Get a read on the music we love and the people who make it
As summer gives way to fall and outdoor concert venues shutter their gates, it's time to catch up on recent music-related reading. Here's a musical six-pack of books ranging from the shame of bad singing (and how to remedy it) to stories about mothers and their musical offspring.
“Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music,” by Tim Falconer, (Anansi)
Falconer, a Canadian journalist, explores amusia, the scientific term for tone deafness. “Ask kindergartners if they can sing and they'll put their hands up; ask high school students, and only a few will,” he writes. “So it's all learned behavior.” Falconer's premise – that everyone can learn to sing – gives hope to anyone who has ever been booed at a karaoke night.
“The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock,” by David Weigel, (Norton)
From Yes and Genesis through Rush and Porcupine Tree, Weigel sketches the history of progressive rock. The stories include a prog-rock cruise – yes, there is such a thing –and crowdfunding for a Marillion tour. With the eye of a fan, Weigel explores the music that Rolling Stone once called “the deliciously decadent genre that punks failed to kill.”
“Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop, From Elvis to Jay-Z,” edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar, (Library of America)
A collection of essays by some of the country's most esteemed rock scribes, spanning more than 50 years. Notable entries include Nat Hentoff's liner notes for “The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan” (1963); “The Best of Acappella” by guitarist Lenny Kaye (1969); and Elijah Wald's “Say You Want a Revolution …,” on how the Beatles ended, not launched, an era of music (2009).
“Spiders from Mars: My Life with David Bowie” by Woody Woodmansey (St. Martin's Press)
Woodmansey, who was in Bowie's the Spiders from Mars group from 1969-73, is the last surviving member of the band. The drummer is prone to overwrought pronouncements – “The whole idea of being subversive through rock music started with (Bowie),” he writes – but the stories included are often riveting. Woodmansey's observations on how the late musician's personality changed are particularly poignant.
“The History of Rock & Roll: Volume One¸1920-1963,” by Ed Ward (Flatiron Books)
Ward, the rock historian on NPR's “Fresh Air,” traces the origins of rock music with an eye for the unexpected, starting with the black vaudeville singer Mamie Smith in 1920. This volume ends with the Beatles' 1963 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show, but along the way there are priceless stories about the Flame Show Bar in Detroit, which hosted Duke Ellington and Ruth Brown; how Carl Perkins was initially turned away from Sun Records; and how regional acts such as Slim Harpo in Baton Rouge and Barbara Lynn in Houston became minor stars.
“From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars,” By Virginia Halon Grohl (Seal Press)
Before they were famous musicians, they were precocious kids being raised by mothers who warned them about the perils of drugs, reinforced the importance of education, and made sure their school lunches were packed. Virginia Hanlon Grohl (Dave Grohl's mom) tracked down mothers to talk how they raised their talented offspring. Included are conversations with Patsy Noah (Adam Levine), Mary Weinrib (Geddy Lee), Verna Griffin (Dr. Dre) and Val Matthews (Dave Matthews). The most powerful stories are Grohl's interview with Amy Winehouse's mother, Janis Winehouse, and how she dealt with her son's grief in the wake of the suicide of Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl's bandmate in Nirvana.
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.