Somebody – Martin Mull seems to be a current favorite – said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” And Frank Zappa gets credit for “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.”
Still, someone’s gotta do it, I suppose. One of the form’s most popular practitioners is Greil Marcus, whose 2010 book about Van Morrison, When That Rough God Goes Riding, I just found in the Bangor library.
One reason people like Marcus, I suppose, is because he’s all over the map – he hears “three clipped, odd bass patterns” at the beginning of a song and it reminds him of Philip Marlowe knocking on a cheap hotel door in a Raymond Chandler novel. Usually he’s fun to follow, too, although sometimes he goes off the deep end – for example, when he writes here about “old country blues” performers as “black men and women who if they acted in everyday life as they acted in their songs would have had groundhogs delivering their mail.”
He’s way off base, also, while talking about Morrison’s 1968 album Astral Weeks, when he wanders sideways into a discussion of track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and their black-gloved salute on the victory stand during that year’s Summer Olympics. “They marked, or scarred, their national anthem as definitively as Jimi Hendrix would a year later at Woodstock,” he writes. “Though, no one, as far as I know, drew the connection at the time… his version may have been inspired by theirs.”
The reason no one drew the connection, I would guess, is that there was no connection. Obviously, Marcus knows a lot more about music than I do, but I happen to have been at the concert – August 16, 1968, at the Merriwether Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland – where Hendrix first played The Star-Spangled Banner in public (as his encore to a quick, eight-song set). Exactly two months to the day before that Olympic protest, but more to the point, exactly 30 years to the day after the death of blues legend Robert Johnson. That’s what inspired Hendrix to celebrate publicly onstage with a unique rendition he’d been working out for some time in private – to him, Robert Johnson represented the best of America.
p.s. Speaking of the late guitarist, who truly was great even through he probably never had groundhogs deliver his mail, I was surprised to learn that 40+ years after his death (at age 27, just like Robert Johnson) he had a new studio release come out yesterday. Imagine what it would cost for a ticket to see Jimi Hendrix live here in 2013; way back then I paid $3.