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Gift Guide: Music Books

by David Greenberger on December 6, 2012 · 1 comment

There are musical biographies and memoirs aplenty this year. Top among them are two books that follow the artistic search and ascendancy of a pair of New Jersey-based acts: Bruce Springsteen and Yo La Tengo. While they embody different audiences and sensibilities, they share a quest for finding and nurturing their own voices. Peter Calin’s Bruce (Touchstone, $28) benefits from the cooperation of the subject himself along with interviews with most of his band members managers and associates. Big Day Coming (Gotham, $18) by Jesse Jarnow is the story of Yo La Tengo. As it traces the lives of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew (the last to join, after dozens of previous bass players never took hold), one is struck by their commitment to an elusive quality that is their unique character, born of nonheroic stances, a love of music, and unshakable curiosity.

As they celebrate their 50th anniversary, there’s a load of new books on the Rolling Stones. Jagger (Ecco $34.99) weighs in with more than 600 pages, which Philip Norman uses in the same painterly way he did with his recent Lennon bio. As with that book, even the years before the subject’s birth are presented with engaging flair. The band’s story is now so familiar that it’s also nice to just kick back and let the images tell the tale. Jim Marshall’s The Rolling Stones 1972 (Chronicle $24.95) is a set of the late photographer’s coverage of their ’72 tour, from Jagger at a desk on the phone to Richards in the studio, and plenty of vivid live moments. Rolling Stones 50 X 20 (Insight Editions, $34.99) is a chronological feast across the whole of their five decades by 20 photographers. Among the treats are Gus Coral’s 1963 live and studio shots, Brian Jones playing a cello backstage at the Monterey Pop Festival, and alternate shots from Barry Feinstein’s Beggar’s Banquet shoot.

And then there are the other ’60s heavyweights. Hendrix on Hendrix: Interviews and Encounters with Jimi Hendrix, edited by Steven Roby (Chicago Review Press, $24.95), draws from from familiar publications and such long-gone magazines as Hullabaloo, Teenset, and Hit Parader—titles that seem quaint and lightweight from this remove, but were where some the best (and only) coverage was to be found. The Beatles in Liverpool by Spencer Leigh (Chicago Review Press, $19.95) can move from wistfulness to youthful exuberance with the turn of a page. Grainy school portraits can feel like our own forgotten past. There are stories and photos of street scenes, childhood homes, and ephemera such as a page from a 1959 art-school Christmas pageant that John Lennon wrote and performed with Stu Sutcliffe.

Who I Am (Harper Collins $32.50) is Pete Townshend’s hefty memoir. Townshend, since the days when the High Numbers became the Who, has never taken anything lightly, especially himself. Here he holds himself to exacting standards as he relentlessly plumbs the depths of his own thinking and feeling. He started this book in the mid-’90s, and the long gestation period allowed new chapters to unfold and deeper meanings to appear for past events. RJ Smith’s biography of James Brown, The One (Gotham, $18), is as sharply written as the dual meaning the title suggests (the beat, the man).

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Ecco, $27.99) by Sylvie Simmons charts his course from a well-heeled Montreal family as he became a lauded poet and novelist in his 20s before taking up music in his 30s. Now in his 70s and enjoying international fame at a level he never reached before, Cohen continues to embrace the friction that occurs when the worldly and the spiritual collide. He can also be funny.

Commando (Abrams $24.95) is the autobiography of the late Johnny Ramone. He’s forthcoming in a way that mirrors the simple yet brutal thrust of his guitar playing that in large part gave the Ramones their identity. Eschewing complex sentence structures, he charts his hoodlum-laced boyhood in Queens on through a fairly volatile adulthood. In an appendix he gives his take on the band’s discography, pulling no punches there either. Ramone’s musical and political opposite may well be lyricist and human-rights activist Yip Harburg, who’s the subject of a new biography by Harriet Hyman Alonso, Yip Harburg: Legendary Lyricist and Human Rights Activist (Wesleyan University Press, $28.95), and is known for such songs as the Depression era “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” “April in Paris,” and “Over the Rainbow.” The latter song, the cornerstone of the songs he wrote with Harold Arlen for The Wizard of Oz, was written specifically for Judy Garland who, as a teenager with an overbearing stage mother, Harburg saw as a tragic figure who needed to be over that rainbow.

Peter Benjaminson’s Mary Wells (Chicago Reivew Press, $26.95) is subtitled “The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar,” making it another glimpse into the legal ferociousness of Berry Gordy’s label. Realizing the inequity of her situation, she broke her contract, but was never able to regain the heights she’d reached in her early 20s. The adjectives in the title Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson (Grove Press, $35) are entwined throughout the entirety of Randall Sullivan’s well-researched book. And in the three years since the singer’s death, the strangeness and tragedy have not abated. Calling Me Home by Bob Kealing (University Press of Florida, $27.50) is a new look at Gram Parsons and how his brief downward spiral helped forge country rock. On the brighter side, Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans (Historic New Orleans Collection, $39.95), by Ben Sandmel, is an aptly large and colorful book on the life of the first Crescent City artist to top the pop charts (with 1961’s “Mother-in-Law”).

A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths (Crown, $30), by Tony Fletcher, finds the author again bringing together his parallel skills at explaining how songs come together and why they move us, along with how and why people (and specifically people in bands) come together and act as they do. Bonnaroo: What, Which, This, That, The Other (Abrams, $19.95) is a colorful explosion of some 400 photos of the multitude of performers who’ve been a part of this yearly festival, from Del McCoury to Louis C.K., Metallica to The Roots.

You’ll Know When You Get There (University of Chicago Press, $37.50) is Bob Gluck’s history, and analysis of Herbie Hancock’s early seventies Mwandishi band. Funk rhythms, synthesizers and two undercelebrated horn players, Bennie Maupin and Julian Priester, made this was an ensemble with clear parallels to the bands of Miles Davis, but with brighter colors.

Various eras of musical history are also newly covered. One Night on TV Is Worth Weeks at the Paramount by Murray Forman (Duke university Press, $27.95) looks at the effects that the early years of television had on popular music. Always in Trouble by Jason Weiss (Wesleyan, $24.95) is an oral history of the ESP-Disk label, which provided an outlet for a wide variety of nonmainstream artists in the ’60s who’d otherwise have had no way to be heard (many of whom went on to greater success elsewhere, having established themselves first via ESP), among them the Fugs, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, and Pearls Before Swine. And perhaps too current to be history yet, the current digital format is creating enormous changes, all painstakingly covered in MP3: the Meaning of a Format by Jonathan Sterne (Duke University Press, $24.95).

Finally, for a pair of books that are focused on music but also on the joy of thinking. David Byrne’s How Music Works (McSweeney’s $32) mixes personal history with a quest to find out how everything works, from communal ritual to the impact of marketplace innovations on the culture at large. Especially enlightening are his frank disclosures and analyses of the finances required for and derived from his recent recordings and tours. Edited by Joe Bonomo, Conversations With Greil Marcus (University Press of Mississippi, $40) is a collection of interviews that find Marcus’s free-ranging thoughts move freely from music to literature to art history to sociopolitical movements. He actively seeks to be stirred by music, and when that occurs, he’s a potent force. As one interviewer said, “A lot of times I’ve found his descriptions of a song he loves better than the song itself.”