Just like the year's new records, 1998's rock-and-roll reading found small pleasures in unexpected places, while the much-touted "big events" were ushered in with a resounding plop that echoed throughout the lavatory. As we've been doing every year since, ah, okay, 1999, New Times will forgo the usual best and worst lists, opting instead to hand out awards to books of special merit. As always the picks acknowledge both the good and the Anthony DeCurtis.
Most extraordinarily well-written and researched book no one wants to read:
Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick
Even if Elvis doesn't mean shit to you, the first installment of Guralnick's epic Presley bio is a fascinating read and a convincing argument that his early music was holy text. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for this tome, part two in a series covering the post-Army years, Hollywood, and, of course, the Vegas decline in excruciating detail, pill by pill. Round about page 431 you'll be screaming, "Enough already!" There are 300 pages after that. (Note: Official publication date is this month, but because it was already in stores in December, we'll call it a '98 book.)
Zoot Horn Rollo's Captain Beefheart Experience by Bill Harkleroad with Billy James
A tour/studio journal chronicling the Magic Band's adventures during the making of masterpieces such as Trout Mask Replica. Alas, there are no heroes anymore: This book supports the sad but inescapable conclusion that Captain Beefheart was an asshole.
Best book about a lame band:
The Phish Book by Richard Gehr and Phish
In the era of alternative, the "fan book" became as cheap and disposable as the music it detailed. This tome hearkens back to better days, combining a lavish old-fashioned homage (à la Armando Gallo's Genesis book I Know What I Like) and obsessive studio log. Damn shame the group it covers sucks so much.
Least ecstatic book about ecstasy and rave culture:
Generation Ecstasy by Simon Reynolds
Professor Simon covers all the bases, from the music's origins on the isle of Ibiza to the giant "Furthur" rave in Hixton, Wisconsin, while arguing that techno is a totally new art form that cannot be judged via "rockist" terms (i.e., "artists" who record interesting "albums" full of good "songs"). Uh, "no." But the biggest problem is that ol' Simon never has any fun: He don't dance, and in a million years, you'd never find him in a Cat in the Hat chapeau.
The get over yourself award:
Rocking My Life Away: Writing About Music and Other Matters by Anthony DeCurtis
(Duke University Press)
The "best" of former Rolling Stone record-reviews editor DeCurtis features not only a Warhol-style painting of the author on the front cover, but a huge photo of Chrome Dome on the back. Never liked the guy and never will, so don't take my word on this one. Here's an excerpt from a notice about the book in Kirkus Review: "Critically generous, slightly boring essays." Mmmm, sounds like good readin', don't it?
The author is a self-described "full-time culture-vulture and critic." The book is a mix of rehashed record-company bios and profiles of great chicks through the ages, and reads like a term paper for a Womyn's Studies class. Did you know that Sarah McLachlan's contributions rank with those of Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks? No? Well, you must be a man then.
Heaviest, man, heaviest award:
The Portable Henry Rollins by Henry Rollins
Allow me to quote one untitled poem in its entirety: "She was raped by her uncle/Her father left home/For another man/She is confused/She is sixteen."
Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists from Vaudeville to Techno by Robert Christgau
(Harvard University Press)
The "dean of American rock critics" can be amusing, insightful, and/or ponderous in his 150-word Consumer Guide capsules. In the essays collected here he's just ponderous.
A Night Without Armor: Poems by Jewel
"In my belly is a gold fish/I swallowed it and kept it there/I sing to it, and can feel it wiggle/When it especially likes the tune/Brahms makes it do back flips of glee."
Wherein you will find dozens of pictures of her late hubby Fred "Sonic" Smith and new boytoy Oliver Ray -- with appropriately overwrought mythologizing of both -- but only one scant mention of old boyfriend Allen Lanier, a key collaborator and early inspiration, and no hint at all of her rock-critic past. Oh, of course: It's a selective "complete."
Best book about a marginal and boring genre that's reluctant to admit it's marginal, boring, and not really a genre:
No Depression: An Introduction to Alternative Country Music, Whatever That Is edited by Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock
This book begins with an introduction that notes: "We have fought hard not to define the music we write about." Hey, just what everybody wants in a music book!