In time for your last-minute Christmas shopping (OK, cutting it close), here are some of the season's best music books ...
By Keith Richards with James Fox
Little, Brown, 564 pages, $29.99
One of the letters reprinted in Keith Richards' rollicking memoir is signed, "Keith -- Who else would write such bloody crap?" His account of his life and that of the Rolling Stones, however, is bloody good.
Heaven knows the infamous guitarist has seen more of living than most of us could handle in several lifetimes, but what makes Life such a page-turner isn't the narrative (as you might imagine, the chronology's a bit ... choppy) or the gossip (there's not as much as you might expect); it's the genuinely interesting lessons and observations, from how Richards first learned to develop his guitar sound (he doesn't play guitar, he "weaves" it) to a detailed explanation of "the big rules of knife fighting" ("the whole point is never, ever use the blade"). The best parts of the book are in the first half -- which is plenty, the old burn-out produced 564 pages! -- in which we are reminded that the cartoonish legend Keef was indeed once a young working-class boy named Keith, who drew his musical foundations from two colorful grandparents.
Most of that music, of course, was rooted right here: Chicago is all over this book ("the masters ... they were all Chicago blues players") and was core to the formation of the Stones -- as an antithesis to rock: "Rhythm and blues was a very important distinction in the '60s. Either you were blues and jazz or you were rock and roll, but rock and roll had died and gone pop -- nothing left in it. Rhythm and blues was a term we pounced on because it meant really powerful blues jump bands from Chicago." Once assembled and rehearsed, Keith states the Stones' mission: "Our job at that time was idealistic. We were unpaid promoters for Chicago blues."
No doubt James Fox did the heavy lifting when it came to research for this manuscript, but his main success is capturing Richards' voice. Like Ozzy Osbourne's memoir earlier this year, Life really sounds like Richards -- but intelligible. It's a gas, gas, gas.
Spiegel & Grau, 317 pages, $35
Jay-Z's memoir is no tell-all. Beyonce is hardly mentioned, Kanye is only briefly touched upon, and no new details of the feud between him and Roc-a-Fella Records co-founder Damon Dash are revealed. What Jay-Z attempts to decode instead, throughout this interesting book, is the art of hip-hop music.
Through personal recollection and footnoted deconstruction of 36 song lyrics, Shawn Carter tries to get at the root and the motivation behind every rapper -- what made him and others put pen to paper, rhyme to microphone, and how to read and listen to what they're saying. Most of Jay-Z's raps (unlike, say, the Wu-Tang Clan) aren't exactly mysterious and in need of decoding -- though it's amusing to know, as he explains here, that the "bitch" referred to in "99 Problems" is really a female police dog -- but he unpacks meanings and allusions even dedicated fans might not have puzzled out.
His reasons for doing so are rooted deep in the culture he ably describes: "Being misunderstood is almost a badge of honor in rap. Growing up as a black kid from the projects, you can spend your whole life being misunderstood, followed around department stores, looked at funny, accused of crimes you didn't commit, accused of motivations you don't have, dehumanized -- until you realize one day, it's not about you."
His argument that rap should be considered as modern poetry is late to the game but valuable. "Shout-out to Alfred, Lord Tennyson," he actually writes, but it's not hilarious in context. He makes his case.
The Anthology of Rap
Edited by Adam Bradleyand Andrew DuBois
Yale University Press, 880 pages, $35
The methodology Jay-Z uses to present, explain and footnote some of his lyrics in his new memoir is considerably more enlightening than the mere transcription of selected songs in The Anthology of Rap. On one hand, hooray for these two professors, the University of Colorado's Adam Bradley and the University of Toronto's Andrew DuBois, finally carving out space in the academy press to present rap as a bona fide literary form, like any other anthology of poetry. They've created a crucial document to support the burgeoning study of popular music at universities. However, they also discovered in recent weeks the perils of plumbing hip-hop's labyrinthine poetry. From Slate to NPR, reports abound that the Anthology is rife with transcription errors. Example: Wu-Tang Clan's "Brooklyn Zoo" is printed with this lyric: "Energy buildin', takin' all types of medicines." It's actually, "In a G building," a reference to a Brooklyn mental hospital. Context is everything. Here's hoping your syllabus can hold out for the second edition.
Street Player: My Chicago Story
By Danny Seraphine
Wiley & Sons, 296 pages, $24.95
It's been a year for drummer memoirs -- from Joey Kramer (Aerosmith), Steven Adler (GNR), Tony McCarroll (Oasis, out soon) and now Danny Seraphine from the band Chicago. None of them reveal much that's new, mind you, but Seraphine's is the first official account from the hit horn group that took our city's name to the top of the charts in the '70s and '80s. No bombshells here -- Seraphine usually just dresses up the chronology, he rarely discusses music-making details -- but fans may find something to mine in the stories of the band's DePaul beginnings, his explanation of why they left town, his writing of "Take Me Back to Chicago" and especially behind-the-scenes tales of the B.Ginnings nightclub out in Schaumburg (1974-1981) and related rumors of Seraphine's alleged mob connections. But, hey, I'm just happy to finally know what the title of "25 or 6 to 4" means. Seraphine quotes songwriter Robert Lamm: "It's a song about the frustration of writing a song. And me wondering whether it is 25 minutes or 26 minutes until four o'clock in the morning."
Bob Dylan in America
By Sean Wilentz
Doubleday, 400 pages, $28.95
Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010
By Greil Marcus
Public Affairs, 496 pages, $29.95
Those who buy into the argument that Bob Dylan is not just a wandering minstrel but a Great Artist always have something to read. Two new tomes support the obsession in different ways. Sean Wilentz, a Princeton professor of American history, approaches Dylan in much the same way David S. Reynolds approached Whitman for Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography, attempting to place the artist into a very big picture. In this case, there's a lot of discussion of Aaron Copland (Dylan likes to open concerts with his music), Bing Crosby, Beat generation writers, even French mime Jean-Louis Barrault, all in an attempt to show the cultural family tree that produced this particular solid branch.
For decades, Greil Marcus has been constructing, tearing apart and rebuilding a similar frame to put around Dylan's art, and this collection of his essays, reviews and just about any other piece in which he committed Dylan's name to print follows his journey with the singer from famously asking "What is this s---?" (in response to "Self Portrait") through a concert on election night 2008. If you're going to read a single critic wax on and off about Dylan, Marcus is the man. He bought the ticket, and he's still taking the ride.
The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones
Sound Opinions on the Great Rock 'n' Roll Rivalry
By Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot
Voyageur, 192 pages, $35
The easy and insightful banter between former Sun-Times pop music critic Jim DeRogatis and Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot, as showcased weekly on their WBEZ show "Sound Opinions," is pinned down here among photos of the bands and their memorabilia, making for a spirited debate on an age-old question: Who was better? Separately evaluating the members, the psychedelic periods, the double albums, etc., the two critics volley sharp assessments (DeRo: "'Their Satanic Majesties Request' is a better album than 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.'" Kot: "You're nuts.") and illuminating facts throughout a rewarding academic discussion. (Disclosure: For several years I was DeRogatis' editor at the Sun-Times.)
5 OTHER QUICKIES ...
Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, by Rob Sheffield (Dutton, $25.95, 288 pages) -- Sheffield writes about music (for Rolling Stone, etc.) with amazing heart, here relating several autobiographical anecdotes to particular songs and artists. It's a series of essays, but it has an arc. His chapter about Hall & Oates' "Maneater" is worth the purchase price.
Frank: The Voice, by James Kaplan (Doubleday, $35, 800 pages) -- What's new to say about Frank Sinatra? Plenty in this well-written, fast-paced page-turner. It's exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, but the detail is rich, the stories are gripping and the end result is a complete re-evaluation of Ol' Blue Eyes.
First Step 2 Forever: My Story, by Justin Bieber (HarperCollins, $21.99, 240 pages) -- He's not 17, and he's writing a memoir? And his a biopic hitting the big screen in February? Not much to tell here -- new detail: the Beeb is obsessed with Chuck Norris -- but golly there are some pretty pictures.
Me, by Ricky Martin (Celebra, $26.95, 304 pages) -- We all knew this story, like, back in the '90s. But hunky Ricky finally pets pen to paper to tell his own coming-out story, and other amusing tales along the way from Menudo to international stardom.
Mozipedia: The Encyclopedia of Morrissey and the Smiths, by Simon Goddard (Plume, $30, 544 pages) -- An A-to-Z guide of everything the Smiths have ever mentioned, referenced, heard, hinted to or stood near. For instance, Morrissey was a big "Cagney & Lacey" fan. And he was kinda obsessed with Bea Arthur. Now you know.