Sometimes songs themselves don’t tell the whole story, and that’s where music books come in handy. The next best thing to listening to music is reading about it. Significant for both their entertainment value and as documentation of music history, culture and industry, here are five books that you can sink into when you want to learn more about what’s coming through your headphones.
“Everybody Loves Our Town” by Mark Yarm
Some stories are best told by those who experienced it, and as an oral history book that’s what “Everybody Loves Our Town” accomplishes. The book documents the “grunge” music scene in Seattle from the U-Men in 1985 to the death of Alice in Chains’ singer Layne Staley in 2002. Grunge itself is a fraught term, and that’s reflected in the splintering of the scene as select bands rose to mainstream popularity. “Everybody Loves Our Town,” a title which was taken from a lyric in the Mudhoney song “Overblown,” puts voices from 250 interviews onto the page, telling stories from iconic tours and venues, giving insight into the scene dynamics, addressing the rampant drug addiction and attempting to pin down just what exactly grunge is, or perhaps more importantly, what it isn’t.
That isn’t to say that all of the memories recounted in this book are straightforward or even true. The charm comes from the moments where back-to-back quotes directly contradict each other. The cast of characters in “Everybody Loves Our Town” ranges from musicians to agents to media members to roadies, making for a wide range of perspectives and personalities. Readers will be left with a reverence for such a unique pocket of music history as well as a sense of sadness from potential that burned out young.
“Our Band Could Be Your Life” by Michael Azerrad
Underneath the sheen of the pop which defined the 1980s existed a thriving network of indie rock and punk which is captured in “Our Band Could Be Your Life.” Each chapter is a snapshot of a band’s career, making the book a sort of sampler of the indie underground at the time. While every scene and sound is not covered, the 13 bands that are included are given comprehensive treatment. As the story of each career unfolds, common themes begin to arise — conflict between band members, the struggle to maintain independent ideals, the highs and lows of touring in a van. What is most illuminating about “Our Band Could Be Your Life” is its ability to get readers familiar with bands they’ve never heard of through a selection of vivid stories. Even if you do not know all of the bands in this book, it’s sure to hold your attention.
“Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped” by Dean Budnick and Josh Baron
Beginning with the development of computerized ticket systems in the 1960s originally intended for Broadway, “Ticket Masters” tracks the evolution to the ticketing juggernaut that we know today as Ticketmaster. Why the company has such a strong grip on the industry evades consumers, but Dean Budnick and Josh Baron lay it all out in this book. Readers are given an extremely thorough look at the technological advancements, business dealings, strategies and lawsuits which formed the way that tickets are sold, as well as how other aspects such as fees and concessions factor into the profits.
The book also explores the way that artists have both rejected and complied with Ticketmaster’s way of doing business. In the process of unpacking the industry’s history, Budnick and Baron put CEOs, lawmakers, musicians, promoters and investors all under scrutiny. At times it’s a downright astonishing story of greed, and at other times it’s difficult to identify who is in the right or the true intentions of the individuals involved. “Ticket Masters” is the densest book on this list, but if you can get a grasp on the financial and legal jargon then it’s a revealing read.
“Love is a Mixtape” by Rob Sheffield
A strikingly personal story, “Love is a Mixtape” is the refreshing break on this list from pontificating the business or cultural significance of music — and provides the reader with a long list of songs to listen to in the process. It’s a memoir about author Rob Sheffield and his wife Renée, who met and bonded over music but whose relationship was cut short when she died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism. “Love is a Mixtape” is a tribute to people’s capacity to love music and each other, highlighting the couple’s precious moments together and Renée’s inimitable personality with the mixtapes they shared. But while personal, “Love is a Mixtape” exemplifies the universal phenomenon of music as a daily soundtrack, creating audible touchstones for our lives. Just like the memory of loved ones lost, the book occupies a wistful space between sadness and deep appreciation for time spent together.
“Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation” by Steven Hyden
This is the sort of book that everyone wishes would be written about their favorite band, and Steven Hyden delivers for Pearl Jam fans. “Long Road” is a studious and passionate analysis of Pearl Jam’s career. Through framing each chapter around a specific song or performance, Hyden identifies the ways in which Pearl Jam reflected or rejected their era, and connects that to how the band represents the experiences of Gen X.
Pearl Jam die-hards will appreciate the minutiae examined in this book, and casual fans will learn more than they ever thought possible about the band. As a Pearl Jam aficionado, I was equal parts pleased to see my theories validated and surprised by new revelations. Hyden manages to balance his life-long fandom with the criticism of a music journalist, making it fun yet discerning read. “Long Road” is what happens when someone listens to all 72 bootlegs from Pearl Jam’s tour in 2000, and the results are incredibly fascinating and entertaining.
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