Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

Pub Dates

Music Edition


BIOGRAPHY & HISTORY

One of the season's most anticipated music books is Keith Richards's autobiography, written with James Fox, LIFE (suggested subtitle: Or, How to Beat Death). Little, Brown is keeping the book under wraps until its publication in October, but our guess is that the best parts are the ones Keith found the hardest to remember.

Born in 1912, John Cage studied briefly with Arnold Schoenberg and went on to create a musical vocabulary all his own, experimenting with radio static, randomly generated sounds, even silence. Kenneth Silverman's new biography, BEGIN AGAIN (Knopf, October), studies the man, his music, and his role in a vibrant interdisciplinary arts community that included his partner, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham.

So much has been written about punk and post-punk that it's heartening to see two books that let the revolutionary musicians speak for themselves: Simon Reynolds's TOTALLY WIRED: POST-PUNK INTERVIEWS AND OVERVIEWS (Soft Skull Press, September)—a companion to his excellent book of cultural journalism Rip It Up and Start Again (2006)—and Jon Savage's THE ENGLAND'S DREAMING TAPES (Minnesota, September), transcripts of interviews he conducted in the late '80s for his seminal 1991 history of UK punk.

Despite having led a public life and having been the subject of many books, Frank Sinatra is an enduring enigma. But as James Kaplan's revealing new biography, FRANK: THE VOICE (Doubleday, November), shows, the answer is in the song, for never has an entertainer's inner life synced up so unfailingly with his outer expression, from his choice of individual tunes to his intonation. "His singing was the one part of his life where he couldn't dissemble," Kaplan writes. "His belief in a song was part of what made him great; when he lost conviction, his vocal quality became two-dimensional."

In 1967, the band Love released its masterpiece, Forever Changes. That record's mixture of string orchestration, jazz, and flower-power pop has made it a cult favorite for more than forty years, but the band's front man, Arthur Lee, lived in relative obscurity (and was plagued by a string of arrests) until his death in 2006. Now, in FOREVER CHANGES: ARTHUR LEE AND THE BOOK OF LOVE (Jawbone, out now), John Einarson maps out the strange life of the musician—an acknowledged genius who nonetheless evaded the spotlight.

One of the past half century's most innovative—and obscure—female musicians, Alice Coltrane spent a year in the band of her husband, John, before his death in 1967. In MONUMENT ETERNAL: THE MUSIC OF ALICE COLTRANE (Wesleyan, September), Franya J. Berkman traces Coltrane's commitment to the spiritual in improvisational music (she played harp, organ, and piano music but never called it jazz) and her evolution into a reclusive holy woman in the '70s, when she became a swami and founded an ashram near Malibu, California.

Jay-Z has announced that he will publish his memoir, DECODED (Spiegel & Grau), on November 16. With collaborator (and veteran music critic) Dream Hampton, the performer will dwell on the creative process and revisit his Brooklyn childhood, drug-dealing teen years, and rise to hip-hop stardom.

ART

Joy Division staked out a look as striking and solemn as their music: grainy black-and-white photographs, minimalist graphic design, and neat, sometimes militaristic dress. Kevin Cummins, who took many iconic photos of the band, has compiled his shots of the Salford lads in JOY DIVISION (Rizzoli, October). After some unintentionally funny photos of the band's early days (think leather and mustaches), we get to the good stuff—images of them posing outside council estates (in the winter, of course) and rehearsing in cheerless practice spaces. Most powerful are Cummins's haunting portraits of future suicide Ian Curtis performing live, which practically vibrate with the singer's demonic intensity.

Musically, Antony and the Johnsons have always excelled at atmosphere: melancholic songs that are rich with imagery and somehow hopeful. A similar sensibility is found among the works in ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS: SWANLIGHTS (Abrams, October), a book gathering the band's poetry and visual art—animal-filled collages, inked-up newspaper clippings, and Antony's Goyaesque self-portraits.

For TUNES: A GRAPHIC HISTORY OF ROCK AND ROLL (Universe, October), music journalist Vincent Brunner compiled thirty comics to illustrate key moments in music history. While some of the results are pretty straightforward—artists Catel and Philippe Paringaux render Janice Joplin's death, Sébastien Lumineau draws the Ramones onstage—others opt for a more oblique style. Take, for instance, Jochen Gerner, who develops a charming series of glyphs to represent Pixies front man Black Francis's antic formulations such as "uh-hu, uh-hu, uh-hu, uh-hu, ooo" and "ooooooh-stop."

Harking back to the pre-iPod '70s and early '80s, Lyle Owerko's THE BOOMBOX PROJECT (Abrams, October) collects photos of dreadnought portable stereo systems—most of them loud enough to vibrate the concrete—and the people who carried them. As LL Cool J's 1985 song "I Can't Live Without My Radio" makes plain, there was glee in hoisting a boom box high and playing a righteous jam: "Don't mean to offend other citizens / But I kick my volume way past ten."

In DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON: STATE OF THE ART: 1898–PRESENT (Rizzoli, September), the classical-music label gets luxe book treatment, featuring album covers, studio photographs, playbills, and writings. Setting the mood are two CDs containing a century's worth of the label's recordings. For a more eclectic take on sound and art, seek out THE RECORD edited by Trevor Schoonmaker (Duke, September), a catalogue for a fall exhibition that pays homage to vinyl, with works such as Ujino Menuete's DVD loop Ujino and the Rotators.

FICTION

Jennifer Egan's 2007 novel, The Keep, was set in a haunted German medieval castle. In her latest, A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD (Knopf, out now), characters get their shivers without old-world locales—by turning their gazes inward. A record producer evocatively revisits past humiliations and the 1970s Bay Area punk scene as others around him ward off their own demons.

William Gibson got his start penning futuristic cyberpunk, but his recent work has focused on the even stranger world of the here and now. Such is the case in ZERO HISTORY (Putnam, September), his follow-up to 2007's Spook Country. Hollis Henry, the formerly famous singer for a band called the Curfew, takes a job assisting a marketing guru who wants his military clothing line to become a global fashion phenomenon. Fixated on surveillance, hacker culture, and people living off the grid, this is Gibson's most paranoid work of international intrigue yet.

A slim Proustian recollection with a vitriolic backbeat, Jean-Christophe Valtat's novella 03 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, out now) captures the obsessions of its teen narrator, who in 1984 is living in a stifling French suburb and longing for a mentally disabled girl he regularly sees across the street. Intellectually fierce yet emotionally stunted, the story hits its stride when the narrator starts talking about songs by the Cure, at which point the prose turns so lucid, circuitous, and loaded with undetonated angst that it becomes an outright performance.

Remember the country-music trio the Browns? Rick Bass is betting you don't, which is why he's written the band into the middle of his novel NASHVILLE CHROME (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September). Bass frees himself to speculate about the experiences of these accomplished, but mostly forgotten, artists: from their rise to fame in 1950s Nashville, to their friendship with a young singer named Elvis Presley, to their solitary existences as they age out of the limelight.

CRITICISM

Alex Ross follows up his excellent book The Rest Is Noise (2007) with LISTEN TO THIS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, September), a collection of stylish and smart essays—most from the New Yorker—about classical music (Brahms), jazz (Cecil Taylor), pop (Björk), and drag lounge acts (Kiki & Herb). Bonus: a piece that traces a bass line from late-sixteenth-century Spain to Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused."

Will Friedwald's invaluable A BIOGRAPHICAL GUIDE TO THE GREAT JAZZ AND POP SINGERS (Pantheon, November) is the product of a decade of work. It nods in title to David Thomson's wonderfully opinionated dictionary of film, and like those in Thomson's book, Friedwald's essays—on more than three hundred singers from Louis Armstrong and Fred Astaire to Shirley Temple and Cassandra Wilson—have that same midconversation, right-in-the-thick-of-it urgency.

Whether it's Bach on gramophone vinyl or a tinny Lady Gaga MP3 on a telephone, music makes us dance, cry, and smile—but why? In HOW MUSIC WORKS: THE SCIENCE AND PSYCHOLOGY OF BEAUTIFUL SOUNDS, FROM BEETHOVEN TO THE BEATLES AND BEYOND (Little, Brown; October), physicist and musician John Powell provides some answers but never destroys the mystery.

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By the time the Television Personalities recorded their charmingly twee tribute song "I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives" in 1981, the titular Mr. Barrett had been out of fame's spotlight for more than a decade and was living quietly in Cambridge, England, where he'd grown up. As the charismatic, protean front man of Pink Floyd, Barrett was, for about a year's time in 1966–67, one of the key figures in the London psychedelic underground and, even more briefly, a reluctant pop star. As it turned out, he became more famous for how his career ended than for how it began; Barrett, alongside Brian Wilson, Skip Spence, and a handful of other '60s musicians, lost his mind at the height of his creative powers, a condition likely hastened by excessive LSD use.

As rock legends go, Barrett's story is both more irresistible and more tragic than the rest. His exceedingly English eccentricity made for wonderful art and anecdotes before and after his mental break, but unlike Wilson, he never enjoyed any kind of redemption, musical or otherwise, in the public eye. What he inspired, in addition to countless musicians of an "alternative" bent, was a cult of personality, based on a romanticized view of the Icarian artist who flew too close to the sun and got burned. This legend was all the more pernicious because the reclusive adult Barrett wanted none of it, and in the absence of his countervailing voice, it was allowed to take on the qualities of a tabloid freak show, even for those who loved his music.

One of the many virtues of Rob Chapman's SYD BARRETT: A VERY IRREGULAR HEAD (Da Capo, October) is the author's dogged attempt to debunk every outré myth that has attached itself to Barrett over the years. So we learn that while he did squeeze an entire tube of Brylcreem into his hair before one of his disastrous final Floyd gigs, he did not mix crushed Mandrax tablets into the goop. He never tried to hail a moving plane on a runway, nor did he lock his girlfriend in a room for three days and feed her crackers under the door.

Chapman is so determined to dispel early rumors of strange behavior in 1967 that he charitably but unconvincingly argues that Barrett was in full possession of his senses at the time and was just putting people on and trying to escape the pressures of fame. Are the jarring last songs he recorded with the Floyd—"Scream Thy Last Scream" and the highly self-referential "Vegetable Man" and "Jugband Blues"—brilliant? Absolutely. Demented? Unquestionably. The qualities are not mutually exclusive.

Chapman properly situates Barrett's songwriting in the English fairy-tale tradition, as well as part of the fantastic-nonsense canon of Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, Hilaire Belloc, and Edward Lear. Indeed, one of the numerous pleasures of the book is revisiting the inimitably cracked koans Barrett uttered in songs and interviews: "I'm totally together. I even think I should be" (to Rolling Stone). A 2001 collection of his solo material was titled Wouldn't You Miss Me? (from the song "Dark Globe"), and Barrett is truly missed. He was "here" and gone far too quickly, but Chapman has enshrined his achievement with intelligence and grace.

—ANDREW HULTKRANS

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Perusing an encyclopedia about Smiths crooner and solo artist Morrissey, you might expect the m section to be especially long: There are the singer's nicknames (Moz, the Mozzer), his hometown (Manchester), and the trite adjectives typically attached to his music (morose, melancholic, mopey). But Morrissey contains multitudes, and Simon Goddard's excellent compendium, MOZIPEDIA: THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF MORRISSEY AND THE SMITHS (Plume, September), fleshes out the mordant pop star with sections for most of the alphabet. From a (Angels Are Genderless, the name of a group Morrissey tried to start as a twenty-one-year-old) through y ("You're the One for Me, Fatty," the title of one of his catchiest tunes), there are many surprising turns, touching moments, and off-kilter witticisms in this volume, which Goddard tackles with relish. Morrissey is no longer the cultural force he once was, but how many other pop stars could deliver an entry on Caligula ("What she asked of me / at the end of the day / Caligula would have blushed") or on the 1974 feminist film-studies book Morrissey cribbed from when penning his earliest lyrics? Aside from its trivia, the book's gift is its dedication to the music. We know Morrissey would approve, having commanded in the song "Rubber Ring": "Don't forget the songs / that made you cry / . . . they were the only ones who ever stood by you." File under m for magnificent.

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"Dear Angel of Dust." This evocative, provocative salutation launches Nathaniel Mackey's epic epistolary novel FROM A BROKEN BOTTLE TRACES OF PERFUME STILL EMANATE: VOLUMES 1–3 (New Directions, out now) on an excursion into jazz composition and history. The letters are written by N., a sax player in a traveling band whose hyper-kinetic intellect seeks that ever-elusive goal: finding words for the feeling of sound. He describes one tenor's solo as "part rant, part psalm, part put-on . . . a chemical wedding whose unlikely fruit bore the brunt of an exquisite, disquieting cross between Albert Ayler and Jr. Walker." Bringing to bear the wild-style eclecticism that marks his poetry, Mackey threads learned disquisitions on Dogon cosmology, Rastafarianism, Sumerian astronomy, and voodoo through N.'s often-hallucinatory accounts of the band's gigs. While brooding over "musics which haunt us like a phantom limb," N. offers a tour diary as if penned by Theodor Adorno, Thelonious Monk, and Mircea Eliade.

—ALBERT MOBILIO

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