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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Parachute Women – Marianne Faithful, Marsha Hunt, Bianca Jagger Anita Pallenberg, and the Women Behind the Rolling Stones – Elizabeth Winder(2023)

First and foremost, Parachute Women is a gorgeously written work; every paragraph brims with boldly worded visual descriptions of hippy fashion, psychedelic comportment, and underground psychological expression with pure rock and roll spirit. Author Elizabeth Winder’s wonderfully evocative travelog through the hoary subculture and glitzy celebrity romps of the long-haired, drug-addled nouveau riche and the 1960s into the seventies youth movements simultaneously flips its macho machinations on its head. This is a story of not the women behind the Rolling Stones in their most prolific and powerfully influential period, but leaders in their behavior, brand, and image.

Parachute Women is a revelation to those of us, namely me, who have been fed a filtered version of these well-worn tales over the years – even if powerful female figures like the enigmatic train-wreck sexual firebrand of Anita Pallenberg bursts from previous volumes on the band’s history. The author deftly eschews rehashing the usual stories of drug busts and bad-boy behavior to recast previously celebrated rebel figures of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger as cultural neophytes groping for radical fulcrums for which to build their outlaw bona fides.

Pallenberg rightly gets top billing as she radically altered the Stones paradigm while bedding three of its key members, introducing drugs, fashion, and a worldly witchy countenance to their otherwise middle-class attitudes, which Winder reminds us never really faded throughout their reign as “the greatest rock and roll band in the world.” Although, it is in the fragile yet indefatigable Marianne Faithful that the strands of this tale find its pathos. She gets a fair review as a genuine alter ego of Jagger in their “it couple” period bounding around Swinging London, in which her impish teenage freestyling reflects badly on the posturing of her ego-driven man.

This is a must read for those of us who gorge on Rolling Stones ephemera with a true exploration of strong women who endured their oppressive if not brilliantly devised ascent as a major force in rock’s firmament.   

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Lou Reed – The King of New York – Will Hermes (2023)

For my money, Will Hermes penned one of the finest books written about music, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, which I reviewed here in 2012, and by far the finest one on New York’s rich late seventies influence on modern popular music. So, it makes sense he would tackle the oracle of New York in Lou Reed, and as imagined, he hit it out of the park.

First off, full disclosure, I knew Hermes had been working on this book for a while. Years ago, he’d reached out for contacts of insiders I had interviewed that dovetailed with Reed’s studio history, so from that point on I was busting to read this. Hermes ability to mine research and bring interviews to life is unparalleled, but what makes Lou Reed – The King of New York sing is his ability to describe and deconstruct Reed’s eclectic artistry, his mercurial nature, and his surly, spastic, intensely passionate life within and beyond the music. 

Having written my own book on a difficult subject in Warren Zevon, my heart goes out to Hermes, who agilely tightropes very delicate subjects here, from mental illness, drug addiction, sexual identity, domestic violence, art versus commerce, and music business ugliness that found Reed at every turn. His work on the Velvet Underground period is a completist’s dream, as many nuggets are uncovered and still many others explained – including wonderfully painful but insightful commentary from the band’s drummer, Moe Tucker. It is within the solo years that much of what Reed did in addition to his music – interest in film, painting, his foray into poetry and theater – along with his forgotten but seminal tours are portrayed and analyzed. Reed’s music – his hits and misses – leap from the page and profoundly illustrate what made him a great, as well as oft-misunderstood, celebrated, harangued, and imitated artist.

Lou Reed – The King of New York may be the final word on Reed’s life (and the final weeks before his death) as it is a biography that reads as dangerously close to the bone as its subject investigated in his best work.

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John Lennon 1980: The Last Days in the Life – Kenneth Womack (2020)

On the 40th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, noted Beatles’ historian and author, Kenneth Womack, accomplished again what he does best: provide us with every detail, nook, cranny, and movement of a Beatles-related story, making it come alive and matter as much as it did then.

I have admired Kenneth’s writing for years, reviewed his books in this space, and recently struck up a friendship through my work on the aforementioned Take a Sad Song. (He was kind enough to lend a blurb to its back cover.) Therefore, I was not surprised when I picked up a copy of his John Lennon 1980: The Last Days in the Life at the Chicago Fest for Beatles Fans – where we both spoke last summer – and could not put it down.

Womack covers the entire last year of Lennon’s life, expertly weaving a story that begins with a peaceful, hermit-like existence of a nearly 40-year-old Lennon doting on his new son, Sean, and traveling to family haunts with his wife, Yoko Ono. Soon, Lennon, as is his wont, becomes restless, takes up sailing, wherein he is plunged into a harrowing life-changing experience on the way to Bermuda and contemplates what he believes will be the rest of a long life ahead. It is this revelation along with being inspired once again by the new music of his old teenaged chum and fellow songwriting genius, Paul McCartney, that fuels Lennon’s to embark on what would be his final album, Double Fantasy.

What struck me the most about the book was the ultimately tragic but heartwarming plans Lennon had to visit his Aunt Mimi, the woman who raised him, for the first time since he and Yoko settled in the United States in the early 1970s, and how he had readied the musicians who worked on his album for a planned world tour. This, as we know, never happened.

Womack gets everyone on the record here: limo drivers, assistants, nannies, producers, studio cats, all of whom usher us through Lennon’s every move, even that fateful week and the terrible day of his murder on December 8, 1980.

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You’re with Stupid – kranky, Chicago, and the Reinvention of Indie Music – Bruce Adams (2022)

In the early 1990s, during the final years of rock and roll’s dominance on the cutting edge of music after over four decades of growth, expansion, breakdowns, and reinventions, the Indie music scene sprang up in small towns and big cities all around the USA. It was a time of DIY garage rock, electronic experimentation, ambient machinations, pseudo poetry, and a final, genuine return to roots. In the midst of this underground movement that would produce pop acts and perennials, the quick has-been to the never-was, there was kranky records. An independent label from Chicago, birthplace of genre breakthroughs, Smashing Pumpkins and its godmother, Liz Phair, it would join the fray to become part of a template that would reverberate down generations for those who wish to make it without corporate interference picking the pockets of talented dreamers.

The label’s co-founder, Bruce Adams (with fellow music geek Joel Leoschke), has a story to tell from the bleeding fringe of failure and triumph. You’re with Stupid is filled with weird and wonderful tales of a time when how to record, produce, market, and tour music had dramatically shifted away from giant arenas and bloated studios. It was a romantic period of youthful exuberance and carefree passion that Smith captures beautifully. Writing with wit and wisdom, the author brings us into the sights and sounds of promise – something that makes rock and roll still matter.

You’re with Stupid is a primer on how to and how not to go for the brass ring with one thing in mind – find and make music you love and that you wish to share with the world.

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Chuck Berry: An American Life – RJ Smith (2022)

Author RJ Smith has done a great service to the history of rock and roll by penning the most comprehensive and unflinching biography of its most celebrated founder, Charles Edward Anderson Berry. Capturing his import and influence, his experimental brilliance and relentless pursuit of bridging America’s generational and racial divides in his incredible canon, tells only half of Berry’s story. Smith uncovers the origins of the man, his upbringing in the racial and cultural hotbed of St. Louis, replete with mythical musical charms. We come to know the boy who became the man that made the music, built the social walls, and delved into the darkness of his obsessions of money, power-politics, and sexual deviance.

Aptly titled, Chuck Berry: An American Life is a study in American pop culture, it’s heroes and villains, zeitgeist, and fallout. Berry moves through its pages as he did through history as an avatar to our most ardent dreams and horrid nightmares. A deeply flawed and emotionally damaged man emerges from his triumphs and tragedies as a true victim and victor of our country’s agonizing duality. For it is in Berry’s songs, his amiable wit and twinkled eye mixed with his rough and sometimes predatory exterior that we find our national identity. As an artist in the spotlight of a movement, the book argues there may have been no one better or more ill-suited at the same time than Chuck Berry.

After finishing this book, I went and read my eulogy for Berry for this paper back in 2017. I was curious, after learning so much more than I ever did about him – some of it disturbing, some revelatory – if it shifted my final image of him. While it is hard to ignore his crimes, misogyny, or the truths laid bare by his behavior and defiance, it is also rewarding to continue to delve into the genius of Berry’s music, which has outlasted so much of his times and his flaws.

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Rock on Film: The Movies that Rocked the Big Screen – Fred Goodman (2022)

Curated by Turner Classic Movies, Rock on Film: The Movies that Rocked the Big Screen is a comprehensive overview of the entire music/film catalog from documentary to biopic to teen exploitation, concert film, and some of the more outstanding celluloid pieces of ephemera from the rock and roll era. Although handsomely compiled with tons of great photos, movie posters and behind-the-scenes shots, it is so much more. Adorned with essays from music writer Fred Goodman, Rock on Film provides unique perspectives to the most famous and the not-so well-known films featuring the most celebrated artists of the period.

An excellent perk of the book is Goodman’s “Make It a Double Feature” segment for each film, allowing similar titles to consider and provides further analyses of the styles and subjects that can be enjoyed by audiences. The key to Rock on Film is its function as a guide to digest the films while also offering fair but strong critiques of the work. Moreover, the chapter breakdowns of certain genres allow readers to discover their most striking attributes.

Also included are candid discussions with filmmakers, Cameron Crow, Jim Jarmusch, Penelope Spheeris, and Taylor Hackford – and a fine foreword by my friend, the inimitable director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg.

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