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Book Reviews

The Da Capo Best Music Writing

By Published: March 3, 2004
Reading music criticism has always been a dicey affair. But never one to shy away from reading better writers, I read the first two installments of the new Da Capo Press Series, The Da Capo Best Music Writing for the years 2000 and 2001. My first observation is the disclaimer to the editor?and readership of these electronic words?there is precious little jazz writing here and fixtures in the industry did it. Out of a total of 60 some-odd pieces, only a handful are Jazz related. As it turns out, this is no matter. The writing almost to the article is informative, provocative, and entertaining and probably the most interesting aspect of these two volumes are the philosophical approaches used by the disparately different guest editors.

Peter Guralnick is one of the grand old men of popular music journalism. His American music trilogy: Lost Highway, Feel Like Going Home, and Sweet Soul Music alone would have cinched his place in literary journalism. Erudite and refined with a delivery as common as Delta dirt, these books examine and illuminate the basis of American Popular Music. Add to this Mr. Guralnick's mammoth and well-researched biography of the King, Elvis Presley: Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love and one has quite a library. It is the likes of this that has compiled and edited the 2000 flagship edition of this series.

Compare now to the brash English journalist Nick Hornby, author of the wildly popular High Fidelity, a book whose protagonist is a record storeowner obsessed with music and pop culture lists (like every jazz critic I know!). Mr. Hornby is an observant pop culture scribe whose focus is too immediate to bother itself with ancient history. Very much in the moment and with his pulse on what is current, Mr. Hornby is as fresh as a lime peel and potent as a Bombay Martini. And it is he who has compiled the 2001 edition of Best Music.

Approach is everything. Guralnick is didactic, opting for writing that has "...accessibility, and by that I don't necessarily mean familiarity of either subject matter of style...The writer's only obligation, it seems to me, is to provide some kind of entr饠to a world (s)he uniquely understands and to give the reader some reason for being there." For his part, Mr. Hornby is more interested in reading:

"...someone who loves Pink Lunchbox with a passion that brooks no reason, and can communicate with wit and style how the Lunchbox (the Lunchies?) has changed his or her life, than someone who can no longer listen to track 2 of any CD because nothing is as good as Exile on Main Street." (Ouch!)

Do you see the difference? Well, neither did. Both want to learn something new and to read passion on the page. Guralnick reflects this in the studiousness of his choices, Hornby in the visceral nature of his.

There is some fabulous reading in these two collections both popular and obscure. Guralnick's volume boasts former in Alec Wilkinson's "Who Put the 'Honky Tonk' in 'Honky Tonk Women,'" an essay reminding us of the fundamental influence of Ry Cooder on the Rolling Stones (and Rock Music's) most fertile period while highlighting Cooder's accomplishment in The Buena Vista Social Club. Guralnick's obscurity is Jay Babcock's lengthy history of the Nigerian Pop star Fela and his high rise and low fall in "Fela: King of the Invisible Art". Rosanne Cash describes the blessings and curses of being from a County Music Family in the intensely personal "The Ties That Bind" and John Rockwell resurrects some unpublished Lester Bang's ejaculations written as liner notes but never included in the recent release The Comedian Harmonists (Hannibal HNCD 1445).

The wily Hornby brings the less studied and perhaps more accessible reading with Steven Daly, et al.'s brilliant answer to Ambrose Bierce in "The Rock Snob's Dictionary." There is also Anthony DeCurtis's unflinching picture of Johnny Cash in " Johnny Cash Won't Back Down," and Richard Meltzer's jab into the myth of Cameron Crowe, "Third Spud From the Sun." Hornby's choices have a bit of an edge, though an informed edge. They are a fun and fast read where Guralnick's choices require a bit more of the reader.

Guralnick brings from the Jazz front George Goodman's astute Atlantic Monthly offering of "Sonny Rollins at Sixty Eight" and David Hadju honors the love affair between Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn in his Vanity Fair submission by the same name. Hornby, on this count does about the same. He includes Whitney Balliett's profile of Django Reinhardt and Francis Davis's sensitive portrait of Billie Holiday, "Our Lady of Sorrows: Billie Holiday." All of the works well written by well-written writers.

Perhaps the best piece of writing is not so much journalism, as it is historical fiction. It is Nick Tosches early history of Rock and roll, Payola, and musicology in "Hipsters and Hoodlums,' originally published in Vanity Fair. In an almost stream-of-conscious stroll through rock History and Philosophy, Tosches puts forth both the best and worst in rock writing...all in the same passage:

It was the time of rock 'n' roll's innocence?that is to say, its incarnation of innocence. The golden age of rock 'n' roll can be said to have begun in 1945, when hip black urban music diverged into two distinct revolutionary currents: the more cerebral and Apollonian freshet of bebop, and the more febrile and Dionysian torrent of rhythm and blues, as pioneered by blues shouters of the day...

...That age would last little more than a decade. Elvis Presley marked its end, and it was as if the golden age of real rock 'n' roll had never been: The all-powerful consumer mainstream of white America, in its belated discovery of rock 'n' roll, knew only the banal Wonder Bread of its usurpation by forces of market-friendly mediocrity.

The former part of the passage is pure poetry, assigning the proper responsibility and credit where it is due. The latter, while bearing a whiff of truth, smells like something else altogether. It may be the most anemic piece of postmodern trash one could defile one's psyche with.

That is what I think good writing is. Something that provokes strongly opposed mixed feelings leaving us, the readers, to sort out the conflict. We can thank Messrs. Guralnick and Hornby for providing examples of that.

Best Music Writing 2001
Guest Editor Nick Hornby
Series Editor Ben Schafer
Da Capo Press
ISBN: 0-306-81066-2

Best Music Writing 2000
Guest Editor Peter Guralnick
Series Editor Douglas Wolk
Da Capo Press
ISBN: 0-306-80999-0

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