Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist by Steve Lowenthal
Between 1959 and 2001, John Fahey released more than 40 albums of acoustic six-string guitar music that touched on everything from the prewar country blues of Charley Patton to interpretations of the music of Romantic-era composer Antonín Dvorák. Author Steve Lowenthal’s slim-yet-fascinating bio of Fahey (1939-2001) follows the flatpicking polymath’s journey from his earliest days in Takoma Park, Maryland, through a near-mystical quest centered on music that put him in the orbit of everyone from blues icons Skip James and Bukka White to Vedanta guru Swami Satchidananda. Fahey, who self-released his first record at age 20, is considered one of the first truly American DIY artists. His immense talent and pioneering spirit were matched only by his prolonged depressions and addictions, yet these obstacles never truly hindered his determination in taking solo acoustic guitar and pushing it to the point of pure transcendence.
— Daniel A. Brown
Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, by Rick Bragg
Rick Bragg’s biography of Jerry Lee Lewis is more love letter than comprehensive history of the man who almost single-handedly invented rock and roll. Jerry Lee (never just Jerry) attracted throngs with raw, combative songs with bawdy lyrics – his own cousin, Jimmy Swaggart, preached against the devil’s music in general and Jerry Lee’s interpretation in particular. This book, by Southern writer Bragg, consistently supports, excuses and elides Jerry Lee’s decades of violence against fans, spouses, fellow musicians and total strangers. Bragg’s treatment borders on fawning accolade; he cautions that the tales within are Jerry Lee’s remembrances and as such aren’t necessarily the whole truth. The retelling of events – gigs in chicken-wired honky tonks, the conquests of girls and women throughout the Bible Belt, the alcohol-and-drug-fueled fisticuffs – are tinged with the privilege of age, or just plain wishful thinking, looking back on what should have happened, could have happened, or didn’t really happen.
— Marlene Dryden
Tom Petty: Rock ‘n’ Roll Guardian, by Andrea M. Rotondo
This paperback bio of Tom Petty, written by Andrea M. Rotondo, has grammatical errors – “heart-trending” to describe the effect George Harrison’s death had on Petty – and oft-repeated anecdotes galore, some woefully inaccurate. Take the tired tale of how Little Tommy met Elvis Presley in 1961, when Presley was filming Follow That Dream near Gainesville. Tommy’s Uncle Earl, being the sole film processor in North Florida, was working on the set and Aunt Evelyn took her kids and Cousin Tommy to see a real Hollywood movie being made. Tom was born Oct. 20, 1950, so in ’61, the lad was 11. Rotondo says as much on page 22. Flip to page 24 and it’s like Marty McFly is reporting the life-altering incident: All of a sudden, Tom Petty is a 14-year-old seeing the King of Rock & Roll with adoring fans; the teenager instantly becomes a worshipper at the altar of popular music. New math? Rotondo lists scads of concert details, though, and just about every Tom Petty recording there is, though I didn’t find “Girl on LSD.”
— Marlene Dryden
A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man by Holly George-Warren
Holly George-Warren’s exhaustive tome on singer-songwriter Alex Chilton explores his earliest days in Memphis as a teenaged, blue-eyed soul singer in The Box Tops, his guiding force in helming innovative power pop-rockers Big Star, on through his sometimes-shaky yet always fascinating solo career. The child of upper-middle-class bohemian parents who encouraged his creative endeavors, Chilton grew up blessed with an independent spirit that seemed to also be his greatest curse. Throughout the course of his career, Chilton took chances that bordered on self-sabotage, anchored by an indifference or even cantankerous and jaundiced view toward “success” in the music business. Chilton has been lauded by countless bands (The Replacements, Teenage Fanclub and The Posies, to name just a few) and has now become increasingly canonized since his death of a heart attack in 2010, yet he will most likely be forever relegated to a kind of artistic ghetto, a destination where devotees and practitioners of restlessly creative risk-taking music would do well to visit.
— Daniel A. Brown
Please Be with Me: A Song for My Father, Duane Allman by Galadrielle Allman
One part memoir and one part biography, Galadrielle Allman’s celebration of the father she barely knew is a touching and fascinating look at Duane Allman (1946-1971), a Southern-born musician who pushed jazz-rock and the blues into forms that current musicians are still trying to decipher. Through the testimonies of surviving bandmates, family members (Duane’s younger brother Gregg is particularly open and revealing) and Duane’s peers, Galadrielle is given full access in her efforts to understand a music icon as well as her longing to claim a sense of the father she lost. The Allman Brothers are given much page space, but the virtuoso slide guitarist’s days at Muscle Shoals and time spent with players like Delaney and Bonnie and Herbie Mann are equally captivating. Allman was an eager participant in the free love and dope vibes of the ’60s; there’s enough heroin and Jack Daniel’s to send the heartiest of readers to rehab. But Galadrielle never dips into the sensational, instead focusing on her father’s creative temperament, daunting work ethic (which included touring and recording schedules that would have broken a lesser soul), and passion for spinning out innovative and awe-inspiring riffs on his ever-present Gibson Les Paul.
— Daniel A. Brown