Billboard recently posted a list attempting to name the 100 “greatest ever” music books.
Billboard’s list includes High Fidelity, as well as a few other novels. Is High Fidelity – listed as high as #9 – a better rock novel than Delillo’s Great Jones Street, Harlan Ellison’s Spider Kiss, or Paul Ford’s Gary Benchley, Rock Star? Tom Perrotta’s Wishbones? Maybe not worse than some or any of those, but it’s not better, and certainly not 91 slots better than the non-fiction works before it.
If High Fidelity’s inclusion was a symbolic attempt to jazz up the list with fiction, then I’d argue in favor of including, in its place, Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. With three full chapters of well-reasoned music writing championing the shittiest music possible, few books other than American Psycho satirize pre-Internet music writing so well. Those three chapters were American Psycho’s greatest joke, and a joke that kept on giving, in that any critics who took those chapters at face value, or didn’t mention them in reviews, usually panned the book. Or, in a more embarrassing possibility, they were Huey Lewis fans.
Billboard’s list also includes the Hamilton libretto. In a word: no.
The following works of real music writing should have been included:
You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke – Daniel Wolff
Billboard’s list offers excellent books on Marvin Gaye and James Brown but not the best book out there about Cooke, the man who took Gospel and turned it into commercial soul? One of the first black music entrepreneurs and author of the civil rights anthem, “A Change is Gonna Come?” Blasphemy. Not just the best singer of his generation – and Gaye and Brown would have agreed – but a songwriter only rivaled by Smokey Robinson when it came to writing soul hits for himself and others. All done before he was murdered at age 33.
Trouser Press Music Guides 1974 -1990s (all editions) -Ira Robbins, ed
Trouser Press guides shouldn’t be forgotten. Before the Internet, and then even after they ceased publication before the internet, these were the only indie rock-centric reference guides available. Unless you worked in a record store, or subscribed to every zine possible, the Trouser Press was your only shot at making sure you owned every release by your relatively obscure loves. If you see any edition second-hand, scoop it up. TP covered bands the Internet doesn’t remember.
A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton – Holly George-Warren
The invisible man who sings with an invisible voice, Alex Chilton, appears in five or more books on Billboard’s list, yet the one specific, recent book about him is omitted. To double down: A Man Called Destruction is one of the best music books I’ve read in the past five years. Only 16, Chilton sings The Box Tops’ “The Letter” and by his forties is working as a dishwasher, partially by choice, to escape the music he loves. He never stops playing guitar, even becomes amazing as a lead player (I saw it live) and shortly before a heart attack at 59 lives to see Big Star, the Box Tops, and even his weirder solo work worshipped in a deserving way. Chilton’s life was as unintentionally representative of rock and roll as they come. There’s probably no biopic planned soon.
Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division – Peter Hook
Until someone else who was in Joy Division goes on record, this is it when it comes to how Joy Division’s music was made (Curtis’s wife’s memoir, Touching From a Distance, offers a more personal angle). According to Hook, Ian Cutis was, among other, darker things “one of the lads,” and liked a good fart joke. Need I say more? Also: Hook invented a bass sound that changed everything. Read or remain unworthy.
Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small
Billboard’s list does a swell job of representing the broader history of American indie rock, especially with Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. But Our Noise takes a holistic look at a movement through the lens of Merge’s transformation into an indie powerhouse, a lens collecting the oral histories of the bands, marriages, and people who built Merge, some of them reunited, disbanded, divorced, retired, or dead. If you dug live indie rock shows 1988 to 2011, there’s probably a show mentioned in here that you attended.
Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers – by Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer
Billboard’s omission of the Louvin Brothers is insane. Their influence on country is irrefutable, and their importance to rock must not be understated: their sibling harmonies inspired the Everly Brothers, who in turn inspired the Beatles. They were Johnny Cash’s inspiration (he met them as a child). Morrissey quotes them at the end of “Some Girls are Bigger than Others” (send me your pillow / the one that you dream on). Their onstage fistfights paved the way for live sibling dust-ups between the Gallagher brothers and the Davies brothers. Satan is Real begins with teetotaler Charlie beating the shit out of his preternaturally talented but drunkard brother Ira on the front lawn of their mother’s home after their first successful tour. It only gets crazier.
Lemmy: White Line Fever – Lemmy Kilmister & Janiss Garza
Billboard should be ashamed of themselves. Without this book, written 13 years before Lemmy’s recent death (because he was living on borrowed time already) Billboard’s list belongs on a roll of paper in a public bathroom.
Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues _James Fearnley
Accordionist/guitarist James Fearnley’s first row seat to the Pogues’s absolute car crash as a band, and then attempt to right the commercial ship, rivals Bob Mehr’s “Trouble Boys” as far as insane failed band experiences go. It only covers the 80s, which seems an excellent decision, it being their critically best period. Importantly, Fearnley was close friends with Shane MacGowan back in the Nips days, and provides probably the best view on what made MacGowan and the Pogues tick in the first place.
Where Dead Voices Gather – Nick Tosches
Hellfire: the Jerry Lee Lewis Story– Nick Tosches
Billboard includes Tosches’s monumental Dean Martin bio Dino, one of the best American books, about music or anything, of the 20th century. Tosches’s bio of Jerry Lee Lewis is at least Dino‘s equal, but probably better, and should at least have replaced High Fidelity. Billboard doesn’t mention it at all. In the Guardian’s list of the 50 best music books ever, Hellfire was number one.
Then there’s Tosches’s Where Dead Voices Gather, an amazing book nominally about 1920s blackface singer Emmett Miller, whose voice, a human clarinet, presages Hank Williams and c/w itself. Like a historical hallucination, Tosches’s book visits a load of those weird places in American popular music where race blurred, and where country, folk and blues worked to make everything we have today.