Esteemed music scholar Szwed (Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, 2010, etc.) offers a portrait of Lady Day as artist and mythmaker rather than tragic victim.
More than any other vocal artist of her era, Billie Holiday (1915-1959) continues to capture the attention of historians and critics. The grim details of her life are, by now, well-known: how she emerged from a background of poverty and prostitution and, for the remainder of her years, struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, abusive relationships, and racism. Szwed does not gloss over these facts, but neither does he dwell on them, instead centering his account on Holiday’s enigmatic persona and its relationship to her art. He calls the book a “meditation” on Holiday rather than a strict biography and assumes that readers will have some familiarity with her life story. The first part of the book, “The Myth,” is a fragmentary but detailed exploration of how Holiday’s persona developed outside of her recordings, focusing on her controversial autobiography Lady Sings the Blues (especially what was edited out of the manuscript) along with her film and TV appearances. The second part, “The Musician,” which takes up more than half the book, is an erudite blend of cultural history and musical insight that examines the historical context of Holiday’s career, placing her in a lineage of female singers that reaches back to the 19th century. Szwed also takes a close look at Holiday’s innovative vocal approach, reminding us that although she had no formal training, she possessed a remarkable gift for improvisation and interpretation, often reshaping melodies to the extent that she essentially rewrote them according to her own idiosyncratic visions.
As with the best of Holiday’s music, this elegant and perceptive study is restrained, nuanced, and masterfully carried out.
An illuminating stroll through the decades of one of the most culturally significant streets in America.
The first book by journalist Calhoun vividly details the long legacy of artistic upheaval, political foment, demographic transformation, and resistance to gentrification along the street on New York’s Lower East Side where she grew up. St. Marks Place doesn’t submit to the easy stereotyping of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, perhaps because “hippies” and “Summer of Love” represented such a comparatively brief blip in American culture. The hippies of St. Marks preferred to be called “freaks,” with less of an emphasis on love and more on the liberation of anarchy. But as the author traces the legacy of St. Marks back four centuries, she shows how the street has long served as a magnet for radical visionaries, crackpot artists, self-proclaimed prophets, and runaways with nowhere else to go. “Disillusioned St. Marks Place bohemians—those who were Beats in the fifties, hippies in the sixties, punks in the seventies, or anarchists in the eighties—often say the street is dead now, with only the time of death a matter of debate,” she writes, and then counters, “but this book will show that every cohort’s arrival, the flowering of its utopia, killed someone else’s.” In quickly paced, anecdotal fashion, Calhoun connects the dots between Emma Goldman and Abbie Hoffman, Charlie Parker and the Velvet Underground, those who occupied the neighborhood during different decades but sustained its character as kindred spirits. While readers looking for a more thorough documentation of the Beats or CBGB might consider the narrative a little hit-and-run, the breezy approach underscores the radical, significant transformations experienced by St. Marks and leads to her engagingly personal reflection on how a child raised there might not feel much nostalgia for blocks of discarded needles, used condoms, and threats of pedophilia: “though St. Marks Place will probably always elude true respectability, the street today is safer and more pleasant than at any point in the last fifty years.”
Rather than a nostalgic lament, this revelatory book celebrates an indelible cultural imprint.
A monumental biography of the larger-than-life loner who fought for the acceptance of black music and discovered an extraordinary group of poor, country-boy singers whose records would transform American popular culture.
Celebrated music historian Guralnick (Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, 2005, etc.) recounts the life of Sam Phillips (1923-2003), an Alabama farmer’s son who founded Sun Records in Memphis, where, during the 1950s, he first recorded the music of Ike Turner, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and others. In earlier books, including a two-volume Presley biography (Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love), the author has written about such artists and the rise of rock ’n’ roll, “this revolutionary new music that combined raw gutbucket feel with an almost apostolic sense of exuberance and joy.” Now he turns to “unreconstructed individuali[st]” Phillips, who opened the door to untutored talents, recognizing their originality and mentoring them with “patience and belief.” A sickly child who became enamored of African-American music while picking cotton alongside black laborers, Phillips was bright, observant, and much influenced by a blind black sharecropper who lived with his family. He started out as a radio DJ and engineer and realized when he recorded Ike Turner’s hit “Rocket 88” (1951) at Sun that black music had potentially universal appeal. His discoveries—related here with contagious excitement—were not happenstance but rather the result of his dedication to finding the “pure essence” of performances. Guralnick met the charismatic Phillips in 1979 and became a close friend, and he makes no secret of his affection and admiration. However, he also covers his subject’s problems and foibles: his early mental breakdowns, his troubled marriage and affairs, his financial difficulties, his later drinking, and his penchant for bragging about his (rightful) place in music history.
A wonderful story that brings us deep into that moment when America made race music its own and gave rise to the rock sound now heard around the world.
Coming on its 50th anniversary and just after the band’s farewell tour, an engaging, near-comprehensive oral history of the Grateful Dead.
If “the Grateful Dead” and “disco” are not phrases that go together, it’s not for want of their trying. As Jackson (Grateful Dead Gear—The Band's Instruments, Sound Systems, and Recording Sessions, from 1965 to 1995, 2006, etc.) and musician Gans (Conversations with the Dead: The Grateful Dead Interview Book, 1991, etc.)—collectors and archivists who know as much as nearly anyone alive about the storied band—chronicle, midway into the 1970s, with albums such as “From the Mars Hotel” and “Wake of the Flood" under their belts, the Dead were enough under the sway of Saturday Night Fever to attempt a disco-ish take on “Dancing in the Street.” Chalk it up to Mickey Hart, one of the many thorns in this thorny narrative hide, whose return to the band wrought big changes. “We had to tell him [what to play],” said guitarist Bob Weir in 1977, “which means we had to be thinking about it, which means while we were thinking about it, we might as well rethink things in general.” As fans already know but will further note, the superficially peace-and-love demeanor of the Dead disguised all sorts of tensions, from personality clashes to money worries and differences over musical direction. But it all worked, despite Jerry Garcia’s drug use and increasingly erratic behavior. Says sound tech Bob Bralove, “The energy around [the last tour with Garcia] was kind of confusing, because there was this really positive energy coming from the band, but it was missing a key ingredient.” For all that, there’s plenty of peace and love here and lots of smoke and psychedelia, as well as the usual Altamont regrets, all voiced by people in and close to the band.
Worthy of Studs Terkel and an essential addition to the books of the Dead.
Intellectually complex life of Otis Redding (1941-1967), the doomed King of Soul.
It’s a supreme irony, at least of a kind, that Redding never lived to see his “Dock of the Bay” hit the mainstream pop charts, as it did just after he died in an icy plane crash. “Redding seemed primed to carry some sort of soul mantle,” writes Ribowsky (The Last Cowboy: The Life of Tom Landry, 2013, etc.) of the period when Redding’s star was just rising. Though it lasted just a couple of years, that period irrevocably changed the face of American pop, when AM radio played black and white music side by side, Creedence next to James Brown next to the Beatles. Redding was a slightly more countrified progeny of Brown’s who, like so many other soul singers, defied expectations and sometimes confounded fans. As Ribowsky remembers, Redding was friendly with a white supremacist sheriff who would later issue shoot-to-kill orders on blacks suspected of looting. Was that Uncle Tom–ism? Redding was so smart that there must have been a method to that particular madness, something that went along with his pointed habit of counting box office receipts after a show, pistol in waistband. Ribowsky serves up some tantalizing what-if scenarios: if Redding had not been in that plane crash, would he have drifted into jazz or soft pop—or even country? Might he have found common cause with Jimi Hendrix, who seemed so much his opposite at Monterey Pop, Redding sweaty and masterful, Hendrix “soldering generational nihilism with undefined sexual rage,” both blowing the collective minds of the audience. Ribowsky considers Redding in the context of racial justice and injustice, the civil rights movement, and, most important, popular music as it spread through a nation hungry for the message brought by the preacher’s son who “had precious little time to enjoy the air up there.”
Excellent from start to finish, demanding a soundtrack of Stax hits as background listening.
New Yorker staff writer Seabrook (Flash of Genius: And Other True Stories of Invention, 2008, etc.) examines the seismic shifts in the music industry.
There are plenty of good books that have shown how “hits are the source of hard dealings and dark deeds.” If it’s no surprise that the music industry can be a dirty business, the author shows just how radically the business has changed, with power shifting from the American-British axis to Sweden (and Korea and China on the horizon), with album-oriented rock eclipsed by contemporary hit pop and with streaming undermining not only the sales of CDs and downloads, but the future of the music business as we know it. Even those well-versed in the trade might be surprised to learn that a South African native named Clive Calder, through his Jive label, “is and for the foreseeable future will be the single richest man the music business ever produced.” Those riches accrued from his involvement with the Backstreet Boys, ’N Sync, and Britney Spears but even more from his visionary focus on producers rather than performers and publishing rights rather than record sales. His story intersects with that of the notorious Lou Pearlman, now imprisoned for “a giant Ponzi scheme” but formerly involved in manufacturing those acts and more. But some of the freshest and most fascinating material concerns the way that Swedish musical masterminds whose names are little-known to American music consumers have been able to dominate over decades and genres by bridging pop hooks and dance-floor beats. Max Martin, for one, has enjoyed a string of Billboard chart-toppers extending from Spears' breakthrough and Bon Jovi’s comeback through recent work with Taylor Swift. Seabrook goes deeper into the career developments of Rihanna and Katy Perry, but most of the artists hold insignificant power within the international behemoth that this industry has become and even less control over their own musical progression.
A revelatory ear-opener, as the music business remains in a state of significant flux.
First-class account of the life and times of an essential riot grrrl and the band she helped create.
In this debut memoir, Brownstein, co-founder of the iconic punk band Sleater-Kinney, traces her evolution from the daughter of a secure but secretly unhappy home—closeted gay father, anorexic mother—to a gawky teenage rock fan and, ultimately, to becoming an artist in her own right. (She does not delve into her work on Portlandia.) The story of her life is also, inevitably, the story of her own band: meeting (and having a close but tortuous relationship with) co-founder Corin Tucker, the endless process of writing and co-writing songs and guitar leads, firing drummers (they went through three before striking gold with Janet Weiss), and the way life on the road both forges and fractures relationships. For Sleater-Kinney fans, the book is an absolute must, as it not only describes the rise of the band, but also delves into the making of every album. Furthermore, for a band in which song authorship has never been perfectly clear, Brownstein gives some insight as to who wrote what. More than that, the book is deeply personal, an act of self-discovery by a writer both telling her story and coming to understand herself at the same time. “In Sleater-Kinney,” she writes, “each song, each album, built an infrastructure, fresh skeletons.” The author writes focused and uncluttered prose, choosing the best, most telling details, as she recounts stories that show what it means to perform for the first time and what it means for a woman to be both a fan and a star in a staunchly male-dominated world.
Unlike many rock star memoirs, there’s no sense that this book is a chore or a marketing effort. It’s revealing and riveting. On the page as in her songs, Brownstein finds the right words to give shape to experience.