One of my 2017 New Year’s resolutions was to re-invest in reading. I kept a tally of every book I powered through, and when I looked back on it a few weeks ago I realized that a surprising number were music-related. Though I do spend the vast majority of my days listening to and writing about music, I tend to use my time off to read about other things. But the year was ripe with intriguing, scandalous, thought-provoking music literature, and I found myself reading about music more often than not. The books I’ve listed below were my absolute favorites this year, and each short review is accompanied by a selection of related titles. Shout out your favorites in the comments below.
Meet Me In The Bathroom: Rebirth And Rock And Roll In New York City 2001-2011
By Lizzy Goodman
The best music scene oral histories are compiled by those who were actually there. Lizzy Goodman came of age in New York City in the 2000s, and she watched the city transform from a has-been music town into the preeminent place for bands to move to if they ever wanted to make it. She grew up alongside artists like the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem, and TV On The Radio, as well as cultural institutions like VICE that brought New York’s underbelly to the mainstream. Meet Me In The Bathroom tells a story that many of us might already know, given the fact that none of this transformation transpired all that long ago, but Goodman recounts it in gritty detail. She interviewed hundreds of people to structure this book — among them are musicians, artists, DJs, scenesters, A&R people, music bloggers, and magazine editors — and mapped the arc of some of these bands’ careers so as to show who influenced whom. Of course, there’s also a good amount of gossip involved as well.
The Strokes play a central role in Goodman’s narrative. (The book also borrows its title from a classic Strokes song.) They’re the band that influenced the fashion, sound, and attitude of the decade, but they’re also the band that has never been able to surpass their seminal debut album, Is This It, from a critical standpoint. Goodman’s book explores some of the ways other acts, like Interpol and the Hives, used the Strokes’ incendiary popularity to launch their own careers. The mimicry of the era is discussed at length, from the fashionable Converse and leather borrowed from the Velvet Underground to the blasé attitude of Julian Casablancas’ stage presence. But Meet Me In The Bathroom also does a spectacular job of highlighting smaller acts along the way who opened up New York nightlife to a new era. That, along with the advent of music blog culture, really fueled a new narrative for New York City’s rock scene. (And, I will brag that our very own Editor-In-Chief Scott Lapatine is interviewed in this book.)
Set against a post-9/11 backdrop, Meet Me In The Bathroom is a history of certain bands we now consider canon as well as a love letter to the city of New York. Goodman traces the creative class’ movement from the Lower East Side to Williamsburg, chronicling the rapid gentrification of Brooklyn. She also memorializes venues and DIY spaces that have long-since shuttered, a struggle that many local spaces are still facing. In the grand tradition of music oral history landmark Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History Of Punk, Goodman drags readers through dive bars and condemnable warehouses, telling the story of a city’s rock resurgence through the words of the people who made it happen.
- Shawna Kenney and Rich Dolinger – Live At The Safari Club: A History Of Hardcore Punk In The Nation’s Capital 1988-1998
- Kent Hartman – Goodnight, L.A.: The Rise And Fall Of Classic Rock — The Untold Story From Inside The Legendary Recording Studios
- Corbin Reiff – Lighters In The Sky: The All-Time Greatest Concerts, 1960-2016
- Phil Marcade, Debbie Harry, Legs McNeil – Punk Avenue: Inside The New York City Underground, 1972-1982
- John Birch – Prefab Sprout: The Early Years
- Roger Steffens – So Much Things To Say
Good Booty: Love And Sex, Black And White, Body And Soul In American Music
By Ann Powers
The first time I heard “Time Of The Season” by the Zombies I was probably 12 or 13 and I was drawn to that one “ahhh” sound that hits after the drums tumble, like a man taking a loud exhalation after sipping on an especially satisfying beverage. I’d play the infectious song on repeat, and my favorite lyric was and still is: “What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?” I thought it was hilarious that this man would approach a woman on the street and ask if her guy was “rich.” What a vapid but ultimately salient concern for a lady to have when she’s looking for a dude. I pointed this out to my dad while we listened to it for the umpteenth time in the car, and he responded thoughtfully: “I think what he means is ‘spiritually rich.’ But yeah, it’s a double-entendre.” My mind was completely blown.
This conversation I had as a pre-teen could fit right into Ann Powers’ Good Booty, a book that explores the relationship sex and race has played in American popular music since its inception. What’s remarkable about this book is the way in which Powers traces the lineage of contemporary musical forms that we would readily consider “sexy” back to a moment in time when music appeared to be much more chaste but was still provocative if you trained yourself how to read between the lines. Powers takes readers from slave gatherings in New Orleans’ Congo Square in the 19th century, to gospel music and the advent of doo-wop, to the free love moment of the ’60s and the rock ‘n’ roll that accompanied it, to Britney Spears’ Max Martin-assisted cyborg vocal affectation, to Lemonade and the present day. She reveals the socio-cultural circumstances that birthed each of these movements in popular music, some of which accompanied social norms while others rejected them entirely.
Powers named Good Booty for a line in Little Richards’ “Tutti Frutti.” It evokes that feeling you get when you hear a song that makes your gut upend and your knees weak, an acknowledgment of the erotic power music can hold. That eroticism fuels us; it is what makes pop music such a powerful, driving force in American culture. All of the genres discussed in this book could only really have been born right here, in a country built on oppressive puritanical values that popular music has always somehow found a way to rally against.
- Jenn Pelly – The Raincoats (from the 33 1/3 series)
- Joseph C. Ewoodzie – Break Beats in the Bronx: Rediscovering Hip-Hop’s Early Years
- Ray Padgett – Cover Me: The Stories Behind The Greatest Cover Songs Of All Time
- David Hepworth – Uncommon People: The Rise And Fall Of The Rock Stars
- David Weigel – The Show That Never Ends: The Rise And Fall Of Prog Rock
Sticky Fingers: The Life And Times Of Jann Wenner
By Joe Hagan
(Penguin Random House)
If you’ve ever wondered why U2 always make it to the very top of Rolling Stone’s year-end lists, then you need to read this biography of the magazine’s founder Jann Wenner. Sticky Fingers is an extensive account by journalist Joe Hagan, who was asked to write the book at the behest of Wenner himself. Controversy swirled around the time of release, with Wenner publicly disavowing the biography in spite of the fact that he willingly shared some of the most intimate details of his life with Hagan, not only submitting to interviews for the book, but also giving the writer access to the magazine’s archive and sharing personal letters and files. The result is a book that is extremely well-researched and extremely dishy — a foray into the lives of people who literally defined sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll as much as it is a portrait of a complicated mogul. Hagan’s depiction of Wenner reads as honest, but in no way flattering. The book details his betrayal of hero John Lennon, his long-closeted homosexuality, and his tumultuous relationship with his ex-wife, Jane Wenner, among many other things.
As much as Sticky Fingers delves into Wenner’s inner life and exposes some intimate secrets, it also meticulously details each phase of Rolling Stone magazine. From its start documenting the ’60s counterculture, to its emergence as a leading political voice in the ’70s, to its corporatization in the ’80s and ’90s, Hagan illustrates the intricacies of the workplace, chronicles multiple instances of near-bankruptcy, and pulls the curtain back on some of the drama underlying Rolling Stone’s biggest stories. Independent since its inception, the magazine was put up for sale this year, after Rolling Stone shelled out $1.65 million over the butchered UVA rape story that landed the magazine in a defamation suit. It’s a rather tragic ending to a truly American story, one that underlies the struggles of the music media at large.
Rolling Stone shaped the culture and gave rise to some of the industry’s leading icons. Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Yoko Ono, Paul McCartney, and so many more gave interviews and appear within its pages, as do the magazine’s leading contributors, such as Annie Leibovitz, Hunter S. Thompson, Greil Marcus, Cameron Crowe, and John Landau. Sticky Fingers is a book about the famed egoist Jann Wenner, sure, but it’s also a book about the people who helped him build his empire. This industry wouldn’t exist in the same capacity if not for Rolling Stone, even with its failings, and the saga starts and ends with this ambitious man. Only a true narcissist would hire an investigative reporter to write his biography and expect a glowing portrait.
- David Yaffe – Reckless Daughter: A Portrait Of Joni Mitchell
- Eric Osmon – Jason Molina: Riding With A Ghost
- Steve Parke – Picturing Prince: An Intimate Portrait
- Jimmy McDonough – Soul Survivor: A Biography Of Al Green
- Anthony DeCurtis – Lou Reed: A Life
- Roy Orbison, Wesley Orbison, Alex Orbison, Jeff Slate – The Authorized Roy Orbison
- Curt Weiss – Stranded In The Jungle: Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride – A Tale Of Drugs, Fashion, The New York Dolls, And Punk Rock
- Ben Greenman – Dig If You Will The Picture: Funk, Sex, God And Genius In The Music Of Prince
- Chris Heath – Reveal: Robbie Williams
Hit So Hard: A Memoir
By Patty Schemel
(Da Capo Press)
“There has to be a reason why I’m here. Why did I live after 20 years of attempting to get sober and a billion rehabs, like why am I here and that person’s not?” Patty Schemel said this to me earlier this year, while we were discussing her memoir Hit So Hard. It’s a book about addiction and redemption, and of course: rock ‘n’ roll. The now 50-year-old Hole drummer has been sober for over a decade, and while she continues to play music with the band Upset, she’s only just started pursuing a burgeoning career as a writer. Hit So Hard is one of the most honest rock memoirs I’ve ever read. Hell, it might just straight-up be the most honest memoir I’ve ever read.
Schemel is a remarkable storyteller and she remembers particular phases of her childhood and adolescence with brutal clarity. Small moments are rendered larger-than-life in this book; in one of my favorite scenes, Schemel describes kissing a girl for the first time while the Psychedelic Furs’ song “India” played, as if it had happened just yesterday. All depictions of a gawky adolescence aside, Schemel is one of grunge’s forebears, and her memories from the era are both tender and toxic. She started out as a drummer for the bands Kill Sybil and Doll Squad before joining Hole at the recommendation of her good friend, Kurt Cobain. Schemel’s memories of recording Live Through This are crystalline, and she plays the role of the voyeur when writing about some of the highest peaks in Nirvana’s career, like their performances at Rock In Rio and MTV Unplugged. Schemel recounts endless phone calls with Courtney Love, lazy days at home hanging with baby Frances Bean, and band practice with Constant Comment, the two-woman band she formed with Hole bandmate Melissa Auf der Maur when they shared an apartment in LA.
Underlying those happy memories is a story of addiction and eventual recovery, as told by someone who attempted to get clean multiple times throughout the course of her life. Schemel’s prose is unflinching, and while she peppers the long road to recovery with humor, Hit So Hard is a candid depiction of addiction written by someone who has seen the depths. It could not have been an easy book to write, but I’m so glad Schemel wrote it. She’s a real hero and her story inspires.
- Art Garfunkel – What Is It All But Luminous: Notes From An Underground Man
- Cosey Fanni Tutti – Art Sex Music
- Chris Difford – Some Fantastic Place: My Life In And Out Of Squeeze
- Loudon Wainwright III – Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & a Few Of My Other Favorite Things
- Gucci Mane & Neil Martinez-Belkin – The Autobiography Of Gucci Mane
- Richard Lloyd – Everything Is Combustible: Television, CBGB’s And Five Decades Of Rock And Roll: The Memoirs Of An Alchemical Guitarist
- Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins With Emilly Zemler – A Sick Life: TLC ‘N Me: Stories From On And Off The Stage
- Charlie Daniels – Never Look At The Empty Seats: A Memoir
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us
By Hanif Abdurraqib
(Two Dollar Radio)
Hanif Abdurraqib is a Columbus-based writer who used to be a columnist at MTV News and has written for The New York Times, Pitchfork, NPR, ESPN, and yes, even Stereogum. He published a book of poetry titled The Crown Ain’t Worth Much last year, and They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is his first collection of essays. Some of these pieces might be familiar to those who follow Abdurraqib’s work, while others are new. Though not all of these essays are strictly music-related, the bulk of them are, and in these pieces Abdurraqib explores the way in which music can serve as a catalyst for all kinds of inventive storytelling and cultural criticism.
The collection leads with an essay on the exultant joy of Chance The Rapper, which segues into a piece on Bruce Springsteen’s The River tour, which begets an analysis of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The intersection of race and music is a topic Abdurraqib trods throughout, most notably in pieces like “There Is A Picture Of Michael Jackson Kissing Whitney Houston On The Cheek,” “Nina Simone Was Very Black,” and “Black Life On Film,” an ode to Ice Cube’s Doughboy in the film Boyz In The Hood. A look back at early Fall Out Boy fandom inspires a reflection on what it is to be Muslim in America while yet another piece on Fall Out Boy honors a fellow fan and friend of Abdurraqib’s lost to suicide. One of the crowning pieces of this collection is an essay titled “The White Rapper Joke,” which documents the lineage of white rappers and their contributions to the genre — whether those contributions should be deemed worthy or not is up for interpretation. From Eminem to Asher Roth to Macklemore, Abdurraqib has something unique and precise to criticize and love about each one.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us has a table of contents that doesn’t list page numbers. I think this is wonderful. It prevents the reader from skipping around the book easily, forcing them to delve into pieces about artists they might not have ever considered capital-I Important. Through Abdurraqib’s singular lens, bands like My Chemical Romance breed existential thoughts about death’s inevitability, and we learn a little bit more about the depressed city of Defiance, OH for which the folk-punk band is named. A Carly Rae Jepsen concert inspires an open-hearted rumination on love and loneliness, while a Wonder Years revival concert sparks thoughts on misogyny in emo. Abdurraqib will make you think critically about music and the culture it influences, and his thoughts will stay with you long after you’ve tunneled through all 286 pages of his wonderful book.
- Rob Sheffield – Dreaming The Beatles
- Mark Lanegan – I Am The Wolf: Lyrics And Writing
- Bruce Dickinson – What Does This Button Do?: An Autobiography
- Wanda Jackson with Scott Bomar – Every Night Is Saturday Night: A Country Girl’s Journey To The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame