Paperback Writers

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

Steven Blush's American Hardcore: A Tribal History picks up where Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain left off with their engrossing Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. Stringing together the recollections of band members, club owners and record-label heads, Blush shows how punk morphed into such early-'80s hardcore bands as Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys and the Bad Brains before this second generation of punk lost its edge in 1986. American Hardcore focuses on how the fuck-you sensibilities of punk fueled the anthems of skateboarders and skinheads alike in addition to creating rival bands and regional styles in LA, Boston and Chicago/Detroit. Includes an intricately detailed discography.

Peter Morton Coan's Taxi: The Harry Chapin Story has seen only minor distribution from two small publishing companies, in 1987 and 1990, because Chapin's widow claimed ownership of the book rights. Coan won after nine years of legal battles, finally resulting in mass availability of his book 20 years after Chapin's death. Coan focuses on the singer/songwriter's popularity as a contemporary storyteller -- "Taxi" and "Cat's in the Cradle" have become standards on oldies stations -- and a commitment to social causes that resulted in his playing more than 1,000 benefit concerts.

Now in paperback is Eric Alterman's bio It Ain't No Sin to Be Glad You're Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen, which presents the unique Jersey feller uniquely: as having an edge on singing deities such as Elvis and Sinatra in that Springsteen can write, as having an edge on pop composers/singers such as Michael Jackson in that what he writes has substance, as having an edge on even singer/poet Dylan in that he writes with substance and has mass appeal as well. It's a quick read, heavy on social perspective, making it preferable to many other Bruce books.

Then there's Marc Shapiro's Carlos Santana: Back on Top, which is pretty much a 248-page People article obviously meant to ride the guitarist's post-Supernatural popularity. The story: Carlos gets popular (late '60s), Carlos worships jazz and guru Sri Chinmoy ('70s), Carlos gets boring ('80s and '90s), Carlos gets "Smooth" ('99). Shapiro's sparse info sources amount to six books (one written by himself) and 28 newspapers and magazines -- one of them being People. High-school term papers are better referenced.

Farah Jasmine Griffin, a professor of African-American studies, avoids a biographical approach in If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, focusing instead on the mythology surrounding jazz music's most popular female vocalist. Griffin counters long-held stereotypes of the singer as a "natural" (as opposed to trained) musician, as a jazz singer doomed to addiction and as the personification of black oppression. Griffin reframes her as an intelligent, dignified professional who overcame horrible conditions to create her music. One of the better books on the archetypal elements of jazz and what the music represents to both insiders and observers.

Holiday may not be presented as a tragic figure, but Dancing With Demons: The Authorized Biography of Dusty Springfield reveals the late British pop singer as having been overwhelmed by depression, numerous addictions, self-loathing, perfectionism and a fear of coming out of the closet. Though written by two close friends -- music writer Penny Valentine and Springfield's manager, Vicki Wickham -- the book is surprisingly free of sugarcoating or justification of Springfield's shortcomings, even when dealing with her Quaalude sandwiches and her awful, unreleasable latter-day recordings.

Surprisingly, jazz journalist Scott Yanow, known primarily for his interviews with contemporary jazz players and bio of fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius, has recently churned out encyclopedic books on swing, bebop and Afro-Cuban jazz. Now comes Trumpet Kings -- 479 of them, to be exact. Yanow stretches back to the unrecorded, mythical Buddy Bolden, a cornetist who played jazz in 1895, 20 years before the term came into use, and all the way up to the current careers of Randy Brecker, Tom Harrell and Arturo Sandoval. Each is covered alphabetically, with recommended recordings listed.

And last, Da Capo Press, el supremo source of music books, has released Da Capo Best Music Writing 2001, its second yearly collection of crack writing by music's most silver-fingered junkies/journalists. Guest editor Nick Hornby, New Yorker music critic and author of High Fidelity, has chosen a handful of paeans to icons Billie Holiday, Django Reinhardt and Johnny Cash, mixing them with essays focusing on music's flaccid state of the union. The latter category is where the writers shine brightest, tackling the lame trope of rock and hip-hop as "dangerous music"; aging rock critics; and well-hyped but rotten bands. Jim DeRogatis interviews/debates Stephan Jenkins, lead singer of Third Eye Blind; DeRogatis thinks Jenkins sucks, and he tells him so.

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