Hitting The Trunk Road: The 12 Greatest Books About Rock

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Close to seven years ago, I wrote a piece for Earvolution entitled The Ten Greatest Books About Rock And Roll. Motivated by arrogance, entitlement and a desire to prove that Largehearted Boy wasn’t the only Internet journalist that reads, I felt perfectly comfortable in proclaiming a finite set of books as the elite strata of rock and roll journalism. In a revelation that should surprise no one, I was quickly disabused of the motion that I covered the subject adequately. Even subjective endeavors such as “best of” lists can have some objectively egregious omissions.

[Photo by Petr Kratochvil]

With a little less arrogance and entitlement (but equal desire to show that others beside LHB can write about the written word), the original Earvolution list of ten has been refined and expanded to a full dozen. Anyone wishing to become well-versed and well-rounded in music from the business side to the listener side could do much worse than to stock their library, in no particular order, with the following twelve books.

Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey In Rural North Dakota – Chuck Klosterman (2001)

Klosterman begins Fargo Rock City intent on explaining and defending his fascination with heavy metal, especially hair metal. Acknowledging that his love of Motley Crue and KISS often brings puzzled, disappointed looks to his friends’ faces, Klosterman refuses to apologize or retreat from the music he unabashedly loves. In addressing the arguments of the genre’s detractors head-on, Klosterman focuses on the inclusiveness of the themes found in heavy metal, contrasting them to the exclusive, “we’re cooler than you” motif present in other genres. Klosterman disproves, or at least rationalizes in fascinating detail, the misconceptions about male chauvinism and Satanism always attributed to the genre, taking delight in pointing out the fallacies or logical missteps in the contrarian views.

In defining why this music spoke to him as a teenager in rural North Dakota and explaining why it still does, Klosterman steps into the role of everyman; stretching beyond the singular, Klosterman explains the appeal of hard rock and hair metal in such simple, easy-to-understand terms, you’ll find yourself tempted to purchase Shout At The Devil based solely on his love for his favorite Crue album. Klosterman, a pop culture maven, doesn’t limit his discussion to bands like Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses, Skid Row and Warrant; he discusses practically every relevant or remotely popular band from the Eighties to the present. By the end of Fargo Rock City, Klosterman has gone beyond explaining his love of metal and written a treatise of why we like the music we like. In answering the question of why we are attracted to certain music, Klosterman may very well have written the best book ever about rock and roll.

Chronicles: Volume 1 – Bob Dylan (2004)

Only a handful of musicians have ever been as socially relevant as Bob Dylan. Even fewer have been as puzzling and enigmatic about their own music and concomitant celebrity as the mercurial folk singer from Minnesota. In Chronicles: Volume 1 (rumors abound that work is afoot on Volume 2), Dylan makes no effort to tell his story in chronological order, picking and choosing select points from his illustrious career on which to finally offer his definitive insights.

Inspired by the writing style found in Douglas Brinkley’s compilation of Hunter S. Thompson’s correspondence, Dylan’s discourses are practically streams of consciousness. Although his story starts at the beginning – covering his travels to New York, his formative years in the folk clubs on the Lower East Side and the influence of Dave Van Ronk – he soon bounces around to various points of his storied legacy. Anyone looking for a narrative tale on the genesis of Blowin’ In The Wind or the making of Blonde On Blonde will be deeply disappointed by Chronicles: Volume 1; Dylan apparently doesn’t find these stories interesting.

Assuming that you already know who he is and what he’s done, Dylan tells his story the way he wishes to tell it: with disjointed eloquence. During the lengthy section devoted to the recording of Oh Mercy under Daniel Lanois’ supervision, he not once mentions the name of the album. The most fascinating revelations in the book come early on. Having unwillingly become the voice of his generation, Dylan’s unease at the attempts to position him as the leader of a revolution in which he had no interest only adds another level of depth to an already complicated persona.

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History Of Punk – Legs McNeill & Gillian McCain (1997)

Presented in the words of those that lived through it, Please Kill Me presents the rise and fall of punk rock without exposition or outside context. Although McNeill & McCain credit the emergence of the MC5 and The Stooges from Michigan as punk rock’s starting point, the oral history attributes its development to the fertile soil that was New York City in the Seventies.

Facing bankruptcy and rife with crime, Manhattan’s lower east side served as a Petrie dish for punk rock’s outbursts of guttural, aggressive guitar based rock. The glam of the New York Dolls, the poetry of Patti Smith, the hip, leathery cool of Richard Hell and Television all rose from the sheer decrepitude of Seventies era New York City. The music and its surroundings simply became inextricable from each other. In that regard, Please Kill Me doesn’t ignore the rise of punk rock overseas. However, the New York punk scene looked down its nose at its English counterpart, finding the anarchy, violence and gobbing to be a warped interpretation of whatever served as the punk ideal. Although many perceived The Sex Pistols to be the quintessential punk rock band, those close to the action saw them as an attempt to reinvent The New York Dolls and present punk rock to the mainstream.

Sadly underscoring the narrative, many of the musicians that are emblematic of punk rock’s lasting influence could barely be trusted to run their own lives. It’s unclear whether McNeill & McCain intended to present the effects of heroin and drug use in an unglamorous light but the stories concerning Iggy Pop, Johnny Thunders, Richard Hell, Dee Dee Ramone, Sid Vicious and others paint a harrowing picture of how drug use both fueled and destroyed the punk rock movement. Besides being wildly entertaining – it seems everyone has a Lou Reed story simply more bizarre than the next – the true import of Please Kill Me is its affirmation of the fact that all true rock and roll movements are created by outsiders that don’t just refuse to conform to the status quo, they affirmatively and loudly reject it.

The Mansion On The Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen and Springsteen and the Head-On Collision Of Rock and Commerce – Fred Goodman (1997)

In the late sixties and early seventies, major record companies sensed the tremendous amount of money to be made from rock and roll. With The Beatles and The Rolling Stones paving the way, the earning potential of major superstar acts was just being tapped. In this era, music became an industry. Fred Goodman’s book tells the story of how rock and roll moved from a communal experience between the artist and their fans to a business full of management agreements and onerous one-sided record deals. In turning grass roots, populist sensations into mainstream superstar attractions, the square peg that was rock and roll got crammed, kicking and screaming, into the round hole of corporate America.

The Mansion On The Hill tells the major stories of this time, beginning with the inculcation of the iconoclastic Bob Dylan into the corporate sphere. The erosion of the manager/musician relationship gets full treatment, best typified by the irreconcilable differences between Bruce Springsteen and Mike Appel that delayed the release of Darkness On The Edge Of Town and helped give birth to the modern day management agreement. (Mark Elliot’s Down Thunder Road, written with Appel’s assistance and containing deposition testimony from the lawsuit provides a more detailed account of the Springsteen/Appel rift). Through Neil Young and Don Henley, Goodman tackles the thorny issues of art-for-hire, examining the conflict between the artist wanting to create music that appeals to them and their label’s potentially competing desire for a marketable “product” to sell. All of the contractual conventions prevalent between managers, record labels and the artists evolved slowly, arising from the natural conflict that exists between art and commerce. Goodman’s book covers the maturation of the music industry with a detached but well-informed interest, making The Mansion On The Hill required reading for anyone with an interest in finding a career in the music industry.

Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From The American Indie Underground 1981-1991 – Michael Azerrad (2001)

Long before Clap Your Hands Say Yeah became MySpace heroes and Radiohead reached such simpatico with its fans that it could let them name their own price for an album, hardcore bands like Black Flag and Minor Threat, alternative acts like The Butthole Surfers and Husker Du and burgeoning legends like The Replacements and Sonic Youth sketched out the analog DIY playbook for connecting with an audience without the aid or assistance of a big time record label.

In Our Band Could Be Your Life, Azerrad chronicles musicians from all over the United States that made their band their life and the small labels like SST, Dischord and Touch & Go that arose as truly independent record companies. Embodying the adage that necessity is the mother of invention, hardcore bands played afternoon shows for their underage fans that couldn’t come to clubs at night while others provided an outlet and rallying point for the straight-edge punks that eschewed druggy excesses in favor of an intoxicant free lifestyle. Fanzines, fan clubs, homemade record labels and endless touring were somewhat novel approaches in the Eighties and it bore fruit in the development of a truly independent universe of rock and roll.

Indie labels weren’t boutiques designed to impress the world with their hip credentials, they served an integral purpose of attempting to meet the burgeoning demand with an extremely limited budget. The unifying theme of the thirteen chapters – each on a different band – is the self-sufficiency with which each band created their own underground movement and escaped obscurity. Once Sub Pop released Nevermind and Nirvana became the mainstream kings of alternative rock, the indie labels became big enough to no longer be truly indie. The moment passed but the DIY ethic would live on, taking on new dimensions in the Internet era.

Juliet, Naked – Nick Hornby (2009)

In Juliet, Naked, Hornby examines the interaction between obsessive music fans and the object of their obsession. The story involves a reclusive rocker named Tucker Crowe who earned his spot in the rock and roll pantheon by releasing one of the finest albums of all time, Juliet, an album borne of heartbreak inspired by a married woman who Crowe loved and lost. Adding to Crowe’s legendary status is his mysterious withdrawal from the public eye after suddenly quitting the music business after a visit to a bathroom in a CBGB-style punk club in the midst of a tour.

With the Internet providing a forum for Crowe’s small but fervent fanbase to scrutinize the meaning of his every lyric, share and critique their armchair psychoanalysis into his unexplained disappearance and disclose the results of their amateur sleuthing into his present whereabouts, his popularity amongst his fans refuses to wane. In disclosing the truth behind Juliet and separating the fact from the fiction of Crowe’s life with Lost-quality reveals, Hornby explores our desire to set rock stars on a pedestal. Suffused with the desire to find meaning where there very well may be none, do fans simply create their own myths to supply answers to unanswerable questions?

In Juliet, Naked, Hornby thoroughly exposes the flaws of believing you can truly know someone solely through their art. The High Fidelity author addresses the point of view of an artist whose fans yearn for music from a bygone period of their life and the anger he harbors for those who appreciate art that he no longer values. It brings to mind Kurt Cobain’s refusal to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit and the fact that Liz Phair probably has conflicted feelings about the people who buy tickets to her shows in the hopes she sings twenty year old songs about a period of her life she has long outgrown. Though Hornby presents the conundrum in an interesting context, he resolves the scenario with his customary sympathy for the music fan.

I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution – Rob Tannenbaum & Craig Marks (2011)

In putting together their oral history on MTV’s formative years, former Blender editors Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks interviewed more than 400 people to assemble the definitive tome on the network that can lay claim to being the single most influential force on music in the Eighties. Replete with juicy stories about the decadence endemic to the music industry during one of its fertile periods, Tannenbaum & Marks give ample space to the emergence of the era’s superstars – Michael Jackson, Madonna, Duran Duran, Van Halen and Prince – detail the network’s’ reluctant embrace of black artists, rap and hip-hop and memorialize the conflicting accounts of who properly deserves credit for MTV’s success.

Making this more than a colorful history of sex, drugs, lies and videotape, the narrative resonates beyond the simple story of MTV’s golden years (1980 – 1992). In shining an unflinching spotlight on the mindset of the music business in the ’80s, Tannenbaum & Marks unfold a story that presages a music industry doomed to repeat their historic blunders because they fail to remember the past. Many of the same missteps that resulted from the failure to grasp the benefits of MTV were repeated in the digital age. In the same way the major labels gave the house to MTV because they didn’t recognize its potential, they did it two decades later when Steve Jobs knocked on their door.

Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung – Lester Bangs (1988)

One of the preeminent music critics of his era, Lester Bangs will probably be known to most casual music fans through Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the socially dysfunctional writer in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. For those unfamiliar with Bangs, between 1973 and 1982, he worked as a freelance writer for Rolling Stone, Creem, The Village Voice and New Music Express. Bangs wrote with an earthy but earnest eloquence usually reserved for poets and playwrights. He wrote about music in a way that fanatics could immediately identify with and that casual fans could easily understand.

Bangs not only captured the aura of the artist or the substance of the music but also its importance and relevance. He wrote with a sense of urgency that showed that he believed that music could be vital to one’s existential well-being. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung is a compilation of some of Bangs’ finer articles, containing the best of his album reviews, interviews and screeds. Of course, no Bangs reader would be complete without a couple dissertations on the genius of Lou Reed. The review of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks that opens the book is not only a fine example of Bangs’ scholarly manic writing but one of the most intelligently crafted, insightful album reviews ever written. Where Klosterman succeeds in explaining why music matters to us as individuals, Bangs goes further: explaining why music matters to us as a society.

Appetite For Self Destruction: The Spectacular Crash Of The Record Industry in the Digital Age – Steve Knopper (2009)

When did the music business become such a mess? Why is there an expectation that music should be free? When people seem to be more interested in new music than ever before, why are the major labels hurting so badly? How did the most informed and highest paid executives in the music industry – the best and the brightest – completely bungle the digital transformation of the business? Through countless interviews and meticulous research, Rolling Stone’s Steve Knopper answers these questions, compiling the myriad of stories and anecdotes about the major label’s handling of the emergence of digital technology into Appetite For Self-Destruction, a compact narrative that moves briskly through thirty years of colorful characters, questionable calls and misguided decisions.

Starting with the death of disco and an entertaining explanation of Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, Knopper charts the ensuing recession in the music industry and its rescue by Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the invention of the compact disc and the rise of boy bands like ‘NSync and The Backstreet Boys. Documenting the major labels’ fascination with selling “pieces of plastic,” Appetite For Self-Destruction succinctly sets forth and explains the mindset that led to an entire industry missing the boat by refusing to embrace mp3s and online distribution.

Unsurprisingly, the most interesting characters that emerge are Shawn Fanning, Napster’s boy genius that the labels tried to turn into the poster child for piracy and theft, and Steve Jobs, who co-opted the online market while the labels were more interested in suing their own customers for copyright infringement. Apple’s iPod radically transformed how people would listen to music and instead of foreseeing its arrival, the labels fiddled while their Rome burned.

Ultimately, Knopper comes to the same conclusion that everyone had reached before his book was published: the music industry’s failure to adapt to the new digital landscape can be summed up in one word – greed. Too much money was being made on the markup of exorbitantly priced compact discs for them to relinquish their iron grip on their cash cow. Knowing the end of the story doesn’t diminish the impact of learning how it came to be.

Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How The Public Got Scalped – Dean Budnick & Josh Baron (2011)

This past December, a seat on the floor to see The Rolling Stones at Brooklyn’s Barclays Arena cost $750 and the service charge exceeded the cost of a ticket to see Bruce Springsteen at Giants Stadium on the 1985 Born In The U.S.A. tour. How we got to this point isn’t that simple and the heroes and villains aren’t all that well-defined. Well, unless you are part of the ticket-buying public. Then, mostly everyone wears a black hat.

In the present day, Ticketmaster serves as Bogeyman, Lucifer, Alpha, Omega, be-all and end-all of everything perceived to be wrong with the concert industry. A domineering, omnipresence in the ticketing process (just don’t call it a monopoly), Ticketmaster serves as the easiest target for the collective scorn of all disgruntled concert-goers. Whether that reputation is deserved turns out to be quite complicated. Throughout the ticketing giant’s battles with Pearl Jam, String Cheese Incident and the Grateful Dead, there are various shades of gray to stories that have traditionally been told in black and white.

In documenting the evolution of the live music business from the days of Ticketron and overnight campouts through the rise of SFX Entertainment and Clear Channel to the secondary ticketing market, the narrative ends with the artists’ coming to the realization that the premium their audience will pay should fill their coffers. Budnick and Baron’s tome may occasionally take overly technical turns into the mechanics of the ticketing systems and the minutia of business deals but it also leaves no stone unturned in covering the development of the live music industry and documenting the exponential rise of ticket prices.

FM: The Rise And Fall Of Rock Radio – Richard Neer (2001)

In telling the story about the rise and fall of 102.7 WNEW, New York City’s greatest FM classic rock station, Richard Neer, who served as a DJ as well as the station’s program director, also tells the tale of the shift from DJ oriented free-form radio shows to playlists dictated by programming directors.

Throughout the book, Neer relates anecdotes of the heyday of New York classic rock radio when DJs like Scott Muni and The Nightbird Allison Steele were given free reign to play the music that spoke to them, effectively becoming the link between artists and their audience. In relating WNEW’s history, Neer mourns the bygone days when a DJ and a radio station had a bond with their listeners and could be responsible, through the simple act of playing a song, make a star. Of course, with such responsibility comes corruption; Neer doesn’t shy away from that aspect of the business, confronting the payola issue head on and showing its effect on the creation, development and eventual dominance of the program director.

Having been at WNEW through the best and worst of times, Neer shares his excitement of broadcasting young Bruce Springsteen’s legendary concerts from The Bottom Line, his shock over John Lennon’s murder and the difficulties of remaining on the air and the emergence of Howard Stern and the industry-changing effect his success had on non-talk radio. Neer revels in the fertile times in which radio played a vital role in the rock and roll community, offering a eulogy for what has been lost in the commercialization and homogenization of the industry. If anything, Neer gets bonus points for telling the true life story that inspired WKRP In Cincinnati’s classic episode involving the Thanksgiving Day turkey drop that inspired the classic line, “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

The Commitments – Roddy Doyle (1988/1989)

Better known to most from Alan Parker’s fantastic cinematic adaptation, The Commitments originally came to life in the first novel of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy (the only one to focus on the would-be manager Jimmy Rabbitte). Doyle’s basic story of a remarkably talented soul troupe that comes together in the ghettoes of Dublin, Ireland, only to burn out brightly instead of fading away, remains substantially untouched in Parker’s film.

The story of The Commitments may be a universal, oft-told tale but it is one with multiple fictional and non-fictional variations. While Doyle’s narrative style wouldn’t put the book on this list, his description of the music does. Most novels with music at the thematic core fail to captivate the reader because the writer lacks the skill to have the music sing on the page. In describing the music played by The Commitments, especially James Brown’s “Night Train,” Doyle’s syntax, grammar and wordplay reproduce on paper the exact notes heard in the concert hall.

To enjoy The Commitments, you don’t need to have ever heard any of the songs in order to hear them in your mind. Not an easy task under any circumstances. If you have heard the songs, Doyle’s literary accomplishment in making the audio component of music vibrant on the page becomes abundantly clear

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6 thoughts on “Hitting The Trunk Road: The 12 Greatest Books About Rock

  1. Reader Dude Reply

    I’d add Cornflakes With John Lennon by Robert Hilburn to this list

  2. nash Reply

    Great list! You can’t include them all, but Mystery Train by Greil Marcus is another very important addition to Rock & Roll literature.

  3. Augustus Westus Reply

    I’d throw in the whole 33rd & 1/3 series as a category worth exploring. Easy reads, all different authors and really kind of a focal point to wax on various rock topics from different angles. The one on The Band’s Big Pink is chilling. I have passed my copy on to at least 5 people. A quick and rewarding piece of fictionalized fact.

  4. Bob Beatty Reply

    Three books I’d add to this list

    Flowers in the Dustbin – James Miller. Probably the best “history of rock & roll” book out there. It is not necessarily a comprehensive history but what Miller chooses as his high points to focus on helps tell the comprehensive story–in a manner that keeps you engaged while moving the story along. I used it as a primary text in the History of R&R class I used to teach.

    Rock & Roll: An Unruly History – Robert Palmer. Palmer’s Deep Blues is probably his most famous book but this one rivals the above for its terrific look at rock history. Like Miller’s book, it is a fantastic read and very thorough without being overly weighted down with anecdote after anecdote. This is a coffee table book to accompany the excellent PBS series Rock & Roll. Both long out of print.

    Bill Graham Presents – Bill Graham. An oral history of sorts, just a great look at not only the early San Francisco music scene but also the early concert promotion business.

  5. RD Reply

    Scar Tissue sets the bar for me. It’s not necessarily enlightening reading, but it’s wildly entertaining.

  6. Ignacio Goza Reply

    Check out BEFORE THE FLOCK by David Inglish

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