Rock's current pages few but fruitful


July 27, 2003


Time once again to catch up on our rock 'n' roll reading, with a look at some of the best recently published music books.

If much of rock 'n' roll is ephemeral--it's here today and gone tomorrow--what does that say about rock writing?

Rock journalism and criticism first became serious pursuits in the late '60s, but with the exception of a handful of the greats who've been anthologized (among them, Nick Tosches, Richard Meltzer and Lester Bangs), much of the best music writing from years past has been lost to the ages. Few libraries maintain a good archive of underground or left-of-center music publications, and very little of this material is available online.

Rock's Backpages ( is a British Web site that was established a few years ago to archive previously published work by a couple of dozen well-known critics and journalists for the benefit of fans and researchers (who may access this material for a subscription fee of $4 a month).

Now writer and editor Barney Hoskyns (a driving force behind the site) has compiled an anthology of the site's strongest material in The Sound and the Fury: A Rock's Backpages Reader (Bloomsbury, $14.95).

Like Da Capo's annual collections of the best rock writing, the book is an uneven read, with little thematic connection and with wildly varying quality. But it does contain a handful of classic pieces, including novelist and critic Nick Hornby celebrating Swedish popsters ABBA, critic-turned-guitarist Lenny Kaye lauding Grand Funk Railroad, British critic Mick Farren trying to make sense of Nashville and Jon Savage mulling the sad career of Kurt Cobain.

Speaking of Bangs, the most famous of rock critics serves as the subject of a new collection, the awkwardly titled Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader (Anchor Books, $15), the long-awaited and eagerly anticipated follow-up to 1987's posthumous anthology, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. As Bangs' biographer, I can't claim to be objective--I believe that any book that brings more Lester back into print is a welcome addition to the rock-writing canon--and Mainlines editor John Morthland does include some classic pieces that were sadly overlooked by Greil Marcus the first time around (among them a series of articles on the Rolling Stones, Bangs' epic account of Bob Marley and his early Beatnik scrawlings).

But the book has some flaws: As Lester's best friend and strongest editor, Morthland should have provided more personal reflection in the introduction and more context for the pieces that he chose. At 400 pages, this tome still doesn't give you all the Lester you need to read. (There are none of his lyrics or poems, and there are still a considerable number of wonderful articles that remain uncollected, including, inexplicably, a few that Bangs earmarked for inclusion in the two proposals that he wrote for his own collection.)

As Hornby famously illustrated in High Fidelity, list-making is a ritual for rock writers and hardcore fans alike, and two new books use this format to provide compelling genre overviews. To list The Top 500 Heavy Metal Songs of All Time (ECW, $19.95), Canadian writer Martin Popoff conducted an elaborate poll of knowledgeable metal fans and tallied the points that each assigned to their favorite tracks. But if the list-making was democratic (and it's valuable to have quotes from the members of Black Sabbath, Motorhead, Iron Maiden and others illuminating the backgrounds of their songs), the book's triumph is Popoff's personal style of criticism, which avoids the cliches inherent in a lot of writing about metal and brings the strength and beauty of the music to life with a headbanger's enthusiasm and an intellectual's insight.

Equally engaging is Heartaches by the Number: Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles (Vanderbilt University Press, $27.95) by David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren. Like Popoff, the veteran country music writers are intense lovers of the genre who can wax rhapsodic about forgotten heroes (Bill Monroe, Cliff Bruner's Texas Wanderers) and shed new light on the work of established giants (Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks).

By the way, if you're curious, the No. 1 slot in the Popoff book goes to Black Sabbath's "Paranoid," while Cantwell and Friskics-Warren single out "Help Me Make It Through the Night" by Sammi Smith.

In Eight Miles High: Folk-Rock's Flight from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock (Backbeat, $19.95), West Coast scribe Richie Unterberger provides a more conventional, narrative and chronological genre overview of a sound that has been ill-served by most rock histories. In keeping with his earlier collections of pieces on overlooked visionaries (Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll and Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers), Unterberger tells the fascinating tales of cult heroes such as Nick Drake, Tim Buckley and the Incredible String Band, as well as the more familiar stories of the Byrds, Donovan and Bob Dylan, and he puts them all in musical, cultural and historical context.

Dealing with the same era and a similar sound though much narrower in scope is Jeff Tamarkin's Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane (Atria, $27). A former editor of Goldmine magazine, Tamarkin is a diligent researcher and interviewer and an engaging writer, and he covers all of the Jefferson Airplane's druggy and orgiastic excesses with a good-humored flair. But you really have to be a hardcore fan to want 400 pages of this; the rest of us got more than enough with VH1's "Behind the Music."

The best music biography I've read in some time is Entertainment Weekly writer Alanna Nash's new account of the mysterious impresario behind the King, The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley (Simon & Schuster, $25), though once again, it has some troubling problems.

An illegal immigrant with a murky past, Parker lived a fascinating life but did his best to keep it shrouded in secrecy. Via extensive interviews and exhaustive research, Nash finds the facts among the many myths and reveals the genius in the colonel's brand of hype and hucksterism.

But her reportage comes up short when she addresses the mystery of why Parker never toured with Elvis outside the United States: She claims he couldn't leave the country because he was wanted for a murder in his native Holland, but she provides scant evidence for this scandalous claim. Even a notorious con man deserves better than that.

Though they're not strictly about rock, two recent business books will provide a much deeper understanding for consumers perplexed by recent headlines about music on the Internet, downloading and corporate mergers.

All the Rave: The Rise and Fall of Shawn Fanning's Napster (Crown Business, $25) is a fascinating and thorough account of the first great file-swapping Web site and the music industry's campaign to shut it down, written by Los Angeles Times reporter Joseph Menn; it's one of those compelling business books that reads more like a novel. The same is true to a slightly lesser extent of Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levine, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner (Simon and Schuster, $26) by Alec Klein, which covers the collapse of the once-great Warner Music empire as part of its byzantine tale of corporate intrigue.

Other recent music books of note include Strum and Drang: Great Moments in Rock 'n' Roll (Alternative Comics, $6.95), a collection of poignant comics about life in the musical underground by Minneapolis cartoonist Joel Orff; the regional genre overview Southwest Shuffle: Pioneers of Honky-Tonk, Western Swing and Country Jazz (Routledge, $19.95) by Rick Kienzle; Stars of David: Rock 'n' Roll's Jewish Stories (Brandeis University, $29.95), which finds Scott R. Benarde examining the contributions of rockin' Jews ranging from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, through Bob Dylan, up to David Lee Roth and Mike Gordon of Phish, and Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs (University of Chicago Press, $32.50) by David Grazian, a tour of this city's venerated blues clubs and a musing on what the music "means" circa 2003.

Also of interest: the elaborate coffee-table photo book The Beatles: The True Beginnings (Thomas Dunne, $35) by Roag and Rory Best (with original drummer Pete); Temples of Sound: Inside the Great Recording Studios (Chronicle Books, $24.95) by Jim Cogan and William Clark; Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince (Watson-Guptill, $24.95) by Alex Hahn, the best biography to date of the Purple Wonder; Journey Through the Past: The Stories Behind the Classic Songs of Neil Young (Backbeat, $24.95) by Nigel Williamson; Blues-Rock Explosion (Old Goat Publishing, 29.95), another sweeping genre overview edited by Summer McStravick and John Roos, and A Misfit's Manifesto: The Spiritual Journey of a Rock & Roll Heart (Villard, $24.95), the amusing memoir of rock sociologist and sometime critic Donna Gaines.