So far, 2016 has been a sad year for fans of rock ‘n’ roll music. The shelves that house library call number 780.92—musician biographies—have seen a surge of borrowing activity of late with the recent deaths of prominent rock musicians including David Bowie, Glenn Frey of the Eagles, Lemmy of Mötörhead, and two founding members of the Jefferson Airplane. Reading the stories behind the music is a good way to gain a greater appreciation of an artist’s life and music. Recently-published memoirs are also taking the library by storm, including the sublime autobiographies of three female post-punk rockers. Biographies of lesser-known, but historically essential, musicians make for some enlightening reading this winter. Turn up the stereo to maximize the rocking reading experience!
In addition to playing bass guitar and singing lead vocals in popular experimental post-punk rock group Sonic Youth, Kim Gordon is a writer, producer, fashion designer, and actress. Arguably the coolest female rock icon of the 80s and 90s, Gordon sang gritty, surreal songs while playing on stage between noisy guitar feedback played by longtime partner Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. Always decked-out in retro thrift-store chic, Gordon exuded confidence, never pretense. (Check out their MTV hit “Kool Thing” from 1990, where Gordon duets with Chuck D of Public Enemy!) Gordon opens the book on a bitter, heartbroken note, as she describes her awkward experience of the band’s last-ever show in 2011, a month after publicizing the couple’s impending divorce. She goes on to detail her life growing up in Southern California, her art school studies, and her eventual immersion in the “no-wave” music scene in New York City. Her descriptions of the recording of each Sonic Youth album are rather brief, but interesting enough for readers who have been fans for decades, or for people discovering the band’s music for the first time.
Carrie Brownstein, prior to achieving fame with her comedy television series Portlandia, fronted “riot grrrl” indie rock band Sleater-Kinney from 1994 to 2006. Her 2015 memoir details her life playing guitar and singing in the band, describing the band’s leftwing politics and punk ethics. A particular description explains her meeting with a major label early on in the band’s career, showing up late and with a bad attitude, not wanting “to be accepted and loved by the mainstream.” Brownstein relates her struggles with depression and a difficult early life in a family that ended in divorce when she was 14, her mother suffering severe anorexia. Readers who only know Brownstein from her witty sketches parodying alternative-lifestyle Mecca Portland, OR, along with comedian Fred Armisen on Portlandia, will likely be taken aback at the depth and intelligence and struggle detailed in her memoir.
Viv Albertine got her start as guitarist in the UK feminist punk band The Slits, who helped define the late 70s/early 80s music scene as they toured with the Clash and the Buzzcocks. The band’s sound featured fragmented semi-in-tune guitars, reggae influence, and plenty of attitude in a rock and roll underground scene dominated by men. Albertine, who went on to direct BBC television and later feature films, describes moment after moment in her life where men try to tell her she could not do something because she is a woman. The second half of the book details a less exciting life after the band including a failed marriage, cancer, and depression. The timing is great, though, as readers get to discover new musical territory they may not know about. The golden ages of punk rock, post-punk, and indie rock are long gone, but with the era of YouTube and Spotify have granted easy access to the archives of the glories of forgotten music history. The biographies mentioned in this article can help illuminate the reader to the stories behind the music.
Melancholy songs and a fragile vocal style are the characteristics of English musician Robert Wyatt. Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto referred to Wyatt as “the saddest voice in the world.” A legend in the obscure music enthusiast/1970s record collector realm, Wyatt rose to the forefront of the late-60s counterculture music scene as drummer of the psychedelic/jazz/progressive rock outfit Soft Machine. He was later fired from the band due to his alcohol abuse. In 1973, while inebriated at a party, Wyatt fell from a fourth-story window and ended up paraplegic. Wyatt seems to consider being fired from Soft Machine the worse tragedy in his life. The book contains an exhaustive bibliography of the eccentric Wyatt’s lengthy career from Soft Machine through numerous collaborations with artists such as Brian Eno and Björk. When readers check out this biography and look up Wyatt’s beautiful cover version of Chic’s “At Last I am Free,” they will hear why he is such a cult favorite.
the Man Who Invented Rock 'n' Roll, and How His Tiny Label, Sun Records of Memphis, Revolutionized the World, by Peter Guralnick
Sam Phillips was the man who discovered rock ‘n’ roll and introduced the music to the world. Phillips’ name is virtually synonymous with hit records in the mid- to late-1950s. Phillips is the man who launched the careers of Elvis Presley, Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins with his Sun Records studio in Memphis. Peter Guralnick interviewed Phillips over the course of twenty-five years before Phillips’ death in 2003. Philips thought of himself not as a crusader, but as an explorer. According to Guralnick, ”’I didn’t set out to revolutionize the world,’ Phillips said one time. Instead what he wanted to do was to test the proposition that there was something ‘very profound’ in the lives of ordinary people, black and white, irrespective of social acceptance.’ ‘I knew the physical separation of the races—but I knew the integration of their souls.’” As he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Johnny Cash made sure to give thanks to Sam Phillips, of course.--Jeremy Morelock, Reference Department