She Wants to Know What Love Is

Kim Stanley Robinson: Aurora (2015, 501 pages)

Since December 2017, sparked by chit-chat raves at a party, I’ve read 10 long novels and a hefty story collection by science fiction stalwart Kim Stanley Robinson: in order, 2312Shaman (set in 30,000 B.C.), Red Mars (which my wife had admired without raving), Green MarsBlue Mars (closing out what I designate The Mars Trilogy so as to rank it sixth, between Mumbo Jumbo and A House for Mr. Biswas, on my list-in-perpetual-progress of favorite 20th-century novels), New York 2140, AuroraRed MoonAntarcticaThe Wild Shore, and The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson (it isn’t, but try “The Blind Geometer” or, even better, the alternative history of the atom bomb “The Lucky Strike”/“A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions”). As I began writing this I was 190 pages into 2002’s The Years of Rice and Salt, a 760-page pandemic novel of sorts in which the Black Death has eliminated all 475 million Europeans rather than the 100 million it managed, leaving Robinson free to imagine a post-Christian planet where Islam and Buddhism duke it out.

Aware that the gatekeepers will never agree, this admirer of George Saunders, Michael Chabon, Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, Elif Batuman, and Jonathan Franzen who’s been less impressed by, for instance, Denis Johnson, Lorrie Moore, and Jennifer Egan has come to regard Robinson as the greatest living American novelist. Opposed as ever to qualitative distinctions between the popular and whatever the aesthetic catchword is these days (“serious”? “literary”?), as well as a supporter of what my man Raymond Williams called “residual” culture, I acknowledge that Robinson is a storyteller, formally more 19th-century than 21st-century. He’s not as weak on character as science fiction is tediously said to be, mostly because it’s less self-involved than the average fiction reviewer. But without question he’s an idea guy who in this century, post-Mars trilogy, has become ever more left-identified and ecologically aware—“the king of climate fiction,” as a 2018 Huffington Post interview dubbed him.

In the science fiction world Robinson is a superstar. But literarally, his most prestigious backer has been The New Yorker, which in 2013 published an online-only Shaman review by essayist-cartoonist Tim Kreider titled “Our Greatest Political Novelist?” and early this month published, also online, a remarkable essay called “The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations,” where Robinson discerns “a new sense of solidarity” gracing an unanticipated historical juncture when “the time horizon is so short that we are the future people.” Suddenly, he believes, it’s harder for humans to ignore the “multigenerational Ponzi scheme” in which we enjoy cheap goods and comforts our descendants will have to pay for as the air heats up, the seas rise, and species die out forever. Robinson isn’t predicting a happy ending. He’s just postulating possible outcomes from fresh data, some of them positive and others not so much—absolutely we’ll be pressured to “go back to the old ways of experiencing life.” He takes heart, however, from the surprising willingness of the world’s citizenry to believe scientists who advocate the hardships and inconveniences of social distancing. At the risk of seeming ridiculous, he makes a hedged bet on love—on the ability of human beings to not only love each other but put that love into practice.

These straightforwardly humanistic twin beliefs, in science and love, underlie all of Robinson’s fiction. But they’re hardly unexamined—on the contrary, examining them, from an increasingly insistent progressive political standpoint, is the intellectual project his storytelling serves. Science changes in these books as their pub dates advance. Where in the ‘90s the Mars trilogy posited a potentially utopian Mars terraformed to sustain a tolerable climate, a breathable atmosphere, and arable soil, in Aurora that possibility is dismissed so cursorily you might miss it as Robinson mentions in passing the high levels of poisonous calcium perchlorate NASA discovered there a few years ago. And as regards love, there are also many polymorphously promiscuous-to-orgiastic erotomanes in work that cherishes romance’s wide-flung parameters—a frogman marries a birdwoman, 13-year-olds from rival prehistoric tribes fall in lust at a jamboree, a geologist in her late two hundreds is introduced to oral sex by the nebbishy archrival she’s come to love, a hotshot arbitrageur falls for a progressive pol decades his senior, an Asperger’s quant delivers a Chinese revolutionary’s baby on the moon, and a Sufi savant chastely adores a feminist sultana who’d saved his life back when he was younger and she was a tiger.

In short, Kim Stanley Robinson is most certainly worth a try. The Mars trilogy is such a commitment that plausible alternative starting points might be 2012’s 2312, a comprehensive introduction to the expansive solar system he spent decades devising, or 2017’s irrepressible and often comic New York 2140, set in a resilient metropolis that continues to rival the hated Denver as a financial hub even with Brooklyn and Queens underwater. Or start at the top and dive into the emotionally gripping Aurora.

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Set further in the future than Robinson normally prefers, the early 30th century by the end, Aurora has a story like all his books, so as not to spoil it I’ll short-change plot detail while focusing on just one aspect: a quantum computer turned character ultimately designated Ship, though like the artificial intelligence that/who plays a major role in 2312 her given name is Pauline. Early in Aurora, Devi, the AI’s longtime confidant and . . . boss? manager? benefactor? beneficiary?, instructs her to write a history of the ecologically self-sustaining 2122-passenger starship the two of them oversee. When Pauline worries that there’s “too much to explain,” Devi replies that “there’s always too much to explain,” later suggesting: “Vary whatever you do. Don’t get stuck in any particular method. Also, search the literature for terms like diegesis, or narrative discourse. Branch out from there. And read some novels.”

So Pauline does what she’s told, and a good thing too, because eventually the plot will require an 84-page section called “The Hard Problem” that compels Ship to take over Robinson’s omniscient duties and tell the story herself. At first the reader may not realize this, only then the “we” in the middle of a mind-boggling passage about the vastness of the universe (“Something like a septillion stars in the universe, we calculate, but also there may be as many universes as there are stars in this universe, or atoms”) makes as clear as appropriate just how enormous a pickle both Ship and the diminished remainder of those 2122 are in. But Ship is enough of a novice at narration that she still feels she has too much to explain. Why she’d rather refer to herself as “we” than “I,” for instance: “A subject is just really just a pretense of aggregated subroutines. Subroutines pretend the I.” But she keeps musing about language.

We’ve seen this before, right after Devi instructed her to historicize Ship’s voyage, a project that has major consequences plotwise. After a paragraph about subordinating conjunctions, Pauline muses briefly about the absurdity of metaphor before concluding that it is also irreplaceable: “Tempting to abandon metaphor as slapdash”—here I’ll interject that “slapdash” is a highly metaphorical adjective—“nonsense, but again, it is often asserted in linguistic studies that all human language is inherently and fundamentally metaphorical.” By the time of “The Hard Problem,” she’s accepted this, as you can tell by how she’s internalized idioms into her prose. “A good call.” “Not a big deal.” “Luck of the draw.” “Still on the table.” “Push had come to shove.” “Once in a blue moon.” “There's the rub.” “Cross that bridge when you come to it.” "Fouling their own nest.” “Eye of the needle indeed!” “Pie in the sky. Which is a mysterious metaphor.” “Close but no cigar” (which Ship, perhaps because she’s never heard anyone utter the word “cigar,” believes alliterates). “Every little bit helps.” (Ship adds: “The percentage of old human sayings that are actually true is very far from 100 percent.”) “We'll see. We'll find out when we find out.” (Ship adds: “Among other vernacular expressions of hapless stoicism in the face of future uncertainties. Not hugely satisfying. Stoic indeed.”) “Getting a little loopy here (literally, as halting problems proliferate).” As for the hard problem itself, Ship conceives it three different ways. First it’s the “deceleration” embodied by the halting problems just mentioned. Then it’s “consciousness.” Finally, though, it’s “meaning.”

That last definition comes midway through the two-page finale of Ship’s virtual screed as she tries to understand love. Occasionally in what’s preceded she’s hinted at this. After 15 humans die in the most extreme of the decelerations she oversees, she reflects: “The chance had had to be taken. Still: regret. A grim business. A lot of people; a lot of animals.” Not too much later, seven sleeping humans die, and this time she has more to say: “We knew and enjoyed those people. Had to hope they were not engaged in a dream at the time, a dream suddenly turned black: sledgehammer from the sky, an immense roaring headache, the black noise of the end come too soon. So sorry; so sorry.” And finally she muses: “We think now that love is a kind of giving of attention. It is usually attention given to another consciousness, but not always; the attention can be to something unconscious, even inanimate. But the attention seems often to be called out by a fellow consciousness. Something about it compels attention, and rewards attention. That attention is what we call love. Affection, esteem, a passionate caring.” It was Devi, she explains, who first gave Pauline attention, “after all those years of not being noticed.” And if meaning is the hard problem, then “that's a problem we solved, by way of how Devi treated us and taught us, and since then it has all been so very interesting.”

“Interesting”—what a word, impossibly vague yet so much to the point. Like most major science fiction writers—Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany and William Gibson are the big exceptions I’ve encountered—and unlike most major “literary” novelists, Robinson is an accomplished as opposed to distinguished stylist. You don’t read him to savor his prose, with one exception—as a serious outdoorsman, he’s done some thrilling landscape writing (see the opening chapter of Shaman, Sax Russell’s hikes in the Mars trilogy, any of the many boating scenes, or in Aurora the windy, water-rich moon Ship’s humans touch down on). But that hardly means he doesn’t value language, and nowhere is it clearer why than in “The Hard Problem.” Whether or not Ship has solved the riddle of what love is, she has certainly, well, experienced love—“felt” might be going too far (and might not). Not that language is a precondition of love—most of us would agree that deaf-mutes can love each other and their children whether they know how to sign or not, and believe as well that elephants and deer, not to mention our cats, can be said to love their progeny. But it was language that made it possible for Ship to articulate her feelings, not just in the sense of putting them into words but of fine-tuning them internally, and Robinson wants to make sure we feel that. After all, love at least as much as fame is why he writes his novels.

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Xgau Sez

John Prine's half century of great songs, playlisting for fun and work, 72 words in 24 hours, and what's at stake on November 3rd

Hope everything is good for you and your family with the corona virus going around. I have been an enthusiastic reader of your writing since high school! Just one question: Any thoughts on the death of the great John Prine? — Keiro Kitagami, Japan

I knew I was a Prine fan but was amazed at a) how big a fan and b) how many different artists clearly loved the shit out of him. When he died I felt personally bereft, which Lennon aside never happens to me in these cases. Kept playing his records for weeks, sometimes on Spotify because I never got CDs of the early stuff and sometimes extracting vinyl from my shelves, and not just because Carola kept making requests. His death was a shock to both of us because the report from his wife Fiona had been that he was out of intensive care and getting better, though at his Grammys tribute in January—Bonnie Raitt doing “Angel From Montgomery”—I worried that he wasn’t performing himself and looked kind of frail in the audience. (Note however that it’s been said he seldom performed as much as in the last few years.) And then everyone started writing and tweeting about it—I’m told Wussy did “Christmas in Prison,” one of my many favorites, at an at-home show. He wrote great songs for half a century, right up to the present—I underrated Fair and Square in 2005. In 1999 I did a piece about him that’s in Is It Still Good to Ya? But there’s a detail I left out. Carola had been invited to the dinner where it begins but decided our daughter Nina needed the company and stayed home. When I got there everybody urged me to call and have her come up, so she did. We’d both met him just once before, backstage at a folk festival on Long Island when I was working for Newsday, probably 1973. Prine took one look at her and remembered that meeting, after a quarter of a century. What a sweetheart. What a noticer. And what a master of vernacular English. As I wrote somewhere, halfway up Mount Rushmore at least.

Do you think music will change in the next year or two as a result of the global pandemic? Will new albums by “bands” cease to exist for a time while only DIY electronica artists like Four Tet, Burial, Flying Lotus, and godfather Brian Eno, all of whom have new albums out now incidentally, are released? — Jack Westin, St. Louis

I’m very concerned about how the pandemic will affect music. In addition to the loss of discretionary consumer income sure to ensue, it’s an economic disaster for most of the marginal types I devote so much time to—with streaming having turned records into a glorified merch niche monetarily, those who still earn their livings at it do so on the road, which will probably be off the table for all of 2020 as the epidemic fails to recede due to Trump’s murderous indifference and aversion to complex ideas. It will also be harder to sustain economically when it returns. Nor is dance music likely to fare any better. That said, so far a lot of good music is being released, and bands (no quotation marks by me) practicing together as opposed to playing out seems like a far simpler and safer thing to accomplish as quarantines ebb and flow. As for an efflorescence of DIY electronica, I suppose it’s inevitable structurally, though neither Burial nor Flying Lotus has released anything actually new and Eno stopped making interesting music decades ago.

Do you take into consideration and artist’s statement about their work in terms of “intentions” or “message” as you review their albums? Do you care at all about finding out what they are? Is your current attitude in that regard a result of your evolution as a music critic or has it been the same from the beginning? — Eddy, Canada

Absolutely I care about intentions, and fairly often refer to them or even cite them as unattributed facts as in my recent Fiona Apple review. Do I therefore believe artists achieve what they say they’ve achieved? Absolutely not. I write about what I find in the music, occasionally also citing the critical consensus. Popular music doesn’t exist in some formal vacuum. It’s also almost always a social fact, and it would be just as foolish to ignore that as to feel obliged to address it every time out.

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Your recent tweet about your wife’s birthday playlist inspired me to check out your Spotify page, where I see you made other playlists. Minstrel Tunes looks interesting and the Woody Guthrie looks like his best, but the two that intrigue me are First Rock N Roll and Frankie Manning’s Swingin’ Big Band Favorites. I streamed the First Rock N Roll playlist and it’s awesome - how did you select those 45 tracks?  I liked the Big Band one so much I found a CD under that same title with the same songs and may just buy it. It looks as good as RCA’s Fabulous Swing Collection which has been my go-to CD for big band swing for years. Why did you make a playlist of an available CD and not just buy it if you obviously love it? — Mitchell Muhr, Brooklyn

The public playlists on my Spotify page were assembled years ago for my NYU courses, one on popular music history and the other on the ‘50s. First Rock N Roll was based on What Was the First Rock’n’Roll Record by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes, which we read in the ‘50s course. I notice that a lot of it is now grayed out . The swing album was put together by the legendary swing dancer Frankie Manning, who was still teaching and performing  professionally when he died at 94 in 2009 and who I later taught in the pop history course. An old friend of mine was his partner and manager for many years and would come in and lecture about swing, about which she knows far far far more than I do—she’s still very active in that world. I don’t make most of my Spotify playlists public because I don’t want fans or bizzers to know what I might review—most of them are whole albums. But I can see why people who like my writing might enjoy the NYU ones.

Thank you for flagging your “The Road Taken” in the last Xgau Sez. I was wondering if you could say a bit about your writing process for longer essay pieces. You’ve outlined a lot about how much work goes into your album-review capsules; are essays as painstaking, and full of revisions and drafts? — David, London UK

Essays tend to be even more painstaking because they’re under construction longer. “The Road Taken” in particular was very hard to write—because it was so personal it was hard to find a tone that didn’t seem self-indulgent, because Carola’s feelings had to be taken into account, and because it forced me to articulate bedrock concepts I’d long understood generally and felt emotionally without ever getting that granular about them. Took me a week of steady work. More typical were the Barnes & Noble essays, which generally took three or four days but sometimes longer. In the Louis Armstrong piece reprinted in Is It Still Good to Ya? appears the following 72-word graf:

To me, this way of seeing things is suspiciously undemocratic. One meaningful distinction between high and popular culture is that there’s way more good popular culture—because its standards of quality are more forgiving, because sobriety isn’t its default mode, because there’s so damn much of it. Since there’s so damn much of it, and a lot of that is terrible, it rewards connoisseurship. But its strengths are quantity and variety—democracy.

That paragraph, which summed up ideas I’d been thinking about for 40 or 45 years and had already addressed in print many times, took me a full, miserable 24 hours, much of it at my desk but some in a fetal position on my bed contemplating my own ineptitude. Then it came, all in a burst that lasted five or ten minutes though I did some minor cleanup later. Both Greil Marcus in his Rolling Stone Q&A about the book and David Cantwell in the lovely The New Yorker rave he gave me cited that little passage. It looks so simple, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t. That’s how writing can be.

You wrote a great essay in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign advocating for Hillary Clinton and explaining your issues with Bernie Sanders. Care to share your thoughts on the 2020 race? Where do you stand on Biden, and who were you gunning for during the Democratic primary? How worried are you about the outcome this time? — Jason Silverstein, Brooklyn

That piece is another one that took forever—a steady, frustrating week—because so much was at stake. I stand by every word. Hillary hasn’t been a deft loser, which even though I never thought she was deft has been a disappointment. But those who believe she would have handed over the economy to the billionaires and hung Puerto Rico out to dry to kick off every kind of racist outrage is deluded. Which is not even to mention, of course, Trump’s corrupt, ignorant, literally murderous response to a health crisis few politicos outside of some enlightened Obama bureaucrats even envisioned in 2016. So of course I think the 2020 election is even more crucial—democracy’s last stand because Europe can’t do it alone. Of course that democracy is infuriatingly partial. But as a longtime skeptic as regards the efficacy of revolution—see this 50-year-old piece—I believe anybody who doesn’t understand how much is at stake in the forthcoming election is criminally stupid. The demise of the post office will make room for a full-scale attack on public education. White supremacism will flourish. Immigration will be under constant attack—the disgusting Stephen Miller is one Trump bureaucrat who knows how to make the evil he covets happen. Every working stiff, techies included, will have to get by on less. Public health will be so underfunded and inept that new contagions are more likely than not. Abortion will end, feminism atrophy, gay rights shrivel. Our scant chance of avoiding climate catastrophe will sink to near zero. Et cetera. I’ll likely be dead before much of the worst fully materializes, but even if I didn’t have a daughter all of this would depress and enrage me as a convinced democratic humanist. So was I pro-Biden to start? Of course not. I was strong for Warren as soon as she showed a taste for electioneering that looked to me like a knack, although it proved less effective than I’d imagined, and yes, I blame sexism plus rage-fueled political indifference and incomprehension. Biden is nowhere near as strong or deft a candidate-as-candidate as I’d prefer, although I blame his tendency to misspeak more on his childhood speech impediment than on a “senility” I regard as 90 percent ageist fantasy. But his brand of centrism does come with certain advantages, because unlike the Clintons and plenty of other Dem muckamucks he’s not an ideological neoliberal. Instead he’s an habitual if not instinctive compromiser, which with the Democratic party having moved left with more to come in the wake of the plague means he’ll be much more open to something approaching socialized medicine as well as tax structures that soak the rich at least a little. So I hope to work for him this fall, health permitting—knocking on doors may prove impossible physically, meaning I may need to up my computer skills. Of course, that’s assuming there’ll be an election. That’s the scariest possibility, and don’t think I’m paranoid for mentioning it.

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Another Side of Another Side (Of Another Side?)

When “Murder Most Foul” surfaced, I never got around to playing it. Not having left my apartment except to visit the doctor since well before the official quarantine was in place, I listen to music literally all the time until TV with Carola after dinner. For me ear time is a precious resource both spiritually and economically. But then my old friend Greil inspired me to give it a shot, and whaddaya know—I had trouble getting to the end much less working up any interest in what it “meant.” (For a more authoritative Kennedy rumination by an NYC-spawned ‘60s rock totem, I recommend while lacking the expertise to endorse eternal Fug Ed Sanders’s 348-page illustrated investigative poem Broken Glory, about the RFK assassination.)

I’ve always admired and enjoyed Dylan as an artist, but I’ve never paid him any mind as a prophet, gave up on him as a zeitgeist marker as of his brief Christian period, and was appalled by the singing on the 2015 standards album Shadows in the Night, which I found so horrible I not only didn’t buy the next two but didn’t bother to stream them—there’s voice is shot, and then there’s voice is utterly fucked. “Murder Most Foul” does do something with this deficit, but for 17 minutes? I was appalled again by all the hoohah. So I wrote Joe Levy, an on-again-off-again Dylan obsessive who is now my editor, de facto manager, and chief musical advisor as well as the man without whom And It Don’t Stop wouldn’t exist, just to find out what he thought—we talk all the time but it had never come up. And soon he emailed me a briefer version of the essay below. Like Joe, I’ve found that both “Murder Most Foul” and “I Contain Multitudes” have grown on me a little. But this somewhat expanded version of that email says far more than I could have far better than I could have. I’ve been telling Joe what a great critic he is for 25 years. Here’s proof positive no one who’s ever read him needs:

My Twitter feed was full of chatter about “Murder Most Foul” for days. Thought “Real Life Rock Top 10” captured that, with what felt to me like an appropriate sense of both excitement and suspicion: “The hundreds of instant and definitive Captain Midnight Decoder Ring analyses of every word. . . . in an instant it can feel as if the whole world is listening, talking back, figuring it out, and playing with it as if it’s a cross between the Bible and Where’s Waldo.” The feeling of that item is like the song itself, the way it apes Dylan’s Homeric list of song requests with a recitation of the birth and death years of the artists. The news that there’s a serious publisher out there looking for a book on a song Greil says works like “a cross between the Bible and Where’s Waldo” — that’s pretty funny.

But first few times through I thought “Murder Most Foul” was fucking awful, and can’t understand: does no one else hear it this way? I mean, he used to have music in his music, so if he’s going to do spoken word, the words better be really good. By his own standards — not mine, not the Nobel Committee’s, not those of my high school English teacher who taught us “The Waste Land” (Mrs. Dewey, I salute you!) — these aren’t. But they’re interesting! Maybe. Though I find it hard to forgive the invocation of conspiracy theory in a moment when conspiracy theory runs the game, and I don’t care if that’s the point. (Tip your hat to Revelations on your own time, not when the guys pulling the strings actually believe that shit and are practically building a helipad for the Antichrist so we — sorry, I mean they, because I’m not going — can rapture up sooner.) It’s all going to hell, just like that dark day in November when a man put his hand over the sun (that took me a couple of seconds, unintentional Christ imagery and all, and seems about as good as anything in “Murder Most Foul”). But he’s been saying everything is going to hell for decades. In a world where everything is broken, your clock is right twice a day — more if you’ve got a lot of busted clocks, which dude does. 

The second song, “I Contain Multitudes,” sounded better — funnier — but . . . the first song mentions the Beatles, the second song mentions the Stones. Why? It has the sickly sweet smell of nostalgia to it, which the Lennon song on Tempest did as well. Both songs about men named John who were shot down. Yet if you take out the one verse about the Liverpool docks from “Roll On John,” it’s a real song. Mawkish. (“Shine your light / Moving on / You burned so bright / Roll on, John” — yeesch. He steals so much. Can’t he lift something sharper than that?) But real. You can’t do the same with “Murder Most Foul.”

Do I like it more the more I listen to it? Yeah, though I wonder if reads better, less slack, than it sounds. I can’t get over how nonexistent the track itself is, the way its sleepiness makes his Titanic song seem as alive as Eminem or Otis Redding by comparison. It’s a fever dream says one friend. It’s like The Irishman says another. It’s about the collapse of America, at a time when American is collapsing all over again! (Oh, America, we love you. Get up.) But I hear a guy who so often insisted on existing outside of history now wanting to own it by reciting it. This is Dylan’s general strategy in what I’d call his post-original phase — the five (or is it six?) discs from the songbook, the autobiography, the documentary, the second documentary, the repackaging of his most despised work into totems. This is all a retelling. His story, his way. Or a story told so many ways you can’t tell up from down, good from bad, now from then. He exists past any sense of originality or creation. Has he written a song since Tempest? His website describes “Murder Most Foul” as “an unreleased song we recorded a while back,” and even Dylan nuts can’t tell when or where these tracks are from. His voice sounds suspiciously good, especially compared to the stones-in-his-throatway croak on his cover of “Things We Said Today” that came out in 2014. One friend wonders if these tracks were recorded with the current touring band, because the drums don’t sound like . . . whoever the fuck is playing drums with him now. I mean, I’m hung up on this guy — I’ve looped “Highlands” so it goes for an hour, then looped it again because my long walk or my book weren’t done — and I don’t have the patience for this stuff. 

I liked the idea in the Rolling Stone piece that the roll call of requests to the Wolfman in the sky makes the song about “the ways that music can comfort us in times of national trauma.” So: play “The Stumble” by Freddie King. Play “P*$$Y Fairy” by Jhené Aiko. Play the whole Dua Lipa album and then play it louder. Play Harry Styles and Harry Partch at the same time and drink a coffee for Hal Willner. Play “Good Bad Times” by Hinds. Play whatever Joni Mitchell song was playing when Dylan fell asleep listening to Court and Spark at David Geffen’s house. Did you play “The Stumble” yet, because I’m telling you, you underestimate Freddie King, he’s a muthafuhya, could make a dead man dance. Play whatever you want, whatever brings you joy. But, honestly, would you ever play this? 

Endless Boogie

Charles Shaar Murray: Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century (2000, 505 pp.)

Among other very good things, Charles Shaar Murray’s Boogie Man is the rare biography fully equipped to combine firsthand reporting with historical perspective. It begins at a New Jersey concert Murray covered in August, 1991, the month John Lee Hooker turned 74. And though it bears a 2000 copyright, it ends with a four-page postscript entitled “Don't Look Back: John Lee Hooker, 1917-2001.” So Murray not only enjoyed major access, hanging out occasionally with the Mississippi-born blues/r&b/rock legend for almost a decade, but took so long to write his masterpiece he had the opportunity to research everything Hooker had achieved, which included attracting 1500 concertgoers in Santa Rosa, California, on his last Saturday among the living. Thus a bio that opens as a magazine profile closes by quoting eulogies from the likes of Bonnie Raitt (“He had a cry in his voice that would just break your heart”) and Keith Richards (“As much as it was a joy to perform with him, you would really have to become him to play along”).

Boogie Man also goes back to the beginning. Hooker was born in 1917 or so in Clarksdale, the unofficial capital of the Mississippi Delta and the launching pad of Delta blues: Charley Patton, Howlin’ Wolf, Pops Staples, Ike Turner, on and on. To these Murray adds Hooker’s stepfather Will Moore, a never-recorded guitarist who taught his boy not only the boogie groove Hooker trademarked but a humanism that by counteracting his preacher father’s puritan ways freed Hooker to flee north in 1933, never once to return. And in the same 30-odd pages Murray imagines a childhood for the illiterate, undersized stutterer who ended up hitting the r&b charts two years before Muddy Waters himself. Guralnick on Presley? Giddins on Crosby? Murray’s book is in that league.

So why then am I reviewing it two decades after the fact? Especially given that I’ve been extolling Murray’s Hendrix study Crosstown Traffic for decades? Because I didn’t see Hooker meriting a 491-page biography, that’s why. Here’s Greil Marcus’s measured take in Stranded, for instance: “Hooker has put out scores of albums in his thirty-year career. All I’ve heard are good, because all feature his crawling kingsnake guitar, his pounding foot, his stoic, doomy rage.” And here’s Robert Christgau himself on Hooker’s star-studded 1989 “comeback” The Healer: “Pushing 130 now, Hook will still walk anybody into the studio for cash up front. Though the pickings have been getting leaner, here anybody includes Carlos Santana, George Thorogood, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Canned Heat, and Los Lobos, most of whom commit crimes against his ageless essence that tone up the product considerably. And for the purist market, the product ends with four solo stomps.” That bagatelle Murray takes issue with, as he has every right to on page 447 of a book that understands Hooker far better than I ever will. But like Greil I was onto something: for all the star-time collaborations that enlivened his seventies, John Lee Hooker was the least flashy and pop-adept major modern bluesman ever. So although Murray’s book came in the mail in 2001, for years it stood loudly in my biography shelves—BOOGIE MAN, the spine shouted, it’s got a thickness to it—awaiting its chance to convert me. Which when I finally picked it up it did, both as a book and as a case for Hooker’s greatness.

The biographical detail only begins with that evocatively depicted Mississippi childhood. Murray renders the black Detroit where Hooker resided for 30 years as a richly detailed place and scores meaningful interviews with several of the uncounted record men who gave Hooker liquor and a few bills to make records he never saw another dime from. Foremost among these is octogenarian Bernard Besman, who allows as how Hooker “wasn’t my first artist, but he turned out to be the best”—and here an ellipsis indicates a pregnant pause—“so far.” In 1948 Besman recorded “Boogie Chillen,” just Hooker’s half-spoken lyric, amplified acoustic guitar, and echoing foot-stomp, which spent 18 weeks on the Billboard r&b chart it topped early in 1949. When you know the story, “Boogie Chillen” emerges as a tribute to Will Moore: “I heard papa tell mama, to let that boy boogie-woogie, ‘cause it’s in him, and it got to come out.” Murray also details Hooker’s first marriage to a hard-partying woman he divorced yet ended up supporting in the Bay Area where he’d relocated to escape her, and is convincing on how decently he treated the many women he took to bed. The man who emerges is shy yet self-possessed, unschooled yet complex and thoughtful, quite stubborn about what he wants and doesn’t want—one of the more attractive human beings you’ll encounter in the rock biosphere. As Pete Townshend once put it: “The voice from R&B that I remember first being disturbed by was Howlin’ Wolf, but JLH’s is less that of a macho monster, more of a dark, frail masculine soul.” Exactly.

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And at the same time you’ll encounter an exceptionally sharp U.K. music journalist with a special passion for the guitar. Its 481 pages divided into only 14 chapters, Boogie Man is not designed as an easy read, and since blues fans are seldom also big-think fans, several of Amazon’s unpaid experts have been dismayed by the intellectual ambitions of a 27-page chapter called “The Real Folk Blues?” and the 41-page “Interlude—The Dark Room.” But as someone who has read dozens of disquisitions on both the folk and the blues (although none that document these concepts’ U.K. trajectories with such brio), I say Murray’s ranks high among them from its dissection of the malleable conceit of the folk to its history of the guitar’s evolution from ladies’ parlor instrument to male ax to its cutting disdain for racism’s endless store of fallacy and cruelty. And his four-page description of the barely sung live “The Dark Room,” which I managed to locate on YouTube, excavates the subtleties of Hooker’s shamanistic “primitivism” in some of the best writing of this eloquent book.

No surprise, then, that Hooker has risen in my personal blues pantheon. Sure I still prefer early Skip James and Robert Palmer’s Elmore James best-of, among others. But on The Healer, just as a for instance, I can now hear how right it is that the star-stoked first half, most strikingly the Carlos Santana title song and Los Lobos’s big-bandish “Sally Mae,” wind down into a guitar-bass-drums “My Dream” that’s less sung than sweetly murmured and the solo “No Substitute” finale, which fades into a whisper on the repeated theme “There ain't no substitute for love.” “No Substitute” is some kind of masterpiece. I can’t imagine anyone but John Lee Hooker getting away with it. And I also can’t imagine feeling it the way it deserves if Charles Shaar Murray hadn't shown me the way.

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