Rock 'n' roll biographies - dispatches from the front line

23:59, Nov 26 2012

The two things musicians like to do most are play music and talk about music. This column is a testament to that.

Give me a piano or a blank page and there is potential for shape shifting.

Currently there are more books about music being published than at any time I can remember. Musicians talking about music is de rigueur.

There are biographies about Neil Young, Patti Smith, Mick Jagger and a host of other 1960s and 1970s rock musicians.

There is even an austere but riveting book, How Music Works from Talking Heads' David Byrne.

The golden age of rock is being romanticised. The original architects of popular culture are now ageing. Like old campaigners their stories contain compelling insights into their roles as musicians and taste makers.


The new batch of music bios is a windfall for Amazon and it is excellent news for music buffs. The coollest thing about the rise and rise of music writing is that reading is back in town.

Last year I wrapped myself in baby-boomer memories reading autobiographies from Eric Burdon, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton and once again I skimmed Bob Dylan's tome Chronicles from 2004 - a brilliant door stopper if ever there was one.

I also inhaled two books about the making of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue album which gave new insights into be-bop jazz culture. Not to mention Carole King's excellent memoir.

Sometimes I think I should get out more. But why would I want to leave Dovedale to attend an also-ran gig when I can now listen to so much free, streamed music online and I can check out so many good books about the most important musicians of our times?

Humans read because they don't have tails to wag. There are few things more pleasurable in summertime than lying in the shade and devouring a book about a favourite musician while their music is playing in the iPod buds.

Like music albums, books about music can be hit and miss. I could have tossed Burdon's ego-driven drivel into the waste basket (but I couldn't stop reading) and the portrayal of Clapton as a country squire who made his millions posturing as an authentic blues musician left me cold (but he is still a guitar God).

On the other hand reading Byrne's How Music Works gives wonderful insights into psycho acoustics and he contributes intelligently to the analogue versus digital music debate.

Reading the inside story on the Rolling Stones' highs and lows, direct from Richards' mouth, and savouring the extraordinary accounts of Miles' 1960s recording sessions has led me back to my vinyl collection and to Spotify.

I want to listen to the music again.

Our best musicians are great thinkers and storytellers.

Their books are dispatches from the cultural front line and remind us that behind every artist's journey there is a human story. And that's the reason we listen to music in the first place.