Rock Reads: Hey Joe: The Unauthorized Biography of the Rock Classic by Marc Shapiro

Reviewed by Kevin Wierzbicki

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The extent of the average fan's knowledge of the '60s song "Hey Joe" probably consists only of familiarity with the version performed by Jimi Hendrix, which is still a mainstay on classic rock radio. Those who know a little rock history might know that Hendrix was not the first to take "Hey Joe" to the charts; a rather obscure group called the Leaves had a hit with the song in 1966. What else is there to know? An awful lot, and it's laid out here by New York Times best-selling author Marc Shapiro. The early portion of the book details Shapiro's in-depth sleuthing as he tries to document who exactly wrote "Hey Joe" and uncover other facts like who was the first to record the song, and who was the first to get that recording out to the public. Shapiro was likely pulling his hair out with what he turned up but fans will have a good time reading about his fact-finding mission. Some evidence pointed to the song having its roots in old blues or folk tunes, while those claiming to have written the song include folk singer Tim Rose, Dino Valenti of Quicksilver Messenger Service and Billy Roberts who today is widely given the songwriting credits. What comes out between the lines is why this all matters; there was something about the song and its tale of premeditated murder that resonated with almost every working band of the mid-'60s and everyone from the Byrds, Love, the Surfaris, Deep Purple, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead either recorded the tune or played it in concert. The latter portion of the book finds Shapiro moving into subsequent decades and bringing the story current; along the way he offers "Hey Joe"-related dialog from the likes of Patti Smith while also exploring versions cut by Willy DeVille, Eddie Murphy, Captain Sensible and untold others. In all Shapiro is aware of about 2000 versions of the song, with that total growing larger virtually every day. So while the book is ostensibly about the song it is named after, really it is about some intangible quality that is the very essence of rock 'n' roll.

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