The Book Report: Potential Stocking Stuffers, Bathroom Reading and In-flight Entertainment

Late autumn is a busy time for publishing houses as they scramble to get major releases on the shelves before Thanksgiving, paving the way for another spirit-sucking stream of holiday-themed cookbooks. This season’s episode of Publisher’s Clearing House is particularly flush with big time rock star “literature,” and a few readers will have these books on their Xmas wish lists.

All book detail, synopsis and trade reviews from The Guardian Bookstore unless otherwise indicated. Prices are generally omitted because really, can you put a price on the sheer pleasure and enjoyment of reading?

Waging Heavy Peace

Neil Young


Publisher: Viking

Publication date: October 25, 2012

Synopsis: Neil Young is an iconic figure in the history of rock and pop culture (inducted not once but twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). This title offers an overview of his personal life and musical career, spanning his time in bands Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash, and his role as the patron saint of the grunge scene.

Trade review: Potentially the music memoir of the year as enigmatic rock icon Neil Young tells the story of his remarkable life and career. His songs are filled with tantalizing lyrics and mesmerizing references, much of which will be explained in this book. His private life has been a struggle against ill-health (his own and his children’s), which he will write about very movingly, and he also covers his charitable work and social campaigning.

Excerpt from random review: Wesley Stace, The Wall Street Journal, September 28, 2012. “Waging Heavy Peace takes the form of a diary, a life-in-the-day structure that gives Mr. Young room to maneuver, as he takes us on a wander round his memory palace—a drive down the coastal highway, stopping off occasionally for a meeting with the CEO of Warner Music Group to demonstrate PureTone (the audio format he is developing that will deliver music in perfect quality to the downloader) or for a trip to the Costco (‘You can find anything’). The book is erratic (if everyone else weren’t going to do it, the urge to compare its structure to one of his guitar solos would be irresistible), charmingly mundane (a paean to his Sonicare Toothbrush calls it ‘a product I am very impressed with’) and comically repetitive (almost everything in the book is said twice and, if Mr. Young is worked up—as he frequently is—many more times than that). The book contains so many Thank Yous that you occasionally wonder whether you’ve stumbled into the acknowledgements by mistake.”

BSM reaction: Can’t wait to get our paws on the paperback edition.

Hallo Sausages: The Lyrics of Ian Dury

Jemmina Dury

Hardcover ISBN 9781408812143, 320 pages (book+CD)

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Publication date: October 25, 2012

Synopsis: The only complete collection of Ian Dury’s lyrics, illustrated with previously unseen material.

Trade review: Here for the first time are Ian Dury’s collected lyrics – not only material that was released, but also things that have been gathered from old demos, song fragments and other sources by his daughter Jemima. The book is arranged chronologically, and has been designed by renowned artist and designer Jake Tilson, who was Dury’s brother-in-law, using original scrawled notes and a miscellany of scraps that inspired them. The book also comes with an exclusive CD of previously unreleased material. An excellent homage to a unique artist.

Random review: Terry Staunton, Record Collector Magazine, date unavailable.  “Even when they only appear before you on the printed page, it’s nigh-on impossible to read Dury’s words without hearing his voice in your head, such was the singularly strong personality of the great man. ‘Lyrics’ barely does this collection justice, as it’s clearly the work of a true poet, an orator of unbridled eloquence and imagination. The index alone is telling, Dury’s daughter Jemima opting to present the material arranged by the first line of each song or soliloquy (160 in all), not unlike a Christian hymn book. It’s a breathtaking catalogue of comic fancy, philosophical insight  and beautifully descriptive narrative that stands strong without the embellishment of music from The Blockheads or others. ‘Dad was a brilliant poet,’ Jemima writes in her introduction, ‘but he was surprisingly shy of that title, he found the notion too romantic and highbrow; he preferred being called a wordsmith.’ Twelve years after his death, Dury’s wordsmithery (a corruption he would no doubt have approved of) is as full of life as it was the first time he put pen to paper.”

BSM reaction: Struggling to name one song by Ian Dury and the Blockheads, so £18.75 is a big stretch for this book. Wait until it’s available in ebook.

The John Lennon Letters

John Lennon


Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Publication date: October 9, 2012

Synopsis: First ever collection of the letters of John Lennon, an international publishing event.

Trade review: For the first time, Yoko Ono has given permission to publish a collection of the letters of John Lennon, and the editor is the Beatles official biographer, Hunter Davies, who knew John well. Here are 250 letters, postcards and notes, arranged chronologically, so that a narrative builds up reflecting John’s life. Many of them are reproduced as they were, in his own handwriting or typing, plus the odd cartoon or doodle. It will be published on the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first record, “Love Me Do”, in the week that would have seen his 72nd birthday.

Random review: Jarvis Cocker, The Guardian, October 10, 2012.

“’Fifty Years of the Rolling Stones’, ‘Fifty Years of 007’, ‘Fifty Years of the Beatles’ as a 49 year-old I feel a little resentful of the latest round of anniversaries. They might as well write: ‘Hey, something really exciting and important happened here and you just (but only just) missed it. Ha, ha.’ If there is no future any more, then at least we can celebrate anniversaries. The fact that a particular number of years has passed since an event appears to confer on it a certain gravitas and significance. (Though I’m sure I saw an advert for a Pretty Things reunion concert a couple of years ago that proclaimed ‘43 years since the release of SF Sorrow’ or something similar.) We are children of the echo. Born just after some kind of explosion, and doomed to spend our lives working backwards to try and get as close as we can to the moment of that Big Bang. Now, a cosmologist will tell you that he knows what was happening in the universe a trillionth of a second after the big bang but he still can’t explain the bang itself. And so it is for the committed Beatles-ologist just how did those four lads come to “shake the world”? And shake it so hard? Will we ever know?

Maybe this might help to clear things up: The John Lennon Letters, put together by Hunter Davies, the guy who wrote the very first Beatles biography (which came out ages ago like, you know, when they still existed). The earliest letter dates from 1951, the last from 1980. Everything happened between those dates Hamburg, Beatlemania, Ed Sullivan, the Maharishi, Bagism, ‘Imagine’, you name it and Lennon found the time to write letters about it? Awesome! Well not quite.

To be fair to Davies, he does admit in his introduction that he has “rather expanded the definition of the word ‘letter'”. This still does not quite prepare the reader for gems such as ‘Degs, No Fucking George, Yer Cunt, Jack’ (letter 238: Memo to Derek) or ‘Fred, Lights in kitchen (bulbs), Honey Candy, Kitchen Air Con is ‘On Heat’ (Something Wrong), Cabbage, Grape-oil (ask where), Onions, Peas (NB the Korean Shop Shells Them!), Sesame Oil, Tomatoes, Berries, Yoghurt, Hamburger Meat (for the cat!)’ (letter 255: Domestic list for Fred). The Post-It Notes of John Lennon, anyone? I like mundane reality you could say it’s my specialist subject but there’s no getting away from the fact that the second of those two examples is a shopping list. Are we really so bereft of new ideas that we now wish to study the equivalent of someone’s Ocado profile?

A clue may lie in the sources that Davies has used for this book: in the main the letters came not from their original recipients, but from private collectors who had acquired them at auction. In the years since they were written, these communications have turned from scraps of paper into banknotes. They are valuable objects. Hence each is represented by a photo of it accompanied by a transcription of its contents. The photo of the artefact is just as important as what it actually says (maybe more so). The photo is saying: ‘Look at this – this piece of paper is worth thousands of pounds! A famous person once touched it!’ And perhaps that message is more important than the wording of the letter itself. It’s a book of religious relics rather than some form of autobiography. Or maybe it’s just a posh version of a Sotheby’s catalogue.

Am I being too harsh? Let me get one thing straight: I love the Beatles. I haven’t named any kids after them but I still really love them. They were the first group that I was ever properly aware of. In my early teens I would sometimes stay in and listen to the radio all day in the hope that I would catch a song by them that I’d never heard before and be able to tape it on my radio-cassette player. When I bought a new turntable last week, I took along my copy of Abbey Road to do a listening test. It was essential to me that that record would sound good on whatever I bought. But the whole point of the Beatles is that they were ordinary. Four working-class boys from Liverpool who showed that not only could they create art that stood comparison with that produced by “the establishment” – they could create art that pissed all over it. From the ranks of the supposedly uncouth, unwashed barbarians came the greatest creative force of the 20th century. It wasn’t meant to be that way. It wasn’t officially sanctioned. But it happened –and that gave countless others from similar backgrounds the nerve to try it themselves. Their effect on music and society at large is incalculable. I am so the target-audience for this book that it hurts – but something feels wrong.

Britpop (I can scarcely believe that I typed that word of my own free will) perhaps comes in useful for once at this point. People of my generation felt this obscure pang – this feeling that we’d somehow missed out on something amazing. So we tried to make it happen again – but exactly the same. You cannot do a karaoke version of a social revolution (good fun trying though). What changed in the interim? Why was Br**pop doomed to failure? Too many factors to go into here, but one was: too much information. Too much reverence. Wearing the same clothes and taking the same drugs will not make us into Beatles. It will make us fat and ill. And books like this (along with many others, I admit) are what make that mistake possible. The Beatles didn’t know they were the Beatles. The Beatles didn’t have a plan or a blueprint to follow. They followed their impulses and vague hunches and somehow left a legacy of 213 songs with scarcely a dud among them. That’s all the information you need, really. But now that relatively modest body of work has been overshadowed by all the ‘previously unseen’ and ‘the making-of’ nonsense that becomes necessary if you want to flog people the same thing year after year.

We elevate people to the status of heroes in order to let ourselves off the hook: ‘I’m just a mere mortal – I could never even dream of doing something like that.’ Lennon himself always seemed at pains to deflate any such high opinions of himself: what he would make of this book, I can only guess. The letters show an ordinary human being doing ordinary things: writing lists, sending postcards, enquiring after relatives. Why is that interesting? Because that person has now achieved demigod status. Is that a good thing? I dunno – good singer, though. Pretty good songwriter too, as it goes.

You, Hunter Davies, are just doing your job. I read it from cover to cover and will probably give it as a Christmas present. We, the children of the echo, should get a life. We, the children of the echo, should know better. Time to move on. Imagine that.”

BSM reaction: Um, what that guy just said.

Mick Jagger

Philip Norman


Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: October 4, 2012

Synopsis: A miracle of still-plentiful hair, raw sex-appeal, and strutting talent . The frontman of one of the most influential and controversial groups of all time. A musical genius with a career spanning over four decades. He is a testament to British glamour, the ultimate architect and demi-god of rock.

Trade review: To celebrate The Rolling Stones’s 50 years in show business, this is a biography of frontman Mick Jagger, which gives fans an insight into a more complex, impressive and often endearing character. Charts his journey through scandal-ridden conspiracy, infamous prison spell, hordes of female admirers and a knighthood while stripping away the fame, wealth and idolatry to reveal a story of talent and promise unfulfilled.

Excerpt from a random review: Julie Burchill, The Observer, October 20, 2012. “Large though this book is, it labours in the shadow of other tomes both written and unwritten, and one of them is of course Richards’s brilliant, bestselling autobiography Life, published in 2010. A couple of others are Philip Norman’s two books about the Rolling Stones, which means that quite a lot of this one seems rather familiar. And the final book, which does not bode well for this one, is the autobiography which Jagger himself (albeit with a ghostwriter) promised and failed to deliver in the early 80s on account of the interview tapes that were to make up the meat of the matter being judged much too boring. It must have hurt him to hand back a million pounds but he bore it bravely: “This isn’t working, is it?” he concedes to the book’s distraught editor before they even sit down. It is always admirable when someone admits that they do not have a book in them; let us hope that Mr. Norman learns from his subject’s example for future reference, as he has surely delighted us with this strand for long enough now.”

BSM reaction: If I were in the bathroom and this book or Jonathan Livingston Seagull were my only reading choices, I’d start counting floor tiles.

Pete Townshend: Who I Am

Pete Townshend


Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: October 4, 2012

Synopsis: He is one of the greatest musical talents Britain has ever produced. But even as the principle songwriter and lead guitarist for The Who, it would be unjust to define Pete Townshend’s life simply through his achievements with bandmates Daltrey, Moon and Entwistle.

Trade reviews: The autobiography of the principle songwriter and lead guitarist of The Who. He tells all about his incredible life and elaborates on the turbulences of time spent as one of the world’s most respected musicians, being in one of rock’s greatest bands, and wanting to give it all up. Townshend will support the launch with events, TV and radio and press interviews.

Random review: Shrug.

BSM reaction: See random review.

Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer

Chris Salewicz

Publisher: Faber & Faber

Publication date: October 7, 2012

Synopsis: The definitive biography of Joe Strummer, released with a new epilogue to mark the 60th anniversary of his birth. Chris Salewicz was an intimate friend of Strummer’s for over 25 years. Drawing on more than 300 interviews with family, friends and associates, this is a comprehensive, compelling insight into the man behind The Clash.

Trade review: Leader of The Clash and inspiration for the likes of U2, Strummer was the political and musical pioneer of his generation and one of British rock’n’roll’s most fascinating idols.

Excerpt from a random review: N/A

BSM reaction: Go back and re-read the Jarvis Cocker review of the Lennon book.

Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s

Peter Doggett

Paperback and other formats

Publisher: Viking

Publication date: October 4, 2012

Synopsis: Explores the rich heritage of Bowie’s productive and inspired decade, and traces the way in which his music reflected and influenced the world around him. This book examines in detail Bowie’s audacious creation of an ‘alien’ rock star, Ziggy Stardust, and his increasingly perilous explorations of the nature of identity and the meaning of fame.

Trade review: none

Random review: The book’s song-by-song format takes after Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald’s superb 1994 study of the Beatles. Doggett writes that MacDonald was under contract to write a similar analysis of Bowie’s work at the time of his death in 2003; he was asked by MacDonald’s editor to revive the project, which he does admirably.

BSM reaction: This would probably be great reading on a two or three-hour flight in economy class.

How Music Works

David Byrne

Hardcover and other formats

Publisher: Canongate Books

Publication date: September 13

Synopsis: From the frontman of Talking Heads comes David Byrne’s magnum opus on the subject of music.

Trade review: The frontman of influential band Talking Heads explores how music is shaped by its time and place, and explains how the advent of recording technology forever changed our relationship to playing, performing and listening to music. From the author of “The Bicycle Diaries”.

Random review: Mark Ellen, The Observer, September 7, 2012

“Ever against the grain, the now 60-year-old Byrne explores a whole symphony of argument in this extraordinary book with the precise, technical enthusiasm you’d expect from the painfully bright art school-educated son born in Scotland, raised in the States of an electrical engineer, occasionally mopping his fevered brow in the crestfallen manner of a 19th-century poet. The title is perfectly chosen. Music doesn’t just work because of its effect on the senses; every aspect of its sound and construction has an emotional impact, right up to the way it’s distributed, even marketed, and the machines on which it’s consumed. It’s fascinating.”

BSM reaction: We will be reading this book at some time in the very near future.

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