Looking for a celebration of music in words to stuff the stockings of the rock fan in your life? Well, look no further!

Me – Elton John (2019)

In the wake of this summer’s blockbuster biopic, Rocket Man reminding everyone how preternaturally brilliant, insanely famous and spectacularly screwed-up Elton John was in the 1970s and 80s, here comes his far more detailed memoir, Me. The author proves one thing straight away, the playful drama of the film doesn’t include his incredible self-awareness of his proclivities, talents and addictions, and that by imparting it in this most intimate way, he is damned funny. It is through his self-deprecating humor that Elton John becomes less cartoon superstar, something he readily admits he knew compromised his musical integrity as a part of one the great songwriting duos of the rock and roll era, and brings us closer to the man behind it all. It is in those intrepid insights into his myopic thrill-ride of a life and career where Me truly comes alive.

My complaint, as it was with Keith Richards and Pete Townshend’s memoirs, is that there just isn’t enough info into Elton’s two main contributions to the genre; his aforementioned composing with Bernie Taupin, and his instinctual ability to awe audiences from the very beginning. For the decade of the seventies when Elton John was the biggest rock star on the planet he released thirteen albums in nine years, some two or three in a single year, many of them some of the decade’s finest, and played the world over. His 1982 MSG show is still the best concert I have ever seen. So, count me as biased here, but it is clear Elton is far more interested in sharing a retrospective of having written “Your Song” in twelve minutes or the utter terror he felt starting at his idol, Leon Russell from the Troubadour stage when he blew Hollywood away and literally became an overnight sensation in the U.S. than he is with explaining how he did it.

One thing Elton does reveal much of is his truly incredible drug abuse, his search for love in almost all the wrong places, and his constant battles to expunge the sins of his parents, especially a love-hate cycle for decades with his mother. Of course, most people perusing fame with as raid ambition have some part of their past in which they are first motivated and then mortified by the results, but Elton’s is a heartfelt and triumphant journey from child abuse to a loving father and humanitarian who has conquered his demons. Me is a brave telling and in a voice that is, well, damn hilarious and brutally honest. Kind of like sitting for tea with Sir Elton.

The Beautiful Ones –Prince Rogers Nelson (2019)

Mere months before he was found dead in an elevator in his home/studio complex, Paisley Park in April of 2016, Prince Rogers Nelson, one of the most talented, celebrated and enigmatically reclusive rock stars of all time put out word with little to no fanfare around the publishing world that he was ready to write his memoir. Shockwaves and rumors and several aborted attempts to pin Prince down – a seemingly impossible task since his emergence on the music scene as a nineteen year-old phenom that convinced Warner Bros to give him complete creative control over his work. Enter writer/editor, Dan Piepenbring, who was both an advisory editor at the Paris Review and a rabid Prince fan. The story of his enchanting but furiously quick time in Prince’s presence working through pages of scribbled screed from the man himself about his childhood makes up a third of The Beautiful Ones. The other two-thirds of the book is just as intriguing.

The second part features Piepenbring’s yeoman’s work making heads or tails of Prince’s cadence, his use of weird symbols that replace words like “two” and “four” with their subsequent numerals and “I” with a drawing of an eyeball, and many other eccentricities into a readable text that is the most revealing of Prince’s private thoughts, fears and dreams. The passages about his parents and his awakening as a musician and eventually one of the great artists of the latter half of the previous century and the first sixteen years of this one is well worth the effort.

The third part is a treasure-trove of extremely rare photographs, notes, and mementos from Prince’s rise to fame all the way through the triumph of his groundbreaking smash hit Purple Rain album, film and tour. There is original artwork and designs for album covers, tour outfits, staging and insights into the magical world that Prince had figured in his head and set about infusing into the music and eventually those who helped make it a reality.

And while it is a bittersweet document of what could have been had Prince not accidentally overdosed on prescribed opioids at age fifty-seven, we nonetheless have a better grasp on the mysteries surrounding the blossoming of a superstar in his own words and with images from deep inside his life.  

Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles – Kenneth Womak (2019)

The final days of the Beatles. Has there ever been a more overly detailed account of a breakup in the annals of print? Yet, Kennth Womak has written a wonderful new book, Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles, whichcomes on the fiftieth anniversaryof the classic album’s release. Womak uses the backdrop of the Beatles final musical statement to provide new insight into the events surrounding the disintegration of the world’s most popular rock and roll band and its refusal to go away quietly.

What makes Solid State stand out from previous “end of the Beatles sagas” is as the title hints, it concentrates on perhaps the most crucial instrument on Abbey Road, the then brand-new solid state mixing board introduced to the studio whose name the record bares as its title. Abbey Road was indeed recorded in the place where nearly all the band’s legendary music was realized, but in the winter of 1969 there was one major difference: The studio moved away from its trusty BTR four-track machine for a new solid state board and an eight track deck, something the Beatles and many of its contemporaries clamored for since its introduction a year earlier. The very sound of the band was altered, the smoother and deeper Paul McCartney bass runs, the crunchier John Lennon rhythm guitar riffs, the sweetly resonant slide guitar of George Harrison, and the silky groove of Ringo Starr’s drum rolls. It is as if the band of the Sixties was heralding the Seventies. This, among other pressing issues within and without is what captivated the Beatles enough to rekindle previous magic with producer George Martin to make one final brilliantly sonic profession of their mystical talents.

If you are a studio nerd or a Beatles aficionado you will love this book, but for the mildly curious, or those learning about this seminal period in the final days of an historic run of musical success, there is plenty to cull here. For me, perhaps the coolest nugget is the transcript of a meeting between three of the Beatles (taped because Ringo was absent due to tests for stomach pain) that starkly reveals the problems each of them were harboring with the music – beyond the lawsuits and backbiting, drug issues and other nagging elements that finished them off. Their personalities, the years of crushing fame and stellar artistic output coming tumbling forth to expose their truest personalities beyond the Fab Four that were soon to be no more.      

Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Roll and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z – Edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar (2017)

For someone who has spent many years writing about music and compiling quite a list of heroes along the way, a collection of the best music journalists and essayists is a true gift. And Shake It Up delivers. Having read many of these articles and essays before, it is nice to have these seminal pieces available in a single volume. There isn’t one key music writer form the past half century missing. Editors Johnathan Lethem and Keven Dettmar uncover some real gems too. The main voices from gender to race from hip hop to rockabilly are featured.

Reading some of my favorites, Paul Nelson, Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, and the self-proclaimed dean of all rock writers, Robert Christgau is quite illuminating when they are all there back to back to back. The way the book is arranged, it provides a wonderful chronological sense of where the rock world began all the way to today through the voices of those who lived it, expressed it, turned it from a teenage fad into a serious consideration as a legitimate artform.

Stand-outs include “The Memphis Soul Sound” by Stanley Booth – I loved his book on the Stones 1969 tour and his observations on Altamont, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones that I may or may not have reviewed here –an excerpt from acclaimed poet, Amiri Baraka’s The Changing Same (R & B and New Black Music), which I plan on reviewing here in the near future, “The Cars’ Power Steering”, chronicling the formation and incredible success of The Cars in the late-seventies by NY Times entertainment critic, Jon Pareles, a piece that I read mere days before their founder and main songwriter, Ric Ocasek died, and John Jeremiah Sullivan’s in-depth reporting on the weirdly wonderful and equally repellent lead singer of Guns N’ Roses, “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose”.

Volumes such as these are important guides to our understanding of how the music was digested during its times and how they altered the landscape of the future. These are the voices who were there to describe the view and put it into perspective.  

The 33 1/3 B-Sides: New Essays by 33 1/3 Authors on Beloved and Underrated Albums – Edited by Will Stockton and D. Gilson

Speaking of music journalists, the highly recommended 33 1/3 series out of London, of which I have enjoyed more than a dozen of their over two-hundred volumes based on seminal records of the rock era, has just released a very interesting compendium penned by many of the same authors to dig deep into their secret loves of overlooked classics (hence B-Sides) – some by wildly successful artists and others almost completely ignored. It is a revisit to records that for reasons broached in each essay need to be reconsidered. It’s a fantastic idea and a great read.

There is so much care and passion by the authors on each selection, it is hard to cite the most compelling. I was, of course, jazzed by selections I too think are easily dismissed as lesser works by significant artists, The Rolling Stones’ It’s Only Rock and Roll (written by David Masciotra), The Cars’ Candy O (Susan Fast) and still others that I believe are masterpieces in their own right as in Sinead O’Connor’s brilliant, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (Tara Murtha) Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking (Rolf Potts) and Songs of Love and Hate by the always evocative Leonard Cohen (Drew Daniel).

Full disclosure, back when the series was published by Continuum Publishing, also out of London, I was working with an editor there to write a volume about the 1976 KISS album Destroyer, a record (in the spirit of B-Sides) I have long argued has been discounted in the pantheon of great 1970s hard rock releases, mostly due to critical prejudice of the band’s cartoonish persona. After extensive interviews and mounds of research bloated the project that would eventually be titled Shout it Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon  I was to take it to my current publisher Backbeat Books for a 2015 release.

Nevertheless, the very concept of trying to reimagine its impact was an inspiration.

Exile in Guyville (33/13 Series) – Gina Arnold (2014)

While on the subject of the aforementioned 33 1/3 Series, one of the finest ones, which I’d just read when readying this edition of Rock Reads, is Gina Arnold’s deconstruction of Liz Phair’s monumental Exile in Guyville. Arnold, one of the finest historians on the indie movement of the late Eighties to early Nineties, puts the 1993 release into pinpoint perspective while getting inside many of its myths, geographical touchstones and feminine evocations.

Much of Phair’s persona and this record in particular took on a wider interpretation at the time of its release. There was a sense that the album’s raw expression on sexuality, personal angst, a lashing out on external demons and the dying of a musical street movement in Chicago was somehow a referendum on the artist and not the art made delving into this book a treat for me, and the author did not disappoint. This is as much a record of its times and beyond it, and Arnold leaves no subject ignored. 

Of course, the one thing that intrigued me from the moment the album was released – beyond its DIY mastery of tape demos being put out as statement a la Daniel Johnston and Michelle Shocked and later Beck, all of whom perked my ears in a time when rock and roll had become a bit stale again – is its immediate reference to my favorite Rolling Stones album Exile on Main St. By name-checking arguably one of the two or three finest rock records of all time, Phair goes into sacred territory on her own terms. Many, including your truly, dismissed the originally stated idea by Phair that Guyville is a track-by-track answer to the Stones, specifically the macho messaging by Mick Jagger. You would have to be someone looking for such things to consider it as a serious exercise, but Arnold does it! And does it with the kind of intense music writing that makes doing what I do as a music journalist and essayist worth noting.

As stated, this series is worth exploring in general, but if you need to start somewhere, Gina Arnold provides a template to why these books work so well in making listening to these works subsequently appealing.      

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