The Zapple Diaries: The Rise and Fall of the Last Beatles Label by Barry Miles (Harry N. Abrams, 2016)
Do we need another Beatles book? Is there any facet of the Beatles’ 12-year existence as a group that hasn’t been written into the ground? Well, at least until Mark Lewisohn completes his definitive multi-volume history, it looks like we’re going to continue to get more. This one is a specific first-person look at the big-idea, short-lived subsidiary label that the naive idealists formed to release experimental recordings. Miles was hired to record poets such as Charles Bukowski, Laurence Ferlinghetti, and Allen Ginsberg. Spoiler alert: Zapple ended up only releasing two records (vanity projects by George Harrison and John Lennon) before new manager Allen Klein fired everybody and closed shop.
The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America by Michaelangelo Matos (Dey Street, 2015)
I’m probably not the intended audience for this book since I don’t really know the difference between house and techno and jungle and dubstep, and I don’t particularly care. Dance music people are very into genre differentiation, but it’s still rock and roll to me. I do, however, enjoy reading well researched and engaging history, and this book is full of that. Lots of young people doing their own thing, making their own scenes, getting loaded, and digging music. Despite the fact that Matos has claimed “The book is not about recordings,” I could have really used a soundtrack when reading it since virtually all of the music was unfamiliar to me.
It’s rare that I start but don’t finish a book. This is one of those rarities. For all the characters and events this guy witnessed, you’d think he’d be able to come up with some interesting insights or at least a few good stories. Nope. It’s just tame and boring. Which is a shame because I’ve read interviews with Johns where he’s been hilarious and opinionated. Unfortunately, this book — at least the first half — doesn’t reveal any of that.
Willie Nelson: An Epic Life by Joe Nick Patoski (Back Bay, 2008)
I picked up this book after reading Patoski’s Oxford American article about drummer/character Paul English, “Watching Willie’s Back.” Willie Nelson is an American hero whose greatness has only occasionally been captured on tape despite the fact that he’s got 50+ years of recording under his belt. This book goes a long way in explaining what it is about Willie that makes him such a compelling and unique figure. He’s as close to the Buddha as this country is every going to produce.
Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones by Paul Trynka (Plume, 2014)
This book presents two very clear facts and backs them up with abundant research and witnesses: 1. Without Brian Jones there would have never been the Rolling Stones. And, 2. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are a couple of brutal motherfuckers. It’s a big bummer of a story, really, and we all know how it ends, but Trynka reveals that much of the official history of the Stones is a bunch of malarkey. Brian was a deeply flawed guy who clearly exacerbated a lot of his own problems and I’m sure he was difficult to get along with, but the viciousness in how Mick, Keith, and Andrew Loog Oldham treated him is inexcusable. He should have quit the band in 1966. My favorite period of the Stones is still that golden era from 1968 to 1972, but even after he stopped directly contributing to recording sessions his spirit continued to influence the band. Keep music evil!
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster, 2016)
I’m not a huge fan of the Boss. I’ll admit that I’m pretty much the typical Nebraska fan. I like a lot of his songs, but the bombast of the E Street Band has never been my thing. Springsteen is obviously a good storyteller and great guy though, right? So I went into his autobiography with an open mind. And I couldn’t set it down! I stayed up way too late for too many nights in a row because I didn’t want to stop reading. The beginning (the striving) is more fun than the middle (the achievement), but the whole thing is a great read. Rarely pretentious or overwritten (although the chapter on seeing Elvis on Ed Sullivan was a little goofy), Bruce tells his story with a perfect combination of bravado, internal examination, and self deprecation. I laughed out loud several times while reading the Born in the USA chapters.
Wardrobe? The Born in the USA tour was notable for the sartorial humor sweeping E Street nation. The band has never looked and dressed so bad. I’d grown weary of being a wardrobe Nazi, coordinating the men into what was supposed to look like an effortless, unified front. In ’84, I abandoned everyone to their worst instincts and they came through glowingly. The eighties ruled! C’s Gap Band box cut, Nils’s bandana and satin jockey jacket, Max’s perm, Roy’s Cosby sweaters, and my soon-to-be-iconic bandana and pumped muscles. Looking back on those photos now, I look simply…gay.
We would make many videos in the future–I’d even come to enjoy them–but none would ever elicit the same knee-slapping guffaws and righteous, rolling laughter from my kids as me doing my Jersey James Brown in “Dancing in the Dark.” (“Dad…you look ridiculous!”)
Of course, personally, my favorite passage is where he describes the sound he is going for when recording the song “Born to Run.”
I wanted to craft a record that sounded like the last record on Earth, like the last record you might hear…the last one you’d ever NEED to hear. One glorious noise…then the apocalypse.
The fact that this book was written by Springsteen himself (handwritten into notebooks!) over a period of seven years is cool enough, but the fact that he’s this good at it is amazing. It’s a fascinating story about growing up and working hard to make a life for yourself.