Scribes Sounding Off: Best Scribing 2010

Full disclosure: My own fan-memoir “Phil Ochs Greatest Hits” is in this, the eleventh year and latest installment of Da Capo’s Best Music Writing series. It’s audacious enough I’m putting it on this list, but at the top, too? My excuses are (1.) This is not a descending-in-quality top ten list; (2.) My own piece is pretty irregular, not reflective of the many more straight-ahead investigative profiles and less personal features collected for BMW 2010, which make it worthy of being placed here; and (3.) its choice is just an example of how deep and wide the selection process is for choosing articles, reviews, bloggings, etc., from magazines, journals, and websites. And, in my case, from obsessive fanzines not written for a wide audience (but hey, there I am, *gulp.*). Guest editor Ann Powers and series editor Daphne Carr have put together a majestic sampler that begins with Powers’ excellent introduction about writing through ego-arranging in community and the struggles of the insider-outsider in popular culture. The first article is Michelle Tea’s synapse-snapping smart, sweetly intoxicating, and shit-talky giggly “The Gossip Takes Paris,” from my favorite literary magazine The Believer, referencing Muppets, Aeon Flux, getting over getting the hate on, swag and Kanye. Sort of like how Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” begins Highway 61 Revisited, there are mystery tramps and fallen schemes and it all piles up after a big bang of an opener. Next is the Village Voice’s Greg Tate on Michael Jackson, ‘nuff said. OK, just one: “Real Soul Men eat self-destruction, chased by catastrophic forces from birth and set upon by the hounds of hell the moment someone pays them cash-money for using the voice of God to sing about secular adult passion.” Hua Hsu adroitly documenting the shit-freaked-out of fearful rednecks in “The End Of White America?” which couldn’t come at a better time. Jessica Hopper is wide awake and all up inside the evangelical music ghetto for her reports on “The Passion of David Bazan,” which tracks the emotional pull of a falling faith walkers’ confessions and leaves out the usual rhetoric of “subtle barometric fluctuations of his relationship to Jesus.” Mary Gaitskill tantalizes with our own sordid visions of “Lady Gaga in Hell,” while Sean Nelson reminds us that early 90s indie pop had a wonderful way of creating respectful desire within politically correct adolescent chastity in “Let’s (Not) Get It On.” Speaking of Sean Nelson, and Ann Powers, if you’re in Seattle come see and hear them discuss their topics and chat about this book on Tuesday, December 28, 2010, at the Elliott Bay Bookstore. (I’ll be there too, *double gulp.*)

The Return of the King: Elvis Presley’s Great Comeback by Gillian G. Gaar (Jawbone) totally enchanted me with a subject I’m completely bored to death with, Elvis Presley. Gaar wrote She’s A Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll, and most recently The Rough Guide to Nirvana, which is an awesome Nirvana book and arguably the best of all the Rough Guides. I wouldn’t have wanted to read another book on Elvis if my life depended on it, but I’ve always had a strange fascination with the Comeback Special period, a moment in time hinged on an electrifying TV special. It featured a viscerally exciting, black leather blur who was contemporaneously making new music like “In The Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds,” and blowing away everyone who had gritted their teeth through the lame records and kitschy movies the King had been slopping up popular culture with. This moment in time is a thrilling, Rocky-like race to compete with the changes and expansions rock had been through even before the Beatles had scrapped for the crown, and whether or not many younger people know this, Elvis got his own back, however briefly. His liberation from the mind control of ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker in itself is a fable-level fight beyond good and evil, and there are tons of new details about how Elvis engineered his own resurrection in 1968. The most important aspect to this book though is Gaar’s tightly-cohesive and intricately detailed chronicle, as this is the type of accomplished rock history that is published so rarely in these days of scrapbooks and rewritten PR.

Nomad Codes by Erik Davis fulfills all the intellectual expectations one might have from the author who gave us the best theologically-based 33 1/3 book, Led Zeppelin IV. Davis wrote the libretto for the rock opera How To Survive the Apocalypse, has won awards for his crystal clear journalism (in The Wire, Details, Wired, Salon, Gnosis, etc.) and many of his best pieces — on the Sun City Girls, Goa Trance, Peter Lamborn Wilson, H.P. Lovecraft, The Matrix, Burning Man, Klingons — are included in this high-octane, delightfully arcane Yeti-published anthology. His astute profile of dub and Lee “Scratch” Perry and a generous smattering of music reviews take up half the book, which means I can place this must-have tome on this list without a troubled conscience. Even though a lot of the subject matter veers into topics most music writers are too meek, current product-tied, and sheltered to explore (how drugs interact with music and subcultures, the origins of Gnosticism, psychosexual projections behind a love for rhythmic exoticism, the haunting of hyperspace), if you really love experimental rock made in a pop-art frame, this is the perfect text to go along with your music collection. And it’s really refreshing to gracefully maneuver through culturally-mushrooming ideas that your favorite musicians may be playing with, on the page as well as in the iPod.

The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop by Dan Charnas (NAL) is a late arrival to my library at the end of 2010, and I’m still trying to mix my nut around it. My favorite hip-hop book since Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, and though I personally love the aesthetic subversion of the Ego Trip books a little more, someone had to take on the autonomous, antinomian elements of the rap business, and Charnas has the shrewdness and experience as a journalist to pull it off extremely well. This is truly a chronological encyclopedia of peak experience moments and world-changing scenes hip-hop fans love to ruminate on, from the Bronx-origins of DJ Kool Herc’s sound system through the ascent of the artists and players behind Sugar Hill; through vivid portrayals of fucking-with-punks Fab Five Freddy (who playerfully merged those scenes, and later lit up Yo! MTV Raps) and the rock reinventions of mainstream-marauders Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons; to the effervescent era of Sinatra-level gods Jay Z and Sean Combs. Charnas is a highly skilled chronicler of the 40 years that have paved the way to hip-hop’s present, and his ability to interview both chattering sides of slithery street battles as well as Time Life boss Gerald Levin is a thick-ass, stacked deal for your deep reading needs. Also, I have to say, compared to the punk rock “oral histories” that I do enjoy every year, the quality control of the writing in The Big Payback shames a lot of half-assed books for that musical genre. The staggering anecdotes knock your mind around, but the excellence of the storytelling will have you surrendering them out loud to your fellow fans.

United States of Americana: Backyard Chickens, Burlesque Beauties, and Handmade Bitters: A Field Guide to the New American Roots Movement by Kurt B. Reighley (Harper): This is definitely one of the most enlightening, informative, and inspiring books of the year in general, going far beyond music. It even transcends mere ideas, encouraging us in new, respectful, creative ways to live but studying examples of those already doing these things, without a lot of money or concern for connectedness to greater, corrupt society. The gentle humor and keen insight gives voice and form to an aesthetic that may seem contrary or peculiarly rebellious, but is becoming very necessary and practical in a world obsessed with “grid” and how to always be on it. KEXP DJ El Toro created a whole other dimension of lifestyle and meaning with this guide and new testament to 21st century American life. It doesn’t condescend but it doesn’t assume you know what all these beards and bears and balladry and bohemian burlesque is about right now, either. Reighley does share his knowledge and enthusiasm about roots music and the hard-scrabble business of many of the most DIY musicians, among gem-entries about home cooking, grooming, work, and other pleasure-leisure pursuits. I interviewed Kurt earlier this year for Scribes Sounding Off and the book has really blown up; I could easily see this fomenting cultural change the way that PUNK Magazine did. As Kurt himself said in our interview, “One of the reasons I believe I was able to create this book, and make as many wonderful new friends as I did in the course of writing it, is because my contributors are following a very similar life path to my own: They have nurtured their passions, and doors have opened as a consequence, and they have walked through them… regardless of whether or not they felt prepared for what might be on the other side. I took my first DJ gig without knowing how to use a cross fader, but I trusted my love of music to see me through. These people weren’t waiting for someone else to give them permission.

Girls To The Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl by Sara Marcus (Harper/Perennial) is feminist sociology that makes you want to get out Sharpies, guitars, your favorite books and records, and create a scene to articulate and direct our desire for expression now. Marcus writes like she’s anxious to tell you all these amazing things that happened just a few years ago which changed the reality you’re living in, as if she’s been waiting to bust loose on the mainstream with the radical ideas and proletariat power she’s been storing in her will since seeing sisters take over the lip of the pit at a D.C. punk show in her youth. It’s completely biased with excitement but that doesn’t mean it’s not self-critical, and admits things bullies don’t tend to. If she wasn’t such a proficient journalist this saga of separatism into society, subculture into the greater subconscious, wouldn’t be so irresistible. This is history written not only in service to great bands like Bikini Kill and Heavens To Betsy, somewhat culturally veiled inspirations like Kathleen Hannah, who may never get enough credit for what she sparked from the East Coast to Olympia (and Seattle) and all ways around the country. Zines, correspondence, bonding over mix tapes, all the usual ways we’ve read the ways riot grrrls extolled community, but there are a lot of surprises to find in anecdotal form too (my favorite is still Hannah hustling an interview with author icon Kathy Acker and walking away utterly amped to fuck shit up too). Even discussing this book with a mutual friend of Marcus on the bus excited a couple of young punk women near us to get excited. “I was really depressed, it had been a really hard day,” one of them told me as I left the bus. “You two just really cheered me up, inspired me to go do something.” (Now I dream of Marcus collaborating with some fellow writers on a riot grrl record guide, to be placed alongside this essential history on my bookshelf.)

Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling by Marcus Gray (Soft Skull) was also covered at length here in Scribes Sounding Off earlier this year, but I can’t help but plug it again as a “33 1/3 book on steroids.” I mean that in the best possible way; not all albums deserve this intensive, exhaustive treatment for study. But London Calling, The Clash’s third and most constructively diverse album does. And I don’t describe it that way because of hyperbolic enthusiasm — there’s lots of personal/cultural criticisms laced through the telling of the story of the creation of one of the most beloved and highly regarded double LP sets in history — but because if you are as beguiled with the punk, rockabilly, reggae, soul, heavy metal, power pop mash up as I am, you will snugly tuck yourself into the stories about the Americana-amore and ska revival that fueled it, the mad producer who almost destroyed it (and a grand piano) while recording it, the starvation-wages it was created on, the speed-fueled demos that sparked it, the variations of what might have been instead, the weight of glory that refined it, and the record company politics that couldn’t cripple it. In song by song, OCD level-detail as returnable-to as every riff and golden lyric in “I’m Not Down,” “Death or Glory,” or the title track. An awesome achievement.

Hold On To Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992 by Tim Lawrence (Duke University Press) was unjustly overlooked this year by many reviewers. Lawrence leads the Music Culture: Theory and Production degree program at the University of East London, and reversed a decades-old knee-jerk rock reviewer prejudice against disco music with his Love Saves The Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979. This biography of a beautiful, eclectic, musical visionary is even more compelling for me, as it brings me into the worlds of creation and collaboration that must have shocked the subject of the book as well. Russell was shy, intense, perhaps physically insecure, but bold in his ability to create art out of pop remains and cosmic sounds many rarely hear in the universe. Lawrence describes Russell’s growing up in Oskaloosa, Iowa, and the relocating to San Francisco and struggling to finding his place in its open counterculture there. He comes into poverty-stricken and artistically striving 1973 New York, blossoming and inventing his own form of privately ecstatic and community-encouraging music until his AIDS-related death in 1992. Creatively idealistic and ontologically utopian, Russell tried a lot of different musical forms besides disco, including weird prog-pop, folk-based singer-songwriter experiments, new wave rock, and my favorites of his styles, “voice-cello dub and hip-hop inflected pop.” As composer Philip Glass described him, “He was way ahead of other people in understanding that the walls between concert music and popular music and avant-garde music were illusory.” Hold On To Your Dreams chronicles the the flickering spontaneity and performance-inspiration slashing up the New York milieus at the Kitchen, the Loft, the Gallery, the Paradise Garage, and the Experimental Intermedia Foundation. Discover a secret world of alternative chartbusters in a book devoted to one man who dreamed them all.

Bodies In Dissent: Spectacular Performances Of Race And Freedom, 1850-1910 by Daphne A. Brooks (Duke University Press): This is a book for those of us who found the story of Sojourner Truth more punk than the existence of the Sex Pistols. It’s an academic work, but an uncanny one, which finds spiritual substance in the the strangeness of public performance bleeding accusation, and political meaning in histories that should never have been so secret. Brooks wrote the ardently possessing Grace volume of the 33 1/3 series, and here she enraptures with an actually alarming example of interdisciplinary scholarship. Bodies In Dissent documents history from a couple of centuries back, through the letters by, reviews of, and playbills about actors, singers, “black transatlantic activists,” and other kinds of performers who became what they are before the eyes of those who feared and celebrated them. Brooks mines the depths of ambiguous popular entertainment in recitations of African-originated musicals, theatre based on race and special effects upon the body, snake oil cabarets, humans performing visual imagery, gospel freak outs, and a whole lot of dancing and movement. Her biographical juxtapositions of organic artistry besides minstrelsy raises a whole lot of questions about our desires for entertainment, and for those of us not in power in our community. This includes “spectacular theatre” star Adah Isaacs Menken, Henry Box Brown’s “public re-enactments of his escape from slavery,” and everything from Negro activist re-enactments to charged choreography of Aida Overton Walker. A fascinating work of archival investigation and original thinking.

Krautrock: Cosmic Rock And Its Legacy (Black Dog Publishing) is a silk screen making-table-sized but typewriter-font accessible anthology of different but exceptional writers on everything from Amon Duul to Amon Duul ll (ha), Embryo, Faust, Kraftwerk, Neu!, Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, and a whole lot of other German and Northern European artists you may or may not have heard of who fucked with rock’s rhythms and cast spells on post-punk noisemakers like Public Image LTD., etc. I have never read the much-cherished and very rare Julian Cope encyclopedia about all of these sonic-ecstatic/bliss-outs, but in the meantime the brilliant story of not-actual-band hoax artists the Cosmic Jokers, Erik Davis (see above) on superb label Kosmiche Musik; the genre-transcending legend of successful and influential producer Conny Plank; critically-acclaimed novelist Michel Faber scribing on Im Gluck; underground bard/carnival barker Plastic Crimewave on Ash Ra Tempel and the Cosmic Couriers… well, all this will do for the time being. Basically a big fat glossy fanzine with great writers to cut the crap (the revelation that most Germans don’t know a damned thing about any of these bands, they’re considered a somewhat embarrassing nostalgia trip for foreigners), this is a bargain as both a celebratory and openly critical guide for sounds from beyond the lava lamp beneath your discarded track suit.

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