'Fade away and radiate," once coohed a fast-burning Debbie Harry, raising the rock & roll torch at the mythic credo of many a rock star. But music's "live-forever" premise might only be a puff of false bravado were it not for the postscripted tomes of biography that lace context into often momentary influences. Hindsight, after all, is the most convenient form of eternal life available.
This summer brings a plethora of such tributes, ranging from highbrow cultural excavation to pop-culture train-wreck rattles. Music criticism, after all, is a mixed bag of both reverence and irreverence. At best, its producers are the method actors of our time, immersing themselves in the relics and souvenirs of misunderstood lives, and fortifying their stories with surprise interviews and insights. At worst (and therefore, sometimes at best) they are wickedly off-base vanity exercises, littered with little fact and much egregious overstatement. Not unlike music itself, really.
In "Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters" (Little Brown, $25.95), Robert Gordon illuminates the murky path of one the universally heralded figures of the blues movement. An impressively relevant foreword by Rolling Stone Keith Richards (the Stones, after all, pulled their moniker from a Muddy song) opens the door to what becomes a sprawling account of the South during the racial unrest of the mid-20th century, while exhaustively capturing the essence of the music itself. One story of Muddy's early days, spent working in the fields and crowing, rings with the singer-guitarist's insight into the origins of a music.
"You might call them blues but they was just made-up things," Muddy recalls. "Like a feller be working or most likely some gal be working near and you want to say something to 'em. So you holler it. Sing it. ... Or it's getting late and you wanna go home. I was always singing just the way I felt."
The personal history makes for a compelling read. Muddy was originally named McKinley A. Morganfield, but was renamed by his mother to scare him away from the marshy waters that mysteriously swallowed his older sister. When his soon-to-be producer Alan Lomax first came around to hear him perform, Muddy was afraid Lomax was there to arrest him for whiskey bootlegging.
As Gordon recounts it, Muddy, who rarely broached the subject of race relations, was quizzed in the 1940s by a Southern journalist about discrimination. Sensing a sympathizer, the blues master leaned into his ear and said, "I think they'll probably learn. About 40,000 years from now, maybe they'll learn better."
With a legend like his, Muddy Waters may well still be remembered when that final day of learning comes.
Chet Baker's difficult position in jazz history and, indeed, popular culture is tackled with equal intensity in James Gavin's "Deep In a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker" (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95). An attractive nighttime swoon in a James Dean way, Baker never really got his musical due, a fact that Gavin tirelessly seeks to correct.
Baker modeled his career after the legendary Charlie "Bird" Parker, whose self-destruction became romanticized in Baker's ambitions. "After Parker's death, Baker used the Bird legend to mythologize himself," reports Gavin. "Sometime in the '60s, Baker started telling an apocryphal tale about his 'discovery' by Parker, a story he honed for the rest of his life."
Falsified history aside, Baker's emotive chaneling, through both saxophone and voice, became a bona fide phenomenon through the premature peak of his career. Eventual forays into heroin and jet-set apathy sealed his fate, but the myth of Chet Baker -- with a talent that was never to be fully realized -- raises Gavin's sympathetic reconstruction into a true American tragedy.
Kicking off with a prologue direct from Baker's 1988 funeral, Gavin captures the essence of the artist's legacy perfectly, citing erroneous and scathing obituaries in the American press, while recounting the desperate and painful eulogies of those who came to mourn him.
As one of his mourners put it, "After all is said and done, Chettie was so gifted and so magical that what he gave out he could never, ever get back."
The real tragedy in Ken Geringer's "Nobody Told Me: From Basement Band to Jack and the John Lennon Sessions" (Hipway Press, $24.95) happens to be Geringer himself. Stuffed with accounts of people you probably don't care about (most of all, Geringer himself), "Nobody" attempts to be an "Almost Famous" narrative of musical proximity: session work, roadie gear, club promotion, etc. All of which might be engaging if there was actually a story to tell ... or somebody more eloquent to tell it.
Little Geringer was a bad seed in the suburbs of New York -- skipping class and dabbling in LSD. He ran away from home, found his way into an experimental school where Grateful Dead shows were a class, and eventually became charmed by Jimi Hendrix's "Smash Hits." Most of Geringer's tales of hobnobbing are reasonably insignificant (he played drums in a band with Bob Marley's sister), and some are of doubtful veracity. (He claims to have coined the phrase "Walk this Way" for Aerosmith, while directing the boys to walk a certain way.)
Things culminate in a self-righteous anti-censorship conflagration involving Broward County sheriff Nick Navarro and Luther Campbell's 2 Live Crew performance, set at a nightclub owned by Geringer. All of this is delivered in a mealy mouthed cab-driver bravado, suited far better for a pizza parlor than for a cloth-bound text. Still, it's fun to make fun.
It's fun to make fun of rock stars in general, as proven by John D. Luerssen's "Mouthing Off" (The Telegraph Co., $14.95), a collection of arbitrary rock & roll quotes assembled from magazine clippings. Clearly a toilet read, the book still offers the occasional charm of misplaced importance:
"I'm driven, I am. I'm driven for some reason. But I don't know where I'm going," frothed Courtney Love in 1992.
"I'm just bursting on the scene like a pathetic, gold-plated sperm," offered Beck in 1994.
Then there's Eminem in 2000. "Mushrooms make me too fucking giggly. I just laugh at everything. I don't like to laugh too much."
And what would rock & roll be without drugs, dear Courtney, Beck and Em? Dominic Streatfeild attempts the daunting task of a drug history in "Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography" (St. Martin's Press, $27.95), an amazing, even hilarious, account of the celebrated narcotic from its origins. Streatfeild carries his distinctly British wit into what could be a dire story, even chewing on coca leaves himself for journalistic authenticity.
"It gradually dawned on me that I might just have bitten off more than I could chew," he says at the beginning. "Because the story of cocaine telescopes horribly."
That telescoping is accounted brilliantly in a tale filled with both research and immersion, leading from Christopher Columbus through Sigmund Freud, and all the way up to the modern-day crack house. It's a first-person narrative of the discovery of a history that's lasted longer than anybody knows, and will continue farther than anybody can expect. Along the way, cocaine has been blamed for interracial marriage, promiscuity, even bisexuality -- and the comedy of assumptions keeps this text from ever venturing into polemics.
And nothing -- but nothing -- spells "live forever" in the annals of music like cocaine does.