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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



delta blues & rick rubin
December 18, 2009, 6:18 am
Filed under: Music

Delta Blues
by Ted Gioia
pb $27.95

Until recently, Ted Gioia’s reputation rested on a number of superb books he’d written on jazz history, including the groundbreaking West Coast Jazz. Yet Gioia acknowledges in his introduction to Delta Blues that, of late, he’d been drawn more and more back to what he calls “the deeper essence of the blues”, sensing a “richness to these songs, especially the older tunes from the Delta tradition”.

Given how much has been written already about the history of the blues, it’s a brave writer who ventures once more into this terrain. But, to his credit, Gioia has produced a panoramic epic on one of the greatest bodies of music in American history. At the same time, he’s updated earlier accounts, constantly questioning the veracity of what’s been handed down, particularly in the case of Robert Johnson, where the myths far outweigh the facts.

Anyone who has read widely on blues history will know the bare bones of many of these stories, beginning with the legend of WC Handy first hearing the blues at a railway station in Tutwiler in the first years of the 20th century. From these apocryphal beginnings, Gioia recounts the rich story of the Delta blues tradition, beginning with Charley Patton, and extending on through Son House, Bukka White, Tommy Johnson, Skip James, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt. He recounts the story of Alan Lomax, whose field recordings in the region for the Library of Congress turned up a young sharecropper named McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters) at Stovall’s plantation in 1941; the white entrepreneurs like HC Speir, who acted as talent scouts for the big labels; the early blues historians, like Samuel Charters, Robert Palmer, and Stephan Calt. He looks at the devastating effects the Great Depression wrought on this music, as record sales plummeted and careers ended overnight, some pretty much before they’d begun; how the introduction of mechanized cotton-pickers led to a mass migration north. Gioia follows the music where it leads, with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and BB King spreading the Delta blues to Chicago, Memphis.

Aside from the familiar names, Gioia also touches upon many lesser known names, some known to us only from one or two songs, their stories otherwise lost. He broaches the role of the early record collectors, their motivations and place in history, the late 1950s and early 1960s journeys of John Fahey and others in search of surviving bluesman. Their stories of tracking down Skip James, Son House and others are the stuff of legend; but of course it was too little too late, with most ‘rediscovered’ bluesman living only a handful more years, already worn out by a life of hardship and neglect. Though in the case of Skip James, recreating this lost music as though no time had passed at all. Their re-emergence would help fuel the blues revival of the early sixties, inspiring a new generation of young white musicians, such as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards.

Gioia’s wide-ranging story of the Delta blues is an important contribution to the history of American music. It is not possible, in such a brief review, to do full justice to the broad scope of his research and storytelling. In the end, the history of the Delta blues is one of competing and overlapping stories, peopled with larger than life characters; it’s a story full of economic hardship, of good and bad fortune, a fragmented saga made up out of the songs and music and memories that have been handed down to us. Gioia’s Delta Blues lovingly re-assembles the shards that make up this story, giving us, in the words of his book’s sub-title, “The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music”. It is only fitting that these stories be told and retold, and this music be played and listened to, down through the ages, as long as humanity survives.

Rick Rubin: In the Studio
by Jake Brown
pb $29.95

For many of us, Rick Rubin is best known as the mastermind behind the astounding series of albums recorded by Johnny Cash in the final years of his life. If Rubin had done nothing other than help bring this extraordinary body of work – generally known as the American Recordings – into existence, we’d be forever in his debt. But as Jake Brown’s book makes patently clear, Rubin’s finely tuned ear has never been content resting on its laurels.

What stunned most pundits at the time was that Rubin, a bearded and long-haired white boy, had previously been co-founder of Def Jam records back in the early eighties, a radical label best known for its pioneering recordings of hip hop. In fact, Rubin was barely out of school when he began issuing recordings by LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy. In a further stroke of genius, he paired Run DMC with his childhood heroes Aerosmith – the killer single ‘Walk this Way’, which married rap with metal, launched hip hop into the mainstream.

A tendency to musical restlessness soon saw Rubin fall back on his early love of metal, producing albums by Cult, Slayer and others. His genius was further enhanced when he managed to capture and bottle the funk of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers on Blood Sugar Sex Magik and 1999s Californication. In more recent years, Rubin has cast his net widely, working with everyone from Tom Petty, the Dixie Chicks, Neil Diamond, Rage Against the Machine, U2, Weezer, Metallica, and System of a Down. In the interim, he’s bagged himself seven Grammy’s, including two Producer of the Year awards.

Jake Brown’s book takes us chronologically through Rubin’s recordings. He makes it clear there is no ‘Rubin’ sound, in the way we might talk about Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’. In fact, Rubin openly admits he’s relatively useless around the mixing desk; his genius lies in working closely with artists to help them produce the best possible record they are capable of. Sometimes, this might simply entail talking to them for days, telling them what sounds good and what doesn’t, suggesting songs, building up their confidence. After all, who else might have paired Johnny Cash with a Nine Inch Nails’ song?

It’s telling that Rick Rubin’s first record carried the statement ‘Reduced by Rick Rubin’, as if his mission consisted of trying to reduce an artist to their purest essence, stripping away everything non-essential. This is certainly what he engineered in the case of the Cash recordings.

Author Jake Brown quotes extensively from bands and artists that Rubin has produced – though mostly from magazines rather than direct interviews – and they have much of interest to say about his working methods. But perhaps where he lets us down is in not managing to get us inside Rubin’s headspace, at no time do we glimpse the cogs whirring away as he tosses off another masterpiece. In the end, Rick Rubin the man remains something of a mystery, a genius most at home inside the confines of a studio, but an enigma nonetheless.

——reviewed by Des Cowley



December 13, 2009, 1:36 am
Filed under: Design, Music

Windfall Light: The Visual Language of ECM
Lars Müller Publishers, $135

Following the success of Sleeves of Desire (1996), a second publication about the ECM label is now devoted to its sleeve designs from 1996 to the present. Since its founding in 1969, ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music), has been dedicated primarily to jazz and contemporary classical music and is a leading international label in both these fields. What distinguishes ECM are its design aesthetics, which have always been an integral part of its music productions. Manfred Eicher’s collaboration with Barbara and Burkhart Wojirsch, and Dieter Rehm up to 1996, and since then with Sascha Kleis and alternating photographers and artists has produced an aesthetics of the cover that initiates a dialogue between the mostly photographic image and the music. This book takes the reader on an associative journey through this visual world. In their texts, the authors examine various aspects of this visual language in greater detail. An illustrated catalog of all of ECM’s releases since its founding completes this publication.