Sunday, June 26, 2011

Rockwrite Top 10

When I am without new stuff to read, as I often am because I'm diabolically bad at remembering authors and titles (Idiot; write it down!), I often find myself gravitating back to the same pile of music tomes that shaped my taste that I've been dipping into for years. Here they are, listed chronologically.

1) Lillian Roxon's Rock Encyclopedia -- I first owned this in hardcover when I was 12, after reading an excerpt on the Who that started a life-long obsession in a giveaway mag at school. Its author, an Aussie journo living in NYC and a familiar of Danny Fields and Germaine Greer, went on to champion the Stooges, the Dolls, and the women's movement before dying from an asthma attack, aged 41, in 1973. I recently scored another copy and was astonished to realize that at the time of its publication in 1969, most of the stuff I care about now hadn't happened yet. Much of the book consists of perfunctory entries and lists of records, but when she cares about her subject matter, her descriptions (of the Yardbirds, the Jefferson Airplane, B.B. King, the Blues Project, the Rascals, the Lovin' Spoonful, and the Velvet Underground -- her tastes were, perhaps unsurprisingly, fairly Noo Yawk-centric) are choice. Must to avoid: The ripoff 1978 edition, compiled by Ed Naha, that used none of Lillian's scrawl but co-opted her title, typographical style and format. Boo! Hiss!

2) Rock From the Beginning by Nik Cohn -- Also known as Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, this also first appeared in 1969. An eruption of prose poetry that flew off the top of a 22-year-old novelist's head in a weekend when he thought it was all over, this was the first "music book" I encountered that was as exciting to read as its subject matter was to listen to. Still is. Cohn is probably my favorite writer. Besides this and his novels, he also has some good travel writing to his credit, as well as a book (Triksta) about his adventures as a hip-hop producer in pre-Katrina New Orleans. Oh, and he wrote the New York magazine story that inspired Saturday Night Fever. Must to avoid: The 1972 revision that toned down or deleted some of his wilder, more scabrous, and probably-borderline-libelous assertions. If you haven't read him, you owe it to yourself.

3) Outlaw Blues by Paul Williams -- When I was in Hawaii in '69, I bought a copy of Crawdaddy!, the rock zine Boston sci-fi geek Williams had founded as a teenager in '66 and had only recently backed away from. His searching intellect was matched only by his boundless enthusiasm, and he wrote intelligently from a fan's perspective about such obsessions o' the hour as Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, and the Doors. His lengthy explication of Jefferson Airplane's After Bathing At Baxter's is classic and made me a fan of the album, if not the band, for life. Brain-injured in a 1995 bicycle accident, he now suffers from dementia. He deserves better. (Who doesn't?)

4) Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child of the Aquarian Age by David Henderson -- Also known as 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky. Fustest with the mostest when it comes to Hendrix bios, this 1978 tome by a poet whom I'd unwittingly already heard on Ornette's Science Fiction was a worthy read, even though large chunks were lifted verbatim from the September 1975 Hendrix issue of Guitar Player that was required bathroom reading the last semester of my aborted college career. My first edition copy was stolen by a former coworker when I unassed Austin in a hurry to go up to Colorado to make a band.

5) Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs -- I'd read St. Lester in Creem as a teenager, but this 1987 anthology hit me like a ton of bricks and set the stage for me to get pulled back into the vortex by Uncle Lou's New York album a couple of years later. The aesthetic put forth in Lester's freewheeling, occasionally fanciful, and frequently self-indulgent screeds on the Stooges' Funhouse, the Godz, the Count Five, and the Troggs eventually won out over the "classic rock" orthodoxy it opposed, although it proved to be reductionist and limiting enough in its own right. His running battle with Lou Reed was amusing enough, although ultimately a dead end, and his lengthy reportage on the Clash showed how much of a moralist Lester was becoming toward the end of his too-short life. His Peter Laughner obituary will break your heart, and some of his best writing on Beefheart, the Stones, and Miles had to wait for 2003's Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste to be anthologized. Goodbye, baby, and amen.

6) Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and Postwar Pop by Charles Shaar Murray -- In this, the best of the myriad books on Hendrix, a Brit journo/muso casts an analytical eye on Jimi in relation to the sexual and racial politics of his time, his meteoric flameout, and the way he was shaped by and, in turn, influenced blues, soul, and jazz. Good discography/filmography too, for its time (1991).

7) Flyboy In the Buttermilk by Greg Tate -- Just what the world needs, another muso-scribe. An intimate of Vernon Reid and a co-founder of the Black Rock Coalition during his days as a Village Voice scribe, Tate now conducts, plays guitar, bass, and laptop in Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber. As saturated with lit theory as he is with music, Tate writes like a postgrad who's composing his thesis in hip-hop argot just to piss off his perfesser. He does '70s Miles better than St. Lester and Gary Giddins, and George Clinton better than anybody.

8) From the Velvets to the Voidoids: The Birth of American Punk Rock by Clinton Heylin -- Originally (1993) subtitled A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World. Found this when I was moonlighting at Blockbuster Music and stumbling on things like the MC5's Thunder Express and the first Wayne Kramer album on Epitaph. It validated a lot of what I thought about the music I used to get made fun of by the older guys in the hipi record store for liking when I was back in high school. By the time the revised edition -- worthwhile for the updated discography and Heylin's carping about Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's more sensational oral history of the same period, Please Kill Me -- dropped in 2005, the war was over, and we had won.

9) Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play -- A Brit scribe for The Wire's Marxist take on the cranky cottage industry entrepeneur. Lots of references to Theodor Adorno and the Situationists. Luckily, there's plenty of a well-informed fan's analysis of the music, too.

10) Rock and the Pop Narcotic by Joe Carducci -- Former SST Records insider and thus-far-unproduced screenwriter expounds at length on the rock process (which he understands better than most scribes) and the deleterious impact of television, mass media, various cultural forces, The Biz, and critics on the music, before launching into an exhaustive assessment, ranging from a single sentence to several paragraphs per subject, of four decades' worth of rock performers. All this and humility too: "One day soon, dear reader, you may even forget that once up on a time I wrote the only book on rock and roll worthy of the name." Indeed.


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