The lives of musical greats continue to fascinate us, and this fall once again features biographies and memoirs of key players, from the producer credited with inventing rock ’n’ roll to a woman at the forefront of feminist rock.
On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash got together in Memphis’ Sun Studio for an impromptu jam session. Behind the console was Sam Phillips, the man who not only discovered Presley, Cash and Lewis, but who also dreamed of bringing together black and white voices in the studio in a deeply divided South. Peter Guralnick, the dean of rock historians, draws on extensive interviews from his 25-year friendship with Phillips in the epic, elegant and crisply told Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll. Guralnick charts Phillips’ path from his birth near Florence, Alabama, to the founding of Sun Records—and chronicles his enduring contributions to rock ’n’ roll. When he produced Rufus Thomas’ version of “Hound Dog,” for example, Phillips thought it didn’t live up to Big Mama Thornton’s original, but “Rufus carried off his performance with genuine conviction—the one unwavering test Sam applied to any material he let out of the studio.” In the end, as Guralnick points out, what drove Phillips was his dream of allowing the voices he had heard singing chants in the cotton fields to express themselves in their own way. “[M]usic was not confined to the drawing room . . . there was great art to be discovered in the experience of those who had been marginalized and written off because of their race, their class, or their lack of formal education.”
LONG AS I CAN SEE THE LIGHT
John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival serves as a cracking good storyteller in Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music. Born in El Cerrito, California, in 1945, Fogerty sought music as both escape and solace after his parents’ divorce. He traces the early incarnations of Creedence and the band’s rise to the top of the charts in 1969 with “Proud Mary” and “Born on the Bayou.” He also offers backstory on his lyrics: “Bad Moon Rising,” for instance, grew out of hearing people talk in astrological lingo such as “I’m a Virgo with Libra rising.” Although Creedence was flying high in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the group soon descended into an inferno of contentious legal battles. Fogerty expresses his anger and disappointment with bandmates Stu Cook and Doug Clifford, and for the first time shares what he believes were the outlandish courtroom tactics of lawyers who knew nothing about music. After a period away from the public eye, he has immersed himself in songwriting once again—“all good songs engage you because they get you to feel something”—and emerged thankful for the journey, even the hard parts.
THE LOVE YOU SAVE
Rolling Stone writer Steve Knopper chronicles the King of Pop’s rise to fame in the compulsively readable MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson. Drawing on 400 interviews with friends, family and others, Knopper traces Jackson’s musical genius from his early days with the Jackson 5 through his out-of-this-world solo success with “Beat It” and “Thriller.” When Jackson met Quincy Jones in the mid-1970s, he saw Jones as a father figure who could take the place of the abusive Joe Jackson, and by the end of the ’70s, Jackson was working with Jones, moving toward a solo career and developing his signature dance moves. With the release of videos for “Billie Jean” and “Thriller,” he successfully “integrated radio and MTV,” Knopper writes. Through much of the 1990s and early 2000s, Jackson lived under the shadow of child sexual abuse charges, and he sank into oblivion from prescription drug use before his death in 2009. Still, for nearly three decades, he was “supernaturally graceful, the rare show-business Renaissance man who could sing, dance, and write songs.”
PAINTED FROM MEMORY
Unlike most traditional memoirs, Elvis Costello’s Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink eschews any narrative structure, moving freely out from his childhood in Liverpool and London, where he accompanied his father to dance halls, soaking up the chords and vibes. In school, he managed to talk a couple of friends out of an “unhealthy fascination with the music of Emerson, Lake & Palmer” and turn them on to the acoustic music then flowing out of Laurel Canyon. Costello mulls over his associations with musicians from Emmylou Harris to Kris Kristofferson, discussing the influence each has had on him. A prolific songwriter, he also shares insights into the composition of his songs. For “Allison,” which is based on the imagined life of a grocery checkout cashier, he writes, “I have no explanation for why I was able to stand outside reality and imagine such a scene as described in the song and to look so far into the future.” Costello’s aim is true in these peripatetic musings about his life and music.
Guitarist Carrie Brownstein co-founded the group Sleater-Kinney, pushing the boundaries of punk and indie rock and emerging as a central figure of the riot grrrl movement. In Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, she probes her life with an honesty that is at once painful and spirited. Growing up in a suburb of Seattle, Brownstein attended her first concert—Madonna—in fifth grade, a “moment I’ll never forget, a total elation that momentarily erased any outline of darkness.” By the time she was in high school, she was alienated from her parents and immersed in Bikini Kill, whose music provided a haven from the turmoil of her teenage life. She and Corin Tucker eventually formed Sleater-Kinney and made a name for themselves in the Seattle scene and around the world. Brownstein bubbles over with fiercely blunt insights about the male-dominated music business: “[P]ersona for a man is equated with power; persona for a woman makes her less of a woman.” When Sleater-Kinney broke up in 2006, Brownstein went on to co-write, produce and star in the television show “Portlandia.” She declares that, for her, performing and playing and living the life of a working artist constitutes her search for a home: “the unlit firecracker I carried around inside me in my youth . . . found a home in music.”