From the former Talking Heads frontman, a supremely intelligent, superbly written dissection of music as an art form and way of life.
Drawing on a lifetime of music-making as an amateur, professional, performer, producer, band member and solo artist, Byrne (Bicycle Diaries, 2009) tackles the question implicit in his title from multiple angles: How does music work on the ear, brain and body? How do words relate to music in a song? How does live performance relate to recorded performance? What effect has technology had on music, and music on technology? Fans of the Talking Heads should find plenty to love about this book. Steering clear of the conflicts leading to the band’s breakup, Byrne walks through the history, album by album, to illustrate how his views about performance and recording changed with the onset of fame and (small) fortune. He devotes a chapter to the circumstances that made the gritty CBGB nightclub an ideal scene for adventurous artists like Patti Smith, the Ramones, Blondie and Tom Verlaine and Television. Always an intensely thoughtful experimenter, here he lets us in on the thinking behind the experiments. But this book is not just, or even primarily, a rock memoir. It’s also an exploration of the radical transformation—or surprising durability—of music from the beginning of the age of mechanical reproduction through the era of iTunes and MP3s. Byrne touches on all kinds of music from all ages and every part of the world.
Highly recommended—anyone at all interested in music will learn a lot from this book.
The long-awaited memoir from the legendary rocker.
Readers will learn few of the secrets of Young’s art of songwriting, save that “Ohio” came in a flash in response to the bad news from Kent State, and he didn’t play a note on “Teach Your Children.” Neither, apart from a visit to the clinic here and there, will they learn much about musicians’ hedonistic ways. Instead, Young writes of electric trains. He loves them so much that he bought a stake in Lionel, and he has barns and rooms on his rambling California ranch full of them. “I saw David [Crosby] looking at one of my train rooms full of rolling stock and stealing a glance at Graham [Nash] that said, This guy is cuckoo. He’s gone nuts. Look at this obsession. I shrugged it off. I need it. For me it is a road back,” he writes. Trains return often in the narrative, as do dusty roads, old cars and tractors. But Young, author of "Trans" and other weird outings that once got him sued by his own record label for delivering music “uncharacteristic of Neil Young,” is also a technogeek extraordinaire, particularly when it comes to sound; he often mentions the digital format that he’s been tinkering with in his mad-scientist lab. He asserts that because it preserves so little—5 percent, by his reckoning—of the actual sound of a recording, “[i]t is not offensive to me that the MP3-quality sound is traded around.” Along the way, Young discusses guitars and bands, revealing a now-improbable wish to reconvene Buffalo Springfield, which never lived up to its promise, and Crazy Horse. Sometimes he’s even a little jokey about music in general (on America’s song “A Horse with No Name”: “Hey, wait a minute! Was that me? Okay. Fine. I am back now. That was close!”).
Not the revelation that was Keith Richards’ Life, but an entertaining and mostly well-written journey into the past, if light on rock ’n’ roll.
The dread pirate Richards, scourge of straight society and rock icon, bares all—including a fang or two.
The Rolling Stones rhythm guitarist—and, we learn, principal songwriter—Richards has already set tongues wagging, giant red ones or otherwise, with leaked bits and pieces of his memoir, most notably the extensive, extremely bitchy complaints about Mick Jagger. “I used to love to hang with Mick,” he writes, “but I haven’t gone to his dressing room in, I don’t think, twenty years. Sometimes I miss my friend. Where the hell did he go?” His fellow Glimmer Twin may not miss him so much upon learning Richards’s assessment of his soul (and genitalia). He also tears down another Mick, this one Mick Taylor, former Stones guitarist, who left the band without Keith’s permission: “You can leave in a coffin or with dispensations for long service, but otherwise you can’t.” Others receive gentler treatment, among them Gram Parsons, Rolling Stones heart and soul Ian Stewart and keyboard wizard Billy Preston (who, we learn, “was gay at a time when nobody could be openly gay”). Surveying the living and the dead, Richards admits the improbability of his own survival, though, he notes, most of his excessive behavior is now many decades past. He is much calmer now, particularly after having undergone brain surgery a few years ago. Which does not mean he’s surrendering—part of the joy of this altogether enjoyable, if sometimes mean-spirited, book is the damn-the-torpedoes take on things. Indeed, when he’s not slagging or praising, Richards provides useful life pointers, from how to keep several packs of dogs in different places to the virtues of open guitar tunings. He even turns in a creditable recipe for bangers and mash, complete with a pointed tale that speaks to why you would not want to make off with his spring onions while he’s in the middle of cooking.
“A jury of my peers would be Jimmy Page, a conglomeration of musicians, guys that have been on the road and know what’s what,” Richards growls. Let no mere mortal judge him, then, but merely admire both his well-written pages and his stamina.
Famed folk singer’s candid memoir about her survival in the music business despite a 20-year battle with booze.
Although classically trained folkie Collins (Singing Lessons, 1998, etc.) may exude an angelic veneer of ivory-snow purity and Midwestern conservatism, this memoir should dispel any remaining air of innocence surrounding the woman who made Stephen Sondheim’s saccharine “Send In the Clowns” a top-10 hit. Collins was raised in a middle-class family in Colorado at the beginning of World War II. Her father was a blind radio personality with some modicum of notoriety. However, he was also a depression-prone alcoholic whose addictive personality got passed down to his musician daughter with full potency. Although this is as booze-soaked a memoir as any rock star could hope to write, Collins provides a panoramic view of a politically turbulent but creatively explosive bygone era. Along with telling the story of her own rise to prominence in the mid-’60s New York City folk scene, the author also places her life in its broader historical context. Readers will get a keen sense of the tenor of the times as Collins repopulates the Greenwich Village streets with all the vibrant characters and long-vanished performance venues that helped make that neighborhood famous. Though she married young, Collins soon became something of a notorious serial monogamist, zipping from one partner to another with striking frequency, even for the free-love generation: Collins shared a bed with everyone from an English professor to rock star Stephen Stills. Although the author is refreshingly forthcoming about her promiscuity, she never spends much time second-guessing her frequent and sometimes overlapping relationships with men. Up through her popular mainstream success in the ’70s, Collins continued her struggle with alcohol addiction and fragmented relationships until around 1978, when she finally found some grounding in her life.
Despite Collins’ tendency to lapse into high-toned idealism and compulsive name-dropping, this is a fascinating and even harrowing musical and personal reflection.
An elegant, deeply researched life of the Canadian musician, poet and novelist.
With the resurgence of his career in the last decade, Cohen has been the subject of several new books, but it’s hard to imagine a better one than that of veteran music journalist Simmons (Neil Young: Reflections in Broken Glass, 2001, etc.). Born into a wealthy family of Jewish clothiers in Montreal, Cohen became one of Canada’s leading young literary lights with his early volumes of poetry and two well-received novels. He was already in his early 30s when he became a professional musician, after folk singer Judy Collins brought his songs to the world’s attention with her cover of “Suzanne.” Beginning in 1968, the globe-trotting, seemingly driven Cohen recorded a series of wise, dark albums that made him a star in Europe and brought him a far smaller but devoted following in the United States. He was enjoying renewed commercial and critical success in the mid-’90s when he withdrew into a Zen Buddhist monastery for more than five years. Upon his return to the world, he discovered that his longtime manager had embezzled millions; his unexpected penury prompted a wildly received 2008-2009 world tour that grossed $50 million and finally lifted him, as a septuagenarian, into the top echelon of international stars. Simmons follows every step of Cohen’s peripatetic artistic journey with acuity and no small measure of poetic observation. Drawing on interviews with Cohen and most of his important collaborators and paramours, she paints a deep portrait of a man seemingly torn between the spiritual and the worldly, deeply gifted but plagued by abiding depression and frequent self-doubt. Simmons offers an abundance of revealing stories about Cohen’s ardent womanizing, restless pursuit of enlightenment through sex, drugs, alcohol and spirituality, and sometimes excruciating artistic perfectionism. He emerges in his full complexity, brimming with both seemingly boundless brilliance and abundant human imperfection.
Taking on a looming subject with intelligence and wit, Simmons manages to take the full measure of her man.
An acclaimed singer-songwriter invites fans into her personal life.
When King embarked on her Living Room Tour in 2004, she re-created onstage the atmosphere that millions had come to expect from the slew of albums she recorded from the 1970s onward. Tapestry, her breakthrough 1971 album, not only became a bestseller and a benchmark for women’s achievements in the music industry but also introduced the down-to-earth, optimistic and liberated worldview of a woman with some timely stories to tell. King’s trajectory mirrored that of many of her fellow musical peers. Bitten by the music bug at an early age and subsequently converted to rock ’n’ roll in the ’50s, she began writing her own songs, landing a record deal at the age of 15. She would experience far greater success, however, when she and co-songwriter Gerry Goffin turned out hit after hit for such artists as Aretha Franklin, the Shirelles and the Monkees. Having married Goffin when she was 17, King spent most of the ’60s balancing her career with her responsibilities as a wife and mother. Change was in the air, though, and when her marriage deteriorated, she set off for Los Angeles to seek her own voice. That voice comes through strongly on every page of this memoir, an engaging assortment of recollections comprising a journey that started in her working-class Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, took her to Manhattan and Laurel Canyon and saw her escape what Joni Mitchell called "the star maker machinery" to settle in rural Idaho. In one of the book's best sections, King explains her decision to retreat from fame in the mid ’70s, chronicling the joys and sorrows of going “back to the land” as well as the tempestuous relationships she had with two men during this period. She is also refreshingly candid about her four marriages.
A warm, winning read that showcases baby-boomer culture at its best.
The mysteries of Bob Dylan captured in even-handed, never-boring fashion.
Like another American dreamer, Jay Gatsby, Dylan is the product of his own myth. Unlike Gatsby, the myth—the multiple sides of which were recently displayed like museum pieces in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There—has long been part of the package. Still, no matter how calculated the mystery may be, Dylan remains a chameleon even to those close to him. According to Rolling Stone founding editor and longtime rock chronicler Dalton (El Sid: Saint Vicious, 1997, etc.), Dylan “writes compelling tales about his character in a series of self-portraits that he then peevishly paints over.” In this latest attempt to lift the Dylan veil, Dalton offers less a straight biography than an inspired, imaginative investigation into Dylan’s many sides: dedicated folkie, gifted poet, egomaniac, wannabe maker of abstract cinema. The author sifts the songs for real-life clues and tackles certain aspects of the Dylan story that have long been a source of controversy. Examples: Dylan did visit Woody Guthrie, there was no benediction, no passing of the torch; the dying folkie may not have even known Dylan was there. Dylan wasn’t booed for going electric at the Newport Folk Festival; he was booed because he only played 15 minutes. The supposedly life-changing near-death 1966 motorcycle accident was likely no more than a minor scrape.
Although the book ends in a bit of a limbo—as any book that follows Dylan in his later career is destined to do—this lively and literate attempt to read a half-century's worth of brain scans from a literal living legend strikes the right balance between admiration and skepticism.
Overweening ambition drives this insightful story of the 1950s folk music revival that anticipates the arrival of the 1960s counterculture.
By the end of the 1950s, American folk music (by such performers as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie) had established a small but loyal following. Entertainment Weekly editor Hajdu (Lush Life, 1996) believes that young people became interested in folk because of “its antihero mythos—a sense of the music as the property of outcasts.” College students who frequented the coffeehouses where folk began to flourish “were seeking something anti-intellectual” and would-be performers (including the Baez sisters, Richard Fariña, and Bob Dylan) flocked to the music because of its simple (and anti-commercial) approach. The charismatic Fariña was a promising writer who married folk singer Carolyn Hester and tried to hitch his wagon to her star (with little success), whereas Joan Baez (the “virgin princess”) haunted the Greenwich Village coffeehouses on 4th Street, shamelessly stole other singers’ material, and went on to fame. Mimi Baez coveted—and never came anywhere near—her sister Joan’s success. And Dylan (who came to New York in search of direction and found his model in Woody Guthrie) got his big break from Joan, who fell in love with him. Although the naked ambition of each these characters presents an unedifying spectacle throughout, Hadju saves his censure for Dylan, writing that the “irony of Robert Zimmerman’s metamorphosis into Bob Dylan lies in the application of so much elusion and artifice in the name of truth and authenticity.” Even so, Dylan appears more deluded than mendacious—a man who hid his identity because he was more confused than his audience about who he was.
A strong and vivid portrait of some remarkable characters—and one that manages against the odds to get to the people behind the egos.