Read It Again, Sam: 15 Music Biographies

I really fell in love with music at the same time that many of us do, as a teenager. I’d heard plenty of music in our house before then, from Big Band to the Beatles to Kiss to The Statler Brothers, but it took a bit for music to really grab hold of me, and to develop my own musical identity. Over the following decades that identity has shifted and morphed some, but not to any great degree. I like what I like, and you should too.

See, that is the thing. Music is a great unifying force, but we do allow it to be divisive as well. It shouldn’t really matter to me what music you enjoy, even if I think it is lousy. Often we will disregard an entire genre just on principal. Not cool. The fact is that music is something we should all be able to agree to disagree on. Let’s give that a try, shall we? I myself do not care for Led Zeppelin.

Girl in snow
This random picture is totally not a distraction from my inflammatory statement. Did it work?

I know, that seems almost sacrilegious, and it nearly caused a familial rift with my father-in-law. But here is the thing: I freely acknowledge that Zeppelin is a great and influential band. Just because I don’t like Robert Plant’s vocal stylings doesn’t mean I’m saying that they are no good. We should try to focus on the positives, not the negatives.

So, music biographies. There are a lot of them. We have dozens of them here at this library. Plus the ones that don’t technically qualify as biography, since biographies are about a person and a band isn’t a person. Books about bands go in the music section (782 in Dewey). I thought about some different ways I could approach this, and in the end decided it was about the music. Each title I selected is therefore accompanied by a song tidbit. Hopefully you will be inspired to read (and listen to) not necessarily these books (artists), but any that strike your fancy.

45 rpm records
Yes, I know what these are. I used to have a bunch.
  1. David Bowie: Starman by Paul Trynka. It took Bowie a while to make it big in the US. One of his earliest hits on this side of the pond was “Young Americans”, from his 1975 album of the same name. Backup vocals on the track were provided by a young American (pun totally intended) who would go on to have some success of his own: Luther Vandross.
  2. Passion is a Fashion: The Real Story of The Clash by Pat Gilbert.  “Should I Stay or Should I Go” was The Clash’s first #1 single in the UK, albeit a decade after it was first released. It reached #17 on its initial release, and only #45 in the US. You can hear Mick Jones yell “Split!” on it, as he was startled by Joe Strummer during the recording session. The title of the song presaged the band’s breakup.
  3. In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death, & Duran Duran by John Taylor with Tom Sykes. Taylor is the bass player for Duran Duran, and has some tales to tell. Note that I say “is” and not “was”. Many people view them as an 80s band, but they have never stopped recording or touring. In fact a new album drops shortly. One of their first hits was the iconic “Girls On Film”, written by lead singer Andy Wickett. Bonus points to all of you going “wait, what? Who?” Wickett was soon replaced by Simon Le Bon, and was paid £600 for the rights to the song.
  4. Take Me To The River by Al Green with Davin Seay. Green’s “Love and Happiness” was co-written with Teenie Hodges, who started on it in between intimacies with his girlfriend and watching wrestling. Loyal readers will know we are all about the wrestling here. Hodges sang (yes, sang) the guitar riff to Green while they were in the car, and they recorded it that same night.
  5. Enter Night: A Biography of Metallica by Mick Wall. Once upon a time I didn’t like Metallica, but I got better. The band broke big commercially with their fifth album, and one of the singles off of it, and their first true (power) ballad, was “Nothing Else Matters”. Singer and rhythm guitarist James Hetfield wrote the song one handed, sort of. He was on the phone with his girlfriend, and was using his other hand to pluck out a new melody on his guitar, which became this song. Hetfield is also notorious for writing the lyrics to his songs well after the music is written. Some Metallica demos feature him just sort of humming along for songs that have no words yet.
    da Vinci painting
    Leonardo da Vinci’s “Portrait of a Musician”. See what I did there?

     

  6. Dark Star: The Roy Orbison Story by Ellis Amburn. Orbison was at the zenith of his success in the early 60s, as he put 22 songs onto the Billboard Top 40 in those years. His song “In Dreams” was a bigger hit in the UK, propelling him into a tour with an up and coming band he had never heard of called The Beatles. He followed that up with a tour of Australia along with some chaps called The Rolling Stones.
  7. Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business by Dolly Parton. It is odd now to look back and realize that Parton was once a partner. She started performing as a child, and found success early. She was asked by country singer Porter Wagoner to join his syndicated television and road show. Fans of his program were slow to warm to her, and some thought that she would never go any farther. Her single “Jolene”, which she based off of real life experiences, proved the critics wrong, and her stardom was assured. Now, who’s up for Dollyworld?
  8. Slash by Slash with Anthony Bozza. Slash has played guitar for many projects over the years, but he is still best known for his work with Guns N’ Roses. One day in the studio he was messing around on his guitar doing warm up exercises when he came up with an interesting riff. Although he didn’t think much of it, the rest of the band did and had him play it again. Hearing this going on, lead singer Axl Rose started writing lyrics (about his girlfriend, Erin Everly, daughter of one of The Everly Brothers) and voila, a song was born. That song was “Sweet Child O’ Mine”.
  9. Girl In A Band by Kim Gordon. Gordon was the bass player and a vocalist for Sonic Youth. Back in the day she was asked to interview LL Cool J for Spin magazine and the two artists clashed. In fact, they clashed severely enough that it inspired a song, “Kool Thing”. The song has several references to LL, and the video director kept the theme going by styling it similarly to LL’s “Going Back To Cali” video. On top of all that, Chuck D from Public Enemy provides guest vocals on the track.
  10. It’s Only Rock’n’roll: The Ultimate Guide to the Rolling Stones by James Karnbach and Carol Bernson. “Gimme Shelter” was a fitting song to come out at the end of the 60s. Songwriters Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (both of whom have their own biographies) channeled the turmoil of the era into a song suitable for the end of the world. Richard said that his guitar fell apart on the last take, “as if by design”.
    Record store
    Hey, a record by my favorite band is in this pic!

     

  11. Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme by Mary Wilson, with Patricia Romanowski and Ahrgus Juilliard. Sometimes success comes quickly. Sometimes. The first handful of singles that The Supremes released failed to find that success. In fact, they came to be known as the “No-hit Supremes” around the Motown offices. The ladies didn’t have high hopes for their next song, feeling that it might not have the hook to make it a hit. “Where Did Our Love Go” did in fact have that hook, and was their first #1 single. The next four singles they put out followed suit.
  12. Does The Noise In My Head Bother You?: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir by Steven Tyler with David Dalton. Tyler is the singer of Aerosmith, and there are a legion of stories about that band’s rollercoaster career. The one I like best is about what is probably their most famous song, “Walk This Way”. You probably think this is where I do a Run-D.M.C. name drop, but you’d be wrong. No, what I like is where the name of the song comes from, which is from a line in the movie Young Frankenstein. I may not always like Aerosmith’s songs, but I have to give props to Mel Brooks fans.
  13. Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters by Robert Gordon. Maybe this is an obvious one, but here goes. Waters recorded “Rollin’ Stone” in 1950 as a variation on the oldie “Catfish Blues”. How did his version come out? Both Rolling Stone magazine and The Rolling Stones band are named after it.
  14. Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams by Paul Hemphill. Thinking of Williams might make you lonely and tearful…wait, wrong song. The story goes that he wrote “Your Cheatin’ Heart” thinking about his first wife whilst driving with his second one. She wrote down the lyrics on the passenger seat for him. I’m assuming it was a pickup truck.
  15. Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young. Sometimes famous tunes come about in peculiar ways. Young’s “Heart of Gold” features acoustic instead of electric guitars. Why? He had hurt his back and couldn’t play the heavier electric one, hence some “softer” songs as he healed up. James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt provide backing vocals on this one.
    Aquarius Records storefront
    Aquarius Records in San Francisco. I used to buy records from Aquarius Records, but not this one. It was run by an old hippie, though.

    You all have your assignments now. Read and listen, share and discuss. Here is another good list of music memoirs. Oh, and if you aren’t sure what to listen to, maybe try The Ink Spots, or The Dresden Dolls, or Sleater-Kinney, or Dethklok, or M.I.A. And please share with me what you like.

     

 

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