Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession – Greil Marcus (1991)

Not only is Greil Marcus arguably the best music critic and essayist of our time, but the timing of his engagingly pithy, humorous, and insightful Dead Elvis acts as the last and comprehensive word on a phenomenon that once dominated our culture, but has since faded from memory. Published in 1991 when Elvis Presley’s impact on America’s psyche was still glaringly apparent, and his cultural resurrection (countless “Elvis is Alive sightings” notwithstanding) ubiquitous, the book is a reflection on not only Presley’s seismic effect on our sexual, racial, societal, and political construct but how our nation defined and redefined him.

The Elvis of Dead Elvis is legion, and Marcus covers its strange journey through questionable biography and reimagined lore, cleverly winding his way through the years after his death in 1977 into the facets of the fallen King’s immense shadow, one that was equally disdained as worshipped. And while in such an undertaking an author could get lost in the symbol of Elvis over his vast catalog from rockabilly to gospel to schlock pop, Marcus’s prose truly sings is his passion for the music.  

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On Michael Jackson – Margo Jefferson (2006)

Pulitzer Prize winning author, essayist and professor, Margo Jefferson, who reviewed music and pop culture for 23 years at The New York Times, takes a pass at one of the most controversial and celebrated figures in popular music: the self-anointed King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Published only a couple of years before Jackson’s untimely death in 2009, the many faces and facets of his complicated aura and story are given in-depth deconstruction from personality to persona, his place in the African American experience – both musically and publicly – and the legacy of his entire canon, from the enormous achievements of the Jackson 5 to his spectacularly successful solo career.

Jefferson pulls no punches while eschewing sensationalism and humanizing a very dehumanized figure placed in the middle to later stages of the American Century. On Michael Jackson frames its subject as our equally welcomed as rejected freakshow, and his uneasy comfort within that vortex. Jefferson uses this concise uncovering of Jackson as pop star and celebrity/racial archetype to guide us through the horrifying accusations of child molestation, legal troubles, tabloid exploitation, and eventual defiance.

Having read several books on Jackson, this one stands above the rest for its brevity, bravery, and mindful approach, challenging readers to reconsider, recognize, and, best of all, understand the underlying chaos – both self-inflicted and socially infiltrated – that made Michael Jackson who he was and what he would become.

Like any celebrity, Jackson is not merely a two-dimensional headline but a complicated three-dimensional human, and it is within this conflict that Jefferson finds where they ultimately meet. 

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Livin’ Just to Find Emotion: Journey and the Story of American Rock – David Hamilton Golland (2024)

Formed from the remnants of the original Santana band that played a legendary set at Woodstock in 1969, Journey began as a progressive rock act with jazz and blues undertones led by teen guitar prodigy Neal Schon and organ player and main vocalist Gregg Rolie. Author David Hamilton Golland traces the winding road the group took as it morphed into a multi-platinum worldwide smash that dominated the music charts in the 1980s, survived multiple lineup changes that threatened to doom the act forever, then made an unlikely resurrection to become an American institution and thriving concert draw 50 years after its first shows.

Golland’s main thesis is that Journey was a white group that took Black music styles and successfully incorporated them into a rock pop amalgamation that was eventually embraced by eager white audiences looking for something fresh and exciting as the 1970s came to an end. The addition of powerhouse white-soul singer Steve Perry is indeed the crucial moment in the Journey story, and the string of hit songs that Perry, an avowed fan of Sam Cooke and other R&B singers of the 1960s, wrote, co-wrote, and sang lends credence to Golland’s central theme.

Perry’s years of triumph are only part of the Journey story; Golland shows how the group persevered after his departure, with unknown singer Arnel Pineda, who stepped into Perry’s shoes to not only save the group but help usher in an unexpected Journey renaissance – the hit, “Don’t Stop Believing” becoming a cultural touchstone, as did Journey become icons whose long list of hit songs formed the soundtrack of the lives of multiple generations.

Well-paced, exhaustively researched, with in-depth analysis of the Journey catalog and the background stories of various key members of the group, Livin’ Just to Find Emotion is a great read for any fan of classic rock and those who like an epic tale of triumph, tribulation, and redemption.

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Tonechaser – Steve Rosen (2022)

Steve Rosen, longtime music journalist with a concentration on prying secrets from guitarists across the generations from Pete Townshend to Richie Blackmore and beyond for Guitar World and Guitar Player, had the good fortune of gaining the confidence of a young Eddie Van Halen at the beginning of his ascent as one of the most important musical innovators in the history of rock. Tonechaser (the title taken from how Van Halen defined his search for the perfect sound from handmade guitars to colossal amplification) is a memoir of Rosen’s days and nights speaking and hanging with the man he affectionately calls Edward throughout.

Rosen’s gushing descriptions of Van Halen sitting in his living room playing vintage Les Pauls, noodling in the studio, and even jamming with him will be a treat for true fans, but where the book really soars is the guitarist’s agonizingly open conversations with the author on life, love, insecurities, his deepest feelings about his Van Halen bandmates, specifically his relationship with his brother, drummer Alex, and the primacy of his dad, who dies during the telling.

The taped interviews that make up Tonechaser (much of it a revelation even to Rosen) fills the text with the secrets of a musical pioneer, who changed the instrument for evermore, but they also reveal an artist grappling with originality, creative compromise, and an obsession to discover new sounds to share with the world. And, at its core, the book is a genuinely touching tale of friendship in the unpredictable swirl of rock fame.   

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Madonna: A Rebel Life – Mary Gabriel (2023)

Author Mary Gabriel leaves no stone unturned in providing an exhaustive and lengthy narrative of Madonna Louise Ciccone’s life, never forgetting to place the origins, idiosyncrasies, and passions of the woman-as-artist first. Aptly titled, Madonna: A Rebel Life presents a singular figure in pop culture that hurdled barriers and leaned into social and gender issues from sexual identity, personal autonomy, and motherhood, as she remained relevant in a youth-oriented business by growing old defiantly, if not gracefully.

The highlight of the book is Madonna’s New York City days of the late 1970s into the very early months of a decade she would come to own – the eighties, when she embraced the city’s burgeoning artistic gay culture and its colorfully enigmatic figures, mostly its influence on fashion, music, and dance, and how she never abandoned the lessons she learned from it. Later, when most of the world shied from the responsibility of confronting the toll of AIDS on that community and beyond, she was an active voice for its victims and a virulent opponent of its stigmas.

Gabriel also balances Madonna’s personal life – her loves, failed marriages, and the dramatic on again/off again connection with her beloved brother, Chris, who was a seminal figure in her entourage for years, helping her to navigate her travails and successes in music video and film worlds, until their rift later in her career. 

It took this large and extensive a volume to remind me, and I lived through all of it, of the miraculously unrivaled popularity of Madonna’s music and performances lasting long after her staunchest competitors from Michael Jackson to Prince had faded into their niches.     

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There Was Nothing You Could Do: Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” and the End of the Heartland – Steven Hyden (2024)

One of my favorite music writers, Steven Hyden, has once again taken a subject that you think you understood and turned it upside down to expose its hidden and most lasting attributes. This time it is the inimitable figure of Bruce Springsteen and his gargantuan 1984 album, Born in the U.S.A., its ensuing tour, and the launching of “heartland rock.” In place of a blow by blow of the album’s composing and recording, Hyden dissects its impact in the greater context of mid-1980s pop culture, politics, media, and social issues that Springsteen’s music reflected and deflected.

The arc of the book (and its subject) is an artist’s journey to remain tethered to the commitment of a spiritual center for his audience, his country, his idiom, and an embrace and expression of “community” that still evades us today. For Springsteen, the making and touring of Born in the U.S.A. arrived as the culmination of his ascent to superstardom with tales of youthful rebellion, broken dreams, apathetic adulthood and finding hope in a forlorn construct.

Mostly, There Was Nothing You Could Do is a damn fun read. Hyden’s conversational style balances his preternatural knack for historical perspectives and his endearing personal anecdotes bring the reader deeper into his analysis. Hell, it was no less a Herculean feat to convince me to reconsider an album that through incessant play drove me to near madness during my summer working at a record store in 1985. Stripped of all its mythos and cultural resonance, Born in the U.S.A. really is a fine rock and roll statement from a master.

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Scattershot – Life, Music, Elton & Me – Bernie Taupin (2023)

More than anyone in my youth, Bernie Taupin’s lyrics for Elton John’s brilliant run in the 1970s made me want to be a writer. The evocative expressions, three-dimensional characters, and conflicted stories covering the gamut of tragedy to comedy was a masterclass for an impressionable mind. It led me to want to discover more songs and artists that tread similar paths, so when I’d heard Taupin had a memoir in the works, I was more than excited.

Scattershot is not merely a memoir. In fact, it is less about Taupin as lyricist, co-songwriter, silent talent behind the pop throne, and more about his exploits navigating a strive for fame and his incredible run achieving and enduring it. The book details the ups and downs through his experiences in love and loss, laughter and tears, the exquisite fun of excess into terrible bouts with drugs, alcohol, lost loves, and, finally, survival and redemption.

At first, this disappointed me. I wanted to know more “behind the songs” stuff – you know, the process and craft that I am sure no one else would care to read (hence Scattershot). However, Taupin does provide (between all the hijinks and adventures in L.A., England, France, Mexico, the Caribbean, etc.) the odd bauble. Like, um, there is a fourth verse to “Daniel” that explains the whole thing? But then I realized, the real-life encounters, exotic locales, and hard-to-believe unfolding dramas reflect much of what made me love Bernie in the first place: his writing. The man is an observer, a social reporter of the mind and emotions of the human condition. He places these experiences, these outsized personalities inside his songs.     

Scattershot is aptly named as he finds a center in a whirlwind life and beautifully describes each layer. And that is the true payoff of this book – it is as stunningly written as a fan of his songwriting would hope. Funny. Sad. Insightful. A lasting memory of his travels within and without. 

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60 Songs That Explain the ‘90s – Rob Harvilla (2023)

I adored this book. 60 Songs That Explain the ‘90s is – to say the very least – a comprehensive ride through the 1990s musical landscape, which the author reminds us on its cover handles commentary for the over 60 songs promised. Rob Harvilla, whose work has appeared in Spin, The Village Voice, and more recently the pop culture online zine the Ringer, pours his heart into the time that framed him as a young man, a journalist, a husband, and a dad. The joyous expression of his love and even minor disdain for the songs that defined his generation make for compelling reading. His passion for this period is infectious and recalls many of its most important musical and cultural expressions.

The book flows quickly through styles and periods, genres and images from chaos-agents to sell-outs, influential women rockers to adversaries, flukes, comebacks, myths, and more. Through each, the songs and the artists behind them come alive as Harvilla deconstructs the very essence of what made them crucial to a decade that careened from one fad to another with tongue-cheek ease. 

Harvilla’s paragraphs on the imprint and import of Kurt Cobain and unabashed esteem of Céline Dion alone are worth the price of admission. These are just two of the polar aspects of the music covered in 60 Songs That Explain the ‘90s that enhance the trek with humor and pathos aplenty, for it is his voice that carries the day. You never feel as though he is not in there swinging with each comment, artist and tune. A true heart-on-the-sleeve effort that I always appreciate with this type of project.  

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Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound – Andrea Swensson (2017)

Another full disclosure: I have gotten to know author, journalist, broadcaster Andrea Swensson rather well in the past year (as I am currently writing a book about Prince and the Revolution). Andrea is one of the preeminent Prince scholars – she even spent time at Paisley Park with the man – and found time between writing liner notes for yet another Prince legacy box set to whisk me around Minneapolis this past summer touring all the most important places that created one of the great artists of the latter half of the twentieth century. But first, for me, there was Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound – the most important and comprehensive study of the music, culture, and import of the thriving and influential Minneapolis scene, which stakes a high place in the pantheon of popular music.

Swensson, also a music journalist, radio host, and podcaster, is a proud native of the Twin Cities and leads the reader on a similar tour through the neighborhoods, inside the clubs, and, most importantly, out on the streets of a growing American city through a long journey from jazz, blues, funk, soul, and rock. Lost figures – Black and white – bind together to form a distinctive sound and style that sets the world aflame in the 1980s, but has its deepest roots in each phase of its evolution.

However, it is in the city’s cultural history, specifically its Black and Jewish lower middle-class neighborhoods, where the true art blossomed and pulsed with revolution and extermination, fighting systemic racism, a lack of exposure, and a schizophrenic amalgam of musical aspirations clashing and inspiring a movement. Swensson sets the scenes, puts us in the middle of times that exploded myths and forged new paths.

Got to Be Something Here brims with atmosphere, and there was and is indeed something there worth exploring and celebrating.  

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Silhouettes and Shadows: The Secret History of David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) – Adam Steiner (2023)

Secret history? Sign me up. Silhouettes and Shadows: The Secret History of David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) delivers. Adam Steiner provides historical, political, sexual, and cultural context to one of David Bowie’s most underrated and forgotten albums. Crammed between his experimental Berlin triptych (“Heroes,” LowStation to Station) and his pop sensation coming out (Sell out?), Let’s DanceScary Monsters is Bowie’s grand pivot, the gift to and harangue of the emerging New Romantics period he had helped create and influence like no other.

Entering the 1980s out of his most prolific and shape-shifting era of the 1970s, Bowie is on-point in his lyrical and aural commentary, as Steiner illustrates with each track – the concept of hyper-change, fears, and regrets of wasted youth and uncertain future bursts from every beat and note. Splitting up the author’s deeply nuanced narratives are creative, poetic companion pieces and revealing quotations that add to the uncovering mystery.

Silhouettes and Shadows stands as a needed reflection point in the growing catalog of Bowie books, especially since his death in 2016. It bridges the gaps of his many personas with a portrait of an artist in constant flux who knows where he has been and where he might go.

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