This was a terrific book. Petrusich, a music critic, sets out to explore the genuinely odd world of 78 rpm record collectors, a subculture probably coThis was a terrific book. Petrusich, a music critic, sets out to explore the genuinely odd world of 78 rpm record collectors, a subculture probably completely unknown to any outsider who hasn't glimpsed it in the documentary Crumb or as represented in the movie Ghost World (and I assume the comics as well, though I've never read those). What's wonderful about her as a writer is that she never condescends, and never indulges in voyeurism (indeed, she gets caught up in their pursuits). Instead, she offers a fair and frank look at this collecting subculture, which gives her a chance to provide meditations on gender (why is record collecting and music fetishism almost exclusively male?), the nature of the authentic in a digital age, whether the impulse to collect and catalog is actually a kind of mental disorder, and of course what Greil Marcus famously called "the old, weird America" of prewar country, folk, and blues music. Through it all runs her own deeply-felt (and beautifully-articulated) love of music -- a love whose power, she speculates convincingly, may be the very thing collectors are trying to tame if not repress in themselves. It's a heady mix that only suffers from feeling rushed to press; it could easily have been longer, deeper, and indulged many more digressions (I kept expecting an appearance by Walter Benjamin, who never showed but should have). Really delightful; I look forward to reading more of her work....more
I had high hopes for Duke based on Teachout's previous jazz biography, Pops (a life of Louis Armstrong). Pops was one of the best books I've read in rI had high hopes for Duke based on Teachout's previous jazz biography, Pops (a life of Louis Armstrong). Pops was one of the best books I've read in recent years and one of the very best biographies I've read, period, so my expectations were well-placed. Duke didn't meet them, but that doesn't seem to be Teachout's fault. Rather, as far as I can tell, blame sits squarely with Duke Ellington himself. Ellington has long been understood as an artist who was supremely concerned with his public image, and Teachout makes a convincing case that Ellington’s careful crafting of his persona was rooted in his upbringing on DC’s U Street among the turn-of-the-century black middle class; Ellington saw himself as an avatar of his race and a missionary for “race pride,’ and represented himself accordingly (especially in his autobiography, Music is My Mistress) -- even if it meant distorting the truth (as when Ellington took excessive credit for collaborative compositions) or suppressing it altogether (as with, most notably, his relentless womanizing). There’s something fascinating about that level of self-invention, but it makes for a frustrating biography; Teachout can demonstrate the evasions and boasts, but there’s no ability (because Ellington left no candid record behind) to get at who Ellington actually was and what made him tick. As a result, the text is filled with innumerable speculative qualifiers: “Ellington must have thought” this and “Ellington may well have known about” that and sundry ‘We have no way of knowing, but…” clauses driving much of the biography. What the reader is left with, concretely, is a very good chronology of Ellington’s career, some illuminating portraits of his players, and a justified celebration of his genius (which will be best appreciated by readers with some basic knowledge of music theory, though that's not required). What's missing is much sense of his inner life (I was especially disappointed by the lack of discussion of Ellington's reaction to bebop, which gained favor precisely when his own career was at its low point), and after several hundred pages Ellington himself remains as elusive as he was in life -- which is a shame even if it’s inevitable....more
Terrific biography of Armstrong; does a great job telling not only the story of his life but also the story of jazz and of 20th-century American populTerrific biography of Armstrong; does a great job telling not only the story of his life but also the story of jazz and of 20th-century American popular culture. Owes a fair amount to Gary Giddens'Satchmo, as does every Armstrong bio after Giddens, and embraces but doesn't really advance Giddens' revisionist theses: that Armstrong's post-1920s work is as important and interesting as his classic Hot 5 and Hot 7 sides, and that Armstrong was not an artist who sold out but rather a genius who never saw the distinction between being an artist and being an entertainer. Where Teachout goes beyond Giddens is in privileging biography over argument, and the reader comes away with a very full sense of the arc of Armstrong's astonishing life -- from a childhood of abject poverty to becoming the most important innovator in the history of jazz and then (and incidental to his genius rather than because of it) one of the world's most recognizable celebrities. The massive, authoritative, scholarly biography of Armstrong has yet to be written, but it's hard to see how it might improve on Teachout's informative, entertaining, and highly readable take....more
More like 2.5 stars, somewhere between "ok" and "good." This is a wildly uneven book; when it's good it's very good, and when it's bad it's awful (toMore like 2.5 stars, somewhere between "ok" and "good." This is a wildly uneven book; when it's good it's very good, and when it's bad it's awful (to coin a phrase). It's meant to sit at the intersection of musicology and neuroscience, and discuss how and why our brains process music, turning it into the rich and evocotaive emotional experience that it is for all cultures. When it does that, it's marvelous, and its discussions of everything from which parts of the brain process music (most of them, which may account for how deeply music is woven into human experience), to what we can learn about music from the brain-damaged and cognitively-impaired, to the resilience of our adolescent musical tastes, are all fascinating. Worthwhile, too, are his first couple of chapters on music theory -- on what music actually is -- which I suspect would be a useful introduction and/or reminder for any reader other that a serious musician. So that's all good, and worth the read.
The problem is that the author, a professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, dropped out of college in the seventies to join a band and eventually worked as a recording engineer with a number of fairly big acts before returning to finish his education. Why is this a problem? Because it produces anecdote after dreaded anecdote, few of them illuminating and all of them rooted in the assumption that you'll find the author's life as fascinating as he does. Trust me, you won't. The anecdotal mode creeps over into the science, too; his story of meeting DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick not only seems to go on forever, but actually manages to embed a tedious aside about meeting Boz Scaggs. That, plus the odd didactic moments when Levitin seems to assume his readers are precocious 10-year-olds (really, professor, you though someone who picked up a book on musicology and neuroscience would need an explanation of what a "patents office" is?), feel like padding and make for some pretty frustrating reading. But then he gets back to the topic at hand; ultimately, that kept me going and made the book worth the time, but I would understand a less patient reader feeling otherwise. ...more