I love music, but I’m essentially a word person, and over the years, I’ve found I’m much more likely to stray into a bookstore in the evenings than a bar or concert venue. Still, there’s nothing more enlivening than a raw tale of rock ’n’ roll. Among the offerings on tap this spring: A Natural Woman by Carole King (Grand Central, April), Honky Tonk Girl: My Life In Lyrics by Loretta Lynn (Knopf, April), Jimi Hendrix: A Brother’s Story by Leon Hendrix (St. Martin’s/Dunne, April), and My Cross to Bear by Greg Allman (Morrow, May). The ’70s, it appears, are having a major moment. But before the new books go on tour, it’s worth recalling some other recent investigations of grimy bars and dimly lit recording studios. Here are some of my favorites.
Life by Keith Richards (2010): It probably takes a certain type of mania to produce music in the drug-fueled manner in which Richards excelled, and there’s a sense of mania behind Richards’ writing as well; the book covers everything from his grim childhood to the loss of his son to the intricacies of his musical obsessions. The book has an honest, raw and thrilling feel—a close-up view of a musical genius, with very little left unexamined.
Just Kids by Patti Smith (2010): Ostensibly the story of Smith’s intimate friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids is also the first hand story of Smith’s evolution as an artist—from inexperienced Jersey girl to downtown doyenne. Told with spare, elegant, concise prose that still conveys a sense of wonder, the book feels like a fairy tale, a romance and a bildungsroman all in one Interspersed with Mapplethorpe’s black and white photos and Smith’s drawings, it is also an artistic collage in its own right.
Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York by James Wolcott (2011): While it ranges far beyond musical matters, Wolcott’s hilarious and sparky memoir pays significant tribute to the New York scene of 1970s, capturing with humor and acuity the moments when icons were relative unknowns. The lead singer for the Talking Heads, David Byrne, “has a little-boy-lost-at-the-zoo voice and the demeanor who’s spend the last half hour whirling around in the spin drier.” The young Patti Smith already “had her stage persona pencil-sharpened into a self-conscious, couldn’t-care-less wild child … spreading her fingers like a preacher woman summoning the spirits from the Père Lachaise graveyard where Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde were buried.”
Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson (2011): This debut novel picks up the downtown New York City thread at CBGB, the venerable rock club, about a decade after Wolcott made it one of his main haunts. It was the onset of the straight-edge, hard-core movement that shunned drugs but celebrated body-slamming and raucous, rambunctious music. The volume is elevated in this novel; it feels reckless, wild and unapologetic. But there’s also a love story, loss and an elegiac, emotional central chord that ties it all together.
Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta (2011): Spiotta’s third novel occupies a quieter register, telling the story of a star who never was—or, rather, a star who might have been. Stone Arabia is the story of Nik and his sister, Denise, and Nik’s meticulously chronicled (by Nik himself) alter-ego—a late ’70s and early ’80s Los Angeles rock star. This is a book about siblings, reinvention, aging, and regret but it, too, hums along with a steady and compelling beat.