As the colder months slowly unfurl down here in the Southern portion of the globe, many will seek refuge in their hibernation hovels with just a solitary companion — a good book.
Whether you gravitate towards musician biographies, academic excursions or crushing critiques of fictional waring bands, we’ve got you covered with our selected preview of the best recent releases.
By Will Hermes, David Browne, Annie Licata, Elisabeth Garber-Paul, Jon Dolan and Patrick Doyle.
Bob Mehr, ‘Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements’
The Replacements’ career began as it ended: in total disaster. Playing their first show as the Impediments at a sober club hosted by a teen rehab centre in St. Paul, Minnesota, they took the stage with 12-year-old bassist Tommy Stinson displaying a cannabis leaf on his instrument; they were caught drinking, ejected and threatened with blacklisting. Sensibly, they changed their name, and the most exciting, self-destructive indie-rock heroes of the Eighties were born.
This sort of tragicomedy defined a band that could be thrilling and poignant on a good night – and on a bad one, a train wreck nearly as awesome. Memphis journalist Bob Mehr vividly charts its bumpy arc through a recent reunion, delivering mythic battle tales like a barroom historian: the vandalised tour vehicles, the couch hurled from a club window, the studio window smashed with a gin bottle while Metallica worked quietly nearby, the endless pranks on music-biz stooges and other cases of self-sabotage, onstage and on-air. It’s hilarious, for a while. Less funny are the histories informing the chaos: Molested by his mother’s boyfriend, guitarist Bob Stinson spent a childhood in and out of state juvenile facilities; frontman Paul Westerberg had his first vodka at 13 and attempted suicide with pills at 15. Both men came from families marked by alcoholism, a struggle they inherited and worked out through music that also fuelled it.
The ‘Mats story has been told many times, but Mehr got unprecedented access (particularly with the famously cantankerous Westerberg), and his reporting gives their hard-luck tales chilling depth: The latter part of Bob Stinson’s short life, and the death of his son, is beyond heartbreaking; how Stinson’s brother Tommy and Westerberg repeat their own mistakes, echoing the dramas of countless dysfunctional families, is nearly as rough. It certainly makes the band’s underdog triumphs feel earned. What Mehr has a harder time capturing are the songs – ache and desperation channelled through, in Westerberg’s words, “bubblegum garage music sung by a guy who couldn’t sing”. It’s a typical understatement. But “Answering Machine”, “I Will Dare”, “Bastards of Young”, “Here Comes a Regular” (recorded in a dark studio with colleagues “blinking back tears”) and many more document what the fuss is about. This detailed backstory makes them burn anew. [W.H.]
Ben Ratliff, ‘Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty’
Now that seemingly every record ever made is just a couple of clicks away, how do we process it all? In his incisive new essay collection, Every Song Ever, New York Times critic Ben Ratliff finds one way: by locating common ground among artists as different as Black Sabbath and Mozart. Ratliff draws up idiosyncratic playlists and focuses on shared traits like loudness and repetition. Thanks to Ratliff’s vast knowledge, what could have been a dry academic exercise is more like a trip into the world’s coolest record store. [D.B.]
Lita Ford, ‘Living Like a Runaway’
By the time she was 20, Lita Ford had gotten crabs from Dee Dee Ramone, toured the world with all-female punks the Runaways, and got her nose broken by a belt-buckle-wielding woman in a fight. Ford’s fearless Living Like a Runaway is a vivid account of life as “the one-and-only guitar-playing rocker chick who could shred like I did”. Personal struggles mount: Exploitative Svengali Kim Fowley calls the band “dogs”, and Ford battles music-biz chauvinism and estrangement from her kids. It’s a fast-paced read – and, at its best, an inspiring one. [A.L.]
Juan F. Thompson, ‘Stories I Tell Myself’
Juan Thompson spent his earliest years playing under the table while his legendary father, Hunter, held court at the Hotel Jerome Bar in Aspen, Colorado. After Hunter committed suicide in 2005, his outlaw myth only grew. But the idolisation didn’t sit well with his only child. “I love my dad, but that doesn’t mean I was blind to his shortcomings,” says Juan. Now, at 51, he’s written Stories I Tell Myself, a book that sheds light on Hunter’s life from a fresh, intimate perspective.
Juan, who lives in Denver and has a successful career in IT, follows Hunter from upstart Louisville bad boy to fame at Rolling Stone to later years as his mind and body began to fail him. “Hunter would have appreciated the book,” says Paul Scanlon, a longtime Rolling Stone editor. “He knew he was trapped by the parody of himself.”
The image that emerges isn’t that of a hero or a villain but what Juan calls “a mix”. There are some bizarre moments; as a boy, he was sent by his parents on a boating trip with Jimmy Buffett so he wouldn’t be around for their fights. Juan and Hunter’s relationship improved as Juan built a stable family life for himself, and working on his own book gave him a new appreciation for his dad’s genius. “When he got something right – when it flowed, when it hit the target – he was so happy,” Juan says. “I can better understand that now.” [E.G-P.]
Steven Hyden, ‘Your Favorite Band is Killing Me’
Got beef? In his highly entertaining new book, Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life, Steven Hyden – of the late sports-and-culture site Grantland – analyses classic standoffs with a sportscaster’s breathlessness: Beatles vs. Stones, Biggie vs. Tupac, Kanye vs. Taylor. His impulse is less to pick winners than to figure out why we care. “It’s about sympathising with a particular worldview represented by an artist over a different worldview represented by an ‘opposing’ artist,” Hyden writes. “You are what you love – and also what you choose not to love.”
The historical data is fun to sift through – did Scott Stapp really challenge Fred Durst to a charity boxing match? – and Hyden’s adjudication is fast and furious. “The Black Keys are successful, but the White Stripes are legendary,” he writes. It’s also nice that he has personal skin in the game. The Prince vs. Michael Jackson chapter tilts into an exploration of Hyden’s high school social struggles and the myth of geekiness, while the Miley Cyrus-Sinéad O’Connor conflict becomes a meditation on ageing in pop’s cult of youth. Whatever side you take in these endless debates, Hyden’s a dude worth arguing with. [W.H.]
Jesse Jarnow, ‘Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America’
Jesse Jarnow’s fascinating new book, Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, explores what he calls “a vast and learned psychonautical diaspora” – the social and physical world shaped by drugs like LSD, DMT, peyote, MDMA and mushrooms. At the centre of the story is the freewheeling economy that grew up around the Grateful Dead and quickly trickled down to the “hip capitalism” of Phish, Dave Matthews and jamfests across the country. Jarnow describes how echoes of head culture have touched various corners of America’s past and present, from New York’s graffiti scene to frat boys to the founders of Google. Jarnow, who published a book about Yo La Tengo in 2012, touches on pop-culture offshoots from Freaks and Geeks to Miley Cyrus, while perspectively probing “the apolitical morass of head politics”. He notes that although acid use is down as a high school ritual, it’s thriving as a high-end recreation – “a rarefied space”, he writes with some ambiguity, “for rarefied people”. [J.D.]
Alan Light, ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?: A Biography”
This engaging biography of the troubled soul heroine serves as a companion to the 2015 Netflix documentary of the same title. Journalist Alan Light chronicles the life of a civil-rights icon who “grudgingly accepted the popular nickname ‘the High Priestess of Soul’ “. Simone’s mental-health struggles led to violent episodes (she brought bodyguards to shows to protect fans from her), and a tragic end. But as Light shows, her intensity fuelled music that reflected and transformed the volatile America of her times. [J.D.]
James McBride, ‘Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul’
Early in “kill ’em and leave”, James McBride writes that “the James Brown story is not about James Brown. It’s about who’s getting paid, whose interest is involved, who can squeeze the estate and black history for more. . . . It’s reflective of the sad state of the American popular emporium these days, where for the last decade talent shows judged by stars whose names we’ll forget five minutes past breakfast decide who has ‘talent’.”
That’s the ramp-up of a formidable freestyle book that isn’t straight biography (for that, see RJ Smith’s vivid 2012 The One) but a mix of history, street-level investigative reporting, hagiography, Deep South sociology, music criticism, memoir and some fiery preaching. McBride is a National Book Award-winning author (The Color of Water, The Good Lord Bird) and jazz saxophonist who thinks deeply about race and art. The man blows beautiful sentences that don’t shun punchlines; even those put off by his old-school pop perspective should find plenty to amen.
Especially rich are McBride’s profiles of Brown’s family and intimates: the singer’s loyal first wife and lifelong friend, Velma; the self-proclaimed cousin CR, who reveals Brown’s mysterious family tree to McBride one night in a backwoods shack; and Brown’s trusted and fastidious white accountant, David Cannon, whose career was crushed in the shit-show of contesting interests following the Godfather’s passing in 2006.
It’s this aftermath that animates much of McBride’s reporting, and to an extent the book, from the scenes of Michael Jackson’s overnight with the dead singer in an Augusta, Georgia, funeral home; to the outrageous battle over Brown’s estate, earmarked in his will for poor Southern schoolchildren but eviscerated in the legal fray from an estimated $100 million to less than $5 million, by one account. Ultimately, McBride tells a story of a musician who not only changed pop worldwide but who was an icon of black self-determination – a man whose fight against America’s racist heritage defined his life and, remarkably, his death. [W.H.]
Philip Norman, ‘Paul McCartney: The Life’
The Beatles must be the most chronicled musical act in history, as Philip Norman well knows: His outstanding Shout!, published in 1981, was among the first serious rock-band biographies, and his massive John Lennon: The Life, from 2008, may be the most comprehensive book on its subject. Its new companion bio, Paul McCartney: The Life, mirrors that achievement over 800-plus pages with meticulous detail. Norman traces Macca’s family tree back to the 1800s. We see the wallpaper patterns in his childhood home, and the Bakelite headphones Jim McCartney wired through the floorboards so Paul could listen to the living-room radio console from his upstairs bedroom. You can even smell the sweat, rat shit and basement mould in the Cavern Club.
In the late Seventies, around the time McCartney released his sentimental waltz “Mull of Kintyre” with Wings, Norman wrote a satirical poem regarding the musician’s post-Beatles output in London’s high-profile Sunday Times Magazine, addressing him with the lines “O, deified scouse with unmusical spouse/For the clichés and cloy you unload.” Even Macca, who, to Norman’s surprise, agreed to give him “tacit approval” without directly participating, apparently had to concede that the guy is a Beatles scholar to reckon with.
The Beatles’ startlingly brief career is recounted expertly; Norman knows his facts, sometimes to a fault. But while his reporting on business arrangements and relationships can occasionally get thick, the mountains of data are generally transformed into vivid storytelling.
There are no major new revelations here, and the backstory on recent McCartney LPs like New and Kisses on the Bottom – not to mention collaborations with Kanye West, Rihanna and the surviving Nirvana members – is granted just three paragraphs.
In his seventies, Sir Paul is still outpacing those trying to tell his story. Nevertheless, Norman gets as close as anyone has yet. [W.H.]
Barney Hoskyns, ‘Small Town Talk’
On a charmed night in August 1969, residents of tiny Woodstock, New York, had the choice of seeing Van Morrison or blues great Johnny Winter, who were both in town performing at intimate venues. If that wasn’t enough entertainment, Jimi Hendrix was a few blocks away, holed up in a converted Methodist church workshopping the rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” he’d make legendary just weeks later, 100 kilometres down the road at Max Yasgur’s farm.
Veteran music journalist Barney Hoskyns’ fascinating new history of Woodstock, Small Town Talk, explores one of rock’s most mythic settings, drawing on interviews with dozens of residents and visitors, including Morrison, the Band, Todd Rundgren, Patti Smith and Bonnie Raitt, as well as memories from his own years living there during the Nineties. Hoskyns, who covered some of this ground in his 1993 biography of the Band, Across the Great Divide, details Bob Dylan’s legendary work at Big Pink with the Band, and offers a complex characterisation of Dylan’s mercurial manager Albert Grossman, de facto mayor of the local counterculture. The book also shows how the area’s idyllic energy was hard to maintain in a cloistered scene where, according to Band producer John Simon, “everybody was fucking everybody else”.
Hoskyns writes that Woodstock “has become a kind of themed village of Sixties hippie life”, and it’s that loving honesty that helps him pin down the knotty reality behind the tie-dyed myth. [J.D.]
Mark Binelli, ‘Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ All-Time Greatest Hits’
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ 1956 R&B classic “I Put a Spell on You” still stands as one of rock & roll’s spookiest-sounding hits, recorded by a performer who opened his show by being brought onstage in a coffin. Hawkins’ private life was just as colourful – among other tales, he boasted that he had fathered dozens of children. While many of his boasts were half-truths at best, author (and Rolling Stone contributing editor) Mark Binelli decided to treat them as fact in Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ All-Time Greatest Hits, a novel based on the mercurial singer’s life. “My mantra became, ‘What if it were all true?’ ” says Binelli. “I wanted to take this sort of cartoonish figure and turn him around a little bit, assume he had lots of depth, and see where it goes.”
Binelli’s book is half-biography, half-fiction, and its best parts combine both into impressionistic imaginings of Hawkins’ bizarre life, adding emotional complexity to the shock-rock cult-fave. The story follows Jalacy Hawkins’ life from his Cleveland youth to his World War II service, to fleeting success and a long decline. Binelli builds on real events, such as Hawkins’ Fifties R&B package tours, and imagines some events of his own, including a meeting with Elvis, who quizzes Hawkins about black magic.
Hawkins never had another U.S. hit like “I Put a Spell on You”, and he spent time in prison after being found with a 15-year-old girl (and drugs) in a hotel room. In his final years, he drank heavily and churned through wives, resentful of his lauded rock & roll peers. But Binelli makes him sympathetic. As Hawkins told an interviewer, “I wish I could be who I was before I was me.” [P.D.]
John Doe, ‘Under the Big Black Sun: a Personal History of L.A. Punk’
American punk may have been born in New York, but it came of age in L.A., where it reinvented itself – like everyone does in California. Queerer, freakier and rootsier than its East Coast counterpart, the West Coast scene was more playful and, in some ways, more dangerous. “The L.A. scene was crazier,” says John Doe, who co-founded the groundbreaking band X. “New York was darker; it was inspired by the Velvet Underground and art galleries. L.A. came from automobiles… from beer and speed, and ‘let’s get on the fucking highway and drive’.”
These are take-aways from Under the Big Black Sun, a set of vivid personal essays curated by Doe with writer Tom DeSavia; its contributors include Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey of the Go-Go’s, Exene Cervenka, Henry Rollins and other forebears. It’s not the first corrective to punk scholarship’s New York-London bias (see We’ve Got the Neutron Bomb, by Marc Spitz with Brendan Mullen). But Doe’s book is the most artist-centred look yet at a scene that helped define the future of a music whose rallying cry was “no future”.
There’s plenty of drugs and debauchery. “As dedicated bohemians, it was practically our duty to seek and find the other side of consciousness,” Doe maintains, while Wiedlin and writer Pleasant Gehman wax nostalgic on BDSM adventures. But Caffey’s unpacking of her songwriting process is equally compelling; ditto the spirit of camaraderie many writers cite. Dope, death, knucklehead “fans” and money (or lack thereof) took the predictable tolls. But Under the Big Black Sun is ultimately about punk as tribal continuum. Its most poignant passage might be Minutemen bassist Mike Watt’s account of his final jam with comrade D. Boon, who died in 1985 at 27: a cover of “See No Evil”, by New York punk avatars Television, played in North Carolina with punk-inspired tourmates R.E.M. “Damn if me and D. Boon weren’t both on guitar,” Watt writes, “laughing at the whole trip.” [W.H.]