For those of us who write about music, the songs or the singers or the musicians themselves are our inspiration. But as we try to put the sound we hear on the page—to use a different medium in which to communicate our experiences—it is often other writers who help us "transpose" the music to the written word.
Whether you write about Mahler, Sinatra, or the Clash, you read encyclopedias and other reference sources to place the subject in context; biographies and memoirs provide details of the artist's life (however subjective they may be). For help with style and narrative arc, you might look to other music biographies, or books that have nothing to do with music—like fiction. And as for finding the right way to convey the abstractions and complexities of music itself, well, you may just have to rely on your ears.
In writing my book on the influential Italian-American singers, Amore: The Story of Italian American Song (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; Sept.) I referred to books like The Italian American Heritage, edited by Pellegrino D'Acierno, and The Italian American Experience by Salvatore J. LaGumina for broad cultural views. Three singers who wrote their lives well were Connie Francis in Who's Sorry Now?, Dion in The Wanderer, and a long out-of-print memoir by Alan Dale, a huge figure in the 1950s, but now all but forgotten. For biographies on Sinatra, I turned to Pete Hamill and Will Friedwald (who contributes a Why I Write essay on p. 20, and who himself is coming out with A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers; Pantheon, Nov.). Nick Tosches wrote about Dean Martin better than anyone else, in Dino; Wil Haygood lovingly portrayed Sammy Davis Jr., a Rat Pack fixture with Martin and Sinatra, with In Black and White.
For examples on how to write about music—and placing it in a greater historical context—I relied on David Hajdu's books on Billy Strayhorn and Bob Dylan and the Baez sisters. One book that stayed with me—one of the loveliest books on music—was But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz by Geoff Dyer. In it, he evokes the music of various jazz musicians simply by focusing on a pivotal moment in their lives and, less simply, by adopting a prose style that approaches the musical style of his subjects, which included giants like Thelonious Monk, Lester Young, and Charles Mingus.
On Cultural Criticism
Looking at the crop of music books coming out this year, I decided to ask the authors just what books helped them shape their own. And the answers I got were as varied as one could imagine. Still, given a similar subject matter and author's sociocultural background, some writers reached out for the same books.
Alex Ross, author of The Rest Is Noise, is coming out this month with Listen to This (FSG), mostly a collection of his essays from the New Yorker. Ross has relied on such fellow critics as Virgil Thomson and Andrew Porter, "people who wrote for popular publications in a deeply informed and influential way." Yet he also found it important not to limit himself to music, and read Roger Ebert, "who writes intelligently and broadly for a mass market." The inspiration for The Rest Is Noise was the writing of Richard Taruskin (the five-volume Oxford History of Western Music), who "has a staggering knowledge of music and has urged writers to read more skeptically about music."
For Ross, though, it's the prose and poetry of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—that of Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett—for their sense of rhythm that most influences his descriptions of music. "You need to create an analogy to your style of writing, so I intersperse my writing with a poetic writing style—a combination of lyrical and descriptive." This counteracts what he sees as a lot of "dry and passionless writing" on classical music. Now on his desk is a stack of books on Wagner—the subject of his next book.
Also writing on music as culture, Sara Marcus tells of the 1990s music and literature movement in Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrl Revolution (Harper Perennial; Oct.).
"Two writers are all over Girls to the Front," she says. The first is Greil Marcus (no relation). Specifically, his book In the Fascist Bathroom: Punk in Pop Music (Harvard, 1999)—"that was the first time the beautiful all-embracingness of Marcus hit me."
But it was David Hajdu's writing that showed her how to form the book. "I picked up a copy of Positively 4th Street (FSG; 2001), and I was amazed by how he crafted the music and political scene onto a human narrative. That book made me realize that my book could be done. He brings everything together and makes it seem effortless."
Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone contributing editor, just had his second book published—Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man's Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut (Dutton; July).
"When you are writing about music, you are writing about so much other stuff," says Sheffield, whose first book was the memorable memoir of early romance, Love Is a Mix Tape (Three Rivers; 2007). "There are all these interconnected stories." One author that he returns to time and again is his contemporary, Chuck Klosterman and his Killing Yourself to Live (Scribner; 2006)—"because it was just about driving across the country listening to music—it's a closeness to music that very few have ever connected with in that way."
Behind the Music
In November, James Kaplan will publish a tome on Frank Sinatra called, simply, Frank: The Voice (Doubleday).
"There is no human being since Churchill who has been as widely and extensively chronicled as Frank Sinatra," Kaplan says. "What struck me was how little good writing there was about Sinatra—most of it being sensationalistic stuff." However, he acknowledges the few great writers on Sinatra: Hamill, Friedwald, and John Lahr. As for capturing the sound of Francis Albert Sinatra, Kaplan says that he tried to "do justice to Sinatra's voice by writing in a voice that had a sympathetic vibration with the power of his own." As a trial, Kaplan did a long magazine profile of one of Sinatra's favored songwriters, Jimmy van Heusen. "I hit upon a voice for the piece, and I tried to use that tone in the book."
Kaplan is full of admiration for another crooner bio, contending that Gary Giddins's Bing Crosby: The Early Years (Little, Brown; 2001) is the best musical biography ever written. "I was aware of trying to do something as good as his book," says Kaplan.
Marcus Gray in Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling (Soft Skull; Oct.) takes his own nontraditional route in describing the making of the iconic Clash record. "The first music books to really grab me were Roy Carr's mid-'70s Illustrated Record series done with a variety of publishers—books on the Beatles, with Tony Tyler, the Stones, and, later, David Bowie, with Charles Shaar Murray. Rather than the life, Carr's focus was the work: the music, the lyrics, the packaging and promotion, with a generous amount of background context thrown in."
Norman Lebrecht, known for his cultural criticism book Who Killed Classical Music? (Birch Lane; 1997), this year turns his attention to a single great composer in Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World (Pantheon, Oct.).
"I've spent half my life writing about Mahler—and reading the books he read," admits Lebrecht, who has read books by authors contemporary to Mahler—Dostoyevski's The Brothers Karamazov—as well as philosophical treatises by Schopenhauer. "I just tried to understand the man from his own perspective." But the book that took him into Mahler was the autobiography of Mahler's wife, Alma. But Lebrecht warns, borrowing a phrase from Mary McCarthy on Lillian Hellman, "Almost every word she wrote was a lie, including ‘and' and ‘but.' What gripped me about that book was the passion of her indifference."
Lebrecht, who also writes novels (his first, The Song of Names, won a Whitbread Award in 2002), was influenced early on by the narrative styles of Graham Greene and Charles Dickens. "I was a lonely child," he says, "and fiction was my life."
The Musician and the Pen
For Kristin Hersh, a founding member of the band Throwing Muses and author of Rat Girl (Penguin; Aug.), her own wordly muses are science writers.
"I've read science for inspiration since I was a kid, as an informed way of looking around me, I guess," she says. "And there are those science writers, like Natalie Angier, whose lyrical, sensuous writing brings an artist's view to the clean world of research." She refers specifically to her book The Beauty of the Beastly, "a gentle way to experience that world through her eyes, brain, and fingers."
The man who produced many of the records of Bob Dylan, U2, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and Peter Gabriel, Daniel Lanois turned to a book written by a member of The Band for his own book, Soul Mining (FSG, Nov.).
Lanois, who was born in Quebec and raised in Ontario, found a familiar setting in This Wheel's On Fire by The Band's drummer/songwriter Levon Helm. He also turned to Dylan's Chronicles. "I was fascinated with how Bob laid it out, being in New York City during the cultural revolution of the '60s and '70s."
Mötley Crüe frontman Vince Neil follows the path of his band members with his autobiography Tattoos & Tequila (Grand Central, Sept.). Calling in from the end of the Oz Fest tour, Neil explains that his dyslexia makes it hard for him to read books. He watches movies and prefers nonfiction narratives. Meanwhile, Neil's coauthor, Mike Sager, a journalist and novelist, says, "Interestingly, I approached it as a person who has taken up a new area of study." He didn't know much about Neil and Mötley Crüe, but after sitting with him for many interviews, "I got to know Vince and his music, and eventually I decided to try to replicate the sound of his voice in the book."
Not surprisingly he referred to Mötley Crüe: The Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band, an oral history of the band compiled by Neil Strauss of the New York Times. "In the end, I was evoking Studs Terkel—placing ancillary interviews, many with conflicting stories, alongside one another."
Rosanne Cash, who recently published her memoir, Composed (Viking; Aug.), tells me that she enjoyed reading Mel Tormé's autobiographies, which she noted for his "plainspoken manner, and how he wrote about Judy Garland in a fair, if not always affectionate, way."
But she took her writing cues from someone entirely different: "I liked how M.F.K. Fisher wrote about her life in food. She was a model for me; she would describe a meal and there would be people there, and there was a subtle undertone to her meal, and she would talk about things like heartbreak. Her meals were a hammock that held the narrative."
Music Books at A Glance
Piano Lessons by Anna Goldsworthy (St. Martin's Griffith, Oct.)
Lick Me: How I Became Cherry Vanilla by Cherry Vanilla (Chicago Review Press, Nov.)
This Is Gonna Hurt by Nikki Sixx (Morrow, Mar. 2011)
Life by Keith Richards with James Fox (Little, Brown, Oct.)
Decoded by Jay-Z (Random/Spiegel & Grau, Nov.)
Apathy for the Devil: A Seventies Memoir by Nick Kent (Da Capo, Sept.)
Sign of Life: A Story of Family, Tragedy, Music, and Healing by Hilary Williams (Da Capo, Nov.)
Magic City: Trials of a Native Son by Trick Daddy with Peter Bailey (Gallery/MTV Books, Nov.)
Cheetah Chrome: A Dead Boy's Tale from the Front Lines of Punk Rock by Cheetah Chrome (Voyageur Press, Sept.)
Killing Me Softly: My Life in Music by Charles Fox and Roberta Flack (Scarecrow Press, Sept.)
Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal by Byron Janis (Wiley, Dec.)
Bob Dylan: Writings 1968–2010 by Greil Marcus (PublicAffairs, Oct.)
Peter Gabriel, from Genesis to Growing Up, edited by Michael Drewett, Sarah Hill, and Kimi Kärki (Ashgate, Jan. 2011)
A Wizard, a True Star: Todd Rundgren in the Studio by Paul Myers (Jawbone Press, Oct.)
Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews, edited by Chris DeVito (Chicago Review Press, Sept.)
Becoming Jimi Hendrix: From Southern Crossroads to Psychedelic London, the Untold Story of a Musical Genius by Steven Roby and Brad Schreiber (Da Capo, Sept.)
Stevie Ray Vaughan: Day by Day, Night After Night by Craig Hopkins (Backbeat Books, Sept.)
Bob Moog—The Illumination of Sound: Tipbook Highlights in Music by Dieter Dixon with Michelle Moog-Koussa (Hal Leonard Books, Oct.)
Leonard Bernstein at Work: His Final Years, 1984–1990 by Steve J. Sherman (Amadeus Press, Oct.)
Willie Dixon: Preacher of the Blues by Mitsutoshi Inaba (Scarecrow Press, Aug.)
Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins by Bob Blumenthal (Abrams, Sept.)
I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles by Ron Pen (Univ. Press of Kentucky, Sept.)
Jimi Hendrix: The Story Behind Every Song by David Stubbs (Carlton Books, Oct.)
Justin Bieber: The Fever by Marc Shapiro (St. Martin's Griffin, Aug.)
History/ Cultural Studies
LZ-'75: The Lost Chronicles of Led Zeppelin's 1975 American Tour by Stephen Davis (Gotham Books, Oct.)
In the City: A Celebration of London Music by Paul Du Noyer (Virgin Books, Dec.)
BMF by Mara Shalhoup (St. Martin's Griffith, Jan. 2011)
Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side by Ed Sanders (Da Capo, Jan. 2011)
Ukulele: The World's Friendliest Instrument Makes a Comeback (Gibbs-Smith, Mar. 2011)
The New York Philharmonic: From Bernstein to Maazel by John Canarina (Amadeus Press, Sept.)
Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season—1959 to 2009 by Peter Filichia (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, Sept.)
The Secret History of Rock & Roll: The Mysterious Roots of Modern Music by Christopher Knowles (Viva Editions, Sept.)
Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing about Hip Rock and Hip Hop by Simon Reynolds (Soft Skull Press, Jan. 2011)
Acoustics of Performance Halls by J. Christopher Jaffe (Norton, Oct.)
The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, 9th Edition: Complete Chart Information about America's Most Popular Songs and Artists, 1955–2009 by Joel Whitburn (Billboard Books, Oct.)
Music by Andrew Zuckerman (Abrams, Oct.)
Max's Kansas City: Art, Glamour, Rock and Roll by Steven Kasher (Abrams Image, Oct.)
Atlanta by Michael Schmelling and Kelefa Sanneh (Chronicle Books, Nov.)
Gaga by Johnny Morgan (Sterling, Nov.)
The Eagles: An American Band by Andrew Vaughan (Sterling, Oct.)
My Country: 50 Musicians on God, America & the Songs They Love by Melanie Dunea (Rodale, Oct.)
Ultimate Metallica by Ross Halfin (Chronicle Books, Nov.)