Music books, mystery and the feeling of loss moment

by Mal Smith

Looking through the music books arrayed across my various bookcases - there are more books here than I had realised - recently got me thinking. Picking some out, to see how I relate to them today, two things strike me. There are what I’d call the cornerstones and then there are the ‘feeling of loss moment’ books, as I think of them. And there's some overlap.

The cornerstones, from my perspective, are Nik Cohn’s Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom first published in 1969, Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City, from 1970, and Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'N' Roll Music, from 1975. I got my copies of each of these in the 1980s.

They offer three broad narratives, of two types - what I call the worldly narrative of Cohn and Gillett, and the supernatural narrative of Marcus. What's the difference? Music as transient, contingent, and transatlantic - this is what I call the worldly (straightforward, down-to-earth) narrative - is largely a European-originated idea. Music as eternal, mysterious, national, revivalist, imaginary, dreamy almost - what I call the supernatural narrative - is largely American in origin.

The supernatural approach of Marcus is based on the 'myth-symbol' academic ideas of American Studies. It requires American music to be everlasting and ultimately mysterious, even if not always in fashion, and seems to require America as a place, as part of its meaning. There are “unities in the American imagination,” writes Marcus. Hence there is one national, myth-like music, and the nation is at stake. This is the approach of Mystery Train. The supernatural narrative has a mythical American music of supernatural origin, a unified genre which from time to time re-emerges, as and when needed.

On the other hand, the worldly narrative of Cohn and Gillett advocates that music is subject to chance factors and largely equates to or consists of youthful or self-made expression in the now, and the music industry is part of the story. The worldly narrative is a sociological and industry-based explanation. In Cohn and Gillett, there's an emphasis on the transatlantic nature of the record industry. This is the main UK-originated narrative about American music, though paradoxically the supernatural narrative is perhaps more popular in the UK. From my readings, the supernatural and the worldly are the two primary narratives of American music.

But there’s something else about the worldly narrative. It started with Cohn and Gillett here in the UK and grew in the 1980s with a series of books that told of loss. These are the 'feeling of loss moments’ as I call them - great music books by UK and US authors. I first read these 'feeling of loss moments' during the 1980s; in date order they are:

Nik Cohn - Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom (1973 edition; from a second-hand bookstore)

Charlie Gillett - The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll (Revised Edition)

Gerri Hirshey - Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music

Peter Guralnick - Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm & Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom

Nelson George - Where Did Our Love Go: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound

Barney Hoskyns - Say It One Time For The Brokenhearted: The Country Side of Southern Soul

Nelson George - The Death of Rhythm & Blues

Each of the authors has seen the end come for a music they love. These books are recognitions of endings. Taken together, they recognise an ending played out during the 1970s and 1980s. The book titles tell a story in themselves. Apart from the Cohn book, these were published 1983-1988, to my mind the high point of this strand of music writing. The writers don’t seem optimistic. But that’s not surprising as they are in the worldly narrative strand.

Thereafter came what I call the Rock and Pop reclamations. These were the new anti-Marcus supernatural mythologies. First there was Rockism, expressed arguably for example in Rolling Stone magazine during the 1980s in one form, and then in Carducci’s Rock and the Pop Narcotic: Testament for the Electric Church, originally published in 1990. Next came the Poptimism of Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (2007). The particularly interesting thing to me, is that I think the supernatural narrative strand includes both Rockism and Poptimism.

Strange compatriots for Greil Marcus perhaps? Not really. Rockism and Poptimism are mystery combined with an optimism, just like Marcus. What are the potential problems with the supernatural notion? The music under consideration by the supernatural narrative has to be pure; either it is national, or it is otherwise pure, perhaps regionally or globally. It's received by its practitioners, supernaturally. Does this lead to reduced or curtailed choice? Is it teleological? Religious? Backwards-looking? Arguably yes to all of those.

Rock is “a transubstantiation nearly as sublime as any priest’s,” writes Carducci. As with Marcus, Rock has to save America. It has supernatural purposes, it is timeless, it is a form of democratic expression, it’s an obligation, or more succinctly, it simply has to ‘Rock’. Meanwhile Pop must be very popular and sell to the masses, to sustain or justify itself. But that’s okay, says Poptimism, after some doubts: “[this] doesn’t mean you have to admire her [Celine Dion]. Unless maybe it does,” writes Wilson. Rock and Pop therefore are seen as natural and democratic and pure, mysterious and eternal, as obligatory totems, and at the same time they must not be seen as commercial, manufactured, or exploitative.

The situation reminds me of a somewhat similar one in Hollywood Genres, a book from 1981 in which Thomas Schatz argues that the life of a Hollywood film-genre can be reckoned after a while to arrive at an age when it worries a lot and looks back, mostly at itself. Parody and/or excess may well have ensued by then.

I prefer what I call the worldly approach. I’m not so keen on the supernatural mystifications. The supernatural narrative tends to obscure, ultimately, albeit perhaps accidentally. However, I am very much in favour of the idea of mystery in self-expression, in artists as humans, and of the mystery in great voices, sounds, and songs. This seems to me an altogether different kind of mystery.

Mal Smith © 2024

This is an article written for Delta PR's 30th Anniversary Year.


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