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

Looking for a celebration of music in words to stuff the stockings of the rock fan in your life?


Warren Zevon: Desperado of Los Angeles—George Plasketes (2016)

            Full disclosure: My new book, which will be released in the spring of 2018, will be a series of essays focusing on the songs of Warren Zevon. As authors sometimes do when a forthcoming book featuring a similar subject is due, I received a note from the good people at Rowman & Littlefield informing me of the impending publishing date for Warren Zevon: Desperado of Los Angeles. Shortly afterwards, I was lucky enough to peruse an early edition of George Plasketes’ first-ever comprehensive narrative biography on one of our most underrated songwriters. Zevon ex-wife, Crystal, edited a harrowing oral biography, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, which I reviewed here a few years back, but as I informed my publisher at the outset of my project, the alarming paucity of literature dedicated to Zevon’s work is astounding. Hopefully my efforts will honor what Plasketes has brought to light.

This is a serious examination of a life and an artist dear to my heart and one I have been “living” with now for almost two years. And it is a welcomed volume. Considering he is arguably the most literate of singer/songwriters from any era, called many celebrated authors friend, like Stephen King, Carl Hiaasen, Hunter S. Thompson and Ross McDonald to name just a few, Plasketes, who is the Professor of Media Studies and Popular Culture at Auburn University, brings the right level of intellectual alacrity to an amazing story of madness, genius, and redemption that ends as tragically as it does triumphantly.

This will all make sense when you dive headlong into the Zevon oeuvre. His songs are intelligent, disarming, and powerfully evocative; they work as short stories examining the human condition from every angle, and it is covered with great detail in Warren Zevon: Desperado of Los Angeles.

The core of Plasketes’ work stems from a 2013 essay he wrote on Zevon’s first Asylum album that appears in a volume he edited titled Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself: Essays on Debut Albums. It is clear from that work that Plasketes had much to offer in a longer form and his approach here is admirable, as he takes it upon himself to argue for Zevon being considered what his friend, Bruce Springsteen, once called one of the finest American songwriters of his generation. This is something the author shared with me when we spoke when the book was released this past summer.

“Everybody’s out there looking for another book on Springsteen or Dylan, the Beatles and Sinatra, all of the big mega stars, and yet I think people really need to know about Warren. I’ve always been drawn to the unsung heroes or the underappreciated, and despite some successes I think most people probably still put Warren Zevon in that underappreciated category. “

Here’s hoping that Warren Zevon: Desperado of Los Angeles is the beginning of that journey to appreciation.


Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself: Essays on Debut Albums—Edited by George Plasketes (2013)

I rarely do this, if ever, but after speaking with Plasketes, he was kind enough to send me a signed copy of the aforementioned Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself: Essays on Debut Albums, which I took with me on holiday to Mexico and completely fell in love with.

This is the ultimate type of Rock Reads read, if there is such a thing. I have reviewed dozens of books over the years, but this one really does cover the spectrum of styles and genres, while providing a veritable cornucopia of insights into artists I never would have discovered if not for the impressive list of musical and cultural academics who give voice to their debut albums.

I was especially inspired by Kevin Holm-Hudson’s “What Time Has Told Me About Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left”, an in-depth deconstruction of the majesty of Drake’s compositions and orchestrations that for years I have been curious about and have had a passing interest in, but now after reading the essay and listening again to it, feel is one of the truly forgotten gems of the creatively fruitful late-1960s era.

And while Holm-Hudson, Associate Professor of Music Theory at Kentucky University, delves deeper into the technical structures of this songwriting master, George H. Lewis, professor and chair of sociology at the University of the Pacific, Stockton California, takes us back to his childhood in the 1950s to explore the experimental brilliance of Buddy Holly and the Crickets’ first album, The “Chirping” Cricket. I had completely forgotten how many of Holly’s seminal hits adorned this rare early-period LP and how much it influenced everything that succeeded it.

There are too many fantastic essays to cover here; one on Elvis Costello’s angst-filled My Aim is True and a couple of surprisingly convincing arguments for the primacy of the first Third Eye Blind, New York Dolls, and Rickie Lee Jones records, all records that I love and found to be right on the mark.

This is one of a series on music writing, if you enjoy it as I have, but this volume was certainly insightful, introspective and inspiring.


Odyssey: The definitive examination of “Music From The Elder”—Tim McPhate and Julian Gill (2016)

Having completed my own KISS book for Backbeat Books, which was published in October of 2015, Shout It Out Loud—The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon, I know firsthand the difficulty in framing this controversial and oft-maligned band, both for rabid fans and dubious onlookers. I must also point out that while KISS historians and authors Tim McPhate and Julian Gill were working on their terrifically researched Odyssey: The definitive examination of “Music From The Elder”, I was tabbed by the celebrated German music magazine ROCKS to examine the very same album. So, as a grizzled veteran of this realm, let me send sincere kudos to both Julian, who I have gotten to know in my KISS travels, and especially Tim for their Herculean effort in tracking down and uncovering a massive amount of information on the most mysterious of all KISS albums.

The story of this ill-conceived and unmitigated flop is truly fascinating. The band and everyone associated with it, including legendary producer Bob Ezrin, whom I interviewed for countless hours during my “Destroyer” project, abandoned it almost immediately upon its release. Unlike my cover story, which quoted a few of the participants, this book rolls over every possible stone. KISS fans principally will marvel at the hard evidence refuting many myths surrounding an era of the band’s history that led to the decisions that would nearly destroy it, but at the very least re-invented it.

A tireless interviewer, McPhate, with able assistance from über-archivist, Gil, share completely new information and offer competing theories on the creation and marketing of the album from those who were there. I especially loved learning, once and for all, that inarguably KISS was planning on chucking much of its tried-and-true elements in a mad attempt at artistic relevancy. Most pressingly, there were plans to remove the makeup and re-boot the whole image, something the band would finally do two years later. This explains the bizarre packaging and marketing for the project before the well-documented backlash.

And from my own research, it appears that the band’s work with legendary producer, Bob Ezrin, as with the seminal Destroyer five years earlier, inevitably scared the hell out of management, the label and the fans. This time, though, unlike 1976, KISS was not a band on the cusp of mass success. In 1981, the high times are in decline and marred by inner-turmoil, which is dissected beautifully and honestly here. What ultimately saved Destroyer was the unlikely ballad, “Beth,” and there is nothing in Music from “The Elder” to compare—although the book does provide an interesting parallel between the two albums that was a new perspective for me.

Getting all the info on the three-tiered plot-line for the original film script, the abandoned voice-overs, the odd song sequencing, missing music videos and everything in-between is simply a fantastic read.


Everything is an Afterthought—The Life and Writing of Paul Nelson—Kevin Avery (2011)

This book is aptly named, as you get a twofer here; a telling bio of one of the most compelling and influential rock journalists of his or any era and a compendium of his most cherished work; much of it never released in its sweeping, original form.

Paul Nelson has been a great inspiration to me. His honesty as a true fan of music’s cultural impact, he aspired to share his enthusiasm of artists he believed embodied this edict. An almost mythical figure in music journalism, Everything is an Afterthought proves the accolades are duly justified; Nelson stood tall for his principles, using major positions in quintessential magazines (Sing Out!, Village Voice, Rolling Stone) to define the honor of his convictions as a critic and pained to make his epic features on Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and even Clint Eastwood frame the character as well as the art they reflect.

Nelson, whom Martin Scorsese corralled for his 2005 documentary on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, was known as the folksinger’s greatest defender in all of his experimental shifts in style and image. It is Nelson, who knew Dylan back in Minnesota as a skinny Jewish kid trying to become Woody Guthrie, was the only writer to herald Dylan’s infamous move from folk purist to rock and roller at the Newport Jazz Festival, something the “voice of a generation” greatly appreciated and would never forget.

There are also, for the very first time, insights into what turned out to be Nelson’s ill-fated but brilliant signing of the New York Dolls, as an A&R guru for Mercury Records in the early 1970s. Nelson indeed directly affected the music business as well as he reflected it in his writing, working directly with David Bowie and Rod Stewart, to name just two monumental artists of the era in which he championed through good and lean times.

The gem of this book, and the reason I searched it out, is it features for the first time in its entirety Nelson’s unabridged manuscript for what is arguably the finest exposé of a rock star burning out, “The Crack-up and Resurrection of Warren Zevon” originally published as a 1982 Rolling Stone cover story. And it is worthy of this treatment, as Nelson spent years with a mercurial, violent, intellectually gifted marauder masquerading as a singer-songwriter, providing the pantheon of rock writing the template for understanding what has become the standard meltdown of truly talented young artists on the wire.


Lennon on Lennon—Edited by Jeff Burger (2016)

This book is a great idea executed flawlessly by one simple edict: excellent research and tireless study of hundreds of hours of rare and in some cases lost conversations with arguably the most covered artist of the latter half of the twentieth century. Lennon on Lennon provides completists and collectors nuggets of wit and wisdom from a great interviewee, John Lennon, who has given the world such gems as “If there is such a thing as genius, I’m it” to “Before Elvis there was nothing” to “We’re bigger than Jesus”. But in this volume there is much more to delve into—Lennon on fame, Lennon on politics, Lennon on anxiety and paranoia and love and loss. This is John Lennon unplugged.

Having read just about every previously published long-form interview with the man, who, well…only founded the most influential cultural musical unit ever, most notably the seminal 1970 Rolling Stone and 1980 Playboy discussions that are touchstones for a generation, it was a revelation to find so many deeply interesting chats that were lost in time. Edited by veteran rock journalist and essayist, Jeff Burger, whose previous volumes cover the late Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen, has done Beatles nuts and historians alike a great service. By uncovering hours upon hours of radio, TV and taped mostly unpublished underground newspaper “conversations”, he has shown us a Lennon that we have not seen, or more importantly, heard from.

I especially loved the “conversations”; lengthy and open-forum discussions between principles connected with Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, and a comfortably disarmed icon taking a respite from his enormous fame to share his inner-most thoughts, like his loose and sometimes confrontational discussion with famed drug guru, Timothy Leary and his wife in 1969 during the height of Ono and Lennon’s infamous bed-ins for peace and a truly fascinating round-table gathering with underground revolutionaries, Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn, for the ultra left wing street paper, Red Mole. It is also a kick to read along within pages to see how Lennon waxed his Fab Four poetry and cheeky politeness to the more introspective mature artist, who would pain to once again re-shape a world he had already dramatically altered.

And although it is hard to believe that there could be unknown discussions with someone as overly analyzed and covered as Lennon, or that we have “heard it all”, this book proves we most certainly have not.


Before I Get Old: The Story of The Who—Dave Marsh (1983)

For over three decades now I have been telling anyone who will listen that Dave Marsh’s quintessential overview of The Who is the finest book ever written about a rock and roll band. And after hundreds of worthy book challengers later I see now no viable reason to change this opinion. The best compliment I have for Before I Get Old is it stands the same test of time as the band whose story it tells. Moreover, it achieves the same level of bombastic chaos that is The Who, from humble English bounders to rock gods, and everything in between.

Marsh’s work nails down one key element to this legendary band; there is nothing like it in the annals of working relationships, whether creative or not. There are no more disparate personalities that you can find in a cohesive unit than the four men who make up The Who. As the band’s founder, guitarist, and main composer Pete Townshend states in it, it is possible that neither of them understood a thing about the other, much less had enough intimacy in which to base a kinship. Understanding this, according to Marsh, leads to understanding The Who’s ethos through its music, fashion, ever-changing fame/economic status, and finally its unique foray to push rock music as higher art (“A Quick One”, Tommy and Quadrophenia).

It is hard to admit this, being a voracious reader of the mountain of works on the subject of rock and roll, but after reading Before I Get Old I found no need to read another straight biography of the band. I have read and reviewed here many books on several aspects of the group’s history, but strangely it is Marsh’s tale that stands as the foundation to enjoying these other viewpoints. This is not to say it didn’t enhance my enjoyment of the music, which I am certain it did at the time I first read it—I would read it again probably 10 to 15 years after its 1983 release—but it is beyond that. This is a superbly told story of personalities; strong, erratic, tempestuous, insecure and deep characters jacked with the most lavish spirit of their time and place.