BOOK REVIEW / Getting their kicks on Route 66: 'Coast to Coast: A Rock Fan's US Tour' - Andy Bull, Black Swan 5.99 pounds; 'American Heartbeat: Travels from Woodstock to San Jose by Song Title' - Mick Brown: Michael Joseph, 15.99 pounds
Sunday 16 May 1993
Both Andy Bull and Mick Brown are affected by this sense of being strangers in a strange land. Both are reduced at different points in their respective odysseys simply to transcribing the far-out signage that they encounter, as if the imprecations of commercial evangelism and the sloganising of the hard-sell merchants are more redolent of the country than the country itself.
Bull's book is far more at fault in this respect. And when placed back-to-back with Brown's, what is most revealing is the impact of 'yoof' culture on the two writers' view of history. Bull belongs to the post- Woodstock generation, and as he pursues his trek from Athens, Georgia, west to California, then via Dylan's birthplace by the Great Lakes to New York and eventually Montreal, he is dogged by a persistent cynicism. It is a cynicism that owes its genesis to the musical trough he grew up in, between the idealistic polarities of hippie and punk.
But his, after all, is a 'Fan's Tour', and he carries all the attributes of the fan with him: a naive credulousness that is repeatedly being shattered by reality's hard impact. He really wants Elvis's buddies to be as mythic as the King himself, not just blowsy sentimentalists cashing in on the cult. On the West Coast he longs for sun, surf and girls, girls, girls, not rain, rain, rain and expensive Minnie Mouse dolls. He remains fixated to the end by a vision of the stars he worships as being regular guys, and holds up as an ideal the group R E M, who still manage to live in their home town with something like dignity.
However, Bull does make his journey more of a genuine lyrical exegesis than Brown's. He sticks to the places described in the pop songs, and along the way eagerly seeks out anyone who may have met the stars he admires. Some of the book's best passages concern his enthusiastic rediscovery of the mythic Route 66, which has been left to languish, a used-up vein beside the now teeming artery of the interstate.
Mick Brown's book is an altogether more considerable affair. For him the lyrics of America's popular songs are only a pretext for a deeper investigation of the culture. An older man than Bull, he is able to place the modern pop phenomenon in its correct context, and this book meanders well outside the restrictions of fandom to produce pithy observations of urban blight in the Rust Belt, the sinister grey market growth of the Sun Belt, Silicon Valley and much more.
Particularly revealing and well-investigated is Brown's recapitulation of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, wherein Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan locked antlers over the serpentine questions of Bible fundamentalism that still constrict American political life to this day. Brown does this kind of thing well, and is also good on place, producing a fine pen-portrait of a small town on the Great Plains, but it's difficult to see what the hell it has to do with popular song titles. More germane is his encounter with the Country and Western songwriter Harlan Howard in a Nashville bistro. It's no surprise to learn that the politically incorrect Howard, who penned Tammy Wynette's 'No Charge' among many other songs, has run through five marriages in his relentless quest for 'poontang', or tail.
Both writers visit many of the same places, survey the same events (Martin Luther King's assassination, the acid tests) and discuss the same figures, but Brown has the advantage of getting closer in every respect. He speaks to actual songwriters and performers, whereas poor Bull has to be content with the wannabes.
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