Stuff I’ve Been Reading: August/September 2017

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: August/September 2017

Nick Hornby
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Books Bought:

  • A Tale for the Time Being—Ruth Ozeki
  • The Face of Britain—Simon Schama
  • Black Sun—Geoffrey Wolff
  • Eve’s Hollywood—Eve Babitz
  • Fat City—Leonard Gardner
  • Ask the Dust—John Fante

Books Read:

  • Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink—Elvis Costello
  • Sam Phillips—Peter Guralnick
  • Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations—Greil Marcus

Before I start in on this, it occurs to me that there may be some worryingly literary, or simply disturbingly young, readers who don’t know who Sam Phillips is. Well, perhaps I should explain that this isn’t the column for you. Run along now! Plenty to read elsewhere! And close the door behind you! Thank you. Right. That’s better. It’s easier to think when you’ve cleared out the people who are fidgeting.

A few pages into Peter Guralnick’s monumental biography of Phillips, I was suddenly struck by the familiarity of the story: the Baptist Church, the humble upbringing, the lack of further education, the culture of hard work, the passion for something—and if it’s an American story, it’s often music—that can lift the subject up out of the life and down somewhere altogether more glamorous. I’m not complaining about this familiarity. It’s always enthralling to read this stuff. Peter Guralnick, who has written equally authoritative biographies of Sam Cooke and, of course, Elvis Presley, has been here before. (One wonders whether the fourteen-year-old Peter Guralnick, a Jewish kid growing up in Boston—and I know I’ve said “Peter Guralnick” twice in two lines, but it feels weird referring to a fourteen-year-old by his family name alone—could possibly have anticipated how much of his adult life would be spent contemplating the Southern Baptist Church.)

But actually loads of people have been here before. Most of the biographies I’ve read, and certainly the ones that have meant the most to me, have contained a version of this story. And here’s why: the greatest English-speaking artists grew up without money. Isn’t that amazing? Let’s play a game. You give me your top three middle-class, privately educated graduate artists from the UK or the United States, and I’ll give you my top three artists who grew up without very much of anything. Ready, get set, go. Obviously at this point I have to provide answers for you: this is a magazine, not a bar, and in any case I’m writing this in May 2017 and you’re probably reading it while sitting on a friend’s toilet in April 2022. But I promise I will try hard on your behalf. How about Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Byron? Happy with that? You should be. Nothing wrong with any of them, really. Unfortunately, my top three are Dickens, Chaplin, and Louis Armstrong, or Elvis, or Marvin Gaye, or Muddy Waters, or… Anyway, I win. I would win every time. I could pick an entirely different top three that would still beat your best. “But that’s not fair,” you’re probably saying. “You have millions more to choose from than I do.” “Ah,” I reply. “But the privileged minority wins in every other area of life—education, business, the law, everything—so isn’t it kind of great that they lose in this? Stop whining, you spoiled baby.” That last part was probably unfair, seeing as I don’t know you and you didn’t even ask to represent the posh team. I just told you that you had to.

Was Sam Phillips an artist? Let’s say he was, just so the previous paragraph isn’t rendered entirely redundant. He was a superlative producer—people still spend a lot of money trying to re-create the sound he captured with none. He was a brilliant talent scout, an entrepreneur, a fervent believer in the innate talent of those whose voices are, or at least were, never heard, and he was a social agitator, a political force for good—before he started recording the hillbillies, he was determined to let or make people hear the blues musicians, Howlin’ Wolf among them, who wandered into the tiny studio he built on Union and Marshall in Memphis when he was in his mid-twenties. Nothing sold. He was responsible for Ike Turner’s Rocket 88, in 1951, but that came out on Chess Records, and it wasn’t until, famously (has that adverb ever been used more inadequately?), Elvis Presley came in to make a four-dollar “personal” for his mother, a souvenir of his singing voice, that his studio began to look like anything other than the project of an optimistic lunatic. Presley came back into the studio on June 26, 1954; his first record was a hit within two weeks. That unleashed an apparently unstoppable flood, and within three years Phillips had recorded Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “I Walk the Line,” and “Ooby Dooby.” There isn’t an American president or college professor or banker alive who couldn’t sing one of those. There shouldn’t be, anyway. Charlie Rich came along a couple of years later. Phillips signed them all and lost them all to major labels, and also produced records for Hardrock Gunter and Buddy Cunningham and the Miller Sisters and Howard Seratt and Doug Poindexter and the Ripley Cotton Choppers and Bill Pinky and the Turks—his nose for hits let him down more often than not, and in any case hits weren’t the point: the sound of the southern United States was the point.

Phillips had lost interest in Sun Records by the early 1960s, and sold it in 1969, but he lived until 2003. The top-heavy nature of his life provides Guralnick with a challenge that he meets expertly. The last two hundred pages of the eight-hundred-page book cover forty-­odd years, and Guralnick’s personal relationship with Phillips over the last couple of decades gives him a different perspective. And in any case, it’s such a singular life that you want to follow Phillips whatever he does. His personal arrangements were as ambitious as his musical vision (long-suffering wife, long-suffering mistress who effectively became a concurrent wife, younger and more conventionally mistressy mistress later on), and his parenting was obviously unconventional. (Amid all the stories about Cash and the King, there is a quite extraordinary account of his son Jerry’s brief career as a midget wrestler. He wasn’t a midget, just a twelve-year-old, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone, and it was only when a punter emerged from the crowd in Twist, Arkansas, with a knife and a maniacal look on his face that his mother decided she’d seen enough.) This is a huge and hugely entertaining book about an important period in American cultural history, but if you’ve stayed on this page until now, you could have guessed that.

Elvis Costello, like Presley’s career, was born in the summer of 1954, and he didn’t start to record until 1976, twenty years after Roy Orbison’s first single. Costello’s dad, Ross MacManus, had that period covered, though. He was the singer for the Joe Loss Orchestra, a big band that was ubiquitous in UK light entertainment. If you were a teenager in the 1960s, then Joe Loss was the enemy, I’m guessing, because every minute his orchestra played on TV or radio was a minute that you weren’t listening to something louder, faster, and cooler. (Joe Loss and, therefore, Elvis’s dad were on the bill the night that John Lennon told the royal family, up in a box at the Prince of Wales Theatre, to rattle their jewelry if they were unwilling or unable to clap their hands.) In Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, Costello’s large, absorbing, surprising, and altogether wonderful memoir, there are no musical enemies; there’s just music, decades of it.

Check out these names: Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, Chet Baker, the Specials, the Pogues, Allen Toussaint, George Jones, Bob Dylan, T Bone Burnett, Yoko Ono, the Roots, Nick Lowe, Aimee Mann, Johnny Cash… I’ll stop there. But they feature in Unfaithful Music not just because they provided some kind of potted history of postwar popular music, but because Costello has worked with them in some capacity or another—written with them, toured with them, produced them, been produced by them, made an album with them. If there’s really nothing for you in the rest of this book—and there will be nothing for you only if you’re uninterested in creativity, the relationships between parents and their children, the dynamics of bands, the 1970s, the 1980s, country music, the UK, the United States, or love—then you simply wait around for the next collaboration to come around. “One lesson I learned from writing with Paul was that once the melodic shape was established, he would not negotiate about stretching a line rhythmically to accommodate a rhyme.” “Some of my favourite memories from the sessions are of watching Burt direct the horn players. His sense of phrasing was so very distinctive that it could not be completely conveyed on the written page… Burt sank lower and lower in the chair as he sang the flügelhorn phrases over and over again, making minute adjustments until the players became like his voice.”

I have always had the feeling that you, dear Believer reader, like me, reserve a special place in your heart for intelligent and insightful writing about how art gets made; well, the intelligence and insightfulness of Unfaithful Music got me wondering whether this is the best book I’ve read about music by a musician. There have been brilliant books by musicians over the last few years—Chronicles, Just Kids, Tracey Thorn’s Bedsit Disco Queen—but most of them have turned out to be about something other than the music itself. Costello’s book contains page after page about process, and anyone who makes any kind of anything will sink into these pages like a hot bath. If you’ve never made the link between the vocal performance on the Spinners’ “Ghetto Child” and Costello’s “Alison,” and you want to, then you need to read this book. (It’s the staccato delivery of the chorus, stupid.)

The narrative is artfully fractured, and the jumbled chronology produces cracks that allow Costello to dodge out of sight when he needs to. You could cut the book up and paste it back together to try to tell the story from the beginning to the end, if you’ve really got nothing better to do, but it wouldn’t help you to understand what happened at key autobiographical moments, because the ends don’t quite join up. It’s a smart way of keeping the reader focused on what the author wants to show, and when, occasionally, he wants to show us marital failure, personal disgrace, or the beautiful, clearly unexpected redemption of a middle-aged love affair with a soulmate, then the effect is like a punch you didn’t and couldn’t see coming.

I ended up coming to a conclusion I suspect Costello doesn’t share: that, to date, he has lived an enviable and worthwhile life. It’s not just that he wrote “Alison” or “God Give Me Strength” or “Shipbuilding” or any of the other hundreds of great songs over thirty-odd albums; it’s not just that he chatted with Dylan or Joni Mitchell about songwriting, or that he once sat in a green room with Frank Capra. (That’s all true, by the way, not a preposterous fictional example of what an interesting career would look like.) It’s not even that in his sixtieth year he was working with Questlove on a record full of beats that would have seemed as if they’d come from another planet when My Aim Is True came out. It’s that he has committed himself to his craft, remained curious, and, as this terrific book makes clear, thought about what it all means. I’m sorry to tell you, Elvis, that the veiled allusions to pills and booze, the regrets and the self-loathing, don’t change anything. Some of us have been listening to you for nearly forty years, and we still think you’re great. Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink only increases our admiration.

“With Elvis’s death, I think, it became clear to [Sam Phillips] for the first time that history did not write itself… Which is how the Sam Phillips that the world came to know over the next twenty-five years—messianic and publicly self-proclaiming in a manner that few of his early associates would have recognized—came into being.” Greil Marcus’s beautiful little book Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations is in part about what happens to performers and interpreters when history is allowed to write itself. The three songs are Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues,” and Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” and the chances are that you own recordings by two of those three artists, except we don’t need to say that anymore; with Spotify you own every recording by every artist, and Geeshie Wiley is as much yours as Dylan ever was. Dylan has to give history a helping hand to erase all traces of himself and to “make the song sing as if it were not his”; he’s Bob Dylan, after all. But Geeshie Wiley recorded her tune in 1930, and she’s long gone, even as a memory. So here Marcus restores her to her own recording, even while arguing that sometimes the best and most important songs slip free of authorship altogether.

It would be great to be able to tell you, for the sake of both irony and neatness, that Geeshie Wiley was a Radcliffe graduate whose parents were philanthropists, but of course she wasn’t; she was an African American woman about whom next to nothing is known. If she had been well-heeled, then you could have found a place for her on one of your lists of privileged minorities that you insist on making, for incomprehensible reasons. But like Sam Phillips, she’s on the other team, the team that makes the good stuff. There isn’t much justice, but there’s some. 

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