Songs & Songwriters
Someone (no one can quite agree who) once said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture, but there’s a whole shelf of books ready to prove them wrong. It may require some serious linguistic contortions to describe the sense of release that accompanies the resolution of a chord progression, or that strange change from major to minor, but the way it transforms our lives and our world is well within the grasp of sharply written prose.
From musical memoirs to overarching histories to a study of the way music works on the brain, these books deepen our understanding of an art form that cuts straight to the heart. They suggest new ways of listening to old songs and plenty of avenues for discovery. For the most part, you’ll have to provide your own soundtrack, but the vivid writing and poignant stories ensure that you’ll have plenty of tunes coursing through your head before long.
Record producer and session musician turned neuropsychologist Daniel Levitin creates a provocative taxonomy of vocal music that sorts songs into six categories: friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love. Mixing neurology and evolutionary theory with interviews with such musical pals as Sting and Rodney Crowell, Levitin intertwines science, history and criticism, attempting a master theory of the function music has played in the advancement of human civilization, and in keeping us alive... and sane on a day-to-day basis. Work songs, like those sung on American chain gangs, promote community and bolster tired spirits; religious songs passed on the traditions of faith long before the advent of written language. Social advancements have eliminated the need for certain types of songs (although we still use a knowledge song to learn our ABCs), but Levitin demonstrates through his own stories and those of others the way that music still holds out fragile world together.more »
While he may have some competition for the title of Fifth Beatle, few individuals can more justly claim to have made their mark on the band's music than Geoff Emerick, who served as the recording engineer for Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's, The White Album and Abbey Road. Even before he was manning the board, Emerick was a junior employee at EMI's studios, and his memories stretch back to the band's earliest singles, although... he skips over eras, like the acrimonious recording of Let It Be, he wasn't personally involved in. Emerick's close friendship with Paul McCartney, whom he casts as the group's undisputed leader, openly colors his recollections: He paints John Lennon as a vague conceptualist with little idea how to realize his own vague notions (he wanted his vocal on "Tomorrow Never Knows" to sound like "the Dalai Lama shouting from mountaintop"), and George Harrison as a fumbling guitarist who had to struggle mightily to lay down a simple solo. (Don't even get him started on Yoko.) But the book is crammed with lively and fascinating anecdotes which make it possible to hear some of the most familiar songs in musical history with a fresh set of ears.more »
The high priest of Gen-X navel gazing, Chuck Klosterman proudly elevates his personal obsessions to the level of cultural studies. From Saved by the Bell to the Pamela Anderson/Tommy Lee sex tape, Klosterman finds ways into the dark, sticky heart of American popular culture, its arteries clogged with mindlessly consumed junk and free-floating detritus. In one of the book's signature essays, Klosterman mounts an enthusiastic defense of a Guns 'n' Roses tribute... band: better an imitation of greatness than mediocre originality. Detractors will find it hopelessly self-indulgent, and the sensitive of ear may shy away from Klosterman's nasal speaking voice, but those with a taste for pop-culture excess will dive right in.more »
Eric Clapton's soup-to-nuts autobiography is a solid, sober (in both senses of the word) look back at his journey from rural England to quasi-deification. Clapton's functional, unfussy prose moves steadily through his life, devoting as much detail to his nights in the pub as his brushes with greatness. The details can be a bit random, like this bombshell about his early childhood: "I loved pies." Luckily, reader Bill Nighy supplies the enthusiasm... that Clapton left out, leaning into every emphasis as if his life depended on it. With Nighy leading the way, the facts of Clapton's life are gripping, especially his long-standing struggle with alcoholism and the tragic death of his son, recounted in a factual but hardly dispassionate style. (Oh, and then there's that whole thing about him writing "Layla" to steal George Harrison's wife.) A few myths die ugly deaths along the way; if you've ever slow-danced to "Wonderful Tonight," it may hurt to find that it was inspired by Clapton's irritation that his wife was taking too long to dress for dinner. The abridged version omits any mention of Clapton's legendary guitar solo on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," but does include Clapton's first impression of the Beatles as "a bunch of wankers."more »
Even if you only knew Renee Crist as the byline on the sharpest capsules in the back of Option magazine, her death, at age 31, came as a punch in the gut. In Love Is a Mix Tape, Rob Sheffield, who married Crist in 1991 and buried her in 1997, thinks back on their joyous, tumultuous and tragically truncated relationship through their mutual love of music. A staff writer for Rolling Stone... and frequent VH1 talking head, Sheffield pays heartfelt tribute to a woman he loved. His voice brightens as he bullet-points the subjects of their recurring marital spats, and its pitch drops noticeably as he recounts the shell-shocked months after her death, when he spent his days reading in an Applebee's so he could be sure not to run into any of their friends. In its headiest passages, Mix Tape is an inspired fusion of criticism and autobiography, as when Sheffield rereads Nirvana's In Utero not as a preemptive suicide note, but as the testament of a young husband awed and somewhat terrified by his all-consuming love for his wife. Sheffield might have borrowed a title from Cobain's widow for his strangely inspiring account of his own ordeal: Live Through This.more »
The visuals in Ken Burns' talking-head documentaries are almost redundant, so the audio reduction of his 19-hour PBS series feels surprisingly complete. The lack of song excerpts is unfortunate (no doubt you'll want to add the soundtrack to your iPod as well), but LeVar Burton's energetic reading brings characters from Buddy Bolden to Wynton Marsalis alive and conveys a giddy, wide-eyed enthusiasm for the birth of an American art form. Although there's... plenty of space devoted to the music, Burns and Ward are equally attentive to the social and historical conditions that produced it, particularly the prodigious mixture of races, cultures and classes that gathered in New Orleans around the turn of the 20th century. Deftly interweaving the stories of seminal figures like Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Bix Beiderbecke, Jazz is a wonderful introduction for the uninitiated, and helps even aficionados fill in valuable missing pieces.more »