Rock 'n' read: New pop music volumes
of note

May 19, 2002


The only thing I enjoy more than listening to rock 'n' roll is reading about it. Time
once again for a roundup of recently published rock books.

Long overdue, Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters (Little,
Brown, $25.95) is the biography that Chicago's blues legend has long deserved,
exhaustively researched and passionately written by veteran music scribe
Robert Gordon, author of It Came from Memphis, an earlier love letter to
eccentric Tennessee musicians.

After a brief foreword by Keith Richards (who has always graciously
acknowledged Waters' influence on the Rolling Stones), Gordon opens with the
illuminating scene of the musician's first meeting with field archivist Alan
Lomax, who'd come to record him. Waters thought Lomax wanted to bust him
for bootlegging, but the musician soon realized there was something different
about Lomax when he drank from the same cup. According to Gordon, Waters
thought, "Not a white man doing this! No no, this was too much, he going too

The story of Waters' career and background unfolds through such well-chosen
vignettes as Gordon brings to life the man's sharecropping youth and his
hardscrabble days in this city's rough and tumble South Side juke joints. He
avoids bogus mythologizing and debunks a lot of tall tales--Waters was not,
apparently, painting the Chess Studios when the Stones first arrived. The author
is not quite as poetic in evoking the sound of the blues as his hero, the music
writer Peter Guralnick, but Can't Be Satisfied is still a joy to read, and it will
stand as the definitive work on one of the pivotal musicians of the 20th Century.

Not quite as well-written or as thoroughly researched, Scott Freeman's Otis!:
The Otis Redding Story (St. Martin's, $23.95) is valuable nonetheless, since
there's never been an in-depth look at the greatest voice on the classic
Stax/Volt label of the '60s. Redding tends to be painted in flat, one-dimensional
profiles that essentially portray him as a saint, due in part, no doubt, to his
early, untimely demise only three days after recording "(Sittin on) The Dock of
the Bay." Freeman shows that Redding was a complex and complicated man,
and this knowledge can only enhance the appreciation of his rich catalog.

It's an even bigger leap down in quality to our next biography, Behind Sad Eyes:
The Life of George Harrison by Marc Shapiro (St. Martin's, $24.95). Quite
clearly rushed into print as soon as possible after Harrison's death, the book
lists a grand total of one (1) original interview in its "Sources" section, meaning
it's what the trade calls "a clip job," drawing largely from previously published
pieces that aren't even properly footnoted. "[This book] will take you to a place
you've never been before: into the life behind the sad eyes," Shapiro promises in
his introduction, but he never comes close to delivering anything but a
superficial recounting of the events and some turgid, sluggish prose. ("George
Harrison may have been the happiest person on the planet. But you could not
tell that by looking into his eyes.")

The next two tomes fall in the "strictly for musicians" category. John Bonham:
A Thunder of Drums by Chris Welch and Geoff Nicholls (Backbeat Books,
$19.95) is a well-illustrated biography of Led Zeppelin's percussionist, who is
generally considered the most inventive hard-rock player ever to take to the
stage. Nicholls, a drummer himself, and Welch, a familiar name in rock bios,
nicely illuminate the subtle qualities that made Bonzo's playing all the more
powerful (though some charts of his signature beats would have been nice),
while laying out the facts of his life and his death from overindulgence. But the
real reason for drummers to buy the book is the photos, which chart the
evolution of Bonham's kit and capture the man in full rock action.

In a similar vein is Andy Babiuk's Beatles Gear (Back Beat, $40). You may be
tempted to ask yourself: Can there possibly be room for yet another tome on
the Fab Four? The answer is "yes," at least when it comes to this impressive
coffee-table book, which methodically examines and illustrates the tools of the
Beatles' craft: the Ludwig drum sets, the Vox amps, the Rickenbacker guitars,
and the Hofner "violin" basses. If you're a music geek who's ever wondered,
"How did they get that sound?" this tome, together with Mark Lewisohn's
classic Abbey Road sessions book, The Beatles Recording Sessions, will give
you all of the nuts and bolts, if not much insight into the actual genius behind
the songs.

Ben Weasel has long been almost as entertaining a diarist as a songwriter (he
was the leader of Chicago's late, lamented pop-punk icons, Screeching
Weasel). Punk Is A Four-Letter Word (, $12)
collects his notorious columns from Maximum Rock N Roll (the punk bible) and
assorted other fanzine screeds published from 1991 to 2002. Whether he's
charting his day as an extra playing a rampaging post-apocalyptic punk on the
set of a Ministry video, or recalling various jobs as a pizza delivery boy in the
Chicago suburbs, Weasel's cathartic spew is never less than frank, funny, and
charmingly reminiscent of Charles Bukowski at his very best.

Speaking of punk, We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk
by Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen (Three Rivers Press, $13) is one of those
generally insubstantial but occasionally amusing oral histories that the music
seems to breed like rabbits (think Please Kill Me ). Most of the expected voices
from L.A.'s early '80s hardcore scene speak out--Exene Cervenka and John Doe
of X, Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey of the Go-Go's, Dave Alvin of the
Blasters--and while there are good anecdotes, there is no real history or "untold
story." And the book could have benefited more from a coffee-table presentation
rife with color photos instead of the skimpy black-and-white shots included.

Rather academic in its topic and its prose (which is excusable, given the
publisher), Between Montmarte and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the
Avant-Garde by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee philosophy professor
Bernard Gendron (University of Chicago Press, $20) attempts to answer the
question, "Is pop music art?" by exploring five movements in more or less
recent musical history: the period in France covered in the film "Moulin Rouge";
the rise of be-bop; the birth of rock criticism; the sea change initiated by Bob
Dylan and the Beatles, and the collision of the post-punk and art scenes in New
York in the late '70s and early '80s. The going can be tough in the Greil
Marcus/Lipstick Traces tradition, but the book abounds with intriguing ideas
and unexpected connections, especially in the rock-crit and Mudd Club

Other recent rock tomes of interest include a newly updated and expanded
edition of Jon Savage's classic history of British punk, England's Dreaming:
Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond (St. Martin's Griffin, $19.95); a
solid collection of assorted essays and features about the Man in Black, Ring
of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader (Da Capo, $26), and a look at the lesser
known recording sessions of one of rock's most celebrated guitarists, Black
Gold: The Lost Archives of Jimi Hendrix by Steven Roby (Billboard Books,

Also: a biography of a great voice from the '60s, Soul Picnic: The Music and
Passion of Laura Nyro by Michele Kort (Thomas Dunne Books, $25.95); the
autobiography of an Animal, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood by Eric Burdon
with J. Marshall Craig (Thunder's Mouth, $24.95); a how-to primer on starting an
indie record company, Label Launch: A Guide to Independent Record
Recording, Promotion, and Distribution by Veronika Kalmar (Griffin, $14.95),
and two only marginally useful record guides, the third edition of the All Music
Guide to Rock (AMG/Backbeat, $29.95) and Reggae and Caribbean Music:
The Essential Listening Companion by Dave Thompson (Third Ear/Backbeat,