Around this time of year, I like to take a while to assess the annual output of rock and roll reading, acknowledging the good, the bad, and the stuff that just leaves you wondering, "Who the fuck thought it was a good idea to publish this?" Here, then, are the results of last year's reading -- which, in some cases, is intended to be taken as a purely ironic statement.
Geez, I wonder where she sends the royalties?
Wendy Weir, Conversations With the Spirit of Jerry Garcia (Harmony Books): "Well-known for her psychic powers," rhythm guitarist Bob's sister Wendy chronicles three years' worth of chats with the gratefully dead Jerry. J.O. (for "Jerry's Oversoul") is understandably reluctant to dwell on his latter reality as a pathetic, fat heroin addict, but otherwise he rambles on and on, sounding suspiciously like one of those motivational speakers from a late-night infomercial. Typical pronouncement: "Even those who consider themselves shy and timid have an incredible amount of strength and courage within them, only they are not consciously aware of it yet."
You can't libel a dead man, unless you're Wendy Weir
Scott Stanton, The Tombstone Tourist (3T Publishing): A travel guide dedicated to finding the graves of "famous decomposers." It not only unearths the final resting places of rockers ranging from Duane Allman (Rose Hill Cemetery, Macon, Georgia) to Frank Zappa (Pierce Brothers Cemetery, Westwood, California), but also gives readers concise and well-researched accounts of the musicians' demises (e.g., Mama Cass Elliot did not choke to death on a ham sandwich, as is often reported).
Too bad there wasn't a better Option for a title
We Rock so You Don't Have to: The Option Reader #1 (Incommunicado): This collection of 29 pieces from the mag's early '90s heyday is "history from the losers' perspective," according to editor Scott Becker. While frequent Option contributor Gina Arnold contends in "Punk Philosophers" that "we won" when Nirvana broke big, Becker holds that Cobain & Co. were actually the end of a fun ride for the indie-rock underground. Not surprisingly, the book is best when it's addressing brilliant failures -- witness Lorraine Ali on the Jesus Lizard or Mark Kemp on My Bloody Valentine -- though almost all of these features are a hundred times better than anything Spin or Rolling Stone published in the '90s.
Guilty by all accounts
Johnny Green & Garry Barker, A Riot of Our Own: Night and Day With the Clash (Faber and Faber): Literate, funny, and extremely overqualified for his job as a roadie, Johnny Green spent three years humping gear for the Clash, from the band's start through the epic London Calling. Here he chronicles an unending stream of sex, drugs, and typically wretched rock-star excesses, illustrated by Ray Lowry's Ralph Steadman-like cartoons. If you wanna maintain your idealized notion of the group as the only rock and roll band that mattered, you'd better move on. Otherwise, this is the trashiest, funniest tome since Please Kill Me.
Honorable Mention: Meat Loaf and David Dalton, To Hell and Back: An Autobiography (Regan Books): On a hot summer night, would you offer your brain to the wolf with the red roses? Sure, if there's nothing else to read (and so long as the yuks are plentiful, as they are here).
Much, much more than we wanted to know
Doug Sulpy and Ray Schweighardt, Get Back: The Unauthorized Chronicle of the Beatles' Let It Be Disaster (St. Martin's): A day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute chronicle of what the Beatles did while crafting their worst and most forgettable album.
Much, much less than we wanted to know
Victor Bockris and Roberta Bayley, Patti Smith: An Unauthorized Biography (Simon & Schuster): Essentially a clip job in which Bockris culls quotes from everybody's interviews but his own (the subject hasn't spoken to him since 1972). When the going gets journalistically tough -- like in probing Patti's much-mythologized domestic bliss with alcoholic hubby Fred -- Bockris simply throws out a little hearsay, a bit of tantalizing rumor, and a shred of innuendo. No wonder his subject wants to kill him.
Who cares if the rest of America prefers Oasis?
Stuart Maconie, Blur: 2862 Days, The Official History (Virgin Books): The biography that the best band in Britpop deserves is a mix of oral history and unblinking reportage that, while authorized, nevertheless includes plenty that should make the musicians cringe. Or maybe not -- that cheekiness is part of their charm.
Does anyone need to know this much about Kraftwerk? Apparently.
Tim Barr, From Düsseldorf to the Future (With Love) (Ebury Press): A lovingly written, exhaustively researched account of der Mensch-Machine.
Honorable Mention: Nina Antonia, The New York Dolls: Too Much too Soon (Omnibus): Like the Kraftwerk book, this fascinating account of the influential glam-punks came out in Merry Olde in '98, but it took a year to make it to these shores. If only America cared as much about rock readin' as the Brits.
Yeah, but the ending is killer
Chuck Negron with Chris Blatchford, Three Dog Nightmare (Renaissance Books): Skip the 368-page story of the leader of Three Dog Night and go right to the public-service appendix, a guide to recognizing addiction written by his wife. ("Things he will need when he nods: Garden Weasel, for scratching those hard-to-reach places; asbestos quilt on the bed, to catch stray cigarettes . . .")
And you thought Chuck Negron was boring
Fito de la Parra with T.W. and Marlane McGarry, Living the Blues: Canned Heat's Story of Music, Drugs, Death, Sex and Survival (Record Grafix): Three hundred and fifty-nine pages about the drummer of Canned Heat.
Reader, meet "author"
Tom Scharpling and Ronald Thomas Clontle, Rock, Rot & Rule (Stereo Laffs): Author "Ronald Thomas Clontle" (ostensibly a music critic, but really Jon Wurster, the moonlighting drummer of Superchunk) gives a 47-minute interview to New Jersey's legendary free-form radio station, WFMU-FM, about a book that doesn't exist. Opinions spill out of Mr. Clontle like seeds from a bag of cheap pot, and they're just as valuable: He posits his book as the "ultimate argument settler," ranking just about any band you can name in terms of rocking, rotting, or ruling. In the process, he infuriates the listener/readership -- just as a real rock critic should.
Stick to your day jobs . . . well, some of you
Stranger Than Fiction (Oglio Records): As if that embarrassing book about the Rock Bottom Remainders wasn't enough, here we get two CDs of folks like Stephen King, Dave Barry, Norman Mailer, and Bob Greene massacring rock standards. And no, being self-deprecating about the proceedings and giving the profits to charity isn't enough to forgive them -- not if you've heard Greil Marcus and Joel Selvin singing "Double Shot of My Baby's Love."
A picture's worth . . . ah, forget it
Eric Kohler, In the Groove: Vintage Record Graphics 1940-1960 (Chronicle Books): A lavishly illustrated overview of album-cover art during the cocktail years. Much cooler and less pretentious than leaving a book of Magritte prints or Frank Lloyd Wright designs on your coffee table.
Honorable Mention: Ted Owen and Denise Dickson, High Art: A History of the Psychedelic Poster (Sanctuary): Eyeball-melting art from all the greats -- San Francisco legends Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse, and Rick Griffin -- through modern heroes Frank Kozik, Chris Cooper, and Alan Forbes.
The Beats go on, sort of
The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and American Culture (Hyperion): Like most everything from the Rolling Stone camp, this massive hardcover volume suffers at times from boneheaded myopia, rampaging self-importance, and obsessive celebrity worship (as if Anthony DeCurtis, Lee Ranaldo, and Johnny Depp have anything at all to say about the Beats!). But it's also got a couple of great pieces that accidentally sneaked into the magazine back in the day -- Lester Bangs's review of Allen Ginsberg's Songs of Innocence and Experience and his obituary of Jack Kerouac -- and one that was assigned specifically for this book. Richard Meltzer's "Another Superficial Piece About 158 Beatnik Books" is actually anything but, and it's quite possibly the last Beat overview you'll ever have to read.
And speaking of Richard Meltzer . . .
Richard Meltzer, Holes: A Book Not Entirely About Golf (Future Tense Books): A humble but hilarious chapbook by the legendary godfather of gonzo rock writing (reformed) that finds him ruminating about the sick underside of a popular sport/pastime. Consider it an appetizer for a collection of his best rock writing, due from Da Capo next year.
Hey, it could have been The Journals and
Etchings of Anthony Kiedis
Behind the Sun: The Diary and Art of Hillel Slovak (Slim Skinny Publications): Sorry he's dead (he doesn't even make The Tombstone Tourist!), but the Chili Peppers' founding guitarist churned out a lot of squiggly doodling as art, and when his diary entries weren't inane, they were simply boring. ("Feb. 13, 1986: Today I went to Ventura to pick up my chair.")
You still can't dance to it
Dan Sicko, Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk (Billboard Books): A traditional genre overview that tells the tale of electronic dance music from house parties in Chicago and Detroit through the Chemical Brothers' broaching of the U.S. mainstream, with plenty of anecdotes, musical analyses, interviews, and a 22-page bibliography.
Is that your final answer?
Eric Olsen, Paul Verna, and Carlo Wolff, The Encyclopedia of Record Producers (Billboard Books): Handy if not exactly svelte, these 894 pages chronicle the adventures and discographies of just about every producer or audio auteur you can name. Wanna know who recorded the second New York Dolls album or how long it was between Berlin and The Wall for Bob Ezrin? Find it here.
Heaviest book about the rich spectrum of African American music
Craig Werner, A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America (Plume): An extremely thoughtful history of black music from John Coltrane to Chuck D, written with a focus on how these sounds helped break down the social barricades.
Lightest book about the rich spectrum of African American music
David Nathan, The Soulful Divas (Billboard Books): Chatty conversations with fabulously notorious (and notoriously fabulous) divas like Dionne Warwick, Patti LaBelle, Millie Jackson, and Chaka Khan. Only their hairdressers know them better.
The worst book about rock in 1999 (as well as one of the worst rock tomes ever)
James Miller, Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977 (Simon & Schuster): By his own account, Miller quit his post as Newsweek's rock critic in 1991 because he lost the passion for the music. Now comes a 400-plus-page rationalization of his retirement: It wasn't him who changed; it was the music. Avoiding any discussion of such visceral subgenres as metal, funk, and most punk rock (not to mention hip-hop, techno, alternative, and other sounds that came after his arbitrary cut-off point), Miller charts the corporatization of rock by revisiting hoarily familiar events such as the payola scandal, the Monterey Pop Festival, and Altamont, offering no new revelations and precious little insight while contending that, for all intents and purposes, rock died around the same time as Elvis in 1977. Whaddya say next year we get Wendy Weir to give the King a buzz and set Miller straight? Now there's a book that would be worth reading.