Finding something that will delight the music fan who already has everything isn't easy, but for last-minute shoppers, a recently published biography or coffee-table book is usually a safe bet. Booksellers are wise to this strategy, so keep in mind that not every flashy tell-all piled high on store shelves delivers the goods.
Meet the Beatles
THE BEATLES: THE BIOGRAPHY by Bob Spitz (Little, Brown), 983 pages, $39.95 cloth. Rating: NNN
Clocking in at a hefty 983 pages, the boldly named The Beatles: The Biography may not be the most factually accurate of the many Beatles books on the market, but it's definitely one of the biggest. And to think that before former Bruce Springsteen manager Bob Spitz whittled it down, it was going to be over 2,700 pages!
Spitz has done some serious research over the seven years he spent compiling his reasonably balanced account from published sources and new interviews, but he has trouble separating information essential to enhancing our understanding of the Beatles from useless trivia, particularly when dealing with the early years. It's 17 chapters and 322 pages before Ringo makes an appearance. You also have to wonder about some of the details Spitz includes about events witnessed by only a few people when he makes glaring gaffes about known facts, such as the claim that George Harrison met Pattie Boyd on the set of Help! (It was A Hard Day's Night. Oops.)
Considering his previous job, it's no surprise that Spitz is particularly interested in the Beatles' relationship with manager Brian Epstein. Once Epstein dies, he seems to lose interest in the story and quickly winds things down. There are no shocking revelations here, though it's likely even hardcore Beatles nuts will learn something they didn't know. At the very least, they'll have fun playing spot-the-errors in the photo cutlines.
Rock 'n' rides
ROCK + ROLL GEARHEAD by Billy F. Gibbons with Tom Vickers (Motorbooks), 192 pages, $39.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
If you've seen ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons wearing a furry Gibson Explorer and standing alongside a snazzy 1933 three-window coupe, you know the bearded wonder has a thing for unusual guitars and customized rides. Colourfully illustrated coffee-table book Rock + Roll Gearhead nicely documents his passion for both.
Even if you're not a fan of ZZ Top's music, the swank presentation of 10 of Gibbons's favourite street rod co-creations and 56 of his dearest and deadliest axes is guaranteed to leave car nuts and guitar geeks alike salivating; most of his nutty designs are one-of-a-kind items you won't see anywhere else. And the ZZ faithful will appreciate Gibbons's oral history of the group's origins, which goes all the way to his garage punk days with the Coachmen and later the Moving Sidewalks. Nice one.
DREAM BOOGIE: THE TRIUMPH OF SAM COOKE by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown), 736 pages, $37.95 cloth. Rating: NNN
It's subtitled The Triumph Of Sam Cooke, but Dream Boogie - Peter Guralnick's thoroughly researched study of the man behind the magical voice and incandescent smile - is actually a horribly tragic tale of the dynamic soul singer/songwriter's quick rise and shocking demise. As Guralnick digs deep into Cooke's past, what emerges is a much more complex character than the biographer has ever confronted.
Instead of synthesizing the information he's gathered into a sharp portrait, Guralnick resorts to a simple blow-by-blow of situations, focusing more on inconsequential facts about Cooke's business dealings and changes in his royalty rate than on the womanizing that ultimately led to his death. He appears to have no interest in solving the many mysteries surrounding Cooke's double life and motel shooting death, using them instead as convenient plot devices to move his narrative along. Strangely, Cooke's accountant, Allen Klein, emerges as the hero of the story. Well, he is the one who ended up with all the marbles.
GRIEVOUS ANGEL: AN INTIMATE BIOGRAPHY OF GRAM PARSONS by Jessica Hundley with Polly Parsons (Thunder's Mouth Press), 272 pages, $21.50 paper. Rating: NN
Despite the involvement of Gram Parsons's daughter Polly, what purports to be an "intimate biography" of the alt-country godfather turns out to be a creative writing exercise by freelance film critic Jessica Hundley. Because Polly was just seven when her father died, Hundley has to do some real digging to piece together a cradle-to-fiery-grave overview of the cosmic country outlaw's short spell on earth. The fact that Hundley wasn't present at the crucial moments in his life doesn't stop her from setting the scene in florid detail, right down to the colour of the sky and the scent in the air. She even tells us exactly what images were running through Parsons's mind.
She attempts to fill the gaps in the story with Q&As conducted with musicians like Norah Jones, Jonathan Richman and Willie Nelson, who tell how they first heard about Gram Parsons. That's about as good as it gets. Go for Ben Fong-Torres's Hickory Wind instead.
GUIDED BY VOICES: A BRIEF HISTORY by James Greer (Black Cat Press), 320 pages, $21.50 paper. Rating: NNN
Judging by the title of this Guided By Voices bio, you might be expecting a neat chronological spin through the sordid indie rock career of the notorious Dayton delinquents, but that's not exactly what James Greer, aka former GBV bassist Jim Greer, has in store.
As a past member, albeit very briefly, Greer was privy to many of the real stories behind the inside jokes, cryptic wordplay, vicious rumours, squabbles and drunken hoedowns that have become Guided by Voices lore. He spills the beans here, with the blessing of fearless leader Bob Pollard, who candidly discusses some of the behind-the-scenes issues that led to changes in lineups, labels and residences.
A more carefully considered narrative structure would have made for a better read, but perhaps it wouldn't have been as true to the characteristic half-assedness that's a big part of GBV's charm. Long-time fans will enjoy the elaborate family tree and comprehensive discography.