Greville St Bookstore


best music writing
January 18, 2010, 4:10 am
Filed under: Music

A FREEWHEELIN’ TIME

by Suze Rotolo

pb $24.95

You’ve got to feel for Suze Rotolo. Sure, she’s led an interesting life, managing to pack more experience into it between the ages of seventeen and her early twenties than most of us. But, let’s be frank, would any publisher have given her more than twenty seconds of their time if she hadn’t dated Bob Dylan in the early sixties?

Rotolo’s claim to fame therefore rests on a several year relationship she had with Dylan, covering the period soon after he arrived in New York, in 1961, through to around 1964, when she was unceremoniously replaced with the more high-profile Joan Baez. On the strength of that, she’s been given a few hundred pages to tell her own story. To her credit, she’s never traded on the Dylan connection. But there she is with him, for instance, walking arm in arm on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

The news is not all bad. Rotolo gives us a detailed snapshot of Greenwich Village in the late fifties and early sixties, when the folk movement was first taking off. Familiar names crisscross the pages: Dave Van Ronk, Tom Paxton, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. Into this scene swaggers the young Dylan, “oddly old-time looking, charming in a scraggly way”, sure about his talent if not yet his place in the world. Dylan and Rotolo first met in July 1961 at a marathon folk concert at Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan. By the time they separated several years later, he’d signed a contract with Columbia Records, headlined Carnegie Hall and the Newport Folk Festival, given the world ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and a dozen other timeless classics, and gone from underground folkie to national icon. Not bad in a few short years.

While Rotolo was there to witness much of Dylan’s rise, her book lets us down by not giving much of the game away. She says at the outset that she always protected her privacy, and “consequently his”, and the result is a tale that dwells long on her own experiences, but sheds too little light on what made Dylan tick in those early years. In the end, rather than the seminal work it might have been, it feels like one more in the unending cycle of works that tries, yet ultimately fails, to come to grips with the greatest poet/musical troubadour of the twentieth century and beyond. Roll on volume two of Bob’s Memoirs, is what I say.

PLAYLIST-ED

by Craig Mathieson

pb $29.95

It was unfortunate timing that Craig Mathieson’s investigation into the health of the Australian music scene was published at the same time as Robert Forster’s excellent book of music essays The Ten Rules of Rock n’ Roll. While Forster’s book didn’t necessarily limit itself to Australian music, there was enough overlap for reviewers to lump the two together, generally to the detriment of one or the other. Of the two writers, Forster, to my mind, has the better ear. His writing is more expressive, his prose seems to get to the nub of the music in the space of a few short paragraphs, allowing the reader to almost hear it, regardless of whether we know the music he’s writing about or not.

Craig Mathieson is a long-term music critic for the Australian media, and has published several previous books on Australian rock music. Playlist-ed comprises some thirty or so essays, covering a wide range of Australian artists – The Drones, The Veronicas, Kylie Minogue, Silverchair, Sarah Blasko, The Living End, Jet, The Vines, Powderfinger, You Am I, The Presets, Frente, Regurgitator, and others. Mathieson brings a more academic bent to his writing; he’s a little more didactic than Forster, intent on his mission to report on the state of the Australian music industry. But, at times, the choppiness of individual essays, each between about four and ten pages in length, works against a more coherent narrative, one that might get to the beating heart of how and why Australian music has developed the way it has over the past decade.

That said, there’s plenty to feast on here if you take a smorgasbord approach, plenty to argue with and against. Mathieson remains a dogged fan and champion of this music, relishing the opportunity to confound orthodoxy – shredding Silverchair’s Young Modern one minute, making us re-think our attitude to a Delta Goodrem the next. At their best, the books by Forster and Mathieson have drawn attention to the literary possibilities of the contemporary Australian music essay, an art form that deserves to be championed.

BEST MUSIC WRITING 2009

edited by Greil Marcus

pb $32.95

Of course, anyone truly interested in the music essay as an art form will no doubt already be familiar with this excellent annual series, now celebrating its tenth year. Whether combing through last year’s contributions to well-known magazines like Rolling Stone or Oxford American, or trawling little-known web-sites, or dipping into the liner notes of album re-issues etc., it’s the guest editor’s job to come up with the best of the best, irrespective of music genre. This year’s candidate Greil Marcus, one of America’s leading writers, has come up with thirty-four essays, some as little as a page, others heading for forty pages, that define the current state of music writing. Stand-outs include David Ramsay’s beautiful account of how Lil Wayne helped him survive his first year of teaching kids in New Orleans; John Jeremiah Sullivan’s moving saga of the blues, that takes him from ‘Last Kind Word Blues’ to John Fahey, to the Pre-War Revenants album, to blues collector James McKune; and David Remnick’s endearing portrait of radio DJ Phil Shaap, self-confessed Charlie Parker nutcase, who has run a program called ‘Bird Flight’ on Columbia University’s radio station for the past 27 years. But eclecticism is the key here – Britney Spears, Axl Rose, John Peel, Funkadelic, Jay Reatard, Jerry Wexler, J Dilla, Pete Seeger, all jostle amongst its pages. After 10 years, Best Music Writing remains required reading for anyone interested in the state of music writing. An afterthought: time for some enterprising local publisher to consider starting up a home-grown version?

—— reviewed by Des

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