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The WILT Archive
Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.
Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.
It's a cliché that one art form can't really express, or explain, another, but after a lot of thought – and a lot of writing about music – I've decided it's not a very useful one. The fact is, human beings talk, and therefore write, about everything. We use words to at least try to express or explain everything from the most abstruse scientific theories, to the most inexpressible emotional, psychological, or spiritual facets of our existence. There's no reason we shouldn't talk, or write, about music; we just have to keep things in perspective.
'Writing about music is like dancing about architecture' – it's a good line, and no one seems sure who said it first. But we write about architecture and dancing, too. In each case, the writing is best understood as a signpost, pointing (hopefully with a few helpful hints) in the direction of the art it's discussing.
There's good writing about music, too, though I'm not sure how much of it has been done by pop/rock critics. For me, there's always an uncomfortable tension between a kind of music which is more or less defined by its ability to connect with a mass audience – its lack, in other words, of a need for explanation – and someone labouring to explain it (and getting paid for doing so). There's a tension in the writing itself, too, between populism and elitism. Pop/rock critics flaunt their street cred, their identification with the zeitgeist, their fingers on the pulse of youthful innovation (or at least trendiness) and their certainty about what is (and isn't) essential, right here, right now. Then, when they get through telling us that something must be important because everyone (?) likes it, they'll turn around and proselytize for something so obscure, so fabulously weird, that only someone as daringly brilliant as them would even know about it.
But surely, you say (with commendable fair-mindedness) not all of them are that bad. True enough. They often manage to do at least one of the three things they are, in my opinion, supposed to do: to entertain, inform, and inspire. So I always give them the benefit of the doubt, especially when I'm actually speaking to one of them. I even just read a book that's considered a classic of pop/rock criticism, Greil Marcus's Mystery Train, and found it worth the effort. The above-mentioned tensions are there, but it's more intelligent and ambitious than most of this kind of thing. Marcus writes passionately, as though civilization is about to come to an end, and the most important task for humanity right now is to make sense of rock'n'roll, and – that's not all! - of the country that produced it, in all its madness and majesty. Since he did this in 1975, Mystery Train now manages to come across, oddly enough, as both urgent and dated. It contains both some powerful insights, and a fair amount of pretty ripe bullshit.
What I listen to can certainly be influenced by what I read. I've also been enjoying an exuberant, lavishly illustrated volume I picked up from a street vendor for $10: Country: The Music and Musicians, published by the Country Music Foundation in 1988, and tracing in minute detail the history of the music up to that point. Yes folks, here is everything you ever wanted to know about The Gully Jumpers, The Skillet Lickers, Wilf 'Montana Slim' Carter, Curley Williams and his Georgia Peach Pickers, Dr. Humphrey Bate and his Possum Hunters, The Fruit Jar Drinkers, The Dixie Clodhoppers, Red River Dave McEnery, Pie Plant Pete the Ozark Mountain Boy, The Alabama Hayloft Gang, and The Light Crust Doughboys. (I was tempted to add a couple of made-up names to that list, but really, how can you compete?)
I've also been dipping into some essays by, and interviews with, the great African-American scholar, author, and polymath Albert Murray (1916-2013), whose Stomping The Blues is essential reading for anyone interested in Jazz or Blues, and a contender for the greatest ever book about the black American musical tradition. Murray is staggeringly knowledgeable, challenging, stimulating, and he swings. Among his many intriguing arguments are that the Blues is wrongly understood as a melancholy or tragic music, and is in fact all about transcending those things (stompin' the blues); and that Tradition is not what is old and past, but what endures. It's that which always has something to teach us, and is timeless.
Anyway, some things I've been reading about and listening to:
ELVIS PRESLEY: Elvis At Sun
ELVIS PRESLEY: Elvis Presley / Elvis (Legacy Edition)
ROBERT JOHNSON: The Centennial Collection
HARMONICA FRANK FLOYD: The Missing Link
COUNT BASIE: The Essential Count Basie, Vols. 1-3
BOB WILLS and his TEXAS PLAYBOYS: The Collection 1935-50
Having not listened to Elvis in many years, I'd somehow developed the sentimental idea that all his best stuff was done for Sun Records. Now I realize that although some of it certainly was (Mystery Train, Baby Let's Play House, Milkcow Blues Boogie, That's All Right) - just as much was scattered across his first two imaginatively-titled albums and first singles for RCA (Heartbreak Hotel, Rip It Up, Blue Suede Shoes, etc). There's more than one Elvis, and more than one kind of Elvis fan, but to the extent that I'm a fan at all, I'm pretty much stuck on Rockabilly Elvis, rather than Country Elvis or Ballad Elvis (let alone Hawaii Elvis or Las Vegas Elvis). On the other hand, I love his version of Blue Moon, which is so eerie it's like being serenaded by a ghost.
Robert Johnson needs nothing from me, having long since been elevated to God status by advocates like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jack White, et al. I make no apologies for plugging yet another compilation, since Johnson recorded only 29 songs in his short life, before the LP era, so a compilation is all you're going to get. But I can tell you that The Centennial Collection, remastered and released by Columbia in 2011, is the best one to get. This was perhaps the single most useful piece of information I got from Greil Marcus.
The second most useful information was about the fascinating Harmonica Frank, a true American original, a genuine hobo and eccentric who blurred the line between Country and Blues, and was – before Elvis – the first candidate in Sam Phillips' search for a white singer who could sound black. (Though I must confess that while Floyd does sound like some kind of black hillbilly, Elvis only ever sounded like Elvis to me).
Anyway, skin colour arguably pales into insignificance when we're talking about someone who was able, among other things, to play two harmonicas at once – one with his mouth and one with his nose. The Missing Link is so far the only Floyd album I've been able to find; it's a late one, from 1979, recorded when he was a genuine cranky, crazy and hilarious old geezer, and containing things like Rockin' Chair Daddy and Without My Teeth.
Albert Murray writes brilliantly about Count Basie, and even co-authored Basie's autobiography Good Morning Blues. As Murray tells it, few people have built such swinging jazz on a blues foundation, and I think he has a point. I keep coming back to Basie on the Original Jazz Classics label, particularly the early, 1936-38 volumes; but the Essentials, on Columbia, are easier to find.
It took my newly-acquired giant Country bible to remind me how much I like the music of Bob Wills. If you've never heard any Western Swing, I urge you to check him out; your mouth will hang open in amazement while you grin like an idiot. OK, that's not really physically possible, but it's an unlikely musical hybrid that works brilliantly. This compilation looks like a good one, but I can't comment any further since after almost a month, Amazon have yet to deliver it to me.