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Books of love, loss, rock and roll

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published 11/25/2012 12:00 AM
Updated 11/23/2012 12:25 PM
Musician biographies abound this holiday season

Who knows how it started? Maybe because Patti Smith won a National Book Award. Or perhaps because none other than Keith Richards actually penned his own memoirs - and they were in fact pretty great.

Suddenly, biographies and autobiographies of dozens of rock, pop, soul, rap, country and punk stars have materialized on bookstore shelves - just in time to cluster them all under the Music Fan's Christmas tree.

Here are the some of the artists included in this publishing tsunami: mondo-biggies such as John Lennon, Steven Tyler, Neil Young, Jimmy Page, Kenny Rogers, Freddie Mercury, Pete Townshend, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and Rod Stewart. Also: The Cars' Ric Ocasek, Wyclef Jean, Duran Duran bassist John Taylor, Scott Stapp, Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, R&B vocalist Bettye LaVette, the Waterboys' Mike Scott and Johnny Ramone.

Hey, even unanticipated figures you weren't sure could read in the first place have contributed: shredding metal guitarist Zakk Wylde.

In the interest of helping shoppers negotiate this onslaught, here are a few quick-hit capsules of a small but representative batch of titles.

Mercury - An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury" by Lesley-Ann Jones; Touchstone

What composer Andrew Rice thinks is the meaning behind Mercury's "Bohemian Rhapsody":

He believes the lyrics were Mercury's "coming out confession." When Freddie sings, "Mama, just killed a man," Rice thinks Mercury was referring to himself and the image of the old Freddie Mercury as straight.

They definitely didn't play "Killer Queen":

By his own request, when Mercury's body was delivered to the crematorium as the final part of his memorial service, a recording was played of the soprano Montserrat Caballe singing the aria "D'amor sull'ali rosee" from "Il Trovatore." Mercury, after all, studied opera and was a fan for life.

Give me great minutiae about the recording of "Queen II," the band's masterpiece!

Good luck with that. While the book is in-depth and revealing about the multi-faceted singer's personality and life, actual details for the curious music-head are lamentably scarce.

Kicking and Dreaming - A Story of HEART, Soul and Rock & Roll" by Ann and Nancy Wilson with Charles R. Cross; It Books

Hard to believe the little fellow could be so mean:

John Cougar (in his pre "Call me Mellencamp" days) was a real jerk to the Wilson sisters.

"Where'd you get that guitar, Eddie?"

It's true that, while Heart was staying in the same hotel as Van Halen, Nancy Wilson gave Eddie Van Halen the first acoustic guitar he'd ever owned - and it was her own fave ax that she pulled from the Heart equipment truck. Eddie - higher than the sun - stayed up all night using the instrument to write a complex suite for Nancy on his new guitar. He played the amazing piece for her over the phone - and no one's heard it since.

What is it with entitled Republicans?

The Wilson sisters were horrified to turn on the Republican National Convention in 2008 and learned Sarah Palin had appropriated - without permission, of course - their "Barracuda" as her theme song.

Bringing Metal to the Children - The Complete Berzerker's Guide to World Tour Domination by Zakk Wylde with Eric Hendrix; William Morrow

Um, who is Zakk Wylde?

If you're reading this hoping to get to the capsule about the Kenny Rogers bio, okay, it's possible you don't know Wylde as the longtime lead guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne or for leading Black Label Society, a heavy metal band/lifestyle philosophy.

Yes, the book is packed with hilarious and nutso road anecdotes. For the record, though: how many sentences in the manuscript are there without at least six obscenities?

That would be pretty much none.

What's a real-life anecdote that wonderfully demontrates Wylde's attitude about the music biz?

He describes a record label meeting where the suits discussed promotion for the latest ghoulish release of a posthumous Jimi Hendrix album. A younger employee walked in and announced she's the one booking Mr. Hendrix's flights and making his travel arrangements. "Does anyone know what hotels Mr. Hendrix prefers to stay in?" she asks.

And you wonder why LMFAO and Black Eyed Peas have record deals?

Tell us some great Ozzy stories! Not so much. Wylde works for the dude, after all. But Wylde was a great pal of the murdered Pantera guitarist Dime Bag Darrell Abbott, and there are some pretty wonderful anecdotes about their friendship.

The Pleasure Groove - Love, Death & Duran Duran by John Taylor with Tom Sykes; Dutton

He actually does a good job of not rubbing your nose in it but ... The criminally handsome bass player dated more supermodels than have ever strutted down every runway in Paris and New York. The Duran dudes had a LOT of good times.

And yet, rehab? Yes, Taylor's fun exacted a toll. Still, during family week in the clinic, his group therapist picked out and played a song for each patient. John's was "I Want to Know What Love Is" by Foreigner - and I'm pretty sure he was the only patient who was actually good friends with the dude who wrote the song the therapist picked.

Fame can become brutal: Taylor writes about the increasingly negative aspect of unwitting, fan-driven debates about the superiority of respective band members. Wittily, he says, "At first, we didn't take it to seriously; we had all studied at the school of 'A Hard Day's Night.'"

Luck or Something Like It - A Memoir by Kenny Rogers; Harper Collins

(Presumably) unintentionally hilarious tag line: "A remarkable story of a boy who couldn't stop singing, and a man who knew how to hold 'em."

Lionel Ritchie's killer song pitch: Looking for new material, Rogers flew then-Commodores singer Lionel Ritchie, whom he'd never met, to Vegas to preview a tune that supposedly would be perfect for "The Gambler." Ritchie sat down at a piano, played a few intro chords and sang, "Laaadee ..." followed by a scatted few notes of melody.

"That's all I have so far," Ritchie said. "What do you think?"

To which Rogers said, "I can't believe the Commodores turned that WORD down."

Mom and Lee Trevino: Kenny's mother didn't own or know how to drive a vehicle until she was a grandmother and won a new car in a contest sponsored by golfer Lee Trevino. She chose a red Dodge Charger.

Mike Scott - Adventures of a Waterboy by Mike Scott; Lilliput

Don't know Mike Scott?

He's the leader and main songwriter for the British/Scottish/Irish group The Waterboys, an amazing and visionary '80s band whose popularity in the UK and Europe is much bigger than in the States. Another case of a criminally underrated artist.

This Scott guy's sorta mystical, right?

Yes, not only did one of his marriages collapse in part because of his protracted and recurring retreats to the Findhorn spiritual enclave in Scotland, but he has songs called "The Pan Within," "A Pagan Place," "Spirit" and "The Return of Pan." (All are good, by the way.)

The band's biggest hit is "The Whole of the Moon." How'd that come about?

One night, on a walk through New York City, Scott's girlfriend asked him, "Is it easy to write songs?"

Rather than explain the myriad nuances, he replied, "Of course it's easy," pulled a scrap of paper and a pen out of his pocket and, spying a luminous full moon, and off the top of his head, penned the now-famous line: "I saw the crescent/you saw the whole of the moon."

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