Book Review – Stanley Booth’s “Rythm Oil – Music of the American South”
This is a ridiculously good book of music writing – though, that’s an injustice, it’s a book about soul, and life, and America as much or more as it is about “just” music, by the great Stanley Booth.
As many of you no doubt know, Booth is also the author of “The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, ‘a harrowing account of high times and low roads with the motley crew in Villa Nellcote, the Deep South and Altamont, that makes “Gimme Shelter’’ look like “The Yellow Submarine.’’
First published in 1991 and recently re-issued as a Da Capo press paperback, “Rythm Oil’’ – the spelling is deliberate, in an apparent reference to a mojo oil once sold on Beale Street – includes bravura accounts of Booth’s friendship and travels with Furry Lewis, whom he met, long before Joni Mitchell paid tribute to him, while he was still sweeping streets in Memphis, a shockingly stark piece simply titled “The Funeral of Mississippi John Hurt,’’ a famously lubricious Elvis Presley profile published in Esquire magazine that begins with an anecdote about Elvis and Natalie Wood that the magazine did not deem fit for publication, but that makes the cut here, “Blues Boy,’’ a tribute to B.B. King that begins with an account of an unlikely gig by B.B. following the Mothers of Invention at the Fillmore Auditorium (let’s just say that Booth is not the president of the Frank Zappa fan club) and a sympathetic portrayal of James Brown’s legal troubles that got the author, in turn, a heap of legal troubles, ultimately resolved in his favor, from JB’s girlfriend at the time.
It’s hard to pick and choose from these tales of wildness and woe – there’s just too much juiciness and care involved – but the common denominator is Booth’s identification with, friendship, appreciation and concern for the wellbeing of the musicians who create America’s only indigenous art form. This is someone who writes from inside the music, from hanging out on front porches, in bars and in back alleys, and the prose shows it.
One example, among many, from the Mississippi John Hurt piece (Furry Lewis accompanied him to the funeral):
“The church looked as if it might hold 200 people, and there were more than that outside. They were all country Negroes, dressed in funny old clothes, but they wore them with a kind of grace and even hipness, as if their shiny gabardine suits and brown ventilated shoes, nylon dressed and hats with veils, were equivalent to the Italian sweaters and sharp-toed slip-ons, the miniskirts and blond wigs, of their country cousins. No one seemed to mind that the majority of the crowd was forced to remain outside.”
Invited to speak at the funeral by one of Hurt’s relatives as a kind of reward for making his long trip, Booth is abashed:
“I don’t know what I said. The last time I saw John Hurt I bought whisky for him, and he played the blues for me, so our accounts were about as even as they would ever get. I think I told the people that though this was a sad day, we should remember all the joy he had given us through his music – something like that. I may have even got an amen or two.
“Then I turned away…On the other side of the pulpit there was an old upright piano. It looked as if it had sat in the unheated church, freezing in the winter, baking in the summer, since it was new. As we left, the plump sister who played it struck the driest, most soulful chord (all the stiff, dusty strings having stretched and shrunk and grown brittle to create a new harmony, more complex, more expressive than that of any conventional music), and the congregation sang: ‘Near the Cross, be my Glory ever, and my weary soul shall find, oh rest beyond the river.’ “
Booth is a master of the throwaway anecdote that stays with you – in an appreciation of ZZ Top, he mentions to Billy Gibbons that Domingo Samudio – Sam the Sham of “Wooly Bully’’ fame – had been reduced to preaching on the street in Memphis.
All the contributions are heartfelt, but “Fascinating Changes,” the longest, and perhaps most successful piece, is the tale of the life and death of the late, great underappreciated Memphis jazz pianist Phineas Newborn Jr., plagued by mental illness like such near contemporaries as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, but determined to make a joyful sound nonetheless.
After visiting awhile with Newborn and his Mama Rose (who’d once encouraged a poverty-stricken B.B. King after the draperies were repossessed from his home), the author reflects:
“I drove up Crump Boulevard, past Elvis Presley and remembered seeing Phineas a dozen years ago standing on that corner, rumpled, unshaven, but radiating power, like Clark Kent after a bad kryptonite binge. I thought of seeing him five years ago at a piano bar on Beale Street, drinking Scotch in silent fury while a white girl sang ‘San Francisco.’…I thought of Lucky Thompson, sleeping on the beach on St. Simon’s Island and on a park bench in Savannah, and of King Oliver, dying in Savannah, writing to his sister, ‘The Lord is sure good to me here without an overcoat.’…
“Before we went to Europe in 1979, I asked Phineas what he considered the most important thing for a young musician to keep in mind.
“Stay young at heart. That’s the right idea as far as I’m concerned. Play young at heart. Play the way you feel. A thing of value outlasts a thing that has no value. Attempt to produce things of value as you go along. If it’s worthless, it won’t last; if it has value, it generally does – an eternity, almost, in minds and hearts.”
It’s a crazy world. E.L. James and J.T. Rowling make millions, doing what they do, and Stanley Booth lives quietly on the Georgia coast – one gets the sense that the wild, drug-drenched days with the Stones are a distant memory – writing about the music he loves. No sense complaining about it, that’s just the way of the world. But the music he loves, and the words he uses to describe it, have a value, too, that no one can take away. If some fool tried, they’d have to get through him first.