Major label "suits," editors of glossy rock mags and megawatt radio music programmers connect musicians to an audience for one reason: money. "For the words of the profits, Are written on the studio wall, concert hall." Yet there are exceptions, people who are in it for the music, not only for the money. Musicians create music, but it is these exceptional mediators who create musical styles.
These non-mercenary mediators seem to be moved by some socio-political agenda rather than by musical aesthetics. A rather dramatic example is the Norwegian-sired Black Metal. In LORDS OF CHAOS: THE BLOODY RISE OF THE SATANIC METAL UNDERGROUND (Feral House), Michael Moynihan and Didrik So/derlind dispassionately detail, on the basis of extensive no-holds-barred interviews, the genre's development. Euronymous was its driving force. His band, Mayhem, helped define the new music. But if he were just a guitar player he would at best have created a band with a unique signature sound. Genre creation came from his other activities, including running a record store that was Black Metal's ground zero. Musicians and fans hung out there, listened to the music and debated ideas. By the late 1980s, Euronymous also began a record label, releasing music by his and other Black Metal bands. One of these Barzum, was the expression of Varg Vikernes, aka Count Grishnackh. The two became friends and were the subculture's main ideologues. Initially, they were all dedicated Satanists and their lyrics reflected their dedication. Ideas and activities evolved. Christianity was seen as evil: it obliterated the Norse religion and ruined the Odinic eden. Cemetery desecrations and church burnings supplemented musical practices. When the singer for Mayhem, aptly named Dead, blew his head to bits with a shotgun, the ever resourceful Euronymous ran to get a camera and shot the bloody scene. A few years later Euronymous provided a gesture that made the metal world sit up and take notice of Black Metal: in 1993 his body, stabbed 23 times, was found outside his apartment. The perpetrator, Vikernes, bragged about his murderous deed. He's now serving a 21-year sentence and releasing new prison-made albums.
The Black Metal originators were focused on getting back to what they believed were their authentic roots. Championing a radically different style of music and doing nothing more dramatic than putting out a magazine, Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock are also helping to forge a genre based on authentic roots. NO DEPRESSION: AN INTRODUCTION TO ALTERNATIVE COUNTRY MUSIC (Dowling Press) is a compilation of some of the significant interviews from the magazine that the two began in 1995. They'd taken their cue from an on-line discussion board called "No Depression- Alternative Country." "No Depression," the title track of Uncle Tupelo's 1990 debut, was originally a 1930s Carter Family song that nicely serves to link the modern to the ancestral artists, both of which are contained in the style supported by the magazine. NO DEPRESSION lassoes a wide variety of musicians, ranging from Hank Williams and Bill Monroe, through the countrified rockers like Chuck Berry, the Byrds, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Lynyrd Skynyrd, to the more recent bands like Whiskeytown, Wilco and the Waco Brothers. But it is what they exclude that really defines the style: the mannered Nashville blanded-out-for-mass-consumption commercial country pop.
Moe Asch would have been sympathetic with No Depression, for its music and especially for the way it defines itself by excluding the inauthentic. It's just that Asch drew a far, far larger circle around the music he backed. Moses Asch, born in Poland in 1905 and a student of electronics, found his life's work during World War II when he began recording Leadbelly and Woodie Guthrie. As the impresario of Folkways Records, he released the widest variety of "the people's music," including rural "unaccompanied" field calls, whaling songs from New England, cowboy, bluegrass, jazz, blues to cite only his U.S. material. Working with anthropologists and musicologists studying cultures around the globe, Asch recorded what is now called world music. Outside this enormously wide musical circle stands, shamefully, commercial music - music created, recorded and distributed only to make money. Among Asch's better known releases was Harry Smith's ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC, a set that was in part responsible for the folk movement of the late '50s and an important influence on Bob Dylan. Peter Goldsmith's MAKING PEOPLE'S MUSIC: MOE ASCH AND FOLKWAYS RECORDS (Smithsonian Institution Press) is a richly detailed book that is not so much a biography as a motherlode of information on the history (economics as well as technology) of recording, the cultural outreach programs of the American Left and the lives of varied and highly individual musicians. We get to know the personalities of his father, the famous writer Sholem Asch, and Woodie Guthrie, far better than Moe Asch. We do learn of Asch's business practices like putting out records with extensive, often scholarly liner notes; never allowing a record to go out of print, and paying royalties only when it was useful to do so. Negotiations were not quite complete when he succumbed to a series of finally fatal strokes in 1986, but the Smithsonian Institution was able to take over Folkways on Asch's terms- to keep all of the titles in print. Check out http://www.si.edu/folkways and see that they have.
So you want to be a rock and roll star? Like Johnny B. Goode, you learned to play, but what now? There are no graduate degree programs teaching you how to make it, and to get into the apprenticeship program, and start as a roadie, you have to know somebody. How can you make your rock and roll dreams come true?
You might read Dave Ellefson's MAKING MUSIC YOUR BUSINESS: A GUIDE FOR YOUNG MUSICIANS (Miller Freeman). Ellefson, Megadeth's bassist, the sweet yang to Dave Mustaine's hardly sweet yin, wants to help you achieve your dreams. Modest and ingratiating, Ellefson briefly covers the areas crucial to a rock career, like working in recording studios, band relations and dealing with lawyers, management and record labels. But he plays his cards too close to his vest to provide anything but platitudes. "The members of a band must get along with each other musically and personally in order to survive," he declares. "Every artist-management contract is unique," and "If you hope to be successful, you will need career guidance through management," are other examples of his too-general-to-be-truly-useful remarks. And with statements like "I feel that individuality, charisma, and integrity are the real keys to any artist's survival," he makes the very idea of his book a non-starter, since those qualities are never obtained from books.
We don't need to send Ellefson's book back to him for a re-write. The guide he promised, covering all of his subjects and then some, but chock full of specific sound advice, is already in print: ALL AREA ACCESS: PERSONAL MANAGEMENT FOR UNSIGNED MUSICIANS (Hal Leonard). Author Marc Davison gained his expertise as a band manager. The book is full of hundreds of practical tips on topics as diverse as band rehearsals, creating set lists, the economics of gigging (including dealing with a chiseling club booker), and many, many more. Davison provides a Boy Scout's manual (Be Prepared!) for van tours, which includes an inventory of materials to take with you and a sample check list for load-ins and load-outs, so that you don't leave anything behind. See chapter 8 to find out how to make a top-notch press kit, from finding a photographer and posing for the 8x10 glossies, to model band bios and the costs for each component of the kit.
Far more valuable than Ellefson and a damn sight more entertaining than Davison, or most any book for that matter, is David Lee Roth's CRAZY FROM THE HEAT (Hyperion). Modesty has never been Diamond Dave's long suit, but in this photo-studded, passing-as-an-autobiography he manages to come across with so much charm that he makes someone who dislikes his music a fan of his persona. The book is a totally delightful page-turner, superior to the music he made as Van Halen's frontman. Beneath the tales of bravado, braggadocio and blatant fun, Roth provides great advice. He teaches you how to make smoke pots out of cat food cans and gunpowder, and how to set up a very inexpensive colorful lighting system (use heavy work gloves because the bulbs from lawn signs you need to steal are hot). Since touring is the royal road to rock success, Roth teaches you the tricks to endure the traveling life. For example, he advises sleeping in your clothes and wearing a hat that can be pulled over your eyes "to lose all the light." More important, he insists, is having fun. A great deal of fun. He and his crew especially enjoyed rearranging someone's hotel room by supergluing all the objects, from chairs and lamps to magazines and ashtrays, to the ceiling. Roth is quite serious about the business end of things and gives specific warnings about managers and accountants: keep 'em separated. And demanding from concert promoters bowls of M&Ms from which all the brown ones had been removed was good business practice, not some dumb rock indulgence. It was a way to check up on the promoter's adherence to the contract rider. (Van Halen needed an extra strong stage to hold their heavy gear. If brown M&Ms were in the bowls, they knew they had to worry about the crucial stage strength.) While taking care of business, Roth was never far from pleasure. He generously shares his groupie-gathering technique - and hasn't "getting chicks" been the main reason guys have wanted to be rock stars? Roth created an incentive program: all crew members got five backstage passes daily, which they initialled and then gave to willing lovelies. The guy whose pass brought the female with whom Roth spent the night was paid a hundred dollars. Useful details! It's a long way to the top, but there's help between the covers. And for all of us who haven't the desire or talent, to pursue the career, much of this advice is also a pleasurable read.
Lyrics are just not enough. We want to get to the person (or persona) behind the art. In this age of celebrity, the art almost seems to be merely an appetizer for the main course- the artist. And we're served heaping platters of their words in myriad magazines and books.
Except for the anal retentive among us, magazines are as ephemeral as dragon flies and almost as colorful. We may cut out pieces on our favorite artists, but now rock magazines spare us the trouble. They've collected articles that they've run on a given performer and publish them as a book. GUITAR WORLD's series includes volumes on Van Halen, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Metallica.
It is not the kings of the thrash underground but the award-winning rockers embraced by the mainstream who are center stage in GUITAR WORLD PRESENTS METALLICA: METALLICA IN THEIR OWN WORDS (Hal Leonard). Although Metallica started in 1982, only one piece from the eighties, an interview with guitarist Kirk Hammett in 1988, appears here. In it Jeff Spurrior wrote: "Their following has been built by word of mouth, not hype or MTV or radio play." That was true a decade ago. Almost half of the articles are from the October 1991 GUITAR WORLD, one of the many magazines that fall helping to hype Metallica's eponymous crossover album to mega-platinum. Since it is prefaced by a fine introduction to the pre-90s Metallica, and because interviews generally cover the past, the collection as a whole provides a solid understanding of the band in all its incarnations. As befits a musician-oriented mag, we learn about their gear and influences. In the most interesting section is where the editors got guitarist/singer James Hetfield to speak with Tony Iommi, the guitarist of the band that forged heavy metal, Black Sabbath. The two axemen swap stories about their bandmates (Iommi recalls setting Sabbath drummer Bill Ward on fire), the development of their sound ("Lars was always nervous on stage, so he'd play faster and faster. That was a huge challenge for us, but nobody wanted to wimp out and tell him that he was playing too fast," Hetfield says, explaining speed metal's origins), preferred equipment and, of course, guitar techniques.
The focus of Paul Zollo's book, SONGWRITERS ON SONGWRITING, (DaCapo) is evident in its title. Zollo, editor of SONGTALK magazine, asks knowledgeable and thoughtful questions to a select group of singer-songwriters. The best of them speak in the same poetic voices that infuse their lyrics. Spanning styles and eras, the 52 interviewees range from the iconic (Bob Dylan) and well known ( Paul Simon, and Neil Young) to the should-be- better-known (Tom Lehrer, Randy Newman). Fascinated by the craft of writing songs, Zollo elicits insightful replies to queries about influences, differences between writing and performing, the pleasures of their art (Dylan: "It gives you a thrill to rhyme something you might think, well, that's never been rhymed before."), which of their own songs they admire and which haven't withstood the test of time for them, and the source of their inspiration (Randy Newman: "Reading has helped me. It's enabled me not to have to live, because I read."). The book should appeal to aspiring songwriters as well as to fans. The words are great, but they are greatly enhanced if you can hear in your head the songs being discussed. Intensive intelligent discussion with articulate artists - Zollo's book is a classic.
In contrast to reading musicians' remarks in the context of a great interviews, Raymond Obstfeld and Patricia Fitzgerald (JABBERROCK: THE ULTIMATE BOOK OF ROCK'N'ROLL QUOTATIONS, Henry Holt) strip all context from their collection of quotes. It reminds me of how I ate chocolate chip cookies as a kid, snarfing only the chips. And most of the quotes here are as sophisticated as my childhood tastes- and as much fun too. The editors arrange their excerpts into various topical groupings, including songwriting, fame, drugs and alcohol, and the influence of others, providing a bit of context. Only a sophisticated reader would notice the few wise and clever statements in the bunch. The quotes, many undated and those with dates of fairly recent vintage, will only make sense to someone who knows something about their rock authors. Take, for example, the statement, "Some people die and some are survivors. I'm a survivor." It gains meaning if you're familiar with the life, especially its brevity, of the author, Janis Joplin. Similarly, Lou Reed's assertion, "I've become completely well adjusted to being a cult figure," only resonates with those who know what a prick Reed's been. Admittedly, some quotes are self-contained. "I always needed a song to get by. There's a lot of singers who don't need songs to get by. A lot of 'em are tall, good-lookin', you know? They don't need to say anything in order to grab people. Me, I had to make it on something other than my looks or my voice." But if you are familiar with the middle-aged Bob Dylan's looks and vocals, his remark has more zing.
In contrast to his sensitive and extensive discussion in Zollo's great interview, in JABBERROCK, Paul Simon simply says: "See, I believe it's no good to talk about your songs; it's wrong. You should leave your songs alone and let them say what they say." Of course, had Simon and his fellow musicians let their songs speak for themselves books like these wouldn't be possible.
Remove the sound from rock and the edifice collapses into a vast pile of stories. Into this heap rock writers wade hip deep, carefully selecting an armload or two to recycle. They arrange the selected yarns in some order before slapping them between covers and voila, a rock book.
In GO CAT GO! (University of Illinois Press), Craig Morrison collects stories about the talents whose music became known as rockabilly, from Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Wanda Jackson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and Eddie Cochran, to revivalists like the Stray Cats. Many of Morrison's tales relate to song lyrics. He drolly notes, for example, that Perkins' song "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby," in which he mentions being awakened at four-thirty AM by "fifteen women knocking at my door," was "very likely not a fantasy." Embedding the stories in a rich matrix of perceptive description and astute analysis, Morrison provides a scholarly bibliography and useful discography to boot.
Tales unfold somewhere. Tim Perry and Ed Glinert arranged their armload geographically in ROCK & ROLL TRAVELER USA (Fodor's). Some history-happened-here sites can be visited. Other stories cite places that no longer exist, like the old Comiskey Park, where Steve Dahl and his disco-phobic fans ran amok in 1979, trashing the field with their vinyl frisbees. Then there are less specific sites, like Goode Street in St. Louis, where Chuck Berry's Johnny B. got his last name. The authors' decision to include addresses and brief descriptions of rock venues, record stores, and hokey collections of memorabilia, like the 24 Hour Church of Elvis in Portland, Oregon, creates a distraction unless you actually want to use the book as a real travel guide.
Why would one travel to Des Moines? Its one claim to rock fame in ROCK & ROLL TRAVELER is that it's where Ozzy Osbourne's infamous bat-biting concert took place. The Oz thought the animal, thrown on the stage by a fan, was a toy when he bit into it. Perry and Glinert fail to give the address of the hospital where Ozzy went for rabies testing.
Art Fein collects THE GREATEST ROCK & ROLL STORIES (General Publishing Group) the way demolition derbies stage races, eliminating the tedium and leaving only the exciting collisions. Some of Fein's stories are great myth busters. Take the tale of the boos showered on Bob Dylan by the Newport Jazz Fest audience in 1965. The myth is that the fans objected to Dylan's plugging in his guitar; at that time he was a folk musician and folk was the MTV Unplugged of its day. Fein argues that the folks were displeased not because they were electrically challenged, but because of Dylan's ultra-short set; "he had rehearsed only three songs with his makeshift band."
Fein's account of the origin of Chuck Berry's duckwalk is an almost believable story. Playing in New York early in his career, the sharp-dressed Berry supposedly sent out his suit to be pressed. The rush job returned the suit well pressed but significantly smaller than it had been. Berry recalled that when he walked on stage that night, he had to "crouch over and do a duck-walk to keep the trousers from splitting."
Some stories have such deep resonance that they wind up in a bunch of collections. All three of these books tell the story of Carl Perkins' car crash.
Morrison relates it because Perkins is rockabilly's major creative force. Perry and Glimmert inform us that the crash was in Dover, Maryland, which is also the hometown of Eldridge Johnson and his dog, Nipper. Nipper's ear-cocked visage is better known than that of his master, the man who invented the Victrola.
Fein's version of Perkin's crash begins by mentioning that the singer/guitarist "was the man Sun Records owner Sam Phillips dumped Elvis Presley to promote." At the time of the wreck, Perkins was en route to his first big TV appearance on the Perry Como show and was "a star on the rise" with his chart- topping "Blue Suede Shoes." "SUPPOSEDLY that night, instead of singing 'Blue Suede Shoes' on network TV, Perkins lay in a hospital bed and saw Elvis Presley sing it on the Milton Berle Show, sealing his fate."
But Fein then deconstructs the story: "the truth wasn't quite that dramatic." Presley did the song on TV twice before the night of the crash and Perkins' accident was a week earlier than Presley's Berle appearance. "The skinny, balding, earnest Perkins never had a chance of unseating Elvis anyway, as he is quick to tell you." Fein warns readers in his introduction: "I didn't feel encumbered by facts (though striving to keep things accurate when checkable), and felt free to explore what people SAID happened." Hey, isn't that what a story is anyway?
As we get up to our noses in the information age, there is a growing penchant for books that spurn narrative in favor of lists and compilations. Why let authors impose their visions on us when we can do our own dreaming and interpreting under a stack of factoids?
Rock literature is not immune from the information glut; indeed, it has more than its share of browsable volumes, some of them reference lists and mere nostalgia triggers, others historical data banks, and some with stories to tell if you connect the dots.
Craig Rosen's THE BILLBOARD BOOK OF NUMBER ONE ALBUMS (Watson-Guptill Publications, 1996) is made for nothing more rigorous than reclining into faded memories, for those old enough to have them. Based solely on sales, Rosen's selections have nothing to do with artistic value or historical importance. He tries to say something interesting about each album, but inadvertently teaches the lesson that some things are best forgotten. Take the seminal year for albums, 1967, when the first concept album, the Beatles' SGT. PEPPER, taught the world something or other. SGT. PEPPER shared the top spot on the album chart that year with Bobbie Gentry's ODE TO BILLY JOE, three Monkees' albums, and one release each by the Supremes and Herb Alpert.
Rock may be one of the few subjects in which historical source books are sold on the trade market. Stephen Bishop has collected and discussed a fascinating set of rock artifacts in SONGS IN THE ROUGH: ROCK'S GREATEST SONGS IN ROUGH- DRAFT FORM (St. Martin's Press, 1996). Perusing the pictures of messy words, you get a taste of and for the creative process.
The agglomeration of songs gathered by Bishop hardly qualifies as "rock's greatest;" none would make my top 1000 list. Is the Bee Gee's "Stayin' Alive" on yours? But the song's quality isn't the point. Look at the paper on which it was written, a first-class British Airways boarding pass, made out to a "Gibbs/R Mr. VIP" for a flight from London to Miami. The creative muse appears at odd moments. Other drafts have errors that were later corrected, like the line in Graham Nash's "Chicago," which reads here, "please got to Chicago."
Good liner notes have long been treasure troves of rock history. Now, with the flood of boxed sets, there is a tendency to expand liner notes into books. You can get a good free 78-page booklet on doo wop along with Rhino's DOO WOP BOX II, which contains 101 songs on four CDs. (The first edition with a different collection of songs and a different booklet, came out three years ago.) Reading the wealth of informative material by a variety of authors, including histories and pictures of the groups whose singing you can hear on the recordings, provides the means to master and enjoy this '50s era group-harmony genre of rock'n'roll.
When Billy Vera refers to the Chimes' "nasal tones" or the Cleftones' "clean-cut, racially ambiguous sound," you can hear what he means. Tim Hauser's essay, "Singing Doo Wop," is especially insightful. The hardest thing, he claims, "is to keep from being 'pulled' into singing the part above or below your own." Professional doo-wop singers have told me about the disasters of pulling. Hauser is only slightly facetious when he writes that "you should always try to sing in tune." (Good thing Neil Young doesn't do doo wop.)
It's one thing to bring historical enlightenment to the rock audience and another to recycle old rock criticism or, more accurately, hype. ROLLING STONE can gather mossy books by collecting all their pieces on a musician and republishing them. Few artists can rate such treatment, since they have to have long careers and need to have Jan Wenner and his minions in their corner from the beginning. Bruce Springsteen is an ideal candidate, having garnered consistent rave reviews from his 1973 debut onward.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: THE ROLLING STONE FILES by the Editors of ROLLING STONE (Hyperion, 1996) consists of reviews of his records and concerts, interviews, and news items. The collection provides a wonderful opportunity to examine the construction of The Boss's celebrity text. It tells us the tag lines to his celebrity, the verbal caricature of his public persona and how it has changed.
At the start of his career, Springsteen was tagged as the new Bob Dylan. A dozen of the first 13 articles in the book mention Dylan. For example, Lester Bangs, in his inimitable style, writes that "he sort of catarrh-mumbles his ditties in a disgruntled mushmouth sorta Robbie Robertson on Quaaludes with Dylan barking down the back of his neck." Greil Marcus cites the source of the Dylan comparisons in his review of BORN TO RUN: "Columbia's 'New Dylan' promotional campaign for the debut disc."
By 1980, the Dylan references were replaced by favorably comparing Springsteen's lyrics to the writings of authors such as Flannery O'Connor and Sam Shepard. Descriptions of Springsteen's shows never fail to mention their length and Bruuuuce's sweating intensity. I lost count of how many times writers quoted Jon Landau's 1974 proclamation that hailed Springsteen as "rock & roll future." They also noted (jealously?) that Landau, once a critic like them, became Springsteen's manager.
The onslaught of browsable rock books parallels the invasion of tribute albums, compilation CDs, cover albums, re- releases, and boxed sets. Rock, once a celebration of the new, is awash in its past.
Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Of course, writing about sex or drugs, is also like dancing about architecture.
Forget about the sex and drugs for a second and focus on words about music. This month we'll look at books about genres of rock music. How do you draw the boundary lines that define a type of music? And how, once you've defined it, do you color in between the lines you've drawn?
Three recently published volumes, each quite excellent in its own right, display radically different approaches to describing a genre of rock music. Covering punk, doowop, and psychedelic music, the authors' strategies are as different as the sounds of the music that they write about.
Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain privilege personalities in their book about punk. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (Grove Press, 1996) is the verbal equivalent of a punk visual collage, juxtaposing quotes from musicians and scenesters. Their focus is on the Velvet Underground, MC5, the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Patti Smith, Television, the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones. Sometimes the quotes reinforce each other and sometimes they are generously contradictory.
The cast of characters (the word character doesn't begin to come close to the likes of Iggy Pop, Dee Dee Ramone, William Burroughs, and Andy Warhol) numbers more than two hundred. Amongst them is the books co-editor, Legs McNeil. He was "the resident punk," an actual position, of Punk magazine, the 'zine that gave the musical genre its name.
Sex, drugs and rock and roll are the themes of the quotes that McNeil and McCain have culled, although not in that order. Drugs come first in vast amounts and varied combinations. Heroin consistently gets top billing and it's a wonder that its users could create music at all, let alone live to supply quotes. A few didn't.
Sex runs a close second to drugs, in frequency and variety. The book goes into the crucial role of groupies, who often provided the drugs, bed, and board, as well as sexual favors. Without them there would have been no scene.
The authors choose to include only passing mention of the music and how the musicians work as artists and influence each other.
Whereas McNeil and McCain focus on lower Manhattan, Robert Pruter roots his work in Chicago during the Fifties. Doowop: The Chicago Scene (University of Illinois Press, 1996) looks at the vocal groups, record labels, and radio djs that created a style of music that became known as doowop. Pruter, who writes for the record collector's magazine Goldmine bases his prodigious research on interviews and on articles in the Chicago Defender and in group fanzines. He privileges the recording over lifestyle or music, tracing its production from the formation of the vocal group, through the recording decisions, to the sales fate of the records.
As Pruter's story goes, the kids, singing harmony on street corners and in the park field houses of Chicago's south and west sides, were hooked up with the independent record companies. In the period following World War II, labels, such as Vee Jay and Chess, had begun to record the "race" music that the major labels had abandoned during the war. In the tight circle of relationships, radio deejays often worked as A&R men, managers, and vocal coaches.
By looking at both the R&B and pop charts, and noting the crossovers from R&B to pop, Pruter neatly charts rock's birth. He notes, for example, that "At My Front Door" "... introduced the El Dorados to the rock 'n' roll revolution, because the record was one of the key rhythm and blues records that year  to cross over to the pop market and thereby launch rock 'n' roll."
Jim DeRogatis is bound by neither time nor place; he follows the psychedelic sound wherever it takes him, as the major or minor element in an array of styles. His concentration in Kaleidoscope Eyes: Psychedelic Rock from the '60s to the '90s (Citadel Press, 1996) is, as befits a rock critic, soundly on the music; personalities and scenes only enter to elucidate musical points. Drug references, and, after all psychedelic music is, unlike punk, a drug-related genre, are mainly confined to the impact of drugs on the creativity of the musicians and the ways in which the music attempts to simulate the psychedelic drug experience.
DeRogatis (he is, it should be noted, a good friend), begins in Switzerland in 1943 with chemist Albert Hoffman attempting to bike home from his lab after ingesting LSD. The musical tour starts with the 1966 releases by the Beach Boys (Pet Sounds) and the Beatles (Revolver).
His ear for psychedelia takes DeRogatis on a path that cuts a wide swath: late Sixties rock, certainly, but also art-punk of Pere Ubu, Wire and the Feelies; the "paisley" underground bands like Dream Syndicate and the Rain Parade; German "krautrock;" guitar bands such as Jesus and Mary Chain, Stereolab, My Bloody Valentine, and the Flaming Lips; psychedelic hip-hop (De La Soul, PM Dawn); and the Rave music of Moby and the Orb.
With verve and delight, DeRogatis guides the reader through the sounds and lyrics, providing insightful understanding along the way. He's read the rock critics and has personally interviewed many of the still-living musicians whose work he describes. Most importantly, he listened to the music.
There is something good to be gained from each of these volumes and their approaches to genre. If I could take only one of them to a desert island with my cds, it would be Kaleidoscope Eyes, because DeRogatis is the only author among the three who dances to and enhances the music.
Rock music has always been as much about sight as about sound. It's as if the music is filtered through our eyes on its way to our ears. Why else, for example, has hair mattered so much, from Elvis' D.A.'d pompadour to the Beatles' cereal-bowl cuts, headbangers' way-down-the-back tresses, colorful punk mohawks, and "unusual" styles of MTV hair-bands like Flock of Seagulls, to name but a few tonsorial fashions? The vast array of rock's eye-candy, from facial expressions to album covers, both attracts our attention and provides clues about the meaning of what we're hearing. These three recent publications attest to the wide variety of ways in which the rock eye is fed.
Michael Ochs' fat tome (1,000 RECORD COVERS, Taschen) bursts with pictures of album covers, a minor art form unto itself, especially before the covers were downsized for CDs. Covers are also practical, like all package designs, catching our attention and providing information. But unlike such utilitarian containers as cereal boxes and soup cans, album art provides a context for understanding the music they advertise. Ochs is a self-admitted obsessive record collector, and with more than 100,000 records the term obsessive trumps the term collector. His book displays a mere thousand from his archive, spanning more than four decades of music. "The only criterion I used in the selection process was what caught my eye as being unique and memorable for its time," he writes. Many albums of '50s-era black artists had white models on their covers, such as James Brown's PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE and one that I keep just for the cover, since I've fully worn out the vinyl inside: THE PARAGONS MEET THE JESTERS. That these gorgeous, sentimental, vocal group sounds are advertised by pictures of white hoods (not the KKK type but the horror of the decade, juvenile delinquents) is deceptive packaging. It's a deception that encourages us to hear sweet sounds as tough. When doo-wop groups are pictured on their album covers, like the Spaniels and Flamingos, they are all birds of a feather in matching formal attire. Album covers also can provide access to the cultural past. The Dells' and the Moonglows' 1959 albums picture the guys against a now changed Chicago lakefront skyline. Photos on some early albums allow youthful glimpses of artists like Dylan, Sonny and Cher, Stevie Wonder (when he was little), and James Brown (on his '68 release), whose lives and celebrity have spanned decades. Of all the styles of rock, none uses visuals as aesthetic enhancers more than psychedelia. Ochs includes a wide variety of the most fascinating psychedelic cover art, from the well known (Santana's ABRAXUS) to the more obscure (Shiva's Headband).
Album covers are designed by people who need not have contact with the bands they service, but rock photography is a real collaboration between the performer and the person behind the camera (often with a large assist from makeup artists and costumers). Barry Levine describes his collusion with KISS in the text, and the results of that relationship in the innumerable suitable-for-framing pictures, in his doubly-focused (for aficionados of rock photography and for KISS fans) THE KISS YEARS (Studio Chikara). If any band deserves a book full of pictures (and what top 40 band doesn't have at least one?), it is KISS; the ranks of the KISS army would be minuscule in the land of the blind. (I've always thought that like children, KISS should be seen but not heard.) Levine reveals the construction of the KISS image: "When they're on stage they simply metamorphose into their unique band personas, but in a photography studio it was up to me to pull a demon, a spaceman, a lover and a cat out of the four guys who showed up."
Visuals influence more than the audience. How many songwriters, especially in the metal genre, have revealed that a dream, or a Hollywood horror flick, was the inspiration for a song? And they and their fans are big appreciators of the underground comix that depict such nightmares. So it is more than fitting to have a comic book depicting the lyrics of Dave Mustaine, Megadeth's singer and lyricist (among other roles). The first of the CRYPTIC WRITINGS comics (of a projected quarterly series) is named for, and based on three songs from, Megadeth's best album: KILLING IS MY BUSINESS...AND BUSINESS IS GOOD (Chaos Comics). Mustaine's lyrics for the song "Skull Beneath the Skin" provide the basis for the first story. Lines like "Iron staples close his jaw's so no one hears his cries," are illustrated with horrific beauty. But if we could see inside the skulls of Megadeth fans I'd bet we'd find scenes more terrifying than these comic books artists depict.
Like hugging a black hole, it's tough to get a handle on a rock star. Those sensationalized suck-up VH1 profiles - recycling old footage with self-serving commentary by now-sober and way nostalgic survivors - manage to avoid any significance. Don't blame it on TV - most of the books on rock celebs aren't any better. They provide the same stock story, connecting the dots of familiar factoids as if they were the stations of the cross. And like TV, the visual dominates the verbal.
/ Frank Moriarty's SPRINGSTEEN (Metro Books/Friedman) is a beautiful example of the type - meant more for coffee table ogling than serious study. It tells us nothing more about The Boss than even casual fans already know. About two-thirds of the large format book is recycled pictures - from the obligatory yearbook photo to the ubiquitous promotional pix, album covers and magazine live shots of Bruce being BRUUUUCE.
/ If Moriarty's is an example of the typical rock bio, MY SON JIMI (AlJas Enterprises) is anything but. It's by Jimi Hendrix's father, James Allen Hendrix "as told to" writer Jas Obrecht. Only 40% of the pages are devoted to pictures, some recycled promo and press shots of Jimi, very few of him as a child, and many of Hendrix Sr. and other members of his family. MSJ steers clear of retreading Jimi's well known celeb factoids, since the book is less about the guitar god than his father. But like the other rock profiles it seeks not to inform, but to reinforce an image. MSJ tries to construct a positive image for Hendrix Sr. who certainly needs some spin-doctoring. Having recently won full control of his son's lucrative estate, he now wants to remake his past and show himself to be worthy of his new wealth and status. Obrecht slyly allows the self-righteous senior citizen to hoist himself on his own platitudinous petard, letting him contradict his pious self- serving claims by his factual descriptions. "Jimmy stayed with me all the time," Hendrix Sr. says, but then details the innumerable times he farmed out his son to his extended and always-extending- a-hand-to-him family. Jimi's mother, whom he married while the 17 year old was pregnant, ran around with other men, drank heavily and died young. But he was hardly the doting father he claims to be even when he was living with his son; Jimi "left home one time while we were staying with Gracie and Buddy, but I didn't even know he was gone," he comments guilelessly. "[Jimi] respected everybody else's property, because I taught him" he states, but later he says that his son "and a friend broke into a [store] and stole some clothes." Hendrix Sr. is clueless about his son's life, death or music. Jimi never sent his father any of his records and only visited with him when he was playing a concert in the area.
/ Not all attempts to grab hold of a star come up empty. In THE BOB DYLAN COMPANION: FOUR DECADES OF COMMENTARY (Schirmer Books), editor Carl Benson throws a fully recycled butterfly net over one of the largest stars in the firmament and nabs him. Dylan, around before the big bang itself, helped define rock stardom and like the times themselves, he was always a changin'. After almost four decades, Dylan still twinkles and increasingly shines, while his contemporaries are dead and buried, or just dead. To capture him, Benson, like Dylan himself of late, looks back. He's pasted together previously published pieces from different eras by writers with a wide variety of voices and agendas. The resulting pastiche refuses to emphasize any one view or any one Dylan; a single profile is never adequate to capture a person or their work. Benson allows, indeed requires, readers to actively create Dylan. His selection is not definitive; any of hundreds of others pieces would have worked as well, but some of Benson's picks are quite interesting. For example, an open letter by Irwin Silber in 1964 expresses his disappointment over Dylan's change from agit-prop folkie to existential poet.
/ Someone recently wrote that the rock critics, or perhaps just Greil Marcus, were waiting for Dylan to die in order to reclaim his early career and erase the rest. The inclusion here of some great analyses of Dylan's '70s era work warns against such amnesia. One piece places him in the apocalyptic tradition- cataclysmic, revolutionary and pastoral- with other poets and prophets; another, a review of SLOW TRAIN COMING, takes Dylan's religious pursuits as seriously as his philosophical and musical concerns.
/ Celeb bios tend to be hagiographies and Benson's collection is mainly favorable towards its subject, except for a 1998 right-wing diatribe on Dylan's receiving the Kennedy Center Honor - "a cloying spectacle of the boomers celebrating themselves... All he has ever written are jingles freighted with ominous blah."
/ One of the best pieces is a recent Village Voice comparison of three radically different folk revivalists, Alan Lomax and Harry Smith and Dylan. The first two looked back to preserve the past, Lomax for a romanticized political purpose, Smith for aesthetic reasons. Dylan was different; he began his career looking back, but soon looked inward, and today, even though he recycles his own and others songs, he creatively reworks them.
A friend invited me to play in his band. It was bassless and a punk band needs a bass player. I could barely play the guitar, but the bass had two less strings, so I gamely accepted. Someone let me borrow his Fender Precision to get started and I was off. Off to find books that were aimed at those on the other side of the stage monitors or who'd like to be there. Like me.
I found the great book. It has it all, including a picture of "my" Fender on the cover: THE BASS PLAYER BOOK: EQUIPMENT, TECHNIQUE, STYLES, AND ARTISTS (Miller Freeman). Edited by Karl Coryat, it's based on BASS PLAYER MAGAZINE, which is a bit intimidating, since the magazine is for musicians who already have the skills that I was seeking to learn. But the introduction, with a basic diagram of the instrument and another showing the notes at each fret position for each string, and the "don't forget to have fun playing the bass" admonition put me at ease.
Among its many pointers, the book advised me that a drum machine can serve as a fine metronome and that I should forget about "trying to look like the guys on MTV, with the bass hanging down near the knees" (especially useful for those on the low end of the height ladder). One section gives fingering exercises for the fret hand, another provides the basics of music theory, and still another discusses a sense of time. The book has a couple of off-putting lines, though, like "Practice! Play every day," and "you need a teacher."
Undeterred by lines like those - and by the fact that I had to return the borrowed bass - I saw myself becoming a damn good (not a punk) bassist. A real pro. Which led me to read Keith Rosir's STUDIO BASS MASTERS: SESSION TIPS & TECHNIQUES FROM TOP BASS PLAYERS (Miller Freeman). Aimed at those aspiring to a touring-free career, Rosir teaches skills and techniques (like the number system that simplifies both communication among musicians and changing keys) that allow you to play with anyone. Producers and engineers tell what they expect from you, but the bulk of the book is given over to Q&A's with experienced studio bassists. Each relates their influences and offers tips (eg., on sight-reading: "try to read a bar ahead" and "scan the chart when you first get it to find the most difficult part, so you can figure it out before you have to perform it"). There are discussions about developing a sense of time and some positive thinking ("You have to bring a great attitude to each situation"). The book comes with a play-along CD with bass lines from these unknown celebrities.
It wasn't because these session bassists were all male that I realized that such a career was not for me; it was the recognition realize that they'd all started to play at or before puberty, and that most had started piano lessons before they could cross streets by themselves. For someoneone far closer to dotage than to childhood, that inconvenient fact didn't bode well.
Okay, I'll stick to playing in a punk band. Wasn't it the punks who'd proudly proclaimed the ideology of rank amateurism? "Hey, I just started to play this instrument two weeks ago." Well, I certainly can pass as a rank amateur.
Some people have made punk their career, and a career means more than just being able to play, or not exactly play, your instrument. Which leads me to Kenny Kerner's book, GOING PRO: DEVELOPING A PROFESSIONAL CAREER IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY (Hal Leonard). It's one of those everything you need to know about going pro volumes, starting with doing self-promotion, including putting out demos and press kits. Kerner isn't into the punkish Do-It-Yourself ethic; he sees the advantage of expertise based on a division of labor and tells you how to deal with those ubiqitous others (whom he fails to call weasels): managers, attorneys, booking agents, A&Rs and record companies. Additionally, he provides basic and crucial information about song publishing and advice about the least business-like part of being a musician- songwriting and being in a band.
Whereas Kerner sees a career in music in terms of tasks and behavior, Brian McPherson looks at it from a legal perspective. Which makes sense, since he is a lawyer. In GET IT IN WRITING: THE MUSICIAN'S GUIDE TO THE MUSIC BUSINESS (Rockpress/ Hal Leonard), McPherson goes into detail about those detailed sheafs of paper that most bands imprudently fail to study - contracts. Given the innumerable sad tales about musicians being snookered out of money, this book should be required bedside or rehearsal space reading. Here you'll find out about copyrights, label deals, music publishing and performance rights, merchandising and trademarks, advertising, band agreements, and the scariest of all contracts - getting signed to a label. Perhaps we shouldn't kill all the lawyers; the sample contracts included are worth the book's price alone.
"Are you ready to go to band rehearsal?" my friend asks. I'm forced to agree with that decidedly non-punk Pavarotti when he said that "learning music by reading about it is like making love by mail." After much hemming and hawing, I ask my friend if he thinks that the band could use someone on comb-and-paper.
Time marches on. Which is a good thing. Sure, if we were stuck forever in an eternal present we'd never know death, but then again we'd never have any rock history books.
In THE HITS JUST KEEP ON COMING: THE HISTORY OF TOP 40 RADIO (Miller Freeman), Ben Fong-Torres focuses on the rise and demise of rock's first radio format. Fong-Torres has written about radio for ROLLING STONE, GQ and the radio trade magazine GAVIN REPORTS. As a kid he was fascinated by hit radio. The professional and the kid co-authored his book, although they aren't always on the same wavelength. The kid "dug Dick Clark," whereas the pro describes Clark as "an exploiter of pop culture"; the kid loved the exciting delivery of the fast-talking screamers, whereas the pro embraces the pioneers of the late '60s FM "underground" "progressive" format. The Top 40 format was as much about the hot deejay personalities rhythmically booming out innumerable promo jingles and time spots as it was about the music. The book is full of deejay photos, brief biographies and interviews (some recycled from Fong-Torres' earlier work), and transcriptions of their on-air patter. As for the music, Fong-Torres repeats the mantra that Top 40 means "democracy in radio" - playing "whatever was popular." Democracy may be the least worst way of getting political leaders, but it's a lousy aesthetic standard. The index provides GAVIN's listing of the format's top songs since 1957: novelty crud interspersed with sentimental pap and maybe 10% worth remembering. At its end the "democratic jukebox had become a 'vulture' format, picking off the choice morsels that other, more specialized formats have succeeded with." Fong-Torres needn't mourn- Top 40 still lives on MTV.
In THE ROCKIN''50S (Shirmer), Brock Helander sets his historical sights on that axial decade when Top 40 began. The opening pages are full of promise, providing a tripartite framework for rock'n'roll (rockabilly, r&b, and doowop), an analysis of the crucial role that indie labels played in the emergence of the new style and a discussion of the era's ubiquitous cover songs. But the book's subtitle, "The People Who Made the Music," soon takes over, resulting in a compendium of brief biographies, with bibliographical references, of '50s-era popular music personalities who "made the music" in its various forms, mainly recycled from Helander's THE ROCK WHO'S WHO. Many are obvious choices like Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Others, like Connie Frances and Paul Anka, are not. Musical mediators like Alan Fried and Dick Clark are uncritically applauded, although the former was the midwife of the big beat whereas latter was the undertaker growing rich off its death.
Understanding rock's history requires putting songs and personalities into context. But which context: the development of genres or some social, cultural, political or economic trends? Selecting any single context creates a master narrative, a pomo no no. Ashley Kahn, Holly George-Warren and Shawn Dahl, editors of ROLLING STONE: THE '70S (Little, Brown), gleefully provide a raft of narrative voices writing about a kaleidoscope of events and trends of that decade. The pieces cover pop music's innumerable fragments (Punk, Reggae, Soul, Southern Rock, Disco) with the telling exception of Heavy Metal, which underscores the book's title; this is ROLLING STONE's view of the decade. The editors do not privilege music over other areas like politics, religion, sports, fashion, medicine and technology. Oh yeah, and sex and drugs. The book's structure is stretched along a timeline, emphasized by marginalia about daily doings. Most authors have more than a passing interest in their subject, having had a front-row seats for their special interests, and they give their unique takes on the times. Some wallow in self- justification (Dan Rather on Watergate) and/or nostalgia (Mark Kemp on his Southern past), or just the "nah nah I was there and you weren't" (Fong-Torres on press junkets). But the best, and there are many gems scattered here, provide insightful analysis with delightful descriptions. "Fashion," writes the sartorially splendid Tom Wolfe, "is the code of the language of status." The decade's fashion disaster, leisure suits, is explained as Whites dressing-down.
With clear eyes, Hunter Thompson assesses his celebrated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: "It was nice to be loose and crazy with a good credit card in a time when it was possible to run totally wild... at least I'll know I was THERE, neck deep in the madness, before the deal went down." Chet Flippo's discerning piece on the beatification of the dead Elvis works well with Billy Altman's take on Punk; Altman notes that critics Bangs and Meltzer pissed through Graceland's front gate. Stan Cornyn's article on the record industry is poignant and telling. Cornyn had become second in command at Warners, having ridden the label from its indie-infancy in the '50s to its huge profitability in the late '70s, accompanied by lavish spending habits, which he illustrates with details of Queen's album release party for 200,000 in New Orleans. But as such expenses overtook income, the business lost its heart.
Written from the belly of the beast, after ROLLING STONE had moved to New York's 5th Avenue from San Francisco, Daisann McLane's essay is a fitting companion to Cornyn's. Her focus is also that "moment in which rock had moved from the hip margins to the profitable mainstream." She shows how the decade's possibilities, celebrated in this book, led directly to their erasure in the Yuppified Reagan '80s and the cynical retro '90s. The hyper-profitable recording industry and its handmaid R.S. can now only lay claim to heart and soul with re-issues and other backward glances, like this book.