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Rounding up the season's rock 'n' roll reads

For Journal Register Newspapers

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The credits on a recording usually refer to words and music.

But in recent years there have been a lot of words aboutmusic.

The publishing industry once wrote music books off as a week category, but in the wake of recent successes such as Bob Dylan's "Chronicles, Volume 1" and Keith Richards' epic "Life," it's singing a different tune. These days the shelves, both bricks-and-mortar and cyber, are filled with a steady stream of fresh superstar memoirs, biographies, photo books and more, giving fans the opportunity to, well, turn the pages.

Not all books about music are created equal, of course. So here's a look at 25 that are generating buzz during the holiday season, all ready for gift wrap and stockings...


*"A Woman Like Me" by Bettye LaVette with David Ritz (Blue Rider Press) [3 stars]: Muskegon-born LaVette hit big early, with "My Man -- He's a Lovin' Man" in 1962, but by the late 60s was well under the radar, and not happy about it. Her story isn't all pouting and grousing; in fact, it's a tale of resilience that allowed her to achieve a late-career surge during the past seven years. But she pulls no punches with those who showed disrespect, including plenty of Detroit and Motown luminaries whose slights have been forgiven, but not forgotten.

*"Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir" by Cyndi Lauper with Jancee Dunn (Atria) [3 stars]: The girl may just want to have fun, but there's plenty of darkness in Lauper's revealing chronicle -- including leaving home at 17, bombing in high school, working as a topless dancer and having suicidal thoughts when her career ebbed. But her unapologetic defiance makes for a spirited and inspiring read. What kept her from killing herself? "I never wanted a headline to read, 'Girl who wanted to have fun just didn't."

*"In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death & Duran Duran" by John Taylor (Dutton) [2.5 stars]: Who would have guessed that Duran Duran's bassist grew up a somewhat nerdy, church-going (five days a week) mama's boy. The journey to worldwide sensation and sex symbol is a wild and entertaining one, accented by Taylor's understated and droll delivery and a good balance of absurdity and awe about all that transpired.

*"Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock & Roll" by Ann and Nancy Wilson with Charles Cross (!t) [3 stars]: The just-announced members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's class of 2013 are frank and open about their rise as pioneering women in the male-dominated rock world, from writing "Magic Man" and "Crazy on You" to Ann Wilson's on-the-road affair wtih Ian Hunter and Eddie Van Halen's proposition to share a bed with both sisters at the same time. And they do it all in a dignified fashion that makes "Kicking & Dreaming" much more than a cheap kiss-and-tell.

*"Life is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett" by Tony Bennett (Harper) [3.5 stars]: At 86 and still active, Tony Bennett is a musical Yoda, and "The Zen..." combines autobiography and gently rendered philosophy into an easy read that's as smooth as any one of his songs -- and illustrated with his own sketches to boot. He seems even more iconic after reading it.

*"Love is the Cure: On Life, Loss and the End of AIDS" by Elton John (Little, Brown and Company) [3 stars]: Plenty of biographers have had their say about Elton John to date, so in his own book, the Rocket Man focuses on the battle against AIDS -- his own AIDS Foundation turned 20 this year -- including his friendships with Ryan White and Queen singer Freddie Mercury. John also discusses his relationships with Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Diana and writes with enough passion to inspire any reader to become an activist, too.

*"Luck or Something Like It: A Memoir" by Kenny Rogers (William Morrow) [3 stars]: There's a lot more to Kenny Rogers than "The Gambler" and "Islands in the Stream," and he seems happy -- maybe even relieved -- to be able to tell all of it here. He frankly writes about coming to terms with an alcoholic father and about exploring cutting-edge musical roots that led to mainstream success, with plenty of entertaining stories about his musical contemporaries.

"Rod: The Autobiography" by Rod Stewart (Crown) [3 stars]: Fun is the word that comes to mind when you think of Rod Stewart and his life, and that outside perception is certainly confirmed in these 365 pages. The girls, the music, the mayhem and a great relationship with Elton John are all chronicled in a warm and "matey" tone, with some insightful remembrances of Stewart's working class upbringing. And he finally puts to rest that nasty rumor about having his stomach pumped during the 70s.

"Shut Up and Gimme the Mic: A Twisted Memoir" by Dee Snider (Gallery) [3.5 stars]: Back when he dressed in rock 'n' roll glam drag and sang "We're Not Gonna Take It," few realized that Snider was whipsmart and articulate, with a Long Island raconteur's way of spinning a yarn. That, and an unapologetic, no-holds-barred attitude, make for a spirited read that's as tantilizing as it is twisted.

"Sinner's Creed: A Memoir" by Scott Stapp with David Ritz (Tyndale) [2.5 stars]: Creed's frontman is nothing if not earnest, and he reviews his life -- including a strict religious upbringing and a fierce rebellion against it -- with both somber reflection and a kind of pious pride. Things got as wild for Stapp as they did for any other rock star, but you leave the book feeling that his struggle within was genuine.

"The Rolling Stones 50" by the Rolling Stones (Hyperion) [3 stars]: Not exactly a definitive, tell-all band autobiography like Aerosmith and Motley Crue have done, this coffee table tome includes comments from the Stones about the hundreds of vintage, and many previously unseen, images contained within. It's not unlike watching the "Crossfire Hurricane" documentary, but this time you know who's talking.

"Waging Heavy Peace" by Neil Young (Blue Rider Press) [2 stars]: The good news is that Young wrote his long-awaited memoir himself. That's also the bad news. Though it definitely feels like you're in conversation with the man throughout these 497 pages, a dramatic lack of chronology and flow -- and of true revelations -- as well as diatribes about sound technology that will test even the most ardent audiophile make this a hard one to get through. You'll learn a lot more from an number of other Young books out there.

"Who I Am: A Memoir" by Pete Townshend (Harper) [3.5 stars]: The Who guitarist, one of rock's most literate artists and shameless raconteurs, digs up a lot of darkness, especially about the emotionally distant grandmother who helped raise him and the sexual abuse he suffered a child -- which led to an arrest on child pornography charges while he was researching for this book. He shares plenty of musical memories, too, and in typical Townshend parlance we get "alternative" versions of some stories he's told quite differently before. Nevertheless, it's one of the season's best, most illuminating and weighty (544 pages) self-examinations.


"Black Sabbath: Pioneers of Heavy Metal" by Brian Aberback (Enslow) [1.5 stars]: At just 112 big-print pages (and only 89 of actual narrative) this is more like a historical magazine article than a book. You get the facts, m'am, but not much else.

"Bruce" by Peter Ames Carlin (Touchstone) [4 stars]: Thanks to enviable cooperation from Bruce Springsteen, his musical and business camps, and his family, Carlin is able to set a newly definitive high bar with this comprehensive and up-to-"Wrecking Ball"-date 494-page biography. The access lets Carlin tell the story without lapsing into the romantic twaddle of so many other Springsteen chroniclers, and fans will eat up the unusually open commentary from various E Street Band members.

"I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen" by Sylvie Simmons (Ecco) [4 stars]: Cohen's cooperation allows veteran music journalist Simmons to shed plenty of light on a long, illustrious and eventful life and career. He's a difficult character, both creatively and personally, and "I'm Your Man" revels in that complexity, letting his story unwind in sharp detail and with rich context.

"Jimi Hendrix: Musician" by Keith Shadwick (Backbeat) [2.5 stars]: The nuts and bolts of Hendrix's music and music-making are the focus here. Shadwick, who's primarily a jazz writer and critic, dissects the late rock guitar virtuoso's work with incisive attention to detail, some of which will likely go over the heads (or bore) those looking for acid flashbacks. A tiny typeface also makes for a bit of a slog.

"Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page" by Brad Tolinski (Crown) [3 stars]: If you're looking for legends from Led Zeppelin's tawdry side, this is not the book for you. But serious students of the group's musical achievements will be rewarded by this compilation of intelligent and thoughtful interviews by Guitar World editor Tolinski, who clearly gained Page's trust in a way few journalists have, resulting in an illuminating look into the creation of some of the most powerful and enduring rock music ever made.

"Mick Jagger" by Phillip Norman (Ecco) [2.5 stars]: Mick Jagger is one of music's most slippery subjects, with carefully guarded secrets that will only come out if he ever chooses to reveal them in his own book. Until then we have lots of outside perspectives, and British author Norman -- who has written estimable biographies about the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elton John, Buddy Holly and others -- does a fine job of compiling what's known and providing enough perspective and context to make this the most comprehensive overview of Jagger to date.

"New Kids on the Block: Five Brothers and a Million Sisters" by Nikki Van Noy (Touchstone) [2.5 stars]: New Kids on the Block was hardly the first big boy band, but in the MTV 80s (and 90s) the Boston quintet achieved a level of mania that surpassed even predecessors such as the Jackson 5 and the Osmond Brothers. The Kids are all on board for this look at the phenomenon, though the author clearly traded a degree of candor for their participation.

"Ryan Adams: Losering -- A Story of Whiskeytown" by David Menconi (University of Texas Press) [3 stars]: Enigmatic and temperamental, modern Americana darling Adams is a moving and shiftless target. North Carolina writer Menconi was at ground zero for the beginning of Adams' career and the launch of his band Whiskeytown, making him the perfect scribe for this definitive bio. The slim (199 pages) volume is packed with sharp observation and critical perspective, which also mitigates a lack of access to Adams during the past 12 years.


"101 Essential Rock Records: The Golden Age of Vinyl From the Beatles to the Sex Pistols" by Jeff Gold (Gingko Press/Kill Your Idols) [3.5 stars]: When these books are done right -- and this one is -- they start spirited discussions and fierce arguments. Gold's limited time frame, roughly 1963-77, gives the book a distinctive context, and while each choice is defensible, the are 101, or maybe even 1,001, equally deserving albums. Essays by David Bowie, Graham Nash, Suzanne Vega and others give the discussion some extra heft.

"Behind the Boards: The Making of Rock 'n' Roll's Greatest Records Revealed" by Jake Brown (Hal Leonard) [2 stars]: Brown has certainly assembled a formidable group of record producers here, but be forewarned that the conversations tend to be dense and detailed, so for aficionados and gear geeks rather than casual fans. And the small typeface renders readers as red-eyed as if they pulled their own all-nighter in the studio.

"Murder at Motor City Records: A Novel" by Mark Bego (Publish America) [3 stars]: For his 60th (!) book, Detroit-born celebrity biographer Bego gives his home town some love with a mystery that touches on some of his own favorite sights and sounds. Names have been changed to protect the innocent and guilty, but Bego spins an engaging yarn, complete with lyrics to fictional songs and a couple twists and turns that make it easy to keep turning the pages.

"360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story" by Sean Wilentz (Chronicle) [3 stars]: Columbia Records celebrates its 125th anniversary with a handsome and weighty (more than five pounds) coffee table book that covers its entire history -- from pre-LP cylinder recordings to Adele -- with an emphasis on images rather than words. History professor Wilentz's text covers the necessary ground, but the photos dominate. The Deluxe edition, meanwhile, includes a "Legends and Legacy" book by former Detroiter Dave Marsh detailing Columbia's 263 key recordings and a USB thumb drive containing those songs.

{Editor's Note: Journal Register music writer Gary Graff co-authored two books published during 2012: "Rock 'n' Roll Myths: The True Stories Behind the Most Infamous Legends" and an updated edition of "Neil Young: Long May You Run -- The Illustarted History," both on Voyageur Press.)

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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