If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, as
Books by or about
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday
Statistics certainly aren't needed to justify the joy of reading about music, whether it's your favorite performer's biography or a critical assessment of certain works. Costello can't possibly still believe his "dancing about architecture" quote from the early '80s anyway. You ever read his liner notes? Sometimes I suspect he keeps reissuing his albums just to give himself an excuse to write another chapter-length essay about each one.
Because Costello knows this: His words enrich the listening experience. Learning where and when music was recorded and under what conditions — be they the physical setting, a performer's emotional state or a band's working dynamic — can lend the music new dimensions and depth.
Few would dispute that
Music writing can pack a visceral punch that, say, film writing can't equal. And I love movies and many books about them, running the gamut from "Final Cut," Steven Bach's hilariously clear-eyed account of how "Heaven's Gate" became the bomb that blew up United Artists, to
Strong film writing makes you look at movies in a new way; that's why I like to read reviews after I've seen the movies. But film analysis is a relatively cerebral endeavor; you're thinking through the ideas and processing the filmmaking and storytelling and their impact. Given that films usually are mammoth, collaborative undertakings, narratives about them also tend to be less intimate than those about musicians getting together to work out a tune.
Plus, as often as you may re-watch your favorite films, you listen to your favorite — and not so favorite — songs way more. Music is a constant part of people's lives, whether it's coming out of speakers or earphones or playing in your head.
So music writing can give you a precious gift: letting you hear an old song anew. No wonder there are so many Beatles books. On one hand, you think, what's left to be written? We may find that out when Mark Lewisohn, who wrote the indispensable "
And if you don't know the music, the books can guide you in. The Beatles were before my time, so Roy Carr and Tony Tyler's "The Beatles: An Illustrated Record," Nicholas Schaffner's "The Beatles Forever" and even Ron Schaumburg's goofy "Growing Up with the Beatles" gave me a critical and historical context for digging into their catalog. Collections of Robert Christgau and Rolling Stone reviews have turned me on to countless other artists.
I wish all of my favorite musicians had books devoted to their lives and work, if only to refresh my record/CD collection. I recently read John Einarson's "Forever Changes: Arthur Lee and the Book of Love," which blends memoir (which Lee had been composing before his 2006 death) and additional reporting to offer an eye-opening look at the complicated, difficult man behind one of the '60s' greatest albums, Love's "Forever Changes." Their work returned to heavy rotation for me after I read it.
Despite never being a huge
That musicians often boast colorful lives is more than just cake frosting, as the producers of VH1's "Behind the Music" could attest.
That's just cool, and in no way does knowing that dilute any of the songs' mystique. Because music is mysterious. It's magic. Plenty of scientists may be studying how it affects us, but we have an emotional connection to music that no words or analysis can capture.
So writing about music — translating those chord changes and rhythms and melodies into something resembling the experience of enjoying it — is difficult, and those who can enable readers to "hear" what they're writing about are rising to the level of artists themselves. Because even at its best, music writing is an approximation, like … like … um …
Come to think of it, I probably would enjoy seeing someone dance about architecture as well.