Buy eBook (iTunes bookstore)
Music touches everything. It pervades our memory, accompanies us through emotion and history, and becomes the lens through which we understand culture or politics.
The essays in Read the Music are just as wide-ranging. The book kicks off with a ride through the post-9/11 landscape alongside Tori Amos and 12 cover songs she calls "girls," and concludes with a treatise on Zoon, the album by British death-metal outfit Nefilim that retells an ancient Apocryphal text.
In between, there's dialogue with Russian duchess Anastasia Romanov on the nature of trauma survival, the songs that might be sung by a robotic girl in love with the world, and a trip to the deepest part of the Scandinavian winter. If you've ever loved music, if you've ever found it seeping into every aspect of your life, then you will understand Read the Music, even if you've never heard these songs before.
I remember the first time I heard Guns 'N' Roses' song "Patience": I was sitting on the sofa in my living room watching MTV's Video Music Awards, eagerly awaiting the performance from one of my favorite bands. It was the height of the heavy-metal 1980s, and Axl Rose was known for three things: his burned-out voice, his violent mood swings, and his checkered past. So for him to stand on that stage on that night and sing what basically amounted to a rocker's folk song - to show that kind of versatility and vulnerability - was, to my mind, a truly rebellious act.
The performance was a precursor to the release of "G'N'R Lies," a two-part compilation that included the four-song "Live (Like a Suicide)" and four new tracks. The latter songs were, like "Patience," hard rock wrapped in acoustic guitars and predicted the "unplugged" phenomenon by a couple of years. The quality of this release was eclipsed by the controversy surrounding Axl's so-called racist and homophobic lyrics on the closing track "One in a Million" - a song that nearly threatened to overshadow everything GNR had worked so hard to build (despite the fact that Axl was an avowed liberal, and that none of his other songs so much as hinted at prejudicial sentiment).
But the true shock of the album was that acoustic version of "You're Crazy" - a balls-out, careening rocker on "Appetite for Destruction" was stripped raw and naked for "Lies," and yet its seething, boiling core remained - and burned stronger for the lack of electric artifice. Axl's lyric was more intense, the guitars bluesy and ranging; everything came together in an unexpectedly heavy way.
Somewhere in Indiana, a very young Travis Meeks must have been listening.
(From "What You Couldn't See: Days of the New")