The great rock novel has never been written, so biographies, memoirs and histories continue to have the most impact. After all, the real Iggy Pop story would've made a much more interesting film than what Velvet Goldmine ended up being ... and the James Osterberg story gets told quite well in former MOJO editor Paul Trynka's Open Up And Bleed (Broadway, $23.95). Iggy's dual personalities are thoroughly captured here — the rock 'n' roll deviant and gentleman, the idiot and philosopher, the devil and angel — and it's a fine portrait of several rock eras. Astute Detroit readers will note one factual error, crediting John Sinclair rather than J. C. Crawford as the voice opening the MC5's Kick Out the Jams LP. But one obvious slip in 300-plus pages ain't a bad ratio.
Phil Spector was on trial when I was reading Tearing Down The Wall of Sound: The Rise & Fall of Phil Spector by Mick Brown (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95). The British journalist did the last in-depth interview with the producer/pop architect before the shooting, parlaying it into a full-blown bio. I met Spector several months before Lana Clarkson's death as well and walked away thinking that those crazy stories must have been an exaggeration. He was charming. But reading a life fully studied here, with remarkable balance on the author's part, you can't help but conclude that the man is bat crazy and probably as guilty as hell, even as it paints a vivid portrait of both rock 'n' roll and music biz history from the '50s on.
A major theme running through this latest batch of bios is the rock artist as asshole — although Laurie Lindeen, the leader of obscure '90s Minneapolis all-gal group Zuzu's Petals, is the direct opposite of asshole in her sweet and readable memoir, Petal Pushers: A Rock 'N' Roll Cinderella Story (Atria, $24.95), which follows her journey from multiple sclerosis survivor to indie-rock darling to domestication as former Replacement Paul Westerberg's wife. But when it comes to pure assholery, Warren Zevon just may take the cake. One of his deathbed wishes was for a warts-and-all book to be published, and ex-wife Crystal Zevon gives us just that in I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life & Times of Warren Zevon (ecco/HarperCollins, $26.95). It does bring to mind the question how much slack one gives an individual just because he may be a genius, as Zevon's friends and family do in this part oral history/part memoir. (May also make you think how your life might look if captured in such a book ...) That said, it's one of the best music bios ever. Even if you're not a huge fan, it's great.
Slash, I guess, isn't totally an asshole, even if he did once ask me for a ride to Hermosa Beach from Hollywood, right around the time Guns N' Roses exploded, and then got me lost for more than three hours on expressways because he couldn't remember where he lived. He was very apologetic, though. Next time I encountered him, backstage at an Iggy Pop show, he didn't remember me from Adam though he pretended he did ... before nodding off right there in front of me. Nice guy, though. I'm shocked he can remember anything, much less the details that pop up in Slash which he penned with writer Anthony Bozza (HarperCollins; $27.95). Easy read but not all that enlightening. The dude did a lot of drugs and then did a lot of the asshole things rock stars do (i.e., destroying a hotel room) simply because they can. That's at least more interesting than Clapton: The Autobiography by you-know-who (Broadway, $26) which manages to be as thoroughly boring as the aptly-named Slowhand's concerts have been for eons now. A recovering drug addict who knows Dylan and stole George Harrison's wife and yet still writes a snooze-fest.
At least Slash makes it readable. Who'd've ever thought one could make the world of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll as miserable and boring as Mötley Crüe's Nikki Sixx does (with Ian Gittins) in The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star (Pocket Books, $32.50)? A lot of this could be condensed as "Got up, shot up, got real fucked up." This guy died, for God's sake, and he still can't find much interesting or insightful to say. Besides, does the world really need (or deserve) a third Crüe-related autobio? Occasionally, he gets a blow job from a groupie. One even thanks him afterward. WTF? is Nikki's response and the reader can't help but agree.
Following that line of thought, I've heard that Jay-Z has said the world's best groupies reside in Detroit. Interestingly, it was a Detroit groupie who became one of the most powerful women in music biz history (but even though she lost her virginity to one of the '70s' biggest rock stars, she, in many ways, didn't become a groupie until she became that powerful person ... which eventually led to her fall from grace). It's a fascinating story but it didn't make it into Pamela Des Barres' Let's Spend The Night Together: Backstage Secrets of Rock Muses & Supergroupies (Chicago Review Press, $24.95), which, along with the Zevon book, I found the most fascinating, if titillating and depressing, read here.
Des Barres, a legendary groupie in her own right, tells the tale of 24 groupies, running from Tura Satana (who claims to have taught Elvis Presley not only how to dance but how to perform oral sex, although I've seen convincing evidence to the contrary that the latter specialty came courtesy of Natalie Wood) to neocon screenwriter John Milius' daughter Amanda. And it's very graphic. I know a few of these gals. Pleasant Gehman used to write for me and was a friend for a few years. Bebe Buell once e-mailed me that I was her first "Arthur Miller-like crush." (Not the type to kiss and tell, myself, but in that case, I didn't even get to kiss ... damn, the confidence that could've given me as a young twentysomething!) Margaret Moser, a well-know Austin writer, is always charming. I've even met Pamela a few times over the years.
But all the women I've mentioned accomplished many other notable things in their lives beyond sleeping with rock stars. Although Des Barres attempts to make a case for all groupies in general as inspirations to musicians and basically ignores the underside (Miss Mercy's AIDS is mentioned once, as an almost afterthought), there's something sad when one's greatest accomplishment in life was giving Robert Plant a blow job, or, closer to home, letting Kid Rock shoot on your face. (But, hey, at least the Kid asks for permission, unlike the rock stars — including Plant and Bonham — who literally get rough in this tome ... and nothing reveals good breeding any more, says I, than asking a groupie if it's OK before spewing on her face).
As that last misadventure demonstrates, there's plenty of detail here (all reported via the book's firsthand interviews), some of which (catching Rod Stewart in a gay encounter; Iggy groping an infant; Bill Clinton's escapades with "Sweet, sweet Connie" Hamzy; the real sleazy meaning behind Plant's "What Is And What Never Should Be") makes one wonder how it got beyond the publisher's libel attorneys. And the stories that Pleather, the one (straight) male groupie featured here, has to tell are also enough to make one blush, if not sue.
Ultimately, though, the book leads to the punch line (and nothing more) that Ms. Moser once wrote as a coda to an article about her time as one of the legendary Texas Blondes: "With more than 20 years of debauchery and fast times in the past, did I learn anything? Oh, yes: Girls, if you're sucking a member of Limp Bizkit's cock, enjoy it now — because, trust me, no one will care about them in 20 years. At least choose the ones you can remember fondly."
The Ramones: It's Alive 1974-1996 (Rhino, $12.99) is a fantastic collection of live videos, tracing the prototypical punk band's entire career. Some of the clips, especially the earliest ones, were filmed by fans using primitive video equipment so the quality is sometimes subpar. Nevertheless, the more professional clips kick ass, once again reminding the viewer of how underrated these guys actually were at the time. Not as essential as the End of the Century doc (one of the greatest rock documentaries ever) but still a fine addition to the canon.
There's a lot of previously-unreleased footage in director Murray Lerner's Bob Dylan, The Other Side of The Mirror: Live at Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965 (Sony, $19.98), which, as the title suggests, traces the bard's ascent from folk demigod to rock 'n' roll revolutionary via three separate Newport festivals. It's great to finally see the infamous electric debut (with Mike Bloomfield et al.) in its entirety. The only real problem is that Lerner presents it in a documentary format as opposed to just presenting the footage (which certainly could've spoken for itself). As a result, several things get truncated in the process, including a young Johnny Cash performing "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" in Zimmy's honor. Essential for rock fans and Dylanologists nevertheless.
The documentary format is also a problem with The Johnny Cash Show: The Best of Johnny Cash 1969-1971 (Sony; $39.98). Do we really need Johnny and June's son, John Carter Cash, explaining to us why his father's performance with Bob Dylan on national TV in 1969 was such a pivotal moment? I've owned a bootleg of clips from various Cash shows (including many included here) for several years and, believe me, the music alone does enough talking. Nevertheless, the clips on these two discs are amazing, coming on like a literal pop history and running the gamut from Louis Armstrong, Bill Monroe and Pete Seeger to Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Clapton's Derek & The Dominoes. Only real complaint: Where the hell are the Monkees (who made it onto my bootleg)?
Johnny Cash Christmas 1976 and Johnny Cash Christmas 1977 (Shout Factory, $14.98 each), meanwhile, are latter-day specials presented here in their entirety, although they both spotlight how hokey and kitschy even Johnny Cash could be on TV at the time. The segment in the '77 special in which he dons his old Army uniform while talking about the Xmas he first got a guitar is especially embarrassing. The '76 show, with Tony Orlando, Roy Clark, Barbara Mandrell and Billy Graham, is pretty unsalvageable (though Johnny and June both have a few bright musical moments), but the '77 one is salvaged by the appearance of Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and the seemingly ageless Jerry Lee Lewis, the then surviving superstars of Sun Records gathered together again in the wake of Elvis's death.
Paul McCartney's The McCartney Years (Rhino, $34.99), which compiles a lot of Macca's solo video clips from over the years, in addition to some assorted concert footage (both Wings and more recent) on the third disc, is kind of a throwaway unless you're a super-fan. More appealing for the Beatlemaniac on your Christmas list might be the remastered, deluxe version of the Beatles' second Dick Lester-directed feature film, Help! (Capitol, $29.99). The movie holds up remarkably well (the music, it goes without saying) and the second bonus disc is overflowing with treasures (including the info that much of the film was improvised by the Fabs while under the influence of the demon weed!). Be forewarned, however: The box falsely advertises a deleted scene. Here, it's simply those involved talking about the deleted scene over still photos. Not the best example of truth in advertising, but still, it's highly recommended.
The best rock doc of the year is undoubtedly Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers' Runnin' Down a Dream (available exclusively at Best Buy, $29.95), the four-hour film director Peter Bogdanovich compiled and shot (this is surely the wave of the future, with director Martin Scorsese currently working on documentaries about both the Rolling Stones and George Harrison). One could have preconceived notions that Bogdanovich might've been better served concentrating on a band with more drama and sexiness in its history — but those naysayers might also be pleasantly surprised by this one. It covers nearly every base and ends up being a very intriguing watch, even for those who aren't major fans. The scene in which Petty confronts the A&R idiots during a Roger McGuinn session, for instance, is, in a word, great. Also featuring a CD of rare and previously-unreleased material as well as a separate DVD of the band's recent Florida "homecoming" concert in its entirety, this package is a steal at the price.
Finally, the best music-related documentary DVD I've viewed this year — and one that should find a special place in the hearts of Detroit (and Canadian) baby boomers — is Radio Revolution: The Rise & Fall of the Big 8 (Markham Street Films, $29.99), Michael McNamara's film on CKLW, the greatest rock 'n' roll AM station ever. It's not only a great documentation of PD Rosalie Trombley and crew and the extraordinary things they achieved but a history of why radio is so fucked-up these days as well. Talking heads include Alice Cooper (who basically owes his career to the legendary station) and rockcrit Dave Marsh, as well as most of the surviving jocks, among others. The old station call spots that are included as bonus extras on the disc practically brought tears of nostalgia to my eyes. Available at: www.radiorevolutiondvd.com.