Looking for a celebration of music in words to while away your lazy summer days?
Astral Weeks – A Secret History of 1968 – Ryan H. Walsh (2017)
Using one of the most revered and dissected albums of the 1960s as a backdrop for the underground artistic, drug-induced, cult and racial movements in and around Boston, Massachusetts during arguably the most turbulent of post WWII years of the American Century, author Ryan H. Walsh, a musician and musical historian, provides readers a unique perspective of the counterculture and its influence on not only Van Morrison, but Lou Reed (Velvet Underground), Jonathon Richman (Modern Lovers), Peter Wolf (J. Geils Band) and even comedian/actor and once drummer Chevy Chase (Chameleon Church) among many others.
Amid a year filled with revolution, street riots, assassinations and a spate of seditious art forms, not to mention Morrison’s “mystical document”, (thank you Lester Bangs) the Astral Weeks album, Astral Weeks – A Secret History of 1968 unfurls a story of radical television experimentation (presaging the MTV generation), sanctioned drug exploration (heralding a wider audience for recreational mind expansion), and religious alternatives (paving the way for a decade of spiritual searching) and, of course, the glorious music that would provide voice and sound to the burgeoning pre-punk garage brilliance of the Velvets, who spent more time in Beantown than their home turf of New York City (who knew?), Jonathan Richman’s foray into the Modern Lovers, one of the period’s most seminal bands, along with theater, journalism, alternative lifestyles and belief systems that rival Paris in the 1920s.
Walsh’s sense of humor and perspective and an incredible amount of research fill this tale (and the subtitle is correct, this stuff was waaaay underground) with vividly bizarre characters whose backgrounds and achievements would reverberate around the country and the world for decades to come.
Prince and Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984 – Duane Tudahl (2017)
Author Daune Tudahl has done us all a great favor. Someone was bound to do it, because it needed to be done, but he has done one hell of a job chronicling one of the most prolific periods in music history by any artist of any genre. Prince Rogers Nelson’s nine-year run during the 1980s, more specifically an insanely productive and spectacularly excellent run between 1983 and ‘84, in which this book concentrates, is astonishing. The results of which culminate in the transformation of the pop/funk/soul/rock world forever.
Put together in a daily diary format, Prince and Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984 reveals in the best possible way how much Prince accomplished in these two incredible years. There is not a day that goes by where he isn’t writing and recording simultaneously, bouncing from home studio to others perpetually booked for his mercurial all-hours pleasure, or rehearsing — both with his and other bands and acts in his Minneapolis warehouse — or touring/appearing somewhere. It is a stunning level of output, something that makes sense for those of us who were often taken aback even then at how much quality material Prince was cranking out like a short-order chef, all the while revolutionizing the industry and exploding his brand like no one before or after him.
If anyone needs to know why Prince became an icon and one of the most celebrated musicians, performers, producers and songwriters of the latter third of the 20th century, this book should do it. From the forming of the Revolution for the double-album, 1999, its ensuing tour, with a bevy of acts all conceived/written/produced and in some cases formed and performed by Prince, through the months of conjuring up and overseeing the concept for and starring in a film vehicle, Purple Rain, which would earn him Oscars and Grammy’s and break all kinds of box office records, to the constant stream of new Minneapolis artists like The Time, Vanity 6, Apolonia 6, Sheila E., the Family, Madhouse and more, Prince and Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions is a roadmap to his greatness.
As a researcher and author of some repute, I applaud Mr. Tudahl’s Herculean efforts here and I await with great anticipation his next volume, because I know, having lived through it as a rabid fan, how much the following years Prince would continue to amaze and entertain us all.
Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell – The Dangerous Glitter of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed – Dave Thompson (2009)
For over three decades three men wound their way in and out, behind and beneath and in some cases high above the rock fray; oft-times challenging, sometimes supporting, but always reflecting the provocative and contentious music they would make along the way. Author Dave Thompson, previously reviewed here for his 2012 Welcome to My Nightmare: The Alice Cooper Story, masterfully traverses these decades and the intertwining arcs of first the inimitable Lou Reed (and his iconoclastic Velvet Underground), next the enigmatic David Bowie (and his strategically formed and dismantled Spider from Mars) and finally the spastically irreverent Iggy Pop (and his degenerate rabble-rousing Stooges).
This is a story that had to be told, considering Reed’s influence on all rock music and Bowie’s dramatic transformation from mop-topped English folkie to androgynous Dionysius that would not only worship the authenticity of Pop, but save his life and career as mentor and artistic partner. Later, Bowie would resurrect Reed’s career, as the New York pre-punk three-chord arias of his Velvets would become the shriek rattlings of the Detroit-based Stooges. It is all intertwined in some mish-mosh of rock incest.
Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell is a fine piece of history-making meets myth-making with the right amount of hyperbole, mining first-person accounts and press clippings to place each of Reed, Bowie and Pop’s careers into perspective. Their giant personalities and intense talents seemed to wane and rebound, crisscross and clash at key points in rock’s halcyon days, which would act as the third wave in the genre and challenge those who would soon come, whether pop, soul or the emerging punk movement.
This Bird Has Flown: The Enduring Beauty of Rubber Soul, Fifty Years On– John Kruth (2015)
This book had been on my radar for some time, as it was released simultaneously in the spring of 2015 alongside my Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon and by the same publisher, Backbeat Books. But, alas, with the glut of Beatles books and others that have passed through here over the past couple of years, it was pushed to the backburner. And I am glad of this, for reading The Bird Has Flown with a fresh head put me in the right place for what it has to offer; a truly intimate but over-arching critique of one of the most influential albums in modern pop music history.
Author John Kruth, whose voice is prominent here, puts into perspective the many layers that the Beatles groundbreaking Rubber Soul achieves in combining several styles of music with a maturing lyrical stance, while keeping an eye towards the band’s immediate future that would shift the paradigm for how the long-player would be used as an art form forevermore. Mostly, Kruth, who has studied closely the aspects of Indian culture, provides deeper insight into the Hindu reflections infused into the Beatles transom by George Harrison during this period, which manages to overshadow much of the Dylanesque (John Lennon) and avant-garde (Paul McCartney) influences that are usually cited to frame the album’s significant impact.
I especially enjoyed the unique breakdown of each song, often adding the lineage of what music the Beatles were channeling and where they had already come to conclusions about what a pop band could accomplish if given the time and space to reach their potential, which as history records, was a more than ample sampling with Rubber Soul.
Why Bob Dylan Matters – Richard F. Thomas (2017)
Richard Thomas, a Harvard professor, who has combined his love for ancient Greek and Roman poetry while celebrating Bob Dylan with an annual freshman seminar, “Dylan 101” comes at Dylanology with Why Bob Dylan Matters from a far from obvious angle. However, in his hands we learn a great deal about one of the best known American songsmiths, a man whose ability to absorb influences and heist from the densest of thinkers and artists is what sets him apart from the folk/rock/pop world he has loomed over for over a half century.
The professor’s thesis, stemming from Dylan accepting the Nobel Prize in literature in October of 2016, asks the question; What makes a classic? More specifically, what has Dylan done beyond his volumes of great songs and shifting pop culture personas and bravely groundbreaking twists? Where does he fit into the line of Homer and Virgil in not only mere verse, but impact?
Why Dylan Matters forces us to reconsider Dylan’s greatest strength as a musical storyteller and cultural figure, for he is able to rekindle what makes poetry fuel our imaginations and expand our notions of romance and grandeur. By providing several and varied examples of where Dylan quite often goes in different stanzas in his songs, especially, according to Thomas, his later works — he concentrates like never before on what has become known as Dylan’s late renaissance, Time Out of Mind (1987), Love and Theft (2001), Modern Times (2006), Together Through Life (2009) and Tempest (2012) — he makes his case while also educating readers on how all of this has lineage.
Through the filter of a professor with a deep love for the power and prestige of poetry and the immense creations from the mind of a true revolutionary we discover another reason for the primacy of Bob Dylan’s voice.
The Clash FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About The Clash City Rockers – Gary J. Jucha (2016) by Chris Barrera
The title off this book is apt, as author Gary J. Jucha gives an exhaustive look back at one of the legendary groups of rock ‘n’ roll. Jucha attended many Clash shows himself and mixes personal recollections with thoughtful sound bites from a long list of Clash friends, associates and musicians who influenced, contributed to or witnessed major moments in the life of the band.
Guitarists and singers Mick Jones and Joe Strummer, bassist Paul Simonon, and drummers Topper Headon and Terry Chimes are all quoted throughout the book, their remarks culled from interviews given during the heyday of the band and decades after the fact. Each member receives a comprehensive analysis of his upbringing, talent, and personality. The distinct traits that helped propel the group to chart-topping success are revealed to be what ironically doom the band to what many considered a premature demise at the height of their fame.
The book follows a basic chronological order, but Jucha formats each chapter as an independent essay, so topics like “Mick Jones’s Ten Greatest Hits and This Struggle Could Be Won: The Bond’s Residency”, can be enjoyed in their own context or as part of the over-arching narrative. The early ascension during the exploding punk, the struggles with record companies not sure how to market the band, the successes of London Calling,Sandinista! and Combat Rock are presented in high detail. The official albums, singles, EP’s and films the band produced or appeared on are critiqued, and even some bootleg live recordings are given mention as product to be sought out by fans for discovery.
The Clash FAQ is a lively read and one that I highly recommend for true fans and those new to the Clash.