Sounds of Summer
Geoffrey O'Brien's dad was a radio disc jockey, and in Sonata for Jukebox: An Autobiography of My Ears (Counterpoint, $15.95), the son, who is editor-in-chief of the Library of America, riffs on the burdens of the calling. "The deejay's task is to persuade the listener that all instants are created equal," he writes, "that even the commercials -- don't turn the dial! -- have a natural right to exist and flourish." This observation comes in a chapter called "Top Forty," which harks back to the 1960s, when disc jockeys were superstars (an era that may have ended with the recent ouster of that old-guard screamer Cousin Brucie from the New York City airwaves) and popular music was entering a period of glorious creativity. As O'Brien puts it, "Hardly anyone notices that the 'mindless noise' and 'primitive beat' to which editorialists have been objecting for nearly a decade is now rich in invention and ornament, densely textured, decked in chimes and trills even as it moves -- in the work of Barbara Lewis or Ben E. King or Curtis Mayfield -- into emotional spaces far removed from anything that had ever been called rock and roll."
By the middle of the '60s, the sunny, surf-sprayed, customized-car optimism of groups like the Beach Boys was in eclipse, and a more dangerous group, the Doors, had become the most vital American rock band. As Stephen Davis reminds us in his biography of the group's lead singer, Jim Morrison: Life, Death, Legend (Gotham, $16), the so-called Lizard King became notorious for giving exposure to more than just new songs at the band's concerts. And he came to a shabby, early end; in one of the last photos taken of him, Morrison looks every bit as blobby as another once-gorgeous musical king who went to seed, Elvis Presley. (Davis argues that the commonly given cause for Morrison's death -- a heart attack -- was a coverup for what actually did him in, a heroin overdose.) But for all his debauchery, Davis insists, Morrison was a hard-working artist: "Between 1965 and 1971, [he] wrote a hundred songs, recorded seven platinum albums, wrote and published four editions of poems, made three films, recorded his poetry, wrote screenplays, and filled dozens of notebooks with verse and notations." And his work has lasted; the Doors' music, in Davis's apt phrasing, "still has the uncanny power to poison every new class of ninth graders with its dark messages and raw power."
With their blend of punk and reggae, the Clash was one of the most galvanizing bands of the 1970s and '80s. In Passion Is a Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash (Da Capo, $18.95), Pat Gilbert introduces his subject by quoting historian Simon Schama on the purpose of writing history ("not to revere the dead but to inspire the living"); yet if this citation seems a bit pompous, the rest of the book is anything but. Gilbert is a fan and a collector of Clash-iana, such as this anecdote about the refrain -- and title -- of the group's greatest hit. A friend of the group, Tymon Dogg, was fooling around with a guitar one day, playing what sounded like "Eastern scales." As Dogg remembers it, singer Joe Strummer began shouting "Rock the casbah!" but Dogg couldn't hear him properly. "I thought he was saying, 'Stop, you cadger.' "
The Clash was deemed such a mighty force for progressive politics that its volatile manager, Bernie Rhodes, gave some thought to continuing it by adopting a cast-changing "Saturday Night Live" approach. "I think that is the direction he would like to have gone in," an observer has commented, "running The Clash like a football team, with different players coming in once the old ones had run out of energy." This didn't happen, though; London stopped calling for good in 1985.
The publicity material for Kiss: Behind the Mask: The Official Authorized Biography, by David Leaf and Ken Sharp (Warner, $15.95) proffers a shocking statistic: "Only the Beatles and the Rolling Stones have more gold records" than the preposterously face-painted heavy-metal rockers. But then Kiss has always been devoted to shocking the unwary. One of the band members, Paul Stanley, has taken the time to develop a personal groupie protocol: "The fact that I could have girls all day is old news. I'm past quantity. It's quality or nothing. That's not always the best way to go, but I have a pretty high opinion of myself. It's not a matter of somebody being good enough for me, but if there's no spark, I'd rather be alone. My idea of being with somebody means giving them my energy, my concern, my all. People are too important to play with." Stanley, then, is not just an objectification of groupie dreams but the thinking man's womanizer.
-- Dennis Drabelle