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Book Reviews

Da Capo Best Music Writing 2004

By Published: April 3, 2005
Da Capo Best Music Writing 2004
Mickey Hart (Editor); Paul Bresnick (Series Editor)
Publisher: Da Capo Press
October 30, 2004
ISBN: 0306813807
360 pages

The Da Capo Best Music Writing series turns five volumes old with the publishing of the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2004. The four preceding volumes were reviewed in two previous articles in these pages (Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 & 2001 and Da Capo Best Music Writing 2002 & 2003) and deserve a short reprise here in order to appropriately frame the current volume.

Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000
Guest Editor Peter Guralnick
Series Editor Douglas Wolk
In the capable hands of Peter Guralnick the series was inaugurated. Bookishly thorough, the didactic Guralnick sought music writing that possessed "...accessibility, and by that I don't necessarily mean familiarity of either subject matter or style...The writer's only obligation, it seems to me, is to provide some kind of entry into a world (s)he uniquely understands and to give the reader some reason for being there." Egalitarian as his approach sounds, Guralnick requires more of the reader than the other guest editors. Of special interest in this collection is 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.

Da Capo Best Music Writing 2001
Guest Editor Nick Hornby
Series Editor Ben Schafer
In contrast to Guralnick's editorial approach, novelist Nick Hornby (best know for his novel High Fidelity) has a more fundamental interest 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!].

Mr. Hornby is an observant pop culture scribe whose focus is too immediate to bother with archaic matters. Very much in the moment and with his pulse on what is current, Hornby deftly chose articles notable as Steven Daly, et al.'s brilliant answer to Ambrose Bierce in "The Rock Snob's Dictionary" and Anthony DeCurtis's unflinching picture of the Man in Black in " Johnny Cash Won't Back Down."

Da Capo Best Music Writing 2002
Guest Editor Jonathan Lethem
Series Editor Paul Bresnick
Editor Lethem throws open the doors of Hip Hop wide, a trend that will increase over all the remaining volumes. The hip Hop journalism that results is like the music and culture it sets out to define. It employs the militant detachment of jazz and is profane, divine, and informative. What it is not is particularly focused and I suspect that is by design. That said, I recommend that the reader look at Nic Cohn's "Soljas" and Franklin Bruno's "The New DJs Lexicon." Easily the best piece of writing included by Lethem the 2002 Edition is Matthew C. Duersten's lengthy article on Anita O'Day ("The Moon Looks Down and Laughs"). It provides keen insight into this controversial and important jazz artist's life since the publication of her autobiography, High Times, Hard Times (Limelight, 1989). Needless to say, like Keith Richards, Miss O'Day has been living on gravy time for the past 20 years. Also, needless to say, Miss O'Day is the greatest living female jazz vocalist.

Da Capo Best Music Writing 2003
Guest Editor Matt Groening
Series Editor Paul Bresnick
Simpsons creator Matt Groening provides the weakest of volumes in the Da Capo Best Music Writing series, but like sex, pizza, and most jazz even the worst I consumed was still pretty good. The writing Groening included in this edition was neither as academic as Guralnick's, as common man as Hornby's or as crystalline as Jonathan Lethem. The standout essay of the collection is is Michael Hall's "Mack McCormick Still Has the Blues." Here, Hall details the triumphs and tragedies of McCormick's scholarship, poignantly detailing the death of McCormick's greatest potential work— that of documenting blues legend Robert Johnson's life, Biography of a Phantom and His still incomplete epic, Texas Blues. Add to this, 24-musical hours with Elvis Costello in "Rock Around the Clock" and this otherwise banal issue is saved.

All of this brings us to the current volume, Da Capo Best Music Writing 2004 guest edited by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart (Paul Bresnick retained for his third stint as series editor). The first crack reveals a lot. Mr. Hart provides the shortest introduction, a mere three pages that betrays volumes regarding the editor's approach to choosing pieces for the collection. In the most appropriate of West Coast explanations,

...Music is part love potion, part healer-communicator, and part soundtrack of our lives. Describing music is like trying to draw a picture of spirit: everyone has a different image in mind, and no two renderings are alike.

Now, that beats the hell out of the old adage that "writing about music is like dancing to architecture." While pounding that old adage, Mr. Hart also provides the greatest justification for music criticism and thus the volume for us to consider.

Mickey Hart breathes a breath of fresh air through the Da Capo series, sensing it of trite writing and illuminating the better efforts. Revealed in this method is no less than three articles addressing Fifty Cent's recording Get Rich of Die Tryin' (Ta-Nehisi Coates "Keeping It Unreal," Lynne D. Johnson's "Hip-Hop's Holy Trinity," and Adam Mansbach's "Hip-Hop Intellectuals") This volume at the very least anoints Fifty Cents as the bearer of the Tupac / Biggie mantle. The writing is provocative and should motivate the average and not-so-average reader (the writer included) to seek out the Hip Hop canon and see what the fuss is truly all about. On the subject of Hip-Hop, Carl Hancock Rux, reprises Norman Mailer's cross-cultural theme in Eminem: The New White Negro." Holy Shit! Rux offers the most academic of essays since Guralnick's editorship. If you do not believe this, try this on for size:

...Historically, academics have neatly interpreted the characters of The Bacchae as belonging to themes of good versus evil, rational versus realism, nobility versus paganism. In the casual study of classical realism, Pentheus is noble in his efforts to eradicate paganism, and Dionysus is a demonic and immoral force. But in more careful study (or at least, and alternate one), we may learn that Dionysus is a traditional Olympian god, neither good nor bad. His powers are amoral; they are powers informed only by the powers that control human existence. Real life·death, sex grief, joy, etc. In its entire splendor Dionysus and his worshippers cannot be controlled or converted. Their humanity has been perceived as inhumane, and in defense of their right to preserve an identity and culture for themselves, and extreme cruelty befitting humanity is enacted...

Hmmmmm. Or in the Southern intellectual vernacular..."YeeeeeeeeeeeeHawwwwwwwwwwww! Now that's what I'm talkin" about!

The whole of the essay is a fascinating juxtaposition of modern and classical thought, something we all should take more part in. Divorced from this Ivory-Tower thought are the more pertinent articles that grasp the reader's imaginations. Dan Baum's "Jake Leg" traces the origin of the generic "Jake Leg Blues" to a Volsted Act-era preparation called Jake, a Jamaican ginger extract that was fortified with an ostensibly nontoxic tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate or TOCP to denature the product secondary to the almost as inadequate precursor to today's Food and Drug Administration, the Food Drug and Insecticide Administration. This substance induced a very specific neuropathy affecting the legs below the knees, causing a parethesia that led to the "Jake Leg" walk of the consumers of this "Jake." Pharmaco-ethnomusicology is born.

Another article answer's our need for an unexplained mystery is Michael Corcoran's "The Soul of Blind Willie Johnson." Now that Mack McCormick has pussied out of finishing his Biography of a Phantom and Steve LaVere (who takes part in this current story) is more interested in making money than documenting history, Corcoran presents the extant story of perhaps the greatest strictly religious "blues" figures accounted for whose life still largely remains an ambiguity. "Dark was the Night and Cold was the Ground" is one of the most noted pre-war pieces recorded. This piece in fact showed up as part of the soundtrack of the series The West Wing as well as having been the subject of several National Public Radio pieces. Corcoran dispels the romantic story of BWJ's house burning down, requiring the minister to sleep on wet newspaper and ultimately perishing from pneumonia after returning to the streets to sing and make money. Now here is an artist ready for reconsideration.

The late Lester Bangs can never be too far away from the festivities and Howard Hampton is here to continue the tradition with his take on the most recent Bangs collection, Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, the follow up to Greil Marcus's Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Bangs is cast as a mere human in this collection that contains a good deal of his work-a-day criticism along side his universally corrosive pronouncements. The piece ends in the best of Bangs fashion, quoting the girl on the phone [asking] "What good is music if it doesn't destroy you?"

Gene Santoro offers a brilliant analysis in his essay "Willie Nelson at 70." Santoro casts Nelson in the larger musical context, stating:

Think of [Ray] Charles as Louis Armstrong's direct descendant, and Nelson as a cross between Bing Crosby, Jimmie Rodgers, and Woody Guthrie. [Ray Charles and Willie Nelson's] duets are like oil and vinegar, always about to separate if not stirred up, delicious because they don't. Thanks to the gospel-jazz core of their artistic personalities, their encompassing self-assurance in their craft's portability of application, they make singing symbolic of existential struggle. It helps they love what Charlie Parker loved most about country music-storytelling.

That is piping good writing and this is perhaps the best Da Capo Best Music Writing of the lot. I recommend that Paul Bresnick be retained as series editor. He was able to salvage Matt Groening's groaner and sharply direct Jonathan Lethem's efforts. But, Mickey Hart proves to be king here, in this most satisfying volume in the series.

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