This fall, music keeps playing around in our heads thanks to a crop of books by and about some of rock's most elusive artists, as well as its most treasured songs.
WHOLE LOTTA SHAKIN’
Over a two-year period, maverick Southern author Rick Bragg (All Over but the Shoutin’) sat down with Jerry Lee Lewis and let the Killer walk “day after day through the past and come back, sometimes bloody, with the stories in this book.” Not simply an “as-told-to” memoir, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story is a harmonious blend, with Lewis providing the details of his life and Bragg weaving a narrative around them to add historical and cultural context. “He did not want to do a first-person book,” Bragg writes, “and I had no interest in trying to pretend to be him. Instead, this is one man talking of a remarkable life and another man writing it down and shaping it into a life story so rich that, if I had not been there, I would have wondered if it was real.”
And Lewis’ story is definitely remarkable: Full of life from birth—“I come out jumpin’, an’ I been jumpin’ ever since”—Lewis discovered his “reason for being born” when he saw a piano in his aunt’s house as a child. He knew he wanted to be a star, so he pursued his dream relentlessly, appearing in clubs when he was 14 and lying about his age. Lewis burned down many roadhouses with his raucous style, rising to fame with songs such as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” and leaving in his wake broken marriages and mangled friendships. The book candidly catalogs his problems with drugs, alcohol, taxes and women (his seven marriages included a union with his 13-year-old second cousin that caused an international scandal). Lewis also acknowledges his fear that he may have led people astray with his music, but confesses that music was the purest part of his life. Lewis tells his story here for the first time, and it’s every bit as frantic, ugly, joyful and searing as you’d expect from the Killer.
A NATURAL WOMAN
While Lewis hypnotized audiences with manic energy, Aretha Franklin grew up in the Detroit church where her father preached, playing soulful gospel piano and developing her unmistakable voice. Franklin collaborated with music writer David Ritz in 1999 on a less-than-revealing memoir, Aretha: From These Roots. As Ritz explains in his new book, Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, Franklin asked him to work with her on a second volume, but he declined, citing her insistence on steering clear of certain topics. Instead, Ritz chose to write an independent biography, drawing on his earlier conversations with the singer, her friends and family to provide a full and frank account of the Queen of Soul’s career. Moving album by album, the book recounts her rise to the top of the soul charts in the late 1960s and her fall from the throne in the early 1970s. She struggled to find her style in the disco era, and reinvented herself in 1985 with the hit “Freeway of Love.” Franklin isolated herself for almost 20 years after the deaths of her father, sisters and brother, only to come out of the shadows once again in 2008 to sing at President Obama’s first inauguration. Franklin’s life is rarely pretty, however, and Respect is ultimately a poignant and disappointing tale of a singer who never reached the pinnacle for which she aimed.
In 1966, a young guitar player named Carlos Santana filled in one night at Bill Graham’s famous Fillmore West with an impromptu group of musicians; the rest, as they say, is history. Three years later, Santana and his band mesmerized the crowd at Woodstock, and soon after, the band’s first album climbed to #4 on the Billboard charts. Reaching this level of success wasn’t easy, as Santana reveals in his new memoir, The Universal Tone: Bringing My Story to Light, which he co-wrote with Ashley Kahn and Hal Miller. Although the book’s prose is sometimes flat and repetitive, the details of Santana’s story are nevertheless compelling. He traces his path from his childhood in the Mexican town of Autlán to his earliest gigs at El Convoy in Tijuana. Santana recounts his sometimes ragged family life and reveals for the first time the sexual abuse he suffered at age 11 at the hands of a man who took him to San Diego and molested him, leaving the boy with “an intense feeling of pleasure mixed with confusion, shame, and guilt for letting it happen.” Above all, however, Santana’s memoir recounts his spiritual quest to find the “story behind the stories, the music behind the music. . . . I call it the Universal Tone, and with it you realize you are not alone; you are connected to everyone.”
Paul McCartney added psychedelic illustrations to his handwritten lyrics for “The Word,” a song on 1965’s Rubber Soul album.
From The Beatles Lyrics, reprinted with permission. Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing.
ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE
Although the life stories of musicians continue to fascinate us, we’re just as intrigued and perplexed by the lyrics of popular songs. Few songs have been as scrutinized as those by the Beatles, and in his new book, The Beatles Lyrics, Beatles biographer Hunter Davies not only probes the meanings of the Fab Four’s songs but also gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at their writing process. For John Lennon and Paul McCartney, songwriting could happen anywhere—songs might begin as a scribble on the back of an envelope or on hotel stationery. “Strawberry Fields,” for example, was written by Lennon when he was in Spain, far from home and thinking back on his childhood in Liverpool. This stunning collection explores the stories behind all the Beatles’ classics and includes more than 100 original handwritten manuscripts.
CRYING, WAITING, HOPING
The hallways of rock ’n’ roll history are littered with volumes that move mechanically through a year-by-year chronicle of important events. Noted cultural critic Greil Marcus wasn’t interested in writing a typical history of the genre, however. His provocative The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs chronicles the music through an exploration of 10 songs recorded between 1956 and 2008. In his typical gnostic style, Marcus examines the ways in which each song transcends its era, gathering meaning as it is recorded by artists in completely new times and places. For example, he observes that the Teddy Bears’ 1958 hit, “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” took 48 years to find its voice. “When Amy Winehouse sang it in 2006, her music curled around Phil Spector’s [who wrote the song], his curled around her, until she found her way back to the beginning of his career, and redeemed it.”
Marcus’ unconventional history captures the unruly, unpredictable nature of rock ’n’ roll.