Sunday, April 18, 2010

Chapter Book Revue

Thanks to Hennepin County's libraries, I've managed to read a few books about music in the past month. I thought I'd write them up...

Silence, John Cage
Cage was an important, even pivotal figure in 20th Century music, and this book collects many of the experimental composer's lectures and magazine pieces, up to the early 1960s. He returns to the same subjects over and over--the dichotomy between noise and music, the nature of 'experimental' music, electronic sounds, the influence of chance in composition, and silence, or the impossibility thereof.

Profound questions, and, at its best, inquiries well-handled by Silence. On noise and silence--those false antitheses to music--in particular, the book sparkles with uncommon depth and a sense of intellectual mischief.

But to find the whole of Silence interesting, or even readable, one's interest in music must align perfectly with the composer's. I don't believe the concept of filler existed in Cage's period, but Silence is stuffed with it--uncritical expositions on Eastern philosophy, an unending barrage of unordered vignettes, 'experimental' lectures that were never meant to be read. Parsing the good from the nutty isn't difficult, however--when Cage chooses to write clearly his unorthodox ideas are almost always provocative--and still worth you time.

The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, Andy Miller
An early entry in Continuum's 33 1/3 series, Andy Miller's take on The Kinks' greatest album features an unimaginative structure, unimaginative prose, and an unimaginative take on 15 of the richest songs every recorded. Miller mostly pulls quotes from Ray Davies' autobiography and articles about the Kinks, and connects with wordy, worshipful sentences; it reads like a lengthy Wikipedia article. The track analyses are OK, but by the time I got to the chapter of analysis about Village Green-era tracks not included on the album, I put down the book. The volume itself is slim, but the whole book seems very slight.

Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, Greil Marcus
Greil Marcus' prose, on the other hand, is sublime. Large parts of Invisible Republic are given over to lengthy, novelistic descriptions--of live performances, Appalachian history, the Anthology of American Folk Music, and above all, the worlds Marcus hears inside songs. Some of these sections are reason to read the book by themselves.

But in a book ostensibly about Bob Dylan & The Band's landmark Basement Tapes, Marcus' stream of consciousness cultural history doesn't always work. The ace writing masks the fact that parts of the book have the cluttered, impenetrable inner logic of, well, a Dylan epic. Like "Desolation Row," Invisible Republic sometimes insinuates very thoughtful points through clouds of poetry and allusion. Other times you get the letter just as the doorknob breaks.

Perhaps you have heard that Greil proposes an "old, weird America"? Why yes, yes he does, and this old and weird America is a shot at poet Kenneth Rexroth, recognition of the centrality of the coo coo bird in American song and mythology, and home to Smithville and Kill Devil Hills, hamlets of the author's own creation. Among thousands of other things.

I won't rule out that large parts of Invisible Republic simply elude me, though I doubt the whole thing does. Dense and twisting thoughts work wonders in "Desolation Row," but as cultural history their power is somewhat diminished; I'd argue style should sometimes take a backseat to decipherable analysis in any history. This is by no means a bad book, however, and I can promise you that Marcus writes beautifully and with great knowledge.

The Replacements: All Over But The Shouting: An Oral History, Jim Walsh
An oral history of rock's greatest fuckups that gives more time to fans, scenesters, critics, and local history than it does to the band. The approach was probably necessary: Paul Westerberg doesn't appear to have talked to Walsh for the book, Bob Stinson sadly cannot, and while Chris Mars and Tommy Stinson participated, they don't play a major role as storytellers here. Walsh relies on folks like Peter Jesperson, Lori Barbero, and Peter Buck to fill in the details.

But the outside looking in angle makes sense for a band that was almost more important to its fans than its own members. There's a wealth of hilarious and heart-wrenching anecdotes, though major aspects of the band go almost unmentioned. Notably, there's very little about the terrible incident, shortly before Bob's dismissal from the band, when Westerberg forced Stinson to drink after having completed a treatment program, and absolutely nothing about Chris Mars' Pappy the Clown alter ego.

Walsh's book has a wonderful sense of place, at least if you're reading it in South Minneapolis. The obsession with street names and local hangouts may explain the mixed reviews Shouting received in 2007--that, or the author's boring articles from the 1980's that he chose to reprint--but it gives a sense of the scene and city that gave rise to the Placemats.

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