Pumping up the volumes

December 22, 2002



We are once again long overdue to dive into the bounty of recently published rock books--some of which may serve as ideal stocking stuffers for the music fans on your Christmas list this holiday season.

Shakey: Neil Young's Biography by Jimmy McDonough (Random House, $29.95) ****

Six years in the making and by far the most artful rock book of 2002, this authoritative and exceedingly well-written biography by veteran new journalist Jimmy McDonough was almost as eagerly anticipated by fans as the long-awaited Neil Young box set (though thankfully, McDonough actually delivered, in contrast to Young's fabled anthology). Granted unprecedented access, which the notoriously private artist later regretted, McDonough provides an account of this singular life and career that is almost as distinctive, eccentric, gripping, and brilliant as the man's music; the title comes from one of the artist's nicknames--he's an epileptic--which should give some hint of the properly skeptical and irreverent rock 'n' roll tone. Like many great rock bios, it makes for fascinating reading even if you aren't a Young devotee. If you are, it will add a new layer to the depth of your appreciation for the mercurial and contradictory singer-songwriter, who could decry "four dead in Ohio" one minute, then turn around and tell us that "even Richard Nixon has got soul."

Kurt Cobain: Journals (Riverhead Books, $29.95) ***1/2

By far the most hyped music book of the year (and perhaps of the last decade), this controversial coffee-table collection of pages faithfully reproduced from the notebooks and assorted scribblings left behind by Nirvana's suicidal founder has been decried as grave-robbing by some fans, though it would be hard to find one of them who hasn't thumbed through the book (if they haven't actually bought it) down at the local Barnes & Noble's. As far as those objections are concerned, I agree that Cobain clearly didn't intend for all of his sketches of Iron Maiden's mascot, his lists of favorite bands, or his stream-of-consciousness rants to ever see print, much less in a pricey hardcover book. But he was a complex artist and a multi-layered man, and some of what he wrote seems very clearly to have been crafted for posterity--witness the moving and revealing letter to the late rock critic Lester Bangs. He also addresses his own conflicts and ambiguities on the very first page when he writes, "Don't read my diary when I'm gone. ... When you wake up this morning, please read my diary. Look through my things, and figure me out." His music remains the best way to remember him (and maybe even to figure him out), but there's no denying the emotional power and occasional insight provided by these journals.

The Book of Metal: The Most Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Metal Music Ever Created by Chris Ingham (Thunder's Mouth Press, $29.95) *1/2

A deceptively titled tome if ever there was one, there is absolutely nothing comprehensive about The Book of Metal ; it's simply a breezy catalog of metal bands ranging from the predictable (Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden), to the obscure (Cradle of Filth, Cannibal Corpse), to the head-scratching "why do they qualify?" (Filter, Foo Fighters, Everlast). More than many genres, metal seems susceptible to such toss-offs (this one brought to us by the "veteran" editor of England's Metal Hammer magazine--he's had the job for two years), and it deserves much, much better.

Bang Your Head: The Rise and Fall of Heavy Metal by David Konow (Three Rivers Press, $14) *1/2

Here's another problematic book that purports to tell us all we need to know about rock's heaviest genre while in reality barely scratching the surface. Part of the problem is inherent in the title: Metal has hardly "fallen" anywhere; the best of it continues to thrive in the underground, if not the rock mainstream. Beyond that, Konow, a former free-lancer for Guitar World, is neither an especially perceptive critic nor a particularly probing journalist, and he isn't a very engaging writer, either. His sketchy, chronological account of metal's development leaves much to be desired and frequently resorts to cliches or the repetition of all-too-familiar tales of debauchery and headbanging, and he never quite gets around to defining the music he's supposedly charting, or discussing its considerable merits.

Yes Yes Y'All: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop's First Decade by Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn (Perseus Press, $25) **1/2

Compiled under the aegis of Seattle's well-meaning Experience Music Project (which, while flawed, is at least a more credible stab at a rock museum than Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), this book certainly isn't the first oral history of hip-hop, nor is it the definitive account of the music's genesis. What it is is a somewhat limited, overly insider account of the birth of the genre, giving short shrift to musical analysis or cultural context. That is perhaps to be expected given the format, and the first-person narratives do make for entertaining and sometimes illuminating reading. Plus, the color photos of break dancing, house parties, and early DJ battles accompanying the personal tales from the likes of Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa are almost worth the cover price alone.

This Is Not a Rave: In the Shadow of a Subculture by Tara McCall (Thunder's Mouth Press, $29.95) *1/2

The techno/rave scene may be an essentially silly topic for booklength probing--to paraphrase the most trite of sayings, writing about dance culture is a bit like dancing about architecture--but it's been done much better before by the likes of Jeremy Beadle (Will Pop Eat Itself? Pop Music in the Soundbite Era) and Simon Reynolds (Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture), to cite just two examples. Essentially the reworked masters thesis by a Toronto raver, this book is fat with meaningless first-person quotes, pointless sidebars, and blurry pictures, and very skimpy indeed on musical or cultural insights.

Pop Music and the Press edited by Steve Jones (Temple University Press, $19.95) ***1/2

Forget the fact that I happen to write about music for a living and so have a vested interest in this topic; all of us who love music have a natural curiosity about the function of journalism and criticism regarding the sounds that we love. University of Illinois professor Steve Jones has compiled a first-rate collection of academic pieces examining the business of writing about music from several different angles. Highlights of the anthology include pieces by Simon Frith, Robert Ray, Thom Swiss, and the editor himself, all of which are guaranteed to provide a much deeper and truer understanding of the music press than "Almost Famous," and that makes it a welcome addition indeed to any rock library.

Other recent music books of interest this season include a new edition of Giants of Jazz, the first tome by Chicago institution and national treasure Studs Terkel, which sketches the lives of 13 jazz legends from Louis Armstrong to Billie Holiday to Dizzy Gillespie (The New Press, $22.95); The Land Where the Blues Began, the rather self-serving memoir by the late musicologist Alan Lomax (which, not surprisingly, pays no heed to criticisms or charges of cultural imperialism by the famed tape recordist) (The New Press, $29.95); White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, Jody Rosen's surprisingly intriguing account of the creation and long afterlife of Irving Berlin's holiday classic; Between the Dark and Light: The Grateful Dead Photography of Jay Blakesberg (Backbeat, $35), a lavish coffee-table photo book by one of rock's premier lens men; Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry by Bruce Pegg, which, while much more revealing than the rock legend's autobiography, still verges on hagiography at times (Routledge, $29.95), and Blondie: From Punk to the Present: A Pictorial History, a sort of scrapbook/fan book on steroids compiled by Allan Metz (Musical Legacy Publications, $35).

Also: Da Capo Best Music Writing 2002, the third installment of the publisher's rewarding series compiling some of the finest music writing each year (Da Capo, $15); Gunshots in My Cook-up: Bits and Bites from a Hip-Hop Caribbean Life, part-memoir, part-musical love letter by the sometimes solipsistic, sometimes probing music writer Selwyn Seyfu Hinds (Atria, $23); Road Kill on the Three-Chord Highway: Art and Trash in American Popular Music, an amusing collection of Colin Escott's profiles of rockabilly legends (Routledge, $19.95); Turn! Turn! Turn! The '60s Folk-Rock Revolution, the third of music journalist and critic Richie Unterberger's fine genre histories and profiles of overlooked greats (Backbeat, $19.95); Lynyrd Skynyrd: Remembering the Free Birds of Southern Rock by Gene Odom with Frank Dorman (Broadway, $22.95), a rather disappointing and surface-oriented biography in that "Behind the Music" way, and three worthy and long-overdue biographies of under-heralded talents--Blues With a Feeling: The Little Walter Story by Tony Glover, Scott Dirks, and Ward Gaines (Routledge, $24.95), Rock and Roll Doctor: Lowell George: Guitarist, Songwriter, and Founder of Little Feat by Mark Brend (Backbeat, $19.95), and The Yardbirds by Alan Clayson (Backbeat, $22.95).