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Cash and carry: New books about legendary musicians

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Just in time for Christmas — of course — the end of 2013 has produced a big, surprising pile of quality biographies and memoirs detailing the lives of a slew of baby boomer musicians. We recently reviewed and recommended Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir by Linda Ronstadt, while other works from the latter part of the year centered on Donald Fagen of Steely Dan (Eminent Hipsters), Jimmy Page (Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page), Robert Plant (Robert Plant: A Life), Harry Nilsson (Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter) and Graham Nash (Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life). And below are three more; you may want to particularly consider these books when making out a gift list for your musically inclined friends or family.

JOHNNY CASH: THE LIFE

by Robert Hilburn

(Little Brown, 688 pages, $32)

Music writing veteran Robert Hilburn knew Johnny Cash for years; he was the only journalist present during Cash's legendary Folsom Prison concert. Their closeness is apparent in the extraordinary biography Johnny Cash: The Life, although Hilburn's dedication to meticulous detail keeps the men's friendship from derailing the author's determination to tell it like it really was, major warts and all. Cash was representative of his generation's country music audience: born in poverty and forever scarred by it; restless and wanting more from life; swerving back and forth between a fearsome religion's demands and the ostensibly sinful excitements of the world; and possessed by a strong taste for music. Hilburn examines Cash's tortured but thrilling roller-coaster life deeply and honestly without softening his portrait. This is a serious, heavy-duty biography that is as dedicated to telling the unvarnished truths about Cash's drug use, professional stumbles and philandering — which were worse than anything portrayed in the film Walk The Line — as it is to examining the singer's enormous talent, drive and heart. It's hard to imagine any book replacing Hilburn's as the definitive Johnny Cash biography.

TUNE IN — THE BEATLES: ALL THESE YEARS

by Mark Lewisohn

(Crown Archetype, 944 pages, $40)

Ahem, speaking as we just were about definitive biographies, here's one that likewise is nearly certain to never be topped. Mark Lewisohn wrote 1988's The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, a godsend for Beatles geeks wanting to trace the group's explosive creative growth. Now he has produced Tune In — The Beatles: All These Years, the first volume of a planned trilogy examining the group's entire history — cultural, personal and professional. Volume 1, Tune In, is 803 pages of text plus 140 pages of notes and indexes — and ends in 1962, as the Beatles releases its first single, "Love Me Do." For serious Beatles fans, this is the most complete account of the band's beginnings and early growth imaginable. The Beatles' weeks in Hamburg, Germany — the crucible in which the band's tight sound, vast repertoire, work ethic and musicianship were nailed down — are brought to life in all their expansive, challenging and sordid glory. Lewisohn, who, although no Shakespeare, writes with plenty enough style to avoid being academic, has said he wanted to "press the refresh button" on the career arc story that's been told "the same old way for so very long ... dying under the suffocating blanket of 'celebrity.'" If the trilogy turns out to be the masterpiece Lewisohn envisions (and from the first volume's brilliance, I'd say that's very possible), it will be due to the author's doggedness and unimaginably complex hard work. Luckily for the rest of us, his subject is of such widespread cultural importance that it's been worth the wait.

AMERICANA: THE KINKS, THE RIFF, THE ROAD: THE STORY

by Ray Davies

(Sterling, 320 pages, $24.95)

In his first memoir, X-Ray, Kinks leader Ray Davies told of his childhood and the rise of his band during the heady "British invasion/swinging London" days. Americana: The Kinks, the Riff, the Road: The Story begins with the Kinks' first trip back to the U.S. after having been banned for four years (for still-unclear reasons) and goes through the present, with an emphasis on songwriting. Most interesting is Davies' tale of his move to New Orleans, where he was shot during a robbery. He recovered and moved back to London, about two miles from his original home. Throughout the book, Davies riffs on his love of America and all things cultural from the U.S. This is a smaller-scale book than the Cash and Beatles bios, but it's written with genuine wit and more than worth the money and time for any Davies fan.

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