In a poem set to music by his lover Benjamin Britten, W.H. Auden implored the patron saint of music, “Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions/ To all musicians, appear and inspire.”
Or as Nikki Sixx, bassist and songwriter for heavy metal band Mötley Crüe, acknowledges inspiration in his bestselling memoir, The Heroin Diaries: “I remember Iggy and the Stooges' song 'Search and Destroy' reaching out from my speakers to me like my own personal anthem.”
And the authors of books on music—be they history or critical analysis, biography or autobiography—have surely felt a similar pull to write about music. In a field of music writing one might label “music as memoir,” authors reveal just how much music speaks to them and use music as a prism through which to view the world around them.
“Your man or your woman's gone, the whiskey don't work no more, you're aching for the homeplace—and God ain't listenin',” writes Dana Jennings in Sing Me Back Home (Faber and Faber, May), drawing on his own dirt-poor family in New Hampshire to explain 20th-century rural America. “You just need to wallow sometimes,” Jennings acknowledges in a Hank Williams—inspired chapter titled “I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
Music as memoir, of course, isn't new—in 2002, Nick Hornby divulged his favorite songs as key parts of his music-obsessed life in Songbook; Chuck Klosterman gave credence to heavy metal and glam rock (and put North Dakota on the map) with Fargo Rock City in 2001; and in last year's Love Is a Mix Tape, Rob Sheffield painted a beautiful portrait through songs of his wife, who died tragically. But with nearly two dozen music memoirs coming out this season, it appears this genre has emerged—in part, perhaps, due to the interest in the ever-growing field of personal memoir—as a steady writing form.
“The greatest act of love was to make a tape for someone,” writes Lavinia Greenlaw in The Importance of Music to Girls (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, May). “It was the only way we could share music and it was also a way of advertising yourself.” Greenlaw continues to discuss how music affected her coming-of-age in England. Meanwhile, a fellow U.K. writer, Pakistani-born Sarfraz Manzoor, explores being Muslim and British in relation to the Catholic-raised, American musician Bruce Springsteen in Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock 'n' Roll (Vintage, Apr.).
Da Capo covers the music field nicely. In a follow-up to Guitar Man, Will Hodgkinson tries his best to write a pop song in Song Man (Feb.).
And then there's the quest to master an instrument. In Note by Note (S&S, May), piano teacher Tricia Tunstall writes gracefully of the role music has played in her life as well as the lives of her young students: “for a six-year-old a piano lesson can be an act of courage. Every note is an occasion for worry, a tiny drama involving risk and consequences.”
Of course, we've seen music memoirs written by groupies (e.g., Pamela Des Barres's I'm with the Band; Beech Tree, 1987), friends and lovers.
In A Freewheelin' Time (Broadway, May), Suze Rotolo, one-time girlfriend of Bob Dylan, tells of their lives together and of the 1960s West Village music scene. In Bumping into Geniuses (Gotham, Sept.), music journalist Danny Goldberg will offer a professional's view into the music business and the artists he met. And Dan Kennedy has his illusions of the record industry shattered when he takes a job at Atlantic Records in Rock On (Algonquin, Feb.).
Music can take writers on journeys: radio commentator Bob Greene tells of his adventures touring various gymnasiums and music festivals as he performs with surf-music pop duo Jan and Dean in When We Get to Surf City (St. Martin's, May); in Like a Rolling Stone: The Strange Life of a Tribute Band (Broadway, Apr.), Steven Kurutz travels the U.S. with two Rolling Stones cover bands, Sticky Fingers and Blushing Brides. Amanda Petrusich combines travel memoir and cultural criticism in It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music (Faber & Faber, Aug.).
Sometimes, however, the journey is along rundown streets in your own town. In The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music (Putnam, Apr.), Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez writes of befriending a homeless cellist. In the process, among other things, he gains a deeper knowledge of classical music.
Music memoirs are even showing up as comics. In June, Bloomsbury will come out with a graphic nonfiction memoir called Freddie & Me, in which Mike Dawson illustrates his youth in England as a fan of the 1970s band Queen and its lead singer, Freddie Mercury.
“You've got music fans who want a valentine of or homage to their favorite artists, and you've got those who just want the dirt,” says Lissa Warren, senior publicity director at Da Capo. “Some of these guys are just over the top,” says Warren's colleague, executive editor Ben Schafer. “They have decadent stories—of women, sex and drugs.”
And riding in on the heels of autobiographies such as last year's Slash by the Guns 'n' Roses guitarist are such down-and-dirty tell-alls as Stephen Davis's Watch You Bleed (Gotham, Aug.) and W.A.R.: Axl Rose (St. Martin's, Feb.) by Mick Wall—both of which are on, you guessed it, Guns 'n' Roses. Of course, old-time rockers are still garnering ink in such books as AC/DC by Murray Engleheart (Harper Entertainment).
For those wanting in-depth perspective, the list looks rewarding.
Joe Nick Patoski has written what appears to be the definitive biography of a country music great in Willie Nelson (Little, Brown, Apr.), and Sheila Weller places in historical context the careers of Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon in Girls Like Us (Atria, Apr.). James Sullivan will focus on a single performance—in Boston, a day after MLK's assassination—to tell the story of James Brown in The Hardest Working Man (Gotham, Nov.).
From the Free Press in October is Stories Done: Writings on the 1960s and Its Discontents, in which Mikal Gilmore writes on such pop icons as George Harrison and Johnny Cash. And Daniel Levitin, author of 2006's surprise bestseller This Is Your Brain on Music, will explain The World in Six Songs (Dutton, Aug.).
Meanwhile, the Supremes are getting superlative biographies with Mark Ribowsky's The Supremes (Da Capo, Nov.) and Peter Benjaminson's The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard (Lawrence Hill, Apr.).
Coming out this fall are several titles from Da Capo: Michael Bracewell's biography of 1970s band Roxy Music in Re-Make/ Re-Model; John Kruth's study of singer-songwriter Townes van Zandt, To Live's to Fly; David Browne's peek at the reclusive Sonic Youth in Goodbye 20th Century; and the reissue of Crosby, Stills, & Nash by David Zimmer, due out in time for their 40th anniversary.
For Norton, Daniel Heartz has written the final part of his trilogy, Mozart, Haydn, Early Beethoven (Oct.). Katie Hafner explores the connection Glenn Gould had to his Steinway CD 318 concert piano in A Romance on Three Legs (Bloomsbury, June). And Phaidon Press will add to its 20th Century Composers series with Claude Debussy by Paul Roberts.
But what's the future for music biographies and histories?
“Generally, I'd say that it's getting tougher to come up with worthy and commercially viable subjects,” says literary agent Paul Bresnick, who handles a large number of music books, “primarily because so many of the obvious people are in the process of writing their own books.”
From the Singer's Mouth to Your Ears
“There has been a trend toward rock stars finally telling their life stories themselves,” says Schafer at Da Capo. “Once something like Clapton happens, they say, 'Hey, I can do this.' ”
Eric Clapton, Nikki Sixx, Slash, Tommy Lee, and the Police's Andy Summers and Sting—the list goes one—have all joined the confessional club.
In the hopper this season: Eagles guitarist Don Felder takes readers behind the scenes of the band in Heaven & Hell (Wiley, May); rappers Grandmaster Flash, from Run-DMC, and Eminem will offer their life stories with, respectively, The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash (Harlem Moon, June) and The Way I Am (Dutton, Oct.); and Dean Wareham, the lead guitarist and vocalist for seminal independent rock bands Galaxie 500 and Luna, recounts his musical life in Black Postcards (Penguin Press, Mar.).
For die-hard music fans, Continuum continues its 33-1/3 series of books focusing on a single record: this season, it's Throbbing Gristle's 20 Jazz Funk Greats by Drew Daniel.
Piano great Lang Lang writes of his life in China's classical music world in Journey of a Thousand Miles (Spiegel & Grau, July), and German opera singer Thomas Quasthoff, who suffered the effects of thalidomide, tells his story in The Voice (Pantheon, June).
Although actual autobiographies by musicians may seem slim this year, there's no doubt that musicians will be eager to tell their own stories in coming years (Rolling Stone fans, for instance, are eagerly awaiting the forthcoming book by Keith Richards).
“Before the band, I lived only for music; after it, I lived only for drugs,” writes Nikki Sixx. Perhaps the obsessions and hobbies of other musicians and singers are a little less dangerous.
“In some cases, musicians have already told their stories and are exploring other themes,” says Paul Slovak, publisher of Viking. Last year, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons published with Gotham DoYou!: 12 Laws to Access the Power in You to Achieve Happiness and Success; in August, the same publisher will release Rev Run's (of Run-DMC) parenting guide, Take Back Your Family. This year, Korn lead guitarist Brian “Head” Welch writes of his conversion to Christianity in Washed by Blood (HarperOne, June).
It's not uncommon to see novels by musicians: in 2007, Eugene Drucker, a violinist in the Emerson String Quartet, published The Savior (S&S), and singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding came out with By George (Little, Brown), writing under his given name Wesley Stace. This year, Willie Nelson, the subject of the aforementioned biography, is writing fiction, A Tale Out of Luck (Center Street, Sept.).
And in the coming seasons, we can look to books by Talking Heads' David Byrne, who records his impressions while biking through 10 cities around the world, and by musician and producer Brian Eno, who is writing about art in the tentatively titled 44 Minutes: A Big Theory about Culture. Both were acquired by Paul Slovak.
We won't have to wait long, though, for Alice Cooper to divulge his obsession in Golf Monster (Three Rivers, May), and KISS bassist Gene Simmons (who's already produced his memoir, Kiss and Make-up, in 2001) to write about something that's perhaps near and dear to him in The Ladies of the Night: An Historical and Personal Perspective of the First and Oldest Profession (Phoenix, Apr.)—a book about, well, sex.
|Mark Rotella, senior reviews editor at PW, is writing a book on the great Italian-American crooners.|