This year’s best music books offers a mix of fascinating memoir, adventurous criticism and rich historical investigation.
Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, Ryan H. Walsh
Van Morrison’s 1968 LP Astral Weeks was a landmark fusion of jazz, folk, rock and meditative soul. But its creation is as mysterious as the cantankerous genius who made it. Journalist Walsh dives into the Boston rock scene of the time, where Morrison made the LP after fleeing New York, due to problems with a mobbed-up record business; there are cameos from Timothy Leary, Lou Reed, a commune leader and a speechwriter for Bobby Kennedy. What emerges is a fascinating image of the late Sixties and an indelible portrait of Morrison himself. “A hateful little guy,” says one associate in the book, “but . . . he’s the best rock & roll voice out there.” Purchase: $18.36 on Amazon.com.
Let’s Go (SoWe Can Get Back), Jeff Tweedy
The Wilco frontman has never been shy about alluding to his emotional and psychological struggles (the 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart deals with them intimately). This memoir goes even deeper. “I’d taken plenty of non-narcotic pain medication in my life, but mostly in suppository form due to my inability to keep solids down during a migraine,” he writes. “What’s that? You didn’t need to know that? My bad.” The book’s unsparing detail— on everything from his upbringing in drab Belleville, Illinois, to the contentious band dynamics of Wilco and alt-country gods Uncle Tupelo — make this a uniquely raw rock autobiography. Purchase: $16.80 on Amazon.com.
Beastie Boys Book, Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz
The Beasties didn’t play by the rules during their career, and this memoir by surviving members Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz doesn’t either. Rather than a straight narrative, it’s a montage of photographs, comic strips, fanzine artwork and even celebrity cameos (like Amy Poehler, who reviews their videos;”I truly believe there would be no Anchorman, No Wes Anderson, no Lonely Island videos and no Adult Swim if this video did not exist” she says about “Sabotage”). Mixed in are hilarious, at times heartwarming, memories. Of the late Adam “MCA” Yauch, they write: “After thirty years of friendship, I never knew what he was going to do next. He was a living contradiction of people’s idea of how, or what, you’re supposed to do. He’s the Buddhist guy who’s telling me how last night he was at the after-after-party for some fashion show.” Purchase: $32.10 on Amazon.com.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Hanif Abdurraquib
The Ohio poet/critic digs deep into what it means to be American in our moment — and how much music has to do with it. His book meditates on Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Migos, loving Springsteen, being the only black kid at the emo punk show, death and grief. (One section is called, “On Black Grandmothers and the Art of Dying on your Own Terms.”) He sees his idol Springsteen in Jersey — the night after visiting Michael Brown’s grave in Ferguson. He reaches rapture in his ode to Prince’s Super Bowl performance in the rain: “Dearly beloved, when the sky opens up, anywhere, I will think of how Prince made a storm bend to his will.” Purchase: $15.29 on Amazon.com.
My Love Story, Tina Turner
Tina Turner’s gripping 1986 memoir, I, Tina, revealed the true story of her abusive marriage to Ike Turner and her long, brutal road to personal and musical freedom. In this compelling follow-up, the reclusive soul icon discusses equally difficult struggles, this time with failing health, including a stroke, a kidney transplant and intestinal cancer. Like I, Tina, this volume also ends in hard-won happiness, thanks to the support of Turner’s current husband, a German music exec who is 16 years her junior. “No matter what happened to me,” she writes with characteristic honesty and resilience, “I came through it every time.” Purchase: $13.89 on Amazon.com.
Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock, Stephen Hyden
A Gen X dad and lifelong rock & roll geek reflects on how it feels to grow up — and get older — along with the classic-rock stars of the past, even though they are (in Stevie Nicks’ words) gettin’ older too. Hyden’s book is a humorously elegiac tribute: what does it mean to hear your adult angst in the songs of Pink Floyd, Aerosmith or Black Sabbath — or watch your jukebox heroes try to keep on keeping on? When Axl joins AC/DC, or John Mayer joins the Dead, Hyden coins the useful term “shrunkgroups” — instead of “supergroups,” now we have “whoever is still alive.” Purchase: $14.27 on Amazon.com.
Night Moves, Jessica Hopper
A punk diary — the night-by-night adventures of a rock girl toughing it out in the Chicago music scene, or as Liz Phair used to call it, “Guyville.” “I am seven kinds of love with Chicago,” she writes, but as she concedes, to love the city, “you must also hate it dispassionately.” Night Moves is a whirl of gigs, clubs, day jobs, zines, record shops, lame parties, showing up at a Hold Steady video shoot, toting your broken bike through the streets, watching the industrial zone turn into “yuppie jizz discos.” As Hopper says, “Living in a city of drunk jocks will keep you punk forever.” Purchase: $13.09 on Amazon.com.
Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism 1967-2017, Robert Christgau
In an era when critics 50 years his junior are afraid to step outside their rigidly defined musical fiefdoms, the 76 year-old “Dean of American Rock Critics” remains peerless in his omnivorous passion, command and insight. This career-spanning collection of essays takes on an astonishing variety of artists and genres — from the Coasters to Lady Gaga, from African pop music to hip-hop to alt-rock to country. There are pieces from 1960s that still read like master classes (check out the 1967 jam ‘Rock Lyrics Are Poetry (Maybe)”) and the sense of energy and renewed excitement is at times almost frightening (the tireless concert diary “A Month on the Town,” from 2006). The book ends with moving reflections on the passing of Leonard Cohen, Prince and David Bowie and other irreplaceable giants, but there’s no sense of finality anywhere here. Purchase: $16.96 on Amazon.com.
Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Tim Mohr
This (literally) secret history of the (literally) revolutionary 1980’s East German punk rock scene is a both a cultural revelation and a thrilling read. Drawing on interviews with dissident musicians and unearthed files from the Soviet-backed Stasi police force, author Tim Mohr charts a movement triggered by teens (foremost a fifteen year old girl called Major) that was radicalized by its mere existence in a repressive regime. The music very directly helped foment the mass resistance that felled the Wall, while the collectivist dedication seeded the nascent German EDM club scene, still a subcultural beacon. Inspirational, illuminating, and in terms of fighting totalitarianism with art, timely as hell. Purchase: $16.81 on Amazon.com.
Led Zeppelin, by Led Zeppelin
To mark their 50th anniversary, the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin all pitched in on this massive, 400-page coffee table book and loaded it with a mix of electrifying concert photos and candid backstage shots, from 1968 to 1982 and their mini reunions thereafter. Throughout, each member offers up insights and recollections. Next to a raucous-looking 1969 live pic, Jimmy Page, writes, “We knew how good we were.” And in his epilogue, Robert Plant wrote, “[It was] so rough and ragged, joyous and ecstatic, and gone.” Just leafing through the book, and seeing things like the press release they sent when they broke up following John Bonham’s death, makes it a moving experience. Purchase: $28.99 on Amazon.com.
Devo: Unmasked/Devo: The Brand, by Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh
In two back-to-back volumes, Devo’s songwriting nucleus trace both their history and how they marketed their zany, musical theory of devolution in the late Seventies, with intriguing and sometimes hilarious cameos by David Bowie, Mick Jagger, William S. Burroughs and even John Hinckley, Jr. Unmasked contains childhood photos, early lyrics, tales of debauchery, presented oral-history style, and lots of horrifying pictures that detail the band’s love of grotesque masks. The Brand, which is packaged in the same book but upside down (“You must flip it!”), contains press clippings, insights on the band’s album art and kooky hats. Together, it presents a unique look at one of rock’s most original bands. Purchase: $65 on DevoBook.net.
Heavy Duty: Days and Nights in Judas Priest, by K.K. Downing with Mark Eglinton
Guitarist K.K. Downing cofounded Judas Priest in 1969 but split the pioneering heavy-metal group in 2011, unhappy with the band’s management and fellow guitarist Glenn Tipton. He recounts his whole story — and dishes lots of dirt in the process — in this memoir. Highlights include how he devised the band’s studded black-leather look (allowing its frontman, the now openly gay Rob Halford to express his sexuality) and behind-the-scenes peeks, like how the band regretted turning down a slot on the Top Gun soundtrack only to put out a less-than-stellar “Johnny B. Goode” cover for the soundtrack to the forgettable Johnny Be Good. He also goes into great detail about his creative differences with Tipton, alleging the other guitarist wanted all the glory, giving readers a rare look at the real drama that plagues even the biggest bands. Purchase: $17.27 on BarnesandNoble.com.
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