Robert Palmer: 1945 to 1997
Editor’s note: Upon hearing of the death on Nov. 20 of musician, producer and journalist Robert Palmer, we passed along the sad news to Ed Ward, who just a few days earlier had asked that his paycheck for the article he wrote in ND #12 be sent to the fund that had been set up to cover medical expenses for the liver transplant Palmer needed. We asked Ward to write something about Palmer to be posted to the AOL No Depression folder, which he did; later, we decided (with Ward’s blessing) to publish it in the magazine as well. Here it is:
I first met Robert Palmer through my college dorm-mate Reagan Cole, who, like Bob, was from Little Rock. Reagan and Bob shared an interest in folklore, and one day Reagan played me a 45 by a band Palmer was in, called, I think, the Primitives. “They’ve changed their name, though,” he told me, “and they have an album coming out on Capitol.” And, a couple of weeks later, there it was, The Insect Trust (now available as a CD reissue from Demon in the UK). Melting together country blues, free jazz, and old-time string-band picking, it was a very strange album indeed, but a very good one. I wrote a review for Rolling Stone, and after a while, I was pursuing rumors that an “underground” FM station had opened in Cincinnati. Tuning to the frequency, I heard my review being read on the air — along with an announcement that the Insect Trust was coming to Cincinnati’s own psychedelic dungeon, the Black Dome.
Naturally, a bunch of us went down there to hear them, and it was an odd show, with about 30 people in the audience. But Reagan and I talked to the band and agreed they should do a gig at our college a few days hence. We went back, set it up, knowing nothing of concert promotion, and managed to draw a crowd even smaller than the Dome had attracted. The student government issued me an ultimatum: Either repay the deficit out of my own pocket, or do a second show to make the money back. I lured a band from Ann Arbor that my friend Charlie Burton was wild about, Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen, for their first out-of-state gig, and made so much money that there was a $3,000 surplus. The student government thought I was a genius; I knew it was time to get out of the concert-promoting business.
But while the band was in town, I hung out with Palmer and found him just as nice a guy as Reagan had said. On a visit to New York, I went over to Hoboken to hang out with the band at their headquarters, and enjoyed myself a lot. By the time their second album came out, on Atco, Hoboken Saturday Night, they had become tighter and even more diverse; highlights of the album for me were Elvin Jones bashing away on “Our Sister The Sun” and a crystalline recorder solo by Palmer on “Eyes Of A New York Woman” (not the B. J. Thomas song), with lyrics by their friend Thomas Pynchon. Again, I reviewed the album for Rolling Stone, this time because I was the record review editor there, and Bob called to thank me. As we talked, he told me he was living in Manhattan, the band was falling apart, and he was looking for writing work. I assigned him some reviews, and his Rolling Stone career was born.
We fell out of touch, for the most part, around then. I became persona non grata at Rolling Stone, and he was the New York correspondent until the magazine moved to New York, at which point he got a gig at The New York Times. His writing, though, improved, and I enjoyed reading his stuff, particularly when he started doing books such as Deep Blues. There was a lot I disagreed with him about, but he was intellectually rigorous, so I could disagree with admiration. Plus, he was diverse: One of his childhood friends from Little Rock was Ferrell Sanders, whom John Coltrane’s crowd called “Little Rock” and everyone else called Pharaoh. He was active in the downtown loft-jazz scene, particularly the one run by another of his friends, Ornette Coleman, on Prince Street. I think he’s on the Prince Street album Ornette released, Friends And Neighbors, but I’m sure he’s on a track Ornette released some years later of him and Bob jamming with the Master Musicians of Joujouka.
The connection there was the Rolling Stones, with whom Bob had become quite friendly, particularly Keith Richards. This friendship led to some rather damaging excesses on Bob’s part, which led to a hepatitis infection which, in turn, did some permanent damage to his system. Bob spent the last 15 years of his life struggling with these demons as he continued to write, moving to northern Mississippi to get away from New York and all it contained, and commuting to Pennsylvania to do university teaching. One good thing that emerged from the time in Mississippi was the formation of Fat Possum Records, a label for which Bob produced a number of albums by the last remaining country bluesmen — guys such as Junior Kimbrough, who’s pretty well known in that part of the world, and Paul “Wine” Jones, who is not.
The last time I saw him was a few years ago at SXSW, where he’d come in with some weird grunge band from Memphis with whom he played clarinet, kids half his age — a combination that, believe it or not, worked. He was haggard and skinny, and we didn’t get much of a chance to talk, since it was at the gig, and he seemed distracted. We said we’d stay in touch, but in the next six months, I had about four different addresses for him. Lord knows what he was doing.
Strangely enough, there’s been an upsurge of interest in the Insect Trust of late, and I’ve been thinking of them quite a bit, especially after an online fanzine, Perfect Sound Forever, asked me to contribute to a piece they were doing on them. Jason, the guy who runs PSF, had interviewed a number of the surviving members of the band, but he was reluctant, awed, really, at the idea of talking to Bob. I kept pestering him, saying how Bob was a gentle, kind guy who was easy to talk to, but he kept being too shy to make the approach. The next thing I heard from Jason was that Bob was sick. I finally got around to making a contribution to his medical fund, but it was too late by then.
Bob Palmer left behind him a mound of good writing, some serious scholarship, and, for me, that recorder solo on “Eyes Of A New York Woman”, one of the most perfect spontaneous pieces of music ever recorded. He was probably pissed when he got to the Big Jam Session in the Sky and realized that Ornette and Pharaoh weren’t there yet, spent a day or two brooding about it, then got a tape recorder and went off to get a visa to The Other Place to interview Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, leaving messages on Albert Ayler’s and Don Cherry’s answering machines to get together when he got back.