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Holiday Gift Guide: Music Books

by David Greenberger on December 12, 2013


Memoirs, biographies, artfully rendered collections of photography and ephemera, and even a coloring book—it’s another season of music-themed books.

Since it’s now been more than five decades since there’s been a year in which there was no book about the Beatles published, here’s a pair to start things off. How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin (Bloomsbury, $26) is written by Leslie Woodhead, who has had a distinguished career as a documentary filmmaker. He actually saw and filmed the Beatles when they were still playing Liverpool’s Cavern club in 1962. However, prior to his work in film, he was a Cold War-era spy for Britain, stationed in Berlin. Working from his 30 years of research, he examines how Beatlemania—illegal music in the Soviet Union—still managed to seduce, engage, and uplift Soviet youth, largely via bootleg recordings. Mark Lewisohn, who has previously brought forth the exhaustively complete Beatles Recording Sessions, now steps forward with Tune In, The Beatles: All These Years: Vol. 1 (Crown, $40), with two more volumes to follow in the coming years. By the end of these 944 pages, Pete Best is out and Ringo’s in.

A couple fine jazz biographies are Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker by Chuck Haddix (University of Illinois, $24.95) and Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout (Gotham, $30). Both of these build compelling portraits behind the complicated, elusive and sometimes contradictory natures of these two men. With Ellington’s career also emerging as recordings were finding new levels of popularity and technical innovation, the book provides a look at those changes as he moved through them.

Here are a couple books grouped into one paragraph because the subjects all have long hair: Outlaw by Michael Streissguth (Harper Collins $26.99) is subtitled “Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville” and looks at the separate lives of, and the sea change brought forth in country music by, Jennings, Nelson and Kristofferson.

Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven is by John Eliot Gardiner (Knopf $55), a historian and conductor who brings both of those backgrounds to bear on examining how a man who seemed so ordinary in many ways created such moving and lasting works.

William Stout’s Legends of the Blues (Abrams, $19.95) follows in the style of Robert Crumb’s Heroes of the Blues card set. This time out it’s a book and CD, with full-color portraits alternating pages with brief, but sprightly biographical sketches.

Punk Press (Abrams, $40) was compiled by Vincent Berniére and Mariel Primois. Subtitled “Rebel Rock in the Underground Press 1968-1980,” the book celebrates—and elevates into the art book realm—the imposed chaos of torn images, the tumult of hand-done and typewriter fonts, and a general desire to break with traditional graphics by embracing a sort of visual rudeness that mirrored the musical trends then bubbling to the surface in the cauldron called punk.

27 by Howard Sounes (DaCapo, $26.99) looks at the short lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse, each of whom died when they were 27. While there are other popular musicians who died within a few digits of that age, the coincidence of that number has led to those deceased being referred to as members of the “27 Club.” Sounes succeeds by moving well beyond that coincidental data into a hard look at the darkly powerful effects of sudden fame on relatively young, and generally fragile artists ill-prepared to deal with such pressures.

Three notable memoirs are Americana by Ray Davies (Sterling $24.95), I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp by Richard Hell (Ecco, $25.99), and Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen (Viking, $26.95). The title of the Davies book refers to his life in the United States and is shaped by his experience in 2004 of being shot in the leg when he intervened in a botched robbery on a New Orleans street. His narrative moves about based more on the juxtapositions of memory than as a linear history. His life in England, both growing up and as an adult, intersperses with ruminations on the creative processes and the ups and downs of life in the spotlight; from signing bad contracts to “Waterloo Sunset” being played at the close of 2004 Olympics in London.

Hell’s autobiography follows his course from a boyhood as Richard Meyers in Louisville, Ky., to Television and the Voidoids in NYC, on to decades spent primarily as a writer. A common thread runs through all of his endeavors: the quest for an altered state of mind, whether through sex, drugs, music, film, or literature. Fagen offers up a series of essays that focus on his discovery of such things as the music of Charles Mingus and the books of Philip K. Dick. He tells of meeting Walter Becker when both were attending Bard College and how the two became writing and musical partners. He’s left the chronicling of Steely Dan’s history to others and instead concentrates on his own wry (meaning, in his case, equal measures of cranky and funny) observations of the culture all around him.

David Bowie Is, edited by Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh (Abrams, $55) is officially titled thusly on the front cover, but playfully adds the word “Inside” to the spine and “The Subject” to the title page. Large and stylish, the book draws from Bowie’s archives of photos, notes, documents and assorted ephemera. There are essays contributed by, among others, Jon Savage and Camille Paglia, and everything from lead sheets for “Space Oddity” to contact sheets that were used for reference by Guy Peelaert when he painted the Diamond Dogs cover.

Rock and Roll Stories (Abrams, $60) is a spectacular presentation of the photos of Lynn Goldsmith. Her anecdotal commentary winds its way through our shared cultural memory of these now iconic artists and images. One unexpected photo and tale from 1978 has Randy Newman wearing Bruce Springsteen’s leather jacket. The latter, who was also dating the photographer, showed up because he was a Newman fan and wanted to meet him. Goldsmith took the shots of Randy in Bruce’s leather jacket to get him to go away temporarily. Newman obliged for a few, then removed it, saying the jacket smelled.

Two contrasting but powerful biographies are Nilsson by Alyn Shipton (Oxford University Press, $27.95) and The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild by Hannah Rothschild (Knopf, $26.95). Shipton’s book follows the classically tragic curve that can result when an unshakable drive towards artistry is caught in a tug-of-war with commercial dictates, combined with a range of personal demons. Among the little-known aborted projects Nilsson at one time had been pushing forward was a musical called Orville and Wilbur, based on the lives of the Wright Brothers, that he saw as being a possible vehicle for Tom and Dick Smothers! Rothschild’s biography of her great-aunt is driven be her own desire to understand the woman who left the wealthy English family fold in the early ’50s following her love of jazz to become a lifelong friend and supporter of New York City jazz musicians, most notably Thelonious Monk.

Finally, as mentioned in the opening paragraph, there’s Bun B’s Rap Coloring and Activity Book (Abrams, $12.95) by Shea Serrano and Bun B. Things to color, things to cut out, games to play—it’s holiday time!