Recommended Reads from the Rock and Roll Bookshelf

25 Apr

Lately, I’ve focused more on films or books about musicians rather than the music itself. I don’t know if that’s because there haven’t been a lot of new releases I’ve been interested in or because I haven’t been to a live show in a while. (Maybe I just wanted to look badass by reading a book that’s been blurbed by Slash, Kirk Hammett and Billy Gibbons while waiting for a blood draw at my doctor’s office.)

The two most recent rock books I’ve read couldn’t be more different, and I recommend them both:

So many facets, so little time ...

So many facets, so little time …

David Byrne’s How Music Works is the definition of eclectic, which comes as no surprise. Byrne has not stood still since the Talking Heads broke up and has diversified his artistic output over the years to include painting, producing, writing scores for film and dance, and even cycling. His most recent project is Here Lies Love, which began as an album he did a few years ago with DJ Fatboy Slim as an interpretation of the significance of the life of Imelda Marcos. It is now being presented at the Public Theater as “a 90-minute theatrical experience” for which “dancing is encouraged” and  “comfortable shoes and clothing are recommended.”

How Music Works is Byrne’s meditation on why music sounds the way it does and how the music industry has grown up around the desire to capture and share the “real” experience of live performance when, of course, that can never truly happen. While not exactly light reading, it’s not as dreary as it sounds, either. He’s got a droll sense of humor and he points out things I never considered before, like how the acoustics and floor plan of a performance venue – be it a cathedral or CBGB’s – determines the success of the music played there almost more than the talent of the musicians does.

What I found fascinating was his description of how he’s written lyrics to some songs based not on their meaning as much as their tonal quality: he’ll want certain vowel sounds to be part of a phrase, so he identifies words to deliver them. This is antithetical to pretty much any other songwriter I’ve heard of, save maybe Stephen Sondheim. David Byrne isn’t looking as much for the emotional or even intellectual connection we have with words. Instead he aims to connect us to their power as expressions of pure sound, as instruments.

Do as I did and read it on a long plane trip. Even if you don’t enjoy the book you’ll look incredibly erudite.

drawing on every boy's notebook in high school

This was the drawing on nearly every boy’s notebook cover in my high school in the early 1980s … although usually it was drawn with a blue Bic pen

At present, I’m in the midst of Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page by Brad Tolinski, who is the editor in chief of Guitar World magazine. The stated purpose of the book is not to dwell on Led Zeppelin’s lurid history or Page’s fascination with the occult but to talk solely about the man as musician.

jimmy-page double neckPage’s background as a studio session guitarist helped him develop a superb work ethic and keen ear as a producer. As the third and last lead guitarist for the Yardbirds – following Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck – he began to push his love for American blues into new directions. Then Led Zeppelin became the most successful band in the universe … and here we are with a book full of vivid memories of how it all came together with Jimmy Page steering the ship.

Overall this is a very good read, with Page coming off as the thoughtful, disciplined and inspirational musician he was in the 2008 documentary, It Might Get Loud. (Nothing like seeing Jack White and the Edge get starry-eyed over watching their guitar hero up close.) Tolinski asks intelligent questions, and his background gives him solid footing when talking to Page about guitars, equipment and production tricks and techniques. Still there’s an element of drooling, fanboy awe and superiority in some of his questions that makes me – and perhaps Page – giggle:

In retrospect, your agenda was clear: Led Zeppelin was taking the existing ideas found in traditional blues, folk, and rock and moving them into the future. Led Zeppelin III was a substantial leap in that direction.

Okay, okay, well, there it is, then.

Reading this book inspired me to listen to ultra-familiar Led Zeppelin material with fresh ears, which is practically a miracle – and reason enough to recommend it.

So, what’s on your nightstand these days?

See you on the flip side …

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8 Responses to “Recommended Reads from the Rock and Roll Bookshelf”

  1. waynelaw April 25, 2013 at 2:51 am #

    Was lucky to catch David Byrne in his days with the Talking Heads…he was a madman on stage- At one point he just ran around the drum set like some rabid dog chasing a rabbit…good times. Anyway, you are right about him not standing still in the artistic/music world.

    • lpon45 May 4, 2013 at 9:42 pm #

      You are a lucky man indeed! The closest I got was watching “Stop Making Sense.”

  2. Pam Houghton April 25, 2013 at 8:45 am #

    Right now, I am reading My Father’s Daughter, a Memoir, by Tina Sinatra. Currently, in Tina’s very early years as the daughter of Frank Sinatra. I am finding it very, very interesting! Also, in the past year have read Just Kids by Patti Smith. That was quite wonderful.

    • lpon45 April 25, 2013 at 9:32 pm #

      I’ve heard about Tina Sinatra’s book and I’d be interested to know what you thought of it. “Just Kids” is pretty terrific. I consider Patti Smith more of a poet now than I did previously because of that book. Thanks for adding to my stack of reading material!

  3. bowiefan1970 April 25, 2013 at 11:12 pm #

    I’m reading Keef Richard’s “Life”. I hesitated to read it, thinking I knew everything about the Stones, but reading it feels like he’s sitting next to you, sharing stories. His voice comes through, and he’s a master of colorful phrasing. Plus, he talks about his approach to the guitar and other things outside of the Stones’ story.

    • lpon45 April 27, 2013 at 8:59 am #

      I agree with you: “Life” is my favorite rock memoir because Richards (with the help of his co-writer, no doubt) can really tell a story. It feels like a conversation with him at the next bar stool. I loved it!

  4. Ovidiu Boar February 20, 2014 at 6:39 am #

    Nice post, you got me really interested in Byrne’s book, even though I’m not a huge Talking Heads fan. To answer your question, I’ve just finished reading ‘Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon’ by Tony Fletcher and was highly impressed by it. You’ve probably heard the praise it got over the years, but I just want to add that it deserves every bit of it. It’s highly informative, captivating and full of anecdotes. Everything you need to know about Moon is there – from the crazy, to the funny, to the downright depressing. I mean, if there is any rock star whose life is worth researching and writing about, it’s definitely Moon the Loon’s. And this book fully does him justice in my opinion – I highly recommend it to those who haven’t read it.

    • lpon45 February 20, 2014 at 10:32 pm #

      I am so grateful that you have a Keith Moon book to recommend – I knew about “Full Moon” but hadn’t heard about “Dear Boy.” I’ll look it up.

      Hope you enjoy the David Byrne book if you get around to it. I read Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn over the holidays and that was utterly terrific. What else do you have on your reading list?

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