Fall Guide 2012: Books
'Luck or Something Like It'
By Kenny Rogers, October 2
Any worthwhile pop-star biography needs at least one of three elements: 1. It should be a story of great heights, depths, and revelations (Boy George's Take It Like a Man). 2. The tale should prove eccentric and trashy enough to hold any reader's interest (The Long Hard Road Out of Hell by Neil Strauss and Marilyn Manson). 3. In the highest-degree-of-difficulty category, a rock bio should have a compelling, lively prose style, a sense of story, and a distinct point of view (I, Tina by Tina Turner and Kurt Loder, in a purple-prose mood). Guess which of these Kenny Rogers does best? If you need a hint, remember how often narrative has informed both his songs ("The Gambler," "Coward of the County") and his studied "gentle patriarch" image.
In Luck, Rogers exploits his gift (or perhaps his ghostwriter's) for both euphemism—"He was . . . let's say, careful with his money," he says of one relative—and his skill at simultaneously describing and denying his early hardship. A typical comment about his dad: "Although his drinking certainly hurt him, I don't think it left any of his kids permanently damaged." Really? Most successfully, Rogers recounts innumerable down-home, hilarious, and self-deprecating tall tales. His senile grandpa, the frugal one, steals the tips that Kenny leaves in restaurants while on a short tour with the singer. Kenny's childhood hero, Eddy Arnold, has to give him an award but can't remember his name. Young Kenny becomes a cheerleader in order to impress a cheerleader, then drops her on the ground. Reading his anecdotes turns out to be far more pleasurable than listening to his music. William Morrow, 304 pp., $27.99
'Purpose: An Immigrant's Story'
By Wyclef Jean, with Anthony Bozza, September 18
Fusing self-aggrandizement and activism, the former Fugee frames his memoir of the band's success (and his ill-fated romance with Lauryn Hill) with the events following the devastating January 12, 2010, Haitian earthquake, though he stops short of making the disaster a metaphor for his hectic schedule. Instead, Jean emphasizes the speed and devotion with which his NGO, Yéle, got humanitarian aid on the ground and his relationships with Haitian-slum-kid rappers, crediting himself with energizing the kids' ambitions before they met their tragic ends. Then he explains, defensively, his side of the funding controversy surrounding Yéle, his bid to become president of Haiti, and how he arbitrated a truce between Haitian gangs and risked "three assassination attempts." He says a lot about God and the Bible and how great George Clooney and Oprah are. Is he Bono yet? It Books/HarperCollins, 288 pp., $26.99
By Philip Norman, October 2
In many ways, some of them obvious, Mick Jagger is the anti–Kenny Rogers. Unlike Rogers (as well as Courtney Love, Gregg Allman, and Neil Young this fall), he has no interest in an autobiography. According to Jagger's unauthorized biographer, Norman, who created a meticulous portrait of a Beatle (and former Beatle) in John Lennon: The Life (2008): "[Jagger] sees no percentage in telling the truth . . . even where it reflects most positively on himself. The millions are all in the mythology." So Norman has framed his intelligently written, novelistic bio as a quest to comprehend the inner life of the sphinx-like Rolling Stone, full of minute detail—Mick's mom wore lavender silk at her wedding, and initially "Mike" hated being called "Mick." The book also weaves in a chronology of Mick's girlfriends, which might account for its length. Ecco, 640 pp., $34.99
'Who I Am: A Memoir'
By Pete Townshend, October 8
This kid might not be alright. Recounting his long history as frontman of the Who, Pete Townshend's autobiography promises as electrifying a ride into pop excess as its probable progenitor, Keith Richards's Life. From the drugs to the guitar-smashing to the set destruction to the fatal concert stampede in Cincinnati to drummer Keith Moon's tragic death to bassist John Entwistle's cocaine-heart-attack death to Tommy's Broadway success to coming out as bisexual to—oh, right, there were a lot of great songs. Harper, 512 pp., $29.99
'Shall We Play That One Together? The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland'
By Paul de Barros, October 16
Marian McPartland, best known as the host of NPR's Piano Jazz, had beginnings as unlikely to make her a jazz legend as Mick Jagger's prep school past was to make him a rock star. Born near Windsor Castle and, like the Rolling Stone, hailing from Kent, McPartland was a classical pianist who joined a vaudeville act and toured with USO shows during World War II. She not only learned how to swing, but also how to institutionalize the genre after rock's popularity eclipsed jazz's in the 1960s. McPartland became a writer for Down Beat and an educator, and nurtured her radio show from 1978 to 2011, ending just after she became a dame of the OBE. St. Martin's Press, 496 pp., $35
'The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music: From Adele to Ziggy, the Real A to Z of Rock and Pop'
By Dylan Jones, October 30
The model here for Jones, GQ's U.K. editor, is David Thomson's massive classic A Biographical Dictionary of Film, an opinionated guide of cinematic career assessments first seen in 1975 and periodically updated. Armchair rock critics will initially get a lot of pleasure dissing Jones's outrageous subjectivity—nine pages on Michael Hutchence, 20 pages of Dean Martin, and no entry for PJ Harvey? His Anglocentrism perhaps leads him to underestimate the influence of R.E.M., Nirvana, and even James Brown, conserving higher praise for the Pet Shop Boys. But ignore the patriotism and settle into his quirkiness, and you can find some delightful, eccentric mini-essays to nibble on. His entry entitled "John Lennon & Yoko Ono" focuses primarily on the decor at the Dakota. Picador, 912 pp., $28
'The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars: Heroin, Handguns, and Ham Sandwiches' (Second Edition)
By Jeremy Simmonds, November 1
Granted, there have been two previous versions of this morbid look at the music business, first published in 2006 as Number One in Heaven and later updated with the new title in 2008. But the rash of shocking, untimely deaths since then, including Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, and Whitney Houston, certainly merits a "30 percent increase" in content, and in addition to the superstars, the heavenly roll call now details the demises of Heavy D, Lux Interior, and TV on the Radio bassist Gerard Smith. Simmonds manages to be thorough and reverent yet wry, pointing out, for example, the irony that Faith Evans and Puffy commemorated Biggie's unsolved murder by sampling a song by the Police. Chicago Review, 768 pp., $24.95
'All You Need to Know About the Music Business' (Eighth Edition)
By Donald S. Passman, December 4
Over the course of its editions, respected entertainment lawyer Passman's avuncular advice has told of a declining industry. This eighth version seems poised to hammer a wooden stake into the heart of the music biz. In the age of downloads legal and illegal, as well as the social-media frenzy, Passman finds himself asking whether musicians need or even want record deals, given that the spoils might be minuscule. When he describes the Byzantine tricks record companies use to keep from paying artists, even the most ambitious musician will no longer want one. Free Press, 480 pp., $32
By Beck, December 11
Beck's Song Reader means to one-better Trent Reznor's 2008 you-remix-it album The Slip in a low-tech, artisanal, steampunk way—it's a book of sheet music for 20 previously unreleased songs, with booklets and artwork galore, à la McSweeney's, its publisher. That's right, Beck wrote it, Guero artist Marcel Dzama drew many funky, antique-style illustrations for it, but you are going to play it. Too bad if you can't read sheet music—find a computer program to feed it into or an octogenarian piano teacher to plunk it out for you. Sadly, though, the possibilities for idiosyncratic mayhem and YouTube videos that this release could engender sound more exciting than the prospect of another OK Beck record. McSweeney's, 108 pp., $28
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