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The Year in Music Memoir: A Review

Posted in: General by Henry Lowell Carrigan on December 30, 2012

To paraphrase the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, of the making of many year-end “best of” lists there is no end. Making year-end lists of best books is an exercise at once exciting and frustrating. Listing the best books of the year helps recall fondly those great books that revealed new information about an artist or his or her music or drives you to pick a again a book that you didn’t want to end the first time you read through it. Making such a list is also frustrating when you must choose the “top ten” from the hundreds of books published; you also hope that you haven’t overlooked a diamond in the rough along the way. Yet, making these year-end lists simply provides a springboard for conversations about favorite books, why they’re good, and why we’ve come to love them; we hope that such lists will also introduce readers to books they’ll want to pick up and read in the coming months.

2012 has been a banner year for music books covering all genres, and it’s been an especially rich year for music memoirs, which range from the good to the bad to the ugly. The following list features a few outstanding memoirs from rockers as well as a number of other books that provide new looks into familiar subject, or first-time looks into subjects long neglected.

1. Who I Am: A Memoir. Pete Townshend. HarperCollins, $32.50, 538 pages—If you read only one rock memoir, this should be it. With all the energy he brought to his manic windmilling and to smashing guitars on stage in his career with the Who, but with the brilliance of a poet wandering through a teenage wasteland, Townshend descends deeply into his life, mind, and work as he ponders the question in the book’s title. Yet, the details of Townshend’s life provide the merest background for his soulfully written and relentless self-reflection and introspection about life, love, music, family, and death.

2. A Natural Woman. Carole King. Little, Brown, $27.99, 488 pages—King is one of our greatest treasures, and she wrote “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’ when she was only fifteen. Yet, King’s life hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows, and in this colorful memoir she weaves a tapestry that includes threads about her relationship with Gerry Goffin and their years as the top, go-to, songwriting duo in rock and roll, as well as her sometimes destructive relationships with her other husbands. Mesmerizing reading, King’s writing reveals why her songs continue to touch our hearts.

3. My Cross to Bear. Gregg Allman, with Alan Light. Morrow, $27.99, 400 pages—Allman lays bare his soul in this rambling and rambunctious, and fiercely honest, memoir of growing up with his brother, Duane, his life on the road, the illness that almost killed him, and his many loves.

4. Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippy Dream. Neil Young. Blue Rider Press, $30, 502 pages—Young says he feels like he’s massaging his soul when he makes music, and he makes some of his finest music in this lyrical masterpiece, massaging our souls by hitting just the right chords with his beautiful words.

5. The John Lennon Letters. John Lennon. Little, Brown, $29.99, 400 pages—For many music fans, the day John Lennon died was the day that rock and roll died. A prolific and ingenious writer, his lyrics, along with the songs he co-wrote with Paul McCartney, propelled the Beatles to the rock stratosphere and continued to attract devoted fans during the decade between the Beatles’ breakup and his untimely death. Lennon’s creative genius also animated his private life, and acclaimed Beatles biographer Hunter Davies has gathered, for the first time, all of Lennon’s letters and postcards. In this groundbreaking collection, published on what would have been Lennon’s seventy-second birthday, Davies includes almost three hundred letters, notes, doodles, as well as handwritten Beatles set lists, personal grocery lists, and lyrics to never-recorded songs.

6. A Woman Like Me. Bettye LaVette, with David Ritz. Blue Rider Press/Penguin, $26.95, 272 pages—Unflinchingly honest, LaVette, with writer David Ritz, shares the searing story of her struggle to gain recognition for her tremendous talent—praised by her friends Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and others along the way—and the many, many obstacles along the way that kept her from stardom. Energetic and frank, LaVette’s unforgettable memoir shines the light on one of our brightest stars.

7. Bruce. Peter Ames Carlin. Touchstone, $28, 480 pages—Carlin gives The Boss the definitive treatment here, and this is by far the best of the many books about Springsteen, capturing his many moods, his desire to retain his privacy but his secret craving for superstardom, and, above all, his consummate musicianship and his deep passion for pleasing audiences with rollicking, energetic shows.

8. Punk: An Aesthetic. Edited by punk experts Johan Kugelberg and Jon Savage, with essays by William Gibson, Linder Sterling, and Gee Vaucher. Rizzoli, $55—This heavily illustrated chronicle traces the evolution, realization, and legacy of the punk aesthetic, from the marginal cultural catalysts behind the movement through the musicians and artists who flourished in its prime.

9. Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock. Bob Kealing. University Press of Florida, $27.50, 256 pages—Kealing rehearses Parson’s familiar story, but he draws upon dozens of new interviews with Parsons’ family, friends, and fellow musicians, as well as previously unseen letters and photographs provided by his Parsons’ family and the celebrated photographer Ted Polumbaum to offer a compulsively readable and intimate portrait of a young man who found himself at the cusp of the music that became known as country-rock.

10. I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. Sylvie Simmons. Ecco, $27.99, 576 pages—In this vibrant and enthusiastic chronicle of Cohen’s life and work, Simmons reminds us that Leonard Cohen never went away but simply kept writing and writing the poetry and songs for which he has become so loved. Cohen emerges from this definitive biography as a sensitive artist, intensely serious about his work, whose reverence for the word and deep love and respect of his audiences continues “to dissolve all the boundaries between word and song, between the song and the truth, and the truth and himself, his heart and its aching.”

Other notable titles:

Up All Night: My Life and Times in Rock Radio. Carol Miller. Ecco, $26.99

Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir. Cyndi Lauper. Atria, $26.

Rod: The Autobiography. Rod Stewart. Crown Archetype, $27.

Kicking and Dreaming: The Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock and Roll. Ann and Nancy Wilson. IT Books/HarperCollins, $27.99.

In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death & Duran Duran. John Taylor. Dutton, $27.95.

Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Edited by Alan Licht. Norton, $16.95.

Coal to Diamonds. Beth Ditto. Spiegel and Grau, $22.

Mick Jagger. Philip Norman. Ecco, $34.95.

Led Zeppelin: The Oral History of the World’s Greatest Rock Band. Barney Hoskyns. Wiley, $35.

My First Guitar: Tales of True Love and Lost Chord from 70 Legendary Musicians. Julia Crowe. ECW Press, $19.95.

Mary Wells: The Tumultous Life of Motown’s First Superstar. Peter Benjaminson. Chicago Review Press, $26.95.

How Music Works. David Byrne. McSweeney’s, $32.

The Rolling Stones 50. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood. Hyperion, $60.

Abbey Road: The Best Studio in the World. Alistair Lawrence. (Bloomsbury USA, $75).

Treasures of the Who. Chris Welch. Backbeat, $45.

Neil Young: The Definitive History. Mike Evans. Sterling, $29.95.

Rock Chronicles: Every Legend, Every Line-Up, Every Look. Edited by David Roberts. Firefly, $29.95.

The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. RJ Smith. Gotham Books, $27.50.

Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock and Roll. Ellen Willis. University of Minnesota Press, $25, paperback—Last year, the University of Minnesota Press collected for the first time the late, great Willis’ “Rock, Etc.” columns from the New Yorker, where she was the magazine’s first popular music critic, in Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, $22.95.. Last year’s collection brought Willis’ trenchant voice back to life, resurrecting the words of one of rock music’s greatest critics. This year the Press also published Willis’ No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays, $25.

Conversations with Greil Marcus. Greil Marcus. Edited by Joe Bonomo. University of Mississippi Press, $40.

More Room in a Broken Heart: The True Adventures of Carly Simon. Stephen Davis. Gotham Books, $27.50.

Henry Carrigan



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