Every Day I Read the Book (the Best Music Books of the Last Year)

Ed Pavlić’s Who Can Afford to Improvise?: James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners (Fordham University Press) is a book that only he could write, but that the rest of us ignore at our peril. It’s not a matter of whether you hear what he hears (I hear Adele a hell of a lot more clearly than Amy Winehouse, exactly because Adele doesn’t try to do the things that Winehouse attempted and I never bought), it’s a matter of adding to what can be said, how it can be said, what happens when you saw off the limb in fully conscious awareness that you’re standing on that very branch. It’s not quite as extreme as what Ed did in Winners Have Yet to Be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway, because Who Can Afford to Improvise is not presented in verse (verse now being something he just lapses—or leaps—into now and again). It’s like the great Merle book (below), in that it’s an education about a great many things that seemingly don’t have a direct connection to the topic until you read the book. It’s not a can’t-put-it-down book, it’s a better-put-it-down-so-you-can-think-about-what-it-just-said book. Absorb and move on. And the ending is not the promised land but, at least in this case, a new beginning on me figuring out more about why I see and hear and don’t see and hear and what that means about who I am and still could be. In other words, quite a lot like reading Baldwin. Who should have had a playlist! It would clarify so much. Ed picks up my favorite story about Baldwin, his mother saying that she’s glad he listens obsessively to gospel music, if he has to play something so loud [my imagined italics and indeed, very definitely a paraphrase, though not off by miles and yes, that’s a pun].

If you read books, sometimes or all the time, for the quality of their sentences (and what writer doesn’t? why else would anyone want to be a writer?), Who Can Afford to Improvise is even more essential. Ed Pavlić is fucking fearless about how he goes about it, as fearless as any contemporary musician I can think of, as fearless as some of the greats. It’s definitely a book, but music is where its soul is, if you ask me. Nobody who doesn’t know Ed seems to have read it. That is not an injustice, it’s a disgrace. For which there is a remedy.

I am not alone—maybe here, I guess—in believing that Baldwin was a prophetic voice in the Old Testament sense, not a predictor of events so much as a predictor of consequences. He always bears re-reading year to year and Pavlić is entirely correct in identifying his prose style as essentially musical and his cultural values as directly derived from gospel, blues and R&B and jazz, both in terms of sharing those values and being inspired to make his greatest creative lives as a result of being prodded to do so by the likes of Ray Charles. In this, he is not the first writer nor the last, but just the best, often in what seems to have nothing to do with music and sometimes taking the music to dizzying prospects. “You even cry so loud / You give the blues to your neighbor next door” is almost a throwaway line for Ray, though he used it two or three times, but Baldwin turns it into the very essence of what it was like to live in America in the 1950s and 1960s, in terms of both tragedy and possibility.

The “great Merle book” mentioned above is David Cantwell’s Merle Haggard: The Running Kind (University of Texas Press). Not as ambitious, sentence to sentence, as Pavlic, but Cantwell is much more than a sturdy craftsman. His opening is absolutely perfect, a so-what tale of 9/11 aftermath that in an instant is turned into the very embodiment of why Haggard is one of the most under-appreciated artists ever to appear in our nation’s culture. The research is very thorough but what comes through, as with Ned and Constance, and with Ed Pavlic, is the passion Merle inspires in Cantwell, and the way that this changed not just Merle’s life, but the author’s and by extension maybe (or might could) your own. When I began writing books about music, I wanted to capture the people, the social issues, the artistry, what the songs meant in context and where they came from. Cantwell succeeds very well in not only accepting but meeting all those challenges.

In a different way, so do Ray Wylie Hubbard and Thom Jurek in a life…well, lived, published by Bordello Records, the label created by Ray and his wife Judy for his record releases. Part of this more-or-less autobiography concerns why he had to leave other parts of the music industry alone—but not behind, he’s too wary to let the bastards get that kind of advantage, which is the point. It’s a rambling set of reminiscences, which is what you would expect out of a volume cooked up between an ignored singer-songwriter and a poet who doubles as one of the most insightful music critics of the age (at allmusic.com these days). Jurek is day-to-day such a superb polymath that his conversation leaves you feeling flattered at what he assumes you know while simultaneously scrambling for something to make notes with. Hubbard is the funniest singer-songwriter in the history of . . . Texas, the planet, the solar system and the recovery movement. Many of the set pieces from the show are here, transmuted into a shambling jaunt through highs and lows that are hard to believe entirely, even if you’ve been close up to enough of them to know that while tidied up, they are also remarkable for their honesty, particularly when told at Ray’s own expense. He (or they) can cap a great story with a postcard and sneak in a summary description of himself—“a 1984 Plymouth station wagon with a trailer hitch, that burns oil, has a piece of cardboard stuffed in the passenger window and red duct tape for the tail lights”—as an ostensible aside in a conversation with Jimmy Fallon about the Rolling Stones, and after a while, the only thing you wonder is whether they still made Plymouths in 1984. (Yep.) “”Ray has written a book,” says Ringo on the back cover. “I haven’t read it yet but I’m sure it’s great.” I have, and he’s right.

The Vietnam War never exactly ended in this country, one of the reasons being that we never had an accurate account of what it was like there (for Vietnamese especially but also Americans) during the war or since. The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Antiwar Movement, edited by Karin Aguilar-San Juan and Frank Joyce, contains chapters by nine activists, including Rennie Davis, Judy Gumbo, Alex Hing, Becca Wilson and the editors, who individually went to North Vietnam during the 1960s and returned together in 2013. This is the best kind of alternate history, not muckraking so much as soul-searching, but delivering a constant nonviolent beatdown to the chauvinist, racist and sometimes psychotic attacks on the movement and particularly those who dared engage in direct dialogue with people against whom our country was never even so honest as to declare war. These are, down to now, serious people and their stories are essential as, rather than learning anything at all from the Vietnam experience, the nation allows itself to be propelled into more and more futile efforts to shore up hatred and somehow cancel out the contempt, loathing, fear and horror with which the U.S. is so widely regarded. As Richard Falk says on the flyleaf, “Everyone who cares about this country needs to read this book in a hurry.”

I suppose there’s less of a rush necessary for We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War (University of Massachusetts Press) by Doug Bradley and Craig Werner. This book collects what they have learned from Bradley’s tour in-country, from Werner’s teenage work with dissenting soldiers in Colorado, and from teaching and writing with veterans since then. It concerns music as a vehicle for venting and consolation, coping and flipping out, reducing and exploring the complexities of what these soldiers went through. Bradley and Werner weld the perspectives of men, women, Native Americans, blacks, Latinos, and whites, officers as well as enlisted and conscripted soldiers using music as both a charged and a neutral ground for discussion. Each chapter gives “solos” to other veterans. We see U.S. soldiers returning to the U.S. seeking peace of one sort or another, and not finding much of it at all, the price of the various fantasies so many Americans, including veterans, attached to the war, its instigation and its consequences. Since those are not yet acknowledged, let alone confronted, one product is an unyielding tension. Another is an opportunity to understand the soldiers not as pawns or machines, delusional or monstrous, but as human beings. Given that America’s next war is perpetually already begun (with or without the public’s knowledge) or just about to happen, given that the U.S. troops in Vietnam were the first but by no means the last to be abandoned not when they got home but the minute they left, the places where they found consolation—let alone a remarkable place where they could do so with the least further abuse of the Vietnamese—is very significant.

If any of what I say about the current conduct of the United States, and the bullshit we are fed about what is not happening, seems exaggerated, you need to read Guantánamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi with Larry Siems. It’s an account by a prisoner at the notorious American base on Cuban soil where Slahi has been incarcerated for fourteen years, without being charged, mainly for joining the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan at a time when they were part of a U.S.-funded effort to throw out a Russian-backed government. He was affiliated with al Qaeda for about a year (1991-1992), then went back to Germany and then his native Mauritania. Slahi was not captured; he turned himself in to the Mauritanian police, then was turned over first to the FBI then to the CIA, who shipped him to Jordan for torture then returned him to U.S. custody, this time under the military, and shipped to occupied Cuba. He wrote his prison memoir in 2005. The book was declassified by the U.S. government, although with many significant redactions. To read it is to see our government as a vile bestiary and to wonder whether our citizens are dupes or criminally negligent. There is no hero here, but a significant figure is Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, who refused to prosecute Slahi in a military commission in 2003 because “Slahi’s incriminating statements—the core of the government’s case—had been taken by torture, rendering them inadmissible under U.S. and international law.” There is no greater indictment, not just of the criminality of the Bush administration but of the utterly deceitful, dishonest and indeed illegal behavior of the Obama administration and the contemptible behavior of the U.S. military and judiciary. (I am assuming, of course, that everyone on [nedslist] already holds the CIA in complete contempt.)

Let me put my rage in a cooler while I briefly praise a few more. Daniel Wolff’s The Names of Birds (Stahlecker Selections) is “a field guide to perception,” in poems about common North American birds. The product of deep immersion in poetry and literature, music and amateur—in the best sense–ornithology, it makes the leap to trying to imagine what the birds imagine and in the course of it, what humans fail to recognize. Wolff is the author of How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great Americans and the Educations that Made Them, but I value this brief tantalization as an aide to how Marsh learned to better think and feel. And what, after all, is a better purpose for verse?

In a year in which several good music biographies appeared, two others stand out. Scott Ian’s I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy from Anthrax (Da Capo) is quick, funny, never shallow, often deeper than you’d think peripheral topics could be (he’s Meat Loaf’s son in law?@!) but also dead serious about why his beloved metal, punk and particularly thrash metal is so valuable. He’s fucked up about every way that hard rockers fuck up but he never blames the music or the scene, just lays it out. (Addictions are diseases so what other honest perspective is there?) He’s led a great band (as guitarist, never vocalist) for 30 always odd years, as good a band as the genre has produced. In the best parts of the book, he tears himself apart, puts himself together again and remembers that he has a calling and that there is an ethic in the music to which he is responsible. If you doubt it, that’s why you need to read it. If you already believe it, it’s just a terrific read.

Finally, I was overjoyed that Jan Gaye and David Ritz wrote After the Dance: My Life with Marvin Gaye (Amistad), in part because I had failed to help Jan write it in the early 90s, partly because it represents a reconciliation for the two of them. Jan pulls no punches and much of what she writes about, particularly the Gayes’ sex and drug life, can be hurtful to the point of humiliation. Ritz has written a whole catalogue of openly ghosted memoirs, beginning with the brilliant Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story and Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. He is thorough, a fine tale-teller, great at winnowing or nudging (or however he does it) great material out of the greats, and he is scrupulous, which starts with putting his name on the books. He has a creative claim on the material as well as a merely instrumental and economic one. He proved this two years ago with Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, a biography that serves as a corrective sequel to the book he wrote with her. He proves it again by guiding Jan to her own voice and perspective, which is not entirely consonant with the one he found for Marvin in Divided Soul. I think he’s getting better as he goes along, too. It seems fitting to end with him after starting with Ed Pavlic, so different, so similar.

Dave Marsh edits Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters, now available for free by emailing: rockrap@aol.com. Dave blogs at http://davemarsh.us/