Writing about music, the cliche goes, is like dancing about architecture. But an actual piece of architecture and its gifted inhabitants can be found in the smart and brisk Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era (Viking, $25.95). From the late 1950s through the mid-'60s, the songwriting and publishing hub known as the Brill Building in midtown Manhattan (and several nearby addresses) was home to an ambitious crew of songwriters who shaped a golden age of commercial pop and rock-and-roll. Influenced by the pop craft of a dying Tin Pan Alley, this new generation of tunesmiths heard in the air -- and brought to their songs -- a New York City awash in black, white and Latin musical influences, an ecstatic cultural mix of rhythm and blues, doo-wop, soul and Afro-Cuban music. Author Ken Emerson focuses on seven of the most illustrious teams: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich.
The list of classics they churned out is staggering, including "Stand By Me," "Walk On By," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "Save the Last Dance for Me." Emerson, who previously wrote a well-received biography of Stephen Foster, captures the hit-driven hustle, the marriages, the divorces, the fortunes made (and sometimes lost) and the often serendipitous beginnings of these fateful collaborations. The Brill era began its decline with the arrival of the British Invasion, Motown and Bob Dylan, but decades on, the music has endured -- for good reason.
The Dark Side
On the opposite end of the musical spectrum lies a work that has proven nearly as enduring as the Brill Building songs, Pink Floyd's 1973 album "The Dark Side of the Moon," which has sold some 30 million copies. The zealous devotion many listeners have to this chilly, space-rock record can be baffling, but it was certainly on the turntable at every bong party with a black light that I attended in the late 1970s.
Perhaps it's a guy thing, a factor that John Harris briefly hints at in The Dark Side of the Moon: The Making of the Pink Floyd Masterpiece (Da Capo, $24.95). The book offers a crisp chronicle of the band's history and early recordings, culminating in the making of "Dark Side." In recounting Pink Floyd's early years, Harris focuses on the impact and mental disintegration of Syd Barrett, the band's original guiding force. Though Barrett's acid-casualty antics are fascinating, he is soon gone from the picture and so is the most colorful character in this book. What you're left with are four talented dudes who are also a little boring.
"They weren't very friendly," recalls session vocalist Lesley Duncan. "They were cold; rather clinical." That terse assessment sums up the making of "Dark Side," the antithesis of the Brill writers' sweaty spontaneity. Pink Floyd and their crew spent an inordinate amount of time fiddling with various gadgets, tape loops and sound effects. Recording-gear geeks may turn goose-pimply over references to patch-bays and pin-boards and something called the Synth A (don't ask), but unless you're a Pink Floyd obsessive, it's hard to find the drama in the band's poker-faced, tech-head approach to their masterpiece.
Born to be Blue
A lack of personal drama has never been a problem for country singer Wynonna Judd, who has made the teary press conference a career staple. In her new memoir, Coming Home to Myself (New American Library, $25.95), the redheaded belter forthrightly confronts a number of personal issues: her weight, health scares, lack of self-esteem, unwed pregnancies, ugly divorce from her first husband, financial problems and arrest for driving under the influence.
Although there is certainly a lot going on here, it's hard to accuse Judd of making melodramas out of molehills. Consider this doozy: In 1994, she was informed by her sister, movie star Ashley (with their weeping mother, Naomi, in attendance) that the man Wynonna had always assumed was her dad was not, in fact, her biological father. So there's a little mother issue, exacerbated by the decade she spent performing with Naomi as the superstar duo the Judds.
Overwhelmed by personal dramas, Wynonna, in 2003, did what every troubled celebrity seems to do these days: She appeared on "Oprah." Twice. She also headed off to a healing center for a series of life-coach sessions. This part of the book is surprisingly moving, and anyone wrestling with their own demons will likely take heart from her determination to change her life.
What They Said
Studs Terkel's And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey (New Press, $25.95) achieves mixed results. The author of such acclaimed oral histories as The Good War and Working , Terkel includes some colorful anecdotes here but also reveals the limitations of raw transcription when it comes to music writing. The stellar lineup isn't the problem. This collection of interviews -- culled from Terkel's 45-year stint as a deejay at the Chicago radio station WFMT -- includes discussions with the opera diva Rosa Raisa, jazz giant Dizzy Gillespie, bluesman Big Bill Broonzy and the young Bob Dylan.
Occasionally these transcriptions work just fine on the page. Terkel's interviews with the folk-singers Pete Seeger and Jean Ritchie are informative, clear and self-contained because both subjects are thorough storytellers. Others feel incomplete and insidery, presuming too much historical musical knowledge on the reader's part. The accompanying thumbnail bios aren't always enough to fill in the gaps.
Bereft of the music, several of these dialogues are downright frustrating. Take this excerpt from an interview with Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar:
"Based on this scale, this raga has its own ascending, descending movements. I'll just give you a little example. [He plays] This is equivalent to the major scale, for instance. [He plays] On each of these scales, we have got hundreds of ragas. [He plays] What I'm playing actually are the skeletons of the ragas, known as the ascending and descending movements."
I'm sure this was fascinating to hear. Reading it is another matter entirely. Some judicious editing would have helped. But by committing Shankar to the page in this way, Terkel has in effect left his interview subject, well, dancing about architecture.
Chrissie Dickinson is a freelance writer whose essays have appeared in the anthologies "Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader" and "Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics."