Music is the healing force of the universe
—Recommended by Tân, City Lights Books
The tremendous variety of music that was pressed to shellac discs on the continent of Africa is truly astonishing. Popular songs, topical songs, work songs, comic songs, songs of worship, ritual, dance and praise—the sheer range of musical styles resists any easy categorization, just as African geography itself resists boundaries.
Opika Pende: Africa at 78 rpm is a four-disc collection featuring 100 tracks taken from rare 78 rpm recordings of African music—from 1909 to the mid-1960s—none of which have ever been issued on CD until now. Across these 100 tracks, traditional music stands side by side with popular music as traditional culture coexists with so-called modernity. Pan-African in scope and wildly diverse, Opika Pende is a testament to the deep riches found in early recorded music across the continent. Also included is an 112-page booklet.
In 2013, this set was nominated for Best Historical Album by the Grammy Awards.
Recommended by Layla, City Lights Books
Rick Martin loved music and the music loved him. He could pick up a tune so quickly that it didn’t matter to the Cotton Club boss that he was underage, or to the guys in the band that he was just a white kid. He started out in the slums of LA with nothing, and he ended up on top of the game in the speakeasies and nightclubs of New York. But while talent and drive are all you need to make it in music, they aren’t enough to make it through a life.
Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn is widely regarded as the first jazz novel, and it pulses with the music that defined an era. Baker took her inspiration from the artistry—though not the life—of legendary horn player Bix Beiderbecke, and the novel went on to be adapted into a successful movie starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, and Doris Day.
Just about every human being knows how to listen to music, but what does it take to make music? Is musicality something we are born with? Or a skill that anyone can develop at any time? If you don’t start piano at the age of six, is there any hope? Is skill learning best left to children or can anyone reinvent him-or herself at any time?
For anyone who has ever set out to play a musical instrument—or wished that they could—Guitar Zero is an inspiring and fascinating look at the pursuit of music, the mechanics of the mind, and the surprising rewards that come from following one’s dreams. Gary Marcus, whom Steven Pinker describes as “one of the deepest thinkers in cognitive science,” debunks the popular theory that there is an innate musical instinct while challenging the idea that talent is only a myth. From deliberate and efficient practicing techniques to finding the right music teacher, Marcus translates his own experience—as well as reflections from world-renowned musicians—into practical advice for anyone hoping to become musical or learn any new skill.
With the same trademark compassion and erudition he brought to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks explores the place music occupies in the brain and how it affects the human condition. In Musicophilia, he shows us a variety of what he calls “musical misalignments.” Among them: a man struck by lightning who suddenly desires to become a pianist at the age of forty-two; an entire group of children with Williams syndrome, who are hypermusical from birth; people with “amusia,” to whom a symphony sounds like the clattering of pots and pans; and a man whose memory spans only seven seconds-for everything but music.
Illuminating, inspiring, and utterly unforgettable, Musicophilia is Oliver Sacks’ latest masterpiece.
Recommended by Paul, City Lights Books
Thelonious Monk is the critically acclaimed, gripping saga of an artist’s struggle to “make it” without compromising his musical vision. It is a story that, like its subject, reflects the tidal ebbs and flows of American history in the twentieth century. To his fans, he was the ultimate hipster; to his detractors, he was temperamental, eccentric, taciturn, or childlike. His angular melodies and dissonant harmonies shook the jazz world to its foundations, ushering in the birth of “bebop” and establishing Monk as one of America’s greatest composers. Elegantly written and rich with humor and pathos, Thelonious Monk is the definitive work on modern jazz’s most original composer.
The stunning memoir of Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Holiday has been praised for bringing back to life one of the most important voices of the last fifty years. Now in paperback, The Last Holiday provides a remarkable glimpse into Scott-Heron’s life and times, from his humble beginnings to becoming one of the most influential artists of his generation.
The memoir climaxes with a historic concert tour in which Scott-Heron’s band opened for Stevie Wonder. The Hotter than July tour traveled cross-country from late 1980 through early 1981, drumming up popular support for the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. King’s birthday, January 15, was marked with a massive rally in Washington.
A fitting testament to the achievements of an extraordinary man, The Last Holiday provides a moving portrait of Scott-Heron’s relationship with his mother, personal recollections of Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, Clive Davis, and other musical figures, and a compelling narrative vehicle for Scott-Heron’s insights into the music industry, the civil rights movement, governmental hypocrisy, and our wider place in the world. The Last Holiday confirms Scott-Heron as a fearless truth-teller, a powerful artist, and an inspiring observer of his times.
Recommended by Layla, City Lights Books
The proximity of the East L.A. barrio to Hollywood is as close as a short drive on the 101 freeway, but the cultural divide is enormous. Born to Mexican-born and American-naturalized parents, Alicia Armendariz migrated a few miles west to participate in the free-range birth of the 1970s punk movement. Alicia adopted the punk name Alice Bag, and became lead singer for The Bags, early punk visionaries who starred in Penelope Spheeris’ documentary The Decline of Western Civilization.
Here is a life of many crossed boundaries, from East L.A.’s musica ranchera to Hollywood’s punk rock; from a violent male-dominated family to female-dominated transgressive rock bands. Alice’s feminist sympathies can be understood by the name of her satiric all-girl early Goth band Castration Squad.
Violence Girl takes us from a violent upbringing to an aggressive punk sensibility; this time a difficult coming-of-age memoir culminates with a satisfying conclusion, complete with a happy marriage and children. Nearly a hundred excellent photographs energize the text in remarkable ways.
Alice Bag‘s work and influence can be seen this year in the traveling Smithsonian exhibition “American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music.”
How Music Works is David Byrne’s buoyant celebration of a subject he has spent a lifetime thinking about. Drawing on his work over the years with Talking Heads, Brian Eno, and myriad collaborators—along with journeys to Wagnerian opera houses, African villages, and anywhere music exists—Byrne shows how music emerges from cultural circumstance as much as individual creativity. It is his magnum opus, and an impassioned argument about music’s liberating, life-affirming power.
With Benjamin Whitmer
Born the same year as Ralph Stanley and growing up very similarly on a hardscrabble Appalachian farm, Charlie Louvin gained fame in a brother act, too. Like the Stanleys, Charlie (1927–2011) and Ira (1924–65) Louvin made songs their mother taught them cornerstones of their repertoire. The songwriting elder brother in each pair drove it to eventual success, until Ira’s alcoholism broke up their act, leaving the sober sibling to carry on, to greater fortune. It would be false, however, to say that Charlie achieved greater repute on his own, for he and Ira had set the gold standard for harmony singing in country music. They did it by ear and intuition, Charlie reveals, freely exchanging melodic and harmonic lines in the same song, though Ira invariably sang the highest notes.
Louvin concentrates on his and Ira’s relationship in this book, completed just two months before his death. Collaborator Whitmer wisely lets it seem entirely an as-told-to effort, like Stanley’s beautifully vernacular Man of Constant Sorrow (2009). Though probably as religious, Louvin is an earthier speaker than Stanley, more personally revealing, too, so that his is a case study vis-à-vis the social history Stanley affords. It’s no less marvelous, though—a real classic of Americana. –Ray Olson
In this stunning biography of John Cage, Larson investigates how Buddhist concepts shaped Cage’s approach to art, and the influence it had on other artists of his era (ie. Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, etc.). If you’re a fan of Cage, you will no doubt appreciate him even more after reading this wonderful book. His creative journey truly comes alive. —Recommended by Anah, City Lights Books
A “heroic” biography of John Cage and his “awakening through Zen Buddhism”—“a kind of love story” about a brilliant American pioneer of the creative arts who transformed himself and his culture (The New York Times)
Composer John Cage sought the silence of a mind at peace with itself—and found it in Zen Buddhism, a spiritual path that changed both his music and his view of the universe. “Remarkably researched, exquisitely written,” Where the Heart Beats weaves together “a great many threads of cultural history” (Maria Popova, Brain Pickings) to illuminate Cage’s struggle to accept himself and his relationship with choreographer Merce Cunningham. Freed to be his own man, Cage originated exciting experiments that set him at the epicenter of a new avant-garde forming in the 1950s. Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, Allan Kaprow, Morton Feldman, and Leo Castelli were among those influenced by his ‘teaching’ and ‘preaching.’ Where the Heart Beats shows the blossoming of Zen in the very heart of American culture.
Beautifully written, impossible to put down, and an absolute must for any Cohen fan! Or, for that matter, for any fan of the worlds of travel, religion and poetry, as well as the inner workings of the music industry. Cohen was such an interesting man, and Simmons meticulously researched his life and journeys in poetry, music and spirituality. The songs, the sex, the drugs. Incredible. —Recommended by Don, City Lights Books
Singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen is one of the most important and influential musical artists of the past fifty years—and one of the most elusive. In I’m Your Man, journalist Sylvie Simmons, one of the foremost chroniclers of the world of rock ‘n’ roll and popular music, explores the extraordinary life and creative genius of Leonard Cohen.
I’m Your Man is an intimate and insightful appreciation of the man responsible for “Suzanne,” “Bird on a Wire,” “Hallelujah,” and so many other unforgettable, oft-covered ballads and songs. Based on Simmons’s unparalleled access to Cohen—and written with her hallmark blend of intelligence, integrity, and style—I’m Your Man is the definitive biography of a major musical artist widely considered in a league with the great Bob Dylan.
Readers of Life byKeith Richards and Patti Smith’s phenomenal Just Kids will be riveted by this fascinating portrait of a singular musical icon.