There Was A Light: The Cosmic History of Chris Bell and the Rise of Big Star – Rich Tupica (2020)

Interestingly, despite its short but mythic existence, the Memphis band Big Star – critics’ darling in the pall of curious career implosion – has very little of its story in book form. In fact, there is none. Aside from the 2012 documentary, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, wherein a new generation of gawkers could debate how a band this good with songs this incredible be a total bust, no one has gone where Rich Tupica’s There Was Light does. The author chooses the best possible entry into this mystery by using its doomed but sympathetic founder, Chris Bell as the titular protagonist of the tale. Bell is one of a myriad of misunderstood rock geniuses that fell hard and left us too soon – a lá Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith. He also deftly uses the oral history template to get firsthand accounts of much of what has been passed on in the cloudy realm of pop culture historians as an inquisitive train wreck, but on closer inspection, was really just a bunch of guys trying to make music and make it.   

Hovering over the proceedings is the specter of Alex Chilton, whose music biography stretches back to teenaged lead singer of the Box Tops and his sometimes brilliant and most times combative relationship with Bell. There is also the ancillary matter of Bell’s battle with sexual identity and the more pertinent one of his mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse. 

There Was a Light pulls no punches but reading the accounts of every major figure in the compellingly tragic story of Big Star, including Bell in a series of culled quotes, and discovering more of his solo work, make this an important document in the annals of rock and roll history.  

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Remain in Love: Talking Heads / Tom Tom Club / Tina – Chris Frantz (2019)

Chris Frantz is not a writer, he’s a drummer. He’s not a pop star, he’s an artist. He’s certainly not a rock and roll cliché, he’s a dedicated businessman, husband and father. His wife, bass player and musical partner for the past nearly half century, Tina Weymouth are half of the founding members of Talking Heads and leaders of its off-shoot band, Tom Tom Club. Both of those bands helped to change the course of popular music from the early 1970s punk revolution to the MTV age of visual expression and beyond. Therefore, when you read Frantz’s memoir you are not treated to a journalist’s or biographer’s take on the events surrounding his life, but what you do receive is brutal honesty and a humble narrator who will lead you through one of the most exciting times in popular music and introduce you to an incredible array of music legends.

Here are firsthand accounts of life in the burgeoning downtown NYC music scene from CBGB to Max’s Kansas City and across the crime-infested, broken but defiant city streets, on tour in Europe with the wild and wooly Ramones and groundbreaking recording sessions from New York to the Bahamas. Franz pulls no punches on Talking Heads undisputed leader, David Byrne, whose dissociative to myopic to downright cold aim to control the narrative within the band may have led to some odd twists and turns and personal difficulties. But their time working together bore intriguing, and in an artistic sense, revolutionary results.

Most of all, Remain in Love is an epic love story of two college art students from Rhode Island School of Design, who reached the heights of pop and rock and remain today as in love and creatively vibrant as ever. 

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This Thing Called Life: Prince’s Odyssey, On and Off Record – Neal Karlen (2020)

Reading more like a hybrid of the enigmatic genius Prince Rogers Nelson as well as author and friend, Neal Karlen, This Thing Called Life: Prince’s Odyssey, On and Off Record is nevertheless an important historical perspective for a pop/rock titan bathed in both self and general myth. Karlen and Prince met on a neighborhood basketball court as pre-teens on the tougher north side of Minneapolis. Later, the author would become one of the first to interview the post-Purple Rain monster rock star for Rolling Stone magazine in 1985. Karlen would then go on to conduct several more interviews with the reclusive Prince into 1990, when the two would simply become phone buddies. 

Karlen’s late-night discussions with Prince, whom he describes as sounding like “the loneliness man in the world” are the core of this book. He wrestles with his position of being wooed by Prince’s idiosyncratic emotional manipulations and a sense of true friendship. They play basketball together, take long drives, watch movies and go to clubs, as Prince confides in him about love, loss, his parents, and mostly his fears – significantly, his fear of dying alone, something he would do in an elevator in his sprawling complex, Paisley Park in 2016. 

Yet, as we learn, and Karlen writes, that Prince “offered up multiple versions of who he was. Each correct, each wrong,” the book carves up Yet, as we learn, and Karlen writes, that Prince “offered up multiple versions of who he was. Each correct, each wrong,” the book carves up many accepted lies about Prince’s father’s supposed talents, his mother’s influence on him, and perhaps my favorite sections of the book, beside learning of Prince’s obsession with 1960s into 1970s professional wrestling, cover the paradox of his home town, Minneapolis in race, tradition, economic disparity and what Karlen dubs “Minnesota Meanness”, which both repelled and seduced Prince his entire life.

While Karlen mostly ignores the music – there are plenty of those books out there – we finally get a mostly objective insider view of one of the most important musical talents of the latter half of the Twentieth Century. And since Prince, like most great artists, was a semi-autobiographical creator, This Thing Called Life will get you closer to that amazing music.   

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Let Love Rule – Lenny Kravitz with David Ritz (2020)

Fusion funk-rocker Lenny Kravitz has aptly named his collaborative memoir, Let Love Rule, as it ends with the release of his debut album of the same name and would begin a career that has spanned four decades. But the reason for this truncated look at his life as a boy becoming an artist is that during those years Kravitz had seen and done more and had crazier life-altering experiences than most people could handle in three lives and certainly enough to provide lyrical material for an opening musical statement.

The book opens in a relatable manner for those of us who are not quite Boomers and came early to qualify as Generation X – Kravitz is a Seventies kid, culturally woke by the Jackson 5, KISS, bell-bottoms, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, weed, Converse, Blacksplotation films et al. But then having access to a Jewish family (his dad, Sy, a top television news producer) and a Bahamian one, (his famous mom, Roxie Roker, who would star in the hit comedy The Jefferson’s), and even spending time in the burgeoning hip-hop center of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and eventually Hollywood, provided the young musician a rare cultural foundation and worldly view many never experience.

Meeting the famous, being tutored by musical change makers, and finding his way spiritually, musically, culturally, and sexually, with a heavy emphasis on cool fashion before he even hits high school, Kravitz’s exploits in youth reads like some Dickensian adventure with highlights like stealing the family car at fourteen and rushing off to rescue a child prostitute, appearing in commercials and plays, bouncing homeless from couch to car backseats and on and on.

Kravitz is an inspiration and a cautionary tale. He fucks up and triumphs in the most dramatic ways before you and I could find our elbows. He experiments, learns several instruments, backs up acts twice his age, hangs out in famous studios, stumbles into crossroads that lead him to become the artist he envisioned. One of those eventually led to his mind-bending connection to Lisa Bonet that wrapped all of it in a romantic bow.

Let Love Rule is not just the story of a rocker’s journey to his fans but a symbol of those fans. He is the American Homer; rebellious, erratic, indomitable, and unforgettable.

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Raising Hell: Backstage Tales from the Lives of Metal Legends – Jon Wiederhorn (2020) (Reviewed by Chris Barrera)

As long as rock and roll has existed, musicians have pushed the limits, all in the name of fun. Raising Hell is made up entirely of first-person anecdotes from the world of metal, testimonials of living life in the fast lane. It also deftly recounts the struggles to make it at any cost, while overcoming countless obstacles, some ridiculous or dangerous, others in true absurd Spinal Tap tradition. Self-inflicted wounds are prevalent, of course. Hijinks often come across as simply criminal behavior; sad and pathetic and not as funny in the telling as they may have been in the doing. More than one subject admits that they dodged bullets, literal and figurative, in their pursuit of the next high or extreme thrill. 

Despite clever chapter titles culled from classic tunes such as “Die with Your Boots On”, “Highway to Hell”, and “Girls, Girls, Girls”, the majority of the stories come from next-generation bands like Death Angel, Misery Index, Municipal Waste and Goatwhore. These groups never achieved the super stardom that their forefathers attained, so for these individuals their excesses were in accordance with lifestyle choices, without wealth or massive adulation as fuel for the fire or as excuses for their outrageous activities.

Kudos to author Jon Wiedorhorn for assembling an abundance of fresh material. His earlier book, Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal (with Katherine Turman) was filled with the well-known stories of Ozzy Osbourne, Cliff Burton, Randy Rhoads, and Mötley Crüe. Fans of the lesser-known bands will happily enjoy hearing from their heroes. For others without a “rooting interest,” the stories can best be digested in small bits to avoid redundancy and disinterest, as tales of group sex, throwing up and television smashing can become quickly banal.

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Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World’s Most Famous Rock ‘n’ Roll Song – Dave Marsh (1993)

Dave Marsh is simply one of the great rock writers of the past half-century-plus. His work for the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and his books, specifically on the subjects of Bruce Springsteen and The Who, are required reading in the genre. But what Marsh does with one song, and a song as inane, controversial and important as “Louie Louie” is beyond laudable. There are passages in this book that sing. It is a veritable thesis on the power and purpose of rock music for his, mine, yours, and future generations. The core of the work is the song, but at its core, it is a book about the majesty of what three chords and garbled lyrics can do to those of us discerning enough to heed its call.

In Marsh’s hands the history of “Louie Louie”, originally written by soul singer-songwriter Richard Berry in 1955, which he based on Jamaican rhythms and R&B roots, later made famous by the Kingsmen in 1963 (also recorded at the same time by the much more successful Paul Revere & the Raiders, despite the fact that the Kingsmen stole the day), becomes the philosophy of rock and roll. Stories of the hundreds to thousands of ensuing cover versions are page-turning ecstasy for anyone who loves the incestuous intrigue of the music business, especially in its burgeoning days of mob ties, radio payola scandals and teenage lunacy. Worth the price of the book is the story of Rockin’ Robin Roberts. Who? Exactly.

Marsh brings it home with this book. It is funny, poignant and a masterwork in music and cultural study. And just like “Louie Louie”, damn fun.  

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Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom – Peter Guralnick (1986)

What may well be the finest book on music, at least pop music, and at the very least soul music, Peter Garulnick’s Sweet Soul Music is a rich tapestry of living history and firsthand anecdotes wonderfully researched and told in an enchanting and seminal volume. One cannot stress enough the importance of this document in the realm of American music; from the southern African American experience – the musicians, entrepreneurs, influence – of arguably its most potent period.

Tracking the birth, dreams and evolution of soul music from blues to doo wop to gospel and finally rhythm and blues, along with the incredible talents and visionaries that transformed the lilywhite pop charts into a dynamically diverse, sometimes dangerous and always entertaining landscape, this, indeed, is the story of America – a rags to riches tale of prescience, compromise and determination from Memphis to New York, Mobile to Los Angeles. A complete history of dozens of luminaries, specifically Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Otis Redding, and many more, along with the men and women behind Atlantic Records, Stax Records and Muscle Shoals are covered from top to bottom.

Working on the volume from the late seventies into the eighties, Guralnick was able to conduct interviews with the main contributors to this groundbreaking art, many of them long gone now; putting you on the road, in the studio, and inside the boardroom for the successes, failures, infighting, and overcoming of incredible odds, including racism, territorial battles and the toppling of social and cultural barriers.    

Got my copy of Sweet Soul Music from my podcast partner (Underwater Sunshine), lead singer and main songwriter for Counting Crows, Adam Duritz, whom I met during several interviews for this very publication years ago. He calls it “the finest book on music I have ever read.” And I thank him for the gift and find myself hardly in a position to argue with him. It is an incredible piece of work and should be on the shelves of every modern music lover.

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Objects in the Mirror – Thoughts on a Perfect Life from an Imperfect Person – Stephen Kellogg (2020)

Full disclosure: I met the author, veteran singer-songwriter, Stephen Kellogg when he was conjuring this project. The first thing he asked me; “How do you write a book?” The query wasn’t from the usual place of intrigue writers get from young would-be authors or even a rhetorical jab at the craft from someone who cannot fathom such an arduous waste of time. Kellogg was genuinely curious. He’s a great songwriter. He’d led a fairly successful band called The Sixers in the early aughts and when we first spoke he was well into a solo career. There would soon be a film produced on his maddening touring schedule mixed with the time he makes for his family – wife and four girls – that you can catch on Amazon streaming. I was charmed enough by Stephen’s story to pen two features on him in this paper. I should also point out a blurb I sent Stephen upon perusing the manuscript prior to publishing appears on its back cover.

Nevertheless, I read about forty of these music books a year and only a dozen make it into Rock Reads in the late-spring and the holiday season, so I shan’t waste your time or mine on a book I don’t think is truly a great read and adds to the pantheon of so many wonderful tomes on the subject of music and musicians.

Kellogg doesn’t just fill the pages with tour and studio stories, although they’re here, but instead offers rare and vulnerable insights into what it means to be a young man, husband, father, and citizen of the world in the dawning decades of the twenty-first century, while also making music. These observations, which are weaved into much of his songs and broached on stage – Stephen is an engaging aural storyteller – make this one of the most unique portraits of an artist out there.  

Objects in the Mirror, like its musical counterpart, is emotionally wrought and intensely relatable. You’ll laugh and cry and learn something about the human experience. Pretty good for someone who was clearly unaware when he started how to write a book. He did. And it’s really good

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Levon: From Down in the Delta to the Birth of The Band and Beyond – Sandra B. Tooze (2020)

Although it pulls no punches, Sandra Tooze’s Levon is a love letter to one of the signature drummers and dynamic vocalists in rock history. Levon Helm is every bit the southern gentleman, hospitable down-to-earth non-nonsense professional as much as he is the emotionally neglecting, grudge-holding, ill-tempered, recalcitrant substance abuser. Tooze’s Helm, though, is not the mercurial sort – from his barely teen years playing the southern blues circuit, first on guitar and mandolin and then his most well-known instrument, the drums, and later as one of the most recognizable voices of an era – he remains oddly, even enviably, unchanged by any circumstance, from tragedy to fame.

Helm’s life unfolds in heroic fashion; traveling North America and then the world, first in Ronnie Hawkins’ Hawks, which would, like almost all of his musical enterprises, become his own, and eventually, historically, blessedly The Band. Having reviewed fellow founder, Robbie Robinson’s memoir, Testimony here in 2016, but thus far not Helm’s 1993 version of the story, This Wheel’s on Fire, it was interesting to learn the well-known disputes – mostly coming from Helm – on songwriting and publishing rights. Helm would never forgive Robertson for, as he sees it, ripping him and the other members of The Band off and for calling it quits in 1978 for all of them. 

Surprisingly, perhaps my favorite parts of the book delve into Helm’s post-Band years, especially the second iteration of the famed quintet, now a quartet with several guitarists, that would continue on until some members became casualties of the road, its excesses and isolations. 

Not forgetting what is important, Tooze fills the book with observations and firsthand accounts of what made Helm worth writing and reading about, pointedly his preternatural musical talents that he never abandoned and continued to celebrate until his last breath.      

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Ted Templeman: A Platinum Producer’s Life in Music – Ted Templeman as told to Greg Renoff (2020)

When one of the most successful producers and executives in the seminal years of the rock generation writes a memoir, you read it. Ted Templeman delivers the goods with A Platinum Producer’s Life in Music, a no-nonsense sprint through the labyrinth of a music business discovering itself.  Finally, here is a book that covers the process of the artist. Templeman takes you into the studio, behind the scenes; working with seminal artists such as Van Morrison, Van Halen, Eric Clapton the Doobie Bros., Aerosmith, Nicolette Larson, Carly Simon and more. We’re privy to their methods, idiosyncrasies, unique talents, fears and aspirations. The producer’s many tasks – father confessor, ship’s captain, musical interpreter, sonic guidepost, and sometimes fellow partier – are unfurled in a very entertaining read. 

Templeman was also a major executive during his decades working at Warner Bros. during the company’s, and especially the label’s halcyon days. The stories of working within the studio system in the wild and crazy 1970s through the eighties into the nineties is covered with a keen eye. There are so many great stories and so much to learn on how the business thrived and imploded, the hits and the misses, the parties, the awards shows, the inner fighting, et al. We get to the bottom of the battles within the Doobies and Van Halen from Templeman’s perspective. which I found here to always be fair and measured.

I was also jazzed to learn that the author was a member of the sixties pop group, Harper’s Bizarre, another angle on the music business that helps frame an extremely fascinating life in the business of music.  

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