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Best In Show
Lots of Puff But No Fluff in Guralnick Anthology

By Tom Sawyer

"In the end clearly an anthology of this sort reflects its selector," writes Peter Guralnick in Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 (Da Capo Press, 440 pages), the first in a projected anthology series that does, in fact, turn out to be as smart, involving and earnest-but-never-boring as its editor's own work.

A bit of background. Guralnick is perhaps best known as the author of an esteemed two-volume Elvis biography, the first part of which inspired what is possibly the only book-jacket blurb ever written by Bob Dylan. In a career spanning more than 30 years, he has also written Feel Like Going Home (a 1971 collection of short-story-length profiles of such blues, country and rock giants as Howlin' Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich; the title, apparently, also inspired the Rich song of the same name), a companion volume, Lost Highway ("You put the book down feeling that its sweep is vast," wrote Lester Bangs), and Sweet Soul Music, a history of Southern soul. Plus a book on revered blues singer Robert Johnson and (as co-author) a day-by-day Elvis chronology and a history of Memphis music.

Roots performers show up in Best Music Writing 2000, too; Merle Haggard, Ry Cooder, June Carter and others are here. But so are Afrobeat pioneer Fela, psychedelic cult casualty Skip Spence, Mississippi John Hurt, and sax "colossus" Sonny Rollins. There are performers as well known as Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and Tom Waits and as obscure as the Shaggs. In fact, Guralnick writes in his introduction, he set out to "be open to subjects I knew nothing about and to approaches altogether different from my own," and the results make for a fascinating musical education.

So this is Guralnick's book not by taste but by approach--its contributors share their editor's passion for music as music, as opposed to music as fashion or sociology or politics or literature, any of which occupy so much of pop music writing. It's a more prosaic take on real-life rock than that of critic Greil Marcus, who coined the term, but that arguably only makes it more compelling.

Marcus's piece here is one the few exceptions, an essay suggesting that the way we hear pop songs--in this case, by Roy Orbison, Etta James and inevitably, this being Marcus, Bob Dylan--can be forever altered by hearing them again in unfamiliar contexts. Lester Bangs, dead for 19 years, is also among Guralnick's class of '99, thanks to the "barbaric yawp" of a set of previously unpublished liner notes--for a thirties German vocal sextet! But neither piece is a highlight. Maybe it says something about the current state of the music press that most of the major music magazines and papers and their big-name writers are all but absent: there's nothing here from Rolling Stone or the Village Voice, although each shows up in an appendix listing "Other Notable Essays of 1999," and nothing from Robert Christgau. Spin magazine does contribute one of the best pieces with some straight reportage by writers David Moodie and Maureen Callahan that does for the violent debacle of Woodstock '99 what Rolling Stone, in a previous, better life, did for Altamont.

But for most of the best of his Best, Guralnick draws from either blue-chip mainstream magazines and newspapers not normally sought out by music fans (unless you're in the habit of scouring the New York Review of Books, say, or the New Yorker or Atlantic magazine for industry gossip) or, at the other end of the spectrum, special interest journals and magazines that either exist at the periphery of the marketplace or, in the case of several e-zines, outside it altogether. (A couple of minor quibbles: Only U.S. publications and Web sites are represented and, despite the title, everything here was first published in 1999, not last year.)

Just as many of the essays send Guralnick "back to the music that was its inspiration," they might also send you scurrying to the Internet to find out more about his many out-of-the-way sources he's drawn upon. There's a great profile of gospel singer Dorothy Love Coates by Dave Marsh and Daniel Wolff that first appeared in Oxford American, whose name suggests it might be a U.S. edition of an Oxford University journal, but in fact is based in Oxford, Mississippi, and is co-owned by novelist John Grisham. Washington City Paper--source of "Desperate Man Blues," a classic portrait of a record collector's slightly unhinged enthusiasm that may hit a little too close to home for anyone interested in reading this collection in the first place--is a D.C. alternative newsweekly. And so it goes, from Joe magazine to No Depression to the Memphis Flyer and Gambit Weekly. From the Chicago Reader comes "Prove It All Night," about the kind of bar band that slogs out four or five sets a night, week after week, for drunks the world over, a story so commonplace it's a wonder it hasn't been told more often.

It's the least glamorous take imaginable on the music business, but then, an aversion to glamour and hype was among the "biases" that went into Guralnick's selection. "That is what I value so much about each of these pieces," he writes in the introduction, "the refusal to give in to the seductive blandishments of an increasingly mass-produced age.

"How many times have we seen the same blizzard of stories surrounding the release of this or that major motion picture, this or that political event, the long-awaited album from the otherwise reclusive superstar, with each story carefully timed to support the product that is being sold, all offering the same revelations in virtually the same words?"

In fact, the only "reclusive superstar" in the book is Madonna (the Springsteen essay, which springs from a concert review, doesn't count), and Vince Aletti's straightforward Q&A with her from a New York photography quarterly is the dullest read here and, although the artiest, also the most bloated by celebrity vanity in its presumption that Madonna's tastes in art and photography are worth exploring for several thousand words. Who cares?

More substantial are the book's Puff pieces--a couple of strong, feature-length stories about Puff Daddy, especially Vibe magazine's story about his November 1998 birthday party featuring special guest Donald Trump. At first glance, the Trump-hop thing would seem to be the most unlikely marriage of pop star and high society since Truman Capote attempted to cover a Rolling Stones tour in 1972, but Trump, it seems, is esteemed by the hip-hop community for his brassy, big spending, defiantly self-promoting style. "If Bill Clinton is, as Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison insists, 'the first black president,'" concludes writer Nancy Jo Sales, "then, using the same weird logic, Trump may be the first African-American billionaire. He doesn't see colour if it gets in the way of having a good time, and he seems to have the best time when he's kicking it with his homies." Put another way, Trump "has a ghetto pass," hip hop "maven" Jessica Rosenblum tells Sales.

Equally fascinating as a slice of life is Motorbooty magazine's "Punk: Undead" about the phenomenon of "hardcore re-enactments." Bizarrely, for a movement that supposedly scorns artifice, die-hard fans recreate concerts and even entire tours from the hardcore era, "much like their spiritual compatriots in the Civil War re-enactment movement." Standards are strict: "Goatees, piercings and modern slang are forbidden, and each event is policed by scene historians, who ensure that all attendees wear the proper band t-shirts and other era-appropriate accessories."

But in a collection that thrives on the offbeat, there is no weirder--or sadder --story than "Meet the Shaggs," New Yorker writer Susan Orleans's portrait of the teenage Wiggins sisters, Helen, Betty and Dot, members of a late '60s girl group that played most of its gigs in weekly Saturday night shows at the town hall in Fremont, New Hampshire, and which out-garages any garage band I'm aware of for sheer musical hopelessness. The sad part is, the band wasn't their idea, it was their father's obsession. Austin Wiggins, Orleans writes, "pushed the girls into a new life. He named them the Shaggs and told them they were not going to attend the local high school, because he didn't want them travelling by bus and mixing with outsiders, and, more important, he wanted them to practice their music all day." Their daily schedule: "Practise in the morning and afternoon, rehearse songs for him after dinner, and then do calisthenics and jumping jacks and leg lifts or practice for another hour before going to bed.

"The girls couldn't decide which was worse, the days when he made them do calisthenics and jumping jacks and leg lifts or the days when he'd make them practice again before bed. In either case, their days seemed endless."

At their first performance, audience members throw drink cans and jeer, but Austin tells the mortified girls to go home and practise some more: "If they thought about quitting, they thought about it privately, because Austin would have no truck with the idea; he was the kind of father who didn't tolerate debate." Eventually, he takes them into a recording studio to record an album bearing the distinctly un-teen-pop title Philosophy of the World that, years later, inspires mock raves from the likes of Frank Zappa (who called them better than the Beatles) and Lester Bangs, who lionized them as some sort of precursor to punk rock. Bangs ought to have known better, and probably did, and the misplaced adulation only makes the story sadder, even if--especially if--it's a joke.

"Winnowing through all the material considered for this book," Guralnick writes, underscored a "difference between the freelancing climate in which I grew up and the one that exists now: the increasing disappearance of the long-form story, the growing editorial disinclination to invest time, or space, in anything without an explicit commercial hook." But as the Shaggs' story and so many other essays here demonstrate, the form lives on, albeit only intermittently and mostly outside the music press itself. That Guralnick has been able to find so many great examples makes his book a real find.

Let's hope he's on board for Best Music Writing 2001.

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Related Resources:

Peter Guralnick:

  • The blues according to Peter Guralnick (a profile and interview at Salon)
  • 20 questions (Q&A with Guralnick from the Philadelphia City Paper)
  • It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin' (A review of Careless Love, the second volume of the Presley biography, from Salon)
  • Elvis: Through a Glass, Darkly (Interview at CNN.com)
  • Sound of Freedom (Boston Phoenix review of Guralnick's pre-Elvis-bio books)

    Other publications (sources for Best Music Writing 2000):

  • Chicago Reader
  • No Depression
  • The Oxford American
  • Mean magazine
  • L.A. Weekly
  • Washington City Paper
  • Motorbooty magazine
  • Memphis Flyer
  • New Times Los Angeles
  • Gambit Weekly
  • Vibe magazine

    Music:

  • The Shaggs Online (the official site)
  • The Shaggs Unofficial Home Page
  • Lester Bangs reviews The Shaggs
  • The Shaggs are back: Hollywood to film pop family biopic (yes, plans for a Shaggs movie!)