Listen to the Music
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Since Lester Bangs died in 1982, music writing in the US has been in the doldrums. Certainly we can’t depend on Rolling Stone these days to be anything but a shadow of its former self. I’m sure there are lots of us who recall picking up the Stone in its newsprint format and reading music journalism that blew our heads off. Along with Creem and Crawdaddy, the music journalism of the late Sixties and early Seventies set a tone for later writers. In fact, before the advent of Rolling Stone, most journalists didn’t consider writing about music to be real journalism. Bangs, Ben Fong-Torres, and Greil Marcus changed all of that, but those folks are gone. (To be sure, Marcus is still writing, but he’s as likely these days to write about cultural studies as about music.) In spite of this barren landscape, a few books have appeared recently—or will appear soon—that provide some hope for the future of music writing in our culture.
Mikal Gilmore’s Stories Done: Writings on the 1960s and Its Discontents takes us back to the era that defined contemporary music. The 1960s were an exciting time—and those of us who lived through it do indeed recall the heady freedom of those times and the tremendous impact that its music had on current events. It’s hard to imagine music today having the life-changing impact that it did in the ‘60s. Gilmore, whose writings on rock have appeared primarily in Rolling Stone, sometimes comes close to recapturing spirit of that time. In this collection of eighteen essays, all but two of which have been previously published, Gilmore ranges over topics as diverse as Allen Ginsburg, Timothy Leary, and Ken Kesey to Dylan, Jim Morrison, and Johnny Cash. He captures the dark underbelly of the Allman Brothers Band, honing in on the ghosts that haunt the band even today (and haunted the band when Gilmore first wrote his piece eighteen years ago). In a series of essays on the Beatles, he investigates the mysteries behind George Harrison and John Lennon, uncovering the sources of the already well-publicized acrimony amongst the Beatles. Gilmore casts George as a man seeking enlightenment but also as a modern bluesman, a person living alone in the world with few illusions about it. Since many of these essays were written as long as seventeen years ago, though, their power has sometimes faded; the Allman Brothers, for example, have undergone many changes since 1990 when Gilmore wrote about them; there’s only one Allman left in the band, and Dickey Betts and the rest of the band had a famous—or infamous—falling out a few years ago. In spite of some of the book’s repetition and its frequently faded power, Gilmore’s essays offer us a chance to reflect on the reasons that music seemed such a universal language in the 1960s and recovers some of the excesses to which it led.
Since its inception in 1996, The Oxford American has shifted shapes three times. It’s the magazine of great Southern writing, and in its current incarnation contains regular features by such Southern sensations as John T. Edge, Roy Blount, Jr., and Hal Crowther. For over a decade now, much of the best music writing in America has been found not in places like Rolling Stone, Filter, or Paste but in the pages of The Oxford American. Almost every year since 1996, OA’s Southern Music issue has hit newsstands in the fall with the force of a hurricane, largely owing to the included CD of music from the likes of The Magnolia Sisters, Townes Van Zandt, Leadbelly, Geechie Wiley, Jelly Roll Morton, Mose Alison, Jim White, Big Star, The Gants, Marshall Chapman, Memphis Minnie, Moondog, The Pilgrim Travelers, Andy Griffith, and even Laurel and Hardy. Each of these music issues also contains music writing that burns down the house, and thanks to Marc Smirnoff (OA’s editor and founder), much of that writing is now collected between the covers of this anthology, The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing. In the opening piece, “Falling Into Place,” Peter Guralnick (who has given us vital and stunning portraits of Elvis and Sam Cooke) looks back on his career as a music writer and probes what makes music writing—in his mind, at least—great: When it captures the experience of the music or the performance, mimicking the same emotions that you’ve experienced and that you believe the musician put into the music in the first place. Bluegrass musician and country music’s Renaissance man Marty Stuartrecalls the beauty and strange mysteries of a July day in the ultimate music city, Memphis—“I’ve been lifted to the foot of the cross there, and I’ve stood close enough to the devil to smell his rotten breath.”—in his hilarious and touching “Notes from the Underground (Twang Tour).” In a little piece on The Allman Brothers, Southern food critic John T. Edge (the “Galloping Gourmet” of Southern barbeque) offers a completely new take on the Southern rockers and their impact by showing that the only place in Macon, Georgia, that the band really felt at home was Mama Louise Hudson’s soul food restaurant. Other writings in this collection range from Robert Gordon’s exploration of the haunting beauty of bluesman Leadbelly’s Leadbelly’s Last Sessions, Part One and Ron Rash’s stunning short story about Lynyrd Skynyrd to Lucinda Williams’ recollections of her coming-of-age as a musician (an oral history as told to Marc Woodworth). This happening collection reminds me that it’s time now for another music issue of the Oxford American to hit the newsstands; so run, don’t walk to your nearest bookstore and grab a copy of the magazine for some mind-bending music and some mind-blowing music writing (and snatch a copy of this superb anthology so you can catch up on what you’ve been missing).
Books mentioned in this column:
Stories Done: Writings on the 1960s and Its Discontents (Free Press. November 2008)
The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing (University of Arkansas Press. 2008)
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Contact Henry.