It seems like I’ve been reading a lot of books about music recently, so instead of doing individual reviews, I thought I’d clump them all together.
A Light That Never Goes Out by Tony Fletcher
This is a biography of The Smiths that we picked up last Christmas on a whim (yes, we still browse bookstores, as quaint as that may seem). I was a huge fan of The Smiths back in the 80’s, to the point of being almost a walking stereotype: wearing all black clothes, moping around wherever I went. They provided the soundtrack to my adolescent angst as if it were a John Hughes movie.
Fletcher’s history of the band is well-written enough, and I definitely learned some things that I hadn’t known before about the behind-closed-doors madness of dealing with record labels and tours without a proper manager. However, Fletcher is a bit too precious about trying to explain the music, both the possible origins of various lyrics and the rhythmic/tonal evolution of the band. This probably comes from his background as a record reviewer, but as a fan, I don’t need someone else to interpret the music for me, or characterize it. I already have a history with all of those songs. The context is what’s valuable, and reading about the various intersections with other groups in the Manchester scene, as well as the major players in the not-quite scene (not quite new wave, not quite alternative, not quite pop) was interesting.
For a hardcore Smiths fan, I’d probably recommend looking for other versions of this history (which Fletcher, to his credit, acknowledges) that focus more on events and characters and less on musical interpretation. If you’re not already a Smiths fan, don’t even bother.
Mo’ Meta Blues by ?uestlove
I’ve never really given the Roots their due. It takes me a long time to discover new music; I have to live with it for a while. Even my favorite artists and songs often turn me off on first listen, and it’s not until I get past the newness that I start to see the genius in it. The Roots started blowing up right when my exploratory phase was shutting down, so I’ve never put in the time.
Nevertheless, ?uestlove is an interesting writer. The book ranges widely, by design, from musical influences and family dynamics to performing and DJ’ing to social/cultural analysis and critique. His experiences growing up in Philadelphia as a Black man in a family that plays music together professionally are about as far away from my own experiences growing up in a small town in Florida with parents who were academics, but while I miss a number of references and connections, the story he tells is still compelling to me. The most fun, and unexpected, part of the whole history is his long, enduring love for Prince. It’s one of those moments where I wish I were more knowledgeable about music, because there is clearly a strong connection there based around the art and craft of making music, but it’s beyond me.
Overall, the book is lighthearted (even in its serious moments) and an easy read. If you’re already into ?uestlove or the Roots, you’ll dig it. It’s also an interesting cultural critique, but if you’re not familiar with him, check out his series of articles on hip-hop from New York Magazine. They will give you a taste of his writing style, and if that trips your trigger, you’ll love this book.
How Music Works by David Byrne
This was a present from my brother-in-law, a composer and professor of music. I keep expressing to him how much I would love to be able to understand music the way he does, so he gave me this book.
The thing that surprised me was how broadly synthetic Byrne’s thinking is. How Music Works isn’t a textbook, but it does include a history of musical contexts, reflections on various philosophical and critical takes on music, explorations of technology’s impact on music, and an overview of the money machine behind the music, among other things. Each of the chapters has a particular theme, but like a complex composition, there are also call-backs and references, crossover melodies that run throughout the book. Obviously, Byrne’s personal history with Talking Heads, CBGB’s, and the world music explosion come up with some regularity, but this is not a book about fan service. Most of the straight-up autobiography fits into about a chapter and a half. Rather, Byrne is exploring (with the reader in tow) a broad range of perspectives on music, often putting his thumb on one side of the scales in an argument, but presenting multiple perspectives. My two favorite chapters were the one about creating an arts “scene” and the one where he lays out the business and money-flow of various publishing models in the music business.
I was never a huge fan of Talking Heads – I mean, I knew their pop side, but didn’t really dive deeply into the albums – but found this book to be charming and enlightening. It takes some patience to get far enough into the book to see where Byrne is going, but if you give it the benefit of the doubt, it will reward you.
Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division by Peter Hook
I’ve saved my personal favorite for last. If you’re not interested in Joy Division, New Order, and the Manchester scene, you probably won’t like this book, but I’m into all three and loved it.
Hook gives both a personal history and his own version of events and personalities around the scene. His perspective is front and center throughout the stories, because he is unapologetic about speaking from his own experience. This can be funny and playful, as he jabs Bernard Sumner throughout the book by referring to him as Barney (a pet peeve of Sumner’s, apparently), but it can also be solemn and almost tragic, as when he discusses his own silence and willful ignorance about Ian Curtis’ struggles. He can be ruthless with other people, but he’s also ruthless with himself, and then he’ll turn and be conciliatory and gentle. This is not a historical story for Hook, it’s personal, and his voice as a writer conveys a charming authenticity – flawed, human, weak, but also daring, inspired, and passionate.
If you already know the history of the Manchester scene and the Hacienda, a lot of this will be old hat, but even knowing what I did, I found Hook’s perspective to not only shed new light, but it also helped humanize that time for me; it helped me to see the people behind the events, and that is, in its own way, priceless.
I do find it interesting that of the four books, the three written by musicians were more enjoyable than the one written by a professional writer. Your mileage may vary, of course.