Reading About Music
New books on rock, jazz and country
The Bee Gees: A Biography (Da Capo), by David N. Meyer
David Meyer has a hard task: arguing for the Bee Gees against 45 years of negative rock criticism, a disco backlash and the group’s own ridiculous sartorial proclivities. Writing with humor crossing at times into glibness, Meyer reminds skeptical readers that everyone on the planet (over age 15) knows a few Bee Gees tunes, therefore, there must be something to them. The author recounts a story of family-based perseverance and the emersion of the brothers Gibb in old-school ideas of entertainment, even as they picked up a succession of trends from their own time—from lush post-Beatles pop through disco. Mostly, he makes his point: great singers, if terrible dressers, the Bee Gees had a way with melodies drenched in aching sadness and the alienation of working class kids struggling to break in.
The Chronicle of Jazz (Oxford University Press), by Mervyn Cooke
Marshaling perceptive text and neatly arrayed litanies of information with telling visuals, The Chronicle of Jazz sets out to fulfill the promise of its title. Author Mervyn Cooke, a music professor at the University of Nottingham, summarizes the events and releases year by year from the ragtime era through 2009. Opinionated and knowledgeable, Cooke identifies the major artists, trends and albums, identifying the creative tension of pop and art, traditionalism and the avant-garde. He writes from a European perspective, keen to highlight jazz’s trans-Atlantic connections from Dvorak’s call to create from African American folk traditions through the Hot Club of Paris and current generations of European players.
The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture (Oxford
University Press), by Michael J. Kramer
Michael Kramer sets up a useful tale of two cities—San Francisco and Saigon—as a way to understand the ’60s counterculture. California was a youth culture Mecca while Vietnam was an involuntary destination for many youth. As the Northwestern University American Studies professor readily admits, those places weren’t all there was to the ’60s, but the problem with Republic of Rock isn’t the scale of its two-city model as much as the scope of its thesis. Kramer wants to show that rock shaped “a counterculture defined by issues of citizenship.” And yet, his “federation of participants” could better be described as a loose confederation—or maybe an array of warring factions. Kramer invests heavily in the Woodstock myth and never mentions Charles Manson, wannabe rock star and murderous sectarian, or that ’60s rock nurtured Ted Nugent as well as The MC5. It’s as easy to trace the decline of citizenship into apathy after the ’60s as to extol its legacy of activism, and easier still to highlight the decline of unions and class solidarity in the wake of the counterculture’s “hip” consumerism.
Keith Richards on Keith Richards: Interviews and Encounters (Chicago Review
Press), edited by Sean Egan
The first surprising thing about Keith Richards? He’s still alive. After that, some will be startled to learn that he’s remarkably well read, cogent, emotionally warm and unpretentious. And all of this comes through in this collection of interviews with the Rolling Stones’ guitarist conducted by various writers from 1964 through 2011. Keith Richards on Keith Richards reveals a man able to maintain his outlaw image because it reflects reality. While spurning banality, Richards is not above embroidering a good story from the yarn at hand when he insists that producer Andrew Loog Oldham locked him and Mick Jagger in a room until they finished a song.
Sweet Dreams: The World of Patsy Cline (University of Illinois Press), ed. By
Warren R. Hofstra
Patsy Cline is a legend in country music and her early death (1963) allowed all parties to use the legend to their own ends. This essay collection aims to deflate some of those interpretations, including the pop-oriented Cline as exemplar of “authentic Americana.” Especially interesting is Kristine M. McCusker’s dissection of Cline as feminist pathfinder. By closely reading country music fan magazines of Cline’s time, McCusker reconstructs the world as the singer experienced it rather than the one imposed on her posthumously. Cline was part of larger trends in country entertainment that involved shifting roles for women and opportunities for many other “girl singers” in an evolving country music industry with an increasingly middle-class audience. The picture that emerges is more nuanced, more complex and real.
Roger Waters: The Man Behind the Wall (Backbeat Books), by Dave Thompson
Roger Waters became Pink Floyd’s main man, and as he gained control over every aspect of the band, their music gradually shrank into gloom and cold. Dave Thompson’s sympathetic yet unflinchingly critical biography identifies Waters as a conflicted man, a teenage rebel who played well within the system, racked in adulthood by the polar allures of the familiar and the adventurous. The brilliance of Pink Floyd’s founder, Syd Barrett, eclipsed Waters, but Barrett sank into madness and Waters soldiered on. Seldom described as best mates, the band eventually became a job with Waters as boss. Thompson sketches in the surrounding cultural landscape with witty strokes.