Singing music biographies for the holidays
MARK GUARINO November 25, 2015
Ever since Bob Dylan and Keith Richards wrote memoirs that turned into unexpected hits, the holiday season has been rife with books that take similar deep dives into the lives of musicians and their off-stage stories. This time around, the bookshelves represent memoirs and biographies of musicians from multiple genres, from indie rock to zydeco. Here is a brief look at the standouts:
Red Velvet Underground by Freda Love Smith, Agate Midway, 208 pages, $16
Once the drummer in the cherished indie-pop bands the Blake Babies, Mysteries of Life and Antenna, Freda Love Smith is an Evanston mother of two sons. This unorthodox memoir is about food, parenting, growing up and making sense of the past. All these themes intersect in wonderful and relatable ways, as Love Smith applies lessons from her former touring life to raising teenagers. Thoughtful and wry, she’s a storyteller who doesn’t scrub out blemishes but reminds readers just how much being an individual still matters, even in adulthood.
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello, Blue Rider, 688 pages, $30
There is little surprise that the first memoir by this pop raconteur clips along with witty stories about his life in music and insights into his obsessions with the American songbook. For diehards, there are backstories for his best-loved songs, but even for casual fans, the stories of his collaborations with titans such as Paul McCartney, Allen Toussaint and George Jones make it worth picking up.
Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes, Henry Holt, 336 pages, $30
Tom Petty has written some of the landmark songs of FM radio’s glory days. But instead of portraying Petty as a hero, Warren Zanes shows readers a vulnerable loner who, unlike Bruce Springsteen and others of his era, has struggled to reconcile with the changing trends of the music industry. We get the usual fly-on-the-wall access, but it’s the perspective of Petty from more recent years that shows why he’s the ultimate outsider.
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir by Carrie Brownstein, Riverhead, 256 pages, $27.95
Sorry, “Portlandia” fans: Carrie Brownstein’s most enduring legacy is as the slash-and-burn guitarist in Sleater-Kinney, the rock trio that reunited this year and performed a mesmerizing set at last summer’s Pitchfork Music Festival. This memoir takes fans into the van with her accounts of the early Pacific Northwest scene, the sexism she encountered early in her career, and her struggles with depression and anxiety.
Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music by John Fogerty, Little, Brown, 416 pages, $30
Did anyone in rock history get more of a raw deal than John Fogerty? The notorious publishing deal that gave ownership of his best-loved hits with Creedence Clearwater Revival to his record company is fully documented here, as are his split with his brother Tom, his battle with alcoholism and his comeback. It’s a classic rock ‘n’ roll survivor’s tale.
Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll by Peter Guralnick, Little, Brown, 765 pages, $32
The title says it all: Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records in Memphis, didn’t just discover Elvis Presley; he is credited with conceptualizing the fusion between R&B and country music that predated “That’s All Right.” Presley embodied that dream, but even long after his association with the King ended, Phillips continued as a larger-than-life figure deserving of such a hefty biography. Gurlanick is responsible for a peerless two-volume treatment of Presley and the unparalleled access to Phillips helps complete that story.
MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson by Steve Knopper, Scribner, 448 pages, $27
This Chicago Tribune contributor goes back to the King of Pop’s roots in Gary, Ind., to reconstruct the ascent, then the slide that dominated the latter half of his career. Extensive interviews with the multitudes who crossed Jackson’s path, from record executives to studio personnel to video directors, set Knopper’s effort apart, and the portrayal shies away from sensationalism. What emerges is a thoughtful look at an artist who grew up in a segregated mill town and who, for the rest of his life, made music to bring down walls.
Way Down In Louisiana: Clifton Chenier, Cajun, Zydeco, and Swamp Pop Music by Todd Mouton, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 289 pages, $24.95
Clifton Chenier was the Little Richard of swamp music: He injected high-energy and boogie-woogie rhythm into zydeco, blasting it into the charts and the commercial mainstream far outside the Pelican state. This handsome collection of profiles and photographs tells that story along with those of other masters of southwestern Louisiana music who that followed: Buckwheat Zydeco, Steve Riley, BeauSoleil, Sonny Landreth, among others. Mouton casts these performers in their environments, showing that what makes the music special is not just the performance but the culture from which it sprang.