Scott’s Bookshelf, Part 3

20. Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story (Nick Tosches) – The number of music bios I own is relatively small (I’m guessing they account for, at most, 20% of my music books), the number I’ve read even smaller, and the number I’ve loved barely constitute a blip in my reading history, but this is the exception even among the exceptions (of which there are a few). As someone who came to the subject of Jerry Lee rather blindly — aside from knowing the obvious hits — and without an overwhelming amount of interest in learning more, I found Tosches’ telling of the story entirely absorbing, even haunting. Particularly in his channeling of Lewis’s voice, a risky device that resonated long after I put the thing down. “It was 1975. It might just as well have been 1965. He took a drink and beheld himself in the mirror. There were lines on his face that he had never seen before. He looked for the eyes of the hawk, but saw only his own, pink and milky from the wages of unclean succor. The hair, though, the hair — the hair was yet of majesty.”

21. Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota (Chuck Klosterman) – I approached this with no small amount of trepidation but it was a lot better than I expected. Not sure how reliable my many sidebar scribbles are, but let’s see what we got: a well-deserved “Ugh” on p. 122 (“Part of the problem is that metal is painfully Caucasian, and most good sex music is made by black guys”*); an exclamatory “Yes!” on p. 71 (“What music ‘means’ is almost completely dependent on the people who sell it and the people who buy it, not the people who make it.”); a drily enthusiastic “Excellent sentence” on p. 67 (“Max’s Kansas City in 1972 was a microcosm of the whole world in 1985.”); a disbelieving “Really?” on p. 30 (“Van Halen took the majority of their influences from Grand Funk Railroad.”). Best hair quote: “Judas Priest supposedly made kids point guns at their head; Cinderella made me do the same thing with a hair dryer.”

* Actually, beside “Ugh” I wrote “cf. Frith’s Performing Rites,” in reference to the chapter in which Frith — a mere two titles ahead, sports fans — has an entire chapter skewering this notion, no doubt with language a good deal more eloquent than “Ugh.”

22. Chronicles (Bob Dylan) – If I looked hard enough I could probably find a good quote about hair in this as well, but what  sticks in the mind is Bob’s personal guided tour through New York town in the early ’60s and the candour with which he discusses some of his later lousy records (well, it’s a sort of candour — I don’t recall him naming too many names). 20 or 30 pages of this remain unread, not sure why. I can only presume I was too busy to finish it and too lazy to start up again.

23. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Simon Frith) – Disappointingly has no chapter entitled “Hair” but there is a very good one entitled “The Voice,” which I’ve turned to frequently and have even quoted from on occasion. As with a lot of Frith’s writing, I’m more interested in the details here than in the overriding thesis (or theses, I suppose). I mean that if you asked me to summarize what this book is “about” I couldn’t begin to tell you; if you asked me to find some lovely passages or anecdotes, or some intriguing ideas to gnaw on, I might not know where to stop.

24. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979 (Tim Lawrence) – A better read than Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, not that they’re the same thing exactly (the latter deals with “dance music” as but one star in a much larger cosmos). For me, one litmus test when it comes to books that cover disco is how the author handles the Bee Gees. A book that is critical of the Brothers Gibb can still be a fine book, of course, but any author who dismisses them (or Saturday Night Fever) out of hand automatically forfeits a bit of goodwill on my end (I’m a bit defensive that way, I admit). Lawrence strikes a good balance here, I think, quoting positive stuff about the hits and the movie (including comments from Vince Aletti, one of the first rock critics to take disco seriously) while understandably giving voice to the bemusement and horror many insiders expressed as the phenomenon itself spun wildly out of control. His coverage of Comiskey Park and Steve Dahl is also well done, and it was interesting to read just how much of the rage against the disco moment was in fact shared (and articulated) by many of the players responsible for its rise in the first place (sans the homophobic/racist undertones of the “disco sucks” idiocy, obviously).

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