Ashley Hutchings: The Guv'nor & the Rise of Folk-Rock, by Brian Hinton & Geoff Wall (Helter Skelter Publishing).
Though certainly not the most commercially viable rock biography subject, Ashley Hutchings played an important part in British folk-rock and folk music from the late 1960s onward. This nearly 300-page volume covers his career up to 1973, a time that encompassed his stints as bassist and founding member of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, and the Albion Country Band. British folk-rock fans in particular will find much of this valuable information, as it draws upon extensive first-hand interviews not just with Hutchings, but also with most members of all of those bands (including Richard Thompson, Martin Carthy, and Hutchings's ex-wife, major British folk singer Shirley Collins). Its substantial pitfalls, however, are frequently haphazard and at times downright sloppy writing and editing that can make the chronological sequence of events hard to follow (or even establish); hard to tell exactly who's being quoted at times; and frequent use of the present tense when the events delineated are obviously from the 1960s and 1970s. For all that, there's much rich material here that gives a lot of insight into the formation and stormy careers of these leading British folk-rock bands. All of the records in which Hutchings took part are described in detail, as are numerous live unreleased Fairport and Albion Country Band tapes, which will be fascinating for hardcore followers of the groups. Some of the controversies which dogged these bands and Hutchings are revealed as well, including the traumatic crash that claimed the life of original Fairport drummer Martin Lamble, Hutchings's dependency upon medication during much of this period, and the not-always-pleasant comings and goings of the bands' fluctuating lineups. There are plenty of vintage photos and gig posters too, and so much of the text is given over to interesting quotes that the inconsistent writing style is less of a problem than it could have been.

A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, by Dennis McNally (Broadway Books). For all the Grateful Dead's huge fan base and remarkable legacy, there had been no really thorough, straightforward history of the band in book form before this 2002 biography by McNally, longtime publicist for the group. It in large part succeeds in getting the basic details of the Dead's tangled evolution down -- well, in considerable detail, given its nearly 700-page length. But as a book, it could have been better. On the plus side, McNally had access to the band and its huge orbit of associates and affiliated characters, conducting hundreds of interviews. He covers the group's ragged formation from motley folkie and garage band roots; their early rise to counterculture heroes in acid tests and the Haight-Ashbury; their slow transformation into immensely popular touring act; and their peak recordings of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Wisely, too, the book focuses on their earliest, most interesting, and most artistically productive years, with about three-quarters of the text devoted to their pre-1973 history. The rest becomes steadily more cursory as it fast-forwards through the final twenty years of Jerry Garcia's life, when the band became a huge financial moneymaker but was usually creatively stagnant. However, the text is drier than expected given the many colorful characters involved in the tale, in part because of McNally's decision to use only brief direct quotes from the interviews. Although their songwriting, recording processes, and musical growth are discussed, there could have been room for more involved examination of those attributes. Most problematically, the story's periodically interrupted by about 15 brief "interlude" chapters looking at varying behind-the-scenes facets of their careers in the 1980s and 1990s. This not only breaks up the flow of the prose, but can be hard to follow and, worse, uninteresting if you're not a big Dead Head. Perhaps the Grateful Dead's story is just too immense to comfortably fit into a standard biography. Though this adequately goes over the major bases, there's still room for more treatment of the subject, particularly ones that might focus more specifically on the music.

The Sensational Alex Harvey, by John Neil Munro (Fire Fly Publishing). Alex Harvey only gained a good deal of exposure in the rock world for a few years in the mid-1970s, when he was leader of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Yet his career as a rock'n'roll singer stretched back to the 1950s, when he was one of the first rock artists of any sort in Scotland, and he began putting out records back in 1964. The Sensational Alex Harvey is a reasonable and competent overview of his life, though there's the feeling that it could have been more colorful and exciting, given the many-faceted and quirky character of its subject. The author talked to about 30 of Harvey's family and musical/business associates (though a few of his important colleagues declined to be interviewed), as well as thoroughly researching coverage and interviews of Harvey himself in the music press. Some of the most interesting parts of the book are in the early sections, covering Harvey's nearly two decades of struggle in Glasgow, Hamburg, and London, when he was among the first Scottish rock musicians to try and make any serious headway in the business. There were little-known blues-rock records and even a long stint in the band accompanying the London run of the play Hair before he finally found an outlet for his zany, eclectic theatrical rock as founder-leader of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. If there's a serious shortfall in the book, it's that Harvey's music, songs, and onstage antics could have been covered in more descriptive and critical depth. There's the feeling that the excitement the band evidently stirred isn't being given full justice, and as the group were far better known in the UK than in the States, American readers might be at a little bit of a loss to fully comprehend what made him special. A thorough discography and some nice photos are good touches for an overall decent effort.

Calling Out Around the World: A Motown Reader, edited by Kingsley Abbott (Helter Skelter Publishing). This is 250-page, squinty-sized small print collection of articles, interviews, and appreciations relating to Motown Records, some of them reprinted from other sources, some contributed especially for this book. Like all anthologies of this sort, the variety is impressive, but also so wide-ranging that not everything's going to please everyone. It has to be pointed out that this collection focuses almost exclusively on Motown's output during the 1960s (just occasionally straying into the early 1970s): a wise decision given that the '60s was by far the label's most interesting decade, but a decision that might disappoint some looking for coverage beyond that point. The quality of the contributions is erratic, and though everyone interested in Motown will find some things here they like that they haven't come across before, it's also true that almost everyone interested in such a book will have read some of the more widely circulated items before in magazines like Rolling Stone, Goldmine, and Record Collector. The most interesting items are some interviews that are exclusive or hard to find elsewhere, like the ones of Dave Godin (who ran the British Tamla Motown Appreciation Society), Florence Ballard (from a TV interview in the mid-1970s, when she was struggling to survive shortly before her death), and Martha Reeves (a radio interview from 1991). Pieces on ill-lit corners of Motown's history, such as a rundown of its subsidiary imprints, are also valuable. The appreciations of specific artists, though, are up-and-down, some of them good solid pieces with first-hand quotes, others rather trite and run-of-the-mill career overviews that offer little new insight. Lists of personal favorite Motown discs by critics and writers are sprinkled throughout the book, which includes a discography of pre-1970 UK Motown releases.

Harrison, by the editors of Rolling Stone (Simon & Schuster). Shortly after the death of George Harrison in late 2001, Rolling Stone magazine assembled this coffee table-sized tribute book to the musician. While it looks nice and has plenty of fine photos, the text isn't going to tell devoted Beatles/Harrison fans much they don't know already, although it's straightforward and informative. It's a grab bag of material, including a forward by Harrison's widow, Olivia Harrison; an essay on Harrison's life by Mikal Gilmore that goes over extremely familiar territory, though it provides an adequate overview for the uninitiated; a selection of top photographer's pictures of George, from various phases of his career; reprints of material from some Rolling Stone articles on and interviews with Harrison; critical appreciations of highlights from Harrison's discography, guitar work, and songs; and brief tribute pieces about George from Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Yoko Ono, Elton John, Tom Petty, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan (Dylan's tribute, it should be cautioned, is extremely brief). There's not much revelatory information, and the tone, as could be expected from a tome produced in the wake of his death, is mostly reverential. Perhaps the most off-the-beaten track chapter is the one on Harrison's contributions to the film world, chiefly as a producer for HandMade Films. Though almost 250 large-format pages, the book can be digested in a couple of nights, and is only recommended for casual fans and Beatles completists.



Those Were the Days: An Unofficial History of the Beatles Apple Organization 1967-2002, by Stefan Granados (Cherry Red Books). It was difficult to come up with new angles for a full-length Beatles book a few decades after they'd broken up, but Granados found a good one that hadn't been fully explored with this history of Apple. Apple was most known for its record division, naturally, but also got involved with film, electronics, music publishing, and retail during its colorful and rather unstable history. It's the music that gets the principal coverage in this thorough and very well-written story. It draws from several dozen first-hand interviews with many Apple insiders, including musicians Doris Troy, Jackie Lomax, Joey Molland and Mike Gibbins of Badfinger, David Peel, and other more obscure artists; A&R/production people (Peter Asher); promotional representatives (Pete Bennett); and figures involved in the less flamboyant, administrative end of things. Unfortunately there aren't direct quotes from the surviving Beatles or Apple mainstay Neil Aspinall, or from some other interesting dramatis personae like Billy Preston and Mary Hopkin, but many of those gaps are filled in by vintage second-hand quotes. The picture that emerges is a little less chaotic than the one that has usually been painted of Apple, pointing out that it was actually a pretty successful record label, even apart from its many releases by the Beatles and ex-Beatles. At the same time, there was a good deal of disorganization, and the story of the gradual toning down of its idealistic, anything-goes beginnings to a more functional record label, and finally one that wound down its operations apart from caretaking the Beatles' legacy, is absorbing and a little sad. Arguably there could have been more about the Beatles' own music during this period, but that's been covered exhaustively in other sources. This has the scoop on the interesting Apple phases in the careers of James Taylor, Hopkin, Badfinger, Troy, Preston, and odd one-offs that never or barely released material on Apple (Brute Force, the Black Dyke Mills Band, Mortimer, Trash, and Bill Elliot & Elastic Oz Band), as well as weirdoes like "Magic Alex" Mardas, who ran Apple's ill-fated electronics department. And there are a good deal of cool, under-traveled stories about the Beatles (who come off as founders not prepared to fully follow through with their ideas and artists they mentored), particularly regarding their business machinations with Allen Klein. Brief final chapters update readers on Apple's Beatles-related activities from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s, and there's a complete discography.

Jimi Hendrix and the Making of Are You Experienced, by Sean Egan (A Cappella). As part of the "Vinyl Frontier" series examining the construction of classic albums, this details the recording of Jimi Hendrix's first and, to many ears, best album, 1967's Are You Experienced. There's been a great deal written about Hendrix, and some expert readers' first inclinations might be to wonder whether there's much more to be said about the beginning of his career. As it turns out, there's plenty, due to author Egan's diligence in tracking down numerous people involved with Hendrix in his early days for first-hand interviews. Jimi Hendrix Experience bassist Noel Redding is the most important of those. But there are also numerous others, not all of them often interviewed about Hendrix, who cast light upon his emergence into solo stardom, such as girlfriends Linda Keith and Kathy Etchingham, Chris Stamp of Track Records, tape operator George Chkiantz, Vic Briggs of the Animals, Andrew Loog Oldham, engineer Mike Ross-Trevor, Marshall amp manufacturer Jim Marshall, and guitar gadgetry specialist Roger Mayer. The result is a wealth of information not just about the patchwork sessions that comprised Are You Experienced, but also about Hendrix's general phoenix-like rise to iconic stature from mid-1966, when he was a struggling New York guitarist, to mid-1967, when he was an international superstar. The sessions and rehearsals for the Are You Experienced album turn out to have been surprisingly seat-of-the-pants and on-the-fly, but there's a wealth of fascinating details about the Experience's recording methods, Hendrix's songwriting, and the pioneering studio techniques and electronics needed to pull it off. Add a bunch of stories thrown about regarding the interpersonal dynamics of the Experience, Hendrix's management, and the group's early live gigs, and there's a lot for even the dedicated Hendrix fan to chew on here. Egan also adds insightful track-by-track critical commentary, and is not afraid to go against established notions of what was great about Hendrix, which might infuriate some rabid fans, but is refreshing in its refusal to go along with the usual party lines. It's too bad that he wasn't able to interview some long-dead key players, such as Hendrix himself (of course) and his early producer/co-manager Chas Chandler, as well as key survivors (most notably Mitch Mitchell and engineer Eddie Kramer). But overall it's an exemplary job.

Just Walkin' in the Rain, by Jay Warner (Renaissance Books). A biography of the Prisonaires, the convict vocal R&B group most famous for the original version of "Just Walkin' in the Rain," might seem to be a slim pretext upon which to build a full-length book. But even though the Prisonaires didn't release many records, their story was among the most unusual of any groups that contributed to the development of rock'n'roll, simply by virtue of their having been formed behind bars, and remained behind bars even while they were putting out singles. This volume does a good job of tracing their offbeat story, singling out their most notable member, Johnny Bragg (principal author of "Just Walkin' in the Rain"), as the story's central figure and the source of much of the information. It's the tale of not just the long and winding route they took to a record contract, but also a reflection of the hard-luck circumstances that could get poor Southern blacks sentenced to unjust prison terms in the middle of the twentieth century; the liberal Tennessee governor who paved the way for the Prisonaires to gain a recording contract by having the group entertain at his mansion; Braggs's subsequent interaction with celebrities like Lyndon Johnson and Elvis Presley; and his own difficulties in gaining parole and keeping out of trouble after he was finally released from jail. The Prisonaires' own music and Sun Records sessions aren't neglected either. The author did a lot of homework considering that some of the principals are dead and some of the facts foggy, including talking with Braggs himself, though it's noted that Braggs's stories aren't necessarily gospel either. Though 250 pages it's a quick read, and while not among the more significant stories of early R&B and rock'n'roll, it's certainly not a standard one.

Revolution: The Making of the Beatles' White Album, by David Quantick (A Cappella). As one of the first two installments in A Cappella's "Vinyl Frontier" series (the other being Jimi Hendrix and the Making of Are You Experienced), this documents the creation of the Beatles' The White Album. Unlike Sean Egan's book on Hendrix's first album, this benefits from no first-hand interviews with musicians, producers, engineers, and other friends and associates involved with the recording's genesis. That means it leans heavily on critical analysis, which doesn't have to be a bad thing, but does mean it's not so revealing, particularly when you're discussing an extremely famous album bound to be familiar to many millions of listeners. What's more problematic is Quantick's smarmy tone, jammed with self-consciously clever and witty asides without being funny or particularly insightful. The bulk of the text is devoted to a track-by-track critique of the record, which many will find iconoclastic; he praises "Revolution 9" very highly, for example, while ragging on "Rocky Raccoon" and "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill." Sometimes the ragging gets annoying, as if a point's being overstated for effect, as when "Wild Honey Pie" is proclaimed as duplicating "almost exactly the experience of spending nearly a whole minute in Hades." Other sections contextualize, and perhaps over-contextualize, the record with a good deal of background information on the sociopolitical climate of 1968; the background of individual Beatles and simmering tensions within the group; the other rock and pop music of 1968 (in which Quantick hammers on the point of other groups innovating fields in which the Beatles did not compete with undue sensitivity); and a surprisingly long chapter on the album's influence on Charles Manson. Quantick does know his stuff, and supports his opinions with detailed description and reasoning. But it's hard to see how many fans, regardless of their tastes, are going to find the information and criticism that valuable or revelatory, and there are infrequent but noticeable factual mistakes that should have been caught.



Old Gods Almost Dead: The 40-Year Odyssey of the Rolling Stones, by Stephen Davis (Broadway Books). At the time of its 2001 publication, this was the most comprehensive biography ever issued of the Rolling Stones, running nearly 600 pages and stretching through the early twenty-first century. On one level, it's a useful and entertaining document of a band whose fractious history has not lent itself well to book-length overviews. There's an incredible amount of detail here, from their early 1960s origins through their rise to superstardom, the death of Brian Jones and the entries of Mick Taylor and Ron Wood, and their eventual establishment/ossification as one of the world's biggest stadium rock acts. The 1960s, as is proper, are the focus for just over half the book, though actually each tour and album is discussed even in the 1980s and 1990s. One's tempted to say that it's good to have a work that sets straight exactly when, where, and how a lot of things happened, particularly since the sequence and circumstances of many events in the group's career have been shrouded in mystery or mis-reported. The downside? Well, if you're really familiar with the Rolling Stones, you'll spot numerous minor factual mistakes, which are not so much a problem in themselves, but cast doubt as to whether a lot of the unfamiliar information is accurate as well. Additionally, it's not clear how much of the author's source material, particularly the quoted portions, were from first-hand interviews; it does seem as though the interviews he did conduct were usually with peripheral hangers-on, not those too close to the center of the action. Stylistically the text is okay, but often conversationally leaves out conjunctions and verbs for hipster effect, sometimes to overbearing annoyance. It's not the fault of the author, but inevitably the book gets far less interesting after the early 1970s, winding down to its conclusion like a turntable slowly grinding to a stop after the plug's been pulled.

Joni Mitchell: Shadows and Light: The Definitive Biography, by Karen O'Brien (Virgin Books). The big disadvantage to this biography of the influential singer-songwriter is that it does not benefit from any direct input or interviews with Mitchell herself. That aside, it's an admirably thorough overview of her varied, unpredictable, and at times enigmatic career. Although the author didn't talk to Mitchell, she did at least talk to several important colleagues and associates, including Graham Nash, ex-husband and musical collaborator Larry Klein, and manager Elliot Roberts. There's also quite a bit of research through secondary sources that include not just a lot of vintage Mitchell quotes, but also a pretty comprehensive record of her artistic evolution, from an acoustic folk singer of the mid-1960s through her rock stardom in the 1970s and detours into jazz and less commercial directions. Her albums and songs are discussed informatively, though her evaluations are generous, and inevitably the post-1970s years are less interesting than her early and more artistically satisfying triumphs. One's left with the sense, still, that a better Mitchell biography could be written, not only because of the lack of involvement from the subject, but also because there are many other people who worked with and knew her that could have been tracked down for their recollections. Too, there are more gratuitous listings of her accomplishments, awards, and artists she's influenced than is strictly necessary: if we're reading the book in the first place, we're in agreement that Mitchell is an important musician, and don't need to be convinced by such boosterism. The last chapter, incidentally, is devoted to discussion of her work as a painter, not her music.

Everybody on the Truck! The Story of the Dillards, Lee Grant with the Original Dillards (Eggman Publishing). While this slim 170-page paperback on the Dillards isn't bad, and contains much of interest to fans of the group, it's on the meager side as far as both length and penetrating insight. It might be difficult to construct a solid bulkier volume on the band, but it could be done, as they were not only one of the early 1960s top bluegrass bands, but made a remarkable transition to country-rock pioneers at the end of that decade. The coverage here, though, is not only rather perfunctory, but heavily weighted toward the early bluegrass years. Although their switch to country-folk-rock (and the simultaneous departure of Douglas Dillard) on the important 1968 album {^Wheatstraw Suite} is covered satisfactorily, their almost equally fine follow-up album, {^Copperfields}, is barely mentioned, let alone depicted in any detail whatsoever. This is a crucial omission that does a disservice to the group's status as innovators; though less crucial, the extremely slight coverage of their 1970s career is also a serious gap. Meanwhile, there's far more attention paid to their appearances on the {#Andy Griffith Show} -- it's the basis of an entire chapter that takes up about one-fifth of the book -- than one would think appropriate, given that it was a pretty minor part of their career, musically speaking. On the plus side, this is competently written, has plenty of direct quotes from original members of the band, and goes over some relatively little-known coverage of their early Missouri years and mid-'60s touring with the Byrd}. On the negative side, it's padded out with pages devoted to song lyrics and album sleeves. Even at its modest $12.95 price, then, it's a slight read occupying just a few hours of time, of interest almost exclusively to intense Dillards devotees.

The Bitter End: Hanging Out at America's Nightclub, by Paul Colby with Martin Fitzpatrick (Cooper Square Press). Paul Colby was manager of the Bitter End club in Greenwich Village from about the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, after which he became owner of the venue (still active at the time this book was published). His memoir, though, focuses mostly on the 1960s and early 1970s. Frankly that's hardly a bad thing, since that's the most interesting part of the club's history anyway. The Bitter End was not the only important space for presenting live folk and (starting around the late 1960s) rock music during this time in that neighborhood, though naturally it gets posited as the most important one in this volume. Still, it did host numerous vital breaking and established acts; the cover of Peter, Paul & Mary's first album cover, for instance, was shot there. Colby tells stories, mostly interesting though sometimes gossipy and trivial, about many of the artists to pass through the club, from well-known ones like Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Kris Kristofferson to more cultish acts like Phil Ochs, Tim Rose, and David Blue. Dylan, in fact, gets a whole chapter, including details of the Rolling Thunder Revue, which was devised in the Bitter End itself. Readers who are primarily music fans should know that a good amount of the text -- including a couple of full chapters, and other stray bits -- is devoted not to musical performers but comedians that played the venue, among them major names like Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, and David Brenner. Sprinkled throughout are some insights into the behind-the-scenes mechanics of booking, presenting, and trouble-shooting acts and audiences, as well as overall observations on the cultural and artistic impact of the Greenwich Village scene. Colby does conflate some of his chronology, jump around a lot in the sequence of events, and sometimes come across, apparently unknowingly, as something of a callous character. Partially for those reasons, it's not a riveting read, though it's useful supplementary history of a notable time and place.



The Quarrymen, by Hunter Davies (Omnibus Press). The Quarrymen, as even some people who aren't Beatles fans know, were the Liverpool teenage skiffle band from the late 1950s that evolved, through numerous personnel changes, into the Beatles by the beginning of the 1960s. It might seem quite a task to make their history into a book-length project, particularly considering they never recorded (unless you count a privately pressed vanity disc with two songs, both of which eventually were used on Anthology 1). But Hunter Davies, who wrote the first decent biography of the Beatles in 1968, has the background and first-hand knowledge necessary to make this into a pretty enjoyable book, and not just for obsessed Beatles fans. For one thing, he interviewed, at length, all of the members of the Quarrymen who were in the band at the time founder John Lennon met Paul McCartney (excluding the late Lennon, though he had talked to John, Paul, and slightly later Quarryman George Harrison a lot back in 1967 for his authorized biography of the Beatles). Pete Shotton (Lennon's closest childhood friend), Rod Davis, Len Garry, Colin Hanton, and Eric Griffiths all contribute anecdotes that are not just interesting in filling out the Beatles' early history, but also give an entertaining sense of what it was like to grow up in Liverpool in the 1950s. Only the first third of the book deals with the band before they broke up and Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison moved on together, and though you might suspect that following the other ex-Quarrymen's post-1960 lives might be boring, that doesn't prove to be the case. It's interesting to see how wide the others diverged from the Beatles' paths, for the most part leading ordinary, at times tough and troubled lives, far from music, save Shotton, who remained friendly with Lennon and even worked for the Beatles' Apple organization in the late 1960s. Shotton, interestingly, had become a multi-millionaire businessman, with no help from the Beatles, by the time the Quarrymen reunited in the 1990s (minus any ex-Beatles, of course). The final sections, dealing with their mixed but generally happy experiences as they unexpectedly played to enthusiastic Beatles fans in England and other countries, are among the most affecting in the book. Davies never condescends to the subjects, resulting in a very interesting, enjoyable book not just on the roots of the Beatles, but on the unexpected ways friends can separate and at least partially reunite over the period of a lifetime.

Encounters with Bob Dylan: If You See Him, Say Hello, by Tracy Johnson (Humble Press). In the universe of Bob Dylan fandom, where there are already several hundred books about the singer available, there's always room for one that takes yet a stranger, more peripheral angle on the subject. And this is a strange one, as an oral history of sorts that gathers 50 first-person tales of personal meetings with the enigmatic superstar, dating all the way back to 1956, and stretching all the way to 1999. A few of these are musicians and journalists that are reasonably well known in their own right: Mimi Fariña, Nat Hentoff, sideman Rob Stoner, David Grisman, Kurtis Blow, super-groupie Pamela des Barres, and even star baseball pitcher Catfish Hunter (whose note is very brief). For the most part, however, these are ordinary fans, who managed to get past Dylan's tight-knit entourage for a second, a minute, or a few hours to actually speak to him, or at any rate be in his acknowledged presence. At times, these short accounts are pretty interesting, as when Grisman and Stoner detail their short and typically weird experiences as Dylan accompanists, or Rowland Scherman remembers taking pictures of the singer (one was used, famously, on the cover of Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits). At other times they're quite amusing, as when one guy rescues a lost Dylan from a janitor's closet and directs him, a la that scene from Spinal Tap, to the stage at a 1963 show, or when a Manhattan taxi driver is shocked to find Dylan hailing him on the street, only to lose his chance to give him a ride when his previous passenger insists on fishing for a quarter tip. Too often, though, the meetings are brief and inconsequential: managing to edge up to him onstage for a moment, seeing him at a table in a club, and the like. More disturbingly, some of these fans are obviously taking their obsessions to unhealthy extremes, like the guy who runs a Dylan shrine in his home, and some seem to be overstepping the bounds from fanaticism to stalking, like the ones that poke around his Minnesota property. If you do think Dylan is a god with a capital G (as some of the contributors obviously do), you'll likely devour these tales. But even some big Dylan fans with more level heads might find it an unwitting testament to the more unseemly aspects of hero worship.

Dancing with Demons: The Authorized Biography of Dusty Springfield, by Penny Valentine & Vicki Wickham (St. Martin's Press). Although it provides a serviceable overview of Springfield's musical career and some insight into her troubled personal life, this biography is a little on the unsatisfying side. Springfield really did record a lot of interesting, varied music, particularly in the 1960s. The authors do describe and go behind the scenes of the production of some of these (particularly the most well-known hits). But whether because they don't have a lot more inside information to share, or they don't feel it important to go into great detail, one's left with the feeling that a lot more could be said, with some albums (both bad and fairly good) going virtually undiscussed. The book is stronger in its examinations of her mercurial personality and frequent disappointment in her private life, particularly as both authors knew Springfield personally (Valentine as a journalist, Wickham as a television producer and then her manager). Springfield was anguished by the suppression of her gay identity from the public; battles with substance abuse; erratic family upbringing that left her with self-esteem problems; and a professional nosedive that, at one point in the early 1980s, found her lip-syncing to her hits in Hollywood gay bars. She got on more solid footing after singing on a hit with the Pet Shop Boys, but then her final years were spent in a losing fight against cancer. The writers go over her ups-and-downs well and sympathetically, and do interview some of her close friends and associates, but not too many of them. The narrative sometimes jumps back and forth chronologically, and some of the basics of what happened when are fuzzy. Some additional information is filled in by Lucy O'Brien's previous Springfield bio Dusty, but even taken together, gaps remain in the life and music of Britain's finest woman pop-rock singer.


Beatles Gear, by Andy  Babiuk (Backbeat Books). Considering how much had been written about virtually every facet of the Beatles when this was published in 2001, you could be forgiven for wondering exactly what yet another coffee table book with the group as its principal subject could offer. That in mind, this might just turn out to be the last great Beatles book. For one aspect of the band that no one had ever examined in great detail was the equipment they used to play concerts and record in the studio. Mark Lewisohn's The Beatles Recording Sessions was a classic study of how they recorded their music in the studio, yet even that didn't get into fine details about the specific guitars, drums, keyboards, amps, etc. they used. Babiuk, himself a musician and guitar expert, undertook remarkably thorough research to trace what the Beatles played and how the equipment came their way, down to looking through old receipts dating from before their rise to fame. In another writer's hands this could have resulted in a dry manual of sorts, but it's actually written in a very entertaining, lucid manner that should interest most general readers, not just gearheads. That's not to say there isn't a lot of gearhead stuff in here, specifying the origination of certain guitar models or the exact construction of certain instruments. Even if you just skim those parts, though, there are plenty of fascinating, little-known stories here: the birth of the famous logo on Ringo's drums, the hustle of guitar manufacturers to get certain lines into the Beatles' hands in the mid-1960s, the remarkably ragged equipment the Beatles suffered with in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and at the most futuristic end, their pioneering use of the Moog synthesizer during the Abbey Road sessions. The text is intelligently sprinkled with first- and second-hand interviews with people who worked with the Beatles in some capacity, or with authorities on certain instruments and equipment the group employed. Hundreds of photos of the band and their instruments, some quite rare, augment the text in this sumptuously designed, large-format volume.

Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan , by Howard  Sounes (Grove Press). If you've read extensively about Dylan, one of the most documented musicians of all time (and for that matter one of the most documented figures in all of popular culture), do you really need another biography, this one running 500 pages? Maybe not, but even Dylanologists will have to admit that they'll probably run across information they've never seen before in this exhaustively researched tome. For those who haven't read a Dylan bio yet, this makes a good starting point, though other bios (specifically ones by Clinton Heylin and Anthony Scaduto) are also highly recommended. Sounes didn't gain the participation of Dylan himself, but he talked to a ton of people who've known and worked with him, from the singer's childhood through the end of the twentieth century. Not many of those interviews are quoted extensively, but as a result you do get a well-rounded perspective of the man, his music, and his background. Some fairly shady areas of his life are not exactly cleared up, but detailed in more depth than they usually have been elsewhere. Among them are the famous 1966 motorcycle accident that put Dylan out of commission for a while; his childhood in Minnesota; the Rolling Thunder revue tour; and his near-secret second marriage. The prose is straightahead and un-flashy, and while some might wish for more color at some points, it reads well and is hard to put down if you're seriously interested in the subject. It also maintains sufficient distance from Dylan's music to offer learned, yet balanced, critiques of his records and the incidents in his personal life that might have fueled his art.

Captain Beefheart: The Biography , by Mike  Barnes (Cooper Square Press). Captain Beefheart isn't the easiest musician to document in biography form, due to the challenging, at times inaccessible reach of his music and the enigmatic, often inscrutable nature of his public pronouncements. This 350-page book is a thoroughly researched and entertaining read, however, and indeed is much easier to follow than Captain Beefheart (aka Don Van Vliet) is on record or in speech. Beefheart himself, unsurprisingly, did not make himself available to the author for questioning. But Barnes fills in a lot of gaps both through archive quotes and first-hand interviews with many of the musicians that have drifted in and out of his Magic Band, including John French, Bill Harkleroad, Gary Marker, Gary Lucas, Moris Teper, and Eric Drew Feldman. An equal amount of focus is given to all the junctures in his quite long career, from his early doodles with teenage friend Frank Zappa to his beginnings as a blues-rocker through Trout Mask Replica and his erratic 1970s work. A straightforward recount of what happened when -- quite valuable for a career such as Beefheart's, which zigzagged all over the place and has often been distorted by rumor and confusion -- is balanced with astute critical commentary on each of his albums. Space is also given to his post-recording career as a respected painter, though that's only dealt with in the final section. The picture that emerges is that of an insecure artist, often playing intimidating mind games with his band to get the results he wanted, yet also instilling an artistic admiration that made musicians eager to work with him even after being taken advantage of. It also leaves the impression of a man more concerned with acceptance by his listeners than some would expect, but utterly unequipped to navigate the treacherous waters of the musical business, and unable to shape his music into something commercial if he even tried.

Necessity Is...The Early Years of Frank Zappa & the Mothers of the Invention, by Billy  James (SAF). Although there are several books about Zappa, the 1960s years that saw his best work with the Mothers of Invention have never been covered in a thoroughly satisfying manner. This book doesn't do so either, but at least it does shed some light on the creation of his best albums and most interesting tours, albeit through members of the Mothers rather than Zappa himself. The text is largely based around interviews with Mothers of Invention members Don Preston, Bunk Gardner, Jimmy Carl Black, Roy Estrada, Motorhead Sherwood, and Buzz Gardner, with Preston and Bunk Gardner contributing especially heavily (there are also insightful extracts from second-hand interviews with Ray Collins and Flo & Eddie). The ex-Mothers have a good number of interesting, at times very entertaining anecdotes about their zany, theatrical stage performances and the challenges of working with taskmaster composer Zappa. There are some stories about the great albums of the period -- Freak Out, Absolutely Free, We're Only In It for the Money, Lumpy Gravy, Uncle Meat -- that clear up some of the chronological and logistical confusion about when and how the records were constructed. What this is still missing, obviously, is a perspective from Zappa himself, who was the most important musician in the group. What's particularly missing is a sense of how he developed so quickly from the bush league producer and R&B musician of the early 1960s into the brilliant satirical songwriter he was by the time of the first Mothers album, and the nitty gritty of the motivations behind his compositions. Though most of the book covers the Mothers of Invention from the mid-1960s through the breakup of their first incarnation in 1969, it also discusses contributions of the '60s Mothers to subsequent Zappa projects, and the Grandmothers band consisting of ex-Mothers of Invention.

Roy Buchanan: American Axe, by Phil  Carson (Backbeat Books). Roy Buchanan was a cult blues-rock guitarist who at times seemed to be studiously avoiding the limelight, not pushing himself or taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by his reputation. It might thus seem to be a feat to construct a 280-page biography of a figure whose past was shadowy, and who even at his most renowned was reticent and even mysterious. Carson does an excellent job in this thoroughly researched biography, written in a manner insightful and entertaining enough to keep even those with a casual interest in Buchanan, or an intense interest in only isolated pockets of his career, absorbed from start to finish. Prior to his emergence as a reasonably successful album act in the 1970s, Buchanan had actually spent about fifteen years on the road with various rock and bar bands. Some of them were very good (particularly rockabilly singer Dale Hawkins's unit), and some of them nothing more than lounge bands that seemed like inexplicable wastes of Buchanan's prodigious talent. This is actually just as interesting a section of the book as the one dealing with his more famous 1970s and 1980s work, bringing to life a time when hotshot guitarists could live from hand to mouth and drift from place to place on America's backroads. Of course, Buchanan had his own self-effacing, unambitious nature to blame for his obscurity, and in large part got his national exposure in the 1970s by capitalizing on a rep as the world's greatest unknown guitarist. That rise to semi-fame is also covered well, and although the author goes rather easy on Buchanan's weaknesses, he does detail Roy's inability to come up with reasonable quantities of original material, shortcomings as a singer, his problems with drinks and drugs, and mercurial moodiness. His controversial death (officially he hung himself in a prison cell, though some doubt he committed suicide) is covered with depth, but not in an exploitative fashion. As to the long-circulated rumor that he turned down a chance to be the Rolling Stones' guitarist, this book doesn't answer it definitively, but in so many words, it points out that it almost certainly didn't happen.

Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century, by Charles  Shaar Murray (St. Martin's Press). The title alone is a sign of this book's major problem: there are too many damn words. Not that you couldn't write a 500-page biography of John Lee Hooker, one of the greatest bluesmen of all time, and one whose recording career stretched over a half century. And there is a lot of good information here, much of it taken from conversations with Hooker himself, at other times from family members and close professional associates, such as guitarist Eddie Kirkland, producer Bernie Besman, and manager Mike Kappus. The problem is that Hooker's career, interesting enough on its own terms, is over-contextualized. The author goes into several digressions, some lasting for lengthy chapters, as to the roots of folk and the blues, and the overriding sociocultural forces that have shaped the blues and its audience, occasionally drawing on other critics' theories and academic philosophy. That has its place in a history of the blues (probably an academic one). But it's distracting and, at worst, annoying for those who want to find out about John Lee Hooker, musician and man. It's a shame this wasn't more tightly edited, for when the text sticks to Hooker's story, it becomes much more readable, at times even moving along very well. There are inside glimpses of Hooker's early Detroit recording sessions, his prime as an R&B artist at Vee-Jay Records, the broadening of his audience with trips to Europe in the 1960s, the remolding of his work for the folk circuit, his collaboration with Canned Heat, and his against-all-odds rise to genuine popular stardom in the 1990s. Unfortunately, even then the writing's peppered with self-referential asides, tangents, and pompous jokes. These are nothing new for those familiar with the Charles Shaar Murray's style, but they're nonetheless sometimes exasperating and even infuriating.

Miles to Go, by Chris  Murphy (Thunder's Mouth Press). Murphy worked as Miles Davis's roadie, and then general road manager, from 1973 to 1976, and then for a while in the early 1980s. This is his memoir of his time with the jazz great, modest in scope and length, but probably of interest to serious Davis fans. Murphy paints a much different portrait of Davis than other biographers have (and Davis himself did in his autobiography), remembering him as a kindly and generous, if irascible and sometimes irritating, musician, man, and employer. Few jazz critics would regard these eras as artistic high points in Davis's career, and arguably Murphy is too generous in his assessment of the music Davis made during them. There are, nonetheless, interesting stories about Davis and his peculiarities, whether his reclusive existence in his dark New York home, his openness to rock music by artists that some might never suspect he ever heard, and his subtle interactions with other musicians as leader of his band. Davis's wife Cicely Tyson comes off poorly, as a selfish and materialistic woman who would freeze the trumpeter's friends out of his circle, though Murphy does note that she had some good influence on him too. There are also quite a few general stories of how life on the road was like working for a popular act during the time that aren't strictly Davis-related, but are reasonably entertaining. The book is well-written and passes quickly, though it seems to have been padded a bit to make the 200-page mark, after which there are a couple inessential appendices of interviews with other people who worked with Davis, and a comparison between Davis and Ernest Hemingway.

Just for a Thrill: Lil Hardin Armstrong, First Lady of Jazz, by James L.  Dickerson (Cooper Square Press).
Lil Hardin Armstrong is primarily remembered as Louis Armstrong's second wife, though actually she was an accomplished early jazz pianist, playing in bands with him in the 1920s. Without her encouragement, there's some doubt as to whether he would have been confident and assertive enough to assume the leadership of his own bands and step out as a star in his own right. A problem with doing a biography of Lil is that she had been dead about 30 years by the time the author undertook the task, and virtually all of her associates were long gone as well. This hasn't prevented Louis Armstrong from being a biographical subject long after his passing, but there are many more vintage source materials to draw from in his case. Still, this is a useful, if modest, work that will be appreciated by jazz scholars and Louis Armstrong aficionados. Dickerson illustrates, without hectoring, how much Lil influenced her husband personally and musically. As many details of her fuzzy early life in Memphis and Chicago are filled in as are available, and her relationship with Louis, which after extremely intimate beginnings quickly declined into remote separateness, is gone over in considerable detail. To his credit, Dickerson does not neglect Lil Hardin Armstrong's achievements as an artist in her own right. Her contributions to the classic Hot Fives and Sevens recordings are discussed at length, as are her much lesser-known subsequent discs, in which Louis Armstrong did not figure. There's the sense, though, that a good amount of text about Louis Armstrong (apart from his relationship with Lil) was put in to fill this out to book length, given the relative scarcity of material about Lil Hardin Armstrong.

Lennon in America, by Geoffrey  Giuliano (Cooper Square Press). The years of John Lennon's life covered by this volume (1971-1980) might not have been as interesting as his experiences with the Beatles in the 1960s. But they were interesting, as Lennon struggled with an up-and-down solo career and marriage in his adopted home of America. Is Giuliano the journalist best qualified to write about it? Anyone who's read his previous writing about the Beatles (together and solo) won't have to think two seconds before replying: "Of course not!" If you've never read about Lennon's post-Beatles life before, there is much controversial and colorful detail to be found here. That would include his volatile marriage with Yoko Ono, which Giuliano contends was not nearly as harmonious as they strained to present it in public (he is not alone in that view, it should be noted); his fractious squabbling with Paul McCartney and George Harrison; his dissolute time in Los Angeles when separating from Ono; his extramarital affairs, with May Pang and others; and his sexual obsessions and drug indulgences, which are delineated quite extensively. Much of it, as the subtitle of this book trumpets, is based in part on lost Lennon diaries. If Lennon's life was really as sordid as Giuliano makes it out to be, so be it, but it has to be backed up with more solid reporting than this. The diaries are, for reasons not made totally clear, never quoted verbatim. Lennon, on the other hand, is often quoted verbatim, without any attribution as to specific sources other than a general bibliography at the end. Giuliano didn't interview him, and it's not clear exactly who else he interviewed, since many of the stories are not attributed to any specific (and sometimes general) source, and many of the non-Lennon quotes not attributed either. As is his wont, the author is harshly judgmental to the point of annoyance, regardless of your feelings about Lennon, and seems eager to cast stones upon Ono at every opportunity. His repeated trashing of Ono in print, of course, does not preclude the inclusion of a couple photos of Giuliano  chummily posing with the Ono family a few years after Lennon's death. There are numerous minor but aggravating, obvious factual mistakes and inconsistencies throughout the book too, as when he writes that one of Lennon's sexual fantasies was about the rising singer Madonna, who was still unknown when Lennon died in late 1980.

American Magus: Harry Smith , Paola  Igliori (editor) (Inanout Press). Harry Smith is most known as the ethnomusicologist of sorts who assembled the influential Anthology of American Folk Music for Folkways Records in the early 1950s. He was also a respected experimental filmmaker (particularly for his hand-painted films) and painter, and collector of string games, paper airplanes, and Ukrainian painted Easter eggs. He was a volatile eccentric who many similar cultural edge-cutters in New York credit as a genius and inspiration. Whether that's enough to build a biography around is questionable, and certainly this collection of interviews with those who knew him is not the best or most well-organized way to pay him tribute. The text largely consists of about twenty question-and-answer transcripts that appear to have been lightly edited or not modified at all, interspersed with photos, illustrations, and prose by or about Smith. As a result, the reader gets the feeling that she or he is looking at the raw materials and notes that could have formed the basis for a readable book, rather than reading a book that does full justice to Smith's accomplishments. Those accomplishments, incidentally, were so diffuse -- Smith was a Renaissance man of the underground, never making a specialty of any one or two of his interests -- that it would be difficult to undertake a good biography in any form. There are some interesting observations here and there, some by noted figures like Moe Asch (founder of Folkways), Allen Ginsberg, and filmmakers Jonas Mekas and Robert Frank. But there's also a lot of repetition in the coverage, and some of the interviewees are rambling and indeed boring. Many of them hail him as a genius, but a sense of exactly what the core of his brilliance was remains elusive. Descriptions of his violent rages, almost always forgiven on the grounds of his genius, suggest that most of us would have done our best to avoid interacting with Smith if at all possible. Occasionally sections of the text are in bold, presumably for emphasis, but used so indiscriminately as to be a distraction. The best piece here (an interview of Smith himself, concentrating on his Anthology of American Folk Music work, is actually a reprint from Sing Out! magazine. A large appendix that details his collection of artifacts is so dry as to amount to a waste of paper.



contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              unless otherwise specified.