Rock of Pages: 45 Books for the Literate Music Fan

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From Joy Division to New Order: The True Story of Anthony H. Wilson and Factory Records, by Mick Middles

More than just the Joy Division/New Order story, this book details an era, a city, a time, a place, and the people in it with credibility and plenty of context (author Middles was a Manchester scenester from the earliest days). Seen the movie “24-Hour Party People?” It might as well have used this book as its screenplay. You know the story: the Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, Buzzcocks, Tony Wilson, Granada TV, Martin Hannett, Joy Divison, A Certain Ratio, Ian Curtis’ suicide, New Order, the Hacienda, the whole “Madchester” scene, Wilson’s historic business mis-management, the DJ and drug culture that fueled so much of the scene…it’s still a fascinating slice of British music history.
Una Persson

Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag, by Henry Rollins

Can you wrap your head around the idea of Henry Rollins as the manager of an ice cream store? (“Do you want a bowl or a cone, motherfucker? Answer me, goddammit!”) Strangely enough, that’s exactly what ol’ Hank is doing when “Get in the Van” begins, but after he and buddy Ian MacKaye decide on a whim to drive from D.C. to NYC to see Black Flag in concert, his entire life changes. Given how he’s spent more time in recent years as an orator than a punk rocker, it’s not a surprise to find that Rollins is capable of putting together a coherent collection of reminiscences about his days as a pissed-off twentysomething. This isn’t just a series of “came, saw, kicked ass, hit the road again” stories, though. “Get in the Van” is an invaluable document on the L.A. punk scene, but it also provides portraits of several different sides of Rollins: a guy who’s struggling to make the transition from fan to frontman, a man who plays to huge audiences every night but consistently finds himself lonely in a crowd, and a disillusioned poet who bares his soul to a journal every day in a desperate attempt to make sense of a world that seems to betray him at every turn. Sure, it sounds heavy. But, then, Henry Rollins is a heavy guy. In the book’s final entry, he muses, “When the tour ended, I felt like I had stepped off a fast moving train. You look behind you and it’s gone. It’s so over with, it’s as if it didn’t even happen.” But it did happen. And Rollins has the memories to prove it. – Will Harris

Also recommended: Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs, by Don Bolles and Adam Parfrey

The Greatest Music Never Sold: Secrets of Legendary Lost Albums by David Bowie, Seal, Beastie Boys, Chicago, Mick Jagger, and More!, by Dan Leroy

Artists make the music, labels release the music, everybody gets paid. That’s how it works in the record biz – when everything goes the way it’s supposed to. As every rock fan worth his salt knows, however, things often don’t go the way they’re supposed to, and as a result, we have what’s known as the Great Lost Album. There are bunches of them scattered across rock’s not-so-hallowed halls, and although Leroy doesn’t – couldn’t possibly – talk about all of them here, he does manage to brush the surface enough to send you scurrying across the Internet in search of at least a few of these holy grails. His prose isn’t exactly elegant, but then, it doesn’t need to be – the music is the main attraction here, and Leroy wisely allows the musicians involved in these recordings to do most of the talking. They’re fascinating stories, all of them; chances are, you aren’t a fan of all (or even most of) the artists here, but that won’t stop you from wishing you could hear the stuff they fumbled on its way out the door. – Jeff Giles

Also recommended: Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!, by Domenic Priore

Hammer of the Gods, by Stephen Davis

There have been plenty of other books written about Led Zeppelin since Stephen Davis’ book hit the shelves, but all of them only seem to echo the same material, with varying shades of difference. Whether or not all of the accounts included are true, the fact remains that “Hammer of the Gods” is one of the most entertaining biographies of a rock band ever written. Zeppelin fans get a front row seat to all the sex, drugs and supposed “evil” and “magick” that followed the band around. Plus, we get to learn what a bad ass Peter Grant and the rest of Led Zeppelin’s business entourage were, while the boys in the band worked happily ever after, cranking out albums and touring all the way up to John Bonham’s untimely demise. If you want the myths, legends, and occasionally factual stories of Led Zeppelin, “Hammer of the Gods” is the book for you. And really, even if some of it isn’t true, so what? Bands like Zep were made to live in the land of great rock tales -- and, yes, the one about the groupie and the large fish is here in all its glory as well. (If you’re not familiar with the story in question, that’s plenty reason for you to pick up this book post haste.)
Jason Thompson

Also recommended: Stairway to Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored, by Richard Cole

Have Gun, Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records, by Ronin Ro

It’s your standard “Behind the Music” story, with humble beginnings, success, record company greed, bitter acrimony -- and the body count of a “Rambo” movie. We’ll be the first to admit that “Have Gun Will Travel” is not the best written book on this list; author Ronin Ro tends to repeat himself, seemingly forgetting that he had written nearly identical sentences in the previous chapter. Luckily for him, he has one hell of a story to tell. Marion “Suge” Knight has only one skill, but it is an effective one: blunt force. When Ruthless Records president Eazy-E is reluctant to release Dr. Dre from his contract, Knight surrounds E with men holding lead pipes. When Vanilla Ice shuts out one of Knight’s clients from royalties, Knight (allegedly) dangles him by his ankles from a 15th floor balcony. The best story, by far, involves Knight shaking down the guests at Dr. Dre’s birthday party for “donations.” In an industry filled with dirtbags, Knight takes corruption and lawlessness to staggering lengths, resulting in a story that is morbidly fascinating and utterly terrifying. Required reading for any aspiring rapper. – David Medsker

Also recommended: Ruthless: A Memoir, by Jerry Heller

Here, There and Everywhere, by Geoff Emerick

Casual Beatles fans might reasonably believe that George Martin was the man responsible for twiddling the knobs for everything ever recorded by the Fab Four, given that his name is synonymous with their albums. But if you go back and check the credits, you’ll see that another name pops up almost as often: Geoff Emerick. As it happens, Emerick arguably had as much to do with the Fab Four’s success in the studio as Martin did; he engineered almost all of the band’s later recordings and was directly responsible for a great many of the sonic experiments that put the band on the map. With the assistance of Howard Massey, Emerick finally received the opportunity to put his story down for all to see, and the end result is arguably one of the strongest books ever to emerge from anyone in the Beatles camp. The book begins with Emerick’s reminiscences of the dread of how the Beatles would react when they were informed that EMI has assigned him to be their new engineer. He needn’t have worried: John shrugged his shoulders, Ringo returned to playing the piano, George had little to say one way or the other (what a shock), and Paul, ever cheerful, simply said, “Oh, well, then. We’ll be all right with Geoff; he’s a good lad.” (Indeed, McCartney continued to utilize Emerick’s talents long into his solo career.) Though the text is just as heavy on technical details and recording minutiae as one would expect from someone whose life has been spent twiddling the knobs behind a console, it provides such an insider’s view of the band and their studio creations that it remains an indispensable read for any Beatles fan. – Will Harris

Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business, by Fredric Dannen

When it came out nearly two decades ago, critics and reporters immediately branded “Hit Men” as controversial. Could it be that Frederic Dannen’s all-time classic book that suggested mob connections with indie promotion and record-biz execs was controversial because it was frank, unvarnished, well-researched truth? Or was it, as music biz spin doctors spun it, an easily dismissed pile of stinking gossip-mongering? Perhaps it was simply the case that a business (not music) reporter did a killer job of researching and writing an excellent music book, and the establishment was stunned. Perhaps Dannen’s clear disdain for CBS Records’ Walter Yetnikoff, clear sympathy for his rival Dick Asher, and morbid fascination with indie promoters Joe Isgro and Fred DiSipio, despite their unsavory acquaintances in the organized crime underworld, somehow prove that the book was too flawed to be taken seriously? The answers are left to you, the reader, to decide. You’re smart, right? You can factor in biases and make up your own mind. The one thing that isn’t up for any debate whatsoever is that “Hit Men” is a fascinating, entertaining telling of the 1980s music industry. Dannen put so much research into it (and documents the source of seemingly every tiny bit of information) that this book isn’t the Geraldo Rivera hatchet-job that some critics might have you believe, but instead a very nice piece of journalism, biases be darned. It’s only problem, really, is that the book spends a lot of time talking about the Mafia and insinuating these guys are in tight with indie promoters. But when push comes to shove, it doesn’t actually connect the dots. Pay no mind, however: It’s still a great read. – Mojo Flucke, Ph.D.

Also recommended: Stiffed: A True Story of MCA, the Music Business, and the Mafia, by William Knoedelseder

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, by Crystal Zevon

Aside from being one of the great (and greatly underappreciated) songwriters of the rock era, Warren Zevon was also sort of a total bastard. No relationship was safe from his seemingly arbitrary, often vindictive behavior. You’d think this would make an oral history written by his ex-wife something of an uncomfortable read, and you’d be right – but not because Crystal Zevon uses “I’ll Sleep When I'm Dead”as a forum for old grievances against the original Werewolf of London. Quite the contrary, actually – Crystal is more than fair to Warren as she supervises the proceedings. Perhaps this is because she can afford to be – Zevon, in excerpts from his journals, does a better job of presenting himself as an asshole than anyone else ever could. It’s clear this book was a labor of love for her, and she does a wonderful job of mixing in examples of Warren’s softer side with all the horror and heartbreak. By the time it’s over, you’ll want to hear all of Zevon’s albums back to back – and feel grateful you never knew the man personally. – Jeff Giles

Also recommended: Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons, by Ben Fong-Torres

I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, by Pamela Des Barres

Like others on this list, “I’m With the Band” is one of those books that basically set the bar so high that everything else that came afterward just pales in comparison. (Sure, Pamela Des Barres wrote a sequel, but do you remember it? Of course not.) Former G.T.O. – that’s Girls Together Outrageously – Miss Pamela recounts all of her glory days as a groupie, spent idolizing, falling in and out of love with, and screwing various rock icons. She had encounters with Captain Beefheart, Waylon Jennings and Jimmy Page. She tried to fuck Ray Davies, but he was too nice and faithful to his wife at the time, and the tryst never came to pass. She was obsessed with Don Johnson to a creepy point (much like her obsession with everyone else she mentions in the book), and finally settled down with Michael Des Barres by the time the last pages are turned. Michael who? Oh, well, the point is that Pamela tells anything and everything, and even after all these years, her book remains one of the most titillating gossip journals ever printed. Many may read this tale and just scratch their heads and feel sorry for Miss Pamela, but there are a whole lot of others who’ll strongly connect with her exploits and adventures. Rock and roll ain’t easy, baby. – Jason Thompson

Jolson: The Story of Al Jolson, by Michael Freedland

Al Jolson’s modern day reputation is inextricably linked to his blackface look from “The Jazz Singer,” but he was a true show business legend who earned his reputation as “the world’s greatest entertainer” a thousand times over. Unfortunately, the price of constantly holding an audience in the palm of your hand is that you need incessant adulation offstage as well. As George Burns put it, “It was easy enough to make Jolson happy at home: you just had to cheer him for breakfast, applaud wildly for lunch, and give him a standing ovation for dinner.” Still, you have to respect a man with the chutzpah to follow a performance by Enrico Caruso by saying, “Folks, you ain’t heard nothing yet!” Freedland reveals how Jolson’s ego cost him several marriages and resulted in a tenuous relationship with his brother, Harry, an entertainer in his own right who was forced to endure being billed as “Al’s brother.” Whatever his faults of personality, Jolson was also a humanitarian, a side seen more prominently through his diligent support of American troops. Spearheading the USO tours of Korea, he got the ball rolling on his own by paying for his travels out of his own pocket. “The Story of Al Jolson” reveals a bigger-than-life personality who never fully succeeded in translating his stage persona to film, but by book’s end, you’ll agree with his “Variety” obituary: “An institution and an era of the show business stopped breathing Monday night in a St. Francis Hotel suite in San Francisco. A legend now begins to live.” – Will Harris

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, by Peter Guralnick / Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, by Peter Guralnick (TIE)

Anyone who ever ate a peanut butter and banana sandwich with Elvis (and plenty who never got that close) wrote a book about it, but these two volumes stand a towering pompadour above just about anything else ever written about the King. The story of the South is in many ways the story of rock ‘n’ roll, and Peter Guralnick is one of the finest chroniclers of Southern music, from “Sweet Soul Music” to “Lost Highway” to “Searching for Robert Johnson.” But it’s these two books that tie it all together. “Last Train” starts with Elvis’ childhood in Tupelo, Miss., and goes through his success at Sun to his enlistment in the Army and the death of his mother. “Careless Love” follows through to his eventual decline and death at age 42. In between, Guralnick shows us the swiveling hips, the pills, the girls, the jumpsuits, Graceland, Gladys, Vegas, the Colonel, Priscilla and all the other legendary aspects of the King, but with an uncommon grace of writing backed by exhaustive research. It’s a heartbreaking story, of course, and knowledge of the sad end shadows everything. Elvis tells a girlfriend early on “There are too many people who depend on me. I’m too obligated. I’m in too far to get out.” They sound like the words of a doomed man. – Jim Washington

Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead,
by Phil Lesh

Many books have been written about the Grateful Dead, but none are more authentic than this superb memoir, the first by a band member. Lesh focuses on the band’s formative years in the 1960s and ‘70s, and shows an impressive recall for tales from the seminal era of psychedelic rock that the Grateful Dead helped pioneer. Extensive coverage is devoted to how the Dead’s legendary improvisational ethos was developed, with plenty of details about legendary gigs such as the Acid Tests, the Summer of Love, Woodstock and Altamont, but Lesh goes above most rock bios by examining just what made the band’s musical power so unique and special. “When a large crowd is present, as at the Fillmore or the Trips Festival, the experience of the group mind becomes much more intense. The fervent belief we shared then, and that perseveres today, is that the energy liberated by this combination of music and ecstatic dancing is somehow making the world better, or at least holding the line against the depredations of entropy and ignorance,” writes Lesh of the Dead’s metaphysical philosophy. Above all, Lesh’s recollections show how the Grateful Dead’s “long, strange trip” really was all about using music to explore the human potential. “At the beginning, we were a band playing a gig. At the end [of the Acid Test period], we had become shamans helping to channel the transcendent into our mundane lives and those of our listeners. We felt, all of us… privileged to be at the arrow’s point of human evolution; and from that standpoint, everything was possible.” – Greg M. Schwartz

MTV’s Who’s Who in Rock Video, by John Tobler

Though it’s been out of print for probably two decades, if you’re a fan of ‘80s music, you need to get your hands on this book as soon as possible. (I hate to make such an age-revealing admission, but I actually purchased my copy when the network was originally running TV commercials for the book.) Produced by MTV back in 1983, a flip through “Who’s Who in Rock Videos” is less like taking a trip back in time and more like entering an alternate universe. Even with the photographic evidence to back it up, it’s almost impossible to conceive that the network was once cool enough to do an on-air interview with Ron and Russell Mael from Sparks, or that there once existed a time when Fun Boy Three warranted a “Who’s Who” entry twice as long as U2’s. The book offers photos and brief biographies of the network’s biggest video stars at the time. The entries are relatively succinct (none last more than three pages, and the few that are that long invariably have a full-page photo filling part of that space), but each includes a list of all of the artist’s videos up to that point. Expect to find yourself e-mailing VH-1 Classic with a request or two before all’s said and done. – Will Harris

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, by Robert Dimery and Michael Lydon

Like the “All Music Guide” or the “Encyclopedia Britannica,” this book isn’t meant to be read so much as consulted. In the pre-digital age, it would have been useful primarily as a reference for hardcore music dweebs. But today, now that pretty much any album ever released is a broadband connection and a couple of clicks away from your speakers, enterprising (and, it must be said, somewhat morally deficient) readers can use it as a lengthy wishlist for expanding their personal collections. It’s a subjective list, of course, and a British one at that, so everyone is bound to have a problem or three with Dimery and Lydon’s selections. Quibbling aside, “1001 Albums”is a fascinating attempt to run down the best music of the rock era. “Breezy” isn't the right adjective for a book roughly the size and weight of a newborn baby, but Dimery and Lydon deserve credit for not dwelling on any single album. Crack this puppy open on a day when you’ve got no pressing obligations, and you may not put it down until you’re too tired to keep your lids open. – Jeff Giles

Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, by Michael Azerrad

“Our Band Could Be Your Life” starts at a seminal moment in music history: the week in September 1991 when Nirvana’s album “Nevermind” came out, and eventually knocked Michael Jackson from the top of the Billboard charts. From that jumping-off point Azerrad, who prior to this wrote books about Nirvana and the Seattle scene, traces the forces that allowed that moment to happen. He profiles some of the most influential bands and people that informed the alternative rock revolution, including Black Flag, Minor Threat, The Butthole Surfers, The Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Husker Du, The Replacements, Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth. Azerrad has an eye for detail and anecdotes (such as his description of young outcasts Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye plunking cans with a BB gun in a D.C. basement surrounded by Rollins’ pet snakes), and has done a ton of research. The stories are compelling enough (many of these bands experienced fast success, at least in the indie world, and just-as-fast and ugly breakups) but the writer plays fair with everyone, and fills in a crucial piece of backstory in a movement that changed the music landscape forever. – Jim Washington

Also recommended: Perfect from Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life, by John Sellers

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