A Smattering of (Music) Books

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Books on music / various musicians. I decided to do a separate post for music related books because I have several to recommend, and diving into a long biography with a million names and places can be a lot. Not everyone’s thing. Several of these are very long, full histories of a career or an era. But these are my favorite music related books.

  1. Shakey: Very long, comprehensive Neil Young bio. Interviews with literally everyone the guy has ever known, tracing his entire life career in meticulous, almost confusing detail. Primarily a big fan because it made me like Neil less but relate to him more. Very humanizing. He’s an asshole, but a neurotic one with good intentions. And the man is clearly a fucking genius.
  2. Please Kill Me: Considered by many to be the *official* book on punk rock. Co-written by Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil, who founded Punk magazine way back when and gave the movement its name. It’s a shitshow. Hilarious and painful, as it should be given the wild, often unstable brilliance that drove the people behind the music. It’s very New York centric, starting with the Velvet Underground and their relationship with Andy Warhol, who was more or less king of the underground scene in the sixties. One thing leads to another in this story; it’s in some ways linear and in some ways not, but Please Kill Me is a study in how inspiration moves. It’s a ripple effect––put a bunch of weirdos together in a small space like the East Village, and everybody is stealing from somebody else. Lots of drag queens and bizarre performance art in the early years; enter the New York Dolls––a bunch of straight men literally dressing like drag queens. I found the sense of creative collaboration that runs through the book super interesting. Because it’s also a social history, more focused on the people making the music than the music itself. And literally everybody was sleeping with each other. I couldn’t even keep straight all the relationships, break-ups, and missed connections. But it felt kind of like high school. Except a million times cooler.
  3. M Train: Gorgeous gorgeous memoir by Patti Smith…reads more like poetry in many parts. I am a massive fan of her writing, even when she’s just writing about her day to day life in New York, working at the same cafe every day and hanging out with her cats. She just makes it sound so good. This one also gets into a lot of her travels, and a passion for Japanese literature, among other little loves. She renovated a tiny house in the Rockaways only to have it destroyed by Sandy. M Train gives us a look at Patti Smith as a woman, after punk, growing old, still reflecting on the death of her husband. It is, in addition to being a profile of an artist, a meditation on grief and aging. She moves back and forth through the years throughout the book, but it is primarily a reflection, looking back. Melancholy and full of style. It made me jealous, because I wish I could write like her, and I wish I could make boring things sound interesting.
  4. Our Band Could Be Your Life: A selective history of alt-rock in the 80s, particularly tracing the movement of post-punk music from the East Coast to the West Coast. I really liked how it was broken up into mini-stories––a chapter about each individual band, which made it very digestible. Profiles Black Flag, Fugazi, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Dinosaur Jr. among others. I also really liked how honest this book felt. Sometimes a little pathetic even, but in a good way. I would not have guessed a lot of these artists were still begging for gigs and eating solely off fast food dollar menus while living out of vans well into storied careers. Reminds me that sometimes the prime of life feels shitty while you’re living it, but you might as well romanticize your reality because someday other people might (no matter how unglamorous or embarrassing it is).
  5. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: Autobiography by Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney, Excuse 17…and Portlandia). She’s just very likable and funny, and a great storyteller. The book has a very nostalgic feel to it, and I found it especially interesting as an inside perspective on the riot grrrl movement because it’s written by someone who was on the scene at a very young age. Brownstein was still a teenager in the early nineties, and started playing music while at Evergreen State College in Washington (I still wish I had gone there instead of NYU). While the book is mainly an account of her life and career, it also does a great job of capturing the feeling of an era. And I really like the title.
  6. Meet Me in the Bathroom: On the milennial wave of underground music, centered in New York. There was, after the downtown scene had been more or less lost to yuppies invading former hubs of counterculture, a resurgence of alternative music. It’s also a story of rebuilding after 9/11 as a background to the rebirth of rock in the City with bands like the Strokes, the Moldy Peaches, LCD Soundsystem, etc. Also gets into how technology allowed for the spread of music in a new way. I don’t even particularly like a lot of the bands, but I just really liked this book, and the time period profiled is recent enough that the vibe and various anecdotes reminded me of my own early days going out in the City. On a somewhat random note, despite the fact that LCD Soundsystem is a little too hipster for me generally speaking, the song “New York I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down” is one of my favorites and captures the essence of New York so well I cried to it regularly while marooned in the boonies of Connecticut last year. *Still the one pool where I’ll happily drown.*
  7. Girl in a Band: Kim Gordon’s autobiography. I adore her. She’s a feminist icon and an absolutely fascinating human being. I tend to especially love a bio that feels more like a portrait of a life than a portrait of an artist. People aren’t characters, and icons are not really icons, they’re humans. Wonderful book.