Thursday, December 31, 2015

Dylan, Elvis, Otis & Sam's Stories

If I am finally too old to rock and roll (at least without risking major joint replacement), I can still celebrate the glories of musical yester-years thanks to the printed word. If 2015 is not the year of the book in music, it comes close. It might be easier to list the aging rocker who has not had a biography published than it is to itemize the new ones.

Recent arrivals have come from Tom Jones, Carrie Brownstein, Chrissie Hynde, Carly Simon, Tom Petty, Kim Gordon and Elvis Costello. Patti Smith has three volumes in rotation: Her award-winning memoir, “Just Kids,” a book of collected lyrics and a new personal history, “M Train.”

Dylan gets this year’s prize for the biggest volume. “Bob Dylan: All The Songs” by Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guersdon may be the definitive encyclopedia (the story behind every song) but you will need to build a bigger coffee table to support it.
 It follows others this year, “Dylan goes Electric,” “61 Highways Revisited” (the albums), “Dylan Disc by Disc” and “Time Out of Mind.”

 If you are a fan, there is a book for you that adds some history and certainly extends the brand, if not the musical repertoire. I have a couple on my to-read list for the New Year. One is Mark Ribowsky’s biography of Otis Redding, “Dreams To Remember” with a chewy subtitle: Otis Redding, Stax Records and the Transformation of Southern Soul . Next is a holdover from last year, the strange saga of “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story” by Rick Bragg.

Topping the list is Peter Guarlnick’s latest with what may be the most presumptuous title ever. “Sam Philips: The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll.” But wait, there is more: “And how he discovered Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and how his tiny label, Sun Records of Memphis, revolutionized the world.” Not many besides Guarlnick can make that stick but from what I have heard (NPR’s Fresh Air) and read (The New Yorker), he has the interviews and anecdotes to back it up. What’s even better is the book comes with a companion CD so he’s put his spin on which of these classic songs were lighting the fires of music revolution.

Finally the other eminent historian of this genre, Greil Marcus, issued a two-pack this year: On the 40th anniversary of the classic “Mystery Train,” he has a new edition. That was followed by the paperback release of “The History of Rock & Roll in Ten Songs.”

It’s nice to have a New Year’s Dilemma: Do I read?  Or listen?


  1. Listen first.
    If Sam Phillips did not invent Rock and Roll he was it's first producer and exponent.
    Thanks for winding me up for a trip to the bookstore.
    Cheers…rock until the legs get tired, then read.