The 11 Best Music Books in My Library
After receiving an advance of more than $10 million, Bruce Springsteen wrote his autobiography, and its publication became one of the biggest music events this autumn. In Finland, mega star Cheek just published an official biography. At 34. And, another rapper, Paperi T put out a poetry book a few weeks ago. There are more music books than ever, providing musicians with another source of income.
I can see why. I look at my bookshelf and realise I’ve gathered a good collection of music books over the years. As I start reading Springsteen’s book, this is a good time to rate the music books in my library.
Disclaimer: Obviously, I’m missing many good books, I have plenty of them in my to-read list: the classic punk chronicle Please Kill Me, Patti Smith’s books, Keith Richards’ Life… There’s still plenty to read.
But right here, right now, there are the 11 greatest music books in my library.
11. Searching for the Sound – Phil Lesh
A first-hand account of The Grateful Dead saga as narrated by bass player Phil Lesh. Honestly written, the book does not avoid darker years whilst offering enough depth on the music and how the band searched for the sound.
10. Fargo Rock City – Chuck Klosterman
This books represents whole generation, a generation of socially awkward teenagers who grew up in the eighties and spent too much time watching late night MTV and listening to hair metal bands. With a witty voice and semi-autobiographical digressions and tangents, Chuck Klosterman describes, discusses and analyses Poison, Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses, and a bunch of long-haired geniuses.
9. Things the Grandchildren Should Know – Mark Oliver Everett
Not your usual rock memoirs. Singer, songwriter, leader of The Eels, Mark Oliver Everett (aka E.) didn’t live the sixties, or the seventies for that matter, and was barely 45 when he wrote this book. But E. has some stories to tell beyond rock. It begins with the death of his parents at an early age and an unsteady upbringing. Wise, tremendously touching, the book reads like a roller-coaster ride. Whether you like or care about The Eels, this is essential reading.
8. Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements – Bob Mehr
There are two definitive books about the two most dysfunctional, fucked up bands ever. One is Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt and the other is Trouble Boys. The Dirt is a fantastic read, with plenty of WTF moments. But I like The Replacements better so I decided to include Trouble Boys in this list. The book is a thorough, very detailed account of the band’s story. Maybe the style is a bit too serious at times, at least compared to The Dirt.
7. Waging Heavy Peace/Special Deluxe – Neil Young
Neil Young published his autobiography Waging Heavy Peace and just months later, he decided he still had things to say, stories inspired by his car collection. This way we got a biography (of sorts) in two volumes. Neither of the books provide much insight into Young’s career, but both are surprisingly fun to read. He adopts a very conversational tone and informally talks about his life and obsessions: model trains, cars (lots of them), dogs, music player Pono, mp3s, constructing an electric car, and yes, some music, too. This is the closest you will get to sit down with the man, share a joint and hear some stories.
6. Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion – Robert J. Gordon
Stax Records put out the most thrilling soul music in the sixties and early seventies, from Sam & Dave and Otis Redding to Isaac Hayes and The Staple Singers. In merely a decade and a half, the label saw success and failures, created stars, reinvented itself a couple of times and ultimately, faced bankruptcy, all while Memphis underwent the a race battle. In this book, the author chronicles the label and the city creating a captivating narrative which could serve well as the basis of a Martin Scorsese movie.
5. Last Train to Memphis/Careless Love – Peter Guralnick
The biggest rock star ever deserves a greatest biography ever. In over 1300 pages, Peter Guralnick guides us through every aspect of Elvis’ life: family, girls, recording sessions, movies. Detailed, unbiased, revealing.
4. Mystery Train – Greil Marcus
This book changed the way of writing about rock. With it, rock took the classroom. It’s the author’s vision on American culture through a series of pieces on Robert Johnson, Randy Newman, Sly & The Family Stone. Terribly academic, the book’s become the bible of rock criticism. The kind of book you take with you when you want to impress your date. Like in a Woody Allen movie.
3. Lost Highway – Peter Guralnick
Peter Guralnick is one of the best-known scholars of rock and Lost Highway is one of his most important works. In it, he depicts the lives and works of the artist who shaped traditional American music as we know it today. It includes stories on Merle Haggard, Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie Rich, Ernest Tubb and less known artist like Jimmy Martin. Guralnick’s writing is beautiful, vivid and artists are intimately observed.
2. Chronicles, volume 1 – Bob Dylan
Atypical, evasive, yet revealing. Just like Bob Dylan. Not linear, the first volume of Dylan’s memoirs concentrate just on three peculiar moments, and ignores the better known moments in the singer’s life. Still waiting for volume 2.
1. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung – Lester Bangs
No other writer has captured the language of rock’n’roll like Lester Bangs did during his short career. Acid, hard-edge, razor-sharp, insolent… Bangs’ writing walks a thin line between drunkenness and hangover. In this collection of articles published on Creem, Village Voice and others until his death in 1982, Bangs uses his oneiric, meth-fueled prose to write about his continuous dialectic fights with Lou Reed, argument his love for Reed’s Metal Machine Music and punk, or describe the night he took his typewriter to the stage to write during an encore of the J. Geils Band.
Clunks – Have a Heart
Fairly often I just want to hear a high energy song, one of those tunes you listen on a Monday morning to boost your energy and complement your cup of coffee. That’s exactly the kind of sound alt-rockers Clunks present on their debut single called Have a Heart. As the blurb says the band’s music encompasses melodic guitar lines, fast-paced drum beats and sing-along vocals. Simple as that.
This is a promising debut, with an outstanding, let’s-have-fun chorus. I hope Clunks will soon release some music.
Kamasi Washington: A Family Affair
Halfway through his set at Flow Festival, saxophonist Kamasi Washington gave center stage to bandmates Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr. before they performed a thundering drum battle while the sun was setting in Suvilahti. It was a fascinating wordless dialogue that Kamasi introduced by telling a couple of innocent stories of his and his bandmates childhood days in Inglewood, California. He told how he met Ronald in school, realising both had already met in kindergarten after seeing an old photo together. Kamasi also remembered how Tony Austin, a few years older, was perceived as the cool kid, after friends suspected he spent a night with a girl while the rest of the gang were just happy meeting in the morning to watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons.
These stories proof the camaraderie of a bunch of like-minded musicians that have stuck together since elementary school, playing, growing up. Once they played in garages and schools. Now they tour the world.
When it was time for Flow Festival, I was quite obsessed with The Epic, Kamasi’s three-hour debut album as bandleader. Massive and glorious. That’s not saying anything original as every major publication, from The New York Times to Pitchfork, praised and wrote long pieces on the album and its creator. Certainly, The Epic is now one of those album you must include in your top ten list of the year if you want to be hip. I don’t care about that. The closing track, The Message, was my summer song this year.
I had marked in red the show at Flow: Sunday evening at the wonderful Balloon stage. Beautiful. Or… wait! Descendents were set to take a slot right before Kamasi Washington on the other side of the festival. Both shows almost clash and I really do want to see Descendents on their first gig ever in Finland. Unfortunate, but understandable who would want to see ageing punk rockers AND right after that a jazz band? Well, I would.
No panic. With some planning, both gigs were doable. I got to see most of Descendents shows (it rocked), except for a three or four songs, which was not more than seven or eight minutes. I ran across the festival area to reach a crowded Balloon Stage, right on time before Kamasi and band started playing. I didn’t get a nice spot, people were chatting, coming and going. Typical festival crowd. But I made it, and the show was excellent, with Kamasi and band playing over a gorgeous sunset backdrop.
A family affair
“One child grows up to be somebody that just loves to learn. And another child grows up to be somebody you’d just love to burn”. The classic Sly & The Family Stone song tells of the difficulties of being family, how some family members will be straight, how others might derail.
Kamasi Washington’s band is a family affair of its own kind. Not only because his father Rickey Washington plays in it and is a musician on his own right, but also because many of the musicians are close friends. They grew up together in Inglewood playing music, discovering jazz, staying out of trouble, learning, jamming.
Playing jazz at an urban festival in Finland seems unlike for kids who grew up in a terribly violent area near Los Angeles, such as Inglewood in the 90s. Becoming somebody you’d just love to burn was the most probable option. Be part of a gang, deal drugs, make quick money, avoid jail, dodge a bullet. That was a likely future.
When Kamasi was born, Rickey Washington abandoned touring life to settle in Inglewood with his son. He always made sure Kamasi would stay out of trouble, keeping him busy with music. He built a home studio and let Kamasi and his friends practice and jam as much as they wanted. Better to hear a beat than gunshots and sirens in the streets.
During his teens, Kamasi kept practicing, focusing on the saxophone and turning his head to jazz. His talent was soon noticed. Veteran musician and music teacher Reggie Andrews recruited the young talents in the area for his Multi-School Jazz Band. Reggie asked the young saxophonist to join the band, and there Kamasi reunited with old friends and met several musicians with whom he would play in years to come.
Kamasi told me theses stories a couple of hours before the show at Flow. In a few minutes, he would sit-in during Thundercat’s show. We met in one of the containers that serve as meeting rooms near the backstage. He spoke slowly, with a soft voice. Over the last 18 months, he has told these stories many times before, but he was still happy to talk about the music.
“Being a musician brought us some kind of respect”, he said, “Gangs would let us be ourselves, as we were doing music”.
Thanks to music a young Kamasi Washington stayed out of trouble. Fast-forward a few years. In the fall of 2013, the saxophonist was set to record his debut album as a bandleader and things weren’t much different. They might have toured the world and be professional musicians now, but at heart, they are just a bunch of kids jamming. They call themselves the West Coast Get Down. To save studio time, the musicians locked in in the studio for 30 days with the idea of recording for several projects and albums at once.
“We went to the studio for one month and we figured out of a schedule. From 10am to 1pm we would work on one record, then have a break and start playing a different record”, explains Kamasi.
The sessions ran almost non-stop during that month, often lasting from 10am to 2am. Bandleaders changed, music shifted, tape rolled. It was an explosion of music of cosmic proportions. When the musicians left the studio, they had recorded a total of 190 pieces. 45 of them were Kamasi’s. Those were the genesis of The Epic.
But the album was far from complete. What to do next? How to create an album from such vast amount of music.
“Shit, what am I going to do now”, Kamasi told himself right after the recording was done. “I had 45 songs that I thought they were great. But before I could start thinking about an album, I needed to distance myself from the music. I didn’t do anything with it for some months. Only after that distance I started thinking about the final arrangements”.
When the saxophone player got around to work on the album, he pushed things forward with the addition of strings arrangement and vocals that lifted the music to a whole new dimension.
As they say, the rest is history. The Epic has become a success outside the jazz circles. It’s is one of the most successful jazz albums in recent times and all of a sudden people who never listen to jazz have turned their attention to it.
I finish writing this piece in a coffee place in Helsinki (please don’t judge) one song off The Epic is playing. A new song by Kamasi Washington appears on the soundtrack of the Netflix series The Get Down. And, there’s still plenty of music to surface from the one-month long studio sessions. Jazz is cool. But, it always was, wasn’t it?
Días Nórdicos 2016
Since 2010, the Días Nórdicos festival is devoted to showcase Nordic culture in Spain and several cities of South America. From design and fashion to literature, the festival covers multiple arts and disciples. Music is at the forefront with an initial concert held in Madrid and Barcelona. Días Nórdicos brings a line-up formed by some of the most interesting indie bands from the Nordic scene. In previous years, Hisser, The New Tigers, Black Twig took the trip to Spain and this time The Hearing will represent Finland at Días Nórdicos. I’ll tag along and see if the Nordic music can cool the current heat wave in Spain.
When not acting as Cute Pink in garage rock band Pintandwefall or being involved in a few other side projects, Ringa Manner plays intense electro-pop under the moniker The Hearing. Ringa’s vocals and harmonies float over some dreamy sound palette that paints poignant and eerie soundcapes. The Hearing’s second album, Adrian, hit the store in spring. Below you can see the hypnotic video for the single Backwards.
Next year, Días Nórdicos will expand and travel to the Nordics to present artists from Spain and South American and establish a unique cultural exchange. Stay tuned.
Días Nórdicos 2016
- 9 September, Sala Joy Eslava, Madrid
- 10 September, Sala Apolo, Barcelona
The Hearing (Finland)
Nils Bech (Norway)
Hey Elbow (Sweden)
Nelson Can (Denmark)
The Fërtility Cült – The Path Is Clear
Enter into the cosmic world of The Fërtility Cült. This five-piece band from Tampere is dropping some slow-burning tunes of dark textures and prog-rock twists. The Path Is Clear is the first single off the band’s upcoming album entitled A Forest of Kings. Except for this single, which is merely seven minutes long, the rest of the songs are stretched to the 10-minute mark and transit through many different dark places. Sax and keyboards give a retro sound, and while guitar and bass could be heavier and dirtier, they form a good combo.
A Forest of Kings will be available on 9 September via your favourite digital outlet and record stores.