Reviewing the Review: October 28 2007

I enjoy reading about music, but I still feel cheated to discover that this weekend’s New York Times Book Review has a “music theme”. Regardless of whether I’m interested in a particular theme or not, the very idea of a themed Book Review will always strike me (and, I think, other readers too) as a classic example of a category mistake. When I wake up on a Saturday morning to sink into my Book Review with my mug of hot coffee, the only theme I want to find is “books”. I think “books” is a perfectly good theme for the New York Times Book Review, and I wish they’d stick to it more often.

The actual articles in this week’s publication are, as the neglected great folksinger Richie Havens might say, a mixed bag. Should I start with the good and then move on to the bad, or should I take it in reverse order this week? Let’s go from bad to good. The cover article on The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross’s study of 20th century classical music, should be much better than it is. Critic Geoff Dyer wastes the opening paragraph blathering about his own lack of qualifications to review this book, and then repeats the same annoying self-deprecations within the “Up Front” editor’s notes, where he declares “I am the opposite of an expert”. I’m convinced: bring in a different critic, please, and put this guy out of his misery.

More bad: Stephanie Zacharek’s review of Beatle-wife and Clapton-wife Pattie Boyd’s Wonderful Tonight harasses the reader for wanting “a chord-by-chord analysis of the genius of Clapton, or another book of obsessive Beatles minutiae, preferably written by an overeducated white man — you know, someone who who actually understands the music.” I’ve got Geoff Dyer over here whining that he can’t write his review, and now I’ve got Stephanie Zacharek over here accusing me of oppressing women by wanting to read hers. Goddammit, is anybody going to get to work reviewing their book?

The very next page, amusingly, offers — wait for it — another book of obsessive Beatles minutiae written by an overeducated white man, namely Jonathan Gould, whose Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America receives a shrug of appreciation from overeducated white man critic Bruce Handy, who first points out (as Ed Champion already pointed out) that there are way too many Beatles books out there already. For those who are interested, by the way, the funniest Beatles book ever written is the long-forgotten Paperback Writer, a completely mangled-up history of the band (Monty Python’s Rutles would later attempt the same feat with less impressive results) by Mark Shipper, who ended this 1977 fantasia with a horrible Beatles reunion concert in which they are forced to share a bill with Peter Frampton and the Sex Pistols.

Okay, on to the good: Stephen King reads Eric Clapton’s new autobiography entirely through the lens of addiction recovery, which apparently looms much larger than I had realized in the life of this stone-faced guitarist. I am not a big fan of Clapton the musician — as far as I can tell he has built his entire career on the replication of B. B. King’s silver-edged soloing style, and the best thing he ever did was to recruit superior musician Duane Allman to play guitar on his only great album, Layla — but King’s article makes me much more sympathetic to the human being behind the smooth solos. I can’t imagine why the usually celebrity-obsessed Book Review editors didn’t put Stephen King on this week’s cover instead of Geoff Dyer, since in this case it would have been the right choice.

Gregory Cowles does a fine job with Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and his Cosmic American Music by David N. Meyer. Cowles is clearly very knowledgeable about the strain of late-hippie-era country-rock that Gram Parsons exemplifies, and uses this knowledge here to fine effect. Jeff Giles is very funny in weighing Ed Hamilton’s Legends of the Chelsea Hotel, which he notes is derived from a blog:

Some of the skimpier chapters are driven by generic anecdotes attesting to Manhattan’s verve. “Two Tales of Urban Moxie,” which runs to a page and a half, concerns an old lady who flips a trucker the bird and an old man who cusses out a biker. Possibly this stuff sang online, though I doubt it.

Anthony Gottlieb makes Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain sound appealing, Dave Itzkoff does fine with his “Music Chronicle” capsule reviews, and Pankaj Mishra manages to find a welcome literary reference point for his review of Ben Ratliff’s book on John Coltrane, who apparently poet Philip Larkin despised.

On to fiction: it’s no fault of critic Susann Cokal that my feelings towards prolific postmodernist Michael Chabon, author of the new Gentleman of the Road, are verging from mild disinterest to active dislike. I’m still in the middle of Joshua Henkin’s Matrimony, and Jennifer Egan’s warmly enthusiastic review only increases my appreciation for what I’m finding within.

This week’s Book Review ends with a surprisingly deft attack by the usually disappointing humorist Joe Queenan on Henry “The Pencil” Petroski’s new book on toothpicks and how they have changed the world. Wisely, Queenan lays off the corny jokes and lays on the corrective:

The toothpick is slightly more interesting than the staple, the washer and the index card, somewhat less fascinating than the screw or the bolt, but infinitely less exciting than the hydrogen bomb, the semiconductor chip or the microbe.

I had to check online to make sure this dumb book even existed; it turns out it does, published by Knopf no less.

14 Responses

  1. Eric ClaptonI don’t think
    Eric Clapton

    I don’t think Clapton sounds that much like B.B. King, and one of the greatest albums of all time is Cream’s Disraeli Gears.

  2. Gram ParsonsI saw Gram
    Gram Parsons

    I saw Gram Parsons perform live in a small nightclub in Chicago called The Quiet Knight. His back-up singer was Emylou Harris. He was perhaps a hippie. But what impressed me were two things. 1. He could nail Country songs like The Bottle Let Me Down more like a Nashville cat than a refugee from psychedelia. 2. He drank, during the course of his two sets, a truly amazing amount of booze. I think his bar tab was $200, an impressive amount in the 70s, even at a rip-off joint like the Quiet Knight.

    Oh – and his music was really, really good. The dude could sing, he could set up a song, and he could lead a band.

    The Seventies were a strange time. Alcohol (and in some circles downers) replaced psychedelics as the drug of choice. Country music and Disco were hot. Shirts with gigantic collars were the fashion craze. Gram Parsons didn’t live long in this environment, but like I said, the dude could sing.

  3. To each his own … I will
    To each his own … I will agree with you, though, that “Disraeli Gears” is the best Cream album.

  4. At the Chelseain the review
    At the Chelsea

    in the review of the chelsea hotel memoir, the reviewer has william burroughs writing naked lunch at the chelsea! where do they *get* these people?

    also, the author says on his blog that, contrary to what the reviewer says, the book is *not* just blog entries – about half the material has never appeared before.

    good ol’ nyt book review ….

  5. In my opinion, Fresh Cream
    In my opinion, Fresh Cream was the best Cream album. Disraeli Gears is great, also, but Fresh Cream had I Feel Free and Rollin’ and Tumblin’, two songs that broke through the blues mold of the time and created a new sound. Clapton was good on John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, better in Cream, and reached the peak of his artistic career on Layla. However, after that album Eric Clapton quite frankly pussed out. Whether it was due to drugs, whether it was due to money, or whether it was due to the seduction of fame, Eric Clapton has pulled every punch since then. It is a shame, because if you listen to a tune like Steppin Out on the Blues Breaker album, you hear a guy that could take a Memphis Slim tune and turn it into a great amphetamine rush of a song that will live forever in the halls of great. But after Layla, he ceased to push for greatness and therefore became a mediocre talent. Too bad.

  6. Dan, I noticed the same thing
    Dan, I noticed the same thing — didn’t he write most of Naked Lunch in Tangier? I know it’s a collection of writings from various times, but I agree with you that it can’t be correct to say he “wrote Naked Lunch” in the Chelsea Hotel.

  7. There were also some strange
    There were also some strange goings-on after Parsons’ death. Remember that?

  8. Levi – yes, Burroughs wrote
    Levi – yes, Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch in Tangier, while high on H, according to him. He threw the pages on the floor; Kerouac and Ginsberg put them into an order they thought best and got Olympia to publish them. His biographers have said he had no memory of NL, but Burroughs told me that that was bullshit.

    Burroughs probably visited people at the Chelsea, but as far as I know he never lived there. He did live in the Beat Hotel in Paris, a Chelsea-like scene.

    Dan (major Burroughs fan)

  9. That’s a pretty accurate
    That’s a pretty accurate assessment, Doc. Fresh Cream was quite good, I had forgotten about that. You could almost put Fresh Cream and Disraeli Gears together and have one tremendous Cream album.

    Another Cream collection that left a permanent neon imprint in brain is Live Cream Volume 2. Poorly recorded, yes, but if you ever lay on the flat roof of a four-story Spanish apartment building, sunbathing, with Deserted Cities of the Heart blasting across from Big 1970’s Bose speakers so loud it almost makes the underwear flap on the clothesline on top of the adjacent complex, sipping a cold one while LSD surges through you and your friends in one breezy current of excelsior . . . well, that song still goes thru my mind when I mow the lawn.

  10. Burroughs wrote most of Naked
    Burroughs wrote most of Naked Lunch in Tangier, Morocco. He finished it at the “Beat Hotel” in Paris, not the Chelsea.

  11. lay on the flat roof of a
    lay on the flat roof of a four-story Spanish apartment building, sunbathing, with Deserted Cities of the Heart blasting across from Big 1970’s Bose speakers so loud it almost makes the underwear flap on the clothesline on top of the adjacent complex

    Damn boy, you paint a purty picture!

  12. Yea, his friends grabbed his
    Yea, his friends grabbed his body and burned it, if I recall.

    There is great picture in – I think – Up and Down with the Rolling Stones where Gram Parsons and Keith Richards are sitting in the desert somewhere at dawn, snorting coke out of a Bufferin bottle.

  13. Bill is definately right.
    Bill is definately right. Naked Lunch was put into shape by Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso and Gysin in Paris, at the “Beat Hotel”. The “Beat Hotel” is at
    9 rue Git-le-Coeur near place Saint-Michel in the 6th arrondissment. HQ for the project was room 15, and afterwords Burroughs was able to sell the book to Olympia Press.

    The “Beat Hotel” is also where Gysin discovered the infamous cut-up technique, possible while putting finishing touches on Burrough’s manuscript. And thus was born The Nova Express et al. I once heard William Gibson describe getting an idea for a story “while wandering somewhere in the darkest recesses of The Ticket that Exploded”. That’s a quote that will stay with me for awhile.

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