Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000/Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay
The urge to write about music is rivaled only by the desire to play or listen to it. Outlets for music journalism — from mainstream newspapers and magazines to alternative weeklies and fanzines to the internet — have mushroomed, making it harder to keep abreast of what’s available. Two anthologies reflect this phenomenon to different degrees, with varied results.
Da Capo Best Music Writing follows the tradition of annual anthologies devoted to the year’s top sportswriting and short stories. Guest editor Peter Guralnick has assembled a diverse collection with stories on such musicians as Merle Haggard, Madonna, Fela Kuti, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, Steve Earle and Duke Ellington. It is the literary equivalent of freeform FM radio of the late 1960s, where a set of music could include the Grateful Dead, Beethoven and Charlie Parker.
The tone of the writing varies from an exhaustive investigative piece of what went wrong at Woodstock ’99 to an offbeat look at hardcore re-enactors, extreme punk rock fans re-creating the music scene of the early 1980s in the same manner as Civil War re-enactors.
Best Music Writing (all the pieces originally were published in 1999) unearths some literary treasures that deserve a broader audience, such as Eddie Dean’s story on a Maryland man’s tireless efforts to collect and preserve old 78s, and Rosanne Cash’s enlightening essay on “The Ties That Bind”.
Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay resembles an anthology of literature used in a college classroom. That’s no surprise, since editor William McKeen is the chair of the journalism department at the University of Florida, where he teaches the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
McKeen’s 94 selections cover a 35-year range, from a 1964 story by Tom Wolfe on the Beatles’ arrival in the United States to a 1999 profile of Prince by Michael Gonzales. Stylistically, the book is a microcosm on the evolution of rock writing — from verbatim song lyrics to liner notes to oral history to essays and personality profiles by noted writers (Guralnick, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh) and musicians (Pete Townshend and John Lennon). There’s even music-inspired fiction by Don De Lillo, Roddy Doyle and Salman Rushdie.
Some of McKeen’s selections are debatable. Reprinting song lyrics without music lessens their impact, even in the case of Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell”. Other articles show their age. Terry Southern’s account of the 1972 Rolling Stones tour reflects the New Journalism style of the era with hyperbole that would make Mick Jagger’s publicist blush: “Mick Jagger has perhaps the greatest talent for ‘putting a song across’ of anyone in the history of the performing arts.”
McKeel hits the mark with other selections. Jules Siegel’s 1967 account of Brian Wilson and the ill-fated Smile album is an enduring tale of the consequences of genius. “Treatise On The Blues” by Doc Pomus shows mastery of written word and includes prose as well as song lyrics. The volume’s concluding entry, Phil Spector’s induction speech for Doc Pomus’ entry into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, could be the best work he has done in the last 20 years.