By Jim DeRogatis

Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century (St. Martin’s), by Charles Shaar Murray

With Crosstown Traffic, his landmark 1989 study of Jimi Hendrix, English rock critic Charles Shaar Murray filled an exceedingly tall order. He opened knowledgeable fans’ ears to that most venerated of ’60s rock icons so that Hendrix once again sounded as fresh as he did the day he first plugged in that famous upside-down Strat. At the same time, the author made his subject accessible to a new generation born long after Woodstock, providing an invaluable course in Hendrix 101 so that the guitar god’s music (and not just his legend or the hype) might live on.

Though he is obviously an enormous talent, a huge influence, and a true musical originator, John Lee Hooker is no Jimi Hendrix. Five hundred pages long and a decade in the making, Murray’s new biography of the foot-stompin’, boogie-pickin’ bluesman might initially seem a bit excessive—Crosstown Traffic was less than half its length. But in addition to tracing a fascinating life and offering an expert tour of a complicated discography, Boogie Man is the rare music book that fulfills the promise of its subtitle.

Hooker was born in 1917, the year the first blues recording was commercially released, and Murray does indeed trace his adventures through the America of the 20th century. Since most of these adventures involve music-making, the book also stands as an epic account of the birth, development, and ever-worsening corruption of the music industry, as well as an homage to the rarest of artists whose spirit prevails despite it all.

We follow Hooker from the rural Mississippi of his birth to the post-war boom town of Detroit, and from his Chicago years on Vee-Jay through his rediscovery in the ’90s and into comfortable semi-retirement in California at the age of 84. Murray evokes these times and places with the eye of a sociologist and the pen of a poet. Like fellow music biographer Nick Tosches, he has an abiding love for scenic detours, whether it’s a pause to consider the pompous self-importance of the house band on The David Letterman Show, or a brief critical exegesis of sampling and the age of post-modernism. It all contributes to a subtly nuanced landscape that both shapes Hooker and looms in sharp contrast to the world that the artist creates in his music and his personal life.

“The story of John Lee Hooker’s life is, essentially, the story of his resistance to any and all attempts to change him, to dilute an intrinsic sense of self which has successfully withstood all pressures, including those of institutionalized racism, family, church, and the music business,” Murray writes. Granted unprecedented access as the authorized biographer, he paints a portrait that is loving and respectful but full of tiny, telling details, whether it’s the middle-aged Hook reacting nervously to the young British girls who throw themselves at him in the early ’60s, or the senior citizen retreating into his bedroom to avoid party-hearty houseguests in the late ’90s. “I’m a crawlin’ king snake and I rules my den,” Hooker sang, and he has lived by that credo, albeit in a quiet and dignified manner.

Those are the last two words you’d apply to Hooker’s music, of course, and Murray evokes those guttural burrowings as effectively as he did Hendrix’s transcendent space flights. Boogie Man builds to a helpfully annotated discography charting the best of the available Hooker discs from each era in his artistic development. There can be no higher tribute to the author than to say that readers who embark on this guided tour will emerge not only with a solid understanding of the Hook’s place in a cultural landscape that stretches from Africa to Snoop Dogg, but they’ll be ravenously hungry to consume the sounds that Hooker defiantly crafted and the author so thoroughly illuminated.

Beat Punks: New York’s Underground Culture from the Beat Generation to the Punk Explosion (Da Capo), by Victor Bockris

There is a great book to be done exploring everything from the superficial poses to the deep philosophical concepts that unite the Beat Generation of the ’50s and the Blank Generation of the first punk era in the mid ’70s. Unfortunately, Victor Bockris hasn’t written it. The self-professed “poet laureate of the New York underground” maintains the slapdash tradition of his clip-job biographies of Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, and Lou Reed by rummaging through his files to round up previously published pieces on Beat and/or punk heroes like William S. Burroughs, Martin Amis, Debbie Harry, and Muhammad Ali (huh?). Artless in their original incarnations, these profiles are now compiled without logic and presented sans insightful commentary, thoroughly betraying the fine idea of the title.

We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The True, Tough Story of Women In Rock (Atlantic Monthly Press), by Gerri Hirshey

There is no more hackneyed notion in music journalism circa 2001 than paying homage to “women in rock.” If the best female artists p.m. (post-Madonna) accomplished anything, it was to prove that being lumped in a media-constructed ghetto is as insulting as being ignored; Courtney Love shouldn’t be judged as a female rocker, but as a rocker, period. This is news to veteran music journalist Gerri Hirshey, who has expanded an uninspired special issue of Rolling Stone into an unremarkable tour of musicians who ovulate, from Bessie Smith and Mahalia Jackson to Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott. These artists and many more breeze by in superficial sketches propelled by the sort of breathless gush heard on VH1’s Behind the Music. To anyone who really cares about women or rock, The Sex Revolts by Simon Reynolds and Joy Press remains a much more useful and thought-provoking read.

Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World (A Cappella), by Ruy Castro

Translated from the original Portuguese, Brazilian journalist’s Ruy Castro’s Bossa Nova is the best sort of genre study, one as rich in quirky human detail as it is in musical analysis. In a chatty style as warm as his native beaches and as rhythmic as the music, Castro traces the sound’s development from its birth in the ’50s in the basements of Rio de Janeiro to its mid-’60s explosion as a global phenomenon (“The Girl from Ipanema” is the fifth most played song in the world). Bringing us up to date, New York worldbeat critic Julian Dibbell adds a foreword that connects the dots between this stylish groove and the current lounge revival, as well as the Tropicalia movement of Caetano Veloso.