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Book Review: Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer Edited by Anthony DeCurtis

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This is the first of a series of occasional articles which reflect, directly and indirectly, on the life of music writer Robert Palmer.

Blues & Chaos is simply a superb book.  Whle all the articles were written by Robert Palmer, Anthony DeCurtis, formerly Palmer’s editor at Rolling Stone and editor of this book, selected all the articles to be included in the book.  An ideal writer-editor relationship is symbiotic, where the editor is as in-tune with the thought process of the writer as the writer is of his.  I see this here.

While researching Palmer, I came across hundreds of articles he penned.  I scanned about 300 of them, and read bits and pieces, sometimes entire articles, as I copied them.  Based on my limited reading (Palmer was prolific; 300 is truly limited!), DeCurtis picked an excellent cross-section, covering many different genres, points of view, and slants.

Robert Palmer was, during his lifetime, the first and the chief popular music critic for the New York Times.  He wrote for Rolling Stone for a number of years, along with virtually every other music magazine in existence during his career..  He lectured and taught at UMiss, Yale and a number of other quality schools.  As the following reference shows, he was also a member of the Insect Trust, a highly successful group “whose characteristic sound was a psychedelic mixture of progressive rock, jazz, folk, blues and rock and roll and had similarities to Fairport Convention, Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane.”  Clearly, his writing followed in the path he had cleared while with the band.

Most of the articles are complimentary, but where harsh criticism is deserved, Palmer’s not averse to giving it.  An excerpt from the book Rolling Stones encapsulates Palmer’s writing.  Over three short pages, while giving the Stones the highest of praise, he also rips them a new ass.  It’s not a puff piece; it’s not a whitewash; it’s not a diatribe.  It’s just good, analytical, honest reporting.

I was astounded to learn from Palmer’s daughter that he often didn’t keep much in the line of notes, that he’d often phone in a story and recite it to a transcriptionist over the phone without notes.  The organization of the man’s mind must have been a work of wonder.  Not to be morbid, but his brain should have been preserved in a jar alongside Einstein’s, on the same shelf.  The wonders we could learn!  And I’m certain that his lack of note-taking was one of the very same things that lowered the ramparts of his interviewees, making them feel more relaxed and open.

I got an idea of the difference in the thought processes between Palmer and Jo/e Average while reading the Q&A in the interview with William Burroughs.  I read a question he asked Burroughs and then Burroughs’ response, which was followed by a follow-up question.  "How in the world did he come up with the follow-up question?" I wondered.  My mind went off on a completely different pathway following Burroughs’ answer, as I firmly believe most people’s minds would have gone off on the same or similar pathway as I had.  But not Palmer.  There’s no need to repeat the Q&A here, since similar situations occurred several times throughout the book.

The poetry in Palmer’s writing is also striking.  Take, for example, the following quote from the article on minimalist composer Terry Riley:  “… the music shimmers like light rays bending in a haze.”  If I had to use just 10 words to extol Robert Palmer’s writing, these would be my choice.  These simple 10 words are as clear and incisive as a razor slicing a jugular.  Yet one could write a passionate, 10,000-word treatise, a paean, on their interpretation and meanings.

The articles in the book run the gamut of musical genres, from classical to punk to trance to rock to blues to you-name-it.  As a collection of Robert Palmer’s writings for various publications including the New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine and many others, it’s a good enough book to use in a graduate school curriculum at a top-rated school.  Oh, wait a minute!  It already is being used in graduate school curriculum at a top-rated school.  No hyperbole, folks, it’s that good.  And Blues & Chaos is certainly good enough to build an entire course around. 

You don’t believe that?  Think what I’m saying is over the top?  Listen up.

Adam Gussow, an award-winning scholar and memoirist, associate professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, formerly a Harlem street busker as part of a duo called Mister Satan & Adam, and a recording artist, had this to say:

"I was a 23-year old editorial assistant at The Viking Press in 1981 when Robert Palmer's Deep Blues was published by that company, and a so-called 'distribution copy' – a free book – landed on my desk.  I played some blues harmonica at that point, but not a whole lot, and I knew little about the music, except that I loved the handful of records I'd managed to acquire:  Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Paul Butterfield, Sonny Boy Williamson.  Palmer's book blew my mind.  It opened a door on another world.  It lit a spark in me.  Much later, after my life arc had taken me from a career as a professional blues musician into a job teaching the blues at Ole Miss, I discovered just how much Palmer had meant to folks down here in Oxford — as a teacher, colleague, and performer.  Deep Blues is still in print, these many years down the road.  I'll always treasure my hardcover copy, with the torn cover and underlinings.  I regret that I never got the chance to meet Palmer and tell him how much the young man I was appreciates what he did for me."  (If you’ve ever seen the U2 film Rattle and Hum, you’ve seen Satan & Adam.)

Janice Monti, Chair, Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Dominican University had this to say:

“I continue to use his Deep Blues with my undergraduates and find it still is among the best ways to challenge the master narrative about the Great Migration and African American music and culture. It skillfully integrates the ‘stories’ of the blues musicians within the context of the social and cultural transformations that resulted in the movement of a people and a heritage from the Delta to the urban centers of the north.”

And for the icing on the cake, here’s William Ferris, who is a professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill and an adjunct professor in the Folklore Curriculum; associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South; widely recognized as a leader in Southern studies, African-American music and folklore; the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities; the founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, where he was a faculty member for 18 years. Ferris has written and edited 10 books and created 15 documentary films, most of which deal with African-American music and other folklore representing the Mississippi Delta. He also co-edited the Pulitzer Prize nominee Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, which contains entries on every aspect of Southern culture and is widely recognized as a major reference work linking popular, folk, and academic cultures.  Ferris’s latest book Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues, will be reviewed here very soon.

Here’s what Bill has to say (slightly edited): 

“I considered Bob a soul mate.  His deep roots in the South and his love for southern music fed his passionate love for all musics.  No one wrote more eloquently about music and its complex, beautiful presence in our lives.

“I helped arrange teaching positions for Bob at Yale University in the seventies and at the University of Mississippi in the eighties.  He was lionized by students at both institutions who loved his deep knowledge of music.  He inspired students in Oxford to work with North Mississippi bluesmen like R.L. Burnside and to create Fat Possum Records. 

“I am thrilled to see Bob’s work gathered and published, and I plan to use Blues and Chaos as a reading in my Southern Music course next year.  I also acknowledge Bob in the introduction and in the bibliography of my new book Give My Poor Heart Ease.”

As is made clear by the above, Robert Palmer is at least a minor god in the world of blues, and if you only read what he had to say about blues, you’d agree.  With the collection of articles which are on display in Blues & Chaos, however, my guess is that you’d elevate him.   Palmer wrote in such a way that it was obvious what he said was the final word on whatever subject he was writing about.  As music critic Ira Robbins once joked about Palmer, “Don’t worry, I know everything.”  Editor DeCurtis adds, “… his statement perfectly got at Palmer’s ability to mix erudition with ease, to reassure his readers with his confidence and command.  But despite the arrogance that remark might imply, Bob was never showy about his knowledge.  In a style that blended elegance and hipster enthusiasm, he would travel deeper and deeper into his subject, bringing his readers along with him in the interest of turning them on to something he loved.”  Or, as another reviewer said of him, he was “casually erudite, fearsomely knowledgeable.” Bono, of U2, said, “Bob was a kind of übertutor.  Hanging around with him was like doing a PhD in whatever subject he was interested in.  I was a fan, and I feel lucky to have met him.” 

Palmer died in 1997 at age 52.  In tribute, Sonic Youth paid tribute at one of their concerts, while Patti Smith performed at his memorial. 

Blues & Chaos is the first comprehensive overview of Palmer’s writing.  My thought before reading the book was, "Why so long?"  After reading it, I say, "It’s a just, fitting tribute."

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About Lou Novacheck