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The Best Rock Music Biographies

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lot of bloggers slag Eric Alterman for not maintaining a comments section on his blog Altercation, but he does run letters, and last week he ran one of mine. Nothing of great import — he talked about The Beatles: The Biography, written by Bob Spitz, and mentioned that Amazon.com already had plenty of comments complaining about factual errors in the book. To which I replied:

Re: The new Beatles book by Bob Spitz. I’d give a little more weight to those Amazon.com critics if I were you. I haven’t read the Beatles tome, but I can attest that Spitz’s Bob Dylan biography is sheer hackwork. On the scale of Dylan biographers, Anthony Scaduto (Dylan: A Biography) is recognized as the pioneer, but his book breaks off at the early 1970s mark. The recent bios by Clinton Heylin (Behind the Shades) and Howard Sounes (Down the Highway) are the most up-to-date and comprehensive: Heylin is superb on the actual music, drawing on the sea of Dylan bootlegs to chronicle the ups and downs of his performing career as well as his recordings; Sounes is a clunky writer with no analytical skills, but he is an invincible fact-hound and had the inspired idea of tracking down William Zanzinger, who’s still seething over being called out by Dylan in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home is a sad story: he lost his way in the material, was forced by his editor to cut the book from a two-volume project to a single crowded and hurried tome, and ended up covering only about as much as Scaduto. What should have been the crowning work of his life was left unfinished by his death — considering that Shelton’s New York Times review made the young Dylan into the king of Greenwich Village, the man deserved a much better fate. And way way way down at the bottom of the heap is Spitz, whose book Dylan: A Biography is read only by those hardcore Bobcats who must pass their eyes over every piece of paper with Bob Dylan’s name on it.

Of all the books mentioned above, I would single out Heylin’s work as the one Dylan biography to read if you’re only reading one — and why would you read more than one, unless you were a Dylan nut like me? Heylin is refreshingly free of Greil Marcus-level pretension, and he has offended some Bobcats by criticizing as substandard works (like the two “back to the roots” discs Dylan recorded in the early 1990s) that critics like Marcus have built entire mythologies around. And, as is only to be expected of a man who wrote the first comprehensive history of the bootleg recording industry that Dylan inadvertently helped create, Heylin takes full advantage of the immense, unofficial career record that Dylan bootlegs have to offer — a priceless resource for any biographer, yet so far one that only Heylin has used.

Does a rock music biography have any value to someone who isn’t already a fan of the subject? Maybe it doesn’t. I find Shakey, James McDonough’s biography of Neil Young, addictively readable, but for the legions of people who find him unlistenable, my arguments probably won’t persuade. I also give top honors to Charles Shaar Murray’s book about John Lee Hooker, Boogie Man, which offers shrewd insights into Hooker’s immense catalogue and his influence on rock and roll — if Hooker had been paid a dollar for every rock song that appropriated the riff from “Boogie Chillen,” he’d have had more money than God. (But ZZ Top, at least, had to pay for its parody/tribute/plagiarism of “Boogie Chillen” — “La Grange,” and not a bad song in its own right.) Murray is also very good on the British blues fixation that manifested in the 1950s and gave everywhere from the Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton a purpose in life.

People with a taste for tabloid fodder but no appreciation for hard rock might still like Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga, which is thoroughly reprehensible, sleazy, gossipy and tawdry — utterly devoid of redeeming social value. As soon as I reached the last page, I turned to the first page and started over. In fact, as soon as I finish posting this article, I’m going to read the book again. Here is The Shark Episode, here are the stories of the Riot House and just about every other juicy tidbit about the band that wrote the textbook for the course on How to Be An Evil Rock Asshole. And yet the book isn’t sour or disgusting (well, hardly ever) because the author genuinely appreciates this blues-obsessed band’s unique sound — sort of a Gothic cathedral built atop the foundation of a sharecropper’s cabin. Which is to say, he can tell you exactly which blues and folk tunes Jimmy Page ripped off in his songwriting, but he also recognizes and gives full credit to the magic that the band brought to its plundering. Like the man once said, talent borrows but genius steals. By that standard, Led Zeppelin is a band of geniuses, and I say that with only the purest affection.

Because it showcases the authentic voice of a great American storyteller, I also savor This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band, which could make you a fan of the group if you weren’t already. It really is quite an unlikely journey: take an Arkansas boy (Helm) who grew up listening to Sonny Boy Williamson doing his King Biscuit broadcasts, hook him up with a rockabilly singer (Ronnie Hawkins) backed by a well-honed band of Canadians (Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko), shake rattle and roll them for a bunch of years, then have them light out on their own just in time for a young folkie named Bob Dylan to decide that it was time to kick off the Woody Guthrie workboots and put on his rock and roll shoes. I’ve always liked the idea that they were playing at Somers Point, N.J., when the call from Dylan’s office came in, marking the start of an on again, off-again collaboration that produced the Basement Tapes, among other musical landmarks.

The Band was a group that deserved a lot better than it ended up with, and in these pages you’ll see how it all came undone. Though Richard Manuel and Rick Danko emerged from their songwriting tutelage with Dylan as the authors of some classic tunes, it was Robbie Robertson who took Dylan’s lessons and ran with them. As Helm tells it, Robertson emerged as the group’s leader through a combination of ego, manipulation and management connivance. Helm gives Robertson his credit as a catalyst for songs, but says Robertson never gave any of his bandmates proper credit for their contributions to songs that were workshopped by the entire group. It’s certainly true that while The Band’s first two albums — Music From Big Pink and The Band — are rock music landmarks, the energy leaked steadily away in the subsequent recordings as the other musicians stopped putting in their ideas. And, after the group called it quits in 1976, none of Robertson’s solo albums have even approached the majesty of his work with The Band. So I’m inclined to believe Helm, just as I’m inclined to take his scathingly hilarious account of the goings-on at The Last Waltz, the Band’s all-star sendoff, as gospel.

Even though I’ve never been much of an Alice Cooper fan, Billion Dollar Baby, Bob Greene’s account of his travels with the original Alice Cooper group during its 1973 Christmas tour, is a fascinating read. Greene was already a well-known journalist when he gained access to the group, traveling with them from show to show, and even participating in the concerts (his role was to come onstage dressed as Santa Claus and get beaten up by the band members). He takes a clear-eyed look at every aspect of the business: the nuts and bolts of management; the logistics of a big-time concert tour; the tedium of recording sessions (Greene’s account of his rock-star fantasies while singing backup on a couple of songs is self-deprecatingly hilarious); the tawdry pleasures of celebrity. He caught the band at a bad time — though they were at the peak of their commercial potency, one band member was falling apart because of drug use, the others were getting angry about being relegated to the background while the spotlight stayed on Alice, and Alice was drinking himself to death out of boredom with his role-playing. The book is long out of print and overdue for revival: as a title search at Abebooks shows, used copies of Billion Dollar Baby command premium prices.

And as long as I’m casting aspersions on Bob Spitz’s book about the Beatles, I should mention that my favorite Beatles tome is Tim Riley’s Tell Me Why, which follows the band’s career song by song, album by album. There’s biographical detail, of course, but mostly there’s a good, hard look at the music — which is, after all, the only reason anybody cared in the first place.

****

Originally posted at StevenHartSite.

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  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Danny Sugarman’s “No One Here Gets Out Alive” is a good look at The Doors from the inside.

    I was surprised how much I enjoyed David Lee Roth’s “Crazy From the Heat”. It was more focused than he usually is, but just as entertaining, detailing his life and adventures in and out of Van Halen.

    I was surprised how much I was disappointed by Marilyn Manson’s “The Long Hard Road Out of Hell”. It came off like a badly written article by the teenager who wants to be a music journalist, but doesn’t have the skills.

  • ClubhouseCancer

    Peter Guralnick’s two-volume Elvis bio is the gold standard to me. It’s richly detailed, literate, and advances a real, serious argument. I’m halfway through PG’s new one about Sam Cooke, and it’s great, too. (Don’t tell me how it ends!)

    That Levon Helm book is a riot and I agree with everything Mr. Hart said about it. For one thing, it has more to say about Dylan than some Dylan bios.

    Also, Positively Fourth Street is a cool recent group bio of Dylan, Joan Baez, and Richard and Mimi Farina. My favorite part is when Dylan sneaks into the kitchen where Mimi and Joanie had been long simmering a beef stew, eats all the meat out of the stew, and takes off. Mmmm…stew.

    And I think that Shakey book is just about the best possible book a seemingly stupid person could have written. Every time McDonough tries to provide musical insight or place Neil in some kind of historical context, the book fails mightily. The access he had to the subject over the years, however, is just priceless, so it’s hard to complain, especially since it seems that an awful lot of that material actually makes it onto the page.

    Eric O is a huge Neil guy, and I’d be interested to hear his thoughts on this book. Also, any thoughts on the new Neil, Prairie Wind, which I was really looking forward to?
    I think it’s stinky.

  • http://lostsupermarket.blogspot.com/ Sean

    Marcus Gray’s The Last gang in Town, about the Clash, is excellent

  • goober

    fags