Turn Off the TV, Pick Up a Book: Rock of Pages

Of all the features that I’ve spearheaded for Bullz-Eye over the years, none has given me quite as much pleasure as “Rock of Pages: 45 Books for the Literate Music Fan.”

When I first started with Bullz-Eye, I was doing almost exclusively music journalism, much as I’d been doing for the previous decade and a half, resulting in a personal library consisting of an absolutely ridiculous amount of music-related reference books, biographies, autobiographies, collections of criticism, and the like. As such, it seemed an easy enough task to pull together a list of my favorites, then bring the other writers from the site into the mix with their own selections. The only problem was that I had a lot of favorites, and so did everyone else. What had originally been intended as maybe a top 20 or, at best, a top 25 gradually grew to a point where it seemed only logical to bring it up to the perfect music-related number: 45.

Not that we left it at that, because I then got the crazy idea to utilize the then-still-viable social network known as MySpace to contact various musicians, as well as the authors of some of the books that had made our list, and ask them to cite some of their favorite music-related books for a Celebrity Edition.

I can’t even be bothered to go back through and count how many additional books that brought to the list, but I’ll say that it brought a decent amount of street cred to our production to be able to say that we were offering personal recommendations from the likes of Henry Rollins, Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), Robyn Hitchcock, Terri Nunn (Berlin), Captain Sensible, Justin Currie (Del Amitri), Edie Brickell, Neil Hannon (The Divine Comedy), John Wesley Harding, and Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket), as well as Michael Azerrad (Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991), Jeff Chang (Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop), Legs McNeil (Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk), and Ira Robbins (The Trouser Press Record Guide).

I’ll let you go ahead and peruse the the lists at your leisure, because there’s a lot of good reading to be found within these pages, and I’ll be really impressed if anyone can make it through the feature from start to finish and say, “I’ve already read ’em all.” (If you can, though, please let me know, because I clearly need to be reading your blog.) But to inspire you to click over, here are the first three write-ups that I contributed to the piece…

1. And I Don’t Want To Live This Life: A Mother’s Story of Her Daughter’s Murder, by Deborah Spungen

Less a music-related book than a tale of a family being torn apart by one its own members, And I Don’t Want To Live This Life nonetheless succeeds in providing great insight into one of the most infamous rock ‘n’ roll romances of all time. Most punk rock fans worth their salt have seen Alex Cox’s film, “Sid and Nancy,” and if you count yourself among that number, we’ll forgive you for thinking that Nancy was nothing but a stupid, whiny, loudmouthed, heroin-shooting groupie who got what was coming to her. After reading her mother’s memoir, however, you may be surprised to find yourself viewing Nancy as a tragic figure who battled mental illness (schizophrenia, to be specific) and forced her family to endure years of emotional torture long before heroin — let alone a certain bass-playing Brit — ever entered the picture. (Indeed, Mr. Vicious doesn’t emerge as a major character until the final third of the book.) This is a heart-wrenching read, written by a parent who knew her daughter was doomed to die young, yet found she could do precious little to prevent it. Nancy herself once said, “I could have been a ward of the state; I had, like, a lotta problems,” but until you’ve read And I Don’t Want To Live This Life, you can’t comprehend just how big an understatement that was.

2. The Beatles Forever, by Nicholas Shaffner

The problem with Beatles books is that there are just so darned many of them, encompassing every possible reading level and written by everyone from the band’s former chauffeur to the Fab Four themselves. In the end, we went with a sentimental choice — and by “we,” I really mean “I.” Call it a case of unabashed editorial discretion if you must: The Beatles Forever was my personal bible while I immersed myself in their music during my teen years. But it’s far from a stretch to suggest that the late Mr. Shaffner’s book is, even three decades from its first printing, still an absolute must-own for fans of the band. In addition to his captivating history of The Beatles, placed in the proper historical context so as to clarify just how much they changed the world, there are a ton of photos of the guys that you’ve likely never seen before (Hey, look, there’s John and Yoko hanging with James Taylor, Carly Simon and Muhammad Ali!) as well as fascinating photographic glimpses at merchandise, memorabilia, and books and magazines dedicated to the group. Probably the best bit about The Beatles Forever, though, is that it was written at a time when all four members of the band were still alive — which means that, even as the last page is turned, you’re still left with the unmistakable sensation that maybe The Beatles could still get back together someday. Be sure to hold on to that feeling for as long as you can.

3. Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Rick Coleman

Fats Domino is an interesting and often overlooked figure in rock ‘n’ roll history. There’s one generation that knows him more for Richie Cunningham’s regular quoting from “Blueberry Hill” than for his music, while kids today only became aware of him in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when he was briefly feared to have perished amongst the devastation. Even those who thrilled to songs like “Ain’t That a Shame” and “I’m Walkin’” during their original chart reign, however, may not be aware of just how much Fats’ earlier piano-pounding tunes helped set the stage for the rise of rock. Coleman’s exhaustive research on his subject is evident on every page, with quotes from those who have worked with Domino throughout his long (and still ongoing) career, following his story from his familial origins all the way up to his initial post-Katrina experiences. There’s a little boozing here, a little womanizing there, and plenty of tremendously detailed examinations of the music industry from the late 1940s onward. Most impressive is the insight Coleman provides into just how many race barriers were broken by “The Fat Man” along the way.

Now get clicking…but don’t forget to come back and comment!

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