This year has seen a flood of essential music books, from probing memoirs by rock elders such Bruce Springsteen and Robbie Robertson to Laura Jane Grace’s chronicle of life as a transgender punk. Here are three more worthy new titles, including Johnny Marr‘s poignant memoir of life in and out of the Smiths, Curtis Mayfield‘s son Todd’s comprehensive account of his father’s groundbreaking and at times tragic career, and seasoned Bob Dylan scholar Clinton Heylin’s in-depth look at the singer-songwriter’s seismic mid-Sixties transition.
The Smiths’ Sad Saga
During the Eighties, the Smiths were England’s most unlikely hitmakers, building an enormous cult following on the brilliant but shaky alliance between singer-lyricist Morrissey and guitar visionary Johnny Marr. The band’s 1987 breakup inaugurated decades of fighting between the two in the press and in court. In one moving moment in his new memoir, Set the Boy Free, Marr describes a 2008 meeting with Morrissey (their first in more than a decade) to discuss a possible Smiths reunion – a hopeful period that ended when Moz stopped returning Marr’s calls. “Things went back to how they were and how I expect they always will be,” Marr writes.
The Smiths saga has been told before, in the 700-page bio A Light That Never Goes Out and in Morrissey’s own highly tendentious 2013 memoir. Marr tells his version of the band’s story with a nostalgic warmth that was entirely missing from his former partner’s account. He details a chemistry with Morrissey that was evident from their first song, “Suffer Little Children,” a ballad about two local serial killers. “When individuals are working instinctively and intricately, thinking within milliseconds of each other, it’s as close to real magic as you can get,” Marr writes.
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Marr paints a vivid picture of the Smiths’ teenage adventures, like their first journey to London’s BBC offices, where they arrived in their van in a fog of hash smoke, and the shock Marr felt when fans started dressing like him. Unlike the outgoing and sometimes volatile Morrissey, Marr was happy to stay out of the spotlight, choosing to spend his nights behind the mixing board. “[Pot] helped me shut out the outside world just enough to do the job,” he writes. In that vein, there’s plenty here for guitar geeks, such as the story of Marr discovering his trademark jangle (heard on “This Charming Man”) by double-tracking a Rickenbacker and a Telecaster against each other.
The guitarist’s desire to push the band forward musically became part of a bigger power struggle that eventually ended the Smiths. Amazingly, when Marr quit and the band’s five-year run ended, he was only 23.
Marr doesn’t regret his decision to leave; he writes fondly about his stints playing in Talking Heads and the Pretenders (“I was sky high and miles away from the past”). But there’s an air of resigned sorrow as he describes his last contact with Morrissey, in 2010, an e-mail exchange about a viral photo of a student protester wearing a Smiths T-shirt. “Although I felt I’d created a moment of friendship, I felt an air of disaffection and distrust remained between us,” Marr writes. “It was a shame.”
The Tragic Life of a Troubled Soul Visionary
Curtis Mayfield helped shape the African-American experience like few others – first during the civil rights era, with the uplifting hits of the Impressions, then as a solo artist, with the blaxploitation landmark Superfly. Personally, though, he was a distant, mercurial figure who abused drugs and women and spent long periods cut off from the outside world. In Traveling Soul, Todd Mayfield, one of the singer’s 10 children, writes that his father’s erratic ways reflected his “divided nature as a Gemini,” a less-than-probing characterization that fits a man almost no one could get close to. Todd follows his dad from dire poverty in Chicago to stardom, chronicling the fight for black empowerment that serves as a mirror to Curtis’ own journey from Sixties positivity to Seventies and Eighties malaise. The moving final chapters chronicle Curtis’ nightmarish years after a stage collapse that rendered him a paraplegic in 1990 and led to his death at 57. His grueling attempts to keep making music and his son’s uphill battle navigating family alliances turn Traveling Soul from a solid biography into a more nuanced portrayal of personal tragedy.
Inside Dylan’s Electric Revolution
Clinton Heylin’s history of Bob Dylan’s transition from folk icon to electric radical begins with Dylan’s first plugged-in performance, at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25th, 1965, and ends just 10 months later at London’s Royal Albert Hall, the last show before his famous motorcycle accident. This is well-worn territory, but Heylin, one of the world’s foremost Dylanologists, breathes new life into the story with the help of 18 recently unearthed soundboard recordings from Dylan’s 1966 tour with the Hawks. Heylin referenced local newspaper articles and conducted new interviews, vividly recounting moments like the night Dylan played Blonde on Blonde for the Beatles. At the tour’s final stop, a worn-down Dylan snipes at yet another folkie heckler in the audience. “You’re not going to see me anymore,” he says, prophetically. “And I’m not going to see you.”