How exactly did the Beatles destroy rock ‘n’ roll? Why were so many Great American Songbook standouts penned by Jewish tunesmiths? And what exactly is the Tao of Wu?
These and other musical questions are addressed in noteworthy books in a year in which authoritative biographies of Louis Armstrong, Ralph Stanley, and David Bowie compete for attention with coffee-table tomes on the Rolling Stones, Johnny Mercer, and the photographic history of rock-‘n’ roll.
And, oh yeah, there are a bunch of Michael Jackson books, too. The biggest is “The Michael Jackson Opus” (Kraken, $249), a 400-page, 26 1/2-pound hagiography sanctioned by the Jackson estate, featuring paintings by David Nordahl, including one in which Jackson bears a creepy resemblance to Michelangelo’s David.
For a more modest Jackson experience, there’s “Michael” (HarperStudio, $29.99), a 224-page, two-pound picture book with essays by the editors of Rolling Stone, plus remembrances by Smokey Robinson, Steve Wonder, and others.
And for the words of the man himself, there’s Jackson’s oft-touching “Moonwalk” (Harmony, $25), which has been reissued with a new cover wrap making it clear it’s “Michael Jackson’s One & Only Biography: His Life, His Words.”
‘Tis the season to be a jazz reader. For starters, there’s Terry Teachout’s “Pops” (Houghton Mifflin, $30), a highly readable bio of Louis Armstrong. Teachout, a critic who has written books about H.L. Mencken and George Balanchine, argues that Armstrong’s importance is not that he was jazz’s inventor or first great soloist, but “the first great influence in jazz.” As Miles Davis put it: “You can’t play nothing on trumpet that doesn’t come from him.”
Still more thoroughly researched is Robin D.G. Kelley’s “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original” (Free Press, $30). Kelley’s book is dense — there are 101 pages of footnotes — but it goes a long way toward demystifying the eccentric jazzman, who suffered from bipolar disorder.
Both Monk and Armstrong, naturally, play major roles in “Jazz” (W.W. Norton, $39.95), Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux’s impressively erudite and accessible history, which does an excellent job of contextualizing from Bessie Smith to Medeski, Martin and Wood.
There are significant rock, country, rhythm-and-blues and showbiz bios, too. Marc Spitz’s “Bowie” (Crown, $26.99) is an unabashed fan’s fair-minded exploration of the Thin White Duke. Like Bowie, Tom Waits is a self-conscious changeling, and he proves to be a tough nut to crack in “Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits” (Broadway, $29.95), British journalist Barney Hoskyns’ dogged tome.
“Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times” (Gotham, $27.50), by Ralph Stanley, is a plainspoken memoir by the mountain-music singer as told to journalist Eddie Dean. Stanley, known for his haunting voice, explains that contrary to popular opinion, “I don’t play bluegrass,” and “Man of Constant Sorrow” describes his hardscrabble life.
Dean is also the force behind “Pure Country: The Leon Kagarise Archives, 1961-1971,” one of the year’s best music picture books, which gathers shots by Baltimore’s ardent country fan Kagarise. His photos were taken at New River Ranch in Maryland and Sunset Park in West Grove, Pa., and he captures Johnny Cash, George Jones, the Louvin Brothers, and sisters Roni and Patsy Stoneman, whom, it seems, he was especially sweet on.
Wonderful stuff, though not as interactive as “Aye Jay!‘s Country Music Fun Time Activity Book” (ECW, $9.95), a coloring book that invites readers to “Connect David Allan Coe’s Beard” and draw “Billy Ray Cyrus’s Mullet.”
The omnibus photo book of the year is “Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955-Present” (Knopf, $40), which accompanies a Brooklyn Art Museum show. It’s poorly organized, but Gail Buckland’s compendium of rock stars from Elvis Presley to M.I.A will keep your coffee table full of iconic imagery. Artier is the Thomas Denenberg-edited “Backstage Pass: Rock & Roll Photography” (Yale, $29.95), which includes pics by Bob Gruen and Lynn Goldsmith, among others.
Standouts among single-artist gift books the size of doorstops are Ethan Russell’s “Let It Bleed: the Rolling Stones, Altamont and the End of the Sixties” (Springboard, $35) and “The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer” (Knopf, $65). The former is Russell’s chronicle of the 1969 tour that ended in tragedy at the Altamont Speedway. The latter contains more than 1,200 lyrics by the Savannah, Ga., songsmith, and is “Too Marvelous for Words.”
On the short list of recommended picture books targeted at fans: Jon Bream’s “Neil Diamond Is Forever” (Voyageur, $25), Jim DeRogatis’ “The Velvet Underground” (Voyageur, $25), Gary Graff and Tom Wechsler’s “Travelin’ Man: On the Road and Behind the Scenes With Bob Seger” (Wayne State University Press, $27.95), and Robert Matheu’s “The Stooges” (Abrams, $35).
The most fascinatingly philosophical memoir of the season is The RZA’s “The Tao of Wu” (Riverhead, $24.95). It’s the Wu-Tang Clan’s spiritual leader’s wisdom-seeking tale of rising from the Staten Island projects to the top of the rap game. A serious book by a serious man.
“Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer” (Scribner, $30) collects the journalism of the late New York Times critic. Palmer, who died in 1997, set the standard for newspaper pop-music criticism for years. Antonino D’Ambrosio’s “A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears” (Nation, $26.95) digs deep into the sociopolitical context of Cash’s forgotten ‘60s protest album, “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.”
David Lehman’s “A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs” (Nextbook, $23) is a poet’s witty and ruminative examination of how Jewish songwriters — George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein, Sammy Cahn, and others — used outsider status to gain perspective in forging a canon of sophisticated, quintessentially American songs in the pre-rock era.
Finally, Elijah Wald’s “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll” (Oxford, $24.95) is an alternate pop-music history that focuses on critically dismissed figures like band leaders Paul Whiteman and Guy Lombardo, rather than revered figures like Louis Armstrong.
The title is meant to provoke, and is drawn from the not-original idea that “Sgt. Pepper”-era studio experimentation helped transform pop music “from a vibrant black (or integrated) dance music into a vehicle for white pap or pretension.” There’s truth in that analysis, but it’s a long leap to the Beatles destroying rock ‘n’ roll, which explains why Wald never fully makes the argument for the title of his own book.