It's already August 8, which means you've got maybe three or four weeks left to complain about preseason football, inadequately shield yourself from the scorching heat of the sun, and communicate with your kids about something other than why they haven't done their homework. So why not get cracking on a book?
Compiled by the staff of NPR Music, this roundup skims across just a few of the most notable music-themed books of the year so far, from a lengthy interview with composer Leonard Bernstein to one man's quest to understand obsessive Insane Clown Posse fandom. Along the way, we survey the life of jazz legend Dr. Billy Taylor, dive into a novel by Golden Palominos' Lori Carson, and even explore the history of the violin.
So join us in incorporating a book into what remains of your leisure time! Trust us: There's no better way to combine the decadence of the beach with the ability to ignore everyone around you.
Former A.V. Club head writer Nathan Rabin set out to write a book about die-hard fans — specifically, die-hard fans of Phish and Insane Clown Posse, the latter of which self-identifies as "the most hated band in the world." Rabin spent a good chunk of two years immersing himself in their respective cultures, following Phish on tour and attending the bacchanal of sex, drugs and horrorcore that is ICP's annual Gathering of the Juggalos.
But this book isn't really about Phish or Insane Clown Posse, or the bands' respective cult followings. It's more about Rabin's efforts to understand his subjects, and the toll it takes on him and his rapidly deteriorating psyche. Amid mounting financial woes and concerns that he's in the process of destroying both his career and his personal life, Rabin begins to understand why the two bands attract people who feel ostracized and derided by society at large. Only after he became overwhelmed with anxiety and self-doubt could he understand why ICP's fans share a culture of self-deprecation and celebrating failure, and only then could he really feel the ecstatic revelry of losing oneself in the moment while dropping acid at a six-hour Phish concert.
It's been a good season for voices from beyond the grave, what with the publication of the fascinating Wellesfest My Lunches With Orson and this excellent verbatim account of an epic 12-hour, booze-fueled meal, lecture, listening party and score-settling session with Leonard Bernstein and a Rolling Stone interviewer in 1989.
If you have the stomach for self-regard — Bernstein's favorite subjects were Mahler and Bernstein, and the two weren't necessarily separate in his mind — it's a breezy, vastly entertaining book loaded with reminders of how the composer/conductor was a cultural icon and classical music was prominent in American life. Can you imagine a modern maestro being given Sunday afternoons on CBS to talk about music?
Among the anecdotes and pleasingly upbeat assessments of colleagues are his account of meeting the famously man-killing wife of his beloved Mahler in her later years ("she invited me for 'tea' — which turned out to be 'aquavit' — then suggested we go to look at some 'memorabilia' of her composer husband in her bedroom") and his anointment of protégé Marin Alsop ("she's fabulous, she is simply wonderful — she's a comer").
Bernstein died less than a year after this interview, leaving behind countless recordings and compositions and lectures — but mostly an example for artists who want to do all they want how they want, talking and teaching all the way.
For many women dedicated to the life of an artist, motherhood becomes a major, vexed "what if." Those who bear or adopt children might wonder whether this nurturing means neglecting crucial calls from their own muse, while those who stay child-free may feel a lack that some say is culturally defined and others swear is biological.
In this small-scale but meaningful fictionalized consideration of her own choices, Golden Palominos singer and songwriter Lori Carson follows one woman through two parallel universes — one that includes a dear girl named Minnow, and one that does not. Minnow's mom, an aspiring musician entangled with a difficult minor pop star, finds a way to thrive in both scenarios, but not without costs.
Carson's soft-lit prose never gets too romantic — and, most remarkably, she doesn't pass judgment, instead chronicling the ups and downs of two fates unfolding with rueful realism. Mothers and others will appreciate her approach.
When I first met Dr. Billy Taylor at a taping of one of his NPR shows (Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center), I asked him about a recording he'd made with Cuban percussionist Candido Camero back in the late 1940s. I was new to NPR Jazz as a producer, and was given the assignment of taping voice tracks with him at the Kennedy Center.
After he learned of my passion for jazz history, every time we worked on some production together he'd pull me aside and say, "Did I ever tell you about the time..." and out would come a bit more of that history. Taylor spent his entire 70-year career telling those stories in music and in print, on the radio and on television, to classrooms and, eventually, on the Internet.
The Jazz Life of Dr. Billy Taylor, by Taylor with college professor Teresa Reed, is his final storytelling gift to the world. Before he died in December 2012, he'd started work on his autobiography with Reed, and those of us who had the privilege of hearing him speak will recognize how accurately Reed captures his spirit and his enthusiasm for the music to which he dedicated his life.
Billy Taylor was in the room for many key moments in the development of jazz after WWII. He eloquently describes his youth in segregated Washington, D.C., his move to New York in 1942, his pioneering days as an award-winning broadcaster, his ways of balancing jazz life and family life, how he dealt with the sting of racism and more.
Which brings me to the bittersweet portion of this gift: Reed does such a nice job capturing the way Taylor spoke that those of us who knew him will feel the weight of his absence that much more acutely. It's hard not to ask for just one more story.
Written by a professional historian who's also a lifelong amateur player, The Violin is the product of author David Schoenbaum's ambitious, if unstated, goal: to use the fiddle as a lens through which he can closely examine topics ranging from the machinations of international geopolitics to the vagaries of modern classical music marketing.
Indeed, Schoenbaum covers so much terrain over 700-plus pages — from a discourse on the market forces at play in 17th-century northern Italy to a recounting of the plot of the 1939 Jascha Heifetz Hollywood vehicle They Shall Have Music — that this is a volume best sampled in occasional small tastings rather than inhaled quickly.
Despite Schoenbaum's all-embracing title, however, he doesn't delve into the violin's place in any musical style outside the Western classical tradition. (That's really a lost opportunity, considering the instrument's popularity everywhere from Nashville to Chennai, India.) All the same, Schoenbaum spools out an absorbing, fascinating narrative that ought to interest anyone who loves the sound of bowed strings.