Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Pile of Rock 'n' Roll

Not sure if it’s due to the holiday gift giving season of just a chance of circumstance and timing, but recently there has been a gold mine of interesting rock music biographies and music related books. The tomes cover a wide spectrum of musical styles and an equally diverse approach to writing.

Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography – Fred Schruers (Three Rivers Press)

Having spent the first part of my career working as a radio disc jockey and working as a contributing reviewer and columnist for a daily newspaper I spent countless hours playing music, writing about music, seeing live shows and generally immersed in music. That said, I definitely have a skewed perspective on the subject of music that runs the gamut from an almost visceral hatred to pure joy at hearing certain sounds.

Billy Joel is tends to cut a swath across the entire spectrum; working in rock and classic rock radio, it’s nearly impossible to avoid his music. One more spin of Uptown Girl could put me over the edge, but the fact is I have been a huge fan of his music since I first saw him play live a local university for the grand sum of 50 cents.

Veteran rock writer Fred Schruers serves up Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography; while I’m not sure the book lives up to its gaudy title, it does give us some entertaining insight into Joel’s career and his personal life. I have to admit I tend to lean towards things musical in nature, while it was almost impossible to miss the details of his marriage to super-model Christie Brinkley, I was surprised to learn that Joel is a serial groom.

Schruers stacked his claim in rock journalism writing for Rolling Stone and other high profile magazines and at times the book takes on an articles quality; offering snippets of details on Joel’s career and the characters he crossed paths with, that don’t always hang together in the most cohesive fashion. Overall, I still found Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography to be an enlightening read.

Girl in a Band: A Memoir – Kim Gordon (Dey Street Books)

Rocker, artist, writer, fashion icon and renaissance women, Kim Gordon, a founding member of critics favorite, Sonic Youth offers up her self-penned tale; Girl in a Band: A Memoir, which takes along for the ride through her seemingly never a dull moment life.

As I previously mentioned, having spent so much time inundated with music, I bring a skewed perspective to what I like and dislike. For me, Sonic Youth was one of those bands that critics got all dewy and moist about as they waxed poetically about the band’s dissonant stylings; whatever that is. I remember seeing the band open for someone along the way and the only thing I can remember about their set was the fact that I hoped it would end soon.

Years later, I find it interesting that any number of bands that I do find entertaining, cite Sonic Youth as an influence, so I was intrigued to learn more about Gordon. Girl in a Band, reads like we are allowed to look over Gordon’s shoulder as she journal’s her thoughts on life. At times it’s a cut and dried slice straight out of a tour diary and at other’s Gordon delivers a caustic remembrance of a situation she finds herself dropped into.

The book is chronologically challenged at times as it bounces through various years. Clearly Gordon carries a boulder sized chip on her shoulder when it comes to her ex-husband and band mate Thurston Moore. While Moore’s philandering gives her good reason for hatred, the pathology of it is as striking as a gut punch. Gordon as clearly lead an interesting life.

Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits With The Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, the Faces… - Glynn Johns (Plume)

Flipping through the pages of veteran producer, engineer and sound mixer Glynn Johns life story, Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits With The Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, the Faces…, I was struck by a sense of familiarity in the stories. While I was familiar with much of his work, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why so much of the book was so familiar to me.

Then I realized, having read so many books about so many of the artists Johns has worked with over the years, I had heard many of these stories from another perspective. It is the early years of his story that Johns offers up some of the most interesting stories about his amazing career. It is astounding the number of times Johns was in the right place at the right time, picking up sessions engineering because someone took ill or didn’t work weekends that put him squarely in the path of some of rock’s future legends.

Johns’ willingness to experiment in those early days helped him to develop and hone the skills that he would bring to so many legendary recording sessions and albums. Along the way he details what amounts to the evolution of the music industry; a process he had a front row seat for.

Sting and the Police: Walking in Their Footsteps – Aaron J. West (Rowman & Littlefield)  

Not so much a biography of one of the most successful band’s of the 80s; Sting and the Police: Walking in Their Footsteps by Aaron J. West is a textbook look at the musical style and the careers of both the band and Sting as a solo artist. I guess it should come a no surprise that West in a professor of music history, as well as a professional musician when you take in the depth to which he delves to look at the band’s influential path.

While I am a huge fan of both the Police and Sting’s solo music, I was jolted when West mentioned the fact that the band released just five studio albums before they broke up. FIVE! Yet he makes the case that their collective of musical influences gave the trio such a compelling sound that they in turn have influenced a new generation of artists and bands that followed.

West makes his case and it seems almost impossible for a band that gave us Every Breath You Take, a song so widely played on the radio, that it was said theoretically you could drive from one end of the country to the other and tuning around the dial hear the song being played non-stop. If you’re looking for a written version of Behind the Music, offering up the band’s rise and fall, you won’t find it hear. If you’re looking for thoughtful analysis of the band’s music and career Sting and the Police: Walking in Their Footsteps delivers.

Listen Out Loud: A Life in Music- Managing McCartney, Madonna, and Michael Jackson – Ron Weisner (Lyons Press)

What the heck was up with that mullet?! Was one on the first thoughts I had diving into Ron Weisner’s memoir of his career in and around the music business. Photos included in the book show Weisner sporting not only a memorable bad hair day, but some early 80s Miami Vice style threads that left me chuckling.

While Weisner clearly has made a career out being in proximity of some amazing performers, some have raised questions of Weisner’s version of events. Of course when you offer up thoughts on the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna that don’t paint them in the best light possible, then you open yourself up to attack by fanatical fans.

One that I did take away from Listen Out Loud: A Life in Music- Managing McCartney, Madonna, and Michael Jackson, was Weisner’s thoughts on music and what separates those who have a hit record and those who have a legendary career. His take on today’s so-called artists and the current state of the music business are right on point.

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