Home Culture Culture News

Essential Summer Reads

From revealing bios to fictional tales of the Internet’s dark side, here’s our guide to some of the best books to pick up this summer.

From revealing bios to fictional tales of the Internet’s dark side, here’s our rundown of some of the best books to pick up this summer.

By Will Hermes, Kyle Chayka, Jon Dolan, Julia Holmes and Andy Greene.

Related: Win a 2015 Music Book Pack

M Train, Patti Smith

Patti Smith (pictured) began her career writing poetry books (Seventh Heaven) and for rock magazines (including this one), and her songs have always been steeped in literary tradition. So it’s no surprise that the successor to her National Book Award-winning memoir is, once again, no boilerplate rock-star flashback. But where Just Kids follows a line through Smith’s coming of age with late soulmate Robert Mapplethorpe, M Train is an impressionistic weave of dreams, disasters, space-outs and epiphanies, a meditation on life and art by a woman who sees them as one.

As on Horses (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine”), Smith slings a great lead. “It’s not so easy writing about nothing,” she begins here. In fact, she processes everything from outlandish encounters (a wee-hour singalong with chess master Bobby Fischer) to cleaning up cat puke to murder fantasies. For the follow-up to a surprise bestseller, M Train is also bravely experimental. Amid a travelling writer’s solitude and memories of her late husband, former MC5 guitarist Fred Smith, are hallucinated conversations (with a TV remote and Nikola Tesla, among others) plus jump-cuts into literature (Haruki Murakami, Roberto Bolaño) and TV (The Killing). Unfortunately, few of Smith’s reflections involve music, and the book meanders at times. But her caffeinated flow has its charms, and the beauty of her writing – “the pink sky was veined in lightning” – breaks through to buoy the dull spots.

Near the end of Just Kids, Smith railed, “Why can’t I write something that would awake the dead?” With M Train – titled for a vision Smith had near Frida Kahlo’s birthplace – she has. She is a generation’s great medium, freestyling séances over diner coffee, across years of magical thinking. [W.H.]

Book of Numbers, Joshua Cohen

From our recent feature:

“The man who just published one of the best novels ever written about the Internet has spent less time online than almost anyone else his age. After graduating from college in 2001, Joshua Cohen lived in Eastern Europe for six years, writing fiction, filing overseas dispatches for The Jewish Daily Forward and generally avoiding the Web – he didn’t even have a dial-up connection. When Cohen returned to New York in 2007, everyone suddenly had smartphones and Facebook accounts. He found the Web’s unrelenting creep so unnerving that he considered going back to Europe. […] Cohen still avoids social media, and his wariness of the Web suffuses Book of Numbers, about a failed novelist-turned-ghostwriter named Joshua Cohen who’s working on the memoirs of another Joshua Cohen, the founder of a Google-like company called Tetration. (Cohen himself worked as a ghostwriter for two Holocaust survivors.)” [K.C.]

Reckless, Chrissie Hynde

The subtitle of Chrissie Hynde’s new memoir, Reckless, may be “My Life as a Pretender”, but by the time she gets to the formation of her pivotal New Wave band, the book is about 75 per cent done. It turns out that’s not a problem, because somehow the daughter of a secretary and a phone-company man from Akron, Ohio, found herself at an absurd number of key cultural moments in the 1960s and 1970s – from the Kent State shootings to Ziggy Stardust’s first American concert (she gave David Bowie a ride in her mum’s car that night) to the London punk scene, where she fronted an early version of the Clash. Hynde writes with complete frankness. A passage where she recounts being gang-raped by a group of bikers has already caused controversy. “You can’t fuck around with people, especially people who wear ‘I Heart Rape’ and ‘On Your Knees’ badges,” she writes. [A.G.]

Learning To Fly, Mick Wall

British journalist Mick Wall has penned books about AC/DC, Guns N’Roses, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Pearl Jam. Now, with Learning to Fly, he turns his attention to the Foo Fighters, charting the band’s rise – or, more accurately, Dave Grohl’s journey from punk rock everyman to stadium rock hero. “There is only one real Foo Fighter,” Wall attests, “and his name is Dave Grohl.

From our recent 6 Things We Learned Reading the New Foo Fighters Biography feature:

“In January 1992, Grohl’s pre-Foos band Nirvana knocked Michael Jackson off the top of the charts with their Nevermind album. The Seattle trio didn’t know how to react. “They weren’t gonna be jumping up and down, and going like, ‘Yeah!'” recalls the band’s then-publicist Anton Brookes. “It was such an anti-climax… Nobody seemed to be taking much notice of it.” [S.J.]

The Genius of Michael Jackson, Steve Knopper

Most Michael Jackson books either try to understand his pop brilliance or dive into his tragic life. Veteran journalist (and Rolling Stone US contributing editor) Steve Knopper balances the musical and the personal, packing the 400 pages of The Genius of Michael Jackson with fascinating anecdotes, covering every stage of the singer’s career in vivid detail – from pre-adolescent stardom to unprecedented crossover success with Thriller and Bad to his tortured, embattled final years. The section on Jackson’s childhood is especially gripping; one heartbreaking story describes an early Jackson 5 recording session where Michael’s tyrannical father, Joe, is so abusive that a producer pulls a gun on him and tells him not to come back while they’re working. Later, we relive the all-too-familiar consequences of that turmoil as Jackson’s life spins out of control. But this isn’t a salacious tell-all; as its title implies, it’s an authoritative account of a world-changing force of nature who once described his creative process as “standing under a tree and letting a leaf fall and trying to catch it – it’s that beautiful.” [J.D.]

Photofantasm, Mike and Jaye English

Since Soundgarden re-united in 2010, Mike and Jaye English – creators and publishers of a book dedicated to the Seattle rockers, Photofantasm – have followed their tours through five countries, taking literally thousands of photos along the way. A few years ago they decided to put their photos and experiences into a book, to which they asked fans from around the world to also contribute. “An authentic fan based book like Photofantasm had never been done until now,” says Jaye. “There are fan-centric books put out by other high profile bands but none that are from hundreds of fans and artists collaborating around the world in celebration of one band’s music.”

Limited to 1,000 copies, and with all proceeds going to charity, the hard cover collector’s edition features more than 1,000 photos of Soundgarden in action, more than 70 pages of artwork and gig posters, as well as interviews, facts, set-lists and reviews. “We wanted to honour Soundgarden’s epic return by contributing a piece of documented history,” says Jaye.

Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music, John Fogerty

books fogThe life and times of the Creedence legend. From our recent feature:

Fortunate Son covers everything from Fogerty’s pre-Creedence [Clearwater Revival] days in the Army Reserve to his battle with alcohol in the 1980s and 1990s, something he’s rarely discussed. Fogerty stops short of calling himself an alcoholic, but his drinking got so bad that it almost cost him his relationship with his girlfriend, Julie (now his wife). […] The biggest villain in the book is Saul Zaentz, the former label head who owned Creedence’s copyrights. Zaentz sued Fogerty for plagiarism because he felt the singer’s 1984 hit “The Old Man Down the Road” was too similar to CCR’s “Run Through the Jungle” – the only time an artist was ever sued for ripping himself off. (The suit was dismissed.) ‘He robbed us and owned all of our music,’ Fogerty says.” [A.G.]

City On Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg

Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire – a wild plunge into the bleak haze of late-1970s New York – is being touted as the best and biggest debut of the year. The most amazing part is that the guy behind it wasn’t even born until 1978 – and grew up, of all places, on North Carolina’s coastal plains.

Hallberg, already a respected book critic, was raised in Greenville, “a small college town on Playboy‘s top-20 list of best party schools,” he says. “I never really felt at home there.” Hallberg escaped into Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the cultural “supernova” of Koch-era New York. “I was my town’s resident beatnik at 14,” he says. “That downtown [New York] scene seemed like this fantastical landscape. I loved the idea that all the people who didn’t belong anywhere else ended up in one place.”

The idea behind City on Fire came to Hallberg in 2003, while he was on a Greyhound bus to New York – a pilgrimage he’d been making since age 17. Just as he got his first glimpse of lower Manhattan’s shattered skyline, a Billy Joel song, “Miami 2017,” popped up on his iPod. “I’d never heard it before,” says Hallberg. “I respect Billy Joel, but I’m not a guy who’s gonna sit down and listen to the entire Essential Billy Joel.” The song, released in 1976 but narrated from the future, envisions the destruction of New York over 40 years. For Hallberg, it was as if the past and the present – essentially, 1976 and 9/11 – were collapsing together in that moment. “There’s this imagery of the arsons that were going on in the Seventies, and I was like, ‘This song is about right now.’ I immediately wrote out an entire scene, and after 10 minutes, the essence of the story was there.” Hallberg returned to the idea in 2007, by which time he and his wife had moved to Brooklyn, where they still live with their two young kids.

City on Fire uses a singular crime – the shooting of a teenage girl in Central Park on New Year’s Eve 1976 – to explore the lives of myriad New Yorkers: denizens of Wall Street, estranged high-society siblings, Molotov-cocktail-lobbing anarchists and star-crossed kids living on the periphery of the city’s punk scene. As the investigation into the shooting unfolds, they’re drawn toward one another and into the chaos of the Great Blackout of July 13th, 1977, a perfect darkness from which only some will emerge.

Previously living off $16,000 a year, Hallberg got a record-breaking advance of nearly $2 million for the novel, a book that is truly that great, rare thing: a wholly inhabitable universe, reflecting back our lives while also offering an exhilarating escape from them. “For me,” says Hallberg, “the city was a place to dream and a place to work. I want everyone to experience that freedom.” [J.H.]

Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll, Peter Guralnick

No single person “invented” rock & roll. But it’s hard to imagine how it could’ve happened without Sun Records visionary Sam Phillips. Peter Guralnick’s rigorously researched Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll tells the story of a Southern white businessman who enabled the careers of epochal artists, black and white – including Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.

This definitive work maintains the high standard of Guralnick’s other books, among them the groundbreaking 1979 country, rock and blues study Lost Highway; his 1986 Sweet Soul Music; and the doorstop double-volume Elvis bio, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. With Presley’s story at its core, Sam Phillips is in some ways the latter’s third volume. What makes it more illuminating, and arguably truer, is seeing Elvis in the broader context of Phillips’ career. Before founding Sun Rec­ords, Phillips produced “Rocket 88” – what many consider the first rock & roll record – with young guitarist Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm band, who Phillips connected with through a tip from Riley (soon-to-be-B.B.) King, another Phillips discovery. Both acts slipped through Phillips’ fingers, as did Howlin’ Wolf, who Phillips considered “the greatest talent, the most profound artist” he ever met, Presley included. Guralnick chronicles the rise of “race music” stations in the Deep South, a world in which Phillips was also deeply involved. In many ways, his entire career was a mission to transcend and transform his nation’s heritage of bigotry.

Guralnick interviewed Phillips many times over decades, and even when the book’s music-business particulars drag, Phillips’ street-corner preacher’s voice and big-screen persona shine through – whether he’s describing a growth on Elvis’ genitals (“Being an old country boy . . . I knew it was a damn carbuncle”) or swinging what Guralnick calls his “Ciceronian syntax” at a 1999 music-biz convention: “All the ambassadors in the world, all the damn wars that have been fought have in no way come within [one] thousandth of the potential of the understanding that the human race can get from music.” Like his subject, Guralnick sometimes overuses superlative pronouncements – just witness the book’s title – where the strength of his research and storytelling might suffice. But his enthusiasm is forgivable. Phillips was a man who saw rock & roll as nothing less than an American religion. As Guralnick’s lifelong devotion has shown, he’s a true believer. You may come away born again too. [W.H.]

Adapted from articles in issue #769 (December, 2015), available now.