Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Books No. 26 and 27:
Where Dead Voices Gather by Nick Tosches
Arthur Lee: Alone Again Or by Barney Hoskins

First, lemme ask: does anyone else feel like re-reading The Wild Palms? For some obscure (ahem) reason, it's been on my mind since last Monday. Something about the dual grace and evil of man in the face of a natural disaster of tremendous import, a flood even, something about this topic seems altogether appropriate to how I feel this week. I need to find my copy post-haste.

Maybe it's just me.

OK, onward to the topic at hand.

These two books are polar opposites. Tosches's book is an examination of the life of Emmett Miller, the blackface minstrel who, as Tosches argues, was a fundamental influence on such country luminaries as Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as an examination of the history of blackface minstrelsy and how it informed the pop music that dominated the 20th century. My friend Dutcher advised me to avoid this book as being overly well-researched. This turns out to be an accurate summary of the book's strengths and weaknesses: it is jam-packed full of information, often tangential at best to the central argument, sometimes fascinating and sometimes just tiring. Central to the book is the twist of race at the heart of 20th century pop music: white men (Elvis et al.) mimicking black men (blues artists of the early 20th century) mimicking white men mimicking black men (blackface minstrels).

Hoskins's book, on the other hand, is about a black man (Arthur Lee) who made some of the most interesting "white music" (that is, late 60s psychedelic rock stew, which, historiocity be damned, is usually considered white music) ever recorded. Unfortunately, unlike Tosches's book, Hoskins has contented himself with cursory research, easy (and sometimes unanswered) questions, and no challenges to the conventional wisdom regarding the band Love or their masterpiece Forever Changes.

All of which is quite a shame, as Hoskins writes for Mojo Magazine, the magazine for thinking rock fans, which also endorses this book. One would expect from the cover that it would be brilliant and illuminating. Too bad. I did learn a few things, such as What Happened To Bryan MacLean (he became a bitter born-again surfer dude and hey, did you know that he was Maria McKee's half-brother?) and that Arthur Lee didn't fire the gun that got him thrown in jail. However, almost no mention is made of Lee's very obvious mental problems or the fate of the other members of Love, nor are deeper questions asked about how Lee's race played into his fall from grace.

Tosches did ask the uncomfortable questions, and sometimes he even labored to answer them (and did a fine job at that). It's too bad that he (and his editors) are so close to this subject that they couldn't figure out that there's several books' worth of material lying uneasily together within these chapters, making large sections of the book uneasily redundant or hopelessly divorced from the central point Tosches was trying to make. Maybe the topic itself is so large that Tosches literally could not get his head around it; there's no shame in that. Either way, Where Dead Voices Gather should have either been broken into at least three other books or enlarged to 800+ pages. A co-author may have helped sort the material. A decent editor could have also helped to organize and cut out redundancies (several times, Tosches repeated near-verbatim the same piece of information only several pages apart).

However, Where Dead Voices Gather is a major work of pop-culture scholarship. Arthur Lee: Alone Again Or is most decidedly not.

And The Wild Palms, which consists of two novellas, the second of which is about a nameless convict who rescues a pregnant woman from the flooding Mississippi River, is one of the greatest books of all time, packed with so much truth that it makes grown men weep.


shepard 8:52 AM, December 11, 2005  

how would you know if arthur fired the gun? BIG ?should be re-exmined

Anonymous 2:25 AM, August 16, 2007  

"there's several books' worth of material lying uneasily together within these chapters"

Not sure what you mean, as there are no chapter breaks in the book.

Hayden Childs 1:09 PM, August 16, 2007  

Hi, anonymous 2-yr-late guy. Way to catch the point! Your reading comprehension skills are quite impressive.

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