The Best Music Books of 2012

[19 December 2012]

By PopMatters Staff


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Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock

Jesse Jarnow

(Gotham / Penguin)

Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock
Jesse Jarnow

Big Day Coming is a fact-laden treasure trove that takes place in a magical world where music is as essential as breathing—that is to say, Hoboken, New Jersey. Jarnow gets every detail a fan of Yo La Tengo could want: Ira and Georgia’s first time meeting (at a Feelies show, natch), their first poster, where they played their weekly softball games. Even more important is what Jarnow’s band-friendly biography does with these particulars, culled from old Melody Makers and original interviews: makes the case for Yo La Tengo being the one steadying force in the decades of indie rock glory and bullshit, equally ready to blow minds in the age of zines and MP3s. Even if you can’t tell your Hubley from your Kaplan, big day coming shows how far an unending love of music and a nice attitude can get you. David Grossman

 


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Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness

Tom Howells (Editor)

(Black Dog)

Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness
Tom Howells

Black metal’s theatrics and theories have become notorious since a raft of second wave bands lit a bonfire under the genre in the early ‘90s. However, black metal has never remained static, and Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness set out to explore the genre’s stylistic experimentations and varying ideologies. The multi-authored volume was immaculately presented, with archival, newly commissioned, and testimonial essays uncloaking black metal’s often misrepresentative myths. Personal recollections reaffirmed the genre’s importance in supporting an alternate worldview, emphasizing the distinct philosophic importance of black metal for fans and artists alike. Underground labels, bands, the genre’s art, aesthetics and the marketing of black metal were all investigated, and Black Metal… made for a dynamic snapshot of a genre often criticized for being wholly negative. Sure, not every significant band or theme was covered, but Black Metal… was a magnificent primer for a scene replete with the differing artistic expressions that have transformed black metal without forgetting its foundational roots. Craig Hayes

 


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The Book of Drugs: A Memoir

Mike Doughty

(Da Capo)

The Book of Drugs: A Memoir
Mike Doughty

Mike Doughty has stories. Lots of them. Many of those stories are ones he had been reluctant to tell, but in The Book of Drugs he lets it all out. However, his memoir isn’t typical fare. His book contains no chapters, it just runs from one anecdote to the next, in roughly chronological order. So the readers see Mike as a kid, growing up on military bases around the world, then struggling in New York City, and, eventually, stumbling into creating the ‘90s alt-rock band Soul Coughing. Since the book came out, much has been written about Doughty’s in-print evisceration of the band that made him famous, but reading it for yourself really brings it home. The contempt Doughty feels for the other three guys in Soul Coughing is kind of amazing. But he explains exactly why he feels that way from the big (forcing him to split songwriting royalties when he wrote all the songs), to the smallish (bassist Sebastian Steinberg had a habit of merely pretending to chip in money for meals). You’d think that would be the harrowing part of the story, but no, Doughty became a hardcore heroin addict along the way. Of course, he eventually got clean and managed to make a solo career for himself and traveled to exotic places around the world, so the book isn’t all darkness and vitriol. The Book of Drugs isn’t always an easy read, and Doughty isn’t the smoothest storyteller around, but the book is unusual in its construction and an unfiltered look into the life and outlook of a fascinating musician. Chris Conaton

 


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The Encyclopedia of Country Music: Second Edition

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

(Oxford University Press)

The Encyclopedia of Country Music: Second Edition
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

This second edition comes 14 years after its predecessor, enough of a gap to demonstrate how country music and the climate surrounding country music has changed and, indeed, how the record industry has evolved as well. In the post-iTunes, Napster, and Dot Com boom and bust world, attitudes, tastes, styles, and reflections have all changed and those revolutions are represented in the pages of this exhaustive and authoritative volume. This volume is great fun as it leaves virtually no stone unturned in the terrain it explores. Sidemen such as David Briggs, who has worked with Neil Young, B.B. King, Dolly Parton, Ernest Tubb, Alabama, and James Burton are present as one might expect, given their ubiquity on sessions and the influence they have continued to hold over future generations of country musicians. But lesser known figures, such as Dr. John Brinkley, also emerge. A fiction writer could not have created someone as colorful and controversial as Brinkley, and it’s difficult to call to mind a character equally eccentric in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll. As a tool for scholars, researchers, and obsessives this volume will be hard to improve upon; it’s authoritative, easy to access, easy to read, and captivating. I read a few of the sections in strict alphabetical order—moving from the A section all the way through C before switching, at random, to the Rs, then the Hs, then back to the Ds, with little sense of fatigue in any of those endeavors. Jedd Beaudoin

 


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Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound in New Zealand

Bruce Russell (editor)

(CMR/Audio Foundation)

Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound in New Zealand
Bruce Russell (editor)

Fans of nonconformist music will already be well aware of the influence New Zealand’s experimental and non-traditional music scenes have had on the culture and sound of global underground music. However, Erewhon Calling… was the first compendium to honor NZ’s experimental music legacy as well as its current depth. Edited by the Dead C’s Bruce Russell, the book perfectly captured the sound of “the edge of the world broadcasting back”. Highlighting the DIY ingenuity and energy of NZ’s outsider artistic endeavors, Erewhon Calling… surveyed an array of audio adventurers—the book’s 40-plus contributors coming from a raft of scenes, including noise, electronica, musique concrete, drone, sound installation, field recording, and various unclassifiable mish-mashes. Filled with an extensive collection of anecdotes, artworks, and essays, Erewhon Calling… emphasized the connections between NZ’s offbeat artists; allowing the artists to speak for themselves in whatever format they chose mirrored the eccentric attraction of experimental music. Craig Hayes

'Fear of Music' and more...


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Fear of Music

Jonathan Lethem

(Continuum)

Fear of Music
Jonathan Lethem

The “33 ⅓” series is inherently sporadic. Their short books about albums are always well-intentioned, but there’s a 50/50 chance that the one you’ll pick up will be self-serving and full of glaring omissions as it will genuinely convey how a specific album came to exist and why it needs to be heard. Lethem’s take on Fear of Music, Talking Heads’ third album, is undoubtedly the crown jewel of the 33⅓ collection, a work of zen meditation discussing every aspect of the album, from the vinyl sleeve to the personal memories to the bass lines on “I Zimbra” and the “fucking disaster area” that is “Memories Can’t Wait”. Lethem delves into, but doesn’t dwell on, 1979: he pulls from a spectrum as wide as David Bryne’s (from Cary Grant to Saul Steinberg!). The only time it frustrates is when you don’t have Fear of Music, the album, readily at hand, you can only go so many pages without craving a fix of some good ol’ fashioned art-punk. This is music writing as great as Lethem’s best novels, the rest of us are just lucky he doesn’t have a Tumblr. David Grossman

 


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How Music Works

David Byrne

(McSweeney’s)

How Music Works
David Byrne

In the preface of his breathtakingly expansive new book How Music Works, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne mentions that the chapters are not chronological and therefore can be read in any order. However you opt to experience this strange and wonderful tome (and it is an experience), you will inevitably find yourself thinking about music in ways you hadn’t thought of before. Part autobiography, part textbook, How Music Works covers a wealth of material in just 332 pages. Byrne, a well-researched and welcoming host, takes us on a journey from creation to the present day, from the stage of CBGB’s to the favela’s of Rio, from Leadbelly to Sufjan Stevens, all in attempt to explain the complicated systems through which we receive musical information. Byrne’s career, from his days as a busker through his most recent collaboration with Brian Eno, is covered in detail yet equal space is given to technology and the music business, past and present. Aspiring musicians: it would behoove you to read the chapter on business and finance (appropriately titled “Business and Finance”). In fact, if you’ve ever spent time playing, listening to, or thinking about music, this book should be required reading. Daniel Tebo

 


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How Soon Is Now: The Madmen and Mavericks Who Made Independent Music 1975-2005

Richard King

(Faber and Faber (UK))

How Soon Is Now: The Madmen and Mavericks Who Made Independent Music 1975-2005
Richard King

In 2011, the best-selling album in both the USA and the UK was 21 by Adele. It’s no great surprise that the record was an international hit; the North London singer’s soulful pop not only has a significantly broad-ranging appeal, but has also been widely acclaimed. But while many favourable words have been used to describe the album, one word which is not normally associated with it is ‘indie’. Yet Adele is that rare thing—a platinum selling artist signed to an independent label, XL Recordings. Indie has of course become a genre as much as a signifier of commercial independence. By 1986, Richard King points out, ‘any passing gaggle of white boys and girls who had started a band, irrespective of which label they were signed to—a corporate major or a bedsit start-up—was now called indie. But the book makes it clear that there is much more to independent music than the jangly guitar bands of the ‘80s or the post-punk that was initially the sound peddled by pioneering labels like Rough Trade and Factory. King also covers the electronic and dance scene, and the impact of labels such as Warp and the first incarnation of XL. Alan Ashton-Smith

 


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In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death, and Duran Duran

John Taylor

(Dutton)

In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death, and Duran Duran
John Taylor

The true story of a how a gawky, bespectacled, working class Brummie called Nerdy Nigel became a multi-millionaire international jet set playboy and Smash Hits’ readers’ “Most Fanciable Male” of the ‘80s. The swine! Yet despite some hilariously cringeworthy Alan Partridge-worthy anecdotes (“I was wearing my bass lower on my hips fucking the audience hard”) JT comes across as an incredibly humble, affable ‘English gent abroad’. The chipper, compulsively addictive and postcard-like Pleasure Groove is rife with gob-smacking insights into the dodginess of the ‘80s music industry. But it really floors you when Taylor enthusiastically recounts his youthful hometown scampery and the legend of his idol – John’s engimatic father Jack. A survivor of Stalag 344 and the Lamsdorf death march, it’s clear Jack’s story makes Taylor’s Rio-to-rehab journey of caviar, cocaine and crabs a mere whimsy by comparison. Albeit a charmingly entertaining whimsy with yachts, blondes and Sting being told to “Fuck off” by a teenager called Nigel. Matt James

 


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Letters to Kurt

Eric Erlandson

(Akashic)

Letters to Kurt
Eric Erlandson

It’s difficult to read or write about Kurt Cobain without feeling one is adding to the cheapening commercialization of a legacy. Those of us who loved Nirvana and knew Cobain would exit door 27 were deeply affected by his suicide in that peculiar way one is impacted by an artist’s death. Given how strangers felt about Cobain’s death, it’s difficult to imagine what his loved ones endured. Eric Erlandson, co-founder of the band Hole, penned Letters to Kurt, a set of prose poems intended to better understand Cobain’s suicide. In an angry book, Erlandson’s angriest when discussing his friend’s decision to die. “By killing yourself you proved quite capable of loving your enemies and hating your friends.” He calls gate 27, that awful portal which so many troubled musicians pass through, stupid (italics Erlandson’s). It’s painfully clear Erlandson misses his friend: he sees Cobain’s ghost everywhere, at one point mistaking his own sneakers for Cobain’s infamous Converse All Stars. Writing about Cobain’s 43rd birthday, Erlandson writes “The missing years become lifetimes.” Diane Leach

 


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Live… Suburbia!

Anthony Pappalardo and Max G. Morton

(powerhouse books)

Live… Suburbia!
Anthony Pappalardo and Max G. Morton

OK, we’re cheating a bit with this title as it came out in late 2011. However, 2012 is when we discovered it, so there you have it. Live… Suburbia! is a book about music the same way that E.T. is a film about an alien. It encompasses more than just a simple premise, it touches on the thematic elements of youth: a sense of freedom and innocence, the fight against growing older, and the rejection of authority once it becomes a militant force for evil. Live breaks the phases of youth down into digestible subcultures (e.g., skateboarding, skinheads, metalheads) and blows them up to movie screen proportions, flaws and all. All the while KISS, Judas Priest, the Ramones, and Minor Threat rip through the background on a shitty tape player. Live conveys more than just nostalgia; its nostalgia packed with hope for the future on a grand scale. By looking backwards to our adolescence, we can see how far we’ve come and how the things we love and the music we hear cement our memories. Scott Elingburg

'The One: The Life and Music of James Brown' and more...


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Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever

Will Hermes

(Faber & Faber)

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever
Will Hermes

While much has been written about the frenetic and revolutionary New York City music scene in the 1970s, Hermes’ book encapsulates its enormous scope better than most. From the final stages of the Greenwich Village folkie haunts to the early notes of hip-hop to the conglomeration and fusion of funk and Latin beats to the art rock and punk squall of the CBGB scene, Hermes captures it all. It helps that he was witness to many of the events chronicled, but instead of veering into personal history or nostalgia, the book serves as a historical guide and trustworthy document of a particularly happening time and place. With pages devoted to the politics, culture, and ethos of the locale and era, it teaches you about more than just the music. Most importantly, it’s a good read as you can feel the energy coming out of each page. Before too long you’ll find yourself seeking out the music from iTunes, YouTube, or should your tastes be refined, your old record collection. Jeff Strowe

 


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Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music

Alvin Lucier

(Wesleyan)

Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music
Alvin Lucier

Alvin Lucier has given us a remarkable gift with this volume, a work that, Robert Ashley writes in the foreword, “is a thorough, modern history of a particular group of composers and their work,” adding that the book “will solve many teachers’ problems about what ideas, what composers, and what compositions are important to understand from that history.” The volume begins in the ‘50s and closes somewhere around the ‘80s, Ashley notes. The great Harry Partch’s time had already passed but there were many other minds to be discovered and some that still beg to be discovered by a wider audience. The body of work he details is large enough to fire the reader’s imagination and soul for some long time to come. If the authorial voice is at times so simplistic that it seems to lull, that’s part of the book’s gentle charm. Lucier persuades you quietly with his point rather than bludgeoning you with the sturm und drangtechniques of a lesser writer and a lesser mind. Jedd Beaudoin

 


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My First Guitar: Tales of True Love and Lost Chords From 70 Legendary Musicians

Julia Crowe

(ECW)

My First Guitar: Tales of True Love and Lost Chords From 70 Legendary Musicians
Julia Crowe

Whether nestled in one’s arms like a baby, caressed like a lover, or wielded like a gun, a guitar is handy. First guitars, especially, carry an intimate, initiatory force. In My First Guitar: Tales of True Love and Lost Chords, classical guitarist/music journalist Julia Crowe interviews guitarists from different genres—blues, rock, flamenco, classical, jazz, punk—yet rather than the standard Q&A format, the book consists of seventy-plus extensive answers to one essential question: What was your first guitar? The book offers multiple tributaries, as each artist (Les Paul, Gary Lucas, Jimmy Page, plus many, many more) elaborates his or her answer into a sort of mini-biography or guitar-essay, resulting in a rich surplus of practical, emotional, even spiritual information along with the expected musical inspiration. There is even a glossary of redolent guitar terms like dampit, scordatura and purfling. As many first guitars are lost, broken and often stolen, the lesson to first-time owners is clear: Love your babies. Guy Crucianelli

 


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The One: The Life and Music of James Brown

RJ Smith

(Gotham)

The One: The Life and Music of James Brown
RJ Smith

RJ Smith’s The One is the first major biography of James Brown to cover his entire life, from his hardscrabble youth in ‘30s South Carolina to his death on Christmas Day 2006. Smith’s numerous interviews, prodigious research, close study of Brown’s music and performance, and pitch-perfect writing tone resulted in a work that is exhaustive, illuminating, and as fun a read as such tomes can be. “The one”, in James Brown lore, is the source of that which makes funk funky, and everybody knows by now that Brown more or less made funk a world onto itself. Specifically it’s the first beat in a measure, but “the one” is not so much a musicological place as it is a spiritual place, as the navigation of that beat is invested with age-old rhythms and nuances that end up propelling the rest of everything else—the tune, the band, the audience and Brown himself—into a strutting, rump-shaking beatitude. Smith illustrates how Brown’s background—a street-dancing kid whose artistic role models included a boxer and a charismatic preacher—led him to the essence of the one. Mark Reynolds

 


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Reinventing Bach

Paul Elie

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Reinventing Bach
Paul Elie

With Bach’s music in his pocket (presumably on an iPod), Paul Elie went straight from the train station in Berlin to a musical instruments museum that featured a Bach harpsichord. As a Bach lover, he was intrigued until he realized that while others admiring Pink Floyd’s synthesizer had really heard music on that instrument, no one knows what Bach’s playing actually sounded like. Thus begins a most unconventional Bach biography, interspersed with tales about a cadre of great performers, principally Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski and Glenn Gould, who reintroduced Bach’s work in the 20th century, from the start of the age of recording right up to the present. Elie’s performance is a tour de force, an elegantly written book of theme and variations carried out to the nth degree. For even for the casual classical music listener, Reinventing Bach is a dazzling read. Grace Lichtenstein

 


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Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown

David Menconi

(University of Texas Press)

Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown
David Menconi

Ryan Adams is now a bonafide rock star. He lives in L.A., is married to a movie star, and can sell out concert halls and performance spaces around the world. Back in the early to mid-‘90s though, he was a young, brash upstart from small town North Carolina who set out for the capital city of Raleigh with few possessions or connections, but many ideas and visions yearning to be heard and seen. Menconi, the long-time music critic for Raleigh’s News & Observer had a front row seat for Adams’ burgeoning career and recounts in vividly entertaining detail the long and winding road that propelled Adams to where he is today. While touching on Adams’ initial punk recordings and offering critique and analysis of his more recent solo work, the emphasis of the book is placed on Whiskeytown, the legendary alt-country outfit that Adams helmed throughout his tempestuous North Carolina years. During this time, Menconi was Adams’ sometime confidant, unofficial hype-man, and occasional sparring partner, which gives him ample credibility to tell the story of one of the era’s best bands. However, rather than relying chiefly on his own involvement, Menconi also did his journalistic duty for this book, drawing on interviews with countless participants of Adams’ then inner circle. Because of this approach, the resulting story is less a “fly on the wall” insider account and more a holistic account of the times. Additionally, Menconi also puts on his critical hat and offers a nearly song-by-song dissection of Whiskeytown’s work, making this book part biography, part appreciation, and part scholarly analysis. In any event, it’s a wildly entertaining read and a comprehensive rendering of one of Adams’ most fruitful periods. Jeff Strowe

'Who I Am: A Memoir' and more...


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Satan Is Alive: A Comic Book Tribute to Mercyful Fate

Mark Rudolph

(CV Comics)

Satan Is Alive: A Comic Book Tribute to Mercyful Fate
Mark Rudolph

A big reason why the music of Mercyful Fate still resonates so powerfully today is because the lyrics of the Danish band’s songs tell stories loaded with indelible imagery, King Diamond’s lyrics vivid and often very unsettling. It’s something begging for visual interpretation, and comic book artist Mark Rudolph did just that, assembling a group of talented artists and writers to create the ultimate print tribute to one of the greatest metal bands in history. A very successful Kickstarter campaign led to its release in September, and it turned out to be every bit as great as promised, part macabre, part wryly funny, and 100 percent sincere in its love and appreciation for all things Mercyful Fate. And as well done as the book is, it’s even better when you have Melissa and Don’t Break the Oath playing while you read. Adrien Begrand

 


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Shut Up and Give Me the Mic

Dee Snider

(Gallery Books)

Shut Up and Give Me the Mic
Dee Snider

An autobiography from multiplatinum-selling, goldilocks-haired Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider might not leap to mind as one of the year’s best, but Shut Up and Give Me the Mic earns its rightful place here for two important reasons. Firstly, it’s a hugely enjoyable tale of the rise and fall of a legendary metal artist and band, and as a marked point of difference, its glimpse into the world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll comes from an artist who only indulged in the latter—Snider remaining a faithfully married, sober family man for the last 30 years. Secondly, Snider is a complete egomaniac (hilariously so) yet for all his puffed-up bluster he candidly spoke about his struggles, years of fame, and his own mistakes and failings as his career collapsed. Shut Up and Give Me the Mic doesn’t have as much filth or finger-pointing as more sensationalist fare, but Snider is still a loudmouthed and vastly entertaining storyteller. Craig Hayes

 


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Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream

Neil Young

(Blue Rider)

Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream
Neil Young

In his new autobiography Waging Heavy Peace, Neil Young laments the fact folks nowadays rarely listen to his albums from start to finish, in the order he intended. His endearing if occasionally frustrating new book practically demands to be read out of sequence. A given chapter might begin with a musical tidbit, perhaps a story about the recording of Harvest, but it will inevitably trail off into a completely random conversation about anything from cars to Jimmy Fallon to drawing inspiration from a broken toe. In other words, it reads just like Uncle Neil’s all-over-the-map musical career. Young may be impetuous and a bit of a scatterbrain but he also has a heart of gold (sorry). He spends a good portion of the book rhapsodizing about his non-musical pursuits (his organization that assists disabled children, a mammoth car that runs on electricity and ethanol, a new high-resolution music service), all projects dedicated in some way to bettering the lives of others. Haunted by the recent deaths of several longtime collaborators, Young, at 66, sounds more determined than ever to fulfill his goals, musical and otherwise. He’s a benevolent rock ‘n’ roll Willy Wonka, the likes of which we might never see again. Daniel Tebo

 


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What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal

Laina Dawes

(Bazillion Points)

What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal
Laina Dawes

For all the inclusiveness and safety-in-numbers mentality the metal community loves to espouse, like any other culture it still has a lot of work to do when it comes to being truly open minded. That’s the message metal writer Laina Dawes conveys in her book about her experiences as a metal fan who happens to be a black woman. A courageous memoir and social critique, the book dares to look under stones many in the metal world would prefer remain unturned, and in so doing she shines a light on not only a scene rife with racial discrimination, but also on a lot more black women willing to profess their love of metal and hardcore than some might assume. Metal is nowhere near close to being as truly inclusive as some want to believe, but Dawes’ revelatory book is a terrific step in the right direction. Adrien Begrand

 


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Who I Am: A Memoir

Pete Townshend

(Harper)

Who I Am: A Memoir
Pete Townshend

Just because Pete Townshend spent most of his career living the sort of hedonistic lifestyle befitting of a 1960s rock star doesn’t mean he enjoyed it. In his generous new autobiography Who Am I, Townshend reveals the crippling self-doubt that led to the creation of some of the Who’s masterpieces. Townshend’s story isn’t that dissimilar to that of, say, John Lennon. Boy with a troubled childhood finds salvation in music yet spends his early adulthood full of uncontrollable rage, inevitably turning to drugs and alcohol. Townshend is a master storyteller, however, peppering his book with enough amusing anecdotes (accidentally drinking acid-laced tea at Woodstock, butting heads with a young Jimi Hendrix) to prevent it from turning into a self-pitying rant. From his failed marriage to his more recent child pornography scandal, Towshend bravely lays all of his cards on the table. It’s an unprecedented glimpse into the mind of a man whose music powered a generation. Daniel Tebo

 


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Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy

(W.W. Norton)

Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Alan Licht

Why a book of this magnitude on Will Oldham is surfacing now is another mystery for the Oldham enigma. Regardless of the reasons, however, Will Oldham is trove of insightful commentary, anecdotes, and contradictory observations, all centered on Oldham’s multi-faceted career. The draw of Will Oldham, isn’t what Oldham conveys through conversation with his colleague Alan Licht, it is how much is left unsaid and how little is still unknown about the man behind so many classic records. He’s not intentionally cryptic; rather his vast career and output just cannot be contained in one sitting. As a music fan, it’s a magnetic read, a pulling back of the curtain to reveal the inner workings of the watchmaker. As an Oldham fan, it’s a must-have. Scott Elingburg

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/166581-the-best-music-books-of-2012/