Richard Hell (2013)

Anyone who enjoyed Patti Smith’s brilliant 2010 memoir of the underground New York art scene of the late ’60s into the ’70s downtown mayhem, Just Kids, must consume Richard Hell’s stirring account of the period and beyond. I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp may well be the most honest account of life on the tattered fringe of stardom and its blood-letting fallout.

Smith and Hell are, for all intents and purposes, the godmother and godfather of the modern punk movement, conceived in the blessed din and squalor of the legendary CBGB grunge club on Manhattan’s Bowery. Hell, along with co-founder of the ground-breaking punk footnote, Television, and his brother-in-arms for most of their formative years bouncing around downtown rat-holes and dingy bars, Tom Verlaine (whose stormy romance with the aforementioned Smith eventually tore the friendship asunder), laid the foundation for many of the ensuing bands of the genre; The Ramones and the Sex Pistols, most notably.

Hell’s poetic descriptions of this swirling hedonistic life-force that turned on a generation is more than an exposé—although the book does much kiss-and-telling—it is a painful and moving self-examination of a rebelliously tortured artist, whose true stamp on rock and roll history resides in his celebrated Voidoids band, which went on to influence as well as join the punk/New Wave movements that dominated alternative rock in the late ’70s into early ’80s and bore its descendents, REM and Nirvana.

Most of all, Hell, like Smith, is an accomplished writer (Hell has five published works of fiction to his name) and a grand storyteller; his descriptions of apartments, neighborhoods, hotel rooms, and the wild characters from his gory subculture are worth the price of admission.


I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, And The March Up Freedom’s Highway—Greg Kot (2014)

[Contributing commentary from Barry Geller]

In addition to being a detailed biography of one of the most stirring soul/blues/gospel voices in America’s rich folk music history, I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, And The March Up Freedom’s Highway is also the poignant story of a close-knit African-American family and their association with and influence on the civil rights movement of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Mavis Staples and The Staples Singers’ connection and friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King influenced many of the songs they were to record that supported and echoed the civil rights movement.

Author Greg Kot traces The Staples’ humble beginnings in the Deep South and their eventual migration to Chicago, a pivotal place in the history of rhythm and blues of the period, as the group lived in the same neighborhood as Sam Cooke, Jerry Butler, Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin. The dynamics of so much talent in one location, which framed the blues movement a generation earlier with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, etc., was both supportive and combative. While Jackson became something of a mentor to Mavis, her relationship with Franklin was more competitive.

I’ll Take You There is a case study in the bridge between blues/gospel and the early sounds of rock and roll, as The Staples revolutionized standard gospel styling, both vocally and musically, to a more soulful approach, not unlike Ray Charles. But wherein other gospel groups had relied on organ/piano for authenticity, The Staples harmonized to the sound of Pops Staples’ tremolo guitar, which later inspired other guitarists of the era, most pointedly, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty on “Born On The Bayou,” Joe South’s guitar intro to Aretha Franklin’s “Chain Of Fools,” and much of blues aficionado Ry Cooder, who lent his sound to, among others, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Neil Young and the Rolling Stones.

Pops’ decision to put a 10-year-old Mavis up front immediately modernized the group’s sound; her voice an androgynous mixture of bluesy growl and beatific trills that would one day cause ’80s cross-sexual composer/performer Prince to seek her out.

An interesting chronological side-note is Kot’s delving into Staples’ affair with a very young Bob Dylan, who went so far as to ask Pops for Mavis’ hand in marriage in 1963. Her decision to turn him down due to the obvious racial repercussions during the most volatile era in the civil rights movement, which Dylan shared in fronting on the musical side, may have well changed the course of rock and roll history.


The Who FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About Fifty Years Of Maximum R&B—Mark Segretto (2014)

An unprecedented Herculean effort in putting between two covers the complete, and I mean complete, method, recording, performance, influences, films, bootlegs and heretofore missing history of The Who.

There is detailed and there is minutia and then there is relentless pursuit of fanatical fact-finding, and then there is The Who FAQ. Part of a series that include, among many others, FAQ titles featuring bands, celebrities, artists, genres and films, most notable for our purposes, The Doors, Black Sabbath, Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton and two dedicated to the Fab Four, this volume is unique, since much of The Who’s career arc on stage and in the studio is shrouded in mystery. Mostly due to early work under original names The Detours or the High Numbers and the band’s transformation from modest to significant pop hit makers into rock opera pioneers and eventually a ’70s heavy power arena act, there is much to uncover and this book does it splendidly.

Author Mike Segretto, an admitted fellow Who fanatic, breaks down this almost overwhelming level of information into clever chapters, traversing The Who’s evolution in less chronological and more playful segments. His humor and insight fuel investigations into original releases, single edits, compilations, weird mis-titled and misrepresented U.S. versus UK versions of classic and relatively unknown tracks (my favorite is the transformative recorded schizophrenia of “Magic Bus”), and most importantly frames all of this bulging data into a band biography of significance.

If nothing else Segretto takes two paragraphs to coherently explain Pete Townshend’s unrealized opus, Lifehouse; something the creator and composer takes about 5,000 words to unfurl in the 2000 release of Lifehouse Chronicles and never quite lucidly frames in his lengthy memoir, Who I Am.

I promise you will get lost in this stuff. It is fun and it is a must for Who fans everywhere; perhaps, I dare say, the last word on this beloved institution.


I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life And Times Of Warren Zevon—Crystal Zevon (2008)
An unexpurgated oral history of one of the most underrated songwriters of the rock and roll era, Warren Zevon’s first wife, Crystal, takes his dying wishes to heart and comes through with a gem.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, a title taken from one of Zevon’s signature songs, is heartfelt but brutally honest, so much so it is oft times hard to digest much of Zevon’s wildly complicated but exciting ride through the catacombs of the music business. This, of course, includes his nearly lifelong bout with alcoholism that ended tragically when he died of cancer in 2003, but it is all well worth it, for this is as insightful a portrait of a conflicted soul, whose art worked hand-in-hand with his life, as one will find.

Wonderfully recounted stories from Zevon’s time in Europe learning his craft and his turn as musical director for the Everly Brothers and his influential literary and Hollywood friendships forged through his exploits and compositions assist in striking a balanced figure. Contributions by family, friends and colleagues include Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Billy Bob Thornton, Stephen King and Dave Barry, some hilarious, others harrowing, but all so poignant, paint a vivid picture rarely dissected this way in biographies.

There are those of us who celebrate Warren Zevon’s work to this day, and I am unabashedly one, and for us, and those who may have missed his canon beyond “Werewolves Of London,” this is one enjoyable ride.