Pearl Jam: Place/Date
by Charles Peterson and Lance Mercer
Published by Universe Publishing
128 pages, 1999
Elvis Costello: A Biography
by Tony Clayton-Lea
Published by Fromm International
256 pages, 1999
Shania Twain: An Intimate Portrait of a Country Music Diva
by Michael McCall
Published by Griffin Trade Paperback
164 pages, 1999
A Few Bad Notes
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
It's an odd pairing. Books -- literature, if you will -- about people who manufacture music. And yet, a walk through any bookseller's will confirm that this is a popular subgenre. It seems that the only thing that even comes close to listening to your favorite musical performer or seeing them in person, is reading about them, as this latest group of fan-lit will confirm. What's eye-opening, however, is the startlingly wide range of quality in books about musicians and the music industry. Ranging from glossily printed crap, to backside patting, to literate monuments quite worthy of the stars they would immortalize.
Sure, many of these are sterling photos of Pearl Jam, in concert and at rest and die-hard fans will be pleased at the find. However, even stand alone photos don't really stand alone and captions like "Off Ramp Seattle 1995" or "Barcelona 1996" don't do much to illustrate the illustrations. Especially when, for example, the latter describes a darkly silhouetted image of a couple of disembodied hands playing a guitar.
While I'm on the subject of the subject: Elvis Costello was contacted and requested through his management company, By Eleven, to contribute to this book. Firmly, but politely, he refused. Neither he nor his management used any tactics of any kind whatsoever to prevent me from writing the book. For this I am extremely grateful -- my life wasn't made any easier by his refusal to cooperate, but neither was it made any more difficult.
The result is a sincere though somewhat uninspired book on a subject that's been well covered: sometimes with more cooperation. There is nothing really new here. Nothing that's not available to Costello fans from other sources. In fact, one thing that the book does manage to do is pull a lot of those sources together under one cover. A seasoned journalist who is the rock critic for U magazine and the author of Irish Rock, Clayton-Lea provides a well documented bibliography with his Costello book. But the fact that all of the quotes with the book's subject were given to people other than the author is tough to overlook.
The lack of original material -- never a problem for the book's subject -- is compounded by the fact that Costello's management company made it quite clear that, "copyright of his lyrics would be protected to the utmost." Which means that not only are there no original quotes, there are also none of the familiar refrains. A biography of a singer known for both his wonderful quotability and the rich lyrics of his songs that's devoid of either is bound to be lacking. Let's hope Clayton-Lea has better luck with his next subject: he's a good writer and deserves it.
In what would become an important aspect of Shania's rise to fame, the video for "What Made You Say That" seemed to attract men of power to her. The first was actor Sean Penn, the mercurial California resident who had become known as an intense actor. An unpredictable and sometimes violent public presence, Penn had gained notoriety beyond his acting ability while married to Madonna.
In this way, McCall seems to cram as many famous names as possible into the 164 paperback pages, sometimes with only the most tenuous connection. The "portrait" that emerges is a facile one. Twain may not be as self-centered, cold and calculating as McCall paints her, but who's to say? In this volume, it's not Shania. | July 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of the Madeline Carter novels: Mad Money, The Next Ex and Calculated Loss.