By Timothy White
Holt. 807 pp. $24.95
"The truth is," Keith Richards tells Timothy White, "I'm more interested in the roll than I am in the rock." The author, a prolific magazine writer and radio host, is interested in both. This bulging collection contains wonderful anecdotes about sex and drugs among rock-and-rollers of every style and era, plus enough minutiae about birth dates, parents, offspring and architectural styles of mansions bought with royalties to satisfy the most voracious fan.
What gives this tome its steady backbeat is its knowledgeable talk about the music. Covering musicians from the likes of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson to icons such as Elvis and John Lennon to third-generation rockers such as Bono Vox and Prince, it is filled with good conversation about the creative process that has gone into songs by many of rock's best practitioners.
Still, a fine writer who has been as immersed in rock-and-roll as Timothy White has should produce a better book than this. It is a hodgepodge of interviews and profiles. Many of them appeared, as the author tells us, in slightly different form in an earlier book of his, "Rock Stars." Others are reworked magazine pieces, some of them terribly dated. His article on Paul Simon, for example, was done in 1975, which means it makes no mention of the "Graceland" album, among others.
Although "Rock Lives" does not pretend to be comprehensive, there are gaps you can drive a bus through. An author has a right to be quirky, but if he is going to bore us with a long discourse on Frankie Valli, then why not Dion? Why are giants like Neil Young, Marvin Gaye, Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, John Fogerty and Robbie Robertson among the missing? Moreover, since the women White offers us include lightweights Carly Simon and Rickie Lee Jones, how can he leave out major figures like Bonnie Raitt and Carole King? And devoting an entire chapter to the Beastie Boys? Pul-EEZ!
Where White is obviously in tune with the performer -- James Brown, Richards, Paul McCartney, Peter Townshend, Eric Clapton -- he catches every nuance, every riff. It is fun to hear how McCartney composed "Picasso's Last Words (Drink to Me)" more or less on a dare from Dustin Hoffman, while visiting the set of the film "Papillon." It is interesting to eavesdrop on Steve Winwood discussing the differences in playing piano, organ and synthesizer.
It would be absolutely fascinating to hear Stevie Wonder discuss those instruments. Unfortunately, White's section on the man some musicians consider among the all-time masters of the keyboard reads like an out-take. The author spends most of the chapter describing a demeaning publicity party at which Wonder is paraded around for 15 minutes by his record company dressed in a cowboy costume that makes him look like a "a guileless trick-or-treat toddler." There's nothing wrong with using this incident as a particularly creepy example of show biz corporate manipulation, but Stevie Wonder's music demands more than equal time.
White shines with the classic Brits like Richards and Clapton, especially when he reviews with them various stages of their long careers. He is far less successful with classic Yanks like Don Henley and Brian Wilson. One recurring problem is that magazine interviews with musicians usually are timed to coincide with the release of a specific album. Thus, White's Billy Joel interview focuses almost totally on "The Nylon Curtain." A later interview with Joel, written by White, appears in another book, "The Rolling Stone Interviews," and concentrates on "Glass Houses." It is too bad White could not have found a way to give us the best of both in "Rock Lives."
Then there is the matter of his spare, artful portraits of stars either dead or apparently not available for interviews. White encapsulates the life and work of artists as diverse as Bob Wills, Bill Haley, Professor Longhair, Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan in a few short pages each. For example, he writes of Morrison: "By 1965 he was a listless maunderer who had read enough reasonably cerebral literature to describe his depressions, written enough halfhearted suicide notes to call himself a poet, and grown tired enough of his poems to want a rock band to put them to rest."
Whether you loved Morrison madly or hated him, that's a nifty sentence. In the end, though, such snippets are frustrating. You simply cannot dismiss three Bruce Springsteen albums in a single paragraph, saying each was "progressively more bleak, barren, distraught," and then ramble on for pages about "Tunnel of Love" without doing the artist an injustice.
Love the Boss or hate him, he deserves more. So do readers who are ready to spend nearly two compact discs' worth of cash on a book about rock-and-roll.
The reviewer is a New York-based writer who is working on a book about New Orleans music.