Saturday, January 2, 2016

Best Books about Music – 2015

2015 has been a banner year for books about popular music, from autobiographies to photographic compendia to cultural histories. Here are ten books that I thought were among the year’s highlights. There were plenty of other good music books released this year. Some are on my reading list, notably Patti Smith’s second autobiography M Train, Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, and recent biographies of Charles Lloyd and John Mayall. Others, notably Dennis McNally’s amazing and erudite On Highway 61 and Herbie Hancock’s revealing autobiography Possibilities,  were disqualified because they came out in late 2014.

10. Willie Nelson. It’s a Long Story: My Life. Little Brown and Company. 408 Pp.
In recent years, Nelson has probably been recognized as much for his prodigious use of marijuana as his remarkable musical pedigree.  In his autobiography, Nelson traces his career from his early days as a songwriter in Nashville, through his successes as a mainstream country star in the sixties through his left-of-center detour into Outlaw country in the seventies and his subsequent Baptism as a cultural icon and a mainstay of the Farm Aid benefits. Nelson’s intelligence, his sense of humor, and his willingness to admit to his failures make this an unusually frank, illuminating, and entertaining read.

9.  Deke Leonard. Maximum Darkness: Man on the Road to Nowhere. Northdown Publishing, 281 Pp. This is the third in a trilogy of Man guitarist Deke Leonard’s witty, sometimes snarky guided tour through his long musical career.  The book picks up where its predecessor, Rhinos, Winos, and Lunatics left off, and details his career through the 1983 re-grouping of the Man Band following their 1976 breakup the present day. Leonard’s wry observations on the absurdities of the music business are good for many a laugh, and you do not have to have any familiarity with the Manband to find this an immensely entertaining read.

8. Peter  Richardson. No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead. St. Martin’s Press, 384 Pp.  I am well aware and unrepentant that half of the books on this list deal with the Grateful Dead. Celebrating their 50th Anniversary in 2015, the Dead were unexpected media darlings, and the subject of several excellent and very different books released in conjunction with their semicentenary celebration. I know most of the authors, but this does not discount the fact that each book was extremely well-conceived and filled a unique niche. First out of the chute was San Francisco State historian Peter Richardson’s No Simple Highway, which does an excellent job of placing the Dead within the historical and political contexts of the times, particularly during their nascent years in the 1960s and 1970s.

7. Bill Kreutzmann and Benjy Eisen. Deal: Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs With the Grateful Dead.  Although drummer Kreutzmann is not the first GD band member to publish an autobiography, Deal, which he co-wrote with journalist Benjy Eisen, offers a fresh perspective from one of the band’s founding members. Kreutzmann does not pull his punches, as he offers a frank and often sentimental look at his 30 years in the band. This is also the go-to source for those who want to know who in the band took which drugs at which times.

6. Kim Gordon. Girl in a Band: A Memoir. Dey Street Books 288 Pages.  Sonic Youth bassist and vocalist Kim Gordon’s memoir shows how she transitioned from a bohemian childhood in California through hippie and punk phases before emerging in 80s New York, almost by accident, as bassist for one of the most boldly experimental groups of the late 20th Century. Gordon also draws in her parallel careers in art and fashion design, and her observations (alluded to in the title) on being the sole woman in a men’s club of a rock band.   

5. David Browne. So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead. De Capo Press 496 Pp. Rolling Stone writer Browne tells the Dead’s story from the vantage point of five particularly memorable days in the band’s history.  Browne’s almost cinematic narrative is informed by his significant access to band and family members during the writing of his book.

4. Elvis Costello.  Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink.  Blue Rider Press. 688 Pp. Elvis Costello has touched more aspects of the musical spectrum than most musicians would dream of tackling. In this very entertaining and lengthy autobiography, Costello traces the convoluted path that led him from early days as a pub and then punk rocker through his subsequently convoluted career and his professional and personal encounters with such diverse characters as Nick Lowe, Bert Bacharach, Alan Toussaint, and his wife, jazz singer Diana Krall.

3.  Dennis McNally. Jerry on Jerry: The Unpublished Jerry Garcia Interviews.   Black Dog and Leventhal. 240 Pp.  20 years after Jerry Garcia’s death, Grateful Dead biographer and publicist Dennis McNally compiled transcripts of five lengthy interviews with the guitarist from 1973 to the early 1990s. Garcia was a consummate rapper, and it is a delight to hear him holding forth on the pranksters, film, fine art, songwriting, and plenty of discussions of the Dead’s long strange trip. This book is also available in audio form for those who want to hear rather than read Garcia’s ruminations.

2.Peter Guralnick.  Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll. Little Brown and Company. 784 Pp.  Guralnick is probably best known for his hefty two volume biography of Elvis Presley, and his latest effort focuses on the singular career of Sam Phillips, who made the earliest recordings of Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Carl Perkins at Sun Studios, his legendary Memphis recording facility. Guralnick’s weighty tome chronicles Phillips’ life in detail, from his start as a teen entrepreneur through his glory days in radio and at Sun, his wilderness years in the seventies and eighties and his comeback near the end of the century. When writing the Elvis books, Guralnick became a good friend of Phillips and his family, and thus he brings an insider's perspective to his depiction of the last years of this musical icon's wild and wooly life.  

1. Blair Jackson and David Gans. This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead.  Flatiron Books. 512 Pp.  This stands as my favorite book to date on the Dead, lovingly compiled by two writers who have spent their adult lives in the world of the Dead. Drawing on extensive interviews the pair and others have done with band members, crew, staff, and fans over the years, the book provides a warts-and-all look at this ungainly, yet surprisingly resilient and wildly popular cultural institution.

No comments:

Post a Comment