by Chris Estey
It’s April in Seattle again, and through the atypical weird weather and fear-flecked economic forecasts rock write fans are still once again anxious for the 2009 Pop Conference at EMP|SFM, a four day feast of presentations at the Experience Music Project that starts the night of Thursday, April 16, and ends that Sunday morning, April 19.
As we approach those days when our now sorta freezing city will be besieged by such rock writers and pop culture analysts as Toronto’s Carl Wilson (whose 33 1/3 series book on Celine Dion we’ve happily hustled here, and Stephen Colbert was impressed enough to chat with the author with on his show as well), Portland’s Mike McGonical (whose YETI zine is book-bound beautiful and available at most Seattle music stores), and the Big Apple’s Jon Caramanica (the best part of many hip-hop glossies and New York Magazine), this event in itself is so unique and useful as to defy casual description to all the people at shows I drunkenly beg to come with me all year long before it actually happens. The theme this year is Dance Music Sex Romance: Pop and the Body Politic.
However, this year I am going to do some planning in my efforts to corral Pop Con partners, by focusing the next few installments of Scribe Sounding Off plugging the best books I’ve read by writers who will actually be there(!). This gives you, the potential reader, the chance to fetch these tomes from the library queue or to even purchase (at lovely local shops chocked full of ‘em, like Elliot Bay Book Co. or University Bookstore, or even those aforementioned record shoppes) before hearing the authors read in the flesh.
First up is And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Our Vinyl, by Roger Bennett and Josh Kun, subtitled “The Jewish Past As Told by the Records We Have Loved And Lost.” A colorful hardback coffee-table volume the content of which may sound familiar as it is a collection of photos and commentary available on their website.
Josh Kun will be at the Pop Con with his own paper on “If I Embarrass You, Tell Your Friends: Bawdy Jewish Broads of the 1960s and the Space of the Risque” (presented Saturday, April 18, 2009, 9:00 – 10:30 AM) — which seems appropriate, as his co-authorship is of an anthology which celebrates musical material both traditionally American and ethnically controversial.
Featuring wonderful sidebar pages, such as LA Times‘ (and Pop Con co-coordinator) Ann Powers’ poetic and succinct ode to Barbra Steisand’s melancholy post-feminism (“Lullaby For Myself”), and Soul-Sides scholar Oliver Wang on David Axelrod’s early 70s psychedelic bi-racial oppression epic ‘The Auction,’ it’s easy for the eyes to get lost in the retro-dazzling margins and maybe never even get to the wise heart of the book’s story. “History sounds different when you know when to start listening,” the authors write on page 17, and this book is (ahem) testament to that.
As kids, Kun and Bennett would comb through relative’s records, finding a world where Yiddish was taught to people being told the language was dying; where Jews were singing blues and early soul singers were doing vaudeville tunes; where rock and roll would burst out of Tin Pan Alley and Gershon Kingsley was leading his race into space on the squeal of a Moog synthesizer. “Jews ARE pop music,” this manifesto asserts, and the facts back it up: From the first audio-playback machine, the gramophone (invented by a German Jew in the late 1800s), to the first 33 1/3 long player designed by a Hungarian Jewish immigrant working for CBS, and on into the realms of label heads and A&R men and talent scouts, the music business owes a lot to the Jews.
This wittily titled “homemade archive of Jewish-American history, entirely made up of LP covers… [as if they were] piecing together the Dead Sea Scrolls” shows an ever more secret history, as most of the albums displayed here never made it into CD reissue form. That makes this book an invaluable asset to a music ghetto-world barely accessed at thrift dtores and on marketplace websites, a realm becoming more and more rare… even as the music of Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and The Beastie Boys keeps inspiring Jews and Gentiles alike to keep crafting and evolving the pop music form.