Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. This book is such a vivid and vivacious memoir of someone's life, it is like finding a new friend in the most surprising of places. Elvis Costello weaves a life meant to be spent in music in a totally original and always compelling way, sharing intimate early family history that makes his songs and survival instincts all the more understandable. His father was a professional singer in England, and in a way makes his son's fate as one of modern music's most memorable singer-songwriters a foregone conclusion. But the getting there for Elvis Costello is a tale not to miss, and his memory is so endless that it's slightly mind-boggling to think of all he is able to recall. There are only a handful of artists capable of living this life and then being driven enough to write it all down. At the very, very top of that list lives Costello, and once the book ends there is one immediate thought that rises to the fore: please let there be a Volume II titled, possibly, “Faithful Music and Reappearing Ink.” Inquiring minds gots to know.
John Fogerty with Jimmy McDonough, Fortunate Son. No one has written better rock songs than John Fogerty, and very few have continued their careers against greater odds than this Northern California son. Finally, 50 years after beginning to take the reins of the rock & roll band that would soon become Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fogerty is able to tell his full story. Disaster lurks around several corners, and with horrific business agreements that would someday send him into silence, it's a small miracle that he was able to emerge in the mid-'80s with both guns blazing. At the core of this book is a story of redemption fueled by the power of love, and Fogerty's memory is unerring with what brought about that turnaround: wife Julie Fogerty. Some artists cannot be stopped, and that's one of the prime lessons of this book. No matter how many times the end seemed eminent, a melody or a lyric or maybe just a memory of what is possible came through the ether to save the day. Rockin' all over the world, indeed.
Peter Guralnick, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll. The mothership has arrived in honored scribe Peter Guralnick's biography of Sun Records founder and Elvis Presley discoverer Sam Phillips. This is a book that Guralnick was born to write, coming off his two-volume history of Presley as well as a handful of some of the best music books ever written, on everyone from Robert Johnson to Sam Cooke to a history of soul music. There really isn't a better author out there right now. And fortunately Peter Guralnick allows himself to really get inside Sam Phillips, put aside journalistic separation and go for the gold. The two were friends, which allows this book to become a big breathing thing. Those that first turned musicians loose in the '50s and let them have their way with the music are American heroes, and no one did this better than Phillips. Besides Presley, there were bluesmen like Howlin' Wolf and Ike Turner along with a roomful of names that today aren't even remembered. No matter. They were allowed to dream and create a new sound. Today, Guralnick turns those long ago dreams into words and feelings, letting history become alive and live forever. Thank you.
Ray Wylie Hubbard with Thom Jurek, A Life...Well Lived. After finding himself stuck smack dab in the middle of the Cosmic Cowpie crowd in mid-'70s Austin, Ray Wylie Hubbard proceeded to sprint down the road to self-destruction faster and more devout than anyone else in his crowd. They weren't giving out awards for that ability, but rather the first to get to an early grave would most likely get the notoriety. Luckily for listeners and readers, Ray Wylie Hubbard saw the wall he was about to blast into right before he got there and pulled up hard. Going sober at 41 not only saved his life, it gave him the courage and clarity to start making the best music of his career. Not only that, he somehow got herded into writing a book, not quite an autobiography and most assuredly a travelogue of what Hubbard had been and, hopefully, where he might be going. Naturally, it's full of the barbed-wire sensibility of his psyche, and includes just enough historical heehaw to allow fans to fill in the blanks of Texas music of the past 40 years. There most likely will never be another book quite like this one, just as there won't be many other lives like Ray Wylie Hubbard's. Though the old saying "too much is never enough" may have applied to him in the past, now this one life is more than enough to make for an intriguing book. Turn the pages loud.
Aidan Levy, Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed. It's pretty much a given that considering Lou Reed's long career and careening changes, no single book is ever going to capture the total magic of all he accomplished. There were just too many Lou Reeds for that. There have already been a half-dozen attempts over the years, and 2016 will likely see at least that many more in the coming months. That said, Aldan Levy's new tome fills in a lot of the factual pieces and often gets close to painting a feel for a portion of Reed's world. Musically, it's an endless revelation of all the different roads this man traveled, sometimes with success and others with unrelenting dedication that didn't get quite so noticed. The point Levy and the other writers all make is just how much drive Lou Reed demonstrated in making the music he wanted to make, and everything else be damned. Going back to the mid-'60s when the Velvet Underground began, there have been very, very few bands that did so much to define the possibilities of what rock & roll could be. Reed himself said it best: "Some people they like to go out dancing/and other peoples they have to work (just watch me now)..." The music never had a more inspired and hard-working friend than this man, and any book that opens up a few of the doors he went through is a welcome arrival, and fills a corner of the portrait that will someday be a full-on view.
Todd Mouton, Way Down in Louisiana. Perhaps this book's subtitle, "Clifton Chenier, Cajun, Zydeco and Swamp Pop Music," is more clarifying to what is exactly up between the covers. But when author Todd Mouton calls it "Way Down in Lousiana," he means Way Down. Following the path of zydeco king Clifton Chenier isn't far from taking on an archeological expedition, as the road leads from endless dance halls and barrooms in southern Louisiana on through to some of the biggest and most prestigious stages in the world. No one could play accordion like Chenier, before or since. The way he could drive a band into five-hour sets made the Grateful Dead seem like the Monkees, as the Creole and Cajun dancers would do their best to keep up with the big man behind the squeezebox. Just as fascinating to Clifton Chenier's story are all the tributaries of Louisiana music that take off from him. There is an entire state-centered record industry based on all these artists, and the level of subterfuge behind some of those labels is enough to make Huey P. Meaux blush. These people erased the rules quicker than anyone could make new ones, and in the end created a musical culture that still thrives today. Maybe not like it once did, but Mouton makes the case that this sound is alive and well. No one is better suited than the other to hold a light on this incredible style, and with a book full of staggering photographs it can be said that this story, at least right up until 2015, has been told once and for all. Miss it at extreme peril to the spirit's well-being.
Lloyd Price, Sumdumhonky. Better put on the seatbelt and a dash of Old Spice before reading this one. It zigs and zags from New Orleans to New York to Africa and back, and—before the end—addresses everything about racial injustice and rock & roll that needs to be addressed. Lloyd Price was one of the early creators of the music in New Orleans during the early '50s ("Lawdy Miss Clawdy" anyone?), and realized he needed to take over his own business or could easily end up in the welfare line with so many other early singing stars. This book details all the ins and outs of how he tried to revolutionize America's often shady music business, and once Price heads off for the Motherland, things get really thick, including his co-producing with entrepreneur Don King the Ali-Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" fight and concert there. Along the way there were Bronx housing construction, manufacturing sports equipment, and a successful food company. Not surprisingly, Lloyd Price is still alive and ticking, a Louisiana man made good. Fortunately for readers, he's not shy about sharing his incredible life story and continues even now into the challenging future.
Carly Simon, Boys in the Trees: A Memoir. Not many singer-songwriters first approached music quite like Carly Simon. Her father had founded publishing titan Simon & Schuster Books, but that didn't prepare his daughter for a public life. In fact, it gave her the preference in the opposite direction, away from the spotlight and right into seclusion. Still, when the songs came a calling and there was no way not to write them, Carly Simon went head-on into the maelstrom. Then, of course, there was the marriage to James Taylor and the unending whirlwind that all of that entailed. Throw in Mick Jagger, Warren Beatty, and all kinds of other suitors, and this is one woman who has been there and done that. Fortunately she never went over the line and lost her way. To eavesdrop on what really happened in the '60s, ‘70s, and beyond in American musical shenanigans, start right here. It's a high class walk on the semi-wild side, and be assured there's rarely a dull moment, psychiatrists and all.
Patti Smith, M Train. Some artists get to go for the ozone from the start. Patti Smith has surely earned that honor, since from the very beginning she broke all the rules and lived to flourish. For this book, she sets aside her musical accomplishments (for the most part) and journeys deep into the soul of an artist's wanderings. Her language is poetic prose, each sentence feeling like a communication from somewhere deep in the soul. Considering the book's first words are "It's not so easy writing about nothing," everything feels revealed in the end. As she moves around the world, Patti Smith's take on what she does and finds is truly unique, halfway haunted but always hopeful. This passage says it all: "I believe in movement. I believe in that lighthearted balloon, the world. I believe in midnight and the hour of noon. But what else do I believe in? Sometimes everything. Sometimes nothing. It fluctuates like light flitting over a pond. I believe in life, which one day each of us will lose." Those are words to point us to the light without ignoring the darkness. Long may she write.
Warren Zanes, Petty: The Biography. When it comes to American rock & roll icons who have walked the walk from day one, put Tom Petty in that class. He came to Los Angeles from Florida ready to take the West Coast by storm, and almost got sent home to learn his lessons better. Except for one true fact: Petty was as good as anyone in music at that time, and though it may have taken a few turns before he got his shot, once he did he never let go. Since those early days going by the Heartbreakers at the Whisky a Go Go, the music man has stayed steady and true to the voice within that says never back down and never let go. Writer Warren Zanes, once known for his guitarist skills in the proud Boston band the Del Fuegos, has dug deep to tell the real live story. What makes it so unrelentingly compelling is just how dedicated Petty has always been to writing and recording what he hears in his head and heart. Stubbornness never sounded so good.