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

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


Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink – Elvis Costello (2015)

An artfully presented glimpse into the mind of a passionate thinker and artist, Elvis Costello’s memoir reaches beyond anything attempted by rock stars in this medium. From the very first page you can tell this is not your daddy’s autobiography. Costello, born Declan Patrick MacManus, a Londoner of Irish descent with a father who toiled in the music business from every possible angle, presents a musical life like no other; a destiny filled with significant road marks along the way.

Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink time-travels effortlessly through the deep-rooted past of Costello’s family history, providing clues to his ambitions, fears, and triumphs in and out of the music business. He takes us into old-time music halls, star-studded ceremonies, lavish parties, and endless soul-crushing tours; sometimes all at once. Most importantly, we’re given access inside his craft and a distinctive study of the music that inspired him. Costello’s elegant writing reveals a true reverence for songwriting and the lineage that bore him. It is rare a man of such raw talents can both understand his place in the pantheon of great composers, but also deconstruct his work in the most charming and relatable way.

Costello’s finest achievement with Unfaithful Music, beyond the amazing recollection of childhood traumas and the joys of personal and professional experience, are the wonderfully rich characters from his past, both harrowing and hilarious. Uniquely, Costello interjects short stories from his archives that reflect the times in which he is covering, and these, again, are all manner of moments, from tragedy, as in the loss of a close school chum in his formative years to a car accident, to the death of his beloved father and mentor, to his loves and musical achievements, of which on both accounts, there are many.

For those who want more of a tell-all that one finds in Keith Richards, Graham Nash or Pete Townshend’s’ recent memoirs, this may be a disappointment. Costello goes out of his way to avoid this type of celebrity trope, but he does manage to name-drop without being too maudlin. For my money, the chapters inside the Attractions best work and his collaborations with Paul McCartney are revelatory and provide great weight to his decades of work.

Fans of Costello would expect this much from him; Unfaithful Music is intelligent, heartfelt, and brutally honest.


Van Halen Rising: How A Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal – Greg Renoff (2015)

Quite simply, this is a great story with compelling characters in a time lost to the ages and it is told directly and without unneeded drama. It is the story of the rise of Van Halen from party band to massive national rock act, which, according to author Greg Renoff, saved heavy rock in a time when it was being relegated to the ash heap of history.

However, the thesis, while sound, is only part of the charm of Van Halen Rising. I marveled at how completely focused and unflinchingly determined the personality-disparate members of the band were in their young careers, to eventually come together—in a very real sense for practical business reasons—and emerge fully prepared for stardom from an environment rife with mediocrity.

With the twentieth anniversary edition of my first book, Deep Tank Jersey – One Man’s Journey into the Soul of a New Jersey Club Band, due this summer, I am reminded by Renoff’s tale of how difficult it is for a band so resolutely polished as the early Van Halen in its pursuit of leading its tiny corner of the world as “best cover band going”, earning twice the money of many original bands toiling in clubs in Los Angeles and New York, to give it all up to try and “make-it”. Now, of course, it seems like no choice at all, understanding the heights the band achieved soon after it jettisoned its former identity, but at the time it was a gutsy long-shot wager.

The best part of Van Halen Rising for me is the case study in the true genius of Eddie Van Halen, whose emergence as the finest guitarist of his generation was not only immediate but groundbreaking long before his brilliant, genre-shifting “Eruption” from the band’s debut record; pretty much the coda of the book. Van Halen’s legend grew from its tiny origins when as a teenager the young guitar hero was turning the heads of thousands of worshipers and professionals alike. It seemed with the right combination, eventually achieved through the strangest of circumstances, he would soon rule the world.

The strangest of these circumstances surrounds the amazingly seminal American success story of flamboyantly raucous lead singer, David Lee Roth, who went from hated and mocked rival of the Van Halen cabal to its savior. Roth, hailing from affluent roots with a preternatural yearning for fame, willed his way into the region’s hottest band, and persevered to become one of the most imitated front men ever.

This is a worthy rock and roll tale told very well.


Hi, How Are You? The Life, Art And Music Of Daniel Johnston – Don Goede (2006)
The mystery and madness of the ultimate alternative underground artist, Daniel Johnston is revealed in this touching and honorable collection/dissection of his visual and aural creations. Author Don Goede spent years getting to know the enigmatic Johnston on the road and in his home studio creating some of the world’s most peculiarly fascinating art.

Daniel Johnston snuck into the pop culture in the early to mid 1980s when MTV’s The Cutting Edge featured him in its coverage of the growing artistic and musical community of Austin, Texas. His home-made cassettes, most famously Hi, How Are You? The Unfinished Album and Yip/Jump Music, which Johnston handed out on the streets while working at the local McDonald’s, endeared him throughout the scene with the assistance of local bands and eventually the wildly unconventional stalwarts, the Butt Hole Surfers. Soon, signs of his growing mental illness began to derail Johnston at every turn, the harrowing details of which are covered in Jeff Feuerzeig’s gripping 2005 documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston.

Long after Johnston was institutionalized, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was routinely photographed with a Hi, How Are You? tee shirt, catapulting his mostly ignored work into the mainstream, where he would eventually be revered by such luminaries as The Simpsons creator, Matt Groening, and actor Johnny Depp. Absent from the ascent of his name and music, the legend of Daniel Johnston grew on the fuel of innuendo and rumor. Many thought him completely mad, dead, or even a figment of imagination.

Goede’s research and interviews with Johnston takes us beyond the myths of his subject’s rollercoaster life and work, providing context to the paintings and songs that Johnston used as both a cry for help and an inspiration to the ostracized and weird, the tortured artists looking for a voice.

Hundreds of photographs of Johnston, his past travails and his triumphs, his art and his methods help to unfold a penetrating homage to a unique voice in the pantheon of pop music.


Into The Black: The Inside Story Of Metallica 1991-2014 – Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood (2015)

by Chris Barrera

In Part One of their two volume Metallica chronicle, Birth School Metallica Death: The Inside Story of Metallica (1981-1991), British authors Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood trace the emergence of the San Francisco thrash heroes from genre sensations to the cusp of world domination. Part Two, Into The Black, covers the next 23 years of the group’s history, starting off where it began for most cross-over Metallica listeners, with the release and subsequent record-breaking success of the Black Album. The band would indeed go on to outrageous triumph and would attain an iconic status that would see them eventually inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009.

Along the way, the group suffered its fair share of bumps and bruises, and the writers cover it all in detail. There is the backlash from original diehards for “selling out” by changing their once manic, hyper-speed style to a more melodic and moderately paced attack. The cutting of their hair and affinity for fashionable clothing is derided as a stab in the back to true fans. Drummer Lars Ulrich’s campaign to stop Napster from allowing free music file-sharing is regarded by many on-lookers as a rich man’s hissy fit, when in reality Ulrich’s fight foretells the oncoming death of a record industry in the emerging digital age. Later Metallica albums never quite lived up to the glory that was the Black Album, and after a decade, the band’s second bass player, Jason Newsted, decided he’d had enough of the rollercoaster that is Metallica and quit the band. Indeed, the battling egos of Ulrich and singer-guitarist James Hetfield clash often, and when Hetfield in essence suffers a nervous breakdown, his disappearance for recovery threatens the group’s very existence.

The story Brannigan and Winwood tell is ultimately one of perseverance and survival, as the band reemerges from their struggles to press onward. The documentary film, Some Kind of Monster, is examined, including conversations with the self-help guru who featured prominently in the film and is credited with saving the band. A new bass player, Robert Trujillo, eventually joins Ulrich, Hetfield and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett to fill out the current lineup, and after another decade of high-energy performances at stadiums around the globe, Metallica prove to be a solid, if not inspiring group that has stood the test of time.

When Metallica decides to tour with fellow thrash originators, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth, it is done as a celebration. When the group performs their signature song “Enter Sandman” live at Yankee Stadium on the day Yankee great Mariano Rivera retires from baseball, Metallica themselves show that they too are all-timers who have transcended style and trends and established their own brand and identity that is accepted and revered by millions.

First person interviews by the authors give the book an insider’s view, and Brannigan and Winwood feel no compunction to pull any punches. They may be self-avowed fans who feel that the group’s best days are behind them, but they joyfully show Metallica, warts and all.


Comfortably Numb – The Inside Story Of Pink Floyd – Mark Blake (2008)

Pink Floyd’s lasting charm in a rock world filled with imagery and star-making is the band’s invisible persona, hidden behind its ethereal music and album/concert icons. Yet, for years, while its members and their origins have mostly been ignored by the band, its publicity, label and even fans, the story should not be. For the first time, British pop culture and music journalist Mark Blake gets behind the many masks of the Floyd, from its psychedelic origins to the mental breakdown of its founder, Syd Barrett, its rise into the rock stratosphere with the seminal Dark Side of the Moon, arguably the genre’s finest album, to the many and varied concepts that make up the remainder of its career.

Comfortably Numb is both an enjoyable read for rock historians and a Pink Floyd trivia geek, but where the book really gets to work is its study of the band members and their combative idiosyncrasies, which provided the perfect counterbalance for the band’s strength; a cohesive creative camaraderie that elevated its music and built upon the Beatles experimentation with the craft. Of course this all comes apart in the end, as all combustible elements must, which also makes for an interesting journey.

Main lyricist, Roger Waters, the stringent taskmaster, to David Gilmore, the band’s musical heart and soul, to drummer, Nick Mason, Floyd’s quiet conscience and the late, Richard Wright, whose tasteful contributions to the band’s sound seemed to always get lost in the shuffle, are dissected from childhood to middle-age with a tireless precision of a true historian. Blake even gets inside the many lives of Barrett, whose replacement in the band he founded and recluse subsistence belies his influence on generations to come. The false conclusion that Barrett’s LSD use was the sole catalyst of his descent into madness is refuted with direct eye-witnesses to his “abuses” and a brutal transformation that would never lift its pall from Pink Floyd.


Jimi Hendrix – Musician – Keith Shadwick (2012)

This new edition of the 2003 decisive work on Jimi Hendrix as an accompanying musician, session man, songwriter, guitarist, jamming machine, producer, and arranger is a wealth of information for both music aficionados and casual fans. The late Keith Shadwick goes beyond the legend and gets down to not only the man, but the true talent.

Forget about what you know about Jimi Hendrix and enjoy this complete review of everything the master did from his early attempts at blues and soul, to his stint in the U.S. Army paratrooper division, where he met musicians he would keep in his kit bag until his untimely death, through his peripatetic stints with such classic  soul artists as Curtis Knight, the Isley Brothers, Curtis Mayfield, and the enigmatic Little Richard, to his “discovery” by Chas Chandler of the Animals, his rebirth in London, and the creation of the Experience and beyond.

This is less biography than a study in what made Hendrix more than the finest electric guitarist ever, yet its chronology works as an evolution of the artist. The origins of Hendrix’s sound, his styles and influences are revealed in the most detailed way. You’ll ride along with Hendrix as he discovers new avenues of musical expression, experimenting with equipment and fusing styles to create something original and in many ways shocking to the pop world. Shadwick gets down the amazingly astute way that Hendrix combined the black sound of soul and blues with the growing, and mostly white rock genre to cast himself apart from his contemporaries and how this journey would both challenge and torture him in his final years.

            Jimi Hendrix – Musician also sheds an important light on Hendrix as arranger and producer, how his work with the growing studio culture of the late 1960s was his pallet and how much of his work has been imitated but never duplicated over the decades. This is the forgotten tragedy of Hendrix’s passing at the tender age of 27. One could easily see his breaking even more musical barriers and advancing rock music beyond the prog-rock period that would succeed him.

This is a revelatory and poignant portrait of a man possessed; a true original. You’ll never listen to Hendrix the same way again.