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

ISBN: 0880642351

 

Shania Twain: An Intimate Portrait of a Country Music Diva

by Michael McCall

Published by Griffin Trade Paperback

164 pages, 1999

ISBN: 0312206739

 

 

 

 

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.

None of the three we're looking at today fall into any of these extremes. There is nothing sparkling here, but neither is there any absolute dross. They do, however, go at least part of the way to illustrating the gap that fans have to negotiate in unearthing that treasure on their favorite musical icons.

Pearl Jam: Place/Date is a pretty good example of this. It almost seems as though authors Charles Peterson and Lance Mercer are convinced that fans of this particular group can't read. Both Peterson and Mercer are well-known photographic figures on the West Coast music scene. Mercer is a Seattle native whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Spin, Guitar World and other places where knowing to catch a drummer with his sticks in the air is a Good Thing. Peterson lives in San Francisco and is the author of Screaming Life: A Chronicle of the Seattle Music Scene. Both are photographers of merit with great musical portfolios, which only serves to make Place/Date all the more curious.

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.

Many of the photos are memorable and would not be duplicatable by another brace of photographers. However, there are also many images that are quite forgettable or unfathomable. And all of this would have been helped by a third contributor: one who tied some lyrics to the images because, as it is, Place/Date is very much like a music video with the sound turned off: some of it is pretty, but it's not making a whole lot of sense.

On the flipside, Elvis Costello: A Biography by Tony Clayton-Lea, offers up a whole lot of words with very little substance. As Clayton-Lea himself writes in the introduction:

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.

Michael McCall manages to skirt the issue of non-star cooperation by avoiding the tag of "biography" altogether. In Shania Twain: An Intimate Portrait of a Country Music Diva the ploy works quite well. The slender volume tells a glossy version of Twain's story but, somehow, it's sufficient. Twain may be a phenomenon, but she's a recent phenomenon. Even her detractors have the feeling that this is only the very beginning of the story. The path she's taken told -- and, to be fair, told well -- in more or less chronological order is enough.

Where McCall's writing is smooth and slick, his research detail seems not up to Clayton-Lea's level. No bibliography here, though most of the few photos included are credited to Mercury Records: publicity stills of the classic variety. If the prose sometimes makes your teeth ache, that too is par for the course. It's that kind of book: fanzine writing taken to novella lengths and packaged for mass consumption.

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.