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More About Music

Books on everyone from Elvis to Rick James

Feb. 9, 2017
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Being Elvis: A Lonely Life (Liveright), by Ray Connelly

It’s not clear that the world needs another book on Elvis Presley [full disclosure: mine was published in 2011]. But veteran British rock writer Ray Connelly takes another swing at the subject with Being Elvis. Connelly is letter-perfect on defining the salient points. Elvis didn’t invent rock and roll but became the first rock star (and fumbled by having no role models to follow). He crafted a mask of bravura to conceal fears, weaknesses, loneliness. Connelly sketches the conundrums of the King’s beliefs, which involved an innate conservatism fueled by a sense of rebellion and a desire to escape the poverty he had known. As Connelly write, Elvis was killing himself by touring in his last years to support his family, retinue and reclusive life. He was going broke. And yet, that voice: “He copied from everyone, his own voice being the result of a collision between the different styles he loved.”


Close to the Edge: An Inside Look at Progressive Rock’s Defining Masterwork (BackBeat Books), by Will Romano

Many will disagree with Will Romano’s premise that Yes’ Close to the Edge (1972) was the pinnacle of progressive rock—and many still dismiss the entire genre as puffed-up foolishness. Of course, the haters aren’t the audience for Romano’s latest trip to prog, but even fans with a more casual interest will hear notes of interest. Romano correctly finds progressive rock’s origins in ‘60s British pop culture, The Beatles and the possibilities opened by the album format. Compared with singles, “the canvas on which an artist could paint was larger,” he writes. “Filling the space with innovative and expansive music was inevitable.” Romano traces the impact of Close to the Edge to surprising places. He quotes major league baseball’s Ton La Russa, citing the album for teaching him to make “strategic decisions during the game” by playing it “close to the edge.”

 

Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie as Told to Albert Murray (University of Minnesota Press)

Count Basie was one of the last century’s greatest African-American jazz artists and Albert Murray was one of the era’s great African-American intellectuals with a keen interest in music. The pairing was a successful marriage of opposites with the animated Murray drawing memorable stories from the taciturn Basie. Basie’s autobiography “as told to” Murray, considered a classic in jazz literature, has been reissued again in paperback. Good Morning Blues doesn’t begin at birth but with Basie’s encounter with a band called The Blue Devils. Although already a professional musician, he “had never heard anything like this in my life.” Basie now had his model and proceeded to launch one of the signature swing bands and a career that put him in touch with Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Quincy Jones.

 

Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie (SelfMadeHero), by Nejib

Like a picture book from the 1960s for clever children, Haddon Hall is an imaginative story composed from a sequence of hand-captioned drawings made of simple lines and color blocks. The story concerns David Bowie, as the ‘60s were about the end, when he was still a young man about to invent himself. And the narrator is the rented house on the London outskirts where Bowie lived at the time with Angie, the woman who soon became his wife (and a glam-rock style goddess). “His career so far was nothing but a string of flops and artistic failures,” says the house, sympathetic toward its new tenant. The reader of course will know the happy ending to this fun interpretation of an early chapter in Bowie’s life by Nejib, a Tunisian-born Paris-based artist.

 

Light Come Shining: The Transformations of Bob Dylan (Oxford University Press), by Andrew McCarron

Andrew McCarron hasn’t written yet another chronicle of banalities in a rock star’s life but instead has done something deeper, more interesting. A psychologist at New York’s Trinity School, McCarron analyzes Bob Dylan through three turning points in his life: his alleged motorcycle accident (1966), his conversion to evangelical Christianity (1978) and a return to form following rehearsals with the Grateful Dead (1987). In some respect it’s an arbitrary set-up. As McCarron admits, Dylan was in transition before, between and after the three markers he identifies. Yet, he is onto something by tracking “a recurring narrative… that can be traced back to his childhood” involving the blues and country that not only served as musical touchstones but provided him with a mythology—a way back from life’s dead ends from Hibbing, Minnesota through the endless tour of today.

 

Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol (Da Capo), by Steve Jones with Ben Thompson

Steve Jones grew up on the wrong end of London in working class ‘60s England. Prospects were poor and rock music became his hoop dream. Jones’ memoir bristles with a vivid sense of time and place—he still hasn’t dropped the UK punkspeak (“the inconsiderate cunts,” he grouses). Jones disclaims “any kind of agenda” except to show that the band that brought him fame and a footnote in history, The Sex Pistols, couldn’t have happened without him. The dishy account will interest fans of early punk rock; Jones gives Johnny Rotten his due but largely slags off Malcolm McLaren, the swengali beloved by pseudo-intellectual cultural studies professors but by few who were actually on the scene.

 

Steely Dan FAQ (BackBeat Books), by Anthony Robustelli

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were a pair of Beat jazz buffs born a few years too late. By the time they reached college in the ‘60s, it was the rock era and they adjusted, bring jazz and literary sensibilities into a band that rates as one of a kind, Steely Dan. Anthony Robustelli nails down his elusive subject pretty well in Steely Dan FAQ, summarizing Becker and Fagen’s life and the career of a group that abandoned the concert stage for many years in favor of a studio perfectionism few artists have approached. Robustelli reveals the stories behind many of their songs, which seemed so cryptic upon release.

 

Stephen Stills: Change Partners, The Definitive Biography (Red Planet), by David Roberts

Stephen Stills has expressed distaste for rock star memoirs; he has avoided interviews in recent years and when British rock writer David Roberts approached him, he said no. And so The Definitive Biographer is an unauthorized one, perhaps more the better, given the author’s pronounced fandom. The weakness of Change Partners comes down to a failure to identify the exact sources of the quotes that stud his account, most presumably from magazine interviews across the years. Is Stills really “the most complicated” member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young—after all, Neil Young is tough competition. Never mind: Roberts gives a vivid sense of what this music meant and how it felt before it became part of the ossified canon of oldies radio.

 

Super Freak: The Life of Rick James (Chicago Review Press), by Peter Benjaminson

The life of Rick James as sketched by Peter Benjaminson isn’t pretty. It has three prevailing themes: compulsive and abusive womanizing, drug addiction and music. Only the latter prevented him from being nothing more than a social problem statistic by the time of his death in 2004. As for the music, the R&B singer remembered for his irresistibly rhythmic ‘80s hit, “Super Freak,” had a more varied career than most fans knew. Benjaminson writes with some insight on James’ troubled stint in the U.S. Navy and contentious if successful tenure with Motown. With the rise of hip-hop, bits of James were widely sampled. “Super Freak” remains instantly familiar, despite, not because of its salaciousness. As Benjaminson writes, “music, lyrics, and performance have worked so exquisitely well together that they’ve burned the song into global pop consciousness.”

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