Good to My Ear- and Eyehole Since Last I Posted: Part 2, The Read.

Part of the reason I’ve struggled keeping this blog updated regularly is I am a compulsive reader. If 24 hours pass and I haven’t read a page or two of something other than what I’m teaching my students, The WeekThe Columbia Tribune, or liner notes, I feel as if I have committed a venality. I’m such a dork, I have my Goodreads blogroll on the opening page of this site, plus I have challenged myself to read 105 books this year, up four from 2013, and I am at 91 as of today. I have even bet my literacy class a pizza party that, as a class of 15, they cannot outread me by the end of the semester (we are currently tied–you have to remember these are kids who struggle with reading, whom I only see every other day, and who have serious difficulty reading at home). I don’t read music tomes exclusively; in fact, they are usually in the minority–except for recently, which accounts for what follows, although I regret that I haven’t yet cracked the weirdly-authored and -titled Jerry Lee Lewis: My Own Story, by Rick Bragg.

Snider

Todd Snider: I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like: Mostly True Tall Tales) (Da Capo, 2014)

If your a Snider adept, like me, you might ask yourself, “Do I need to read this?” Answer: unequivocally, yes. Yes, you do get many stories you already know from concerts and records, but you also get the stories behind the stories, which, when they involve Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Jimmy Buffet, Billy Joe Shaver and a host of less immortal rounders, are a serious trip. You also will get inspired, page by page, to live life while you’re living, even if Snider himself may be dead before he hits 50 (fucker will probably live to 90). If you don’t know the man, you can actually read this, enjoy the hell out of it, and go straight to those records you missed. Note: His compassion for outside-the-law dudes is well-documented, but he’s equally compassionate when it comes to outside-the-law babes. Props, buddy.

Carter family

Frank M. Young and David Lasky (illustrations): The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song (Abrams Comicarts, 2012)

Things to recommend this GREAT graphic novel: a) the illustrations and text match the deadpan beauty of Carter Family music; b) the chapter titles (Carter Family song titles) wittily match the stories that follow; c) it doesn’t shirk on the black influence on the Carter Thing, and it certainly ain’t romanticized; d) it’s written and illustrated to show how much ASS these Carter women kicked; e) it comes with a CD of rareties; and f) I got it cheap at an Osage Beach outlet store. What else do you want?

Jimi

Charles Cross: Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix (Hyperion, 2006)

A huge fan of Cross’ Cobain bio, Heavier Than Heaven, in which he just puts its head down, does a shitload of research, conducts a million interviews, and undermines miles of bullshit conspiracy theories, I wanted to read this immediately when it came out, but was vexed by middling reviews by folks I trusted. Children, a lesson: fuck reviews. If it’s a subject or writer you dig, go ahead with your bad self. Goosed by my love for the film Jimi: All is By My Side and curious about its degree of factual accuracy, I picked this up eight years after it came out, and within 100 pages quietly paid penance for not trusting my instincts. A Pacific Northwesterner himself, Cross is interested in his subjects beyond their celebrity, and works his ass off to get the story right. Most moving here is the long-time influence of Hendrix’s mother, whose funeral Jimi’s dad forbade him to attend (the bastard) and whose Seattle grave (in the same cemetery as Hendrix and his dad’s elaborate tomb) is still uncommemorated, and the similarities between Hendrix’s and Cobain’s sad goodbyes: they could not exit the grind, and had no one handy who knew how to facilitate it. I was also blown away to learn that, by Cross’ account, Hendrix spent more days hungry than Elvis–and, you know, Elvis had his mom behind him as he penetrated into cultural acclaim. BTW: that movie nobody went to, Jimi: All is By My Side? With a few exceptions, it’s pretty damned factually accurate, and, affectively, as they say, it’s spot-on.

George

George Clinton (with Ben Greenman): Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?: A Memoir (Atria, 2014)

If you’re like me, you have got to be saying, “How can this NOT be a thrill-ride?” If Greenman just captured the voice that once uttered, “With the rhythm that makes [us] dance to what we have to live through/You can dance underwater and not get wet, OH!” the plot points would be immaterial. Well, the book’s only boring when, in the latest music memoir fashion, it lapses into attorneys and addiction in its final quarter, but for the other three-fourths, George gives us precious little detail regarding what P-Funk sessions were really like, and, come on, isn’t that what you were hoping for? As far as the voice is concerned, Greenman dries out Uncle Jam’s naturally funky delivery, though it does raise up when barbering and fishing are under discussion. Really, it’s a pretty funny read, but not revelatory–for that, I am afraid you must still go to the much slimmer (159 pages!) but much stankier George Clinton and P-Funk: An Oral History (For the Record), a David Mills-written and Dave Marsh-edited oral history that lets it all hang out. Also: Blipp needs to get its shit figured out–the cover trigger doesn’t deliver 1/20th of what it promises.

Elephant Dancing: ‘Our New Orleans’ (03/06)

Elephant Dancing: ‘Our New Orleans’ (03/06)

A brief essay on a modern masterpiece of soul music. If you have not heard OUR NEW ORLEANS, do not delay.

GreilMarcus.net

Our New Orleans, a recent collection of performances by refugees and expatriates from the city, recorded after the flood that destroyed it, is the latest in a series of New Orleans tribute-charity-telethon extravaganzas—all of which seemed to feature dull performances by Irma Thomas, “Soul Queen of New Orleans.”

In the early 1960s Thomas caught a vein of pain and defiance that was altogether her own. “Wish Someone Would Care,” from 1964, was both more and less than soul music was supposed to be: less because it was so fragile, more because it demanded more of the music than the music could give. The singer was demanding that the song—or something, someone—stop her from killing herself. After that, the spark was gone.

When the producers of Our New Orleans gathered musicians from the city’s diaspora—in Memphis, in Houston, in New York City, in Maurice, Louisiana, a village halfway across…

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10 Reasons to Read Amanda Petrusich’s DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE

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I had been eagerly awaiting the release of this book. I am a man who has no resistance to enthusiasm–I prefer it, in fact, to appearing cool, by a long shot–and a serious, 35-year record-collecting habit that’s led to an 8,000-unit collection tentacling through my domicile. My only 78s are a little Ernest Tubb “book” from the early ’50s, but the collectors chronicled here have long been heroes of mine, having made it possible for me to hear Jim Jackson’s “Old Dog Blue,” Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” and countless other heart- and mind-piercing classics from before Hitler permanently darkened the world. In fact, my only worry about reading the book was that I’d go on auto-pilot, since I’d already read much by and about Harry Smith, Joe Bussard, John Fahey, and R. Crumb (who’s not profiled here, for good reason). That mild anxiety, joined with my tendency to self-start, my voracious and ominivorous regular reading habits, and my almost-hysterical imagination of the contents of a future book about which I’ve become interested–well, I was prepared to be disappointed. Ms. Petrusich, however, did a wonderful job on a difficult task. The proof of the pudding is I devoured it in two days, and I’m a busy guy.

As a bow to her chapter on the links between gender (and disabilities such as OCPD, Asperger’s and autism) and record collecting, being a man, I will present you a list of 10 reasons why you should read Amanda’s book:

1. She is very fair to a parade of (mostly) weird, old white guys who would alienate most people–even the mysterious and not particularly hygienic Don Wahle. As alienated as many of these collectors are, she imparts them with dignity.

2. She learns to scuba dive, braves foggy, twisty Appalachian roads, fends off lecherous truckers, suffers stomach viruses, seldom gets to draw on sisterly support, has to endure a thirty-year-old hipster with a bowler hat and pocket watch, and sits still under the imperious gaze of every collector who demands total silence while a record’s being played–just to bring us this book.

3. She very deftly blends thorough research, probing interviewing skill, bemused humor, both aesthetic and psychological analysis, skepticism, deep curiosity, and the time-honored quest narrative.

4. She will send you hurrying back to your own collection (or to your purchasing wish list) with her descriptions of piquant songs–and you will be surprised and enlightened, no matter how well-versed you are. For me, it was to learn the history of “Skokiaan,” a song I love in its current interpretation by The Pope of NOLA Kermit Ruffins, but didn’t know the history of. An iron law of music books: it must lighten your wallet and enrich your aural store.

5. This is a subject that could easily have been presented with great (and fatal) sobriety and convolution. Ms. Petrusich succeeds in navigating it with delight and clarity–the delight especially rubs off.

6. She can write a great chapter heading (and subtitle), then justify it.

7. She’s from Brooklyn, and you never feel hipped out to the margins.

8. These days, it seems like every non-fiction writer is required to incorporate brain research into her text, but, by the time Petrusich reaches that chapter, you feel it’s…necessary. In fact, you will probably have developed your own theories, which she will make it fun for you to test.

9. She is moved to buy 78s herself.

10. Regarding the matter of what makes a performance great, after a little wrestling, she seems to side with Dionysus as opposed to Apollo. This appears to be because, according to the research, she’s a woman, but Joe Bussard and I stand here to cry that you can make research say whatever you like. It won’t trump the joy that roars from ear to heart to extremities.

Follow Amanda on Twitter, and, until Amazon chills out, grab her book from one of the OTHER choices listed here.

Old Letters: Lester Bangs 1948-82 (05/11/82)

Old Letters: Lester Bangs 1948-82 (05/11/82)

Check it out, people. A reminder.

GreilMarcus.net

“I just wanted to write and tell you that I’ve finally figured out what the best records of all time are,” Lester Bangs wrote me some years ago, “so you can throw all the other ones away.” I remember thinking that this represented some kind of brave accommodation with the world, at least as compared with the first letter he had sent me, in 1969: “In short, I would like to blow up the whole set and start all over again.” He was a lonely kid in El Cajon, California, with more brains and more experience than he knew what to do with, looking for people to talk to. Over the next 13 years he probably did more talking, more writing, than anyone in his generation, and it got him famous, got him a reputation–got him a legend of sorts. But I never knew Lester as a clown, or as…

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A Memory Stirred by Carl Wilson’s Celine Dion 33 1/3 Book

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Funny thing about this book. I was at the library picking up a hold (Song of the Shank–more on that next month, probably) and, as usual, couldn’t help looking at the new music nonfiction. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten my glasses, and my arms were only long enough for me to make out “Alex Ross,” “Brilliant,” and the title. Those sounded promising, so, I thought, why not add it to the stack? Upon arriving home and putting on my specs, I was initially dismayed to discover it was an expanded 33 1/3 entry about Celine Dion. Those things are so numerous, it’s hard to keep up with them–and, to my lights, they are seldom very good. I also noticed a Jonathan Lethem blurb, and, I’m sorry, but right now, “those guys” are not floating my boat much. Nonetheless, I chose to sample it. Not many hours later, I had finished it, and, truly, every music nut–and, especially, every music writer–should be required to read it. Wilson wasn’t a Dion fan when he took on the project (and still not much of one after); his idea was to use his distaste for Dion to examine what taste really is, and the results of his inquiry are sometimes rattling. Personally, as in Emerson’s old quote, I found many of my own past musings marched much more eloquently than I ever thought ’em back across my eyeline. The revelations Wilson makes are too numerous to go into fully here, but two fascinated me so much that, in the hours after I finished it, I began to reflect on some of the music “taste collisions” of my past. We all have bands that speak so directly to us that our responses are deeply emotional, that we can’t really think of them at a critical distance (right now, for me, that’s the Cincinnati, Ohio, band Wussy). Often, that speaking doesn’t necessarily relate to the benchmarks of high art, much less the simpler idea of good taste. Wilson, delving into both the significance of Dion’s Quebecois past to her Canadian fans and also the needs she might be fulfilling in her listeners in the wider world, writes wonderfully about how this phenomenon complicates critical assessment and discussion. Second, the author enters a long thought-tunnel concerning kitsch, and exits wondering, with great justification, whether there’s something troubling about cultural gatekeepers disparaging artists who traffic in, shall we say, broad emotions. Why, for example, should it be more critically valid to lionize artists who shine a light on the darker corners of living than to exalt those who choose to magnify the glow of the brighter ones? Now, honestly, how many of us have paused and thought that, caught short by a corny wedding song we’d never be caught dead housing in our media players?

These questions took me back to a moment in my late teens that I have often recalled. Having just finished my first year of college, where two new friends hipped me to many punk bands, notably The Ramones and Black Flag, I had returned home for the summer to work in a factory and save up some dough. Even though I had graduated from high school with “decent” taste–I was deeply obsessed with Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Elvis Costello–I was ill-prepared (and completely, totally ready) for the worldviews of X, the Germs, Gang of Four, the Clash, and the Sex Pistols, the latter two to whom I’d listened but not “got” prior to my college exposure. I knew good and well that, returning to the small southwest Missouri town where my parents lived, I would be spending the social segment of my leisure time tolerating the music of others. Such snobs we can be when we are wet behind the ears.

One weekend night, a carload of fellow factory workers, city pool rats and I headed across the state line into Kansas, where we could legally drink 3.2 beer (main attraction), ogle and even dance with women (second by a slim margin), and bask in the glow of .38 Special, Loverboy, Head East–must I go on? This particular evening, the rest of my party had had an exhilarating time; I, on the other hand, had spent most of the evening playing the wall, grimacing during mega-Midwestern-blasts like “Hold On Loosely,” and thinking about the Minor Threat/Bad Brains mix tape I’d just gotten in the mail from one of my college buddies, who, lucky for him, went home to California and was seeing L.A. punk bands live. I was a mope, and couldn’t wait to get back home. No wonder no chick wanted to dance with me.

On the way back, we were all quiet, most in a bit of a “j mood.” The car stereo was loud. The music fed their fantasies; it discouraged mine. Journey. Escape. My head was right next to one of the back speakers, and, with each Steve Perry vocal skyscrape, I took a deep swig of piss water and gnashed my teeth. An hour’s ride full of this, equivalent roughly to having an old filling drilled out without anesthesia. Casually at first, I looked around at my comrades, most of whom were reclined almost fully, their eyes closed, grinning blissfully (the driver was not among these, to our immense good fortune) and occasionally nodding to key phrases. An unsettling thought hit me: against the backdrop of a hometown they didn’t have much refuge from–I was the only college student among them–which offered little career fulfillment beyond industrial work, little social fulfillment beyond the bars, bowling alleys, pool, and, well, forays across the state line, and precious little diversity of culture and opinion, the–yes–soaring, Utopian music of Journey was simply and powerfully beautiful. In a flash, I realized, “The subjects of Springsteen songs don’t listen to Springsteen songs; they’re Steve Perry and Neil Schon fans!” Thinking from a writing student’s perspective, I thought, for a minute, “But…it’s so generic!” Well, it’s that just-right generic quality that allows for projecting one’s reality, no matter how constrained, upon the song’s magnificent scene, right?

You have to understand, Journey was everywhere in ’81–especially on the municipal pool jukebox on our days off and even more especially on those weekend Kansas clubs’ sound systems. This wasn’t a decade or so later, when the band’s reputation underwent some overdue reconsideration, when “Don’t Stop Believin'” closed down The Sopranos. Journey could not be escaped, which made the aesthetically deft escapism in their music easy to miss. For me, at least, this uncomplicated band was very complicated. My mind finished its convolutions at the approximate moment that “Open Arms” drifted (if loud music can be said to drift) from the car stereo speakers, and by that time, I had made peace with Journey’s music–in fact, I felt a little shamefaced that I had to furrow my brow to appreciate it, that I had to condescend before I could appreciate the other guys’ appreciation, but at least I found myself enjoying “Open Arms” for the first time. Of course, I didn’t share this tableau with my buddies when I returned to school, but it did help me avoid being a jerk when I started teaching and got into music gab with my students. I still don’t own even a Journey greatest hits album, but I can hear their finest achievements with startling clarity in my memory, and the feeling is warm, and good.

If, like me, you’ve experienced such a moment, you really need to read Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love–or, then again, maybe you don’t. It’s all in really hearing the soaring.

 

Today’s Reading Assignment, Best Music Writing Division

You must read this great article by John Jeremiah Sullivan, my candidate for best music writer alive.

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Sullivan explores the mystery of country blues singers Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas. Country blues folks are mysterious almost be definition, but Wiley and Thomas are unique. This interactive piece includes links to the very tiny but potent body of music these ladies left behind. I will also add this clip from the documentary CRUMB that features Wiley’s deep, deep, deep “Last Kind Words Blues” (if you dig R. Crumb, watch the whole clip, but the tune shows up for a beautiful segment at the 4:30 mark):