Best of 2014: Top 10 Music Books

Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys Cover - P 2014
Courtesy of Thomas Dunne Books

Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys Cover - P 2014

1. Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys: A Memoir, by Viv Albertine. Albertine, guitarist and songwriter for the woman-dominated, reggae-riffic punk band The Slits, is as an unlikely person to pen the best music book of the year, but she was an even unlikelier candidate for music stardom when her off-and-on boyfriend Mick Jones took her to buy her first guitar in 1976. She couldn't play a note, and had no idea that the "1-2-3-4!" countoff she learned from the Ramones was intended to set the time for the tune. In her band, at first, nobody finished a song at the same time. They did, however, have plenty to say about gender, rock and revolution, and Albertine did more than inspire Jones' big hit for The Clash, "Train in Vain," a bitter dig at her refusal to stand by her man. In fact, that song is a retort to her tune "Typical Girls," a sarcastic attack on all the things girls are supposed to be -- emotional, fretful, ashamed of their bodies and standing by their men like Tammy Wynette. Albertine writes that her defiantly feminist (and emotionally fretful) young self felt, "I want boys to want boys to come and see us play and think I want to be part of that. Not They're pretty or I want to f--k them but I want to be in that gang, in that band. I want boys to want to be us."

Talk about subversive! Albertine got better at guitar, learning Steve Howe licks from Yes' former roadie Keith Levene of The Clash, imitating John Cale without realizing he played violin, not guitar, and the quasi-Jamaican "chk-chk-chk" guitar sounds of Dionne Warwick singing Albertine's writing idol, Burt Bacharach. She struggled to achieve a specifically female guitar sound, believing that the Runaways' Lita Ford sounded like a man. "In a way Steve [Howe]'s playing is passed on to me through Keith," she writes, "but it's like that game Chinese Whispers: by the time I get hold of it the information has mutated and, in my hand, becomes even more mangled and distorted."

An astute historian of music and clothes — whose iconography she explains way better than male memoirists — Albertine knows quite a lot about famous boys, too. She is a world-class gossip who writes an anecdote as tight and entertaining as any pop song, and she's wickedly funny. Mocking readers who just want the dirt, she starts her book with online links to the 15 best sex, drugs and punk rock references in her memoir, "for those in a hurry." Few will want to hurry through, because her brisk, smart, ruthless tales are like a rollercoaster anyway, whisking you away along with her as she plunges into the whirlpool world of The Clash (originally called the Young Colts) and Johnny Rotten and Johnny Thunders. When Thunders broke to Albertine the heartbreaking news that Sid Vicious was about to fire her from her first band, the Flowers of Evil, Thunders thoughtfully shot her up with heroin for the first time to ease the sting of her imminent humiliation. When Albertine told Chrissie Hynde she was going to join The Slits, Hynde said, "If you didn't go for it, I would have!" That would have been an interesting band, too. Albertine's portrait of Nancy Spungeon, the "cartoon groupie" who bagged Sid Vicious, is as as acid-etched as Deborah Harry singing "Rip Her to Shreds." Marianne Faithfull, move over -- now Viv Albertine is the literary lioness with the book to beat.

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2. Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee, by James Gavin. The killer biographer of Lena Horne does a comparably scholarly job on Norma Deloris Egstrom, the North Dakota girl who turned herself into swinging supper-club singer Peggy Lee, whose appalling personality inspired Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show (originally Miss Piggy Lee, but Peggy sued). But she was never meant to sing her immortal, incredibly bizarre 1969 hit "Is That All There Is?" Songwriters Leiber and Stoller were thinking of someone more German, because the tune, about a cosmically disillusioned woman, was inspired by German Nobel Prizewinner Thomas Mann's 1896 story "Disillusionment" and the bitter Weimar songs of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, and they first gave it to Marlene Dietrich (and then, peculiarly, Leslie Uggams). Peggy Lee made it her own, and Gavin makes you understand her disillusionment and gift.

3. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyonce, by Bob Stanley. Who knew that Boston's "More Than a Feeling" took five years to record, and its main influence is "Just Walk Away, Renee"? Or that Dave Gilmour was a male model in France before he replaced Syd Barrett in the new, "guilt-edged" Pink Floyd? Or that Blondie name-checked the 1910 Fruitgum Company? Or that the guy who wrote the 1968 Neon Philharmonic hit "Morning Girl" wrote a book about income tax being unconstitutional, then went underground, playing piano in a Seattle mall in a disguising wig and taunting the IRS on the internet until they busted him? Stanley knows, and his pop history is one genius mix-tape of a book.

4. Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones, by Paul Trynka. As far as Trynka is concerned, Brian Jones was the making of the Rolling Stones, and it's interesting to see him push this argument as far as it will go, in a thoughtful, thorough bio based on lots of new interviews that shed light on his neglected life and controversial death. He challenges some of the tales in Keith Richards' bestselling memoir Life, claiming that Jones taught Richards the open G tuning heard in "Honkytonk Women," not Ry Cooder in 1968, and in detail explains why he believes that Jones was not, in fact, murdered in his pool, as has been alleged. Sometimes Trynka writes like he's being paid by the word, but his revisionist account is worth hearing.

5. Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, by Rick Bragg. Really, this book is a mashup of styles, with Lewis' self-aggrandizing braggadocio crashing into Bragg's Southern-fried, Pulitzer Prizewinning literary stylings. Both men can bang a keyboard like nobody's business. Bragg is not what you would call a detached biographer; more like an adoring moth to a great ball of fire. Sometimes one wonders whether Lewis is giving his Boswell a lot of hot air. Was it really 300 frenzied girls who tore Jerry Lee's clothes off "down to my drawers," cutting short his show at Nashville's National Guard Armory? In any case, Bragg's rumbustious prose makes the reader feel Lewis' outsized personality.

6. Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical, by Judith E. Smith. Part of Mark Crispin Miller's "Discovering America" book series from University of Texas Press, Smith's book puts Harry Belafonte's pop hits like "Day-O" and "Jamaica Farewell" (actually old-time West Indian folk tunes and work songs) and his film work in their political context.

7. Play On: Now, Then & Fleetwood Mac, by Mick Fleetwood & Anthony Bozza. Bozza, who made his name as the first major writer on Eminem and co-wrote Slash's memoir, helps Fleetwood tell the inside story of his relationships and work with Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and President Clinton.

8. Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography, by Fred Schruers. This book started out as Billy Joel's own memoir, written by former Rolling Stone writer Schruers, but Joel got cold feet and torpedoed it when he saw the galleys. It's almost certainly a better book now that Schruers spent years rewriting it in his own voice, based on his 100-plus hours of interviews with Joel on the road and his privileged access to Joel's archives, including material you mightn't expect, like the impact of Joel's ancestors' experience in the Holocaust.

9. Sound Man, by Glyn Johns. One day in the early '60s, teenage Glyn Johns obeyed his mother's order to call back a recording-studio exec who needed an intern. The next thing he knew, he was engineering records for the newborn band the Rolling Stones, so popular they had to carry a crate of Coca-Cola in their van to wash off the love notes girls wrote on their windshield in lipstick. Soon he was jetting around the planet engineering and producing hits for the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstandt and, more recently, Ryan Adams and Band of Horses. He was there recording the Beatles' last performance, and Bob Dylan asked Johns to ask the Beatles and the Stones to join Dylan in a supergroup (recorded by Johns). "Keith [Richards] and George [Harrison] both thought it was fantastic," writes Johns. "Ringo, Charlie [Watts] and Bill [Wyman] were amicable...Paul and Mick said absolutely not." Johns knows all the stories, and tells them well.

10. Rocks: My Life In and Out of Aerosmith, by Joe Perry with David Ritz. The most fun stuff in Perry's memoir, written with four-time Gleason Award-winning Ritz, is about Perry's fraught relationship with Steve Tyler, who (says Perry), has OCD, used to clean his "Mr. Important" with Jack Daniels to ward off disease, almost broke up Perry's marriage by convincing him to snort pills with him after decades of sobriety and tried out for Led Zeppelin and took the gig on American Idol behind Perry's back.