Taking note of music books

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If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, as Elvis Costello and others have sneered, then what does that make reading about music? Well, fun, for starters. Although Bowker Market Research reports that music books have steadily comprised between 2 and 2.5 percent of the non-fiction market since early 2010, they certainly seem to be enjoying a Baby Boomer-driven bubble right now.

Books by or about Neil Young, Ann and Nancy Wilson, Leonard Cohen, Cyndi Lauper, Wyclef Jean and David Byrne are newly on the shelves; Pete Townshend's and Rod Stewart's memoirs and Philip Norman's Mick Jagger biography and Peter Ames Carlin's Bruce Springsteen biography are due in October; and Carlos Santana and recording industry mogul Clive Davis recently announced upcoming memoirs while Bob Dylan revealed he has begun writing the follow-up to his casually spellbinding "Chronicles: Volume One."


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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 John Lennon delivers an outstanding vocal performance on the Beatles' "Twist and Shout," but when you read about how the song was recorded as the band finished hammering out its entire debut album "Please Please Me" in a single day while Lennon fought a cold — and how the singer and his exhausted band mustered the energy for such an impassioned performance on the first take — it's that much more thrilling.

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 Francois Truffaut's book-length dialogue with Alfred Hitchcock to collections of Pauline Kael's reviews.

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 "The Beatles Recording Sessions," delivers the first volume of his presumably definitive three-part biography next year. Yet for someone who knows these songs inside and out, learning new stories or insights can enable you to return to them with a fresh perspective.

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 Todd Rundgren fan, I also read Paul Myers' "A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren in the Studio," which chronicles his work as a performer and producer and gave me impetus to explore both. I had even less invested in the band Semisonic, but its drummer Jacob Slichter's book "So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star" is one of the most entertaining music-biz tales around (and in case you didn't know, the hit "Closing Time" is about a baby's birth).

That musicians often boast colorful lives is more than just cake frosting, as the producers of VH1's "Behind the Music" could attest. Patti Smith's "Just Kids" portrayed her formative years so evocatively that it won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Although Renée Fleming's "The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer" is less gritty, it offers fascinating insights into the physical demands of creating beautiful vocal sounds.

Then there's Keith Richards' 2010 autobiography "Life," which was irresistible for its guileless way of telling some large, ripe tales. Yet he also didn't skimp on the musical details, such as how he gave his guitar an open G tuning and removed the lower E string to come up with the indelible riffs to "Honky Tonk Woman," "Brown Sugar," "Start Me Up" and others.

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.

Mark Caro is an entertainment reporter for the Chicago Tribune who thinks a definitive Talking Heads biography is overdue.

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