Part of my Saturday ritual includes listening to CKUA. Albertans are incredibly fortunate to have this gem of public broadcasting available on our airwaves. Over the years, CKUA’s wide and eclectic programming has led me to many musicians I hadn’t heard before and opened my ears to a mix of music I doubt you’d find anywhere else.
In her show last Saturday, Keri Rak mentioned a rock & roll book club. What?!! How did I not know about this? More importantly how do I get in?
Almost as much as I love music, I love reading about musicians, how they got to where they did, what drove them there, and how they dealt with it all once they’d arrived. Reading about someone whose music you love, their muses and demons, their motivations, and their influences, lets the listener deeper into who they really are. Afterward, for me, their music becomes richer, more layered, knowing where it comes from.
Here are a few of my favourite books about a few of my favourite musicians.
Life by Keith Richards with James Fox
The butt of comedians’ jokes on aging, it’s easy to forget that Richards is an extraordinarily talented guitar player with a long legacy and endless faith to his blues roots. Sure we know all about the feuds with Jager, the heavy drug use, the partying, but there’s so much more to the man. Richards recounts the story of his life from earliest childhood to current day with remarkable honesty and humour. His story focuses primarily on the music - his one true love. From the first paragraph to the last, the book is entirely entertaining and engaging. It’s his life and what a ride it’s been! A must read for any Stones fan.
Under Their Thumb by Bill German
There are serious fans and then there is Bill German. He lived the life of every Rolling Stone fan and gives a fascinating look into that life. Obsessed by the band and still just a teenager, he started a fanzine, Beggar’s Banquet, a monthly magazine devoted to all things Stones-related. Eventually he travels and parties with the band, becoming part of their entourage, publishing the magazine for 17 years. Heartbreaking and mesmerizing, his obsession consumed him until, for the sake of his sanity, he had to leave it all behind.
Waging Heavy Peace by Neil Young
Canadian icon Neil Young has always marched to his own drum. He’s not someone who takes the most popular route but is always an engaging, if not somewhat kooky, guy. A committed environmentalist and eclectic inventor, he is first and foremost, an amazing singer-songwriter who has penned so many memorable songs. The book is written in a stream-of-consciousness format with Young slipping from topic to topic wherever his thoughts take him. A life-long pot smoker, Young admits he was off the weed for the first time in his life when he wrote the book. I wonder if that accounts for his meandering ramblings. As such, he would have benefited from a good editor or ghost writer to corral his thoughts into a more coherent read.
Collected Works, A Journal of Jazz by Whitney Balliett
Jazz critic for The New Yorker, Balliett has spent a lifetime listening to and writing about jazz. From the very first Newport Jazz Festival to recent performances, he gives us pitch-perfect portraits on legends such as Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum and Buddie Rich. Through Balliett’s celebrated essays and encyclopedic knowledge, he captures the soul of jazz with passion and brilliant writing. Do not miss this one if you’re a jazz lover.
Not Dead Yet by Phil Collins
I’m not a super fan but British drummer and singer, Collins’s story is humorous and wildly entertaining. He tells his story from childhood through to his early days of music. Originally hoping to act, at 13 he’s hired for a crowd scene in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ with the Beatles. Instead, he learns the drums by fire in seedy London clubs before landing a gig, and a home, with the band, Genesis. Collins doesn’t pull any punches and talks candidly about his three marriages, multiple children, and descent into depression after retirement. Witty and honest, it’s a good story told well.
Reckless Daughter, A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe
This is the definitive book about this incredible, some say genius, singer- songwriter-painter. The book recounts her life, her loves, and especially her music from childhood to present day. Like many powerful, creative forces, Mitchell is exacting, demanding, uncompromising, and a genuine pain in the ass to work with. But she’s also a romantic with a thirst for love and its meaning. A great read for anyone who truly loves music.
Joni, The Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell by Katherine Monk
Unlike the above, this book is an exploration of the artist’s creative philosophies. It explores how art and fame have shaped Mitchell, and how she stays true to herself and her art. It’s a bit of a heavy read, and is almost a literary criticism with Monk deconstructing her songs for meaning. There’s a fair bit of bitching about the music industry which isn’t a surprise from someone as private as Mitchell, but she readily acknowledges her responsibility for her own unhappiness. For serious Mitchell fans.
Delta Blues by Ted Gioia
Serious blues lovers will appreciate this essential take on the history, evolution, and major influences of the blues. Very detailed, it’s a bit of a reference book documenting the origins of blues and its influence on many musical genres to follow. It is well-written and expertly researched with accounts of early musicians such as Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Muddy Waters, to more contemporary figures such as John Lee Hooker and Buddy Guy. Fortunately, Gioia doesn’t neglect the many fine female blues artists, including Big Mama Thornton, Bessie Smith, and Geeshie Wiley. The book never romanticizes the blues and doesn’t shy from the hard-scrabble lives of its subjects. These were men and women living in former slave states playing the Devil’s music. Their music wasn’t played on radio stations and they weren’t allowed to play in clubs, both of which were white enclaves in those days. But the music was everything and they persisted. Thank goodness for that!
Corn Flakes with John Lennon by Robert Hilburn
Some good stories and insight into that little British band from Liverpool. Written by L.A. Times’ rock critic, Hilburn gets close to Johnny Cash, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Bono, Curt Kobain, and others in a way few have. Granted exclusive interviews and access, he covers how the musicians dealt with drugs, fame, parenthood, political activism and other challenges. It was a good read, but if you’re examining the ‘70s music scene, there were many noticeable absences - Stones, Pink Floyd, The Who, David Bowie, to name a few. I found some of his subject choices a bit odd, but then it’s his book and he gravitated to those he liked best. I suppose when I write mine, I can pick my own choices too.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
While not technically falling into the genre of music books, Just Kids is a look at artist-musician Patti Smith and her best friend, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Together, they explore art, love, and New York’s scene of poetry, rock & roll, and sexual politics. Scrappy and romantic, they share an unusual bond of love and creativity for the next twenty-plus years. Beautifully written with Smith’s candid wit and singular wisdom.
Texas Flood, The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan by Alan Paul and Andy Aledort
Every so often, someone comes along with an almost magical dose of creative genius. In my mind that was SRV. Unlike the traditional biography, Texas Flood presents a veritable feast of facts, photos, and interviews from those who knew him best, leaving the reader to piece together their own truths about the man. And of course, a tragic sadness overlays it all knowing the ending. From his masterful exploration of blues guitar, to life on the road, to his eventual freedom from drugs and alcohol and acceptance of a higher power, SRV showed what it was like to reach down into the darkness of his soul and communicate it through the power of music. Like the man himself, this book is a gift to blues lovers.
This list is far from exhaustive. There are many great books written on the men and women who bring us their sound and every one of them encourages us to listen to their music with a deeper appreciation.
I’d love to hear some of your favourites - in the meantime, I encourage you to tune into CKUA if you aren’t already a listener. And of course, for those of you outside Alberta airwaves, this great station is also available online.
Today was vaccination day for yours truly and I’m stoked. Better days are coming, my friends, so keep hopeful. Keep wearing your mask, doing your best to stay home, and get the vaccine when it’s your turn.
Until next time, happy reading!
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