Fans are forever fascinated to discover new details of the stories behind their favorite performers, and to feed that fire, a couple of new books focus on two very different women — Nina Simone and Lita Ford — who have made music that has inspired others. A new history goes inside the myth, debauchery and creative fire of Woodstock, New York, one of rock's legendary towns. And if you're feeling overwhelmed by the seemingly infinite amount of music available at your fingertips, music critic Ben Ratliff tackles what it means to listen to music in the digital era.
Now that seemingly every record ever made is just a couple of clicks away, how do we process it all? In his incisive new essay collection, Every Song Ever, New York Times critic Ben Ratliff finds one way: by locating common ground among artists as different as Black Sabbath and Mozart. Ratliff draws up idiosyncratic playlists and focuses on shared traits like loudness and repetition. Thanks to Ratliff's vast knowledge, what could have been a dry academic exercise is more like a trip into the world's coolest record store. – David Browne
By the time she was 20, Lita Ford had gotten crabs from Dee Dee Ramone, toured the world with all-female punks the Runaways and got her nose broken by a belt-buckle-wielding woman in a fight. Ford's fearless Living Like a Runaway is a vivid account of life as "the one-and-only guitar-playing rocker chick who could shred like I did." Personal struggles mount: Exploitative Svengali Kim Fowley calls the band "dogs," and Ford battles music-biz chauvinism and estrangement from her kids. It's a fast-paced read – and, at its best, an inspiring one. – Annie Licata
What Happened, Miss Simone? is the engaging biography of the troubled soul heroine serves as a companion to the 2015 Netflix documentary of the same title. Journalist Alan Light chronicles the life of a civil-rights icon who "grudgingly accepted the popular nickname 'the High Priestess of Soul.'" Simone's mental-health struggles led to violent episodes (she brought bodyguards to shows to protect fans from her), and a tragic end. But as Light shows, her intensity fueled music that reflected and transformed the volatile America of her times. – Jon Dolan
On a charmed night in August 1969, residents of tiny Woodstock, New York, had the choice of seeing Van Morrison or blues great Johnny Winter, who were both in town performing at intimate venues. If that wasn't enough entertainment, Jimi Hendrix was a few blocks away, holed up in a converted Methodist church workshopping the rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" he'd make legendary just weeks later, 60 miles down the road at Max Yasgur's farm.
Veteran music journalist Barney Hoskyns' fascinating new history of Woodstock, Small Town Talk, explores one of rock's most mythic settings, drawing on interviews with dozens of residents and visitors, including Morrison, the Band, Todd Rundgren, Patti Smith and Bonnie Raitt, as well as memories from his own years living there during the Nineties. Hoskyns, who covered some of this ground in his 1993 biography of the Band, Across the Great Divide, details Bob Dylan's legendary work at Big Pink with the Band, and offers a complex characterization of Dylan's mercurial manager Albert Grossman, de facto mayor of the local counterculture. The book also shows how the area's idyllic energy was hard to maintain in a cloistered scene where, according to Band producer John Simon, "everybody was fucking everybody else."
Hoskyns writes that Woodstock "has become a kind of themed village of Sixties hippie life," and it's that loving honesty that helps him pin down the knotty reality behind the tie-dyed myth. – Jon Dolan