Scribes Sounding Off: Best Music Bios of 2010

Just Kids by Patti Smith (Ecco):

On the anniversary of the death of Rimbaud, I gave the first of my “Rock and Rimbaud” performances, reuniting me with Lenny Kaye. It was held on the roof of Le Jardin, in the Hotel Diplomat off Times Square. The evening began with the Kurt Weill classic “Speak Low,” saluting Ava Gardner’s depiction of the goddess of love in “One Touch of Venus”; accompanied by the pianist Bill Elliott. The balance of the program consisted of poems and songs revolving around my love of Rimbaud. Lenny and I reprised the pieces we had done at St. Mark’s, and added the Hank Ballard song “Annie Had A Baby.” We looked out at the crowd and were amazed to see people ranging from Steve Paul to Susan Sontag. For the first time it occurred to me that, instead of this being a onetime event, we had the potential of something to build on. (page 232)

The November trade paperback release of the autobiography-biography Patti Smith wrote commemorating her entangled, amae-kissed relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) is a reason to celebrate. Party maybe as hard as “just kids” did every day and night in the Chelsea Hotel in 1969. Maybe as Sufi-spinning as Smith was “Dancing Barefoot” on stage with her Band with Kaye did, in the punk era. This is writing that mesmerizes, transfixes, tantalizes, and cleans the Mudd Club bathroom of your heart. In the end, it won’t be about records, books, or even photographs. But remembering that we transcended the false world with friendship.

Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus Writings 1968-2010 (Public Affairs) is where Marcus fucks with Dylan, collaborating, castigating, calling him out and toasting to him who is not gone; while captivating us with clear connections made to the crumbling world, the fading books, the forgotten songs, the milieu behind every song. Marcus is no mystified Mr. Jones who just walked into the room, and his conversation begins with enlisting a Greek chorus of fellow critics to eviscerate Self-Portrait in a vintage issue of Crawdaddy! Marcus is scholar and gentleman, but also through volumes of features and reviews and lists, a passionate evangelist and fearless observer of Dylan’s “Album of Wounds,” when “Dylan Gets Nasty,” “The Myth of the Open Road,” Lou Reed’s take on a “Foot of Pride.” There are 30 records about America, Dylan refracted by Dave Van Ronk, Guns ‘n’ Roses, and Elvis Costello; and more folk fables unwoven and rock myths demystified than you can shake your ass to. It raises quite a head when discussing “Election Night” and “Masters of War” and just what is the most history-rippling cover of that song. Accusations from peers exist next to very precise praise from the author. Who is not puffing himself up at all by putting his name so boldly in the same font size as the subject of the book. Whether you had the bootlegs and don’t bother to buy the “Bootleg Series” due to redundancy; or like me and Nick Hornby, don’t think of yourself as a Dylan fan but just happen to own 30 or 40 of his albums, this career compendium of expert criticism is indispensable journalism.

We Never Learn: The Gunkpunk Undergut by Eric Davidson 1988-2001 (Backbeat Books): This could have been put in the recent “best 2010 proto-post-punk” book list we recently posted, as it is about the independent American punk-based rock scene post-80s hardcore. But I wanted to save it for my bio shout outs, as author Davidson himself was worthy of an autobiography (keeping the grimy rock flaming-fart alive in the 90s with the New Bomb Turks) and weaves plenty of that through his capitulation to history the caustic club venue free-for-alls, basement naked orgies of violence, righteous tour pranking, synchronistic demolitions of sanity, road break-downs and spiritual road kill, in the faith and works of the Dirtbombs, Devil Dogs, Dwarves, Mummies, Bill Childish, Rocket From the Crypt, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and I’m sure someone you caught setting themselves on fire playing bass at a Sunday afternoon backyard BBQ with bands on the bad side of town. We Never Learn is a great rock book for many reasons: A superb memoir of Davidson’s own time tearing up the post-hardcore tour circuit and releasing absolutely classic albums like !!Destroy-Oh-Boy!! and Scared Straight; and telling an unfairly untold story first and telling it extremely well. These are the unheralded, always in turmoil bands that tap into the 50s early rock’s spillage of rebellion, 60s weirdness as a given, 70s rawness as a refuge, jittery from the shakes from the cheap thrills of moonshine and trucker speed just as the popular culture drank the suburban champagne of slick punk pop bands and snorted up sales at the Hot Topic. This is the book your best friend in the most bad ass band always threatens to write about all the local and networked bands you guys love. Davidson did it, and even if I don’t own even half these records, I still want to read about them.

A Very Irregular Head: The Life Of Syd Barrett by Rob Chapman (Da Capo): Some of these bios are about survivors, but I imagine your basic yob would say that you need at least one cautionary tale among the pack of rock gods. Barrett wasn’t the first rock and roll number one son to fry his mind and fall in with the wrong squat; and from the lives of those he inspired, like Peter Perrett of The Only Ones, and Julian Cope (originally of Teardrop Explodes), he wouldn’t be the last. His testing by eternity was without resurrection and so the saddest for many though, as the band he fronted, Pink Floyd, were born to soar. It was his ontological mayhem that would initiate them, face coated with glitter and aphasiac from LSD, and after his fall would inspire them to craft music to try to awaken him as their music bloated through all media. This fascinating dialogue of attempts to record his later, too-damaged mind and talents, and the sheer craft that went into the concept albums about him, is a compelling story of what it means to care for someone beyond the pale. In the beginning, it was all brilliant potential, with his tracks around the time of their mid-60s debut (“Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play” -- available on the recently Capitol/EMI-released compilation, An Introduction To Syd Barrett) are still mainstream-underground-outsider margin elemental psyche-scapes, as important to rock history as Lewis Carroll is to children’s literature. (And just as unsettling, sitting there, to this day.) He created a bigger, more colorful canvas for rock music, by feeding the fuzz in his own mind. In A Very Irregular Head, Rob Chapman compiles the necessary documents from personal artwork to correspondence, capturing many oral histories and piecing together magazine features to try to also piece together someone who could have had the world, if he didn’t have an illness to keep him from figuring out what that was. Of special note are the wonderful literary connections Chapman makes, showing that Barrett was in a long line of romantic bards who had several secret lives mirrored in every line they scribed. He messed with the language in some very surprising, intuitive ways, reminding one of other extremely unique rock linguists. This takes the material beyond the tsk-tsk of patronizing an “acid casualty” and gives honor and nobility back to a classically English author, even one who could set alight every soul swooning and cheering to the ebullience of his band’s chattering chaos flooding the Albert Hall.

I’m In The Band: Backstage Notes From The Chick In White Zombie by Sean Yseult (Soft Skull/Counterpoint): This is the most strikingly beautiful of all the books on this biography list, which is fitting coming from the gorgeous and tough bass player of White Zombie. A big, wide trade paperback crammed with color photos of the lady and her band-mates, your eyes will guzzle down fascinatingly perverse show flyers as Yseult tells you nothing you couldn’t imagine about Rob and the madmen he played with, but-- oh, hell, there’s plenty here that even blows my mind! Yseult was a hardcore kid who walked into a record store after moving to the Lower East Side in 1987, in the early days of skronk (Pussy Galore, Prong, Live Skull; punk rock sprinkled with angel dust and lit with a cherry bomb). Plenty of pain in the pits, and everyone piled up transgressions assuming Reagan was going to destroy the world, through which our heroine found Soul Crusher, and her love for that LP began her on an eleven year war tour, rattling around her inner life and trying not to get licked by the ubiquitous (real) flames on-stage. The ascension through alternative rock mega-boom and playing on barges with Soundgarden through Europe, seeing La Sexocisto catapult into the multi-platinum top ten in 1992, and putting out her own music on Bong Load Records is an odyssey every young man and woman should vicariously partake. If like many you’re interested in the first-hand accounts of how young musicians after Nirvana handled the world telling them they were cool for things they were getting thrown out of their families for just a few years before, and have the same aesthetic delight in the Cramps, Motorhead, and The Ramones that Yseult had, get to know Yseult here. Her maneuvers with androgyny and attraction, her actual mastery of the instrument she played, and her ability to creatively convey the exuberant talents inside and around her beloved band make this autobiography feel like the hottest one in the room just smoked you out. No morbid dead ends here, just pure Stoic-metal transcendence.

Cheetah Chrome: A Dead Boy’s Tale From The Front Lines Of Punk Rock (Voyageur Press): This is an excellent, hilarious, self-deprecating, and dangerously addictive read about how Cleveland, Ohio spawned the Dead Boys and like-minded (if sometimes very smart) louts in the mid-1970s. Chrome is a lot wiser than I assumed; I feel like a jerk saying that, but he’s really surprisingly bright considering his and the Dead Boys’ reputations. Growing up in low income housing and considered useless by many around him, he never stopped fighting, even with his own aesthetic was assimilated by the fashion machine. The bloody glory is all here, but he knew where he fucked up and tells you with all the excruciating details leading up to exactly how it happened. But without any self-pity or anything less than a “please kill me” smile. Young, Loud, and Snotty isn’t quite the classic we all need from this era, but its deficiencies were not Chrome’s fault -- quite the opposite. This is one of those cases where they should have trusted the crazy guy, not the charismatic sociopaths called businessmen around the band. A Dead Boy’s Tale is also a gorgeously designed tome, which might make one wary of the ravings of a guy we all feared, but once you’re pulled into the stories of making raw noise to piss off drunken factory workers, fighting and fucking, taking every drug you can imagine, and piling into endless scenarios of destruction with Stiv Bators, you can’t help but love the guy. (Of special note are the meetings with Iggy and Keef.) Legs McNeil says in the introduction that Chrome was called a “monster” back in the day, but then so was he (speed is a monstrous drug!), and as with a lot of “monsters” you meet after you have a few misadventures of your own and enough people misunderstand you, you may find you both belong to Frankenstein. I never imagined Chrome could turn in such a compelling, eloquent memoir, but that just goes to show why he’ll be “ten feet tall” when the rest are just “nothing at all.” Oddly, that has to do with his own humility.

Life by Keith Richards and James Fox (Little, Brown and Company): This book is like the Bible or something.

Four years Patti and I had been together, four years of road testing, and I’d expended enough sperm to fertilize the whole world, and no babies. Not that I really expected to have children by Patti. “I can’t have babies,” she’d said. Well, I guess you can’t! But it’s not the reason I’m gonna marry you. Put that little curtain ring around your finger and in six months guess what? “I’m pregnant!” So the dungeon that we’re planning, it’s going to be a nursery now. All right, paint it pink and put a cot in, take the chains off the walls, get the mirrors down. (pages 449-50)

And:

No one taught him to dance, until he took dance lessons. Charlie and Ronnie and I quite often chuckle when we sick Mick out there doing a move we know a dance instructor just laid on him, instead of being himself. We know the minute he’s going plastic. Shit, Charlie and I have been watching that ass for forty-odd years; we know when the moneymaker’s shaking and when it’s being told what to do. (page 456)

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One Comment

  1. Tyler
    Posted December 16, 2010 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    Just Kids is a must have.

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