Rock Reads: A Holiday Guide For The Rock ’n’ Roll Literate

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

Reckless Daughter A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe (2017)
Simply one of the finest biographies I have ever read on a musical giant, whose mysteries, insecurities, genius and emotional and professional arcs unfurls as if a novel. The artist of Reckless Daughter A Portrait of Joni Mitchell is a raw, sensitive creature of grief and passion, one that finds meaning and hope in all things, while standing firm against the villains of her psyche, both real and imagined, that inspire an unprecedented canon of music and a lifetime of penetrating paintings that at once mask and reveal her tortured soul.

Author, David Yaffe, undersells his tale with an introduction that hardly warms you to this incredible story of one of the most enigmatic and respected songwriters of the 20th century, and one that has influenced generations of young musicians from every race, creed and place in the world. But his narrative is first-rate.

Reckless Daughter gives us the unfiltered Joni Mitchell, as her voice resounds throughout the book with recent interviews which tethers this peripatetic artistic journey that has endured so many highs and lows, broad musical experiments and swipes at brilliance. For those of us who have loved Joni’s music for so long can now see ourselves in the songs, understand where they came from and how they meant as much to the composer as they did to the age of Aquarius.

Very much a product of 1960s liberation and infused with Canadian grit, Mitchell’s work, a soundtrack for its times, is now exposed as the inner dialogue the songwriter intended, which, as stated, is the highlight of Yaffe’s research and insights, but there are also revelations about Mitchell’s debilitating illness as a child, her distant and demented parents, her many lovers, famous and otherwise, the daughter she gave up at twenty, who she later finds, and her combative and defiant attitude towards social and political, racial and sexual issues that abound in her times.

It is a testament to Reckless Daughter that it portrays all sides of this complicated artist whose place in the pantheon of rock, soul, jazz and folk music is unquestioned, while framing the duality between her recalcitrant exterior and a vulnerable core.


Sticky Fingers – The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine by Joe Hagan (2017)

Jann Wenner is one of the most damaged, horrible, spiteful, self-absorbed, petty, insensitive assholes to ever exploit the greatness of rock ’n’ roll. He is also unquestionably the most influential, dynamic, relentlessly focused and incredibly prescient publishers of the first ever serious publication about the social, cultural and spiritual nature of rock ‘n’ roll. And all of it is in his magazine, Rolling Stone, which this year celebrates an inconceivable 50th anniversary, and is dissected, deconstructed and in many ways simultaneously berated and celebrated in Joe Hagan’s spectacularly researched tome, Sticky Fingers – The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone.

This book was so good it completely distracted me through a wonderful vacation in Jamaica with the family. I could not put it down. Nearly every story, no, strike that, every story in the book is riveting, so hard to believe that most of it appears hyperbolic, yet it directly reflects what went on in Wenner’s magazine for decades. But then considering all the late 1960s and ‘70s and ‘80s provided the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll and as a consequence, Rolling Stone, it is hard not to believe it.

Of course, much of the generalities remain; Rolling Stone was once a teaming underground, pure, intellectual and controversial slice of real American journalism that created the enduring myths of its subjects, as well as imprinting an importance of a music that was first considered a silly fad. This includes some of the greatest rock journalists that made bylines in it (co-founder, Ralph Gleason, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Jon Landau, Dave Marsh, etc.) and its unblinking coverage of drugs, the sexual revolution, radical politics and so much of the music and artists that inspired and reflected all of it. Most of all it provided a forum for one of the great American literary voices of the latter part of the 20th century, Hunter S. Thompson, whose best work shined within its pages. It then became, almost as quickly, a banal, shameless promotional tool for record companies, vacuous Hollywood celebrities, and disposable pop culture fads and fashions.

This, of course, all made Wenner rich and famous, gave him unlimited access to the very tools of the trade, and unleashed an era of unchecked hedonism, all of it, (including incredible stories of the aforementioned Thompson and lauded photographer, Annie Leibowitz) bursts from the pages of Sticky Fingers like tabloid headlines gone sideways.

Hundreds of interviews and first-hand accounts of a time and a publication that came to literally define a generation and then redefine it comes alive in Hagan’s truly stirring narrative.


Cover Me – The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time by Ray Padgett (2017)

Man, this was a fun read. A labyrinth of fantastic stories that intertwine legendary careers with one-hit wonders and weird intersections of folk/country/hip hop/hard rock and pop, pop, pop in the subterranean world of the cove song.

Author Ray Padgett, no stranger to the subject of cover songs through his work as founder of the Cover Me blog, for which the book’s obsessions mostly reside. In the book’s introduction, Padgett offers a brief history of the “cover song,” from its ignominious origins, through the sometimes corrupt to the outlandishly bombastic history of American popular music, setting the stage for “The List,” which is something I normally abhor; Top Ten Bagel Flavors, etc. But Padgett does an exemplary job working his way through early rock music history in the 1950s up through the explosion of pop music and into soul, psychedelic acid rock, roots rock, punk, new wave, novelty numbers, comebacks, movie soundtracks on into the 21st century.

Even if you’re a geek like me and find yourself blanching at a particular selection, Padgett makes his argument for including it as a “greatest cover song” with his preternatural penchant for deep research and connecting the dots that eventually led to the success — artistically or financially — of the selection.

Just to take one example; the infectious career-defining version of the Fugees “Killing Me Softly,” which simultaneously made and destroyed the band. It starts off as a country folk song created for a 19-year-old performer, Lori Leiberman, who wrote its lyrics in response to a Don McClean song, but was never given writing credit. It was that version that inspired soul-songstress, Roberta Flack to take it to No. 1 in 1973, winning a Grammy for Song of the Year and ending up as a passing fancy to allow the versatile vocalist, Lauryn Hill to spread her wings with it. Then there are all the machinations the song goes through to bring it into the Hip Hop milieu as something new.

Cover Me is a fascinating trip into an interesting side-light of the music industry that even today finds voice in an industry rife with rediscovery.


Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin (2016)

To say I was dubious of this book is an understatement. My fascination with the Rolling Stones was cemented one blustery winter’s eve when I first watched the Maysles Brothers documentary, Gimmie Shelter, a masterwork that ostensibly frames the horrors of the nadir of rock concerts at Altamont Freeway in early December of 1969; the violence, gripping drug casualties, the fractured performances underwritten by the thuggish invasions of Hells Angels wielding pool cues as clubs on the peace and love set.  The film and the incident so gripped me I was moved to write my sociology college thesis on it and in the ensuing years subsequently read everything possible on what will forever be known as “Altamont” for nearly four decades.

What could Joel Slevin possibly reveal in Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day that I had not already exhausted in my dogged pursuit of anything about the subject?

Answer: A ton.

Bravo, Mr. Selvin, for providing what I dare say will be the last word on the subject of an event that is rightly defined as the death of the 1960s edict, and in many ways the birth of the Rolling Stones decadently honest and dread-addled period of summarily erasing the illusions of an entire generation and ushering in the Me Decade with the kind of music that would rattle the very core of its foundation.

Revelations on several deaths beyond the infamous stabbing of Meredith Hunter by a Hell’s Angel, in full view of the Maysles’ cameras, the ensuing trial, the voices of his girlfriend who was standing by him when it occurred, Hunter’s family, a revisit beyond the scenes of many of the survivors, and the schemers of an event that you would think anyone who planned it could see coming.

The failures and impact of Altamont resonates today as loudly as it did in the ensuing years of its fallout. The stories and voices inside this meticulously researched book, told with great care with a shrewd journalistic eye, has swayed a tough critic, and shall remain an important document to anyone who cares to understand the key moments in rock history.


Captain Fantastic – Elton John’s Stellar Trip Through the 70s by Tom Doyle (2017)

Author Tom Doyle, who did a magnificent job getting inside the travails and triumphs of Paul McCartney’s most lucrative post-Beatles period in his 2014, Man on The Run – Paul McCartney in the 1970s — reviewed in this space — is back with another magnificently researched and passionately told tale of one of the most bombastic, prolific and popular figures in ‘70s rock, Elton John. Captain Fantastic – Elton John’s Stellar Trip Through the 70s is a book that had to be written — it’s hard to believe it yet hadn’t — as Elton was truly the decade’s cornerstone of pop hits, expansive album releases, outlandish excesses and seminal concerts.

As he did with the McCartney effort, Doyle combines recent and extensive interviews with his subject, along with period quotes, to provide both perspective and introspection to the narrative. The Elton John that emerges is one of humble beginnings filled with tunnel-vision focus on stardom, a man so infused in 1970s edicts that by the time his moment emerges he is its avatar. It is both a musical and personal trip along the corridors of pop music, from songwriting to self-expression in sexuality, drugs, fashion, and power. Elton was, as his times, unabashedly obsessed with keeping his flame alive, acutely aware of where he belonged, at the top of the charts and in the glare of the spotlight.

This was a time of my youth, and Elton, along with so many others of the 1970s, was my soundtrack. It was a pleasure to read of his dreams, aspirations, pratfalls and achievements in a lucrative and creative period he dominated like few did.


Sex, Drums, Rock ‘n’ Roll – The Hardest Hitting Man in Show Business by Kenny Aronoff (2016)

Kenny Aronoff is easily the most prolific and respected studio and touring drummer of his generation; playing with such luminaries as John Mellencamp, Mellissa Etheridge, John Fogarty, Stevie Wonder, John Mayer, Avril Lavigne, Alicia Keys, Dave Grohl, among many others. His book, Sex, Drums, Rock ‘n’ Roll – The Hardest Hitting Man in Show Business is an absolute must read for aspiring drummers, as it acts as both a biography and a method for success in professional musicianship.

Aronoff has a no-nonsense writing style that is evident from the first paragraph. It is conversational and at times shocking; an honesty that stems from a combination of self-deprecating humor and incomprehensible ego, all of the elements that make up an artist that constantly chases greatness that some may frame as professional excess, as even Aronoff admits that some of his “four gigs at once” exploits stumble into the absurd; cross-country red-eye flights, running from studio to tour, and from woman to woman, and from experience to experience with the attention span of a ten-year-old.

But in the end, it is an immutable dedication to the instrument, this incredible and indelible love affair with the drums, and the sense that from the first, Aronoff could not help but want to get inside of it, conquer it, expand on his talents. This is a classically trained, award-winning musician providing insight into what it is to make a career in a cut-throat, back-stabbing, high-pressure business. It is in the telling; the grit and guile, the incapability to turn down an opportunity, that may be the book’s most inspiring aspect of a relentless musician’s life.