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Book Reviews

Da Capo Best Music Writing 2004

By Published: April 3, 2005

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:

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