Best music books of 2009: After the excess comes the time for sober reflection...
Sunday 13 December 2009
Live fast, slow down a bit, write your memoirs. As rock'n'roll slogans go, it may not pack the same punch as the old beautiful-corpse chestnut, but at least this year's crop of music books proves that the thoughtful ruminations of survivors can hold their own against the army of picking-over-the-bones biographers.
Better still, specialist musical knowledge is not necessarily required. Is Luke Haines' Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in its Downfall (Heinemann, £12.99) a better read if you own all of Haines' records? Possibly, but what sets the book apart is the author's couldn't-give-a-toss attitude that spares no one, least of all himself. Haines charts his part in the 1990s British music scene that culminated in "annoying" Blur versus "crap new comedy band" Oasis. Haines is perfectly placed to sneer: his band, the Auteurs, along with Suede, had been clever forerunners of the scene he can't (aside from the subtitle) bring himself to name, and he can only look down on an era in which "art is replaced by popular culture".
Less embittered but equally at odds with the modern world, Jah Wobble gives a heartfelt account of himself in Memoirs of a Geezer (Serpent's Tale, £12.99), a beautifully observed record of much more than his time in the post-punk spotlight with John Lydon's PiL. Wobble and Lydon meet at college and are drawn together by a mutual love of Hawkwind. When the Pistols collapse, Lydon turns to his old friend, but theirs is an uneasy and short-lived musical alliance. Which is just as well for the reader, for Wobble's memoirs are at their most revealing when dealing with the end of another era, working-class life in east London, and at their most moving when he muses on how he can give his children the sense of "coming from somewhere" he grew up with.
Sombre reflections are also to be found in Ozzy Osbourne's I Am Ozzy (Little Brown, £20), the story of another working-class lad who dragged himself up by the rock'n'roll bootstraps. And though the years of textbook heavy-metal excess have taken their toll, the former Black Sabbath frontman can still, mostly, recount the drug-fuelled debauchery with a wry twinkle.
Peter Hook's The Hacienda: How Not to Run a Club (Simon & Schuster, £18.99) forgoes the personal touch to tell the story of how an iconic nightclub came to encapsulate a time and place. In light of the films Control and 24 Hour Party People, Hook, the Joy Division and New Order bass player, is free to focus on the legendary Northern nightclub and the part it played in turning the post-punk rockers into ravers. Along the way, there are miserable gigs, gangs and run-ins with the police. What there isn't is anyone with any idea of how to run a business. Still, as Hook concludes, "If you're going to waste an opportunity there are a few important things to remember. Do it in style. Do it in public. And, above all, do it in Manchester."
While such "I was there" books dominate, the year threw up other titles worthy of mention. Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and his Cosmic American Music by David N Meyer (Bloomsbury, £12.99) proved that if the subject matter is strong enough, much can still be done with the standard biographic form. For all its writerly conventions, Twenty Thousand Roads is, at last, the biography its subject deserved: a sweeping and insightful look at a troubled star whose work gains in stature with every passing year.
And while we're on the subject of country, Always Been There: Rosanne Cash, The List, and the Spirit of Southern Music by Johnny Cash's biographer Michael Streissguth (Da Capo Press, £13.99) elegantly tells the story of how, 35 years after her father gave her a list of "100 songs she ought to know", Roseanne Cash whittled it down to an album's worth of material as an exercise in "song preservation".
Gazing through the microscope at one album to tell the wider picture of musicians at work is also the modus operandi of Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling by Marcus Gray (Jonathan Cape, £20). Gray, who has already offered up the definitive Clash biography, The Last Gang in Town, this time turns his gaze to the sprawling album the band made in 1979. Unlike many of the books on this list, Route 19 is aimed squarely at those keen on obsessive details.
Classic Ephemera: A Musical Miscellany by Darren Henley and Tim Lihoreau (Elliott & Thompson, £9.99), on the other hand, is a Schott-like take on the world of Sibelius. Mixing user-friendly lists ("Famous Operas: What is Actually Going On") with short guides to composers, the book is an ideal primer and also provides some perfect cistern-side asides ("I thought Goldberg Variations were something Mr and Mrs Goldberg tried on their wedding night" – Woody Allen).
The idea to give readers something to listen to as well as read is taken to its logical conclusion in Jazz by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux (WW Norton, £27.99). This triumph for novice and aficionado alike is intended to be read alongside a four-CD collection. As the story lurches from New Orleans to New York and beyond, the authors offer up not so much a guide to jazz as an extended lesson in how to listen to it. It is an enthralling journey, and though it is littered with musicians whose lifestyle never allowed them to slow down and write their memoirs, the authors, for once, shun such detail in favour of an appreciation of what they left behind.
What was the most memorable arts event of 2009? In the comments form below (or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org) nominate your favourite - in film, music, theatre, comedy, dance or visual arts - with a brief explanation as to why it tops your list and we'll print a selection in The Independent Readers' Review of 2009.
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