This is a rich season for readers whose imaginations (and libidos) were first unleashed back when vinyl was the dominant musical medium and Broadway was still a wellspring of popular songs. Five new books provide a kaleidoscopic view of that charmed era.
MAN WITH THE GOLDEN THROAT
James Kaplan’s Frank: The Voice is a gossipy, immensely readable account of Frank Sinatra’s rise from sweet-singing mama’s boy to teen idol to Academy Award-winning actor. (The biography ends on the night of March 25, 1954, with Sinatra walking the streets of Beverly Hills and brandishing his best supporting Oscar for From Here To Eternity.)
Kaplan could have just as accurately subtitled his book The Groin, since he focuses as much on that busy region as he does on the entertainer’s golden throat. Central to his chronicle is Sinatra’s love affair with and marriage to Ava Gardner, the one woman whose temper and sense of entitlement were as formidable as the singer’s own. “Like Frank,” says Kaplan, “she was infinitely restless and easily bored. . . . Both had titanic appetites, for food, drink, cigarettes, diversion, companionship, and sex. Both loved jazz and the men and women, black and white, who made it. Both were politically liberal.” The author also assesses the influences of such other Sinatra intimates as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, bandleaders Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, Sinatra’s long-suffering publicist George Evans and his even longer-suffering first wife, Nancy. There are few new facts or insights here, but Kaplan does a masterful job of stitching the reams of previously published material into a vivid, fast-paced narrative.
BEYOND THE BEATLES
Howard Sounes’ Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney is impressively thorough and up-to-date. The author devotes a mere 22 pages of his mammoth text to McCartney’s youth—that is, the period before he joined his first real band, the Quarrymen—and he polishes off the Beatles era less than halfway into the book. That’s as it should be, given the substantial body of work and public presence McCartney has created on his own. While Sounes did not talk with McCartney or the other surviving Beatle, Ringo Starr, he did interview well over 200 other people who were closely or tangentially connected with the star. The picture that emerges is of a man well aware of his place in musical history but given to taking artistic short cuts, not quite demanding as much from himself as his talent could render. Still, his bedrock of compassion and generosity generally shows through. Sounes allots plenty of space to McCartney’s disastrous marriage to Heather Mills, a test of character if there ever was one.
A PROPHET OF HIS TIMES
No one else has anatomized Bob Dylan, his music and his personality as relentlessly or as minutely as Greil Marcus. Witness now the culmination of that obsession in Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010. Marcus first came face to face with Dylan in 1963 at a Joan Baez concert in New Jersey. That experience was so transformative that he has since viewed the iconic singer/songwriter as something of a cultural weathervane. These essays and speeches tend either to sigh with admiration or seethe with contempt as Dylan goes through his various stages from folkie to rocker to Christian convert to elder statesman to enigma-in-residence. No album or gesture goes unnoticed. All the pieces aren’t strictly about Dylan, though; in some, he’s just a footnote, a shadow passing by. Readers who are not into Dylan minutiae can still follow what Marcus is talking about, since most of these writings were for publications that catered to broad audiences. But this is more than a study of Dylan—it’s a jagged portrait of the age.
BACKSTAGE WITH ROCK GODS
Spurned by rock critics for being over-hyped, depraved and savage toward the press, Led Zeppelin finally decided in 1975 that it might be a business advantage to invite a handful of top-tier reporters to accompany the band on what was certain to be a triumphant tour of America. One of the chosen few was Stephen Davis, a former writer for Rolling Stone who, on this trip, would be on assignment for The Atlantic. The upshot is LZ-’75. Zeppelin proved to be just as thorny and exhausting to cover as expected. As Davis chronicles it, the tour was a transcontinental bacchanal, in which each member of the band had his own peccadilloes and flash points; imagine Spinal Tap with higher IQs and better management. Davis, who would later write the much-disputed Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods, misplaced his notes of the tour (The Atlantic declined his proposed article) and didn’t find them until 30 years later. Thus the delay, and the sense that we’ve read all this before, though the material and the gossip still compel.
A LIFE IN THE THEATER
Readers are hereby warned not to start on Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat if they have vital appointments pending. His prose is just too alluring to put aside. This is the first of two planned volumes in which the great lyricist recounts his experiences writing songs for musical theater; the book covers 13 plays from 1954 to 1981. Besides providing and discussing the lyrics to all his songs in these plays, Sondheim also offers illuminating critiques of fellow Broadway songwriters. He is a hard man to please, finding literary fault with such master stylists as Oscar Hammerstein II (his mentor), Lorenz Hart, Alan Jay Lerner, Ira Gershwin and Noel Coward. He is more admiring of Dorothy Fields, Irving Berlin and Frank Loesser, although not unreservedly so. It’s astounding the number of classics Sondheim can claim, among them “Maria” and “Tonight” from West Side Story, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Gypsy, “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music—the list goes on, and fortunately, so does Sondheim.