Beyond any reasonable doubt, the finest popular music-related tome to hit the book shelves this year was Bruce Springsteen’s autobiographical “Born to Run,” a game-changing work notable for, among many other qualities, kicking the notion that “rock stars need ghost writers” straight to the curb. That Springsteen can write was not a surprise. That he writes that little bit better than the likes of Brian Wilson, Robbie Robertson and Moby, who all released autobiographies this year, was perhaps unexpected.
“Born to Run” dwarfs the competition in many ways, but that’s not to suggest that 2016 was not a banner year for the musician’s manifesto. More and more of them are putting pen to paper, and more and more of them are ending up with manuscripts that, dare I say it, boast literary qualities that tower over the previous tendency in such works to rely on the airing of dirty laundry, the settling of scores, or the dishing of drug-based dirt.
Here are 5 of my favorite autobiographies, biographies, and scholarly musical exegeses of the year.
A Perfect Union of Contrary Things, by Sarah Jensen with Maynard James Keenan, Backbeat Books, $29.99, 274 pages
Maynard James Keenan is a modern Renaissance man. A musician and performance artist – front-man with Tool, Puscifer, A Perfect Circle – Keenan is also a respected and successful vintner. Most significantly, he’s an inspirational, stoic, thoughtful, humorous and unfailingly driven individual who has more to offer than his gorgeous vocal melodies and shamanistic lyrics.
Author Jensen has been a close friend and confidante of Keenan’s for three decades. She’s also a gifted writer whose poetic but fat-free style is perfectly suited to the subject matter. Artist Alex Grey, a member of Keenan’s inner circle, encapsulates the book’s message in his stirring foreword: “Maynard’s vision points us back to ourselves, and the lesson of his life is our artistic challenge: Be positively inebriated with life, be true to yourself, spiral out, keep going, keep growing.” Read this.
Set the Boy Free: The Autobiography, by Johnny Marr, Dey St./Morrow, $28.99, 464 pages
On May 20, 2003, I found myself standing on Grant Street in front of the Showplace Theater right as the clock struck midnight, engaged in an animated conversation with one of my heroes. Johnny Marr – co-founder of the Smiths, songwriting partner to Morrissey, and a man responsible for re-imagining the electric guitar as a dynamic ensemble instrument in direct contrast to the shred-obsessed 1980s – offered me a beer from his tour bus, and answered all of my off-the-record questions with a gleam in his eye and an impossibly charming grin on his face.
He had just finished a killer set with his band, the Healers, but he was happy to talk guitar, the Smiths, his work with Matt Johnson and The The, and whatever else I nervously jabbered about in a humble, sometimes self-deprecating and sometimes mildly flippant manner. He remains one of the coolest “rock stars” I’ve ever met. And the charming presence he exuded on that May evening in Buffalo is the same one that leaps from the pages of his thoroughly compelling autobiography.
Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, the Beats & Drugs, by Martin Torgoff, Perseus Books, $26, 432 pages
This is an astutely reported and compellingly written examination of the genesis of the drug culture in American life. Torgoff cuts between scenes with the skill of a consummate filmmaker, showing us the often obscured connections between the birth and explosion of jazz; the rise of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and its subsequent harassment of some of the leading lights in jazz; the concurrent formation of the Beat Generation through the druggy salon-like friendship between writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs; the introduction into the nascent Bohemian scene of heroin; and the subsequent eruption of the '60s counterculture.
Torgoff makes us realize that experimentation with drugs initially liberated artists and deepened their creativity, but ultimately, destroyed many of our most valuable creators. A sometimes harrowing but essential read.
Testimony, by Robbie Robertson, Crown Archetype, $30, 500 pages
Fans of The Band tend fall into two groups. One accepts the version of events depicted in Levon Helm’s “This Wheel’s on Fire” (and echoed in Barney Hoskyns’ “Across the Great Divide”) to be the gospel truth, and therefore, assumes principal songwriter Robbie Robertson to be the villain of the tale.
The other … well, I’ve never met anyone who falls into the category that defends Robertson’s claiming of most of the group’s publishing, so perhaps I’m one of the few who assumes that somewhere between the late Helm’s often bitter recriminations (and Hoskyns’ cheap shots) and Robertson’s more centered and calm reflections lies the actual truth. Wherever you stand, “Testimony” is an overdue and beautifully written memoir from one of rock’s most influential songwriters.
Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III, by Robert Greenfield, Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99, 270 pages)
Augustus Owsley Stanley III – forever memorialized in Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne,” but that’s not even the half of it – might well be the man most responsible for what we now rather lazily refer to as “the 60s counterculture,” as if Pandora’s Box was closed and sealed once 1969 gave way to 1970.
He was the Johnny Appleseed of LSD – a chemist who applied the same intensely concentrated care to his hallucinogenic creations as he would to his later work as “sound designer” for the Grateful Dead. He was also a man who, through an unusual blend of patrician bloodline and Bohemian metaphysics, presented a decidedly American rugged individualism.
Former Rolling Stone editor Greenfield offers an authoritative, painstakingly reported biography of a man who sought to be as elusive and unreachable as he was influential. Owsley’s “product” turned on so many of the most significant artists of his milieu – from Ken Kesey to Pete Townshend, John Lennon to Jimi Hendrix – that it’s fair to suggest that he changed the course of popular culture. Greenfield treats him with the gravitas such a status deserves.