Paperback Writers

The latest music books struggle to demystify pop culture's greatest enigmas

Lots of colorful musician biographies have recently been added to bookstore shelves, as well as a handful of other unique music tomes. Surprisingly, nearly all of them are worth your time -- and you'll get more smut for your entertainment dollar than you would with a VH1: Behind the Music marathon.

There are well more than 100 books on Bob Dylan out there, most still in print, with at least a dozen more soon to be released. Because Dylan ferociously guards his private life -- once even refusing to talk to an interviewer about his alleged interest in sailing -- and befuddles interviewers on nearly any subject with answers as cryptic as Ouija-board messages, fans will shell out for the next hundred books on the chance that one might demystify music's best proof of intelligent alien life.

In Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina, David Hajdu explores Dylan's catapult to fame on the arm of established folk singer/girlfriend Joan Baez, who, along with sister Mimi and her husband, Richard, made for a pretty impressive double date: the latter couple was also a significant folk act, with Richard in the process of establishing himself as a promising novelist (writer Thomas Pynchon praises him highly in the book). Richard lusts after Joan; Dylan puts the moves on Mimi; Richard dies in a motorcycle accident on the publication date of his book; the chubby-faced Minnesota boy gets really famous. Much of the book recalls these early-'60s events through the eyes of the Baez family, including both parents, who had to deal with a rather unusual couple of suitors. A Bob Dylan as Boyfriend book.

Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited is a major revision and update of Clinton Heylin's Behind the Shades, adding nearly 300 pages to the first version, published in 1991. An already intriguing character is made more so by the author's breaking up the text with close to 1,000 inserted reminiscences by band members and cohorts as unable to fathom him as we are. Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler recalls how practicing the arrangements for the Infidelsalbum was pointless because Dylan radically altered the songs from one recording session to the next. Jerry Garcia bemoans Dylan's terrible song choices for their doomed recording collaboration and remembers his assessing the master copy's quality on "about a thirty-nine dollar ghetto blaster." On the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn floored Dylan when he introduced him to a rhyming dictionary, the latter responding, "think of all the time I could have saved." A Bob Dylan as Self-Destructive Eccentric book.

Howard Sounes' Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylanis nearly as successful in letting you feel as if you've crawled through a window into Dylan's home, especially with regard to his various love interests and the resulting children. Speaking of home, Sounes, who does a good job prying into Dylan's private life, reveals that during his second marriage, Dylan and new wife Carolyn Dennis lived not at his monstrous Malibu estate but in a yellow bungalow in Tarzana, near a McDonald's and the noisy Ventura Freeway. According to the author, Dylan, on his Never Ending Tour, prefers run-of-the-mill motels outside the towns he's performing in -- nothing fancy, with windows that open (he doesn't like air conditioning) -- where he can lock himself in with his dogs. A Bob Dylan as Eccentric Recluse book.

In a recent Rolling Stoneinterview, Dylan has plenty to say about these recent bios -- none of it positive, as you'd expect.

The re-release of Albert Goldman's The Lives of John Lennon offers up more inside stories than all three Dylan books combined, though there's something fishy about Goldman's tale. As opposed to the Dylan biographers, the reader wonders whether Goldman even likes Lennon, let alone respects him. Not that he should, but nearly every page presents the ex-Beatle as a spoiled loony, usually in tales told with embellished detail and dreadful reconstructed conversations that lose the ounce of truth in the middle of a pound of fiction. That Goldman wants us to be appalled is evident by his annoying uses of exclamation marks (not surprisingly, he titled one of his books Ladies and Gentlemen -- Lenny Bruce!!!) to coax readers into fully appreciating the alleged scandal. You know the musician, now meet the monster! Forget whether or not it's true, it's shocking! The book, first published in 1988, contains no author edits or additions, because Goldman died of meanness in 1994.

The defunct Pogues, a killer Irish band that bred the Sex Pistols with the Chieftains, was led by singer/songwriter Shane MacGowan. Unfortunately, a drinking reputation that suggests he could fellate an entire keg of Guinness resulted in his being ousted from his own group, the latter having the audacity to insist he show up for the band's gigs, being the lead singer and all. Natch, he's got plenty to say about that in A Drink With Shane MacGowan, a 359-page interview conducted by his wife, Victoria Mary Clarke. On the second page, MacGowan blows his nose onto the floor, pretty much establishing the degree of sensitivity to be found throughout the rest of the book. MacGowan worships everything Irish -- its music, history and politics -- though his extreme comments on literally every issue suggest he's not exactly a bastion of reason and objectivity on his homeland.

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