Best Music Writing 2009
Guest Editor, Greil Marcus; Series Editor, Daphene Carr
I’m showing my 1970s southern rock roots with these anthology posts; Skydog’s ghost must be stalking me. In any case, it’s time to step back from retail, marketing, history and what not to touch base with what really matters–music. Yes, I’m cheating because my subject is really a book about music. But indulge me, it’s August.
The 2009 version of this series marks the 10th anniversary and for the occasion a big gun was brought in as guest editor: Greil Marcus. If you’re old enough to remember Rolling Stone as a somewhat-must-read you may remember Marcus in those pages. He went on to pen Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces among other titles and has edited other volumes including the brilliant collection of Lester Bangs’ work, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung.
I only managed to get through the last of those and that’s because I was reading Lester . This may sound odd coming from me, but Marcus’ writing can be a little too academic for my taste. I think it’s sort of counter to the whole spirit of rock ‘n’ roll to get professorial about it.
Thus the pleasant surprise of this installment in the series.
Marcus has assembled a wide-ranging collection here and even broken a few of what seem to be ‘anthological’ rules. On that latter point this is the first time I can recall seeing a piece and it’s follow-up or antecedent. It happens here not once but twice.
The follow-up example brings us an LA Weekly story by Jeff Weiss on J Dilla’s estate issues and a follow-up interview with Dilla’s mom. No one looks good here but the interview transcript with one of the protagonists adds an extra dimension. Likewise, having Jace Clayton’s “Confessions of a DJ” immediately following a long piece on dj culture that uses the Clayton piece as a touchstone was novel. I thought it helped establish a context for the longer piece.
Much as I enjoyed the breaking of the unwritten rules that limit writers to one submission and insist that each item stand on its own, though, I’m still unconverted on hip-hop and dance. I’ll have a better chance of adding Opera as a category before I can ever embrace this stuff.
There’s lots more to enjoy here. David Remnick on the Charlie Parker obsessive, Phil Schapp. (The otherwise terribly serious Remnick pulls off a laugh-out loud joke.) Jonathan Lethem on singers. ( I love the idea of Morrison the Greater and Morrison the Lesser for Van and Jim, respectively.) A report on a recording made before Edison’s wax cylinders. A portrait of Britney Spears that seems all too familiar soon after the death of Amy Winehouse. Even Stanley Booth’s eulogy for Jerry Wexler, a man who didn’t come across as deserving sympathy in Peter Guralnick’s book on Rhythm and Blues.
Two items in particular deserve a little more notice and they’re somewhat related. John Jeremiah Sullivan, in a piece about fact-checking an old blues lyric with John Fahey, manages to convey an awful lot. You get a real sense that with Fahey, at least ,there’s as much contempt for the early blues musicians as awe. Roots music enthusiasts in Fahey’s mold might want to think about what class and race distinctions they’re imposing on the music.
That last point is made more seriously by William Hogeland in a comparison piece. He demonstrates how the acolytes of Pete Seeger and William F. Buckley have elided the less admirable actions of both men. In so doing, he suggests, they have served a specious commitment to the purity of a story line rather than that messy reality of the truth.
Worth every minute of the 5 train rides it filled.