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 Infidels album 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 Dylan is 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 Stone interview, 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.

MacGowan has a hundred stories to relate, all of them proving that his detractors are scum-suckers deserving death. When he's called on having contradicted himself, he reminds his meek spouse/interviewer of her stupidity in not having understood his goddamn crystal-clear answer. Clarke's cutesy reliance on ending most sentences with an adverb makes you want to strangle her, slowly, or flush the book, gladly. It's a thoroughly intriguing read, though, while doubling as the best anti-booze message since Alcoholics Anonymous' Big Book.

Here are a couple of other big books: As a member of the Chesterfield Kings, Andy Babiuk found himself attempting to duplicate the Beatles' sound. The result led instead to a book -- Beatles Gear: All the Fab Four's Instruments, From Stage to Studio -- with Babiuk interviewing more than 400 Beatles associates in compiling this oversize, photo-heavy volume. From John Lennon's $17 Gallotone Champion in the mid-'50s to the Moog synthesizer on Abbey Road, the book obsessively details what instruments -- there were hundreds -- each Beatle brought into the mix, literally from one song to the next. Keyboards, amps and effect pedals are identified, with plenty of guitar close-ups and vintage instrument ads included. A unique approach to the history of the Beatles.

American Roots Music, edited by Robert Santelli, Holly George-Warren and Jim Brown, is another coffee-table book, this one released in conjunction with the four-hour PBS series. Separate chapters ambitiously relate the stateside history of blues, folk, gospel, Cajun, Tex-Mex, country and Native American music. The format is choppy -- turning the documentary into a relatively brief book results in a disconnected, quick-tour feel. And though it's the Reader's Digest Condensed version of American music, the book manages to cover more material than the documentary: The Native American music section includes info on Redbone, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Rita Coolidge and Robbie Robertson's last few albums -- none of which is discussed in the series.

Parental Advisory, by Eric Nuzum, covers the history of music censorship in America, reminding us how the Parents Music Resource Center's attempts to eradicate vulgar songs by such immoral '80s hussies as Sheena Easton and Cyndi Lauper were only the most visible example of endless government-versus-musicians wrestling. Though 1993's Anti-Rock: The Opposition to Rock 'n' Roll is better researched and more objective, Nuzum's book conveniently approaches censorship issues categorically, with chapters focusing on videos, cover art, race, religion, drugs, violence and sex. The book's Senate-committee transcripts and interviews show that incensed government officials almost always respond to music-censorship debates by snorting emotion-heavy responses as irrational as a Joseph McCarthy diatribe. More disturbing than the immature, disgusting lyrics that need to be defended is discovering how fervently some elected representatives ache to become the nation's paddle-wielding mamas and papas.

Trumpeter Miles Davis, who throughout his career intentionally abandoned each stylistic advance when it became comfortable, made a damn near suicidal leap in the mid-'60s. While leading a sophisticated quintet many still consider to be the finest jazz group ever, Davis decided to go electric, spiraling into primitive jams fueled by funk bassists and wah-wah guitars. Jazz mags and their readers dismissed his jungle noise for several decades, only recently coming to appreciate it. Like his fans, most Miles biographies have given short shrift to these two dozen years of outrageous playing, with Paul Tingen's detailed Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 finally investigating this most radical phase in his career. But Tingen is no slobbering groupie, remaining plenty critical of Davis' forays into pop goo as he follows the Intimidating One's embracing of psychedelia, funk and, before his death, hip-hop. There's no shortage of Miles stories regarding his irascible and unpredictable nature, either, which undoubtedly sell more Miles books than his music does.

Whereas Beach Boy/Buddha Brian Wilson's life has seen print only as his sketchy 1991 autobiography, departed brother/drummer Dennis Wilson has been the focus of two biographies in the past two years. It could be said, though, that the handful of Beach Boys group bios are all Brian Wilson stories, whereas the good-looking-boy-goes-bad tale of Dennis remained, like his drum kit, pretty much tucked behind the group's Mouseketeerish persona until its disbanding several years back. Adam Webb's Dumb Angel: The Life & Music of Dennis Wilson -- "Dumb Angel" is what big brother Brian called him -- presents the story of rock's most dysfunctional family, with Dennis' frightening spiral into self-destruction the result of rock & roll hedonism fueled by hatred of a nightmare father who only validated Dennis' lifelong loathing of rules -- good ones as well as bad ones. Dumb Angel is an engaging, quick read of Wilson's brush with Charles Manson, his myriad failed relationships (including those with Fleetwood Mac's Christine McVie and the daughter of fellow band member Mike Love) and, during the late '70s, his frustratingly erratic stabs at solo projects that proved at least equal to what the beached boys were upchucking. Check it out at

Speaking of upchucking, here's a sensitive love story for ya: Fucked by Rock: The Unspeakable Confessions of Zodiac Mindwarp should be subtitled The Marquis de Sade Goes Metal. Mark Manning, leader of Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction, recalls the offstage sex-and-drug orgies of his predatory, Nazi/Satan-inspired thrashers. Fucked by Rock is held together by endless misogyny and coprophilia-heavy sex, making Led Zep's groupie antics in Hammer of the Gods read like a Hallmark card. Oh, yeah, there are a few paragraphs about their music and tours, downplayed to the extent that the music comes across as a means to an end -- lots of girls' ends, actually. Not to be read at lunch hour unless you want to hurl your Happy Meal.

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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