Readin' and Rockin'
DECEMBER 7, 1998:
Grown Up All Wrong by Robert Christgau
Pop culture aesthete/connoisseur and senior music critic for the Village Voice, Robert Christgau has assembled a collection of essays from his career that span from 1972 to 1997. At almost every moment he reveals himself an insightful, open-minded, appreciative, and adulatory fan of rock & roll, which is what every critic ought to be.
His introduction is a wonderful exposition on the nature of the work, both of this particular body and of the larger role of a rock journalist. He is a writer, as he says, and rock is his subject. It is as simple as that. This writer works from a wealth of historical knowledge which seems as far-reaching into the dimming regions of time as can be possible for a practitioner in the arts of mass culture (everything from "the canon to the cereal box") in addition to a style that couldn't be more perfectly suited to the subject: one with a well-stocked vocabulary that adapts without changing by the minute to reflect the topic of the moment, that uses complex syntax and formally governed semantics hand in hand with crass commentary and occasionally vulgar diction.
To praise this book is not merely to celebrate the dignity and credibility Christgau brings to rock journalism, but to come to appreciate or to learn something from his treatment of the individual subject. Christgau doesn't quote. Not never, of course, but rarely, and only for impact. (One exception is found in "Curse of the Mekons," where he uses several interview quotes to explain the problems the band was having gaining acceptance and selling records blah blah blah, an unfortunate breaching of the trend.) He relies almost entirely on his own informed take on the music/artist/genre he deals with, cross-referenced with everything else jammed into his brain, to tell us what we need to know. And we should trust him, since he is writing as a lover of popular music and on the premise that "Bad music is bad for you."
On the subjects, Christgau is as unconventional as he is convincing. He treats the Beastie Boys as he does the Replacements, exalting the talent of those in charge while decrying the stupidity of everyone involved. In both cases, though, he admits, the idiocy results in some kick-ass music.
He gets over his fear of the "grotesque oxymoron" of punk nostalgia and attends the Sex Pistols reunion show in Finsbury Park, the town where Johnny Rotten grew up. The show was a success, mostly because England upset Spain in the European football championships and everyone was in high spirits, but also because he, along with everyone else, was there "to see the greatest band in the history of the world."
He respects Pavement's Stephen Malkmus as he does Lou Reed, probing into their lyrics with an eager eye for the original and a bitter tongue for the derivative. In a particularly uncommon stand, he declares Reed's then-latest Set the Twilight Reeling "superior to most of those that came before," a position shared by a minority of the few who even noticed it. But by the time the essay is done, you're convinced and looking forward to giving the record another go.
Christgau's adept treatment of so many disparate styles of popular music is amazing in its thoroughness. He seems to know as much about the Jajouka tradition as he does about the New York Dolls (his favorite band) -- or even more, as there is a lot more cultural history tied to Cheb Khaled's music than to David Johansen's. The seemingly exhaustive research that forms his opinions may seem to render him indisputable, but take heart -- there are just enough chinks in the armor to make most readers not feel entirely deaf and incompetent.
If the book seems a bit too cohesive, too neat, for a collection of essays in a field where the language changes from year to year (or day to day), Christgau explains this away (in addition to admitting recent, albeit slight, editorial interference) thus: "While celebrating a moment highbrows assumed was disposable, I was also craftsman enough to intend that what I wrote would repay rereading down the line."
And here at pop music mile-marker 1998, it does. He approaches every artist historically,
whether in the context of a genre or a tradition or society or a market or the universe,
in order to show the significance of the failings or success of a career or album
or show. It is all pegged to something close at hand, but it all reaches way beyond
a single experience. The book provides a single perspective, to be sure, but it allows
that perspective and its faults while furthering the cause of the point (whether
someone sucks or is great). From George Gershwin to Sleater-Kinney, Mzwakhe Mbuli
to Lucinda Williams, the consistency of Christgau's work can best be summed up by
another of the rare quotes, one from Neil Young, on which the writer hangs his ode
to the legend: A fan at a concert yells out "They all sound the same,"
to which Young replies, "It's all one song."
Describing the nascent U.S. rave scene (or lack thereof) in the mid-Eighties, British journalist Reynolds (Sounds, NME) cuts to the heart of the matter with surgical precision, saying, "Back in the early eighties, America did have something close to a proto-rave scene, in the bars and nightclubs of Dallas and Austin."
This is a man who has obviously done his homework. Entwining the disparate threads of the electronic underground into a comprehensive whole is a difficult enough task for the DJs, promoters, and assorted hangers-on involved. For a journalist outside looking in, it's doubly difficult, though Reynolds, who notes that he began listening to techno and the like back in '91, managed to immerse himself into the U.K. scene and has returned to the daylight clutching this immensely impressive treatise on all things beatwise and blissed out.
At just over 400 pages, it is essential reading for anyone hoping to make sense of the seemingly senseless array of genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres that make up electronic music today. From Britain's groggy, acid house Summer of Love ('88) to the Dutch substrata of pummeling electronic noise known as Gabba, Reynolds renders it all in loving detail, filling his book with personal anecdotes on the clubs, DJs, and drugs he has known and loved. What really makes Generation Ecstasy required reading, though, is his sociopolitical take on how a little-known amphetamine-based pill originally developed shortly before WWI by the German pharmaceutical outfit Merck would six decades later fuel the fires of a youth movement unlike any before it, not only in the trend-heavy U.K. but also in America and elsewhere. MDMA's (methylene dioxymethamphetamine) ability to flood the brain's neurotransmitters with simultaneous bursts of dopamine and serotonin resulted in a lot of smiley, happy, huggy people. And when someone got the bright idea to mix that with the repetitive, beat-oriented music of Chicago House and like musical genres, a veritable revolution was created. It is estimated that each weekend in the U.K. over 1.5 million tablets of ecstasy change hands, a situation so drastic that the British Pub Council at one point began issuing pamphlets to bar owners advising them on how to get their clientele back to tippling as usual.
The drug never quite took off that madly in the U.S. (Reynolds posits our lack of a class-system as the reason, and he's certainly got a point there), though on a local level not a few enterprising University of Texas students were known to have made small fortunes manufacturing and selling the pills before the drug went on the DEA's list of Schedule One Drugs (alongside such grievously un-ravey compounds as heroin and speed) on July 1, 1985. Reynolds' book, then, is a tale of paradise lost, found, and then lost again, and while it focuses much more heavily on the British side of the slate, the author still does a tremendous job of recounting American youths' ongoing flirtation with what he calls "penicillin for the psyche."
There's more to Reynolds' book than smiley faces and dilated pupils, though. His coverage of the entire spectrum and history of raving and electronica is wildly impressive, encompassing the early Manchester (or Madchester) scene that spawned the first rock and roll/rave crossover bands (Shaun Ryder's Happy Mondays and Black Grape, the Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets, and others) to the emergence of the massive, ecstasy-fueled festivals throughout England arranged by the legendary Spiral Tribe and their legions of vagabond Travelers and crusties (latter-day offshoots of neo-Druidic, pagan hippies). Add to that Reynolds' wealth of information on the emergence of the dark, hip-hop-influenced strain of DJ culture known as jungle (which is currently enjoying an upswing here in Austin thanks to the all-female DJ collective Rollers Redefined and others), offshoots such as trip-hop (Tricky), illbient (DJ Spooky), and Fatboy Slim's outrageously party-happy big beat, and you've got a book that could have been called Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Rave Culture but Were Too Loved-Up to Ask.
To be sure, there have been other forays into the subject, but Reynolds' fluid, anecdotal writing style and his alarming trove of information and trivia (such as: New Order cheekily sneaking the line "E for England" into their U.K. World Cup '90 anthem "World in Motion") makes for far and away the best telling of the story thus far. Whether electronica and rave culture will ever break as big in the States as it has in the U.K. -- defining an entire generation in much the same way as Elvis and the Beatles once did for most ravers' parents -- is a moot point at best. Once again, England has it all over us, Reynolds appears to say, and I suspect he wouldn't have it any other way. -- Marc Savlov
In 1967, Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane electrified the world. They electrified even me, and I was only 10. I, too, wanted to have straight hair and wear lots of eyeliner and sing "feed your head," but little boys in elementary in San Antonio just didn't do that. Jim Carrey got to, however -- his karaoke of "Somebody to Love" in The Cable Guy was flawless. Unfortunately, Grace Slick's Somebody to Love? isn't nearly as enchanting. Prepubescent electrification aside, Slick always seemed to be obnoxious and weird, and Somebody to Love? proves it. The best thing about it is the cover, which is fabulous in its silver-and-iridescent glory, but the contents are not. Even if Slick could keep a train of thought (which she can't -- must be all the drugs), her recollections tell us very little. She's weird and proud of it. But the blame for this unpleasant little tome must be shared by Grace's co-author, Andrea Cagan. Cagan doesn't think so much of that silly train-of-thought business either, so she relies on short little chapters to tell the story. (We have seen Cagan's work before, when she co-authored the execrable Secrets of the Sparrow with Diana Ross. Both of them should have been ashamed and never mentioned, let alone published, the thing.)
All is not lost, however. The three sequential chapters on the Monterey Pop, Woodstock, and Altamont do offer the kind of behind-the-scenes insight we wish for, but not much. Slick must subscribe to David Crosby's maxim that if you remember the Sixties, you weren't there. She has a few fond memories of Janis, Jimi, and Jim, but one gets the idea that she herself would have been happier dying young and becoming a legend right alongside them. That was not to be, and subsequently, we are left with such dreadfulness as Baron von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun, Manhole, Welcome to the Wrecking Ball, and such ad nauseum.
The thing was that Grace Slick really was it for less than 15 minutes, with a strident, cut-glass voice that could wrap itself around sometimes obtuse lyrics and make them sound like a mantra. "Lather" and "White Rabbit" are testaments to that style, but it was a style that was destined to age poorly. I remember the hoopla around her voice problems in the early Seventies, but we were all thrilled when she came back with the Jefferson Starship and Red Octopus. That was 1975, and it was the last time I remember liking her. But maybe that was the last time she liked herself. Slick seems to have an evident amount of self-loathing. She doesn't like vaginas (her own or anyone else's), she keeps herself covered up because she doesn't want to offend us with her cellulite (and recommends you do the same), and refuses to do anything resembling improving her appearance. Not a pretty picture for a naturally beautiful woman.
Speaking of unpretty pictures, there is the issue of the artwork that Slick foists upon us. (I detect Cagan's authorial guidance here -- Slick' s artwork looks brilliant next to the "inspirational poetry" that Cagan let Diana Ross put in her book.) Like Red Skelton painting all those treacly clowns, Grace seems unable to move past painting and drawing the aforementioned Janis, Jimi, and Jim triumvirate, although she also does Jerry Garcia and Alice in Wonderland. In all fairness, some of her paintings are impressive, but she needs some help with the subject matter.
All things considered, Somebody to Love? could have been much more, but
only of some things. Slick's description of David Crosby stretched on a rack in her
living room gave me nightmares -- why couldn't she have pulled harder?
In the introduction to Nelson George's frustrating Hip Hop America, hip-hop's best pundit/advocate vows not to tell "the story of an embittered minority breaking out of the ghetto, or of a marginal culture, or a passing fad." And true to that premise, he doesn't. What story George does want to tell unfolds as a 215-page mystery. Is this the story of hip-hop's birth, as the book's smart opening chapters seem to indicate, or an analysis of hip-hop's aesthetics (rap, graffiti, cinema, commercialism), and the resulting culture's love-hate affair with both George and America itself? Is Hip Hop America a first-person account from one of the first writers to take hip-hop seriously or a well-researched thesis-style document? Because it is all those things and too much more, Hip Hop America is mostly too much like the average new release from a hip-hop supastar -- up-front and insightful, but thoroughly inconsistent, scattered, and unfulfilling.
For all its faults, Hip Hop America stands as a good enough read mostly because George understands the difficulty white America has had in truly understanding and relating to the core elements of hip-hop's culture. In his introduction, George says, "It might be that to truly understand hip-hop you need a masters degree in sociology, a stint in the joint, and an intimate understanding of African rhythm." Since few of his readers (white or black) are likely to have all three, George wisely opts to start with a basic discussion of hip-hop's history. For George, hip-hop's roots are "post-soul" and thus, a reaction to disco. And because Hip Hop America never assumes we know too much, George's dissertations on disco, the music industry's Seventies approach to black music as a "special market," graffiti, and breakdancing serve as vital scene-setting. Better yet, George manages to weave those subplots into a succinct history lesson that flows from the rise of hip-hop's pioneers (Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa) too the genre's commercial breakthrough, the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight."
Unfortunately, that's where Hip Hop America begins to spin out of control. A quick decade leap to gangsta rap is a dizzying mistake, even if George's assertions that gangsta rap is "a direct by-product of the crack explosion" and that both dealers and rappers explore a similar "philosophy of old-fashioned, excessive, insatiable, and unending revenge" are compelling. But it is too much too early. And in pursuit of that narrative voice he never finds, George ultimately winds up rolling too quickly and too selectively through rap's history, offering too much context and not enough color. Worse, it quickly becomes obvious George's engaging introduction was written after the book itself. "I'm offering no single organizing theory for understanding hip-hop because I think its use, and therefore its meaning, has evolved too rapidly since it first appeared on the national radar screen back in 1979," he says. Is that real theory or just a cop-out for the mess that follows?
Within the chaos and disorder, George does show occasional flashes of brilliance. His look at how a predominantly white-owned record business nervously embraced hip-hop and eventually sold it to the masses is delivered informatively and confidently. And even George's surprising defense of "bubblegum" crossover hitmakers like House of Pain, Tone Loc, Vanilla Ice, and Kriss Kross is nicely balanced by a look at traditional black theatre and modern hip-hop video that concludes by asking, "Video has made rap more democratic -- but is democracy good for art?" In one neatly sequenced chapter, the examination of hip-hop's impact on fashion, advertising, and politics is almost downright definitive. Nobody has told the story of Karl Kani's garment empire, St. Ide's ghetto campaigning, or Sista Souljah's clash with Bill Clinton better. But that deeply profound chapter is trailed by four more that prove George bit off more than he can chew. In fact, it is almost as if George's takes on obscenity, hip-hop artists' short-lived stardom, the genre's international appeal, and future prospects are afterthoughts -- after all, he devotes only the book's final 34 pages to them. Although those discussions are eminently readable, they feel more like short book proposal blurbs than actual chapters.
Therein lies Hip Hop America's fatal flaw and perhaps its single greatest similarity to hip-hop itself: While hip-hop albums are too often a collection of singles posing as an album, Hip Hop America is too often a collection of essays posing as a fully realized, multifaceted book. Still, the fact that within one mediocre book there are 20 great essays itching to get out is promising enough. -- Andy Langer
Warning: Do not read this book if you are a hypochondriac. Remember that cough that wouldn't go away? And the stomach cramp that lasted an unusually long time? Chances are that you ended up better off than Ben Watt. His doctors told him for months that his chest and stomach pains were symptoms of his asthma condition, just a seasonal flare-up. But deep in his gut an extremely rare condition that his doctors could not explain was causing his auto-immune system to devour his small intestine. Right before his band was scheduled to leave England and begin an American tour, Watt was admitted to Westminster Hospital in London with no diagnosis.
Ben Watt is best known as the male half of the prolific British pop band/couple Everything but the Girl, and his prose writing is everything a good pop song should be -- honest and colorful. Patient reads like a diary, with Watt documenting his hospital stay chronologically, interspersing bits of his life's history. By separating his stream-of-consciousness thoughts in the hospital with italics from the more narrative parts of the book, Watt achieves his goal of communicating his frustration and delirium without losing us in a messy, self-pitying account.
For two and a half months, Watt teetered on the edge of life and death, undergoing six surgeries (or "trips up to the theatre" as the Brits call it) and losing nearly 50 pounds. 85% of his small intestine was removed in a series of laparotomies. People came to visit him in the hospital on the premise that they would never see him again. Tracey Thorn, Watt's girlfriend and musical partner, hovered at his bedside while Watt suffered with pain so extreme that he often couldn't move. For most of the time, Watt was on a "nil by mouth" diet and surgically equipped with a Hickman line sewed into his chest which dripped fluids into his stomach. For days on end he threw up bucketsful of bile.
What really keeps the book going is the way Watt injects his retelling of those desperate months with humor and insight. I can't help it -- two patients discussing their first crap into a bedpan in the English vernacular comes across really funny in print."'Was it a big 'un? Did the doctor say anything about it?' 'Like a conker, mate.'"
As his health comes and goes without rhyme or reason, Watt draws us into his daily life and into the subtleties of his pain. His description of things as simple as the intricacies of a wink that the ICU patients pass along to one another gives the reader an idea of just how different and significant communication in the lonely ward is to the bedridden. Though visitors did something to shake up the monotony of bed life, it was the arrival and departure of other patients on the ward that provided Watt with any sense of change. His reactions to seeing newcomers deal with the foreign environment come across in the memoir with a style that is dreamy and strange, as Watt was almost always juiced up on the heaviest painkillers the law allows:
I think of how thick and strong the coffee probably is in Budapest, served in dark cafés with wooden bars, ornate and cosmopolitan like the art-nouveau entrance halls of Berlin.
It is remarkable how Watt's romantic imagination survives the beating his body and mind took as a result of his suspended stay in the hospital. At one point he even lost his voice, the nightmare of every singer. His self-esteem, his career, and his health had all been robbed of him by a ghost, an unidentified curse. Throughout the book, Watt is very clear about his theme -- there is no justice for the ill. By the time his doctors had correctly diagnosed his condition, a very rare auto-immune disease called Churg-Strauss syndrome, Watt was just beginning to show signs of recovery.
Ben Watt has a very limited diet these days: No fibrous fruits or vegetables, no butter, no egg yolks, no cream -- it is more marked by what he can't eat than what he can. He dreams, with Tracey, about meals he'll never be able to have. Musically, Watt continues to tour and record albums with Everything but the Girl (they have one due out in early '99) and hosts an acclaimed fortnightly Sunday DJ gig at the Notting Hills Arts Club. (For those interested in the band's Web site, their address is http://www.ebtg.com.
I want to take back what I said earlier. If you are a hypochondriac then perhaps you ought to read this book -- it will justify your compulsive fears. It might also put a glimmer of hope into your sad life. Watt's recovery and continued career are an inspiration. -- Lindsey Simon
There's an episode ofThe Simpsons where the city of Springfield hosts a film festival and in an attempt to win the festival's grand prize, Mr. Burns hires Steven Spielberg's non-union Mexican equivalent, Spielbergo, to direct the story of his life in good Cecil B. DeMille form where Burns is the comic-book hero in a variety of historically significant events. Losing My Virginity is Richard Branson's life story as done by Spielbergo. Actually it's done by Branson himself. Why let anyone else share credit?
Richard Branson is the Maynard G. Krebs goatee-sporting bloke ceaselessly flashing his ample-toothed smile because he's had so much "fun" founding Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic airways, Virgin Cola, and a host of other endeavors, while trying to traverse the globe in a hot-air balloon with "Virgin" the size of his Caribbean island emblazoned across it. It's not coincidence that the word Virginity (spelled out in the same fashion as the Virgin brand logo) is the largest thing on the cover of the book jacket, dwarfing even the pic of Branson himself. If there is one thing Branson understands the importance of, it's promotion.
For instance, where EMI and A&M had been terrified of Malcolm McLaren's insolent little punk construct, the Sex Pistols, Branson instantly recognized their ability to generate publicity with almost everything they did. So when the band was dropped by both labels in the span of a few weeks, Branson actively pursued signing them to Virgin. And what horrified the previous labels -- saying "shit" on BBC TV, pillaging the record company offices -- Branson knew would be a boon. The more the Sex Pistols shocked, the more they were banned, the more of a phenomenon they became, the more records they sold, the more money Branson made.
Branson actually began his career in the media, starting a small paper in Britain in the late Sixties called The Student. While putting together the paper, Branson realized how enormously popular popular music had become and quickly set up a mail-order record business. That led to Virgin retail stores, which led Branson to the realization that the real money was not in the small margins to be had selling records but in controlling the intellectual property itself. Branson was introduced to Mike Oldfield, and after signing him to a contract -- one taken from Branson acquaintance and former Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny and retyped verbatim only with the words "Sandy Denny" replaced with "Mike Oldfield" -- Virgin Records was born.
The enormous success of Michael Oldfield's Tubular Bells provided Branson the financial footing needed to build a legitimate label, one that became the home for artists like trend phenoms Culture Club, cool college kids Camper Van Beethoven, and industry gorillas like Phil Collins, Janet Jackson, and eventually even the Rolling Stones.
Of course, along the way Branson dabbled in a variety of other things -- weddings, vacations, nightclubs -- but it was his decision to launch an airline that sunk his own interest in his record company. A large portion of Losing My Virginity actually deals with Branson's struggle to keep his Virgin Atlantic airline aloft both financially and aerodynamically. From its almost laughable beginnings -- one 747 that had an engine fail on its licensing flight -- Virgin Atlantic became nuisance enough to giant British Airways for the former national carrier of Britain to undertake some fairly blatant anti-competitive tactics (poaching passengers, preventing VA from flying its routes, etc.). To keep the airline going, Branson sold Virgin Records to Thorn EMI for nearly $1 billion, then took British Airways to court and won an obscenely large settlement. And Branson has recently returned to the music biz with the launch of a label called V2.
It's an interesting story, if for no other reason than Branson has succeeded over and over again or gotten out of failures quickly before they became too damaging and has done so while having the attention span of a gnat on crack, if only Richard Branson weren't telling it. Maybe Howard Zinn's non-union Mexican equivalent is available. -- Michael Bertin
Jazz, like any other language, developed with distinctive regional accents and dialects. These two books explore the music and their respective scenes from a pair of very different geographic and musical locales. The West Coast has always gotten a bum rap as a weakling in the jazz family.
As a native of the Golden State, I'll be the first to bemoan much of the ever-popular but admittedly lightweight and heavily arranged "cool sound" that is most often associated with California. Nonetheless, one point author Ted Gioia gets across is the extent of the rich musical stew that existed way out west, especially in Los Angeles, in spite of what the East Coast jazz establishment at the time would have one believe. Cool
jazz was the most popular but hardly the only style in town. In what is certainly the definitive study on the subject, Gioia paints a colorful portrait of L.A., with its diverse jazz environment, in the 15-year period that started with the thriving, non-stop musical activity along Central Avenue in the bebop years immediately following WWII and ending with Ornette Coleman taking his avant-garde visions to NYC at the close of the Eisenhower era. Gioia synthesizes the information from a plethora of available sources along with his own interviews and insights into a fast-moving narrative. While most knowledgeable fans will be familiar with "famous" players like Dexter Gordon, Gerry Mulligan, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, and Ornette Coleman, the real beauty of this story lies in the coverage of lesser-known but vital characters like Teddy Edwards, Art Pepper, Hampton Hawes, Sonny Criss, and Curtis Counce.
A point that is made throughout the book, and one dramatized by this listing of musicians, is that you had to move to NYC to gain recognition in the jazz world. Those world-class players who remained in L.A. are the "lesser-knowns" listed above. The sole exception to this rule was Dave Brubeck and his longtime colleague Paul Desmond, who attained national prominence before heading East. The Bay Area jazz scene is explored primarily through their improbable yet astounding success. Gioia also stresses the importance of institutions such as record companies, clubs, publications, and the like. He feels that, for instance, if bebop-oriented Dial Records had stayed in L.A. and documented that music and, likewise, if there had been noteworthy homegrown critics and a national jazz publication out west, the California scene might have developed quite differently and its accomplishments surely would have been projected to the rest of the jazz world in a more positive light.
Kevin Whitehead, NPR's Fresh Air jazz critic, has a much harder task on his hands in presenting the flourishing Amsterdam jazz scene to an American audience that mostly doesn't have a clue about its Dutch origins, styles, or major players. We here in Austin have at least some knowledge of this music through live performances in the past decade by the Willem Breuker Kollektief, the Maarten Altena Octet, Peter Brotzmann & Han Bennick and saxman Sean Bergin, all of whom are covered extensively. Nevertheless, I found it difficult getting through this tome as much a result of the author's sometimes ponderous writing style as for my own unfamiliarity with much of the subject matter and points of reference. This chapter of the jazz saga needed to be told and the book will probably find a readership among Europe's healthy and appreciative jazz community. I question its appeal to American audiences who have trouble supporting and understanding jazz in their own country. -- Jay Trachtenberg
Like Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, and Smokey Robinson, the great American soul singers, the music of Jamaican superstar Bob Marley, who died of cancer in 1981 at the age of 36, will last forever. Since Timothy White's Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, published in 1983 and revised constantly over the years, is without question the definitive biography on the late reggae legend, it stands to reason that so too will the author's meticulously researched tome.
Stamped as "The Definitive Edition," the newly updated version of Catch a Fire expands the ever-expanding last chapter of the book, "Time Will Tell," in which author White, now a longtime publisher of Billboard magazine, brings Marley's legacy into the present. Currently over 100 pages long, this de facto coda delineates all of the lawsuits, murders, and family foibles that have occurred in the wake of Marley's sudden death almost 20 years ago. Going into great detail on the lengthy court battle between the singer's estate and Danny Sims, a music publisher with whom Marley was under contract from 1967-72 -- and who is releasing the largely unheard material in three 3-CD box sets (the first part, The Complete Bob Marley & the Wailers 1967-1972, Part 1 was a disgrace), "Time Will Tell" also traces thecareers of Marley's11 "legally recognized" children. Another new chapter, "Iron, Lion, Zion," gives an overview of White' sources, while new appendixes and an even more thoroughdiscographyhavebeen added.
It is, however, the first 100 or so pages of this 552-page biography rather than the last 100 that make Catch a Fire virtually indispensable to any serious Marley fan or scholar (excluding "Time Will Tell" and the appendices, there's only 315 pages of actual prose). Starting with the first chapter and general overview, "Riddim Track," and continuing through "Kingdom Come," "Misty Morning," and "Bad Card," White cuts a wide swath through Marley's gnarly, overgrown backstory that brings the tiny island of Jamaica ("Land of Springs") into sharp focus. Making a case for early civil rights leader Marcus Garvey inadvertently being the father of Rastafarianism, Marley's chosen denomination and a religion that holds Ethiopian Emperor Ras Tarfari Makonnen (1930-75) -- the self-titled Haile Selassie -- as its deity, both "Riddim Track" and "Kingdom Come" paint a picture of an island populace governed by oppression, poverty, and superstition.
"Misty Morning," then, introduces 17-year-old Cedella Malcolm, a simple country girl living in the tiny town of Nine Miles in the rural parish of St. Ann, who becomes pregnant when an ex-naval captain, Norval Sinclair Marley, white, English, and some 35 years her senior, commits "fuck-a-bush" -- a backwoods seduction (the book is rich with Jamaican patois). Though he marries the pregnant "Ciddy," his family frowns on the union and he is forced to leave his young bride the day following their nuptials, not to be seen again until he kidnaps a young Robert Nesta Marley in Kingston. Reunited with her son one year later, Ciddy eventually settles in the Jamaican capital.
It's here in the ghettos of Kingston in the Fifties -- shantytown communities dubbed Trench Town -- that there emerges a hybrid of indigenous folk music called "mento," Caribbean-based calypso, and steel-drum rhythms: Ska. When transistor radios flood the island in the early Sixties, Trench Town youths like Marley and Jimmy Cliff begin picking up American R&B and soul music from radio stations based out of Miami and New Orleans, at which point ska morphs into the slower, skewed beat of rock steady. "R&B was to ska what soul music was to rock steady," writes White. The following "Small Axe" chapter finds a teenage Marley and friends Peter (McIn)Tosh and Neville "Bunny" Livingston starting the Wailers, and from that point on, Catch a Fire hits its stride with the group's steady climb from one of Jamaica's hottest harmony groups to an international recording act signed to Island Records. In fact, by the time White reaches the Island years, which start in 1972 and span 10 albums until Marley's death in 1981, it takes the author only 100 pages to recount what many fans might consider the most important part of the singer's amazing career.
Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, like the sexy, mystical, magical, spiritually rich and socially fierce music of its subject, stands the test of time thanks in part to passages like the author's physical description of Marley:
Bob appeared as an embodiment of the nicknames that had preceded him: Five Foot Four, Mess, Skipper, Tuff Gong. He had a lazy stance -- a half-slouch to the left, his taut chest thrust forward and his squarish pectoral muscles visible because his sweaters were two sizes too small. His arms hung confidently at his sides, his hands half-closed as if he were just about to lift a set of large suitcases. His legs were springy and slightly bowed, the calves slender with bunchy muscles just below the fisted knees and the thighs uncommonly thick for a man of his size. He moved with a bobbing gait, childlike in its earnestness; the pensive face, with the two deep creases stamped above the handsomely sloping nose, didn't seem to jibe with the coltish strut. Apart from the few freckle-sized acne scars in the hollows of his high-boned cheeks, his skin was smooth and lustrous. He had hooded eyes, shellac-brown and shiny, but with black pupils so hard and focused that they sometimes made those in their path feel as if they might be capable of implanting crude puncture marks like a cobbler's awl.
-- Raoul Hernandez
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