Blues & Chaos - The Music Writing Of Robert Palmer
By Robert Palmer
Edited by Anthony DeCurtis

Scribner 2009, $30.00, ppxxiv-452

I clearly remember the first thing by Robert Palmer that I happened to read: his fine liner notes to the Anthony Braxton album Five Pieces 1975. It's with great pleasure that I think about them now, since at the time I was really grateful for their clarity, depth, and usefulness in helping me better understand the album, the first one by Braxton that I had the chance to buy (it was his second album on mini-Major Arista). While a little anecdote in the liner notes hinted at the possibility that this man was indeed a reed player, the little note at the end of the text left no doubt about his standing as music critic: "Robert Palmer writes about music for the Sunday New York Times and is a Contributing Editor for Rolling Stone and Down Beat".

I also clearly remember the second thing written by Palmer that I read: featured in the 1984 volume titled David Bowie's Serious Moonlight - a chronicle of Bowie's worldwide tour of the same name that took place after the release of Let's Dance - there was a photo of an article off The New York Times reviewing Bowie's concerts at Madison Square Garden. I also remember the third thing by Palmer I read, his perceptive and enthusiastic review of the box set titled The Complete Stax/Volt Singles: 1959-1968 which appeared in Rolling Stone magazine in 1991 being the main reason - together with the excellent review of the same box that appeared in US monthly Musician - the convinced me to buy the box.

I had no real perception of Palmer's real standing as a critic till the day I happened to read his obituary in Rolling Stone magazine, bearing the title: America's Pre-eminent Music Writer Dead At 52. The year was 1997. And while the text of the obituary could not really surprise me when it comes to the depth and versatility of his work, it was its enormous quantity, and the vast influence it had on others, that were the real revelation. Talking about his enormous influence could maybe sound strange, given the fact that Palmer's name is not mentioned as often as those of some of his most famous colleagues - people such as Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau. And one has to try not to consider words such as "central" and "peripheral" as real opposites. On the other hand, the expressions of esteem by such artists as Robbie Robertson, Bonnie Raitt, Mick Jagger, Yoko Ono, and Bono that appear on the book's dust jacket could be a good starting point for readers.

Flirtations with Chaos, the fine introduction by Anthony DeCurtis - the well-known US music critic who edited this fine collection of Palmer's work going under the title Blues & Chaos - greatly succeeds in making the complexity of Palmer's work perfectly clear to readers. If the featured bibliography - above all his highly acclaimed volume from 1981 titled Deep Blues: A Musical And Cultural History Of The Mississippi Delta - confirmed to me that my idea of Palmer's work was basically correct, it was the sheer amount of that work that proved to be the real surprise for me: besides his writing for magazines such as Down Beat, Guitar World, Musician, and Crawdaddy! - also, of course, for Rolling Stone and The New York Times, the newspaper where from 1981 to 1988 he held the position of chief pop music critic - we have to consider his teaching at the University Of Mississippi, the many liners notes he wrote for albums and box sets, his huge contribution to the documentaries Deep Blues: A Musical Pilgrimage To The Crossroads and The World According To John Coltrane, his work as a record producer. He also played saxophone and clarinet, appearing on two albums by the Insect Trust, a group whose name was obviously Burroughs-related.

DeCurtis has acted judiciously, dividing Blues & Chaos in various chapters featuring different musical "styles". But reading the book a few times - some links being clearly stated, others becoming increasingly clear after a few reads - made it apparent for this reader that there is a "unifying trait" at work, those diverse "fields" notwithstanding. I have to confess that not all the work featured here appeared to me as having the same "weight" (at least, from what I get from a book that is, after all, an anthology) but I completely agree with DeCurtis's decision to offer readers a panorama as complete as possible. The present volume presents material dating from 1971 - an excerpt from Up The Mountain, which appeared in Rolling Stone as a tale of a trip to Morocco in search of the Masters Musicians Of Jajouka (there's also a companion piece from 1989, Into The Mystic) - to 1997, the year his liner notes to Miles Davis's Kind Of Blue appeared in print.

I have to say that the chapters I found to be the least important and revealing were those that can be filed under "modern rock". This is not because he had no real interest for that, or had nothing to say about it - quite the opposite, in fact. It's that names such as The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, David Bowie, The Stooges, MC5, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Joy Division, X, Swans, Sonic Youth, and Band Of Susans have been written about so many times that one can't really expect to learn anything new about them. But I have to say I have the impression that the development line of Rock & Roll: An Unruly History is a lot richer and complex than what one gets from the brief excerpted portion featured here.

Maybe paradoxically, the "classic" rock chapter is miles better, with a long excerpt from the 1985 Eric Clapton Rolling Stone interview sailing dangerous waters, and the liner notes from the Led Zeppelin box set dealing with profundity and finesse with the "blues thieves" topic and with the group's links to Indian and Arabic music.

A good starting point as any is the book's literal starting point, with the complex panorama of What Is American Music? from 1975 appearing side-by-side with the extremely sophisticated - also quite funny: see the discussion concerning Darkness On The Edge Of Town by Bruce Springsteen and Some Girls by The Rolling Stones - piece titled When Is It Rock And When Rock & Roll? A Critic Ventures An Answer, which appeared in 1978 in The New York Times.

As it's to be expected, the chapter about the blues features many fine pieces: Palmer is just as good when painting a miniature - check his reviews of albums by Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson - as when painting a mural such as the complex portrait that's the long article titled Muddy Waters: The Delta Son Never Sets, which originally appeared in 1978 in Rolling Stone: an article that's at the same time a life story, a cultural exploration, and a music analysis.

There's also a fine chapter about jazz, with The Dominion Of The Black Musician as the most intellectually stimulating piece standing beside short portraits of people such as Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Sun Ra, and Ornette Coleman. I have to confess I was a bit sorry to see that Palmer's review of two albums by Roscoe Mitchell (The Flow Of Things and Four Compositions), which originally appeared in The New York Times and which I consider to be important, is not here, but it can be easily accessed on the newspaper's website.

There are also many fine articles in the chapter about The Originators. There's a rich, complex portrait of a time called The Fifties, from Rolling Stone, 1990. Then, the one that in my opinion is the richest, most fantastic piece in the whole book: the liner notes to Bo Diddley: The Chess Box (1990), where an accurate exploration links the world-famous Bo Diddley Beat first to the cultural environment where he lived, then all the way back to Cuba and Africa - it's really a fine way to end Bo Diddley's long period of undervaluation. There are also excellent portraits of important men in the pieces titled Sam Phillips: The Sun King (1978) and The Devil And Jerry Lee Lewis (1979).

Another high point is represented by the extremely thorough liner notes to the box titled Ray Charles: The Birth Of Soul (1991), while those to Night Beat by Sam Cooke (1995), though brief, are just as good. There's also the aforementioned review of the Stax box, The Complete Stax/Volt Singles: 1959-1968.

Then we have the Classic Rock chapter. Four pieces about John Lennon and Yoko Ono (not bad): A few pieces filed under Punk Rock And Beyond. Then, we enter what in many ways can be considered as being the second part of the book.

The chapter titled World Music: The World Is Changing And So Is Our Music has a fine piece which originally appeared in 1979 in The New York Times under the title The Resounding Impact Of Third-World Music: There's an interesting discussion  of music from India, Southeast Asia, Africa, Middle-Eastern, and American Indian; we find perceptive references to Led Zeppelin's Kashmir and disco, to Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters, and to Anthony Braxton, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich. There are also two pieces about Prandit Pran Nat and Arabic music, both off The New York Times, both good.

Then we have the aforementioned chapter dealing with Morocco, which I think readers will have great pleasure exploring on their own.

The chapter titled On The Edge has a long excerpt from an interview with William Burroughs which originally appeared in 1972 in Rolling Stone; a fine article on La Monte Young (from Rolling Stone, 1975); a profound interview with Terry Riley (from Down Beat, 1975); Palmer's liner notes to Einstein On The Beach by Philip Glass (1979); and a review of albums by Jon Hassell and Anthony Davis.

There are many things that could be discussed at this point in the review, but I deliberately chose not to talk about them, in order to give readers a description as complete as possible of this fine anthology, hoping readers will eventually decide to buy the book and actually read it.

Just one thing: As it's easy to see, the majority of the featured pieces in this Robert Palmer anthology, some of them being very, very long (in a good way), originally appeared in newspapers and magazines such as Rolling Stone and The New York Times which sold a lot (copies, ads) and paid (writers) a lot, the same being basically true for those well-researched liner notes commissioned by record companies that were as enlightened as solvent. Readers are invited to ponder this topic.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2010 | Jan. 15, 2010