Books for Christmas: Music: popular - Missing several beats with the critics who believe in yesterday
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Saturday 27 November 1999
"Declinism" can crop up in the strangest places. With tongue only partly located in cheek, the singer-composer Joe Jackson asserts that, after the ragtime virtuosi of the 1900s, "it's possible to see the whole history of popular music in the 20th century as one of steady decline". Jackson first emerged in the mixed-up aftermath of Punk as a restless, adventurous songwriter - for which he caught "some fairly heavy flak" from fundamentalist critics, as the indispensable, better-than-ever second edition of Rock: The Rough Guide (Penguin, pounds 17.99) reminds us. His winning memoir of a musical apprenticeship, A Cure for Gravity (Anchor, pounds 9.99), disproves his own thesis with its shrewdness and sensitivity. This is one of the finest personal accounts of pop life in Britain.
No one could deny the conspicuous decline of Elvis Aaron Presley. In Last Train to Memphis, Peter Guralnick took the kid from Tupelo to the peak of his late-Fifties fame; now Careless Love (Little, Brown, pounds 19.99) traces the King's pitiable descent, or slo-mo suicide. But this gripping biography reaches back beyond all cheap hindsight. It portrays a generous, gifted soul wrecked by the most toxic strains of celebrity ever to invade an innocent host.
Presley, the white boy who sounded black, burned fast and died young. Veteran blues maestro John Lee Hooker has wryly watched his music plundered and packaged for half a century and more. In Boogie Man (Viking, pounds 17.99), Charles Shaar Murray puts this dogged odyssey into the wider frame of "the American 20th century", just as he did so well with Jimi Hendrix in Crosstown Traffic. Hooker, very much alive, offers more of an elusive, moving target, but Murray still manages to pin down both the man and the history.
James Miller's Almost Grown: the rise of rock (Heinemann, pounds 12.99) confidently tells the story of the 30 years that separate Wynonie Harris's recording of "Good Rockin' Tonight" in 1947 and the twin calamities (so Miller thinks) of Presley's death and the Sex Pistols' birth. Yes, declinism again: it all went pear-shaped after Punk, argues the learned professor. Readable, provocative, cleverly divided into chapters that narrate the turning-points of pop, Almost Grown remains a major work in the field even if you reject its doomy Larkin-esque valedictions (with Johnny Rotten playing the role of Charlie Parker).
It's not quite so much of a landmark, though, as Gary Giddins's magnificent collection of essays Visions of Jazz: the first century (Oxford, pounds 25). In 600-plus masterly pages, Giddins (of the Village Voice) rebuts the rhetoric of the Golden Age via superb evocations of figures as disparate in culture and style as Jelly Roll Morton and Cassandra Wilson. This is great critical writing, by whatever lofty yardstick you wish to invoke. Neil Tesser's Playboy Guide to Jazz (Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99) can hardly compete for eloquence, but its explanatory discographies do a most valuable, reader-friendly job.
There's even a sense of vanished idyll about Dave Haslam's lively history of pop culture in Manchester, England (Fourth Estate, pounds 12.99). Haslam, once a DJ at the Hacienda, knows his Manc bands inside out. So I believe him when he names Jimmy Savile as a key player on the Sixties scene. Yet Haslam ends, after the Happy Mondays era, with unhappy Saturdays of mayhem in the city's clubs. Once again, a story of decline and fall - though not one applicable to The Fall, a band he still reveres.
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