The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success, and Betrayal. By Mark Ribowsky. Da Capo. $26.
Precious Metal: “Decibel” Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces. Edited by Albert Mudrian. Da Capo. $18.95.
The death of Michael Jackson sent pop-music fans into an orgy of grief and adulation, even though – objectively speaking – the vast majority of Jackson’s best work was long behind him and he had become, in recent years, a caricature of himself as well as a prototype of the isolated, withdrawn and increasingly bizarre celebrity. And it is celebrity, greater or lesser, that has always driven pop music: songs are inextricably linked with particular performers even when the performers themselves do not write the pieces that make them famous (and that they make famous), and even when others sing the same songs. Beatles songs are always Beatles songs, even when reduced to elevator music.
So celebrity-focused books on the pop-music scene are an enduring staple of its culture, especially for older listeners who are still willing to read thick volumes and are trying to recapture the enjoyment they felt when certain performers and their songs were new. The Supremes fits neatly into this category for fans of “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “You Keep Me Hanging On” and “Baby Love” (all written by Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland), and many other songs – as well as, of course, fans of Diana Ross, who became the group’s lead singer. But readers had better be committed fans, because in addition to the expected “how they did it” and celebrity backbiting elements, The Supremes contains a great deal of highly detailed insider information that is likely to be of interest primarily to nitpickers: “[O]n the Supremes’s box-set, producer Harry Weinger, faced with the impossible task of adumbrating exact recording dates, ran with some problematic documentation, one result of which was that the liner notes insist that ‘Baby Love’ and ‘Come See About Me’ were cut at different sessions: August 13 and July 13, respectively. The problem being that the Supremes were on the Dick Clark tour on those days.” Mark Ribowsky is nothing if not thorough, but his attention to minutiae can and often does sap the story of forward momentum. He takes his time getting through the tale of the Supremes – the book runs 440 pages – and will not disappoint readers looking for the backbiting and catfighting that are an integral part of show-business biographies: “Not for public consumption were the fissures within the group caused by Diana’s rising star and Flo’s envious, booze-fueled antagonism toward her; that was effectively plastered over in the ‘glitz, glam, and gowns’ fable of the Supremes.” Ribowsky also has a good feel for the business practices (not all of them savory) of Motown in the 1960s, and of some of the larger-than-life characters who shaped the hits of the time. The Supremes is more descriptive than analytical, and sometimes assumes a kind of gee-whiz tone, but it is not hagiography – Ribowsky does discuss the flaws of the group and the hangers-on around them. “It was a strange brew, for sure,” he writes at one point in a remark that could stand as a motto for his entire book as well as its subject matter.
Precious Metal is also, in its own way, a story of “dreams, success and betrayal” – dozens of stories, in fact. The book deals with music perceived as much newer than that of the Supremes (although metal’s roots are actually in the late 1960s), and begins its overstatement of metal’s importance in its subtitle – with the word “masterpieces.” Within the narrow confines of heavy metal (which evolved, or at least changed, into death metal, black metal, metalcore, etc.), the 25 essays here – all of whose titles begin with the words “The Making of” – are certainly describing important works. But it is questionable whether devotees of this form of music will want quite so much detail on it. Decibel magazine, of which Albert Mudrian is editor-in-chief, of course exists for the sole purpose of promoting and glorifying heavy metal, but this is experiential music that does not translate particularly well to the dullness of the printed page, even when metal musicians do their best to stir things up: “Eyehategod was started as a way to piss people off” (Brian Patton); “You can be as pretentious as you want if you’re growling lyrics” (Nick Holmes); “It felt so good to play live – it felt like you were killing somebody” (Josh Homme). A great deal of this music involves poses, and many of the musicians are expert poseurs – Ozzy Osbourne’s antics, both before and after Black Sabbath, still define the genre for many people. But the articles collected in Precious Metal – which are in the form of extended interviews rather than traditional essays – take everything in the field at artistic face value. The writers are too immersed in heavy metal to bother speaking to anyone beyond the core fan base. Thus, Chris Dick, in “The Making of Cannibal Corpse’s Tomb of the Mutilated,” opines that “album-opener ‘Hammer Smashed Face’” was “heavy, heavy, heavy. And catchy, too. As in H5N1 catchy. This is one of those songs you can’t forget. …Big-time stuff for a small-time band.” J. Bennett, in “The Making of Kyuss’ Welcome to Sky Valley,” writes that the Mojave Desert is “the birthplace of ‘stoner rock.’ And Sky Valley is the album that perfected the then-nonexistent form. …Sky Valley also marked the departure of [Brant] Bjork, who split the band immediately after recording his drum tracks. What he left behind is one of the most deserving Hall of Fame legacies in the history of forever.” This sort of writing wears very thin very quickly for anyone not already strongly committed to heavy metal and the Decibel style. Fans of both the music and the magazine will find Precious Metal golden; everyone else will more likely see it as cheap electroplate.