Looking for a celebration of music in words to stuff the stockings of the rock fan in your life? We’ve got you covered!
Let Love Rule – Lenny Kravitz with David Ritz (2020)
Fusion funk-rocker Lenny Kravitz has aptly named his collaborative memoir, Let Love Rule, as it ends with the release of his debut album of the same name and would begin a career that has spanned four decades. But the reason for this truncated look at his life as a boy becoming an artist is that during those years Kravitz had seen and done more and had crazier life-altering experiences than most people could handle in three lives and certainly enough to provide lyrical material for an opening musical statement.
The book opens in a relatable manner for those of us who are not quite Boomers and came early to qualify as Generation X – Kravitz is a Seventies kid, culturally woke by the Jackson 5, KISS, bell-bottoms, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, weed, Converse, Blacksplotation films et al. But then having access to a Jewish family (his dad, Sy, a top television news producer) and a Bahamian one, (his famous mom, Roxie Roker, who would star in the hit comedy The Jefferson’s), and even spending time in the burgeoning hip-hop center of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and eventually Hollywood, provided the young musician a rare cultural foundation and worldly view many never experience.
Meeting the famous, being tutored by musical change makers, and finding his way spiritually, musically, culturally, and sexually, with a heavy emphasis on cool fashion before he even hits high school, Kravitz’s exploits in youth reads like some Dickensian adventure with highlights like stealing the family car at fourteen and rushing off to rescue a child prostitute, appearing in commercials and plays, bouncing homeless from couch to car backseats and on and on.
Kravitz is an inspiration and a cautionary tale. He fucks up and triumphs in the most dramatic ways before you and I could find our elbows. He experiments, learns several instruments, backs up acts twice his age, hangs out in famous studios, stumbles into crossroads that lead him to become the artist he envisioned. One of those eventually led to his mind-bending connection to Lisa Bonet that wrapped all of it in a romantic bow.
Let Love Rule is not just the story of a rocker’s journey to his fans but a symbol of those fans. He is the American Homer; rebellious, erratic, indomitable, and unforgettable.
This Thing Called Life: Prince’s Odyssey, On and Off Record – Neal Karlen (2020)
Reading more like a hybrid of the enigmatic genius Prince Rogers Nelson as well as author and friend, Neal Karlen, This Thing Called Life: Prince’s Odyssey, On and Off Record is nevertheless an important historical perspective for a pop/rock titan bathed in both self and general myth. Karlen and Prince met on a neighborhood basketball court as pre-teens on the tougher north side of Minneapolis. Later, the author would become one of the first to interview the post-Purple Rain monster rock star for Rolling Stone magazine in 1985. Karlen would then go on to conduct several more interviews with the reclusive Prince into 1990, when the two would simply become phone buddies.
Karlen’s late-night discussions with Prince, whom he describes as sounding like “the loneliness man in the world” are the core of this book. He wrestles with his position of being wooed by Prince’s idiosyncratic emotional manipulations and a sense of true friendship. They play basketball together, take long drives, watch movies and go to clubs, as Prince confides in him about love, loss, his parents, and mostly his fears – significantly, his fear of dying alone, something he would do in an elevator in his sprawling complex, Paisley Park in 2016.
Yet, as we learn, and Karlen writes, that Prince “offered up multiple versions of who he was. Each correct, each wrong,” the book carves up Yet, as we learn, and Karlen writes, that Prince “offered up multiple versions of who he was. Each correct, each wrong,” the book carves up many accepted lies about Prince’s father’s supposed talents, his mother’s influence on him, and perhaps my favorite sections of the book, beside learning of Prince’s obsession with 1960s into 1970s professional wrestling, cover the paradox of his home town, Minneapolis in race, tradition, economic disparity and what Karlen dubs “Minnesota Meanness”, which both repelled and seduced Prince his entire life.
While Karlen mostly ignores the music – there are plenty of those books out there – we finally get a mostly objective insider view of one of the most important musical talents of the latter half of the Twentieth Century. And since Prince, like most great artists, was a semi-autobiographical creator, This Thing Called Life will get you closer to that amazing music.
Remain in Love: Talking Heads / Tom Tom Club / Tina – Chris Frantz (2019)
Chris Frantz is not a writer, he’s a drummer. He’s not a pop star, he’s an artist. He’s certainly not a rock and roll cliché, he’s a dedicated businessman, husband and father. His wife, bass player and musical partner for the past nearly half century, Tina Weymouth are half of the founding members of Talking Heads and leaders of its off-shoot band, Tom Tom Club. Both of those bands helped to change the course of popular music from the early 1970s punk revolution to the MTV age of visual expression and beyond. Therefore, when you read Frantz’s memoir you are not treated to a journalist’s or biographer’s take on the events surrounding his life, but what you do receive is brutal honesty and a humble narrator who will lead you through one of the most exciting times in popular music and introduce you to an incredible array of music legends.
Here are firsthand accounts of life in the burgeoning downtown NYC music scene from CBGB to Max’s Kansas City and across the crime-infested, broken but defiant city streets, on tour in Europe with the wild and wooly Ramones and groundbreaking recording sessions from New York to the Bahamas. Franz pulls no punches on Talking Heads undisputed leader, David Byrne, whose dissociative to myopic to downright cold aim to control the narrative within the band may have led to some odd twists and turns and personal difficulties. But their time working together bore intriguing, and in an artistic sense, revolutionary results.
Most of all, Remain in Love is an epic love story of two college art students from Rhode Island School of Design, who reached the heights of pop and rock and remain today as in love and creatively vibrant as ever.
There Was A Light: The Cosmic History of Chris Bell and the Rise of Big Star – Rich Tupica (2020)
Interestingly, despite its short but mythic existence, the Memphis band Big Star – critics’ darling in the pall of curious career implosion – has very little of its story in book form. In fact, there is none. Aside from the 2012 documentary, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, wherein a new generation of gawkers could debate how a band this good with songs this incredible be a total bust, no one has gone where Rich Tupica’s There Was Light does. The author chooses the best possible entry into this mystery by using its doomed but sympathetic founder, Chris Bell as the titular protagonist of the tale. Bell is one of a myriad of misunderstood rock geniuses that fell hard and left us too soon – a lá Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith. He also deftly uses the oral history template to get firsthand accounts of much of what has been passed on in the cloudy realm of pop culture historians as an inquisitive train wreck, but on closer inspection, was really just a bunch of guys trying to make music and make it.
Hovering over the proceedings is the specter of Alex Chilton, whose music biography stretches back to teenaged lead singer of the Box Tops and his sometimes brilliant and most times combative relationship with Bell. There is also the ancillary matter of Bell’s battle with sexual identity and the more pertinent one of his mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse.
There Was a Light pulls no punches but reading the accounts of every major figure in the compellingly tragic story of Big Star, including Bell in a series of culled quotes, and discovering more of his solo work, make this an important document in the annals of rock and roll history.
Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World – Rob Sheffield (2017)
Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles may be the finest book on the subject. Considering the dearth of Beatles literature, this is a feat worth celebrating. But it is true. There has never been, at first a more modern, and second, a better perspective framing of the band to end all bands put to print. My greatest compliment may be that if I were to recommend to future generations why the Beatles were so important, wildly over-and-underrated, and how they hypnotized an entire generation and continue to gather even more disciples, it would be Dreaming the Beatles.
Sheffield lends a post-Boomer slant to all this deconstruction; rightfully claiming a space in the 1990s where the Beatles as a force in consumer consciousness and a lasting iconicity cemented their legacy far more than for those who had either lived through it, or for myself, just missed it and were left with its echoes. There is also a wonderful re-imagining of each Beatle personality in Dreaming the Beatles; the emotional pillars of John, Paul, George and Ringo beyond the monolithic Fab Four. Again, despite having read dozens of volumes on these monumental figures, I found that Sheffield does a remarkable job of re-humanizing them while baring their most enviable and abhorrent traits.
Perhaps its best feature is the book never loses its sense of humor about all this pop-culture proselytizing. I found myself laughing out loud at the absurdity of post-Beatles worship versus backlash, as if shifting the tele Perhaps its best feature is the book never loses its sense of humor about all this pop-culture proselytizing. I found myself laughing out loud at the absurdity of post-Beatles worship versus backlash, as if shifting the telescope from one end to the other and seeing the past as a far-off spec of what we now embrace as our musical Big Bang.
C’mon, Get Happy: Fear and Loathing on the Partridge Family Bus – David Cassidy (1994)
Reading the latest books on Prince and Lenny Kravitz for this Rock Reads segment brought me back to one I’d read when it came out twenty-six years ago, David Cassidy’s C’mon, Get Happy: Fear and Loathing on the Partridge Family Bus. Of course, I would. Cassidy’s iconic Keith Partridge, the feather-haired, guitar-slinging, pukka-shell sporting lead singer-songwriter of the fictional Partridge Family was as important a figure in the third wave of rock history than almost anyone. The Partridge Family television show about a family that rides around in a multi-colored Ken Kesey-style bus playing music and getting into adventures reached millions of kids – the aforementioned Prince and Kravitz, as well as Green Day’s Billie Joe, who continues to cite it as an influence – and your humble reviewer, sitting in his Bronx apartment gawking at how damn cool long hair, playing guitar and attracting screaming girls could be. Keith Partridge was our Elvis, our Beatles. We had little Michael Jackson and his cartoon Jackson 5 and Keith.
Before his untimely death in 2017, Cassidy aged well, still acting, performing in Vegas, making the talk-show circuit and explaining what the hell it was like to live in a kiddy pool while experimenting with drugs, dreaming of being Jimi Hendrix, and posing nude for a cover of Rolling Stone. The Partridge Family released many albums throughout the early Seventies, as did Cassidy, and he went on tour, and those tours were a mixture of Beatlemania and Satyricon, and then it was back on set Monday morning at 5:00a.m. to play a teenager.
Cassidy, son of the famous (actors Jack Cassidy and Evelyn Ward) and careening through his youth with reckless abandon is a fine storyteller; self-depreciating and exacting. He tells it like it is, copping Gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson’s infamous phrase for the subtitle of his book, and writes with a helping measure of empathy for his demented father and his Partridge Family co-star, the inimitable dumpster fire that is Danny Bonaduce.
C’mon, Get Happy is a fun and eye-opening read. It takes you to a time when pop culture and the underground would meet oddly to form the 1970s and beyond.