Conventional wisdom suggests that popular music is an aural and visual medium, not a literary one. The trouble with conventional wisdom is that it's . . . conventional.
A host of new books are turning the "a picture is worth 1,000 words" cliche on its head; sometimes, 1,000 words are worth far more than a picture, even in a supposedly superficial medium like rock 'n' roll.
Of course, some of the finest tomes to see recent release in the popular music field are composed entirely of images. The haggard face of a Nashville street musician; the pulsating camera eye shutter-blink of a jubilant, mid-song Bono of U2 playing beneath a massive lighted arch; a collection of artist's interpretations of music, parlayed into multihued concert engagement posters - there is text at work here, though it is implied, rather than stated.
More surprising is the continued advancement of rock journalism, and some startling new forays into the autobiography genre by artists themselves. I once worked at a weekly arts publication where the publisher insisted I not refer to myself as a "music journalist." "There's no such thing as a music journalist; rock critics aren't journalists," he insisted. But some 30 years after Jann Wenner launched Rolling Stone, some writers are making advancements in the very field my former boss insisted was a misnomer.
Popular music - an aural, visual and literary form, then. Here's the best of a recent batch of books dealing with it as such.
Two new biographies go a long way toward offering us an insider's view of the motivations behind a pair of popular music's more interesting personalities - Johnny Cash and Elliott Smith. Both are noble endeavors worth reading; both also display the limits of the rock biographer's ability to truly penetrate his source.
"The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love and Faith of an American Legend," by Steve Turner, (W Publishing Group, 298 pages, $24.99) offers a compelling and occasionally disturbing portrait of the personal metaphysics behind the man in black's art. Turner had access to family members and the approval of Cash himself for the project, so he manages to get pretty far "inside" Cash-the-man. However, Turner's insistence on repeatedly referring to Cash's faith in active, rather than passive terms is troubling; too often, "Cash" reveals a Christian bias that undermines its otherwise objective view of its subject. Since the book is published by a division of Thomas Nelson, Inc., the largest publisher of Bibles and inspirational books in the world, perhaps this is not surprising.
Benjamin Nugent's "Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing," (Da Capo Press, 230 pages, $23.95) is an often-compelling view of a truly enigmatic artist, whose apparent suicide ended one of the most endearing and profound runs of albums we've seen from an indie-rock artist. Smith, who died shortly after wrapping up his brilliant "From a Basement on the Hill" album, was a truly tortured soul, but Nugent is able to reveal the man's charm, sense of humor and often-frustrated optimism throughout his well-written and researched book.
The book's flaw? Nugent, through no fault of his own, was unable to access Smith's family, closest friends and working partners, simply because all made a vow not to speak to the press following Smith's death, and all have kept that vow. Not complete, then, but fascinating nonetheless.
Michael Eric Dyson's "Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves and Demons of Marvin Gaye," (Perseus Books Group, 290 pages, $23.95) is one of the finest pop-star biographies I've ever read. With a sure and even hand, and an understanding of Gaye's place in the lexicon of African-American art, Dyson proves himself to be both a cultural critic and a pop biographer of the first order. He never flinches away from uncomfortable truths surrounding Gaye, and though he is a confessed fan, he writes with both authority and objectivity. An inspiring read.
"Traveling Music: The Soundtrack to My Life and Times" (ECW Press, 380 pages, $28.95) is the third slice of autobiography-based writing from Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist with Canadian legends Rush. It's a wonderful book, marked by Peart's keen eye for detail and dead-on feel for pacing and rhythm not surprising, considering he is one of the most accomplished rock musicians currently working. The book traces Peart's journey across the country by car, with the music he brought along for the ride recalling specific periods of his life and development as an artist. It's fascinating and surprising throughout, and offers testimony to the power of music in the life of a man who has dedicated his whole being to it.
Bob Dylan's recent release of the first volume of his "Chronicles" series is clearly the ultimate, most authoritative Dylan book. But "Younger Than That Now: The Collected Interviews With Bob Dylan," (Thunder's Mouth Press, 294 pages, $16.95) offers another view of Dylan, though it is clearly a view that Dylan himself manipulated with absolute mastery. The words here are Dylan's, and in the way he blends cryptic utterance with stark, revelatory frankness throughout these interviews is both frustrating and brilliant. Will you know Dylan better after reading it? No. Yes. Maybe. Um, I don't know. But it's fun, anyway.
Also of note are "For What It's Worth: The Story of the Buffalo Springfield," by John Einarson and Richie Furay, (Cooper Square Press, 320 pages, $17.95) and "Britpop! Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock," by John Harris. (Da Capo Press, 426 pages, $18.95) The Buffalo Springfield book is the authoritative one on its subject; Furay was a founding member of the band, and Einarson is a serious rock journalist and historian. Harris' "Britpop!" offers a bold account of the British Invasion's second coming. Not surprising, since Harris has written for Mojo, NME, Q and Rolling Stone, is the book's assured tone, measured cadence and sense of historical accuracy.
Of course, we can't forget the coffee-table tomes, those books that so compellingly capture the sexiness, flash and splendor - and just as often, the clear absence of these things - of the musical life.
"Nashville's Lower Broad: The Street That Music Made," (Smithsonian Books, 130 pages, $29.95) is a collection of the photographs of Bill Rouda, with an introduction by songwriter Lucinda Williams. This is verite, with no sugar coating; the book chronicles the rise and fall of the underground Nashville music scene, and it is ultimately a pastoral of sorts, a bittersweet reflection on a time passed. It offers a warts-and-all view of the lives of musicians trying to eke out a living before corporate commercialization drives them back to the fringes. Highly recommended.
"The Beatles: Ten Years That Shook the World," (DK Books, 456 pages, $39.95) is the strongest book I've ever read on the Fabs, and I've read more than I care to admit. Here, the best rock journalists - all apologies to my ex-employer! - trace the full arc of the meteoric rise and artistic flourishment of the greatest band in popular-music history. The brilliance and insightfulness of the text is matched only by the glorious collection of rare photographs and the stunning graphic design. As fabulous as the Beatles were themselves.
"U2: Show," (Riverhead Books, 312 pages, $35) offers a visual history of this brilliant Irish band's development from sweaty broken-down clubs to the largest stadiums in the world. It's a feast for the eyes and ably traces the growth of U2 as a live act.
Finally, "Art of Modern Rock: The Poster Explosion," by Paul Grushkin and Dennis King, (Chronicle Books, 400 pages, $60) offers proof-positive of the synergistic relationship between rock music and the visual arts - in this case, between the alternative-music explosion of the past 15 years and its corresponding developments in graphic arts.