Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul (Spiegel & Grau, $28; paper, $17) intertwines two of author James McBride’s greatest passions and talents – writing and music – in this biography of legendary soul singer James Brown. To those of us who grew up listening to his music in the 1960s, James Brown was the Godfather of Soul and the musical father of Black Pride. He did his own version of the moonwalk in high-heeled boots! He did the splits in a suit! He had faux fainting spells! And his cape! Brown had, the author contends, as profound an influence on American social history as Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass. But much of his reputation and legacy became tangled up in unflattering impressions and tragic incidents from his life, too often leaving him marked and misinterpreted as more of a simple caricature than the complicated cultural icon and enormously talented artist he truly was. McBride, the 2013 National Book Award winner for fiction (The Good Lord Bird) tells Brown’s story, in one reviewer’s words, as “a furious ode.”
Bruuuuuce! The long-awaited memoir from the Boss has finally arrived, with a whirlwind tour of a life in rock and roll. In Born to Run (Simon & Schuster, $32.50) Bruce Springsteen takes us from his humble beginnings in working-class Freehold, New Jersey, all the way to the pinnacle of his superstar performance at the Super Bowl—and everything in between. Springsteen is not one to shy away from any subject, including his difficult, distant, and sometimes emotionally abusive relationship with his father; failed bands and a failed first marriage, and the deaths of fellow band members and close friends. But mostly, this memoir is about the music: the feeling in his hands of the first guitar he ever bought, those early live shows at run-down, seedy bars on the beaches of Asbury Park, the cutting of each album along the way and what the writing and recording process was like, and the meaning behind many of the characters and lyrics we have grown to love. The prose reads as if you are listening to a Bruce song, sitting in the front row at one of his legendary concerts. It’s a ride you’ll hope never ends. Check out the companion CD as well, which features some top tracks and previously unreleased early recordings.
Over the years, the legend of Brian Wilson’s personal struggles has threatened to overshadow the groundbreaking work he did with the Beach Boys. In I Am Brian Wilson (Da Capo, $26.99) the musician, with writer Ben Greenman, finally gets a chance to tell his story from his own perspective. In many ways, this book is an antidote to his earlier memoir, Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story, ghostwritten by Wilson’s domineering therapist Eugene Landy. In this update, Wilson freely admits that his memory is spotty, and the book often reads as Wilson’s attempt to make sense of his recollections, both good and bad. The narrative often succumbs to melancholy, as when Wilson reflects on his tyrannical father, his mental breakdown at age twenty-five, his struggles with drugs, his therapist Landy, and his own inadequacies as a father. However, Wilson also shares his musical inspirations, insights into his creative process, his joy at making music, and his artistic comeback in the 2000s. I Am Brian Wilson is ultimately a rewarding read, as the author invites us to help him comb through his life story and find the one thing that always came so easily to him in his music: harmony.