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Derek Flynn’s Best Music Books of 2012

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By Derek Flynn

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In the tradition of the “Best-of-the Year” polls that we always see this time of year, I’ve decided to take a look at the “Best Music Books of 2012”. Having done an exhaustive and highly unscientific search of some of the year’s top “Best-of” lists (Rolling Stone magazine, the Guardian, and others), I’ve compiled six books that seem to be getting the most critical acclaim this year.

It’s been a bumper year for rock autobiographies this year and they seem to have ranged from soul-searching to hell-raising.

In Who I Am, Pete Townshend has written what Rolling Stone calls “a painful, but amazing, journey”, which The Independent says “reveals a man as angry as his stage antics suggest.” While it may not be easy reading (The Guardian says that he scrutinises his past “with such relentless candour that you wonder if you should be billing him by the hour”) it does sound fascinating.

Another book that sounds fascinating is Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace. The notoriously cantankerous Young is never one to do things the straightforward way and it sounds like this holds true for his autobiography as well. The Independent compares it to “an over-long guitar solo, shot through with genius”; The Telegraph says “Young proves a warm and engaging narrator, amiably rambling through a kind of lateral memoir strung together from insightful digressions that have a tendency to follow their own wayward path, rather like one of his Crazy Horse guitar solos, replete with unapologetic bum notes”; and The Guardian says, “Reading Waging Heavy Peace is like taking a road trip with a hippie version of Grampa Simpson as he randomly expounds on the 1960s, his favourite guitars, and his doomed attempt to invent a car that runs on water.”

On the superficial and frothy end of things is Rod by Rod Stewart, which The Telegraph says “is laugh-out-loud funny – an unapologetically superficial and entertaining romp through 50 years of bad behaviour” in which Rod – amongst many other naughty antics – narrowly avoids wife-swapping with Mick Jagger (Mick offered, Rod declined). Although, given the amount of wives Rod he’s had, you’d hardly think he’d miss one.

Back on the more serious end of the spectrum is I’m Your Man, Sylvie Simmons’ biography of Leonard Cohen. The Independent calls it “a brilliant study – contextualised, critical, annotated” and The Guardian says, “Like her subject, Simmons loves language, hates cliché and takes her time. Written with Cohen’s blessing, enabling access to his friends, collaborators and muses, it recreates long-gone incidents with such vigour that you’d swear Simmons was there at the time, sitting in the corner and taking notes.”

Bruce Springsteen is someone who has had many books published about him, and yet, it seems we don’t really know that much about him beyond the obvious biographical stuff. Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin attempts to correct that. The Independent points out that “Carlin enjoyed rare co-operation from his subject” and “his dogged digging reveals Springsteen in 3D, foibles and all.” Rolling Stone says, “Springsteen, his family, the E Street Band and various ex-girlfriends talked to Carlin, who ended up with a rounded portrait of one of rock’s most important figures – who, it turns out, might not always be an easy guy to work for. Even the most obsessive Bruce tramps will find surprises throughout.”

And, finally, a book that The Telegraph calls “the finest music book of the year”: How Music Works by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. “Handsomely bound, beautifully printed, wittily illustrated, it would make a beautiful collector’s item but there is much more going on between the covers. This is digressive and chatty, part memoir, part theoretical investigation, bursting with a sense of free-flowing curiosity as the author roams from the primitive origins of music to the implications of Madonna’s recording contract. Byrne drives you back to the source and helps you hear things from a fresh perspective.” Byrne has always been at the cutting edge of music – whether in Talking Heads or solo – and, in this book, The Guardian says, “he’s interested in politely dismantling ideas of authorship, authenticity and solitary genius. Moving with Gladwellian fluency between sweeping theories and pinpoint examples, he explains how music is shaped by external factors: technology, location, economics, happenstance. In its crisp, unfussy way it might change the way you think about music.”

If you’ve received book tokens for Christmas, or a just looking for a great read for the New Year  – take your pick!

Read Derek Flynn’s interview with Josh Ritter here and follow his thoughts on his own blog Rant with Occasional Music, or right here on writing.ie at the Song Book blog




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