I once worked for a guy who, when he asked me what I considered myself and I answered “A music journalist,” scratched his head and asked, “Music journalism? Is that really a thing?”
Writing about rock, until the fairly recently, has been considered several steps beneath playing it. If the music itself was largely barbaric, and the people playing it were Caveman-like creatures without formal musical training, and most likely, serious drug habits, why would a serious writer bother with it? Biographies of rock and pop stars, following this logic, would only appeal to the type of reader given to coveting “Entertainment Tonight”-style gossip-orgies.
But what if rock-writers, or even some of the musicians themselves, proved to be thoughtful, intelligent, perhaps even deep people, with a gift for writing?
We’re seeing this happening on a regular basis these days. If Patti Smith – the surface reading of her would suggest she’s a punk rock musician – can win the National Book Award, and her fellow punk rocker Richard Hell can come across as a more sartorially astute version of Norman Mailer; if Elvis Costello can author a hefty tome that reads like an expanded version of one of his most erudite songs; Hell, if Joe Perry of Aerosmith can come up with a well-written and wholly congruent bio – well, things have certainly changed. Rock has grown up, in a good way. And so have those who write about it.
Petty: The Biography By Warren Zanes Henry Holt and Company; 336 pages; $30 hardcover
The gold standard for music biographies might well be Peter Guralnick’s two-part Elvis Presley set, (“Last Train to Memphis,” “Careless Love”) a work that elevated the rock bio to the realm of high art by blending intensive research and reporting with empathetic insight and writing that leapt from the page and straight into the reader’s heart. Now, we have to add Warren Zanes’ “Petty: The Biography” to the short list alongside the works of Guralnick, Nick Tosches and Greil Marcus, et al. Zanes, a member of ’80s garage rock/power-pop outfit the Del Fuegos, writes about Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers like William Faulkner holding forth on Yoknapatawpha County. “Petty” reads like one part Great American saga and two parts Southern Gothic tome. Zanes dug deep to unearth Petty’s roots in the swamps of Gainesville, Fla., where he was born a hillbilly with Cherokee blood, grew up with a remote, abusive and alcoholic father, and found himself surrounded by traditions of the Deep South that alienated him and infused in him an urge to get outta town. Petty, a guarded man, trusted fellow musician Zanes, and opened up to him about his traumatic childhood; his belief that the rock band-as-substitute-familial-unit helped to save his life; the difficulties involved in keeping a band together over decades; the failure of his first marriage and subsequent struggles to remain an effective parent; and, for the first time ever, his battles with depression and heroin addiction. Zanes writes beautifully, with keen insight into the creative process and a hard-earned understanding of what it means to be in a band. His love for his subject matter is always apparent. Rock biography gets no better than this.
Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal By Greg Renoff ECW Press; 392 pages; $18.95 paperback
Much has been written about the mighty Van Halen over the years, and not all of it has been flattering. We all know, if we’re into this sort of thing, about the craziness surrounding the band when it was at its commercial peak in the ’80s – the drinking, the women, the chain-smoking, the infighting. But Greg Renoff’s brilliance in “Van Halen Rising” – and it is brilliance, that ability to marry specific, in-depth reporting to the broader arc of “what it all means” – lies in his insistence on focusing on the days prior to Van Halen’s explosion into the mainstream pop consciousness. Van Halen started life as a band that played beer blasts in Southern California, building a following one booze-soaked fan at a time, and in the process, marrying the influence of seminal hard rockers like Cream, Vanilla Fudge, Cactus and Humble Pie with the pop smarts and danceability brought to the party by singer/showboat David Lee Roth. Renoff knows his subject cold, he talked to all the right people, and he asked them all the right questions. Getting producer Ted Templeman to open up about the specifics involved in crafting the band’s debut – one of the greatest albums in the history of guitar-based rock – adds gravitas to the proceedings. Fans will find this in-depth examination of Van Halen’s underreported formative years fascinating.
This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead By Blair Jackson & David Gans Flatiron Books; 488 pages; $32.99 hardcover
No one knows more about the Grateful Dead than Blair Jackson and David Gans, including, one can reasonably surmise, the members of the band themselves. Both Jackson and Gans have spent decades digging deep into this Great American Band’s music, and both have written extensively on the “long strange trip” in the past. No one is better suited to the task of assembling an oral history of the Dead, told in their words, and those of their closest collaborators. “This Is All a Dream We Dreamed” reads like exactly what it is – a beautiful textual tapestry of late 20th century American music, and what happened to that music when it turned on, tuned in, and dropped into a heady space all its own. A must-read for Deadheads.
Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001-2014 By Richard Hell Soft Skull Press; 304 pages; $19.95 paperback
If Richard Hell had never committed a single word to paper, his status as an icon of American culture would be cemented by his work as a founding member of seminal NYC art-punk bands Television, the Heartbreakers and the Voidoids. You wouldn’t, based solely on his punk credentials, necessarily peg Hell as a man of letters – heck, you might not even have pegged him as a guy who would’ve survived the druggy ’70s. Yet, that’s what Hell’s second act is all about. He’s a sharp and masterful writer, the kind of scribe who can take any subject and wax at equal turns poetic and profane on it. With a pair of novels and a killer autobiography, “I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp,” to his credit, Hell has wisely compiled his writings on music, art, literature, culture and anything else that grabs his fancy beneath the odd but appropriate title “Massive Pissed Love.”
There’s snark a-plenty here, but there’s much more than that, too. Call it a celebration of the meanderings of an uber-keen mind.
Rocks: My Life in and out of Aerosmith By Joe Perry with David Ritz Simon & Schuster; 432 pages; $27.99 hardcover
Joe Perry looks like a guy you wouldn’t want to mess with. Whenever Aerosmith took the stage, from the beginning to the present day, Perry was always the coolest cat in the room.
No one else came close. (Sorry, Steven Tyler.) Seemingly stern, unsmiling, stoic, Perry looked (and still looks) the quintessential rocker, and his guitar playing provided the missing link between Keith Richards’ snarling white blues and the virtuosic psychedelic post-blues of Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. You wouldn’t necessarily peg Perry as a sensitive, thoughtful, ruminative guy . It’s far easier to imagine heroin getting addicted to Perry than it is Perry getting addicted to heroin, after all. But “Rocks” reveals Perry to be a New Englander with more than a touch of Thoreau in him – a rugged individualist drawn to the hypnagogic beauty of the woods, and a man who would rather spend his time in Lake Sunapee, N.H., than in Hollywood or Manhattan.
It’s a well-written and thrillingly paced memoir, one that reveals the torrid nature of Perry’s conflicted, but enduring, relationship with Aerosmith in general and singer Tyler in particular. What emerges is a portrait of a man with abundant integrity, who survived his dark night of the soul to emerge into a morning where family, sobriety and the ever-enticing charms of rock ‘n’ roll were waiting to greet him.
What a great read.