In the introduction to “Blues & Chaos”
(Scribner, hardcover, $30), the new anthology of Robert Palmer's music writing, Robbie Robertson captures Palmer's loves of music in an interview with Anthony DeCurtis, who edited the collection. “For Bob, music was a religion,” Robertson says. “It would stream out of him in the same way that somebody would be trying to impress you with their knowledge of God.”
It's almost a cliche — that notion of music as religion — but so apt for a critic who not only testified to music's transcendent properties (be it Hill Country Blues or the Moroccan Master Musicians of Jajouka), he conveyed an almost rabbinical breadth of musical knowledge.
When Palmer died in 1997, the headline in Rolling Stone read “America's Pre-eminent Music Writer Dead at 52.” In recent years, the Little Rock-born critic's not exactly been forgotten, just not remembered fully. Even with this collection, his most lasting legacy will likely be “Deep Blues,” surely the greatest book on the origins of the blues ever written. But Palmer was more than a blues scholar. “Blues & Chaos” captures him writing on everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to John Lennon to Sun Ra. (DeCurtis also makes a point to Palmer's life beyond writing, notably his work with the pysch-folk group Insect Trust and, much later, producing albums by Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside and CeDell Davis for Fat Possum, a label he inspired Matthew Johnson to found.)
Today, Palmer might be tagged with a slur in the music crit world — “rockist.” He obsessed over categorical questions (what qualities define a genre), often exalted what he termed as “authenticity” and hated commercial pop and rock that didn't fit his strictures — Madonna and Bruce Springsteen suffer his wrath in this collection.
But, with erudition almost unmatched in music criticism, he always made his case thoroughly. He was an ethnomusicologist, a musician with a keen ear for mechanics and a sturdy prose stylist in a tidy package. You can't read this collection without learning something.
As worthless as “Blues & Chaos” is worthwhile, Reinhard Kleist's graphic novel “Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness”
(Abrams, softcover, $17.95) takes the hokum of the movie “Walk the Line” and ups the ante. When Kleist isn't setting lyrics to tone-deaf narrative sketches (“A Boy Named Sue” becomes a Frank Miller-style violent romp, for example), he's working them into his biography (“How much higher is the water gonna rise, Ma?” one of the Cash scamps asks. “It's already five feet … and rising!” Ma answers.) Subtlety is a foreign concept to Kleist. Which might be true. The book was originally written in German. Avoid.