Time once again to catch up
on our rock 'n' roll reading with a look at some of the best recently
published music books:
Taboo Tunes: A History of Banned Bands & Censored Songs
(Backbeat Books, $17.95) couldn't arrive at a better time. In the wake of
Janet Jackson's notorious Nipplegate, big-media paranoia about
"objectionable" content on our airwaves is at a point where songs that have
been played unaltered for 25 years are being bleeped on the hippest rock
stations (when they aren't being pulled entirely), and the likes of Howard
Stern and Mancow Muller may soon be unemployed (or so we can hope).
Peter Blecha is a former columnist for the Seattle rock magazine The
Rocket and a founder of the Washington state anti-censorship activist group
JAMPAC (he tapped his buddy, fellow JAMPAC leader Krist Novoselic, to write
the too-brief foreword, which sadly sidesteps the bassist's own experiences
with the censorship of Nirvana's "Rape Me" and the cover of "In Utero").
In chapters devoted to drugs, the devil and sex, among other taboo
topics, Blecha traces the long, sad history of conservatives with too much
time on their hands and overactive imaginations taking umbrage at music both
harmless (Dean Martin's "Ain't That a Kick in the Head" or the Kingsmen's
"Louie Louie") and undeniably scatological (2 Live Crew) without ever
bothering to prove how or why such silliness is contributing to the decline
and fall of Western Civilization -- or why parents shouldn't be the ones
responsible for monitoring what their kids listen to, instead of the
Timing is also behind the slew of new releases about Kurt Cobain: It was
10 years ago last month that the troubled leader of Nirvana took his own
life. Sloppy scandalmongers and shameless opportunists Ian Halperin and Max
Wallace first published their conspiracy theories about Cobain's death --
which rank on the credibility scale far below crackpot theories about
Roswell and the grassy knoll in Dallas -- as Who Killed Kurt Cobain?
in 1998. Love & Death is just a well-marketed repackaging of that
book and a well-timed cash-in with little new information added and
absolutely no substantive journalism. Atria Books should be ashamed to be
charging $25 for it, and you're soiling yourself if you bother to read it.
Less tawdry but only slightly more substantive are the oral
histories/biographical clip jobs Nirvana: The Chosen Rejects
by Kurt St. Thomas with Troy Smith (St. Martin's Griffin, $14.95) and
the "revised and updated edition" of Kurt Cobain by
Christopher Sandford (Carroll & Graf, $15). For the quality of its research
and its writing, the definitive book on the most important artist of
Generation X remains Heavier Than Heaven by Charles R. Cross. Just
about every other book on the subject follows a distant second.
Staying in Seattle for a moment, This Is Pop: In Search of the Elusive
at Experience Music Project (Harvard University Press, $19.95) is an
anthology of rock writing by academics and academic musing by rock writers
stemming from the now annual pop conference held at the EMP museum. The
event is organized by Village Voice graduates Eric Weisbard (who edited the
book) and Ann Powers, and their goal is to establish the ultimate forum for
high-level discourse about rock as art, a sort of post-graduate school
seminar where academics and critics come together to share great thoughts.
Not surprisingly, the majority of the 25 essays are as pretentious as
that idea sounds, reading with a joyless impenetrability. Here is University
of California musicology professor Robert Walser on Earth, Wind & Fire: "I
mean for this essay to contribute to a defense of affirmative culture that
is not uncritical but that also does not play along with the hip cynicism
that is the dominant tone of so much writing about popular music."
There are, however, a few exceptions that show promise for this idea of a
meeting of the two worlds, among them rock critic Simon Reynolds writing
about the obsession of record collecting.
Two comprehensive, well-researched and thoroughly engaging new histories
examine the last century or so of popular music from perspectives that are
often ignored. Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music,
Machines, and Money by Mark Coleman (Da Capo, $25) traces the
development of musical technology from wax cylinders to iPods and
revealingly illustrates how, with each new innovation, reactionary forces in
the business panicked, cried wolf and tried to shut it all down.
Meanwhile, Sonic Alchemy: Visionary Music Producers and Their
Maverick Recordings by David N. Howard (Hal Leonard, $18.95) is a
history of record producing told via profiles of giants such as Phil Spector
and George Martin as well as lesser-known but hugely influential figures
such as Lee "Scratch" Perry, the Bomb Squad and Chicagoan Steve Albini.
Johnny Cash fares little better posthumously in bookstores than Cobain.
Stephen Miller's Johnny Cash: The Life of an American Icon
(Omnibus Press, $29.95) is an obviously hastily written, poorly edited
hack-job biography that feels much skimpier than its 400 pages. And Cash
(Crown, $29.95) is typical of these compilations of previously published
material from the pages of Rolling Stone in that it mixes brilliance (with
the legendary Ralph J. Gleason writing about San Quentin, the Man in Black
himself reminiscing on "Jails, Hospitals and Car Wrecks" and a very useful
critical discography) and complete garbage (nobody needs to know what
celebrity fluff writer Jancee Dunn thinks about "Mr. Cool").
Also newly arrived in bookstores and worthy of your consideration are
The White Stripes: Sweethearts of the Blues by Denise Sullivan
(Backbeat, $19.95), a well-illustrated biography of the Detroit duo;
Searching for Robert Johnson by Peter Guralnick (Plume, $11), which is a
lot slimmer than his two-volume Elvis bio, and not surprising, given how
little is known about the blues enigma; Will You Miss Me When I'm
Gone? The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music by Mark
Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg (Simon & Schuster, $15), a fascinating look
at what is perhaps the most influential country dynasty ever, and Perfect
Sound Forever: The Story of Pavement by Rob Jovanovic (Justin, Charles &
Co., $19.99), a satisfyingly focused look at an often slippery and elusive