For whatever reason in the past couple of years I’ve been doing a lot of reading about popular music. Here are a few report cards, in ascending order:
This must be the place: the adventures of Talking Heads in the 20th century : David Bowman
I’ll sleep when I’m dead: the dirty life and times of Warren Zevon : Crystal Zevon
Prince: inside the music and the masks : Ronin Ro
Killing Yourself to Live : Chuck Klosterman
David Bowie: starman : Paul Trynka
Carla Bley : Amy C. Beal
Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever: Will Hermes
The only book that gave me anything like a thrill related to the music it was attempting to describe was the last on the list. This was especially noteworthy in that Love Goes to Building on Fire is a widescreen panorama of new music scenes that were simultaneously and blurringly emerging in New York at the same time. Hip-hop, punk, new wave, disco and salsa were all born in these years, demonstrating that the musical ferment in New York of the 70s was as great or greater than that of the 60s. Will Hermes has done a laudable job of mirroring the urban excitement and social frenzy that spurred some of the most powerfully and lastingly influential pop music.
All of the other books, whether they realize it or not, are to one degree or another about narcissism — either the subject’s or the author’s. The sole exception is Carla Bley, which is an academic but well-told monograph about a particularly fascinating jazz artist, an outsider among outsiders.
In other cases, the books gave me many reasons to dislike artists I used to like (David Byrne, Prince, Bowie) and to be thankful for having little knowledge of other pathological human beings posing as artists (Zevon).
Klosterman’s book was the oddball because it pretends to be about music when it’s really about the author and his failed romances and their Pavlovian associations with “records” (that’s what he calls them). But at least it was entertainingly written.