Thursday, February 26, 2009

In my last post I put forward my list for the best books ever published about rock music. Since a list only says so much, I'm going write at greater length about some of the titles on the list in this and upcoming posts.

To start, some thoughts about Charles Shaar Murray's great book on Jimi Hendrix, Crosstown Traffic. This one's a logical place to start, since I just got through teaching it in my rock history course at Smith. It also holds a special place in my own intellectual development, for reasons I'll explain below. I don't know if it's my absolute favorite rock book of all time but it's certain up there in the top 5.

For those who don't know, Murray is a British critic who has been publishing since the 1960s. When he first came on the scene as a journalist he was something of a boy wonder, still a teenager but with a lot of musical knowledge and an especial interest in varieties of black music. As far as I know, he got his start with Oz magazine, a great oddball publication that also featured a lot of early writing by Germaine Greer, but really rose to prominence when he joined the staff of New Musical Express in the early 1970s, where he wrote some great articles on Bowie, Alice Cooper and a host of other rock luminaries of the time.

I didn't know all of this when I first read Crosstown Traffic. At that time, I was in my first or second year of graduate school at University of North Carolina, Chapel (somewhere around 1990 or '91; the book was published in '89), was working on a master's thesis on - get this - representations of masculinity in 1970s pornographic film. Nice work if you can get it, huh? But doing research on porn was getting tiresome – after watching something like forty films in the span of a month or two I couldn’t see pursuing this much further – and I was looking for a different topic to write about for my dissertation.

Music had long been my abiding passion at that point, and I’d done some music research as an undergrad, having written an honor’s thesis on Ornette Coleman, pioneer of free jazz. I was reading around, brainstorming, trying to grasp onto a topic that I thought could hold my interest for the next several years.

Somewhere amidst all this, I picked up a copy of Crosstown Traffic at the campus bookstore. I’d read books on Hendrix before – most notably David Henderson’s great bio, ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky – but even just looking at Murray’s book in the bookstore it seemed different. This was clearly not just a bio. It was more an attempt to interpret Hendrix and his place in the cultural history of the 1960s. I was hooked.

Murray’s book is so good because it’s one of the few books out there that successfully takes a single figure and uses him to recast the whole history of twentieth century popular music. Through Murray’s eyes and ears, Hendrix becomes a key figure in sorting through a wide range of compelling issues: the lingering significance of the 1960s and battles over the meaning of that decade in the years that followed; the difference between expressions of masculinity among black bluesmen and white rockers; the overarching importance of race in the history of rock and popular music; and the importance of the electric guitar as perhaps the major musical instrument of the twentieth century.

Murray also writes about Hendrix’s music really well, making a powerful case in the book’s final three chapters for the ways in which Hendrix is tied to the three major strains of black music running through the 1960s – blues, soul, and jazz. In Crosstown Traffic Hendrix comes across as not just a great innovator but a great musical synthesist, who assembled a complex hybrid African American identity through a roving musical imagination.

When I read Crosstown Traffic, it opened the way for me to think about the music I loved in a new light. Murray invested Hendrix with the larger cultural significance I knew he had but had not yet developed the vocabulary for expressing. From there, it was just a few steps further before I decided to embark on my dissertation on the history of the electric guitar, which later became my first book, Instruments of Desire.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

When I thought about starting a blog, one of the things I always imagined doing was offering my thoughts about books on the subject of popular music. I'm a popular music scholar, after all, and as such I almost certainly read more about the subject than 98% of all humans, maybe even 99%. For instance, I'm sitting in my home office, which has three bookshelves in it, probably about 300 books in the room with me as I speak, almost all of which are books about music. And of this mass of books there are maybe 10 that I haven't read at least parts of, lest you think these are merely books for show. And that's just in one room of my house.

(The weirdly compulsive part of me is tempted to list every book on the shelves I just mentioned, but that would be ridiculous...or would it? Maybe another time.)

To jump start the process, I've spent part of the day assembling a list of what I think are the best books that have been written on the subject of rock. I'm not usually that much of a list maker, but it seemed like a good way to start a chain of conversation, if only with myself, about what makes for a good book about music. The list is based on a fairly narrow definition of rock - no books about jazz, country, hip hop, or disco, for instance, all subjects about which books have been written that I think are top notch. I'll probably assemble a separate list some time of my top music books, regardless of genre or style, but for now it's all about the rock.

The one area on which I bent my rule of genre specificity is blues, since there are a couple blues books that I think are foundational to the subject of rock. You'll know what they are if you read the list.

There are a lot of notable omissions from this list, too many to bother naming. I could probably come up with an honorable mention list almost as long as this one without losing too much in quality. And, in some cases I haven't included work by authors who are great essay writers, but who to my mind don't have that one book that absolutely captures them at their best (this especially applies to Robert Christgau).

Without further ado, here it is, my picks for the best rock books ever written (listed alphabetically):

Lester Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung
Amiri Baraka, Blues People
Chuck Berry, The Autobiography
Robert Duncan, The Noise
Chuck Eddy, Stairway to Hell
Jonathan Eisen (ed.), The Age of Rock and The Age of Rock 2
Mick Farren, Give the Anarchist a Cigarette
Simon Frith, Performing Rites
Donna Gaines, Teenage Wasteland
Bernard Gendron, Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club
Bill Graham with Robert Greenfield, Bill Graham Presents
Greil Marcus, Mystery Train
Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me
Richard Meltzer, The Aesthetics of Rock
James Miller (ed.), The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll
Motley Crue with Neil Strauss, The Dirt
Charles Shaar Murray, Crosstown Traffic
Ann Powers and Evelyn McDonnell (eds.), Rock She Wrote
Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming
Robert Walser, Running with the Devil

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

File this under: here's why I like to read through old rock magazines. Or, further proof that Grand Funk Railroad was one of the most important bands of the 1970s.

I've never heard of The Deele, but apparently they were a Cincinnati-based R&B group of the 1980s that was the first big step up the ladder of fame by noted producers L.A. Reid and Babyface Edmonds. In an old issue of Record magazine - a short-lived offshoot of Rolling Stone - The Deele is briefly profiled (by Anthony DeCurtis, no less), and Reid offers the following comment about his influences:

"I remember seeing Grand Funk Railroad do an outdoor stadium show in Cincinnati. They just blowed me away ... It was rainin' and they didn't stop. I said, 'I wanna do that!'"

Check chapter one of This Ain't the Summer of Love for more on Grand Funk. They deserve a longer entry on this blog, but I just don't have the energy at the moment.

To be continued.

Friday, February 6, 2009

It's finally happened. Reunited at last. For the first time in my adult life, all my records are living in the same house.

It's been a long time coming. Ever since I moved away from California in the fall of 1990, off to grad school in North Carolina and never to look back, I had left a good chunk of my record collection at my parents' house. I didn't have room to store them or to cart them all around with me, especially since I spent the '90s moving about a lot and living in small apartments when I was settled. From a trailer (yes a trailer) in Chapel Hill to a small studio in Minneapolis to another small studio in Nashville to a decent sized room, but still just one room, in a big musty Victorian in Somerville to my own little two-bedroom rental house in Oxford, Ohio (but only for a year) - that was my 1990s, and packing up as often as I did I didn't want all my records to have to come along for the ride every time.

Many of the records I kept at my parents' house were records I could easily live without, although I'd never consider selling them. For me, my record collection is an archive of my shifting taste, mistakes and all. King Kobra, Rough Cutt, Sammy Hagar's crappy right wing VOA album - these are some of the dregs of my collection, but they remind me that my taste isn't inviolable, which is a good thing for a hipster snob like me to remember from time to time.

Then again, a lot of the records that shared my parents' home were pretty great records that I just never saw fit to transport back to wherever I was living. Much of my jazz collection was there, including lots of Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, etc. I've missed these albums, but as long as I had a working stereo where my parents lived it was one of the things I looked forward to when going back to visit (see my last post for some of my feelings about my home town of Simi Valley; not my favorite place on earth).

A lot of my rock collection was there too, and I've missed many of these albums as well. I'm not embarassed to say it, but I think it's revealing of myself that when all my old albums arrived from California to my home in Massachusetts, the first one I listened to was...get ready...Ted Nugent's Free for All. "Dog Eat Dog" is one raging m-f-er of a rock and roll song, and the guitar solo is spot-on, and what's even better is that I can play it damn near note-for-note. And the song that follows it, "Writing on the Wall," is just as badass, one of Ted's hidden gems, an album track that never got much play but has walls of killer guitar. Ted's politics suck, no doubt about it, but the dude made some of the best straight-up kickass guitar saturated rock music of the 1970s, and fuck you if you disagree.

Why did I finally shift all my albums to my Massachusetts home, you might ask? Because my parents, at long last, are getting ready to move out of their home of 43 years and into a retirement community - and they're moving to Massachusetts to boot. Of course, all their friends think they're crazy for leaving that lovely warm weather, but hey, I'm here, and they want to spend their remaining years closer than 3000 miles away from their only child. So my records are here, and soon my parents will be near, which will be a reunion of a whole different kind.