Rock 'n' roll X-Mas 

Books and DVDs roundup 2011

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Rock literature aficionados shouldn't be surprised to find oral histories on the likes of Men Without Hats, and still others devoted to the wit and wisdom of shock-rock "punk" cult hero GG Allin, in our near future. Such a prediction may not be totally fair to Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum's I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story ($29.95, Dutton), an exhaustive and well-researched oral history that provides pretty much everything — and then some — anyone who came of age in the '80s and grew up with it would ever want to know about the video television monster and monopoly that made the world safe for "The Safety Dance." But how else to process the autobiography-philosophical tract on the nature of evil and sin by Slipknot lead singer, Corey Taylor? His Seven Deadly Sins: Settling the Argument between Being Born Bad & Damaged Good ($24, DaCapo) includes all the inanities and sexual depravities (but not the titillating kind) one might expect from the masked man. Even Ace Frehley published his own story this year, No Regrets ($26, VH1 Books) — and while it still hadn't been seen by this reviewer at press time, advance publicity promised much information about Gene Simmons' perpetual on-the-road crabs during KISS' heyday; one can only hope it also features the tidbit Peter Criss once told me about Gene having it in his contract that every single person had to address him as "God" during the original band's final pre-reunion tour. Hell, 2012 has been promised an autobiography from Courtney Love, which should be a fine addition to fiction and abnormal psychology sections in the 10 or so bookstores still left in the United States. As this writer once wrote in an unpublished letter to the L.A. Times when Ms. Love used that paper to announce the forthcoming publication of the diaries of her late husband, who she termed "one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century" or something like that: "If Kurt was one of the most brilliant minds of the last 100 years, what was he doing married to Courtney Love?" But I digress ...

 

Rock critics: Believe it or not, music criticism was responsible for some of 2011's finest books, with Kevin Avery's impeccably researched Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life & Writings of Paul Nelson ($29.99, Fantagraphics) leading the pack. Nelson — who was very generous of spirit to young writers in the early days of pop criticism — was a pioneering rock (and film and folk movement) critic, as well as an unsung leader of the form that became known as "new journalism." He influenced Bob Dylan's art, providing the bard with many of the musical roots he'd return to throughout his career (in fact, Dylan got busted stealing a bunch of records from Nelson and his roommate when he was still Bobby Zimmerman in their native Minneapolis); "destroyed" his own A&R career at Mercury Records in the '70s by signing his beloved New York Dolls (and Ohio's brilliant Blue Ash); and became a close friend and confidant of such figures as Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Warren Zevon, Rod Stewart and Jackson Browne (and that's just for beginners). And yet, after he'd seemingly decided that both society and the art forms he loved had let him down, Nelson drifted into writer's block and what can only be described as madness before his 2006 death from starvation at age 70. Avery has done an outstanding job assembling a collection of the writer's work, fully illustrating why he was such an influential presence in his time. But, sadly, especially in our time, it also reads as something of a cautionary tale — and if you read this and Jim DeRogatis' Lester Bangs biography together, you might wonder why on earth anyone would ever choose rock criticism as a career in the first place. (Then why did Bill Holdship choose rock criticism? —Ed.)

The great Ellen Willis, who was the New Yorker's first rock critic from 1968 through '75, died from cancer the same year as Nelson. But combining Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music ($22.95, University of Minnesota) with the Nelson book will help give a younger reader a glimpse into a time when criticism and journalism did matter and could even be considered a noble pursuit. Willis — who may be better remembered as a radical leftist and feminist during the latter part of her career — still resonates with words she wrote about music decades ago. Hers were some of the finest pieces ever on Lou Reed and the Velvets, as well as Janis Joplin and CCR, among many others. It's satisfying to read her treating Elvis in a fair manner during the late '60s and early '70s; or pointing out, in early '69, that "the Stones' sensibility has always been — at least in part — a revision of and a reaction to the Beatles'"; and arguing, "a bit prickly because I've had this argument before," with postpunk fools, who even then were mistaking history for nostalgia or sentimentality (or both), by suggesting such detail on the part of an artist is to "acknowledge the '60s instead of trying to pretend all that stuff never happened." Wise words; excellent reading.

Nick Tosches wrote the foreword to Avery's Nelson bio. And while I haven't yet read his own 2011 tome, Save the Last Dance for Satan ($12.95, Kicks Books), which expands a Vanity Fair piece (which I did read) about the record biz, mobsters and hoodlums all intermingling during the post-Elvis early '60s of seemingly musical innocence, Tosches remains in a pantheon of music history scribes, stylists and critics occupied by the likes of Bangs, Nick Kent and only a few others. His Dean Martin biography and "Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n Roll" columns for CREEM, among other things, are the stuff of legend — so this offering from Norton Records' Billy Miller & Miriam Linna's offshoot of their old Kicks magazine promises a dandy and rewarding reading experience. Berkeley, Calif., native Joel Selvin covered the San Francisco music scene for 32 years, from 1972 through 2009, for that city's major newspaper, The Chronicle. But while Smartass: The Music Journalism of Joel Selvin ($19.95, Pantheon) has some in-depth reporting on Frisco music, ranging from lots on the Grateful Dead to Sly Stone and Bill Graham, Selvin's beat spanned the entire Golden State musical landscape, including excellent pieces on Merle Haggard, Tom Waits and his infamous exposé on the late Kevin Gilbert's suicide and the showbiz manipulation by Sheryl Crow that was behind that whole tale. And really, who can resist a Dennis Wilson profile that begins with the Beach Boy exiting Michael Love's meditation chamber to announce to the journalist: "I just jacked off in Mike's room"?

 Chuck Eddy book

Chuck Eddy's Rock And Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism ($24.95, Duke University Press) captures a singular critical voice from, arguably, the last great period in which criticism (and physical publications) still mattered. Eddy, who was most recently music editor of the Village Voice until the corporation in charge of that "alternative" weekly decided he was expendable, spent a good portion of his childhood in Michigan, and "Detroit" ends up with the longest section in this book's index, with much attention given to such hometown heroes as Eminem, the White Stripes, Kid Rock and others. The emphasis here is on criticism as opposed to feature writing and reporting — his early CREEM cover-feature on the Beastie Boys isn't here, for instance — but Eddy (who's credited with sparking the idea for Aerosmith, Run DMC and Rick Rubin to join forces) is one of the rare critics who's fun and interesting to read even when vehemently disagreeing with some of his contrary opinions. That's no small feat. Many of his detractors don't seem to get how funny he can be. Chuck Klosterman — who wrote the book's foreword — calls him "the other Chuck," but, in many ways, it isn't really incorrect to call him "the real Chuck." (This writer was especially pleased to see the collection conclude — aside from a somewhat depressing "where to from here?" afterword — with Eddy's 2009 Village Voice "Critics Poll" feature, in which he singled out yours truly as one of the few voters who didn't adhere to what he thought was a disturbing, Animal Collective-led, lemmings-like consensus; this came right after a then-popular, now-ghost town-like, always mean-spirited local music blog had termed my same list, which was also published in this paper, "pathetic." That made my day; bless you, Chuck.)

 Fever book

Biographies: One place where music writers can still matter and not appear expendable, it would seem, is in helping rock morons ... er, stars look like they know how to write prose and tell a linear story. I kid, I kid! But to prove a point, Mitch Ryder's long-awaited and promised autobiography, Devils & Blue Dresses ($29.95, Cool Titles) could've certainly benefited from a good editor and co-writer-journalist. Ryder remains one of the greatest musical legends this city ever produced, of course ... so suffice it to say that beyond a bizarre revelation or four (but not nearly enough), this book is more often than not a mess and total wasted opportunity. Much, much better on the Detroit tip is Fever: Little Willie John's Fast Life, Mysterious Death and The Birth of Soul: The Authorized Biography ($25.99, Titan Books), for which Detroit News writer, former CREEM editor and Motown expert Susan Whitall gets top billing over Kevin John, eldest son of the late D-Town legend. The man who originally recorded Otis Blackwell's "Fever" influenced everyone from James Brown to Stevie Wonder (who penned the foreword) and Marvin Gaye. And Whitall's billing is obviously well-deserved, since the veteran reporter uses the material provided by the John family, as well as her firsthand material, to shape this into a cinematic-like tale that presents exactly what the last three words of its subtitle claim. A nice addition to Detroit musical history.

Another really fine example of how well collaboration between star and journalist can work is Sammy Hagar's Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock ($26.99, It!/HarperCollins), co-written with the aforementioned Joel Selvin. Hagar has endured a lot of disdain over the years for basically coming off as a rock-star version of that not-so-bright but amiable surfer-dude who always had the best pot we all knew back in high school. But with Selvin behind him, he's structured an absolutely fascinating read, even for someone like me who, beyond Montrose's debut album and maybe Van Halen's "Why Can't This Be Love," never gave this dude much thought. A short passage about partying with Steve Marriott one night is alone worth this book's existence. And despite there being two (and usually more) sides to every story, his no-holds-barred chronicles of the atrocious and addictive behavior of the Van Halen brothers, not to mention his David Lee Roth tales ("He's a fuckin', bald-headed asshole," an exasperated Hagar tells the New York Post near the end of that pair's tour together, with events then climaxing and exploding via an angry Diamond Dave screaming backstage: "You calling me a faggot? You fucking fag!"), ultimately turns the very notion of "rock stardom" (or, better, "god-dom") on its head. Like I said, genuine literature shaped from the minds and mouths of morons.

Ironically, Bob Mould, who co-wrote See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage & Melody ($24.99, Little Brown) with Cobain biographer Michael Azerrad of Our Band Could Be Your Life fame, is someone I did pay a lot of attention to back in the day (that first Sugar album is still a power-pop masterpiece) — but his autobio doesn't fascinate nearly as much as Hagar's does. It's a pretty straightforward career exploration — and definitely worth a read for fans of that era and, especially, Hüsker Dü. But the dirt here doesn't get much deeper than a weird Michael Stipe making fans enter through a window rather than a door; the drama not much heavier than the conflict between Mould and Grant Hart. And the music gets short shrift. But those who admire Mould for being a gay pride role model, at a time when society in general, and punk in particular (not to mention pro wrestling, which the singer-songwriter also pursued at one point), still wasn't all that accepting, will probably find much here to like (even if his "outing" by Dennis Cooper in SPIN finds Mould admitting that he was angry at the magazine for 15 years for quoting him directly). His ego is big, something that's reflected in a line like: "In my mind, it was no longer 'I wonder if we're better than the Replacements.' We were playing with REM and I was thinking 'Next?'" Um, nothing wrong with believing your band is the best in the world, but with that example, you fail, Bob.

Scott Weiland found an excellent co-writer for his Not Dead & Not for Sale: The Earthling Papers: A Memoir ($24, Scribner). (What's with all the artsy long titles this year?) David Ritz co-authored Ray Charles' autobiography and did a great Marvin Gaye book as well. So one wonders how much input he had into this insufferable bore, which is often as pretentious as its title and the van Gogh-wannabe photo of the singer on its cover suggest. I guess some people do dig this poofball — how else can you explain a book deal? — but he's always struck me as the kind of former high school jock who initially did heroin 'cause it was in the "Rock Star 101" syllabus and then — oops! — found himself a total fuck-up for life. Weiland's former Velvet Revolver bandmate Duff McKagan has basically spent his career dealing with difficult (which is sometimes a polite way of saying almost-psychotic) frontmen. But even though he has his gripes with Axl Rose — most notably for never showing up on time for concerts during their Guns N' Roses heyday — this is a guy who never has anything too harsh to say about anyone, which is probably why he's the only former member of the band to have joined Rose onstage since the split. Duff was my apartment building neighbor in Los Angeles for a year right before the band exploded, and his book (which he wrote himself!), It's So Easy & Other Lies ($26, Touchstone), is as sweet-natured as he is in real life. A lot of it is a retread of stuff already reported in Slash's book and other GN'R histories. But his tales of addiction and its near-death results are harrowing, and, overall, this is a fine addition to the saga.

Of course, there are thankfully many non-morons involved in rock and its history as well. Human Switchboard leader and former record-biz exec Bob Pfeifer proves that with his first novel, University of Strangers ($12, Power City Press), an alternative universe look at modern celebrity culture and paranoia, featuring a few detailed autobiographical experiences from the author's own life. 

John Lennon book

But there has never been any less of a moron in rock history than John Lennon, who got a definitive treatment this year via the 784-page Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music by NPR rock critic and Beatles historian Tim Riley ($35, Hyperion). Who would have thought there'd be more to say about the man and his myth 31 years after his tragic death? But Riley gets as close as a biographer can get to the truth behind much-debated and -disputed topics. Consider it the total antithesis to the repugnant Albert Goldman's putrid 1988 book. (The author here doesn't even mention Lennon's assassin by name, as it really always should be.) Riley's Lennon is no angel. But as George Harrison added in an interview, after first agreeing with that sentiment, shortly after JL's death: "But he was as well." In Riley's hands, though, there's no doubt that he was a great artist — one of the greatest — and, like Courtney Love's husband, one of the most brilliant and important minds of the 20th century. It'll make you fall in love with him all over again. 

Lennon also makes up one-eleventh of the main subject material in former Entertainment Weekly writer David Browne's Fire & Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 ($26, DaCapo), which makes a convincing case for that year as one of rock's most pivotal, with a new breed leading the music out of the utopian Aquarian and then disillusioned post-Altamont age ... and into the corporate rock and mainstream arena that was to rule from that point on. In fact, the book concludes with former Fabs associate Peter Asher booking his management client James Taylor into arenas, charging a then-whopping $7.50 for tickets, with the subsequent tour the first to use video TV screens to play to the masses. Alice Cooper and the Eagles, not to mention the revised Fleetwood Mac, were all waiting just down the road.

John Lennon co-wrote "Fame" with David Bowie, of course, so he plays a small role in David Bowie: Starman, by former MOJO editor Paul Trynka ($25.99, Little Brown), for my money at least, the best rock bio of 2011 not about the Fabs. The author conducted 250 new interviews (including material from Detroit's own Scott Richardson of SRC fame, who toured with David and Angie during the Ziggy era and became Mrs. Bowie's lover) for this eye-opener — and even the most devoted Bowie fans will undoubtedly find stuff here they never knew before. And it's as well-written of a page-turner as Trynka's earlier definitive Iggy bio, Open Up & Bleed, was. The latter remains the best, probably most accurate, and definitely most readable book about the Stooges, James Williamson, etc., etc. — and Starman will surely now take that same role when it comes to Thin White Duke lit.

 

Other notable bios: The Stooges: Head On: A Journey Through the Michigan Underground by Metro Times' own Brett Callwood ($19.95, Wayne State); Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell by Tony Iommi with T.J. Lammers ($26, DaCapo); New York: Bob Dylan by June Skinner Sawyer ($14.95, Roaring Forties Press); This Is a Call: Life & Times of Dave Grohl by Paul Brannigan ($26.99, DaCapo); Lady Blue Eyes: My Life with Frank by Barbara Sinatra ($24.99, Crown); Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story by Dave Thompson ($24.95, Chicago Review Press).

 

Coffee-table, art and gift books: You may have noticed that the bios section here didn't mention Steven Tyler's 2011 autobio — but that's only 'cause I never got a review copy. Which was a shame, since Tyler didn't get nearly enough exposure this past year. I'm prejudiced, but I do think Aerosmith fans would be just as well served and rewarded by Richard Bienstock's Aerosmith: The Ultimate History Of the Boston Bad Boys ($35, Voyageur Press), a beautiful visual history of the band, with accompanying critical assessments from yours truly, as well as Chuck Eddy, Jaan Uhelszki and Bud Scoppa, among others. No company does these rock history photo books, with critical perspectives, any better than the Minneapolis-based Voyageur does — and this year's crop also featured Brit critic Chris Welch's Clapton: The Ultimate Illustrated History ($40); rock poster historian Paul Grushkin's, Dead Letters: The Very Best Grateful Dead Fan Mail ($29.99), which features some beautiful psychedelic artwork sent to the band over the years; and, the grandest of them all from my perspective, Rockabilly: The Illustrated History, edited by Michael Dregni ($30), which chronicles that wonderful twang from the birth of the King featured on its cover straight through to the Cramps, Tav Falco & Panther Burns, the Rev. Horton Heat and beyond. Contributors include Greil Marcus, acclaimed Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick, Sonny Burgess, Wanda Jackson, and many, many more.

Olivia Harrison's George Harrison: Living in the Material World ($45, Abrams) is the companion volume to Martin Scorsese's recent excellent HBO-aired documentary on the great man. A must for his fans and Beatlemaniacs in general, with the often tragically underrated Beatle getting his own Beatles Anthology of sorts ... though I'm really waiting for the DVD of the documentary. A book of unseen Beatles photos, The Last Beatles Photographs: The Bob Bonnis Archive, 1964-1966 ($29.99, It!/HarperCollins) made a media splash this year with its newly discovered shots, including a 26-page section of the lads backstage and on at Detroit's Olympia Stadium in August '66. (A companion book of Bonnis' archive of Rolling Stones photos from that same era is almost as impressive.) And Linda McCartney: Life in Photographs ($69.99, Taschen) includes many of the pop star shots that were in the late, lovely Linda's now out-of-print 1993 book, Linda McCartney's Sixties: Portrait of an Era (which has been selling for as much as $100 for mint copies) — not just classic Beatles shots, but also the Stones, Hendrix, Joplin, Neil Young, the Doors, etc. Even more of this oversized volume, however, is devoted to her more artistic work and, especially, the Macca family. Say what you will about their music (and it really shouldn't be negative unless you're incredibly cynical), but Paul and Linda were obviously terrific parents and one of the greatest love stories in all of rock. And the proof is in these pages.

A Perfect Haze: The Illustrated History of the Monterey International Pop Festival by Los Angeles brothers Harvey & Kenneth Kubernik ($45, Santa Monica Press) is, quite simply, the best book ever on that legendary 1967 "Summer of Love" musical event. It's not only the wonderful, sometimes dazzling photos from the likes of the great Henry Diltz, among others, and the vivid remembrances by artists and attendees alike, that make it such a beautiful book. As he did in his recent Laurel Canyon history, Harvey frequently concentrates on the less obvious facets of things, basically ignoring what others have already chronicled, while encapsulating not just the brief idyllic nature of the time but also his subjects in a single sentence. Such as describing Bill Graham "handling artists with the sensitivity of Josef Stalin." Or Micky Dolenz thusly: "For a brief, dazzling moment, he was the center of what was happening, the gracious host to a new generation of pop aristocracy." Terrific book.

Legendary rock photog Bob Gruen's Rock Seen ($45, Abrams) feels like it weighs a ton — but there's about a ton's worth of great photos within, including some of the most iconic in rock. And even with several pages loaded with classic images only a little larger than postage stamps (most of the book is full-page portraits and live shots), one would be happy to see even more images from his archives. Not just of Lennon and the Dolls — the subjects of his two previous books — but almost every artist that ever mattered, including the Ramones, Pistols, Zeppelin, the '50s rock 'n' roll pioneers, and cover boys the Clash, captured at a time when they billed themselves as, ahem, "the only band that matters." Back in the time when such things really did seem to matter.

 

DVDs: Mott the Hoople mattered so much to David Bowie that he gave them one of his finest Ziggy-era songs and then produced an album for them in an attempt to take them to superstardom. It was the tragic but colorful Guy Stevens — who later produced London Calling for that aforementioned only band that mattered — who originally put this band of talented louts together, though, in an almost Monkees-ish way. Bowie and the late Stevens (and, sadly, Mick Ronson) don't appear in The Ballad of Mott the Hoople ($26.99, Start). But most of the other principals — including the always articulate Ian Hunter, whose Dylan-isms merged with a Stones-like hard rock is what made the band's sound what it was — are featured in this fantastic documentary, which presents a strong case for Mott as one of the greatest rock bands of all time. A lot more live material — like, the whole concert! — from their 2009 reunion would've been greatly appreciated, though.

The Hollies: Look Through Any Window, 1963-1975 ($14.99, Reelin' in the Years) is a long-awaited new addition to director David Peck's "British Invasion" series (previous volumes have spotlighted the Small Faces and Herman's Hermits), which takes a Beatles Anthology-like approach to lesser-known bands of the era. Featuring 22 complete performances, including a few early ones that demonstrate these guys could surprisingly rock), the doc makes it clear how they managed to go from the Merseybeat-ish "Bus Stop" to the great pseudo-Credence rip "Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)" during the course of a career, spotlighting the eventual battle between Graham Nash's "progressive" instincts and the band's pop aesthetic. Much like the Beach Boys, these guys never came off as "hip," no matter how much they tried, but a live version of "Look Through Any Window" included here is enough to take your breath away.

And speaking of live, the Rolling Stones' Some Girls: Live in Texas '78 ($14.99, Eagle Rock) captures that band in July of its 1978 summer American tour, which was the last really great tour the band did before settling into their role as a fun and entertaining but basically nostalgic big rock show act. (The disc, whose bonus features include the Stones' September '78 appearance on Saturday Night Live, is also included in the new deluxe box version reissue of the Some Girls album.) But threatened by the barbs of the newly emerging punk rockers, and with their supremacy at stake at the time, the band had something to prove. Some Girls was their musical answer — and the subsequent shows were the last time they really seemed "dangerous" and could still lay claim to the "greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world" title ... when, yes, such things still mattered, though perhaps only God remembers why.

We got Bill Holdship on ice up in Battle Axe, where he writes like a madman.

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