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The Independent Culture
What are rock books? And why do we fear them so, especially at Christmas? Christmas is, of course, a time when rash decisions are made by aunts and uncles certain that, while pop music is what young people like, it's books that are good for them. Inspired by this thought, they stumble blindly into the nearest large bookstore. There, at the back, flanked by the film and sport sections, the rock books are waiting for them. Aunt and uncle then get mugged.

Rock books of real merit are even fewer and farther between than good rock records. There have been some splendid ones: Greil Marcus's Mystery Train (rock as turbocharger of American history), Jon Savage's England's Dreaming (punk as triumph of British social deviancy), Ian MacDonald's brilliant Revolution in the Head (the Beatles as codifiers of everything worth thinking about since the end of the war) - but these were reflective, sage accounts written with the benefit of hindsight. They are not rock books as such, but books about rock. Their objective is to deliver a cool- ish, unobstructed view of what rock might or might not have signified these last few decades. They sometimes have literary pretensions, they're big on research and interpretation, and hardly anyone swears in them.

Rock books, on the other hand, have loads of swearing in them; or, failing that, lots of guttural noises. Aaarrrgghh! Crraasshhh! is the sound you get in rock books when a hotel ice-making machine gets what's coming to it. "I don't wanna hurt anyone but that fucking ice machine has been asking for it all night," asserts Grant Fleming in Primal Scream: Higher Than the Sun (Ebury Press pounds 10.99). Distance is not a rock book thing. Their whole point is to create the illusion of access, of closeness, of a plausible connection between reader and subject.

The Ebury Press is currently the most adept publisher operating in this up-close-yet-somehow-not-very-personal editorial mode. It enlists serving rock journalists and scene-makers to go on the road, delve into the studio, learn nicknames and twirl around the ladies' toilets with bands of the moment, and then bashes out the product faster than you can say wooooaaarrrgh. If the books are mostly strident and fundamentally unrevealing - and predicated on the notion that the rockin' way of life is all the spontaneity that's left to our moribund society - then they are probably the rock books we deserve. Easily the most readable of Ebury's Christmas bunch is Martin James's The Prodigy: Adventures with the Voodoo Crew (pounds 9.99). And that's probably because The Prodigy are, as Voodoo Crews go, fairly interesting. James has actually considered the reasons why this might be the case. "The vibe is an abstract force which is defined by ambience and attitudes rather than the concrete ideals of personality and critique," he observes, demonstrating not only his mastery of his subject but also why books like this are so hard to enjoy.

The most venerable rock-book format is the hagiography worked up as analytical biography. There's a fun, gossipy, post-feminist account of Prince's career, Slave to the Rhythm by Liz Jones (Little Brown, pounds 16.99). The only inscription on the front cover is the glyph by which its subject has known himself these past few years. The publishers have sensibly printed his name in common language on the back: The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. Good job. As the little man reveals in the book, identity is largely a matter of having greasy ears. "One day," he says, "I'll hear a sound that will give me a feeling of what my name will sound like." We'll all be sure to hold our breath until then.

However, we can compensate ourselves until that moment with As I Am - Abba Before and Beyond by Agnetha Faltskog with Brita Ahman (Virgin pounds 14.99). Agnetha was the blond one in Abba and this is her life as it might unfold on a puce sofa on daytime television. Agnetha discusses her love of nature, her striving for order in a chaotic world, while Brita cleaves to the heart of the Abba phenomenon, with many huge colour pictures of her subject in toasty knitwear.

Jackie Wilson was a baroque R&B yodeller who died in 1984 after spending eight years in a vegetative state following a heart attack. His was a life circumscribed by institutions that do not readily offer themselves for mature consideration in fluffy jumpers: the Mob and the IRS. Tony Douglas's Lonely Teardrops: The Jackie Wilson Story (Sanctuary pounds 14.99) is doggedly researched and keenly felt, and if you can cope with the lustre of his reverence, then it has much to say about how the lives of black musicians have not always been their own to live.

What also makes The Jackie Wilson Story into a decent book is the fact that it is actually a story. Same goes for Barney Hoskyns' Beneath the Diamond Sky: Haight Ashbury 1965-1970 (Bloomsbury pounds 18.99). This is a short, neat account of the San Franciscan shenanigans that gave rise to acid, hippies and the Grateful Dead, presented as undecorated narrative and tricked out in the publishing equivalent of head-shop motley, psychedelic surfaces and all. Really, it's a book about rock rather than a rock book but it's so loaded with object value that it qualifies in a borderline case.

The one to read this Christmas, however, is a biography of Sun Ra, aka Herman P Blount, the only bandleader to claim to have come from Saturn. John F Szwed's Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra ( Payback Press pounds 12.99) is a brilliant book, a sprawling, curlicued, swinging account of an extraordinary man's great adventure with a bunch of ideas that made sense to him out of a senseless world.

"Sonny" Blount - actually born in the racial pressure cooker of Birmingham, Alabama - was an autodidact Egyptologist, numerologist, etymologist, cabalist; unorthodox Christian, a sufferer from cryptorchidism and one of the great arrangers for space-jazz ensembles of every size and configuration. Szwed writes sometimes gorgeously, but always with a subtle measure of distance, on the complex passions of this weird man and extends that narrative to develop a fascinating non-ideological, psychologically lively study of black Utopianism. "I don't remember where I was born," said Sonny. "I've never memorised it. It is important to liberate oneself from the obligation to be born, because this experience doesn't help us at all. It's important for the planet that its inhabitants do not believe in being born, because whoever is born has to die." There is no more appropriate book for the season.