From Hanson To Sinatra, A Narrow Focus On Niches

Posted: December 07, 1997

Apart from the obvious fast-money titles - David Lee Roth's erratic, rather unglued biography Crazy From the Heat (Hyperion, $23.95), the Poppy Z. Bright treatment of Courtney Love, the inevitable quickie bios of Hanson and others - this year's crop of books on music align with one of the trends defining the music itself: They're splintered into tiny subgenres, trained on niche audiences. Even the outburst of titles devoted to Frank Sinatra is narrow in scope. There are books on Sinatra's style, on his musical gifts, on the gossip surrounding him.

In this specialized environment, Philadelphia-based music phenomenons found a bit of spotlight this year. There were two books on American Bandstand: Dick Clark's American Bandstand (HarperCollins, $20), an official photo history of the pioneering show, and a more analytical behind-the-scenes account called American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock and Roll Empire by John A. Jackson (Oxford University Press, $27.50).

There was John F. Szwed's extensive, almost too scholarly survey of the work of music revolutionary Sun Ra, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (Pantheon, $29.95). After too long in the shadows, the story of one of the region's gospel mainstays, the Clara Ward Singers, was finally told in the comprehensive How I Got Over: Clara Ward and the World-Famous Ward Singers by Willa Ward-Royster (Temple, $26.95). And Philly-based rock scribe Chuck Eddy took readers on a tour of the more remote regions of his psyche with the compendium The Accidental Evolution Of Rock 'N' Roll (Da Capo, $15.95), musings on the connections between disparate musical styles and the way those connections can affect ordinary listeners.

Whether you are shopping for the Aerosmith fan who has everything or just curious about the roots of reggae, following are thumbnail sketches of some of the year's most interesting books on music.

Two formidable old-school rappers - Chuck D and LL Cool J - have come out with autobiographies. The Public Enemy leader's Fight the Power: Rap, Race and Reality (Delacorte, $23.95) contains an introduction by Spike Lee, and it's just as emphatic and impassioned (and occasionally confused) as you would expect. Chuck grinds political axes with everyone from superstar black athletes to white record-company executives, and Fight the Power even comes with a consciousness-raising reading list. LL's I Make My Own Rules (St. Martin's, $22.95) is more playful, though the In the House sitcom star also unburdens himself of many personal traumas. Consumer tip: Only the Parental Advisory Edition contains the chapter on LL's sex addiction, with such priceless remembrances as: ``There was a world full of groupies, and I was the Christopher Columbus of hip-hop.''

Nicholas Dawidoff's In the Country of Country (Pantheon, $25) does a solid job of profiling many of the major players who form the backbone of classic country music, from Jimmie Rodgers to Patsy Cline to Merle Haggard. The best snapshots here are of Charlie Louvin, who opens up about his troubled life with his supremely talented brother, Ira, and Johnny Cash, who comes across as a man haunted by demons who has constantly kept moving to best avoid confronting the full measure of his own talent. Cash: The Autobiography (Harper San Francisco, $25) is not so unsparing of its subject, but is still far more honest and compelling than most tell-alls, and is full of lively accounts of the Man in Black's friendships with Waylon Jennings, Billy Graham and Bob Dylan, his long struggle with addiction to painkillers, and the time his pet ostrich kicked him in the stomach.

What became of the idealism that seemed to be the calling card of the countercultural rock of the 1960s? Did it turn out that the thing that rock and roll was best at was making money?

Fred Goodman's The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Springsteen, and the Head-On Collision of Rock and Commerce (Times Books, $25) worries over those questions with a perspective that combines baby-boomer nostalgia for the high-minded hippie days with a clear-eyed reporter's skill. Goodman faves like Neil Young are treated like saints, while Bruce Springsteen and David Geffen get dissed at length, but Mansion is invaluable for its behind-the-scenes account of how the business of music really works.

The very existence of Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock (Random House, $25) is a testament to the shifting of rock's gender balance in the '90s. With a preface by pioneering female rock critic Ellen Willis, it covers the bases with a largely commendable compendium of female-penned essays on blues mamas, Billie Holiday, Madonna and pioneering all-woman garage bands and puts the mainstream rock journal's seal of approval on the ongoing girl-rock revolution. With Courtney Love: The Real Story (Simon & Schuster, $25), erotic-horror author Poppy Z. Brite promises a ``moving tale of ferocious femininity and fishnet stockings'' and does deliver a decently written expose of an already overexposed icon. And Sexing the Groove (Routledge, $20) is a collection of academic essays with such titles as ``Rebel Girl, You Are the Queen of My World: Feminism, Subculture and Grrrl Power'' that contains some lively writing on pop music and gender.

It's always the season for Frank Sinatra books, and this year there are three of note, plus one in paperback. J. Randy Taraborelli's Sinatra: Behind the Legend (Birch Lane Press, $27.50) is a 500-page-plus, adequately written tome that is kinder than Kitty Kelley's infamous 1987 hatchet job while still focusing on dishy details of the Chairman's well-lived life. (Principal revelations: Ol' Blue Eyes allegedly bedded both Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.) Donald Clarke's All or Nothing at All (Fromm International, $25.95) is a slimmer, more reputable balance of biography and musical analysis. The musical bio to get, however, is Will Friedwald's Sinatra! The Song Is You (Da Capo, $17,95), which pays proper heed to Sinatra the Voice's artistic accomplishments. And the most fun is Bill Zehme's The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin' (Harper Collins, $23), which parties into the night with the leader of the Rat Pack who likes his pasta al dente and Jack Daniel's on ice.

The four editions of the Trouser Press Record Guide have served as peerless underground-rock consumer guides to all who have perused them. The good news about the Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock (Fireside, $24.95) is that it's all new, and that, with more than 2,300 entries, the Ira Robbins-edited compendium comes as close to making sense of the post-Nirvana alt-rock explosion as seems humanly possible. Want to know the difference between the Orb and Orbital, or bone up on the back catalogs of Eugenius and Uncle Wiggly? For inveterate music heads, this is the the place.


The Complete Poems and Lyrics

Crown. $27.50

Very few songwriters can command this type of career-overview anthology. Even those who have written lots of songs don't necessarily write the kind of songs you want to re-examine as pure poetry. Joni Mitchell's wordplay, on the other hand, seems to expand on the printed page - her blunt self-revelations and carefully chosen images resonate independently of the rhythm, and some of her songs, like ``Hejira,'' acquire whole new dimensions as they unfold line by line rather than verse by chorus.


Conversations With Contemporary Musicians about Spirituality,

Creativity and Consciousness

By Dimitri Ehrlich

Shambhala. $15

The premise is simple: Even those pop artists who have no connection to an organized religion grapple, on some level, with questions of spirituality. Music journalist Ehrlich interviewed everyone from Al Green to Allen Ginsberg to Philip Glass to Jeff Buckley, and this series of short profiles captures their thoughts on meditation, motivation, and the cultivation of ideas. An excellent investigation, this book does more than share secrets of highly artistic people. It illuminates many different spiritual paths and shows how those paths can enrich the creative process.


By the editors of Vibe

Crown. $25.95


The Life of Tupac Shakur

By Armond White

Thunder's Mouth Press. $13.95

In the preface to Tupac Shakur, former Vibe editor Alan Light writes, ``Tupac had come to embody all the contradictions and confusion that have grown up around hip-hop. He was . . . a screen onto which millions of people projected their feelings about rap, about race, and about the young black man in America today.'' So it's not surprising that two of the year's most interesting hip-hop books take on Shakur, who remains a hot-button topic, an unresolved piece of the cultural puzzle more than two years after his murder.

The Vibe book pairs the magazine's extensive reporting on Shakur - the four cover stories, countless album reviews, even material from Vibe Online - with remarkable pictures of the photogenic rapper during each phase of his short career. White's biography, by contrast, strives to spin a narrative from the tattered threads of Shakur's life. It provides insight into the rapper's adolescence and family life, and sketches the off-stage world of hip-hop kids with great precision. White doesn't hide his admiration for Shakur, and there are times when his haranguing at those who misunderstand hip-hop clutters the prose and diminishes the reporting.


The Autobiography of Aerosmith

By Aerosmith, with Stephen Davis

Avon Books. $25

Aerosmith is one of the few rock bands with enough history to justify a 500-page book, and Stephen Davis, whose previous works include the Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods, is smart enough to let the arena-rock bad boys tell their tales. Walk This Way covers three decades in the rock wars. Accounts of the band's early years are followed by descriptions of the development of such classics as ``Sweet Emotion'' and ``Walk This Way,'' which are followed by accounts of the band's prodigious drug habits. These, of course, are followed by the insider story of the band's improbable rehabilitation and return to prominence in the late '80s.


Jazz in Our Time

By Tom Piazza

St. Martin's Press. $21.95


The Murder of Jazz

By Eric Nisenson

St. Martin's Press. $22.95

Every few years, some jazz scholar comes along grumbling about the state of jazz radio or the tepid recordings to proclaim the ``death'' of the music. This year, two established authors have taken on this subject, and while both work up a healthy passion, neither makes a compelling case for what they see as terminal illness.

Nisenson, whose books include a scattered John Coltrane biography, vamps through a pedestrian account of jazz history to anchor his argument. By the time he reaches his big conclusion, the point is rendered inconsequential by the chatter of trivia. Piazza's essays are more disciplined: Whether he's tracing the influence of Art Tatum, in a piece originally published in the New York Times, or weighing the long-term impact of institutional repertory-driven programs such as Jazz at Lincoln Center in this surprisingly slim book's closing essay, Piazza brings both a confident grasp of history and a sure, deftly descriptive sense of language. Although the individual sketches are nice, they rarely combine to form a convincing picture of jazz in the present.

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