Books take longer to consume than records, so I find it hard to be as up to the moment with my reading as I am with my listening. But I'm always reading and most of that is (shocker) music books. Here are a few notable books on music from recent years.Laurie Anderson’s Big Science by S. Alexander Reed (2021) It was over 40 years ago that I first became aware of Laurie Anderson, introduced by a double-page spread in Life Magazine’s The Year In Pictures. There she was, spiky-haired and playing a violin with a magnetic tape bow. Mike Tyson was a page or two over, shot from the back to emphasize his impossibly thick neck. But it was Anderson who intrigued me, having already developed an interest in avant garde music. Oddly enough, however, when people around me were going nuts over her 1982 debut album, Big Science, it kept me at arms length. Maybe the possibilities the photo had set whirling in my mind were too different from what I was hearing to be reconciled. I kept up with her over the years, though, intrigued by her collaboration with William S. Burroughs and later charmed by her relationship with Lou Reed. But it wasn’t until Landfall, her 2017 album with the Kronos Quartet, that I truly fell in love with one of her pieces.
Big Science still loomed, however, so when Reed’s book showed up, I welcomed the opportunity to take a deeper dive into its background and creation. This handsome little book is the 15th in Oxford’s Keynotes series, and only the second to take on a work of the second half of the 20th century, following John T. Lysaker’s 2018 book on Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports. It’s also the third book for Reed, following Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music and an entry in the 33 1/3 series on They Might Be Giants. And while Reed, a professor at Ithaca College, occasionally writes like the academic he is, the book is mostly a fizzy read, with his excitement about following Anderson’s trail of creativity coming through loud and clear. He also doesn’t shy away from musicological dissection when it seems useful, but always provides a way in for the uninitiated, using musical examples that almost everyone will know.
I was especially taken with his brilliance in setting up a structure that takes into account the album’s creation in the past and how it exists now. I’ll let him explain:
“Foremost, I'm interested in the circa 1980 creation of these songs: "now" in the sense of chronos, or historical sequence. How did their concept, text, and music develop, and in dialogue with what real-world artifacts and events?…Second, I also describe what it's like to inhabit a private listening encounter, marking time not by dates and eras but from second to second: "now" in the sense of kairos, or experiential action. Third, I ask without nostalgia how Big Science resonates now in the twenty-first century, acknowledging in the book’s final chapter what some have heard as an eerie prescience in the record.” (Reed, Page 3)This is a paradigmatic way to approach a work of the past and will be a great guide next time I revisit a classic album.
As for this classic album, Reed’s three-dimensional excavation and explication of the musical and conceptual components of every song, made the end result - when it works - even more impressive. There are still a couple of duff tracks - Sweaters, for one - that no amount of advocacy will rescue, but I find myself more immersed when listening to the songs I do like. Reed also gives Anderson her due as an extraordinarily brave, intelligent, and original artist in three mind-expanding chapters on her relationships with the musical context of the time (“New Music Versus New Wave”), sexuality and gender, and politics. People often bemoan the lack of liner notes in the streaming era. Reed’s book makes up for that lack - and then some - for an album that is a nearly bottomless well of fascination.
Ted Gioia - Music: A Subversive History (2019) Near the end of this enthralling, game-changing book, Gioia notes:
"...every major music genre today echoes, at least in part, some of the imperatives of prehistoric song. The rock star evokes the scapegoat from ancient rituals of symbolic violence. The country artist re-creates the pastoral strains of the herders, who relied on music to soothe domesticated animals, and celebrates the stable life of home and hearth. The hip-hopper returns to the monophonic chant that served to unite the first human communities, the oldest 'hoods of them all. The pop star draws an audience with erotic stylings and dance moves that remind us of the fertility rituals that gave birth to the love song." (Gioia, Page 450)
If any of that sounds farfetched to you, you desperately need to read this book. If it sounds like something you almost take for granted but don't understand why, you also need to read this book. Each one of those examples is based on broad research, and spectacularly synthesized into a text that informs you even as it excites you. Gioia goes DEEP, looking beyond and away from musicology to explore the transformative power of song, from the use of chants to scare away alpha predators from prey so human's could feed themselves to the ongoing threats to those in power from the artists engaged in a long line of "permanent revolution," such as Pussy Riot, those punk rock thorns in Putin's side.
A key point he makes over and over again is that musical innovation almost always comes from where you least expect it - the oppressed, the poor, the marginalized - a trope that goes back to the earliest civilizations. Perhaps even more importantly, he notes that when rulers make claims about musical innovations they brought about, we need to "study these powerful figures in musical history, not for what they did, but for what they hid." That last quote come Gioia's Epilogue: This Is Not A Manifesto, 40 statements about music and its role in life and society. He describes them as precepts that forced him to "alter his beliefs" as he was researching and writing. Reading Music not only altered some of my beliefs but helped me to reposition my relationship to music, narrowing down for me what is of core importance in the music I love, and for that I am immensely grateful to Gioia.
Alan Niester - Beyond The Printed Page: The Life And Times Of A Big Time Rock Critic (2014) The title for this often hilarious book is slightly misleading. While the first 50 pages or so detail, in his wry and witty style, his upbringing and the winding path he took to becoming a music journalist, the next 250 comprise reprints of concert reviews from Niester's time as a critic at the Toronto Globe And Mail. Not that there's anything wrong with that - and the reviews have more personality than most memoirs - but I wouldn't have minded a bit more "life" along with the "times," especially since he's got killer anecdotes, like the time he rode a bicycle from Niagara Falls, Ontario to downtown Buffalo for a concert, or playing in a garage band with future Bowie/Iggy axe-man Stacey Heydon, or nearly starting a race riot with a very drunk Lester Bangs. Lord knows what tales are still in the vault!
The live reviews, however, constitute a fascinating, and often very funny, chronicle of the state of rock and pop from the Ramones in 1978 ("an explosion of torn jeans, aging black leather, and cultivated acne") to Jeff Mangum in 2011 ("intense but casual"). In between you get upstarts struggling to establish themselves, like U2 in 1980 ("one of the most vital and interesting new bands I've seen in the past few years"), to hall-of-famers struggling to live up to their past, like Carole King in 2005 ("She has developed a noticeable Rod Stewart rasp, most evident in the high notes and higher volumes"). Every review is a breeze to read and never less than interesting, and a few are all-time classics, such as Niester's snarky but evenhanded response to the Jonas Brothers in 2009, which he structures like a report card, grading them lowest on their lyrics:
"English - D. Sadly, the boys' lyrics are cliché-ridden and banal, and filled with grammatical mistakes. For example, in the song World War III, they insisted they didn't want to fight "wit chyou" (sic). In Poison Ivy (not the Coasters' classic) they claimed that "Everybody needs some Poison Ivy." This is clearly wrong." (Niester, Page 299)
I look forward to having Niester's book on hand when needing to refer to a real-time reaction to a legendary band, say when writing an anniversary review. I will make sure to correct any typos, which are rife in the book, when quoting him, however. In the end, while his true love is prog-rock (he finally convinced me to listen to Wishbone Ash - the guitars are indeed great), he brings a broad knowledge and love of the music to everything he reviews, providing a fine example for critics everywhere and a fun read for everyone else.
Paul McCartney - The Lyrics: 1956 to Present (Edited with an Introduction by Paul Muldoon) (2021) This is a sly book in so many ways. From the start, Sir Paul admits he will never write a memoir but he’s happy to go song by song and talk about the process and context behind them and let something of himself take shape in your mind. Then there’s the fact that the first thing 90 percent of people will think when hearing his name is an endless spool of melody, then his fantastically versatile voice (at least in its prime), then his remarkable skill as a multi-instrumentalist. Lyrics could be dead last, although he has certainly crafted some gems, whether Blackbird, Dear Friend, Eleanor Rigby, For No One, or She’s Leaving Home, which are marvels of compressed emotion and/or narrative.
You’ll note that my little list of songs is alphabetical, which hints at my only real frustration with the book. Rather than progress through his songwriting chronologically, which would allow you to see his skills develop, from the “pronoun songs” of the early Beatles to the more allusive and surrealist stuff that came later, we are led alphabetically. Ordering them this way could also be his bid to reduce the distance between his achievement as a Beatle and his solo years, to which I say: Nice try. Moreover, putting things chronologically would also allow him to build on stories, such as the "Nerk Twins" Paris trip of 1961, or The Beatles in India, rather than just have them crop up here and there as fits the song under discussion. I suspect it's all in the game of one of the world's most famous people holding on to a shred of his privacy.
That's not so say that The Lyrics isn't a revealing book. It's satisfying to read that even he his baffled by The Beatles' shocking trajectory, as when he says when talking about Eleanor Rigby: “To this very day, it still is a complete mystery to me that it happened at all...All these small coincidences had to happen to make The Beatles happen, and it does feel like some kind of magic. It’s one of the wonderful lessons about saying yes when life presents these opportunities to you. You never know where they could lead.” In the entry for Carry That Weight, he describes the business meetings as The Beatles headed to dissolution as "soul-destroying" - and you feel his pain at friendships and collaborations being ripped apart. He also goes deeper on his complicated relationship with that most complex of characters, John Lennon.
Naturally, there are plenty of instructive tidbits about his approach to songwriting, as when he remarks about Come And Get It, which he wrote for Badfinger: “But I was trying to write a hit, so I didn’t want anything too complicated.” He is also not shy about his bossy side, describing how he told the band not to change a thing from his demo (which he recorded in 15 minutes) rather than trying to "interpret" his song. Bossy, but 100 percent right as proven by the song's chart success.
He also drills down a little on his attraction to the ordinary, which stems from the working class roots he continues to stay in touch with, even with his fabulous wealth. In the section on Café On The Left Bank, he notes:
"I'm actually quite a fan of 'ordinary'. I hope in many ways it defines me, and so also many of the songs I've written. Don't get me wrong; I like extraordinary people and things, but if people can be great and ordinary at the same time, that to me is kind of special. So my Liverpool family - my parents, all the aunties and uncles - they were great and ordinary, and I think the fact that this combination can be easily dismissed makes it even more special. So many people would dismiss my Liverpool family, but they're actually a lot smarter than the likes of Maggie Thatcher, say. Their attitude to life was not as uptight as many people I've encountered since. They were always up for a song around the pub piano, for example. So you can choose to be highly sophisticated but very uptight, or you can be not so sophisticated but at peace with yourself. I try and be a bit of a mixture, and I draw very strongly on that ordinariness."
One thing that is decidedly not ordinary is the physical heft and beauty of The Lyrics, which comes as two splendidly illustrated volumes in a handsome green slipcase. The photographs, may of them unfamiliar to me, are only surpassed by the artifacts, whether handwritten lyrics or drawings (many of which are quite good - another talent!), which make the books a joy just to flip through. Speaking of heft, the 858-page book only contains lyrics for 156 songs out of the 500 or so Sir Paul has written or co-written. Not only does that give you an idea of how much additional material is contained within, it also lets you know that songs were selected based on what McCartney wanted to get across. So Why Don't We Do It In The Road is here, giving him an opportunity to talk about the primal urge to procreate, while a late-career near masterpiece like Riding To Vanity Fair is left out - perhaps its still too soon to talk about what led to that dark-hued number.
But as Paul himself says when talking about the line "Spending someone's hard-earned pay" in Two Of Us: "I don't know where that came from or what it means. I don't necessarily want meaning. I don't root for meaning all the time. Sometimes it just feels right." And this book, on the whole, feels very right. Make room on your groaning shelf of Beatles books for one more!