Rock Reads: A Holiday Guide For The Rock ‘N’ Roll Literate

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

Boys in the Trees: A Memoir – Carly Simon (2018)

  With the elegant fierceness of a New England poet and the astute memory of a northeastern intellectual Harper Lee, singer-songwriter Carly Simon, one of the most famous women of the second wave of the rock ‘n’ roll era, shares her most private, painful and joyous thoughts of an extraordinary life in and out of the public eye in Boys in the Trees.

  Titled after her 1978 album, the book does, in fact, concentrate on two (boys) men from her early life — one, her famous father, Richard L. Simon, co-founder of the giant of New York publishers, Simon & Schuster, and what becomes clearly evident from their first meeting as children, her most lasting, haunting and intense loves, and father of her two children, James Taylor. Both of these imposingly masculine and spiritually similar figures tower over her story, as if she both struggles to emerge from their immense shadows while curling warmly in their sweet but enveloping darkness.

  And if this review has already tumbled into melodrama, then Simon takes you there from page one. Her starry-eyed, if not troubled and manic childhood — memories of family in Greenwich Village, the Hamptons and Martha’s Vineyard running barefoot in summer dresses through booze-filled parties attended by New York and Boston’s elite — produces a precocious, sexually aware and tomboyish figure that would challenge the patriarchal structure, much as her mother would with an affair that would send her already mentally ill father to the edge of madness.

  But it is not the mother that fills the other, female part of the dominated world of the young Carly Simon; long before her first hit, “You’re So Vain” and the cover of People magazine and the song for the James Bond film and all the things we remember her for, it is her older, and in her estimation, prettier and more refined sister Lucy that holds the key to both her restraint and later her rebellion. Simon would latch onto her for a folk duet that would take them to Europe and beyond, fractured completely when Lucy snuck behind Carly’s back to seduce (James Bond again?) a roguish Sean Connery.

  But the book really soars in the tales of the young, then damaged, then drug-addled and always alluring and charming and eventually promiscuous James Taylor, a darkly distracted soul whose languid songs would later, quite ironically, embody the touchy-feely era of men in America. Anything but, the Taylor that remains in Simon’s eyes and her memoir is at once savior and demon of which there would be no escape for the author, in song or story.

  In fact, Boys in the Trees closes a chapter in Simon’s life when she and Taylor split, in essence, closing the book on the life she imagined in her haunted youth.   



The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” – Alan Light (2013)

  What has turned out to be one of the most covered and beloved songs of the past 30 years began as a hidden track on a mostly forgotten and initially non-released 1984 album by Leonard Cohen called Various Positions. “Hallelujah,” a secularly sexual paean to fantasy Biblical lust, was recorded ten years later and included on doomed phenom Jeff Buckley’s brilliant album Grace, making its way into the mainstream. Taken from a haphazardly spectacular version re-recreated by former Velvet Underground stalwart and punk/pop producer John Cale in 1991 (Cale took what amounted to 15 pages of Cohen’s lyrics into what would forever be the quintessential verses) Buckley would transform the song for the following generations which would merrily abuse it for American Idol, The Voice, America’s Got Talent, and scores of films, perhaps most famously, Shrek, not to mention (okay, I just did) the dozens of emotional TV show finales it has adorned.

  Author Alan Light, whose well-researched and highly enjoyable Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain was previously reviewed here, does a masterful job taking readers through the song’s mystical creation and evolution, providing historical context and fantastic anecdotes to bridge the many versions and eras the song has navigated with ease. There is much deconstruction here — not only of the song, but of the uses and places where it fits (religious, cultural, musical) and how it has been exploited for everything from weddings, funerals and the aftermath of 9/11.     



Gold Dust Woman: The Biography of Stevie Nicks – Stephen Davis (2018)

  The Stevie Nicks that emerges from Stephen Davis’s fantastic new biography, Gold Dust Woman is a myriad of divergent and sometimes conflicting personalities — mysterious but transparent, strong but timid, pragmatic but flighty, industrious but spiritual. These, deep-seated traits, among many natural talents, not the least of which is a dogged determination that Davis rightly concludes would place his subject atop the pantheon of rock stars, female or otherwise, would fill a singularly stellar career. In and out of the final iteration of Fleetwood Mac, and as a solo artist, Nicks has transformed our view of the woman as superstar, social commentator and visual icon.

  Nicks, like Carly Simon, is only part of her story. There is a male figure that informs, inspires and vexes her. Unlike Simon, though, her preternatural connection — romantically and existentially — to bandmate and long-time collaborator Lindsey Buckingham is contentious and rife with turmoil from the very start to the bitter end (such as those ends tend to repeat themselves in song and story). Theirs is a love of musical fisticuffs and righteous indignation played out over the radio as each provides titanic hits both to the ego and the charts; Buckingham’s “Go Your Own Way”, the massive first single off the biggest selling rock album of all time then, Rumours and Nicks’ contribution that was left off the masterwork called “Silver Springs,” a song so viciously raw and magnificently phrased it may be her finest work.

  My favorite revelation in the book is Nicks’ early foray in bluesy, voice-shredding vocals that began and ostensibly ended with her brilliant “Rhiannon.” It forced me to listen to the live versions from the period and — whoa, man — did she ever bring it. My outlook on this sultry, witchy, gorgeous front-woman forever changed. 



The Beatles on the Roof – Tony Barrell (2018)

  January 30, 1969, the most famous pop group ever plays in front of an audience for the last time. It is on a roof and it is a for a film and the only ones who could actually see them were employees of their 3 Saville Row Apple Records headquarters and the occasional climbing interloper, but it nevertheless would mark the public performance finale for The Beatles, and for many, the 1960s. This event, however staged and passing it might seem in the pantheon of rock history, is adored and celebrated, as equally bemoaned by fans to this day. One particular fan, author Tony Barrell, thought it might be time to dedicate a book to it. And I am sure glad he did.

  I enjoyed the hell out of The Beatles on the Roof. I love true acolytes of a band or a genre taking the time to overkill the entire thing, (hell, I did it and will do it again in published form) taking us through the painstaking decisions and non-decisions that would change the course of The Beatles and rock ‘n’ roll history by mere happenstance.

  Having read and reviewed dozens of books about the Fab Four over the past decades, I still learned a great deal about what led the band, in the midst of personal, professional and existential angst and riffs, to spirt up to the roof to play, in the freezing winter cold, a bunch of songs no one had heard for nothing but a quick movie-ending shoot. Considering the band was being offered millions upon millions of dollars to appear in giant open-air venues at the foot of the pyramids in Egypt to Africa, on cruise ships and beyond, Barrell makes clear (ahem, George Harrison, I’m looking at you) why the roof idea won out.

  Barrell also does a yeoman’s job breaking down the events of the day in and around London; interviewing local police, fans, key members of The Beatles inner circle and many other eye-witnesses that put you in the middle of the event like never before. And I especially enjoyed the look into how these final few minutes of public Beatlemania effected the future of the culture and how it still resonates today. 



Mother American Night – My Life in Crazy Times – John Perry Barlow with Robert Greenfield

  Mother American Night – My Life in Crazy Times is aptly titled. Barlow, famous for his song-writing collaborations with the Grateful Dead, experienced a Zelig-like life in which he came into close contact with numerous iconic figures at critical times in this nation’s history. An entertaining chronicle of one man’s journey, Barlow finished the book two days before his death at the age of seventy in 2017.

  Raised on a cattle ranch in Wyoming in the 1950s, Barlow would meet young Bobby Weir at a Colorado boarding school. Before joining up with Weir in California during the height of the Haight Ashbury psychedelic era, Barlow sandwiched in an East Coast college existence that included Timothy Leary’s first Acid tests, plus summers in New York City as an active member of Andy Warhol’s Factory.

  After extensive time with the Dead on tour, Barlow took over the family cattle business. Dabbling in local politics lead to associations with Senators Alan Simpson and Dick Cheney. Jackie Onassis would send teenage son John Kennedy Jr to the ranch to escape the limelight, and a friendship was born that would stay firm until Kennedy’s death in a plane crash.

  Travel is a main theme of this book, as Barlow would log millions of miles, traversing the globe, as he became a technology guru and early advocate of internet freedom.  Daniel Ellsburg, Edward Snowden, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Sean Lennon, these are but a handful of the people Barlow crossed paths during his adventures.



Thanks A Lot Mr Kibblewhite: My Story – Roger Daltry (2018)

  Roger Daltry, iconic singer and front man for the legendary Who, is no writer. In fact, even his day job requires him to be an interpreter of writing; specifically, songwriting, ala his partner for the past five decades plus, Pete Townshend. And that’s a good thing. His prose here possesses none of the fanciful artifice that accompanies those who write for a living and then pass on their stories framed in poetic license. In fact, in his memoir Thanks A Lot Mr Kibblewhite: My Story, Daltry strips the sheen and pretention from the entire idea of rock music and celebrity and mythmaking for a straight conversation about all those trappings. The very notion that he put in the title the name of a vindictive teacher who dismissed the teenaged would-be rock giant and now author with a flippant wave of a hand and a “You’ll never make anything of your life, Daltrey” is the finest example of this.

  From the opening paragraph, Daltry is our working-class hero — pugnacious, self-effacing and fiercely opinionated; a young man faced with a choice: a life of poverty and backbreaking work as a sheet-metal worker, or the escapist gift of rock ‘n’ roll. And once he chooses the latter, it is the focal point of his existence, to his own admission, at the detriment of family (his father practically disowned him and he allowed his first wife and daughter to languish without him) to his bandmates (he was thrown out of the band for flushing their drugs down the toilet after a particularly sloppy gig early on and later knocked out his meal-ticket Townshend) and finally even himself (he suffered from anxiety and sleeplessness for years and hardly ever joined in on any of the physical and chemical excesses of the rock biz). 

  His firsthand takes on what his former drummer, the late, manic Keith Moon did to his tours (smashing up hotel rooms and cars and passing out on stage) and as a result his pocketbook (Daltry was appalled to find out at the end of these tireless excursions the band was broke) are revealing. But perhaps the best insight of Daltry’s story is his acceptance and ownership of songs and lyrics he never wrote, how he absorbed the songs as if an actor, how he never lessoned, in fact enhanced, their impact coming from another voice. And not because, like Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley, he took a song to make it his own, but because he believed in The Who and Townshend’s voice and what it could do to make that boyhood gift become reality and take that spitfire working-class kid and make him a legend.