Back when I was exclusively writing about music, my rock-crit friends and I would often lament about the fact that no one reads books about music - I mean, like no one, not even the subjects of the books. The one exception was my friend Jim's Lester Bangs bio, which did in fact sell, but that had more to do with meta-musical interest - a book about a gonzo critic who wrote about gonzo musicians, which had lots of appeal to media types and all of those nutty Bangs cultists (there's more of them out there than you think.)
But what's up L.A.? Looking at the local bestseller list yesterday, no less than three music books were on the non-fiction list - Barney Hoskyns' Hotel California , Ashley Kahn's The House That Trane Built , and the (somewhat less music-centric) Laurel Canyon , by Michael Walker.
This is a heartening development, as two of of these books discuss L.A.'s musical heritage with passion and smarts. Hoskyns has been one of England's finest music writers for the past 25 years, but he's always maintained a fascination with L.A. and the strange and wonderful sounds that have emanated from Valley to Canyon. In Hotel California, he explicates how a clutch of hyper-talented singer-songwriters (Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, etc) minted a literate vision of pastoral hippie bliss to the tune of multi-millions, and how enablers like David Geffen helped them do it. Walker's book, oddly enough, is the very first book to chronicle the history of Laurel Canyon and it's numerous contributions to popular culture. Together, they provide a wide-lens glimpse into the warring impulses of L.A.'s greatest musical artists - the battle to forge meaningful art in the alembic of an aggressively commercial culture.