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Music books: a round-up

John Entwistle, Birmingham memoir, Courtney Love, Dave Brubeck and Van Morrison

The day of the "Rock Star" – outlined loosely as any musician or singer that came of age and narcissistically self-served in the era-defining timespan of 1962-1976 – is quickly dying out. The cliche of living fast, dying young snagged several, of course, but virtually every rock star still alive from the earlier part of that time period is now ailing either physically, mentally or creatively. One such rock star was John Entwistle, the bass player with British band The Who, and a man for whom the term "self-indulgent" might have been invented. Entwistle's life is fully explored in The Ox – the Last of the Great Rock Stars: the Authorised Biography of The Who's John Entwistle, by Paul Rees (Constable, £20). From being a post-second World War only child living in a west London suburb to dying (in 2002) of a cocaine-induced heart attack in room 658 of the Hard Rock Hotel in Nevada, USA, Entwistle packed a lot into his 57 years. As Rees efficiently details, however, not much of it was wise or health-conscious (towards the end of his life, sequestered in Quarwood, his decaying 55-room Victorian mansion in Gloucestershire, Entwistle passed the time by drinking "copious quantities of fine brandies and vintage red wines and he was systematically blowing his way through thousands of pounds a month on cocaine"). With Rees laying down the foundations in the way Entwistle played bass – deft, impressive, occasionally grandstanding – the book is enhanced by Entwistle's own highly articulate notes culled from a discarded memoir. These additions lend authenticity to a thorough overview of a much-celebrated if deeply flawed, extravagantly spendthrift musician.

Peter Paphides

There is a different kind of self-indulgence in Broken Greek: a Story of Chip Shops and Pop Songs by Peter Paphides (Quercus, €21), but that's only because it's a memoir of no small insight and length. Paphides is a UK-based music writer (married, not that it makes a blind bit of difference, to Caitlin Moran) with a decades-long career of contributing to magazines (Mojo, Time Out, Q, Observer Music Monthly) and broadsheet newspapers (the Times, Guardian). The memoir, however, is less about what rock stars he has interviewed and much more about his sense of belonging in a Britain that now seems virtually antiquated: coin-operated machines, eight-track cartridges, The Rubettes, British Telecom's Dial-a-Disc service, Human League haircuts, and Pebble Mill at One. Interweaving the domestic background of a Cypriot family moving to Birmingham in the 1960s and personal experiences of growing pains through numerous music trends, Paphides turns what could have been just another immigrant story into a detailed profusion of fact, genuine fun and a yearning, yarn-spinning search for cultural identity.

Dave Haslam

Another quest afoot is why an American teenager – who would go on to become one of the best-known female performers of the grunge music era – would want to visit a city in the north of England in the early 1980s. A splendidly designed slim volume of 61 pages, Searching for Love: Courtney Love in Liverpool, 1982, by Dave Haslam (Configo Publishing, £7) might be page-light but it's heavy on fanciful and anecdotal detail, as it relates several months in Love's life that she subsequently described as "one of the most important things of my existence". Haslam contextualises the tale as more about a need for self-identity in a city of decline than a typical teenage dilemma of the sex'n'drugs'n'rock'n'roll variety. He teases out Love's visit with Liverpool music scene notables such as Ian McCulloch and Bill Drummond, as well as via previously published interviews and letters, and arrives at a conclusion that is as much about truth as mythology. He quotes Joan Didion ("memory fades, memory adjusts") and takes pride in the fact that Liverpool "is a city where being able to tell a good story is a prized quality; a good story rather than a true one".

Philip Clark

For true stories of musicians attempting to discover something in themselves that they can then express through music, it's likely you won't read a better book this year than Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time, by Philip Clark (Headline, £25). Along with late-1950s jazz albums such as Kind of Blue (Miles Davis) and Ah Um (Charles Mingus), Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out is considered a jazz masterwork. It was the first jazz album to sell more than one million copies, but why Brubeck didn't achieve similar heights of hip-jazz fame remains a mystery. Clark's book is based around a sequence of face-to-face interviews with the jazz musician on his two-week tour of the UK in 2003. Brubeck was then 83, still living most of his life on the road, but Clark (who, unusually, is a skilled musician as well as a good writer) is more interested in the nuts and bolts of the music than Brubeck's decidedly comfortable life as a long-term married family man who shunned alcohol and drugs, and who joined the Catholic Church in 1980. The core of the book is, inevitably, the Time Out album (which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2009, the same year that Brubeck received the US arts award, the Kennedy Center Honors) and the classic quartet that recorded it. Music theorist though he is, however (be advised that scalic patterns and chromatic harmonies make an appearance), Clark rarely disregards the casual reader. Buffering the one-on-one interviews with pivotal and marginal sources, the final result is as illuminating as it is lyrical.


Eamon Hughes

"Lyrics are not poems," writes Bob Geldof in his recently published book, Tales of Boomtown Glory. "Reading a song lyric aloud, howsoever profound it may be to your personal life, to most everyone else it seems a bit lame." It's a fair point, but in Eamon Hughes's Introduction to Keep 'Er Lit: New Selected Lyrics, by Van Morrison (Faber, £14.99), he pinpoints what is at the heart of Morrison's lyrics: "a joyous cataloguing of predecessors who are celebrated and honoured, treated with generosity and given their due by someone who stands confidently in line with them as an equal, someone who has created his own tradition by creating his own body of work". Certainly, contends Hughes, when in his song Pagan Heart, Morrison rhymes "crossroads" with "arcadian groves", the songwriter connects blues music (Robert Johnson) with "this elision of the sacred and profane". Arranged largely chronologically, the second volume of Morrison's lyrics (the first, Lit Up Inside, was published in 2014, also by Faber) makes for absorbing reading. Certainly, Geldof is half-right, with a perfect example being Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (a repetitive reverie rendered null and void without the music). Reading the lyrics, however, to the likes of Astral Weeks, And It Stoned Me, I'm Tired Joey Boy, A Sense of Wonder and many more, there's a firm sense that, as an artist Morrison is – as Paul Muldoon's opening line in his foreword would have it – "not only on the front line but engaged in single combat. The opponent is a version of himself and, almost inevitably, it's a fight to the death."