If there was ever a time to curl up in bed with a good music biography, it’s right now since live entertainment is on ice.
While there are myriad solid rock books available, four new ones focus on Pacific Northwest iconoclasts Pearl Jam, late Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, Jimi Hendrix and former Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan.
Music journalists are often the authors of rock biographies. Ronen Givony, who has attended 57 Pearl Jam shows, is more fan than journalist.
Givony’s “Not for You: Pearl Jam and the Present Tense” (Bloomsbury) is a page-turner. Givony’s passion for the band is evident as he digs deep into Pearl Jam without access to his heroes.
It’s been nearly a quarter century since the band’s artistic peak with its wildly eclectic and adventurous 1996 release, “No Code,” but Givony details why his obsession has yet to abate.
Givony examines the gifts and flaws of Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder. Casual observers can write off Vedder as an attention-seeking singer who is more than happy to fill the void as a generation’s rock star.
Givony, however, details how sensitive and creative Vedder is, which isn’t surprising considering how altruistic Pearl Jam has been since its inception.
Givony isn’t a fan boy with a book deal. He accurately notes that Pearl Jam never created anything like “No Code” before it was released and little which approximates the provocative and at times spellbinding material since the commercial disappointment dropped.
The Kurt Cobain vs. Vedder and Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam battles are touched on. Givony reminds fans that Cobain passed on the opportunity to appear on the cover of Time, and Vedder jumped at the chance, which disenchanted Cobain, who realized that he missed a golden opportunity.
Also, great work detailing the film “Singles” and one of the best soundtracks ever. There are myriad Nirvana books, but few focusing on Pearl Jam and other bands from the very fertile 1990s alt-rock scene.
“Not For You” is at its best when exploring fame and the elements that were part of Pearl Jam’s finest work. Givony’s project is for any ardent Pearl Jam fan.
Before Corbin Reiff’s illuminating biography of Chris Cornell (Post Hill Press), it was surprising to discover that no one had written a biography on the Seattle native with the unparalleled vocal range.
There’s a statue of Cornell with a guitar in front of the Emerald City’s Pop Culture Museum, but there was not a bio focusing on the leather-lunged singer who also penned emotive lyrics and was one of the most cerebral and thoughtful songsmiths of the grunge era.
Months after Cornell’s shocking suicide three years ago, Reiff started his exhaustive research on one of rock’s most mysterious figures who enjoyed staggering success not only with Soundgarden but also Audioslave, which was Cornell and three quarters of Rage Against the Machine.
The early years are fascinating. Cornell, who like many frontmen, was introverted. The musician, who would become the golden God of grunge, was originally an accomplished drummer. The insecure Cornell, however, didn’t believe that he was a good enough percussionist, especially after witnessing Matt Cameron, who would later become Soundgarden’s drummer.
Cornell, again like many other singers, never knew he had such a remarkable set of pipes. Cornell had the voice, but it took him a while to feel comfortable onstage.
“Most frontmen are not born hams like David Lee Roth,” Cornell said. “We’re more like Joey Ramone, awkward geeks who somehow find our place in the world on the stage. Nobody ever said a positive thing to me, ever, in my life, until they heard me play music.”
The anecdotes from how unpredictable rock was a generation ago are detailed. Reiff writes about how Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd heroically leapt off the stage into a crowd to beat up a Nazi punk who took a swing at Cornell during the band’s early days. There’s the tale about how Cornell tabbed Vedder to duet with him for Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike.”
And then there’s the thrill when the Man in Black covered the Cornell-penned “Rusty Cage.” “When Johnny Cash covered ‘Rusty Cage,’ it was the first time I received compliments for my lyrics,” Cornell said.
Reiff details Cornell’s underrated solo material, his Audioslave period and Soundgarden reunion. What is still most disturbing is Cornell’s death. Unlike Cobain and Amy Winehouse’s early demise, it seemed as if rock’s most powerful vocalist was in good spirits.
Cornell, however, was plagued by the tragic early deaths of pals such as Mother Love Bone’s Andy Wood, Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon and Jeff Buckley. The latter is perhaps the lone singer who possessed an otherworldly set of pipes comparable to Cornell. Reiff’s deep look at the life of Cornell is compelling and informative.
Jimi Hendrix has been dead for a half-century, but somehow there’s always new product by or on Seattle’s greatest contribution to the world of music. “Wild Thing” (Liveright), a look at the legendary guitarist by venerable music biographer Philip Norman, is worth checking out. There’s nothing new, but it’s a well-written and welcome look back at one of the most fascinating figures in the history of rock and roll.
The early years of the guitar God are particularly fascinating. Like some of his peers, Hendrix received no support from his family, particularly his father, Al, who failed to understand his gifted son’s obsession with the guitar. Hendrix, like many, were inspired by Elvis Presley, but, like few, Hendrix turned his passion into a career in which he became one of the most innovative figures in rock history.
Hendrix’s life has been covered countless times in book form, but few offer the insight that Norman provides.
And then there’s Mark Lanegan’s “Sing Backwards and Weep” (Hachette Books), which looks back at the singer-songwriter’s sordid exploits during the 1980s and ’90s. It’s evident that the former leader of Screaming Trees was the Keith Richards of grunge. The Ellensburg native’s addictions to heroin and crack led the brooding bard to homelessness, but he somehow survived.
The revealing book provides plenty of details about his relationship with Cobain. Lanegan was akin to a big brother to the leader of Nirvana. Lanegan admits to not being there for Cobain when he needed him most. Cobain called him days before his death but was ignored.
Lanegan paints a vivid, unwavering portrait of a selfish, dangerous junkie who is lucky to be alive. The poetic songsmith, who rarely grants interviews, looks back at his dysfunctional relationship with his Screaming Trees bandmates and his much-publicized offer to fight Oasis singer Liam Gallagher in 1996, among other revelatory stories.