Music to your eyes

These new books will appeal to the music junkies on your list.

It's the holiday season, and that means it's time for music book giving. Luckily, we have a great bunch of just-released books for our music-junkie friends.

First, for the coffeetable, comes Eagles: Taking it to the Limit (Running Press). You're probably thinking: Why would I want a picture book of hirsute wannabe cowboys from 40 years ago? Granted, the appeal seems small.

But the book has text, and that text is written by Ben Fong-Torres, a seminal figure in rock 'n' roll journalism. In fact, he helped define the form during his days at Rolling Stone in the 1970s.

Since it's Fong-Torres, we know the writing will be good and free of fawning. Turns out there's a lot of good, personal stuff in the book as well.

He knows the territory, having written one of the finest musician bios, Hickory Wind, about Gram Parsons, guiding force of country rock and a former Bartow County resident. As for the pictures — well, they do take you back. Will we ever be that hairy again?

Of course, with rock 'n' roll, the more you know, the more you realize you need to know.

It's great to explore that pre-Elvis Presley era, when a lot of artists were making rock 'n' roll records but not calling them that. And they didn't reach a large audience because their skin was the "wrong color" in apartheid America.

Preston Lauterbach's brilliant The Chitlin Circuit at the Road to Rock'n'Roll (W.W. Norton) is a feast. Focused as it is on the hidden history of music — using as his setting the black-only clubs that formed the great music network of segregated America — he tells all kinds of tales about artists you've probably never heard of.

This is the first book Lauterbach's done and it makes me hungry for more. It's a loving history of great American music, and he is unflaggingly superb as he recounts the conditions on the road and in some of these celebrated juke joints.

The most fascinating part for the serious rock fan will be the early days of James Brown and Little Richard, both of whom began in the same chitlin circuit clubs, then attained mass stardom with that huge white teenage audience.

Because it wouldn't be Christmas without a Beatles book, you should check out The Beatles in Hamburg (Chicago Review Press) by Spencer Leigh. Not only does the book take you back, it also shows more about this vital phase in the Beatles' career than we've ever seen before.

You can almost smell the urine in the alleys behind the porno houses and the sleazy clubs where the Fab Four played before they became famous. It's good to see the Beatles before they became the Beatles.

I remember first seeing Tom Waits on a rock 'n' roll talk show in early 1974. The host was Chip Monck (voice of Woodstock) and the guests that night were Frank Zappa, Mike Love and Peter Gabriel. They sat around chatting and then Monck cut to a new, young entertainer — Tom Waits.

I was immediately fascinated by his rumbly, grumpy persona. The music (he did "Ol' '55" and "The Heart of Saturday Night," if memory serves) was superb, and the wobbly hipster performer was amusing. "Yeah," I said to myself, "but how long can he keep up that act?"

Nearly four decades later, he's doing pretty well. In between, Waits has made some brilliant records.

Barney Hoskyns – who's written so well about The Band and Southern California rock – offers a strong, full-length bio of the Beat Bard called Lowside of the Road (Broadway Books). It is, as we would expect from Hoskyns, excellent.

If you want to hear the man in his own words, then you might like Tom Waits on Tom Waits (Chicago Review Press). Edited by Paul Maher, Jr., it's a collection of some of the best interviews the the Bowery poet has given.

William McKeen chairs the journalism department at Boston University and is the author of several books, including Mile Marker Zero, about Key West in the 1970s, and Outlaw Journalist, a biography of Hunter S. Thompson.