A roundup of some of fall's top rock-lit releases.
Wrecking Crew: The Really Bad News Griffith Park Pirates
While Lou Reed might sing of rock's redemptive power, here it's America's favorite pastime that reaches out to provide not only a connective tissue for the disassociated, but a sort of saving grace. After having their collective hearts broken by that holy trinity of misspent youth-sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll-author John Albert (erstwhile heroin addict and player in both Christian Death and Bad Religion), Dave Navarro's cousin Johnny (looking for love in all the wrong strip clubs) and former Lifter frontman Mike Coulter (major label deal gone wrong) dared to peel away the irony and don honest-to-god uniforms to compete in an amateur Los Angeles recreation league-a field, for most, of final refuge. They were joined by a motley assortment of baseball-infected pals (including one English-challenged Japanese pitcher and one cross-dressing catcher). With this cast of characters, the path, though often narrow, is rarely straight. Highs and lows (both literal and figurative) seesaw like a lead change at Coors Field, and resulting relapses roll like sharply hit grounders through a drawn-in infield. But baseball fan or not, there's nothing more American than rooting for the underdog, and there's plenty to cheer for here.
Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix
Charles R. Cross
The 35th anniversary of Jimi Hendrix's sudden death came and went with little fanfare (Sept. 18, for those of you keeping score at home), yet the recently released Room Full of Mirrors, timed to Hendrix's passing, is certainly the "big" rock bio of the season. And while there are already enough Hendrix manuscripts out there to start a bonfire (quick-name a Hendrix relative, friend or lover who hasn't penned a perspective), Charles Cross' take is, in all likelihood, the most objective and well-researched of the pile. As with the author's Kurt Cobain bio Heavier Than Heaven, the narrative takes its roots in more than 300 interviews conducted with those who crossed paths with the guitar hero during his scant 27 years on earth. But given the wealth of Hendrix verbiage already published, little is revealed that hasn't at least been touched on before. One exception might be the detail devoted to Hendrix's indescribably difficult childhood. The first-born son of alcoholic parents who eventually turned four of their six children over to the state, Hendrix was passed between family and friends until high school. Throughout, his primary possession was his ability to dream. He played air guitar on a borrowed broom, and when he was finally given a six-string (though his first was missing five) he carried the instrument everywhere he went and slept with it on his chest. But outside a few awkward chapter-ending grasps at the poetic ("Hours after he left the site, the festival stage roof still smoldered, a small reminder of a meteoric rise and incendiary career"), Cross' prose is straightforward and stolid, set on separating fact from rumor, and little equipped to reveal the mystery of Hendrix's obvious gifts.
Saint Morrissey: A Portrait of This Charming Man by an Alarming Fan
As the subtitle suggests, Simpson's Saint Morrissey (previously published in England) is as far from Cross' objective take as one can imagine. In his opening salvo the author writes, "Morrissey was the last, greatest, and most gravely worrying product of an era when pop music was all there was and all anyone could want." Simpson discovers the mysterious singer not on the radio, but on Brit TV Channel 4, and he's immediately smitten. "He'd singled me out," the author writes, and the stage is, as they say, set. Simpson soon finds himself in Manchester, the land of Morrissey, out of college and "on the dole," frustratingly fixated on this "blousy madman." Though the author furiously introduces Camus, Sartre and Susan Sontag, equates Britain's Northern working class and the American black experience, and touches upon the singer's fixations with Oscar Wilde and James Dean in attempt to lend gravitas to Morrissey's standing as a pop icon, it's the innumerable, often contradictory pull quotes from Morrissey interviews past that buttress Simpson's likely unintentional thesis-that Morrissey belongs to us all because, in his impenetrability, he belongs to none of us.
One of the most interesting innovations in recent rock lit has been the arrival of Continuum's 33 1/3 series-brightly colored tomes both portable (the back pocket of your Levi's should do nicely) and affordable (less than $10). With a one-shot-only stable of critics, musicians (including Joe Pernice and Colin Meloy) and academics covering one album apiece, the writers' yield to date has often been as individualistic and idiosyncratic as the music that inspired them. The most recent batch (volumes 24 through 27) features Hugo Wilcken on David Bowie's Low, Don McLeese on MC5's Kick out the Jams and Eliot Wilder's lengthy interview with Josh Davis (aka DJ Shadow) to convey Endtroducing ... But the
volume of broadest appeal has to be Geoffrey Himes' take on Born in the U.S.A. Certainly Springsteen's music has garnered more print than any rock star this side of Bob Dylan (and even inspired a recent academic conclave sponsored by Penn State), so there's probably nothing left to say, right? Well, Himes makes the case that when "the future of rock 'n' roll" recorded the title cut of his seventh album, "it was the finest four and a half minutes Bruce Springsteen ever spent in a recording studio." Of course even nonconverts to the church of Springsteen know that U.S.A. doesn't even make the top three of Boss long-players (the correct answer, by the way, is Darkness on the Edge of Town). And Himes relies too often on both the rhetorical ("But where was this there? When was this tomorrow?") and the casual conjecture ("Springsteen must have leaned back in his chair and pondered") in making his argument. But never let it be said-like a drunk attempting to consume his weight in pickled eggs to win a bar bet-that folly isn't entertainment. Sometimes you got to stick around just in case he pulls it off.
Who would've thought Greg Dulli would ever put out a record all about innocence? This is the man who began his final Afghan Whigs album with lines like, "I want you so bad, after tonight/ I'll never walk the same/ And you're to blame." The same dude who opened his first Twilight Singers album with, "Rock steady, baby, your man is dead/ Be careful, sugar, who you call a friend." The very guy who grew so intoxicated with the headiness of New Orleans that he sculpted an entire album, the Whigs' swan song 1965, around the city's legendary grime and sex, now all but washed away. It was in 2001 in this booze-and-sweat-soaked euphoria that Dulli recorded the nine songs that comprise Amber Headlights, a 31-minute paean to the unseemly joy of seedy, balls-out rock 'n' roll. Amber is brooding, wild and sexy-yet absent the real darkness that would settle in just two days after Dulli recorded the album's closer, when his friend, director Ted Demme, suddenly died of a heart attack in January 2002. Amber Headlights was subsequently shelved, and Dulli's two Twilight Singers records that followed-Blackberry Belle and the all-covers She Loves You-were among the most haunting works he's ever released. In comparison, Amber sounds positively upbeat. Frequent Twilight Singers collaborators-guitarist Jon Skibic, keyboardist Mathias Schneeberger and bassist Michael Sullivan, among others-are all over the joint. Whigs bassist John Curley even stops by for the melodic "Pussywillow." The harmonium-based "Wicked" sounds like a Screaming Trees tribute, no doubt an influence of Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, with whom Dulli's recently been recording and touring. The solo-piano closing hymn "Get the Wheel" is the album's most tortured track, with its scratchy, cracking vocals and naked, plodding chords. (The song was recently used to heartbreaking effect in the closing moments of the season finale of Denis Leary's FX drama Rescue Me. Demme, Leary and Dulli all dined together the night "Get the Wheel" was recorded.) We know how the story ends-Demme dies, Dulli's music finds yet darker devils, and his city of muse drowns under the levees' breach-making "Get the Wheel" an eerie foreshadowing, and ironically making the rest of Amber Headlights sound like the most innocent, carefree tunes he's ever recorded. A (Jeffrey Barg)