Contrary to Don McLean’s “American Pie” lyrics in his classic song about the death of rock and roll, our fascination with music and the private lives and public excesses of the people who make it has never been stronger.
If this fall’s crop of music books is any indication, we’ve turned our radios on to listen closely for the lyrical as well as the tuneless attempts by artists, biographers, and historians to record the high notes, low notes, missing voices, and lost chords of music for a new generation.
As the Robin Williams quote goes, “If you can remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.” Yet as Carole King’s recent memoir, A Natural Woman, and Gregg Allman’s tell-all, My Cross to Bear, revealed, some of the most important musicians of the time do recall many details of their personal lives as well as the specifics of the music that they made. Why the sudden flood of music memoirs? Chicago Review Press senior editor Yuval Taylor says, “The massive success of Dylan’s Chronicles, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and Keith Richards’s Life have encouraged publishers to bring out more memoirs and autobiographies by musicians.” Blue Rider Press’s president and publisher David Rosenthal says, “People feel very close to musicians, and it’s only natural to take that inherent intimacy a step further with a book that puts you in these icons’ minds.” HarperCollins executive Matt Harper concurs: “These people are living legends who have stories to match. You combine these fascinating stories with each musician’s devoted audience and suddenly you have a book that makes for good reading and commercial appeal.” This fall, even more musicians are eager to let us in on the excesses of their lives during the height of the rock era, set the record straight on rumors about them and their lifestyle, but, most of all, allow us a peek into their lives and a chance to recall why we fell in love with them in the first place.
Never one to let rust fade away, Neil Young brings the same creative genius he’s brought to his 34 albums to his own story in Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippy Dream (Blue Rider Press, Oct.). His brutally honest reflections range over his life and career, from his pilgrimage to the U.S. from Canada through his years with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, and Nash to his political activism. Young’s publisher will release simultaneously an enhanced e-book edition with color photos, exclusive videos, and music clips.
The Who’s wild, wind-milling guitarist Pete Towns-hend candidly reveals in his long-awaited memoir the landscape of his own teenage wasteland and his struggles with sex and drugs in Who I Am: A Memoir (HarperCollins, Oct.). The publisher’s high hopes are reflected in its 400,000-copy printing. “Just when it feels like all of the Beatles books have been published,” Little, Brown executive editor John Parsley says, “along comes this exceptional collection of hundreds of letters from John Lennon.” The John Lennon Letters (Little, Brown, Oct.), edited and with an introduction by Hunter Davies, contains almost 300 letters that range from Lennon’s earliest efforts to a letter with his final signature that will, says Parsley, get “any music fan’s heart pumping.” In the closest autobiography we’ll ever have of legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix, Hendrix on Hendrix, editor Steve Roby (Chicago Review Press, Oct.) carefully selects interviews that offer insight into Hendrix as well as the era from which he emerged.
In Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir (Atria, Sept.) the girl who just wanted to have fun offers a highly personal account of the colorful journey that turned her into an international superstar; she’s extraordinarily forthcoming about her life. Meanwhile, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, the pulse of Heart and the magic behind such hits as “Crazy on You,” candidly reveal the details of the relationships that inspired their song, “Magic Man,” as well as the reality of life on the road with small children, and the thrill of performing with the Rolling Stones, in Kicking and Dreaming: The Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock and Roll (HC/It Books, Sept.).
In Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Norton, Sept.), the enigmatic genius behind the popular indie musician Bonnie “Prince” Billy provides a fascinating look into his creative process, his album collection, and his opinions on the ridiculousness of music journalism in interviews with editor Alan Licht. Punk rock superstar Beth Ditto shares her life from Arkansas choir nerd to the formation, with friends, of the band Gossip, in her raw, poetic, and unapologetic memoir, Coal to Diamonds (Random/Spiegel and Grau, Oct.). Finally, the woman who played the songs of many of these musicians on the radio as New York’s premiere female disc jockey at WPLJ and WNEW, Carol Miller, fiercely and honestly narrates her failed marriages; her friendships with rockers like Springsteen, whose music she introduced to New Yorkers, and Paul and Linda McCartney; and her lifelong struggles with health problems, including breast cancer, all the time maintaining her sense of humor and the grace that has made her such a wonderful companion to listeners all these years, in Up All Night: My Life and Times in Rock Radio (HarperCollins, Sept.). (And see Miller’s “Why I Write” essay online).
Not all rockers have found a voice to relate their own stories, but a number of them are featured in biographies this season. St. Martin’s executive editor Kathy Huck says, “We’ve seen a slight renaissance in this category as readers age alongside their music icons.” Still prancing across stages after 50 years, Mick Jagger has never told his own story. In Mick Jagger (Ecco, Oct.), music critic Philip Norman reveals not the Satanic prince of rock and roll but a Jagger whose conservative upbringing deeply shaped his manners and attitudes toward others. Jagger’s portrayed as a loving father whose children adore him, a history and literature buff, a wine connoisseur, and a stickler for etiquette. Wiley executive editor Tom Miller says, “When publishing a narrative music book it’s key to have someone who has inside access to a group or a performer.” With the full cooperation of Bruce Springsteen and unprecedented access to the artist, his family, and friends, music writer Peter Ames Carlin adds vivid detail to his groundbreaking biography of the Boss. Bruce (Touchstone, Nov.) traces Springsteen’s career from his childhood through Springsteen’s most recent album. “One reason Carlin was able to gain access to family, friends, and colleagues and Springsteen himself is because everyone involved was prepared to be more reflective and to open up in a way that they were not ready to do before,” says Touchstone v-p and publisher Stacy Creamer. Music critic Sylvie Simmons got full cooperation from the reclusive and inscrutable folk-rock favorite Leonard Cohen for her definitive biography of him, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Ecco, Sept.), from which Cohen emerges as a sensitive artist, intensely serious about his work. Finally, rock historian Barney Hoskyns’s Led Zeppelin: The Oral History of the World’s Greatest Rock Band (Wiley, Nov.), with its more than 200 interviews with everyone in the band, is sure to get a whole lotta love from Led Zepplin fans.
Are You Ready for the Country (and Jazz and Soul)?
Rockers aren’t the only ones baring their souls or being featured in full-length bios this season. In Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road (Morrow, Nov.), country outlaw legend Willie Nelson teams with his son, Micah, and author/musician Kinky Friedman to present important lessons from the road in outrageous and wry ways. Another country superstar, Kenny Rogers, who’s “done more hard living in a few years than most people do in a lifetime,” says HarperCollins’s Matt Harper, tells for the first time the story behind his rise to fame as one of the top-selling artists of all time in Luck or Something Like It: A Memoir (Morrow, Oct.). “Patsy Cline is an American music icon and perhaps the most accessible artist in country music history,” says the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum director, Kyle Young, says, and Patsy Cline: Crazy for Loving You (Country Music Foundation Press, Sept.) pays tribute to her life and work. Music journalist Bob Kealing tells the sad and familiar story of Gram Parsons, drawing on never-before-available writings and new interviews with Parsons’s family and friends in Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock (Univ. Press of Florida, Sept.). The Carter Family stars in Frank M. Young and David Lasky’s graphic novel, The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song (Abrams, Oct.), which reveals the family’s numerous struggles and the enduring power of music and love.
Hip-hop impresario Wyclef Jean, along with coauthor Anthony Bozza, moves beyond the music and his life with the Fugees in Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story (HC/It Books, Sept.), telling about his childhood in Haiti, his run for Haitian president, and his ongoing work with victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. In her scorching and intense A Woman Like Me (Blue Rider, Oct.), the great soul maven Bettye LaVette, with David Ritz, chronicles her story of the difficulties of achieving fame in a heartless world. As Blue Rider’s Rosenthal says of LaVette’s memoir, “I daresay there’s never been another book that so honestly and graphically relates the hard knocks of life in the music business.” With her hit, “My Guy,” Mary Wells helped define the Motown sound, and now music journalist Peter Benjaminson provides the first complete account of her quick rise to fame and her struggles to stay on top in Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar (Chicago Review Press, Nov.).
Not to be left behind, pop and jazz musicians and their biographers riff on their lives and music. Smooth as ever, Tony Bennett warbles stories from more than six decades in the business in Life Is a Gift: The Zen Bennett (HarperCollins, Nov.), articulating his core beliefs in family, integrity, and authenticity that have earned him worldwide adulation. Contributors ranging from Sonny Rollins, Bill Cosby, and Herbie Hancock share their memories of jazz great Miles Davis in Miles Davis: The Complete Illustrated History (Voyageur Press, Oct.). Hollywood biographer William Mann offers an intimate early portrait of Barbra Streisand, illuminating the woman before she became the icon in Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand (Harcourt, Oct.). In Love Song: The Loves of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya (St. Martin’s, Oct.), music historian Ethan Mordden tracks the acclaimed songwriter and his actress wife from Germany to America, where each achieved lasting success.
So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll or Country Star?
Many fans of performers and groups are also musicians struggling to make it in the music business and hoping to travel the road to fame like their heroes. Many musicians are looking to hone their skills as well as to find just the right path to stardom, and several books guide these aspiring artists. “Within the music category, customers play multiple instruments and turn to multiple sources for instruction,” Wiley’s associate director for marketing Melisa Duffy says, and Don Julin’s Mandolin for Dummies (Wiley, Sept.) can have people playing like their favorite musicians in no time. Aspiring country musicians can find their way in Music City with Liam Sullivan’s Making the Scene in Nashville: How to Live, Network, and Succeed in Music City (Hal Leonard, Oct.), which covers everything from how to find a place to live to how to protect your song rights. Sharon Mabry’s The Performing Life: A Singer’s Guide to Survival (Rowman and Littlefield, Sept.) offers helpful hints for singers trying to choose the right song to make it in the music business, while Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan’s The Indie Band Survival Guide: Remixed and Remastered, 2nd edition (St. Martin’s, Sept.), offers an indispensable guide to matters such as selling songs on iTunes and Amazon and getting played on radio and blogs. Donald S. Passman’s All You Need to Know About the Music Business (Free Press, Dec.), now in its eighth edition, offers a one-stop and up-to-date guide to contract negotiation and hiring a winning team of advisers. Finally, “thinking in really provocative ways about music, as well as history and culture more generally,” according to McSweeney’s editorial director Ethan Nosowsky, David Byrne touches on the joy, the physics, and the business of making music in How Music Works (McSweeney’s, Sept.), a brainy, irresistible adventure that you’d expect from the Talking Heads cofounder.
Thanks to the musicians who are now reflecting on their careers and sharing their stories about their lives in the music business, the music that has long been the soundtrack of our lives is alive and well.
When I Paint my Masterpiece
Along with Philip Norman’s Mick Jagger, the band itself celebrates its 50th anniversary with The Rolling Stones 50 (Hyperion, Oct.) by Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood; more than 1,000 illustrations in color and black and white include behind-the-scene shots, famous posters, and negatives, that chronicle now legendary events in the Stones’ career.
In 50 Licks: Myths and Stories from Half a Century of the Rolling Stones (Bloomsbury USA, Feb.), Bernard M. Corbett and Pete Fornatale gather 50 classic Stones’ stories, many never before told. The book takes the form of an album with each story connected to a hit single—thus “Start Me Up” tells the story of the band’s first gig.
The Beatles in Liverpool: The Stories, the Scene, and the Path to Stardom (Chicago Review Press, Oct.) by Spencer Leigh traces the early days of the Fab Four through a series of exceptional interviews and more than 200 color photos. Although the Beatles immortalized it in their 1969 album, Abbey Road, the legendary recording studio has hosted some of rock’s biggest names over its 80-year history. Alistair Lawrence’s Abbey Road: The Best Studio in the World (Bloomsbury USA, Oct.) rehearses the full history of the studio with a wealth of never before seen photos.
English journalist Chris Welch’s Treasures of the Who (Backbeat, Sept.) takes readers on a journey with the band as it conquers the world, from small London clubs to Madison Square Garden. The book contains 21 removable facsimiles of memorabilia including posters, contracts, concert programs, and more.
Using classic and rare photographs, album artwork, and contemporary press materials, musician and music journalist Mike Evans traces the astonishing scope of Neil Young’s six-decade musical career in Neil Young: The Definitive History (Sterling, Sept.).
Finally, keeping up with who’s playing in your favorite band, who’s gone from the band, and the list of albums that performers and bands have made is easy from now on with the heavily illustrated Rock Chronicles: Every Legend, Every Line-Up, Every Look (Firefly, Oct.), edited by David Roberts. The book’s “cleverly designed infographics will help readers pinpoint key moments in rock history,” says Roberts.
With so many heavily illustrated music books coming out this season, fans will have the opportunity to relive—or see and read about for the first time—the greatest moments in their favorite artist’s life and career.
University Presses Cover Music in American Life
In 1972, the University of Illinois Press released the first volume in its now venerable Music in American life series, Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal Mining Songs by Archie Green. Over the past 40 years, 160 books have been published in the series, and the list will grow again this fall, with the publication of Stephen Wade’s The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience (Sept.), a thorough and creative exploration of the histories of recordings made for the Library of Congress, and from Josh Graves, the late, great dobroist for Flatt and Scruggs, Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir (Sept.).
As Illinois marketing manager Michael Roux says, Music in American Life embodies the “twin goals of documenting the place of music in American culture and the cultural life that gives rise to particular musical forms.” He points out that the series covers the broadest range of music, from classical through all forms of vernacular music, and it welcomes a variety of approaches to the topics of music in American life, including monographs, biographies, memoirs, reference books, readers, and edited collections. Recent bestselling titles—including Neil Rosenberg’s Bluegrass: A History, Rosenberg and Charles Wolfe’s The Music of Bill Malone, Robert Pruter’s Chicago Soul, and Paul Bierley’s The Incredible Band of John Philip Sousa—reflect this approach. Roux also points out that the presentation of the 2010 Bess Lomax Hawes Award from the National Endowment for the Arts for the preservation and awareness of cultural heritage to longtime series editor (now retired) Judy McCulloh underscores the enduring value of the series.
The University Press of Mississippi’s American Made Music series launched in 1995, and to date 70 books have been released in the series. Assistant director and editor-in-chief Craig Gill notes that the series covers all aspects of American music and that its approach to the subject is broad enough to publish every kind of book from a pure scholarly monograph to a general interest trade title. For example, Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues quickly sold out of its first print run, while the more academic The Starday Story, a history of the Starday record label, sold more slowly but went through its first print run in less than a year and will go to paper next season. This season’s books include John McCusker’s Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz (Oct.) and Don Cusic’s comprehensive Saved by Song: A History of Gospel and Christian Music (Dec.). “Our music books are more popular in many European countries and in Japan than they are in the U.S.,” Gill says, and “we’re trying to build a list that will sell around the world.”
In 2005, the University of Texas Press published The Best of No Depression, an anthology of articles from the hip alt-country magazine, No Depression. Working with the magazine’s cofounders Peter Blackstock and David Menconi, Texas’s sponsoring editor Casey Kittrell grew excited about these two editing a possible series. Austin City Limits promoted the first book in the American Music Series, Don McLeese’s Dwight Yoakam, when Yoakam played on that stage. This season Menconi chronicles the rise to fame of alt-country star, Ryan Adams, in Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown (Sept.), and forthcoming topics include Merle Haggard, Uncle Tupelo, and John Prine, among others. Kittrell says that the series plans to publish “musical biographies about important American musicians and that eventually it will edge into genres beyond alt-country and feature books by musicians and literary writers.”