Reading books about music is a weird one – it’s using one sense to describe another; a bit like listening to a painting or eating a scent. Unlike the previous two examples, though, books and music go very well together.
Simon Reynolds eats and breathes music as well as writing it – and his enduring love for the small details and gossipy minutiae of post-punk music as well as the tunes themselves are blindingly evident in Rip It Up And Start Again. Postpunk is the genre that shaped not only what we listen to but how we listen to it today. Told in chapters exploring the history and impact of bands in Europe and North America, it’s incredibly compelling – and much more informal than the title would leave you to believe.
Patti Smith’s heartbreaking memoir of the times she spent in New York as a young ‘un, trying to scrape a living and keep creative body and soul together despite extreme poverty is beautifully written – Smith is more a poet than a musician. With her partner-in-crime and love-of-her-life, the controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith exemplifies the utter slog that is the true musician’s journey.
On the other end of the biography scale, Keith Richard’s surprisingly candid memoir is overflowing with bacchanalian excess and a few questionable cases of extreme moral turpitude. For example, Richards stole Brian Jones’ girlfriend Anita Pallenberg (I wouldn’t feel too sorry for Jones – he was physically violent towards Pallenberg) when, on a chauffeured car trip in Morocco, she decided to give Richards an, um, oral refresher course. What the chauffeur had to say about that was not recorded in the book.
More about the theory of music than legendary guitarists getting serviced in limos, This Is Your Brain On Music tells us why we love the music that we do and how some people make better musicians than others. Here’s a clue; it’s all in our heads, or to be precise, in our brains. Frankly, there’s no better person to write this book than Levitin, who was once a music producer and is now a cognitive neuroscientist.
Disturbingly, the female recorders of music history tend to be erased or forgotten despite their contributions, so it’s always good to see a compendium of women’s works. You might be asking what the difference is between a woman criticising an album versus a man (quick answer – almost nothing) but this book is important as it records those almost-forgotten voices.
Sarah Waldron is @The_Licentiate