The Mitch Myers experience

April 22, 2007

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

In an era when artists' profiles are too often fawning puff pieces and album reviews can largely be divided into insight-free, 150-word blurbs a la Entertainment Weekly or dense, impenetrable and solipsistic essays for uber-hip Webzines, Chicago music writer and National Public Radio contributor Mitch Myers recalls the glory days of rock criticism's first decade, from the mid-'60s through the mid-'70s, when pioneers such as Richard Meltzer, Nick Tosches and Lester Bangs viewed their craft as part of the New Journalism, aspiring to Tom Wolfe's famous goal of treating journalism and criticism as literature, and using the skills and techniques of the novelist.

The Boy Who Cried Freebird: Rock & Roll Fables and Sonic Storytelling (Harper Entertainment, $25.95) is a much-needed and very welcome collection of Myers' work for radio and various magazines. In the introduction, he acknowledges his debt to the writers mentioned above and names an even bigger hero: J.R. Young, a now-forgotten Rolling Stone record reviewer from the '70s. Myers follows in Young's footsteps by crafting album reviews that are really short pieces of fiction "parables," and if these sometimes skimp on conventional info such as the producer, the best and worst tracks and where the disc fits into the artist's oeuvre, they often reveal deeper truths about the musician's work and the listener's role in completing the experience.

Witness Myers' piece on the Robert Johnson box set, which begins with the discovery of a mysterious 30th track that the bluesman never recorded and ends with Satan showing up at the author's door; a nifty homage to Black Sabbath wherein playing "Paranoid" reveals and kills the camouflaged aliens in our midst, and a rumination on Brian Eno set in the laboratory of Baron von Frankenstein. Together with his imaginative and captivating prose, Myers' biggest assets are his boyish enthusiasm, pervasive warmth and genuine love of eccentricity and distinctive art and artists, traits that make a lot of sense if you know he's the nephew of the poet and cartoonist Shel Silverstein and administrator of his uncle's archives. In its own way, The Boy Who Cried Freebird is as much of a joy and inspiration as The Giving Tree.

        

Another surefire winner on the recent rock reading list is White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s (Serpent's Tail, $18), a memoir by American-born, English-based record producer and Hannibal Records founder Joe Boyd. Though the New Yorker recently described Boyd as a Zelig-like character who found himself in extraordinary places at exactly the right time through rock's most turbulent decade -- he served as the stage manager at Newport the day Bob Dylan plugged in, to cite one example -- this description doesn't do justice to his extraordinary energy in creating new forums for creative musicians (he was a co-founder of UFO, London's hippest rock club during the Summer of Love) and for recognizing and fostering fresh talent in the recording studio. Among his production credits: the first single by Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd and the timeless early efforts by the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention and Nick Drake.

Boyd isn't exempt from self-aggrandizement, though this is often justified by his accomplishments and balanced by his clear-eyed observations. "As for me, I cheated. I never got too stoned," he writes, explaining how he managed to avoid joining the long list of acid casualties. "I became the eminence grise I aspired to be, and disproved at least one '60s myth: I was there, and I do remember." Indeed he does, and the book leaves you hoping that Boyd has the opportunity to give us a second volume chronicling his championing of world music in the '70s and later productions such as R.E.M.'s "Fables of the Reconstruction" (1985).

        

Originally published in 1972 but long out of print, John Sinclair's Guitar Army: Rock & Revolution with MC5 and the White Panther Party was hastily compiled to make capitalistic hay of the Detroit political agitator and rock hustler's infamous pot bust. The original was an unsatisfying mix of pedantic essays, boring speeches, awful poems, sketchy clips from underground newspapers and unintentionally funny photos of self-important "revolutionaries" out to change the world and/or get high. It has long been useful to researchers looking to understand the naivete of the times, but since the new edition (Process Books, $22.95) adds only a hyped introduction by Michael Simmons ("John Sinclair is a classic American hero who stood up for what he believed in") and a hard to listen to bonus CD, it's not worth your money -- though you could take a page from fellow radical Abbie Hoffman and steal this book.

        

Other recent music books of note include:

      Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories: True and Tall Tales of the Glory Days Told by Musicians, DJs, Promoters & Fans Who Made the Scene in the '60s, '70s, and '80s by Carlo Wolff (Gray & Company, 1995). The comically long subtitle pretty much says it all, though I'll add that this oral history is much more entertaining than anyone who's ever visited Cleveland might guess.

   Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop (Basic Civitas, $18.95), the latest from prolific West Coast hip-hop critic Jeff Chang, a collection of essays, interviews and short pieces that serve as a nice compliment to his definitive hip-hop history, Can't Stop, Won't Stop.

      Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids & Rock 'n' Roll (Perseus, $22), a witty and engaging autobiographical musing on those topics by Miami Herald pop culture critic Evelyn McDonnell.

      And finally, a footnote to a column that ran in this space last year, paying tribute to Creem magazine rock critic Rick Johnson upon his death in his native Macomb, Ill. Working with other friends and admirers, Bill Knight has edited a collection of Johnson's work titled The Rick Johnson Reader: 'Tin Cans, Squeems & Thudpies' (Mayfly Productions, $14.99), which rounds up some of his best and most gonzo prose.

 

 

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