Read to the beat

William McKeen is chairman of the University of Florida’s Department of Journalism and author of several books, most recently the Hunter S. Thompson biography Outlaw Journalist. His books on music include Rock and Roll is Here to Stay and Highway 61.

MUSIC TO MY EYES: I don’t know about you, but the imminent arrival of a full-scale biography of the Godfather of Soul has me all a-quiver.

The Hardest Working Man (as in “in show business”) by James Sullivan is coming from Gotham Books in time for the holiday gift-giving season. James Brown left an autobiography with us; we’ll see if Sullivan found out stuff that Mr. Super Bad never shared with the public.

Lately, I've been re-reading two books about Buddy Holly, in preparation for the observance of the 50th anniversary of his death in that plane crash. (My article "The Day the Music Died" will appear in American History in January.) Rave On by Beatles biographer Philip Norman and Buddy Holly by Florida author Ellis Amburn are both fine tellings of Holly's life story. Seems to me I've always got some heavy-duty serious reading to do. The music books are relief.

They are also the big items on the Christmas list, after the Mercedes and the date with Salma Hayek. My family never has any trouble figuring out what I want to read — mostly because I rip out ads from the New York Times Book Review and leave them lying around.

The highlight of last Christmas for me was , already out in paperback. It was interesting to follow along with Eric through his rock’n’roll adventures, but perhaps what made the book so refreshing was the author’s inability to say anything bad about anybody. Except for one guy, of course – Eric Clapton. Rarely has anyone beaten themselves up so thoroughly for their shortcomings. We could all take humility lessons from Slowhand or, as he was known for a brief period in his career, God.

So, with the holidays approaching, maybe it’s a good time to look over some good music books.

One of the best recent books on music is Delta Blues (W.W. Norton, $27.95) by Ted Gioia. Here we have in one volume just about everything you need to know about America’s greatest blues artists – Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Son House, John Lee Hooker … you name it, they’re in here.

If you’ve done a lot of reading on the subject before, you might not find a lot of new stuff here. But it’s a good compendium and it also takes you behind the scenes, so you find out about the struggles of historians and music scholars who tried to learn more about Patton and Johnson, in particular. (One unpublished book on Johnson was called Biography of a Phantom, a fitting title.)

This is a rich and deeply satisfying book about blues musicians and those who loved them. This book smells like a classic.

Another recent arrival is the massive Who Are You (Omnibus, $29.95) by Mark Wilkerson. This is a huge and meticulously detailed biography of Pete Townshend, founder, guitarist and principal songwriter of the Who. If you are not already an obsessive Who fan, this book might easily make you into one.

Wilkerson had cooperation from Townshend and delves into some of Townshend’s darker moments, including his venture unto kiddie porn.

To his credit, Wilkerson does much more than string together Who hits. He spends a lot of time on Townshend’s torment, throughout his Who and solo career. Few artists ever wore their psyche so visibly on their sleeves.

Who Are You is so big it could give you a hernia. Dale Jennings’s Sing Me Back Home (Faber and Faber, $24) is a slim volume that looks at country music through the eyes of a man who could have made a good subject for a Merle Haggard song.

Jennings grew up poor in a family of ne’er-do-wells and feels the pain and remorse in every beer-soaked country ballad. Country music is hotter today than ever, but Jennings makes us appreciate such great and enduring artists as Haggard, Johnny Cash and George Jones. But it also makes you miss people who probably never spent much time listening to before — Lefty Frizzell, Faron Young, Webb Pierce and other artists you need to fall in love with.

Sing Me Back Home does what all great music books should do – make you grow a deeper appreciation for the artists and their music.

In that way, it’s similar to my favorite music book of all time, Sweet Soul Music (Back Bay Books, $14.95) by Peter Guralnick. In this lovely piece of work – which I’ve probably read three or four times – America’s greatest music writer tells the story of the emergence of soul music against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement. It is a masterpiece.

Sweet Soul Music has been out for a couple of decades, but it’s still in print. Greatness never goes out of style.

Guralnick also wrote the brilliant two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. I’m pretty sure that comes in a box set. Any serious music fan needs those books. Life is incomplete without them, so rush out to your local independent book store and buy them now. (Hell, I should go into business as a consultant shopper. I’m practically knocking off the whole shopping list for you.)

Also to consider for gift-giving: Trust (Omnibus, $24.95) collects photographs by the great rock shooter, Jim Marshall. Chances are you’ve Marshall’s classic images of Jimi Hendrix,  Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and others. At right, Marshall's portrait of Johnny Cash in a moment of silent prayer before taking the stage.

I’m a list junkie, possibly because of Dave Marsh’s Book of Rock Lists. (Another great Christmas present, back in 1979 or so. It's been reissued at least once since then.) Maybe I ought to cough up my Top 10 music books. Sweet Soul Music is No. 1., but after that, most spots are up for grabs.

Please feel free to post your top rock book suggestions.

The newspapers are full of gloom from publishers who see this holiday season as the worst for gift-giving in the history of the book. This explains why the heavy hitters – Stephen King, Toni Morrison and J.K. Rowling – have had their books held back for the holidays. Expect to find them under the tree or stuffed in your pantyhose by the fire

One of the reasons books are great gifts: they keep the crazy people in your family occupied. Give Cousin Kenneth a book and he finally shuts up. Aunt Juanita stops telling you how to run your life. They stick their nose in a good book and they’re out of your hair, so you can enjoy the holiday without their yammering.

And some of us just love to read. Socks and ties I’ve got. I never have enough books.

PUT YOUR HANDS TOGETHER: Here are some writers appearing at local bookstores:

Don’t forget that Tampa native - and USF and Stetson Law grad - Lionel will read and sign Everybody’sCrazy But Me and You (Hyperion, $22.95) on Saturday, Nov. 15 at 2 p.m. at Inkwood Books, 216 S. Armenia Ave., Tampa. The uninamed author (God only needed one name, after all) has collected some of his best rants in his new book, including some diatribes on “hate crimes” and crimes against the language. (His real name is Michael LeBron, by the way.) Reading the book will make you wish he had run for president.

Speaking of running for higher office, former Republican contender Mike Huckabee will be at Inkwood at 9 a.m. (!) on Friday, Nov. 28. Eschew the shopping mall on the most pain-in-the-ass shopping day of the year to meet Huckabee and get a signed copy of Do the Right Thing (Sentinel , $25.95). It’s Huckabee’s philosophy collected between covers as his first volley in his charge for the 2012 nomination. I don’t see any connection to the Spike Lee movie.

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