Christmas books: Never mind the Bolleaux

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The Independent Culture

At a hefty 750 pages in length, Peter Guralnick's Dream Boogie: the triumph of Sam Cooke (Little Brown, £25) is an intimidating prospect. But this is one Christmas Cook book (the great soul singer turns out to have added the "e" for showbiz reasons) that you can really get your teeth into. Dream Boogie is every bit as good as the same author's magisterial two-part life of Elvis Presley, and the fact that its subject is so much less widely mythologised makes this handsome volume even more valuable.

The title comes from a poem by Langston Hughes, and Hughes' great line about "the boogie-woogie rumble of a dream deferred" encapsulates the seamless integration of soul music history and the American civil rights struggle which is this book's real subject. Successfully rooting these two grand, interconnected sagas in the muddy and disputatious terrain of everyday life, Dream Boogie moves easily from detailed consideration of Rene Hall's string arrangement for "A Change Is Gonna Come", to a clear-eyed analysis of the complex (and ultimately fatal) nexus of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, to an amusing orgy scene involving the superbly named Lithofayne Pridgon.

Guralnick's writing unites the specific and the general with his customary elegance - "Their father told them that their true reward would come in heaven, but Sam was unwilling to wait", being a typically august formulation. Yet he is not afraid to get down and dirty either. The perpetually errant Cooke is pungently described through the eyes of his long-suffering (though not saintly) wife as "that fucker". And perhaps this book's greatest achievement is to make you understand how such a towering figure - not only startlingly handsome and extravagantly talented, but also a ferocious autodidact (lovesick support act Aretha Franklin carried around a 1,200-page copy of The Rise & Fall Of The Third Reich in emulation of his reading habits) - could have been behaving so badly at the time of his sordid demise in a motel car-park that he actually deserved to get shot.

For readers who require more - or, at least, quicker - bangs for their buck, 50 Cent's From Pieces To Weight: Once Upon A Time In Southside, Queens (Simon & Schuster £12.99) will hit the target with an unerring aim. In the pantheon of tell-it-like-it-was rap memoirs, Fiddy's slim volume is right up there with Ice-T's classic The Ice Opinion. From the first stirrings of romance ("I wouldn't say I was in love with the girl, but I came home feeling enough to let her drive my truck"), to the pervasiveness of his grandfather's scowl ("If you looked through a strong enough microscope and measured with instruments that are used to tell the length of a fly's wings, you could probably see that the corners of his mouth turn upward when he gets really, really happy"), the multi-platinum rapper and his unobtrusive ghost-writer Kris Ex establish a sardonic style which neatly offsets the extremity of much of their subject matter.

From Pieces To Weight contains the most explicit and detailed guide to the manufacture and distribution of crack cocaine ever published by a current chart artist. But its two most shocking individual revelations are of a rather more parochial nature. The first is that 50 Cent named his supposedly fearsome G-Unit posse after Damon Albarn's cartoon pop group Gorillaz. The second is that if anyone ever asked this jail-hardened former crack dealer for directions in the street, he would always give them the wrong answer rather than have to look someone he'd disappointed in the eye.

In much the same way that John Harris's The Last Party made Elastica's Justine Frischmann the pivot of Britpop, Barney Hoskyns' Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the LA canyons 1967-76 (Fourth Estate £14.99) presents Joni Mitchell as the sexual fulcrum of the bedenimed troubadour epoch. The author skilfully teases out the complex web of relationships between the artists, managers and record executives who made up the West Coast's self-styled bohemian elite. But though more tightly focused than Hoskyns' fine, sprawling LA rock history, Waiting For The Sun, this shorter companion volume actually conveys rather less of a sense of place. And a later edition might do well to dump the unnecessary footnotes in favour of an extra chapter explaining how the singer-songwriter archetype - utterly discredited in the punk and post-punk eras - has somehow regained so much of its romance in recent years.

At the opposite end of the rock-writing spectrum from Hoskyns' canonical professionalism, Frank Kogan's Real Punks Don't Wear Black (University Of Georgia Press, £15.95) eschews consideration of the exact point where David Crosby ends and David Geffen begins in favour of broader issues such as "Why does triviality protect awesomeness?" Spin and Village Voice veteran Kogan - himself part of a distinguished lineage of committed contrarians which includes Richard Meltzer, Lester Bangs and Chuck Eddy - laid the intellectual foundations for the "Blogging" era with his interactive fanzine "Why Music Sucks". And this first collection of his works promises (and delivers) "not just 'essays' and 'record reviews' but the whole mess of Frank" - using e-mails, diary excerpts, and chat-room postings to memorialise that moment of high-school satori when Kogan realised "I'm so obsessed with my own mind that I can't think of anything else."

In an ideal world, an unauthorised biography of Duran Duran would bulge at the seams with blatantly untrue anecdotes about people snorting cocaine from the anal cavities of top models while saying unforgivable things about the unemployed. Steve Malins' Duran Duran: Notorious - The Unauthorised Biography (Andre Deutsch, £17.99), on the other hand, reveals that Nick Rhodes is extremely fond of Quorn and Simon Le Bon was once in a pub-rock band called Bolleaux. Sean Smith's Britney: The Biography (Sidgwick & Jackson £16.99) begins more promisingly - with Britney Spears' birth chart and its "interesting combination of Mercury and Uranus" - but subsequently fails to add anything to the memorable portrait of domesticated decadence effected by Ms Spears herself in the TV series Britney & Kevin: Chaotic. And Nik Cohn's Triksta: Life And Death And New Orleans Rap (Harvill Secker, £12.99) snatches mythic resonance from the jaws of the male menopause by underscoring its somewhat embarrassing central storyline (pop-cult éminence grise tries and fails to become a big shot in the violent world of Louisiana "Bounce") with a gripping depiction of the devastation of pre-Katrina New Orleans.

Finally, if it's coffee-table action you're after, The Bob Dylan Scrapbook 1956-66 (Simon & Schuster £30) supplements its extensive collection of personalised Dylan-porn (facsimile handbills, ticket-stubs and hand-written lyrics) with an instructive CD of stunningly mendacious early radio interviews. And Mick Rock's Moonage Daydream: The Life And Times Of Ziggy Stardust (Cassell, £25), is the perfect gift for anyone who might enjoy looking at an enormous number of pictures of David Bowie.

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