Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer

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9781416599753: Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer
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Now in paperback, the definitive anthology from a writer who “set the standard for newspaper pop-music criticism” (The Philadelphia Inquirer), the New York Times’ first chief pop music critic and Rolling Stone contributor Robert Palmer.

Robert Palmer’s extraordinary knowledge and boundless love of music were evident in all his writing. He was an authority on rock & roll, blues, jazz, punk, avant-garde, and world music—often discovering new artists and trends years (even decades) before they hit the mainstream. Noted music writer Anthony DeCurtis has compiled the best pieces from Palmer’s oeuvre and presents them here, in one compelling volume.

A member of the elite group of the defining rock critics who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, Palmer possessed a vision so complete that, as DeCurtis writes, “it’s almost as if, if you read Bob, you didn’t need to read anyone else.” Blues & Chaos features some of his most memorable pieces about John Lennon, Led Zeppelin, Moroccan trance music, Miles Davis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Philip Glass, and Muddy Waters. Wonderfully entertaining, infused with passion, and deeply inspiring, Blues & Chaos is a must for music fans everywhere.

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About the Author:

Robert Palmer was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1945, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 1964. He began writing for Rolling Stone in the early '70s -- and continued to do so as a contributing editor throughout his life. From 1981 until 1988, he was the chief pop music critic at The New York Times, the first person to hold that title, and he continued to write for the Times after that. He is the author of Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta (1981); Baby That Was Rock and Roll: The Legendary Leiber and Stoller (1978); A Tale of Two Cities: Memphis Rock and New Orleans Roll (1979); Jerry Lee Lewis Rocks! (1981); The Rolling Stones (1983); and Rock & Roll: An Unruly History (1995). He wrote liner notes for dozens of releases, and his work appeared in virtually every music magazine published during his time, including Downbeat, Crawdaddy, Guitar World, and Musician. Palmer died in 1997.

Anthony DeCurtis is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, where his work has appeared since 1980. He has written for numerable music and entertainment magazines and newspapers. A former on-air correspondent and editorial director at VH1, he has contributed to a myriad of television specials and programs. DeCurtis holds a Ph.D. in American literature from Indiana University and he teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and the Gradudate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Flirtations with Chaos:
The Life and Work of Robert Palmer


“Don’t worry, I know everything”: That’s the way music critic Ira Robbins once described the tone of Bob Palmer’s writing to me. We both laughed when he said that, because his statement perfectly got at Palmer’s ability to mix erudition with ease, to reassure his readers with his confidence and command. But, despite the arrogance that remark might imply, Bob was never showy about his knowledge. In a style that blended elegance and hipster enthusiasm, he would travel deeper and deeper into his subject, bringing his readers along with him in the interest of turning them on to something he loved.

Bob is best known as the author of Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta, which was published in 1981 and is still in print. It remains essential reading for anyone interested in the indelible music that, drawing on its African roots, originated in the Delta, moved to Chicago, and made an inestimable contribution to the creation of rock & roll. In his conclusion to that book, Bob writes of the blues, “A literary and musical form ... a fusion of music and poetry accomplished at a very high emotional temperature ... these are different ways of describing the same thing. A gigantic field of feeling ... that’s a way of describing something enduring, something that could be limitless. How much thought ... can be hidden in a few short lines of poetry? How much history can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string? The thought of generations, the history of every human being who’s ever felt the blues come down like showers of rain.”

The notion that “pressure on a guitar string,” the singular tone of a musician’s playing, could convey all that is important in human history lies at the center of Bob’s thinking, writing, and playing—at the center of his being, really. He was not a religious person in any traditional sense; he was probably closer to a pagan. But music was one of the means through which he sought transcendence. “For Bob, music was a religion,” says Robbie Robertson, the former guitarist and main songwriter in the Band, who knew Palmer for many years. “It would stream out of him in the same way that somebody would be trying to impress you with their knowledge of God.”

Anyone who read Bob’s work, and certainly anyone who knew him, was aware of the stunning range and depth of his musical passion. It wasn’t until I began working on this anthology, however, that I truly began to understand the extent of his achievement. Everyone I mentioned Bob to, of course, knew about his writing on the blues—but nearly everyone also had a recommendation from well beyond that world. As with so many great writers and thinkers, each person I spoke to seemed to have his or her own version of Bob Palmer and stories about the impact his work made on them.

Jazz devotees discussed his writing with the greatest respect. Fans of classic rock raved about his pieces on the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Veterans of New York’s punk scene expressed deep gratitude for his vital support of that music in The New York Times and elsewhere. Avant-gardists talked about his pieces on Philip Glass, LaMonte Young, and Steve Reich. His writing about the Master Musicians of Jajouka excited interest in Moroccan music, and world music in general, nearly four decades ago, long before it became fashionable.

But more extraordinary than even how many different types of music Bob could write about compellingly was how multifaceted his knowledge was. No aspect of his understanding seemed to cancel out any other; in fact, in the rarest of gifts, each element of his comprehension enhanced the others. He was a musician himself, of course, but his writing about music was never insiderish or unnecessarily technical. The sheer physical sound of music was his great subject, but when he discussed lyrics, he did so with the sensitivity of a literary critic. He loved and believed in music’s mythic qualities, but that faith never compromised his grasp of the social and compositional components of musical creation.

Bob viewed music as a vehicle of transcendence but wrote and spoke colorfully about the nitty-gritty, down-to-earth contexts and larger-than-life personalities that gave it birth. It’s almost as if, if you read Bob, you didn’t need to read anyone else—his vision of music was so complete. Reviewing Deep Blues in The Nation, David A. Lusterman concluded that “at heart, it’s a book for anyone who ever wonders where music, any music, really comes from.” That understanding of music’s origins in the human spirit suffuses every word that Bob wrote.

This collection, then, attempts to convey the character and breadth of Bob’s achievement, a daunting task. It would be a foolish one as well, were it not for the ability of Bob’s writing to communicate in whatever context it appears. This could have been a rock collection or a punk collection or a blues collection, and, hopefully, such anthologies and others will follow. But to fully comprehend Bob’s magnificent gifts, I believe, you need to see them all on display. The array of musical subjects in this book is part of its very point.

As the scale of this book would suggest, Bob was extremely prolific. In addition to Deep Blues, he wrote a number of other books: Baby, That Was Rock and Roll: The Legendary Leiber and Stoller (1978); A Tale of Two Cities: Memphis Rock and New Orleans Roll (1979); Jerry Lee Lewis Rocks! (1981); The Rolling Stones (1983); and Rock & Roll: An Unruly History (1995). From 1981 until 1988, he was the chief pop music critic at The New York Times, the first person to hold that title, and he wrote for the Times for a number of years before and after that. He began writing for Rolling Stone in the early seventies—about jazz, blues, Moroccan music, soul, R&B, and, of course, rock & roll—and continued to do so as a contributing editor until his death. He wrote liner notes for dozens of releases, and his work appeared in virtually every music magazine—Down Beat, Crawdaddy, Guitar World, Musician, to cite just a few—that published while he was alive.

And he wasn’t exclusively a writer. After he left the Times and moved back to the South in 1987, he inspired Matthew Johnson, a blues obsessive, to launch Fat Possum Records in Oxford, Mississippi, where Bob was teaching at the University of Mississippi. Bob produced raw, unvarnished, and influential albums by Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside for the label and wrote liner notes to accompany them. He had previously brought national exposure to those two artists and a number of others from the north Mississippi hill country in the riveting 1993 documentary Deep Blues: A Musical Pilgrimage to the Crossroads, which he wrote and hosted and which Robert Mugge directed. He also wrote and codirected the documentary The World According to John Coltrane (1990).

Impressive as it is, that list does little to capture the texture or importance—the sheer impact—of Bob’s work. That’s because, whether in his books or in an overnight review, Bob had a way of getting readers to be as passionate about music as he was. He felt the music deeply and personally, and he made his readers feel it that way too.

Musician and music writer Ted Drozdowski said it best in the obituary he wrote for The Boston Phoenix when Bob died in 1997. “He was instantly funny, engaging, incisive, and inclusive,” Drozdowski wrote about his first meeting with Bob in 1992. “And thanks to his introductions, I was soon able to travel through the dusty backroads of Mississippi, learning about the blues in its birthland firsthand. In a way, he’d set me on that journey nearly a decade earlier when I’d found his book Deep Blues (Penguin). I was so charmed by his writing, his knowledge, and his obvious love for the music that I treated it as a Bible, reading each chapter and then buying every record it mentioned. It was a post-grad-level course. But it was nothing like the firsthand encounters with the music I’ve had in places like Holly Springs, Clarksdale, Greenville, and Rolling Fork. Those have been experiences that have changed my life and broadened my understanding of humanity and myself.

“How do you pay someone back for that? Especially when he’s gone.”

Many of Bob’s friends and family, and many of his readers, wondered about that, too, when Bob died. They all would agree, I hope, that a collection like this is one way to start repaying the debt, while making it possible for many more people to accept the invaluable gifts that Bob had to give.

The one quality that runs through every aspect of Bob’s relationship to music is his conviction that music provided a route of transcendence. I believe that, for him, that process began when music enabled him to transcend the enclosed, segregated white world of his upbringing in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the 1950s.

“I personally integrated in reverse all the black rhythm and blues shows that came to the auditorium in Little Rock starting when I was fifteen years old, and that was in 1960,” Bob told National Public Radio in 1995. “There were no integrated shows in Arkansas. I was the first white kid to start showing up at all the black shows. It was such a novelty that nobody thought to stop me, even though I was only fifteen years old and I was going into these places where people were drinking and pulling knives and all sorts of things, you know.

“But I was able to go in and to hear people like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, all these great, great people,” he continued. “That really was what got me started in the music was going to those shows. I rarely missed one. By the time I was college age, there were several more local white kids going to these shows, but there was only me to begin with. And then when I was in college I was the only white musician in an otherwise all-black band that played around almost entirely in black joints. I had a real sort of involvement in black music and black culture that I really think was possible because I grew up in Arkansas at that particular time.”

No question, Bob was an undeniable product of the South of that era. The segregation that was meant to “protect” young white people like him from being infected by black culture—and the language of the early reporting on rock & roll and racial mixing was just that charged, if not worse—made it and the secret world surrounding it all the more alluring to him. Just as rock & roll itself was exploding on the national scene, Little Rock was the site of some of the most bitter integration battles in the South. To a bookish young man with a flair for rebellion, the hardness of the lines that were drawn must have made them all the more desirable to cross.

Writing decades later about the experiences crossing the racial divide that music made possible for him, Bob explained, “Basically a suburban kid, a music freak, and a loner, I now felt that I had penetrated some underground cult or secret society, one that somehow thrived in the shadows, out beyond the neat suburban plots and well-lit streets of familiar white-bread reality. Penetrated, but not like an anthropologist braving some primitive backwater. I had been accepted; whatever this new world signified, I was somehow part of it.”

There were even specific points of initiation. In his 1995 NPR interview, Bob declared that “everybody has that magic moment when the music rocked them for the first time.” That was typical of his belief that music could, indeed must, change lives. He was a rock & roll Paul on the road to boogie-woogie Damascus, and hearing the Coasters sing “Searchin’” and “Young Blood” transformed him forever. “I remember that coming on when I was about eleven or twelve years old,” he recalled of those songs. “I had been hearing pre–rock & roll popular music on the radio for a few years prior to that. I was very interested in music but I wasn’t that crazy about what was passing for pop music at the time.

“Then I heard ‘Searchin” by the Coasters and a little after that I heard Ray Charles, and that was the music that really turned me around... . I think it was really the quality of the voices. It was the fact that these black singers—there was all this grit in their voices, and these kinds of sounds like they were maybe ripping their vocal cords a little bit when they were singing. It seemed to convey so much emotion and energy and excitement, you know. Just the sound of the voices and the texture of the voices and the way that the voices blended together had a kind of harmony that was not conventional harmony—it was something else. Having heard very conventional harmony, you know, all my life, having never heard blues or even any really down-home country and western music, but just having heard that fifties white-bread pop, the first time I heard black voices and black rhythms, I was just floored. I probably never got over it.”

From those years on, Bob would view music through an uncompromising African-American lens. Having grown up where he grew up, having seen what he had seen, having visited the forbidden realms he visited, he would never be guilty of downplaying the contributions of black musicians in any genre of music he listened to, played, or covered. That would be the ultimate betrayal for him—one he was surrounded by in so much of the music press, just as he was surrounded by segregation in the South. In his view, it was just plain wrong. He knew the unruly history of rock & roll as well as anyone, and from that vantage figures like Ike Turner, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters were as important, if not more so, than the likes of Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan.

Some white musicians could earn his respect, but only if they shared his faith—and were willing to pay the price. This exchange between Bob and fellow white Southerner Jerry Lee Lewis says it all.


“I read awhile back that you believe you’re a sinner and going to hell for playing rock & roll,” I said. “Is that true?” Lewis looked me right in the eye. “Yep,” he said. “I know the right way. I was raised a good Christian. But I couldn’t make it... . Too weak, I guess.” But, I argued, why would playing rock & roll damn you to hell? Lewis looked at me as if I’d just asked an impossibly stupid question. “I can’t picture Jesus Christ,” he said evenly, “doin’ a whole lotta shakin’.”


Bob and I were close, but we rarely saw each other. Even though he had already well established his reputation, I hadn’t met or spoken with him until I became the editor of Rolling Stone’s record-review section in 1990. He hadn’t been doing much writing for the magazine, and he was among the first writers I sought to bring back into its pages.

The frequent and riveting telephone conversations I had with Bob in the editorial—and strangely intimate—relationship we struck up once prompted writer Daisann McLane to suggest that I write a story called “Calling Robert Palmer.” Bob had a great voice, a slow Arkansas drawl that he used as an effective counterbalance to his la...

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