May 16, 2011
“Writing about architecture is like dancing to music.”
Last summer I gushed over the unbridled majesty of a well-written music biography. The purpose of the essay was to highlight the elements of a compelling rock biography and to point out some of the better examples in the last twenty years. I confess that I also enjoyed writing about the mud shark incident.
In the wake of that article, the world has seen two seismic events- first, a team of US Navy SEALS located Osama Bin Laden and shot him in the face; secondly, there has been an explosion of music-related biographies hitting the shelves. I’m not claiming that a link exists between my column and either of those two events, but in your private moments, do the math.
There has been a conspicuous spike in the public’s notice of rock bios in 2011. Certainly the commercial success of Keith Richard’s biography, Life (which I found a most excellent read) has renewed publishing’s interest in rock properties, resulting in the expansive promotion of such titles. In fact, two weeks ago I killed some time in a bookstore in Boston’s Logan Airport and found the following tower of books saucily showcased as “First Class Reads.”
In this display of aggressively-promoted new releases there are five music biographies (Nikki Sixx, Keith Richards, Steven Tyler, Ice-T and Prodigy). And this photo shows only one side of the display- the table contained several other rock bios. That a busy airport bookstore is devoting 25-30% of premium shelf space to junkie rockers and thugged-out rappers speaks volumes of book-buying trends.
Consumers are heeding the call and scooping up rock biographies as never before, causing some industry observers to brazenly postulate that these very books are saving publishing. With the influx of new titles, the inevitable debates and discussions are raging over which rock like hurricanes and which are more appropriately devoted to stabilizing wobbly furniture.
I’ve been consuming my fair share and it’s time to highlight a few of my favorites for those of you compiling your summer reading lists. I picked up two of these from the very table in the picture. Unsurprisingly, I also have suffered through quite a few rock books that made me pause and weep for the poor tree that gave its life for such grotesque monuments to self-service. Rather than waste your time scaring you away from such books, of which you were likely unaware, I’m focusing on titles that I found particularly well-done or interesting enough to let you make the call.
Enter Night: A Biography of Metallica
by Mick Wall
[St. Martin’s Press, 2011]
In my recent interview with author Mick Wall, he discussed his upcoming Metallica biography, clarifying that his account was told from the perspective of a non-fan. This was not to say that Wall dislikes the members of Metallica (quite the contrary) or that he has any aversion to their music, but simply that he is too old and too seasoned to let his account of a band be corrupted by an allegiance to their music, which has spoiled many a good biography. Wall offered a few teasers in the interview but held back on the more succulent revelations. Having finished the book, I will attest that it delivers in virtually every category that distinguishes a great rock biography from the pretenders.
In the interests of full disclosure, I am a reluctant Metallica fan. I came to Metallica late in the game, turning on to them with the Black album and then working my way backwards. While I love the power of the rhythms and the complex melodies within their dual guitar attack, the band’s leaders (vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich) have always struck me as self-satisfied egomaniacs struggling with a collective inferiority complex. They tirelessly bleat over how hard it is to do what they do, how vastly they’ve influenced hard rock and the tremendous extent of commercial success they earned with precious little commercial airplay. These claims are all true, but it is entirely unnecessary to constantly point them out.
Enter Night chronicles a band that has sold an estimated 100 million albums over the course of 25 years, all the while surviving death, drug abuse, rehab, legal battles and some hellaciously embarrassing public relations nightmares. There is no shortage of ground to cover and Wall deftly guides the reader through the band’s history without sensationalizing any of it. The author’s keen and often dry observations are buttressed by accounts from the band members themselves, as well as a comprehensive cast of colleagues, associates, friends and detractors.
The prose is jammed with engrossing stories and sub-plots that read quickly with one flowing easily into the next. Critical supporting details and the massive revelations that Wall promised are delivered in spades. He discloses the band’s plans to fire founder and drummer Lars Ulrich, leading up to the death of bassist Cliff Burton, presenting ample witness accounts and insider testimony in support of the story, which has been relatively unexplored until now. Of Burton’s death, he exposes both the cold, business-driven face of the band contrasted with the profound emotional toll it has exacted from the members through the present day. Guitarist Kirk Hammett recently shared “I still think about [Cliff] every day. Something he said, something he did, just… something.” Far from a hatchet job, Wall shows the members of Metallica to be essentially decent guys who struggle to balance their creativity with their fears, character defects and the corrosive properties of rock stardom.
The discussion of the Rick Rubin-produced Death Magnetic album (2008) provides a discerning account of both the musicianship and recording techniques employed- new approaches that ultimately convinced a skeptical fan base that the band could still ride the lightning. There is ample Dave Mustaine-related material in Enter Night, confirming some of Mustaine’s accounts while offering new perspectives on others. Wall lays out the evidence he has gathered, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions rather than beating them over the head with his own.
Some dynamite photographs are included and as with his other books, the “Notes and Sources” is remarkable in its depth and organization.
Despite Wall’s personal relationships with the band, the book is unsparingly objective. Metallica fans should be satisfied by his evenhanded treatment, not to mention the wealth of information presented. As usual, Wall’s encyclopedic research and unparalleled eye for detail leave no aspect of the band’s history unexamined- this is the most comprehensive, current and readable account of Metallica available. Non-fans might have a hard time keeping up with the rotating personnel and heavy metal iconography, but even casual fans will find this a relentlessly captivating page-turner.
My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy
by Albert “Prodigy” Johnson, with Laura Checkoway
This was a fascinating read, primarily because I knew so little about the hip hop scene, its history and its key players. In fact, when I come across hip hop stories or reviews in my magazines, I almost always skip over them. Too much drama, too many goofy nicknames.
But My Infamous Life seemed to be popping up everywhere- not just bookstores I visited, but some of my favorite online book reviewers were covering it. When I saw it in the airport bookstore, I pulled the trigger and I’m happy that I did.
Certainly with any autobiography, events are retold through the bias of the author, regardless of any attempts at objectivity. With My Infamous Life, Prodigy includes such a vast trove of colorful details of the people, the parties and the attitudes within the scene that his own bias becomes irrelevant- there is so much ground-level detail that the reader walks away with a deep understanding of hip hop culture, from the artists all the way up to the senior executives. While Prodigy’s story compels on many levels, this book is a veritable primer on the second-wave rap resurgence in the 90s and all the conflicts, headlines, deaths, and triumphs that resulted.
The story reads as if it were dictated by Prodigy, one half of the multi-platinum hip hop duo Mobb Deep (along with partner Havoc). Wuthering Heights, this is not. It rolls with conversational slang, ample profanity and the profligate use of the word “Nigga.” This colloquial technique was effective in Timothy White’s Bob Marley bio, Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, and it works well here. Rather than feeling gratuitous, the slang reveals important nuances that serve a deeper understanding of the culture within the story. At times it reads like a hip hop tell-all, with plenty of salacious revelations, mainly about other rappers such as Saigon, Jay-Z and 50 Cent. But Prodigy is not afraid to shine the light on his own misdeeds, which is why I ultimately enjoyed this book.
Take away the testosterone-fueled boastfulness and some of the more one-sided accounts of feuds with other rappers and you have a gripping story. Prodigy was born to a member of the chart-topping girl group The Crystals (“And Then He Kissed Me”) and he has suffered from the painful and incurable Sickle-Cell Disease his entire life, which created torturous physical and emotional barriers that he had to overcome before he wrote his first lyric. His accounts of his roles in fights, shoot outs, drugs and other sordid crimes are often told as cautionary tales distilled into wisdom through the benefit of hindsight. Regarding other events, his lack of remorse is audacious, such as his matter-of-fact account of hiding a handgun for someone who had just robbed and killed a man for a pair of Walkman speakers.
This guileless approach to the story is its greatest success- though not entirely objective, it is clear that Prodigy believes every word of this book. Some of his views are both unsettling and surreal. For example, he discusses witnessing a UFO outside of his house (when his wife Kiki screams “Nigga, go check on the kids!” a freaked-out Prodigy declines, saying “You go!”), which he uses as a springboard for presenting his theory on aliens, “black people’s ancient ancestors,” and the “foolish” mistake of “crossbreeding with other races” (p. 274). I’m not giving anything away by noting that the book ends with Prodigy going to jail for a three year stint stemming from weapons charges (he swears he was set up), where much of this book was written.
His fans will gobble this book up and his detractors will disregard it. But in the middle there is a compelling story of one of the most mercurial figures to emerge from the mid-90s rap explosion. Whether you subscribe to his views or not, it is impossible not to be engaged by his charisma, his chilling candor and his eye-popping insights into the underbelly of hip hop.
ICE: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption- from South Central to Hollywood
by Ice-T and Douglas Century
[One World, 2011]
My other airport bookstore purchase, Ice-T’s memoir, was a thoroughly enjoyable palate-cleanser, although at a modest 240 pages, it is far too brief to adequately cover his storied life. Ice was orphaned at age twelve and tossed into the jungle of Los Angeles’ street gangs before a four year stint in the army. He then dove with both feet into a life of violent crime before cementing his fame as a groundbreaking West Coast rapper. Amazingly, he parlayed his criminal-turned-rapper persona into a successful acting career in both movies and television. With so much fodder, 240 pages feels sort of light.
Nonetheless, this book is in many ways what Prodigy’s autobiography is not- it is free of (too much) over-the-top boastfulness and told in a warm and engaging first person narrative (though like Prodigy, Ice doesn’t cheat anyone on the slang or N-bombs). While Ice is most certainly pulling punches, he also avoids grandiose warranties as to his own importance and his relevance in popular culture. The account comes from a man who has comes to terms with a controversial past and who is comfortable in his own thick skin. Ice reduces his experiences to the key facts, resultant consequences, and what he learned from it. For me, that’s the essence of a great story. Still, I would have loved more insight into some of his more controversial experiences, such as his thrash metal band Body Count and their law enforcement-baiting song “Cop Killer.”
Ice brings unwavering self-awareness to his tale and accepts accountability for and reactions to many of his choices. His discussions of his criminal practices are thrilling- from the mechanics of jewelry store smash-and-grabs to his stint as a pimp (“A pimp’s got three feet: Two on the ground, and one in your ass”), Ice describes the philosophies and methods of the various crimes with the wisdom of a guy who has been there, done that, and paid some dues along the way. As he admits, these exploits could have been an entire book unto itself, but he chooses to offer a select few examples and move on to the next chapter. Still, where other rappers showcase their thuggish behavior as a vehicle for earning respect, Ice is clearly happy to have left the gang-banging life behind him.
I was not prepared for the deluge of incisive wisdom and head-shakingly astute observations contained in these pages. Whether he’s talking about Sharon Osbourne (“I don’t think any guy can look at Sharon and not respect her hustle”) or the difference between nerds and geeks (“A nerd talks about it. A geek can actually do it”), his perceptions are canny and often quite funny. His publisher obviously felt the same way because the book culls his best bits of wisdom as an appendix.
Unlike Prodigy’s bio, Ice-T’s autobiography will most certainly earn him new fans and likely the respect of many who read this book. Delivered with insight, sincerity and just the right dose of humor this is a great beach read. While the story could have benefited from a deeper exploration of his more depraved misdeeds, there are plenty of gripping stories, wild revelations and famous names to keep readers thoroughly entertained while not feeling like they’re being hustled.
Eddie Trunk’s Essential Hard Rock and Heavy Metal
by Eddie Trunk
If you love heavy metal or would like to delight someone who does, pick this book up, stat. Neither a biography nor a history, this is the ultimate music reference manual for all things heavy. With a forward by Rob Halford (Judas Priest), the book contains 35 profiles of some of the most essential bands in hard rock. As with any rock list, debates will rage over the propriety of excluding some acts (Blue Cheer) while including some rather um… “adventurous” choices (Billy Squier). No matter, this is not so much a definitive list of the most important bands in rock and roll as a love letter to the music and the artists who create it.
Trunk is a fan among fans, himself famous for hosting VH1 Classic’s wildly popular talk show, “That Metal Show,” which features roundtable discussions with rock’s most colorful and influential artists. Whereas Mick Wall (above) presents his book from an objective journalistic perspective, Trunk challenges you to find a bigger fan than he. You probably won’t.
The template for each band profile is the same- there is a high level overview of the artist along with its “Classic Lineup” (the definitive members of the band), as well as “Key Additional Members” (relevant personnel who have passed through the band). For music geeks, this feature alone could fuel tireless debate, which is half of the fun of a book like this.
Trunk also includes each band’s discography, a “Did You Know?” sidebar for unusual facts and his personal ultimate playlist for each band. This too is fodder for robust debate and it serves as a nice entree into the music of bands with which the reader might not be familiar.
He tells each band’s story in a few pages with ample editorial insight, including his own experiences as either a young fan of the band or interacting with the musicians in a professional capacity. Trunk does a nice job of balancing the objective stories of the artists with his own experiences. For example, he’ll tell you that Motley Crue reunited in 2005 and then discuss an interview he did with the band at that time, the questions he asked and what the band was like during the exchange.
The danger of a book like this is walking the line between gratuitous name dropping and delivering entertaining firsthand accounts of his experiences. Thankfully, he does this well. His stories come off as genuine rather than self-serving. Remember, this isn’t just by a fan- it’s for fans and he is sincerely excited to share these experiences with metal maniacs across the globe.
And because Trunk is, above all, a fan, the dirt he does include largely serves to enhance the legend of the artist, rather than expose darker behaviors behind-the-scenes. He doesn’t sully any reputations or call anyone out for their sins. But that’s not why you’d buy this book in the first place. If you really want the dirt, there are plenty of unauthorized biographies on all the bad boys of music. Trunk’s book is an entertaining one-stop shop for the metalhead in the house- jammed with pictures, lively stories, unusual facts, and mountains of lists for late night debate. Keep your online music service handy while reading this book- you’ll be throwing up the horns and turning it up to eleven before you reach Black Sabbath.