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Spotlight on: Da Capo Best Music Writing 2004
edited by Mickey Hart (guest editor) and Paul Bresnick (series editor)

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Da Capo Best Music Writing 2004 edited by Mickey Hart (guest editor) and Paul Bresnick (series editor) Mickey Hart (guest editor) and Paul Bresnick (series editor),
Da Capo Best Music Writing 2004

"Two maxims warm my heart whenever I'm fraught with doubt about my lot in life: 'Those who can, do; those who can't, write reviews' and 'No status has been put up to a critic.' Naturally, I mean 'warm my heart' in the drop-the-blow-dryer-into-the-bathtub sense." -- Andrew Bonazelli, "Five Nights, Five Karaoke Bars"

I had my doubts about the title of this anthology when the name of my go-to writer for insightful pop music criticism, Sasha Frere-Jones from The New Yorker, didn't appear in the table of contents. His subsequent listing in an appendix of other notable articles of the year did little to quell my fears; and unfortunately, the actual contents of Da Capo Best Music Writing 2004 -- selected by drummer/author Mickey Hart from a cache of 100 articles given to him by series editor Paul Bresnick -- were too uneven to impress.

That said, however, there is plenty of information to be gleaned and I learned several things, like that rapper Jay-Z is a golfer who only wears a pair of sneakers twice before replacing them and that he is also the only non-sports star with a shoe-endorsement deal ("The Last Hustle"); that the "jake leg" epidemic of the early 1930s was caused by an adulterated batch of medicinal ginger extract, but probably would have been forgotten if not for songs written by the blues singers of the time ("Jake Leg"); and that it's possible to sell a false image of a culture back to that same culture under the guise of "keeping it real" ("Keepin' it Unreal").

I wasn't sure just how much I would learn, though, given that my initial perusal of the contents led me to realize that there was no artist or concept covered with which I did not have at least a passing familiarity (having read at least one of the articles in its original printing). There was one major exception. In "Some Shabby Dress," Barry Mazor relates the heartwrenching story of Little Miss Cornshucks, a talented vocal interpreter who was the top performer of her day, is totally forgotten by the modern listener, yet whose influence is felt in recordings from the contemporaries who, in some cases, lifted whole parts of her persona for their own use. A series of instances of not being in the right place at the right time led to her never achieving the level of national fame as those who came after her and bore her fingerprints, the most famous likely being Aretha Franklin.

The best pieces in Da Capo Best Music Writing 2004 are those that tap into emotion, like Geoff Boucher's "Beat at Their Own Game" (one example of the overly punny titles included, the Harry Belafonte interview "Remains of the Day-O" is another), which traces the disappearance of the session drummer in the age of the rhythm machine. Even a premier player like Hal Blaine -- whose credits included 150 top 10 singles like "California Dreamin'," "Mrs. Robinson," "I Got You Babe," and "Good Vibrations" -- had trouble getting work once producers could program their own beats to perfection.

But even the works with the best of intentions often find themselves with no discernible destination. Michael Corcoran's otherwise-enlightening "The Soul of Blind Willie Johnson" ends on a frustratingly vague note and "Johnny Cash, 1932-2003: The Man in Black -- and Other Colors" concludes with what has come to be known as a New Yorker ending: one that, instead of tying up loose ends, adds a new one and then stops.

The centerpiece of the anthology is Chuck Klosterman's "6557 Miles to Nowhere," wherein he travels the country visiting several infamous rock and roll death sites, looking for the answer to why "rock stars don't start living until they die." (Jeff Buckley is used as an example of one who didn't even become famous until his death, elevating his Grace album "from 'very good' to 'totally classic'" and making him "a Christlike figure" in the process.) He doesn't seem to come up with an answer (which is no surprise given the title) but, by making the article as much about himself as his subjects, comes up with something that is better than it had any right to be:

Ironically, I was able to find Robert Johnson's crossroads with the Ford's GPS: Somehow, it seems like satellite technology should not allow you to find the soul of America's most organic art form. You'd think the devil would have at least blown up my transmission or something.
Unfortunately, despite the quality of the entries in Da Capo Best Music Writing 2004, this anthology is best taken in small doses, to allow the savoring of the individual pieces. Too much at once unearths the reality that this book is rather heavy on the profile. Right off the top of my head, I can remember reading indepth reporting on Willie Nelson, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Johnny Cash, Harry Belafonte, Blind Willie Johnson, OutKast, Merle Haggard, Lester Bangs, Lauryn Hill, the Carter family, and Nina Simone. Several of these contain solid writing, but it was just more than I expected of one kind of writing.

As a reader, writer, and music lover, I find reading music writing to be a convenient way to combine these three interests into a single activity. Though not very similar to listening to it, reading about music in books like Da Capo Best Music Writing 2004 does allow me one of two options: to remember the songs I have heard or, in the case of the fabulously eclectic "69 (Years of) Love Songs," to anticipate the excitement of hearing the ones I haven't for the first time.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.

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