It's Not Only Rock and Roll...And I Like It
Updated: Nov 17, 2018
Music has been an important part of my life from an early age—first Afro Cuban music (Dizzy Gillespie), then Chicago soul (Curtis Mayfield) and then the ecstatic boundary busting psychedelic era which opened my tastes to include everything except European polka music (except for the Schmengy brothers). Nonetheless, I have never been much interested in reading about music or musicians, even the ones that became part of my musical diet. Partly that was due to what I viewed as the less than stellar biographical offerings. That changed with writers such as Nick Tosches, Peter Guralinick *and David Hadju.**
Hadju’s bio Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn (profiled closest Duke Ellington’s collaborator. Among Strayhorn’s credits is the non-pareil ballad, Lush Life, which he wrote at the age of 19)
and Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick
were both vivid accounts of very original musicians and to some degree (more so with Guralnick) ethnographic studies that made sense of the cultural terrain that spawned their talented subjects.
Back when notes of patchouli and cannabis wafted through the hip universe and tye-die t shirts and bell bottom jeans were the uniform of the day and a regnant slogan was “ Don’t trust anyone over 30” and music was available on 8 track cassettes (the worst format ever), thought s od the future were relegated to speculative fiction . Since then the Walkman, the iPod , Spotify have delivered a future that is a music lovers paradise.
Three recent biographies of musicians—Stephen Stills, Joni Mitchell and Lou Reed, unpack careers that spanned the years from the roiling 60’s to our fin de siecle era (Reed died in 2013). Had they just been remembered for the iconicFor What its Worth (Stills), Woodstock, (Mitchell) and Walk on the Wild Side(Reed) they would still belong in the pantheon of great songwriters . But of course these American (and Canadian) originals contributed so much more as these profile…
Stephen Stills Change Partners: The Definitive Biography by David Roberts
Stephen Stills is one of the last remaining music legends from the rock era without a biography. During his six-decade career, he has played with all the greats. His career sky-rocketed when Crosby, Stills & Nash played only their second gig together at Woodstock in 1969. With the addition of Neil Young, the band would go on to play the first rock stadium tour in 1974. From Lorrie Moore’s piece on Stills:
…Stills is one of the last remaining rock-and-roll geniuses from a time when rock music was the soundtrack to an antiwar movement—“For What It’s Worth,” “Woodstock,” “Ohio” (about the 1970 Kent State shootings)—back when the global counterculture was on the left rather than the right. Roberts’s book makes this inexactly clear. Stills has been on the scene from the start, forming Buffalo Springfield when Jimi Hendrix was being booked as the opening act for the Monkees on tour. He has seemingly played with everyone—from Bill Withers to George Harrison. He was the first person to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice in one night, for his work in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash. “What a wonderfully strange and beautiful cast of characters life has handed to me,” he said in his acceptance speech.
Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe
From the Publisher Joni Mitchell may be the most influential female recording artist and composer of the late twentieth century. In Reckless Daughter, the music critic David Yaffe tells the remarkable, heart-wrenching story of how the blond girl with the guitar became a superstar of folk music in the 1960s, a key figure in the Laurel Canyon music scene of the 1970s, and the songwriter who spoke resonantly to, and for, audiences across the country. A Canadian prairie girl, a free-spirited artist, Mitchell never wanted to be a pop star. She was nothing more than “a painter derailed by circumstances,” she would explain. And yet, she went on to become a talented self-taught musician and a brilliant bandleader, releasing album after album, each distinctly experimental, challenging, and revealing. Her lyrics captivated listeners with their perceptive language and naked emotion, born out of Mitchell’s life, loves, complaints, and prophecies. As an artist whose work deftly balances narrative and musical complexity, she has been admired by such legendary lyricists as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and beloved by such groundbreaking jazz musicians as Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock. Her hits―from “Big Yellow Taxi” to “Both Sides, Now” to “A Case of You”―endure as timeless favorites, and her influence on the generations of singer-songwriters who would follow her, from her devoted fan Prince to Björk, is undeniable. In this intimate biography, drawing on dozens of unprecedented in-person interviews with Mitchell, her childhood friends, and a cast of famous characters, Yaffe reveals the backstory behind the famous songs―from Mitchell’s youth in Canada, her bout with polio at age nine, and her early marriage and the child she gave up for adoption, through the love affairs that inspired masterpieces, and up to the present―and shows us why Mitchell has so enthralled her listeners, her lovers, and her friends. Reckless Daughter is the story of an artist and an era that have left an indelible mark on American music.
In what Francine Prose calls a “protective biography , she opines
Uncritical admiration can make “Reckless Daughter” seem like a 400-page fan letter, though one certainly prefers Yaffe’s approach to that of biographers who despise their subjects. Championing Mitchell, right or wrong, and trying to stay on her good side is not exactly the same as taking her seriously as a composer and performer. Ultimately, it hardly matters. The person who wrote and sang “Blue,” “Court and Spark” and “Hejira” doesn’t need protection from readers who, decades after those albums appeared, remember Mitchell’s songs. Anthems not only of restlessness and heartbreak but also of intelligence, insight and courage, they are tributes to the power of music to imprint itself indelibly on the consciousness of its listeners.
From the publisher As lead singer and songwriter for the Velvet Underground and a renowned solo artist, Lou Reed invented alternative rock. His music, at once a source of transcendent beauty and coruscating noise, violated all definitions of genre while speaking to millions of fans and inspiring generations of musicians.
But while his iconic status may be fixed, the man himself was anything but. Lou Reed’s life was a transformer’s odyssey. Eternally restless and endlessly hungry for new experiences, Reed reinvented his persona, his sound, even his sexuality time and again. A man of contradictions and extremes, he was fiercely independent yet afraid of being alone, artistically fearless yet deeply paranoid, eager for commercial success yet disdainful of his own triumphs. Channeling his jagged energy and literary sensibility into classic songs – like “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Sweet Jane” – and radically experimental albums alike, Reed remained desperately true to his artistic vision, wherever it led him.
Now, just a few years after Reed’s death, Rolling Stone writer Anthony DeCurtis, who knew Close Reed and interviewed him extensively, tells the provocative story of his complex and chameleonic life. With unparalleled access to dozens of Reed’s friends, family, and collaborators, DeCurtis tracks Reed’s five-decade career through the accounts of those who knew him and through Reed’s most revealing testimony, his music. We travel deep into his defiantly subterranean world, enter the studio as the Velvet Underground record their groundbreaking work, and revel in Reed’s relationships with such legendary figures as Andy Warhol, David Bowie, and Laurie Anderson. Gritty, intimate, and unflinching, Lou Reed is an illuminating tribute to one of the most incendiary artists of our time.
David Yaffe spotlights what he describers as Reed’s “cantankerous” nature
The songs of Lou Reed are a manual of sorts for how to keep living after you have let yourself and everyone else down, or after the world has done that for you. Reed doesn’t judge anyone for shooting heroin or defying societal norms, or for making sweet, gentle love to someone right before they OD. His songs are not sentimental about death, and they never, ever try to make you like the person who is singing them. He was more lacking in guile than most in rock and roll and he was notoriously cantankerous. When he had a liver transplant a few months before his death, The Onion ran a satirical piece.
“It’s really hard to get along with Lou—one minute he’s your best friend and the next he’s outright abusive,” said the vital organ, describing its ongoing collaboration with the former Velvet Underground frontman as “strained at best.” “He just has this way of making you feel completely inadequate. I can tell he doesn’t respect me at all. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s already thinking about replacing me.” The joke worked because it was so true: anyone who got close to Lou—bandmates, lovers, archivists—invariably had such an experience after a while.
Along with with access to all the world’s music digitalization has fractured the categories of music and has reduced artistic name recognition to near anonymity. Whether 50 years hence we will celebrate musical giants like Mitchell, Stills and Reed, of course remains to be seen…
Mavis at 70 plus years is still performing. Warren Zevon passed a few years ago and his wife put together a very original collection of testaments by people who knew Warren. Mingus was/is a giant who should occupy the American musical pantheon with Duke Ellington George Gershwin. Charlie “Bird ” Parker ‘s life is the template for tragic lives of the creative originals The books below are excellent examples of the shift from hagiography to ethnography.