How wonderful it must be to be able to make music! Nothing is more evocative in our lives. Have you ever been walking down the street, and just for a moment, you catch a bit of a song that suddenly reminds you of a loved one, a special occasion, home? It doesn’t even have to be a sentimental tune. If I hear “Purple People Eater,” suddenly it’s 1958; my little sister is dancing around the living room wearing a red plastic pail as a hat, and my mom is clapping her hands and laughing.
I can never listen to Carole King’s “So Far Away” without tears in my eyes. It represents so much; friends and family we miss, lost love, words that should have been spoken, but never were. King writes from her heart in A NATURAL WOMAN, just as she does in the songs she composes. There was a time, not so long ago, when her album “Tapestry” was owned by nearly everyone who listened to music. In fact, of her twenty-five solo albums, it remains by far the best selling, and it achieved the distinction of being the album by a female singer to remain on the charts the longest. King owns four Grammies, and is in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the “Hit Parade” Hall of Fame. Here, she tells of her beginning as a shy girl from Brooklyn; her experiences as a young bride and mother; and her relationships with the men and musicians she’s known.
RJ Smith’s THE ONE: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF JAMES BROWN tells it like it is, to borrow a phrase from my generation. Called “the Godfather of Soul” and “the hardest working man in show business,” Brown was a complicated, and often not very likeable, man. But reading what he had to say about music is fascinating. He describes the concept of “the one” as a type of beat with roots in slave rebellion and New Orleans funeral parades, played on the upbeat. According to Brown, “The upbeat is rich, the downbeat is poor. Stepping up proud only happens on the aggressive ‘One,’ not the passive Two, and never on the low downbeat. In the end, it’s not about music- it’s about life.”
Buddy Guy is a legend among aficionados of the blues guitar. Along with David Rife, this seventy-five year old reflects on his very eventful life in WHEN I LEFT HOME. Guy was born into the poorest of circumstances in Louisiana; as a young man, he followed the sound of the blues to the mean streets of Chicago, where he now owns the South Side club called Legends. It’s hard for us to really understand to what degree this child of sharecroppers had his life changed by electricity being brought into his home; not because of the obvious benefits, but because he could listen to the phonograph. When he got his first $4.35 two-stringed guitar, Guy’s journey to greatness began. Eventually, he worked with and knew all the greats of his day, including Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, and Jeff Beck. If any more proof of his importance is needed, consider the fact that Keith Richards, out of admiration, gave Guy his own beloved guitar. This memoir is told with humor and a natural wit that makes it a very entertaining read, even for those who know nothing about the blues.
TALKING TO GIRLS ABOUT DURAN DURAN is Rob Sheffield’s homage to the music of the ‘80’s, and his own teenage years. Sheffield is a pop culture columnist for “Rolling Stone;” along with his infectiously entertaining easy-going style, he has a vast knowledge of songs from what’s been called “the decade that taste forgot.” Along with the humor is a certain wistfulness for the days when Sheffield was growing up in Boston, a shy Catholic boy who desperately wanted to be, like Ton Luc, “down with the ladies.” Still fascinated by hair-metal bands, Sheffield ponders how the “Epoch of Bogus” has somehow evolved into “The Apex of Awesome.”
Music historian Robert Greenberg invites us to learn HOW TO LISTEN TO GREAT MUSIC. Music, Greenberg tells us, is “sound in time.” He strongly feels that to truly appreciate an artist’s work, we must understand the time in which he/she lived, which creates a historical context. Greenberg offers a unique perspective, including the idea that what we commonly call “classical music” should more rightly be termed “concert music.” This is an excellent book for those who truly want to learn more about composers, musical terms, and how what we listen to effects our lives.
So be it pop, rock, soul, jazz or classical- sorry, concert- music, there’s something for everyone in this current crop of books.
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist and an avowed bibliophile. She writes extensively about music, both in print and online; she covers musicals, opera, and concerts of every stripe. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. Michall is a voting member of National Book Critics Circle. www.michalljeffers.com