December 2011

Tuneful bios strike the right note

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December 2011

Tuneful bios strike the right note

Feature by
December 2011

Tuneful bios strike the right note

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This year brings thoughtful looks back at the careers of legendary musicians, whose public lives and stirring songs have moved listeners from the 1940s to the instantaneous now.

Pearl Jam Twenty is a book to get lost in, the kind to open slowly, a book that draws you in by its feel, its heft, its outward austerity. Like liner notes, it at once celebrates the band’s cool and invites you to find in them some piece of yourself—the conversations scrawled on concert tickets, the set lists smoothed out after having been balled up and cast aside, the image of 50,000 arms raised in the air. The message is clear: We can’t believe we created all this, and we couldn’t have done it without you.

Twenty is a fan book, both a companion piece for and a thing apart from the Cameron Crowe documentary of the same name. Crowe sets the tone with an adoring and personal introduction to the book: Defying the stereotypes of self-destructive American rock bands, Pearl Jam has managed to stay true to their own creative process with a “clear-eyed spirit that comes from believing in people and music and its power to change.” Through snippets of interviews and conversations that span more than two decades, Twenty is a nearly week-by-week account of the band’s triumphs, failures and history-making success.

As a boy, George Harrison was bad in school and curious about guitars. In Hamburg, Harrison transformed from a boy into a man and, with his mates, into the most beloved musical act of all time. As a Beatle, he marveled at the mania circling his life, often turning a skilled and curious lens back at those swirling hordes. Eventually, his curiosity would again transform him, this time sending him Eastward and inward toward the mysticism of LSD and Hindu spirituality. Later, out of pure interest, he would go on to bankroll Monty Python’s Life of Brian and sponsor a young Formula One champion.

An ode to “the quiet Beatle,” George Harrison: Living in the Material World is linear and chronological. Its author, Harrison’s widow Olivia Harrison, shies away from direct personal commentary. Despite the near lack of point of view, the images themselves tell a story of two Georges: the public and the spiritual, the wry and the despondent. It’s a striking companion piece to the recent Martin Scorsese documentary of the same name that aired on HBO.

The two most powerful images in the book were taken by Harrison himself. One is of a cadre of faceless photographers shooting away at him from beneath the giant, menacing blade of an airplane propeller, an unbroken ring of onlookers gawking from the sidelines of the landing strip. The other is a self-portrait in the mirror, years later, of a hollow, bearded face holding a ball of pure light and ringed, Christ-like, by the reflected aura of the flash.

With 260 images and hundreds more diary clippings, quotes and reminiscences from his famous friends, Living in the Material World exposes Harrison in a manner true to his legacy: richly, with quiet steps, into an open-ended finish.

Harry Belafonte’s My Song: A Memoir is a surprising, captivating portrait of the plucky singer and actor. From an impoverished boyhood with his stern Jamaican mother, to the showbiz break given him by jazz legends Charlie Parker and Max Roach, to his integral role in the nonviolent civil rights movement, and on to his continued passions as an entertainer and activist in Africa and around the world, this is an American life sustained by humanity and well worth its weight in words.

Co-author Michael Shnayerson writes deftly and with great power in a highly readable style. The story never flies too high, grounding itself in the humble past each time it nears soaring. This plays well for Belafonte, who comes across as entirely genuine. He’s equally frank when sharing the stories of his counsel with civil rights leaders, his friendship with Sidney Poitier and his mischievous pursuits of the women in his life. But the book focuses on Belafonte’s lifelong fight against injustice, a fight he continues today. After all, “Banana Boat Song” might sound like a romp, but day-o! is the cry of an abused working class.

Part memoir of a lifelong struggle with alcohol, part litany of names, places and events associated with the folk movement of the 1960s, Judy Collins’ Sweet Judy Blue Eyes is on all counts a ballad in a familiar key. Collins is famous for her crystal-clear voice and weepy eyes, and for transfiguring the songs of others. Here, she sings in her own words, telling her own tale. But her deep connection to her father, who passed on to her the gift of music and the curse of booze, is sweetly recounted, and the struggles behind the music are told with a light touch. Collins has a remarkable set of memories to share, a view from the inside of America’s most legendary musical moment—Baez, Dylan, Stills, Cohen—and she paints it vividly with a sharp if occasionally odd sense of detail.

Pearl Jam Twenty
Simon & Schuster

ISBN 9781439169216

George Harrison: Living in the Material World

ISBN 9781419702204

My Song: A Memoir

ISBN 9780307272263

Sweet Judy Blue Eyes

ISBN 9780307717344

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