Over the last couple months, bookstore shelves have been increasingly filled with books about music and musicians.
Some are biographies of some of the biggest artists of the rock era. Some are critical analyses. Some are simply fun excursions through songs we’ve come to love, or at least have been ingrained into us. Some are histories.
The number runs to a couple dozen, all timed for release for holiday buying.
Here’s a look at six of those books:
“Born To Run,” Bruce Springsteen, 510 pages, $32.50, Simon and Schuster
Here’s a shocker -- Bruce Springsteen can really write. Here’s another -- his autobiography, crafted over the seven years since he and the E-Street Band played the Super Bowl, is already a best-seller and will remain on the top of the charts for weeks -- just like “Born in the U.S.A.” did back in 1984.
That, however, is getting ahead of the story that Springsteen spins out chronologically. And the book's instant success is no surprise.
What is surprising is his revealing honesty, as he chronicles his rocky family life, his failures with relationships (until he met Patti Scialfa) and his ongoing battle with depression.
The latter has been the most talked about element in “Born to Run.” But he’s provides plenty of new, enlightening information on his well told story -- his beginnings as an admired guitarist on the New Jersey scene, his initial meetings with Steven Van Zandt and the rest of the E-Streeters, his discovery by John Hammond, his tumultuous relationship with manager Mike Appel, which eventually cost him years and millions and hitting the popular peak of “Born In The U.S.A.”
Addressing each of his albums, Springsteen’s tale is most compelling as it takes him from the ‘60s through the mid-‘80s and slows down as he goes solo, becomes a father, reunites the E-Street Band and, reluctantly it seems, embraces his iconic status.
Those who haven’t read much about Springsteen will find “Born To Run” a fount of information. Those who already know plenty about Springsteen will get plenty of insight into the man and the roots of his music and, to some measure, feel they know him after reading the book that deserves its top-selling status.
Aural Accompaniment: Springsteen’s provided the soundtrack to his book with “Chapter and Verse,” an album that compiles cuts from early bands The Castiles, Steel Mill and The Bruce Springsteen Band with some representative career-spanning cuts, including “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” “Born To Run,” “The River,” “Born in the U.S.A." and "Brilliant Disguise.” You’ll have to spin this 76-minute disc a dozen times to get through the massive tome. Or dig out one of his albums -- I’d pick “Nebraska” or “The River.”
“I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir,” Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman, 312 pages, $26.99, Da Capo
“I Am Brian Wilson” is the second book by Beach Boys composer/singer/resident genius Brian Wilson, coming two decades after “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” a “memoir” written under the influence of Dr. Eugene Landy, the now disgraced psychotherapist who controlled and abused the vulnerable Wilson in the ‘80s.
With the new book, Wilson is able to set the record straight about Landy, who the kind Wilson never fully blasts, and tell his story in his own way. That way is connective, rather than chronological. A thought or a subject will take Wilson from the stage today back to, say, learning piano or a discussion of the chair he sits in eventually leading to discussions of the makings of “Pet Sounds” and “SMiLE.”
That circuitous style, however, eventually connects up, effectively recounting the story of the Beach Boys, Wilson's musical genius, his loss of hearing in one ear, his troubled relationships with his abusive father and singer Mike Love -- delivering his take on the well-known elements of his life.
Wilson’s candid here, talking about the voices in his head that have plagued him since from the ‘60s, using himself as an example of how to deal, and not deal, with mental illness. His marriages are recounted lovingly and his rescue by his current wife, Melinda, is as touching in his recollection as it was in last year’s film “Love and Mercy.”
“I Am Brian Wilson” was put on paper by Ben Greenman. But it sure sounds like the Wilson I’ve heard speak and seen perform. And, for Wilson admirers, like me, it’s a gift from Brian, that, more than anything reveals a sweet, mentally troubled man for whom making music is like breathing for the rest of us.
Aural Accompaniment: Start with one of the many hits packages from the Beach Boys. Follow that with “Pet Sounds,” the greatest album ever made, then try “Brian Wilson presents Smile” and cap things off with one of Wilson’s recent solo recordings, like “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin” and last year’s “No Pier Pressure.”
“The Monkees, Head, and the 60s,” Peter Mills, 336 pages, $19.95, Jawbone Press
For most, The Monkees are the Pre-fab Four, a group assembled for a TV show that had a couple years at the top of pop culture in the mid-60s, then fell apart, three of them reappearing as an oldies act playing for the now-grown kids who loved them on TV. In other words, there’s no reason to take The Monkees seriously.
That, Peter Mills argues with “The Monkees, Head, and the 60s” is the wrong view of The Monkees.
Instead, the English writer and college professor of media and popular culture, posits, in heavily researched, academic style, that The Monkees were groundbreakers -- in bringing music to TV among other things, a legitimate group that became a real band, and provocative undercutters of their own image, creating a little-seen, under-appreciated film that embodied and reflected its time.
That movie was 1968’s “Head,” a kaleidoscopic dismantling of The Monkees’ TV image utilizing humor, pop art, satire and anything else that co-writer Jack Nicholson and those involved with the film could think of to do so.
Mills’ look at the film -- which takes up the center third of the book -- goes scene-by-scene, getting comparisons with Fellini and “Fantastic Voyage” that put the picture into a culturally challenging perspective.
Before and after, Mills recounts The Monkees story in straight-ahead fashion, with short bios detailing their origins, and discussion of their solo careers and various reunions, including this year’s gathering to make “Good Times!”.
That recording, which harkens back to the band’s 1966-67 heyday, gets an provocative analysis view from Mills, as does the rest of The Monkees’ catalog -- singles and albums.
That, too, is taking The Monkees seriously, which by the end of the book, Mills will convince should have been done all for decades.
Aural Accompaniment: “The Monkees Greatest Hits” will cover the first segment of the book; “Headquarters” and “Head,” the middle portion and “Good Times!” will wrap things up. But this one has a true requirement. Find and watch “Head” to understand the book’s focus on that movie and its impact.
“Michael Bloomfield; The Rise and Fall of An American Guitar Hero,” Ed Ward, 258 pages, $26.99, Chicago Review Press
Thirty-five years after his death, Michael Bloomfield is far from a household name. But in the mid-'60s, he was a pivotal figure in music -- the first -- literally the first -- guitar hero.
Veteran rock historian, and acknowledged Bloomfield fan from back in the day, Ward tells Bloomfield’s ultimately tragic story in this sharply written, relatively short biography that’s an update/rewrite of an identically titled book that was briefly published in 1983.
Told chronologically, Bloomfield’s story starts Chicago, where he grew up in relatively affluent as a music-loving son of a kitchen equipment manufacture who found his way into the city’s blues clubs in the early 1960s, becoming an acolyte of Muddy Waters, Magic Sam and Howlin’ Wolf, finding himself an in-demand guitarist on a scene that included the likes of Charlie Musselwhite.
Signed on to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and discovered by the legendary talent scout John Hammond, Bloomfield quickly became THE guitarist, acclaimed for his blues-rooted playing and recruited by Bob Dylan to play on “Like A Rolling Stone,” that alone shooting him into rock history.
The restless Bloomfield, however, had no desire for fame and little regard for fortune, moving from gig to gig -- co-founding the doomed Electric Flag, playing in the first “supergroups” with organist Al Kooper, whom he met at the Dylan sessions, and becoming an erratic figure on the San Francisco scene through the ‘70.
Ward tells the story briskly -- the primary text runs just 153 pages. But it’s still jam-packed with illuminating information about the Chicago scene of the early ‘60s, the supergroups and, of course, Bloomfield, whose downward spiral from drugs and what appears to be mental issues is tragic.
The book concludes with a long Q&A interview with Bloomfield that ran in Rolling Stone magazine in 1968 -- an enlightening addition to Ward’s text that lets Bloomfield’s personality and opinions come through -- and a much-needed discography of his recordings.
Aural Accompaniment: Required listening for Bloomfield starts with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s self titled 1965 debut and 1966’s “East-West” and has to include “Like a Rolling Stone” and something from Electric Flag. Then cue up “From His Head to His Heart to His Hands,” the four-disc set assembled a couple years ago by Bloomfield’s friend and collaboration, Al Kooper.
“Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop,” Marc Myers, 324 pages, $26, Grove Press
Five years ago, a Wall Street Journal editor had a great idea -- pick an iconic song, track down the singer, songwriter, producer or musicians that played on the recording, interview them and do a short oral history on that tune.
That’s just what Marc Myers did -- starting with Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ “My Girl.”
Now Myers has compiled -- and revamped -- 45 of those pieces into “Anatomy of a Song,” a thoroughly entertaining, highly informative book that’s a breeze to read, starting with his conversation with Lloyd Price about “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” the 1952 R&B hit that was proto-rock ‘n’ roll.
Some of the tales are fascinating, like the story of how Lieber and Stoller’s enduring “Kansas City” starting as “KC Loving” by Little Willie Littlefield, Loretta Lynn’s recounting of the woman who is trying to steal her husband in “Fist City” and Joni Mitchell’s Mediterranean romance that led to the (misspelled) “Carey.”
There are groundbreaking songs -- like The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” that introduced the power chords and distorted guitar that would become the foundations of hard rock and heavy metal.
There are signature songs -- like Grace Slick’s “White Rabbit,” with her saying “'White Rabbit’ is a very good song. I’m not a genius, but I don’t suck. My only complaint is that the lyrics could have been stronger. More people should have been annoyed.”
There are huge names. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards each discuss a Rolling Stones song -- “Moonlight Mile” and “Street Fighting Man” respectively, and Aerosmith talks “Walk This Way,” both its original and the collaboration with Run-D.M.C. that blew pop’s doors open for rap.
And the stories of Otis Redding’s “Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay,” the proto-disco “Rock The Boat” from the Hues Corporation and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” add great understanding to those oft-played songs.
The “newest” song in the book is R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion,” which just slips under Myers’ 25-year cutoff. But there are plenty of songs from the ‘80s and ‘90s that shake off of ‘60s/’70s classic rock, starting with “London Calling” by The Clash.
Aural Accompaniment: Get on your favorite streaming service and play each of the 45 songs as you’re reading about it. Generally, the song lasts about as long as it takes to get through the text -- and don’t think ‘I already know it.’ Listen again, even if you’ve heard, say, “Ramblin’ Man” or "Maggie May" a thousand times. It really makes reading “Anatomy of a Song” illuminating.
“Tryin’ to Tell a Stranger ‘Bout Rock and Roll: Selected Writings 1966-2016” Gene Sculatti, 261 pages, $14.95, Swingin’ 60s Productions
Even though he’s not wild about the title, Gene Sculatti was one of the first “rock critics,” writing for Crawdaddy and Mojo-Navigator Rock & Roll News -- the first serious rock publications (basically fanzines in today’s parlance). From there, Sculatti went on to write for publications like the great Creem magazine, work for record labels, doing in-house publications and writing liner notes, and putting together the two volumes of “The Catalog of Cool” in the 1980s.
“Tryin’ To Tell a Stranger ‘Bout Rock and Roll,” which takes its title from a Lovin’ Spoonful song, is a selection of Sculatti’s writings from across 50 years, starting with his reporting on the San Francisco scene of the mid-60s and wrapping up with recent writings from blogs and websites.
The pieces are arranged chronologically, with an intro from Sculatti for each decade (or two). But there’s no need to read them in order. Instead you can jump around, putting together, for example, his three entries on the Beach Boys, whom he defended for decades; looking at his 1966 San Francisco piece and his assessment of the historic impact of that scene in 2010; or bouncing through to read his views on Captain Beefheart and girl groups (he did the liner notes for Rhino’s indispensable boxed set).
There are of-their-time interviews as well, including a long-lost conversation with John Lennon, a history of Buddah Records, a pretty funny listing of “new Dylans” and think pieces on pop, rock and the role of criticism.
All this is delivered by an enthusiast -- there’s are few negative reviews or highly critical pieces, Sculatti doesn’t think or write that way. But he can really write -- and his development is easily seen -- and his work is as vital, stylish and important as any rock writer.
Aural Accompaniment: There’s a myriad of choices provided by Sculatti -- from his days chronicling the early San Francisco scene -- he’s partial to the early Grateful Dead albums -- through his record reviews -- the first Ramones album is a good one here -- to his liner notes, including one for Madonna’s “Immaculate Collection.”
Other new rock, country and pop titles that might be of interest include:
* “Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon,” a biography from Peter Ames Carlin, who previously penned a well-received Springsteen bio
* “Tony Bennett: Just Getting Started,” by Scott Simon
* Phil Collins’ much hyped “Not Dead Yet: The Memoir”
* Robbie Robertson’s “Testimony,” which takes the story of The Band through “The Last Waltz”
* “Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys,” the story of The Cure from the perspective of co-founder Lol Tolhurst
* “Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy,” Mike Love’s view of The Beach Boys, written with James S. Hirsch
* “Set The Boy Free,” a memoir from The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr
* Songwriter Carole Bayer Sager’s “They’re Playing Our Song”
* “A Perfect Union of Contrary Things” by Sarah Jensen with Maynard James Keenan of Tool fame, the book’s subject
* “Damage,” by Keith Morris, the legendary L.A. punk singer of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks
* “Hank; The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams,” the first lengthy biography of Williams in a generation, by Mark Ribowsky
* “No Quarter: The Three Lives of Jimmy Page,” a massive bio about the Led Zeppelin guitarist, studio musician and solo artist from Martin Power
* “Play It Loud: A Epic History of the Style, Sound and Revolution of The Electric Guitar,” by Guitar World’s Brad Tolinski and Alan Di Perna
* “Shock and Awe,” a look at glam rock by English rock writer Simon Reynolds
* “The History of Rock & Roll, Vol. 1: 1920-1963” by Ed Ward, the “Fresh Air” historian who previously penned part of a Rolling Stone-published rock history
Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @LJSWolgamott.