New volumes on Cobain, Cash just added to rock-music bookcase


May 9, 2004


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 government.

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 band.