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Yesterdays' Parties: Nico's voice dripped with booze and benzedrine.

Books Beat

Bios you can tap your toes to

By Greg Cahill

The best music books, like Laurence Bergreen's exceptional 1998 ode Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, which arguably set the new standard for music biographies, possess the ability to transport the reader to a specific time and place, to lend a visceral quality to a musician or a band, to create context for their artistry and a sense of what motivated the subject. The worst music books, like Rolling Stone bassist Bill Wyman's woeful 1997 chronicle Stone Alone: The Story of a Rock 'n' Roll Band, are little more than lists of events, or in the case of Wyman's dreadful tome, one big tedious shopping list that meticulously detailed the expenses of the world's most dangerous band.

Hot on the heels of rock bassist Phil Lesh's impressive Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead (reviewed on this site two weeks ago), a half-dozen more music books have arrived on store shelves, ranging from a tiresome Beatles history to an ambitious exploration of the Kansas City jazz scene to a fascinating compilation of press materials published at the time the Velvet Underground were laying the foundations of the rock underground.

First, the worst. Tony Bramwell's Magical Mystery Tours: My Life with the Beatles (Thomas Dunne Books; $24.95) would like to be the authoritative word on the Fab Four (a cover blurb by Paul McCartney informs us, "If you want to know anything about the Beatles, ask Tony Bramwell, he remembers more than I do"), but it reads like the ramblings of a self-absorbed twit who unapologetically boasts that he once attended a private Ravi Shankar concert drunk and still doesn't quite comprehend the significance of his once-privileged access. If you're looking for insight into the mop-topped pop stars, read Philip Norman's excellent 1982 book Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation.

The story behind Julie Blackburn's new biography of the late great jazz singer Billie Holiday, With Billie (Pantheon; $25), is as fascinating as the naked anecdotes that make up this book. Based entirely on 150 interviews with people who knew Holiday--including prostitutes, friends and colleagues--the material was gathered in the 1960s by ill-fated author Linda Kuehl, who hoped to publish the definitive biography on the tortured Lady Day. But after taping and transcribing seemingly endless hours of interviews, Kuehl could not find her own muse. She wrote two chapters, lost her book deal, negotiated a new book deal, and then plunged to her death after leaping out a hotel window. The tapes and transcripts were sold to a collector who recently gave Blackburn complete access. The result is a rich, if uneven, portrait of the greatest jazz singer of all time.

Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop--A History (Oxford University Press; $32), by jazz authorities Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix, spotlights the vibrant Kansas City jazz scene of the 1920s, '30s and '40s, a fertile ground that produced Charlie Parker, Count Basie and others, but which was overshadowed by New York, New Orleans and Chicago. Still, underemployed jazz players from throughout the country appreciated its style--pianist Mary Lou Williams once said that K.C. was a heavenly city, [with] musicians everywhere. And Driggs and Haddix know how to bring them all to life through intricate details.

Rock fans can find a pair of noteworthy new releases. Gigantic: The Story of Frank Black and the Pixies (Omnibus Press; $19.95) chronicles the rise of this influential indie-rock band, from their genesis in a dank Boston basement to the triumphant 2004 reunion that found the band attracting hordes of new fans. It's a breezy read from a writer who has penned books on Paul McCartney, the Kinks, Kate Bush and others.

The more entertaining read is All Yesterdays' Parties: The Velvet Underground in Print, 1966-1971 (Da Capo Press; $26), edited by Clinton Heylin (best known for his acclaimed Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited). Here, Heylin compiles dozens of articles and concert reviews published during the lifetime of this groundbreaking alternative rock band (avant-garde artist Andy Warhol's house band), from the mainstream and the underground press, but curiously opts out of contributing a preface that would put all of this varied material into perspective. Draw your conclusions. It's still an interesting way to delve into the beginnings not only of underground rock, but also of the then emerging rock press as such writers as Lester Bangs applied gonzo journalism to their craft.

And who could ever tire of reading about blonde chanteuse Nico? The former European supermodel and onetime Fellini actress (she had a bit part in La Dolce Vita) fronted the band with a voice that was all boredom, bourbon and Benzedrine.

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From the May 4-10, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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