Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best Books of 2011

Best of the Best:

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever – Will Hermes

One of the best and most unique music histories I’ve ever read. Rather than focusing on one specific group or artist, or even one particular genre, this bio looks at all of the music happening within New York City during the years of 1973 to 1977.

These are the years that punk rock was born (The Ramones, Suicide), hip hop took off (Cool Herc, Grandmaster Flash) the first flickers of New Wave were seen (Talking Heads, Blondie), New Jersey poets Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith each hit their strides, and so much more. Will Hermes details each of these occasions, as well as the jazz loft scene, the reimagining of classical music, and the launch of disco and salsa.

Through a series of brief vignettes Hermes tells the story of bands, artists, neighborhoods, movies, graffiti culture, clubs, and scenes. Some of it was new information on material I was familiar with; other parts were a complete education. All of it was interesting and exciting.

From 1973 to 1977 New York was at its worst. Arsons, sanitation worker strikes, Son of Sam, etc. President Gerald Ford refused to provide federal funding to keep the city from financial default. Hermes makes an excellent case that the worst of times often creates the best art.

I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive – Steve Earle

If Dirty Roots/Otis Ryan Productions ever gets into the fiction-writing business, it’ll be something along the lines of this great debut novel from singer/songwriter (and one of my all-time favorite artists), Steve Earle. Earle released a collection of short stories, “Doghouse Roses” back in 2001, and as I understand it, he spent the time following that effort crafting this novel.

The main character, Doc, is haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams – whom he was traveling with the night Hank died. Doc’s guilt – he provided Hank his dope – drives him to the life of a junky. To make ends meet, he performs illegal abortions and patches up the random knife or bullet wound in a rough neighborhood of San Antonio.

Add a supernaturally gifted Mexican girl, a transvestite, a few thugs, an ass of a young priest, and a visit from Jackie Kennedy, swirl in the ghost of Hank – which haunts the book, not just Doc’s life – and stir with the unique voice of Steve Earle…and you’ve got a Dirty Roots approved novel.

Best of the Rest:

The Devil All the Time –
Donald Ray Pollock

I've read more fiction this year than I have since I was a kid. Typically, the only reading that can hold my interest is the writings of the Beat Generation authors, histories of Native Americans, and musical biographies. I finally found some fiction-writers who can keep me engaged this year, though.

Chief among that group; Donald Ray Pollack. Pollack worked his entire life in the Meade Paper Factory in Ohio. After 30-some years, he retired and sought an education in creative writing. A friend heard about Pollack on NPR and thought I’d appreciate his story. I did. I kept an eye open for Pollack’s debut collection of short stories, “Knockemstiff”, but came across his second release first; 2011’s “Devil All The Time”.

This is another Dirty Roots style novel. (If you’ve listened to the Dirty Roots Radio Show, you’ll understand why I keep making that reference).

Pollack’s partly-imagined and partly-based-on-the-place-he-grew-up universe is peopled by a sadistic photographer with a hobby of murder, a man who is certain he can heal his cancer-stricken, dying wife if he just pours enough blood on his prayer log out in the woods, a murderous swindler and his crippled brother who moonlight as a charismatic minister and his musician brother, and a kid trying to make sense of this world as he navigates himself through it.

It’s dark, depraved, and scary. But it’s thrilling and it’s good as hell.

(Since reading “Devil All the Time”, I’ve since read “Knockemstiff”. I prefer the format of “Devil All the Time”, but highly recommend “Knockemstiff” also. Hopefully there will be lots more to come from Donald Ray Pollack.)

33 1/3: American Recordings – Tony Tost

If you’re a hardcore music junky, you NEED to familiarize yourself with this series of books. Published by Continuum, the 33 1/3 series devotes individual books to specific albums; mostly what we’d call “classic” albums, but some of them are hip “new” classics as well.

Tony Tost delivers my favorite in the series so far (there are about 70 in the series at this point) and one of my favorite books of the entire year. I’ve read a great many biographies of Cash, and the autobiography by Cash himself. But this is the first time an author has approached this subject through the lens of Cash’s myth. Every other author has dug to unearth new facts about Cash’s life. But that was part of the beauty of Johnny Cash; you didn’t have to dig far to find facts about him. He never really hid the truth about himself.

What excites us about Johnny Cash is the myth. Is the myth partly fictionalized? Of course! But it’s still the fun and exciting part. And that’s what we all love about the Man in Black. That doesn’t take anything away from the facts about Cash, the man. It's just that we already already know that stuff.

Tost looks inside Cash's public persona and uses references from the classic (Walt Whitman) to the wild and obscure (Hasil Adkins) to illustrate the beauty and importance of the mythical man called CASH.

33 1/3: Some Girls – Cyrus R. K. Patell

Every entry in the 33 1/3 series has a completely different approach to the subject matter. It’s honestly not the approach, but the subject matter, that makes this one of my favorites of 2011.

Some Girls was perhaps the last truly great Rolling Stones record. They were still young enough that they hadn’t entered the “we’ll let things slide…they’re the Stones, after all” phase. And when this was recorded, in the late 70’s, things in the music universe and the world at large were changing rapidly. Disco was in full swing. And punk rock was out to piss on the legacies of all of the formerly great rock and roll. The Stones had a few things to prove.

There were, as always, tensions within the band, and Keef was staring down a pretty nasty drug charge. Perfect conditions for the Stones. It’s punky. It’s country. A little blues. Even a touch of disco. Best of all, it’s sleazy and raw and plays for keeps.

There isn’t much remarkable about the writing of this entry in the 33 1/3 series, but it’s a lot of good information about one helluva great album.

The Abide Guide: Living Like Lebowski – Oliver Benjamin & Dwayne Eutsey

This is the philosophy behind the one of the fastest-growing religions in the world; the one known as Dudeism – a religion based on the example set for us by the great Jeffrey Leowski – written by the founders of the sect.

Entertaining writing, stories about great Dudes throughout history, guest essays from various dudes and special ladies from the flock, and...most of all, loads and loads of evidence that Dudeism is the one religion that the world needs most right now.

Now…Dudeism doesn’t have to exclude any other belief system. If you’re a Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, etc., you can be a Dudeist, too. It’s all about just takin’ ‘er easy.

P.S. – I’m an ordained Dudeist minister…so if ya need to get married or anything, give a brotha a call.


Now, while there isn’t anything scientific about the above-list, here’s where any semblance of scientific credibility falls right off this list…

I get a TON of books sent to me from publishers hoping I’ll review/publicize them on my show. I get more books than I do albums, in fact. So they pile up quickly. Plus, I’m always searching for good reads on my own. So at any given time, I’ve generally got a pretty big pile of books I haven’t yet read, but fully intend to. (I’ve also got massive stacks of books I fully intend never to read…)

Anyway…there are a few books on the tippy-top of the stack I intend to read that came out this year and that I’ve heard great things about. Call this the “honorable mention” list, if you want. I haven’t actually read the following books, but I’m confident they’ll make my Best Books of 2011 list once I get to ‘em.

Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge –
Mark Yarm

This book is freakin’ huge and packed with interviews from many of the key players in the late eighties, early nineties Seattle scene. Oral histories can be boring and/or overwhelming, but if done right, can be wonderful. And if I learn even a tiny portion of what could be learned from an oral history this in-depth about a subject I’m this interested in…it’ll be the cat’s bananas.

Pulphead: Essays – John Jeremiah Sullivan

Another writer I discovered in 2011. One review of this book said that if Tom Waits wrote essays, they’d be like this guys. I’m in love from that sentence alone…

I tracked down one of the essays in this book, where Sullivan writes about going to a massive Christian rock festival. Two bits for your perusal:

"Christian Rock is a genre that exists to edify and make money off of evangelical Christians. Its message music for listeners who know the message cold,"

“Jack pulled down the step and climbed aboard. It was really happening. The interior smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun. I was physically halted at the threshold for a moment. Jesus had never been in this RV.”

With sentiments like that, how can this book NOT be on my list???

A Rocket In My Pocket: The Hipster’s Guide to Rockabilly Music – Max Decharne

I’ve looked long and hard for a good, comprehensive overview of rockabilly music, and there just hasn’t been one – at least not one that didn’t fall into the cheap, thrown-together coffee table book variety – until now. I’ve flipped through this one, and it is indeed comprehensive.

As an added bonus, the publishers and author compiled a soundtrack “companion piece” to go with the book. They sent me the CD with a review copy of the book, and while I haven’t gotten through the whole book yet, the CD is a great collection of new and old, classic and obscure rockabilly.

Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson – Kevin Avery

I first became familiar with Paul Nelson through Martin Scorese’s fantastic “No Direction Home” documentary about Bob Dylan. Nelson was friends with Dylan as a young man and in the doc, he recounted hilarious stories of record collecting with Dylan and having his and friends’ records stolen by the music-hungry Dylan.

Paul Nelson became a respected writer for Rolling Stone and several other publications. And then one day he left it all to work in a video rental store.

That’s the thumbnail version of the story; I’m hoping that this book, which also includes many samples of his famous music writing, fills in the rest of the details in all of their glory.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the best books/albums/songs of 2011 - either comments on my list, or a list of your own!!! Hit me on the Dirty Roots Radio Facebook page, in the comments section below, or at

Tune in to Dirty Roots Radio every Thursday night from 8 to 10 p.m. (central) on WGRN 89.5 FM. Listen online from anywhere in the world at



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