Rock and read

There have been reports for a long time now that young people no longer read books. So maybe it's because rock is now often music for middle-aged and old folks — but whatever the case, publishers keep publishing rock books, and as long as they do, we'll keep spotlighting them in this annual roundup of new music literature.

With that reading issue in mind, however, we'll kick this off with some of this year's more photo-oriented (or at least visually oriented) books. Legendary New York City photographer Bob Gruen (the famous shot of Lennon in front of the Statue of Liberty is his) had a longtime relationship with the New York Dolls, from their earliest days at the Mercer Arts Center straight through to their Malcolm McLaren-infused dissolution in Britain only several years later. Two years ago, Gruen released an excellent DVD of his videotaped films on tour with the bands, and he now follows that up with New York Dolls: Photographs of Bob Gruen (Abrams Image Books, $24.95). Everything about this book — from its hot-pink cover to the candid backstage photos of the boys letting their guard down — is absolutely perfect. Punk magazine co-founder Legs McNeil wrote the commentary and conducted the interviews, and there are additional pieces by Lenny Kaye and Morrissey. It's the ultimate gift this year for the glam or classic punk rocker in your life and should tide them over until the next album from the remnants of the Dolls is released next year; this one, by the way, will be produced by Todd Rundgren, who helmed the band's debut LP.

The L.A. big-hair metal bands all mentioned the Dolls as a major influence in interviews, even though the best of Los Angeles' collective music wasn't anywhere near comparable. It was definitely all about fashion, but, even in that sense, those '80s metal bands weren't nearly as cool or innovative as the New York originators were. Guns N' Roses, who evolved beyond the big-hair scene in short time, probably came closest, though, thanks primarily to Izzy Stradlin's Keith Richards-Johnny Thunders fixation. Photographer Mark Canter, guitarist Slash's best friend since childhood (and heir to the world-famous Canter's Deli in Hollywood), had the same type of access to the band early on that Gruen had with the Dolls. There are interviews, live show transcripts and commentary throughout his Reckless Road: Guns N' Roses and the Making of Appetite for Destruction (ShootHip, $29.95) — but it's definitely the photos and mementos pictured in the book that make this probably the best GN'R tome yet — although writer Stephen Davis recently gave the band the same warts-and-all biographical treatment he's given the Stones, Aerosmith and the Beach Boys over the years with Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N' Roses (Gotham, $27.50), though I've yet to read it. If you lived in Los Angeles at the time — I particularly enjoyed the photo of Axl Rose dressed in a CREEM Boy Howdy! T-shirt right near a transcript of a Whiskey show in which he berated BAM magazine from the stage — this book is almost like a page out of a communal diary (if that diary featured strippers, booze, drugs and Sunset Strip sleaze).

Led Zeppelin arguably remains bigger than the Dolls and GN'R combined. As such, the band deserves a big book — and the Jon Bream-edited Whole Lotta Led Zeppelin: The Illustrated History of the Heaviest Band of All Time (Voyageur Press, $40) definitely fits the bill. There are words here, of course — former Detroiters such as Jaan Uheszki and Chuck Eddy contribute essays, as does local paper scribe Gary Graff. But, again, it's the band mementos and photos — including many by current and former Detroiters Charlie Auringer, Bob Alford and Bob Matheu (you can even spot all three of them standing at the front of the stage in one of the Detroit live show shots!) — that make this a treasure for longtime fans of Messrs. Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham.

On the subject of big books, the Clash finally get the Beatles Anthology-like oral history treatment with The Clash by the Clash (Grand Central Publishing, $40). It's beautifully put together, even if one can't stop wondering, even for a second, what the late Joe Strummer would've had to say about such grand and reverent treatment.

Other notable recent music biographies include a new look at Sly Stone in Jeff Kaliss'I Want To Take You Higher: The Life & Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books, $24.95). If you're looking for the best Sly book to come out this year, this is the one, since it's the only Sly book published this year. The author builds the book around a rare interview he did with the reclusive pop-funk genius a year or so ago (which concludes the book) in an attempt to prove that too much attention has been given to the artist's drug-fueled decline, and that Stone still has the potential to return better than ever. But while Sly Stone's music certainly deserves to be celebrated with the highest praise, when Kaliss finally meets up with Stone, it's a literary anticlimax. Stone once again appears to be an incredibly damaged figure, nowhere near the powerful personality he was back in his glory days. Ironically, the author condemns Joel Selvin's earlier oral bio of Stone for being too negative throughout his book, while borrowing the best stuff from Selvin's work to use here. The Sly Stone story is one of the most tragic in pop music. There's certainly a great biography to be written, not to mention a great movie to be produced from it. This, unfortunately, isn't the one.

James A. Mitchell's It Was All Right: Mitch Ryder's Life in Music (Wayne State University Press, $24.95) tells a story much closer to home, although the author here also focuses on Ryder's music and creative output as opposed to some of the juicier material behind the scenes. And there's plenty of the latter to tell in this case, including the disagreements with Mellencamp, who produced his comeback album in the mid-'80s, and Ryder's Rolling Stone interview from that same time in which he insinuated a more than platonic relationship between him and John Sinclair. Nevertheless, this is a much better read than the Sly Stone book — Mitchell tells the reader what he's focusing on right in the book's title — and this gives extra credence to the ongoing campaign to induct one of Michigan's finest rock performers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Music manager, journalist, publicist and former label head Danny Goldberg probably got the most memoir buzz this year with his Bumping into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business (Gotham, $26). Goldberg comes clean on his associations with Led Zeppelin (first as their publicist and then as head of their Swan Song custom label), Stevie Nicks and Kurt Cobain, among others. It's interesting to see how forthcoming he can be here, admitting several times that he directly lied to the press to protect his clients and defending that as the role of a great publicist. It's a good read and of special interest to those of us who were actually there. Something deep inside me, however, makes me still wish that Cobain's handlers could have just drugged him unconscious — he was a walking, talking Physicians Desk Reference at that point anyway — and forcibly made him get help for his many problems (the least of which wasn't Courtney Love, whom Goldberg defends here anyway).

Personally, my favorite musical memoir of the year is Bob Greene's When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship and Dreams (St. Martin's Press, $24.95) in which the Chicago journalist — whose first book, Billion Dollar Baby, a document of life on tour with the original Alice Cooper band, is one of the best rock books ever — now writes about his many years on the "oldies" circuit road as a guitarist with Jan & Dean. There are cameos by some of rock's biggest stars throughout. It's a fantastic read and, ultimately, is a book about the still-redemptive powers of music and, as the title suggests, true friendship.

The big news in the bio market over the last month or so (if you don't count Eminem's new autobiography, The Way I Am, which we already reviewed extensively in these pages several weeks ago) has been the massive John Lennon: The Life (Ecco, $34.95), the new biography by Philip Norman, who's already famous to Fab Four aficionados for his well-regarded and exhaustive Beatles history, Shout! Haven't had a chance to read this one yet — but the big controversy here is that Norman reports that Lennon supposedly had sexual relations with his mother, Julia. Probably explains why Yoko first cooperated and then took away her support from Norman. Hmmm. Dee Presley, Elvis' stepmother (whom Presley always resented, by the way), once reported in her own gold-digging memoir that the King had sexual relations with his mother, Gladys. All this talk of incest, however, simply proves that one can write anything they want to about someone after they're dead without fear of legal retribution, as the despicable Albert Goldman proved years ago in his own Elvis and Lennon bios. Beyond that, though, it also gives brand-new meaning to the late Rob Tyner's archetypal rock 'n' roll battle cry of kicking out the jams, motherfuckers. When it comes to sleaze, however, give it to me from someone who was actually there ... which is why, even though I haven't read it yet either, I'm betting that Madonna's brother's tell-all book, Life With my Sister Madonna by Christopher Ciccone with Wendy Leigh (Simon Spotlight; $26), is one super-hoot and a fun read.

Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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