FALLING INTO PLACE
I COULD act as if I don't really know how it happened, but it wouldn't be true. I know exactly how I got to this place, whether for good or for ill, and I can't pretend otherwise.
I wanted to be a writer. Not a rock writerthere was no such thing. I wanted to write novels and stories. And so I didand occasionally still do. When I was fifteen, I first read the Paris Review interview with Ernest Hemingway in which he spoke of his working methods, and I took note of the fact that he set himself a quota of at least 500 words a day. With as much self-doubt as confidence, I did the same, committing myself to the idea that should inspiration ever deign to visit I was not going to be absent from my post. And so I began a daily vigil that has persisted more or less over the last forty years.
When I was around fifteen, too, I fell in love with the blues: Lightnin' Hopkins and Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly and Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Blind Willie McTell. I lived it, breathed it, absorbed it by osmosis, fantasized itdon't ask me why. It was like the writing of Italo Svevo or Henry Green: it just turned me around in a way that I am no more inclined to quantify or explain today than I was then. But I never dreamt of writing about it. There was nowhere to write about it in. And besides, I'm not sure I could have imagined a way in which to truly evoke just what I was feeling at the time. Experience, don't analyze, my inner voice whispered. Though that didn't stop my friend Bob and me from studying liner notes, poring over the one book we knew on the subject, Sam Charters' The Country Blues, and talking about the bluesall the time. It was almost as if by the time we saw our first bluesman, Lightnin' Hopkins, live and in person in the spring of 1961, we had created a virtual world that ignored the complexities of the real one. All of a sudden we were forced to adjust to the idea that there were actual people who made the music, subject to neither our preconceptions nor our fantasies and, of course, far more interesting than either.
I won't bore you with all the mundane details of my awakening to that music and that world. Everyone has a similar story. Suffice it to say that I almost literally held my breath every time I went to see Muddy Waters, Big Joe Williams, Sleepy John Estes, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Mississippi John Hurt in those days, for fear that all of this beauty, all of this wit, all of this gloriously undifferentiated reality might somehow disappear as suddenly as it had first manifested itself in my life.
I was perfectly happy as a mere acolyte, expanding my world to the soul and gospel shows that came through town, when a series of related events conspired to rob me of my innocence. First I stumbled upon the English blues magazines Blues Unlimited and Blues World in 1964 and 1965. I started writing to the editors of both and, inspired by the recognition that there were others out there like me, began to file reports on the shows I was going to see. It was this sense of a larger community, as hungry as I for insights and information, that led me to approach the great Mississippi bluesman Skip James in the summer of 1965. There could have been no more unlikely interviewer than I, and certainly no one burdened with a greater degree of self-consciousness, but I had witnessed Skip's astonishing performance at Newport the previous summer, just after his rediscovery in a Tunica, Mississippi, hospital, and his even more astonishing reclamation of the weird, almost unearthly sound that characterized his remote 1931 recordings. So I presented myself as best I could, asked questions at whose obviousness I winced even as they were being greeted with a kind of courtly gravity by the person to whom they were addressed, and persisted in this exercise in self-abasement because, I told myself, greatness such as this would not pass my way again.
That was my entire motivation. I wanted to tell the world something of the inimitable nature of Skip James' music, I wanted to proclaim Muddy Waters' and Bo Diddley's genius, I wanted to find some way to describe the transcendent drama of the rhythm and blues revues that I had witnessed, featuring astonishing performances by such virtuosic entertainers as Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Jackie Wilson, sometimes on the same bill. When in 1966 an underground music press began to emerge, first with the appearance of Crawdaddy! The Magazine of Rock `n' Roll, Paul Williams' utopian embrace of the revolution, then, in the same year, with the arrival of Boston After Dark, "Boston's Only Complete Entertainment Weekly," and finally, in 1967, with Rolling Stone, my course was set. In each case someone at the paper knew of my love for the blues (and who within the sound of my voice could fail to be aware of it?) and asked if I would like to write about the music. I never saw it as a life decision (I had no intention of abandoning my novels and short stories), but I never hesitated either. How could I refuse the opportunity to tell people about this music that I thought was so great? How could I turn down the chance simply to put some of those names down on paper?
Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, James Brown, Solomon Burke, Robert Pete Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Guythese were among the first stories I wrote, some of them no longer than 150 to 200 words. They were intended to sell, not a product but an unarticulated belief, a belief in the intrinsic worth of American vernacular culture. Even writing these names down today evokes some of the same secret thrill, but it could never fully suggest the tenor of a time when merely to name was to validate, when so much of this music was not simply ignored but reviled in the mainstream press. To be able to write in my perfectly serious, if not altogether unself-conscious way, of James Brown's "brilliant sense of theatrics," his "genius for showmanship," and the "passionate conviction" with which he transformed his show into something like a religious ritual, to proclaim Solomon Burke an artist "whose every song seems to [possess] the underlying conviction that somehow or other by his investment of emotion he might alter the world's course," to describe Muddy Waters as the creator of a seminal style whose songs were our contemporary classics, to speak of the "existential acts" with which Elvis "helped to liberate a generation"these were my own intentional acts of subversion, by which I was clearly attempting to undermine ingrained cultural prejudices and, no doubt, declare my own.
The more I wrote, of course, the more I found the need to seek out a vocabulary that could suggest something of the experience that I found so compelling. Writing about music is, as more than one dismissive wag has pointed out, a little like dancing about architecture, and for someone almost entirely lacking in musical training or knowledge, it is even more so. What I was trying to capture, though, I realized from the start, was the feeling, not the technique. I was not trying to provide deconstructive analysis of the swoops and glissandos that went into the first few bars of Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)" any more than I would have attempted to break down the sentence structure of Henry Green's Pack My Bag; what I was interested in was exhortatory writing, writing that would bring the reader to the same appreciation of Muddy Waters, Skip James, and Charlie Rich that I felt, that would in a sense mimic the same emotions not just that I experienced but that I believed the musician put into the music in the first place. Just how ambivalent I was about this whole enterprise can be gleaned from the opening paragraph of the epilogue to my first book. "I consider this chapter a swan song," I wrote in 1971, "not only to the book but to my whole brief critical career. Next time you see me I hope I will be my younger, less self-conscious and critical self. It would be nice to just sit back and listen to the music again without a notebook always poised or the next interviewing question always in the back of your mind."
Well, perhaps it's unnecessary to admit but, save for a brief interlude, that never really happened. After writing another novel, two years later I was back, lured by the siren song of Bobby "Blue" Bland and Waylon Jennings. My moment of abject self-recognition in fact came while I was writing the Bobby "Blue" Bland story, spending my time shuttling back and forth between teaching Classics at Boston University and hanging out at the somewhat seedy soul club downtown where Bobby was playing a weeklong engagement. My teaching job was running out, and I thought I'd better look for a new one, so I arranged for an interview at a nearby prep school, where I met with the head of the English department and talked about some of my favorite books, like Tristram Shandy and Thomas Pynchon's V. That night Bobby's bandleader, Mel Jackson, called a horn rehearsal for after the show, and I sat around for an hour or two as the lights were turned up, the club emptied out, and all of its tawdry glitter was unmasked. Finally it became obvious that the rehearsal was never going to happen. Bobby had gone back to the hotel, the horn players had drifted off to various unspecified assignations, and in the end Mel Jackson just shrugged and walked up the stairs to the deserted street.
I was exhausted and, I suppose, frustrated, too. But I realized in that moment that I would rather sit around in this club watching all the transactions that were taking place and waiting for an event that was not going to occur than spend a lifetime teaching English in a muted, well-bred academic setting. And so my fate was sealed. It involved an admission I had never wanted to make: that I was drawn not just to the music but to the life. I had discovered what Murray Kempton called the lure of "going around." That was twenty-five years ago, and since then I have never really tried to escape.
I don't mean to suggest in any way that my experience has been without pitfalls or regretsbut it has been enormous fun. To meet and write about my heroes, figures as diverse as Merle Haggard and Sam Phillips, Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner, Doc Pomus and Charlie Rich, has been as exciting an adventure as anything I could ever have imagined as a kid, except maybe playing big-league baseball. As far as the pitfalls go, they are, I suppose, just the pitfalls of life: as soon as you start out doing something, you can no longer do everything. As soon as you set words down on paper (the moment in fact you embark upon any kind of real-life adventure), you have to let go of the dream of perfection, you are forced inevitably to make do with reality.
The reality that anyone who writes about music (or film, or literature) has to make do with is: how do you sustain enthusiasm, how do you avoid repetition, how do you keep from tangling up in the web of your own words and ideas? Maybe that's the dilemma of writing in generalor just of life. I know that early on I stumbled upon a strategy that seemed to accommodate both my strengths and weaknesses. I started writing about people primarily, presenting the music within the context of their background, their aspirations, their cultural traditions. That helped solve a number of problems. It allowed me to seek a colloquial language suited to each subject and better suited, I thought, to the subject as a whole than generational enthusiasm (the "groovy/far out/awesome" syndrome) or academic pretension. It allowed me, in other words, to reflect the music without trying to dissect it, something for which I was neither prepared nor in which I believed. It also gave me a fresh path to pursue every time I started a new project, since each artist stakes out his own territory, every artist has his or her own story to tell, no matter how it may connect with a common tradition or fuse in certain elemental ways with that of others. But the pursuit of endless byways can carry with it its own price, as any writer, as anyone who appreciates the digressive and the strange, inevitably finds. You listen to music for a living, and you no longer hear with the ears of the teenager who once discovered it. You pursue your curiosity, and it tends to carry you further and further afield, until the question arises: how do you get back to the place you once were? How do you rekindle that simple enthusiasm for the music, the ardor I sought to describe in that same 1971 epilogue to my first book as "an emotional experience which I could not deny. It expressed for me a sense of sharp release and a feeling of almost savage joy."
The short answer is that you can'tat least not without assuming a kind of disingenuousness as embarrassing as any other transparent attempt at the denial of age or experience. But in another sense, who knows what disingenuousness I was capable of even at fifteen when I first discovered the music or at twenty-seven when I wrote those words? I'm not convinced we are ever wholly ingenuous. But whether we are or not, what other hope is there except in surrender, whatever indignities surrender may entail? So in the end that is my advice: surrender to the music. That is what I imagine the message of much of this book must be. Surrender to Muddy Waters. Surrender to Solomon Burke. Surrender to Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. We are all just looking to get lost.
DEFINITION OF TERMS
"What we talk about
when we talk about rock and roll."
A collector feels kinship with a man he's never met and declines to decimate the man's record library when a scorned wife offers it up cheap. Another man, seeking to define himself, says that as a rock and roll singer, his job is to ask questions and not wait around for answers. Entranced at a rave, a man wonders if it's the woman or the hypnotic music he loves most.
Rock and roll is all of these things and more, defined in lots of ways, in lots of voices, sometimes in wordless cries, sometimes only in rhythm, relentless and eloquent.
Life is a succession of epiphanies. For teenage Bobby Zimmerman, one came the first time he heard Elvis' voice. "I just knew that I wasn't going to work for anybody; nobody was going to be my boss," said the man who became Bob Dylan. "Hearing him the first time was like busting out of jail."
We offer no standard rock and roll definition, but the jailbreak analogy works for us. Here are some other noble efforts.