Their Dying Words: Books By and About Artists Who’ve Left Us
One of the more morbid secrets of publishing — and likely of the record industry, too — regards dead authors. Frankly, dead authors sell books, depending, of course, on their literary stature and the quality and prolific output during their lives. Their books sell simply because they have died and their readers will no longer get to read a new book by them.
The spike in sales comes just after the news of the author’s death. When Southern writer Pat Conroy died, his books flew off the shelves, especially the collection of essays A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (Doubleday). A cracking good storyteller, Conroy had never collected in one place his reflections on his favorite authors or his early days as a writer; with this collection, readers who loved Conroy had the chance to hear his voice tell those tales, forever.
Some authors gain a modicum of fame only after their death and the re-publication of their books. Richard Stern, who taught at the University of Chicago and was good friends with Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, never achieved the fame or recognition of Roth or Bellow while he was alive. Yet, in his introduction to the new edition of Other Men’s Daughters (NYRB), Roth writes: “Stern’s accomplishment (here, as in all his work) is to locate precisely the comedy and the pains of a particularly contemporary phenomenon without exaggeration, animus, or operatic ideology. … In all, it is as if Chekhov had written Lolita. … I would hold that in its own felicitous way, Other Men’s Daughters is to the sixties what The Great Gatsby was to the twenties, The Grapes of Wrath to the thirties, and Rabbit Is Rich to the eighties: a microscope exactly focused upon a thinly sliced specimen of what was once the present moment.”
When musicians die, their records often fly out of the bins in records stores. Last year when Prince and David Bowie died, sales of their albums skyrocketed. 2017 has not been a kind year for music fans, and many of the musicians who’ve shaped our music have left us for that ethereal musical realm. Perhaps the best way to live in the presence of these artists is to cue up their albums on the turntable and lose ourselves in their music and lyrics. Yet, many of those who died this year had written memoirs or autobiographies, or others had written about them. It’s a fitting way to honor the artists we’ve lost by reading their words or words about them, so this week’s column offers a short list of books by or about the artists who’ve died.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the artists who’ve died in 2017, but many of them had not written of themselves nor had others written about them (there is no book about Wayne Cochran, for example, and it’s time for a good book on Don Williams). So, put on your favorite dead artist’s record and lose yourself in the music as you lose yourself in these words by or about them.
Butch Trucks (January 24): Scott Freeman, Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band (Little, Brown); Alan Paul, One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band (St. Martin’s)
Larry Coryell (February 12): Larry Coryell, Improvising: My Life in Music (Hal Leonard)
Chuck Berry (March 18): Chuck Berry: The Autobiography (Harmony); Bruce Pegg, Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry (Routledge)
Gregg Allman (May 27): Gregg Allman, My Cross to Bear (William Morrow); Alan Paul, One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band (St. Martin’s); Galadrielle Allman, Please Be with Me: A Song for My Father, Duane Allman (Spiegel & Grau)
Glen Campbell (August 8): Glen Campbell, Rhinestone Cowboy: An Autobiography (Villard); Debby Campbell, Life with My Father (Overlook Omnibus)
Walter Becker (September 3): Barney Hoskyns, Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Companion (Overlook); Brian Sweet, Steely Dan: Reelin’ in the Years (Overlook Omnibus); Donald Fagen, Eminent Hipsters (Penguin); Anthony Robustelli, Steely Dan FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About This Elusive Band (Backbeat)
Tom Petty (October 2): Warren Zanes, Petty: The Biography (St. Martin’s)
Fats Domino (October 24): Rick Coleman, Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Da Capo)
Mel Tillis (November 19): Stutterin’ Boy: The Autobiography of Mel Tillis (Rawson)
David Cassidy (November 22): David Cassidy, C’mon, Get Happy: Fear and Loathing on the Partridge Family Bus (Grand Central); David Cassidy, Could It Be Forever?: My Story (Headline Publishing)