the procrastinator’s gift guide
Ringing the Changes
music books, from background to groundbreaking
Yes, we know we gave you a zillion books to consider in last week’s Winter Reading. But writing about music and musicians takes a special touch, an ability to render the aural into the verbal or at least make some damn fine attempts. In essays, biographies, memoir and compilation, the six books we review here take into account history and experience to help convey the artistry. One — Patti Smith’s Just Kids — won the National Book Award for nonfiction, but most of the others are also worth your hard-earned dollars, your wrapping paper and your time as they unravel, without dismantling, the magic of the music.
Highway to Hell By Joe Bonomo. Continuum, $12.95.
The 33 1/3 books are a collectable series of more than 70 titles; various authors have riffed on the legacy of some of rock music’s most venerable albums. This book highlights AC/DC’s 1979 album Highway To Hell, the infamous last work featuring singer Bon Scott, who died of alcohol poisoning in 1980. The book is organized in three chapters — First Chord, Second Chord, Third Chord, natch — and author Joe Bonomo uses interviews, analysis and fanboy memoir to situate the band as outcast proto-punks who hit paydirt with their perfunctory formula celebrating timeless adolescent rock and roll fantasies. — Vanessa Salvia
Mozipedia: The Encyclopedia of Morrissey and The Smiths by Simon Goddard. Plume, $30.
Few rock stars endure more literary criticism than Morrissey, the former front man of seminal ’80s British rock-group the Smiths. His work has spawned “Smith-lit” — practically its own genre of fiction and criticism. And one of the latest entries into the canon of Smith-lit is Simon Goddard’s Mozipedia. Written in encyclopedic form, the book aims to collect in one place all the disparate references, allusions and influences, as well as the minutiae of songs titles, album titles and musical collaborators that go into making Moz the enigma he is.
In addition to being widely considered one of the most original and influential pop stars of the last 30 years, Morrissey is also king of the “pop-snobs” — a fanatical scholar and champion of the obscure and underrated in the history of popular music. And perhaps the only thing more impressive than Morrissey’s own wealth of knowledge is the time and work it took Goddard to comb every interview, lyric and album cover to compile this alarmingly thorough reference guide to all things Mozzer.
What’s clear is that more than just Morrissey’s songs inspire fanaticism. The mystique surrounding the man is due nearly as much to his total devotion to “being” Morrissey himself. In this day and age when every celebrity is infinitely Google-able, it’s revelatory that after all these years in the public eye, we can delve into the psyche of a man via his influences, yet in the end learn nothing about him at all.
Oscar Wilde said that he’d put his talent into his work but his genius into his life. Perhaps when all is said and done, it will be less the music than building the myth of “Morrissey” that is Steven Patrick Morrissey’s greatest and most enduring work of art. — William Kennedy
Listen to This by Alex Ross. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.
I’d read almost all these pieces when they originally appeared in The New Yorker — yet I read them all again anyway. Ross’s second book would be worth the price for its celebrated title manifesto alone, which relates his own experience growing up with only classical music before being seduced in college by the sounds of avant rockers like Pere Ubu and Sonic Youth, an experience he interweaves with a trenchant analysis of the shaky, self-isolating state of classical music — a term he loathes.
The collection gives equal consideration to present day nonclassical geniuses such as Radiohead, Dylan and Bjork as to Brahms, Mozart, Schubert and Verdi. Everyone talks about Dylan’s lyrics, but who else would pay such close attention to the musical structure of an obscure ’80s song: “The disquieting gospel number ‘In the Garden’ shows the agony of Jesus in Gethsemane by wandering through ten different chords, each one like a betrayal”? And Ross throws a valuable spotlight on lesser known but important contemporary vanguard figures like the great Alaska composer John Luther Adams, the El Paso-based St. Lawrence Quartet (recent Eugene visitors) and sublime singers Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Marian Anderson.
Though Ross is less focused in his reported pieces than in essays, it’s welcome to see the nation’s most prominent classical critic escaping his Manhattan desk and standard beat to explore music in China, music education (in a Newark classroom) and innovative institutions like the Marlboro festival and the adventurous, accomplished, popular L.A. Philharmonic; the latter should be required reading for leaders and patrons of America’s many timid, hidebound orchestras. Ross’s historical appreciations (one on how technology changed music, another an historical detective story that traces a form called the chacona down from early 17th century dance through J.S. Bach, the Romantics, 20th century master Gyorgy Ligeti, bluesmen like Skip James, all the way to Led Zeppelin) bring his impressive research from academic books to general readers. This is a book for any music lover. — Brett Campbell
Bob Marley: The Untold Story by Chris Salewicz. Faber & Faber, $27.50.
Perhaps not inappropriately, music writer Chris Salewicz’s biography, Bob Marley: The Untold Story, is utterly devoid of footnotes but rampant with unsubstantiated claims, wild assertions, unexplained Jamaican terminology and mashed-up West Indies patois and Western music critic speak. This is a book that should be smoked rather than read, and as such, it would make a perfect gift for the starry-eyed Rasta in your clan — say, natty cousin Nate, who believes, as do many, that Bob was indeed the rock-steady second coming of Jesus heself.
Exhaustive research can drive humorless biographers in one of two directions: Loathing for their subject — or worship. Salewicz, not the most elegant of writers, clearly adores Marley. Nothing surprising there; Bob Marley is not only the world’s most celebrated reggae musician but one of the most recognizable and beloved icons of the 20th century. Still, there are moments when the author — with an odd admixture of an acolyte’s awe and familiarity — crawls so far up Marley’s ass he skirts necrophilia.
Irie, man, it ain’t all bad, you know. When the author isn’t huffing out mushroom clouds of unsupported, hyperbolic opinions or mangling the English language (“rankled on him”?), he has a fascinating story to tell about the political, economic, religious and revolutionary roots of The Wailers’ music, which arose in the simmering cauldron of Jamaica’s rough-and-tumble Trench Town. Hard to get totally in the way of such an amazingly rich and tangled history. Too bad Salewicz misses so many opportunities to draw broader social/artistic parallels among the growth of other cargo-cultish genres like jazz and punk. When it comes to Salewicz’s literary portrait, he shot the singer, but he did not shoot the contextuality. — Rick Levin
Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage by Kenneth Silverman. Knopf, $40.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Houdini, Poe and others provides a crisp, readable overview of the wonderfully turbulent life of one of the 20th century’s most important composers — but manages to miss the magic that made the genial, industrious California-born avant-gardiste one of history’s most influential artists. The book efficiently chronicles Cage’s creative adventures, from his early partnership with Portland-born Lou Harrison in creating the first percussion ensembles to his creation of the prepared piano and early experiments in electronic music, to his decades-long personal and artistic partnership with choreographer Merce Cunningham, to his embrace of Asian philosophy through his decision to eliminate artistic intentionality by leaving aesthetic choices to chance. And it provides a much richer portrait of the gentle, hardworking genius’s personal life, mostly courtesy of correspondence from his exotically beautiful artist wife, Xenia Kashevaroff, whom he left for Cunningham.
But despite some important insights and exciting moments, Silverman too often renders this amazingly colorful story, teeming with appearances by some of the century’s greatest artistic figures, prosaically — clunky, sometimes ungrammatical sentences, minor fact errors and heavy reliance on flat exposition rather than descriptive scenes that would bring the narrative to life. Begin Again omits some delicious anecdotes familiar to most Cage fans, largely fails to explain why Cage made so many of the significant choices he did and refuses to probe much behind his celebrated smile, leaving the unique character of this most personally compelling and seemingly transparent of all artists as cheerfully impenetrable as ever. — Brett Campbell
Just Kids by Patti Smith. Ecco, $27.
From the first pages — a brief, simple and heartfelt foreword that delicately sets the stage for the decades of stories to come — Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids is infused with remarkable clarity and unbounded love. The story of her complicated, lifelong, remarkable relationship with the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith’s book is quiet and revelatory, confident and humble, graceful and honest. It’s more Smith’s story than Mapplethorpe’s, as she describes her Pennsylvania childhood, move to New York City and gradual development as an artist. But from his first appearance, the boy with the head of dark curly hair colors every page. What Smith describes begins as a friendship between two broke dreamers; their connection evolves into a romantic relationship and back out again, as Mapplethorpe comes to terms with his sexuality. But her story is one in which their relationship — each of them both muse and artist — is the constant in their changing lives. From an apartment in Brooklyn to a room in the Hotel Chelsea to apartments with their separate partners and through Smith’s artistic evolution into the punk icon she’s known as today, their friendship stands like a safe haven of honesty and intimacy. In Smith’s clear-eyed telling, there was romance in their twined lives, but it was also something more than that — two kids connecting in an indescribable way. “Nobody sees as we do, Patti,” Mapplethorpe tells her, and no one saw what Smith saw as she moved among the artistic circles of New York in the 1960s and ’70s. Famous names tromp through the pages of Just Kids, which is as much a chronicle of an era as it is the remarkable, heartbreaking story of a life-changing relationship. Just Kids isn’t just a book for fans of Smith or Mapplethorpe; it’s a cultural treasure trove, a lush depiction of a bygone era in music and in New York
City and a moving, unforgettable reminder to take note of even the smallest ways the people we love change our lives. — Molly Templeton