December 2007

Behind the music

By Eric Clapton
By Robert Altman
By Peter Bogdanovich
By Charles Pignone
By Oliver Sacks
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There won't be many more honest and revealing works this year than Clapton: The Autobiography. The man often termed a guitar god and considered an icon by many music fans isn't interested in affirming that notion. Instead he repeatedly cites his flaws and failures, doing so in graphic detail and without offering excuses for his lapses in judgment and behavior. Clapton writes about his drug and alcohol problems, his adultery and depression in spare, unflinching prose. He's determined to let readers know that not only is he human, but that he's paid a heavy price to reach the top. There's also a full discussion of his interaction, romance and ultimate failed relationship with Pattie Boyd, who was married to Clapton's good friend George Harrison when he began pursuing her. Particularly painful is Clapton's account of the death of his four-year-old son Conor, who fell to his death in 1991 from a New York high-rise.

Yet the book also has plenty of rich musical detail, from his description of being awed by first hearing Jimi Hendrix to accounts of playing with the Rolling Stones and Beatles, teaming with longtime idol B.B. King, and reshaping the classic blues and soul he adored into a more personalized and individual sound.


As a staff photographer for Rolling Stone, Robert Altman visually documented the changes that rocked the '60s with a scope and clarity no one has surpassed. His remarkable photographs comprise the bulk of the compelling new collection, The Sixties. Whether you were there or not doesn't really matter, Altman writes in an author's note, maintaining that these pictures do the talking in recapturing the excitement of Woodstock, be-ins and the Summer of Love. Whether in funny (and sometimes frightening) crowd shots of anonymous war protesters or intense individual portraits of such famous '60s figures as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jane Fonda, Grace Slick and Joni Mitchell, Altman brings it all back in unforgettable style. Journalist Ben Fong-Torres adds perspective with a brief introduction and Q&A with Altman.

Runnin' Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is a companion work to the documentary film by Peter Bogdanovich, and it contains comprehensive and candid interviews with Petty and company on such subjects as life on the road, the music business, the failures of contemporary radio and Petty's devotion to the classic rock and soul that shaped his heartland sound. His determination not to let trends affect or influence his work is noteworthy, and there's also enough levity and humor to balance out some spots where his disillusionment at changes in the landscape becomes evident.


Both Charles Pignone's Frank Sinatra: The Family Album and George Klein's Elvis Presley: The Family Album are loving insiders' collections rather than probing investigative surveys or detached evaluations. Pignone was a close Sinatra friend and is now the family archivist, while Klein was a high school classmate of Presley, and even had the King serve as his best man. Both books are full of warm remembrances, rare photographs and views of the family side of these performers. You won't get any outlandish tales of excessive behavior here, but there are interviews with family members and associates who've never talked about their relationships before, plus detailed accounts from Pignone and Klein that emphasize the character and generosity of both these superstars.

For those interested in why we enjoy listening to music, there's Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by neurologist Oliver Sacks, best known for books that recount some of his highly unusual cases (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, etc.). In Musicophilia, Sacks investigates the medical effects positive and negative of listening to music. He does so in a manner somewhere between scholarly and weird, using amazing stories to validate his theories and illustrate how important music appreciation can be. Whether talking about a disabled man who has memorized 2,000 operas or children whose ability to learn Mandarin Chinese has given them perfect pitch, Sacks offers tales that will fascinate any music lover.

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