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Seven Great Books About Rock and Roll (In No Particular Order)

1. Crazy From the Heat by David Lee Roth


This book is as good as you want it to be and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that David Lee Roth wrote every word of it (no ghostwriters here, pure Roth). I’m not even sure if there was an editor involved, actually. David Lee Roth takes the chronological approach, giving equal time to Van Halen’s earliest days, their 80s success, and his post-Van Halen, big band days. Particularly interesting is David’s illumination of some of the vocal techniques involved in the production of those early Van Halen records (hamburgers and marijuana cigarettes). This book is a treasured gift from a dear friend.

2. Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland by John Perry.


I read this in like two days. What a great book. Author John Perry was a young eyewitness to many of Jimi’s London gigs; most of the info here is culled from personal memories and observations, as well as discussions with all the people involved. Perry’s style is simple and always focused on the music. The book is divided into seven sections, including a thorough discussion of the instrumentation involved, a detailed track by track review of the album; even a section about the cover. Perry writes from a musician’s point of view, but the most interesting lines to me are about the initial reaction of the American critical press to Jimi Hendrix:

“Behind a whole raft of complaints about Hendrix’s undignified performance and his irritating failure to fit existing critical categories for black performers, lay the essential point that his songs mysteriously failed to punish the audience for being white. Hendrix didn’t play the wounded, angry black man, or the dignified bearer of oppression; he didn’t provide white critics with a handy receptacle for their guilt. They didn’t know quite what role he fulfilled.”

I got this for fifty cents at the Friends of the Library Sale.

3. Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad.


Your life is probably nothing like any of the sort-of-famous indie bands covered here, unless you basically live in a van. I’m actually not even really sure if this qualifies as a great book. This book is actually just “okay.” Chances are, if you’re a fan of Sonic Youth, Ian McKaye, Dinosaur Jr, or Hüsker Dü you probably know most of this stuff already, or at least the stuff that’s interesting. And if you’re a fan of Beat Happening, well, there you go. This book has a whole chapter on Beat Happening. Actually, if you’re really interested in the whole indie rock thing, 1991: The Year Punk Broke is a much better document. But here I go comparing apples to oranges. I bought Our Band Could Be Your Life at Barnes & Noble for like three or four dollars.

4. Chronicles, Volume 1 by Bob Dylan


It took me a long time to get through this. Let me clarify: I read this in large, fifty page chunks, put it down, picked it up again months later. Dylan’s style is discursive and rambling; he elliptically deconstructs his own myth, picking away at the bits of identity he picked off of other musicians and poets on his way to fame. The book never really gets to that fame–to be clear, it discusses the after-effects of Dylan’s fame in detail: the obsessive fans who showed up at his home unannounced, the bewildering pressure to deliver some kind of messianic answer, the expectations to deliver a specific kind of record–but Chronicles spends most of its pages tracing and retracing Dylan’s youth in Minnesota and his days sleeping on friends’ couches in New York City. Will the second and third volumes ever come out? Who knows with this guy. This book was given to me by my cousin for Christmas a few years ago.

*Also recommended: Anthony Scaduto’s biography Bob Dylan.

5 . Transformer by Victor Bockris


Lou Reed is a weirdo, and Victor Bockris wants you to know about it. Starting with Reed’s Long Island youth (complete with electro-shock therapy), Bockris’s biography covers pretty much everything right up through the Velvet Underground’s early nineties reunion: Reeds early apprenticeship in the Brill Building, the nascent days of the VU (plenty of Warhol anecdotes, of course), punk rock, several doomed romances, his years living with a transvestite, his karate skills, his yoga skills, and his all-bran diet, and of course, the drugs. Oh the drugs. Also, Reed’s solo career is also examined (including plenty of material from guitar god Bob Quine). Bockris seems to feel Magic and Loss is something of a watershed moment in modern rock (anyone who accidentally bought this album knows otherwise).

Bockris’s book employs a bitchy, dishy tone, rife with catty comments from everyone whoever worked with Reed: apparently Lou was a total asshole. Bockris reprints some painful comments (e.g. Reed on Springsteen, 1975: “Isn’t Springsteen over the hill?”); the most awkward moment comes in the book’s appendix, in a transcript of a meeting Bockris arranged between Reed and William Burroughs. Bad idea (Reed can’t remember the name of “that book you published”–Naked Lunch). I can’t remember, but I think I got this for like three or four bucks at Barnes & Noble.

6. Hammer of the Gods by Stephen Davis


“Here’s a red snapper for your red snapper!”

Intrigued? You should be! Burroughs makes a cameo here as well.

I don’t own this one. I read the good bits in high school though.

7. Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons by Ben Fong-Torres


Some jackass made a movie about Gram Parsons’ life a few years ago; I think Johnny Knoxville played Parsons. I didn’t see it, but I’m sure this book is way better. Rolling Stone alum Ben Fong-Torres clearly appreciates Parsons as not only the influential icon that he’s generally recognized as, but also as a truly gifted songwriter. Parsons’ early days in Winterhaven, Waycross, and Jacksonville (he attended the Bolles School) are scrutinized along with his brief stint at Harvard, his time in the Byrds and his days partying with the Rolling Stones in California hippy mansions. Also, another appearance by William Burroughs, who recommended a treatment to help kick the heroin. Parsons’ infamous death in the California desert is also put under the lens, right down to a time-line if I remember correctly. Good stuff. My uncle lent me this book, and yes, I returned it to him. So there.