Category Archives: Book Reviews

It is almost amazing how much material is written about music.  Some of it is even worth reading.  We’ll let you know when to read it and when to skip it.

Buck ‘Em! – The Autobiography of Buck Owens (review)

Buck ‘Em! – The Autobiography of Buck Owens – Buck Owens with Randy Poe (Backbeat Books) review

Buck Owens writes his autobiography…from the hereafter!

Buck Owens passed away in 2006 at the age of 76.  So, how is it possible that he’s writing his autobiography in 2014?  Well, it was always Owen’s intention to tell his story, so he began dictating it to tape.  By the time of his passing, he’d amassed a huge stack, containing literally hundreds of hours of his story, in his own words.  Problem was – none of it was in chronological order!

Enter writer Randy Poe, who’d previously put together the excellent Duane Allman bio Skydog.  It was Poe’s unenviable task to wade through this mountain of recordings.  With the blessing of the Owen’s estate comes Buck ‘EM – The Autobiography of Buck Owens.  The reason it’s an autobiography is that almost all of it is the country pioneer in his own words.  Besides transcribing the tapes, Poe did a little editing and grammar – the rest is all Buck.

Although he pretty much rewrote the rules for country music by addressing a more aggressive, Telecaster-led style, it didn’t come easy.  There’s tales of failed attempts to add syrupy background singers to his early recordings, and how he almost gave up because he was so frustrated with the business.  Owens came in contact with a lot of soon-to-be legendary performers on his way up, including Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn.

The book is full of funny anecdotes, like the time his band accidentally left him behind, because they thought he was sleeping in the back of the truck, when he had actually gone to eat dinner.  Or, how he tried in vain to convince a Beatles’ fan that “Act Naturally” was in fact, HIS song.

A looming figure in the book is guitarist, and longtime friend Don Rich, who played a key role in the Owens’ sound and was a part of the peak years of his music.  There’s a great story of the two of them perfecting their signature harmonies on a late-night trip from Washington state back to Bakersfield.  In fact, Owens admits that after Rich’s untimely death in 1974 (from a motorcycle crash), he never recovered.

To call Owens’ a driven individual is a gross understatement.  There’s mention of every single he released for Capitol Records, and how well, or poorly, it performed on the charts.

The big realization from Buck EM is that, although Owens played the role of dumb cowpoke in the Hee Haw TV show, he was NO dummy when it came to business matters.  He purchased several radio stations, and even opened up a successful club in his hometown of Bakersfield.  Unlike so many other musicians, Owens was always aware of where the money was going.

Probably one of the most savvy things he ever did was negotiate with Capitol Records so he would eventually own all of his recordings.  This is virtually unheard of among popular musicians.  Even 50 years later, bands like the Beatles still don’t truly own their material.  But, Owens convinced his label to relinquish the rights after a certain length of time.  So, even after his passing, the Owens’ estate has the freedom to release what they want, with whom they want, and reap the rewards.

Of course there’s mention of the hit TV series Hee Haw, and how the more popular the show became, the less records he sold – people just didn’t seem to take him seriously as a musician any longer.  Thankfully, that show is just a curious piece of ancient history, while Owens’ music will last forever.

Buck EM is written in Owens’ own, easy going style, so it’s an enjoyable read.  Anyone interested in where modern Country music came from, this book is highly recommended.  —Tony Peters

108 Rock Star Guitars – Lisa Johnson (book review)

108 Rock Star Guitars – Lisa S. Johnson (Glitterati Inc) book review

A guitar book like you’ve never seen before

There have been plenty of books featuring pictures of guitars over the years.  But, 108 Rock Star Guitars is something completely different – photos so rich and vibrant, you actually feel closer to these prized instruments.

You can tell that photographer Lisa Johnson gets it. These aren’t merely six-stringed instruments. Rather, they’re works of rare beauty, and she shoots them that way, with a tremendous amount of love and admiration.

Part of the book’s real uniqueness comes from Johnson’s signature style – she calls it macrophotography.  The idea is, instead of shooting the entire guitar, she may zoom in on just the headstock, or shoot only a portion of the body.  She also makes a point to zero in on well-worn scratches and “war wounds.”  But, it’s these flaws that add the real character to these cherished pieces.  And because she captures minute details so vividly, you feel like you can almost touch them.

The fact is, very few people have ever been allowed to get this close to these guitars – possessions held in such high regard, many are never actually played live, instead sequestered away in their owner’s private collections.

One of the finest pieces in the entire book is Jimmy Page’s 1968 Gibson SG Double Neck.  The upclose photo, focusing on the guitar’s body, shows off a rich warmness in the wood contrasted with the crisp strings which traverse it – it is a stunning image of beauty.  Honestly, it looks more like a refined weapon than a musical instrument.

Contrast this with Keith Richards’ 1952 Gibson ES 350 Hollow Body, whose pick guard is tattered from years of love/abuse.  Johnson only grabs half of the guitar’s body, and arranges it so it looks like a plane crashing to the ground.

Each guitar has it’s own feel – Peter Frampton’s Signature Les Paul, all black, with a shimmering outline, looks like something from outer space, while Zakk Wylde’s 1981 Gibson Les Paul, known as “The Grail,”  resembles a giant, battle-scarred bumble bee. Then, there’s the silvery sheen of Ace Frehley’s modified Gibson “Light Guitar” with, you guess it, lights all around its body.

Not everything is an immediate attention-grabber.  Some guitars have a muted appeal, like the plain white exquisiteness of Alex Lifeson’s 1976 Gibson ES 355, or Jeff Beck’s modified Stratocaster with his signature, all-white body.  Still, these are axes anyone would kill to have in their collection.

Some guitars in the book you may have seen before, like ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons’ Gibson Explorer, known as “The Fur,” made famous in their “Legs” video on MTV (where the guitars flipped upside down).

Just about every major guitar hero is represented here: Clapton, Page, Beck, Santana, Satriani, Bonamassa, Walsh, Slash, Vai, & Nugent,  along with some surprises, like Sugizo, guitarist for Japanese rockers Luna Sea,  country legend Willie Nelson, and melodic punker Chrissie Hynde. And, Johnson literally traveled the globe to obtain these shots, revealing some of the stories behind her quests alongside the photos (she even got to venture below the giant “Wall” during Roger Waters’ latest tour to shoot one of his guitars).

The book features a touching foreword by the late Les Paul, who wrote the short piece right before he passed away in 2009.  In it, he talks about “the girl who does that guitar art,” and how impressed he was with Lisa’s knowledge and passion for the subject.  Since it was Paul who helped start her on this journey by letting her shoot one of his guitars 17 years ago, Johnson decided to honor him by donating a portion of the book’s proceeds to the Les Paul Foundation for Music Education.

And, one might ask “why 108”?  Well, in addition to being a fine photographer, Johnson’s other passion is yoga, and the number comes up frequently in the discipline, as well as in many other aspects of spirituality.  Plus, it just sounds more intriguing than the usual, round 100.  She explains all this in a bonus section called “The Inspiration Behind 108 Rock Star Guitars.”

The 396-page book comes in a red leatherette binding that is just begging to sit on any guitar lover’s coffee table.  Any true fan of rock guitar will be awestruck by this book.  –Tony Peters

101 Essential Rock Records (review)

101 Essential Rock Records – The Golden Age of Vinyl From the Beatles to the Sex Pistols – Jeff Gold (Gingko Press) book review

While we walk around with thousands of songs on our mobile devices, and millions more streaming at our fingertips, there is a downside to all this convenience – we’ve lost the physical connection with the music we love.  Author and record collector Jeff Gold has just written 101 Essential Rock Records, revisiting a time when we could hold that music in our hands – and the LP was king.

There was something magical about the vinyl record.  The 12 x 12-inch piece of cardboard that acted as the album sleeve didn’t just give clues to the music that was hidden inside, it oftentimes set the overall mood before one note was ever played.  And, the possibilities were endless.  Some LP jackets showcased bold new directions in art.  Others displayed new forms of fashion, giving fans a chance to dress like their heroes.  Many featured easy-to-read lyric sheets, letting the words take center stage, away from the music.  Several albums included large, iconic posters that adorned teenage walls, acting as a portal to another world.  The bottom line was, the album was more than just the music.

This coffee table-sized book is large enough to show off some of these classic album covers – now shrunk to a mere thumbnail on your iPod.  While there have been several books devoted to the front covers of LPs, Gold’s goal is to spotlight the entire package, including front and back cover, inner sleeve, gatefold, and any posters or stickers that were featured in the original release.  He even has a picture of the actual vinyl LP for each album featured.

Gold was profiled by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the top five “collectors of high-end music memorabilia,” so he’s certainly got some ultra-rare pieces, including lots of white-label radio-only promotional copies.  If you’re any kind of record collector, there is plenty here to drool over.  He’s quick to point out anything rare that’s been included, such as differences in releases overseas, or mono versus stereo, for example.

For each of the 101 albums, he’s penned a few paragraphs that give a little background into each LP’s significance, usually referencing praise from some other music publication.  Beyond that, he’s also had the opportunity to talk with several musicians about their favorite albums – Graham Nash, Iggy Pop, Peter Buck of REM, Johnny Marr, and several others, all are given separate pages to gush about certain “life-changing” albums, adding a more human element to the book.  And, there’s an excellent introduction by Elektra Records’ founder Jac Holzman, talking about the significance of vinyl over the years.

Another standout of his book is a section called “CENSORED!” where he compares the rare, original covers, with ones that were later sanitized (the nude, pubescent girl on Blind Faith’s debut, the toilet that was airbrushed out of the Mamas & the Papas’ LP, and the fire engulfing the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd on Street Survivors, etc.).  He gives an explanation of what all the hubbub was about for each one.

One of Gold’s most-treasured parts of his own collection is several albums bought from the estate of Jimi Hendrix.  These records were actually played (and well-loved) by the legendary guitarist himself.  Gold shows several examples of these tattered gems, and lists the albums in that set –  it’s interesting to see what Hendrix was digging back then.

As far as the actual list of “essential” records goes – it’s pretty standard fare.  80 percent of the LPs featured here are the ones that have been trumpeted for years by Rolling Stone and their ilk:  Sgt. Pepper, Dylan, Springsteen, Exile on Main Street, Pet Sounds, Velvet Underground – all the critic’s darlings.  The problem is that there are literally thousands of albums deserving of praise, yet the same chosen few continue to be put in the spotlight.  It would’ve been nice to see a little more imagination put into his compilation.

The author also has an affinity for debut albums, which is somewhat puzzling.  The first record listed in his book is Please Please Me from the Beatles – groundbreaking, yes.  Essential, not really – it was full of not-so-great covers.  Same goes for debut’s by the Stones and Jefferson Airplane – there were much better albums to follow from each band.  And, Led Zeppelin’s first album is the only one to make the list.  Again, that band did nothing but get better as the years went by.  He also favors the New York punk scene over anything commercial in the Seventies – so New York Dolls, Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads make the grade, yet, you won’t find any Eagles, Kiss, Frampton, Boston, or just about anything that sold more than a few thousand copies.

But, that’s the real joy in lists like this – debating the merits of one record over another.  You’ll have fun digging through here, seeing if your favorite albums are included.

Being able to see so many legendary albums in their original, rare state, with not just the front cover, but the entire package showcased, makes this book a must-have for any devoted vinyl fan, and anyone interested in how music used to be.  –Tony Peters

Kicking & Dreaming – A Story of Heart… (book review)

Kicking & Dreaming – A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock & Roll – Ann & Nancy Wilson with Charles R. Cross (It / Harper Collins) book review

There’s a point in the new Heart autobiography, Kicking & Dreaming, that’s common among musicians over 60…as kids they see the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and it changes their lives forever.  But, an interesting thing happens at school the next day that shows where the Wilsons were coming from.  While most of the talk amongst their friends was how cute each Beatle was and how they’d like to date one of them, Ann & Nancy wanted to BE the Beatles.

And thus began a life-long battle of having to prove themselves.  And as much an influence as the sisters have been on future generations of women rockers, you get the impression that pushing their gender was not their main objective.  They just wanted to be musicians, period.

To say that Ann & Nancy have had a busy year would be a bit of an understatement.  They kicked things off with the release of their box set, the extremely enjoyable Strange Euphoria (read our review here). They followed that up with a brand new studio album, one of the band’s best, Fanatic (we reviewed that one too). Oh, did I mention they received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?  Somehow, through all of that, they also found time to complete this memoir.

There are several things that set this book apart from the multitudes of others currently on the shelf.  First, it’s written equally by both Ann and Nancy, so it acts as more of a conversation than an autobiography, making for a very easy, enjoyable read.  Second, there’s nothing here that qualifies as tabloid material – the girls don’t have any particular axe to grind (although they do have some very funny club owner stories), there’s not any big revelation, and even the tales of sex & drugs are given in a matter-of-fact way.  There’s nothing sensational about this book.  Instead, their goal is to tell their story as honestly as possible.

The book spends a great deal of time chronicling the sisters’ childhood.  You get an idea of the events that helped shape them – from the constant moving from state to state as a military family, to the ribbing that Ann received in school for her weight and stuttering problem.  Music became the sisters’ escape.  Eventually Ann formed a band, later inviting her sister as well.

One of the great things about Heart is that their songs were real, and oftentimes came from actual experiences.  Take, for example, their breakthrough single “Magic Man.”  The lyrics “come on home girl / mama cried on the phone / too soon to lose my baby / my girl should be at home” were words actually said by Ann’s mother, begging her to quit the music business and return to Seattle.  “Baracuda,” another of their classic tunes, was written about a radio promo guy they met in Detroit.

Of course, it never hurt the band’s popularity to have, not one, but two stunning females as a focal point.  There’s some great tales of Don Henley & Glen Frey of the Eagles, and Eddie & Alex Van Halen both trying to bed the sisters (to no avail), as well as advances by Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin.  There’s also a not-too flattering account of an encounter with southern rockers the Marshall Tucker Band.

They clear up one of the most controversial events in the band’s history – an ad in Rolling Stone, placed by their record label, insinuating that Ann & Nancy were lovers, as well as bandmates.  Under a seductive photo of the pair, the caption read: “Heart’s Wilson Sisters Confess: ‘It Was Only Our First Time!’”  This incident, meant as a desperate publicity stunt by their label president, sparked one of the ugliest court battles in music history.  Eventually, Heart was ordered to deliver one final album, in turn for their freedom to record elsewhere.

During the early peak years of the band, Ann & Nancy were dating brothers Michael and Roger Fisher, who both are quoted in the book.  This combination lover/sister/brother/bandmate quadrangle eventually came to an end.  They smartly gloss over some of the lean years of the early Eighties.  Amazingly, the sisters rebounded in 1985 with a new record contract and heavy exposure on MTV.  Of course, this didn’t come without a price.  They spent so many years de-emphasizing their sexuality in hopes of being taken seriously – only to have Capitol records exploit their good looks to the hilt in their videos (they joked that they were now being billed as “Heart…featuring breasts!”).  And, while Ann & Nancy had co-written just about everything up to that point, their label insisted on bringing in outside songwriters.  They immediately hit paydirt with Taupin’s “These Dreams.”  Yet, with that success, their own songwriting and vision was pushed aside.

Eventually, the Big Eighties came to a screeching halt, and the sisters found themselves without a record contract.  This was a time for reassessment, and both decided to adopt children (there’s a great story of Ann trying to chase her daughter around while being scorned by Hillary Clinton).  Eventually, they put the band back together, but this time, on their own terms.  It’s no accident that they’ve released two of their finest albums (2010’s Red Velvet Car, and this year’s Fanatic) late in their career.  For the first time in their history, they’re calling all their own shots.

Heart is the only sister-led rock band that’s lasted through the years.  That, in itself, makes Kicking and Dreaming interesting. But, it’s Ann & Nancy’s honesty about their long and tumultuous career that truly makes this a must read.  –Tony Peters

Revolver: How the Beatles Re-imagined Rock n’ Roll (book review)


Revolver – How the Beatles Re-imagined Rock n’ Roll – Robert Rodriguez (Backbeat Books) review

Imagine the boy band One Direction or heartthrob Justin Bieber crafting music as adventurous as Radiohead or Wilco.  Sound preposterous?  That’s the kind of musical leap the Beatles attempted back in 1966 when they recorded their album Revolver. Yet, the record that followed it, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, always seems to get the lion’s share of the credit for being innovative.

Fab Four expert Robert Rodriguez’s latest offering, Revolver – How the Beatles Re-imagined Rock n’ Roll, takes an in-depth look at the recording of that album, the circumstances surrounding why it didn’t receive its proper due when it first came out, and the reasons why people are re-evaluating it now.

A turning point in the Beatles’ history was the controversy surrounding John Lennon’s off-handed remark that the Beatles “were more popular than Jesus Christ.”  Most baffling of all, Rodriguez found that Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein was the one who sent the interview containing that controversial quote over to America, apparently oblivious to the impact it would have.  From that point forward, no one wanted to talk about the band’s new album, which just happened to be Revolver.  Instead, every press conference and column inch was devoted to Lennon’s “scandalous” claim and it’s retraction.

Of course, ignoring the more serious side of the Fab Four was nothing new for the American press.  Rodriguez does an excellent job of showing just how stunted the image of the Beatles was by re-printing articles from several teen magazines of the day.  Despite creating much more adventurous material, all anyone wanted to discuss was “She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah,” etc.  In addition, we get a glimpse of the grueling tour schedule the guys had to endure – especially without the aid of modern amplification, which wouldn’t come into existence until years later.  Surprisingly, even though the band had crafted lots of fresh material, they were still playing the same old songs in concert from two years previous.

The bottom line was that the Beatles were no longer the cute and cuddly quartet that was beamed into millions of homes via the Ed Sullivan Show two years earlier.  They were weary of endless touring, where no one really listened to the music.  And, they longed to be taken more seriously like Bob Dylan, who was an enormous influence on their songwriting at the time.

And that’s another interesting point that the author makes – that the Beatles were not living on a desert island.  They were being influenced by their peers, and vise versa.  The mid-Sixties was an incredible time for rock n’ roll – every band seemed to be on a mission to expand what was acceptable in pop music.   What the author does is highlight how the contemporaries of the Beatles, like the Stones, Bob Dylan, and the Beach Boys, all helped influence each other.

An excellent addition to his book is a timeline that’s included near the end.  Things were moving at a furious pace back then.  Want proof?  Consider that Yesterday & Today, the album originally containing the “butcher cover,” was released just six weeks prior to Revolver – absolutely unheard of today.

He also takes the Revolver album through, track by track, examining the writing process for each song (did you know that “Got to Get You Into My Life” was an ode to pot?), and delving into the recording techniques used in the studio (that’s Paul playing the searing guitar solo at the end of George Harrison’s “Taxman”).

And, despite the fact that there are already hundreds of books on the group, Rodriguez still manages to unearth new tidbits of Beatles’ information.  Did you know that Paul McCartney quit the band during the recording of “She Said, She Said”?  He uncovers this little-mentioned story.  How about the fact that manager Epstein was in negotiations for the Beatles to record at the famed Stax Studios in Memphis?  Rodriguez finds the evidence, and explains why the plans unfortunately fell through.

To better understand Revolver, he also digs into it’s followup, Sgt. Pepper, it’s writing and recording, and examines the huge impact that that album received at the time.  He lists several factors that played into Pepper’s enormous reception.

As a new crop of music fans and critics come of age, it’s time to re-assess long-held truths handed down from previous generations (another excellent read is Kill Your Idols by Jim DeRogotis).  Robert Rodriguez makes an excellent argument for Revolver to be at the top of anyone’s favorite Beatles’ list.  After reading his book,  you might still have your favorite album, but at least you’ll have a better appreciation for what surrounded the making of this classic record.  –Tony Peters

When the Wall of Sound Met the NY Underground – Frank Meyer (review)

When the Wall of Sound Met the New York Underground: The Ramones, Phil Spector, and “The End of the Century” – Frank Meyer (Single Notes / Warner Music Group) review

Ever feel like reading a book is just too much work?  I mean, who has the time for all that commitment?   I’ll admit, sometimes, I’m just not up to the task.  I never finished the Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life, because it was just too damned long.  That’s what makes Single Notes, a new series of e-books from Warner Music Group, so enticing.  They’re meant to be both inexpensive (most run for only about $2), and more importantly, quick reads.

Arguably the strangest pairing in all of rock: Phil Spector – the lunatic perfectionist who created such pop masterpieces as “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” and “Be My Baby,” meets the Ramones – kings of the two-minute punk anthem who pretty much single-handedly started the New York underground scene – and they agree to do an album together.  When the Wall of Sound Met the New York Underground from Frank Meyer chronicles this bizarre collaboration in a new short-form book from Single Notes / Warner Music Group.

Believe it or not, it seemed to make sense at the time.  The Ramones were becoming desperate to break into the mainstream (something friends like Blondie and Talking Heads had already done), and Phil Spector was looking to return to the top of pop royalty (he hadn’t had a hit since John Lennon’s Rock n’ Roll album in ’75).  Unfortunately, the record they created, End of the Century, did neither.

Author Frank Meyer wrote an extensive book on the band called On the Road with the Ramones and penned the liner notes to several of the group’s CD remasters, so he’s certainly got a grasp of the band’s history.  His brief book, totaling only 24 pages, is written in a conversational manner taken from a fan’s perspective.  Using quotes from the band, as well as engineer Ed Stasium, and friends who were present at the sessions, Meyer reveals what we probably already knew – that those sessions were a hot mess; strained and filled with plenty of gun toting and ridiculous behavior from Spector, who apparently still thought he was at the top of his game.  At one point, Stasium is quoted as remembering Spector saying that “The Ramones would be bigger than the Beatles.”  Wow, that guy really was nuts!

At the same time, many critics and purists have viewed the resulting album, End of the Century, as a sell out – the complete opposite of what punk was all about.  As Meyer insists – no musician really wants to be a cult hero.  Isn’t it the ultimate goal of every artist for their music to be heard by as many people as possible?  In that sense, this era of the band makes plenty of sense.  Add to it that leader Joey Ramone was a huge 60‘s girl group fan — who wouldn’t want to work with the man who helped create all those great classics?

What makes this book work is that Meyer is a musician himself.  Interspersed with recollections from the band and those who were there, he inserts his own personal experiences, which bring things down to a more intimate level.

Is End of the Century as good as the first few, primal Ramones records?  No.  But, it’s also not the debacle that many people have labeled it.  While it’s never become the stone-cold classic that the band and producer would have wanted, it still stands as one of the finest examples of great songs from the Ramones, and one of Spector’s best post Sixties productions.

Plus, the entire book is easily read in one sitting! –Tony Peters

Devils and Blue Dresses – Mitch Ryder (book review)

Devils & Blue Dresses – My Wild Ride As a Rock and Roll Legend – Mitch Ryder (Cool Titles) review 

There’s a moment in Mitch Ryder’s new book where we find him out at a bar, spending the last few dollars he has on drinks with a buddy.  He’s just gone through his third divorce and is living in an apartment with no furniture.  Yet, when one of the pretty patrons finds out he’s “Mitch Ryder,” she wants to go home with him!  If there’s one thing we learn through reading Devils & Blue Dresses – My Wild Ride As a Rock and Roll Legend – it’s that fame is a very funny creature.  As Ryder contends, you never really lose it.  You can blow all your money (which he did), get screwed by several managers (which he also did), destroy perfectly good relationships with numerous women (ditto), and yet, still remain technically “a star.”  But, as he asks very plainly in his introduction: “Did fame make me a better person than you?  You read this book and tell me.”

You will never read a more honest, downright blunt, look at the music business than this book.  For awhile, Mitch Ryder was on top of the world.  Scoring several mid-Sixties’ hits like “Devil With the Blue Dress On,” and “Jenny Take a Ride,” he and his band, the Detroit Wheels, were part of America’s answer to the first British Invasion.  But, it’s what happens before and after his success that makes this book riveting.  For anyone who’s ever daydreamed of being a musician, this brings a lot of that folly down to earth, as we see the gory details of his deterioration.

And that’s what sets this book apart from the hundreds of others out there.  While most rock autobiographies are sweetened up with the help of co-authors, Ryder has assembled everything himself.  At times, the book jumps haphazardly from subject to subject, and his frequent rants (titled “A Window Into My Soul”) are unnecessary and border on lunacy.  But, we’re getting the story straight, and unfiltered.  The memoir has also been published by the small Cool Titles company, who gave him more leeway than a large corporate publisher.  Ryder doesn’t hold back – throughout the book pointing fingers and naming names of the people who did him wrong, time and again.

Not surprising, Mitch Ryder grew up on the tough streets of Detroit.  His early childhood was marred by violence, abuse and molestation – the kind you wouldn’t wish on your most-hated enemy.  For better or worse, these nascent events helped shape the person he’d become – reckless in his pursuit of pleasure and fame, yet seemingly unable to form any kind of healthy relationship, male or female.

Ryder hooked up with hot-shot producer Bob Crewe (the man behind the success of the Four Seasons) for several mid-Sixties’ hits.  As with many artists of the day, he signed a rotten management deal, which he claims cheated him out of millions in unpaid royalties.  Crewe also essentially killed any momentum he had by trying to turn Ryder into a Vegas crooner (hmmm…imagine James Brown doing Sinatra…no way!).  Eventually he broke free of Crewe’s control, but when he did so, he found himself virtually penniless.

Several other artists have traveled this same road.  Yet, instead of picking himself up and taking control of his own career, Ryder set out on a long path of self-destruction.  Remarkably, even when he finds people truly willing to help him, he manages to mess things up – for example, being unprepared for a Gamble & Huff audition that could’ve changed the course of his career.

After hitting a rock bottom that’s more gruesome than most, he stumbles on a diamond in the rough; an adoring overseas audience, particularly Germany, where rock fans are eager for a legend that they can call their own.  Ryder spends the next several years nurturing this European following, and his popularity there still stands to this day.

Ryder was one of America’s answers to the original British Invasion.  Because of this status, he found himself in several interesting situations.  Of note, is a strange story of him attending a post-Sgt. Pepper Beatles’ party and the odd circumstances where John Lennon actually saved his life.  He also touches on the craziness surrounding a tour with the great Wilson Pickett.

By the end of the book, you come to the realization that, while Mitch Ryder did get screwed over by a manager a long time ago, he has no one else to blame but himself for a great deal of his problems afterwards.  In many instances, instead of taking the outstretched hands of people who tried to pick him up, he slapped them away (one such story involves John Mellencamp, who reached out to produce Ryder in the early Eighties, yet he comes off as ungrateful for that help).  As a result, Ryder has few friends left in the industry.  Even his current wife is on her second go-round, after first divorcing him several years ago.

Further adding to the honest account, Ryder has included personal photos, handwritten letters from his wife, and even reprints of several of his record contracts.  The end result is a no-holds-barred take on a lifetime in the music industry.  You really want to know what it’s like to be a rock star? Devils and Blue Dresses is the book for you.  –Tony Peters

Ace Frehley – No Regrets (book review)

No Regrets – A Rock n’ Roll Memoir – Ace Frehley (VH-1 Classic) book review

No band has taken more liberties with their history quite like Kiss.  The “Kiss-speak,” almost entirely controlled by leaders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, is full of legends and myths, so it’s always been hard to get at the real truth.  Other books by outsiders have been written, but usually those guys have axes to grind – again, you question how much of it is fact.  That’s what sets No Regrets – A Rock n’ Roll Memoir apart from all other books on Kiss; Ace Frehley doesn’t pull any punches in his honest account of his tumultuous history as the lead guitarist for one of the biggest, most influential bands in the world.

First of all, the book is written in a very conversational manner.  Although two other authors are credited (Joe Layden and John Ostrosky), you can imagine Frehley himself narrating this in his Brooklyn accent, making it not only fun, but a quick read as well.  The first few chapters deal with his early life.  Although many rock stars came from broken homes, Frehley’s was somewhat normal – with his family stressing both education and religion.  In fact, it might surprise you that Ace has the highest IQ of any member of Kiss.  But, like so many people bitten by the rock n’ roll bug, once exposed to guitar playing, school didn’t matter anymore.  He tells some great stories, even in his formative years, where he was constantly able to sneak backstage at concerts to meet his idols (like Mitch Mitchell, the legendary drummer for Jimi Hendrix), just because he “looked” like a rock star.

His tale of auditioning for Kiss is worth the price of the book alone – I’m not going to spoil it, but I will tell you that his mom dropped him off at the rehearsal (unbelievably, he was still living at home at the time).  Those early days were tough – it’s easy to forget that Kiss was not always a household name, and it took awhile for them to build a following, and more importantly, for people to take them seriously.  He also talks of the fortuitous meetings of both Bill Aucoin and Neil Bogart (who became Kiss’ manager and head of their record label, respectively) and how both men bought into the Kiss mystique and helped shaped their career.  Another great story comes from their legendary appearance on the typically white-bread Mike Douglas TV show.  The reaction of the host, accustomed to dealing with sleepy guests for housewives, is priceless.

Not surprising, many of the more lurid tales involve band member Peter Criss, who shared Frehley’s love of partying.  The near-fatal scrapes they get into are too many to count.  He’s not so kind, however, in his portrayal of Simmons, claiming that despite his fame, the bassist had (and still has) no friends.  He also insists that when it came to Gene, it was always about the money, even in the early days (although, he also admits being indebted to Simmons for saving his life on several occasions).

He’s very frank about his alcohol and drug use, and how it ruined his life.  A penchant for partying mixed with the boredom of life on the road resulted in Frehley becoming disillusioned with the band fairly quickly (he admits not playing everything on the Destroyer album).  Yet, when he was challenged, as in when all four members of Kiss released solo albums simultaneously, he delivered (Frehley’s was the only one of the four to have a hit single, “New York Groove”).

He touches on everything – the ill-fated made-for-TV movie Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, the even more ill-fated concept album, Music From the Elder, and the legendary Tom Snyder appearance (where Ace is obviously inebriated).  He chronicles his exiting the band in 1982, forming Frehley’s Comet, then the eventual appearance on MTV’s Unplugged, which resulted in the Reunion Tour, and him leaving the band again a few years later.  There’s a tremendous story of a heated confrontation between him and Tommy Thayer, a guitar tech who would eventually replace Frehley in the band (and currently wears his classic “Spaceman” makeup on stage).

If you take one thing away from the book, it’s that Frehley is one hell of a lucky guy – his multiple near-fatal auto accidents, numerous near-misses with the law, and rampant drug intake should’ve killed him long ago.  Yet, Frehley has prevailed, and is now (finally) clean and sober.  No Regrets offers a unique, insider’s look into one of the biggest bands in the world.  For a Kiss fan, it’s a must-read.  –Tony Peters


Prince – Chaos, Disorder, Revolution (book review)

Prince – Chaos, Disorder, & Revolution — Jason Draper (Backbeat Books)  book review by Carey Brentlinger

Being a diehard Prince fan all my life, I was anxious to read this book that showcased who Prince is.  I was very surprised to learn a lot about Prince’s early years.  I knew he had a sister but didn’t know about 3 step-siblings.  It was also nice to learn more about his marriage and the baby that he lost.

The book has a lot of facts about songs and albums, and Prince’s mindset when he was recording each one.  Which was awesome, because Prince is a very private person and doesn’t let many into his world.  Although, the book doesn’t flow as well as it could, a lot of jumping back and forth between albums and dates, it was still very informative.  I was also very pleased at the end that there is a chronological list of everything.  Would definitely recommend it to other Prince fans.

Surf Beat (book review)

Surf Beat – Rock n’ Roll’s Forgotten Revolution by Kent Crowley (Backbeat Books) book review by Nick Kizirnis

As a long-time surf music fan I am excited to see Kent Crowley’s in-depth account of the genre’s history in “Surf Beat”. Sub-titled “Rock’n”Roll’s Lost Revolution”, Crowley takes the reader on an intimate chord-by-chord account of the formation of the first surf music, the rise of surf music starts like Dick Dale and behind the scenes with Leo Fender as he evolved his famous guitars and amplifiers … even Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa are tied to surf music’s legacy.

What is amazing in “Surf Beat” is how Crowley provides such detailed accounts – not just of the evolution of surf and music gear but what it felt like to really be there when surf music started (young teenage surfers who formed bands that would last a year) to its rise in popularity and confusion and contradiction (Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys, and actually anything with vocals), from its leaner years to its resurgence. Crowley makes the reader feel as if they were in the crowd, in the band, and part of the entire history.

For many of us who did arrive a little late to the scene, movies like “La Bamba” and of course “Pulp Fiction” provided the keys to where this mysterious, moody yet fun and rocking music came from. But surf music has never gotten its due until now. Crowley’s “Surf Beat” is a gift to the youngsters and a tribute to those that were there at the start.

Many years ago my boss made me a set of surf records and compilations. I played those cassettes over and over again and listened in amazement and wondered what it would have been like to be around decades ago when this amazing music started. Now I know. Time to break out the cassettes again. Time to turn the reverb up just a little bit more …!  –Nick Kizirnis